What do you do?


A few weeks ago I met some friends of a friend who were an American-Croatian couple living in Croatia. The next day I was telling my wife about how I’d met some ‘Americans’ from San Francisco who preferred Croatia to… California!?! And my wife asked, what do they do in Croatia? Like what are their jobs? I paused a second, trying the think through the night’s drunken haze and well, I couldn’t remember asking or learning what they do.

A few weeks before this and a friend, who was initially a friend of a friend, was having a ‘I’m-moving-back-to-Canada-Party’ and I was trying to explain to my wife who this person was, and again she asked, ‘What does she do?’ and again, I didn’t know. And this was weird because we had all hung out too many times to count and I couldn’t remember what her job was. I wasn’t even sure if I’d ever even known.

Now, you might be thinking, Cody that’s because you’re a horrible conversationalist and self-centered, and you might be right, but I actually think it’s something else. Back in the day when my wife and I began dating she made a point that all Americans do is talk about work, and how she can’t stand it when we meet people and ask ‘So, what do you do?’ Since then I have heard similar sentiments from other people in Croatia (and elsewhere in the world). I remember at the time thinking, if you don’t talk about what you do, what else is there to talk about?

In America we talk about work because American identity largely comes from our profession. What you do is who you are, and the best way to get to know someone is to learn what kind of work they are in. If I meet someone from Oregon and tell them I’m from Oklahoma, there’s not a lot we are going to talk about. Oklahoma Megachurches? Portland hipsters? And it doesn’t really tell us much about each other. I do not attend megachurches, and this guy might be offended if I call him a hipster, no matter how tight his jeans are. If we discuss our jobs though we can learn about our education, our interests, and perhaps, even our competence.

Meanwhile in Croatia talking about your job can be… awkward. By bringing up work you might come away thinking someone is an uhljeb (someone with a well paid, pointless job, attained through a connection) or you come away mad at the system and feeling sorry for this person you just met because they are either underemployed or unemployed, and finally, maybe you’re in awe with how they got such a great job because getting a good job in Croatia is a mystery… and well, the whole thing can just be uncomfortable.

I often feel some embarrassment when I tell someone I work at the University. Usually this is followed up with a question of whether or not I have ‘permanent employment.’ When I say yes, their eyes sparkle with what I can never tell is envy or respect, either way I can see in their eyes that I’m living the dream, permanent! state! employment! And then this raises the question about how did I get this job or don’t I think this job should’ve gone to a Croat… and… erm… uh… it’s best to just avoid talking about work altogether.

Croatia offers other, less awkward, ways to learn about someone. You can talk about where you are from, or where your parents are from (which is sometimes the same thing, but also different… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯... ‘I’m from Baška Voda,’ said the person who has never lived in Baška Voda). You can also talk about what region of the country you’re from, even what part of the city. In Croatia, where you’re from seems to speak more to the traits and personality of a person than their profession. People also discuss family, having kids, health and holiday plans before they ever discuss work. And of course what most people talk about are the daily challenges of living life in Croatia: bureaucracy, incompetence, and inefficiency.

What someone does and how they do it in this country is filled with so many awkward unknowns, that I’ve learned to avoid discussing it when meeting someone the first time, even with Americans and a Canadian, apparently. Perhaps this explains why we often revert to complaining. Complaining in Croatia is like the great icebreaker, the best initiator to get to know someone. When it comes to complaining about daily problems everyone has a story that we’ve all already lived through. And it’s a story we can all understand.

The Problem of Work

I keep having a routine conversation with everyone. Someone asks me if I want to stay in Croatia, usually with a little disbelief in their voice. I say, of course... If I can find enough work. Then my interlocutor sort of laughs because the difficulty in finding enough work in Croatia is no joke. So of course we have to laugh about it.

I can kind of understand why it has to be this way. It’s like a cosmic irony. If jobs were plentiful in Croatia, then Croatia would just be too good. It would be a place with a beautiful seaside, no street crime, affordable healthcare, and a charming life style, filled with leisurely coffees, beautiful women, and punicas that cooked and clean all the time for you. There would be no challenge and it would be the closest you could get to paradise. The universe cannot allow this. Just like we need Mondays because the work week has to start at some point, we can’t have any place being too perfect. Nope. Sorry.

The problem that many of us face is that fact that we actually have work. We just don’t get paid enough or have enough of it to pay us well. We are the Honorarac. Part time, underpaid, expendable employees, who are stuck in employment limbo. We make just enough to live, but not enough to give us a steady future. We can’t get bank loans. We have no pension, and even though we work full time are still officially classified as unemployed. We are the non-existent underlings who keep Croatia functioning. Unfortunately, we are the future. We are the new class, the precariate: “a social class formed by people suffering from precarity, which is a condition of existence without predictability or security.”

For those like me, who foolishly decided to do a PhD, a similar situation actually exists in the US. AND believe it or not the Croatia situation is actually better. Better because poverty in America is terrifying! If I was trying to pursue  an academic career in the US, I would be condemned to the world of adjuncts. While I am basically playing the same role here in Croatia, I and my family at least have health insurance and live in a crime free neighborhood. Living off equivalent wages with no benefits in the US, would put us in the ghetto without my daughter even having health insurance. Croatia 1: USA 0.

Croatia, really, I love you and want to live in you forever. But it’s tough. Finding a full time, permanent position in Croatia is like winning the lottery. Really. It. is. like. winning. the. lottery. I have 2 jobs and don’t make enough to pay my monthly rent. I nearly earn less than I did working at a grocery store in high school. My little brother in New York makes what I make in a month, in a day. I don’t make any money from my blog (but I am paid in Likes, comments, and a dedicated readership, which is better than money). And yet, it’s not all about money (then again, it actually is).

So why stay? I want to stay because I actually believe we have a future here. The longer I’m outside of the US, the more it terrifies me. And of course, it’s not all about money. I am a hrvatski zet. That means something. I believe that I am able to feel an affection for this land that my wife would never be able to feel for America. And that my readers, is the difference between here and there. Here things run deep, connections are thicker, time stands still and through all that, life, my life has become something different, something profound.