Crushing it in Croatia: Chef Joseph Lilly and his experience with the health care system

man by a road sing
Joe by the Velika Glava, Croatia (Big Head) road sign

PUBLISHED: 14.11.2023.

Welcome to Crushing it in Croatia, a series featuring expats who have moved to Croatia.

We take a deeper dive into the realities of moving: how long it takes, what drew people here and the things they hoped to leave behind, experiences with the Croatian police, shocks and challenges, how Expat in Croatia made the transition easier, advice for the next wave and whether or not it was all worth it in the end.

In this episode, we speak to Joseph Lilly, an American chef who has lived in Croatia since 2017. He shares his culinary career, what it’s like to fight cancer, his experience with the Croatian hospital system, and why he adores living in Croatia.

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Take it away, Joe!

Crushing it in Croatia: Joseph Lilly

Marija: Hey Joe! Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Joe: I was born in a small farm town outside of Chicago and have four siblings. My mom is still alive, and she’s 91. My dad passed away last year.

I was always interested in living in Europe. I had a chance to move to Lyon, France, and cook when I was 24. I passed it up because I was afraid.

I like to play the ukulele, which I’m horrible at, but I enjoy it when nobody’s listening. My dog doesn’t like it either. He’ll get up and leave the room.

I ride my bike five times a week. I’ve been involved in sports since I was six and tried almost every sport but nogomet (soccer).

I enjoy trying different foods from all over the world. Living in a small village gives me not many opportunities to do that. There’s a bit in Split and Zadar, but you must go to Zagreb to try more. I always go around to the ethnic restaurants in the US. Mexican food is one of my all-time favorites.

bike riders
Joe riding bike with his friends

Marija: Where do you live in Croatia?

Joe: I live in Tisno. One part is on the island of Murter, and the other is on the mainland. I prefer to live on the mainland, so I don’t get held up by the bridge in the summertime. It goes up at 9 in the morning and 17 in the evening for a half hour. I love living there, and I’m about 150 meters from the beach.

Marija: What drew you to Croatia?

Joe: I was married to a Croatian woman. That was a strong pull to Croatia in 2017. We have four apartments in Tisno, which I’ve retired from, and she runs them now. She lives in one, and I live in one. She keeps two rental apartments full year-round.

[Read: How to find an apartment or house to rent in Croatia]

Marija: How do you like living in a smaller city?

Joe: Oh, I love it –  it reminds me of my childhood. I told my mom I wasn’t sure how the neighbors would accept a person from Zagreb [his ex-wife] and another country [him]. First, everybody was like, “Who are they?”. The next day, they said, “Hey, you moved in next door. We just wanted to say Hi, where are you from?”.

Oh, my God, [they brought] the cookies in the fall before Christmas, blitva (mangel), fritule, and rakija. We don’t drink alcohol, but we give it to our guests because we don’t want to refuse the gift and seem rude.

[Read: The tale of rakija – Croatia’s legendary liqueur]

Our Croatian neighbors accepted us with open arms. They seem like when I was born (in 1962). We all got along and helped each other like a family. If someone passed away in the neighborhood, we all cared for them. My town has about 1.500 people, and Tisno has 1.000-2.000.

My first two years of living in Croatia were extremely stressful. We were starting a business with the apartments, and I didn’t know anyone.

[Read: How to legally rent out accommodation to tourists in Croatia]

I felt like a baby. I couldn’t do anything independently (I was always shy about that stuff). Our guests would know bus schedules and how to get somewhere. I was like, “I’ve been here for a year and don’t know this.” I just needed to take more risks. 

Marija: You would also enjoy Zagorje. My place is similar to Tisno and cozier than Zagreb.

Joe: Zagreb is a friendly city and a good place to live. I don’t like the noise, but it has people and food from all over the world. I like diversity. I much prefer Tisno now. It’s slower. I don’t go out. I’m in bed before clubs are even open.

Marija: You mentioned food again. Tell me more about your culinary career.

Joe: When I was 15, I started working at a small ice cream place. I was making 1,10 $ an hour in cash; 10-15 $ weekly (1977). My friend said, “I’m working at a restaurant that specializes in pancakes. We make more than double your salary.” I applied and got a job.

I cleaned tables for five months and hated it because I didn’t want to be around people. I used to have a stutter. I said I didn’t want to be there – I wanted to be a cook. They said that’s a bad reason, but gave me a chance.

I left there at 16 and went to an excellent restaurant in Chicago. The chef sent me to a culinary school. I had five years of formal education between an apprenticeship and schooling.

I explored the best chefs in the Chicago area. I didn’t want to drive two hours to the city. I started working in a French restaurant with a Japanese chef, which was a mind-blowing experience.

I moved to Atlanta with the same company (Stouffer Hotel), one of the top restaurants in Chicago. They served very expensive cuisine. Some would spend from 200-600 $ for two people.

I lived in seven states and at 30 addresses in 30 years. I worked in many unusual places – New Mexico, Colorado, and the southern US. I tried to gather as much experience as I could.

I settled in the mountains in Asheville, North Carolina, for 23 years. I worked in an Italian restaurant, and they made me a partner. I went to Italy to a couple of cooking schools to make our restaurant more authentic.

After seven years, I started teaching culinary arts in high school. This is the most rewarding job I’ve ever done. When I moved to Croatia, the high school’s principal in Vela Luka (Korčula island) hired me part-time. For three years, I used to go there once a month to teach in the culinary department.

chef and his students
Joe and his culinary students

Marija: Tell me more about Lily’s Cozy Cove.

Joe: When we bought the house, it had one apartment and a kućica (small house). We painted them differently, and Laura [his ex-wife] decorated everything. We’re environmentally friendly and don’t use harsh chemicals – we use solar energy and recycle.

We have a summer kitchen underneath the house. We cheaply bought the equipment made from stainless steel from restaurants going out of business.

I cooked dinners for our guests and invited them for a bonfire at night. We would have palačinke (pancakes). I told them I don’t specialize in Croatian food. Enough people are here doing that, and I don’t want to pretend. I do a good job on pašticada and grilling fish, but I would never claim to be a Croatian food expert.

I would introduce different flavors from around the world to our guests. We’ve got some people from Poland right now. It was always fun to share our lives and travel stories over food.

Everybody thinks Lilly is Laura’s first name. When I’m at a hospital and they call Lilly, I show up at the window. They’re like, “Who are you?”.

Marija: Does everyone call you Joe?

Joe: Everyone except my Croatian nephews. When they were younger, they would call me Joe – they would pronounce letter by letter in the Croatian alphabet. It was funny. Some call me Josip or Joso [Croatian names].

Marija: Hillarious! And yeah, Joe can be considered a Croatian word. Have you ever lived abroad before besides Croatia?

Joe: I lived only in seven different states in the US. I was looking to buy a house in Mexico. I love the Mexican culture, people, and food. It’s ironic. Mexico and Croatia have much in common – religion, family, soccer, food. Not in that order. Food’s higher up. They’re hardworking people who take care of each other.

Croatia is similar, although Croatia is the safest place I’ve ever been. I feel that here every day. My bike is one of my treasures, and I leave it unlocked in my backyard, which is unlike me at all.

Marija: Was there anything about daily life in the States you hoped to leave behind?

Joe: The US is a great country, but I wanted to leave behind the fact that capitalism is more important than the quality of life. That’s not for everybody because that would be a generalization. But basically, employers don’t have a problem asking you to work. They pay you for 40 hours but want you to work 80.

Many times, they get upset when you take a vacation. I read a statistic that 70% of Americans don’t use their full vacation (two weeks if you have any) because they’re afraid of losing their job. I didn’t like the capitalistic approach that money is so important.

Many people live and work just to pay for what they have. They pay for their house and car and live on credit cards. You never stop paying, so you can never stop working. Oftentimes, you can’t get a job you like and must take one that pays more.

As I worked in three schools, I learned about violence and became very sensitive to it. I went through 3-4 lockdowns and had to hide my students. We evacuated buildings a few times from bomb scares. I made the mistake of looking out the window and people were running with guns on a school campus. Some friends say they wouldn’t live without a gun there anymore. It’s gotten to that point.

The eastern US is very populated – like Dalmatia in the summer. In Croatia, I can go to Vransko jezero, only 15 miles away, and I’m all by myself. It’s nice, quiet, and peaceful. There are lots of birds. Everywhere you go, there’s beautiful nature.

My sister asked me last time I went home, “What does it feel like to you here?” Like a merry-go-round. You’re at an amusement park with horses that little kids ride. It’s going fast, and we can’t stop it. There’s too much noise and people, and everyone’s hurrying.

On a Tuesday afternoon at 14:00 in January, I got on the highway, and the traffic was so bad that we stopped. Where’s everybody going? I can walk from my house in Croatia and be in nature in 10 minutes, away from everybody.

Joe nature
Joe enjoying Croatian nature – in front of trstika at Vransko jezero

Marija: Once you settled in Croatia, did you have any shocks or challenges you experienced? How did you overcome them?

Joe: Everything I did was a challenge. I was never reduced to tears, but it took me two years to wake up and say, “I’m really happy to be here.”

Many stupid things happened. When you are in a different culture, using negative adjectives doesn’t help you. Things are not weird, strange, bizarre, bad, or good. Just different. Some things are funny, like the culture.

I was at the river Mrežnica, sitting on a rock with my feet in the water. There’s lots of room. This lady with a small bikini comes and sits right next to me, almost touching. I had no idea what was going on, and my ex-wife was laughing. She said, “We don’t have the personal space.” In the US, no one comes within 3-4 feet of you.

In a grocery store, I was going to get my wallet out and hit somebody. I asked a guy, “What do you need? Why are you this close to me?” He said, “Nothing”. We’re used to a bigger personal space in the U.S. than any European country.

Language continues to be not as much of a challenge. Now I do everything myself: medical stuff and going to the mechanic. I still have questions about the price of an oil change since it’s three times more than in the US. I don’t know if I’m getting ripped off or not.

My ex-wife used to ask, “What silly something happened to you today?”. It was challenging, but I love learning. If you can take a deep breath and laugh at yourself, you’ll learn faster and enjoy the benefits of a different culture. 

Marija: How did you find Expat in Croatia? Did we help with your transition to Croatia?

Joe: Every Wednesday, we would work on moving. I heard about Expat when we moved and realized your topics are the ones I need to learn about, like getting your driver’s license. I’ve used some of your services, a tax attorney, and some people recommended by you.

[Read: How to get a driver’s license in Croatia]

Marija: I’m glad we helped. Regarding true help, please share your experience with the Croatian healthcare system and fighting cancer.

Joe: My first experience of staying in a hospital was in Lovran. I needed a new knee and already had one in the US. It’s an intense surgery – they cut off parts of your bones and replace them with titanium and nylon pieces.  It was planned for March, but I was busy in the summertime, so we did it in November. The Croatian doctor did a fantastic job. I think both knees are equal.

If you have surgery through the insurance, you must leave [the hospital]. I went to Vela Luka to Kalos for a three-week rehabilitation, including swimming pools, machines, weights, and electronic muscle stimulation. There are no private rooms in Croatian hospitals. The hospital in the US had a waterfall and artwork on the walls, like a five-star hotel. If you come here expecting that, you’ll be highly disappointed. The buildings are much older and kind of tired.

Good doctors were all I cared about. My care here is as good as in the States. I didn’t care about the food. I felt like I needed stronger pain meds, but they didn’t have anything but ibuprofen. In the US, I got morphine, which may or may not be good.

Two years ago, they eventually diagnosed me with stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. They tested my bone marrow the same day and saw the cancer had already spread there. I had a small surgery on my neck to remove some of the lymph nodes for a biopsy. I just stayed overnight.

I feel emotional right now about the care I received. I can’t tell you how strongly I believe in my hematologist. He and his nurse always keep things light. I said to him, “Stage 4 cancer sounds deadly”. He said, “Oh, don’t worry. You’re more likely to get killed by a Croatian bus driver”. And we laughed and laughed, and that’s how we started our relationship.

It’s still like that, although he’s busy. He’ll ask me, “Are you seeing anyone? What’s your personal life like?”. It’s important since most doctors don’t take the time. People in Croatian hospitals are way overworked, like in the States. They run so much, they should have track shoes.

You can’t expect the same surroundings if you’re leaving your country. I’ve started the Expat Šibenik Facebook group. You can see various “urgent” questions, like “My kid’s protein bars were smashed, and I can’t find the exact ones in Croatia.” One lady wanted a 32-ounce shampoo bottle, which doesn’t exist here. They want a long, sandy beach. That’s the Atlantic Ocean, not Croatia.

If you go somewhere else, absorb their culture. That’s where the learning comes in, and the hospital is no different. When I had to leave, they said, “Pack your bag and walk out the door.” I couldn’t believe it. In America, it’s hours of paperwork and payment plans.

man and donkeys
Joe playing with donkeys on one of his bike rides on the island of Murter, Croatia

I went through six chemotherapies, immunotherapies, and steroid therapy. If you don’t have the money in the US, sometimes they’ll make you sell your house. 40% of cancer patients lose their homes, and 80% end up bankrupt. I don’t have that problem here.

I paid 65 euros for the imaging. The public hospital couldn’t do it for a couple of weeks, and my doctor said, “No, man, go private.” The imaging doctor was terrific. He said the result didn’t look good, but the other doctor should say more. He called me to come back when I got to my car and said I needed to be seen right away. He said, “At 8:00, a doctor Ivan Krečak will be waiting for you.” I was at the hospital the next day (Saturday).

When I first went for imaging, I was diagnosed with several things and lymphoma over two months. Several doctors thought I had a kidney stone. They told me I must have an MRI, but there’s no open MRI in Split. I didn’t want an MRI, so they put me in an ultrasound. Later, the doctor said, “Actually, ultrasound was a much better choice for your case.”

It was a brand-new modern machine. It wasn’t old, and lots of noise and heat. They gave me a choice, and that was a huge relief. They went out of their way to make me feel comfortable.

The care I’ve had in Croatia is excellent. The hospital is not fancy, but it’s sufficient. The bathrooms are clean, and the nursing staff do a fantastic job. Especially when dealing with people like me who are in pain – you are not the most polite person then.

I will probably start chemo in January. My cancer returned this summer. When you do that, you’re there for hours. They’re pumping you full of chemicals but serve lunch in a big, fat, comfortable chair. The nurse is the sweetest person, and the doctor always comes to visit. He reassures you everything’s on the right track.

I had some negative experiences, probably because of the language barrier. I usually drive to the hospital to make an appointment instead of calling them. The appointment windows can be stressful. I’ve seen people completely fall apart, and arguments happen back and forth.

Sometimes, they can’t answer the phone since they are so busy. I’ll have a coffee and then go to the hospital and make a little day of it. If you get past that point, the care you’re getting is top-notch.

Marija: Are there any Croatian initiatives or non-governmental organizations that can provide relevant information and help regarding cancer?

Joe: I’m part of an online men’s cancer support group with about 2.000 people, mainly from the US. In the States, if you get diagnosed with cancer, you should take your test results to other doctors.

One Croatian guy told me his friend has the same cancer and the same doctor, but he sent his tests to Dubrovnik, Osijek, Zagreb, and Zadar. A doctor asked him who’s his doctor, and he said, “You have the best doctor in the country. He’s better than I am”. That’s also my doctor – Dr. Krečak in Šibenik.

I’ve seen a big change in my six years here. A lot of the younger doctors have come in. The older guys were hard to deal with. The younger people ask you how you feel, and they tell you what’s going on.

I was told to be aware of the public health dentist. I went to a private and got a lousy job done. Then I went to our public dentist in Tisno, the best dentist I’ve ever seen. He fixed the private person’s bad job in 20 minutes. The public dental is top-notch.

Marija: What do you think about the medical technology in Croatia?

Joe: I needed a PET scan in Split, which is dangerous for your body. You get the poison in your body in a special building. You go in one door and come out another. You can’t be around people and animals for 24 hours.

I was very impressed at how they ran it. It was professional, and they were kind. “Can I bring you some water?”, it is like being on an airplane. The equipment wasn’t old – it was new modern stuff. That’s all public medicine.

I’ve only ever been to a private doctor a couple of times when the wait was too long, and it was fairly affordable. I’ve heard nightmare stories about how expensive private care is here, like over a thousand euro. I’ve never paid more than 60.

[Read: What is Croatian dodatno health insurance?]

People always want to say things are better somewhere else. Unfortunately, I’ve had a lot of medical experience in both Croatia and the US. What I’ve received here is great.

Marija: What do you think Croatia could improve in the healthcare system?

Joe: I would love to see these people not work so hard. I used to work as a chef as fast as I could. It’d be nice to see more assistants. Being a chef, it’d be nice to have a bigger budget for the food.

Some lady complained about the dirty wall in her room. We’re not in that hospital with the waterfall, but we’re also not paying the prices they charge – 10.000 $ a night or something to stay in a hospital. I could never afford that.

Marija: You know how to distinguish important from less important. What you’ve done to feel better and get strength during treatment?

Joe: In Lovran, they didn’t tell me I could get coffee. I didn’t realize they had a coffee bar; I would have gone to the kafić.

But I want the best physical care and to be well taken care of. I want a doctor to listen to what I have to say. I don’t tell them what to do – it’s their job to figure out. 

man and a child
Joe and his little buddy enjoying the Croatian tradition of long coffees

Marija: I would grab my bike right after work to have a coffee with my dad while he was on radiation. They encourage you to spend time with your loved ones.

Joe: They want to keep you moving, but I didn’t know until my last day. They said, “You never went to get a coffee.” I said, “Oh my God, I haven’t had a coffee in a week.” I’m very much into the coffee culture here in Croatia. The other guys in the room knew it because they were Croatian.

Marija: Of course. How did your illness change you?

Joe: From the moment the doctor says you have cancer, you can never unhear that. I wondered how I would react if the doctor said that and thought I would erupt into tears. I just thought, “I feel like I’m one of the luckiest people on the earth for the life I’ve had.” But you can’t be the same person and think the same way anymore.

I’m glad I was able to move into that way of thinking where something isn’t important enough to argue about. Once you have cancer, it’s easy to see what’s important in life. I talk to my friends, and they might say, ”I’m upset about this.” If you had cancer, they wouldn’t be upset about that.

I don’t know many cancer patients who try to guess what’s going to happen because it’s not going to be a great place for any of us. My first chemo was very gentle. The next will not be. I’ve got months before I get to that place. If you worry, you’re missing all the wonderful things that are happening, you know?

When I go into the sea, I can’t believe I’m swimming in such beautiful water. I always go to different beaches on Murter. I swim with little fish, and I look at them underwater; it’s like a miracle. I’d rather live for today because I have an amazing life here in Croatia. I feel fortunate.

I just had a former student stay at Lily’s Cozy Cove. She said, “I can’t believe where you’re living. I thought it was beautiful where we used to live. This is like a dream.” I feel that every day.

Yeah, it changes your thinking. Most things we get upset about aren’t worth it. If you ask old people close to death what they regret, they say working too much and getting upset over little things. I understand both. I’m not perfect at that, but I try.

I used to be an athlete. I did duathlons, triathlons, road running races, and hundred-kilometer bike races, and now I can only ride an e-bike. I’m incredibly grateful because I can still ride it 45 kilometers on a good day. I go to plaža (beach) Jadrija in Šibenik and ride home slowly.

I don’t swim more than 10 meters because my arms are not strong enough, but I can swim underwater more easily than on top. I can’t hike in the woods anymore, but I sit at the edge of Vransko jezero where there’s nobody else. I go out in nature to be alone with peace and the birds and the fish jumping.

Acceptance is the key to happiness, whether you’re sick or whatever your situation is. When you go to another country, accept their culture, way of life, food, everything, and you’ll be much happier.

man sailing
Joe sailing at the Adriatic sea

Marija: About happiness, what is your favorite meal to cook and eat?

Joe: My favorite meal to cook? That is so hard.

Marija: I know. That’s why I’m asking.

Joe: I love to cook Mexican food because of the flavors. I get ingredients from other parts of the world. My ex-wife grows cilantro and coriander because it’s tough to find it here.

One of our guests brought me certain chilies as a gift. He said, “I thought you were a cook. I brought you smoked and dried jalapenos and chipotle peppers.” I like to make tortillas from scratch. Everything I make, I make it here.

Another strong-flavored cuisine is Indian food. I make my own chapati or naan. I was in Vienna in May and brought back Indian spices in big kilo bags. I like to mess around with different cuisines from around the world.

Marija: Do you still eat hot spices?

Joe: I haven’t received chemo in a year and a half, so that’s cool. When I was in chemo, my diet was minimal. I would eat scrambled eggs with nothing else in it. Everything tasted horrible. Your taste buds are different.

Marija: My boyfriend grows some of the world’s hottest peppers, like Carolina Reaper. He comes up with his recipes and makes homemade hot sauces with pistachio, mango, sour cherries, exotic spices… Would you like to try some?

Joe: Oh, I would love to! I like the flavor of the mango or the sour cherries. Whatever you’re putting it on, whether it’s fish or pork, I still want to taste that flavor.

Marija: We put the one with sour cherries on a chocolate cake.

Joe: Oh, wow. How interesting is that?

Marija: I’ll just say – it’s crazy enough.

Joe: You can call that cake the punica (mother-in-law) cake. Instead of calling it devil’s sauce, as they do in Italy or Spain (Diablo). You can serve your mother-in-law and not tell her.

I’m just kidding. I have a nice mother-in-law, by the way.

Marija: Ha ha ha, this idea is fantastic. Do you have anything else to share with us?

Joe: Yeah. I have two amazing Croatian dogs. I speak to them in Croatian. People hear me talking, and I say, “They haven’t learned English yet.”

We brought two dogs with us, and they both passed away. We picked up a new one; somebody just dropped him off. The other one got attacked in the kennel, and they chewed her ear off.

One is a border collie, and the other is a 100% pure angel. We have a boy and a girl. Every night, one sleeps with one of us and one in the other house.

man and a dog
Joe and his dog

Marija: Unbelievable. I got a border collie/golden retriever baby 10 days ago. Any advice on how to manage their energy?

Joe: Oh my God! There are a lot of groups on Facebook. You must train them. Our dog was difficult. I thought my head was going to explode. My ex worked with him, and he is an absolute joy now.

Marija: I could talk with you for hours. We will soon have to go on that bike ride in Zagorje.

Joe: You, your boyfriend, and your dog should also come to Tisno. I’m going for a ride around the entire Murter island tomorrow morning, 30 kilometers, and almost no cars. The scenery is just amazing.

Marija: Challenge accepted! Joe, thank you for the opportunity to learn from you.

Joe: Thank you. I’m going to cook some fish now, oslić and grdobina with the blitva from the garden and krumpir (potato).

[Read: A guide to buying Adriatic fish at the market]

Marija: Yummy! Have a wonderful day.

Joe: You too. Ugodan dan.

Lilly’s Cozy Cove: Website | Facebook | Instagram

You can contact Joe on Facebook here, Instagram here, or email him.

If you would like to be featured in this series, please contact us here.

View our other Crushing-it-in-Croatia articles

Please note: Information provided by Expat in Croatia is only for the purposes of guidance. It does not constitute legal or financial advice in any form. Croatian laws and bureaucratic rules often change, and each personal case is individual, so different rules may apply. For legal advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian lawyer. For financial advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian tax advisor or accountant.

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