Shopping for Necessities in Zagreb

Living in a foreign country for a month or more, one is forced to acquire a pattern of normalcy. Routine activities occupy more time than any sightseeing or thrills – this simply is not sustainable. And honestly, I would not want it to be. In so-called mundane activities, it is possible to enter the collective mind of a specific culture. I can experience first-hand how long it takes to buy a SIM card at the local T-mobile. I can experience the difficulty or ease with which one acquires certain items. Try shopping for any non-Italian food in an Italian grocery store. The international section consists of little more than soy sauce, Ramen noodles, and El Paso brand salsa. One time, my friend and I visited three (maybe four?) different grocery stores in Verona in search of cheddar cheese. We settled for an unknown pale-orange cube, the closest visual match to cheddar. Later we discovered the cheese tasted nothing like cheddar. It was a strange sort of dessert cheese. The Italian palate has one mode, one creed, one belief system: Italian is the only and best.

In many Italian pharmacies and delis, one must take a number from a small machine and wait for the number to blink on a screen in order to qualify for assistance. This always seemed absurd to me. There were rarely lines in scenarios with this take-a-number system, and yet the employee behind the counter would still press a button, continuing the formality and pomp of changing the number on the screen. The arbitrary, convoluted process indicated a deeper reverence for ceremony, for airs of self-importance.

The funny thing is, there are situations with long lines in Italy, but they are handled with complete dysfunction. Once, my friend and I waited in line to buy a Roman metro card. This occurred during the Italian Lunchbreak Hour(s). A line accumulated behind us as we waited for a metro employee to finish eating an orange. Finally, we were offered assistance as the line behind us had coagulated into a mob fit with loud sighs and stomping feet. As we waited for the metro employee to print our metro cards, this mob pressed closer and closer behind us, until finally my friend told them to back off. This resulted in more bickering, more angry Italians, when we simply could not control the slowness of the Italian printing our cards. One woman in the crowd came forward and apologized on behalf of Italy. Finally, our cards were finished and we could leave. My friend and I swore to one another to never, ever need anything from the metro counter ever again.

This contrast sticks with me. Italy loves the ceremony of calling a number, complexity applied to simple exchanges, but in situations actually requiring order they devolve into toddlers (with the exception of the one woman who apologized on behalf of Italy). If they love ceremony so much, couldn’t they simply apply some elaborate, seemingly-important ritual to lengthier processes? If they invent three or four unnecessary steps in the process of obtaining a metro card, perhaps create a few more forms to fill out, would the Italian mind be distracted from the fact that it wasn’t any closer to obtaining a metro card?

Anyway, the take-a-number system is applied in appropriate contexts in Zagreb. When we came to Zagreb in October, I visited T-mobile to buy a SIM card. The store was utterly packed with thirty or forty people. I took a number from a machine at the entrance of the store. I think I was 109. There was a screen in the back of the store flashing the number 78. When I scanned the crowded interior, I noticed that this T-mobile had a bench built into two of its four walls, and on this bench were various T-mobile-pink cushions. The Croats are so used to long lines that they built bulk seating into their cell phone store.

I took a seat and waited. It was hot. The people waiting seemed uncomfortable and irritated, but they occupied themselves. Some talked on the phone. Some browsed the internet or listened to music. Some quietly talked amongst themselves.

After about twenty minutes, I heard a man’s voice near the entrance shouting in Croatian. All heads in the store turned and looked with a modest degree of interest. After a few more minutes, the voice was silent. I could not see the source of the shouting, and I could not understand a word in his eruption. I guessed his anger related to the complete inefficiency of the store.

I waited approximately twenty more minutes before my number was called. As I approached the counter, I noticed two men talking to two police officers inside the store. Was this a result of the shouting? Was one of these men the shouter? The two men were showing papers to the police officers. All four men wore content expressions, which confused me further. The two men approached the counter to my left, while the two police men lazily watched from a bench. Were the police supervising the exchange because of the prior shouting incident? But if so, why the relaxed demeanors?

Finally, I finished purchasing and installing my SIM card. The relationship between the two men and two police officers did not become any clearer, but I believe I witnessed enough to draw a few conclusions about Croatian culture. There are long lines, people exasperated by long lines, and people unsurprised by the displays of exasperation. Sure, we’ll call the police if you shout in a store, but they will be all-smiles because everyone understands your frustration. 

There is a relaxed, if not slightly resigned, attitude here. Things take a while. There is a cultural camaraderie as a result of this ineffeciency.

Whereas in Italy, most people only express concern about the personal ramifications of inefficiency; they react selfishly and immaturely. They also value appearances of importance and order, while Croatia lacks any kind of pretense.

A final thought: it would be interesting to see an Italian reaction to the T-mobile line I experienced in October.