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The International Writers Magazine: Zagreb

Notes from a Café – Zagreb
Neha Puntambekar

Delicate strings of cigarette smoke rise up in synchrony, like ballerinas magically suspended in mid-air. Through the haze, and inter-cutting electric blue trams, I trace graffiti smothering the city walls. I'm sitting at a little café in the heart of Zagreb. Being the only visible foreigner around, I’m at the receiving end of a dozen masked stares, and even though I'm used to this, I can't help but smile.

Zagreb is a petite city, barely filling into the size it’s been allocated. Emerging from the Balkan war relatively unhurt, it took on the role of national and financial capital of Croatia. Today, even in the midst of administrative responsibilities, it still holds on to its old world charm: church spires dominate the skyline; cobbled stone streets swerve around legends and Baroque structures. The sidewalks double up as parking spots, cars settled partly on the kerb and partly on the road.

Summer has seeped through ever corner of Trg Bana Jelacica, Zagreb's main square, where the imposing statue of Croat hero Josip Jelacic, perched on his horse, enjoys his mocha tan. Flanking it is the city's chicest street, Illica. Hours simply slip away while walking in, out and past the high-fashion boutiques that line up here. To make matters worse, every third store offers the most tempting shoes; it's a struggle not to succumb. But even amidst this snobbery, over the big branded shopping bags, there are reminders of the old life: filling up across terraces and other open spaces are the city's popular open air markets. Fresh strawberries mingle with cherry tomatoes. Coy little daisies blush under the gaze of the flamboyant chrysanthemum. Old, rusting pocket watches, ticking loudly above the other "antiques" on offer, beg to be bought. As the sunburnt peasants hawk their wares, Zagreb is filled with the sounds of the countryside.

History has seeped through every stone here, staining them with images of the past. Elegant, imposing buildings dominate this post code. On their roof tops, gargoyles, lions and angels stand guard. Walking around the Old Town is a lesson in history. Little cobbled streets lead me to churches and landmarks that have survived centuries. Some structures like the medieval Lotrscak Tower hold on to the memory of a glorious past. A watch tower in its time, today its rickety steps take tourists to the top of the city: a bird's eye view reveals clusters of orange roof tops holding leafy courtyards in their midst - some display the day's laundry, others hold bursts of spring in terracotta pots. Other buildings like the pastry coloured mansions on Tkalciceva, Zagreb’s party street, adapt and reinvent themselves from haughty Baroque villas to trendy cafes and boutiques.

The city's split personality, however, comes to the fore in the suburbs. The old world sophistication of the centre gives way to a more practical get-on-with-it style. Elderly communist buildings stand in a morose row. Underneath the peeling paint, a pipe-line network of ageing veins crawl around. The newer constructions fare equally badly. Fashioned after cardboard boxes with cut-out windows, they do little to lift the drab landscape. Like any other condemned suburb, life here goes on in a 9-5 shuffle – homework, chores and shopping lists clutter the day. Stifling a yawn, I head back to reclaim my place at the centre.

Between the two worlds though, one thing remains constant - Zagreb's laid back attitude. Even the traffic jams here are relaxed. Work is something that fills up the time between cigarettes and coffee dates. Needless to say, the cafés are bustling and have hardly a minute to spare. The air is warm with the clatter of tobacco tinged Croatian as gossip is exchanged and coffee is consumed. Somewhere a cell phone rings loudly, piercing the day. I sit down and place an order.

© Neha Puntambekar
August 2008

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