Rupture sews itself in the city’s fabric.
Zagreb has been bombed at least twice in its history. During the closing months of World War II, Allied forces dropped hundreds of bombs on the capital, headquarters for the Ustase, Croatia’s Nazi collaborators. Fifty years later, over two days in May with the city’s parks and gardens undoubtedly in bloom, Serb rebel forces fired rockets on Mazuranic Square—levelling the Academy of Dramatic Arts and wounding ballet dancers from Russia and Ukraine—in retaliation for President Franjo Tudman’s advances in Serb-strong Slavonia.
If a map of modern Croatia resembles a snapping turtle’s beak chomping Bosnia and Herzegovina, then Zagreb is the reptile’s steely eye—the eye of the storm in many ways. Zagreb teeters at a European crossroads: the precipice between the north with its tidy and orderly and elegant cities and the south with its uncouth and unruly and unpredictable ones. Vienna gapes from the northwest. Budapest lurks in the northeast. In the east, Belgrade barks and bites. Across Istria and the Adriatic, Venice snarls and shows its teeth. Over the last one thousand years, Zagreb has been under the aegis, patronage, and yoke of a myriad of colonials, conspirators, and conquerors: the Tartars, the Hungarians, the Hapsburgs. Its history is one of breech and rift.
Rupture sews itself in the city’s fabric.
In Gornji Grad, the Upper Town, just west of Dolca market, with its rows of oranges and stacks of leeks, and the gothic spirals of the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and just south of St Mark’s Church, with its tiled roof draped in the Croat medieval coat of arms, sits a peculiar museum in a particularly modest house in the indisputable heart of Zagreb: The Museum of Broken Relationships.
The museum is an organic, ever-growing exploration into the nature of failed love, an archeology of romantic ruin, in which personal objects that witnessed the end of a relationship are displayed along with a sombre story explaining the bond between person and thing. Of Croat origins, the museum has recently taken its heartache on the road to reveal an international network of heartbreak; it now includes tear-soaked mementos from every corner of the world. Judging by the enthusiasm that people have participated in honouring their suffering, the curators claim the shared stories fill a void in a society’s consciousness. A culture can respect the pain associated with the ending of lives but none that comes from the demise of personal relationships, whose slippery meanings and manifestations often go ungrieved.
Instead of wallowing in self-pity, the argument continues, people can overcome their collapse by excavating the mines of their misery, laying bare the effects of the break, and revealing the metamorphosis and mutation underwent—a butterfly that remembers the pupa, the chrysalis, the caterpillar, the egg. Through giving to the museum’s collection, the lovesick are resurrected in the fire, and they reassemble their ashes and glow from reanimation. A phoenix. A glorious phoenix.
We are all invited to participate in the collective mourning. And on the day I visit in April, among the crowds, I wonder if I have anything on my person I can donate, some small token I can kill on the altar in hope that a god or goddess may light my path with requited love.
I do not.
I have not loved anything in a decade.
So it goes.
The space is tight and compact, the walls the colour of thistles.
At the vendor’s table, a bottleneck develops, and I wheedle my way around the gift shop and its souvenirs—tables of “Bad Memories” erasers, anti-stress pencils, and empty diaries beside rows of hanging, white t-shirts reading “I Love Breakups.” The entrepreneurial spirit on display is admirable.
Inside, a dozen or so adults shuffle from display to display. The occasional sniffle breaks the silence as does a child’s frequent cries of boredom. The museum has a languid almost suffocating air. It is hot with recrimination. Inevitable is the feeling. Fate has imprisoned action, rendered it mute and immobile, and glued it to acrylic and doused it in light.
Love rarely gets it right.
We are all invited to participate in the collective mourning.
I decided a long time ago I have nothing left to give.
The panels tell bruising stories of loss. These people hurt. Yet what most stands out amid the tears is the sense of perplexity. Confusion is an underlying leitmotif of the narratives. Confusion and anger. And sadness. But it is not self-indulgent or maudlin; it is melancholy without pretense of an audience. It makes no scene at a bar; it throws no dishes at a wall. It just sits silently there and asks for a moment. It only asks. We who walk these halls decide to read and to take the burden. We say yes, we can ease your load for a bit. Give me your pain, and perhaps you would like some of my mine in return. We will trade stories of heartbreak and maybe then we’ll feel a little lighter.
I decided a long time ago I have nothing left to give. Spent. Empty. And it is fine. But since I am here, I will take some of the pain on offer. I will lighten the load. I will take the stories and pass them along.
A plush Snoopy waves to me behind a sheet of acrylic. The dog belonged to a Dutch woman who received it from her boyfriend for her seventeenth birthday on a pristine and clean March afternoon, a boy whom she loved, a boy with whom she knew on some level she would spend the rest of her life. And for over thirty years, Snoopy watched the two build a life together with his cute button eyes—three sons, a house, a marriage—and then watched that love crumble. He met another woman and chose her. He said he never loved her. For over thirty years, he never loved her, yet he woke up with her, made love to her, told her intimate and sad things. They named their sons together. What was it then? She wants to know. What was it? She does not understand.
In a red hexagon case sit two broken champagne glasses on a towelette. They come from a woman from Denver who was married to a man for over twenty-two years. On their wedding night, they poured Dom Perion into the glasses and toasted their union. And for twenty-one more nights, they clinked their glasses, sipped from the sparkling wine, and celebrated a love that evolved, grew, from an empty word spoken amid children and pets to a project built on sacrifice, sincerity, and selflessness, from a single grain to a golden wheat field, from a blade of grass to a city of luscious lights. Then one year the ritual stopped, and a new anniversary began: separation. The epicurean ritual would have continued long into the night had he not murdered the project, poisoned the wheat field, pillaged the city, and sucked the grape juices from a younger and fitter vine. On the night she broke the glasses, she felt angry, cheated, and betrayed. She felt everything but him.
On paper, a young English woman has written a list of ten reasons why her boyfriend should not move to Australia. The reasons she gives for staying are lighthearted—“I would feel less guilty about my carbon footprint if you were a bit more local” or “I can’t afford to post your (numerous) love letters to Australia”—but underneath the playful jokes, in the spaces between the letters, peeks a gloom. She knows that the relationship has ended. She knows that what once was—the intimacies, the secrets, the confidentials—will never be again. Yet she cannot face it; she will not accept it. He had seen her, known her, not as the football-playing tomboy who intimated all the other boys, not as the scrawny, swan-necked girl who could not differentiate between lipsticks to save her life, not as unsophisticated or unworthy, but as her, as she saw herself—smart, sensual, sophisticated, and worthy of love. Who would not fight to keep that for a second longer? No more depressing moment in life exists than introducing yourself to a potential flame when your heart still burns and beats for another. Stay with me, the note whispers. Do not go. What a strange sensation it is to drown in feeling.
Four compact discs lie on their sides washed in light. They go unlistened, and I cannot abide that. A story sings from the bumpy polycarbonate, and I jot it down. She sings me a song, and I record it. Unless it is written down, immortalized in words, the sensations will slip away. Record everything or have nothing. Honour what you have, even heartbreak.
I wish to share what I have heard.
Stay with me, the note whispers. Do not go.
A relationship, in whatever shape, is mere practice to a departure, only a prelude to a farewell.
Zagreb is a city of parks and benches. From the oak-lined pathways of Maksimir Park, to the greenery of the Sava banks, to the centennial trees of Ribnjak Park, the city has ample space for love’s disintegration. In fact, on some April days, with the war long gone and the taste of rebirth on everyone’s lips, it is a theatre of sorrow.
It is Saturday evening. Dusk slips over the skyline and darkens lumps of clouds stuck over the city. Blue trams rumble along Illica street past its tobacco vendors and baroque balconies, past the elaborate door heads and jean stores, its bold balusters and bookshops selling the latest Harper Lee in correct Croatian. Shoppers strut from sale to sale with bags in hand, shoes skipping over the tight sidewalks. In Ban Jelačić square, beside the bronze statue of the national hero Jelačić himself, crowds mingle and wait for the first band to take the stage of some ill-defined weekend cultural event. Cords and fences crisscross the square-tiled grounds, which, in due course, fill with more and more revelers.
My head hisses with Staropramen, the result of three misspent hours sampling delectable yeast alone on Tkalciceva’s raucous patios. South of the main square, three city parks sit back to back to back across three city blocks. In Park Zrinjevac, families sit on blankets beside resting bicycles and wait for the performers to commence on Muzicki Pavilion. Children in striped sweaters scamper toward the empty fountain below budding elms, manicured junipers, and gray swashes of cloud. A Bahkmull hound with a comb over and a scarlet scarf stands with two red leashes tied to her. Her back has been shaven, her legs fluffy with fur. The woman ensnaring her fields questions about her breed and temperament. I hear sound checks from the stage.
Between the ornate Art Pavilion and the derelict train station sits Tomislava Park, named for the first king of independent Croatia from the tenth century. His statue stands serious and sober, set in cold marble. Tomislava sits on horseback and raises his sword to the heavens. Teenagers socialize and drink bottled beer beneath him.
Amid the pathways and green lawns, magnolias explode from the ground. These are extraordinary trees, and they are in bloom. Their flowers resemble tulips, which from the slightest breeze, float and drift and waft to the other petals pooling in purple puddles on the soft ground. The trunks are skinny, the branches wild and unruly. They stay close to the soil and look like lavender mushrooms. And underneath one saucer magnolia, on a wooden bench, and in the falling flowers, a man and a woman sit.
She wears a heavy coat, which she tightens around her neck; her silvery hair falls in waves across her shoulders. He is in khakis and a wool, bisque parka. His hair curls into brown ribbons. She could be his mother, but she is not. They do not speak, only stare ahead at the pastel townhouses, cut hedges, and sauntering couples. His fingers hide in her hand, his prints slipping along her palm, moving across her lines. He drops his head to her shoulder and closes his eyes; hers are open, heavy, sunken. They both breathe in the silence.
I watch them in solidarity, for I too know the trouble of trampling a wilted rose. I too know the bravest thing is often walking away.
She remembers, I think, the mornings full of light, waking in her warm bed next to him, the thin sun leaking, sneaking, and sniffing through the blinds, watching his torso rise and fall in mellifluous rhythm, waiting for him to regain his stucco eyes and wish her a pleasant morning. Over the last eight months, she decided to forego the caustic questioning as to why—why would this lean boy drop his younger lips on her older ones, why would he choose me, someone twice his age—and instead focus, for once in her life, on the moments, those sinuous and sticky motions, the laughs and stares, the conversations and confessions. She knew that it would not last, conceded that the romance was doomed, fated to extinguish as the sun eventually would, yes a dying star, yet she reasoned that all moments inevitably end, all love abates, all lives finally fade, but their conclusions do not lessen their effect, their warmth and glow, as life itself is their sum. She kissed him that morning when he woke.
But on this April evening, the cold hands of reality have finally reached them. She will let him go. The grandfather clock has struck twelve, their time together done, over, finished. The magic still pumps, though, and that hurts the most. Yet to love something is to let it go. To love someone is to say goodbye with equanimity, a piece of poise, and a measure of magnanimity. A relationship, in whatever shape, is mere practice to a departure, only a prelude to a farewell. And that is alright, she knows. It is okay.
He opens his eyes, loosens his fingers from her hand, and reaches into his coat. Handing her the CD case, he looks at her perhaps a moment longer than he should have, still hurt, still confused, before he composes himself, kisses her cheek for a second shorter than he normally would have, and then disappears into a Zagreb Saturday, buzzing with endless excitement and untold possibility.
At home, she listens to his music, a shard of him, and falls listlessly asleep to the sounds of piano notes complimenting one another in effortless harmony. When she dies, those four compact discs will contain all trace of him. Only she knows his name and only she honours his memory.
But I promise to share his name only if she asks.
I do not buy any souvenirs when I exit the museum. As with most unique and lovely things, the museum has begun to drown in its own popularity. Despite its claims for rebirth, for the broken to become immortal phoenixes, The Museum of Broken Relationships provides no proof of that evolution and certainly no panaceas to being broken or recipes for becoming whole. We grieve. We move on. We mourn and we go on. And that is good. We are born broken and will remain so. It is fait accompli.
Not me, though. I stopped all that a while back. Now, I just wait. Now, I just watch.
In the meantime, I will carry your stories for you, for I have no more to share. Give me your stories so I have something to read when the night comes. Pass me your stories. I have plenty of room for them.
Outside, the weather is grey and cool. From the funicular transporting tourists and local between the Upper and Lower towns, I see Zagreb stretch before me. Church steeples and red roofs. Elm trees getting greener. Buildings growing taller. Below, people do their thing.
In 2008, an editor of a local Zagreb newspaper was assassinated. A few years ago, within a span of two days, two bombs detonated—one on a railway track in Podsused, then at a bus stop in Stenjevac—and roused Zagreb from its complacency. Fascists have begun whispering from the shadows. Is violence returning after nearly twenty years of relative calm? No one anywhere can say for sure.
I admire the courage. I really do.
I wish I could kiss uncertainty.
Pain or love.
Yet everything lingers.
This is the only truth I care to know.
We are born broken and will remain so.
Feature image by Brian Eager, "Gornji Grad Livno".