Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Croatian Apartment Windows: The Dearth Thereof

Notably, Croatians on the Dalmatian coast do not seem at all like Mediterranean people. Their skin and features look more Slavic and Central European. Aside from an occasional fish, their diet is definitely Central European. I'm talking potatoes, mutton, cabbage, dried beans ... often boiled to the point of mushyness (and beyond) with lard or vegetable oil and no identifiable spices. And you won't see any delicate greens in salads. It's your choice of cabbage, cucumber or tomatoes and that's it.

The architecture is the same way -- little about it suggests you are living in a land of sunshine and crisp, clean air. Sure, most everyone has a balcony, but that's used for hanging laundry and storing a few extra bags of potatoes from the family farm that didn't fit in your woodbin in the basement downstairs. Balconies are generally not deep enough for tables or sitting out - and I've never personally seen any Croatians (aside from my husband) relaxing on their balcony to enjoy the pleasant weather.

If they own a house, aside from a tiny grape-vine shaded terrace, the rest of the yard is usually 100% dedicated to growing cabbages, potatoes, brussel sprouts, carrots. Maybe you'll see an olive tree too and some rosemary hedges, but no other herbs or flowers and certainly not a lawn.

It's as if coastal Croatians are essentially in denial about their location. If they can't live in central Europe, at least they can eat, live, and garden like they do.

The window situation is the most galling for me. Stingy, stingy, stingy. Nearly invariably the architects allot only one window per room, unless that room is a bathroom, in which case there is no window at all. You don't get any cross-ventilation, and depending on the time of day, a limited amount of sunlight. Plus, the windows themselves are only moderately sized -- no sheets of glass to invite the outside in. No French doors, no sliding glass doors. Lastly, the permanent shades, built onto many windows, slide down from the top and are impossible to lift entirely out of the way. So your view will always be 50% or more obscured.

If you don't have shades, you solve that terrible problem by hanging drapes in front of all your windows, preferably floor to ceiling, and keeping them closed at all times. (My mother in law and I have a little game. I pull the drapes aside for a little air and light and then the second I turn my head or blink she nips across the room and yanks them closed again. It's amazing how quickly a woman who badly needs a hip replacement operation can move when she's motivated.)

So, here you are in nature's playground, and nature is definitely not invited in. The oldest buildings sometimes do have larger windows, but then their ceilings are so high that the rooms are fairly gloomy anyway. A few of the most expensive new buildings - the real upmarket stuff priced at 3000-35000 Euros per square meter - have modern-style larger windows. But, these are rare and only foreigners or local millionaires can afford them. The rest of us who want to live in this wonderfully sunny place to get away from northern winters are doomed to windows that make the worst of the situation.

Luckily, we've discovered a solution. A de-construction company called Dijamant-Rez have these huge saws they can bring to your building to cut holes in your walls for additional windows. You can also use them to change your floorplan or join two small apartments together.

As I've mentioned in the past, Croatian buildings are nearly always made with concrete which is reinforced throughout with mesh screens of thick steel wires. This is normally next to impossible to cut because you need one sort of saw for concrete and an entirely different saw for steel. The Dijamant Rez people have solved the problem with a new kind of saw - there's a demo on their Web site. Unfortunately the saw uses a lot of water (to cool the sparks from cutting steel), but we met the Zadar operator Josip Matic who told us his water vacuum minimizes any damage your floors might sustain.

The cost didn't seem too bad to me - perhaps $500 per day. That's a lot, but compared to the chintzy window situation it's well worth it.

By the way -- oddly the flats in Belgrade are window-laden. Loads and loads of big windows, even in the bathroom. So, if you are in Yugoslavian flats in central Europe, there's plenty of windows, the complete opposite of the south. Dumb but true.

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