Peak Croatian

The flow of time is strange in this country. Erratic in a way that is unknown to those who live elsewhere and maybe unremarkable to those who have never lived anywhere else. To me, the regular rhythm of the Croatian day moves like sand in a gust of wind, eddying in pockets of intensity before laying dormant, or gathering like dust in the corners of the day. When evening calls and the sun lies low on the horizon, there always seems to be just enough time for one more drink, one more coffee, one more trek around the park. And all that time, magically gathered in the afternoon is spent on one last moment.

Maybe it has to do with sitting in the center of a thousand year-old city or a 1700 year old palace. Is there so much history in Croatia that we can afford to be indifferent to the present? Or is it more about the culture? Do Croatians just know how to make time for life’s small pleasures?


Last night I had an epiphany, or well, a moment of enlightened understanding. I met a friend for a drink at 5:00, and thought that this meeting might last an hour or two (and it was a meeting because we were kinda working on something). Around 7:30 another friend joined us, around 8:00 my wife called just to tell me what she and my daughter were doing about dinner (she advised me to buy a kebab) and the next thing you know, it’s suddenly 10:30. And the only reason I’m even able to construct this timeline is through the time stamps on texts and phone calls.

Over the course of a couple drinks we all lost track of time. The five and half hours I sat in a cafe collapsed on each other, like the folds of an accordion. Stretched out and you can see its length just like I can trace the records in my phone and the absence of the sun in the sky and know that time has passed, but I can’t remember feeling it. I realize this feeling, or the lack of it, is “Peak Croatian.” And Peak Croatian is the point, the apex that all coffees, drinks, gatherings, and get together hope to achieve. Peak Croatian is when a large swath of time passes without notice when among friends.

And Party Breaking

In fact you could probably argue that Party Breaking is a social taboo because it reminds everyone that beyond the borders of the party, time is a flowing force, moving and shaping the world. Once you break the party, you fracture the illusion and time comes pouring back into our awareness, washing away any chance of reaching Peak Croatian.

But last night, five and half hours slipped by unseen, unmarked, and unaccounted for. As we get older these moments are fewer and fewer. But when they do happen they bring to my mind those halcyon days from childhood when clocks were meaningless, time seemed infinite, and the easiest thing in the world was to get lost in a friend’s company. I mean how great is it to get lost in conversation at 39 when a world of problems, bills, due dates, and deadlines tether us into the time stream? 

A Rare Achievement

What really makes achieving Peak Croatian so remarkable is that no one begrudges your loss of time. In fact it’s something celebrated. You lost track of time having coffee with a friend? This is considered an achievement, maybe there’s some slight envy, but really it’s a longing to do the same. And that’s how you know it’s Peak “Croatian” and not Peak American or some other culture or country, because it’s something everyone here aspires to. We want those moments with friends to seem infinite, and sometimes we are lucky enough that they do.  

Why Croatia

I know Croatia has a LOT of problems. People commonly talk about corruption, inept political institutions, entrenched bureaucracy, and all in all, a very limited amount of individual opportunity (see here: Here the question of success is usually not about what you know, but who you know. When it comes to America vs. Croatia, Croatia sounds like the antithesis to the American Dream. In the US, we are raised on the idea that there exists enough opportunity in the US for anyone to succeed based solely on her efforts alone (the machinery of America is thought to be powered by sweat and greased with gumption). So why would I consciously chose to live in Croatia over the US? 

Short answer: the sea, coffee and Punica!!! 

In all seriousness, to me the US pretends to be brimming with opportunity, making it a challenge to deal with the stark reality that the American Dream is dying. What amazes me about Croatia is how the society and people are able to eek out a more satisfying and harmonious life, despite the apparent lack of opportunities. 

Statistically speaking Croatia is poor. GDP is a paltry 56 billion dollars, unemployment sits around 17%, and per capita income is a stagnant $1,000 dollars a month. Yet, poverty in Croatia does not seem to be as much a curse for individuals and for the society as a whole as it is in the US (I should note that by any income measure I am not poor, on the border, but not there). So, sure, Croatia may not have the career and entrepreneurial opportunities the US has, but its society and way of life are, in my opinion, a better way to live than the current trends of life in the US.  

For example, healthcare: Having healthcare, especially for my daughter has enabled me to lead my life as an aspiring Academic and... Blogger? Is that really what I’m trying to do here? Um? Yes? If I moved to the US, the first thing I would look for was ANY job that gave my family some kind of health insurance. Most of the visiting professor and adjunct positions at American Universities are low paid and provide no healthcare. If I couldn’t find a job with benefits, then I would probably have to spend $1,000 a month on healthcare. That’s money just hoping that nothing bad happens to me or my family. A couple days in the hospital without healthcare could easily eat up a year or two year’s income for those of us on the lower end of the pay scale. 

AND, it’s not all about me. I believe a society that doesn’t have to worry about going into debt just to go to the doctor or taking their kid to the doctor is a less stressed, better society. Imagine having to decide if your kid is really sick enough to warrant a trip to the doctor, talk about stressful. Access to healthcare is one very important thing not to have worry about. It’s like a great big social hug and a reassuring voice that says: Hey, we are here for you, if and when you need us. And by not having medical debt, those us living in Croatia can go into debt for all the important stuff, like BLACK BMWs and fashionable outfits for ŠPICA! 

Another great thing about Croatia is the lack of violent crime. Fifteen cities in the US reported more than 100 murders last year. Excluding the megapoli like New York (431 murders) and Chicago (500) averaged size cities no bigger than Zagreb report hundreds of murders each year: Detroit 386; Baltimore 219; New Orleans 193. As the list reveals, those cities with the highest murder rate per capita tend also be the poorest cities. Because in America, poverty and crime go hand in hand. This sad phenomenon exists at the neighborhood level as well. The worst neighborhood in my hometown, with 26 murders in the lat two years, is also one of the poorest. The neighborhood’s average income is the bottom 1% of the country’s average. This tragic story is told throughout similar neighborhood across the US. The poor not only have to suffer poverty, they also have to suffer from high violent crime. 

There are broader effects of this relationship. Namely, American society tends to associate poverty with crime, thereby making the poor potential criminals in the eyes of the public and the police. In cities like Chicago, violent street crime is itself an obstacle to opportunity. School children have to worry about being shot when just going to school. Even if they get to school, they may have trouble learning or taking advantage of the benefits an education can offer them. An Interview with one resident from a high crime neighborhood in Chicago indicated that he may suffer from the same post traumatic stress disorder as a returning war veteran from Iraq. As if poverty alone weren’t enough, the American poor have to face fear, persecution, and violence in their daily lives. If there is more opportunity in the US, the stress of poverty and crime, have isolated many from its fortunes. Yet, the American Dream tells us it can’t exist like this, so some of us judge the poor and mistrust them, denying that something is wrong, and through our own prejudice contribute to our society’s growing divisions.

Finally, what it all comes down to is community. Croatia’s greatest virtue is the strength of people’s relationships. Everyone in Croatia is connected. Forget Facebook, the original social network was created in Croatia. If you look at the most indispensable element of Croatian society, having coffee!, you see that going for coffee has nothing to do with the caffeine and more to do with maintaining old and fostering new friendships. FACT: It is impossible to consider someone a friend in Croatia, until you have had coffee with them.

While this just seems normal to Croatians, what may not be understood is how this connectedness is in fact what offsets the negative effects of poverty and limited opportunity. Societies that have a higher level of connectedness have healthier members and lower crime. Trust and relationships within a community is one of the greatest contributors to the quality of life in a given community. In California, one city uses the question of whether or not its residents have five people they can call in an emergency as  an indicator into their overall well-being.  The idea here is that individuals who are better connected have a higher level of well-being as they are part of, and exist in a network of dependable individuals. Imagine what this says about Croatia. Five? Easy. Since Croatians are incapable of saying ‘no’ to a friend, you can always ask someone you know for help in an emergency (especially if that emergency is needing a place to stay for a night or two on the coast during the summer. CRISIS!).        

Having the ability to ‘chose’ where you want to live is a privilege. While America does hold the promise of opportunity and Croatia does have problems of its own, there are aspects of life here that I would find very difficult to exchange for what might just be a dream.

Having coffee in Croatia or Idemo na kavu

The opening of the first Starbucks in Croatia has been delayed... INDEFINITELY! Wha? Huh? But, Croatians love coffee! Here’s some empirics. According to a 2009 survey on (a fantastic website by the way) Croatians annually drink 5 kg of coffee per person, that’s 22,500 tons of coffee per year, and they spend 2.25 million hours having coffee each year, that’s half an hour a day per person. Within a five minute walk from my apartment there are nine cafes, and I don’t even live in the center of the city. If I extend it to a 7-10 minute walk we balloon to 22 cafes (and that’s just counting off of the top of my head).

So why is Starbucks a bit apprehensive about opening a store in Croatia? To answer that question we return to our old friend culture. In this post I explore the cafe culture in Croatia and ... well... the TOTAL lack of it in America (sorry guys, but it's true. You’ll see).

Croatians love coffee, but more than that coffee in Croatia is where everything gets done. It's where friends meet, where deals are made, it's how favors are asked, it's how people are hired, fired, introduced, married, divorced, everything. Everything involves coffee. Even when it doesn’t. Invited to someone’s house for dinner? Bring coffee!!!

BUT, having coffee in Croatia is very different than in the US. As you might have guessed coffee in Croatia is a social function. In the US, coffee is less about being social than it is about having a boost to work harder. Let’s look at some examples.

This is your typical cafe in the heart of Zagreb. Notice all the tables are occupied by more than one person and they all look like they are talking to each other. Not just sitting and playing with their smart phones, but talking, conversing, sharing in the company of friends, hangin.’

Now let us turn to a picture of your typical American Starbucks.

Please notice that everyone, E-V-E-R-Y-ONE is ALONE. Don’t let that illusionary couple in the back fool you. If you look close you’ll see he is just sitting at a different table in front of her, and she is typing on a laptop. No one is talking. They’re all probably listening to their ipods. And they all seem engaged in some kind of work. (I’m sure my three Croatian readers are recoiling in horror! Thinking, you don’t go have coffee to work! You go to talk, meet, relax a little, but not to sit and listen to Arcade Fire on your “earbuds” while cramming for the final exam for your course “Intro to the formless forms of Postmodernism.” In Croatia that’s what libraries are for, duh!?!)

After living in Croatia for some time I’ve learned that coffee for Americans is about the same as gasoline for cars. We drink it so we can get going and keep going. Just look at the amounts it comes in. 12, 16, 20, 31 ounces (354 ml, 473 ml, .59 , and .91 liters! Almost a liter of coffee!!) We also like to put lids on our coffee so we can go back to work, walk or jog while drinking our coffee (Jog while drinking coffee? Yes).

Another reason for the varying sizes is that they serve as a status symbol (somewhat akin to the black BMW in Croatia). The bigger the cup, the more important you are. YOU ARE SO IMPORTANT YOU HAVE ONE BILLION THINGS TO DO AND YOU CAN ONLY DO THIS BY DRINKING ALL OF THIS COFFEE!!! AAAARGH!!! (When I was in grad school I thought a good way to set myself apart from the undergrads was to order the biggest coffee I could find and then shove a huge stack of thick books under my arm and walk around the campus with an air of rushed importance.)

Here some examples of Starbucks coffee sizes:

Now I will show you the largest cup of coffee in Croatia. Ready. No peeking.


No. This really is the biggest size you can get... anywhere. Now, to our American readers you might be laughing like Crocodile Dundee when he shows that punk kid a real knife. In your head you’re all like: That’s not a cup of coffee. This is a cup of coffee. But I should tell you that this cup actually has more coffee in it than it appears. Not really, it has a very, very small amount of coffee in it, but in the hands of a Croatia it's magic. Nearly endless. A Croatian can make this coffee last for two, maybe even, three hours. THAT’S HOW LONG PEOPLE HERE HAVE COFFEE! I drank my first coffee in Croatia in about 5 minutes. Then I looked around and saw everybody else had full cups and I thought: Oh boy, we are going to be here awhile. Remember having coffee is not actually about the coffee, it's about the socializing.

So you can see why Starbucks is reluctant to open a store in Croatia. It seems its entire business model is getting as many people to drink as much coffee as possible, as fast as possible. For all the people occupying their tables alone there are probably just as many people coming and going with huge amounts of coffee. They are probably not ready for the bulk of their Croatian customers to sit over AN espresso with milk for two hours. Here are some other things to consider as well. Few cafes in Croatia sell food (this could help or hinder Starbucks, since it's not normal to have a coffee and eat something). Another thing is that coffee and cigarettes go together in Croatia like peanut butter and chocolate in America. To open a strictly non-smoking cafe could also be a disadvantage to a company like Starbucks.

Having coffee in Croatia is one of those things that sets the country apart from everywhere else I’ve ever lived. It's also one of the most enjoyable aspects of living here. Not just having coffee yourself, but seeing people having coffee is even a pleasure. On a January evening the winter gloom is only illuminated by the bright lights of the city’s innumerable cafes. You pass them in the cold, but inside you see they are warm, inviting, filled with life, men and women, young and old, gathered two to four to a table talking, laughing; you feel that the city is alive, and walking past each bright cafe you long to be a part of it. And this feeling stays with you, tugging at you, tempting to pull you into the nearest cafe. Until finally a friend calls you and says: Idemo na kavu. And like it was the greatest thing in the world, you say Da.

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