It’s hard to imagine all of this– the former Yugoslavia– being one single country not so long ago. Belgrade, with its communist blocks and gritty, graffiti-marked streets; Sarajevo, as much Catholic and Orthodox as Muslim and Turkish; and now Zagreb, all old Austrian buildings and Viennese cafes. In an area no larger than today’s Germany or France, all of these varied cities, religions, and cultures were held together within one single set of borders. Even knowing well the ultimate collapse of that country, I still find it incredible.
I came to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, just after sunrise on a Thursday in mid-September, stiff and cramped from eight hours of travel on an overnight bus. Ever since returning to the Balkans, I had wanted to come to this country, in part because I felt that it was the missing “third part” of the Western Balkans that I had not yet seen, as important to the story of Yugoslavia as Serbia or the Bosnian War.
Most of all, though, I came to Zagreb to see the Austrian side of the Balkans. In Bosnia, you get a glimpse of this while walking along the river towards the old town, and even Belgrade has its own parts leftover from when the Empire controlled much of Southeastern Europe. But Zagreb…well, it more than owns up to its title: “Little Vienna” or “The Vienna of the Balkans”.
Everywhere you go in this city, it feels as though you are as much in Central Europe as the Balkans. The buildings, with their 1800s Germanic facades, the Austrian cafes and bistros, the hipster bars and restaurants that wouldn’t be out of place in Budapest or Prague.
In many ways, it was all a breath of fresh air from my usual day-to-day life in the heart of Bosnia, and as much as I love Sarajevo and Belgrade I found it refreshing change of pace to be in a city that is more, well, familiarly European.
All of this does, however, create a strange kind of paradox in this city. Croatia, and Zagreb in particular, seems to be divided between two worlds: on one hand, Central Europe, the European Union, Austria and Germany, on the other, Yugoslavia, Southeastern Europe, and Titoist Communism. You can see this subtly simply by walking through the capital’s streets: as many EU flags wave from buildings as those with the historic crest of the Balkan Croatian kingdom, and every Austrian-style building sports the same orange-shingled roofs that are so prevalent in Southeastern Europe.
You can, unfortunately, see this divide as well it in the politics of the day , with Croatia striving to join the Eurozone and the Schengen area while still clinging to the nationalist rhetoric of the 90s, labeling the expulsion of Serbs from Kraijina a triumph against Serb aggression and denying many war crimes committed during the fascist Ustashe state during World War 2.
This is a country that seem to desperately want to be seen as Western European in a way Slovenia or Poland have themselves managed to do since the fall of communism, but at the same time can’t seem to completely let go of its nationalism-tinged past. In the end, this has created a strange kind of identity crisis that I’m not sure the country has quite yet managed to resolve.
But that’s the thing about the Balkans, that very contrast. This part of the world– by the chance of geography more than anything else– has been so characterized by the empires who fought over it that’s its almost impossible to completely separate the “Balkan” part of these countries from the influences of the empires that ruled over them. The German-influenced Slovenia and the Venetian Dalmatian coast. Austrian Zagreb, Hungarian Vojdovina, Ottoman Sarajevo and Kosovo. Even Serbia, which clings so tightly to its sense of national culture, has itself been influenced by the likes of other eastern Orthodox countries, such as Russia.
That’s not to say that the cultures of these countries are not their own; rather, the nations of the Balkans have taken the cultures of these occupying empires and created a unique, “Balkan” version of them, combining Austrian, Turkish, and Orthodox culture with uniquely Balkan traditions and ways of life. Instead of completely loosing their own identity to the influence of greater powers, they have instead changed Ottoman and Austrian ways to be unique to the Balkans, and in doing so have crafted a part of the world unlike anywhere else.
Zagreb is no different, and while it may feel more “European” or “Austrian” than the rest of the Balkans, it’s still unique in its own Balkan, Yugoslav, Croatian way. The same goes for Sarajevo, Belgrade, Mostar and others across the former Yugoslavia.
Slowly, slowly I find myself seeing more and more of the Balkans, and am discovering that I am falling in love with these countries increasingly more with each passing day. I hope as well that I have come to better understand this region as time goes on– even while fully knowing that I will never truly understand it in its entirety. I can only offer my thoughts, and hope that my thoughts and my writings can do justice to this part of the world, and that they try to know this part of Europe for what it really is.
I’m not always successful in that of course, but the intent is at least there. I think that matters.
Off to Belgrade soon for the next two months, then back- for a brief time– to Sarajevo before I return to the States. Will keep the blog updated.
Photo Credits: Sydne Mass @syd_mass