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Travel: Quirky stories of love and loss in a Zagreb museum

The exhibits at the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, Croatia, have been crowd-sourced from around the world

The Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, Croatia.
The Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, Croatia. (iStockphoto)

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It was, perhaps, the way Jill’s not-so-secret romance, brewing over beers, ended at the picturesque and quaint town of Bled in Slovenia. Or, the way Sharni’s one-travel-date wonder was blooming into a full-blown romance, with year-end dinners and sundowners already planned in Cabo, Mexico. Perhaps it was a combination of the two.

While one of my travel companions from our trip to the Balkans three weeks ago was forced to move on after a two-day fling, another was feeling the love pangs more deeply with every video call. That’s when I embarked on the three-and-a-half-hour train ride from Bled to Zagreb, the Croatian capital, to find myself standing in front of the Museum of Broken Relationships with my free walking tour guide.

The Museum of Broken Relationships is the most visited museum in Croatia, the guide happily tells us.

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It sounds like a great practical joke and I couldn’t help but feel the irony given the museum’s location. Across the street from it is a fancy restaurant, one of the most romantic spots in the city. At the end of the street is a church, one of the more popular locations for weddings. The road has old-fashioned gas lamp street lights, lit with a lighter by a city worker every evening. And then there is the Museum of Broken Relationships.

This in itself was a good enough joke but Sharni insisted I visit the museum. Thankfully, I did.

I paid the 50 kunas (about 550) for the ticket, fully expecting to laugh my heart out at the silly stories and symbols of cheating, two-timing, heartbreaks and whatnot people around the world had submitted to the museum. And the racing cycle, the first exhibit I saw, didn’t disappoint. Danielle from Belgium had received that cycle from her partner, who had picked up a new bike. Along with the new bike, he found a new woman too.  Then came a pink, home-made vibrating dildo. It was sent by a woman who had made it herself, in the exact image of her lover’s penis. When he left, she sent it to the museum.

A couple of old sexy, lacy bras, one black and one white, yellowed by time, followed the dildo. The bras were from a woman who associated her womanhood, appeal and beauty with her breasts. She had to get them removed owing to cancer; it strained her relationship with her body and led to emotional turmoil.

That’s when I actually started re-evaluating what the museum was all about.

As I moved through the four-room museum, seeing the exhibits and reading the stories—some short, some long, some tongue-in-cheek, some reminiscing about the good times and some outright sad—it took me beyond the obvious romantic relationship, to other kinds of bonds.

Take, for instance, the pizza mix in a box sent from Bloomington, US, by a person who loved it but had a severe gluten and casein allergy, with a letter addressed to “Dear Pizza, I miss you incredibly… Remember how I loved you?”

Or the rubber gloves sent from South Korea by a woman who was forced to clean, cook and care for her in-laws. Finally, she put her foot down and insisted her husband and she move out. Once they did, she sent the rubber gloves to the museum with the hope that “I think I can finally live a life of my own”.

There is a pair of basketball shoes, symbolic of a friendship gone sour. The exhibit simply says, “He was straight, I wasn’t.” He would talk about his girlfriends, “it killed me inside”.

All the exhibits are curated from crowd-sourced artefacts and stories, “offering a chance to overcome an emotional collapse through creation: by contributing to the museum’s collection”. For the exhibits also showcase how desperately we try to cling to relationships. Like a broken Nokia phone from 2003 submitted by a woman in Zagreb. Her partner had given it to her so she wouldn’t be able to call him. “It was 300 days too long,” she wrote of the artefact of her pain.

How blind we can be when in love was best represented by the Simone Rocha wedding dress and Miu Miu shoes of a 19-year-old who met her love in January 2014. She had moved from the US to Italy. He followed her, lied about his job. Her friends warned her. She didn’t listen. He proposed in Rome, they married in July 2015. She found out he was dealing drugs and sleeping with other women. The relationship ended in November 2015.

One wall has a simple number, 2, from someone in Manila, Philippines, with the following words: “He had another woman. He couldn’t make me number 1. I couldn’t stand being his number 2.”

A Mexican woman’s diary, a pocket watch and a necklace were accompanied by words from her lover, Diego: “There are two types of true love. One fills you with passion and love but you clash and cannot be together. The other you marry.” Perhaps he loved me too much, she wondered, trying to explain why Diego didn’t marry her.

There’s more. A door with verses and farewell messages scribbled by friends was sent by a Croatian mother grieving the loss of her son.

There are stories of strength too. Like a souvenir from a woman’s best and worst holiday at Disney World in 1997. There her dad promised they would visit again, even as her mother asked him not to make promises he couldn’t keep. He abandoned them soon after. The woman thanks him for teaching her life lessons and giving her strength without realising it…“without even being here”.

I know humans are capable of stupidity and superficiality but couldn’t believe it when I spotted the book I Can Make You Thin, a gift to an English woman with the words, “This was a gift from my ex-fiancé… Need I really continue?”

The exhibit that most affected me was a blue parachute rig hanging in a corner. The woman from Helsinki, Finland, had met the owner of the rig when she went for her first parachute jump. He was her instructor, they fell in love. He taught her how to jump solo. He died in a parachute accident.

I couldn’t tear myself away, perhaps because I also used to play in the sky till my friend and paragliding partner had a horrendous landing 10 years ago. Thankfully, she only broke her ankle. Today, she is back on her feet, building a new relationship with her daughters. I haven’t touched a paraglider since then.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and an editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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