In my Zagreb-based running crew, we sometimes organize an inner two-mile race and everyone is welcome to join. It was sometime in May 2018 when we scheduled a race instead of our regular Wednesday workout. Then some guy from the Netherlands texted us saying he was new in the city and asking if he could join us for workouts, and we said yes. He came to our race and won.
By Martina Đođo / AiC
His name is Roel Verlaan and he moved from Amsterdam to Zagreb because of work – he is a brand manager for Heineken. He has been running with us for some time now so I decided to interview him – to hear what he thinks about Croatia, running, and the combination of the two.
– “Before coming here, I knew that, given its size, Croatia is a country with a lot of great athletes. Ivanišević, the Sinković brothers, the national football and handball teams… And that’s really amazing for a country that small” – he said.
Roel started doing sports early as a child, but running wasn’t his first sport. He played tennis for a long time and trained rowing at university. At that time, running was just an addition to everyday training sessions, but it became a real passion later.
Running and cycling in a new city
– “When I first came to Zagreb, I started exploring the city and different routes. You know how it goes, the first few times you run around, get lost, see things, and use navigation to get back. I find it really cool that you can put your running shoes on in your apartment in the city center, start running, and be somewhere in nature in just 15 minutes. And Zagreb isn’t that small at all” – says Roel, describing his first days in Croatia. – “The fact that you have Sljeme here is amazing. The first few times I called it ‘a mountain’. My Croatian colleagues laughed, saying that it’s only a hill. I’m from the Netherlands; we don’t even have hills and you have one here, just 20 minutes away from the center.”
As a former rower, he first wanted to see Jarun – a lake which was initially built for rowing competitions. Then Bundek, Maksimir, Tuškanac… It turned out that Zagreb is perfect for running. He soon found out about the Zagreb Runners and decided to join. His first group run was that two-mile race I mentioned earlier. – “That was amazing. I am competitive by nature and it was so much fun.”
The biggest difference between running in Croatia and in the Netherlands is that there are more people who run there than there are here. However, he finds it great that the running population in Croatia is constantly growing. Also, in the Netherlands, there are more ‘fancy, stylish’ runners who run just to be seen – but hey – we’ll agree that any form of running is better than no running. He was surprised by the number of running events that take place in Croatia. He didn’t expect there to be so many races.
What he doesn’t like is the fact that Zagreb isn’t exactly cyclist-friendly. Well, we could say that no city is cyclist-friendly compared to his hometown, Amsterdam, but he is right here – “I do everything on my bike. When I told my colleagues that I don’t have a car, they looked at me strangely, probably thinking that I should have one, considering my job and everything. But I just don’t need it.”
– “What do you do when the weather is bad?” – I asked.
– “I ride my bike. As my father once said: I am not made of sugar!” – He answered, and we both started laughing. He also thinks that the streets of Zagreb have a huge potential for being cyclist-friendly and he hopes it will soon become a reality.
Living in Croatia
After we agreed that the cycling infrastructure in Zagreb could be better, we moved on to other, more-daily-life-related topics (well, yes, you could ask – are there any more-daily-life-related topics than bikes for a Dutchman? 🙂 ).
– “Do you find Croatia safe?” – I asked.
– “Oh yes, I do. I worked in Africa and Haiti before, and I visited other countries as well, so I can surely say Croatia is safe.”
– “You worked in Africa and Haiti already? How old are you?”
– “I’m 27!”
He noticed something funny about Croatians: we often complain about not having money and about having fallen on hard times – but we do it while sitting on a cafe terrace, drinking our second coffee, and enjoying our day. He likes Croatian food and drinks, but the language makes his head hurt. – “I think I will never learn it! It comes from a totally different language group than all other languages I speak” – he said. The only thing that makes sense are numbers, which in Croatian go very logically – for example, 90 is in Croatian literally ‘nine tens’. To compare, in Danish, 90 is ‘four and a half times twenty’.
My next question was, of course, about girls. – “Girls are different wherever I go! But, I did notice that Croatian girls are a bit more conservative. There is no chance they will approach you first; it is up to the man.” But he said they are beautiful – hence, worth approaching.
Another beautiful thing in Croatia is nature. Roel visited some national parks, islands, and cities, and all of them left him breathless. He is now deciding where to take his friends when they come to visit. There are so many possibilities. Croatia has so many wonders in such a small area, and that’s stunning.
At this point of our interview we started making plans and suggestions for where he should take his friends, and I forgot to ask him if he has anything to say to conclude our conversation. But I’m pretty sure he would say something like this: more bikes, less cars!