Thursday, May 24, 2007

Coffee with Milk, Please

Next week is going to be very difficult. How will I find an outdoor cafe crowded with people? Will anyone be willing to serve me coffee with milk in a nice china cup with saucer? Will they understand how I can linger over it for at least an hour? Not likely. Tomorrow I am returning to the U.S. after nearly a month in Croatia. In between a hectic work schedule, I managed to partake in a coffee or two (or probably 50). Business gets done here over coffee. Ideas get shared. People converse. Forget about laptops and newspapers. Cafes are for talking and sipping. Oh, how I'll miss the sipping. But mostly I'll miss the feel of this place.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

They're Getting Married!

Okay, their names will be changed to protect the innocent...but I have two friends (let's call them Joshua and Morana) who live here in Zagreb who just can't seem to get it get married! Yes, they are in love. Yes, they are engaged. Yes, they live together. Yes, they are both successful. Yes, they've attended lots of weddings together to get ideas about matrimony. But alas, they are not organized enough to find time to get down the aisle. So over a few bottles of wine the other night, I offered to help plan their wedding. You see, I got married in Tuscany a few years back (yes, that's the villa above). I planned it for 40 people from the U.S. and abroad in less than 7 weeks. So, I guess they thought I was cut out for the job. So, I really can't write more. Between work and trying to return to the United States (I'm still in Croatia) later this week, I need to de-brief my friend Morana. Stay tuned.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Effects of War

It is hard for most Americans to truly understand war – particularly my generation. We see it remotely on television screens and analyzed on Sunday morning news shows but seldom have we come up close and personal with it. In contemporary terms, aside from Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks, our cities have not been shelled and destroyed and ethnic cleansing has never taken place on our soil. My friends in former Yugoslavia are not so lucky. In the past few weeks, I’ve gotten together with several of them – and while they are successful, many having worked for international organizations, their parents are not so fortunate. In their 40’s when the disintegration occurred, most lost their jobs, livelihoods and homes – and ultimately their sense of themselves. They were transplanted to different countries and some never worked again. My friends’ parents are now in their 50’s – struggling to claim pensions and eke out a living by selling off all remaining assets and relying on their children to sustain them. I feel sadness for all of them and the precious years they lost because of a senseless war. I feel happiness for my friends who are not only surviving – but excelling. And I feel thankful that they are able to provide for their parents in a way that most of us will never know.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Croatian Friendliness

Frankly, you can’t blame Croatians for being a bit grouchy a few years back. Their country was shattered by war. Hotels were inhabited by refugees. Savings accounts were lost. Families were torn apart and forced to leave the only home they had ever known. This is what transpired in Croatia just a little over a decade ago as Yugoslavia disintegrated into war and chaos. As an expatriate living here in the late 90’s, I encountered many Croatians who I would describe as less than “consumer friendly” – particularly hotel and wait staff not to mention numerous store clerks. On my recent trip to Croatia, however, I am pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of those I’ve encountered at every step of the way. Mind you, I’m not just talking about hotel staff at refurbished hotels. A toll collector asks if I’m having a good time in his country and apologizes for the state of the road, which I’ve just traveled dotted with construction delays. Store clerks seem more helpful and smile when they hand you your bag. Perhaps it’s the optimism that I have for this country that compels me to see it in new light. But somehow, I think they, too, have changed.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Who Needs Italy?

Allow me to let you in on a little secret – Istria. Or perhaps I shouldn’t do so in the event that it is overtaken by gawking tourists, as this place deserves a special kind of traveler. One who can appreciate fine wines. Good, strong olive oil. Homemade pasta with truffles. Fresh air and beautiful sunsets. Oh, did I mention that this is not a part of Italy – but of Croatia? But don’t let the Croatian map fool you as the village names are in Italian and Croatian and it’s much more fun to converse with your hosts in Italian. (Yes, it was once part of Italy). The old stone houses here are much below market price of what one finds in Tuscany, which may be why many British are supposedly buying up property. However, I think you might still just find that special little village, with old men sitting at dusk sipping espresso and colorful flowers adorning window sills. I did.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Wine oh Mine

Yes, I admit it...I can't have just one glass of Croatian wine. I have just met up with my old friend, Zlatan Plavac, which had been absent from my life for too long. But earlier this week, I met up with friends for dinner and the wine was flowing. I first came to know Zlatan Plavac in the beautiful city of Split. My good friend, Nenad, took me to his favorite fish restaurant and we sat outside, under the Croatian spring sun way back then enjoying that first bottle. I later discovered the island of Hvar, where the wine is grown and bottled. If I concentrate hard enough, I can still conjure up the smell of pine and lavender which envelops you as you walk the island. Today, I happily bought a bottle of the white label Zlatan Plavac at a little Zagreb vinoteka (wine shop) long can I wait to open it?

Sunday, May 6, 2007

French elections and memories of ol'

Today is the final round of voting in the French Presidential elections. It seems that all of France is on pins and needles awaiting the outcome.

I’m walking through the streets of Zagreb on the way to meet an old friend for coffee, and can’t help but think back to what things were like here nearly a decade ago related to Croatia’s elections. Franjo Tudjman was in power, one of the architects of the Balkans war, intent on keeping power and portraying all opposition parties as “lackies” of the West. He was able to whip up xenophobic sentiment with a portion of the population – and the state-controlled media carried his divisive messages far and wide. Back then, some of us working in the political party sphere were decried as CIA spies and U.S. intelligence officers. It was an uphill battle for the six main opposition parties but they eventually prevailed. Or rather, the people of Croatia wanting a better life and embracing western values prevailed.

How far this tiny central European country has come since that time. It’s lesson in democracy worth remembering today as French voters go to the polls.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Zagreb -- ah, my homtetown

Well, I’m back in my “hometown” -- Zagreb, Croatia. Do you know how I know? Last week, just hours after arriving by plane from the U.S., the doorbell rings. Suddenly, a tall, older man with a clipboard has burst his way into my apartment demanding to know where the electricity meter is. Still reeling from the jetlag and not quite dressed, I dig deep into my memory of Croatian (after all, it’s been five years!) and inform him I do not have the key to open the box he is pointing to. Exasperated after nearly ten minutes of hilarious banter in English and broken Croatian, I push him out the door and collapse into a fit of laughter, remembering all the encounters with determined postal workers, electricity workers and various other state bureaucrats. You see, I am now able to pay my bills on-line in the U.S. and have forgotten about many long days here of queuing up at the post office.

Thus are some of the frustrations of living in a former socialist country. Old habits die hard. But, modernity has its drawbacks, I must admit, when today I am able to purchase fresh, domestic cheese at the open air market from a nice woman who insists I take home almost entire hunk for a mere 20 kuna (less than $4 US). Together with prsut (proscuitto), fresh tomatos, cucumbers and strawberries – all for the about the equivalent of $10 – I will have a lovely lunch. Ah yes, and there is also my bottle of Postup, a red wine given to me by my old driver, which will accompany me.

It’s quite nice to be back, I decide – and am glad some things will never change.