Guillermo and his wife first visited Croatia in 2010. They moved here the following year. Their initial impressions and one of their first experiences, chronicled below, no doubt played a role in shaping their decision to make Croatia their new home.
August 20th, 2010. It’s the first time you’re visiting Croatia. Your wife is with you, and it’s also the first time for her. You’re a bit of a control freak, so you found a local cab company online a few days ago and emailed them to arrange a pick-up. Your flight lands at the Zagreb Airport, ten minutes ahead of schedule. You go through customs, you pick up your luggage and you realize you’re not only excited, you are also feeling good in a special kind of way. You wonder why.
Then you walk out into the arrivals hall, and there he is. Your cab driver. With your last name printed on an A4 sheet of paper. Of course, you and your wife walk up to him and say hi, hoping he speaks at least a little bit of English. He doesn’t. In spite of this, you realize you’re letting go, you’re relaxing anyway, both your body and your mind find themselves at ease. Why is that?, you wonder again. Perhaps you have the feeling that everything is going to be fine. The luggage is in the trunk now, so you get in the car.
Up to here, this can be almost anyone’s non-fictional account of a trip, to Zagreb or to any other city in the world. From this point on, however, the narrative gets much more distinct and particular –the word “exceptional” could probably be used. Because of that, the story is asking to be told in the first person.
Our cab driver’s name is Miro: dark blue jeans, black t-shirt, black sneakers, aviator sunglasses. Spiky short hair and a bushy mustache. My wife tries Russian and it seems to work, although I soon realize that what’s going on between them is more the impression of a dialog than a real exchange of meaningful information. Miro is driving his cab to our hotel in downtown Zagreb, lots of short sentences are being uttered in three different languages we barely share, but the atmosphere in the car is great – it feels like we’re all teenage buddies, possibly drunk, going to a party.
While waiting at a traffic light close to the center of the city, Miro looks at us in the rear-view mirror, for a second or two. Then he turns around and says, Do you have time? (I am loosely rendering, of course, what his body language and the context around his words added up to in my mind). Immediately after his question, I look at my wife and she looks at me. Da, da, da, we reply, and then we realize that we have just said yes, and look at each other again: Time for what? Tour, Miro says, while his index finger draws circles in the air: Tour, Zagreb tour. No money. Free.
He drives past our hotel –we recognize it from the picture on the website. He names different buildings as the taxi cab sweeps through Donji Grad, the Lower Town, and my wife, self-appointed interpreter from Croatian via Russian into English, translates everything for me:
“The Croatian National Theater.”
“You saw that in the guidebook.”
“Shut up. The Hemingway Bar.”
“Of course. There is a big sign on the awning.”
“What did I just say?”
I therefore refrain from making any more comments. Miro keeps talking, and drives into what we’ll later find out is Gornji Grad, or the Upper Town. All of a sudden he makes a quick left and parks on a side street, gets out of the car and motions for us to follow him. My wife and I look at each other again.
What follows is an adventure – with our cab driver, on foot – through the most popular sights of the Upper Town, the old part of Zagreb. Miro is at the helm, as our tour guide extraordinaire, walking (rather fast) through a city he knows very well.
It is hard now to remember exactly what path he followed, but I know we walked behind him through the Stone Gate, we saw the Church of St. Mark, the tall spires of the Cathedral of St. Stephen from a distance, and before, or after that, the Lotrscak Tower, as well as the Strossmayer Promenade, with the inevitable photograph sitting by the sculpture of poet Anton Gustav Matos – we asked a tourist to aim our camera and press the button. Posing on the bench there is me, my wife, Anton Gustav in the middle and behind us our favorite cab driver.
Later on, as if he knew that every tour needs a wrap-up, Miro took us down to Ban Jelacic Square. There, he decided to get us a present, a very nice gesture slash impulse buy: peceni kukuruz, roasted corn from a street vendor.
The narrative goes on.
July 22nd, 2012. I stop the car in front of the departure drop-off, at the Zagreb Airport. My wife and I unload the bags and put them on the sidewalk. She stays while I drive the red Ford Fiesta back to the rental parking lot. Five minutes later I’m walking back to the same spot and she’s still standing there, bags on her side, but she’s talking to someone. I try to focus from a distance but I’m still rather far. I don’t see well enough. Who can it be? – my question, of course, should have been, Who else could it be?
Our cab driver, Miro, two years later.
I hurry to greet him and we have a short but lively conversation, the two of us talking like we know what the other is saying. Then somebody calls his name out loud from a line of taxi cabs at the other end of the building, probably another driver on duty, and Miro signals that he can’t stay any longer, that he needs to go. We shake hands again and he runs to his car, which is probably blocking the line. “This is very hard to believe,” my wife says, still shocked, still beaming. “What if we pretend we just arrived?”
In a city of one million inhabitants, at an airport with more than two million passengers per year – and a lot of cab drivers waiting for them – we met Miro twice in a two-year span. I’ll give it another 365 days, and a few more trips in and out of Zagreb on our frequent flier account. Probably sooner rather than later, we’ll see him again.
Written by: Guillermo Astigarraga
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