Where the Streets Have No Names

Croatia can be a confusing place. Especially, when you are driving in a car with your mother-in-law looking for something on a street that may or may not exist anymore. She’s telling me what the street used to be called. And I’m asking her what the street is now called. And she doesn’t know, she just knows what it used to be called. Of course, because in reality that’s actually what everyone still calls it. Not that it matters much, because the street may or may not have a sign on it, and even if does have a sign it’s going to be a small little postage stamp of a sign on the corner of a building that you drive pass quickly. Try reading the name Smičiklasova through the glare of the windshield, beneath the glow of the street lamps, among all the city’s busy shadows. Welcome to Croatia: where the streets have no goddamn names.

This is just one emblematic example of life in Croatia. To survive living here you need to possess local knowledge. This is what anthropologists refer to as knowledge based on experience and embedded in a community’s practices, institutions, rituals and relationships. Local knowledge is something that to the inhabitants of a given area or community seems intrinsic and intuitive. It is something everyone just knows. Everyone, except for the outsider.

Now this is very different (at least I think it is) from life in the US. Sure, hipsters and the other cool kids pride themselves on possessing “local knowledge,” but this is trendy information about which bar is the most retro or where you can get the best falafel on a Friday night in Brooklyn. The difference is between knowing about Booksa and knowing where the hell the Zagreb municipality office is because you urgently need some vital document (PS: lady that told me, it’s not really across from Nama). In my hometown it is very easy to find your way around. For one, all of our streets have big green signs on the corner of each intersection. At major intersections the name of the intersecting street is on a sign between the two traffic lights. So, you know, you can like, read the sign while actually watching the road (genius!). The one place this occurs in Zagreb is on Zeleni Val (Green Wave) where knowing the street names doesn’t really seem to matter. Tulsa’s north-south streets are named after American cities, alphabetically. The East-West cities are numbered sequentially, starting with #1. You know what never happens in Tulsa? You never drive on the same street and then suddenly it becomes another street! In Croatia this happens every three blocks. We also don’t have any streets named after squares.

In geometry class we learned that a line is never ending and only line segments have ends. Streets in Zagreb appear as if someone went crazy with the segments. When you drive by a square in Zagreb, that street ends, and becomes a street named after the square. Then when you are through the square, the original street you were on may or may not return. You might find yourself on a completely different street. Sort of. Same street, Different name. Same line. Different segment. But of course none of that actually matters because most of the streets were named something else 20 years ago and half the population still refers to them by those old names. This is the chocolate conundrum icing on our chaos cake. Sweet.

The local knowledge refers to some streets via their old name. If you look at a map, then it’s something totally different (same goes with words like airport. No one calls it Zračna Luka, I mean the signs do, but everyone else calls it the Aerodrom). Then again there is a deficit of signage and this doesn’t really help anyone learn the knew names. I have walked one particular street in Split a billion times. I know the buildings on this street like the back of my hand. I can close my eyes and walk it in my mind, and yet I have no idea what it’s “new” name is. I’ve never seen a sign on the street announcing its name. I looked once on a map and forgot.

The good news is that people in Croatia generally use landmarks rather than street names as points of reference. Then again a lot of these things aren’t even the things people call them. Par exemple, in Zagreb someone may refer to the Rakete (rockets, that aren’t actually rockets) or the Džamija (mosque, that’s not actually a mosque), or limenke (aluminum cans that are actually buildings). Confused?

Of course part of the fun (hmm... fun? Sure, let’s go ahead and call it “fun”) about living in Croatia is learning the local knowledge. Learning to know what everyone knows is the fist step to thinking like a local and gaining acceptance from the community. The process of cracking the colloquial code has enriched my relationship with this city, country, and people. You need more than a map to love a place. And learning what the local knows also makes driving with Punica a whole lot easier.

What topping do you want on your ŠPICA?

The first time I heard the word špica, I thought people were saying “pizza.” Pizza on a Saturday morning? Don’t. mind. if. I do!!  Then I eventually learned that this “pizza” was actually coffee in the center of Zagreb on Saturday morning. After looking at the fashionista sets of beautiful people in my Punica’s Story and Gloria magazines, I decided that špica was probably not for me. And was maybe a little bit stupid.

After all, I was raised in a culture where Saturday mornings were strictly reserved for bowls of Cocco Puffs, episodes of Smurfs, and lounging in your PJ’s until noon, and that’s assuming you bother to change before leaving the house, which many people don’t, because donning your pajama pants to Wal-Mart or Home Depot just isn’t that big a deal. But, then I happened to find myself in Zagreb’s city center between 11 and 12, and I was of coursed charmed by the festive, and aesthetically pleasing atmosphere, buzzing around me.

While špica maybe a fashion show, its pretensions are subtle enough that you don’t really feel that awkward as an extra. Walking into the middle of špica is not like trying to sit with the cool kids in high school. I know. I tried. You can pass through, sit, and order a coffee without the conversation suddenly stopping and someone stuffing you in a locker. In fact, I imagine it’s probably too uncool to lose your cool by drawing attention to your stylish self and the nerd who just sat next to you. It could also be the fashion double standard again: the men get away with wearing t-shirts and fanny packs, while the women are required to wear furs and heels.

The real allure of špica is the fact that it happens at all. One of the virtues of Croatian society is its enduring traditions. Špica is an example of Zagreb’s collective conscience or conscientiousness, a social awareness, that though perhaps a bit superficial, binds the society together with its regularity. We lack such collective customs in the US. Individuals may have their own traditions. Maybe neighbors can plan on regularly seeing each other each Saturday while having coffee at the nearest Star Bucks or perusing pistols at the local Pawn shop (and that really does happen by the way), but it is not something that transcends individual members’ own idiosyncrasies. Where as špica is something everyone knows about and either attends or ignores. Having the choice is vital.

All of us at home in our pajamas, or having coffee in our respective quarters know that špica is happening. When I do find myself amid the coffee, crowds and the paparazzi, I feel like I am a piece of broader community. For a foreigner that’s saying something. Partaking the ritual, even from the side allows me to feel like I’m a part of it, maybe an out-of-fashion-passing-piece, but a piece of something bigger all the same.

Summer of ZAGREB!!! Really? YES.

Ah, the Croatian summer: sunny days in an azure postcard; pale ancient stones, illuminated in the moonlight; the soft tones of the sea, gently slapping against hulls of the harbored boats; wining and dining inside a MOTHERF***ING, 2,000 YEAR OLD Roman F***ING palace! Summer in Croatia is magical! Of course, all of this magic is located on the country’s thin and oddly shaped coastline. When people think of Croatia they think of summer vacation, and when they think of summer vacation, they think of the Dalmatian coast. And fine, the coast is awesome, but I think Zagreb gets a bad rap in the summer months. In fact, the best time to live in Zagreb is. during. the. summer.

It is a testament to how coast crazy Croatians are when a metropolis of around a million people can shrink to such an extent that it feels like a small town in Oklahoma. Seriously. On some of my late night adventures I stumble through the streets of Zagreb and I am reminded of my similar stumbles as a student at a major university in Oklahoma. Now nothing kills a small Oklahoma college town like summer. Between May and August, the population of this town is cut in half, leaving you in the warm, sweltering crouch of the Bible belt with around 35,000 townies. While the exodus of students and professors took with it the finer culture of the town, Zagreb in the summer still retains its urban charms, just with fewer people. This is what makes Zagreb wonderful in the summer.

Now I admit, I tell friends of friends and distant family who ask me for advice on Croatian summer travel to um... basically... skip Zagreb. AND I STAND BY THIS!! If you are in Croatia for 5 days after seeing Prague and Budapest, well then there is really no reason for you to waste your time in the ZG (except to go to the Museum of Broken Relationships). Let’s face it, whatever Zagreb has, some other European city has it better. Old Churches? Prague’s got ‘em (and they are not in a perpetual state of repair), Art museums? Oh I don’t know: Paris has a few, Berlin too, Vienna, Budapest. Nightlife? I think Zagreb was voted the most boring capital in Europe. The joy of Zagreb in the summer only comes to those who live here.

As someone who has spent considerable amounts of time in Dalmatia during the summer as well as during the other seasons, the summer might actually be the worst time to be on the coast.

First, it is crazy crowded. Parking anywhere is impossible and actually becomes an act of inspired (desperate) creativity. It’s amazing what can constitute a parking space in Split in the summer. The sliver of pavement beside that tree: PARKING SPACE! That impossibly narrow space between a dumpster and a wall: PARKING SPACE! That spot that looks too small, no it’s not, yes it is, I’m just going to trrrrrry, and you’re right too tight, but we are still going to do it. Everywhere and anywhere becomes a PARKING SPACE (as your bumper grinds against another bumper, pole, house, or rock).

Second, it’s crazy loud. I don’t know about you, but I actually find it difficult to fall asleep to the bass thumping from a mid-1990s BMW that for some reason is just idling below my bedroom window in the wee A.M. hours. Nor do the piercing whines of screaming mopeds crisscrossing the city as they deliver food serve as a nighttime lullaby. Crowds, tourists, mopeds, young drunks, late-night bench sitters, woo girls with straw pork-pie hats, all of these shatter Dalmatia’s natural beauty and old ambiance like a fat brick through glass.

But then, there are those moments of respite when you drift in the sea with the taste of salt on your lips and the scent of pine wafting in the air. Then you see how the Dinaric Alps, looming large behind you, and the silhouettes of the nearby islands fall into the most perfect composition. Briefly, you believe that God must be an artist to have created the Croatian coast, and you feel an inner peace overtake you. A tranquil harmony has calmed your heart. Of course then you have to get out of the water, find your car, try to get out of your impossible parking space just to find another impossible parking space all over again when you get to your mother-in-law’s house. Gah! So much for bliss and zen.

Zagreb in the summer has none of these problems. It might not have the scenery of the Adriatic sea, but it also doesn’t have the headaches that go along with it. It’s the opposite of crazy crowded. It’s crazy empty. But, there are still enough people around that you don’t feel like you’ve been dropped on the set of a post-Apocalyptic zombie film. Summer Zagreb becomes like a big playground for those of us who remain. Parking? Always a free space. Lines? Gone. Traffic? None. The crowds that clog the winter gray have dissipated like the fog and left you in a sunny, spacious wonderland. You can even believe that all of it, the cafes, parks, social services, movie theaters, museums, book stores and restaurants, have all been created just. for. you!!

Take Bundek for example. In the off-season months there is usually a huge line of kids climbing up to the biggest slide. And NOTHING is more fun than trying to get a bunch of 3 to 5 year-olds to stand in line (they need this training for later). In the summer though, my daughter can go down the slide as many times as she wants because there is no one else around. Or at the doctor. We were able to see two doctors and go to the hospital all in one day with only a total 20 minute wait time. Grocery store? No people, no line. Nighttime noise? The night’s calm is only rarely broken by the whine of a mo-ped, or the bass of a car. They soon pass, leaving in their wake a pleasant quietude.

Sometimes it seems that the very things we want to take a vacation from, actually come with us. Spending a summer in Zagreb is a nice vacation from everyone else’s vacation.

Why my Punica is like a drug dealer

In another life I could cook real meals with fresh ingredients. I entertained friends in a clean house. I woke up daily, made coffee, put on ironed dress-shirts and permanently pressed pants before driving myself to work. I came home, made dinner and tidied up the house. In this other life I was a well on my way to becoming a fully-fledged, competent, functional adult.

Then I moved to Croatia and began living with my mother-in-law.

(A note to our American readers, Punica-- pronounced Poo-nitsa is the Croatian word for mother-in-law. As a concept the name mother-in-law just doesn’t do it justice, so I have elected to use Punica throughout most of this post)

We lived in Split and my new life was like a veritable paradise. Shangri-La. Not only was I living near the azure beauty of the Adriatic Sea, but a strange, sage-like woman appeared to be occupied with anticipating all of my eating needs. I would wake in the morning, stumble into the kitchen only to have a cup of coffee waiting for me on the table aside a chocolate pastry. I would go to the beach and come back to a home-cooked meal, flanked by at least two side dishes and a salad. I would be encouraged to drink wine with lunch and nap afterward while all of the dishes were washed and put away. Clothes too. All washed, hung on the line to dry, ironed and folded. Everyday. EVER-Y-DAY!

For comparison the last time I went home (after living in a different country and then a different state) I was told by a certain male family member that we probably had some bologna we could make sandwiches with for dinner, and if I wanted something else I could go to the store and get it myself!

Needless to say, the contrast between my family’s austere policy of self-reliance and Punica’s indulgence was huge.

Little did I know but these first feelings of euphoria were just the novice’s rush. As time drifted on I began to notice that Punica did not actually seem all that concerned with my comfort or with my gratitude. I would say thank you each time she gave me coffee, cooked me some food, handed me a stack of folded clothes AND she would swipe her hand at me as if she was literally knocking my uttered “Hvala” out of the air. I realized Punica wasn’t serving me in order to obtaining my gratitude. Driving her was not hospitable kindness, but rather a kind of stubborn duty guided by the assumption that without her cooking and cleaning I would die of starvation in a state of filth.

A few weeks after arriving, I began to resist. I suggested to her that maybe I could cook lunch, and she replied: Ma daj! Can you cook soup? I said: I think so? And that was that. My uncertainty was enough to convince her that her assumptions were right. Without her to cook lunch we would starve. I imagined a golden banner draped above the kitchen, reading: HE WHO CANNOT COOK SOUP, CANNOT COOK LUNCH.

I tried to do my own laundry but again was deterred and told I wouldn’t know how. As it turned out the washing machine was in German, so she was basically right. But I think her words were less about me not understanding what Schoneaschgang meant and more about my lacking the artistry necessary for the alchemy of laundering.

So far the score was Punica 2 : Me 0

More importantly nothing I said or did could change Punica’s mind: without her I would be as helpless as I was the day I was born.

Then came the day we moved to Zagreb and like a true addict I insisted that I didn’t have a problem, I ranted about how once we were on our own things would go back to normal, I would cook and clean just like I had once done in a far and distant past. With clenched determination I vowed: I WILL BE ME AGAIN!

The first day was fine. We had moved and were tired so we just ordered a pizza. The pizza fixed us for the night and the next day. But the second night we caved and had some Cevapi. And by the third night I knew it was hopeless. While under the sway of Punica my muscles of responsibility and self-sufficiency had atrophied. I was strung out. The dust and dirty clothes began to gather in the house, used bottles, and newspapers piled up, paper towels replaced plates, and each afternoon the kitchen table just stood there food-less, barren, a desolate reminder of our desperate situation.

The horror of my situation hit me. Looking around the messy apartment, fighting my pangs of hunger I thought: NOOOOOOOOO! She was right! Without her I will starve and die in a state of filth The house was a disaster and I was HUNGRY. My independence, my self-reliance, my old self were now just an illusion. Just images I clung to in a fit of self-delusion. There was no denying it now. I was addicted to Punica’s heavy hand of hospitality!

And just like junkies craving another fix, we pleaded for her to come up to Zagreb, begged her to stay with us. And we rejoiced when she came, overcome with the sweet relief of seeing lunch sitting on the table. When my mother-in-law stayed with us it there was a warm comfort in the air. It was like we were high.

Like a drug dealer pushes his dope to get you hooked, Punica pushes her hospitality to make you as dependent as she imagines you already are. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You may fight back, you may tell yourself that you don’t have a problem, that you can quit anytime, and that she’s just being nice, but by that point it’s already too late. She’s got you in her power. If you ever had any kind of self-reliance, well buddy, it’s long gone. But, the first step to overcoming your problem is admitting you have one. So say it with me: My name is Cody and I’m addicted to Punica.

And that is just how she wants it.