Today’s lesson: you gotta lie

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The day started early, as I couldn’t shut my brain down once I woke. I needed to resolve the apartment thing, and negotiate the amount I’m paying nightly for the hostel. Both tasks required the help of my new friends, Mario and Anita. But how to contact them?

Finished up my usual Internet stuff in the morning, including applying for a few jobs (what a waste of time, except you never know). But couldn’t make a call to Anita. The connection wasn’t very good and she might have had her phone off. So I packed up my trusty laptop and headed for the center (that’s what they call the center of town here – duh!, which basically is around where the bridge crosses over to Old Town). I’m trying to find a place within or close to the center.

The Wi-Fi signal at the square was poor and Anita might have had her phone off, so we didn’t connect for awhile. Finally decided to walk around a bit and take some pictures – a little different view of some earlier areas. Went back to the square, had a beer, called again and decided to head back to the hostel. Time about 5 pm.

Since Mario’s apartment was on the way, I tried to retrace my steps of two nights previous, but got lost. So I went across the street from the cafe Anita worked at, knowing the apartment was nearby, turned on the laptop, acquired the cafe’s wireless, and called her. The rest of the evening was great.

They invited me in and Mario started searching the Web site we’ve been watching for rentals. One came up that looked really good, down the coast a bit but really near the water, and still within decent walking distance of the center. So they immediately volunteered to drive me to see the apartment, after already making the phone call asking about the unit. Awesome! It gets better, right after it gets worse.

We drove to this house south of Zadar center, located in what was described as the old city before the center moved north. Very nice neighborhood. The house in question was a 2-story. a short walk down a path to the sea. It was modern and really very nice (for 320 euros/month) and I was ready to sign on the dotted line, except the landlord wanted someone for a longer term. I’ve discovered that the rental landlords try to leave June-September open for the high-priced tourists, and the rest of the year they like to rent to students to fill out the full year. Makes sense, but it’s absolutely killing my chances of finding an apartment. So, new strategy. Call it Plan G.

Whenever anyone asks from now on, I’m here until at least next June. What can it hurt? I can leave the country at any time. There would be no long-term lease that would be enforceable. The 3-month request was killing me. They want a longer term, and who can blame them. So I’m going to lie, and say I’m going to be here longer than I plan, or actually can do. After three months, I pull up stakes in the middle of the night.

But I lost out on that nice apartment today – simply because of the time issue. They had two students who wanted the place through next June. If I told them (through Mario, who’s great with the conversations) I would be there until June I might have gotten the apartment (old guy vs. wild students thing). But I didn’t. Lost opportunity.

Well, my new friends were not quite done with me. They needed groceries, so we stopped at Kaufland, the big supermarket. Anita says she likes it because the prices are lower. They picked up a bunch of stuff and I wandered around and grabbed a few things I needed. Then they invited me to dinner. And volunteered to drop me off at the hostel and to plead my case about the rent – in the landlord’s language. Really, you can’t make this stuff up.

Their first-floor flat I would think is quite nice here. Always, these places have small, but workable kitchens, sometimes they have balconies. Mario likes to work in the kitchen. He cut up some salami handmade by his father, Roma-like tomatoes from his family’s garden, and some excellent bread. They initially turned on some classic rock on their computer (they were using youtube to play music) and then asked what I wanted to hear. Well, I wanted to hear what they normally listened to. Among the artists we listened to was Darko Rundek, with his album Blue Airplane.

The salami is a dry sausage called Kulen or Kulin. Its making goes back many years, hundreds, I think, and today a stick of this can set you back more than $70. The piece we ate was prepared by his father who lives near Zagreb. Dinner was vegetarian, which Anita tries to adhere to, with sauteed peppers and onions in a sour cream/spice mix. On a bed of white rice. Quite good. Dinner was great but I still had my hostel problem.

Mario volunteered to drive me back and talk to my landlords. Anita stayed behind. Mario was incredible. To be honest, I couldn’t understand any of the conversation. Mario, the landlord and the landlady often were all talking at the same time. I could tell it was generally a friendly discussion. My fear was that they would take offense at me bringing in someone else to bargain. I simply told Mario what I was paying daily, what I wanted to pay and how long I might stay. He did the rest. He should get into politics. Seriously.

Through his efforts, I now am paying half of what I was paying before. I don’t even have to change rooms, except the second bedroom is where I can get the Wi-Fi signal, so I’ll change bedrooms tomorrow. The other downside is the bedroom I’m leaving has been booked and I will have to share the apartment with two people from the UK for two nights this weekend. I was told they might be female. Darn! But the landlords expect little business going forward, so I will probably have the place to myself again until I find a new home.

Another Frustrating Day

Don’t trust Google Maps

Last night, in the dark, on the back deck of the hostel, I tried to find another hostel closer to town so I didn’t have to hike so far with a backpack everyday. I was, of course, using “borrowed” Wi-Fi to connect to the Internet (more on that later). Most of the hostels claiming to be in Zadar are actually in small towns south and north of Zadar, 10-15 minutes or more by car. There are a few in town, like the one I’m staying at, but they are all a good hike from the center. Then, there are two in Old Town, but they mostly feature dorms of 6-8 beds, with shared baths. Maybe OK when I was young but not so much now. And the prices are still the same as the apartment I have now.

Another idiosyncrasy with the hostels, if you book them online, is you have to pay for at least two people, even if there is only one of you. So, I’ve been paying for two since I’ve been here, just over $40/night. Still way cheaper than the hotels but way more than if I had a monthly apartment rental.

So, anyway, I finally found a hostel near the center and supposedly on the water near the marina. At least that’s what Google Maps told me. I booked a room for two nights, paid the deposit, and wrote the name and address down on an index card (great to have, BTW).

This morning, I rose fairly early, packed my bags and hauled them downstairs. I also prepared a cue card in Croatian asking my hosts if they would call a taxi for me. Instead, they offered to drive me to wherever I was going. Very nice. When I showed them the address, the woman excitedly pointed to the building two houses down and said that was the hostel the address was for. I said no, it’s near the marina, but she was adamant. So I walked over to the house, and, sure enough, it was a hostel. But the landlady was weeding her garden and couldn’t be bothered and I guess was waiting for her husband to appear to help me. Totally ticked by this time, I left and came back to my room to try to book another hostel. Even looked at hotels. Canceled the one around the corner. Everything was either booked for tonight, was too far out of town, or offered dorm rooms. So I went back downstairs and asked for two more days here ($96 or 480 kunas).

And now it looks like I may have to be here until next week, when the apartment I looked at Saturday in Old Town will be available. It’s looking real good right now and I’m sorry I didn’t pull the trigger right away. In addition, I had to move from the apartment I was in to the one in the front. The problem with this one is I can’t get the Wi-Fi signal I was getting before, probably because the building is blocking it. Another problem is this front unit gets direct afternoon sun and it sure is hot in here.

The owners of the house really want me to rent for three months and asked why I wanted to find another place. Besides the no TV/no Internet thing, and the distance, I tried to explain that I wanted to be where the action is (not off in some suburban neighborhood). They asked how much the rents were in town and I told them they were less than what she was asking for here, and they are.

About Wi-Fi and the Internet

I may have explained this before but there is no cable here. Everyone uses satellite dishes for TV and Internet. And I’m learning how to borrow Wi-Fi wherever I go. A lot of the cafes have free Wi-Fi if you sit in their areas and buy coffee or beer or a drink. Same with the restaurants. Or, you can sit just outside the shop and connect, which is what I did today when I made it to Old Town, sitting down on the ancient rock street, leaning against an equally old building. The glare was terrible but I was able to get a few things done before the laptop battery wore down, including sending a message to Anita about where I was. I tried calling first but there was no answer. She has now learned that “anonymous” on her caller ID means Ken on Skype.

On the walk to town, I stopped for breakfast at a pekara (bakery) for a chocolate filled pastry and orange soda. Wasn’t sure what I would be able to accomplish without Anita but I had to get to Wi-Fi in order to call or text her. BTW, she is reading this blog and sent a link to her parents in Zagreb. Her father, who once worked for the UN in the U.S. then forwarded it to Croatia’s tourist agency to show how Croatians should behave to visitors. I told her that might open up a job opportunity for her.

With my butt hurting from the street and my battery almost done, I decided to try to find a studio apartment that was advertised on the island. (Actually it’s a peninsula, as Anita’s friend, Mario, pointed out to me today. I like to think of it as an island since it’s connected to the mainland by a landfill turned into a park.)

Couldn’t find the studio apartment, despite walking into several buildings and asking someone at a tour booking company for help. Temp was over 90 again today, with bright sunshine, and my pack was getting heavy. Plus, all I had to eat to this point 2-3 pm was that pastry. Stopped at a small place selling pizza and quiche. Ordered a ham and cheese focaccio and carried it back to the main square, where I ordered a beer and called Anita again. Turns out, she and Mario had just passed through the square and joined me a minute later. She called several apartments and they all wanted longer-term tenants than my three-month stay. She is tenacious. I’m trying to figure out how to negotiate the price on my hostel down to a more single-person rate for an extra 5 days. I do have an idea, however.

If Croats are much like my new friends, Anita and Mario, they all have a keen interest in the United States. The questions don’t stop – about my traveling, about American politics and culture, education, we’re just getting started. Their curiosity is great and I’m trying to answer what I can. For you Republicans listening in (darn, didn’t I exile you already?), they admire Obama, wish he would succeed and don’t understand why he can’t get anything accomplished. Their idea of the president, brought on by their history of tyrannical rule, is that he should be able to say it is so, and it will be so. I’ve been trying to explain the realities of the process, but we’re just getting started. My son-in-law would be interested to know that Mario was asking about the Federal Reserve today, a topic I’m not well versed on. I’m sure in the next three months the three of us will have some lively discussions. One thing that did come out was that they believe the whole world, not just those of us in the U.S., were embarrassed by the Bush presidency.

I am constantly amazed, BTW, at how good their English is, so we talked a little about that. Mario was shocked that we don’t start kids on a second language usually until they reach high school. In Croatia, kids take a second language in first grade, and then take a third 3-4 years later. English and German are the recommended languages. By the time they reach high school, they are fluent in three languages. They do not understand why we don’t do this in the States, and if I had given an answer, it would have been that Americans are too arrogant to believe they need to know other languages. And that we have so devalued our public education system that we are hurting our future generations.

Mario is an intense Yugoslavian who, when he was 11, was moved to Belgium to get away from the war. He is a civil engineer by training and currently is trying to start his own business. He thanks the U.S. for our involvement in that war. Everyone in Croatia and Europe, he says, look to the U.S. for guidance, and are confounded when we do stupid things, like invade other countries.

Anita, my angel, talks about the inequities in her new democracy. You need to know people here in order to succeed, she says. Hard work and ambition will not get you a good job. Only connections will. They are both disillusioned with the opportunities their country provides and Anita would absolutely love to visit the U.S. She has never been outside Croatia. I told her I would help if I could. She would absolutely excel in the U.S. She is hoping to land a job writing a column for an online site, about politics and police activity. She says they will pay her 4,000 kunas, ($800) a month and says that’s all she needs to live well. Once I get settled I’ll see what I can do to help her get into journalism.

Before we parted company they invited me to join them and Anita ex-boss at the Zodiac, a bar in Old Town. Means a long walk back but if I can get Internet and get her message I will gladly go. Also, Mario owns a car, and they mentioned going on a “picnic” trip in the next few days, somewhere outside Zadar. I’m all for that, aren’t I Jack?

Finally, I still can’t believe the opportunities I’ve been presented with to learn through these two intelligent, inquisitive and friendly people. The stars were aligned.

After we split, I went to the grocery and loaded up, even knowing I had a long walk back with lots of weight to carry. Bought some eggs, bacon, ground beef, pasta, canned tomatoes, garlic, salty, sugar, instant flavored coffee, candy, cheese, sodas, brandy, can of beer, onions and butter (just over $40, one-fourth of that for the brandy). It was a tough walk back. Now, it’s about time to make some spaghetti.

Since I can’t get Internet, but the landlady gave me a code I assumed was for Internet, I went downstairs to ask. She checked with a neighbor and best I can tell I’m supposed to have Wi-Fi, except it still doesn’t work. Was able to determine that they are German. They also have a beautiful German Sheppard in the backyard, but he didn’t take kindly to my approaching him, even with his master right there.

A Nothin’ Happening Kind of Day

Had high hopes of securing an apartment today – had a couple of prospects in addition to the one I toured Sunday. Needed my angel. Woke up way late – man I haven’t gotten used to the time difference from the U.S. (6 hours) – and called Anita on Skype. She was working until 4 pm so there was no hurry. Found a free Wi-Fi connection out on the deck and did some Facebook photo postings. I have a digital camera now, so I’m going to be a fiend. Pictures, pictures, and more pictures!

Anyway, walked into town using my backpack for the computer instead of the side satchel. Much better. Distributed the weight better. Have to admit that after the previous three days of intensive walking, my feet are getting sore and my legs a little tired. Therefore …

Tomorrow, I move to another hostel for at least two days. It’s much closer to where I walk every day and to the island. Have to share a bathroom, however. Hope she’s cute. The hostel is called Apartment Cvita and can be found searching that name and add “zadar.”

Found Anita at her “kiosk” at the front gate of Old Town. She pulled out a stool for me to sit on, offered me her orange juice and we talked for an hour. Finally, I left to get something to eat (this one meal a day routine reminds me of Vietnam). Went to another Italian restaurant (Anita says there is a heavy Italian influence in Zadar) and ordered a prosciutto/mozzarella combination appetizer. Came with some olives and lettuce/tomato. Excellent. $10. And, of course, a Croatian beer, this time Ožujsko, which tasted similar to the Karlovacko brand I tried yesterday.

Then, back to the angel. Saved some of my lunch in case she hadn’t eaten. Good idea. She was hungry. We moved to the square and ordered a beer, starting on phone calls for apartments. Well, she started. I just listened. The apartment in the front gate area we called about the day before was already rented. The one I had toured was renting to someone for a week, figuring I wasn’t interested. A couple of other calls were fruitless. You gotta act fast, I guess!

After our beers (one I knocked off the table, breaking on the cement) we went back to the apartment Anita shares with Mario, stopping first for liquid refreshment. Their apartment is pretty nice but it’s in a high-rise in the middle of town, so think about a flat in Brooklyn for comparison. I then walked back to the hostel and paid for my two extra days, and then got online to change my temporary address to Apartment Cvita.

Oh, did I mention trying to launder my passport? NOTE: Make sure everything is out of your pockets before dunking them in soapy water. Had to resort to my Costa Rican training and hand wash some things last night. Forgot that my passport was in a pair of shorts. It was soaked but the new version, after air drying, feels more world traveled.

Tomorrow: the search for a home.