Travel | 2 comments
Life in Croatia
By: Cody McClain Brown
How to be Croatian in eight easy steps
There are a lot of reasons to like Croatia. She’s a beautiful country. We’ve all seen the pictures: pristine seascapes, idyllic little islands, scenic medieval towns, and again pristine seascapes.
Right. Gorgeous. But right now, you’re just dating Croatia. You’ve met, gone out, probably had some physical contact. What about the deeper Croatia? What’s she (or he) like? You know, the one you want to marry. The Croatia you don’t mind spending the rest of your life with. What is that Croatia like? And what is there to like about that Croatia?
Plenty. Croatian culture is actually the best part of Croatia. Of course culture consists of tiny social nuances and daily rhythms that are not easily identified when you’re on holiday. To make it easier to discern Croatia’s culture I present: How to be Like a Croatian in 8 Easy Steps. Yep, only 8. See? Easy. Get out your engagement ring, because after this, you’re gonna want to take Croatia home to meet your parents. Enjoy.
Step one: Drink coffee, frequently and slowly
For all my earlier talk about ‘culture’ being based on ‘nuance’ and ‘subtlety,’ if you’ve been in Croatia for… um… let’s say more than five minutes, you’ve probably already noticed that: 1) there are A LOT of cafes; and 2) the cafes always have A LOT of people in them, no matter what time of day it is! Morning-noon-and-night, people in Croatia are having coffee. Croatians love drinking coffee. It’s actually their national pastime.
According to one survey Croatians spend 22.5 million hours a year having coffee, and drink 22,500 tons of coffee annually (And that’s from those really little tiny cups!).
Unlike coffee in America, which is mostly just a morning propellant into work and then a mid-afternoon boost to keep working (Coffee in US = fuel, for people), coffee in Croatia is really a social function more than it is about eye-popping caffeine.
Everything is done over coffee. It’s where business is conducted. It’s where people are introduced. It’s what you do on a date. It’s what you do after a date. It’s what begins a night out. It’s what ends a night out. Croatians even involve coffee in things that have nothing to do with coffee. Invited to someone’s house for dinner? Bring coffee!
Having coffee is the social heart of Croatia. As the country’s motto is As long as there is heart, there will be Croatia, we could say, As long as there is coffee, there will be Croatia.
The other trick to having coffee like a Croatian is to sip. it. slow. and enjoy the atmosphere around you (Croatians can do this for more than three hours! One cup of coffee! THREE HOURS!). Forget about pounding an espresso so you can go explore that ancient-whatever over there. Sip. it. slow. Really. What better way to observe the sights and sounds of a new place than by enjoying a cup of coffee on the terrace? I suggest ordering a coffee with milk (kava s mlijekom) or the local favorite, coffee with whipped cream (kava sa slagom (that’s pronounced shlaagom)).
Finally, it’s important to note that Croatians just call it coffee, but you can drink anything while having coffee: Juice, tea, Coca-Cola, beer, wine, even homemade alcohol. In Croatia these are all acceptable forms of ‘coffee.’
Step two: Go coastal.
This next step is also pretty obvious, but I’m all about being thorough. From Roman Emperors and Habsburg Royalty to modern Celebrities, average Czechs and the newly arrived Japanese tour groups, Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast has been a vacation spot for everyone. With its serene nature and azure waters, Dalmatia is the very ideal of the very idea of the perfect vacation spot. But what sets the coast apart from other, ancient, pretty, places is how the region’s timeless atmosphere is reflected in the country’s culture.
The past in cities like Rome, Cairo, and Istanbul is but a passing shadow on each city’s modern chaos. In Dalmatia, the past remains in the forefront of the present. Nowhere is this clearer than in Diocleatian’s Palace in Split. The Palace is not a dead relic of fallen columns laying among the weeds. No. The 1,700 year-old palace remains the social center of Split. People continue to shop, eat, dance and live within its ancient walls (In fact, the palace is the oldest occupied Roman residence in the world!).
Though cars and scooters might have replaced horses and donkeys, the tempo of life in Dalmatia is near to what it was a few hundred years ago. The languid pace of yester-century is still felt in the locals’ easy-going demeanor. This is especially true for the coast’s islands. Among the olive groves and red tiled roofs, you really feel like you are looking into the living past.
A Dalmatian professor once summed up the region’s sentiments by saying: Idemo polako/ We take it slow. And there is no better way to experience Croatia than by embodying this coastal attitude. The Timelessness of Dalmatia actually makes one indifferent to time. Something about ancient stones and ageless towns seems to ask: Why run to tomorrow, when you can walk? And I’ll can say is: ‘Good point, giant, ancient, Roman thing. Good point.’
Step three: Never Say ‘No’ (at dinner).
Croatians are incredibly hospitable. So much so, that hospitality in Croatia is a little like being in a dictatorship of kindness. If you have the opportunity to have dinner or lunch with a Croatian just remember that anytime you’re asked if you want more, this is more like a dare than a question. Your host is daring you to say ‘no.’ And if you do say ‘no,’ it will be ignored. The host in Croatia is a dictator armed with a heavy hand of hospitality. Refusing, will not be tolerated. Resistance is futile. You will eat! You will drink! And – you will have more! And you will like it! Just say, Yes.
Step four: Give gifts.
Since hospitality is such a big deal here, people reciprocate by giving gifts. Actually, it’s a little more than that, Croatians give gifts to everyone, anywhere, and usually for no reason. Come back from a trip: bring gifts. Go to dinner at someone’s house: bring gifts! See someone you haven’t seen in a while: bring a gift. Just look at someone: give her a gift! Friends, family, neighbors, strangers, your mechanic, baker, priest, doctor, postman: gift, gift, gift, gift, gift, gift.
My mother-in-law (like most Croatians) even has a secret little cupboard where she keepsboxes of chocolate, bottles of wine and other confectionary just in case she needs to come up with an emergency gift. The irony is that most of these would-be gifts were already once gifts from other people. Now they just wait in some kind of gift limbo, longing to be re-gifted.
Now, if you want to show your friends back home that you’ve adapted to the Croatian way of life: bring them a gift. They’ll be impressed with how you’ve really embraced the culture and come back from your vacation a little more tanned, and a much more ‘thoughtful,’ and ‘generous’ person (I guess you were kind of a jerk before you left, huh?).
Really impress them with some of Croatia’s local products, like lavender, olive oil, or a strange, hair-raising-drink made from roses (see step 3). Really, there is nothing like bewildering your neighbor in Oklahoma with an unexpected gift from a place he had hardly ever heard of. Totally worth it!
Step five: Eat lunch, less dinner.
In Croatia the biggest meal of the day is traditionally lunch. Between noon and five o’clock in the evening the stoney streets on the coast will clear out. One of the best experiences can be a walk down a Dalmatian street a little before 1 p.m. From the open windows you hear the excited preparation for the midday meal: pots bubbling, plates being set, the clatter of cutlery. Before lunch, the kitchen is alive with anticipation similar to what the audience feels just before a performance. The clutter of sound is like that of a band tuning up before curtain call.
Everyone eats lunch and then takes a brief nap, or fjaka, afterward. Eating a big lunch clears the afternoon and evening for more swimming. While the fjaka gives you enough energy to drink, dance, and mingle into the wee hours of the night. So, if you find yourself in a semi-deserted city center, don’t panic! Just go eat something and relax in the cool confines of your hotel room. Then, rise like the rest of us for some evening fun.
Step six: Dress the part.
Unlike in the U.S., where it now seems acceptable to wear anything anywhere (like pajamas to an early morning college class), Croatians still take pride in their appearance. And they would probably appreciate it if you did the same. What does that mean? Sandals, yes. Socks, no. Sandals and socks, NEVER! My first summer in Croatia, my mother-in-law didn’t even let me leave the house until I agreed to either wear pants and not shorts, or take off my white, I’m-from-Oklahoma-socks.
And remember, you’re going to the beach, not on safari. Stash that HUGE backpack in the hotel room. When you go out in the evening try putting on a collared shirt or a less wrinkled t-shirt. The locals will hate you less, and if you’re dressed the right way, maybe you will even end up with your own Croatian mother-in-law.
Step seven: Try Rakija.
You can get most foreign alcoholic drinks in Croatia, but can you get most Croatian drinks in foreign countries? (See what I did there?) Answer: probably not. So when in Croatia try some Croatian spirits. Here, nothing gets more domestic than rakija. Ever wanted to know what a rose tastes like? Well in Croatia you can, because rakija is made out of everything, including ROSES: plums, figs, cherries, grapes, walnuts, honey, quince (I’m not really sure what that is) and even GRASS! Grass? Yes. Grass. What’s more, a lot of locals also subscribe to rakija’s purported medicinal benefits. That’s right! Not only can you get drunk off roses, but it may even be healthy for you! God I love Croatia.
Step eight: Don’t be a partybreaker.
Croatians love a good time. What’s even more is they HATE ending a good time. They even invented their own phrase, IN ENGLISH, to explain how much they hate to stop having fun. The first person to leave the party is dubbed: the PARTYBREAKER!
Meanwhile, in America we have no problem telling you to go home at 3 a.m., or saying WE have to go home at 3 a.m. Thus, in Croatia, foreigners are often the partybreakers. Gotta get up to catch that ferry to Hvar? Bah! Just stay up all night! Gotta grab that early bus back to Zagreb? Boo! Sleep on the bus.
Bottom line is, never let what you have to do tomorrow (or maybe in the next couple of hours) be an excuse to break the party and end everyone’s good time. And guess what? You’re on vacation! Have fun! Forget about schedules and timetables. Instead focus on fun, lose some sleep and make some memories. Besides, there are always a lot of places where you can have coffee in the morning (now back to step one).
Read more about Croatia according to Cody here.
Have a good and healthy season.
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