After weeks of eating sausage rolls and sleeping in dorm rooms with snoring strangers, I longed for a little bit of luxury. But at what price?
At 3 a.m, the topless hooker and the cocaine freak snuck off to a bedroom, leaving me alone with the old, Israeli bazillionaire and a box of hazelnut chocolates.
I had an important choice to make.
It was my first night in Zagreb and I was staying at a hostel down the road from the Dolac Market. After a long travel day I was in the mood for a drink, so I ordered an Ozujsko at one of the terraces along Tkalciceva Ulica and watched the people go by.
Halfway through my beer, I noticed two American men standing outside the terrace, debating whether or not to come in for a drink.
As soon as I heard them speak, I shouted out “English!”
Not hearing my language for two days in small towns had made it a precious commodity.
They looked at me a little strangely; I laughed, explaining that it had been a while since I’d heard anything other than Croatian. They invited me to join them at another bar down the road and I accepted, appreciating the company.
Their names were Chris and Jacob and they had come from Las Vegas, looking to buy property in Croatia. They said there were so many opportunities for new business there, from “vineyards older than Jesus” to hotels to sailing ships, they couldn’t decide on one.
My first clue that these weren’t just ordinary businessmen came when Chris ordered the first round of drinks.
“Three triple vodka-redbulls, a round of bottled water, a shot of whiskey, two beers, and – yeah, why not? – another triple vodka-redbull,” Chris said to the waiter.
Drinks are cheap in Croatia but this was a bit silly.
Turns out these guys owned most of Las Vegas. Jacob, in particular, was quite the power player. Originally from Israel, he still had a strong accent although he had lived and worked around the world. He was involved in, he said mysteriously, the diamond business.
“It’s trendy now to hate the diamond business, the way people used to spray red paint on women wearing fur,” he said. “I did business in Sierra Leone, I know all about what goes on there.”
After a few more rounds, they convinced me to go to the casino at the Sheraton, where they were staying. I figured a few more free drinks couldn’t hurt, and their stories were entertainingly outlandish, so I went.
They were horrified to hear I was staying at a hostel and told me to collect my backpack immediately and they’d get me a suite at the Sheraton. And while I was at it, I should join them on their sailing trip to Split, which they were embarking upon the next day.
I was tempted. I could imagine myself living the high life for a change, drinking triple vodka-redbulls all week, replacing sketchy hostels with luxurious yachts. I said I’d think about it.
As we walked, I praised Zagreb’s beautiful green spaces, majestically lit at nighttime.
Chris said Zagreb was okay, but he hated all the graffiti.
“I understand if they spray paint old Communist structures or something, that’s understandable. But something needs to be done to stop them from spray-painting the buildings that are the main attractions of the city. As an investor, I don’t think it looks good.”
Chris was overbearing and touched people a lot when he spoke. He must have come into his money recently because he still loved to mention it. He told story after story about young celebrities who danced on Vegas tables for him and about the time Oprah Winfrey asked him to adopt a South African child. He blew smoke rings into the air as he talked, and catcalled every woman along the way, making Chinese-sounding noises that sounded to him like Croatian.
I smiled at the women as we passed, hoping to convey my mortification and let them know I wasn’t really with these guys, I was just getting a kick and a few free drinks out of them.
When we arrived at the casino, the receptionist took a long look at me. Admittedly, I wasn’t looking my best. My capri pants were dirty, my hair was a curly mess and I was wearing a grey hoodie with holes in the sleeves.
“She’s with us, it’s okay,” Jacob said with a wave of his hand.
“It’s alright then,” the receptionist said. I thanked her, wanting to wink and whisper in her ear too that I wasn’t really with these guys.
Fifteen minutes later we headed up to their suite for a few more drinks, 500 euros lighter. They had gambled away an amount that would sustain me for weeks. Even though I knew going upstairs with them probably wasn’t the best idea, I couldn’t tear myself away.
They each had their own suite: we went to Jacob’s. He rummaged through his suitcase and tossed two full packs of cigarettes at me, then offered me a fruit plate, a box of gourmet hazelnut chocolates, and a snort of the cocaine he promptly lined up on his hand. I declined the cocaine, but took the snacks.
Within a few minutes, Chris had stripped off his shirt and was bouncing around the room, talking at us and snorting cocaine off Jacob’s hairy hand. Jacob and I sat on the couch sipping vodka.
“Let’s call for some women!” Chris suggested excitedly.
He pounced onto the phone.
“Yes, I’d like you to send up two women and one man,” he said without the slightest hint of embarrassment.
It took me a few seconds to clue in.
“Are you ordering a man for me?” I whispered.
I shook my head and mouthed NO.
“You sure?” he asked, holding the phone away from his mouth. Then: “Sorry, never mind the man, we’ll just have two women. Oh, and another cheese and prosciutto tray.”
I couldn’t believe he’d just ordered a prostitute with a side order of ham and cheese.
“When you have money and they know it, you can do things like this,” Chris explained. “I can do anything I want.”
An hour later, a pretty blonde knocked on the door and Chris ushered her in. She sat down on the couch across from me. When she took off her shirt at Chris’s request, I couldn’t even muster a sympathetic grin. There was no point in winks or whispers; we were both in the room with these guys for their money.
I knew I had to go.
Jacob once again offered to get me my own suite, but I told him I was way out of my element with them. I couldn’t imagine making a phone call to my parents, explaining where I was and who I was with. I wanted to go back to the hostel, crawl into my bunk bed with strangers snoring on either side, and have a sausage roll from a street vendor in the morning. I was more comfortable with the simple life than with the extreme luxury they were offering, a fact I hadn’t realized until that moment.
Jacob understood. He walked me downstairs, armed with my box of chocolates, a banana for breakfast, and his business card just in case I changed my mind.
When I arrived at the hostel, I opened my purse to find the 10 euros he had given me to pay the cab. I found it, along with another 300 euros I hadn’t noticed before, which Jacob had put in there without a word at some point during the night.
Tkalciceva Ulica was empty, and I stood on the quiet street, breathing in the fresh air and the sweet scents that wafted from Dolac Market down the road. I laughed out loud.
I had escaped without compromising myself.
With more and more investors of their kind arriving in Croatia, I hoped the country would be able to do the same.