Croatian Reflection

This post is a memory from November 21, 2018.

Leaving Zagreb. We booked a cab for 11:00 in the morning, a treat to ourselves instead of riding the #4 tram to Kvaternikov Trg, then catching the 290 bus to a street across from the airport, then walking through the parking lot past all the hustling cabbies and odd cars into the departure terminal, then taking the elevator upstairs to – finally – reach the check in counter.

Our Zagreb apartment was ground floor, with windows facing the street. We easily saw the cab approach, and outside we went.

The driver greeted us with a wide smile, as he helped us hoist our two 20 kg backpacks into the trunk. The car was white with green lettering spelling out the name of the cab company: EkoTaxi.

From the backseat I could study the driver’s hands gripping the steeering wheel, and his eyes occasionally glancing backward in the rear view mirror. He was a lanky man, shoulders hunched forward to fit the confines of his car. He had a grizzly 5-o’-clock shadow and grit under his fingernails. He began the drive by asking where we were from, and so we asked in return if he was from Zagreb.

“Yes,” he said, as he smiled fondly to himself. Without prompting, he detailed the exact number of generations – 8? 10? I forget now – his family had lived, firmly planted within the city.

“Before that, though, I am not sure.” Why would you be?

”Oh, and our lineage was briefly disrupted- we had to move around during the war.”

This specificity, I have noticed, is common in Croatia. Whenever the Croatians detail their family history, any veering from Croatia as a dwelling place (or even moving between regions within Croatia) is disclosed in a manner similar to a Catholic confession. One day earlier, as I made small talk with a girl working in a torte shop, I asked where she was from. “I am from Zagreb, as are my parents. But one of my grandfathers is from Slovenia.”

The cultural expectation of memorizing and proclaiming these ancestoral facts indicates a national pride, seperatism, and awareness, deeper than anything I ever experienced growing up in the states. There is a hint of paranoia to the practice…almost as if the citizens here feel the need to lay all of their heritage cards on the table, so as not to be unmasked as one taking credit for a  purity that they do not fully possess.

Back to the cab. Our driver was a talkative man, simultaneously irritating and interesting. He began telling us about his subscriptions to Netflix and cable television, the subtext here being, I may be from Croatia, but I can afford to expose myself to all of the fancy shows, just like you Americans! He, in additional efforts to showcase his transcendence from Croatian Cab Driver to Cosmopolitan Man of Science, talked about a series he had recently watched, about manmade electromagnetic fields’ effects on weather. The language barrier proved a bit dicey, but he gestured frequently to the power lines flanking the road, in between pointing to the clouds. Something about increased thunderstorms? Tornadoes? Turbines? Something with a “T,” I believe. We nodded enthusiastically.

After a few more miles, he, as this monologue could in no way be considered a conversation, shifted topics towards international affairs. He mumbled some sentences about Germany and the European Union before interjecting, “Why – and I’m sorry – but why do you Americans sell us military supplies, but no materials to build hospitals?”

My friend and I looked at one another. I forget exactly how, but my friend found a way to answer diplomatically, from her 15 years of experience as an art instructor dealing with antagonistic personalities. What we both really wanted to say was, “Why the hell should it be our responsibility to give you any help? Aren’t we last on the list of countries for whom you should harbor expectations, as you have been a part of the European Union now for five years? Also, no country sells something without a demand from the buyer, so perhaps you should question your own government’s budget decisions.”

As we held in our true feelings, he continued. His tone became more solemn, “And of course, America funded the Yugoslav wars. They did not want another superpower after the reunification of Germany, especially not a communist superpower, and so the American CIA is responsible for the election of Milošević and other Slavic nationalist leaders in the 90s.”

”Uh…I don’t know about that…,” my friend gently objected.

The driver didn’t seem to hear or care as he carried on, shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head, lost in the weight of his faux-facts. It was as if he were a judge assigned the difficult task of condemning a crime committed by our dear relative.

“I’m sorry, I don’t want to offend, but this is the truth…I certainly have no hard feelings against you…”

I had no words. He truly believed this. It couldn’t possibly be the result of the Balkan’s internal, tumultuous history, or the way in which the Austo-Hungarian Empire pitted various Slavic nationalities against one another over the course of 50 years before all were haphazardly strung together under one Yugoslav king (then later a dictator)…no, the conflict couldn’t be purely the result of internal tension, boiling and building for a century.

Again, thank god for my friend. She expertly segued into another conversational topic, all while appealing to the driver’s ego. He clearly needed to be the smartest one in the car.

“So how on earth did you Croats defeat the entire Yugoslavian army?”

The driver’s face instantly glowed with pride, his eyes faraway, as if coated by a film reel recalling scenes of his homeland’s triumph.

”Passion,” he said as he struck a fist to his breast.

”Did you fight in the war?”

“Oh yes – in the Croatian army. Along with my father and my brother.”

His brother hasn’t fared too well after the war. When pressed, the driver mentioned “odd Facebook posts” while swirling a finger around his temple. Huh. I didn’t realize the symbol for crazy was universal.

We finally made it to Franjo Tuđman Airport, which is named after the first Croatian president who was elected during the Yugoslav wars. I suppose the driver would consider him to be a plant of the CIA as well, but I did not ask.

In a mental swirl from this man’s dense ramblings, I fumbled while determining his tip. The drive cost 60 kuna, so should I give 5 additional? 7? 10? As I mulled over these 2-3 kuna increments, the driver clucked his tongue when he considered an amount to be too low. I forget which figure he eventually deemed satisfactory. I was too stunned to protest his rudeness at the time, but in retrospect I can hardly believe his presumptuous behavior. He shamed America for selling weapons to the Croatian military, he accused America of funding the Yugoslav wars when we were actually the country to finally push NATO to intervene in Sarajevo (oh, and we oversaw the Dayton Peace Accords), and he still felt that I should overlook these insults and give him excess money. Heaven forbid anyone say a word against Croatia, though.

This encounter made me think of a separate period of time we spent in Croatia. We also lived in Zagreb through June and July of 2018. This was during the FIFA World Cup, when Croatia took second place. For second place – not first, but second – the entire city of Zagreb was overwhelmed by celebration. There was the day Croatia beat England, thus securing second place. Then there was the day Croatia lost to France, still occupying second place. Then there was the day the Croatian National Team returned to Zagreb, parading through the city. On each of these days, collective frenzy occurred. Everyone owned a checkerboard shirt, a symbol at the core of the Croatian flag. One could hardly maneuver through the central square, Trg bana Jelačića, as every inch of space was occupied by humans cheering, waving fists in the air. Cars could not drive through the city center as too many people were flooded in the streets, setting off flares and initiating chants. On the day of the parade, the National Team was over 6 hours late to their destination, Trg bana Jelačića, because the parade bus could not maneuver through the fans flocking to pay homage to the football stars. 

This is a view from the morning after Croatia defeated England, near Zrinjevac Park.

And this a view from the day of the National Team Parade. Our apartment overlooked the parade route, and we watched the crowd amass all morning and afternoon, until the team finally passed our home, hours delayed, at 5:00PM.

Initially, these signs of national camaraderie were touching…but by the day of the parade, we (my friend, moreso) noticed that this warm feeling shifted into something darker. We were witnessing a rather extreme display of national pride, and we were unable to equate the citywide reaction to simply the result of a sports competition. No, this was an external sign of the deeper nationalism in Croatian culture. Finally, winning second place in the world of football proved the mantras of superiority that have been passed down from generation to generation. Finally, this international occurance – second place in the FIFA World Cup – was validation on the world stage; an excuse to flagrantly display pent-up energy, these excessive feelings of self-importance.

Back to the original memory, the date of exit on November 21st.

The cab driver felt comfortable insulting America because he believes that Croatia is the best. He has grown up with messages of Croatian importance, Croatian relevance, and Croatian superiority, so when he meets a foreigner, he cannot exit his mind to imagine an external perception of his home country; to him, everyone should understand why Croatia deserves special treatment from the rest of the world. All problems in Croatia are due to the stifling hand of foreign powers, trying to keep this special diamond of a country under control.

We exited the cab, entered Franjo Tuđman Airport, then boarded our flight. Goodbye Croatia, you complicated, fascinating, unsettling country.