Dear Osijek, I have never wanted to write you although you were the first city in my life that I considered to be home. But the circumstances that brought me, a 20-year-old Finnish boy of Indian ethnicity who never before visited the Balkans, were, well let’s say unusual at very best. They were something what you would only expect to see in a movie or read in something written by Nicholas Sparks.
I had just dropped out of college in the United States where I was on a full scholarship to move in with the most handsome person that you calls you home. The man that I had just nine months for one week in France and then again for a week before I left Europe for the States. I had never heard of you before meeting him. And Osijek darling, cities and countries are perhaps the only things I am able to memorise without an effort whatsoever. Maps were my best friends as growing up, which might colour the image of my constant need to travel and see the world. But I had no idea even about your existence until I fell in love with your jewel.
Frankly speaking you intimidated me at the beginning. I arrived five Decembers ago and the winter was exceptionally harsh all over Europe and she treated you no differently. I had no one except for him and it seemed as if I was the only being who did not speak Croatian under your care. His — at the time ours, I guess — home was at Vijenac Petrove Gore, a name that I struggled to mouth and I wish it had been the only headache I had.
You felt it, too, I daresay. At least he did.
Besides fearing, I genuinely hated you. I was bitter because I missed Middlebury and people I had left behind and came to you who offered me nothing else than isolation and further dependency on him — as if I was already not emotionally clinched to the jewel. A lot had happened that year and I battled with everything. And I had to blame someone, something because obviously I felt I had done everything according to the book.
I felt so lonely living with you. I did not know anyone in the city besides him and his friends and I did not feel as if I had a life of mine anymore. In desperation I signed up on all different sorts of expat sites, trying to find another non-Croatian speaker in your corridors that are unknown even to the most smartest and intellectual people of the world.
Then one day I got a message from a stranger. She was from Australia and had moved to Osijek about the same time I had arrived. Within minutes we discovered that both of us lived at Vijenac Petrove Gore; in fact she was lived almost next door. Jolted with happiness we arranged a date in a neighbourhood bar the same day and I discovered what kind of a city you are. I was not the only who had moved across the continents to share a life with a man born and raised with you. You indeed have given a magical power to your men, clearly with the goal of being the new capital for love. Our partners could not stop bragging about it.
And there. I realised you cared for me, and essayed to do all your best to satisfy my needs. With simple gestures and without me noticing. I woke up in his arms on this breezy gentle Saturday morning, thinking that you are my home.
Every time I visited the Konzum a few blocks from our building, the ladies there greeted me with a profound smile — sometimes Dobro jutro if I had arrived just before taking a bus to work, but mostly they wished me Dobra večer. I experienced this tingling feeling of familiarity and belonging whenever I entered the shop. At the very beginning whenever I asked a specific meat or cheese over the counter without using Croatian, I could see the confusion on their face that grew larger the more often I went. A foreigner at Vijenac Petrove Gore? For two weeks in a row? Wait, it has been two months now. Does he actually live here? Without realising it straightaway, the confusion from their face had disappeared as friendliness and kindness took his place. When I would reach the meat counter, the person behind it knew already what I wanted and how much I needed it as we just greeted. We would ask each other -Kako si? – Dobro. A ti? – Dobro!, knowing the conversation could not go any further but we still made the exchange out of goodwill.
It was these small things that made you my home. People that I recognised in the streets without having said a word to each other, restaurants that I knew to be the best, cafés that I enjoyed the most. And also having him with me every night, in our home. I miss you, sometimes. But after I moved out and visited you two Septembers ago for the first time in two years, it did turn out so good. I cried more than I had ever had the moment I entered Europska avenija and saw the gorgeous architecture no one knows you host. I was visiting you although the man that brought you into my prominence was no longer part of my life. I cried because of that. And I cried because I realised that despite it you are and always will be home for me. Even without him, you are special.
You are so beautiful, my Osijek and I am never going to understand how I did not know about you earlier. All anyone ever talks about when discussing Croatia are the coasts and if not them, then Zagreb. I never liked them as much, although admittedly I would like to revisit Rovinj but for a whole of different reasons and you two are out of two completely different universes.
If only the rest of the world know about the baroque Tvrđa that boasts with Habsburg heritage; the gorgeous Drava bridge that illuminates the most beautiful promenada in the entirety of Balkans; Kapucinska ulica that beams with classically vibrant ambiance. The countless of cafés where people come to have a coffee for an hour or two or three as for you the concept of time regards less respect than appreciation of life (Caffe Bar BROOKLYN at the end of Lučki Prilaz and Matrix at Kuhačeva are my favourites). Oh and let’s not forget Sjenjak, the heart of your students and the famous burgers that the poisoner serves in the wee hours at Tvrđa… oh those burgers.
I could go on praising Co-Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul that is the tallest in Croatia and Pejacevic Castle located on the edge of the town, but I think you already know how beautiful you are. Unlike others you do not need reassurance from things around you, because you are comfortable within your own skin. You sustained a considerable amount of damage during the Croatian War of Independence, and seeing bullet holes covering buildings was not a sight gone unnoticed. And let us not forget the mosquitoes in the summers or the rather unbearable heat-waves that remind me of New Delhi and so much love to pay you a visit when all the students desert you.
How do you do it, Osijek? In spite of all the struggles, problems and negative issues you surpass every single obstacle and beam with happiness, care and love. I remember one night walking on the Promenada and everyone was one a festive mood for no apparent reason. Siblings teasing and running after each other, couples holding hands and sharing ice cream, vendors selling popcorn and steamed corn and outdoor DJ playing music that smiling bystanders danced to. It feels to good to be under your care precisely because you feel good about yourself.
Admittedly you were not the easiest place to show the affection I had towards my man, but you hold no power over that. You loved us just like you love yourself. Kindness painted with tenderness. And yet barely no one knows you outside of the region and whoever does come to the Balkans, skips you without even realising what they are missing out. I wish I had the willpower & self-acceptance you possess. It would make me a better man.
During my last visit I did not see very much of you. The explosion of crying and my swollen eyes clearly indicated I was not going to cope with all the old memories, and perhaps that is the reason why it has taken me so long to write you. My friend that I had come to see told me about your fling with modernity and I heard he was quite comfortable with you not giving into him to fully, not yet and perhaps never. But you were happy with the progress in your life and it made me happy as well. Nevertheless my visit reminded me of the frequent times I visited Konzum at Vijenac Petrove Gore. For obvious reasons I did not even dare to go close to the neighborhood where I used to live with him so I stayed at Sjenjak with friends of my friend who in a short span of time became my friends. The warmth, welcoming nature of people who reside in you is something that I rarely have come across during my travels and despite the fact their English was poor and my Croatian even worse, we spent countless of hours talking about life and romance, drinking the infamous homemade rakija and enjoying the unknown company that felt so familiar and loving. I am sorry if you feel like I am repeating myself or trying to reassure you about something that you already know, but I still cannot believe how you made me feel home during the visit. Even without him you accepted me as yours.
So it has been almost two years since I saw you. Also I do not think I will meet you ever again, my Osijek. Despite all the comfort and love you have shared with me, there is very little you can give me — and similarly there is not much I have to offer you. I am afraid that the crying would not end if came to you again despite your soothing embrace. I guess I write this letter as some sort of a goodbye and expression of gratitude for everything you did for me. Besides I am aware you barely get any recognition you deserve so I hope with this letter people who would stumble upon in your region would realise to visit you. I know, I know, you do not care what others think of you (or even if they recall your existence), but I wish strangers to be acquainted with you as I am sure many will feel the same what I experienced with you.
Secretly I do dream that one day I could show you to a man who would fall in love with me unconditionally. Tell him all the secrets I shared with you during the time I lived under your care while holding his hands on the Promenada, overlooking the Drava bridge. Have the popcorn from a street vendor, go out at Bastion and enjoy burgers by the poisoner (or his successor). Display him the city that made me understand what home means, the city that loves as conditionally as he does. I honestly cannot wait for that day to arrive.
However that is in the far future, my Osijek and it is not even certain if I get another opportunity in falling in love so I had to write you now. And I think I said all I wanted to tell you although I do not believe I will ever be fully able to explain you what you mean to me. I do not think even I understand our relationship.
Nevertheless I do know you have a special place in my heart. It is the part that comforts the rest of my body in raveling times. The way you cared for me even when I had unsettling feelings towards you.
I love you, moj dragi.
PS. Forgive me for the photographs; it was hard to go through them and I could not go click some of the folders, because I was certain I would come across photos that I am still not ready to see. I promise to do you justice when the day arrives.