It rained most of my time in Zagreb and was much colder than I’d expected (Croatia is the same latitude as Maine, so had I done my homework…) and I had a bad case of jet lag that wouldn’t resolve even with the help of sleeping pills. Thus I ventured out into the city on only two of my four days there. I visited the center square adorned by a large bronze statue of Josip Jelačić von Bužim (a count, general and all-around good guy widely admired for his abolition of serfdom) astride his trusty steed. Under the horse’s tail is a common meeting place it seems. After that I wandered into the Zagreb Cathedral – Croatia’s tallest building – and the Dolac (farmer’s) Market. Another day I visited the botanical gardens, fairly small as those things go but quite lovely nonetheless. I wish I’d had the energy and motivation to explore this city further.
The weekend found me in Velika, in the eastern part of the country on the edge of Papuk Geopark, or “nature park” as the locals call it. The owner of my rental, Anton, is a charming young man who speaks excellent English (learned from watching American movies with English subtitles he tells me) if you discount his habit of beginning every other sentence with “To be honest.” He committed one helpful task after another for me from the moment he picked me up at the train station. I was highly impressed. After showing me my apartment and helping me settle in, he started a fire in the bedroom fireplace for me, then drove me back into town to get groceries. Upon our return he downloaded an app on my phone of hiking trails in the park, and helped me sort out my SIM card situation: down with Vipme – who charged me 80 kuna for voice, SMS and unlimited data, then “suspended” my account after only one day and couldn’t offer an explanation or reinstatement of active status despite Anton’s best efforts – up with Bon Bon! (that’s good good in French, while bombon means candy in Croatian) which incidentally uses the T-Mobile network. That done, I poured us each a glass of wine and asked him about the places he’s traveled (everywhere in Europe except the Baltic states, Greece and Scandinavia.) He gave me lots of good advice about what to see where, both in Croatia and elsewhere.
The apartment is a “flat” in a 3 story century old stone house, with two bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom with deep tub, and separate toilet room. Outside my bedroom is a balcony, and the house is on the edge of the forest, with beautiful views both front and back. It snowed 6 inches the night before I arrived, and after Anton left I moved from room to room, from warm to cold and back again, reminded of my grandparents farmhouse in Kentucky where only the main rooms downstairs were heated while the rest of the house – hallways, stairwells and bedrooms – were so cold in winter you could see your breath at night as you closed the doors to the warmth and light and scurried across the linoleum floors, diving into a bed piled high with down comforters and blankets. Here it’s so cold in the toilet that I’ve taken to placing strips of toilet paper on the seat prior to sitting down on an ice cube.
Last night I stepped out onto the balcony, breathed in the fresh, frigid air and thought about someone I traveled with for some time; he was my daily companion for several months and I feel his absence acutely now as I travel alone. My hands quickly turned cold but my legs stayed warm in the leggings he gave me, “gifted” he called it. I wear them each night like pajamas, and little fool that I am, take comfort in the illusion of proximity to him such a small gesture allows me. I gazed up at the sky riddled with stars and my heart ached beyond the steady grip to which I’ve grown accustomed, with bittersweet pangs of conflicting emotions – an old familiar story, what we have versus what we want; in this case an appreciation of the natural beauty surrounding me and the recollection, so specific and vivid, of wanting to sleep out under the stars with him, if only once. He wanted it too I think. We just never seemed to get around to it. As I prepared to return to the warmth of the flat the nearby church bell tolled but once: a quarter past the hour. Fifteen minutes later three peals rang out. This goes on throughout the day and night and reminds me of the Islamic call to prayer so common in some of the Asian countries we traveled through.
Back inside, as I crawled into bed, the sleeve of my motorcycle jacket peeked out from the wardrobe and caught the light from the fire as it would a headlight, its fabric designed to be seen after dark, to glow in the beam of oncoming traffic and keep its wearer safe as she barrels along into the night. Another memory, another twinge. Where are you tonight? I wondered, my whisper just another night sound, like the sighing of old floorboards or the wind in the trees. It is perhaps both my greatest strength and weakness that I don’t love easily but I do love hard.
Today the sun came out and the temperature rose to damn near 60 degrees so I hiked up a very steep trail to Velicki Grad, the ruins of a fortress town from, at best guess, the 13th century. I was completely alone in the forest except for its countless mostly unseen residents, and it was a relief, as it always is, to be in a wild and unspoiled place sans other human beings. I’d say that any child of a naturalist couldn’t help but feel this way, only I know better; neither of my brothers feels half as drawn to and captivated by the natural world as I do. As I silently wished beyond any realistic measure that as quietly as I treaded I might come upon one of the wolves Anton told me have begun to make this place their home again after decades of absence, it occurred to me for the nth time that of all the myriad ways there are to die in this world, I’d much rather meet my end in the fierce embrace of a hungry carnivore, a grizzly bear or mountain lion for instance, just doing what comes naturally, than at the hands of just about any human for any reason, except perhaps as a personal favor and therein act of kindness. If I could bring myself to believe in the fairy tale of reincarnation, I’d be convinced Jackson would come back as a wolf.
While in Zagreb I did little shopping, so I had no cream on hand for my coffee. Not usually a fan of black coffee as I find it somewhat bitter. Culinary tip, passed on to me by my friend in Toronto: Put a tiny pinch of salt in your coffee to remove the bitterness. It works.