Croatia Diaries: The Toaster of Vindication
Earthquakes, downpours and the end of relationships in Zagreb
If this week hasn’t been your week, just remember, as the old saying goes, things could always be worse. You could for instance be in Zagreb in March 2020. Being anywhere in March 2020 wasn’t much fun, but it was particularly galling for the residents of Croatia’s capital.
Just as they were all being told to stay at home to avoid the virus, an earthquake struck the city. “We thought it was the end of the world,” says our taxi driver who is driving us from the coach station to our hotel. “Because we were all at home hardly anyone died, but that’s why there’s so much construction around.”
I hadn’t noticed before but now looking out through the window at rainy Zagreb it’s plainly evident the earthquake did quite a bit of damage. “Lots of the museums are closed,” our driver continues. This is not exactly what I want to hear at the beginning of three nights in the city, when rain is forecast to fall heavily and frequently.
Not all of the museums are closed, however. And not many museums have toasters as part of their exhibitions. But one does, and I’m standing and looking at it with a reverence I usually reserve for Da Vinci or DiCaprio. It’s a plain white toaster, the brand Rival, and it’s old, worn, the grey timer dial is grimy.
This is a particularly special toaster in a particularly special museum. I’m standing in the Museum of Broken Relationships, a building that houses relics of relationships that have come and gone. The toaster is called The Toaster of Vindication. It’s tag says it’s as from Denver, Colorado, and the relationship it represents lasted between 2006 and 2010.
The person who submitted the toaster is quoted: “When I moved out, and across the country, I took the toaster. That'll show you. How are you going to toast anything now?”
The museum is worth the price of admission for this alone. I want to meet the person who thought not only to give one last “screw you” to their jilted ex by taking their toaster, but decided that this wasn’t enough, that they had to submit it to a museum halfway across the world for all to see.
There are other objects in the museum that was started in 2010 by two former lovers who were inspired by their own breakup. Some are tragic, the end of the relationship coming because of the death of one of the lovers, some are creepy, like the dolls made out of things one person’s lovers have all left behind in their house. But it’s the toaster I keep coming back to. It’s petty and brilliant.
It’s a shame to leave the Museum of Broken Relationships, partly because it’s not raining inside it, partly because it’s one of the only bits of the city that doesn’t look damaged. We brave a walking tour with Diana (“like the Princess”), a local who apologises for the state of her city.
“Come back in five to ten years and I’ll give you the best tour ever,” she says to our large group. St Mark’s Church, one of the city’s most iconic attractions, is wearing scaffolding like a skirt. The stunning roof just about pokes out, the wonderful coloured tiles still visible as a rare patch of blue sky sits overhead.
We can’t get near it, but that’s only partially because of the earthquake. St Mark’s Square as a whole is closed. It’s home to the Croatian parliament, and in 2020 (really not a good year for Zagreb) a man approached Banski dvori, which houses the government and prime minister’s office, and began shooting at it. A police officer was wounded and the perpetrator then took his own life.
Since then it has been closed and we can only peer at the country’s parliament building from behind a temporary fence that’s becoming rather permanent. The government has been urged to reopen the square, it is after all the centre of the city’s old town, but they are understandably wary to do so.
Indeed Zagreb’s upper town at around midday is a bit of a jumpy place. Close to the funicular station that leads back down the hill and a short walk from St Mark’s is the Grič Cannon. It sticks out of the fourth floor of the Lotrščak Tower and for the last 150 years, every day at noon, the city fires it.
“Cover your ears if you don’t like loud noises,” says Diana, “because it’s really loud.” She’s not kidding. It may not be loaded, but cannon emits a boom that can be heard all through the upper town and sends a shockwave through me so fierce that I have to make an effort to keep from emitting a brief but embarrassing squeak. Unsurprisingly, in the aftermath of the earthquake in 2020, the city decided to briefly pause this startling tradition.
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Diana is such a good tour guide that the next day we find ourselves in a basement under the city taking her war themed tour. It was used as a shelter during the fierce fighting during the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990’s.
We watch a short film that gives an overview of the conflict from a particularly Croatian point of view, though Diana interrupts at various points to remind us that a Serbian may see these events quite differently.
When asked if there are still tensions between Croatians and Serbs Diana says “no, not in my generation. You should go to Belgrade (Serbia’s capital), it’s very cool, cooler than Zagreb.” After two weeks in the former Yugoslavia getting only glimpses of people’s attitudes towards the war, or being explicitly reminded not to ask about it, our time in the basement is a relief.
Diana has dispelled the impression I had begun to harbour, that Croatia was a nation of Basil Fawlty’s. Desperate not to mention the war they instead lean into their new tourism-friendly reputation with aplomb. But I leave the basement and go back into the murky grey light of Zagreb with a fresh perspective.
I look around at the city. The cathedral is ever-present on the skyline, clad as almost every major monument is, with sheeting and scaffolding. The upper town is pretty and full of grand old buildings.
I like Zagreb. But I’ll like it even more in five to ten years.
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