Drinking (one post of many on this subject)

The only thing that comes close to Croatian’s love for coffee is alcohol. Croatians really know how to drink. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics the average Croatian household drinks 27 liters of alcohol a year. This probably explains why they (and other inhabitants of Southeastern Europe) make booze out of everything. I mean EVERYTHING: cherries, plums, grapes, walnuts, honey, quince (I don’t even know what that is) ROSES, and GRASS! Yes! Grass! But all this shouldn’t leave the impression that Croatians are a bunch of drunkards. Drinking in Croatia, while it may be a part of daily life is treated with a certain reverence and elegance that is lacking in the US.

In America the days of Madmen, where beautiful, well dressed people stoically drink martinis are gone. Elegant drinking has been replaced with the beer bong and beer pong. Nothing spells elegance like four feet of plastic tubing and a funnel that lets your drink 4 beers in 3 seconds! Or how about beer pong? All over the US undergrads drink according to whether or not they can toss a plastic ball into a plastic cup. Here’s a picture

In Croatia a lot of alcohol is treated with the same care and reverence as if it had incredible medicinal properties, because well... a lot of people believe IT IS MEDICINE! Especially rakija. In most houses (maybe next to the secret cupboard of gifts) exists a cabinet filled with various, often unlabeled bottles. Floating within the opaque liquid inside are gestating leaves and herbs, clipped from various plants that give the spirit its medicinal qualities. According to local lore its healthy to drink a shot of rakija every morning in the winter as it warms you up AND somehow it is equally important to drink a shot of rakija in the summer as it COOLS you down. I’ve also been told that if you have a fever you can rub rakija all over yourself as a means of lowering your temperature.

My first time in Croatia I was beset with a horrible cold, until I was given some travarica (grass rakija) and a bag of lemons! All that (plus some cold medicine) made me feel much better. Many people make their own rakija. So it’s not uncommon to get a gift of cheery or rose flavored booze (but of course we don’t drink it, we give it someone else).

Probably the biggest difference between drinking in the US and in Croatia is that you can drink in cafes. While in America you usually have to go to the bar. I’ve always found most American bars depressing, especially bars in my home state, Oklahoma. Dark and dingy you can feel the years of spilt beer soaked into the ratty carpet, surrounded by thick coats of cigarette smoke painted across the wood-paneled walls. You can also feel the drunken desperation of the people who have come before you. The bar is much different than the cafe. Bars are scenes of drunken, physical dalliances, where inhibitions are suppressed only with copious amounts of alcohol. Or it is a place to kill time. Where you drink after work only as a means to more easily stand on the bridge between today and tomorrow. My memory of bars are like blurry photographs captured in the naked light of a neon sign. They are staggered, stinking, and sloshy.

Cafes, on the other hand, are clean and well-lighted. Sitting on the terrace of a Zagreb cafe in the spring or summer can be an experience filled with zen like contentment. With the sites and sounds of the city surrounding you, the night air still and endless, you feel elated with life. Everything is charming: your company, the bored waiters, the passersby. Rather than being shut away from the world in neon hues, you are out in the world, a part of the harmonious ambience. Surrounding you is a diverse cliental that demands you behave. Your drinking has to be elegant. Since an older couple is talking over tea next to you, a group of women are having coffee beside you, there is no place for the sloppy drunk (that place is across the street in the park). No place for loud chanting and body shots. No whoo-girls. No ping-pong balls. This is not a place to get drunk. It is a place to converse over drinks, or if you are by yourself it is a place to sit and just BE, a place to reflect on passing trams and the drip-like passage of time.

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Croatian service: Keeping it real, really real.

The waiters and waitresses in Croatia keep it real. And by keeping it real I mean they maintain authenticity, and by that I mean they do things like finish their cigarette or magazine article before taking your order, approach your table with almost total indifference and sometimes do everything in their power NOT TO NOTICE YOU! For my American readers it may sound strange, but I prefer this kind of “service” to what we have in the US. As it is with lots of things in Croatia, once you go through the looking glass, there’s no going back.

They say you can’t go home again. They’re right. I had this realization when I tried to eat in a restaurant in Washington D.C. on a trip back to the states. It went a little like this:

“Hi! Welcome To Wherevers! How can I help you?” The perky hostess greeted me. Little did I know, but this was just the opening salvo in a barrage of questions.
“Uh, we’d like a table.”
“GREAT! Do you want to sit inside or outside?”
“GREAT!! At the bar, the lounge, the nook or the-other-silly-named-place?”
“Uh... I guess in the nook.”
“GREEEAT!!! Follow me.”

When our waitress came to take our orders, she too was really friendly and really enthusiastic about the fact that WE were sitting in HER section and that SHE was going to get to wait on US. WOWEEE! Smiles all around. Living in Croatia had taught me to be skeptical of... well... everything. What’s the catch? I wondered. I looked around to see if there were any signs some happy-friendly-girl-Zombie plague ravaging the Washington D.C. area.

Then the interrogation began: “Would you like to know our specials? Would you like a margarita? Flavored? Salt? Large? Small? Do you want french fries, coleslaw, queso, salsa, rice, or beans with that? Flour or corn tortillas? Would you like any starters? Buffalo wings, guacamole, chips-n-dips?” By the end of my order I was exhausted. After she asked my friend the EXACT same questions she reminded us that her name was Tiffany or whatever, and AGAIN told us to “just holler” if need anything. (Giggles. Smiles. Ponytail-flip). Five minutes later she brought our drinks, five minutes after that she asked how we liked our drinks, then she brought us our food, asked how we liked our food, then asked us if we wanted dessert, asked us how we liked our dessert? AARGH! Was she conducting a survey? ENOUGH already! Between each question about our food, drinks, and fried ice cream, she would prance by and ask a more generally: “Everything ‘kay?”

I realized that evening that no, everything was not ‘kay. I’ve changed. I prefer Croatian “service” to what we get in America.

One of the first times I stepped into a cafe in Croatia, I had to wait until the waiter was done reading a magazine and having a cigarette before he took my order. Customer service in Croatia is a lot like dealing with the afterlife. After eventually taking your order and bringing you your drink, your waiter disappears like a ghost. As if serving you had been the one task keeping him bound to the mortal world. Delivered, he fades into the beyond.

Or sometimes you, the customer, are the ghost. In Split, this impossible to miss big, beefy, muscular waiter came to take our order and didn’t even say anything. Or look at us. He actually did everything in his power NOT TO LOOK at us. He just sort of grunted when I ordered, hardly acknowledging that he and we existed on the same dimensional plane (see, just like we were ghosts!).

But now, I prefer to be ignored over being harassed. I prefer the honesty of the Croatian customer/waiter relationship. I am here to drink coffee. You are here because it's a job. Let’s not pretend we LOVE it!

Everything at Wherevers was predicated on one thing: money. The friendly attitude, enthusiasm, and concern were only there because our hostess and waitress wanted us to leave them a decent tip. I’m sure Tiff (I don’t think she’ll mind if I call her Tiff) is a nice person, but she’s not THAT nice. I doubt she walks down the street going: NICE TO SEE YOU! I’m GLAD YOU’RE HERE! WOOHOO to every person she sees. Don’t forget, back at Wherevers we were complete and total strangers with unlikely odds that we would ever see each other again! She told me her name and was really nice so that I would be sure to give her money (and she probably also has a manager who makes her act that nice as a result of some corporate policy call “smiletistics” or some crap).

Then there’s the harassment of hospitality. (And the only person really authorized to harass you with heavy-handed kindness when you’re eating is your Croatian-mother-in-law! Fact.) OK, fine, check on me once, but for the love of GOD leave me ALONE and LET ME EAT. After the first few times of Tiff prancing by to see how things were, I stopped actually hearing her questions. Instead I just heard: Money? How is everything, tip? Tip get you anything else? Would you tip-ta-tip-tip tip? AAARGH! Stop begging!

It's not necessarily Tiff’s fault. It's the system. She makes a low wage and is dependent on the tip customers leave her. While it's not like it’s this everywhere in the US, but I’m sure if you compared an American-Croatian waiter’s question ratio: it would be something like 10:1. In Croatia your waiter usually just says: Izvolite, best translated as: what would you like? That’s it. Nothing else.

The difference in tipping is the clearest explanation for the difference between service in Croatia and America (20% in the US versus 1-5% in Croatia), but I'm not sure if it accounts entirely for the lack of happy familiarity among Croatian waiters and waitresses. Before I lived in Croatia I thought the American way was “normal” and that Croatian waiters were just rude. Now, I see it as completely the opposite. My waiter’s indifference in Croatia is actually respectful.

What’s more, in many cases I’ve gone to a cafe regularly and eventually the wait staffs’ icy indifference fades. We start to talk, come to casually know each other. Best of all, I know that these conversations are genuine, no one is being nice in hopes of getting a bigger tip, because, like I said: waiters in Croatia, they keep it real.
Note: If you're a foreigner on vacation in Croatia TIP! In touristy places it's expected. In general, if someone is good at waiting (but not overly good) I tip them more than what's standard.

I have to mention that the wait staff at Tituš, in Zagreb's upper town, are awesome. They defy everything I said in here about Croatian service. They are extremely efficient, fast and friendly. They are the best in Croatia!!! I tip the crap out of them and so should you!

Also, I’ve had all kinds of service sector jobs, so I know what its like from both sides.

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