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.


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.


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.

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.


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.

Split Contradictions

Split is a place filled with quirky contradictions. For example, it has a huge church in the middle of palace built by a guy that hated Christianity (actually maybe that’s just ironic. TAKE THAT DIOCLETIAN!!). In winter I’m usually colder in Split than I am in Zagreb (lack of central heating). There is even a world championship tournament for a game that is, and can only be played on the beach Bačvice. And the biggest contradiction? The discrepancy between the pride people have in Split’s beauty and the negligence of its upkeep.

If I had a kuna for every time I heard: Split je najlipši grad na svitu (Split is the most beautiful city in the world), well... I would have a lot of kune.  Yes. Split is a beautiful city.  It’s got an ancient palace, it’s got powerful mountains rising right behind it, it’s got the sea with ideal islands dotting the horizon. Watching the sun set from Marjan or dallying in the early morning waters at Kašuni are some of life’s most gratifying moments. From a distance Split looks ideal, but once you step into the details, that ideal quickly morphs into a fog of frustration.

I’m talking about trash, litter, garbage, refuse. It’s not uncommon to arrive at the sea early in the morning only to have the beach and water spoiled by the detritus of last night’s fun. Cigarette butts and bottle caps spread out in in the rising sun, while a few plastic bags bob like dead bodies in the lapping waves.

In some places you expect to see trash. It is a given on a dead-end road in the middle-of-nowhere Oklahoma. The kind of place which local Okies will invariably turn into an impromptu dump. Old mattresses, smashed TV’s, spent shotgun shells and piles of tires sprout up like mushrooms on a forest floor. On the other hand, you don’t expect to see trash in one of the world cultural heritage sites right next to one of the world’s most beautiful bits of sea. Alas, it’s there and it’s frustrating because it is completely unnecessary, like an excess of makeup on an otherwise gorgeous woman.

Part of the problem maybe structural. The beach Žnjan probably gets thousands of visitors everyday in the high season and yet, there is hardly a trash can in sight. I eventually found one. A small square box a few meters from the actual beach. Of course in the course of the day it is overflowing and when you try to cram your own trash into it, it all spills out on the ground so then you say to yourself: Jebi ga. This can explain part of the problem. When I set my towel down I did so over a billion cigarette butts, a few bottle caps and even some used q-tips. Classy!

Sure, you might say this is the result of ignorant tourists coming and throwing their crap everywhere. But there is another piece to the puzzle. In the bit of grass outside of my punica’s apartment (what she calls the levada) I find a wide range of human derbis. Piles of cigarette butts gather in the dirty dead-zones under and around the benches. Rusty and shinny Karlovačko bottles caps poke their edges out of the scraggly grass. Lighters, batteries, shards of glass, clothespins, plastic atoms, and even a god damn spark plug plot along the well worn path. There are no tourists in this part of the town. This refuse is the result of late night loiters drinking and chain smoking while sitting on a bench. Or passerby who, for some reason, feel it is OK to toss their automotive parts into a park.

What the hell Split? Sure, every morning or every other morning someone from the city comes and picks up the big pieces of trash, but there is really only so much one person can gather in the course of a few minutes. Are the litterers waiting for their baka, mama or punica to come along and pick up their mess like they do at home? Well guess what? Mother nature isn’t your grandma!

For a guy from inland America, I have to drive 18 hours to get to a swimmable bit of ocean, its infuriating to see people treat a land as beautiful as Dalmatia like it’s some kind of trash dump. I would think that the people that live and breath by the sea, who pride themselves on the beauty of the coast and Split could do a bit better in keeping it clean. When someone tells me that Split is the most beautiful place in the world, I think: Yeah, it could be....

Some trash quickly collected around my towel on Žnjan, Split.

Summer of ZAGREB!!! Really? YES.

Ah, the Croatian summer: sunny days in an azure postcard; pale ancient stones, illuminated in the moonlight; the soft tones of the sea, gently slapping against hulls of the harbored boats; wining and dining inside a MOTHERF***ING, 2,000 YEAR OLD Roman F***ING palace! Summer in Croatia is magical! Of course, all of this magic is located on the country’s thin and oddly shaped coastline. When people think of Croatia they think of summer vacation, and when they think of summer vacation, they think of the Dalmatian coast. And fine, the coast is awesome, but I think Zagreb gets a bad rap in the summer months. In fact, the best time to live in Zagreb is. during. the. summer.

It is a testament to how coast crazy Croatians are when a metropolis of around a million people can shrink to such an extent that it feels like a small town in Oklahoma. Seriously. On some of my late night adventures I stumble through the streets of Zagreb and I am reminded of my similar stumbles as a student at a major university in Oklahoma. Now nothing kills a small Oklahoma college town like summer. Between May and August, the population of this town is cut in half, leaving you in the warm, sweltering crouch of the Bible belt with around 35,000 townies. While the exodus of students and professors took with it the finer culture of the town, Zagreb in the summer still retains its urban charms, just with fewer people. This is what makes Zagreb wonderful in the summer.

Now I admit, I tell friends of friends and distant family who ask me for advice on Croatian summer travel to um... basically... skip Zagreb. AND I STAND BY THIS!! If you are in Croatia for 5 days after seeing Prague and Budapest, well then there is really no reason for you to waste your time in the ZG (except to go to the Museum of Broken Relationships). Let’s face it, whatever Zagreb has, some other European city has it better. Old Churches? Prague’s got ‘em (and they are not in a perpetual state of repair), Art museums? Oh I don’t know: Paris has a few, Berlin too, Vienna, Budapest. Nightlife? I think Zagreb was voted the most boring capital in Europe. The joy of Zagreb in the summer only comes to those who live here.

As someone who has spent considerable amounts of time in Dalmatia during the summer as well as during the other seasons, the summer might actually be the worst time to be on the coast.

First, it is crazy crowded. Parking anywhere is impossible and actually becomes an act of inspired (desperate) creativity. It’s amazing what can constitute a parking space in Split in the summer. The sliver of pavement beside that tree: PARKING SPACE! That impossibly narrow space between a dumpster and a wall: PARKING SPACE! That spot that looks too small, no it’s not, yes it is, I’m just going to trrrrrry, and you’re right too tight, but we are still going to do it. Everywhere and anywhere becomes a PARKING SPACE (as your bumper grinds against another bumper, pole, house, or rock).

Second, it’s crazy loud. I don’t know about you, but I actually find it difficult to fall asleep to the bass thumping from a mid-1990s BMW that for some reason is just idling below my bedroom window in the wee A.M. hours. Nor do the piercing whines of screaming mopeds crisscrossing the city as they deliver food serve as a nighttime lullaby. Crowds, tourists, mopeds, young drunks, late-night bench sitters, woo girls with straw pork-pie hats, all of these shatter Dalmatia’s natural beauty and old ambiance like a fat brick through glass.

But then, there are those moments of respite when you drift in the sea with the taste of salt on your lips and the scent of pine wafting in the air. Then you see how the Dinaric Alps, looming large behind you, and the silhouettes of the nearby islands fall into the most perfect composition. Briefly, you believe that God must be an artist to have created the Croatian coast, and you feel an inner peace overtake you. A tranquil harmony has calmed your heart. Of course then you have to get out of the water, find your car, try to get out of your impossible parking space just to find another impossible parking space all over again when you get to your mother-in-law’s house. Gah! So much for bliss and zen.

Zagreb in the summer has none of these problems. It might not have the scenery of the Adriatic sea, but it also doesn’t have the headaches that go along with it. It’s the opposite of crazy crowded. It’s crazy empty. But, there are still enough people around that you don’t feel like you’ve been dropped on the set of a post-Apocalyptic zombie film. Summer Zagreb becomes like a big playground for those of us who remain. Parking? Always a free space. Lines? Gone. Traffic? None. The crowds that clog the winter gray have dissipated like the fog and left you in a sunny, spacious wonderland. You can even believe that all of it, the cafes, parks, social services, movie theaters, museums, book stores and restaurants, have all been created just. for. you!!

Take Bundek for example. In the off-season months there is usually a huge line of kids climbing up to the biggest slide. And NOTHING is more fun than trying to get a bunch of 3 to 5 year-olds to stand in line (they need this training for later). In the summer though, my daughter can go down the slide as many times as she wants because there is no one else around. Or at the doctor. We were able to see two doctors and go to the hospital all in one day with only a total 20 minute wait time. Grocery store? No people, no line. Nighttime noise? The night’s calm is only rarely broken by the whine of a mo-ped, or the bass of a car. They soon pass, leaving in their wake a pleasant quietude.

Sometimes it seems that the very things we want to take a vacation from, actually come with us. Spending a summer in Zagreb is a nice vacation from everyone else’s vacation.