Croatia

Escape to Lastovo

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

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

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

Getting there

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

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

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

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

Modern, clean, accommodation?

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

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

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

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

Stairs! Inside!

Stairs! Inside!

Lučica

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

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

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

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

A view of Lastovo’s main church

A view of Lastovo’s main church

A not so starry night

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

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

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

What do you do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Croatia: The Little Country that Can

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Magic of Football

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

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

An international experience

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

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

So much drama

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

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

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

I believe!

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

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

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

The Bench Network

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

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

Center of the universe

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

Gossipers

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

Land of loneliness

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

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

 Split

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

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

Value vs. Spirit

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


Nature is Beautiful. People are Stupid.

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

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

Croatia’s gem

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

 Parking lot?

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

Long lines

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

Excuse me. No, excuse me.

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

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

Info

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

We should be better

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


Shrug it Off

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

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

More paperwork?


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

Transparency

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

Black box

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

Ah, indifference

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

The shrug

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

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

If it ain’t broke…

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

…don’t change it

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


Why are Croatians so Thin?

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

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

Obesity scale

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

Ractopamine, Zeronal and oestradiol-17

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

Fast-food capital

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

fast-food capital

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

Life’s pace

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

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

Communism to an American Kid

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be a Splićanin

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

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

A nation of nomads

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

Best. Place. Ever!

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

It’s nice but…

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

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

Sunny with envy

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

 

Love, Croatian cuisine's secret ingredient.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

"I come with olive oil!"

The Bureaucratic Wastelands

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

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

Who’s Driving This Thing?

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

You ask the impossible

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

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

Could it be easier?

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

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

Freebies?

Croatians are some of the most hospitable people that I’ve ever met. Being a guest is like being a prince, albeit a force fed prince, but a prince no less. And then there is of course the gift giving, the birthday treating, the coffee buying, the lunch, the hosting and being hosted, and usually some more gift giving for no real reason. Now, all of this is in stark contrast to the miserliness of Croatian public life. Yes, outside of the personal, private experience between friends and family, Croatian society seems incredibly cheap. Where’s the schwag? The freebies? The pro bono goods? The free stuff? 

In America you can find free stuff everywhere. Usually it’s little things, but it’s often the little things that count. Ketchup. Ketchup is free and plentiful. There are piles of it on the condiment bar. And you’re like condiment what? Yep. See, in the US we have so many free condiments that fast-food restaurants actually have a special place in the restaurant for said condiments. You can find free packets of ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, hot sauce, hot mustard, relish, duck sauce, soy sauce, and barbecue sauce (not to mention salt, pepper, and sugar) on the condiment bar. And, if they don’t have free packets then there is usually a whole jug or tub or something with a pump stuck in it, so you can douse your food with duck sauce until your heart’s content. 

Meanwhile in “Croatia” (those are sarcastic quotes by the way) the ketchup is kept behind the counter like it’s some kind of tomato-based methadone, and you have to not only ask for it, but pay for it too!    

Then there is the scarcity of paper products. Again in the US, walk into a public restroom and there is a strong certainty that it will have a) paper towels in the towel dispenser; b) toilet paper. In Croatia, this certainty is greatly diminished, especially if you are in a public facility. At the University of Zagreb paper towels are about as rare as Bigfoot. There have been sightings, but I have yet to confirm their existence. Toilet paper too. 

In the US you can always find an ample supply of napkins and tissues for free and open for the taking almost anywhere. Secretary’s desk at some firm: box of tissues. Classroom at school: box of tissues. Cafe: stack of napkins. Grocery store: stack of napkins. Fast-food place: napkins. In Croatia the napkins are delivered only on request and tissues only come in little handheld packets.

How many times have I had a sneeze attack on a sunny, spring day in Zagreb and not had a tissue? Well, three. With my hand over my face I walk into the nearest cafe or bakery, mumbling in Croatian for a napkin or something to wipe my nose. Sometimes I succeed. Other times, well you don’t really want to know. But each time I think: I miss America.

You might think people here would take advantage of it. Don’t worry, in the US we do. When I was a kid I used to go into Long John Silver’s (it's a fast-food seafood restaurant, mmm landlocked fast-food fish.) and ask for a water, which came with lemon, then I’d go to the condiment bar and poor enough sugar in to make my own free lemonade!


Maybe it has to do with how skeptical Croatians can be compared to Americans. Or perhaps it’s is just one of those inexplicable differences. It’s funny because it really is in such contrast to the generosity of personal and private life here. And it’s also one of the few things I miss from home. Then again, the sea is free (for now). 



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.

______________________________________________________________

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.


Where the streets have no soul


It’s funny. Where I’m from it is impossible to walk anywhere. From the front and side yards separating neighbors, to the sea of suburban sprawl between shopping centers, everything in the Midwest seems spread to infinity. And you can’t walk to infinity, you have to drive (and usually in an SUV). So, I was raised in carpools of station wagons and minivans before eventually graduating to my own car. I drove half an hour to high school everyday. Our weekends were spent in cars as we drove on aimless quests hunting for fun and testing the boundaries of our bordeom. Despite being brought up on, in, and around cars, in Zagreb I prefer to walk everywhere. Now back to the funny part, my Croatian friends um... don’t. It seems that at every opportunity they will try to drive or take a tram, anything not to walk. 

When I tell people I regularly walk to the city center, almost daily, I get stares. Like blank, deer-in-head-light stares. And then a visible question mark forms somewhere on their forehead, just between their confounded eyebrows. Yes, I prefer to walk whenever I can. In one of last year’s snow storms I even walked from Savska to Heinzelova. And liked it! 

So the American likes walking more than the Croatians. Well, Here’s why I like walking: 

Recall, the geography of every midwestern American city: generic business district, houses, highways, parking lots, shopping malls, suburbs. Even if it was feasible to walk anywhere there is really nowhere to walk to. If you do walk, people stop and ask you if you need a ride or think you’re homeless (Yes this happens!). The streets are barren, save for the lives of passing cars. 

Now Zagreb: even in the grey murk of the winter months the city blooms with life. From November to April the city is at its most intriguing. Shrouded in fog the rakete and other socialist relics disappear, only to reappear through the mist like the ruins of a fallen temple from some forgotten past in some a hidden land. The cafe lights are brighter amid the gloom, like beacons to the grey ghosts that live in each of us. At night there lurk an endless amount of questions in each covered walk and behind each crumbling facade.The backdrops of rust and ruination invite an untold number of stories that the shiny and new can never tell. What’s more, is the way these are, but the background for the life that pulses through these city streets. The clatter of trams, phosphorescent pops on their lines, pedestrians (yes, pedestrians!) foot traffic, people, faces passing by, all of this tells you that you are somewhere even when you are headed to nowhere in particular. 

Walking makes feel like I am a part of the city, like I am a piece of something much bigger than myself. In our cars we are just lonely atoms. On foot, we are the subatomic particles in a more complicated molecule. And being a pedestrian lets you set the pace to feel and observe the dynamics of life occurring all around you. Beautiful women, rowdy boys, businessmen, school kids, bakers on break, older women burdened with bags from the pazar, teenagers aspiring to look indifferent: all of these are features that are hard to find in my hometown’s featureless streets. Why ride, drive or run, when you can walk?  

                                         Behold!  The Rakete

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:

___________________________________________________

*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.