Eight years ago today, I moved to Croatia after only visiting the country for a handful of days.
Like Jon Snow, I knew nothing. I didn’t know anybody, didn’t know the language, didn’t have any concept of the bureaucracy, and didn’t understand the culture. I didn’t even know what grocery stores looked like and I definitely didn’t anticipate that I would fall in love with it, warts and all.
May 7, my Croanniversary, is also Sveti Duje in Split, which is the culmination of a week-long festival celebrating the city’s patron saint. On this day, everybody flocks to city center for a big block party. Bouncing around town, hopping from bar to fritule stand, meeting up with friends throughout the day and gazing at a fireworks climax in the harbor after night fall is truly the best way to celebrate my Croatia anniversary every year.
This year is different.
Instead of an all-day party and carefully selecting a wooden spoon, I’m in my apartment reflecting on how Croatia has changed me.
I’m a completely different person than I was when I got here. People evolve as they age and gain wisdom, of course. However, your environment makes a difference and Croatia has made all the difference in the world.
Here are 8 ways Croatia has changed me over the past 8 years.
#1 I’m okay being late…sort of
I’m an early bird and always have been. Living in the US, if I wasn’t 20 minutes early, I was late. To be at school or work on time, intricate calculations were made that considered every worst case scenario my brain could conjure whether that be the earth swallowing the highway or the subway losing power under the East River.
To teachers and employers, lateness due to unforeseen outside acts of God was considered to be the equivalent of “the dog ate my homework”. America is stressful.
After moving to Croatia, I transitioned to a world where being 20 minutes late was considered being on time. Since I was always 20 to 30 minutes early for everything, I found myself waiting around for an hour like a sucker.
With time, I realized that if I’m 5 or 10 minutes late because the bus schedule doesn’t perfectly align or because the bus doesn’t come at all or because I simply can’t get out of the house as planned because of LIFE, then the world will not end and nobody will care.
#2 I’m calmer
My over-analytical mind has always thought 10 steps ahead and calculated a variety of possible outcomes to make sure my bases are covered. This compulsion caused me to live in a constant state of worry about what “could” happen. It is exhausting.
Croatians don’t function that way. Instead of agonizing about possibilities, their approach is whatever happens will happen. If something bad happens, then they deal with it.
They don’t stress about the unknown. They accept that there are things beyond their control and that there is no point wasting energy on them. In comparison to my chaotic mind, Croatians are practically Buddhist monks.
My Croatian friends taught me how to calm the fuck down and just let it be. It’s still a work in progress, but I’ve already felt many unnecessary mental burdens fade away.
#3 I discovered the beauty of a 4-hour coffee
Before coming to Europe, the idea of being at a coffee shop for more than 20 minutes was unthinkable. Coffee is something that is usually drunk while doing something else: driving to work, working, driving home from work, studying, cyber stalking, etc. It’s more of a catalyst to get through life, rather than a source of enjoyment.
In Croatia, going for a coffee is literally an event. Idemo na kavu, which means “Let’s go on a coffee”.
Going on a coffee is about enjoying the sunshine and having an endless chat with friends. At first it seemed like a time suck because I wasn’t used to seeing people so much. Now, it’s hard to live without it. Text messages are only for scheduling coffees. Coffee is when people catch up and socialize.
Being “na kavu” with friends tops my list of things I’ve missed during the pandemic.
#4 My spelling is garbage
There was a time when I was a good speller. I have a 5th grade spelling bee champion trophy to prove it.
Not anymore! The longer I’m here and the more Croatian I learn, the worse my English becomes. Anytime I learn a new English word, I pronounce it as if it were a Croatian word. It’s a reflex and not a helpful one.
I also catch myself spelling English words like they are Croatian words, even though the actual Croatian word for them is completely different. Recently, I typed “faze” instead of “phase” like a confident 4-year-old.
Anytime I write anything, I have to ruthlessly review and edit it over and over to make sure I catch all of my terrible Crenglish. Still I miss things, because my brain tells me it’s right when it’s so very very wrong. You are always welcome to call me out on it.
#5 I can eat a whole pizza by myself
When you go out for pizza in Croatia, each person gets their own. This was a bit shocking at first, especially coming from America. We Americans are known for our ability to overeat, but pizzas are generally shared unless we’re eating our feelings alone with nobody watching.
At first, I was like “there is no way I will eat this whole thing myself” and now I’m like “hell yeah, I’m going to eat this whole thing myself” and it’s perfectly OKAY.
#6 I am part of a community
My absolute favorite thing about Croatia is the overwhelming strength of community. There is a big community that makes up the country and there are also small communities within neighborhoods, buildings, and families. Caffe bars have their own communities. Each pazar has its own community. Beaches have their own communities. Foreigners have their own communities. My ceramics class is also its own community.
No matter who you are, everyone in Croatia is part of at least one. Being a part of a community means that you are supported, and to some extent, looked after even if you aren’t on a first-name basis with everyone.
I didn’t have a community in the US. I didn’t know my neighbors. If I needed help, they would not have extended a hand. It was unusual to run into anyone that I knew. The Starbucks barista was never happy to see me. You have to work extra hard to get into a community in the States. Usually it requires some super specific interest like Crossfit or quilting.
In Croatia, you become part of one automatically just by living here and being nice. Having the support of a community has been invaluable to building a life here and has given me a deep sense of calm. They have become my family abroad.
#7 I’m more active
I walk absolutely everywhere. Due to Croatia’s high level of safety, Split’s unreliable bus system, the close proximity of everything and the plethora of good weather, walking has become my default method of transportation.
Walking anywhere in Texas is considered a death wish, even if you are only traveling a few blocks away. Also, everybody has cars so walking is just not that common, unless you’re in New York or San Francisco.
When I go back to Texas to visit, I walk just as I would in Croatia. I know I am putting my life at risk and for that reason I get a hefty amount of stares, but that’s what I’m used to.
#8 I’m less socially awkward
If you haven’t already picked up on it at this point, I’m an anxious person. While many things produce stress for me, my biggest problem has always been speaking to strangers.
From childhood on, I’ve suffered from tremendous social anxiety. Well into adulthood, I couldn’t even order a pizza over the phone because I was too frightened. Frightened of what, I’m not sure. I was afraid to approach someone in a store to ask a question. I couldn’t handle being in social situations where I didn’t know anyone. Sitting in a restaurant by myself was absolutely out of the question.
Living in this analog non-English speaking country forced me to push through my social fears. There was no other choice. Not only did I need to talk to strangers, I had to do it in another language that is not easy to learn by any means.
There have been many days when I haven’t left the house because the anticipation of having to speak to someone in Croatian was too overwhelming.
Moving to a foreign country on your own is hard enough without social anxiety. Moving with it can be paralyzing. I knew it would be challenging on all fronts, but I also knew that there was too much to explore, too many new people to meet and too many incredible experiences that I would miss out on if I let my unsubstantiated fears take control.
Croatia forced me to push through it all and realize that it’s all going to be okay. As a result, I can speak to strangers. I can go to a restaurant or a bar by myself. I can speak to a shopkeeper and ask questions. I can even order a pizza in Croatian (although I do have to give myself a pep talk first).
It’s important to convey that I didn’t do it on my own. The community around me made me feel comfortable enough to cross self-imposed boundaries. They made me feel like it was okay to stumble or stammer or screw up. I couldn’t have come as far as I have without those around me, those whose names I know and whose names I don’t.
I am infinitely grateful to have unexpectedly found a home in Croatia, a country I’m in love with and adore writing about. Bring on the next 8 years!