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. 

Propuh or The Great Cultural Chasm Between Us

“Someone is likely to mention the baffling absence of draft in the United States: Americans keep all of their windows open, and they don’t care if they are exposed to draft, although it is well known that being exposed to sever airflow might cause brain inflammation. In my country, we are suspicious of free-flowing air.”
--Aleksandar Hemon The Lazarus Project page 12.

The draft, or propuh, is an indispensable part of life in Croatia and much of the Balkans. A breeze blowing from one end of the apartment to the other, or a chilly wind on a cloudy day can result in all kinds of ailments. The draft is responsible for everything from muscle aches, headaches, colds, to infections or even inflammation of the brain. In order to preclude such maladies it is necessary to:

1. Immediately dry your hair after a shower. Never go outside or go to sleep with wet hair.
2. Never expose the back of you or your child’s neck to the wind during the fall, winter or spring. The back of your neck should always be covered with a hood or scarf.
3. Never go barefoot. Always wear socks and slippers (even during the summer on the coast).
4. Avoid having two or more windows open in the same room, especially if they are on different walls. The cross breeze is one of the more nefarious forms of propuh.

Before moving to Croatia I did not really believed in the explanatory power of culture. I was of the opinion that when someone said something was “cultural” they were trying to coverup their own prejudice. After all, most allusions to culture in the US are attempts to explain why blacks and hispanics are more impoverished than whites. As someone who leans left on the political spectrum I disparaged attempts to explain a whole population’s economic plight as a product of culture. Instead I tended to see black and hispanic poverty as a legacy of slavery, unbalanced immigration laws, discrimination, society structured in a way that gives whites an advantage, oh and white people talking about “culture.” In my book, cultural explanations were up there with phrenology and astrology. Then I moved to Croatia and came face to face with propuh!

The presence of propuh in Southeastern Europe or its “baffling” absence in the US is as indicative of culture and its importance as one can get. Propuh is a force that guides and influences the entire way of life in Croatia. Its why I sweat in the summer when visiting my mother-in-law. It is why public transport is stifling. It is why I am publicly reprimanded for being a bad father when out with my hat-less daughter. It is why we have to have extra slippers for guests and pack our own when we go visit someone. And my refusal to accepts its existence is why I will forever and always be an outsider.

My in-laws, friends, and students cannot understand how I cannot comprehend the reality of propuh. And whenever I meet fellow Americans we cannot understand how people can believe in it, at all! We laugh and poke fun at our friends and families’ fears of the wind, chalking it up there with other Balkans superstitions, like believing in Vampires, fairies and Big Foot. Those of us in mixed-marriages end up venting our frustration on our children’s relatives who we see as overdressing our kids to death. A friend married to a Bulgarian woman put it best when he said: “In Bulgaria, a sweater is something a kid wears when her mother feels cold.”

The scope of these differences is like when a group of explorers encounters a new and “undiscovered” civilization. Both groups have a completely different system of beliefs. The explorers learn that it seems impossible to teach these “new” people about their religion. Say the explorers have several gods and yet one god is completely incomprehensible to the other civilization. It is not that they don’t just have a god like the one our explorers believe in, they don’t even posses the concept to go along with that god. They cannot understand the deity since they cannot discern her purpose and nature.

Its not that Americans don’t believe in propuh we don’t even have a concept for it. To us the breeze, swift moving air is er... well.. good. Especially if you’re from the Great Plains. After all my home state’s song begins with “Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plains...” and this is considered a positive characteristic. (The Croatian version would be something like “Oooooklahoma, where the wind can. kill. you!”)

The wind is an iconic symbol of America. In our pantheon of heroes they all sit on horseback, silhouetted against the setting sun, with the tall grass beneath them rustling in the breeze and their hair blown back by the wind, ceaselessly.


Where does this leave us? I’d like to end by saying that diversity is great and that its wonderful we live in a world with such varying opinions-- but then I would be lying! I’m hot and sweaty. I hate blow drying my hair. My mother-in-law keeps reminding me that I’m barefoot. My daughter is wearing a coat, hat, and scarf when its 16 degrees Centigrade outside. And everywhere I go an old lady looks at me with a frown of disapproval. Propuh!