In Zagreb we were once again on our own, without AnneMarie to get us to the train station on time we had to get back into the groove of finding our own way. As I encountered Croatia for the first time, a few things stood out right away. First, it was not raining. This was different from every other destination we had visited so far. Second, the city has the look and feel that reminded me a bit of Budapest – the buildings looked dusty and tired. The third thing that impacted me was when our taxi driver answered his cell phone during our drive into town. I was sitting in the front seat next to him. As he began his conversation he projected his voice (volume and inflection) into the phone as though speaking on a stage. It startled me and I thought he might be arguing over the phone while driving in city traffic – I checked my seat belt. After he hung up he apologized for taking the call and explained that he needed to talk to his wife to sort out logistics to pick up the kids from a soccer game. Over the weeks we spent in Croatia I found men often used their “loud strong voice” while speaking on cell phones in public. At first it caught me by surprise, but I eventually I expected it when the phone rang during our taxi rides. After the phone conversation our taxi driver told us about points of interest on our way to the apartment. One that caught my attention was the Tesla museum. He explained that Nicola Tesla was an early inventor of electrical power technology – a contemporary of Edison. Tesla is the name of a high-profile electric car company in Fremont (SF Bay Area), and I had never made the connection to Croatia. Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to visit the museum to learn more.
Our apartment was spacious, comfortable, and updated on the inside; but a bit dusty and tired on the outside. Our host met our taxi at the street curb and he walked us through a steel door, up an ally, through a locked door and then loaded us into a small elevator. The elevator clanked and banged its way up to the 4th floor. We never used the elevator again, preferring the five flights of stairs over the fear of getting stuck in a 50-year-old elevator.
We were only in Zagreb for a couple of days so we used our time to get organized for the next three weeks. I bought four SIM cards for our phones at a newspaper stand for 50 Kuna (~$10). Since receiving phones, the kids had complained that they didn’t have voice service unless connected to wi-fi. This was an inexpensive opportunity to let them try it out. At the end of three weeks in Croatia, neither of them used their phone service once – hopefully this will reduce the complaint level for the rest of the year.
As we caught up on our logistics planning, Suzanne discovered that we didn’t have a car reserved in Zagreb. In the rush of the last month before we left, apparently this reservation had slipped through the cracks. It is amazing that this was the only time something like this happened during the first three months of travel. However, I suspect it will not be the last time we will need to scramble for accommodations or transportation or some other logistic need during our year abroad. So we set out to find a rental car that we could pick up in Zagreb and drop off in Split. On the advice of the tourist office, we walked a few miles across town to find a rental car company that would be open on Sunday. Following the map from the tourist office we walked to the area marked on the map. Because it was Sunday, most of the businesses were closed. After wandering around awhile, Suzanne inquired about a car rental agency from a lady hanging her laundry on a line from her balcony. As Suzanne explained what we needed, the lady had no idea of any car rental company in the area. This was our first clue that a new story was in the making! Our new Croatian friend took the phone number from Suzanne and called the rental company. After a few minutes on the phone she put on a robe and came down to the street to point us in the right direction. We thanked her, crossed the street, and approached what appeared to be an apartment building. A man dressed in regular street clothes approached us and asked if we were the ones that wanted to rent a car. We said yes and he indicated we should follow him. He led us around the apartment building. I noticed a small (~2′ x 3′) brass plaque about 15′ up on the wall of the building that said something about car rentals. Our guide led us around the back of the building, between drying laundry, up a small flight of concrete stairs and into a hallway of what was clearly a residential building. Before we could say anything all four of us were ushered through an interior door to a dining room of an apartment. An older man sat at the family table with a pen and a rental agreement on a clip board. The table had a floral table-cloth and a bowl of plumbs, bananas, and a coconut in a fruit bowl. Not wanting to be rude, Suzanne and I kept a straight face as we began the conversation. The kids looked around with wide eyes, not sure what to make of the whole affair. We asked if it would be possible to rent a car in Zagreb and return it in Split several days later. The disappointment on the older man’s face was clear as he realized he wasn’t going to make a sale, and he set his clip board and pen down. The younger man who spoke English shook his head and, with a straight face, told us that “unfortunately we do not have an office in Split where you can return the car”. Nodding our understanding, and once again stifling a laugh at the situation, we thanked them for their time, and excused ourselves from their dining room. We exited the front door, hallway, down the steps, through the laundry lines and back to the street.
Later that afternoon we all had fun recounting the experience over a lunch of what we were told is Croatian fast food called “ćevapčići”, which is grilled minced meat shaped into finger size portions and served on grilled bread. Suzanne was able to contact a bigger car rental agency later that day via Skype and email. It all ended well, and we accumulated another story.