A Memory from Turkey, Brought About by a Memory in Zagreb

We’ve been back in Zagreb for about a week now. It definitely feels most like home, out of all the cities we have lived in this year. The people in Croatia are so warm, and the city itself feels lived-in. Cities like Rome and Avignon exist in a highly-preserved, overwhelmingly beautiful manner. They feel like works of art, museum pieces, rather than functional habitations. Here, the preserved buildings mesh with contemporary skyscrapers and apartment complexes: a blend of breath-taking and ugly that feels altogether more compatible with day-to-day existence.

We were originally here in June and July, and now we’re back through the end of November. Already we’ve re-acquainted ourselves with the nearby cafe owners and waiters…familiar faces who, surprisingly, seem to remember us as well. They feel like friends or family members, rather than business owners and employees. The girls who work at a nearby cafe, Fine Torte, never count the change I leave to pay for my coffee: they simply ask if the change is exact and trust my word. The waiters at the restaurant Pizza Zero Zero always wave when my friend and I walk past, and they sometimes round down our bill to an even number of kunas. When we arrived last Sunday evening, I ordered two sodas and two pizzas. The waiter asked if he could offer a suggestion, and told me to walk to a nearby gas station to avoid the overpriced restaurant sodas. I was touched: he would rather I get a better deal than support where he works.

One night back in June, my friend and I wanted a few glasses of wine, but the grocery stores were closed. I walked next door to Pizza Zero Zero and asked if I could buy two glasses. The waiter poured two glasses, and told me I could take the glasses home if I returned them the next morning. I reached into my pocket for money, and he told me not to worry, the drinks were on him. This same event happened again this week…we walked next door for two glasses of wine, they trusted us with the glassware overnight, and they did not bother to charge, insisting that we ordered enough pizzas to negate this expense. Again, I was touched. Despite our absence, all of these neighborly relationships picked up exactly where they left off.

Buying wine in Zagreb brought to mind an incident that occurred while staying in our final hotel in Istanbul. In this city, wine was often sold in tucked-away corners of convenience stores. However, one night we wanted two glasses of wine after all the stores were closed. “How perfect,” I thought, “that we are staying in a hotel and have access to a bar.”

I walked downstairs to the lobby, approached the bar, and asked for two glasses of white wine. The waiter asked me to select my preferred wine from a menu. I pointed to a name, he looked around the bar, and finally told me they were out of stock. I pointed to a second name, he looked around the bar again, and again, out of stock. He searched around the bar for any bottle of wine, and eventually stumbled upon a single, open bottle in the refrigerator. He asked if this selection would suffice (I figured it would have to), and he poured me a glass to test.

I sipped from the glass, and the taste that entered my mouth will forevermore be an unparalleled experience of horror. My god. It took all my might to not spit upon the bar, or into the barman’s face. The wine surely had been sitting open for months. It tasted like straight vinegar, mixed with some element of rotting grapes. I shook my head vigorously, then retreated into my room.

I recounted the events to my friend. We both did not accept that a hotel with a bar could be out of wine. We looked at the hotel phone. There was an option to order room service, and so I called room service for two glasses of wine. A man answered and asked my preference of wine. After some confusion, his Turkish, my English, he seemed to understand that I wanted either white wine or champagne. We both hung up.

Twenty minutes passed, followed by a knock at the door. I opened the door to fine a waiter holding two empty champagne glasses. What. On. Earth. I asked if he had any wine to fill the glasses, and he shook his head. There was a restaurant operating in conjunction with the hotel, and I asked if they had any wine. He seemed confused, but he also said, “no.” I stood silent, unsure how to continue navigating this absurd situation. By this point he seemed rather embarrassed and confused, and so I simply said, “no thank you, nevermind,” to the glasses, and ended the interaction.

Well, this ended our pursuit of wine. I know the only overlap between the story in Zagreb and the story in Istanbul is the desire for two glasses of wine at a late hour, but it still felt worth connecting and writing about. I suppose if there is a lesson to be learned, it is that wine is far more abundant and accessible in Zagreb than in Istanbul. Also, if you are handed a glass of wine from the last open bottle in a Turkish hotel bar, do not take a sip.