Fate had me working in an interesting part of the world again over the winter of 2002/2003. This time, it was Zagreb, capital of Croatia, which was once part of communist Yugoslavia. The project that I was managing was the first of its kind in south-eastern Europe: We were using artificial intelligence to predict the behaviour of individual mobile telephone consumers, so that the very expensive business of marketing could be optimised by more effectively targeting the consumer.
The project was off on a bad start after one week of talking in circles and hitting our heads against walls, trying to deal with people who suffer from a higher degree of intransigence than experienced at my previous project consulting for one of the UK Police Forces. As a result, doing business in Zagreb is not straight-forward. The Croatians are sharp witted and express themselves in very direct and sometimes over-assertive terms. They love to be seen barking out orders to their subordinates, but conversely suffer from a lack of "can-do" attitude that is not helped by their strong adhesion to a very rigid corporate hierarchy: No-one will risk stepping out of this hallowed hierarchical line, which makes it near impossible to get agreement on issues.
Food is taken reasonable seriously here, and restaurateurs pride themselves on the freshness of their fruit, vegetables and seafood. Fantastic meals with good service and excellent wine can be had in top quality restaurants at very reasonable prices. If only they would stop playing Croatian folk music in restaurants! The Croation cuisine, from what I have experienced, consists of dishes like cheese-cake baked in custard, and a huge amount of meat served skewered on a long sword (I momentarily though that I had offended the waiter), and very good smoked meats and cheeses. Italian cuisine is popular and expertly done. There are also a few culinary experiments in Zagreb, such as TexMex and Chinese restaurants. Alas, there are also at least 4 MacDonald's here in Zagreb alone, and noted that the price of a BigMac is exactly the same in the UK. I concluded that it represents equally bad gastronomic value as anywhere else in the world. Morbid curiosity compelled me to stick my head in one of these places: it had the same sickly, sweet smell of industrial lard as any other MackieDee's in the world. Yuck, man!
Croatian middle-priced wines are very good, and the cheap wines are bracingly bad. The beers have good character, and there are some fine dark beers that I thoroughly enjoyed.
I had a look at the Croatian language - my first real encounter with the Slavic languages, except for the one time when I acted as a German translator to a group of desperate Aussie tourists in 1990 in Prague where most peoples' second language was Russian or very bad German. Croatian is not like anything I had ever encountered before and the only recognisable da (yes) and ne (no), sendvič (sandwhich) and OK. Hi and goodbye - as in the Italian 'ciao' - is bok, or bok bok if it is to your friend, or bok bok bok if you greeting your best friend. Or if you have a speech-impediment. Croatian has some fine examples of massive concatenations of consonants, which make for some interesting-sounding, saliva-splattering words. The young people here all speak reasonably good English as a second language, and where English fails, German gets you around with the older folks. There is a suspicious absence of the letters Q, W and Y in the Croatian alphabet, which nevertheless has 30 letters, as consonants with diacritics are considered separate letters. This makes database development interesting here, especially on a Croatian keyboard. A black marker pen came in handy for converting a Croatian keyboard to a UK layout.
The fine architecture in the old part of Zagreb dates mostly from the late 1800's and features some very beautiful buildings that are bizarrely interspersed with grim, rectangular, Stalinist-looking buildings with ugly street-level store fronts that sell car parts and industrial components, complimented by dirty curtains blowing out of the upper windows. The outer part of Zagreb has many more such tenement-type buildings and plenty litter blowing about the streets. A notable feature in all of Zagreb is the prolific graffiti on all buildings and not even the old buildings are spared from this scourge, nor are they ever cleaned. I have had some of it translated to me in passing, and anti-Serb feelings, among others, still run very strong among the graffitirati.
What Zagreb has in common with many other European cities is the fouling of sidewalks by dogs. Many people in Zagreb own guns, to the extent that some bars have a 'no-guns' policy (just like in the Wild West - YeeHa!), and it occurred to me that Zagreb could be turned into a nicer city if these gun owners had a regular meet-up with the dog owners. People seem to feel secure within their surroundings - handbags and wallets are openly carried about and there does not seem to be a need to have many policemen about. The good people of Zagreb drive cars as if chased by the devil however, and there was a regular sound of screeching and banging outside my hotel window. The only place to park cars is on sidewalks, which makes things difficult for pedestrians. The streets of Zagreb become gridlocked during rush-hour, but at least they have a functioning public transport system.
Croatia is not one of the newly proposed member states of the EU, which its wealthier neighbour and former Yugoslav partner, Slovenia, already is. The wealthy Croatians all hang out in Zagreb and one could be forgiven for thinking that this is a wealthy country. The Zagrebians happily flash their credit cards and mobile telephones about, not unlike the nouveau-riche in third-world countries. (It was estimated that in 2002, most Croations spent between 10% and 20% of their disposable income on mobile telephones. You can now understand the importance of the project that I was involved in). The Croatian currency is artificially tied to the Euro, which means that there are no real shopping bargains to be had for ex-pat types like myself, and that many luxury items are out of reach for the average Croatian, who has a substantially lower income than the rest of Europe. Most consumer- and luxury-items are imported from western Europe. I have seen very few manufactured product with unfamiliar (Croatian) brand names; neither toothpaste, technology nor toy. Tito's infamous Yugo car (a little better than the East-German Trabant - ha ha ha!) is now hardly seen anyhere and modern Europen cars are the norm by those who can afford a car at all.
It had been minus 10 degrees for a number of days and we had a half metre of snow was dumped down upon us by the heavens above on just one of these days. Everything came to a stand-still, and the streets were wonderfully quiet with a few intrepid soles, including myself, wading their way to work through the snow.
I went skiing for a weekend in neighbouring Slovenia, which was very nice to be able to do again. Apart from the loads of snow, there was not much to experience in one weekend, except for the notable beer: The poor Slovenians truly have the worst beer that I have ever tasted (even worse than my own homebrew), which is served in oversized brown glass bottles with an ominous green label that suggests imminent death.
During the Christmas season the air was filled with nauseating Christmas tunes. Cliff Richard was still a hit here with his holier-than-though XMAS maladies, even though both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope condemmed this feeble-minded musician to eternal damnation in a Siberian salt mine. Zagreb is not unlike other westernised cities, but the tell-tale signs of a past oppressive regime and a recent turbulent history are still there. It was easy to spot old war survivors and people only spoke about the war and Titos' regime after copious application of alcohol.