Monday, June 11, 2012

Where I've been...

Zagreb is a lively city with blue trams running through its streets. There is graffiti on every inch of every building up to 10 feet high. There are little bakeries everywhere. Everyone is smoking (30% of the population I am told) --- they are smoking in the street, inside restaurants, and in their offices. And currently there are fresh strawberry vendors on most street corners, including in front of the malls. Jay-Z, Adele, and especially Gotye are playing on the radio.

Central Zagreb is filled with Baroque architecture, cobblestone streets, and Old World charm. The ubiquitous outdoor cafes with their small circular tables are especially busy Saturdays when the
špica occurs, where everyone stops for coffee and to people-watch before or after going to the Dolac Market.
We live south of the town center, just north of the Sava river. This area has very little charm, but it is still lively and still chock-a-block filled with graffiti!

We were working with the Department of General Agronomy last week and they took us out into the countryside. Houses in the countryside are larger and better kept that you would expect. They all have gardens and some animals and a little vineyard (some vines may be older than the United States!). We were told that since food is so expensive here [folks spend 1/3 to 1/2 of their income on food] most people try to supply a good portion of it by growing their own. All the houses have enormous wood piles --- infrastructure issues and the price of natural gas means that wood stoves are the only source of heat in the winters out in the Croatian countryside.

Instead of saying we are "in the middle of no where" Croatians say we are "on the backside of the Gods". There are large stretches of central Croatia without any population centers, and much of the countryside was depopulated by the war, but there are also energetic little towns in this area. We visited Novska [and the nearby site of the infamous Jasenovac WWII concentration camp] and Kutina. Kutina is the site of Croatia's fertilizer factory --- instead of being a gritty industrial hub, though, it is rather a bucolic town filled with children and families and little shops. Everyone is employed by the fertilizer factory in this town and everyone is worried about the Croatian government's plans to sell its majority stock in the company. Probably some country like Russia will buy up these shares and will subsequently close down the plant (so they can sell their own fertilizer), leaving the entire town in a desperate situation.

We visited the Zagorje area north of Zagreb, near the Slovenian border. Here there are castles and the birthplace of Tito, the former dictator of Yugoslavia. There is still a mixed view of Tito (whose claim to fame is that he was not as bad as Stalin) because, although a few people have gotten incredibly wealthy since the fall of the Yugoslavian state, most industries have shut down in Croatia and many people's lives are no better than they were before.

Currently, almost all of Croatia's economy depends on tourism. Last week was a national holiday so we went down to the Dalmatian coast, the heart of tourism in Croatia. We took a 5+ hour bus ride from Zagreb, over the mountains (actually more like through a lot of tunnels) and down into the city of Split on the Adriatic Sea. Central Split is dominated by the remnants of Diocletian's Palace... it is jaw-dropping to see. You wind through cobblestone alleyways where shops and apartments are dug into old palace walls and then you get into an open area and boom! there is a centuries old cathedral or an ancient Roman ruin. It is incredible. The smell of the harbor mixes with the lavender that all of the street vendors are selling.

The dominance of the tourism trade is troubling, though. We took a kayaking tour around the medieval town of Trogir and our guide was a Mechanical Engineering student. I asked him what he wanted to do when he graduated and he said, "In Croatia we do not get to decide." He said that many people get a college degree and then go back to the tourist job they had before because there is no other opportunity.

The culture on the coast is surprising as well --- despite being a tourist hub people can be brusk and downright mean. The guy who rented us scooters on the island of Brač was a jerk. He wasn't willing to teach me how to ride and I failed his 5 second driving test so he said "no way" and walked off... I went back and paid a little bit more for a 4wheeler. [P.S. driving around a beautiful Adriatic island = awesome] Our kayak tour guide was no great personality either --- "What is that building?" "It is a castle." [maybe mechanical engineers just don't make good tour guides?]

The coast is also a lot more conservative than the inland areas, despite being more connected to the rest of the world. People were worried about us going to Split this past weekend because it was the date of the yearly gay pride parade --- last year there were riots against the paraders and a lot of people got hurt. Our electrical engineering friend in the dorm (who got us internet somehow) is from the inland part of Croatia and he says he has no problem with the gay community, but that his roommate, from the coast, is adamantly against homosexuality. We only saw this year's parade from afar... it looked like there were more police than paraders which was good for safety but it was sad in general. After the parade everyone went home, no parties, no revelry... this is definitely no NOLA Southern Decadence Gay Pride Festival!

There were, of course, wonderful people in Dalmatia as well. Especially the family that showed us around their wine cellar on the island of Brač. But that is too long a story to tell here.... maybe another post.

This week I am working with the Department of Herbology (a.k.a.Weed Science) and the Department of Agricultural Zoology (a.k.a. Entomology). We will see where I end up!

Croatia National Theater (Zagreb)

St. George and some graffiti (Zagreb)

Strawberry vendors (Zagreb)
Doloc Market (Zagreb)
spiča (Zagreb)
Graffiti (Zagreb)

Triticale (Croatian Countryside)
Me and Tito in Kumrovec

 Zagorje Region

Jasenovac Memorial
Old City Street (Split)
Cathedral of St. Domnius (Split)
Up the Cathedral belfry (Split)
Gregorius of Nin (Split)
Rubbing Gregorius's big toe brings good luck and guarantees you'll return to Split!
View from Marjan (Split)
Street vendor selling lavender in purple sacks (Split)
The one stop light we saw on the Island of Brač
Swimming in the Adriatic (near Bol on the Island of Brač)

Sea kayaking around Trogir (near Split)


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