Zagreb, 1997, Operetta at the Presidential Palace

This is from 1997.  I threw in the picture of the necktie shop in this tranche of photos, just because it seemed to go with the uniforms.

May 11, 1997

Zagreb, Croatia

Dear Friends,

We’re in our eleventh week of wandering Europe after the evacuation.  We had planned to be gone two.   We’ll be in Zagreb another week before traveling to Vienna to get visas and then to Serbia as IREX plans our alternative lives for us.

I still enjoy being awakened by church bells at 6:00 AM.  Since it’s summer they seem louder with the windows open.

Earlier in the week we were riding a tram through Trg Ban Jelacic, the main square, and heard the Chilean Pan Pipers doing “Guantanamera.”  I looked at my watch, 9:30, like clockwork, more accurate than the bell tower.  If it has been “El Condor Pasa” it would have been approaching the top of the hour.  The next day we rode through the square and they were gone, like the condor, and that afternoon were replaced with a German sounding ompah band.   They didn’t have their music cases open for donations, but rather played in front of a big “Austrian Airlines” banner.

Croatia is attempting to downplay its Balkan ties and emphasize its historic ties with Central Europe and the West. My favorite article making the tie with the West was in a shopping brochure.  “Today there is practically no continent without neckties…”  “(The) handmade silk necktie is among the best known Croatian souvenirs, the best reflection of (the) civilization and cultural development of our people.”  When I visited the biggest commercial station in Zagreb they gave me a silk necktie — made in Italy — as a souvenir, (in the same way I would have given a visitor to my station a coffee mug.)

Today we tried to watch the changing of the guard at the Presidency again.  This time it happened.  We arrived at 11:30 just before some guards who could be changed took their positions in the square.  Several other Croat soldiers watched, wearing fatigues and berets, leaning against the wall of St. Mark’s Church smoking Marlboros.  While we were waiting a group of teenagers put on an impromptu display of rollerblade jumping, trying to clear a cardboard box.  One younger brother skated along on his 4X4s rather than in-line skates.  Training wheels.

At about two to twelve the first of Zagreb’s church bells started tolling the hour.  At the noon cannon shot, drums and trumpets sounded to our left and some little girls in their first communion dresses filed out of St. Mark’s to our right.  A line of soldiers approached from each side marching with bolt action rifles on the right shoulder.  Their left elbows stuck strait out, their white gloved left hands repeatedly fluttered out, parallel to the pavement and then back to the chest.

The uniforms are from a turn of the century operetta, a scarlet tunic with matching cape worn over the left shoulder that flows with the arm movement.  There’s lots of gold piping and a round hat with a bronze plume.  Each trooper has a wide belt with twelve shiny brass bullets and a gold fringed black cravat with a stick pin.  The officers have cream uniforms with black capes.

In the ceremony the troops face each other along two lines painted on the pavement.  Each soldier’s number in the dance is painted on the cobble.  And dance it is, choreographed by the national theater, a contra dance with 10 couples.  The line on the callers left does a forward (to the dashed line)and back with a sashay to the left and a sashay to the right followed by a high locked knee kick and an awkward left arm movement fixing bayonets.  Then the first two couples do a “do si do,” and pass through, passing on the right rather than the left because they continue to swing their left arms out and back.  The “do si do” is when the guard actually changes.  Then the line on the caller’s right does a forward and back and left and right sashay.  On the caller’s command the lines (all but the two guards who will remain) do a “pass through.”  Finally, with a left face they march off in different directions to trumpet and drum.  The crowd of small children and old men pause a second before polite applause.

We walked to Radiceva street where there are several outdoor cafes and were joined by well dressed families coming from church.  On Radiceve there is another type of changing of the guard.  Zagreb has a brigade of sanitation workers who drive pedicabs, except instead of passengers each carries two green dumpsters.  The sanitation men have their own uniform, a blue gray jacket with a green shoulder yoke, blue gray pants with a reflective white stripe and a Tyrolian style cap in gray and green.  They look like “Italian Swiss Colony” forest rangers, each armed with a broom.  Each day at 1:00 about fifteen peddle up this street for lunch and at 1:30 they peddle back.  They do a good job.  The streets are clean.

Take Care,

Rich McClear

3 thoughts on “Zagreb, 1997, Operetta at the Presidential Palace

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