America

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.


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!"

Middle School.

For a long time I've tried to understand how I can feel less alienated and detached from the world in a country where I am a foreigner. A common thing on Zablogreb is how much more social Croatian society is than the US. Here the relations are THICK, and I think I've found an answer. School. But, not in a way that has anything to do with curriculum or the quality of teachers. Nope. The biggest difference between Croatian schools and American schools is that in the US we have a special hell called middle school.

Right, so Croatia has middle school (srednja škola) but this middle school is actually high school (again with the names Croatia— it’s confusing). Before Croatian “middle” school there is just elementary school (osovna škola,). Middle school in the US is completely different. Not only is it the worse time in any American's life, it occurs in the actual middle of your schooling. Middle school is the inky-black abyss that swallows grades 6-8.

See, in the US we begin school with kindergarten, then it's on to the 1st grade. Grades K-5 are known as elementary school. Then comes middle school. That's right, everything you've known and loved, the adoring teachers that have seen you grow from a 5 year-old to an 11 or 12 year-old, the friends you've had for the last 6 years, well, all of that is suddenly stripped away from you. The feeling of home, comfort, familiarity, continuity, all gone. You are left naked. In the wild. with wolves. 

At the same time, this is when kids start to change into adolescents. And since the school is much bigger than its elementary counterpart, there is more "diversity." What that means is that I entered middle school looking like a 9 year-old and found myself walking the halls with guys that shaved. The variety of biological and hormonal differences, coupled with newness of everything, adds to the already unpleasant experience of transition from kid to teen. 

Middle school has a steep learning curve, what the launches you into the realities of American life, realities that you may or may not be prepared for. In my middle school we had real gangs, in 8th grade there were 11 guns found in the school and a friend was beaten into a coma. It's where I first learned what pot smelled like, because a fellow student came to school smelling like pot. 

Each year in middle school is filled with new strangers, and you grope for friends like a drowning rat. It's easy to befriend someone without really knowing them. Middle school was the first time I had friends that would brazenly steal from stores. It was also where everyone suddenly became programmed into trends, switching and backstabbing friends with rapid frequency. Middle school is where social pressure became palpable.  

And the teachers. It must be hard for a teacher to invest herself into a student she may only have once. Not because that teacher is bad or lazy, but teaching is emotionally exhausting. I can only imagine teaching a new batch of kids in the full flux of adolescence is, well, just awful. Especially when you are unable to have a longer, more durable relationship with them. Middle school, like so much in the US is transitory. In such a world of turmoil, the students, friends, and teachers are interchangeable, and expendable. 

Croatia, on the hand, doesn't have this system. HOORAY!! Why? Because you guys are nice. This makes all the difference. Kids here get to enjoy the familiar up until high school. And by the time you're 14, you're ready for something different. To maintain some sense of continuity at a time when you and everyone around you is changing just makes sense. What better way to raise a kid, than by giving her steady and constant friends, classmates, and teachers during the most awkward stage in anyone's life. 

I've noticed that there is bond that exists between students here in Croatia that doesn't exist in the US. The students in a classroom have solidarity with each other. While this may help them cheat, it also serves as the beginning foundation for the relationships, connections, and networks that make Croatian society stable. I'd guess that a large part of this behavior begins and evolves in primary school. It is then perfected in high school, rather than destroyed in middle school.

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Shout outs to Marko and Jelena, whose conversation got me thinking about this post. 


The "Magic" of Croatian Intuition

It seems to me that Croatians are not really concerned about being precise. Croatia is a world of horseshoes and hand grenades, where close enough is… well… enough. Or  it may be that I don’t have the cultural acumen needed to accurately decode these ambiguous expressions into the bursts of clarity they really are. I lack what I like to call Croatian Intuition.

It’s that point during a meal when someone says “no” to more, and I’m left there holding the cheese and pršut plate, trying to discern whether or not they mean no, no, or yes, but are just saying no. Or, at the end of a coffee when a friend insists on paying, and I’m not sure if she really means that or if she’s just saying it. The list goes on. When the hosts says stay, do we go? In these situations I feel so disoriented that I’m like an insect with his antennae snapped off. 

It gets worse. One time I was getting an x-ray and the nurse said: “Take everything off” (Skinite sve or se). So, I. took. everything. off. Well, one awkward scene and one startled nurse later, I learned that what she actually meant was “take your shirt off.” Great. 

Here in Croatia even the things that should be precise aren’t, like numbers. Distance, temperature and TIME! All are open to interpretation. Look at the weather forecast. The hundreds of kilometer stretch of sea is given one temperature and the rest of in-land Croatian is given another. What? How can that make any sense? Do we live on a small island? No. We don’t. There is even a 20 kilometer discrepancy on the signs telling you the distance from Split to Zagreb, or Zagreb to Split. Or the television schedule, sometimes it says 20:05, but that actually could mean 20:00 or 20:10, maybe even 20:07. 

The uncertainty culminates in trying to interpret any set of institutional or bureaucratic rules. In the US we say rules are rules. In Croatia it’s more like rules are rules when someone wants them to be, otherwise they're just rules. Which ones matter is often shrouded in ambiguity. At one job, the accounting office insisted that I had to have a different kind of account number, and then after someone from another office argued with them, they changed their minds. What? There are of course other instances with some regulator or bureaucrat insisting on some rule, only to have his insistence suddenly wither away on a whim like a dried leaf  in the wind. 

I’ll admit that Americans are not the most intuitive people on the planet. In fact we loathe ambiguity and nuance. It’s why we split the bill. Forget fairness. To me, paying for my own coffee is worth not having to do the awkward little shuffle-fight for the bill. Or spend energy interpreting what someone says. Just. tell. me. what. you. want. puhleaze. When someone says “no” for seconds we say…um… O.K. And that’s that.  


What’s most amazing to me is how the discrepancies, nuances and uncertainties don’t seem to really bother anybody.  This could be a result of passive resignation to one’s uncertain fate, but I think it’s more likely that everyone here can understand each other, regardless of what is or isn’t said. Or, maybe it’s just more fun getting naked when you aren’t supposed to and surprising your friend with a coffee. Not necessarily at the same time, of course. 


Where the Streets Have No Names

Croatia can be a confusing place. Especially, when you are driving in a car with your mother-in-law looking for something on a street that may or may not exist anymore. She’s telling me what the street used to be called. And I’m asking her what the street is now called. And she doesn’t know, she just knows what it used to be called. Of course, because in reality that’s actually what everyone still calls it. Not that it matters much, because the street may or may not have a sign on it, and even if does have a sign it’s going to be a small little postage stamp of a sign on the corner of a building that you drive pass quickly. Try reading the name Smičiklasova through the glare of the windshield, beneath the glow of the street lamps, among all the city’s busy shadows. Welcome to Croatia: where the streets have no goddamn names.

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.


Why Try America?

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. 

 I

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:

Bah!

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:

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*And I’m not talking about US foreign policy. Who could ever call Kissinger fair?

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.


Defiance! The indifference of Croatian Dads

Before growing into my role as a father I had a very stereotyped view of Croatian dads. To me they were men characterized by indifference. I saw fathers at the park whose lack of interest in what their child was doing bordered between nonchalance and negligence. Their kids climbed wildly, they threw rocks without consequence, they broke many of the playground’s social mores. And the dads just seemed kinda of like jerks who were too-cool for school to be bothered. That was how I saw Croatian dads until I became one. Now I understand. Now I know what we are doing. And our conscious lack of concern is vital to the healthy development of our children, Croatian society, and the country.

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.

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European Vacation or 'Oh no! Americans!'



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.



Fashion



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


A bit about LINES

The longest lines I have ever seen were at Disney World in 1988. Actually, Disney World seemed to be nothing but lines, something Croatia and “the happiest place on earth” have in common. The difference being that most of the lines at Disney World end with you getting on a ride like Pirates of the Caribbean or The Haunted Mansion. Most lines in Croatia end with you stooping over to talk to someone through a narrow slit cut into a glass window.

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.




Your landlord’s second hand storage or WHAT THE @#$% IS A GARAGE SALE?

“The Balkans produces more history furniture than it can locally consume use.”

-Winston Churchill.

The first apartment was socialist, dwarfing the living room was a massive couch, coated in half a century of cigarette smoke. The second apartment was inter-war, housing museum-like pieces so dated they were impressive, but wholly impractical. The third apartment was early transitional, Ikea-like with lots of yellows and blues, a well worn sofa with little clots of fabric ratting on the arms and the cushions holding on to the contours of someone else’s ass.

Welcome to apartment hunting in Croatia. Not only is it a challenge to find an apartment in the right place, you have to find one in the right decade with half decent furniture.

Apartment hunting with furnished apartments is an entirely new experience for a guy from Oklahoma. There our apartments are completely empty. Maybe an errant hanger dangles in the closet, but generally speaking American apartments are like blank canvases ready for you to fill with your own vision of hearth and home.

On our search in Zagreb some of the flats looked forlorn, like the back room of an antique shop or my grandfather’s garage. Others still felt so lived in that looking at them felt like trespassing. We crossed one place of our list just by the ghosts that emerged from the closets. Personal effects: children’s toys, a pair of heels, a rumpled shirt. Each item left in a disarray that suggested an unhappy story, some form of flight or eviction. I knew we couldn’t live among such visceral forms of someone else’s unfortunate memories.

Eventually we lucked out and found a place in a good neighborhood with mostly new furniture. But still, we are limited in how homey we can make this place. Only in Croatia can I feel homeless while at home.

While the landlords in Zagreb often use their rental property to store their old furniture, in the US my parents used MY rented apartment to store THEIR old furniture. The result was that each flat, house, hovel and shanty that I ever rented actually felt more like home than home. While my parents modernized their living room I filled mine up with the same furniture I had been raised. Years after moving out I continued to live with the well-known fabric and brown tones of the couch, lamp and table set that permeated my earliest childhood memories. My apartment was so familiar it was like I lived with inanimate siblings.

Transitioning to my situation in Croatia has had me asking: Why do apartments in the US come unfurnished while those in Croatia are often too furnished? While American’s seem to have more space and more um... stuff than Croatians, rented apartments are always empty. Again reality has smacked us with a counterintuitive dope slap. *SMACK* Wha?

I think one answer to this puzzle, might be another cultural difference: the GARAGE SALE. My only experience with garage sales in Croatia is my Punica’s reaction to seeing one on Everybody Loves Raymond. I was sitting in the kitchen eating a snack when she started yelling for me to come into the living room. She pointed in disbelief at the TV, exclaiming: They are selling their furniture in front of their house. Just like that! Yes, that is a garage sale. Is something lost in translation? (Probably)

Why is it that Americans have no problem piling their old, unwanted wares on their lawn and selling them? The garage sale is a suburban institution. People spend their entire Saturday’s cruising through neighborhoods looking for garage sales. Corners become crowded with signs announcing this sale here or that sale there. We even have urban legends about an art collector finding a Picasso for cheap in the back of some old garage, or the comic collector spying an Amazing Fantasy No. 15. among a pile of otherwise worthless comics. True or not, the garage sale is a bargain hunter’s paradise. They are also a great way to either furnish or unfurnish your apartment.

Now you might be saying: Cody? C-bone, how you can complain about used furniture in your apartment and the GO AND BUY a BUNCH of USED FURNITURE AT A GARAGE SALE!?! I MEAN COME ON!

Good point, but purchasing used furniture and inheriting it temporarily from anonymous owners involves an important distinction. When you hunt down that lava lamp at the garage sale you are empowered. YOU found that used lava lamp and the minute you purchase it YOU will remember it as the boss-awesome laval lamp that YOU found and got for a great price. This is very different from renting an apartment and seeing a sad sagging armchair that some old stranger might have had sex on or even died in. Your garage-sale-purchased lava lamp is a symbol of individual initiative and choice. It is rock-n-roll. The other is imposed on you. It is muzak on a really long elevator ride.

So why do Croatians seem to cling to their used wardrobes and credenzas? The only time I see used furniture is on that big trash day or at Hrelic. Is there a public shame with selling used goods? Or buying them? Is this why njuskalo flourishes? You can buy and sell used goods in the privacy of your own home. One friend suggested that the lack of garage sales could come from the power of social connections. If you have something you don’t want, then you should GIVE it to a friend, rather than try selling it to a stranger (I’m imagining that the day the secret gift cupboard is empty you then give the gift cupboard to a friend).

Or is all this a result from the fact that, though there is a surplus of furniture in Croatia, there is a dearth of garages?


Splitting the ticket

The first time I had dinner with a Croatian was in Oklahoma at an Applebee’s. Applebee’s is famous for serving mediocre food with mediocre alcohol. Nothing says meh, like overcooked, rubbery ribblets (a word Applebee’s invented) and cold 3.2 beer. In rural Oklahoma, my Croatian pal found Applebee’s to be the closest thing to civilization north of I-44. So much so, that he seemed to order half of the menu. Sides of french fries, starters of fried onions and buffalo wings clogged our table, like the grease clogging the other patrons’ arteries. Drinks, dinner and desert, it all came our away.

And this annoyed me. I had been duped into this “type” of situation before. You go out to eat with someone and they order a bunch of “shared” appetizers and then you end up paying for half of it. I didn’t want honey-glazed buffalo wings with a side of honey mustard. I didn’t really want the Applebee’s version of guacamole. What I wanted was to order my hamburger and beer, eat and drink, and then pay my $11.54 share of the bill, plus tip. A quarter into my Croat buddy’s ordering and our bill had well exceeded my budget. So, rather than enjoy in the near infinite amount of offerings, I brooded and simmered in my own broth of thrifty resentment.

Then the bill came and to my surprise senor Croatian payed for EVERYTHING. My internal record scratched, the rhythm of my world was off, the music stopped: I was shocked. What just happened? I replayed the whole meal in my memory’s reel to reel and chagrined. Now it all made sense. His insistence that I order more and more food, the sheer abandon with which he had the waitress bring us drinks. He wasn’t try to trick me, he was... being a host. Holy Crap! I’d read about this kind of thing in books. You know, where someone invites you somewhere and treats YOU because THEY invited YOU. And I? I had just sat there nursing my beer and picking at my hamburger, fearing to eat any of the appetizers less I be damned to pay my share of the bill like Persephone was damned to spend three months a year in Hades.

Now, how we Americans insist on bill splitting seems just so silly, so petty, that it can only really be described as MISERLY. Objectively speaking Americans have more income than most Croatians, and yet when the bill comes we take out our smart phone calculators and divvy up the amount like a bunch of penny-pinching accountants. Here is an example of the extent to which this cultural tick permeates our society. After I turned 18, my own father and I used to split the bill over a breakfast. Shouldn’t a son feel obliged to buy his father a meal now and then? And shouldn’t a father buy his son breakfast? The answer is: yes. Why didn’t we trade treating each other? I HAVE NO IDEA. Of course the irony is (and this is one of those core epiphanic ironies that once grasped is akin to crossing some kind of cultural Rubicon): We Americans, with more, spend like we have less, while Croatians with less, spend like they have more. What?

I think part of it concerns our strong desire to avoid, as much as humanly possible, being beholden to anyone. This kind of ambition explains why, when I first became familiar with the Croatian way of paying, I saw it just as some kind of score keeping. I HAVE to buy YOU a coffee because YOU bought ME a coffee; we HAVE to buy YOU dinner because YOU bought US a dinner; I bought YOU an ice cream so YOU BETTER buy ME one! And to a certain extent this is how it goes, but its not as precise as my inner accountant imagined it. I’ve learned that the obligations created by paying for a friend’s coffee are more nuanced than a clear quid pro quo. They are felt, not thought. It’s like returning a catch rather than paying off a debt. You toss me the ball and wait to see if I toss if back. As the game gets going we no longer keep score. We come to enjoy playing just for the simple sake of playing (or paying).


Those long lost places, playing on the airwaves


It is often said that Croatia is a timeless place. By this, I assume most people are referring to the fact that the middle of Split consists of a Roman palace, there is a Roman colosseum in Pula and a bunch of other really old stuff, well... everywhere! When I SAY that Croatia is a timeless place I am referring to the fact that music on the radio is ancient (or at least from the 1980s and early 1990s).

Before coming to Croatia I thought Roxette had HAD one hit song: Joy Ride. Turns out, over here they have several hits. I say HAVE because you can still hear Roxette in heavy rotation on the radio. Joy Ride, It Must Have Been Love, Listen to Your Heart and Fading Like a Flower were the soundtrack to my summer in Split IN 2011! Now you might be thinking that I was grooving on the only station that plays the 80’s hits, and you would be wrong because EVERY station plays 80’s hits, and then some.

Listening to the radio in Croatia is like opening a box of chocolates that fell behind the secret gift cupboard sometime before 1989: you never know what you're going to get. Last week my drive to work was synchronized with What a Feeling from the film Flash Dance. FLA-SH DA-NCE! The radio play list today was filled with early Madonna, Sting (from his first solo album), R.E.M., Mike and the Mechanics, and... ROXETTE!

Don’t get me wrong, I love cruising to Wild Boys (windows cranked down, hair blowing in the sea breeze) just as much as the next guy.

There is a special weight that comes with living abroad and hearing music from that bygone ME decade. When you live away from home you become removed from the time stream and the space in which it exists. Your whole being is constantly grasping for the familiar: that street you drove down day-after-day: gone. The familiar silhouette of your hometown’s skyline: a mirage. The scent of a lost love: just a dream. Those map-like sidewalk cracks, the shrieking squeak of your backyard gate, each infinitesimal piece of the mundane that made you who you are is now slowly being replaced by new streets, sounds, and sights. So when I hear a song from the 1980s it is more than just a happy piece of nostalgia. It is a Proustian trigger to those spaces and places slowly slipping from my mind. It awakens long dormant images: a lamp on a hall table casting the light just so. Random, but no less revealing. Images and pieces of the past that carry with them some salvation in that they remind you, just fleetingly, of where you come from and who you are.

I have to wonder if that’s why the 1980s live on in Croatia. Are all these listeners and players hearing the music from the fading memories of a lost time in another country? Is Roxette also the sound of lunchtime, trips to Trieste, Cocta, and gondola lamps?

OR is it just because Roxette, earlier Madonna, Sting, R.E.M., Bronski Beat, New Order, Duran Duran, Queen, GNR, and the soundtrack to the Warriors can kick the crap out of everyone on the radio today?

The bare feet cry freedom!

For some reason, being barefoot in Croatia can cause all kinds of illnesses, such as rheumatism, the flu, the common cold and bladder infections (or so I’m told. Frequently). When I traipse around the apartment in my bare feet, my relatives and some neighbors look at me like I’m a mad man who has wandered out into oncoming traffic. My bare feet are loaded guns and I’m playing Russian roulette.

When I was first in Croatia the sound of my foot steps were echoed by an omnipresent voice saying: Ti si bos (you are barefoot). Ti is bos, in the living room. Ti is bos, in the kitchen. TI SI BOS! BOŽE MOJ! on the balcony.

This concern over my bare feet was in sharp contrast to how I was raised in America. As a kid one of the best days of the year was when the temperature first hit 22 degrees centigrade (72 F). That meant we could kick off our shoes and run around, not just inside, but OUTSIDE, barefoot! There was nothing better than sitting on the porch and stripping off your stinky, sweaty socks and shoving them into your pair of Buster Browns. Your toes wiggled in gratitude. They were free! You were free! It was summer!

In fact, running around barefoot in America is the definition of summer. See:

summer 1 |ˈsəmər|
noun
the warmest season of the year, in the northern hemisphere from June to August and in the southern hemisphere from December to February. In America it is a time when you can run around barefoot both indoors and outdoors.


Even today I can still recall the specific bumpy cracks and crags I felt underfoot when running down the length of my driveway.

What I don’t understand is why it is that in Croatia you take your shoes off at the door of your house, and then put on other shoes inside. While in the USA, we wear our shoes inside and outside of the house and go barefoot inside and outside of the house. If there were a shoe-wearing spectrum we would be solidly placed at both ends: ALL or NOTHING.

What qualifies as a “slipper” in Croatia is very, very broad. Sometimes it is a slipper (soft and fuzzy), other times it is a sandal. I even have a pair of Crocs that someone bought for me as “slippers.”

What is even more confusing is how the one place Americans think we shouldn’t go barefoot is the one place Croatians insist we go barefoot: at the sea side. On the coast, when I want to wear my Crocs into the water there is some amused laughter and embarrassment in the eyes of my Croatian companions. Pointy rocks? Yes. Sea urchins? Sometimes. Wearing shoes to protect my feet from those things? NEVER!

I can’t really understand where all these differences come from. All I know is that being barefoot inside and outside in the summer is one of the most memorable experiences of growing up in America. It is necessary since the distinction between the indoors and outdoors is much greater in the US. In the summer months we have air conditioning running most of the time, we shut the doors and windows to keep the cool air in and the hot air out. But, being able to be barefoot in and out in someways reconnects us with the reality of nature. Under the bare sole of your feet you can feel the searing, sun soaked pavement and the coolness of the grass you’ve just jumped into.



Croatian service: Keeping it real, really real.

The waiters and waitresses in Croatia keep it real. And by keeping it real I mean they maintain authenticity, and by that I mean they do things like finish their cigarette or magazine article before taking your order, approach your table with almost total indifference and sometimes do everything in their power NOT TO NOTICE YOU! For my American readers it may sound strange, but I prefer this kind of “service” to what we have in the US. As it is with lots of things in Croatia, once you go through the looking glass, there’s no going back.

They say you can’t go home again. They’re right. I had this realization when I tried to eat in a restaurant in Washington D.C. on a trip back to the states. It went a little like this:

“Hi! Welcome To Wherevers! How can I help you?” The perky hostess greeted me. Little did I know, but this was just the opening salvo in a barrage of questions.
“Uh, we’d like a table.”
“GREAT! Do you want to sit inside or outside?”
“Um...inside.”
“GREAT!! At the bar, the lounge, the nook or the-other-silly-named-place?”
“Uh... I guess in the nook.”
“GREEEAT!!! Follow me.”


When our waitress came to take our orders, she too was really friendly and really enthusiastic about the fact that WE were sitting in HER section and that SHE was going to get to wait on US. WOWEEE! Smiles all around. Living in Croatia had taught me to be skeptical of... well... everything. What’s the catch? I wondered. I looked around to see if there were any signs some happy-friendly-girl-Zombie plague ravaging the Washington D.C. area.

Then the interrogation began: “Would you like to know our specials? Would you like a margarita? Flavored? Salt? Large? Small? Do you want french fries, coleslaw, queso, salsa, rice, or beans with that? Flour or corn tortillas? Would you like any starters? Buffalo wings, guacamole, chips-n-dips?” By the end of my order I was exhausted. After she asked my friend the EXACT same questions she reminded us that her name was Tiffany or whatever, and AGAIN told us to “just holler” if need anything. (Giggles. Smiles. Ponytail-flip). Five minutes later she brought our drinks, five minutes after that she asked how we liked our drinks, then she brought us our food, asked how we liked our food, then asked us if we wanted dessert, asked us how we liked our dessert? AARGH! Was she conducting a survey? ENOUGH already! Between each question about our food, drinks, and fried ice cream, she would prance by and ask a more generally: “Everything ‘kay?”

I realized that evening that no, everything was not ‘kay. I’ve changed. I prefer Croatian “service” to what we get in America.

One of the first times I stepped into a cafe in Croatia, I had to wait until the waiter was done reading a magazine and having a cigarette before he took my order. Customer service in Croatia is a lot like dealing with the afterlife. After eventually taking your order and bringing you your drink, your waiter disappears like a ghost. As if serving you had been the one task keeping him bound to the mortal world. Delivered, he fades into the beyond.

Or sometimes you, the customer, are the ghost. In Split, this impossible to miss big, beefy, muscular waiter came to take our order and didn’t even say anything. Or look at us. He actually did everything in his power NOT TO LOOK at us. He just sort of grunted when I ordered, hardly acknowledging that he and we existed on the same dimensional plane (see, just like we were ghosts!).

But now, I prefer to be ignored over being harassed. I prefer the honesty of the Croatian customer/waiter relationship. I am here to drink coffee. You are here because it's a job. Let’s not pretend we LOVE it!

Everything at Wherevers was predicated on one thing: money. The friendly attitude, enthusiasm, and concern were only there because our hostess and waitress wanted us to leave them a decent tip. I’m sure Tiff (I don’t think she’ll mind if I call her Tiff) is a nice person, but she’s not THAT nice. I doubt she walks down the street going: NICE TO SEE YOU! I’m GLAD YOU’RE HERE! WOOHOO to every person she sees. Don’t forget, back at Wherevers we were complete and total strangers with unlikely odds that we would ever see each other again! She told me her name and was really nice so that I would be sure to give her money (and she probably also has a manager who makes her act that nice as a result of some corporate policy call “smiletistics” or some crap).

Then there’s the harassment of hospitality. (And the only person really authorized to harass you with heavy-handed kindness when you’re eating is your Croatian-mother-in-law! Fact.) OK, fine, check on me once, but for the love of GOD leave me ALONE and LET ME EAT. After the first few times of Tiff prancing by to see how things were, I stopped actually hearing her questions. Instead I just heard: Money? How is everything, tip? Tip get you anything else? Would you tip-ta-tip-tip tip? AAARGH! Stop begging!

It's not necessarily Tiff’s fault. It's the system. She makes a low wage and is dependent on the tip customers leave her. While it's not like it’s this everywhere in the US, but I’m sure if you compared an American-Croatian waiter’s question ratio: it would be something like 10:1. In Croatia your waiter usually just says: Izvolite, best translated as: what would you like? That’s it. Nothing else.

The difference in tipping is the clearest explanation for the difference between service in Croatia and America (20% in the US versus 1-5% in Croatia), but I'm not sure if it accounts entirely for the lack of happy familiarity among Croatian waiters and waitresses. Before I lived in Croatia I thought the American way was “normal” and that Croatian waiters were just rude. Now, I see it as completely the opposite. My waiter’s indifference in Croatia is actually respectful.

What’s more, in many cases I’ve gone to a cafe regularly and eventually the wait staffs’ icy indifference fades. We start to talk, come to casually know each other. Best of all, I know that these conversations are genuine, no one is being nice in hopes of getting a bigger tip, because, like I said: waiters in Croatia, they keep it real.
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Note: If you're a foreigner on vacation in Croatia TIP! In touristy places it's expected. In general, if someone is good at waiting (but not overly good) I tip them more than what's standard.

I have to mention that the wait staff at Tituš, in Zagreb's upper town, are awesome. They defy everything I said in here about Croatian service. They are extremely efficient, fast and friendly. They are the best in Croatia!!! I tip the crap out of them and so should you!

Also, I’ve had all kinds of service sector jobs, so I know what its like from both sides.

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Little country lots o' texture.

Someone once said to me: “Croatians are from lots of places, like Bosnia or Istria!” (For our American readers, one of those places is actually in Croatia).

Anyway, here’s a regular conversation for me in Croatia:
Croatian Person: Where are you from?
Me: Oklahoma.
CP:???
Me: Its a state, just above Texas.
CP: (shaking his head) I mean where are your parents from?
Me: Oklahoma and Pennsylvania.
CP: (Getting a little frustrated) But where are you really from?
Me: Oh, my family is from Ireland, Italy, France, and Prussia

(that’s right, P-RUSSIA!)

Now lets imagine that conversation in reverse. It would go something like this:

Where are your parents from?
CP: Croatia.
Where are your parents’ parents from?
CP: Croatia.
Where are your parent’s parent’s parents from?
CP: Croatia.


GET IT! Asking Croatians where they are from should be boring. I mean really, how intriguing could the answer to this question be in a country with only 4.5 million people and that’s smaller than West Virginia? You can imagine someone answering by saying I’m from over there and just pointing. The reality is, its fascinating! As an American I’m baffled (or amazed? No, baffled) to see how where you are from can matter so much in such a small country.

I don’t want to make it sound like there are no differences between places in the US, but the differences exist between vast distances and are relatively minor. As a comparison if you drive five hours in any direction in Oklahoma you will end up in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, or more of Oklahoma. You will not encounter a different culture from the one in Oklahoma in any of its neighbors (Its JESUS and GUNS all over!) Maybe in Texas they call “pop” “soda” or something, but that’s about it.

Drive five hours anywhere in Croatia and not only do you end up in a place with a different culture, you can end up in a different country: Italy, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and if you are driving really fast maybe even Albania! Drive two-three hours from Zagreb and you end up in a different region with its own customs, people, and culture. Different regions have their own special cuisine. People praise the pršut from Dalmatia, the wine from Istria, and the kulen from Slavonia. Even small towns can have their own specialty, like risotto from Ston or cheese from Livno (I KNOW its in Bosnia). The best way to think of this is that it adds layers of texture to Croatia’s social and cultural landscape.

While outsiders enjoy and admire each region’s domestic fare, the locals usually hold the things from their town in the highest regard. This can border on the absurd. Like the time when a visiting relative packed two dozen eggs into her suitcase on a flight from Split to Zagreb because “Everyone knows that eggs from Split are better than eggs from Zagreb!” I’m never sure if most of these professed differences are real or imaginary. I oscillate.

While cleaning out the suitcase filled with egg yolk and shell fragments, I certainly felt these “differences” were more FRUSTRATING than fascinating and definitely IMAGINARY. Then I traveled around Slavonia and felt like I was in a different country. The wide and flat land is in such drastic contrast to the rocky lunar-like terrain on the coast. Its much more similar to Oklahoma, not too mention the people too, they are shorter and closer to my height, and the food is more to my taste. The people also seemed to be to more mild manner when compared to um... say... Dalmatians?

The importance of where you are from extends beyond one’s region to even involving your village (ask someone about Imotski!). Its more than food and far bigger than just the rural/city divide. I find people talking about their own mentality based on where they are from. Someone will say: Oh well you know I’m from Split so... . Or Well he’s from Rijeka, so of course he’s open-minded. I also hear people using the differences in a negative way at times, and this is one of the more intriguing pieces of this regional puzzle: the differences are not solely used as putdowns and stereotypes. They can be, but they can also be used as points of pride and envy. For example, telling someone you are married to a girl from Split results in knowing nods and half smiles, that sort-of say, of course an American would be married to a Splićanka, indicating all kinds of (what I hope are) positive connotations about getting a girl from Split.

Still I wonder do these differences exist outside of our own perceptions or are they produced by our beliefs? Culture matters, but where does its accuracy fade into generalization? Are the eggs in Split really better than eggs in Zagreb? Or does our relative just believe they are better? Does it even matter?

I think the reasons this is especially challenging for an American is because the American project, is really one of assimilation. Given our history of immigration, it has to be. How else can you have Irish, Italian, French, and Prussians meeting and marrying each other? Meanwhile, here in Croatia these differences seemed to have endured for ages. Here, there exists a continuity between people and place that can go back hundreds or even thousands of years. I remember one friend from Split telling me that his great-great-great someone came to Klis (US readers, this is a fortress above the city) as an Uskok in the 16th Century and fought the Turks. Then, apparently stuck around, as did his kids, and his kids’ kids and... OK, you get the idea. Even if an American can trace her roots back to the colonial period, her ancestors certainly didn’t stay put, they got up and went West to someplace like... OKLAHOMA (Ha-ha! You blew it! They should have stayed in Boston!).

I feel like there exists in Croatia such a connection with place that helps each place’s individual identity endure. This longevity then maintains the differences, or at least the idea of the differences, whether they are truly real or illusory. In America its different, because we are from everywhere its sometimes as if we aren’t from anywhere.




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