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  Posted November 26th, 2017 by Zdenko  in Family | No comments yet.

Life in Croatia

By: Cody McClain Brown

Why my Punica (mother-in-law) is like a drug dealer
In another life I could cook real meals with fresh ingredients. I entertained friends in a clean house. I woke up daily, made coffee, put on ironed dress-shirts and permanently pressed pants before driving myself to work. I came home, made dinner and tidied up the house. In this other life I was a well on my way to becoming a fully-fledged, competent, functional adult.

mother-in-law_conflict_couple_marriage2Young couple with their mother-in-law

Then I moved to Croatia and began living with my mother-in-law. (A note to our American readers, Punica– pronounced Poo-nitsa is the Croatian word for mother-in-law. As a concept the name mother-in-law just doesn’t do it justice, so I have elected to use Punica throughout most of this post).

We lived in Split and my new life was like a veritable paradise. Shangri-La. Not only was I living near the azure beauty of the Adriatic Sea, but a strange, sage-like woman appeared to be occupied with anticipating all of my eating needs. I would wake in the morning, stumble into the kitchen only to have a cup of coffee waiting for me on the table aside a chocolate pastry. I would go to the beach and come back to a home-cooked meal, flanked by at least two side dishes and a salad. I would be encouraged to drink wine with lunch and nap afterward while all of the dishes were washed and put away. Clothes too. All washed, hung on the line to dry, ironed and folded. Everyday. EVER-Y-DAY!

typical punicaTypical Croatian ‘punica’

For comparison the last time I went home (after living in a different country and then a different state) I was told by a certain male family member that we probably had some bologna we could make sandwiches with for dinner, and if I wanted something else I could go to the store and get it myself!

Needless to say, the contrast between my family’s austere policy of self-reliance and Punica’s indulgence was huge.

Little did I know but these first feelings of euphoria were just the novice’s rush. As time drifted on I began to notice that Punica did not actually seem all that concerned with my comfort or with my gratitude. I would say thank you each time she gave me coffee, cooked me some food, handed me a stack of folded clothes AND she would swipe her hand at me as if she was literally knocking my uttered “Hvala” out of the air. I realized Punica wasn’t serving me in order to obtaining my gratitude. Driving her was not hospitable kindness, but rather a kind of stubborn duty guided by the assumption that without her cooking and cleaning I would die of starvation in a state of filth.


A few weeks after arriving, I began to resist. I suggested to her that maybe I could cook lunch, and she replied: Ma daj! Can you cook soup? I said: I think so?And that was that. My uncertainty was enough to convince her that her assumptions were right. Without her to cook lunch we would starve. I imagined a golden banner draped above the kitchen, reading: HE WHO CANNOT COOK SOUP, CANNOT COOK LUNCH.

I tried to do my own laundry but again was deterred and told I wouldn’t know how. As it turned out the washing machine was in German, so she was basically right. But I think her words were less about me not understanding what Schoneaschgang meant and more about my lacking the artistry necessary for the alchemy of laundering.

svekrva2Another name for mother-in-law in Croatia is: svekrva

So far the score was Punica 2 : Me 0

More importantly nothing I said or did could change Punica’s mind: without her I would be as helpless as I was the day I was born.

Then came the day we moved to Zagreb and like a true addict I insisted that I didn’t have a problem, I ranted about how once we were on our own things would go back to normal, I would cook and clean just like I had once done in a far and distant past. With clenched determination I vowed: I WILL BE ME AGAIN!

The first day was fine. We had moved and were tired so we just ordered a pizza. The pizza fixed us for the night and the next day. But the second night we caved and had some Cevapi. And by the third night I knew it was hopeless. While under the sway of Punica my muscles of responsibility and self-sufficiency had atrophied. I was strung out. The dust and dirty clothes began to gather in the house, used bottles, and newspapers piled up, paper towels replaced plates, and each afternoon the kitchen table just stood there food-less, barren, a desolate reminder of our desperate situation.

typical punica2

The horror of my situation hit me. Looking around the messy apartment, fighting my pangs of hunger I thought: NOOOOOOOOO! She was right! Without her I will starve and die in a state of filth The house was a disaster and I was HUNGRY. My independence, my self-reliance, my old self were now just an illusion. Just images I clung to in a fit of self-delusion. There was no denying it now. I was addicted to Punica’s heavy hand of hospitality!

And just like junkies craving another fix, we pleaded for her to come up to Zagreb, begged her to stay with us. And we rejoiced when she came, overcome with the sweet relief of seeing lunch sitting on the table. When my mother-in-law stayed with us it there was a warm comfort in the air. It was like we were high.

Like a drug dealer pushes his dope to get you hooked, Punica pushes her hospitality to make you as dependent as she imagines you already are. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You may fight back, you may tell yourself that you don’t have a problem, that you can quit anytime, and that she’s just being nice, but by that point it’s already too late. She’s got you in her power. If you ever had any kind of self-reliance, well buddy, it’s long gone. But, the first step to overcoming your problem is admitting you have one. So say it with me: My name is Cody and I’m addicted to Punica.

svadba_syna1Young couple with ‘punica’

And that is just how she wants it.

Translation: tast i punica {noun} parents-in-law
About Cody McClain Brown
Cody is instructor at University of Zagreb. He is also married to Croatian woman and is a ‘hrvatski zet’ living in Zagreb. For more info see his linkedin profile.



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