Croatian grandmothers

Lunchtime: eat or die!

Food is one way to understand a country’s culture. Bite into sushi and it’s like taking a big bite of seaweed flavored diversity. MMMM, I love briny diversity. Ask yourself: what would India be without curry? Mexico without tortillas? Russia without cabbage? Croatia without Vegeta and olive oil? Or America without high fructose corn syrup and sodium stearoyl lactylate? Yes, food is a window into the myriad societies that exist on this spinning little spaceship we call earth. Admittedly this is all pretty obvious. What is less obvious and can be more difficult to deal with than differences of food, is when people decide to eat that food.

I present a post about Lunchtime.

Lunchtime? Yes. Lunch is not even close to being on the list of ‘Possible Problems You Might Have Living in Croatia.’ I could never have thought lunch would be something I had to deal with. And yet, here I am writing a post about it.

Croatians take their lunchtime much more seriously than we Americans.

In America I brought my lunch to school everyday for 12 years. My meal consisted of a salami sandwich (one piece on what Croats would call toast, no cheese, only mustard), a bag of chips, a dessert of some kind and a fruit drink. A similar story was told across the cafeteria, in each school and all across America. This was normal. What’s more, for most of us, our mothers made these lunches for us. YES, dear Croatian readers, THAT’s right, our mothers sent us off to school with little more than a piece of salami between two small pieces of bread!!

For many Croatians reading this I imagine you are shocked and appalled at America’s lunch conditions. I’m also imagining that if the grandmothers of Croatia knew that what American kids were eating for lunch they would organize a relief effort like Save The Children. Airdropped pallets of home cooked meals for the starving elementary school children would flutter down from the sky. Lines old women would hand out proper sandwiches made from half a loaf of bread, prsut, cheese, a pickle and at a least one boiled egg on top. Those poor starving children in Africa America.

In Croatia, lunch is the most important meal of the day. PERIOD. If you don’t eat a good lunch there is a strong likelihood you will starve and die. If you try to argue this, if you dare to suggest that you would just like a small sandwich then you will get an eyeful of scorn and maybe even a smack on the hand with a big wooden spoon.

This is why during a Dalmatian summer the streets are empty of everyone except tourists between 1-4 p.m. Walk through a neighborhood street in Split in July and through the open windows you’ll hear, like an orchestra tuning, the cluttered preparations for lunch. The biggest longing for socialism I’ve heard from Croatians is that during the country’s Communist days the workday was adjusted so that everyone could be home in time to eat a late lunch. Croatians love lunch.

For someone used to eating chips and a small sandwich for lunch eating a massive meal in the afternoon was a big adjustment. For one everything is reversed. Croatians eat sandwiches for breakfast. Yes, sandwiches for BREAKFAST! Little did I know, but dinner was very important to my American mentality. Dinner marked the end of the afternoon and the beginning of the evening, it was like twilight’s happy little threshold. Without it I was lost, literally sort of meandering in the dark uncertain of what to do with myself. Freed from the shackles of dinner time was a surprisingly unsettling experience. I imagine for Croatians who go to America having to suddenly organize your social life around dinnertime is an equally constraining experience. You probably want to have coffee and everyone else wants to eat.

This also explains why Americans and Croatians have completely different ideas about the length of the afternoon, evening and night. In America the evening is 5-7 p.m. Anything after 7 p.m. happens at night. While in Croatia the afternoon lasts until 9 or even 10 p.m. and the evening can last... well... until morning really. (Apparently its ALL evening until the fun stops).

Like with most things here I’ve converted... err... adjusted. I now see how lunch is the way to go. It gives you more time to visit friends in the evening, have coffee, drink rakija, give gifts, and ride around on trams for free.

One of the nicest things about living in Croatia is entering an apartment around lunchtime. As you ascend the stairs you encounter the varied scents of freshly cooked meals gathering on the landing of each floor. It is a smell of ritual, of care and concern. You know that behind each door people are sitting down together or that a grandma is cooking lunch for her grandkids. It is pleasant as the smells mix in the stairwell into one mighty smorgasbord. I’ve never experienced anything similar in the US. To me the smell of lunchtime is the smell of Croatia.

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