Tales of Croatia. Part One.
After the arduous process of getting to Croatia, I finally arrived in Zagreb at around 11:45 PM on a Friday night. I was a bit out of it, of course. Esad Ribić showed up with a friend to pick me up, though, and we made our way to his studio, which is where I was to sleep. The driver's name was Bruce and he had a beaten up economy car of some kind, and drove like a fucking maniac. Esad told me he gets his license taken away from time to time. Nice.
Esad's studio is in Gajnice, which is in the West of Zagreb in an area which is not nearly so urban as the center of the city. There are lots of plants and parks there. The apartment buildings are largely from the socialist era. The lower walls are covered with graffiti of various sorts, noticeably for Dinamo Zagreb, the local soccer team. There's roughly an equal amount of greenspace and buildings, with many small parks and playgrounds between the buildings and the space between buildings larger than I'm used to in the States. People hang their clothes out to dry from the windows and balconies. The balconies are also covered with various apartment things, plants, barbecues etc, which lends it this touch of white trash feel to it. It's a very clean area, though, with not much litter and the streets clean of dog shit.
We dropped off my bags and then quickly proceeded to a bar/club to start drinking beer. The bar was located more toward the center, right next to the Botanical Gardens, and had an outdoor area that we hung out in. It was warm out and nice to be outside. This place is considered a dive bar, and there were a lot of overly drunk people. Good for them! We had a few beers there and hung out until they closed, around 2:30 or so, then proceeded to a small bar/dance club located right alongside the Sava River, where we continued to drink more beers. We were accompanied by a few girls and a few guys and we just hung out and drank until the sun started coming up. Most people knew English fairly well, though they were often shy about it until they warmed up. The music played was mostly from the 80s, American and British music. The DJ also played a local Croatian band who blatantly ripped off U2 songs, and the locals loved it, singing along in Croatian. Nothing too eventful that first night. But, these were not typical tourist places we went, so I saw a more true piece of the culture than if we went to some mainstream place. Wasn't really too burnt out, lasted a long night of drinking. We left the club as the sun was rising and the sound of the fucking morning birds was starting up. I hate those fucking birds. The sound of them fills me with dread.
We got a ride back to the studio and I climbed into bed around 5:45 AM or so. Dropping me off, Esad told me I had to get up at 9:30 AM because we were driving North into Slovenia for a barbecue. Aw, fuck. Not much sleep. Ack! Woke up around 9:30AM, at which time we were picked up by Darko Macan who was driving. He and I worked on a Grendel Tales comic together about 12 years ago with Edvin Biuković, but I had not yet met him. We picked up another cartoonist named štef Bartolić in a town called Samobor, North of Zagreb (samo means "only", bor means "pine tree"). We were on our way to the North, to Slovenia, and to a town very near Ljubljana (ljubav, the base word, means love, Ljubljana is some variation of "lovely"), the capitol of Slovenia (properly, Slovenija). But, upon arriving at the border, they told us we had to go to a different border crossing because of my American passport. štef said he knew a shortcut, so naturally we became completely lost for about 45 minutes, even though the other crossing was no more than a mile from the first one. We could see it, and we were on roads bordering the main road, but could not find an entrance to the main road. We looped all over the countryside trying to find a way around. I was having fun because we were exploring, though. Finally, we entered a very, very small town and saw a boy of maybe ten on the side of the road, sitting on his bicycle. Pulling up alongside him, Esad rolled his window open and asked the kid in Croatian how to get to the highway. The kids' mouth dropped open and he just stared at us blank faced for a minute or so until we drove off and the jokes about the film Deliverance and the banjo playing kid started up. Further up the road was a little market and two older guys were sitting outside with beers. It was maybe 10:30AM by now and they had about 8 empty bottles of LARGE beer behind them. They were well under way considering how early it was, but gave us good directions and we found our way, finally, to the border.
štef had on a military style hat and has a mustache and beard which lends him a resemblance to Castro, Che Guevara or some other Latino militant. When we pulled up to the border, the guard started looking at us to check us out and Esad told štef to take his hat off. Heh heh. He really looked like someone you might stop at the border.
With no trouble, we left Croatia and entered Slovenia.
We drove Northwest towards Ljubljana. We stopped in Ljubljana at a comics shop that their friend owns and he gave us some beer. Hung out for a short while and had a beer, then proceeded. Went further Northwest, to a very small village just past Kranj.
We were driving through the foothills of the Alps for hours. It's a very rural area with tons of pine trees densely populating the mountains and hillsides. They have a very aggressive church construction project going on in the country and we saw many churches, most situated on elevated hills so you could see them from far away. It was all highway driving, but with very, very little traffic and mostly woods. Slovenia looked much cleaner than Croatia, more kept up. The Croatians in the car told me that Slovenia has more of an Austrian and German tradition for being more organized and more aggressive with preserving their natural resources, as well as their buildings and infrastructure. But, they are also supposedly a much straighter culture and perhaps not as interesting as the Croats. Slovenia is also already in the European Union, whereas Croatia is still negotiating for membership. The guys in the car also kept telling me how ugly Slovenian women are. Evidently it's a well known rumor as I've heard it repeatedly over the time of my visit here. I was painted a picture from the Croatian perspective, of course, so it's all to be taken with a grain of salt. I met a couple of very beautiful Slovenian women during my stay in Croatia.
Eventually, we made our way to our destination, entering a very small valley, and parking near a house situated high up on a hill. It was a very large wooden house, newer, very clean and very nice. You could see for a far distance into the surrounding countryside from the house. And so we joined in the barbecue with some other comics artists from the local area. There were maybe 8 guys and 3 girls. The guys all knew who I was already because of the work I did with Darko and Edvin years ago, and they were all very friendly and accepting. Everyone was surprised that I spoke a little Croatian. I've encountered this repeatedly while here. They're very interested that I know some of their language and extremely surprised. We hung out outside and it was very nice out, with the sun out and mildly cool temperatures, but warm enough for only a t shirt and no jacket. They built a fire and began barbecuing čevapi, or chevapi. These are like small sausages made of ground beef, lamb and pork, and they are the single MOST well known food in the region. Everybody eats them. In Bosnia, where a lot of muslims live, they don't use pork, but all of the čevapi I've had thus far has contained pork. They barbecued this and also whole paprika peppers and we ate this with raw green onion and drank beer. We ate continuously all day, drinking beer the entire time as well (except for Darko, who was driving. He drank juice.). We talked of comics and culture and they told me all about Slovenia and I told them of America. Down in the valley below, there was some kind of right wing rally going on, with a big party and loud speakers. But it was far enough away to not really hear it too much. The guys told me not to be shocked if we heard gunfire, as the local population often fires pistols into the air at these outdoor barbecues. A building below had a mural from World War 2 depicting local left wing partisans and local patriotism, with peasants with rifles and that kind of thing. Reminded me of Russian painting. We analyzed the painting a bit and could see the bad guys heading to the right and the heroes looking to the future, on the left. It was a simple day, very easy and relaxed. Finally, when it got dark, we headed back and Esad and I fell asleep in the car for most of the way back, as the drive was more than two hours.
I was tired enough that day that I did not even think of my camera, unfortunately.
PART 1 ends here.