Burek Battles

Burek

When I first moved to Croatia I loved to frequent the country’s bakeries. Of course there was always a problem about what to call things. Sure I knew what a croissant was, but a štangica or a lisnato? A kiplić or is it kiflić? Over time I managed to get most of these down and even learned some of the names of the various loafs of bread. Yet there is still one item whose very conceptualization I’m unsure about, an item that no one can seem to agree on. Of course I’m talking about burek! …Or, am I?

Has this happened to you? You go to a bakery and buy a chocolate burek, or an apple burek, or maybe a burek with spinach and cheese. And then you eat it and someone, like a know-it-all-neighbor asks: “What are you eating?” And you say: “A chocolate burek.” And god help you, because here. it. comes.

“That’s not a burek. Burek can only have meat.” This hypothetical, totally not a real neighbor or know-it-all-student says. And fine, maybe he or she’s right. But, riddle me this, if burek only comes with meat, then how am I supposed to order it at the bakery? It has a sign that says burek! Huh? Should I just go back to pointing?!?

Or, maybe the bakery is a magic place of conceptual temporality, like Las Vegas. Except instead of ‘What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,’ we get:

What’s burek in the bakery, is only burek in the bakery.

Croatia you are a weird place. Everything here has at least two names. Things have one official name and then a name that everyone else uses. And this duality extends to street names, the names of pavilions, parks, and, even me. Sometimes I’m Cody McClain Brown, other times I’m Cody McLean. Once in the newspaper I was Cosy Mxclain. And another time, my favorite, I was Cody McNešto. Of course it goes all the way to the items on sale in the bakery. This duality between the official version and reality actually extends throughout all aspects of Croatian society. There are official “rules” and then there are the way things are really done. This is what makes the bureaucracy so frustrating to deal with. There is always a sneaking suspicion that whatever document or rule or thing that you need, is in some other context or circumstance not needed.

It certainly says something about a country when you can begin a blog about bakeries and burek and talking about bureaucracy.

One final note: when I talk to people about this they say ‘Oh, well Bosnians are the one’s who care about what’s in burek.’ And this may well be true, but I was in Bosnia once, 11 years ago and didn’t eat burek. Yet, I’ve had people comment on what’s burek or not burek at least ten times… in… Croatia! What a country, we can’t even agree on what we disagree about.

Escape to Lastovo

Croatia is a mess during the tourist season. The main coastal cities are jammed with tourists who all seem lost. And in addition to these hordes, the whole industry looks like it’s undermining the country’s cultural authenticity. The coast is now like a blinking carnival, selling cheap products for ridiculously marked up prices. While on vacation in Split we don’t even go to the center much anymore. It’s too expensive, too crowded, and well, it doesn’t even feel like Split. It’s hard to find anywhere on the mainland that actually feels like you’re on vacation. So, this summer we did what any sensible person looking for peace of mind would do, we fled to Lastovo.

Now, the island of Lastovo is my Eden. The place I’ve longed to return to ever since I stayed there one night four years ago on the Boat of Culture. Even for that short duration I knew it was one special place . As one of the furthest islands off of Croatia’s coast, Lastovo feels like a refuge tucked away from the rest of the world. While many of Croatia’s coastal spots have blossomed with a crude kind of tourism (looking at you Split!), Lastovo has maintained its bucolic tranquility. As far as I know, there are no gaudy nightclubs on Lastovo and no stupid, stupid pub crawls. Only 1,000 people live on the island. And these souls have barely impacted the island’s natural beauty, while the tourism industry has barely impacted the island’s daily life. Lastovo is a forested haven, covered in trees and dense growth. It feels pristine, preserved, and peaceful.

(And yes, I’m aware of the irony in writing a blog that promotes visiting Lastovo while saying it’s great because no one visits the island. In conclusion, Croatia is a land of contrasts)

Getting there

Of course getting to Lastovo requires some patience. The ferry ride is around five hours long. We used two boats, traveling from Split, and transferring at Vela Luka on Korcula. And even something as monotonous as a ferry ride can feel special when you’re traveling to Lastovo. The ferry from Split to Korcula was packed, every seat was taken, and long lines of cars idled, waiting to get on the ferry. Then they idled in the ferry, waiting to get off the ferry. Every time I’m on a Croatian ferry I feel as if I’ve been tricked. This is my vacation? A mass of people and enough car exhaust to match a city? Man, I could do this at home. It’s called standing on a busy street corner.

However, when we transferred to the ferry to Lastovo, the crowd vanished. In its place was not a mass of tourists, but pockets of individuals, families, friends, people who you dared to look at in detail because there were so few of them. And there were less cars here than in the parking lot near our apartment in Zagreb. The ferry ride to Lastovo feels as if you’re not just traversing the sea, but time itself. Moving both back into the past, and away from the clock’s burdens. It’s as if the tyranny of passing hours and demanding minutes become a mere suggestion rather than a hard rule.

 The ferry to Lastovo. So much empty and just look at that retro style!

The ferry to Lastovo. So much empty and just look at that retro style!

Modern, clean, accommodation?

Anyone with experience touring and traveling around Croatia knows that the quality of accommodation can vary… greatly. Sometimes it seems as if people treat their rental property as storage for their old furniture. I’ve been in places where the apartment we’ve rented felt like the Croatian equivalent to an American garage… just with more beds. And this is truly a problem with the country’s response to the growth in tourism. Quantity often does not result in quality. You can’t expect someone to travel five hours by ferry to pay to sleep on your grandma’s old couch. And in most cases when and if there is a TV, it’s from the 1990s and gets 8 channels, most of which are in German.

And so with a history of such experiences, I hoped for the best, but prepared for the worst on Lastovo: funky furniture, poor Internet, an old air conditioner and no real TV. I’d even prepared my daughter, saying we wouldn’t be able to use the ipad or watch Netflix or anything. AND I was completely WRONG. Our place had all new furniture from Ikea, a new kitchen, new air conditioners, and was completely redone. It even had a TV with Internet capabilities, and each night, after hiking, swimming and dinner we streamed a movie on Netflix.

Looking around our house I was struck about how much effort it must take to get a place redone on Lastovo. I mean I stress about getting stuff from Ikea to our apartment, and Ikea’s just a half hour drive from our place in Zagreb. Everything in the house on Lastovo had to come by boat. In fact, everything on Lastovo has to come by boat (except for the fruit, but more about that later). Needless to say I was greatly impressed not just how comfortable our house was, but with the care that went in to making it that way.

Not only did we have nice furniture, but the house itself was nice. Two stories, totally redone and… with stairs! Growing up I had stairs in all my houses and I never realized how much I missed them. I even put our shoes on the stairs, they way my mom used to put my shoes on the stairs back home. Ah, stairs, you’re the best!

 Stairs! Inside!

Stairs! Inside!

Lučica

Lastovo is unique because unlike the towns on other islands, the town Lastovo is not built on the sea. Rather, it’s built on the other side of a steep hill, opposite the sea. The reason for this, we were told, is for security, from pirates, invaders… and tourists? As a result, anywhere on the seaside feels even more remote that town, and the town already feels remote. We stayed in a little bay called Lučica. The word quaint is an understatement.

Lučica only has ten or twelve stone houses. There is no store, or night club, nor is there a cafe. Yes. I found the one place in Croatia with people, but no cafe. And this all lends to Lučica’s monastic sense of solitude. Truly, being there is a break from all the normal routines and you have nothing to do, but relax. As an early riser I spent most mornings sitting on the patio, drinking coffee, and writing while I listened to the rhythmic waves slapping gently at the bay’s seawall. And of course the sea is pristine.

Even though Lastovo town is not built on the sea, it’s still beautiful and filled with a sense of history. There are very few modern buildings in the town, everything else seems to date from the 16th century. The city seems oriented around what was once the Duke’s mansion, a grand, albeit haunted looking building that possesses a commanding view of the town and surrounding valleys, and a church with a pleasant square next to a park. And that’s pretty much Lastovo. There is a small chapel built to ward off the plague. And nothing spells vacation like an anti-plague chapel!

The town’s charm doesn’t come from what there is, but rather what isn’t. Again, the horrid trappings of tourism have yet to touch this island. In the town there is a store, and a couple of cafes, a few restaurants, and you can get ice cream at one of the cafes, but that’s about it. The narrow lanes winding down the hillside are great to explore. Almost every stone house has a garden. Lastovo is unique because the locals just plant fruit trees, but do not water them. Each plant’s survival is up to the plant. The island has deep pockets of water that the plants find. The result is a sampling of fruit that seems small and a little paltry, but is completely natural. Our host kept giving us plates of pears, plums, and peaches. Each smaller than what you would find in the store, but a billion times tastier as well.

 A view of Lastovo’s main church

A view of Lastovo’s main church

A not so starry night

A couple days before we left, we hiked up to the town in the evening when it was cooler, had dinner in a charming restaurant in a large park by the town’s largest church. The tables were outside and overhead small lights had been strung through the trees. Or goal was to wait for the sun to set and then hike to the highest part of the town and see the stars. Lastovo is said to have the third darkest sky in Europe.

After our meal we set out, scaling the winding roads, heading past the Duke’s palace and onto a path that seemed as ragged as it was rugged. Armed with flashlights, we went higher and higher, until we found a spot far above the town’s few lights. The view was spectacular, though the stars were not very visible on account of the moon. Still, the moonlight touched the hills and the valleys in such a way that it seemed unreal. As if we were looking at the idea of something scenic because it was too gorgeous to actually be scenic. It reminded me of the establishing shots from an old Disney film.

The best part of the trip was the hike back down to Lučica. We took the road, rather than taking the wooded path in the dark. Walking down the moonlit highway, surrounded by the island’s trees and the silence of the night, I felt a memory forming as it was happening. I saw it in my daughter’s face, the carelessness which she just marched down the road. I wondered why this would last in our minds more than everything else we’d done this summer and I realized it was the absence of noise, and our freedom from time. The carelessness with which we could walk in the middle of a road, unconcerned about the late hour, unbothered about what was next. This was the very feeling of vacation. I knew that we had reached the peak of the summer, the point where it would all roll back into routine and work and school. And I knew that every time we thought of Lastovo we would think of this feeling and this moment, forever.

What do you do?

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A few weeks ago I met some friends of a friend who were an American-Croatian couple living in Croatia. The next day I was telling my wife about how I’d met some ‘Americans’ from San Francisco who preferred Croatia to… California!?! And my wife asked, what do they do in Croatia? Like what are their jobs? I paused a second, trying the think through the night’s drunken haze and well, I couldn’t remember asking or learning what they do.

A few weeks before this and a friend, who was initially a friend of a friend, was having a ‘I’m-moving-back-to-Canada-Party’ and I was trying to explain to my wife who this person was, and again she asked, ‘What does she do?’ and again, I didn’t know. And this was weird because we had all hung out too many times to count and I couldn’t remember what her job was. I wasn’t even sure if I’d ever even known.

Now, you might be thinking, Cody that’s because you’re a horrible conversationalist and self-centered, and you might be right, but I actually think it’s something else. Back in the day when my wife and I began dating she made a point that all Americans do is talk about work, and how she can’t stand it when we meet people and ask ‘So, what do you do?’ Since then I have heard similar sentiments from other people in Croatia (and elsewhere in the world). I remember at the time thinking, if you don’t talk about what you do, what else is there to talk about?

In America we talk about work because American identity largely comes from our profession. What you do is who you are, and the best way to get to know someone is to learn what kind of work they are in. If I meet someone from Oregon and tell them I’m from Oklahoma, there’s not a lot we are going to talk about. Oklahoma Megachurches? Portland hipsters? And it doesn’t really tell us much about each other. I do not attend megachurches, and this guy might be offended if I call him a hipster, no matter how tight his jeans are. If we discuss our jobs though we can learn about our education, our interests, and perhaps, even our competence.

Meanwhile in Croatia talking about your job can be… awkward. By bringing up work you might come away thinking someone is an uhljeb (someone with a well paid, pointless job, attained through a connection) or you come away mad at the system and feeling sorry for this person you just met because they are either underemployed or unemployed, and finally, maybe you’re in awe with how they got such a great job because getting a good job in Croatia is a mystery… and well, the whole thing can just be uncomfortable.

I often feel some embarrassment when I tell someone I work at the University. Usually this is followed up with a question of whether or not I have ‘permanent employment.’ When I say yes, their eyes sparkle with what I can never tell is envy or respect, either way I can see in their eyes that I’m living the dream, permanent! state! employment! And then this raises the question about how did I get this job or don’t I think this job should’ve gone to a Croat… and… erm… uh… it’s best to just avoid talking about work altogether.

Croatia offers other, less awkward, ways to learn about someone. You can talk about where you are from, or where your parents are from (which is sometimes the same thing, but also different… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯... ‘I’m from Baška Voda,’ said the person who has never lived in Baška Voda). You can also talk about what region of the country you’re from, even what part of the city. In Croatia, where you’re from seems to speak more to the traits and personality of a person than their profession. People also discuss family, having kids, health and holiday plans before they ever discuss work. And of course what most people talk about are the daily challenges of living life in Croatia: bureaucracy, incompetence, and inefficiency.

What someone does and how they do it in this country is filled with so many awkward unknowns, that I’ve learned to avoid discussing it when meeting someone the first time, even with Americans and a Canadian, apparently. Perhaps this explains why we often revert to complaining. Complaining in Croatia is like the great icebreaker, the best initiator to get to know someone. When it comes to complaining about daily problems everyone has a story that we’ve all already lived through. And it’s a story we can all understand.

Croatia: The Little Country that Can

A rare mood of elation swept through Croatia after the national team’s victory over England on Wednesday. As I ran up the stairs of my Zagreb apartment, I encountered a group of white and red clad fans waiting for the elevator. I let out a whoop of triumph from the stairs only to be surrounded and hugged by the whole group. We proceeded to jumped up and down, arms wrapped around each other, chanting ‘CROATIA CROATIA’ until the elevator arrived. They went their way and I continued racing up to my floor, where I hoped to join in a similar ritual with my wife, kid and neighbors. As the national team advances to the World Cup final, it seems like there has never been a better time to live in Croatia.

If Croatia’s astounding World Cup run is the first time you’ve heard of the tiny nation, don’t feel bad. Before falling in love with a Croatian woman and moving here from Oklahoma, I thought Croatia had been, or maybe still was, a part of Russia. It wasn’t and isn’t. Croatia is a beautiful country right across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, and has some of the world’s most beautiful, pristine beaches. Once part of Socialist Yugoslavia, the country fought a war for independence in the 1990s, and joined the EU in 2013.

And though we are riding high on World Cup euphoria, the country is facing a host of problems. In the last five years an estimated 300,000 people have left, dropping Croatia’s population to just under 4 million. The owner of the country’s biggest and most successful soccer team, Dinamo Zagreb, recently fled to neighboring Bosnia and Hercegovina after being convicted on fraud charges. And over the last 27 years from 1989-2016 Croatia has experienced the lowest gains in GDP in all of Europe, a paltry 6.5 percent.

But for the last few weeks these problems, which once seemed as insurmountable as they were inevitable, suddenly seem manageable. It’s as if each goal and each advance in the World Cup by the national team is boosting Croatia’s national confidence. For once, the conversation isn’t about difficulties with the country’s corrupt bureaucracy or stories of young, promising graduates moving to Ireland or Germany. Instead, the city streets are filled with smiling faces.

It’s hard to explain the importance of football in Croatia to my American family. For each American championship there is always two US teams to cheer for. The nation is never united behind a single team, and any calls for unity might seem like a political trap. But in Croatia support for the team is organic and genuine. Everyone cheers for the national team, from three year-olds to my 76 year-old mother-in-law. Fandom here is so serious that when the national team plays the whole country comes to a standstill. During the match with England, malls and grocery stores closed early, masses in the Catholic Church were cut short. All so that everyone could get to a TV in time to watch the game. And if you think it’s over after the game, things are just getting started. The parks become filled with late night revelers singing songs until 2-3 am. The incessant honking of car horns fills the night until the wee hours of the morning. What might sound like a cacophony of racket, is actually the sound of victory.  

Over the seven years I’ve lived here, I’ve learned that Croatia is a country that often surpasses expectations. When family and friends visit, they can’t believe how beautiful the country’s beaches are. Nor can they believe how charming and pleasant its medieval towns and modern cities are. I mean who would’ve thought a once war-torn, socialist dictatorship would be so pleasant? Moreover, they can’t believe that a country with so many problems and so little resources can do so much. And that’s what Croatia’s advance to the finals is all about. Showing Croatians and the world that despite our problems, despite our size, and our limited resources, we’ve been able to outplay, outlast, and outshine some of the greatest teams on the planet. So, cheer for Croatia in the final game of the World Cup. And win or lose, come visit, you won’t regret it. 

The Magic of Football

Croatia’s game against Turkey during the UEFA European Championship was the first time I cheered at a televised sporting event, EVER. It was 6 June 2008 (see I even remember the date). Croatia scored and before I knew what I was doing, I was up, off the couch, yelling as loud as I could. And then I was hit by a thought, so... this is football.

And no it’s not soccer. Soccer is something we play in America as kids. It’s what you play on the playground when there is nothing else to play. It’s what you play until you’re old enough to play American football and baseball, or tall enough for basketball. It took living in Croatia for me to understand the magic of FOOTBALL!

An international experience

As an American you can never really understand football until you experience it outside of the US. Americans have no event or team that everyone in the country supports. During the World Series or the Super Bowl there are fans rooting for one team against the other, and there are also the people that just don’t care because American football is slow, and baseball is boring (to watch). And no, the whole country doesn’t get behind any single Olympic sport. Swimming? Yeah, right.

But in Croatia when the national team is playing, literally the whole country is watching, OR like my punica, purposefully not watching because she ‘just can’t take it’ at her age. During these games I’ve seen the most mild-mannered Croat, the most unpatriotic person on the planet turn into a super fan, screaming with Hulk-like intensity when Croatia scores: HRVAAAATSKAAAAA!

So much drama

Football is the world's most dramatic sport. It’s a fast paced, low scoring roller-coaster of emotions, near misses, close calls, a 90 minute story that builds the tension better than any movie ever could. And during something like last night’s game (Croatia v Russia) that tension, the collective fear, hope, dread, and love gripping the entire populace, is palpably in the air. You can feel its electricity in the spaces between the empty streets and the humming, brimming cafes.

Watching football, cheering in chorus with the whole country is a great way to feel as if you belong, but I feel even more Croatian because my whole love affair with football has only been in Croatia (and Croatian). I have no vocabulary for watching football in English. I don’t know the terms and I have no tradition of yelling or cheering in English. Instead, I watch the game IN Croatian,  I yell at the players, our opponents, and the refs IN Croatian. I cheer and curse IN Croatian.

The only thing I don’t quite get is honking your horn incessantly for two hours after the game has ended. Or singing songs off key well into the wee hours of the AM. But, if we win on Wednesday, I might just overcome these inhibitions, honk and sing with the rest of the country. 

I believe!

And now we are heading into the semi-finals. Croatia is now one of the world’s top four teams. Look at the other three! They are countries that everyone knows, former world powers, empires! And then there is us, tiny Croatia, the country that is hemorrhaging people (300,000 in five years), the country most people can’t even find on a map, and here we are, the little country that could have a shot at the world championship. There is a feeling as if we all had something to do with it. Which is ridiculous because it’s not like the team can hear us screaming through the television. Or can they? The magic of football makes you believe in ridiculous things.

Some friends have mentioned that Croatia’s success in the World Cup is a nice distraction from all the country’s problems (especially for our politicians). This is probably true, but our success is also an example of how I see the country’s story. Croatia is a place that often surpasses your expectations, a place that can do more with less, and a place that can surprise even the biggest skeptics (who are mostly Croatian).

No matter what happens in the coming matches, I’ll still cheer for Croatia. When it comes to football I know we believe we have a chance. And when it comes to everything else, I honestly think we are better than most of us believe.

Peak Croatian

The flow of time is strange in this country. Erratic in a way that is unknown to those who live elsewhere and maybe unremarkable to those who have never lived anywhere else. To me, the regular rhythm of the Croatian day moves like sand in a gust of wind, eddying in pockets of intensity before laying dormant, or gathering like dust in the corners of the day. When evening calls and the sun lies low on the horizon, there always seems to be just enough time for one more drink, one more coffee, one more trek around the park. And all that time, magically gathered in the afternoon is spent on one last moment.

Maybe it has to do with sitting in the center of a thousand year-old city or a 1700 year old palace. Is there so much history in Croatia that we can afford to be indifferent to the present? Or is it more about the culture? Do Croatians just know how to make time for life’s small pleasures?

Enlightenment?

Last night I had an epiphany, or well, a moment of enlightened understanding. I met a friend for a drink at 5:00, and thought that this meeting might last an hour or two (and it was a meeting because we were kinda working on something). Around 7:30 another friend joined us, around 8:00 my wife called just to tell me what she and my daughter were doing about dinner (she advised me to buy a kebab) and the next thing you know, it’s suddenly 10:30. And the only reason I’m even able to construct this timeline is through the time stamps on texts and phone calls.

Over the course of a couple drinks we all lost track of time. The five and half hours I sat in a cafe collapsed on each other, like the folds of an accordion. Stretched out and you can see its length just like I can trace the records in my phone and the absence of the sun in the sky and know that time has passed, but I can’t remember feeling it. I realize this feeling, or the lack of it, is “Peak Croatian.” And Peak Croatian is the point, the apex that all coffees, drinks, gatherings, and get together hope to achieve. Peak Croatian is when a large swath of time passes without notice when among friends.

And Party Breaking

In fact you could probably argue that Party Breaking is a social taboo because it reminds everyone that beyond the borders of the party, time is a flowing force, moving and shaping the world. Once you break the party, you fracture the illusion and time comes pouring back into our awareness, washing away any chance of reaching Peak Croatian.

But last night, five and half hours slipped by unseen, unmarked, and unaccounted for. As we get older these moments are fewer and fewer. But when they do happen they bring to my mind those halcyon days from childhood when clocks were meaningless, time seemed infinite, and the easiest thing in the world was to get lost in a friend’s company. I mean how great is it to get lost in conversation at 39 when a world of problems, bills, due dates, and deadlines tether us into the time stream? 

A Rare Achievement

What really makes achieving Peak Croatian so remarkable is that no one begrudges your loss of time. In fact it’s something celebrated. You lost track of time having coffee with a friend? This is considered an achievement, maybe there’s some slight envy, but really it’s a longing to do the same. And that’s how you know it’s Peak “Croatian” and not Peak American or some other culture or country, because it’s something everyone here aspires to. We want those moments with friends to seem infinite, and sometimes we are lucky enough that they do.  

The Bench Network

The old neighbors sit like the three Fates. They appear to be all knowing, spinning yarns about everything and everyone. Three hunched shadows, silhouetted against the street light. The ends of their cigarettes flare and fade. Their conversation murmurs through the block’s open windows like some dull television-sounds in another room.    

The bench is not really a bench, but a collection of chairs scattered around a table set on the lawn in front of the apartment block. There is a bench, but it is incidental to the chairs. Of course the chairs aren’t a single set like you would buy at the store. Rather, each chair is unique, each with its own mysterious origin. Somehow each one just showed up, sprouting around the bench like a bunch of mushrooms.

Center of the universe

Three old ladies serves as the core of the group. Others come and go, but the orbit of the evening belongs to these old women. They are my mother-in-law’s neighbors. The women who watched my wife grow up and now kiss and hug my daughter in the hallway, passing her treats or just bringing up plates of crepes for no reason in the evening.

Gossipers

People often make disparaging comments about old ladies gossiping on benches. In Croatia it seems like every neighborhood has their set of the Fates, their group of neighbors who congregate nightly. They’re considered nosy, judgmental, and the source from which so many rumors spring. “Did you hear about…” “I heard that…” “No, she said he said…”

Land of loneliness

But if you could only envisage the loneliness of the American midwest. If you could feel how easy it is to become lost in our culture of individuals isolation, then I think everyone would appreciate the ladies on the bench.

Once we invented air conditioning we no longer had to go outside to keep cool during the hellish summer months. So we saw our neighbors less and less. And once we invented the TV we no longer needed friends. So, there was no need to see our neighbors at all. Now, to see someone its like you need an excuse to intrude on their solitude.

 Split

But each summer in Split, I know that whenever I come or go, I’ll see the neighbors. I’ll stroll up or park, catching their squints in the flash of the headlights, and even if I don’t want to, I’m drawn to walk over and at least say hi.

We make jokes, I mention propuh, they ask about my daughter. If my wife, daughter and I have been out together then usually my mother-in-law is down there waiting for us with them. Maybe she’ll take my daughter upstairs, with what to feed her occupying her mind, and my wife and I will steal a cigarette and a few minutes with the neighbors.

Value vs. Spirit

Amid the manicured front lawns of America’s McMansions, the long driveways and wide streets, there is no place for a bench, let alone a sordid collection of mismatched, broken lawn chairs. What serves as the center of the community in Split, Croatia would be seen as a property devaluing eyesore in Oklahoma. And that might be the difference between here and there. Property over community, value over spirit. But, after living in Croatia I say let the old ladies talk on the bench. I see that in the end, we’re richer for it.


Autumn's Problem

The leaves are yellowing, the temperatures have dropped, and the fall has arrived. It’s sweater weather for sure. I love the fall in Zagreb (and… I’m sure it’s nice in other parts of Croatia too).

I don’t think someone from Zagreb can appreciate how autumn feels to someone from Oklahoma, where we just have a “false fall.” That’s the fall that tricks you with a temperature in the low teens on one day, and then by the end of the week you’re back up to the low 30s in late October! It’s a big joke and Mother Nature’s laughing really hard.

The ideal

No, in Zagreb the fall is the real deal. Vendors selling chestnuts show up on the street, pumpkins appear in the stores, and the leaves begin falling gracefully through air in Maksimir park. It’s autumn the way I was told it should be on TV and in the movies.

One problem

Then the rain comes and the temperatures drop into the single digits. We have to go inside and there you are greeted with a fog of thick cigarette smoke. Yesterday, I was enjoying the fall, had a coffee in a nearby cafe and then I smelled like an ashtray the rest of the day.

Coffee and Cigarettes

I know, I know, in Croatia coffee and cigarettes go together like punica and soup. It’s hard to have one without the other. But, in the past everything used to go together with cigarettes: hospital visits, flying in airplanes, waiting for airplanes, riding in buses, waiting for buses, the TV news, TV talk shows, even kids’ cartoons. Pretty much everything was done with a cigarette burning between your fingers or one smoldering in a handy ashtray. To imagine all of this today is impossible, and yet it is still acceptable to smoke inside cafes.

Like unicorns

And yes, there are some cafes where people don’t smoke, but these are far and few between. They are about as rare as a unicorn and finding a seat in one is like finding an even rarer double horned unicorn— a dualacorn, if you will. The proliferation of smoking cafes makes the autumn and the winter the worst. We can’t meet friends for coffee when we have our kids with us, because of the intensity of the second hand cigarette smoke. And by the end of the first bout of cold weather my coat stinks like the back seat of a 1970s New York taxicab.

Since having coffee is so instrumental to the Croatian way of life, it’s not like you can go all season without sitting in a cafe. I mean you could, but in that case you’re more likely to die from soul crushing loneliness then cigarette smoke. Smokey cafes in the fall and winter are an inescapable fact of life in Croatia.

Even Turkey did it

Croatia ranks 24th in per capita consumption of cigarettes, right between Tunisia and Armenia. Greece ranks number one, and even in Greece they’ve banned smoking in nightclubs and cafes (albeit the effectiveness of this “ban” is questionable). But other countries, once notoriously known for their love of smoking have also banned smoking in cafes and bars: Turkey, Ireland and even Italy!

A lot of my Croatian friends talk about how Croatia is not Balkan, but European. Let’s then be less like our balkan neighbors and more like our European ones, and get rid of smoking in cafes. Our clothes, noses, and lungs with thank us for it.


Nature is Beautiful. People are Stupid.

I hate feeling like a lost tourist in Croatia. And Croatia is very good at making people feel like lost tourists. The overall lack of organization, written explanations (like signs) in many parts of the country sort of gives the whole country a DIY feel to tourism. Welcome to Croatia… You figure it out!

For example, last weekend the family and I went to Plitvice Lakes because there was a discounted entrance price.

Croatia’s gem

Plitvice is one of the few places that people who are not from Croatia know about. It regularly ranks on top 10 lists of places you have to see before you die. Plitvice is the number one (or two) tourist destination in a country that is mostly supported by tourism. It is the flagship of Croatian beauty. It’s like the New York City of Croatia, except it’s natural and no one lives there. Plitvice is what Croatia shows to the rest of the world. Sadly it is also a frustrating, aggravating, and disappointing experience.

 Parking lot?

Plitvice’s problem is that it screams disfunction. Maybe the human error stands out in contrast to the beauty of the nature. I don’t know. But the place has got problems. First, the parking lot is too small for the amount of visitors the park receives, leaving most people to sort of… guess what can and can’t be a parking space. Their cars end up in haphazardly, chaotic, impromptu spots next to trees, on slopes, or hugging the side of some narrow lane.

Long lines

Second, there are only three ticket windows, leading to a long, nearly constant line. Some people have complained about waiting for tickets for up to two hours. It would be easy to build more ticket booths scattered about the entry grounds of the park, instead these places are reserved for an over priced cafe and a souvenir shop.

Excuse me. No, excuse me.

And most importantly the park itself feels mildly treacherous. Most of the time you’re too preoccupied with staying on the railless, open, meter wide path in the face of a family with two strollers and a dog coming at you, idiot adolescents trying to splash each other, and an old Korean woman who stops mid stride, mid path to take a photo, that you can barely enjoy any of the utterly beautiful, breathtaking, scenery. Plitvice is like being promised a relaxing nature walk, but instead waiting two hours to enter an obstacle course.

To top it all off, upon leaving, squeezing your car through the chaotic scramble of the “parking lot” you drive with your ticket to the gate where you learn at the last minute that first you have to go to a separate window, on foot, to pay. Well, of course you do. Everyone else realizes this at the same time. So, now you have two lines, one of cars who can’t go anywhere and people running to the little window, trying to pay as quickly as possible, which isn’t quick at all.

Info

Tourists, are stupid. They need help and information. I live here, I understand the chaos of parking in Croatia. I’ve parked in Split in July! And I was horribly frustrated at Plitvice. Imagine how it is for real tourists. And we can dismiss them, and say: ah who cares about dumb tourists, but those tourists make up most of our economy. Without them, we might as well be Moldova.

We should be better

Instead of being just the face of Croatian beauty, Plitvice is the face of Croatian incompetence. That’s the Croatia we are showing to the world. The one where the problems are obvious, but continue to be ignored. It’s a shame because we could do so much better. This is a place that, literally, millions of people visit each year, and it’s run like a side-of-the-road amusement park on the outskirts of Muskogee Oklahoma. Croatia, we’re better than that.


Shrug it Off

Last week a reader theorized that I, an American, was involved in a conspiracy! Was I a spy? Had I been involved in faking the moon landing? No.  I was accused of secretly being a propagandist for Croatia, paid to write about the advantages of Croatia over the US in order to keep Croatians from leaving their homeland.

And I just have to say… um… that accusation… is… um… oh, no, I’m...um... blinking because there is… um… something in my eye. Nervous? I’m not nervous… no that idea is… ah… ridiculous.

More paperwork?


Really, there all kinds of things the US does better than Croatia. Look at paperwork and stamps for example. After encountering the Croatian bureaucracy’s paper fetish, I no longer believe it was the Venetians that cut down all the trees in Dalmatia. To get anything done you literally have to fill everything out in triplicate, twice. And what’s with all the stamps?

Transparency

Another thing that the US has over Croatia, transparency and clarity! As big and mighty as the US is, it is surprisingly easy to see how everything works. We, meaning those of us who pay attention, understand why government policy is skewed towards the wealthy. We understand with near certainty how the system operates. We can see why it sucks, we just don’t know how to change it.

Black box

In Croatia I feel like the policy process is a black box. And like the cover of Spinal Tap’s first album, it’s blacker than black. It’s hard to even observe the process by which things are done, let alone understand it. And yet, things work, more or less, which is even more surprising!

Ah, indifference

And finally, an air of indifference permeates nearly everything in Croatia. You see it in the dilapidated exteriors that dot Zagreb. Coated in the sloppy scrawls of a beginner’s graffiti, exposed rebar, rusted under the flakes of a crumbling edge, the sparkle of shattered glass now ground into the rough pavement, all speak to a collective kind of apathy. Then there is the personal indifference that, I guess, develops as a survival mechanism to the functional indifference of the system. The cold-stone face of the bureaucrat that prevents you from submitting your form because you don’t have this thing… something… whatever! Or the indifference from the firm that owes you money, but won’t respond to your emails.

The shrug

There is a move Croatians make that encompasses every level of indifference, a graceful gesture that says, “I understand, screw it, and meh” all at the same time: the shrug, shoulders up, palms out, eyes rolling towards heaven, as if only God could possibly provide a solution to your situation… and even then, who knows.

Indifference or resignation to the faults of the status quo is one of the things that embodies the biggest gap between me, the American and my Croatian friends. I am tempted to say this is another thing the US has over Croatia… but wait. Maybe, life here is oddly better than life in the US because we resign ourselves to the iron law of the status quo. Why stress out about something that you can’t change anyway?

If it ain’t broke…

We have a saying in the US, “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I guess the Croatian version would be like: “if it’s not completely broken, or if it is just an inconvenience and not a major problem, then…” (shrug).

…don’t change it

While indifference may dominate much of the Croatian mentality, frenetic anxiety permeates the American mind. The US is far from perfect, and rather than accept that fact, I feel like we let it tear us up and fill us with fear. Sure, there are a lot of things that are better in the US than in Croatia, but after living here, I wouldn’t change it.


Zagreb by Night

To walk through a city at 2 A.M., is to know her. It’s like seeing your lover without her makeup for the first time, or seeing what your future husband looks like on a lazy Sunday morning. During a nighttime city stroll, beneath the wanting street lights, in the waning hours of the night, all the pretense of presentation is gone.

Zagreb at 2 A.M., is unlike any other major city I’ve ever walked through at night. There is such little apprehension in the air, such a lack of aggression that it seems unreal.

Unconcerned Crowds

Passing by the Main Train Station at 1:30 A.M., the crowd looks a little more frayed than the city’s daytime actors. Young people slouch and lean on just about every flat surface, some drink, others gossip. Every now and then a pack of young men passes through the area. Their boisterous, over confident voices tell you its a group of dudes before you even see them.

And then on their heels, comes a group of young women emitting similar sounds: shouts of disbelief at some rumored event followed by self-conscious laughter. Both groups are so into themselves that it is a revealing how little concern there is for their surroundings. There is no caution in their walk, no fear, no restraint. And yes, you’re at the train station at 2 A.M., but there are even old people here, mixed among the young, waiting for a bus home.

New Orleans

The beauty of Zagreb after hours is how similar it is to Zagreb in the daylight. This is unique. When I lived in New Orleans the nighttime was filled with raucous partying and fear. Amid the ever present smell of spilt beer and sometimes vomit, was the concern that you could very easily get mugged on your way home. Once you stepped out of the confines of the club, passing from the bleaching fluorescent light and into the darkness, all bets were off. My neighbor in the student dorm was robbed, but he was a judo champion, and like a scene in an action movie, he sent his knife-wielding attacker to the hospital. Others were less fortunate.

Tulsa

Walking in downtown Tulsa at 2 A.M., in my early 20s, the city was empty. You could only meet an accosting, aggressive beggar seeking spare change or a cigarette. Occasionally a lone weirdo might try to attach himself to you, hoping you might be headed to a house party or someplace to get high, because with all the bars closed, he clearly had nowhere else to go.

Meanwhile on my 2 A.M., walk from Zagreb’s center to my neighborhood, I see people walking their dogs. I see women, dressed for a night out hurrying somewhere. I walk past a guy. He doesn’t ask me for change or demand a cigarette.

Peace with the night

In my experience Croatians are much more at peace with the night. The nighttime isn’t something dangerous and fearful. To be able to walk home at 2 A.M., unmolested, and without having to really worry about such things, in a major city, is something I’ve only ever experienced in Croatia. In this case, even in the dark, it shows the true beauty of Zagreb.

Why are Croatians so Thin?

I’ve said it once and I’ll write it again: Croatians are obsessed with food. More importantly many Croatian moms and grandmas are obsessed with feeding… everyone. If you are asked: “Would you like more?” There is only one way that conversation ends, with more! And yet, for all the eating, feeding and obsession, Croatians as a whole, are far from fat. 

Why are Americans fat and Croatians aren’t? If you stroll through any Croatian town you will see tens of bakeries selling chocolate and vanilla pastries. Walk by a high school and you’ll see groups of kids stuffing pizza in their faces. Hang out at a park and you’ll see parents chasing their kids around trying to get them to eat. And the American fast-food chains are always crowded. Yet, you rarely see the epic proportions of obesity common in the US. How is this possible?

Obesity scale

According to the World Health Organization the US ranks 9th in a list of the world’s fattest countries, while Croatia stands at 71 (Number one is Nauru and since I’m American, I have no idea where or what that place is). So clearly, the stereotypes of fat Americans has some empirical support.

Ractopamine, Zeronal and oestradiol-17

One reason might be all the junk that is allowed in US food and not in EU food. Antibiotics and growth hormones are two of the most common elements present in US foods, but excluded in other parts of the world. Things with Science Fiction-like names such as Ractopamine, Zeronal, oestradiol-17 have not only been linked with increasing obesity, but also with cancer. Mmm… Tasty!

Fast-food capital

Aside from the influence of carcinogen growth hormones and numbered colors, like Yellow-5, US obesity also comes from the American lifestyle. According to some numbers I found on the internet (which must be true) there are around 50,000 fast-food chains in the US. Americans spent around 100 billion dollars on fast-food in 2014. Oklahoma City, my home state’s capital, won the crown for

fast-food capital

in 2007 because 55% of the public ate fast-food twelve times a month. In Croatia if you do eat a hamburger or čevapi its rare and you also, usually have to at least walk to the restaurant.

Life’s pace

I think the real differences exist in the pace of living. Life in the US is overwhelmed by urgency and exhaustion. We are racing to nowhere and in the rush we rely on the cheap, affordable ease of fast-food. My life in Croatia is more balanced than my life in the US was.

To the Greek philosopher Aristotle, moderation was the essence of living a moral, ethical and satisfying life. The American lifestyle pushes us to excess, it’s a race with no finish in which we frantically search for fuel. When I picture America, I see people hurrying, eating, drinking, gulping their way through traffic. When I think of Croatia, it’s a picture of people sitting, slowly drinking coffee without a hint of hurrying. Why these two worlds move at different tempos is beyond me. And while in Croatia someone is always offering you more and more food, you can bet it’s never fast.

In Croatia...

After the end of your meal at an American Chinese restaurant you always get a fortune cookie. Traditionally everyone at the table reads their fortune and then adds ” in bed ” to the end of it. So, “You must try hard or hate yourself for not trying” becomes  “You must try hard or hate yourself for not trying” … in bed. Or  “You can make your own happiness”becomes “You can make your own happiness…” in bed. Over the last couple of years I’ve started doing something similar with the phrase… ” in Croatia.”

Saying ” in Croatia ” is most useful for making the mundane extraordinary and putting what would be extraordinary in the US (or anywhere else in Europe) into the right, pitiful, context.

Best selling

If I tell people that I wrote a number one best selling book, that sounds impressive. You might even imagine I’m now in the company of other bestselling authors. All reasonable, until you add that phrase ‘in Croatia.’ What does it mean to be a bestselling author in Croatia? It means you drive a 2002 Hyundai Accent in 2015 and work three other jobs.
The best and the brightest

A friend of a friend is a BAFTA award winning director… in Croatia. So, he goes abroad to find work. I know a well respected, multiple award winning journalist… in Croatia. So of course she’s only hired as a freelancer. A student graduated at the top of her university class… in Croatia. So, she can’t find a job and waits tables in the summer. Or how about the menial worker who somehow became an oligarch in the 1990s… in Croatia. Maybe the ambitious idiot who failed at everything until he joined a political party, now he’s the head of a state firm… in Croatia.

The phrase ‘in Croatia’ sums up so many of the absurdities about life here. At times it seems like the world operates according to some sort of backward logic, as if up is down and down is up. What is the secret of success? Being hardworking, competent, talented? Not… in Croatia.

On the other hand…

At other times the phrase ‘in Croatia’ can be resolutely positive. For me it means I’ve escaped the monotony of American suburbia. I might be grocery shopping, but I’m grocery shopping in Croatia! I’m at the mall… in Croatia! I’m sitting and having coffee… in Croatia. I’m surrounded by history, 19th Century architecture, or in view of dang castle!
I might not have a lot of money, but I’m in Croatia. Here, I don’t have to worry about criminal violence, health insurance, or the many other insurmountable obstacles faced by the poor in America.

Summer in paradise

And best of all, in the summer I will live in a place people who don’t live in Croatia pay a lot of money to come and visit. It’s hard for me to imagine that what has now become a annual routine for me, is a once in lifetime experience for other people. And I get to stay there for next to nothing (though I do have to eat an unnecessary amount of soup for the privilege)!
And I know that during a swim at the beach, or over an evening drink on the Riva, perhaps after eating a full homemade lunch, or maybe while walking around the living ruins of Diocletian’s Palace, I’ll smile and think: I live …in Croatia.

 

Communism to an American Kid

As much as Croatia feels like home now, it’s funny when I think back to how I must have imagined life in Croatia (err… Yugoslavia) when I was a kid. You all were the bad guys, the poor suffering souls, the Others. And now, you’re family and friends.

 

Growing up in the mid-1980s, communism and Star Wars were intricately link in my mind. I feel as if I was born into a world consumed by both phenomena, the Marxist-Leninist workers’ paradise and the galactic space opera. Luke Skywalker, the Soviet Union and the Cold War were just always there.(Reagan’s Strategic Missile Defense Initiative was even given the nickname: Star Wars). Star Wars was front and center, while the global politics at the time were somewhere in the background, on the periphery of my consciousness, tied in the gordian conversation of grownups, on the evening news, and even in some of our Saturday morning cartoons.

Now I find myself not only living in a former socialist country, once part of the Eastern Bloc (and yes, I know not a Warsaw Pact member), but also intimately involved with people who grew up, worked and lived under socialism. To put this in the right context, this is like watching G.I. Joe and then marrying into a family and making friends with people that lived in that town Cobra built.

But since so many of my readers lived under communism and didn’t watch the G.I. Joe cartoon, I’m not even sure if many of you will get the reference (it could also be because you’re not geeks). Maybe it would be better to compare it to meeting people that actually lived in Darth Vader’s Galactic Empire.  

When I was five years old my father said something about communism and I asked him what it was. He told me, and this is entirely true: that under communism you don’t have to pay for anything.

Yet, he made this sound like it was somehow a bad thing. And do you know what I imagined? Literally, I imagined being able to go into a store and take all of the Star Wars toys without paying for them. Communism. sounded. awesome. 

Later, my ideas of life under communism devolved into a colorless world. Where everyone wore grey smocks and stood in long lines for the most basic things. I think some of this came from a seeing a few scenes from the film 1984 and equating the film with communism.  By far the most influential piece was an episode of Alvin and the Chipmunks where the pop-singing trio travel to West Berlin. The cartoon depicted the division of Berlin via a separated brother and sister, as well as the oppression of the Stasi. At the end the Chipmunk’s song brings down the Berlin Wall (take that David Hasselhoff!).

And that’s pretty much how I saw it all until I first began coming to Croatia in 2007. All of my prejudices came crashing down when I was looking at a family photo album and saw how stylish people were back in the 1980s. They were still more stylish than Oklahomans! Under socialism! Where were the smocks? There was color! 

I certainly don’t understand socialism or communism in the same way as the people that lived under it, but I also see it with more nuance than I would have had I never moved to Croatia. I’m interested to know what everyone thought about America when they grew up watching Dynasty, listening to Michael Jackson, and getting packages from family in Pittsburgh.

To be a Splićanin

I envy the citizens of Split. Not because the city is beautiful, not for the sea, the salt, the rocks, or the seagulls (now I’m just listing what they sing about), but because of their love for Split. For the citizens of Split, or Splićani, there is a sense that all you need is Split, and Split is all you need.

This is a feeling that is unfamiliar to me. I only like my hometown as much as I don’t really hate it. While growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I always had the sense that I would leave. It seemed certain, inevitable. As if there was some force, pushing me to uproot myself like a tumbleweed and roll across the West’s arid landscape.

A nation of nomads

The need to leave, the yearning to go, is as American as wearing white socks with shoes. It’s inescapable and we do it everywhere. Since I was 19, I’ve lived in 3 states, 4 countries, and 11 apartments. Scratch any American and you will most likely find a similar story. Maybe not one with such international flavor, but moving houses, towns, and states is the norm in America. We are a country of immigrants turned into nomads. Try to find someone whose is actually from New York, LA, San Francisco, or Washington D.C. You can’t. Almost everyone is from somewhere else.

Best. Place. Ever!

I think the difference between Splićani and say a Tulsan is best expressed in Split’s favorite phrases: Split je najlipše misto na svitu and tko to može platit (‘Split is the prettiest place in the world’ and ‘who could pay for this,’ which really is a much longer way of saying something is priceless). The locals’ love for Split is unequivocal.

It’s nice but…

Where, as a Tulsan I am more likely to put all kinds of qualifiers in a description of my city. Tulsa is pretty, at times, and depending on where you happen to be standing, but its much prettier than Oklahoma City. Oklahoma City sucks! See? It’s not so much about how good Tulsa is, but about how it could be worse, like OKC. Not Split. Split is all superlatives.  

Do I miss Tulsa? Oklahoma? America? Not really. I miss my family and some of the junk food that I can’t get here. And this is the difference between me and Splićani.  It’s easy to leave what you know you won’t miss. Among those unfortunate Splićani whose circumstance pushes them to move from Split, there remains a longing to return (I know this because I’m married to a girl from Split and every time we go anywhere, we go to Split… Where should we go for… … SPLIT!…oh, OK.).

Sunny with envy

My whole adult life has been about moving. Ah, but to be a Splićanin and feel such fulfillment from your hometown. To know, in your very bones, that you have always been where you want to be… that is something I can hardly imagine and only envy.

 

More than Words

When speaking Croatian it’s normal to hear people slip in some English. Words like “super,” “sorry,” and the problematic combo “friendica,” are now regular parts of the Croatian lexicon. The other day I realized that I’ve started doing the same thing, but in reverse, especially when I speak English to my young daughter. I’m curious why some words get translated, others don’t, and still others get turned and twisted into some Croatian-English linguistic Frankenword monster. 

I think this little quirk highlights the cultural gaps between our two countries. There are just some things that when translated from Croatian come close to being meaningless in English. These words' English equivalents pale in comparison to the power of their Croatian counterparts. 

Here’s my top 5. 

Number 1, Grad: I always tell my daughter we are going to the grad, or we are in the grad. I never say city. To translate grad literally and say city, sounds like we live in the country. We don’t. We live near the center. To say downtown is also misleading. For the longest time, my hometown’s downtown was a barren wasteland, populated with little else than parking lots and homeless people. After living in such an environment, anyone who says we are going downtown waits for the inevitable question: Um... Why? There is no comparison between the lifelessness of a mid-American downtown, and the vibrance of the grad.  

Number 2, Papuče! Of course, nothing in the US quite has the cultural importance or power of Papuče: The Defenders of Feet, Protectors of Health, The Enemies of all Illnesses. Right. Um… in America, we just walk around barefoot. We do have slippers and house shoes, but few of us wear them, and never because we think doing so will prevent our brains from becoming inflamed. To refer to my daughter’s papuče as house shoes or slippers just sounds pathetic. Only the word papuče can convey the gravitas of that life and death struggle being waged daily on the bottom of her (and our) feet.

Number 3Sladoled: 1) it’s fun to say. 2) The whole culture of ice cream here is different from what I grew up with. The ease with which you can find ice cream, on every corner, in every kiosk, makes sladoled something unique. In Oklahoma we got our ice cream from the ice creamery  and usually had to eat it there. Or we bought it in a tub from the grocery store. The only time we could have spontaneous ice cream, outside, was on the rare occasion when the ice cream truck, driven by a shirtless guy with a mullet, came down the street and we happened to have money right then. Summer in Croatia is all about eating ice cream anywhere and everywhere. For that reason it has to be sladoled.   

Number 4, Baka: Yes, in America we have grandmas, but the institution of grandma isn’t as central to our life as it is in Croatia. Here Baka, is both the loving, fawning fan of the family and the stern sentinel that safe guards its traditions and general health. She’s kind of like a domestic commissar, ensuring that lunch is eaten, papuče are worn, and the windows are closed. American grandmas just don’t have the power and influence as the Baka. Bakas are legendary, occasionally mythical, and often times unbelievable.       

And finally, Number 5, of course, our good friend Propuh. We have drafts in the US, but “the draft” is only considered deadly because it used to send you to Vietnam. Drafts are more like gentle breezes, blowing through the windows off the shaded porch, bringing some limited respite to the brutal, scorching Oklahoma heat. And if that doesn’t work… we just turn on the air conditioning and sit in front of it.      

While my Croatian is far from fluent, if there’s one thing I’ve learned living in here, it’s that some things mean more than words. 



Love, Croatian cuisine's secret ingredient.

Recently, I was on a bus to Opatija. We stopped at a cafe and I tried to get the barista to make me a produženu kavu even more “produžie” by asking her to add some more hot water. This concoction in other parts of the world is known as… an Americano! Fitting, huh. 

First, she looked at me with utter confusion, like you want me to add what to what? Then when I tried it explain in greater detail (this means I used my hands more) her confusion faded, clarity dawned and then horror. Now it was like: YOU WANT TO DO WHAT TO WHAT! I eventually got her to try it, and she put the minimal amount of hot water into the drink, but during the whole exchange I could sense her reluctance to ruin perfectly good coffee.

This is not the first time this has happened. I’ve tried this all over Zagreb and I’ve usually met with the same results. I’ve learned that it’s not that people don’t understand what I’m saying, it’s that they don’t understand why the crap I’m saying it. I feel like I’m asking them to murder somebody. I just can’t get it across that Yes, I actually want my coffee watered down. I mean hell, how else can I make it last for 2 hours? I’m an American after all.   

Croatia is a land of foodies. People here have a great pride in their cuisine. And they should, the food is great. The quality is generally much better than the plastic GMO food I buy at my neighborhood Walmart in Oklahoma. The diet is largely mediterranean, which is all the rage right now in the US. An expensive, special diet for HollyWood movie stars is just what Croatians call eating. In Croatia, food is as much an expression of culture and identity as language and uh… klapa are. As a result, it’s hard to “have it your way” when it comes to gastronomy.

It’s the same in the home. Preferences are ignored by the chef (usually punica). You cannot have x without y (even though you literally can, you figuratively can’t). I recently learned that I have an intolerance to olive oil. Now, you can imagine the complications this presents for a splitksi zet. In Dalmatia, people even put olive oil on their olive oil. Now, I don’t want to ruin anyone’s octopus by not having them put olive oil on it. But, you can see the dilemma here.Which is worse, octopus without olive oil, or a hungry son-in-law? Both are mortal sins.

And it’s not just around our dinner table. A friend told me she is always sneaking things into her father and daughter’s food, even though she knows both do not like these clandestine ingredients. Her justification: when you make x, it has to have y. 


This is just one more consequence that comes with the heavy hand of hospitality. Just like you can never leave the good time (see Party Breaking), you are never allowed to “ruin” your own meal. In the US, I would think that someone who doesn’t honor my humble request is actually showing me some strong personal indifference or disrespect. Here, it’s actually the exact opposite. Love and respect, these are the main ingredients in Croatian stubbornness. 

"I come with olive oil!"

The Bureaucratic Wastelands

This post is about bureaucracy. It will be a long, ponderous piece with little or no point. Bureaucracy, anywhere, is unpleasant. In Croatia though, it seems especially painful. This is because our fates are irrevocably intertwined with the mystery that lurks within the bureaucracy. We have no choice but to traverse those labyrinthian corridors and stand in the long lines, searching, waiting for answers. There is no escape.

In my experience, discussions over coffee can easily involve a friend’s bureaucratic problems. Ask how a friend is doing and you are very likely to get a story about how she is some kind of bureaucratic purgatory, waiting for someone, in some department somewhere to do something that will move her life along. Housing permits, working permits, being able to graduate, seeing a specialist, receiving a paycheck, all of these often hinge on the bureaucracy.

Who’s Driving This Thing?

In each case there is a cloud of uncertainty hovering over the fate of these friends. No one really knows what the problem is with their specific situation or who is actually responsible for resolving it. In a monarchy, I guess responsibility resides with the king. In a bureaucracy, the bureaucratic state, responsibility is so defuse it resides with no one. I have the feeling that under these conditions any bureaucrat that attempts to burden any of the responsibility for a decision, risks undermining the whole enterprise and the system’s wraith. Or maybe, they don’t
even
 know what to do.

You ask the impossible

I think one of the key negative traits of a bureaucracy is when it asks you to provide the impossible. I have the feeling that we can be asked to perform miracles (walk on water, raise the dead) just to get some vital document. One timeI waited four months for a paycheck because the accounting office demanded that I produce a JMBG (Unique Master Citizen Number). I have an OIB (a personal identification number), but that wasn’t good enough. I also needed a JMBG, which was kind of hard since I was born in Oklahoma, not Croatia or even Yugoslavia.

But apparently, I was more responsible for where I was born than the person, whose job was to pay people, was… for… figuring… out… how to pay people?  It was only after I inquired about getting a JMBG at the Ministry of the Interior, and at my bank, that the accounting office finally accepted what I had told them at the beginning: legally, metaphysically, logically, I cannot possibly have a JMBG.

Could it be easier?

Now, if we live in a modern state we have to have bureaucracy. We can aspire to the kind Max Weber advocated, a hierarchical system, governed by clearly defined rules. Or, we can get the kind Franz Kafka wrote about, opaque, formless, and well, eerie.

Some simple changes might make it nicer. Let’s remove the big glass barriers between the bureaucrats and us. What are those things even for? Sneeze guards? Not being able to clearly hear the person you are talking to certainly adds to the whole affair’s frustration. Or how about those doors that only open from the inside? I’ve never seen anything like that until I came to Croatia. If we can’t have real openness and accountability, let’s at least have its aesthetics. Give us the illusion of a light at the end of this maze. That, would be a start.

Unreality TV

Most American TV is not an accurate portrayal of US society. I know, I know… sorry to ruin your day. The violence, the crime scene investigators, the people preparing for the end of the world, all that might be closer to the truth. Where American TV goes wrong is in its depictions of life in sitcoms. In my experience there are few, if any, places where everyone knows your name. 

It was only after I moved to Croatia in 2011, that I started to see the unreality of American sitcoms. While these shows are far from reality in the US, the way of life on all of these shows began to look suspiciously familiar. I realized US sitcoms are actually about life in Croatia! Don’t believe it?  Here is some evidence. 

Another reality TV

On Sex and the City, Carrie and her gal friends sit in restaurants, cafes, or bars,  sharing heartfelt tales of heartbreak sprinkled with sexual innuendo. Sitcoms also involve going to the same cafe/bar over and over again. On How I Met Your Mother the gang spends most of their time drinking with each other in the neighborhood bar. On Seinfeld Jerry and friends are always at a place that’s simply called “Restaurant.” Look familiar? Yes, this is just like having coffee in Croatia. When is the last time you went some place new?

Then there is the very “involved” neighbor, like Urkel, Gibbler, or Kramer, who comes over all the time, often unannounced. And perhaps most notably on many shows like Everybody Loves Raymond, Fraser, and The King of Queens there is an older, aging, dominating, family member that constantly “complicates” things, especially for the male protagonist.  

We don’t really do that.

From the vantage point of a sitcom it looks like Americans spend all their free time socializing over one kind of drink or another, live with their relatives, and go to the same place again and again. If you replace socialize with watch TV, place with living room, and drink with pizza, then sure, we do that. Having coffee is rarely like it is imagined on Friends, sitting around, and you know, drinking coffee. Life in the US is hectic, often rushed and very rarely does anyone seem to have time for sitting around drinking coffee. If anything, you get it “to go” and talk to your friends on your mobile, while driving to your next appointment. Neighbors? I hardly even knew their names. Living with family members? No. Out of three siblings only one of us lives in the same state as my parents.

We Aspire to be Croatians?

Think about what is says when the ideas of levity, humor, laughter and comedy on American TV really resemble life in Croatia. Maybe this explains why I love living in Croatia so much. Countless hours of American TV have taught me that this is actually what life should be like. Based on our sitcoms you could argue that in the US we want to have a life like life in Croatia. Frustrating? At times. Complicated? A little. But ultimately, it’s a good time. In middle English, the word comedy was used less to depict a humorous event, but instead referred to a play or poem that had a happy ending. In that sense, I believe life in Croatia, a life with friends, having coffee, friendly neighbors, and even punica, can be truly comedic.   

(This piece was originally published on my blog for the Voice of Croatia)