The wonderful world of Zetdom

I’m a splitski zet, which in English simply means I am married to a woman from Split. But, it really doesn’t translate that easily because in English we have no other way of saying I am married to a woman from Split other than saying I am married to a woman from Split. So, there is no English equivalent to the phrase splitski zet. Back in the States, if I called my wife a daughter-in-law of Tulsa, people would have absolutely no idea what I was talking about. They would think my wife had received some honorary title, bestowed on her by the mayor and the city council at a ceremony involving flowers, a sash, and maybe even a parade. The idea that one’s attachment to their homeland is transferable to their spouse is a strange concept to Americans. In the US, you don’t have to marry in to become an American (of course you can), but most of us come from someone who, at some point, just showed up and stayed.

In a country where skepticism could be described as a national past time, being a zet helps you get your foot in the door. It’s like a vetting process. If a girl from Split (or Croatia) has already accepted me into the club, than you can rest assured I’m not all bad. It says: Hey, I’m not just some dumb foreigner just asking for something.

In my experience the world of zetdom helps with almost every kind of social transaction in Croatia. Explaining that I’m a zet breathes a bit of patience into my conversation with the doctor, waitress, or saleswoman, or bureaucrat (yes, even the bureaucrat!). My zet card has gotten me expedited customer service, endearing looks from old ladies, wherever they work, and even helped me land some interviews with former right-wing paramilitary members for a research project. Conversely, in the US, if you tried to explain to someone that they should listen to you patiently as you massacre the English language and make wild hand gestures in hopes that your moving hands will somehow help you be understood, simply because you are married to an American, Tulsan, or Oklahoman... well, that person could give a shit. Your matrimonial bond with our country or land means little, if anything.

Another facet of zet-ness is how it emphasizes the importance my spouse, family, and fellow residents place on where they are from. Again, this is less important in the US (unless you’re from Pittsburgh, people from Pittsburgh are OBSESSED with being from Pittsburgh). The love people have for the place they are from in Croatia cannot be compared to anything I have felt in the US (not even Pittsburgh). As a zet some of this affection rubs off on me. I have a more complicated relationship with Split than I do with Zadar (I’ve lived in both). Both are Dalmatian, both are old, and both are on the sea, but, Split is like family and Zadar is just an acquaintance.

By having the label of zet, a term of inclusion in what is ultimately a bounded and limited community, I am invited (maaaaaybe even expected?) to experience the love for the hometown or homeland as much as my family from there. And it works. Split is important to me because it is important to my wife. It is where I proposed to her. It is where my daughter was born. And most of all it is where I truly fell in love with her. Until I saw her in Split, amid the memories and familiarity the surround her here, I didn’t really know her. Now, partly because of the city’s own timelessness, but more from the effects of being a zet, I feel as if I am a part of this city and those memories.

Like I said, the term splitski zet doesn’t really translate well. It means much more than marrying a woman from Split.

Little country lots o' texture.

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

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

(that’s right, P-RUSSIA!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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