I should be going to bed. It’s nearing midnight and I’m actually tired — a feat after a “normal” night of sleeping and waging a jetlag battle after crossing nine time zones.

But inspiration is inspiration, and a writer ought never take a muse for granted.

As I write, a wind blasts heavy rain diagonally here in Zagreb, which will be my home for 21 more days. I arrived yesterday. As far as Croatia goes, this is the city most people visit for only 48 hours. The New York Time’s “36 Hours” travel series is aimed at cities like this, where most people show up and look at a few things, then take off. Me, I’ve got 23 days here.

Tourists in the rain.

Tourists in the rain.

I’m staying by one of the largest cathedrals in Southern Europe and the tolling of its bells just indicated it’s midnight. I’m sad it doesn’t ring longer, harder, because I think there’s nothing more powerful than the loud call of time passing. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”

It’s even more important when you’re letting life slip past instead of fly by, as I seek to do here in Europe. Tonight I dined at a wine bar and found myself taking it slow and easy, eventually finishing after 90 minutes for just a single course. Europe: Achievement unlocked.

Wedding couple lets tourists crash their photo.

Wedding couple lets tourists crash their photo.

It’s an interesting country, rife with over 2,000 years of history yet young and troubled enough that its youth are writing new rules that skirt tradition. Earlier today an old shopkeeper wagged her finger at me when I asked if she was there every day, and blustered quite emphatically, “Nikada u nedjelju! Nikada u nedjelju!” NEVER on Sunday.

But then I had a young masseur get back to me at 9:00 pm on a Saturday, asking if I wanted to come in on Sunday, in what is a STRONGLY Catholic country. Well, yes, sir, I sure do!

Five minutes from rain. That wall dates to the 13th century, I believe, built to fortify the cathedral which stands to the left of the shot.

Five minutes from rain. That wall dates to the 13th century, I believe, built to fortify the cathedral which stands to the right of the shot.

So there you have it — the new world order versus the old. Money talks, as we all know, and for many of this country’s youth, they understand money doesn’t keep traditional hours.

This is a land ripped apart by war just 20 years ago, and it was only born as “Croatia” 24 years ago when it rose from the oppression of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Today, they’re trying to find who they are — a mix of Italian influences as well as Eastern European and other Mediterranean heritage. They’re a cultural crossroads even now. You’ll find kebabs, handmade pasta, old world wines, a passion for bread, Eastern- and Greek-style phyllo pastries, plus architecture that dates back before Julius Caesar.

I’m not sure why I started my journey here, but that confluence of inspirations seemed truly intriguing to me. It’s a poor country that needs tourism, the poor man’s Italy. This city, it needs people to linger and savor the crossroads it offers, not spend 36-hours in the “gimme a Segway” style of tourism. It needs you to stop and sip the espresso, to watch time slip past, not fly by, because you’re not just visiting a city — you’re helping its struggling economy. You’re giving youth and elderly alike a way to stay here, to continue living in the land they love.

The cathedral that the walls protected for several centuries. Construction began in the 1200s.

The cathedral that the walls protected for several centuries. Construction began in the 1200s.

I hope to bring you a compelling, beautiful Zagreb, because I think it’s here for me to discover. And we should all celebrate places like this, where they strive to keep a foot in the past while facing a brave new future.

This country cherishes food, celebrates wine, and exalts the cult of Slow. It’s my kind of place and I’m feeling pretty blessed that I detoured off the popular spots in Croatia to begin my journey here. Two days in, I love some of the people I’ve met and I know I’ll come back to Croatia for more when I’m back in Europe.

I’ve only been here for 36 hours, but the photos included are just some of those I’ve taken. I’m sick for the first time in 30 months, and on top of it, I’m jet-lagged. Something fierce. I’m struggling but adapting, and I think I’m in love.

Local woman with an award-winning shop dispensing oils, vinegar, and whiskies. She sold me some date and some apple balsamic vinegar.

Local woman with an award-winning shop dispensing oils, vinegar, and whiskies. She sold me some date and some apple balsamic vinegar.

Europe, I think, will really grow on me. Tonight I enjoyed that slow 90 minutes consuming a single-course meal — arancini in tomato sauce. That’s deep-fried risotto balls stuffed with cheese, if you’re unluckily unfamiliar. It was heavenly. Plus, I had an attentive waiter who, once he knew I wanted to learn about Croatia, began to teach me what he could.

There’s a passion here in Europe I think is missing in North America. We’ve been indoctrinated into corporate life. We think about productivity and execution. Passion isn’t really what drives many of us.

I’ve lived the life of struggle and mere survival. For me, I want the slow life. La vita bella. I want to be passionate about my days. I know what it is to barely get by while finding the quiet, beautiful moments in hard life. I’ve been there. But these are people who’ve known it, and endured it, not just for a few years, but for centuries.

It baffles that the best chili con carne I've ever eaten was in Croatia, but this is that, and it's not even a regular menu item.

It baffles me that the best chili con carne I’ve ever eaten was in Croatia, but this is that, and it’s not even a regular menu item.

This is the week my ultimate life lessons begin to unfold. This is when I learn what it is I fought hard to achieve for two-plus years. This is when I finally let go of the stresses and adversities hurled at me by a hometown that got too pricey too fast — all because I was willing to say that status, home ownership, and money mean nothing to me. I let all that go so I could have this — for five years or even more.

Me, I’m in it for the experience and it’s all about understanding what La Vita Bella really entails. I want to be surrounded by craftspeople, food growers/makers, and others who love what they do, who live for what they create. I, too, seek to work to my highest ability and thrive on what I create, so to be surrounded by that passion should inspire me even more. 

This, friends, is the true beginning of my adventure. I’m alone on a new continent and every single day of my life, from here on out, will be filled with new things, new knowledge, new adventures, strange adversities.

I’m very, very happy to have you along for the ride.

Showing 7 comments
  • leonard cameron

    very nice blog steff…..loved it

  • Shelley S,.

    I love Europe. My most favorite place to be. Some countries I love more than others, but it’s all good. They are so advanced. I love their culture, the history and in most places the people. I love all the fresh food, how they shop for the day, not the week or the month. I love how bars and coffee shops are stand up experiences with people either in a hurry, or no hurry at all. Love their happy hours, and their friendliness, eagerness to help in countries where other people thought they were snobbish and uptight. I would move to Europe in a heartbeat. Enjoy!

  • Mel Reams

    Zagreb sounds like such an interesting city! That oil, vinegar and whisky shop sounds like the exact kind of place I would love to visit, and that chilli con carne picture looks so tasty! I saw that preview picture on facebook and told my husband I’m not sure what that is but I want to put it in my mouth 🙂

    I’m so looking forward to hearing about more of your experiences in Zagreb!

  • jackiebaisa

    I love this. What a fabulous beginning!

  • Administrator

    yes please more pictures and posts like this pretty please 🙂

  • Igor

    “the poor man’s Italy” that’s a good one, haha, what a compliment, wow. God bless America haha.

    • Steffani Cameron
      Steffani Cameron

      First, I’m Canadian, and second, that was written the first couple days I arrived. People aren’t going to have correct perspectives when they first arrive, and I’m not gonna go back and sanitize what was written in the moment.

      Yeah, it was wrong. Tough luck, it’s how I felt then. I had a great time in Croatia and I think much of what I wrote reflects that.

      And in places like Rovinj, one could argue it is indeed a “poor man’s Italy,” because there were things there I could’ve sworn belonged in Venice or Sicily.

      Your country is complicated, and most people who come will have the wrong impression at the beginning. Instead of insulting them or taking it as an insult yourself, maybe try to work with them to see it the “right” way.

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