Living and Working in Croatia's Capital
Zagreb isn’t known for its first impressions. Entering the airport is like walking into a dense London fog as “No Smoking” has yet to enter the Croatian vocabulary. The drive from the airport is a trek through communist architecture that favors concrete and graffiti. And at the city’s edge a rusted blue shell of what possibly may be a tram appears with a heavy cough of dust before carrying you further into central Zagreb.
But don’t grab your bags and head somewhere else just yet.
“Zagreb is a place that requires a honeymoon period in order to really be appreciated,” says Allyson Bachta, a high school science teacher at the American International School of Zagreb. “Otherwise it’s nothing more than ‘that city you stopped in before going to Dubrovnik’.”
Zagreb, Croatia’s surprising capital, is a city that needs unraveling. Although it lacks the world heritage sites, islands, and sun of its more popular southern counterparts, Zagreb makes up for these shortcomings with a café culture rivaling Paris, the cosmopolitan vibe of Prague and a nightlife akin to Madrid.
A Café Way of Life
Above all else, Zagreb’s main attraction is its attitude — a sophisticated laid back cool that puts life on pause in favor of friends and family. “ In Zagreb, the café mentality is more than just a cup of coffee, it’s a philosophy,” says first grade teacher Bess Lawrence. “There’s always time for a cup of kava with friends.”
This is a sentiment shared by Bachta, who says if Zagreb has taught her one thing, it’s how to relax. “Everything in the States is go-go-go,” she comments. “But here you go to a café, order a drink and spend the entire day doing nothing more. There is no agenda. They really value their down time here.”
This philosophy affects all aspects of life in Zagreb, meaning stores close at three on Saturdays and don’t open again until Monday. Being from what Bachta refers to as a “give it to me now culture,” this sometimes makes it difficult to adjust. Yet, according to her, “I’ve really come to appreciate being forced to do nothing on a weekend. In fact, its something you begin to look forward to.”
Living and Working in Zagreb
Both Bachta and Lawrence are expatriates living in Zagreb and working at the American International School of Zagreb (AISZ). AISZ is one of the world’s smallest international schools, with only 200 students. The school runs from pre-kindergarten through high school and teaches students from all over the world.
Bachta, who is originally from Boston, Massachusetts, recently moved to Zagreb with her husband, “who gave up his business and sold our house to let me live my dream of moving overseas.” Lawrence, who originally hails from Portland, Oregon, has
worked at AISZ for the past three years.
Searching the Subtle Details
As with any destination, living and working in Zagreb gives one an insight into aspects of the city overlooked by non-natives. For instance, where most visitors see only old cement buildings and the remnants of uninspiring Yugoslav architecture, Bachta is now able to appreciate the often-subtle genius found in the details of the city’s unique architectural landscape.
These subtle details extend well beyond just the city’s facades. “The longer I live here the more I seem to see, as if every day I peel away a new layer of the city.” For example, at first Bachta thought the city was rather poor because it lacked the big houses that many traditionally associate with wealth. “But then I started to realize this wasn’t the case at all.” In Zagreb people invest their time and money in personal betterment. “Instead of big houses and fancy cars, the people here invest in such activities as exercising, socializing, and maintaining the city’s many parks and green spaces.”
Of course living and working in Zagreb isn’t always a day at the cafe. Like throwing yourself into any foreign situation, there’s bound to be challenges and a period of adjustment. “My initial opinion of the city was that everyone was extremely unfriendly,” says Bachta. “I would go about my American way of greeting everyone with a big smile and a friendly ‘Hello’. But I always ended up talking to myself as I never received a response.”
Months later Bachta learned that, as a matter of culture, Croatians are more guarded about meeting people. Instead of rushing into a relationship, they will take their time, check you out for a while, and only then decide whether or not you are worth investing in conversation with. A friend politely informed Bachta she should stop being so outwardly friendly because “People thought I was hitting on them!”
History has also played a significant role in shaping modern day Zagreb. Due to the city’s long-standing isolation from Western Europe, the city still remains somewhat sheltered from the international influences found elsewhere on the continent. One frequent frustration for Lawrence is the general lack of international cuisine. “Whether going out to eat or shopping at the grocery store, your choices tend to be Croatian, Italian, and more Italian,” she jokes.
Likewise, there’s a similar lack of choice in clothing and shopping in general. “You are starting to see more and more of an international and cosmopolitan flare to the city,” says Lawrence. “Especially as the country moves closer to entering the European Union,” which is currently slated for 2010.
Zagreb as Home
Overall, Zagreb is an ideal city to call home. Like its citizens, Zagreb refuses to reveal all of itself at once. “Honestly, I really had no desire to live or teach in Zagreb,” says Lawrence. “But after three years of unraveling the beauty of the city, its people and their culture, I feel very much at home here and can see myself staying permanently.”
Clearly, Zagreb is much more than “that city you passed through on the way to Dubrovnik”. Instead of getting stuck on its graffiti-filed, smoky and slightly out-of-date cover, take the advice of a couple of Zagreb insiders: Bring a book, find a café, sit back, and watch Zagreb unravel.