The Streetcars of Zagreb

Cheryl Dietrich

An eerie mechanical moan interrupted the familiar clang of a streetcar passing on the avenue outside. I heard feet thunder down the stairs and a hubbub of excitement spread through our NATO headquarters building. Curious, I joined a Canadian sergeant at the nearest window and looked out at the scene one story below.
    A man lay dazed and bleeding in the icy street. A silent crowd had gathered around him. In dress and demeanor, but most of all in their stern silence, they appeared to be local citizens, Croatians. As I watched, a group of my coworkers, military members from several nations, spilled out of our building and through the security gate onto the street. They took over, performing first aid and directing traffic. The onlookers dispersed.
    I shivered, despite the steam rising up from the old–fashioned radiators in our overheated office. In winter Zagreb was plain and treacherous. The daily snowfall had arrived like clockwork at midmorning, its cleansing, white cold providing an hour’s relief in the gloomy January darkness. But traffic and pollution dirtied the new snow as soon as it met the frozen ground. The snow piled along the roadside was charcoal gray and oily to the touch, the pavement slick with snow–covered ice.
    Apparently, the injured man had slid into the side of a passing streetcar. He was fortunate; he could have fallen in front of it. He was recovering now, his bleeding having stopped. He tried to rise despite the soldiers who gently restrained him. As I watched him being lifted onto the stretcher of an ambulance, I realized that he had shown no signs of expecting help, neither calling out nor looking up in search of an outstretched hand. I shivered again.
    I had no reason to remain standing at the window, but exhaustion and inertia kept me there—a few minutes’ reprieve from the work that would claim me as soon as I turned back toward the room. I was a U.S. Air Force major, in Zagreb as a member of Commander for Support (C–Spt), an ad hoc NATO headquarters that coordinated the logistical support of the peace implementation forces in Bosnia. My department was responsible for all the personnel actions needed to support our multinational staff, including filling out that staff with over two hundred trained military members and local national employees. At first this meant fourteen–hour days coaxing and coercing NATO member nations into coughing up the personnel they had agreed to provide. The work was exhausting and painfully humbling, a job neither my background nor rank prepared me to do. Still, it was also engrossing and challenging, and the people I worked with were the cream of fourteen nations’ military services. The problem was not my work. The problem was Zagreb.
    From the office window I could see the United Nations compound across the street and the Wall of Shame that bordered it. The wall stood almost three feet tall and extended as far as I could see around the city block the UN inhabited, with just a couple of openings to allow access into the compound. The wall consisted of red bricks balanced on top of one another, with flowers and the occasional picture tucked into the spaces in between. Croatian families built it brick by brick in grief and anger. Each brick bore a single name scrawled in white paint, the name of a loved one who died in the civil war while UN peacekeepers were in the country. The wall was meant to humiliate the UN, to remind the world of its failure, though no one I saw coming or going across the way seemed to pay it any attention.
    The bricks numbered in the thousands, and these were the Croatian fatalities only. Perhaps, somewhere Serbs and Bosnians were building their own walls. As I stood staring out the window, I realized the Croatians had it wrong. It was not the UN that was responsible for all those names. And I asked myself, not for the first time, “Cheryl, what on earth are you doing here?”

    In January of 1996 when I first arrived, less than six weeks had passed since the Dayton Peace Accords were signed. Zagreb felt like a hostile, sullen city, accepting peace reluctantly, suspiciously even. I was billeted in a downtown hotel room, so as deployments go, I was warm, comfortable, and clean. Still, I was chilled by my first impression of Zagreb, a city that reminded me of a wounded animal, frozen in anger and pain.
    White Christmas lights still decorated the city center, but their brightness did little to lighten the dismal street corners. Tawdry booths dotted the pedestrian walkways leading to the Hotel Dubrovnik, which I was to call home for the next four months. They sold the favorite seasonal fare of European marketplaces— grilled sausages hinting of paprika, sugared almonds, hot mulled wine. But the smells, which should have been cheering, were slightly off, as if the food and drink they broadcast had been prepared days before and were being kept warm just in case a customer should appear. I seldom saw anyone stop at these isolated stalls, whose proprietors stood stiff, like crudely carved nutcrackers, and unsmiling behind scarred wooden counters. The stalls seemed a ghoulish travesty of the bustling Christmas markets in Germany, where I had been stationed for the last eight years.
    That dreary winter Zagreb looked like the shell–shocked remnant of the Austro–Hungarian Empire that it was, a sort of poor man’s Vienna. Its past glory had barely survived in Yugoslavia, the slumgullion cooked up by the victors of World War I. Years of Nazi occupation, communism, and then civil war had destroyed whatever charm the city must have had. Its stately buildings, once painted a proud Hapsburg yellow, had degenerated into a putrid khaki, like a molding Dijon mustard. Their white trim was now gray and peeling. Chunks of plaster, worn by time and gouged out by shrapnel, still littered the ground surrounding the once–majestic palaces.
    As with any old city, Zagreb’s streets were not built to accommodate modern traffic, so cars and trucks idled constantly within the town center. A miasma of gasoline and diesel fumes mingled with polluted snow to create an acrid smell that on a bad day could burn the inside of your nostrils. Whether because of that smell or the sharp cold, I don’t know, but on the worst days, so many people wore wool scarves pulled up over their faces to the bridge of the nose that they looked like a population of bandits.
    Walking was faster than driving, so the sidewalks were jammed with people scurrying along, usually alone, slipping across the sludge–covered pavement. Perhaps, it was the scarves that made them so silent and solitary. I seldom saw people strolling together, giggling in couples, or chattering in groups. Even on the streetcars they stayed quietly apart. Once, riding to work, I was startled by the unusual sound of laughter and excited voices from the front of the car. Through the crowd I recognized a group of exuberant Brits in a lively but good–natured discussion about soccer. The Croatian passengers stared at them with stern disapproval.
    These electric streetcars, the most efficient system of transportation in Zagreb, linked the two locations that made up my world there: the hotel where I slept and the office where I spent most of my time. Electrically powered and running on their own tracks, the trams buzzed right past the stalled city traffic. The few seats lined the sides of the car. Most people stood crammed in the middle of the aisle, swaying with the curves while clinging to plastic straps hanging from the ceiling.
    The Zagrebers were used to seeing people in foreign military uniforms and generally ignored us on the trams. We must have all looked alike to them in our combat boots and camouflage uniforms. They probably didn’t distinguish minor differences in colors and rank designations. The important thing to them was that we did not wear the blue berets of the UN, an entity that was hated throughout the city. Instead, we wore NATO badges clipped to our jackets or dangling from chains. The badges spelled out IFOR (Implementation Force) in both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. NATO benefited from the lesson the UN had painfully learned, that it is impossible to keep a peace that doesn’t exist. Therefore, our task was to implement peace. Thousands of well–armed troops backed by the political determination of the Western powers guaranteed success.
    In C–Spt we were not armed nor did we really need the camouflage uniforms most of us wore, but they were comfortable and easy to maintain. We worked in an office building in a Croatian Army compound in the city. NATO was paying to renovate the building, which had been a boarded–up shell before we moved in. At first we worked at rickety, borrowed desks, sneezing from the sawdust generated by the ongoing renovation projects. We conducted business holding the receivers of our antiquated telephones tight to one ear while blocking the other ear against the noise of pounding hammers and the high–pitched whine of electric saws. With the ever–increasing international staff jammed into the finished offices, the place was a riot of unending noise.
    Nevertheless, that dusty, noisy building was a haven away from the oppressive gray silence that dominated the bleak city streets. In there we were alive—laughing, arguing, shouting above the din of the constant construction. C–Spt echoed with the constant jabbering of accented English. Two–thirds of the military there were native English speakers; among them accents ranged from soft, lilting Welsh to crisp, professional army British to French–tinged Canadian English. We Yanks, the largest national group, added our mix of southern drawls, Brooklyn accents, and midwestern twangs to this lingual stew. The phrases “I didn’t understand you” and “Say it again” peppered our staff meetings.
    I seldom heard Croatian spoken except in the restaurants, where hearty beer and taut–skinned, juicy sausages loosened the silent tongues and gave me a glimpse of a Zagreb where I, as an outsider, was not welcome. I dutifully took the lunchtime classes in Croatian offered by one of our translators and learned to say hvala (thank you) and mourn (please). On my days off I wandered the streets looking for a key to unlock the secrets of this sullen city. I used my limited Croatian in shops, restaurants, and cafés but never received so much as a smile in return.
    One day I heard a slight noise behind me. The Croatians were too silent a people in public to create anything that could be called a commotion, but I had a sense that the sound level around me had shifted, so I turned around to find the cause. At the foot of one of the streetcars, an old woman sprawled, hands still grasping two shopping bags. Curious bystanders stared down at her, saying nothing, offering no help. I started toward her, but she was already struggling unassisted to her feet. She limped away and disappeared into the crowd. I thought of the man injured outside our office, lying bleeding and alone in the road, dependent on the help of a bunch of foreigners. If I had reached the old woman and offered her a hand up, would she have accepted it?
    The gray, icy days were fair game for my solitary ramblings, but our commander, a sensible U.S. Army two–star, required us to travel in pairs or larger groups after dark. “A lot of the men are packing:’ he said. “Don’t think everyone’s happy that we’re making them act nice.” Centuries of conflict and violence in the Balkans had kept the area’s three ethnic and religious groups in a perpetual struggle for power and vengeance, periodically exchanging victim, ally, and aggressor roles. Only Tito’s leadership had held the warring groups together under one nation, which no longer existed. The best we could do was keep the groups apart.
    A friend told me of a Croatian he had talked with over a beer. The young man had smilingly confided that he was just waiting for NATO to leave so he could kill some Serbs, any Serbs, because after all, Serbs had killed members of his family. To him this was a personal feud, not a war fought for political differences that could be resolved by impartial outsiders. At best we were guards keeping the gangs separated. They were all waiting for us to look away.
    As I wandered through the city, I felt in the bitter air a hatred that was palpable and terrible, its fierce passion carried on the icy wind, its bite all the more dangerous for being frozen. It was not directed at me, but I would return from my walks discouraged and enclose myself in the cocoon of my hotel room.
    The question kept nagging me. What was I doing here?

One morning I studied my face in the mirror, shocked at what I saw: sallow skin with patches of a rough rash; gray semicircies under the eyes; nose raw from the sinus flu I had been battling for two months. My hair fizzed and drooped waywardly over my head, the result of a bad, last–minute perm done before I flew to Zagreb. Worst of all were the dull, lifeless eyes, opaque as if no light reached beyond their flat surface. The person I saw in the mirror looked like a stranger— one I didn’t particularly care to meet. Sighing, I plugged in my curling iron and reached for foundation and makeup sponge. Then the absurdity of it struck me. There I was in my battle–dress uniform and boots, getting ready to face another day in this forbidding city by applying makeup to prettify myself.
    I made a decision. All I would be for these next months was a U.S. airman. That was the only identity I wanted to hold onto in Zagreb. I set down the makeup and unplugged the curling iron. I ignored the earrings I had taken out, dragged a comb through my fizz, and pulled on my uniform. That afternoon I took myself to a barber shop where the staff spoke a little German. I told the young Croatian woman hovering morosely over me to cut my hair short. “Kurz?” she repeated to confirm. “Ja, kurz!” I emphasized, removing my glasses. So, it was my own fault that when she finished and handed me my glasses and a mirror, I found myself sporting a haircut just two grades longer than a Marine’s buzz cut. I couldn’t see any trace of myself in that mirror, but that was what I had wanted.
    Now, years later, I realize that I may have been observing the ceremonies of grief, eschewing makeup and ornamentation, chopping my hair off, making an offering to appease the deadly, silent city. But at the time I believed that I could turn into the anonymous soldier suggested by my uniform and store Cheryl away for the remainder of my Croatian tour. I might have succeeded except for two encounters on the Zagreb streetcars.
    The first was in early March. It was still blustery and cold, but crocuses gleamed in the filthy snow, promising an end to the bleak winter. It was dusk, and I was leaving work with Lewis, a U.S. Army captain also staying at the Hotel Dubrovnik. We clambered aboard a crowded streetcar and pushed our way into the middle.
    After several stops the tram started to clear out a little. And then I heard, from somewhere ahead of us, the distinct but heavily accented words, “New York. Washington. Kennedy. America. Ya–a–ay!” I looked beyond the passenger planted stolidly in front of me and saw an old man sitting two rows up, staring eagerly at us over the back of his seat and repeating, “Kennedy. New York. America.” I smiled and nodded, then carefully articulated one of the few phrases I had learned in Croatian, “Dobro vece” (good evening). His face glowed, and he responded, “Dobro vece’ then began a fast spiel in Croatian. I shook my head and interrupted, carefully sounding out the syllables I had learned for “I don’t speak Croatian. Do you speak English?”
    The old man grimaced with exaggerated sorrow, jerked his upturned palms into the air, shrugged, and with amusing self–deprecation repeated, “New York. Washington. Kennedy. Ich spreche Deutsch. Sprecht ihr Deutsch?” Lewis’s blank look clearly said nein, but I replied that I spoke a little German. The old man sprang from his seat and pushed his way back to us.
    He was tiny from the depredations of old age, but he was still a dapper man, neatly dressed in a threadbare suit whose style was popular forty years ago. His face was smoothly shaven, his hair impeccably cut. He had an air of old–fashioned courtliness. He disdained the straps we were clinging to, instead swaying along to the streetcar’s movement with the grace of long experience. His German, while only slightly less elementary than mine, was clearly spoken and well accented. He began eagerly questioning me. How long had we been in Croatia? Did we like it? (I politely lied.) Where were we from? How had I learned German?
    He was a pleasant old gentleman, but when he invited us to have coffee with him, I refused without hesitation. I informed him that it just wasn’t possible, that unfortunately we didn’t have the time. I didn’t tell him the truth, that I was exhausted. All I wanted was to sit alone in my darkened hotel room, smoking and looking out over the dim lights of the city. The old man repeated his invitation, but my refusal stayed firm.
    “What’s he saying?” Lewis asked.
    “He wants to take us out to coffee.”
    “Oh!” Interest brightened Lewis’s eyes, “That would be wonderful!”
    “I told him we can’t go’ I watched the excitement in Lewis’s face fade, disappointment struggling with obedience. The soldier won out; he nodded and schooled his face into indifference.
    At another stop we paused while commuters struggled in and out of the narrow tram doors. Once we were underway the old man spoke again, raising his voice as the streetcar clattered over intersecting tracks, a sign we were nearing the city center.
    “What is your rank?” he asked in German.
    “Major’ I responded, articulating mai–yor as the Germans do.
    “Ach, du bistsojung.” (You are so young.)
    “Nein,” I said, “nein.” He looked disbelieving, so I informed him I was a grandmother. The word I used, Grossmutter, was such simple German that I was surprised by his puzzled expression.
    “Ich verstehe nicht.” (I don’t understand.) So I repeated a little louder, enunciating a little more clearly, “Ich bin eine Grossmutter” When he still looked puzzled, I switched to the colloquial granny. “Eine Oma. Ich bin eine Oma.&rdquo
    Comprehension flooded his face, and with an amused chuckle, he kindly corrected me, “Ein Grossvater.” (A grandfather.) “Du bist em Grossvater.”
    “Nein,” I said firmly, “Ich bin eine Grossmutter.”
    He couldn’t help himself. Astonishment overtook that well–schooled courtesy, and he blurted out, “Du bist eine Frau?” (You are a woman?)
    He was so dismayed that I had to take pity on him. I assured him in as kindly a tone as I could manage in German that it was all right; I was not offended. He recovered from his distress and with innate courtesy apologized charmingly. He blamed his own old eyes for his error and assured me that he thought it fascinating that I, a woman, had achieved what he insisted on pretending was a high officer rank. In fact he wanted to talk with me more than ever. Would my companion and I please honor him by taking the time to join him for coffee? Again, I refused, making my regrets more elaborate to match the style of his invitation. A flicker of relief crossed his face.
    Lewis and I got off at the next stop, bidding the gallant old man a friendly, “Dovidjenya,” which translates to “See you later”—except of course we wouldn’t; I had destroyed any possibility of that. Lewis’s eyes had skipped curiously back and forth between us during our last exchange, and now he asked one more time, “What did he say?”
    “He invited us for coffee again.” I wasn’t about to tell him the old man thought I was a man. I wasn’t completely honest with myself, either. I had enjoyed my only real conversation with a Croatian. I thought I would like him if I got to know him. But I couldn’t allow this kindly gentleman to give a face to the silent people around me. If I began to pay attention, I might see other old men who had survived decades of brutal history with humor and geniality intact. I might see mothers shopping for that night’s soup, grandmothers steadying toddlers just learning to walk, fathers worrying about their jobs, young couples holding hands. If I started actually seeing these people and hearing their stories, I might begin to care. Then I would have to bring Cheryl back out of hiding and face that unanswerable question.

Spring brought some relief. Rains replaced the daily snow showers and rapidly washed the filthy snow piles away, flooding the streets and gutters. I began to feel the pull of the early spring air, the sun’s warmth during the day. On my days off I walked in Zagreb’s meager botanical garden, searching for new growth since my last visit, longing to be on the familiar woodland paths at home in the German Eifel. I had begun to count down to my departure date: forty days, thirty–seven, thirty—just a month away. I allowed myself to recognize my attachment to C–Spt colleagues and began to mourn their loss, but my eye was firmly fixed on the day I would leave.
    The injunction against being out on our own after dark still applied, and I followed it faithfully until the evening I escorted a visiting officer to her downtown hotel. I had counted on being able to hitch a lift with other NATO officers back to the Hotel Dubrovnik but found no one around. I was weary, so I decided to hop on the streetcar alone for the four stops it would take to reach my hotel.
    The streetcar was virtually empty, but I chose to remain standing next to the exit since I was going such a short distance. No one else in uniform was on the tram, and I realized this was the first time in Zagreb that I had been out alone at night. This and the knowledge I was disobeying a directive made me uneasy. So, when a young man sitting near me got up and with insistent gestures indicated I should take his seat, I became tense and watchful. It seemed bizarre for this stranger to demand I take his seat when there were plenty of empty seats all around. But demand he did. My polite refusal was met with an even more determined sweep of his arm toward the seat. Seeing no practical alternative I muttered hvala and sat down, trying to appear composed and natural.
    Instead of moving to another seat, the young man positioned himself in the aisle right in front of me and stared down at me. He wore what I thought of as Euro–youth–chic clothing—tight black jeans, black T–shirt, black leather jacket, a silver stud in his nose, and a silver cross dangling from one ear. His hair was short and dark, his eyes even darker, staring at me with a ravenous intensity. I was uncomfortable under his scrutiny. I felt that by making me sit, he had deliberately put me into a subordinate position, and I found his silent stare threatening. I turned to the window and looked out, trying to ignore him. Every now and then I caught his reflection in the window and was disconcerted to see that he noticed me doing so. Each time he responded by awkwardly moving his hand up to brush his eyebrow, then he stared at me even more intensely, as if he wanted something from me.
    He remained standing over me, unsmiling and stern, until we reached my stop. I was concerned that he might try to block me from getting off or that he might follow me, but he did neither, just stepped aside to let me pass. I nodded a noncommittal acknowledgement and stepped down from the streetcar. Puzzled by the encounter I couldn’t resist turning back to look at him once I was on the pavement. He slipped back into the seat he had vacated and was looking out at me. We stared at each other through the window for the few seconds the streetcar lingered at the stop. With obvious deliberation he again brought his hand up to brush his eyebrow.
    Finally, all his actions clicked into place, and I understood. I came to attention and returned the sharpest salute I could muster. He didn’t smile, but the sternness around his mouth relaxed, his dark eyes softened. He nodded as the streetcar pulled away.
    I knew what he wanted to say as clearly as if he had used words I could understand. For the first time in many years, he was living without bombs, mines, booby traps, snipers. He was living safely and doing normal things—like riding a streetcar on a gentle spring evening. His parents, his sister and brother, his friends, his girlfriend, they were all living without fear, in the kind of life I had always taken for granted. To him my uniform meant security. Just because the peace we provided wouldn’t last forever didn’t mean he wasn’t grateful. And the only way he knew how to say thank you was to give up his seat in an empty streetcar and offer an awkward civilian salute.
    He probably didn’t realize it, but my salute was more than just an acknowledgment of his. I too needed a wordless way to say thank you. I went on my way, content for the first time in months.

Cheryl Dietrich retired from the U.S. Air Force as a lieutenant colonel in 2000. Now, she lives in Asheville, North Carolina, with one husband and one dog. She divides her time between writing and volunteering as a tutor of English as a Second Language. She has had numerous essays and commentary published locally and is now turning to fiction, currently working on short stories and a children's book. About her time in Zagreb, Cheryl says, "Although my temporary duty in Zagreb depressed me, as military deployments went I was extremely fortunate. I was comfortably housed and did not have to eat MREs, no one was shooting at me, and Zagreb had more to offer than most deployment sites. One day I overheard a British lieutenant colonel talking on the phone to the officer who was coming soon to replace him. After assuring his replacement that he didn't need to bring his own weapon as our headquarters maintained an armory, the lieutenant colonel continued quite seriously with 'And you don't need to bring evening clothes either. Opera audiences here are quite informal. A suit and tie will do.' This was an exquisite reminder to me to keep my misery in perspective!"

“The Streetcars of Zagreb” appears in our Summer 2006 issue.