This is just one emblematic example of life in Croatia. To survive living here you need to possess local knowledge. This is what anthropologists refer to as knowledge based on experience and embedded in a community’s practices, institutions, rituals and relationships. Local knowledge is something that to the inhabitants of a given area or community seems intrinsic and intuitive. It is something everyone just knows. Everyone, except for the outsider.
Now this is very different (at least I think it is) from life in the US. Sure, hipsters and the other cool kids pride themselves on possessing “local knowledge,” but this is trendy information about which bar is the most retro or where you can get the best falafel on a Friday night in Brooklyn. The difference is between knowing about Booksa and knowing where the hell the Zagreb municipality office is because you urgently need some vital document (PS: lady that told me, it’s not really across from Nama). In my hometown it is very easy to find your way around. For one, all of our streets have big green signs on the corner of each intersection. At major intersections the name of the intersecting street is on a sign between the two traffic lights. So, you know, you can like, read the sign while actually watching the road (genius!). The one place this occurs in Zagreb is on Zeleni Val (Green Wave) where knowing the street names doesn’t really seem to matter. Tulsa’s north-south streets are named after American cities, alphabetically. The East-West cities are numbered sequentially, starting with #1. You know what never happens in Tulsa? You never drive on the same street and then suddenly it becomes another street! In Croatia this happens every three blocks. We also don’t have any streets named after squares.
In geometry class we learned that a line is never ending and only line segments have ends. Streets in Zagreb appear as if someone went crazy with the segments. When you drive by a square in Zagreb, that street ends, and becomes a street named after the square. Then when you are through the square, the original street you were on may or may not return. You might find yourself on a completely different street. Sort of. Same street, Different name. Same line. Different segment. But of course none of that actually matters because most of the streets were named something else 20 years ago and half the population still refers to them by those old names. This is the chocolate conundrum icing on our chaos cake. Sweet.
The local knowledge refers to some streets via their old name. If you look at a map, then it’s something totally different (same goes with words like airport. No one calls it Zračna Luka, I mean the signs do, but everyone else calls it the Aerodrom). Then again there is a deficit of signage and this doesn’t really help anyone learn the knew names. I have walked one particular street in Split a billion times. I know the buildings on this street like the back of my hand. I can close my eyes and walk it in my mind, and yet I have no idea what it’s “new” name is. I’ve never seen a sign on the street announcing its name. I looked once on a map and forgot.
The good news is that people in Croatia generally use landmarks rather than street names as points of reference. Then again a lot of these things aren’t even the things people call them. Par exemple, in Zagreb someone may refer to the Rakete (rockets, that aren’t actually rockets) or the Džamija (mosque, that’s not actually a mosque), or limenke (aluminum cans that are actually buildings). Confused?
Of course part of the fun (hmm... fun? Sure, let’s go ahead and call it “fun”) about living in Croatia is learning the local knowledge. Learning to know what everyone knows is the fist step to thinking like a local and gaining acceptance from the community. The process of cracking the colloquial code has enriched my relationship with this city, country, and people. You need more than a map to love a place. And learning what the local knows also makes driving with Punica a whole lot easier.
Even though I’ve expatriated myself to Croatia, I am still an American. And despite my frequent negativity about the US, there are a lot things I love and miss about my native land. Much of this is tainted by Diasporic nostalgia and aging. The America I miss is probably more akin to a John Hughe’s film (
Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles
) with a soundtrack that plays the best mix of the 80s and 90s, than it is to reality. Each time I go back, the fact that the US doesn’t quite match my retro Utopia may cause me to mentally exaggerate the country’s decline. America is a complicated, confusing, really big place and part of me still loves her. Here are some reasons why you might too.
For starters it’s hella convenient. Americans have perfected convenience by inventing Wal-Mart (and her posher sister, Target). Need to fill a prescription, buy a DVD, some toothpaste, religious based fiction, an apple pie, a gun and maybe a writing desk at 3:30 a.m. on a Sunday? Well, in America you can! (And people do.) Yes, nothing is more convenient (and interesting) than 24/7 shopping.
n the US,
it’s basically possible to get anything you want anytime you want. This is not only convenient, it’s empowering! We are all masters of our needs because we no longer have to depend on silly things like "store hours" or "daylight" to facilitate our pre-dawn desires. It might also explain why people wear their pajamas to Wal-Mart. It could also make us a little less patient than our European brethren, but whatevs. Here’s to the one stop shop!
Abundance! There is so much stuff and all of it is cheap, which is also convenient. Free-refills people! Go to a restaurant and order a coke and you get an endless supply of coke (
um... the soda? What did you think I was talking about? That stuffs only free until they get you hooked! Actually come to think of it, it’s basically the same: America: Free addictive COKE
!) Coffee in a diner: free refill. Sure it might be watered down, and the soda might be crammed with high fructose corn syrup, but free is free! We also have free tiny packets of ketchup, and 99% of public restrooms have ample amounts of toilet paper. Aside from refills, the land is pretty cheap, so you’ll probably get to live in a house. Stuff is cheap, you’ll probably get to have lots of stuff. There is no federal sales tax, unlike the 25% PDV here, and most local sales taxes are rarely over 10%. And since there is so much stuff, there are always sales making that stuff even cheaper.
I miss customer service. In America we have an expression:
the customer is always right!
The translation of this expression into Croatian is a little lost. It comes out to something like:
The customer is always annoying, and will be served eventually, with great disdain, when I finish this cigarette or magazine.
Sure the politeness and friendliness of salespeople and waitstaff is often shallow and false, but you know what: It’s still nice to have someone smile at you and not act like you have ruined their day by giving them your business. Also, if you have a problem with something you’ve ordered, bought, or worn, chances are the store or restaurant will take care of it,
no questions asked
. In the US, most places have a 30 day return policy,
no questions asked
, cash back (with a receipt, store credit without). In Croatia if you return something the day after you bought it, regardless of the validity of your reason, the salesperson looks at you with scorn, mentally saying:
You should be more discriminating with your purchases in the future.
Or at least that’s what I think that frown means. The culture of customer satisfaction is one of the things I long for from America. And I’ve been on both ends. When I was selling things, I actually liked fixing people’s problems and handling their complaints. I felt like a ray of helpful sunshine on their cloudy day.
The ability to buy cheap things at any time of day or night, eat or drink until we are near comatose, and get results for any kind of service complaint, helps us maintain our healthy optimism. Yes, compared to Croatians, Americans are very optimistic. It doesn’t matter how many things I believe I have going for me here, when I talk about them with a certain older, matriarchal, female member of the family, she is never hopeful that things will work out. I’m all like things will get better:
Look I’ve got a job and this blog, I was in the newspaper, and I’m writing a book
and she’s all
“But what about now?”
It’s as if banking on the future is considered a fools errand. Better not to look to the horizon because you’ll just hurt your eyes. Sure, it’s probably useful to have a healthy dose of skepticism dumped on your dreams, but its also a bit exhausting. What’s the harm in working towards a better tomorrow? At the same time, in the States we might be too optimistic. We are told from the earliest age that anyone, even YOU, can be President! (No, not YOU. You’re a foreigner). In the US, it’s all horizon all of the time, sometimes to a fault. We believe in the greatness of the future NO MATTER what is happening in the present!
I once had a Professor say that “Americans are the fairest people on the planet.” Granted he was from China and had survived Mao’s Cultural Revolution, so in that context his perspective might have been a little skewed. But, after living here and in a few other countries, I think he was on to something. The convenience of things, the ability to have your complaints considered and usually rectified without a recourse to reciprocity, are the hallmarks of a people striving for fairness.* The fundamental problem in the US, as I see it, is how we as a society agree or disagree on what “fair” means.
If you’re skeptical about these sentiments, and you probably are, then all I can say is:
Try America. You might like it.
Now here's a song about America sung by Willie Nelson:
*And I’m not talking about US foreign policy. Who could ever call Kissinger fair?
After all, I was raised in a culture where Saturday mornings were strictly reserved for bowls of Cocco Puffs, episodes of Smurfs, and lounging in your PJ’s until noon, and that’s assuming you bother to change before leaving the house, which many people don’t, because donning your pajama pants to Wal-Mart or Home Depot just isn’t that big a deal. But, then I happened to find myself in Zagreb’s city center between 11 and 12, and I was of coursed charmed by the festive, and aesthetically pleasing atmosphere, buzzing around me.
While špica maybe a fashion show, its pretensions are subtle enough that you don’t really feel that awkward as an extra. Walking into the middle of špica is not like trying to sit with the cool kids in high school. I know. I tried. You can pass through, sit, and order a coffee without the conversation suddenly stopping and someone stuffing you in a locker. In fact, I imagine it’s probably too uncool to lose your cool by drawing attention to your stylish self and the nerd who just sat next to you. It could also be the fashion double standard again: the men get away with wearing t-shirts and fanny packs, while the women are required to wear furs and heels.
The real allure of špica is the fact that it happens at all. One of the virtues of Croatian society is its enduring traditions. Špica is an example of Zagreb’s collective conscience or conscientiousness, a social awareness, that though perhaps a bit superficial, binds the society together with its regularity. We lack such collective customs in the US. Individuals may have their own traditions. Maybe neighbors can plan on regularly seeing each other each Saturday while having coffee at the nearest Star Bucks or perusing pistols at the local Pawn shop (and that really does happen by the way), but it is not something that transcends individual members’ own idiosyncrasies. Where as špica is something everyone knows about and either attends or ignores. Having the choice is vital.
All of us at home in our pajamas, or having coffee in our respective quarters know that špica is happening. When I do find myself amid the coffee, crowds and the paparazzi, I feel like I am a piece of broader community. For a foreigner that’s saying something. Partaking the ritual, even from the side allows me to feel like I’m a part of it, maybe an out-of-fashion-passing-piece, but a piece of something bigger all the same.
After living in Croatia for nearly 2.5 years I can never see the US in the same way I saw it before my migration. After you’ve made someplace else your new home for yourself and accepted a new place as your place, than it becomes impossible to return to your old home. It’s a bit like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Remember? Once the cave’s captives are able to free themselves and emerge into the daylight they become aware of a greater truth. If they were to go back into the cave they would of course see the same shadows thrown on the walls by the flickering fire light. The very ones the captives once took for the whole of their world. Only now, they would know that they are, but the shadows of reality.
Living some place else and adopting its customs is a bit like leaving the cave. The biggest problem is when you try to explain this to your friends and family. Rather than coming across as enlightened, you actually sound like a pretentious dick who is “all European” with his men’s capri pants, little bag or fanny-pack, new dislike of air conditioning, limited use of ice, desire to always sit outside, hour long coffees and fancy cigarettes. Not to mention he keeps talking about shit like Plato.
I imagine it is equally challenging for our Croatian compatriots who return from living in the US. They probably talk about things like bare feet, punctuality, the benign nature of air conditioning and “customer service.”
In the US people ask me one question in two ways: What’s living in Croatia like? The first way is when they expect me to say something disparaging about life in Croatia. In those cases I say, It’s great! In the second case they have usually seen a show about the coast, or know something about Dubrovnik. And so they anticipate an answer reflecting how wonderful life in Croatia can be. In the second case I usually say, Croatia is nice, but the economy is crappy, taxes are high and you have to stand in line a lot (San Francisco also has an abundance of lines).
I don’t know why I oscillate between truths. Part of it is because I don’t want the haters to win and I don’t want the people who like Croatia to think it’s all sun and fun. The thing is, both of my chosen responses are true. The problem is trying, in the space of a short chat, to express the essence of a place. How do you cram all the colors of Croatia into the shadow of a conversation? Or the diversity of America for that matter. In the end it sounds like I only like Croatia because there is low crime and universal, affordable health care. Or I just say something like: Life is easier there. Why? How? I don’t know. I hate not having the ability to express something in a clear and concise manner, but can you really express the whole concept of home. No, you can’t. Home is a feeling and I feel like Croatia is home. Back in the US, part of me felt like a stranger at home. Coming back to Zagreb, it felt stranger to feel at home.
I’m assimilating. But I’m still not scared of propuh.
From an early age we learn what to do when we hear tornado sirens. As early as three I knew that when the sirens began I needed to take shelter into the small closet under our stairs. The ominous drone of the tornado sirens wailed in the background of my childhood nightmares as swarms of tornadoes descended on me from above. I would wake up in a panic with my heart racing, hoping that the sirens had just been a dream. But, sometimes they weren’t. Sleepily my parents shuffled us into the closet or the basement while they turned on the TV. Out of the the flickering shadows came the calming and reassuring voice of the local weatherman, telling us when to take cover, who was in danger, and what to do.
The Oklahoma weatherman is almost like a member of the family. You trust him. You believe him. And you count on him telling you what to do when there is an F-5 tornado hurtling towards your house with the ferocity of a wolverine driven freight train. And these guys aren’t just pretty faces. They are trained meteorologists. They know science and stuff. We have radar that can show you the very street that the tornado is on. Our technology is so sophisticated that once a tornado forms, the weatherman can tell you down to the second what street the storm is passing over. In Oklahoma we take the weather very, very, very, seriously.
Then I moved to Croatia and... well... let’s just say my vigilant concern about the weather, my upbringing that demands we know where we stand between a low pressure and a high pressure system or what kind of fronts are coming is... um... unsatisfied. And even misunderstood. When a storm rolls in, out of instinct I frantically search the various channels for some information about its intensity, direction, and predicted duration. All I find are Turkish soap operas, Larin Izbor and Raymond. Where our wether updates are filled with fancy maps of live radar, I have never seen a picture of live radar in all of Croatia. Usually there is just a map with some tranquil suns and harmless clouds dotting the landscape. Where we devote 15-20 minutes each hour to the weather report, the weather report on the morning news show in Croatia is usually just a guy standing in front of a list of temperatures in between segments of aerobics.
Near the end of the forecast comes the most puzzling thing. The TV displays one temperature for the entire seaside, and one for inland. WHAT? Given how diverse Croatia is said to be in all other aspects, local dialects, local mentality and culture, local food, it’s a ironic that the temperature of the entire coast can be reduced to one number and that the temperature for the not-coast is equally reducible to a single number. This is something that I will never, EVER understand.
Then there is the biometrik forecast. I don’t even know what to say about that.
I feel like living in Croatia, like the country’s weather, lacks the intense dynamics of life in Oklahoma. There is a storm-like fury that drives life in the US that is absent in Croatia. High street crime, fear of losing your health insurance, rushing large distances to work, not to mention the actually threat from the skies. These fears all form into a maelstrom of anxiety that I sense pulsing through American society, regardless of the weather. Though there may be a bit of political theatre and an economic malaise, the social life in Croatia is like the Adriatic: mostly calm and enjoyable. I’m not sure why this is the case, so we might as well blame it on the weather. Even when I see cloudy skies in Croatia, I’m sure we will be able to brave the storm. If I were faced with such a storm in the US, I’d want to turn to the weatherman and hide in the closet.
I can kind of understand why it has to be this way. It’s like a cosmic irony. If jobs were plentiful in Croatia, then Croatia would just be too good. It would be a place with a beautiful seaside, no street crime, affordable healthcare, and a charming life style, filled with leisurely coffees, beautiful women, and punicas that cooked and clean all the time for you. There would be no challenge and it would be the closest you could get to paradise. The universe cannot allow this. Just like we need Mondays because the work week has to start at some point, we can’t have any place being too perfect. Nope. Sorry.
The problem that many of us face is that fact that we actually have work. We just don’t get paid enough or have enough of it to pay us well. We are the Honorarac. Part time, underpaid, expendable employees, who are stuck in employment limbo. We make just enough to live, but not enough to give us a steady future. We can’t get bank loans. We have no pension, and even though we work full time are still officially classified as unemployed. We are the non-existent underlings who keep Croatia functioning. Unfortunately, we are the future. We are the new class, the precariate: “a social class formed by people suffering from precarity, which is a condition of existence without predictability or security.”
For those like me, who foolishly decided to do a PhD, a similar situation actually exists in the US. AND believe it or not the Croatia situation is actually better. Better because poverty in America is terrifying! If I was trying to pursue an academic career in the US, I would be condemned to the world of adjuncts. While I am basically playing the same role here in Croatia, I and my family at least have health insurance and live in a crime free neighborhood. Living off equivalent wages with no benefits in the US, would put us in the ghetto without my daughter even having health insurance. Croatia 1: USA 0.
Croatia, really, I love you and want to live in you forever. But it’s tough. Finding a full time, permanent position in Croatia is like winning the lottery. Really. It. is. like. winning. the. lottery. I have 2 jobs and don’t make enough to pay my monthly rent. I nearly earn less than I did working at a grocery store in high school. My little brother in New York makes what I make in a month, in a day. I don’t make any money from my blog (but I am paid in Likes, comments, and a dedicated readership, which is better than money). And yet, it’s not all about money (then again, it actually is).
So why stay? I want to stay because I actually believe we have a future here. The longer I’m outside of the US, the more it terrifies me. And of course, it’s not all about money. I am a hrvatski zet. That means something. I believe that I am able to feel an affection for this land that my wife would never be able to feel for America. And that my readers, is the difference between here and there. Here things run deep, connections are thicker, time stands still and through all that, life, my life has become something different, something profound.
In a country where skepticism could be described as a national past time, being a zet helps you get your foot in the door. It’s like a vetting process. If a girl from Split (or Croatia) has already accepted me into the club, than you can rest assured I’m not all bad. It says: Hey, I’m not just some dumb foreigner just asking for something.
In my experience the world of zetdom helps with almost every kind of social transaction in Croatia. Explaining that I’m a zet breathes a bit of patience into my conversation with the doctor, waitress, or saleswoman, or bureaucrat (yes, even the bureaucrat!). My zet card has gotten me expedited customer service, endearing looks from old ladies, wherever they work, and even helped me land some interviews with former right-wing paramilitary members for a research project. Conversely, in the US, if you tried to explain to someone that they should listen to you patiently as you massacre the English language and make wild hand gestures in hopes that your moving hands will somehow help you be understood, simply because you are married to an American, Tulsan, or Oklahoman... well, that person could give a shit. Your matrimonial bond with our country or land means little, if anything.
Another facet of zet-ness is how it emphasizes the importance my spouse, family, and fellow residents place on where they are from. Again, this is less important in the US (unless you’re from Pittsburgh, people from Pittsburgh are OBSESSED with being from Pittsburgh). The love people have for the place they are from in Croatia cannot be compared to anything I have felt in the US (not even Pittsburgh). As a zet some of this affection rubs off on me. I have a more complicated relationship with Split than I do with Zadar (I’ve lived in both). Both are Dalmatian, both are old, and both are on the sea, but, Split is like family and Zadar is just an acquaintance.
By having the label of zet, a term of inclusion in what is ultimately a bounded and limited community, I am invited (maaaaaybe even expected?) to experience the love for the hometown or homeland as much as my family from there. And it works. Split is important to me because it is important to my wife. It is where I proposed to her. It is where my daughter was born. And most of all it is where I truly fell in love with her. Until I saw her in Split, amid the memories and familiarity the surround her here, I didn’t really know her. Now, partly because of the city’s own timelessness, but more from the effects of being a zet, I feel as if I am a part of this city and those memories.
Like I said, the term splitski zet doesn’t really translate well. It means much more than marrying a woman from Split.
If I had a kuna for every time I heard: Split je najlipši grad na svitu (Split is the most beautiful city in the world), well... I would have a lot of kune. Yes. Split is a beautiful city. It’s got an ancient palace, it’s got powerful mountains rising right behind it, it’s got the sea with ideal islands dotting the horizon. Watching the sun set from Marjan or dallying in the early morning waters at Kašuni are some of life’s most gratifying moments. From a distance Split looks ideal, but once you step into the details, that ideal quickly morphs into a fog of frustration.
I’m talking about trash, litter, garbage, refuse. It’s not uncommon to arrive at the sea early in the morning only to have the beach and water spoiled by the detritus of last night’s fun. Cigarette butts and bottle caps spread out in in the rising sun, while a few plastic bags bob like dead bodies in the lapping waves.
In some places you expect to see trash. It is a given on a dead-end road in the middle-of-nowhere Oklahoma. The kind of place which local Okies will invariably turn into an impromptu dump. Old mattresses, smashed TV’s, spent shotgun shells and piles of tires sprout up like mushrooms on a forest floor. On the other hand, you don’t expect to see trash in one of the world cultural heritage sites right next to one of the world’s most beautiful bits of sea. Alas, it’s there and it’s frustrating because it is completely unnecessary, like an excess of makeup on an otherwise gorgeous woman.
Part of the problem maybe structural. The beach Žnjan probably gets thousands of visitors everyday in the high season and yet, there is hardly a trash can in sight. I eventually found one. A small square box a few meters from the actual beach. Of course in the course of the day it is overflowing and when you try to cram your own trash into it, it all spills out on the ground so then you say to yourself: Jebi ga. This can explain part of the problem. When I set my towel down I did so over a billion cigarette butts, a few bottle caps and even some used q-tips. Classy!
Sure, you might say this is the result of ignorant tourists coming and throwing their crap everywhere. But there is another piece to the puzzle. In the bit of grass outside of my punica’s apartment (what she calls the levada) I find a wide range of human derbis. Piles of cigarette butts gather in the dirty dead-zones under and around the benches. Rusty and shinny Karlovačko bottles caps poke their edges out of the scraggly grass. Lighters, batteries, shards of glass, clothespins, plastic atoms, and even a god damn spark plug plot along the well worn path. There are no tourists in this part of the town. This refuse is the result of late night loiters drinking and chain smoking while sitting on a bench. Or passerby who, for some reason, feel it is OK to toss their automotive parts into a park.
What the hell Split? Sure, every morning or every other morning someone from the city comes and picks up the big pieces of trash, but there is really only so much one person can gather in the course of a few minutes. Are the litterers waiting for their baka, mama or punica to come along and pick up their mess like they do at home? Well guess what? Mother nature isn’t your grandma!
For a guy from inland America, I have to drive 18 hours to get to a swimmable bit of ocean, its infuriating to see people treat a land as beautiful as Dalmatia like it’s some kind of trash dump. I would think that the people that live and breath by the sea, who pride themselves on the beauty of the coast and Split could do a bit better in keeping it clean. When someone tells me that Split is the most beautiful place in the world, I think: Yeah, it could be....
|Some trash quickly collected around my towel on Žnjan, Split.|
It is a testament to how coast crazy Croatians are when a metropolis of around a million people can shrink to such an extent that it feels like a small town in Oklahoma. Seriously. On some of my late night adventures I stumble through the streets of Zagreb and I am reminded of my similar stumbles as a student at a major university in Oklahoma. Now nothing kills a small Oklahoma college town like summer. Between May and August, the population of this town is cut in half, leaving you in the warm, sweltering crouch of the Bible belt with around 35,000 townies. While the exodus of students and professors took with it the finer culture of the town, Zagreb in the summer still retains its urban charms, just with fewer people. This is what makes Zagreb wonderful in the summer.
Now I admit, I tell friends of friends and distant family who ask me for advice on Croatian summer travel to um... basically... skip Zagreb. AND I STAND BY THIS!! If you are in Croatia for 5 days after seeing Prague and Budapest, well then there is really no reason for you to waste your time in the ZG (except to go to the Museum of Broken Relationships). Let’s face it, whatever Zagreb has, some other European city has it better. Old Churches? Prague’s got ‘em (and they are not in a perpetual state of repair), Art museums? Oh I don’t know: Paris has a few, Berlin too, Vienna, Budapest. Nightlife? I think Zagreb was voted the most boring capital in Europe. The joy of Zagreb in the summer only comes to those who live here.
As someone who has spent considerable amounts of time in Dalmatia during the summer as well as during the other seasons, the summer might actually be the worst time to be on the coast.
First, it is crazy crowded. Parking anywhere is impossible and actually becomes an act of inspired (desperate) creativity. It’s amazing what can constitute a parking space in Split in the summer. The sliver of pavement beside that tree: PARKING SPACE! That impossibly narrow space between a dumpster and a wall: PARKING SPACE! That spot that looks too small, no it’s not, yes it is, I’m just going to trrrrrry, and you’re right too tight, but we are still going to do it. Everywhere and anywhere becomes a PARKING SPACE (as your bumper grinds against another bumper, pole, house, or rock).
Second, it’s crazy loud. I don’t know about you, but I actually find it difficult to fall asleep to the bass thumping from a mid-1990s BMW that for some reason is just idling below my bedroom window in the wee A.M. hours. Nor do the piercing whines of screaming mopeds crisscrossing the city as they deliver food serve as a nighttime lullaby. Crowds, tourists, mopeds, young drunks, late-night bench sitters, woo girls with straw pork-pie hats, all of these shatter Dalmatia’s natural beauty and old ambiance like a fat brick through glass.
But then, there are those moments of respite when you drift in the sea with the taste of salt on your lips and the scent of pine wafting in the air. Then you see how the Dinaric Alps, looming large behind you, and the silhouettes of the nearby islands fall into the most perfect composition. Briefly, you believe that God must be an artist to have created the Croatian coast, and you feel an inner peace overtake you. A tranquil harmony has calmed your heart. Of course then you have to get out of the water, find your car, try to get out of your impossible parking space just to find another impossible parking space all over again when you get to your mother-in-law’s house. Gah! So much for bliss and zen.
Zagreb in the summer has none of these problems. It might not have the scenery of the Adriatic sea, but it also doesn’t have the headaches that go along with it. It’s the opposite of crazy crowded. It’s crazy empty. But, there are still enough people around that you don’t feel like you’ve been dropped on the set of a post-Apocalyptic zombie film. Summer Zagreb becomes like a big playground for those of us who remain. Parking? Always a free space. Lines? Gone. Traffic? None. The crowds that clog the winter gray have dissipated like the fog and left you in a sunny, spacious wonderland. You can even believe that all of it, the cafes, parks, social services, movie theaters, museums, book stores and restaurants, have all been created just. for. you!!
Take Bundek for example. In the off-season months there is usually a huge line of kids climbing up to the biggest slide. And NOTHING is more fun than trying to get a bunch of 3 to 5 year-olds to stand in line (they need this training for later). In the summer though, my daughter can go down the slide as many times as she wants because there is no one else around. Or at the doctor. We were able to see two doctors and go to the hospital all in one day with only a total 20 minute wait time. Grocery store? No people, no line. Nighttime noise? The night’s calm is only rarely broken by the whine of a mo-ped, or the bass of a car. They soon pass, leaving in their wake a pleasant quietude.
Sometimes it seems that the very things we want to take a vacation from, actually come with us. Spending a summer in Zagreb is a nice vacation from everyone else’s vacation.
A Croatian father’s apparent disregard for parenting, especially while at the playground is actually a crucial step in fostering his child’s development. Without it our kids would be messed up for life! See, our insouciance is actually the counterweight to the overwhelming, unobstructed anxious attention our wives and mother-in-laws (punice) direct at our children. Before becoming a parent in Croatia, and before moving here, I had always imagined parenting in the Balkans was quite careless. I don’t know why, but for some reason I assumed Croatians treated parenting like they treated time, either with dispassionate scorn or the most minimal level of concern. Of course the exact opposite is true. Croatians, especially the lady folk, are crazy about their kids’ well being. In fact, Croatian mothers and grandmothers have three overriding, constant concerns about their kids: 1) Food. It is believed that a child will starve if not fed frequently, very frequently. 2) Clothing. It is believed a child will freeze to death if not clothed adequately. 3) Danger. It is believed that a fall from any height, no matter how close to the ground, can easily kill a child or at least inflict grave injury.
OK, yes we all need to eat and we all need to wear clothes, but the maternal instinct of a Croatian mother or grandmother believes starving and freezing to death can turn on a dime (or a lipa?). A sudden uptick in the breeze OH MY GOD PUT ON A JACKET! Sitting on a cold curb, regardless of the outdoor ambient temperature, YOU ARE GONNA GET INFLAMMATION OF THE KIDNEYS, BLADDER, OR BRAIN! Not wanting to eat something after eating an hour ago: YOU ARE GOING TO DIE OF MALNUTRITION! (PS: this fear of malnutrition is intensified given your child’s refusal to eat whatever food comes from your wife’s hometown or region, i.e. blitva and fish.) Thus, the playground is filled with fear-stricken women clutching jackets and hats, holding out extended snacks, chasing after a motley of children.
After the kids have eaten and put on their jackets they usually like to climb on things. The mothers and bakas (grandmas) are there to remind them that they will fall, saying repeatedly as if it were a mantra: Ćeš past. Ćeš past. You’ll fall. You’ll fall. I feel like the life of a Croatian kid (and actually this nannying can last until you are in your 30s) is to be continuously harassed about the dangers of not eating, not wearing enough clothes, and taking unnecessary risks.
We, the fathers, bring the balance. I love my daughter and would hate for anything to happen to her, but when we go to the playground or to Zrinjevac I fight those initial instincts to tell her to be careful. I try to be as hands off as possible. What may look like my cool indifference is actually a sign of my utmost concern. By letting her challenge herself or deal with playground squabbles by herself, I feel like I’m teaching her the skills to negotiate life’s bigger obstacles. The ones that will inevitably come and for which I know I cannot always be there. I find that I’ve begun to trust her and her judgement. She tells me when she is hungry, she tells me when she is cold.
My daughter has even started trying to climb trees. In her attempts to climb to a new height I imagine the influence of my behavior echoing back to me from our uncertain future. She reaches for a new branch, looks at me and asks: “Daddy, are you scared?”
“No.” I say. Not at all.
Every year between 10-12 million Americans visit Europe. Ever since independence it seems many Americans have been fascinated with the idea of a return to the land of their great-great-grandparents, even if just for a summer vacation. Even for those of us who don’t manage to traverse the skies for Europe, the longing for that other shore exists within us. This is especially evident in the diaspora communities that dot the American landscape. Irish, Italians, Croats, Serbs, Latvians, Poles, all of us celebrate the lands that once made our ancestors refugees ( I’m sure so do non-European Americans from Central or South America, Vietnam, the Philippines, China or Japan who want to glimpse their past homelands). Can our Croatian and European readers understand what it is like to have an imaginary connection to a place you’ve never been before? Beneath the buzz of life in America exists an idea tugging at the back of our consciousness. Deep down, there is, in every American, the half-hearted hope that we will one day return. While the constraints of finance, travel and language dampen the likelihood of an ancestral homecoming, we can still feel ourselves grasping for it. And so, some of us indulge our fate and come back, if not to our proper homeland then at least to a generalized equivalent, Europe.
Now for all this talk about vacationing Americans, like they are all on some noble voyage of soul searching, spend any amount of time (no matter how brief) among American tourists, and you’ll find that we mostly find Europe annoying. It is cramped, there is no ice in any of our drinks, no free refills, limits on air-conditioning, cigarette smoke everywhere, smelly public transport, too few McDonalds, crappy customer service, and a billion other little things that make HERE too different from THERE. Beneath a sheen of sweat, nursing our blistered feet and wishing to God we could get a 40.oz styrofoam cup of cold Dr. Pepper, we believe we finally understand why our great-great whoever got the hell out of here. And yet, we keep coming back.
Despite these superficial annoyances, Europe still holds a deeper fascination for Americans. It is easiest to understand the ‘wonders of Europe’ when you think about its age compared to the US. The age of stuff around Europe is just mind-boggling to us. For example, Zagreb is 1,000 years old. A. THOUSAND. That’s 900 years older than Oklahoma has even been a state. Split is like 2,000 years old. Paris? Old. London? Old. Rome? Super old. Athens? Hella old. The secret that attracts us to Europe’s agelessness is the mystery of its own persistence. The age difference between the US and Europe is so great that we are puzzled at how a language, culture, lifestyle, let alone the buildings, monuments, and streets that make each city’s geography, can endure for so long.
Not only is our country young, but most of us living in the US have only lived here a generation or two. Even when someone’s family tree goes all the way back to the Mayflower, the rest of the tree’s branches and roots are jumbled with immigrants who arrived not so long ago. Now, granted, this diversity is one of the US’s greatest strengths. I am proud of the fact that my ancestry consists of Irish, French, Italian and Prussian people. But, it also speaks to the fluid waves that have washed over our past, eroding it. In some ways we are but the flotsam and jetsam of great upheaval come to rest in a new land. By the very nature of our immigrant roots, the past is obscured. Everything in the US is then new(-ish).
In Croatia, on the other hand, I have a friend whose father has been able to trace his family tree back 400 years, IN THE SAME PLACE! Another friend (from Imotski no less) met someone when we were out and they both realized that their families had been friends for over 100 years! As kids they had both played in the same yard of the same two houses that all of their relatives had played and lived in for the last 100 YEARS! I can’t imagine that. Really. I’m torn between thinking that living in the same area for 400 years is either wonderful or incredibly boring. The bearing that such a long continuity can have one someone’s outlook is incomprehensible to me (and I imagine to most Americans). What is it like to have the same neighbors for 100 (or maybe even 400) years! (In the US, I move around every 3-4 years and usually try to avoid my neighbors as much as possible. Why make friends when you’re just going to move). Now imagine what these long and consistent relationships do for a society. Is this why there is so little street crime in Croatia and Europe? Because the criminal might easily know the victim or the victim’s uncle? Hell they could be related! I imagine there is some comfort or ease that comes with knowing some of the same families for over 100 years. Or at least knowing that you’ve all known each other for 100 years.
To us, Europe is Europe because it appears immutable, from its ancient ruins, medieval castles, to its enduring relationships. This fixedness is what we are longing for in the US. Our European dreams are to know what it is like to belong to a place, a culture, and history that is not as ephemeral as life in the US. I believe that a lot of the fear that grips American society is rendered, in part, by the absence of such permanence. The US is unique as a result of its dynamism, and yet when compared to Europe, it is easy to feel as if our time is but a blip on the screen of history. We fear it may be transient after all. So, some of us come back in hope that we can go forward.
Whenever I fly back to Oklahoma I feel like I’m shedding layers of culture, like a snake sheds skin. The move from Europe to Mid-America takes me from a place where almost everything has an air of elegance, from the small cups of coffee to my finely dressed compatriots flying alongside me, and drops me in a place where elegance is a word more likely to be mistaken for elephant. At each successive gate, at each successive airport I can tell I’m getting closer to home by the decrease in concern for outward appearance and an increase in concern for jumbo sized everything. Finally, I arrive at the gate for Tulsa, Oklahoma and a little bit of me dies inside. Sure it’s one step away from home, but it’s also filled with people wearing sweatpants, shorts with calf-high white socks, matching his-n-hers Eskimo Joe’s shirts, flip-flops, tank tops that hardly hide tufts of armpit hair, and oversized basketball shorts on a pack slack-jawed yokels. While the US may have our security agencies reading our emails and monitoring our phone calls, one thing we clearly do not have are the fashion police.
Imagine going from Split where you see and laugh at the poorly dressed tourists and then ending up on a plane, then in a state and finally a city filled with them. This is me each time I go home. It wasn’t always this way. My first summer in Split I was decked out in my white socks, shorts, and tennis shoes ready to hit the riva. I was quickly informed that I was ready to go nowhere. My punica forbade (YES! FOR-BADE) me from leaving the house in what I had been leaving the house in my whole life. At the time I thought this was a little repressive. I figured why should this lady care what I WEAR out. It’s not like people on the riva will know that I’m her son-in-law (actually, I later learned it is totally like that). I actually believe my mother-in-law was trying to save me from myself. Another time I went to the center in a raggedy old hooded sweatshirt and felt like a homeless man (except homeless men in Croatia are dressed better than this). Feeling out of place by a publicly inadequate level of dress was a new experience for me. In the US, anything goes.
Croatians are generally a pretty stylish bunch. Though not everyone dresses or looks the same. There are people who dress more alternatively, there are hipsters, punks and goths. There are people who (attempt) to dress stylishly what we would call preps, or trendy folks. There are the super stylish, the fashionistas. And there are caykuša. There is really no translation for caykuša. No matter which style one adopts people here are dressed with a self-awareness or self-consciousness that demonstrates a commitment to looking good: Stylistically diverse, but stylish nonetheless. Even at the university here I have never seen someone that looks like they just rolled out of bed, slipped on some pants just off the floor and strolled out into the day (that, by the way, is basically how I rolled all through undergrad). Even when my students come in hungover their eyes might look like boiled eggs slathered in Tobasco sauce, but their clothes are ironed.
There is, however, one puzzle piece in the mosaic of Croatian fashion and that is the asymmetrical gender standards. Really. It’s not uncommon to see a woman who looks and is dressed like a super model at Bau Max or wherever with a dude wearing track suit pants, a t-shirt and a fanny pack (still ironed though). I mean this guy is really one pair of white socks away from being an Oklahoman. In America we are equal opportunity eyesores. You can see a man dressed in sweat pants and a t-shirt from a Bible study camp he went to in 1996 and in the same tacky gaze lay witness to large woman wearing an oversized tweety bird t-shirt and a pair of butt-tight turquoise shorts. Those images are just a fact of life. What I don’t get about Croatia is how the women often dress like they fell out of the pages of a fashion magazine and the dudes dress like my uncle right after he’s mowed the lawn. And they’ll be TOGETHER.
Growing up in America I rebelled against the idea that we should have socially imposed norms. This led me to dying my hair and sporting a mohawk (something Croatians call an iroquois for some reason). As a result of the counter-culture or the fact that we spend most of our time with the television, which can’t see what we are wearing, it feels like there is no longer any social demands for how one should look and dress. There was actually a time when men couldn’t go outside without wearing a hat! Nowadays we have signs telling people they have to wear pants to enter McDonald’s! On each return to the US part of me wants people to have enough pride, dignity, or self-respect to dress like they give a damn about life. This is not say that people shouldn’t dress in a way that helps them express themselves, please do. Conscious self-expression, an outward sign that you have an inner awareness about yourself is wonderful. White socks and shorts, sweat pants and “comfortable clothes,” sloppiness of any sort at the airport, trg, riva, or anywhere public, just suggests you are not only unaware, you’re probably comatose.
Now here is a David Bowie video.
Fashion by David Bowie
Croatian lines are but symbols of the country’s discriminatory (and often dysfunctional) system. On either side of the glass partition it is US and THEM. Them who have the power, the information, access. Them, the nurses, the bureaucrats, the ticket sellers. The queue is like the thread of life and we line up before the Fates, waiting to see if we get to see the doctor, if we have all of our paper work in order for our visa, I.D., parking permit. Or we line up just to ask where we can find the other line. Do you want something in Croatia? Yes? THEN GET IN LINE!!!
Believe it or not, but this is not how it is in the US. Now, I thought I understood lines when living in America, but after befriending several people from former-Communist countries I was informed that we, Americans, know nothing of lines. We do have lines in the US, but they are temporary affairs. Like a spring shower, not a storm.
You know how when you go to McDonald’s and if you stand in line for a few seconds someone will hop onto the next register and ask if they can help you? Well, its pretty much like that EVERYWHERE in America. There are no glass partitions in the doctor’s office. There are no doors that are impossible to open from the outside. Service, anywhere, is quick. If its not, then you get to complain. You get to remember people’s names, talk to managers and supervisors. You hear apologies and assurances that it won’t happen again. Even if you are stuck in line, you still feel empowered.
In Croatia, nothing drains your sense of agency faster than standing in line. Anything you have done in your life, the very things that give you some sense of self-worth have been stripped away, leaving nothing but the barebones of a pathetic, insignificant existence. You’re just another corpse in purgatory. Another number in the factory. And just when you start to take some solace in the fact that before the line we are all equal you see one of the chosen float to the front. You see an individual bathed in the divine light of favor, progressing ahead of everyone else. This angelic spirit has been gifted with the wings of veze, a heavenly connection gifted by her devotion to the gods. She sails forward. And you wait with the rest of the bums.
At this point the line descends into chaos. It morphs from a row of people waiting into a clump of animals herding, trying to get closer and closer to its end. Maneuvering through this huddle requires artistry. Years of practice seem to pay off. The older ladies are able to call the nurse by name, asking about her relations, holiday or some other personal detail lost to the rest of us. These pleasantries are like a verbal foot in the door, enabling the interlocutor to then plead to be taken ahead of her turn. For those of us lacking in the conversational talents we at least have one gift, elbows. Amid the herd we stick our arms out akimbo blocking the frail and advantage seeking senior citizens. We push and jostle until finally we press against the partition or threshold, and then like everyone else we plead our case, hoping for admittance.
I’m not sure why there is such a difference between the service one receives in the US and what we get in Croatia. It might be a scarcity of resources. Employers often keep the number of on-duty employees to a minimum. Or it might be a difference in protocol. When I worked in a large chain of bookstores lines were as hated by management as they were by the customers. If more than four people queued before the register we called for back up, just like the police. Then everyone everywhere stopped what they were doing and came to expedite customers through the line. During the holiday rush we gave out free coffee and samples of food from the in-store Starbucks. In terms of state institutions you would think that in a country with 200,000 civil servants, who are largely paid with the taxed 47% of our income and the 25% sales tax on everything, there would be more than enough people available to speed up our wait time. Then again, perhaps the long lines endure, just like the glass partitions, in order to preserve that power imbalance between those who makes us wait, and those of us who are waiting.