Špica

Why Croatia


I know Croatia has a LOT of problems. People commonly talk about corruption, inept political institutions, entrenched bureaucracy, and all in all, a very limited amount of individual opportunity (see here: http://tacklingmommyhood.com/2013/10/choose-life-america/?fb_source=pubv1). Here the question of success is usually not about what you know, but who you know. When it comes to America vs. Croatia, Croatia sounds like the antithesis to the American Dream. In the US, we are raised on the idea that there exists enough opportunity in the US for anyone to succeed based solely on her efforts alone (the machinery of America is thought to be powered by sweat and greased with gumption). So why would I consciously chose to live in Croatia over the US? 

Short answer: the sea, coffee and Punica!!! 

In all seriousness, to me the US pretends to be brimming with opportunity, making it a challenge to deal with the stark reality that the American Dream is dying. What amazes me about Croatia is how the society and people are able to eek out a more satisfying and harmonious life, despite the apparent lack of opportunities. 

Statistically speaking Croatia is poor. GDP is a paltry 56 billion dollars, unemployment sits around 17%, and per capita income is a stagnant $1,000 dollars a month. Yet, poverty in Croatia does not seem to be as much a curse for individuals and for the society as a whole as it is in the US (I should note that by any income measure I am not poor, on the border, but not there). So, sure, Croatia may not have the career and entrepreneurial opportunities the US has, but its society and way of life are, in my opinion, a better way to live than the current trends of life in the US.  

For example, healthcare: Having healthcare, especially for my daughter has enabled me to lead my life as an aspiring Academic and... Blogger? Is that really what I’m trying to do here? Um? Yes? If I moved to the US, the first thing I would look for was ANY job that gave my family some kind of health insurance. Most of the visiting professor and adjunct positions at American Universities are low paid and provide no healthcare. If I couldn’t find a job with benefits, then I would probably have to spend $1,000 a month on healthcare. That’s money just hoping that nothing bad happens to me or my family. A couple days in the hospital without healthcare could easily eat up a year or two year’s income for those of us on the lower end of the pay scale. 

AND, it’s not all about me. I believe a society that doesn’t have to worry about going into debt just to go to the doctor or taking their kid to the doctor is a less stressed, better society. Imagine having to decide if your kid is really sick enough to warrant a trip to the doctor, talk about stressful. Access to healthcare is one very important thing not to have worry about. It’s like a great big social hug and a reassuring voice that says: Hey, we are here for you, if and when you need us. And by not having medical debt, those us living in Croatia can go into debt for all the important stuff, like BLACK BMWs and fashionable outfits for ŠPICA! 

Another great thing about Croatia is the lack of violent crime. Fifteen cities in the US reported more than 100 murders last year. Excluding the megapoli like New York (431 murders) and Chicago (500) averaged size cities no bigger than Zagreb report hundreds of murders each year: Detroit 386; Baltimore 219; New Orleans 193. As the list reveals, those cities with the highest murder rate per capita tend also be the poorest cities. Because in America, poverty and crime go hand in hand. This sad phenomenon exists at the neighborhood level as well. The worst neighborhood in my hometown, with 26 murders in the lat two years, is also one of the poorest. The neighborhood’s average income is the bottom 1% of the country’s average. This tragic story is told throughout similar neighborhood across the US. The poor not only have to suffer poverty, they also have to suffer from high violent crime. 

There are broader effects of this relationship. Namely, American society tends to associate poverty with crime, thereby making the poor potential criminals in the eyes of the public and the police. In cities like Chicago, violent street crime is itself an obstacle to opportunity. School children have to worry about being shot when just going to school. Even if they get to school, they may have trouble learning or taking advantage of the benefits an education can offer them. An Interview with one resident from a high crime neighborhood in Chicago indicated that he may suffer from the same post traumatic stress disorder as a returning war veteran from Iraq. As if poverty alone weren’t enough, the American poor have to face fear, persecution, and violence in their daily lives. If there is more opportunity in the US, the stress of poverty and crime, have isolated many from its fortunes. Yet, the American Dream tells us it can’t exist like this, so some of us judge the poor and mistrust them, denying that something is wrong, and through our own prejudice contribute to our society’s growing divisions.

Finally, what it all comes down to is community. Croatia’s greatest virtue is the strength of people’s relationships. Everyone in Croatia is connected. Forget Facebook, the original social network was created in Croatia. If you look at the most indispensable element of Croatian society, having coffee!, you see that going for coffee has nothing to do with the caffeine and more to do with maintaining old and fostering new friendships. FACT: It is impossible to consider someone a friend in Croatia, until you have had coffee with them.

While this just seems normal to Croatians, what may not be understood is how this connectedness is in fact what offsets the negative effects of poverty and limited opportunity. Societies that have a higher level of connectedness have healthier members and lower crime. Trust and relationships within a community is one of the greatest contributors to the quality of life in a given community. In California, one city uses the question of whether or not its residents have five people they can call in an emergency as  an indicator into their overall well-being.  The idea here is that individuals who are better connected have a higher level of well-being as they are part of, and exist in a network of dependable individuals. Imagine what this says about Croatia. Five? Easy. Since Croatians are incapable of saying ‘no’ to a friend, you can always ask someone you know for help in an emergency (especially if that emergency is needing a place to stay for a night or two on the coast during the summer. CRISIS!).        

Having the ability to ‘chose’ where you want to live is a privilege. While America does hold the promise of opportunity and Croatia does have problems of its own, there are aspects of life here that I would find very difficult to exchange for what might just be a dream.


What topping do you want on your ŠPICA?

The first time I heard the word špica, I thought people were saying “pizza.” Pizza on a Saturday morning? Don’t. mind. if. I do!!  Then I eventually learned that this “pizza” was actually coffee in the center of Zagreb on Saturday morning. After looking at the fashionista sets of beautiful people in my Punica’s Story and Gloria magazines, I decided that špica was probably not for me. And was maybe a little bit stupid.

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.