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.