Musings on moving to Zagreb and why the grass isn’t always greener on the other side – although in this case, it is.
Writer’s block really is one of the world’s worst symptoms. If you’re a writer of course. I think I wrote and subsequently deleted this opening sentence multiple times and it’s still sh*t. Nevertheless, I must plough on regardless, as maybe some decent copy will leak from these weary fingers and dull brain, as I stare out of a rainy window in a cloudy Zagreb. And in the words of the great Ray Bradbury – “you must stay drunk on writing, so reality cannot destroy you.” I think I’d rather just stay drunk – it’s much easier.
Adapting to expatriate life in the Croatian capital has not been without its ups and downs. As a side note, apparently it is regarded that only white people can be expatriates, while everyone else is an immigrant. Make of that what you will. Upon doing a little investigating (googling), I discovered that I might well fit into a number of categories – Oxford dictionary definitions.
Expatriate: A person who lives outside their native country.
Immigrant: A person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.
Migrant: A person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions.
Allow me to pause on the latter statement if you will. I hail from the United Kingdom, good ol’ Blighty, rule Britannia, land of hope and glory, God save the queen, The Beatles and Yorkshire tea. Although I have spent the past seven years roaming the globe, it’s not necessarily because I was looking for work or better living conditions – it was purely for a love of travel, and taking “hilarious” naked butt photographs in front of national landmarks. However, after becoming thoroughly jaded with this journeyman lifestyle, it is with great pleasure I have chosen to rest my weary bones in Zagreb and settle down. It is here, then, I have indeed come to find “better living conditions.” Perhaps I encompass all three of the above statements.
I hear a scoff from the cheap seats. How is living in Croatia better than living in the UK? Why on earth would I travel to 65 countries and settle on this one? Well, let’s begin by admitting my partner getting a job at the American International School was a significant persuasion – but I’m doing my Croatian sales pitch a disservice. We happened to meet in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, some years after my initial intrepid hitchhike through the Balkans, and if you’ve ever been there you’ll know it’s up the back side of beyond. It’s not without its merits (you’re allowed to leave) but upon disembarking from my last flight here and subsequent bus journey into Zagreb, I was overheard to comment – “look, they have roads!”
In the interim I’ve heard tales of the youth of Croatia fleeing these shores for pastures new, enticed by the bright lights, potentially leaving a country in tatters. And in response, when dropping into conversation that I have moved here to live and work, I’m met with the gurning, quizzical, confused face of someone having an apparent stroke. But let me tell you, save for a privileged few, these kids are not going to find the promised land anywhere else – in fact, quite the opposite. I have sworn never to live in the UK again – and certainly not while Teresa May and her money grubbing, corporate gang of light fingered see-you-next-Tuesdays are running the country into the ground and selling off everything that might once have put the “great” in Great Britain. Every country has its flaws, every country struggles with their governments, and every country has its citizens who think that “over there” it’s going to be much better. It isn’t – and it never will be.
The grass is always greener on the other side so they say, and never a truer word was spoken – but it is greener for me here in Zagreb. Who knows – maybe it’ll be greener for those leaving this beautiful land to seek their fortune elsewhere – good luck to them.
And then there are those, like me, who are coming the other way – and not just expats. Last Thursday at a Thanksgiving dinner arranged by my partner’s colleagues I had the remarkable pleasure of running into someone I’d not seen since my days treading the boards at drama school in Glasgow. To our mutual astonishment, I discovered that the international school’s music teacher here just happened to be an old friend I hung out with in Scotland’s second city circa 1999, regularly hanging out at a local karaoke night as I sang a dubious impression of Ronan Keating’s When You Say Nothing at All to her near flawless rendition of Black Velvet. The penny dropped as I remembered she was Croatian, having made the switch back to her home country 11 years ago – and she has never been happier. It’s a small world – and in it – there’s at least two of us content to call Zagreb home.
I did recently return for a brief visit to the UK with my American better half in tow to show her the delights of where I grew up, with a quick stop at my sister’s abode in north London. While waiting late at night for a takeaway dinner at a greasy-spoon kiosk, a brash, obnoxious, cockney “geezer” stumbled out a bar and folded himself against the side of the van, barely able to stand up.
“Where’s the f**king pu**y tonight then?” He drooled. And then, to nobody in particular – “give me 100 kebabs.”
Welcome to the UK, darling, welcome to the UK. He lurched off empty-handed on both accounts, but it certainly had me musing how much I don’t miss that place – with that kind of incident occurring there with alarming regularity. You certainly wouldn’t have the same experience waiting for a ćevapi near Ban Josip Jelačić. Well, maybe you would – what would I know? I don’t speak Croatian. Perhaps that’s for the best.
Regardless, ever since I crossed that border between Slovenia and Croatia I knew there was something special here. I knew that it was a place I wanted to call home. I travelled all over the country, falling in love with Zadar in particular, but then later really scratching beneath the surface of Zagreb and finding one of the coolest cities I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. I began to understand it, appreciate it and allow it to infiltrate my heart and seep into my skin. Der Spiegel recently called Zagreb “the most boring city in Europe,” an accolade awarded by someone who clearly only has time for those wham-bam-thank-you-mam, hoity toity destinations. I love Zagreb because it is NOT London (rat-race). It is NOT Paris (dirty). It is NOT Barcelona (thievery). And Croatia is NOT the United Kingdom – a country so f*ked you need to take out a mortgage to buy a sausage roll, you’ll get a 100 euro fine for driving at 31 in a 30 limit and you’re branded a neoliberal, do-gooding apologist if you want to stop Syrian babies dying on a European beach. That and a packet of smokes costs 10 quid and the weather is sh*t. I recall considering a move to the big smoke to ply my trade as a professional actor in the early noughties, whereupon I met a fellow thespian who spoke these words to me over a few ales in a typically overpriced pub:
“Stuart, London is one big party – and YOU’RE not invited.”
And so, when I met my partner all these years and multiple country experiences later, I began whispering Croatian sweet nothings into her ear, and she fell for it hook line and sinker. An international school teacher, I led her down the garden path of applying for a place with the prestigious AISZ faculty in Zagreb. It was all my own work. All mine. Nothing to do with her at all. I romanced her with tales of a land of primary colours, friendly peoples, beautiful, fairytale vistas, and the crystal clear, azure waters of the Adriatic – which we might get a chance to see when she’s not working herself into an early grave. I told her of the charm of these city streets, the warmth of the locals, the coffee shop culture, world-class museums, hidden gems, multifarious board-game store and 10 kuna pizza slices. In truth – it was an easy sell. Most of all I told her that Zagreb – and Croatia – is still one of Europe’s best-kept secrets and that it’s not as overrun as any aforementioned burgeoning metropolis I would rather cut my own balls off than live in. There are only 4 million odd people in this country – and that suits me just fine. I’m not going to tell a soul how cool Croatia really is.