Letter from Croatia

The rain started early that day, dense drops erupting atop the Old Town’s cobblestones as urgent passersby lifted umbrellas in unison. If we weren’t absorbing a seemingly endless 24-hour news cycle, it might not appear that a global pandemic had crept its way through the Croatian economy. Locals and tourists alike proceeded to hustle through Zagreb’s main squares, shopping bags dangling on wrists while friends hunched over cups of espresso and bouts of gossip.

As the streets swarmed with life, I found myself in a position I hadn’t expected amid a pandemic: huddled inside a homey cafe surrounded by students from the United States. This crew of 20 college-bound Americans arrived the day before on the hunt for immersive learning, determined in their quest to study Croatian history, culture, and geography within the country’s boundaries. One of the leaders leaned in and inquired if I wore a mask everywhere I went—unlike most Zagrebians, she noted. In anticipation of this trip, and since testing negative for COVID-19, I meticulously avoided crowded areas and wore a mask religiously. But before my test, I admitted that, no, I hadn’t worn a mask when walking outside, even on busy streets.

The leader tilted back, her eyes shining as she appeared to daydream. How wonderful that would be, she admitted, almost in a whisper. For her, daily life sans mask was a refreshing thought. Freeing and calming, the group continued to emphasize that my reality was in considerable contrast to theirs, one steeped in perpetual panic back in the United States.

But as I watched the scene of congested passageways and chatty acquaintances, I couldn’t help but recall these same deserted squares (and low COVID numbers) back in March and April, when the country was in one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. Like much of the globe, all but essential services remained closed, with Sundays reserved for complete solitude and travel outside of one’s county nearly impossible. Despite warm sunbeams washing over Zagreb’s streets as early as April, a gray suspicion dominated the city for months. In general, Zagrebians remained cautious, yet still hopeful for the return of their beloved cafe ritual come summer.

As the country eventually emerged from this lockdown in late May, the city sprung back to life almost instantly. But we all collectively held our breath, anticipating the dreaded second wave and attempting to avoid the looming dread of a potentially wrecked economy.

Yet, this group of eager students provided me with a little optimism, despite the unrelenting drizzle accompanying them throughout their days in Zagreb. Although the hottest month on record in Croatia—and one of the driest in some areas—the end of September presented the country with record cold snaps and heavy storms. One morning, the students, layered in rain gear, set off on a day trip to Plitvice Lakes National Park, one of Croatia’s most popular tourist sites. The park is home to a must-see maze of pellucid lakes united by a series of waterfalls, mossy forests, and weathered boardwalks, all gifting views of petrified logs and fossilized algae.

As they climbed aboard the bus and settled into leather seats, the group’s tour guide beamed with joy. He admitted that this was his first trip of the year—an entire tourist season vanished without a single request to visit the world-famous park, which usually sees over one million visitors each summer. Again, I pushed the thought (and shock) out of my mind. Croatia opened its borders to tourists worldwide, a decision that ignored recommendations from the European Union. It was that collectively held breath—the one where we all painfully smiled through the worry and fear of economic hardships yet to come—that led the country to this decision.

The students will now explore other parts of Croatia—the rolling hills and rocky shores of the Istrian Peninsula, the Dalmatian Islands that dot the turquoise-hued Adriatic Sea, and the historic city of Dubrovnik, an outdoor museum brimming with some of the nation’s best architecture. These destinations play tour guide to many itineraries, as foreigners typically flock to the country’s nearly 4,000 miles of coastline. The foreign tourism market comprises (according to the European Commission) almost 20 percent of Croatia’s GDP—by far, the largest in Europe.

As I bid farewell to the group, I settled back into my regular routines here in Zagreb. When temperatures rose in April, and more light penetrated my small flat on the city’s longest continuous street, Ilica, I mostly lingered inside. I spied from my fourth-floor window, observing essential workers move through my neighborhood, masked and gloved, wide eyes exposing the worry they attempted to hide. I called back to my partner, announcing my observations and reporting the daily numbers. It consumed me then, but Zagreb was okay—Croatia was okay.

The summer was different. Tourists crossed borders and escaped to the seaside, throwing any caution to the wind while salty air and daily swims melted their worries. As a result, weeks ago, the country topped the list of European nations with the most cases per 100,000 residents. Despite being a bustling capital city, Zagreb is home to a relatively low population. And although numbers could not compare, percentages were high, many residents inviting the virus back to their homes after weeks on the tourist-saturated coast.

I know that there will be more spikes and more work ahead, but our local leaders insist, we must “learn to live with the virus.” I’m still fearful, but I try to comprehend. What else does a country dependent on international travel do when a pandemic sweeps the globe and shuts down borders? In Zagreb, the motto is that business must go on, but we must be cautious and consider one another. And so it does—and so we are, and so we do.

After spending a week exploring Zagreb with the American students and testing negative upon their departure, I’m inclined to reject my hermit lifestyle of the spring and embrace the city once again. I know it’s best to stay home, but I long to go outside, to sit at a cafe and sip my espresso the Croatian way—for hours as I chat up a friend and absorb the vibrant energy that inundates this buzzing capital. But I regress, and I stay responsible, sticking to neighborhood strolls and parks rich with verdant forests and spacious paths. But I also escape from time to time, a quick walk through the city center to run an errand or a coffee on an outdoor patio, allows me to watch people embrace the bustle once again.

For so long, the virus has muffled Zagreb’s genuine personality. As leaders opened borders and hoped for the best, the city returned to life, but not without consequence. And as we battle new outbreaks, we strive to discover the balance that protects a nation’s precious tourist economy and vibrant social culture, but also its vulnerable populations. Like many European cities, Zagreb is nothing without its people.

I get photo and video updates from my new American friends. In between studies, they’re enjoying bike rides and afternoon swims in Istria and Dalmatia. Rosy cheeks and earnest smiles expose the sun-kissed coastline they so desperately craved. Meanwhile, I still battle the rain in Zagreb, although moments of autumnal sunshine filter through lowering clouds from time to time. As I navigate the slippery cobblestones, my footsteps begin to match my heartbeat, creating a chorus with the buzz of Zagreb itself. The city’s rhythm is that of its residents, and I’m hopeful that such a resilient nation will reclaim its balance soon enough.

Ash Merscher