In case you ever wondered what lies between communism and capitalism, rest assured there is indeed a definitive answer: a three story slide. And while in Zagreb, I slid down it.
The particular slide in question calls Zagreb’s Museum of Contemporary Art its home. The museum is a behemoth of a building entirely made out of concrete. Though it can seem unfinished at times with its unsealed floors and uninstalled sinks, the museum’s ideological position is clear. On one side is Avenue Mall, a just-popped-out-of-the-ground-all-you-can-eat-drink-shop-adolescent-popularized-mafia-financed monstrosity complete with bars boasting fake waterfalls and American fast food joints. In other words, it’s a textbook example of modern Eastern European capitalism. To the other side is Novi Sad—a collection of sad gray apartments that wouldn’t look out of place in the Soviet Union—you know what I’m talking about.
Thus the museum stands between the two worlds like a majestic, failed game of Tetris. But what hides within the confines of the complex defies even out best attempts at reasoning (read: trippy fails to describe the essence of the place). Floating violins? We saw ‘em. Metaphorical neon toilets? Got two of ‘em. Naked women lying on trees? So many we lost count.
Some of the art is political. “Do not fuck with social democracy,” reads a red photograph by the artist Nemanja Cvijanović. It’s a timely piece, considering the European political climate and upcoming Croatian elections. Other pieces glorify the quotidian citizen. Works from Braco Dimitrijević’s Casual Passer-by elevate unknown people walking on Zagreb’s streets to the level of celebrities through obelisks or large portraits hung over public buildings.
My favorite though, a red and blue collage, simply superimposes the word “Balkan” over a map of the United States. The renaming of major cities with Eastern European pronunciations leaves one with a vision of how making America Balkan again would look. And, truthfully, what would be so bad about that?
For all the jokes poked at this overlooked corner of southeastern Europe, Zagreb has a lot going for it. A clean and beautifully restored city center, successful initiatives to promote local produce, and enough cafés to fill a city ten times its size. You can cross the city in half an hour on a mere 60-cent tram ride, walk in a recently opened pedestrian tunnel, and never have to worry about commuting through heavy morning traffic.
Maybe that’s what’s so surprising about Zagreb. Undeniably a very traditional and working city, it’s home to quirky and unusual sites such as the Museum of Contemporary Art.
My quest to explore the off-the-beaten-path of Zagreb did not stop when left the museum, crossing the Sava River and working my way back to the city center. In search of a less formal, yet equally off evening, I made the trek to A Most Unusual Garden: Zagreb’s premier gin bar. The bar, located in a converted house, is straight of a chapter of Alice in Wonderland. Round windows—owl eyes—are carved out of the side of the house. Greeting guests at the main entrance is an octopus made out of a cucumber sitting in a bathtub. Despite all the wacky decoration, though, the vibe is decidedly low-key. Friends chilling on a Wednesday night, enjoying the greatness that is a treehouse above a garden with string lights through old gin bottles.
Leaving Zagreb on the bus the next day was not quite as dramatic as my exit from the art museum on a three story slide or fall down the rabbit hole into Zagreb’s own version of Wonderland but, in retrospect, life doesn’t get much better than that.