Almost three months have passed since I arrived to the capital of Croatia for my EVS. Not all this time I’ve spent in Zagreb, but still I feel like I can make my first conclusions about local people, culture and peculiarities of life in Balkan city.
Before coming to Zagreb, the only state on Balkan peninsula that I’ve been to was Greece. So I didn’t have any experience with local culture, and to be honest, I never even planned to come to Balkans – before I found EVS vacancy that I applied and was approved for. Nevertheless, even before applying I was completely sure that I’ll like living in Balkans. Besides everything else, thanks to Kusturica movies for that.
Balkans have very diverse and complicated history. And when you come to Zagreb, you see that immediately. If you start your investigation from the centre, then of course first thing that you see is the legacy of Austro-Hungarian Empire. On the hill in the middle – old city with its medieval stone walls and Gothic cathedral. But when you move away from the main tourist attractions, you see something completely different. There are no huge colourful imperial buildings. Instead, there are small grey houses with red tile roofs, wooden porches and massive blinds on the outside of the windows. Seeing these houses, you realise that Mediterranean sea indeed is somewhere not far away. And of course, it’s impossible not to notice that these houses are surrounded by the huge socialist multi-flat towers, which remind about the most recent history of the country, when it was the part of Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
Tea and Coffee
Croats call themselves ‘coffee nation’. Indeed, you can buy a coffee here on every corner – and in most of the places it has affordable prices. Croats like to spend their time in a cafe, chatting over a cup of coffee. According to locals, romance with coffee is so deep that it even became one of unemployment reasons here. ‘We don’t want to work – we want just to sit in a cafe and drink coffee,’ – Croats say.
The situation with tea is rather more problematic. It looks like locals are not in favor of old good black tea. So in the grocery shop usually you can find dozens of different kinds of red, green and herbal tea, but not the black one. Local favorite and one of the most popular tea options in cafes here is chamomile tea – there are pretty high chances that you can order it almost everywhere. And if you order tea in a cafe, most probably it will be served with honey.
Smoking is kind of a cultural thing in all Balkans in general. Croats like to tell a story how smoking in public places like cafes and bars was forbidden when Croatia joined European Union in 2013, and in half a year it was allowed again. Because nobody went to a cafe when it was forbidden to smoke there, and local business was suffering a decline due to the smoking ban. Now, it’s allowed to smoke almost everywhere in Zagreb, except maybe public institutions, schools and public transport. So, if you plan to go to a bar or a cafe, be prepared that all your clothes will stink with smoke afterwards. Or, be prepared to sit outside in the freeze if you don’t want to stink. Thanks God there are plenty of open terraces in Zagreb even in December.
Do you know why McDonald’s is not very popular in Zagreb? Because Croats have their very own junk food – bakery. You can find bakery literally on every corner. It’s cheap and affordable, and has a lot of varieties of bakes, including pizza and local specialty – burek, stuffed with soft cheese or meat. As any junk food, bakes should be eaten quickly – so usually purgers (it’s the Croatian slang for people living in Zagreb) eat them on their way to somewhere. When I’m on my way to the office, sometimes I observe five people simultaneously eating pies and pizzas while waiting for the green traffic light on the crossroad.
By the way, Croatia is a country of meat. Croats are proud of their meat dishes, some of which are cultural heritage. So if you are vegetarian, you may experience hard times in Zagreb, because not all places offer proper meals without meat. Once, I’ve bought a slice of vegetarian pizza in a bakery. When I came home, I found a piece of bologna on it.
Apart from bakes and meat, in Zagreb you can find also typical street food: fried chestnuts, fried corn and popcorn. And during the Advent the variety of street food gets diversified also by sweet tasty fritule and mulled wine (which in Zagreb is not just red, but also white).
Zagreb is a perfect city for living more healthy and green life: it has bike paths almost everywhere. Luckily for purgers, even though the city is surrounded by mountains and hills, most of its territory is flat. So one doesn’t have to put too much effort into driving a bike here. Of course, you can always find some space for improvement. For example, many purgers walk on the bike paths and do not look around, so you have to attract their attention to be able to go your way. Also, it’s not so easy to use broad pavements here to go somewhere, because often they are being used as parking slots. But what is really cool, is that your bike is safe in Zagreb: you can leave it unattended in the street for a good while, and chances are pretty high that you’ll find it there when you are back.
If you’re not a bike person, you can use the public transport – trams and buses. Zagreb has very good connections throughout all city, and transport always comes on time. The minus is that it’s pretty much expensive, so many people do not pay for it – and for locals it’s completely culturally acceptable. For a couple of times, I was even convinced by locals not to pay for a ticket, when I was really willing to pay. As they say, we don’t have to pay for public transport because the prices are unreasonably high and the government is corrupted. Anyhow, even though ticket prices are high throughout the year, during the Advent time one can use public transport for free officially every weekend until New Year’s eve.
These are my main cultural discoveries for the first 3 months of living in Zagreb, but definitely here aren’t all of them – if I would try to describe all my impressions, probably I would have to write a book. It’s a great pleasure to spend 11 months of my life in this green, fresh and super-active city. And I’m looking forward to discovering every corner of it during next 8 months of my EVS.