Some of you may remember that last September, I went to Istanbul. I went without money and my friend and my sister funded the whole venture. I couldn’t afford to see the Hagia Sophia, the number one tourist attraction in Istanbul, but when I told people about my time in Istanbul, I just pretended that I had seen it. I hadn’t.
You might also remember when I went to a conference in Milton Keynes at the start of the summer. Except I didn’t. And I spent a day sitting in cafés in Luton town centre instead, reading a book and writing my PhD.
Or you might remember the time I was due to go to a conference in Wales and slept in.
Or the time I was meant to go on a holiday to Marseilles and I slept in.
Or the time I went to Sligo with no money and my Dad’s credit card number written on the back of an envelope and ended up sleeping in my car.
Or the time my ATM card stopped working in Galway and I ended up getting my car stuck in a multi-storey car park and phoning a friend who I hadn’t seen in two years to “rescue” me.
Or the time I got stranded in Dublin city centre alone, hungover and with only Irish pounds on the day the euro became the only legal tender in Ireland and I had to get my sister in Cork, via a series of reverse charge calls to contact a friend of the family who was at a match in Croke Park to lend me money so I could get to DCU and rescue my car and drive it back to Cork.
Or the time I was stranded in Newark, New Jersey and had to LITERALLY beg for money to get my train home and my friends had no idea where I was.
I’ve kind of done it again.
This weekend was due to be my weekend in Zagreb. It was time to see another major Balkan city and I’m leaving on Tuesday to go back to Ireland and my PhD.
I packed and walked to the train station. I bought my ticket. I walked to the platform. Then I realised I had no passport and would be crossing a border. The next train was four hours later. I berated myself, walked home, arsed around for four hours and then returned to the train station.
This train was due to arrive in Zagreb at 9:00 pm. I had booked a hotel with a pool and spa. My original plan had been to spend some time splashing around in the pool, have dinner and then go out on the town and check out Zagreb’s gay scene, which is apparently better than Ljubljana’s (which wouldn’t be hard). On Sunday (assuming I woke up in my own hotel) I would have another splash around and then do a walking tour of Zagreb’s Old Town, be a tourist and then get the 6:30 pm train back to Ljubljana.
At the station, it was immediately obvious that Zagreb was bigger than anywhere I’d been all summer. I love the buzz of arriving in a big city. I spent some time just breathing in the hustle and bustle.
I got a taxi to my hotel. Now, I have yet to be in a taxi or a bus in the Balkans where the driver isn’t talking on his phone and reading texts, but this was new to me. My taxi driver had a laptop in his lap, and was browsing the internet while driving me. It really is a different world here sometimes. I’m amazed I’m still alive. He was also playing one song on repeat for the whole drive: it was Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms”, except in Croatian. If you were ever wondering about how to make a depressing song sound more depressing, just translate it into Croatian.
I arrived at my hotel, to be told that the pool had already closed for the night. That was one thing I wasn’t going to get done. I went to my room. It was swanky. It had lots of nice touches, like when you opened the wardrobe a light came on, and there were lots of freebies – a free comb, a free pack of cotton buds, a free sewing kit, a dressing gown. It was like a hotel from the movies. There was even a phone beside the toilet, so you could make international calls and bowel movements at the same time. I jumped around excitedly, in spite of the fact that the most noticeable thing in the room was a large sign saying not to open the window because it would cause “an infestation of flies”.
I made my way to the hotel restaurant. It was the poshest restaurant I’ve ever been in. But it wasn’t 2014 posh. It was 1980s posh. It was the kind of place where you wish you had huge shoulder pads and a perm. The tables had about five different table cloths in various shades of gold and so many types of wine glasses. The waitress practically spat at me when I ordered a Diet Coke as she took all seventeen wine glasses and the ice bucket stand away from my table. In front of each place was a black bowl with a small white circular thingy in it. I had no idea what it was. I thought maybe it was an after-dinner mint, but I wasn’t sure. I was afraid to touch it. When the waitress came back she poured water on it and it expanded into a moist towelette for me to clean my fingers with. It was like magic. Only tacky restaurant magic. She lit the fourteen candles at my table and took my order.
I didn’t order a starter, but one came anyway. They were too posh not to give me starter. It was a single slice of monkfish, with a choice of three different oils to pour over it. Unfortunately, the fish was too small to pour a different oil over three different bits, so you had to pick one. The fish was fine, but it was about the size of a €2 coin. The waitress came over to me about ten minutes after I had eaten it and said, “I see you’ve finished already”. She took the massive plate that had held the tiny morsel away and brought more cutlery for my main course, even though there were still about sixteen different knives and forks left from when I had sat down. I suppose nothing says posh like funny-shaped forks. I had to wait another twenty minutes before my main course, which had been described on the menu as gnocchi. These were not like any gnocchi I had seen before. There were two of them on my plate, each the size of my fist. A waiter came over with a comically large pepper mill and offered me some. I had to see him operate this mill, which was about the size of Tom Daley. He hoisted the giant pepper mill over his shoulder, like a machine gun, and after each little twist, he turned to me and asked me if that was enough. I put him out of his misery quickly. I’m glad I took some pepper though, because I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything so bland in my life. It was like Aldi sliced pan, without the crust, soaked in water overnight and microwaved, with a teeny tiny bit of gravy.
I ate quickly. I didn’t have the patience to ask for the bill and see what ceremony resulted from this, so I went to the till. Every member of staff ran to me in a panic, even the man hoisting the Pepper Mill of Doom ran for me. Was I OK? Did I need anything? I asked if I could pay and two members of staff assembled the leather booklet and an after-dinner mint entirely behind a counter, making minimalist movements, so I wouldn’t have to see the mechanics of them actually using the cash register or finding the after dinner mint. I paid and went back to my room.
I started googling gay clubs in Zagreb and found one that was open. I got on Google Maps. It was already after 11:00 pm, because of my forgotten passport and life-endangering taxi ride, and stupidly elaborate dinner. The club was SEVEN KILOMETRES away. Pfffft. Not gonna happen.
I got on Grindr and Scruff instead. I chatted to a few guys, including one, who had the charming screen name of “Hole Patrol” and nothing came of it. I was in my bed, alone, fast asleep by half past twelve.
I woke in the morning, having had the best night’s sleep I’ve had in a very, very long time. This was a far superior bed to any I’ve slept in since I arrived in Ljubljana. I had a lazy morning, once again staying in bed too long to make it to the pool or to make it to the breakfast that was included in the hotel price.
I eventually staggered out of the hotel at midday. I walked around until I found a restaurant and had brunch. I then started walking into the city centre. I had realised that my hotel was outside the centre, but not quite how far it was. I stopped off in a McDonald’s, ordered a milkshake and used their free WiFi to find directions. I also got on Facebook and Twitter and got involved in a number of different conversations. I love Twitter during the Sunday morning radio shows in Ireland. So much rage.
It was nearly 3:00 by the time I left the WiFi. That was fine. Surely I’d only need an hour to see the Old Town and my train wasn’t until 6:30. I walked. And I walked and walked and walked. At 4:00, I still appeared to be in the Blanchardstown of Zagreb. I knew the hotel was “just outside” the centre, but the website’s definition of “just” must be different to mine. I was tired and I sat down. My Wifi wasn’t working, but the GPS on the phone still told me where I was. I was only a kilometre from the station. That was fine. I had a nice rest and walked to the station. IT WAS THE WRONG TRAIN STATION. The right train station was over two kilometres away. I had about an hour and a half. And I needed dinner and another rest and I needed to see Zagreb. I was now in the Zagreb’s version of Castleknock, which isn’t all that much better than Blanchardstown. This wasn’t being a tourist. This was me being me, just further away.
I walked on. My GPS told me I was now 1.7 km from the station, then 1.5 km, then 1.2 km, and then 2.3 km. I have no idea what happened.
I tried to find a busy road to hail a taxi. I’d barely seen any taxis all day. Sundays are rubbish on the continent. Eventually, twenty minutes before my train was due to leave, I got a taxi. This taxi driver wasn’t on his phone or his laptop. He was, however, rolling a large joint while he drove me to the station.
I made it on time. And got home. This weekend, I had a lovely night’s sleep, an expensive dinner and a long walk through housing estates, retail parks and blocks of flats. I suppose you could say I saw the “real Zagreb”. I truly am an atrocious tourist.