I sat on the train gazing up at the large grey pillows filling the sky, feeling small and insignificant, with still a few hours to go. I had my worldly belongings at my feet and the feeling of heading into a new, unfamiliar country… was familiar. I didn’t really know what to expect but I was entirely comfortable with it. It was my normal. This feeling might be something you can only reach after traveling for such a long time.
When I stepped off the train in Zagreb, I was hit by a wall of cold. Other passengers shivered, buttoning up their coats and hurrying off towards the exit. I pulled my hoodie zip right up under my throat and heaved my backpack on, clipping the straps around my waist. Yesterday I had sweated in my summer clothes on the bright streets of Ljubljana, but today I seemed to have travelled in time as well as space. A new country, a new season. Welcome to Croatia!
Changing euros for kunas at the train station was surprisingly painless. I dropped my bag off at the hostel and was greeted by quite possibly the nicest lady I’d met for weeks. It’s easy to be quickly written off as the annoying tourist, ignorant of the language and the system, but this woman engaged with me as a human being, and I felt a warm fuzzy glow, like you feel when someone cares about you. Three days later I told her she was ‘the nicest hostel lady ever.’
Outside the hostel felt like a blizzard; the air bit at my bare legs and the bright grey clouds induced a kind of snow blindness. Hungry, I headed to the main square in search of some food – preferably cheap, quick, and hot. I soon stumbled upon rows of wooden huts all lined up to form a market, with bustling people eagerly filling the aisles with their energy. The style of the huts and seeing people wrapped in coats immediately reminded me of my winter visit to Tallinn a few years ago, with people gladly huddling around the market stalls in the freezing cold and fading light, drinking hot wine, eyes shining in the twinkling lights.
A whole variety filled the tables; there was a fine selection of honey, soaps, lavender, meat and clothes. The sea of shoppers ebbed and flowed like a wave across the square in a swell of movement. Emerging from the other side and straight into a bakery, I felt a hot rush of air on my legs and I hurried inside. The contents of the glass cabinet was exciting and soon I was feasting on a couple of vege trokuts for seven kunas a piece. The comforting paper bag was emptied while it was still warm; the mark of a good bakery. The relief at finding good food never gets old; whilst travelling it’s never guaranteed that you’ll get what you fancy so when something hits the spot, it really hits the spot.
A main, semi-pedestrianised street with regular trams commuting up and down created a perfect wind tunnel, but the inner warmth from the trokuts battled hard against it. The surrounding architecture could belong to somewhere far away from Tallinn; somewhere deep down under. A trendy girl on a mission walked past, and the thought came to me: Melbourne. This street was like Melbourne. What a capital, to combine the feeling of Estonia and Australia in the same kilometre.
The Museum of Broken Relationships offered a unique afternoon of entertainment, with interesting relationship items or ‘break up objects’, all accompanied by personal stories from other people. Connecting with unknown souls in a quiet space as they pour their hearts out is both exhilarating and intriguing. I laughed at the account of a 20-year-old girl being confused about a gift of a Galileo thermometer for her birthday, and felt sad to read about unrequited love, over and over.
The toaster taken by a lover who moved out, with the sign ‘how are you going to make toast now?’ was a jovial way to end the visit. People from all around the world had sent in items and objects over ten years, sharing their secret stories and most intimate moments with strangers, using something of great significance to them to make an example and to teach someone else with. The more people we can touch in a real way in this digitised, staged, and perfectly edited bubble we have created, the better.
That’s what I felt Zagreb did; it was real, and it reached me. The bitter cold. The Christmas-like market in September. The lovely woman. The vege trokut that hit the spot. The flowers spilling over in buckets. The unexpected glimpse of Australia. But that’s just what it was to me: on that specific day, at that specific time in my life, specifically with my years of accumulated experience.
To you, it could be – would be – should be! – completely different.
Because despite what the marketing departments of pre-packaged, organised, scheduled, group tours tell you, wandering solo at your own pace will bring you the ultimate experience of a place – which is absolutely unanticipated and entirely unique to you.
So, don’t listen wholly to the dream you’re being sold through the perfectly staged and edited pictures online; go with no expectations and you’ll find your little slice of heaven just like I did, that afternoon in Zagreb.