So, some of you may or may not be wondering just how I got to live in Croatia for 6 months in 2006
in the fall of 2004 I went to my favorite dance club in Chicago, Berlin. It was a Saturday night, and as soon as I walked in, I noticed a cute guy dancing on the speakers. I noticed, but filed it away in the back of mind “out of my league”
Towards the end of the end of the night, I was dancing by myself on the dancefloor, and I noticed the guy from the speaker was dancing pretty close by. Then he got closer. Then closer. Then all of a sudden we were kissing on the dancefloor.
I found out he was a Croatian graduate student visiting for the weekend from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend with his roommate. We exchanged emails (not even phone numbers, ha) I didn’t really think I would see him ever again.That Monday at work at the Chicago Tribune, I decided to take a chance and email him, and say how nice it was meeting him. Then we started exchanging emails back and forth for two weeks.
Two weeks later, he writes me and says “while I normally don’t do this sort of thing, what if I take the train to Chicago this weekend and visit you” I was like sure!It was so risky, we had not even talked on the phone or had a proper date, but I just went with the flow anyways. Honestly, I wasn’t sure I liked him at first. He talked…a lot! He was very frank and honest and opinionated about everything. So our first date was like 36 hours long. We went to Lincoln Park Zoo and I wanted to show him the Tribune tower, so we went to a Thai restaurant around the corner where we had you dined sitting on the floor. That’s when I realized I really liked himIt was a bit of a whirlwind romance after that. We would alternate weekends of seeing each other between Chicago and South Bend. He met all my friends and work mates, and I met his. I felt the need to share him with the world. I think he felt the same way about me.
While he was from a totally different culture, we bonded over music, and movies and TV. He taught me about Croatian culture and food. In 2005 we went to the Chicago Auto Show, went to see John Stewart live in Rosemont, and we road tripped it down to Mardi Gras in New Orleans (before Katrina)
It was a long distance relationship, but it made it that much more special for some reason only being able to see each other on the weekends. We didn’t take each other for granted. I had never met such an intelligent, and fascinating/dynamic/funny human being. We talked on the phone everyday and texted several times a dayHowever there was a question mark over our heads. We knew he was graduating in the Spring and had to go back to Croatia. At first we didn’t think about it, but as graduation time came closer, we started to wonder. He went to a few immigration lawyers to ask if there was anyway out of his student visa requirement…meaning he would have to return home and not be able to come back to the United States for two years. There really wasn’t a way out of it.
Graduation time came, and his fraternal twin brother came to visit to see him graduate, and that was really fascinating. I wanted to see how much they were different and alike..which they were. They looked and sounded and acted very different. But being twins, there would be moments of uncanny likeness. We watched some Yugoslavian war topic films from Netflix.. Wounds, No Mans Land and Pretty Village Pretty Flame.We got somewhat of a lucky break, Luka got a job interview with a firm he interned with in Toronto. We thought, well at the very least maybe we could Air Commute and be on the same continent. We didn’t know exactly how it would work, or the cost, but we went for it. He was offered the job…then they rescinded the offer because they had a financial shake up, all over the span of a weekend
We were devastated knowing he would have to go back to Croatia. It was so sad taking him to the airport, not knowing what was going to happen.
I became very depressed, losing the love of my life. We emailed each other and got calling cards. It was tricky trying to figure out the time difference. At first I wanted to break things off, but he insisted we stay together. He bought me a plane ticket to come visit him in September during my birthday.
Our luck got worse, well better. In August my job announced lay offs and I got cut. In September I went to Croatia for the very first time. I had never been abroad before. It was an incredible and odd experience. I had never been to that part of the world. I had no reference for the architecture or the language or how the people looked and acted. I met his family for the first time and I was incredibly nervous, but they were so nice to me. I also met some of his friends and went to the one and only gay bar (at the time) in all of Croatia, Global, which was also strange, seeing gay culture in a Balkan country, and me standing out as the only black guy there. We went to the amazing city of Dubrovnik, ate the amazing food, and swam in the Adriatic sea at the nearby town of Cavtat. His mother baked me a birthday cake, something my mother had not done for me since I was a child, and it was incredible. It was such a sense of belonging.After the visit, we made the decision that I would move to Croatia in January of 2006 giving me time to make some freelance money, sell all my stuff, sublet my apartment, get a background check, take Croatian lessons on the southside of Chicago at a Croatian Church. I started ordering books from Amazon about Croatia, the war, and culture shock. I wanted to be as prepared as possible. I joined some ex pat groups online.
My parents absolutely hated the idea. My sisters were indifferent but supportive. My friends were mostly supportive, but a couple were doubtful about what I was doing.In January I packed up 2 suitcases and my cat Moby and flew the 5000 miles to Zagreb, Croatia.
Then, the culture shock hit. New home, new food, new language, new city, new public transportation, new grocery stores, new retail shops. Luka had to work during the daytime, so I was at home alone… a lot. Thankfully they use subtitles on Croatian tv, so all the American shows I could watch. I even got into a Croatian soap opera about Soccer..it was so dramatic, you didn’t even need to know what they were saying, you could just read the body language and facial expressions.
I spent a lot of time walking around the city in the cold, taking pictures and getting lost. It was an excellent way to get to know the city however. I got so good that when my friend Ben arrived, I was actually able to show him around myself.
I had to get used to the Croatian/Zagreb way of life. You could tell it was more conservative, more Catholic than the states. At the time it was somewhat homophobic. There is close to no racial minorities besides some Chinese, Roma, and I saw maybe 5 black people the entire time I was there. There was no political correctness. Everyone swore like sailors. The police and government seemed somewhat corrupt. There is no faux American politeness at restaurants or stores. The people aren’t mean to you, but you get varying levels of service on where you go, and no one is hustling for tips. The grocery stores are like ALDI.. you pay for a cart, and you bag your own groceries. No one in a clothing store is going to fall over you asking if they can help you with something or if you would like to try something on. No waiter is going to come up to you every 15 minutes asking if you like the food.
I was taught a very formal way of asking for things in my Croatian lessons I learned on CD. It would always say “may I please…” like “may I please have one ticket for the tram” My friend said I was being too nice. All I had to say was “one ticket” at a kiosk that sold tickets. The please was optional. I was told I was saying “im sorry” too much. If you accidentally hit someone or bump into someone on a train or tram, it UNDERSTOOD that you didn’t mean to do it. But I said it anyways. At the time, the tram system was almost an honors system. You could get away with not having a ticket, but they would occasionally have secret monitors on there who would ask to see tickets from time to time. Thank god everytime they checked, I just happened to have bought a ticket. However, everything is electronic now with cards, so I don’t even think you have to punch your ticket anymore.
The Architecture in Zagreb is a mixture of old, sometimes beautiful Hapsburg era baroque, sometimes with crumbling dirty facades that no one wants to fix. There are some beautiful old churches, especially at Kaptol, and the main cathedral. There’s also socialist, Brutalist era architecture, which I thought at first was very ugly, but grew to like. Then there is the socialist era architecture that you cant grow to love no matter how hard you try, like big socialist era apartment complexes that reminded me of ghettos in Chicago, especially in Novi Zagreb. There’s a lot of graffiti , but the thing is you cant judge a book by its cover there because the inside apartments can be really beautiful, its just bad outside/wrapper. Then there is some nice and not so nice modern architecture of varying degrees like high rises, corporate towers, arenas, movie theaters, grocery stores and shopping malls.
Zagreb drivers were way more aggressive than in Chicago. I was afraid to cross the street sometimes.
However the outside café bar culture is incredible. In decent weather from Spring to Fall, people will sit outside for hours drinking coffee, beer or wine as you people watch, and catch up with each others lives. You don’t have to worry about loitering..the local businesses don’t care. Cvijetni Trg and Tkalciceva street were my favorite places to go with so many cute bars and cafes with outside seating.
The upside. Croatians are very passionate, loving and fun. They seem to really cherish partying, laughing,food,wine,spirits,cooking,music, dancing and fellowship and family. They love the sea, the beach, swimming, seafood. There is beautiful national parks, like the one we went to at Plitvice Lakes. The mountains in Istria are majestic, dotted with thousand year old towns. I had never seen buildings, churches with magnificent art and architecture. Some churches so old they were before the Catholic/Orthodox split. Croatia can be very slow pace of life compared to the States. Especially in southern Dalmatia. The slowness is both nice and non hectic, but it can get to the point of annoyance. The bus timetable in Dalmatia was merely a suggestion..waiting for a couple of hours for a bus to go from one town to another. A restaurant may say its opening at 6:00 pm, then tell you to come back at 6:30…then still not ready, so come back at 7:00
I got to know Lukas group of friends, most of all our neighbors Bianka and Neven who were really nice and we spent a lot of time together along with his twin brother Petar. I also got to know his gay friends, which was also nice. We went on several weekend getaway trips as group to places around Croatia like Istria and Bijelolasica.Being in a relationship really changes when you live together. You start to notice EVERYTHING. All the good things, but also all the bad things and all the faults, habits and idiosyncrasies. Ive mentioned all the amazing things about Luka, but then I noticed how he was sometimes selfish, proud, vain, stubborn, and very fashion conscious. I thought he drank too much and spent too much money on frivolous things. He was a huge extrovert, and I was a huge introvert. I really didn’t notice it before I went to Croatia. Sometimes it felt like friends were always around, and I just wanted to spend time alone, especially after being alone all day by myself. Sometimes he went out with friends on his own, and I stayed home. On one level, I didn’t want go, but sometimes I wished he would stay home.
I felt like a child totally dependent on someone else to pay most of my bills ( I tried to chip in as much as possible) and to translate things for me like menus at a restaurant. I couldn’t drive, because I didn’t have car ( I didn’t really need one though because Zagreb is such a walkable city, and there is plenty of public transportation, and we lived close to downtown)
Of course I’m far from perfect, since im very pessimistic, stubborn, prone to anxiety and depression. The weight of everything, I withdrew and often got angry and passive aggressive. I know I was not an ideal person to live with.I felt the need to carve out my own identity and had to pull my own weight in the relationship financially, since I hated being dependent on someone. I tried to interview as web designer, but was always turned down because I didn’t know Croatian. I eventually got a job teaching English at Berlitz 15 hours a week, which was really great. I met more expats from Austria, Australia and the United States and other Croatians who worked there.
I also started making my own friends independent of Luka because I needed my own identity and someone to talk to.
One great thing about Luka was his parents, specifically his mother, who became a second mother to me. She was an amazing cook, making multi course meals, and having a big family lunch every Sunday. It was such an interesting thing to observe. Everyone was so passionate when talking, and it seemed like 3 different conversations were going on at once. During the day when Luka was at work, his mom would invite me over for Lunch. Between her limited English and my limited Croatian, it somehow worked out beautifully.I also enjoyed his older brother Zlatko, and his wife Nives. They invited me to their baby’s christening and the reception afterwards. I kept on thinking if it peaked any eyebrows that there was a gay interracial couple in attendance, but no one said anything, that I know of.
My favorite memory was when the family went to Crikvenica on the coast for Easter. So much food and new Croatian traditions. It was raining and the Goonies came on tv and we all watched. I felt really loved and part of the family.However, as time went on, the friction was building, and things weren’t right. I joined Luka in Vienna, Austria. It was a nice little weekend away, in a new city, that was so much different than Croatia, and it was nice to be in the European Union. Everything was so much more refined and “civilized” and large streets, boulevards, and huge Hapsburg era architecture and monuments that were all clean, sparkling and beautiful. I got to see much of things I learned in my design history courses and the Vienna Secession.
But when we got home from the fun weekend, something wasn’t right. The next day Luka broke down crying, and said he felt things weren’t working out. Of course in reality I know he was right, but I didn’t want to accept it. He had a friend who worked at a travel agency and got me a plane ticket home…for a month later. I had found a freelance web design job at local gay non for profit, so I had some money coming from that.
So we had a bizarre month of being somewhat broken up, but not. I was devastated inside. I had worked so hard, sacrificed so much, spent so much money, and loved someone so much, and it all came crashing down. The end of May came, the flight left from Budapest, 5 hours away. So me, Luka and his twin drove the 5 hours to the airport, where we had our last goodbye.
I returned to the states a totally broken man, without a job. I found myself missing Luka, my new Croatian friends, Croatian foods, Croatian and European brands of clothes and shops that were not in the states. I missed the weather, ths summers were warm, and never the bitter cold of Illinois. They had different European cars that we didn’t have in the states that I liked. I thought Croatian were rude by not engaging in small talk. No one says “hi, how are you doing” unless they mean it. Then I found myself adopting that mindset myself. Why be fake to someone and ask them a question that you don’t really care about or mean.
Everything in the states seemed too big..the stores, the people, the houses, the roads, the car, the SUVs, THE PEOPLE.
I learned how much Croatians got our ideas of us from American music, television, movies and books. Even Road Rules and the Real World were playing on MTV Adria at the time. I couldn’t help but think with all the trashy movies and shows we export around the world, its how people see us, as either amazing or ridiculous.
I eventually found a new job a few months later, met brand new friends there, started to rebuild my life again, moved out on my own to a new apartment. But it needed a few years of therapy with a great psychologist to get over such a life changing experience. I took me a couple of years before I was able to return back to Croatia, but I did. I had to forgive myself and Luka for everything that happened. He’s the most complex person I have ever met, however a very good and loving person at heart.One way Croatia changed me was my politics. In Croatia I noticed there universal healthcare, generous vacation time, like one month off paid. Zagreb almost shuts down in August, and everyone goes to the seaside or abroad and spends time with family and friends. I thought to myself, why on earth can we cant have this in the States?