There are a number of different ways to organize a systematic exploration of European capitals. You could do it geographically: west to east, for instance, in which case I suppose you’d start in Lisbon (have I never written about Lisbon? Forgive me if I haven’t—it’s a great city) and end in Istanbul. (OK, Moscow is further east, but Moscow doesn’t touch Asia.) Or you could do it chronologically, starting in Athens and ending, perhaps, in Minsk (founded only in the 11th century). Or you could do it alphabetically, starting in Amsterdam and ending in Zagreb.
If you choose the latter course, then it might occur to you, as you walk around the little streets near the cathedral in Zagreb, that the game’s up … You’re in Zagreb … end of the line—at least from an alphabetical perspective.
And, to a degree, it is kind of the end of the line. I’m not saying that Zagreb isn’t a nice city—it is, very much so. It’s just that after a while you get an impression that if you’ve seen one Eastern European city … well, maybe you haven’t seen them all, but, except for the really impressive ones, you’ve probably seen scaled-up or scaled-down versions of most everything some place else, and this might lead you to the conclusion that you may actually have been traveling just a bit too much.
In Zagreb, things tend to be scaled down compared to other cities: the cathedral is nice, but small; the streets are charming, but small; the parks are wonderful, and small. It’s true that the parks boast some impressively massive trees, but everything else is kind of, well, dinky.
Dinky can be refreshing sometimes. I mean, you don’t necessarily want to feel overwhelmed every place you go. Zagreb is a manageable city, with all the basic city things you’d expect: streets and buildings and the like. It also has the requisite train station with taxis in front and bus stops in front of them. It even has a king-on-a-horse statue. Most Eastern European cities have a king-on-a-horse statue, consisting of a bronze medieval king, looking very stern in his armor, sitting on a stern-looking horse while he stares down a McDonald’s or something. Croatia was usually part of someone else’s kingdom, but they have a king-on-a-horse statue anyway. Their version consists of King Tomislav holding a scepter and looking appropriately mustachioed. When I was there, he wasn’t overlooking a McDonald’s, but it did seem like he was checking out a poster for an upcoming Pearl Jam concert. Judging from his expression, he is not enthusiastic about Pearl Jam.
Up from King Tomislav Square run a series of parks, which are, in fact, part of the “Zagreb Horseshoe,” a broad U of parkland that makes its way across the city. That’s nice. What’s also charming is that these parks are full of couples making out.
Just about any city park is bound to have its share of couples sitting on benches or lying in the grass making out, but I’m convinced Zagreb holds some kind of record when it comes to lip-wrestling. This is particularly evident once the sun goes down. If the weather’s nice, then every bench holds at least one couple either sitting side by side or with the woman straddling the man, both concentrating intensely, soft smacking sounds floating on the breeze.
Why is it that people from Zagreb seem to engage in public-park petting more than people in other cultures? I asked this question of an acquaintance there, who seemed perplexed. “Don’t they do that in France, too?” he asked. They do, but not to the same degree. He shrugged his shoulders. “We are passionate people,” he replied. “And maybe we have fewer hotels than Paris.”
Both statements are true. Regarding the passion of the Croats, another friend from the city told me that Zagreb is “a German city populated by Italians who speak Russian.” I couldn’t help but note how appropriate that description was. The city itself is distinctly Germanic in feel—more Austrian, or even Swiss, in its architecture than anything else. However, the atmosphere in the restaurants, the streets, and certainly on the park benches is far more Italian than Germanic. And Croatian does sound a hell of a lot like Russian when you come to think of it (but I confess that most Slavic languages sound more or less like Russian to me).
In my book, this adds a certain cool unpredictability to Zagreb. This whole German/Latin thing sometimes works very well, but sometimes it goes horribly awry. An example of the latter case is a restaurant near the cathedral that will go unnamed but which contains a lot of tourists and serves what is purported to be traditional Croatian food (although I can personally attest to the fact that its wares resemble traditional Croatian food in the way that the plastic facsimiles outside of Japanese restaurants resemble the food served inside). It’s not the food, though, that wins the prize for ickiness—it’s the ambiance. As is often the case with touristy restaurants that purport to give you a real “local” experience, you will be served by staff uncomfortably wearing whatever garb will strike foreigners as seeming the most authentic. In Russia this involves fur and strange hats; in Germany it may require lederhosen. In Croatia it involves bright colors and neckties. (Croatians invented the necktie, which takes its French name, cravate, from a mispronunciation of Hrvat, which means “Croatian” in Croatian. You with me?) But, hell, they could wear whatever they wanted in these restaurants and I wouldn’t complain, as long as they could get the damn music right.
There are two possibilities musicwise in places like this. Possibility number one, which is usually the lesser of two evils, consists of a folk band playing Gypsy music. It’s always Gypsy music (at least, east of the Oder River). Apparently, Gypsies ruled Eastern Europe in the past. Possibility number two consists of a younger guy with a complicated keyboard (the kind that includes a rhythm machine) doing a mix of Western and local pop songs. May the gods spare you from possibility number two. In this particular Zagreb restaurant, I was subjected to possibility number two while sipping my strange soup. (Did I also mention that these restaurants always serve at least one kind of strange soup, often served in a bowl made out of stale bread?)
Enough, though—here I am berating one bad Croatian restaurant in what is, after all, a lovely and manageable city. Let’s move on to something more pleasant, therefore … the wax-scrapers.
I’m not really sure that Zagreb’s wax-scrapers are any different from other cities’ wax-scrapers. It might just be that I never really noticed wax-scrapers before, and during my recent stay in Zagreb I was particularly sensitive to their presence. But, on reflection, I think not—I think Zagreb really does have a thing about wax-scraping.
Just to clarify things a little: by wax-scrapers, I don’t mean just anybody who goes around randomly scraping wax; I mean people who clean the melted wax from those big metal votive-candle racks.
You know those things, right? You go into a church and you find a big metal rack where you can usually drop in a donation and then light yourself a votive candle, stick it in a holder, say a prayer, and leave it to burn. There are many reasons to leave burning votive candles, whether they be in remembrance of a departed loved one or in supplication for some coveted item. (I confess that the last votive candle I lit was probably a pitiful celestial bribe for a new bike, but it must be said that I haven’t lit any votive candles in quite a long time.) Anyway, needless to say, these things get covered in melted wax as the wishes and memories burn away, and someone has to clean all that melted hope off the black metal.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you never gave a moment’s thought to who actually scrapes off the waxy detritus of divine supplication. Certainly, I had never asked myself that question, and, if I had, I would have imagined that it’s done by short, hooded monks wearing frayed ropes as belts. In Zagreb, though, I ran into wax-scrapers all over, and they didn’t look anything like monks. I even found them outside the churches. There’s this really nifty city-gate-like affair when you enter the old walls (up near St. Mark’s, with its very cool roof), and this gate has its own rack of votive candles. Well, there was a wax-scraper there, too, and she was scraping wax with the fervent energy of a true believer … or of someone with an obsessive-compulsive cleaning fixation.
The wax-scrapers hover around votive-candle racks like wasps tending their nests. They remove excess wax with nondescript metal implements and they tidy up the candles, both those that are burning and those that are there for the offering. I assume they also collect the coins in the offering boxes, but perhaps this is outside their domain of responsibility. The wax-scrapers I saw were invariably older people, dressed in normal (as opposed to ecclesiastic) clothes. I don’t know whether wax-scraping is their full-time occupation, or whether they’re volunteers. They had a kind of volunteer air to them, but I might be mistaken.
As a rule, it seems Croatian wax-scrapers don’t speak English. Or at least the ones I tried to talk to didn’t. I wanted to get some insight into this whole wax-scraping thing, and I tried to strike up a couple of conversations, but it was always in vain. They either ignored me entirely, lost in their duties, or shrugged at my queries. Wax-scraping remained, and will remain, a mystery to me.
As for the other particularly Zagreban activity—making out on a park bench in the cool evening breeze—well, I didn’t bother trying to interview any of its practitioners, but then I hardly needed to ask about that. New York has a couple of parks as well, and I was young once, too.