As anticipated, Zagreb is a big European city with lots of expensive shops and tourist traps. I’s a big contrast to the Serbian cities I visited and there’s evidently a lot more money around. Pete and I find that suddenly we can’t afford things again. Internet is €3 an hour. After some hunting we find a place for €2.50, but it’s so slow it hardly works and the staff deny all knowledge of computers. People are less friendly elsewhere too and finding a free toilet proves impossible, even in the cafe where you have already bought a drink. Capitalism has a strong hold on Croatia it seems.
We find out about an eco-community in a village a couple of hours drive away and decide that will be better for us. We send an email but then decide to just go there anyway as who knows when they will check their email. We park up for a night in a forest on the way.
The people in Recycled Estate at Vukomeric are surprised to see us. There are not many people around and those who are seem very busy, but we still get a guided tour of the land they own before being left loitering around the kitchen area where we drink lots of fresh herbal tea and wait for people to stop for lunch. When they do we jump on the chance to help cook. Pete makes his now infamous potato pouffas and I make a salad with fresh leaves from their garden and the last of our wild garlic. I’m glad we stayed as more people arrive and we all sit together to eat around a large outdoor table. Now we get a chance to speak with people properly and find out more about their project and Croatia in general.
Nobody lives at the project yet, but a few people plan to eventually. Most people live in the city and come down to work over the weekends or during the week, depending on what other work they do. The land has been owned by the collective for a long time – I think they said 10 years! The way I understand it, the first group of people were very young and excited by the possibilities of the place, but didn’t know what they were doing. Eventually some of the energy diminished and people left the project, but then it gradually began to pick up again as new people came along and the remaining original people grew up and learned the skills they needed to look after the place.
Now they have acquired more land and people are taking on individual projects as well as joint projects in different sections. They also run training courses and other events regularly. We promise to keep in touch and plan on coming back this way to visit again after Hungary. We are also interested in some other eco-village projects in Istrija, a peninsula in the North-Western part of Croatia. We also learn that there are usually more people around at weekends, but some of them are staying in a protest camp in the centre of Zagreb. Well, this gives us an excuse to go back. We had heard of the protest, but after hearing no more about it had assumed it had finished. Now we find out it’s alive and kicking.
On returning to the city, we find a couchsurfing host who is active in feminist politics and one of the organisers of the annual Pride event. She lives in a shared house with some other smiley queers from various countries who are all very lovely and interesting. Our host tells us a little more about the protest site as well as about a squat social-centre near the city centre. We go to visit both, making our short stay in Zagreb quite a busy one.
Sadly the squat isn’t much to speak of. Maybe we came at a bad time. Like in Germany, this isn’t really a squat at all now as they have permission to use the building and pay some rent, but people still call it a squat, perhaps because it looks like one. At the time we visit in the early afternoon it’s occupied by a small group of drunk people sitting around telling offensive jokes. We stay for a small coffee, then leave.
The protest site is far more promising and I leave feeling excited and homesick. It has the smell of the UK Climate Camps about it – people occupying a street with sleeping bags, board games and a cheery atmosphere. We meet and chat to some people and bump into one of our friends from Vukomeric, who is pleased to see we found it ok.
The group who initiated the protest, Zelena Akcija (“Green Action”) have an office and a small centre around the corner. The group is more Friends of the Earth than Green Anarchist, but for some reason they have the best anarchist book library we’ve seen since leaving the UK. This is the kind of place we could both spend hours just reading, but we’ve decided to leave today to start driving north to Hungary.
Below is an article I have written for Schnews about the protest site in Zagreb:
Right to a City (or insert witty title here)
Protesters occupy a pedestrian street in Croatia’s capital and are demanding the mayor’s resignation.
Spirits were high when Schnews visited an assortment of students, NGO representatives, disgruntled residents and dreadlocked activists camping out on Varšavska, a pedestrian street in the centre of Zagreb. At the time of writing, the occupation is around two weeks old and is the latest tactic in a two and a half year campaign against a dodgy development by tycoon-owned HOTO Group. The development has the unconditional backing of city mayor Milan Bandić and was ok-ed by the Minister of Environmental Protection, Planning and Construction – unsurprising as she has shares in the construction company set to carry out the work.
This stage of the campaign began early on Monday 17th May as contractors erected a metal fence around Varšavska – a public space soon to be privatized and turned into an access ramp for the private investor’s underground car park. The entrance was blocked by activists in the morning, stopping any further work. At midday they were joined by several hundred city residents who hammered on the fence and eventually pulled it down and occupied the area. Now the fence itself is used by protestors to form a tent-like structure, over which they have draped clear tarpaulin. A long line of sleeping bags are neatly laid out inside. Activists are keen to stress the non-violent and alcohol-free nature of the space.
There is a huge amount of public support with local residents bringing food and hot drinks to support the occupation and protests have attracted numbers unheard of in Croatia. On May 20th, 4,000 people marched to Zagreb City Council demanding the resignation of Mayor Bandić over the dodgy plans. In an effort to encourage him to “pack his bags” and find a new job, protestors helpfully piled up suitcases outside the council building.
The site was previously occupied earlier this year using shipping containers. That occupation lasted 10 days but was evicted forcefully by riot police in the middle of the night with 23 arrests, out of which five were charged, none convicted. The real casualty was the trojan horse – a giant wooden structure built by activists and presented to the City Administration as a symbol of all swindles and deception related to the project. The horse was brutally broken apart using cranes in a two hour long eviction in the snow.
Complaints against the development include concerns about restricted emergency vehicle access, increased traffic and of course the loss of a well-loved hang-out area, several large trees and protected cultural heritage buildings in the old part of the city. There is now a belated investigation by the state anti-corruption office USKOK of potential criminal liability in issuing the permits for the construction of the “lifestyle” HOTO Centre, luxury flats and car park. This follows several months of corruption charges against Croatian politicians, in which the Vice President and Minister of Defense are still awaiting court decisions.
The protestors, gathering under the banner “Right to a City”, have vowed to continue their occupation of Varšavska for as long as is necessary to stop the project. They say, “this is not just about this street, this is a symbol of the fight against corruption in Croatia. The system is rotten”.
More information (in Croatian): http://pravonagrad.org
I cross town on my bike, through heavy traffic, over the bridge and up into the hills. Up and up and up. If I didn’t already know I was in Buda, I would have recognised it immediately from the introduction to the couchsurfing wiki about Budapest:
“If you walk uphill in a street flanked by harsh green trees and you haven’t encountered any means of public transport in the last 20 minutes, you are on the Buda side. If you walk on the same distance from sea level for a while in a street filled with cars, buses, trolleybuses and trams and haven’t encountered any kind of vegetation in the last 20 minutes, you are on the Pest side.”
I’m staying with a couchsurfer named Eva, possibly the only Hungarian anarcha-feminist in Budapest. I am very pleased to have found her and she is very nice, if a little shy. I am her first couchsurfer. The day after I arrive Eva takes me into the centre of Pest by tram. She had a cycling accident a while ago and can’t use her bike yet. Neither of us is used to paying for trams, so we don’t. Unfortunately, there is a controller onboard. Apparently this is impossible as it’s a weekend and Eva has never seen them on this line before, but still, here he is. Eva tries to get me off the tram unseen, but it’s no use. We are marched off and onto the platform. We also have the only ticket controller who can speak English, which is a shame as apparently they usually don’t bother with you if you are English. Eva tries to argue with him in Hungarian and I try to plead my case in English. He asks for my ID which I stupidly give him, then he wants 4,000 forinds to give it back. No way. He threatens to call the police. We look at each other for a long time. Eventually he gives it back and we leave quickly. Ha. We calm our shakey nerves in a tea shop.
Budapest used to be two (well, three, but nobody talks much about Obuda) cities: Buda and Pest, growing out of settlements on opposite sides of the bank of the Danube. At one time people crossed from one to the other via boat or a pontoon bridge, but after some Count had to wait a week to cross when the river froze, he pledged a whole year’s wages to build a permanent bridge. Now there are seven. Eva tells me Budapest is too big a city, too big for a country the size of Hungary. Hungary used to be a lot bigger, but it chose the wrong side during the second world war and lost a lot of land. This is what the Hungarian National History Museum says: “it chose the wrong side“. Makes it sound like whoops, could have happened to anyone, as opposed to admitting that the state sided with Hitler. The old Hungary on maps looks to me like a whale. You can see the whale on t-shirts sometimes, an easy way to spot a fascist. They have a taxi company too with the whale on the side of the cars.
On the Budapest Wiki page on couchsurfing.org it says the city is in the post-dogshit-everywhere and pre-starbucks-everywhere age, which sounds quite nice, but I saw an awful lot of dog shit on the pavements and it’s easy to see Starfucks aren’t far off. One thing I’m learning is that capital cities are all alike. They have differences too, of course, but still there are those same shops, big shiny office buildings, concrete slab apartments and blend of extravagance and luxury with absolute poverty.
It’s raining in Budapest. Rain doesn’t suit this city and it doesn’t suit my new-to-me panniers, bought from a girl from couchsurfing in Berlin. She said they were waterproof. They are not. Not at all. Good thing I only paid 15 Euros, not the 20 I was going to give before I saw them. I will have to take a lot of plastic bags with me when we go cycling.
I cross the city in all it’s sogginess, down from the top of Buda mountain and into the traffic chaos of Pest. Sam and I had a mile-a-minute-natter of a catch-up and went out to dinner at the frankly amazing vegan Hungarian restaurant two nights ago. Now her friend Helen has gone back to the UK after her two week holiday cycling here with Sam from Vienna and I am here for the shift-change.
I have moved to Pest, where the traffic is greater and the countryside less, but I don’t have to climb a mountain on my bike at the end of every day and am less likely to be hassled by ticket inspectors. I have left Eva behind, but fortunately the people in the new flat are amazing. Here Peter, Chonghee and Tomash live in a flat they share with a constant stream of couchsurfers. They are possibly the friendliest and most hospitable people alive. Peter is often telling us we are welcome back whenever we like – to visit, to stay for a while, or if we want a home in Eastern Europe. We don’t need to ask – just tell them we are coming and they will make sure there is space.
Round the corner from the flat is Tuzrakter – the closest thing in Budapest to a social centre and also home to the Infoshop, which sadly isn’t really functioning at the moment. What they do have though is a once a month event in Tuzrakter by the Infoshop people. This Thursday it will be about squatting and Peter wastes no time in roping his couchsurfers in on the action. Sam and I will lead a discussion about land squatting and tree-sitting and another CSer, steph who is living in Copenhagen, will answer questions after the film, which happens to be about Ungdomshuset.
Sam and I manage to coble together a workshop, which seems well received with lots and lots of questions from people who can’t believe you can really live in trees and are amazed at some of our stories. Unfortunately when it comes to Hungarian law, we don’t have a clue and can only advise people to find out for themselves. Suddenly I am feeling very blessed for things like the ASS in England; activists who have created a real tradition in the UK during the road protest movement and all of those land-rights geeks. The people here are really starting from scratch.
We have a drink to celebrate, which is a bit of a rarity for both me and Sam these days. We both used to be real drinkers, but have been on and off the wagon in tandem these past couple of years. In general, we both prefer to feel healthy and not drink, but somehow tonight we are up for it. Sam spends the entire next day paying for it, being sick every five to ten minutes in a bucket up by our mezzanine bed throughout the day. Finally she can stand it no more. With no reply on the phone to the supposedly 24 hour doctors, Tomash and I go out to find her a doctor. Tonight is the Night of Tat. It’s probably not called that, but that’s what I prefer to call it. On every street in every direction, people are throwing out huge piles of everything they have been hoarding up for the past year and have now decided to throw away. There are sofas, beds, table and chairs. There are blankets and cushions, pots and pans, lamps and suitcases. There are clothes and coats, scrap metal, bits of wood.. The first time I go out I pick up a rug and a washing-up bowel for the flat. The second time I find a toaster, but am busy getting Sam the cola she thinks will make her feel better and it’s gone by the time I return. When Tomash and I go out to find the doctor, I return with the most beautiful jumper in the world and he gets himself a bed, but later abandons it because he says it smells funny.
The doctors surgery looks completely closed, until we ring the doorbell. Then the lights come on and suddenly people are there. Hmm.. strange. They tell us the doctor will be there in half an hour, which she is. She thinks it’s a virus, not alcohol poisoning. Apparently a lot of people have it. Sam gets a jab in the bum from a middle-aged male nurse who speaks to her like she’s a pig and I feel very sorry for her. Poor poorly Sam.
We have to stay even longer for Sam to recover. Peter already tempted us into staying longer than planned for a “feminist bike workshop”, which later turned out to be a “woman’s bike workshop” – an altogether and entirely different thing, held in a museum as part of an exhibition. We also stayed longer to see the exhibition by three more couchsurfers staying in the flat. They all flew here from Finland and have friends flying in from all over Europe to come too. Sam and I both find this difficult. We have both done anti-aviation activism and are trying our best not to blurt out our feelings about it. Things are made worse when we see the exhibition, which consists of the three girls wearing black dresses, twirling black ribbon around the “audience” and then drawing on a big piece of paper on the wall in lipstick.
Fortunately an earthquake in Iceland sparks up some more open conversations about the flying issue and everyone ends up having to find alternative means of getting home. The revenge of Gaia. We are thrilled. Even the Finnish girls are happy in the end.
Before we leave, Peter has something else to ask me. He has found my blog and asks if I would consider blogging for a new English-speaking Hungarian Indymedia which is just starting up. As far as I know the site isn’t live yet and I’m a little unsure of myself in this territory, but I’m definitely up for it and very flattered at being asked
Unfortunately I never got to see the squat that is currenlty being worked on, but we did leave a small pile of things for the Free Shop. Chonghee showed us some photos and it looks like it will be a good place. They have been collecting food from markets for the opening party next week. Dumpster diving is hard here, but the people in the flat have an arrangement with people in at least one market and can go there for unsold food. I’m realising that though Eastern Europe is cheaper than, you do have to actually pay for things, making it more expensive for people like us – especially when you have to buy your new shiny white women’s touring saddle twice because some arsehole nicks it when you forget to take your bike inside for the night!
We awake on Sunday morning at Tramschule to discover there is a day-trip planned to Sieben Linden. It seems we have come full-circle and are now very close to that well known German eco-village that wouldn’t let us visit them “just so” after we left Hamburg.
So we managed to visit them in the end, if only for a day. I thought Sieben Linden deserved their own blog entry, so here it is.
Sunday is an open day, with guided tours and a cafe. A resident of the village gives a small group of us a tour in English. Eco-tourism in action. We walk around the village, see some of the buildings, hear some of the history and a little of the way life is structred here.
The village is that: a village, not a community. It is organised into neighborhoods who live together and build together, only not literally as all of the work is done by professionals, albeit from the village.
Something that surprises me is how capitalist their system is. They pay one another to grow food, to build houses, to babysit and teach their children… absolutely every interaction is seemingly monetarised. My mind is blown. I can’t imagine charging my friends, neighbours and community members to teach my children dance after school or look after my disabled mother, but this is what they do. I am starting to understand why they couldn’t have us come and work with them instead of paying, it would throw everything out of balance.
Fortunately, the Sunday cafe for visitors is not so capitalist, with a free donation system for the teas, coffee and amazing cake selection. Raw vegan cake – wow!
It’s a nice place and really beautiful. Some of the houses look really nice, they are surrounded by lovely contryside which includes some sacred spaces they are looking after. They are eating mostly their own food, using sustaiable energy and water systems and working on developing democratic ways of living together, while also educating others about what they are learning (for money, of course).
I can’t really explain what it is, but it feels like something is missing. Everything is so clean, like a film set or a model village. I’m grateful for the opportunity to visit, and especially to see Club 99, one of the neighbourhoods who are really going for it on the sustainability front. But actually a day feels like long enough. Although it is undoubtably very environmental, the politics of Sieben Linden seem very different to mine.
Apparently the European Transition Conference will be held here in May, which seems very fitting.