Two facts about Croatia’s capital Zagreb.
A) 109% of the population smoke
B) The city has 76 million coffee shops – that works out at ninety seven for each and every citizen.
Oh, you spotted the exaggerations. Try this then. Replace the word ‘facts’ with ‘impressions’ and now you’ve got a fairly good idea of how it actually feels.
They are the two great passions here. When you combine coffee drinking with smoking it adds up to a state of nirvana for the average Zagrebian (Yes, I made the name up as well. Humour me, I am writing this in a state of euphoric bliss on one of Europe’s prettiest train rides in Slovenia).
Zagreb, particularly the attractive old part of the city, morphs into one huge outdoor coffee lounge. Rows of tables and chairs stretch as far as the eye can see. They’re all there to serve the connoisseurs of coffee.
You’d think this would lead to a wildly manic city full of caffeine fuelled Zagrebists. Strangely, it doesn’t. The difference between here and say the US is that coffee shops are really social shops. They are for meeting and greeting, flirting and fighting (only verbally). They are about human contact more than the drink itself. It’s where life, business and pretty much everything else happens and it makes for a very social and relaxed atmosphere.
However, look closely and what you’ll notice is a whole heap of talking going on and actually not much coffee drinking. A single cup can last an eternity as they animatedly talk the day away. Croatia was ranked 18th in coffee consumption in the latest figures I could find. The biggest consumers? Finland. I can’t explain that one.
A tip for you. If you’re planning on going to Zagreb avoid repeating my mistake. I sat down, ordered my coffee and asked for the food menu. There wasn’t one. They look like cafes and they sound like cafes……but they aren’t. They don’t serve food.
What you will find, however, are cigarettes. Billions of them. Zagreberites seem to be permanently lit up. Choose the wrong table and you will disappear in a Singaporean style smog never to be seen again. This despite attempts by the government to restrict smoking.
In offices and public buildings the recent ban is generally both enforced and effective. The only puffers unaffected are those with frayed nerves – psychiatric wards have official exemptions.
The outlawing of smoking in enclosed bars is a different matter altogether. Nobody gives a stuff about the rules. There are lots of very small drinking holes in the city. In almost every one you’ll see a Zapruder or two with a cancer stick in their mouth.
Small establishments meeting very strict conditions can apply for dispensation to allow smoking. One year after the ban was introduced just 16 bars in the whole country had carried out the work.
Good luck to the city worthy who tries to take action. The reality is that Croatians are born to smoke. Babies who are teething are given Marlboro Lights instead of a pacifier and they never get weaned off them.
The same applies to coffee. Mothers who’ve been downing espressos all their lives no longer produce milk but a kind of light latte. By the age of two the little ones progress to neat cappuccino and on it goes. The good news is that they are happy little bunnies as the early introduction to coffee shop culture teaches socialisation.
This may go some small way to explaining Croatia’s comparatively low divorce rate. All the more strange then that the capital should be the home to the Museum Of Broken Relationships. No, this really isn’t a joke. It actually exists. In 2011 it won a prize for being the most innovative museum in Europe.
I came across it in the old town and thought long and hard about entering. Given my own broken relationship from a couple of years ago I wasn’t sure if this was good for my psyche. But I’d already had 14 coffees and passively smoked 40 fags so I reckoned my health, mental and physical, would be better served in the museum than anywhere else in the city. So in I went.
What you find are the personal stories of the broken hearted along with a donated item which symbolised the relationship. There are bikes, wedding dresses, teddy bears, an iron, handcuffs (everybody in the museum stopped and read that story). There is pain, sadness, hope, anger and bitterness – definitely no shortage of this one. The range of human emotions should make it compelling but for me it didn’t quite work. I’m not quite sure why. It could have been the setting, the storytelling or the uneasy sense of voyeurism, at having a ringside seat at a stranger’s broken heart.
By the time I left I felt oddly flat. I wandered along lost in contemplative thought. Although being Zagreb it could easily have just been a cloud of smoke I’d stumbled into.
Footnote: in case it comes up in a trivia quiz, the citizens of Zagreb are called Zagrebcan or Zagrebchan. Don’t say you don’t learn something from this blog!