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.

Zagreb by Night

To walk through a city at 2 A.M., is to know her. It’s like seeing your lover without her makeup for the first time, or seeing what your future husband looks like on a lazy Sunday morning. During a nighttime city stroll, beneath the wanting street lights, in the waning hours of the night, all the pretense of presentation is gone.

Zagreb at 2 A.M., is unlike any other major city I’ve ever walked through at night. There is such little apprehension in the air, such a lack of aggression that it seems unreal.

Unconcerned Crowds

Passing by the Main Train Station at 1:30 A.M., the crowd looks a little more frayed than the city’s daytime actors. Young people slouch and lean on just about every flat surface, some drink, others gossip. Every now and then a pack of young men passes through the area. Their boisterous, over confident voices tell you its a group of dudes before you even see them.

And then on their heels, comes a group of young women emitting similar sounds: shouts of disbelief at some rumored event followed by self-conscious laughter. Both groups are so into themselves that it is a revealing how little concern there is for their surroundings. There is no caution in their walk, no fear, no restraint. And yes, you’re at the train station at 2 A.M., but there are even old people here, mixed among the young, waiting for a bus home.

New Orleans

The beauty of Zagreb after hours is how similar it is to Zagreb in the daylight. This is unique. When I lived in New Orleans the nighttime was filled with raucous partying and fear. Amid the ever present smell of spilt beer and sometimes vomit, was the concern that you could very easily get mugged on your way home. Once you stepped out of the confines of the club, passing from the bleaching fluorescent light and into the darkness, all bets were off. My neighbor in the student dorm was robbed, but he was a judo champion, and like a scene in an action movie, he sent his knife-wielding attacker to the hospital. Others were less fortunate.


Walking in downtown Tulsa at 2 A.M., in my early 20s, the city was empty. You could only meet an accosting, aggressive beggar seeking spare change or a cigarette. Occasionally a lone weirdo might try to attach himself to you, hoping you might be headed to a house party or someplace to get high, because with all the bars closed, he clearly had nowhere else to go.

Meanwhile on my 2 A.M., walk from Zagreb’s center to my neighborhood, I see people walking their dogs. I see women, dressed for a night out hurrying somewhere. I walk past a guy. He doesn’t ask me for change or demand a cigarette.

Peace with the night

In my experience Croatians are much more at peace with the night. The nighttime isn’t something dangerous and fearful. To be able to walk home at 2 A.M., unmolested, and without having to really worry about such things, in a major city, is something I’ve only ever experienced in Croatia. In this case, even in the dark, it shows the true beauty of Zagreb.

99 Problems (but a Cafe ain’t one of Them)

 Zagreb has 1,901 cafes. Yes, that’s right. Zagreb. has. one-thousand. nine hundred. and one cafes! (Just let that sink in... ... ... ... OK, ready?) 

Things get odd when you try to understand why people go to which cafes. Typically we are taught that what matters most to customers is selection, customer service, and atmosphere. Anytime spent in the cafes of Zagreb tells you something else is at work here. For one, there are only three types of coffee served in Croatia: Franck, Lavazza, and the one that has a guy wearing a funny hat. Meanwhile, some of the most crowded cafes are the most bland and mundane atmospherically. We’re talking wood paneling that makes the place look like it’s a living room or what my grandpa used to call a “rumpus room”  straight out of 1970s suburban America. And yet, the music is current. Absent in this choice of decor is any kind of “retro” irony that’s so popular with the kids nowadays. But, lots of people are to be found in this kind of cafe. You could even call it crowded. And finally, “customer service” as a phrase doesn’t even exist in most cafes (there are exceptions). In fact some of the most frequented and popular cafes have some of the worst service. 

OK, so why do some people go to some cafes and not to others? What gives a cafe its competitive edge. For the 1k cafes, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of competition. Since my first time in Croatia I was and still am very confused about the criteria people use to select their cafe. We (meaning the people I generally have coffee with) go to certain spots for no obvious reason (like those given above). This behavior truly borders on the absurd in the warmer months when everyone is sitting outside and the cafes are basically identical. What? We can’t sit at THESE table and chairs, we have to sit at THOSE table and chairs, right next to the ones we won’t sit at! Huh? And yes, that happens. 

Each cafe does seem to have it’s own specific category of clientele. Walking around any neighborhood and you see cafes that look like they are just for old men. You see cafes that look like they are just for young dudes. Then you wonder, Hmm. Was the old man cafe once a young dude’s cafe? Then there are cafes with mostly women, couples, and ... how to put this delicately... sponzoruša. There are the rockers, old hippies, hipsters, bohemian types, metal (and I’m sure a varied subspecies of “metal” cafes).  I am amazed at the variety and diversity of cafe patrons in what is otherwise a pretty homogenous town. 

And while the types of people that go to certain cafes are apparent, what is still unclear is how this happens? Because it’s not like the metal cafe is painted black with skulls on the walls (although that would be cool). The old man cafe doesn’t have shuffle board. Often there is no indication aside from the customers as to what differentiates one cafe from another. Do the owners of these places know ahead of time what kind of cafe they are opening? Is it strategic, part of their business plan? Proposed type of customers: Old guys. Or is it like so much else in Croatia, a happy accident? And if you think the names of places will shed some light in this inscrutable darkness, you are so utterly mistaken. The names of cafes are just another layer of mystery. Trust me, names likes Titanic, Sorry, Golf, Teacher’s Pub, Godot, Pif, Alcatraz, Kafka, Bogdan, K&K, Bacchus, Tituš, Romero, College, Limb, GP, Route 66 give you no indication of what kind of people you’ll find inside. Take Golf for example. Golf. Nothing could sound more like a cafe for old men. No. It’s not. It’s actually where the young folks like to frequent. 

To locals the question of who goes where and why is intuitive. They just feel it. It’s part of being part of a place. Once you get a city’s unsaid rhythms and unspoken rules, then you get in the flow and just know where to go.

 I, on the other hand, keep stumbling, bumbling into all kinds of places. Learning, I guess.  

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.

Where the streets have no soul

It’s funny. Where I’m from it is impossible to walk anywhere. From the front and side yards separating neighbors, to the sea of suburban sprawl between shopping centers, everything in the Midwest seems spread to infinity. And you can’t walk to infinity, you have to drive (and usually in an SUV). So, I was raised in carpools of station wagons and minivans before eventually graduating to my own car. I drove half an hour to high school everyday. Our weekends were spent in cars as we drove on aimless quests hunting for fun and testing the boundaries of our bordeom. Despite being brought up on, in, and around cars, in Zagreb I prefer to walk everywhere. Now back to the funny part, my Croatian friends um... don’t. It seems that at every opportunity they will try to drive or take a tram, anything not to walk. 

When I tell people I regularly walk to the city center, almost daily, I get stares. Like blank, deer-in-head-light stares. And then a visible question mark forms somewhere on their forehead, just between their confounded eyebrows. Yes, I prefer to walk whenever I can. In one of last year’s snow storms I even walked from Savska to Heinzelova. And liked it! 

So the American likes walking more than the Croatians. Well, Here’s why I like walking: 

Recall, the geography of every midwestern American city: generic business district, houses, highways, parking lots, shopping malls, suburbs. Even if it was feasible to walk anywhere there is really nowhere to walk to. If you do walk, people stop and ask you if you need a ride or think you’re homeless (Yes this happens!). The streets are barren, save for the lives of passing cars. 

Now Zagreb: even in the grey murk of the winter months the city blooms with life. From November to April the city is at its most intriguing. Shrouded in fog the rakete and other socialist relics disappear, only to reappear through the mist like the ruins of a fallen temple from some forgotten past in some a hidden land. The cafe lights are brighter amid the gloom, like beacons to the grey ghosts that live in each of us. At night there lurk an endless amount of questions in each covered walk and behind each crumbling facade.The backdrops of rust and ruination invite an untold number of stories that the shiny and new can never tell. What’s more, is the way these are, but the background for the life that pulses through these city streets. The clatter of trams, phosphorescent pops on their lines, pedestrians (yes, pedestrians!) foot traffic, people, faces passing by, all of this tells you that you are somewhere even when you are headed to nowhere in particular. 

Walking makes feel like I am a part of the city, like I am a piece of something much bigger than myself. In our cars we are just lonely atoms. On foot, we are the subatomic particles in a more complicated molecule. And being a pedestrian lets you set the pace to feel and observe the dynamics of life occurring all around you. Beautiful women, rowdy boys, businessmen, school kids, bakers on break, older women burdened with bags from the pazar, teenagers aspiring to look indifferent: all of these are features that are hard to find in my hometown’s featureless streets. Why ride, drive or run, when you can walk?  

                                         Behold!  The Rakete

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.

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.

Having coffee in Croatia or Idemo na kavu

The opening of the first Starbucks in Croatia has been delayed... INDEFINITELY! Wha? Huh? But, Croatians love coffee! Here’s some empirics. According to a 2009 survey on (a fantastic website by the way) Croatians annually drink 5 kg of coffee per person, that’s 22,500 tons of coffee per year, and they spend 2.25 million hours having coffee each year, that’s half an hour a day per person. Within a five minute walk from my apartment there are nine cafes, and I don’t even live in the center of the city. If I extend it to a 7-10 minute walk we balloon to 22 cafes (and that’s just counting off of the top of my head).

So why is Starbucks a bit apprehensive about opening a store in Croatia? To answer that question we return to our old friend culture. In this post I explore the cafe culture in Croatia and ... well... the TOTAL lack of it in America (sorry guys, but it's true. You’ll see).

Croatians love coffee, but more than that coffee in Croatia is where everything gets done. It's where friends meet, where deals are made, it's how favors are asked, it's how people are hired, fired, introduced, married, divorced, everything. Everything involves coffee. Even when it doesn’t. Invited to someone’s house for dinner? Bring coffee!!!

BUT, having coffee in Croatia is very different than in the US. As you might have guessed coffee in Croatia is a social function. In the US, coffee is less about being social than it is about having a boost to work harder. Let’s look at some examples.

This is your typical cafe in the heart of Zagreb. Notice all the tables are occupied by more than one person and they all look like they are talking to each other. Not just sitting and playing with their smart phones, but talking, conversing, sharing in the company of friends, hangin.’

Now let us turn to a picture of your typical American Starbucks.

Please notice that everyone, E-V-E-R-Y-ONE is ALONE. Don’t let that illusionary couple in the back fool you. If you look close you’ll see he is just sitting at a different table in front of her, and she is typing on a laptop. No one is talking. They’re all probably listening to their ipods. And they all seem engaged in some kind of work. (I’m sure my three Croatian readers are recoiling in horror! Thinking, you don’t go have coffee to work! You go to talk, meet, relax a little, but not to sit and listen to Arcade Fire on your “earbuds” while cramming for the final exam for your course “Intro to the formless forms of Postmodernism.” In Croatia that’s what libraries are for, duh!?!)

After living in Croatia for some time I’ve learned that coffee for Americans is about the same as gasoline for cars. We drink it so we can get going and keep going. Just look at the amounts it comes in. 12, 16, 20, 31 ounces (354 ml, 473 ml, .59 , and .91 liters! Almost a liter of coffee!!) We also like to put lids on our coffee so we can go back to work, walk or jog while drinking our coffee (Jog while drinking coffee? Yes).

Another reason for the varying sizes is that they serve as a status symbol (somewhat akin to the black BMW in Croatia). The bigger the cup, the more important you are. YOU ARE SO IMPORTANT YOU HAVE ONE BILLION THINGS TO DO AND YOU CAN ONLY DO THIS BY DRINKING ALL OF THIS COFFEE!!! AAAARGH!!! (When I was in grad school I thought a good way to set myself apart from the undergrads was to order the biggest coffee I could find and then shove a huge stack of thick books under my arm and walk around the campus with an air of rushed importance.)

Here some examples of Starbucks coffee sizes:

Now I will show you the largest cup of coffee in Croatia. Ready. No peeking.


No. This really is the biggest size you can get... anywhere. Now, to our American readers you might be laughing like Crocodile Dundee when he shows that punk kid a real knife. In your head you’re all like: That’s not a cup of coffee. This is a cup of coffee. But I should tell you that this cup actually has more coffee in it than it appears. Not really, it has a very, very small amount of coffee in it, but in the hands of a Croatia it's magic. Nearly endless. A Croatian can make this coffee last for two, maybe even, three hours. THAT’S HOW LONG PEOPLE HERE HAVE COFFEE! I drank my first coffee in Croatia in about 5 minutes. Then I looked around and saw everybody else had full cups and I thought: Oh boy, we are going to be here awhile. Remember having coffee is not actually about the coffee, it's about the socializing.

So you can see why Starbucks is reluctant to open a store in Croatia. It seems its entire business model is getting as many people to drink as much coffee as possible, as fast as possible. For all the people occupying their tables alone there are probably just as many people coming and going with huge amounts of coffee. They are probably not ready for the bulk of their Croatian customers to sit over AN espresso with milk for two hours. Here are some other things to consider as well. Few cafes in Croatia sell food (this could help or hinder Starbucks, since it's not normal to have a coffee and eat something). Another thing is that coffee and cigarettes go together in Croatia like peanut butter and chocolate in America. To open a strictly non-smoking cafe could also be a disadvantage to a company like Starbucks.

Having coffee in Croatia is one of those things that sets the country apart from everywhere else I’ve ever lived. It's also one of the most enjoyable aspects of living here. Not just having coffee yourself, but seeing people having coffee is even a pleasure. On a January evening the winter gloom is only illuminated by the bright lights of the city’s innumerable cafes. You pass them in the cold, but inside you see they are warm, inviting, filled with life, men and women, young and old, gathered two to four to a table talking, laughing; you feel that the city is alive, and walking past each bright cafe you long to be a part of it. And this feeling stays with you, tugging at you, tempting to pull you into the nearest cafe. Until finally a friend calls you and says: Idemo na kavu. And like it was the greatest thing in the world, you say Da.

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Free-riding or Dodging ZET Inspectors

One of the more peculiar things about living in Croatia is the distance between what is legally permissible and what is socially permissible. To a certain extent gaps between the law and following the law exist everywhere. In Oklahoma there is the “five over rule,” meaning most police allow you to exceed the posted speed limit by five miles. In Croatia such discrepancies between the law and following the law appear much more pervasive. They range from avoiding parking infractions to under-the-table employment and under reporting payment in order to avoid taxes. This topic will come up again and again, yet for the purposes of this post I focus on what is probably the most ubiquitous illegal activity in Zagreb: free riding on public transport.

I first have to say that Zagreb has a fantastic tram system. The trains are new, clean, and well maintained. They run frequently and travel extensively throughout the city. There is nothing comparable to this type of service in Oklahoma, or most of the US for that matter. In Tulsa the buses come once every hour, stop running at five p.m. and don’t really take you anywhere all that useful. One of the few time I rode a bus was in preschool as a class, and I think that was just so we would know what a bus was. Unlike in Tulsa where you can live most of your life without engaging in public transit, the tramway in Zagreb is an integral part of life.

Of course this makes the reality of the tramway all the more ironic: Zagreb has a great tram system, and yet most people ride it for free. Riding the tram depends mostly on the honor system. There is no fee for entering the tram, no turnstile, gate, nothing. You just hop on; however, you are supposed to buy a ticket in advance at a nearby kiosk or purchase one with a text message from you mobile phone. There is some level of enforcement. Uniformed inspectors come around from time to time and check your tickets. If you cannot show them one you are fined 200 kuna (roughly $40).

Talking to residents of Zagreb you hear all kinds of stories about how people have attempted to get of out paying the fine. One of the more clever ones I’ve heard involved a friend who had already been riding on the tram when an inspector (called Kontrol in Croatian) entered. Once the tram started moving he ran up to her, pretending to be nervous and asked her if he still had time to purchase his ticket on his phone. The inspector a little shocked at being directly approached replied in a relaxing tone that of course there was still time.

When you’re caught inspectors exit the tram with you and write you a ticket on the side of the street. Another friend, an American married to a Croatian, related to me how once when he was caught he played dumb, acting like he didn’t speak Croatian, was only here for a conference, and couldn’t understand this “crazy” tram system. As he was on the cusp of success, having almost convinced the inspectors he was just a dumb tourist when a tram full of his former students stopped and they all yelled: “Hi Dave!” He ended up paying the fine. I’ve heard from other foreigners that they too act as foreign as possible. According to these stories the inspectors will get so frustrated trying to get you to understand them that they will eventually just let you go.

Usually, you just try to dodge the inspectors. When they enter, you exit. They are pretty easy to spot. They wear blue jackets with stripped blue button-down shirts, and have a way of parting the most densely packed crowds like Moses parted the Red Sea. The other alternative is to enter a text message into your phone and then only send it when you see an inspector.

Another preoccupation among free riders is trying to anticipate the inspectors’ behavior. It is assumed that inspectors don’t work after 8 or 9 p.m. or early on weekends, some assume they don’t work weekends at all. I’ve also been told that inspectors won’t work when its raining, snowy, or frigidly cold. I’m not sure if it is assumed that inspectors don’t want to stand in the rain, snow or cold when writing a ticket or if would it would be socially unacceptable to make a passenger stand in bad weather when getting a fine. In any case it assumed that fines for free riding are canceled due to inclement weather. I’m not sure if any of this is true.

Why all the free riding? Well, its logical. The economists tell us that few will pay for something if they can obtain it for free. Given the paltry system of enforcement its rational that few people pay for a tram ride. Since the fine is 200 kuna and a tram ride itself costs 15 kuna, if you can ride for free 13 or more times without paying, then its worth risking the fine. The times I do buy a ticket are when I’m either riding with my daughter or mother-in-law. And these are social inducements. I don’t want people to think that I’m a bad father when they see me holding my little girl and getting fined by the inspectors on the side of the street. (Also, since she speaks Croatian she would blow my cover as a dumb tourist.) My other friends have related similar reasons. One woman told me that since she was now over 35 (and on TV) she would be embarrassed if she was seen being fined.

But there is also another economic argument and this returns to the discrepancy between policy and practice. A tram ride costs 15 kuna, which is about three dollars. Now imagine if you had to ride the tram twice a day to get to work and back. That would be six dollars a day, $30 a week, $120 a month, $1,200 a year. In a country where the average monthly salary is between $800 and $1,000 a month, that’s 10 percent or more of your annual income, just to get to work. What’s more is that ZET (the tram operator) knows that most people do not or cannot pay this fare. reported that while 298 million people rode the tram (and buses) last year, revenue was only at 319 million kuna! That’s less than 1.5 kuna per person, roughly $0.25 a passenger.

I’d like to say that this is a case of an enduring status quo where the price was fixed and remains fixed given a set of circumstances, but its actually worse than that. The price just went up from 10 to 15 kuna via text message and from 8 to 12 kuna for tickets purchased from a kiosk. And since then revenue has stayed roughly the same. ZET is now earning less than it was before if you consider the price increase. Its as if Joseph Heller and Franz Kafka jointly designed this policy. ZET raises the price to make less money!! The politicians know no one is paying the price, the passengers know it, ZET knows it, and yet the price that no one pays endures.

Thats how life is here. We exist in a world where policy after policy, law after law attempt to impose an impossible standard on our reality. As a result, our daily life is learning how to dodge the rules, and to define the actual distance between the imaginary and the real, to discern the actual difference between what is demanded and what is permissible. For all that, Croatia pays a greater price; a fare-less ride on the tram only sounds free.
Here is an even more outrageous comparison. A ride on the NY subway costs $2.50 and the city's average income is $6,317.00 a month. In Zagreb a ride on the tram is $3.00 and the average monthly income is $1,356.00! Moreover, the income for Zagreb is from 2008. Since the financial crisis the average income has certainly declined while the tram price has been increased.