Sunday, November 18, 2007

Osijek (Croatia) - Part 1

“So where are you going on holiday?” my boss asked when I applied for a week’s leave.

“Croatia”, I said.

He took a breath, probably to come up with something pat on the lines of “Oh yes, I’ve been there” but then it sunk in, and he just stared at me blankly for a couple of moments, clearly unable to think of anything encouraging to say.

“Well,” he ventured at last. “There’s a place I know nothing about." And couldnt imagine visiting, no doubt.

The visiting part of it was well within my imagination, but as for information about Croatia – well, I wasn’t going to tell him that I didn’t myself know very much about it either. Sure, I knew the basics – that it used to be part of Yugoslavia and that it had been at war with Serbia a few years ago. But other than that I was woefully ignorant of its history, culture – even its currency (which is the kuna, by the way).

But let me start this trip from the beginning… which is, as denizens of the Third World will know only too well, at the Visa and Consular Services section at the embassy of whichever country you’re trying to visit. And said denizens will also be completely familiar with the running-around-in-a-last-minute-panic - because no matter how much information you go armed with, the all-powerful little people behind the plastic partition will always want something you didn’t imagine you’d need for a visa application. For instance, despite having seen my Permanent Resident visa, my marriage certificate, salary slip and proof of funds, they actually wanted a letter from my employer as proof that I wasn’t playing hookey from work. *sigh*

We managed to convince the dear lady that we were happily married and that I wasn’t going to leave my husband (once we got to Croatia) and start a new exciting career there as an illegal alien. So, apart from that, and some running around to pay the visa fee at a particular bank’s particular branch in a particular format and getting back to the consulate with the proof of payment before they closed for the day (mighty narrow window of opportunity – 11am to 2pm Mon-Thurs only), it was all smooth (!) going. I wasn’t sure I’d get my passport back within 5 working days, given that there was a postal strike that week… but I was pleasantly surprised when it arrived in the next day’s post. I was quite happy not to have the nail-biting finish to my visa application (Check out this link) this time around.

We were flying with Croatian Airlines from Heathrow to Zagreb. I have to say that I didn’t expect much from the airline, thinking that it would be more or less a rattly bus with wings. I certainly didn’t expect the flight to be on schedule. But oh what a pleasant surprise – we boarded the aircraft exactly at the announced time. That we sat in the aircraft for half an hour thereafter was not the airline’s fault – it was the usual Heathrow delay.

The second pleasant surprise, when we boarded the aircraft and found our seats, was that the Airbus had leg room. Inches and inches of it! In fact, a full 8 inches between my knees and the back of the seat in front. (At 5’8”, it’s such a close fit for me that by the end of most flights, my knees take on the pattern of the upholstery.) Pete couldn’t believe the amount of legroom the aircraft had, not to mention the extra width of the seats. The service was excellent as well, even if the food that I got was inedible. (The latter bit applies to all airlines – and maybe it was my fault for specifying Asian Vegetarian.)

The flight to Zagreb was about an hour and a bit, or possibly two hours – I’m not sure, because I slept through most of it, waking only to try a few bites of my decidedly un-Asian but very vegetarian meal of half-cooked rice in a mystery dressing with soggy canned boiled beans and carrot accompanied by a dry roll, and four grapes (complete with crunchy seeds) for dessert. What can I say. Yum… not! But believe me when I say that I wouldn’t exchange a single grain of rice from that meal for anything better if it meant that I would be sitting in a less comfortable seat. I mean that. Not one single grain of that oddly flavourless rice.

The landing at Zagreb was possibly one of the smoothest I’ve experienced – no kangaroo hops, no G-force flattening you to your seat because of too-hard braking, nothing but a touchdown as gentle as a butterfly settling on a flower. Ok, that’s a little exaggeration but it was a smooth touchdown. Croatian Airlines most certainly gets an enthusiastic thumbs-up from both me and Pete as a great little airline!

One step into the airport, one breath of the air inside the building, and I knew we as non-smokers were in a sad minority. Phew! You could almost cut the fag fug with a knife, so to speak.

At Passport Control, Pete’s passport got barely a glance (as usual), but the Croatian official gave me and my passport a thorough going-over, asking where I was from and where I lived and where I was going and why and how long I planned to stay and the names of my parents -

WTF? My parents’ names? There I was, 35-plus years old, a Permanent Resident of a First World country no less, much married and accompanied by my husband - and that official thug wanted to know my parents’ names to fill in a form? I couldn’t believe my ears, but he sat there, pen at the ready, waiting for the information. I must say I was never happier to announce “Mr Ramanathan Subramaniam and Mrs Kalpagam Ramanathan”, and watch his jaw drop slightly. And I smirked only a little bit as he officiously pushed across the official piece of paper and the official pen through the official gap for me to officially spell out the names.


Outside, Zarko was waiting to take us to Osijek, three hours drive (or roughly 150 miles) away. There wasn’t much to see in the dark, so again I slept most of the way to Osijek. The Hotel Silver had been informed in advance that we would arrive late, so we were checked in right away. Our room was on the third – and top – floor, in what Pete insisted on calling the penthouse suite. It was a pleasant room, all said and done, right under the eaves with the bed against one wall. Since the room was under the eaves, the ceiling sloped down to two sides. There was much meeting of heads with ceilings in the first couple of days – but as intelligent little lab rats, we soon learnt to stoop when we wanted to access the TV or our suitcases. (The third side was all glass windows from ceiling to floor, looking out onto the street.)

Zarko gave us just enough time to throw our suitcases into the room before he hustled us back out into the night. It was beer time, even though it was nearly midnight!

In Osijek a lot of restaurants stay open till very late (past 12am) and the nightclubs go on for longer still. We tried out the local Osjecki beer which to my palate tasted like any other beer – in a word, yuk – but which Pete loved. We didn’t have much time for more than a couple of beers as the restaurant was closing. But Zarko had other plans for us anyway. Since the night was still young, he drove us to Tvrdja (the old part of town with the remains of a fortress), where there was a concert going on as part of a music festival. I’m not entirely sure if it was part of the Independence Day (October 8) celebrations… but whatever the reason, I fully expected to hear Croatian music.

As we walked up to the huge marquee, the tune seemed strangely familiar to my ears although I couldn’t quite place it (dammit, it was 12.30am and I was sleepy!). Then, to my astonishment, I heard Pete humming along, and I couldn’t help but ask him how he knew the words to a Croatian song.

“It’s Irish music, an Irish drinking song,” he pointed out. “The Wild Rover.”

Of course!

That’s what it was. Not Croatian music, but Irish. And once I knew that, the lyrics which had seemed incomprehensible suddenly rearranged themselves in my brain as:
“And it's No, Nay, never,
No, nay never no more
Will I play the wild rover,
No never no more”

It was an Irish band playing it, too. The authentic stuff. Just goes to show that if you hear something other than what you were expecting to hear at that time and in that place, your ears hallucinate. Mine do, anyway. Sometimes the logic switch just doesn’t allow itself to be turned on.

The band was great, the music familiar and well loved, the crowds of young Croats happily – and non-violently – drunk, with beer stalls and popcorn sellers and hot roasted chestnuts all doing roaring business at what I would have considered an unearthly hour of the morning, were I not on holiday. What was not to love?

Eventually we headed back to the hotel because, as Zarko said, we had a full day’s worth of touristy things to do the next day. And there in our hotel room, we discovered yet another wonderful surprise – a soft, comfortable, spacious bed and fluffy pillows that must have dropped straight from heaven. Not something you find in a 3-star hotel anywhere, and sometimes not even in a 5-star one! Those pillows stayed fluffy and wonderful through our entire stay at the hotel – a commendable achievement indeed because I’m the sort of sleeper who has to pummel and thump and squash my pillow to find the perfect texture and position before I can go to sleep. Those pillows were lovely and if there had been any way I could have stolen them without fear of discovery, I would have. There, I said it.



Kamini said...

Lovely start, will savour the rest of your travelogue as time permits. I was particularly interested in your Croatia experience since I will be teaching at a music programme there next summer, in Grozjnan (in the Istrian peninsula). If you know anything at all about it that you would be willing to share, I would really appreciate it. Not sure how I will get there either: am toying with the idea of flying New York-London-Venice and then taking the ferry over from Venice, which sounds rather exciting.

brinda said...

yaaay! just registering much happiness that this is FINALLY up... on to part 2 and then 3... so more later :-)

stig said...

Hello. I just popped in to read about some Indian cooking and happened to see that you had been travelling as well.. Anyway - even though you might answer my question as i read on - i just wondered why you decided to go to Croatia at all - of all contries, so to speak. But your article is very interesting of course.
All the best wished you.