Continuing our look at arguably the most important component of any city – its inhabitants.
In the second of our features of Meet the People of Zagreb, meet Ana, who I have only met once. Indeed she is the only woman I have ever met singing both the Croatian and British national anthems on Her Majesty’s birthday at the British Embassy, accompanied by a Renaissance ensemble. Enjoy that experience first in the video below, or learn more first about a rather fascinating young lady with some very diverse interests.
1. Tell us who you are and what you do in Zagreb?
My name is Ana Jembrek, and I am a bona fide opera singer. I came to Zagreb when I was 18 years old to study singing at the Music Academy and never left. I fell in love with this city, which still horrifies my family, who stayed in my village Subotica Podravska (near Koprivnica), where I grew up.
2. We met at the British Embassy for the Queen’s Birthday, where you sang most beautifully. Tell us a little about that, and your singing career.
My singing career begun by accident, really. I was always a musically talented child from a talented family (both my grandfather and my brother were professional musicians). I played flute and at the age of 15, I aspired to continue my flute studies in Varazdin. Somehow, I ended up studying operatic singing by accident. It turned out well, though. I was blessed with a great teacher, won some national competitions and was hooked for life. Singing became my fuel.
Over the years I had the chance to work with amazing singing teachers and professionals, even to perform in opera productions in HNKs in both Zagreb and Split. Still, my true love was early music (Renaissance and Baroque), so these days I mostly work with ensembles and projects concerning early music.
(Photo credit – Marko Pletikosa)
3. You run a book page with 340,000 fans. Explain!
I’m a huge bookworm. Books were my safe haven all my life, my inspiration and brain-food, ever since my dad put some grownup books in front of me at an early age. I was ridiculously bored with children’s literature, but crazy about hard-core sci-fi novels like Asimov’s Foundation, Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Herbert’s Dune series.
A couple of years ago, I connected with other geeks across the globe and we built Books Rock My World – a fan page that celebrates books and all the geeks who love them. It soon grew like wildfire, and ended up being a fairly big page. Hopefully, it will continue to grow and be a place where our community of slightly introverted bookworms can share their love for literature and the subculture that exists around it. Almost nothing is better than bringing together a community of like-minded people.
4. And in your spare time, you design games?
My problem is that I don’t even know what spare time is. I’m usually lost in coordinating things I’m passionate about, so it’s really hard to distinguish between doing something because I have to and doing other stuff because I want to. Video games are a very good example of this.
Yes, I also design video games when I have the time. I prefer educational mobile games (Fit Brains by Rosetta Stone was my favorite project), which help people train themselves to be more productive and sharp, while having some fun as well.
Video games are a beautiful product (I believe they bring more good to society than bad). Nowadays, the game industry makes more money than the film industry (I bet you didn’t know that!).
Zagreb’s development coterie is serious about putting itself on the video game industry map, and I’m happy to be just a small pixel in this gamer/game development community.
5. And now to Zagreb. What do you love about the city, and what would you like to change?
(Photo credit Mario Poje)
I love Zagreb in a way that only a newcomer can love it. I moved here 12 years ago and ever since it’s been my home. It is the birthplace of my adulthood.
It is hard to “sell” Zagreb to a potential tourist or someone who loves living in some other part of Croatia. But it is also hard not to love it once you spend some time in it.
I love the lifestyle, I love how big it is while being very small at the same time (a fact you only really realize when you travel to other capitals and major cities in the world). I love its streets, the smells, its relative safety. I love how available everything is. On the other hand, I dislike its (high) prices when compared to living expenses in other parts of Croatia: the surtax is an additional 18% taken out of your paycheck. I wish it was easier to rent an apartment here (especially for people with pets or children), and I wish we provided more compassion and public resources for those who are in true need; sit down at a bench with a view of a dumpster and even a native purger will be ashamed at how many people are scavenging from it within a single hour out of necessity.
6. Your favourite place in the city, and why?
My favorite place in Zagreb is Lisinski Hall. It was the place I visited with my family throughout my childhood. We went there to experience live concerts and it was pure magic. Whenever I’m there I still feel like I’m a part of something greater, something immensely beautiful and profound.
My second favorite place(s) in Zagreb are its libraries. Zagreb has a very extensive library system, with all of its libraries interconnected into a single entity. For 50 kunas per year, one has unlimited access to its fundus and the wisdom of their librarians (A special shoutout to librarians. They save lives, as far as I’m concerned ).
The big downside of my library visits is that I get so overly excited that I… well. Perhaps this is not the right place to talk about it, but you should look up the “Mariko Aoki” phenomenon, if only because it is so fascinating. You’re welcome.
7. How has Zagreb changed in the last ten years?
In the last ten years Zagreb has definitely become more extroverted and cosmopolitan. Our tourist seasons actually have attractions interesting to a regular tourist! Also, I find it wonderful that our cuisine became more varied thanks to immigration and businesses willing to take a risk. A decade ago, the pinnacle of international cooking were a couple of Chinese restaurants and two Mexican joints. Now, there is a huge selection for the traveling palate – Korean, Sri lankan, Israeli, Japanese, all kinds of fusion, amazing fast food…
Big and exclusive restaurants are being matched (and sometimes outmaneuvered) by small bistros that offer specialty food. Pastries, cakes, craft beer, amazing coffee, all are now a part of what Zagreb has to offer.
And behind all of this are people who are setting a new mindset for young people – if you can’t find it in Croatia then open it in Croatia (Zagreb) by yourself. And this goes for all industries, not just hospitality. This is a mindset my generation was not necessarily raised with (millennials born at the tail end of a communistic regime), and should be encouraged.
8. Three cool places most foreigners miss?
First: Reboot InfoGamer.
Zagreb has the biggest video game show in this region of Europe. It happens every year in November at Zagrebacki Velesajam, in parallel with one of the biggest book fairs in the region, Interliber. And it’s an absolute blast! Tens of thousands of young and old sensible thrill-seekers pour into the fair to see what’s new in the gaming world. It is HUGE, and fun, and every single gamer from this part of the world should come and see it!
Zagreb has a love-hate relationship with its river Sava (if you ever wondered why Zagreb doesn’t cherish its riverside the way Ljubljana does, or Belgrade or any other capital on a riverbank, just look up photos from the Zagreb flood of 1964).
But Zagreb absolutely adores its mountain Medvednica. It is a nature park and is super accessible for a hike for a nice family day in the tamed wilderness. Sljeme is its peak, and it is one of the most Zagreb things you can experience.
My confession is that I never visited Sljeme in all of my years living here. It was on the second date with my fiance when my first Sljeme hike happened. And my fiance? An expat from America. This is a story I’m slightly ashamed of. If you are visiting Zagreb, don’t be the person I was. Attempt the journey to Sljeme, preferably within the first ten years of living here. Breathe in the pristine air. Enjoy the panoramic views of Hrvatski Zagorje while eating varivo (it tastes so much better 1,000 meters above sea level). Visit Medvedgrad, a glorious medieval city there. You won’t regret it.
Third: Antiphonus concerts.
Antiphonus is a charming vocal ensemble that has its concert season at the Museum of Arts and Crafts and the Sv. Katarina church in the Upper City. It is the most fun, amazing, unique, wonderful little ensemble ever, with a very cute first soprano named Ana. Her surname may or may not be Jembrek (*wink wink*).
(Photo credit Mario Poje)
9. Your favourite hangouts on a Saturday night?
My favorite hangout on a Saturday night is whatever world I am visiting in a novel or a video game. Or just making a delicious dinner and watching a geeky movie with my loved one and our five wonderful pets.
We are always looking for interesting people to be featured in our Meet the People of Zagreb section. Know someone who might be a good fit? Email us at [email protected]
(Photo credit Mario Poje)