I was lucky enough to be able to visit Croatia for a week in November! There’s a training center there that gives trainings specifically about HIV/AIDS, and this one happened to be about a topic – measuring HIV prevalence in high-risk populations – that exactly matches what my main assignment will be come January.
I knew I’d love this country when I stepped off the plane in the capital city of Zagreb… and was greeted by a lovely array of fall colors! For those of you in the Northeast US, the leaves changing colors may seem rather ordinary. But after being in a climate where you are blessed with plentiful sunshine day after day… experiencing Croatia’s autumn seemed to re-align my body’s seasonal clock that had unconsciously been yearning for a change of seasons.
Zagreb rocks because it is such a walkable city! It embraces its history yet also welcomes modernity – a fine balance that I’ve rarely seen coalesce so naturally in a city. You can simply wander (as I did my first afternoon) and be led to a museum, a church, a device in the park still used to tell the temperature, a statue of Nicholas Tesla… just to name a few 🙂
There was even a festival going on in the main square my first day, where little stalls were set up selling crafts and paprenjac (delicious traditional honey-and-pepper cookies – “honey for laughter, pepper for tears” as one woman told me). People gathered in a circle round a group singing traditional songs, and it was so moving to witness people in the crowd join in, dancing to old memories of times gone by. And in this particular group on the square that day, tradition is not just a thing of the past: a young teenage boy with a big smile, round cheeks and an accordion was among the group’s members. [Apologies: I have a lovely video of this celebration I wanted to share – however, given that YouTube tells me it will take 87 minutes to upload, this may have to wait till I get back to the US and faster internet! Check back around Christmas-time if you’re interested.]
Nighttimes were for strolling: exploring the collection of cafes that lined the streets, drinking THE MOST AMAZING hot chocolate to fight off the cold, chatting with friends as long as you wanted, then hopping on the tram (in-town train) to go home, knowing you could be out late at night in total safety. In addition to the city’s amazing sights, Zagreb was also a bit of an emotional vacation – I appreciated the week-long interlude of not having to wonder if a given food would make me sick; being able to drink tap water; not constantly being on guard for pickpockets; and blending into the crowd / not being constantly stared at. As I reveled in these freedoms, I wondered if my enjoyment meant I wasn’t truly satisfied with Addis’ challenges. But finally my mind settled on the fact that while I enjoyed the week in Croatia (and its freedoms) immensely, I was also perfectly content to return back to Addis. And now that I’m back, I’m not constantly pining for Croatia’s conveniences. So given that I’ve still got at least 10 more months here, that’s a good sign 🙂
I was beyond lucky to be in Zagreb for the Birth of Baha’u’llah, a significant Holy Day for Baha’is. Hard to believe that last year I was celebrating this day at the Lotus Temple in India! This year, after a great deal of difficulty finding the right number, I finally got hold of the Baha’is in Zagreb (just happened to call the Baha’i Center in the 10 minutes where someone was there to pick up the phone! Ain’t that lucky?!)… and so was able, in my first night in town, to hear prayers lovingly recited in Croatian, and make about 30 new friends!
Speaking of friends, I was literally warmed all the way through by the kindness of my Croatian friends. This may be a funny metaphor to use, but in the chilly November air, their warmth enveloped me in a big hug. It wasn’t the bouncy, boisterous warmth of my friends from India, or the wide-smiling warmth of Tanzania… more like a quiet certitude that yes, you are family and I would do anything for you. I was amazed to feel such strong commitment after knowing people for just a short time. One example of motherly love was when a woman in our training course took 2 of us around the city one night. She drove us to the river, where moonlight-colored swans swam gracefully despite the chill.
During the time I was in Zagreb, a significant social-political event was unfolding. During the devastating wars the region faced in the 1990s, there were numerous atrocities committed on both sides. The man who was Croatia’s main general during the conflict has, since the war’s end, been held at the Hague on charges of war crimes against a Serb minority living in what’s now Croatia. But that Friday, he and another general were acquitted. There was an enormous wave of popular support for this general in the hours leading up to the release of the verdict – early in the morning, people had already gathered in the main square, many in army uniforms and amidst giant pictures of the two men. When the verdict was announced, the main square swelled with hundreds of people, fireworks going off late into the night. It would have been immensely exciting to be present during such a historical event… if I had connected more with the idea that a general should not be held accountable for the doing of his soldiers. I won’t take sides on what is a very passionate political issue for many Serbians and Croatians, but all I’ll say is that my heart had some misgivings about the decision. At any rate, here’s one article about the verdict so you can read it for yourself: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-20352187
A few more shots of the city and friends 🙂 Next entry will be from my last 1 ½ days in the country, which I spent at the Plitvice Lakes.