Autumn's Problem

The leaves are yellowing, the temperatures have dropped, and the fall has arrived. It’s sweater weather for sure. I love the fall in Zagreb (and… I’m sure it’s nice in other parts of Croatia too).

I don’t think someone from Zagreb can appreciate how autumn feels to someone from Oklahoma, where we just have a “false fall.” That’s the fall that tricks you with a temperature in the low teens on one day, and then by the end of the week you’re back up to the low 30s in late October! It’s a big joke and Mother Nature’s laughing really hard.

The ideal

No, in Zagreb the fall is the real deal. Vendors selling chestnuts show up on the street, pumpkins appear in the stores, and the leaves begin falling gracefully through air in Maksimir park. It’s autumn the way I was told it should be on TV and in the movies.

One problem

Then the rain comes and the temperatures drop into the single digits. We have to go inside and there you are greeted with a fog of thick cigarette smoke. Yesterday, I was enjoying the fall, had a coffee in a nearby cafe and then I smelled like an ashtray the rest of the day.

Coffee and Cigarettes

I know, I know, in Croatia coffee and cigarettes go together like punica and soup. It’s hard to have one without the other. But, in the past everything used to go together with cigarettes: hospital visits, flying in airplanes, waiting for airplanes, riding in buses, waiting for buses, the TV news, TV talk shows, even kids’ cartoons. Pretty much everything was done with a cigarette burning between your fingers or one smoldering in a handy ashtray. To imagine all of this today is impossible, and yet it is still acceptable to smoke inside cafes.

Like unicorns

And yes, there are some cafes where people don’t smoke, but these are far and few between. They are about as rare as a unicorn and finding a seat in one is like finding an even rarer double horned unicorn— a dualacorn, if you will. The proliferation of smoking cafes makes the autumn and the winter the worst. We can’t meet friends for coffee when we have our kids with us, because of the intensity of the second hand cigarette smoke. And by the end of the first bout of cold weather my coat stinks like the back seat of a 1970s New York taxicab.

Since having coffee is so instrumental to the Croatian way of life, it’s not like you can go all season without sitting in a cafe. I mean you could, but in that case you’re more likely to die from soul crushing loneliness then cigarette smoke. Smokey cafes in the fall and winter are an inescapable fact of life in Croatia.

Even Turkey did it

Croatia ranks 24th in per capita consumption of cigarettes, right between Tunisia and Armenia. Greece ranks number one, and even in Greece they’ve banned smoking in nightclubs and cafes (albeit the effectiveness of this “ban” is questionable). But other countries, once notoriously known for their love of smoking have also banned smoking in cafes and bars: Turkey, Ireland and even Italy!

A lot of my Croatian friends talk about how Croatia is not Balkan, but European. Let’s then be less like our balkan neighbors and more like our European ones, and get rid of smoking in cafes. Our clothes, noses, and lungs with thank us for it.

More than Words

When speaking Croatian it’s normal to hear people slip in some English. Words like “super,” “sorry,” and the problematic combo “friendica,” are now regular parts of the Croatian lexicon. The other day I realized that I’ve started doing the same thing, but in reverse, especially when I speak English to my young daughter. I’m curious why some words get translated, others don’t, and still others get turned and twisted into some Croatian-English linguistic Frankenword monster. 

I think this little quirk highlights the cultural gaps between our two countries. There are just some things that when translated from Croatian come close to being meaningless in English. These words' English equivalents pale in comparison to the power of their Croatian counterparts. 

Here’s my top 5. 

Number 1, Grad: I always tell my daughter we are going to the grad, or we are in the grad. I never say city. To translate grad literally and say city, sounds like we live in the country. We don’t. We live near the center. To say downtown is also misleading. For the longest time, my hometown’s downtown was a barren wasteland, populated with little else than parking lots and homeless people. After living in such an environment, anyone who says we are going downtown waits for the inevitable question: Um... Why? There is no comparison between the lifelessness of a mid-American downtown, and the vibrance of the grad.  

Number 2, Papuče! Of course, nothing in the US quite has the cultural importance or power of Papuče: The Defenders of Feet, Protectors of Health, The Enemies of all Illnesses. Right. Um… in America, we just walk around barefoot. We do have slippers and house shoes, but few of us wear them, and never because we think doing so will prevent our brains from becoming inflamed. To refer to my daughter’s papuče as house shoes or slippers just sounds pathetic. Only the word papuče can convey the gravitas of that life and death struggle being waged daily on the bottom of her (and our) feet.

Number 3Sladoled: 1) it’s fun to say. 2) The whole culture of ice cream here is different from what I grew up with. The ease with which you can find ice cream, on every corner, in every kiosk, makes sladoled something unique. In Oklahoma we got our ice cream from the ice creamery  and usually had to eat it there. Or we bought it in a tub from the grocery store. The only time we could have spontaneous ice cream, outside, was on the rare occasion when the ice cream truck, driven by a shirtless guy with a mullet, came down the street and we happened to have money right then. Summer in Croatia is all about eating ice cream anywhere and everywhere. For that reason it has to be sladoled.   

Number 4, Baka: Yes, in America we have grandmas, but the institution of grandma isn’t as central to our life as it is in Croatia. Here Baka, is both the loving, fawning fan of the family and the stern sentinel that safe guards its traditions and general health. She’s kind of like a domestic commissar, ensuring that lunch is eaten, papuče are worn, and the windows are closed. American grandmas just don’t have the power and influence as the Baka. Bakas are legendary, occasionally mythical, and often times unbelievable.       

And finally, Number 5, of course, our good friend Propuh. We have drafts in the US, but “the draft” is only considered deadly because it used to send you to Vietnam. Drafts are more like gentle breezes, blowing through the windows off the shaded porch, bringing some limited respite to the brutal, scorching Oklahoma heat. And if that doesn’t work… we just turn on the air conditioning and sit in front of it.      

While my Croatian is far from fluent, if there’s one thing I’ve learned living in here, it’s that some things mean more than words. 

Storm and Lightning

Growing up in Oklahoma we are taught to respect the weather. We are raised scanning the heavens in fear that at any moment a tornado may just come writhing out of the sky in a grey clouded doom-spiral that’s capable of killing you and everyone you love in a matter of seconds! Sounds fun, huh?

From an early age we learn what to do when we hear tornado sirens. As early as three I knew that when the sirens began I needed to take shelter into the small closet under our stairs. The ominous drone of the tornado sirens wailed in the background of my childhood nightmares as swarms of tornadoes descended on me from above. I would wake up in a panic with my heart racing, hoping that the sirens had just been a dream. But, sometimes they weren’t. Sleepily my parents shuffled us into the closet or the basement while they turned on the TV. Out of the the flickering shadows came the calming and reassuring voice of the local weatherman, telling us when to take cover, who was in danger, and what to do.

The Oklahoma weatherman is almost like a member of the family. You trust him. You believe him. And you count on him telling you what to do when there is an F-5 tornado hurtling towards your house with the ferocity of a wolverine driven freight train. And these guys aren’t just pretty faces. They are trained meteorologists. They know science and stuff. We have radar that can show you the very street that the tornado is on. Our technology is so sophisticated that once a tornado forms, the weatherman can tell you down to the second what street the storm is passing over. In Oklahoma we take the weather very, very, very, seriously.

Then I moved to Croatia and... well... let’s just say my vigilant concern about the weather, my upbringing that demands we know where we stand between a low pressure and a high pressure system or what kind of fronts are coming is... um... unsatisfied. And even misunderstood. When a storm rolls in, out of instinct I frantically search the various channels for some information about its intensity, direction, and predicted duration. All I find are Turkish soap operas, Larin Izbor and Raymond.  Where our wether updates are filled with fancy maps of live radar, I have never seen a picture of live radar in all of Croatia. Usually there is just a map with some tranquil suns and harmless clouds dotting the landscape. Where we devote 15-20 minutes each hour to the weather report, the weather report on the morning news show in Croatia is usually just a guy standing in front of a list of temperatures in between segments of aerobics.

Near the end of the forecast comes the most puzzling thing. The TV displays one temperature for the entire seaside, and one for inland. WHAT? Given how diverse Croatia is said to be in all other aspects, local dialects, local mentality and culture, local food, it’s a ironic that the temperature of the entire coast can be reduced to one number and that the temperature for the not-coast is equally reducible to a single number. This is something that I will never, EVER understand.

Then there is the biometrik forecast. I don’t even know what to say about that.

I feel like living in Croatia, like the country’s weather, lacks the intense dynamics of life in Oklahoma. There is a storm-like fury that drives life in the US that is absent in Croatia. High street crime, fear of losing your health insurance, rushing large distances to work, not to mention the actually threat from the skies. These fears all form into a maelstrom of anxiety that I sense pulsing through American society, regardless of the weather. Though there may be a bit of political theatre and an economic malaise, the social life in Croatia is like the Adriatic: mostly calm and enjoyable. I’m not sure why this is the case, so we might as well blame it on the weather. Even when I see cloudy skies in Croatia, I’m sure we will be able to brave the storm. If I were faced with such a storm in the US, I’d want to turn to the weatherman and hide in the closet.

Playground Love

Last year I was back in Oklahoma for a few weeks and I mistakenly took my daughter across the street to the park, or should I say the Playground of the APOCALYPSE. The park had seen better days. A patina of neglect coated the equipment. Rust and thick spiderwebs blighted the slides. One whole slide was missing. The swings were just seatless, dangling chains. And the only souls around were a group of homeless men drinking mouthwash and cheap beer on a nearby bench. After a few minutes we went back to the house and watched more TV.

Neglected parks are pretty depressing. What once held the promise of fun, laughter, and community now lies abandoned, like some monument to misspent expectations. What was even more depressing about this park was that it was in the center of the city. It should have been crowded with kids playing and with parents watching. Yet, it was more like Mad Max’s salvage yard than a playground.

The desolate playgrounds of America stand in sharp contrast to the bustling parks in Croatia. During the warmer months we spend hours at one of four neighborhood playgrounds around our apartment. Children run around, swing, slide, and spin themselves dizzy on the um... uh... that big thing that makes kids dizzy. The steady traffic of excited ice-cream-eaters flows between the park and the nearby corner store. We parents talk to each other, while sitting, standing or holding the hand of a slide-bound toddler.

Sadly, in the American midwest it is rare to see such a flurry of activity at any park, especially on a daily basis. The reason for this is the ever present backyard. Is it too much to say that the backyard is the ultimate bourgeois luxury? An unnecessary space, predicated on ownership and convenience? An instrument of Americans’ sense of alienation and isolation? Mmm... Probably. But what was once part of my American dream, a house with a big backyard, now seems an anathema to me. I don’t want a backyard. I want a vibrant park. I suppose the silliness of backyards was apparent to me when I was a kid. When I was six I even made a hole in the fence in our backyard so that my friend (whose backyard abutted ours) and I could more easily get to each other’s house. It was only with age did I start to believe in the power of fences and property lines.

Since living in Croatia, I feel, even as a foreigner, like I am more a part of this community than I have in many of the places I’ve lived in the US. And I think this is largely due to Zagreb's lack of backyards. Without our own space we are forced to use the public spaces around us. We are forced to see each other, to meet each other, and to know each other.

Though backyards may brim with life for some households, they segment the street’s social life into private units, turning the attention of each house inward, making it the very center of its own world. I prefer the playgrounds in Croatia. In Croatia, the park is the center of the neighborhood’s universe, and all of the private little apartments are just silly satellites caught in its orbit.