Welcome to “Crushing it in Croatia”, a new series where we feature expats who have moved to Croatia.
In this series, we take a deeper dive into the realities of moving to Croatia, including how long it takes, what drew people here and the things they hoped to leave behind, experiences of dealing with the infamous Croatian police, shocks and challenges, how Expat in Croatia’s resources made the transition easier, advice for the next wave and whether or not it was all worth it in the end.
For our inaugural post, we spoke to Kathy Steward, a Brit living in Dubrovnik. She shares her first trip to Croatia as a child, the value of safety, what British vets could learn from Croatian vets, her struggles with “bura”, and the complexities of buying flour.
Take it away, Kathy!
Hey Kathy! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Kathy. I’m a Brit who was born in the north of England (Wilmslow). My family moved south, to Salisbury, when I was 4 years old, which is where I grew up. When I was 20 I moved to the east of England, to Chelmsford. As a result, I don’t have a place in England that I call ‘home’, I just have places where I have lived.
I moved here in September 2017 with my dog, Chester, who was 12 at the time. I have 2 apartments, one that I live in and one that I rent to tourists. I rent the apartment all year round so I used to be very busy with that. I have a Facebook page and Instagram account for the apartment (Apartment Leona Dubrovnik) so I would regularly post photos, details of events going on, news of what’s happening in Dubrovnik etc.
Obviously, COVID has had a devastating effect on tourism, especially here in Dubrovnik where so many of us rely on tourism, so I had to find another way to earn money. I was very fortunate that some friends here put me in touch with another friend of theirs who teaches English in kindergartens. As a result, I now teach English in 3 of the kindergartens here, where I have 8 lessons a week. I also do proofreading work from time to time, which is something that I’d like to do more of.
Where do you live in Croatia?
I live in a suburb of Dubrovnik called Babin Kuk.
What drew you to Croatia?
My first visit to Croatia was in 1980, when I was 14. I was on an educational Mediterranean cruise with schools from the south of England. Dubrovnik was one of the places we visited. My mum had stayed in Cavtat (just south of Dubrovnik) for a work conference in the 70s.
We both wanted to come back to visit Dubrovnik, so in July 2013 we came for a weeks’ holiday, along with my sister and my niece. Within a very short time (a matter of hours!) I felt at home here. I was relaxed and I could walk around on my own and feel safe, even in the evening. Something I couldn’t do in England.
My marriage ended a few months after our holiday. I came back to Dubrovnik several times during the next 2 years, once with my son, but the rest of the time I was on my own. Each time I came back I felt more and more at home. That’s when I started thinking about moving here.
Was there anything about life in the UK that you were hoping to leave behind? If so, do you feel like you were successfully able to?
In the UK it was difficult to go anywhere as a single woman without men thinking you wanted to be picked up! I love listening to live music and Dubrovnik has a very good live music scene. Before COVID, there were several caffe bars and restaurants in my neighbourhood who regularly had local bands and musicians playing.
Once I realised I could go along on my own and enjoy the music without being harassed, I starting returning to some of the venues, and, as a result I got to know the people working there, and met and chatted with people who were also there for the music. I have a Facebook page and Instagram account (Ageing Rock Chick in Dubrovnik) where I would post videos of the live music.
When you decided to move to Croatia, how did you prepare? What did you do first when planning your move?
I’m usually a very organised person who doesn’t do anything spontaneously, so first of all I looked into whether or not it was possible for me to move here. Could I buy property? Could I get a job here? If so, what type of job could I do (I’ve only ever worked in offices doing admin work. I don’t have a professional qualification in anything.)? Would I need a work visa? I realised the best thing would be to buy an apartment to rent to tourists, and maybe also to teach English, so I enrolled in a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course.
I also had some Croatian lessons on Skype with Linda from the Croatian Language School.
How did you find Expat in Croatia?
I’ll be totally honest, I’m not quite sure! I must have Googled something about wanting to move to Croatia and do I need to open a company to achieve my aims. But what I DO know is that, having read one of your articles, in January 2017 I asked for your advice about d.o.o and j.d.o.o. and you gave me a very helpful reply.
How did Expat in Croatia help with your transition to Croatia? Which resources did you use?
Apart from the very helpful advice mentioned above, I also took note of what you said about health insurance. Coming from a country which has free healthcare I’d never had to worry about getting any kind of health insurance cover. I’m fairly healthy, so once I moved here I only paid for the basic health cover. However, having read your article I realised how it made so much sense to pay for ‘dopunsko’, so now I have that extra cover.
I have also found the information on general day-to-day stuff very helpful, such as the different types of flour you can buy here and which one I need for baking cakes. These are important things to know! Shortly after moving here, like you, I also bought the wrong flour. After that I printed off your article about flour and now the details are permanently on my fridge door so I don’t make the same mistake again!
Expat in Croatia was a very useful site when I was preparing to move here, and it continues to be a great help now that I’m here, especially because the rules and regulations often change, and sometimes it’s difficult to keep up with these changes.
On what basis did you apply for residence?
When I moved here in September 2017 the UK was part of the EU, which made it easy for me to buy property here, so my residency was based on ownership of property.
How were you treated by the police when you applied?
When I went to the local MUP to apply for temporary residency the lady was fairly indifferent. She didn’t speak much English to me, but wrote down, in Croatian, what information was needed. Luckily I had a friend here who helped me decipher her handwriting!
Some months later two policemen came to my apartment. They didn’t speak any English, but showed me a document with my name on it. They didn’t say why they had come, and because I couldn’t read the document, I had no idea what they wanted! Fortunately, my neighbour helped me.
They asked me many questions (all in Croatian, with my neighbour translating) including who lived in the apartment (only me and my dog), did I have any children (yes, but he was living in the UK at uni/with his dad) etc. My dog always thought that anyone who came to visit us in the apartment was there to see him, so he was super excited!
However, at one point, one of the officers told me to shut my dog in another room! Once the police officers had left, my neighbour told me that one of the officers wanted to ask a lot more questions, but the other one was more relaxed and said don’t worry.
Sometime later I remembered that another Brit who also lived here at the time had told me that the police will turn up unannounced to make sure that I do really live here. So, something for everyone to remember!
Did you move directly from the UK to Croatia? Have you ever lived abroad before besides Croatia?
Yes, I moved from England to Croatia. I have never lived in another country.
How much time passed from the time you decided to move to Croatia, to the time you arrive here?
I first thought about moving to Dubrovnik in late 2015. Initially I only talked to two people about it, to see what they thought. If they had said it was a stupid idea I would have dismissed it. The only person I knew here (we had met on my first visit here) was incredibly helpful, and made me realise that is was possible.
It was about 2 years between first thinking about it and actually moving here. Most of this was because I was waiting for my divorce to be finalised, then we had to sell the house, and also I needed to find suitable property here. It was perfect timing really. From the very beginning I was hoping to move here in the autumn or winter because the difference in temperature in the summer between England and Dubrovnik would have been very difficult for my dog to adjust to, so moving here in the middle of September was good.
Also, the day before I moved here my son went off to university for the first time, so we both started a new chapter in our lives at the same time.
Once you settled in Croatia, what were the biggest shocks or challenges you experienced? How did you overcome them?
The weather. More specifically the rain and the wind!
They say that England has a lot of rain. But Dubrovnik!! According to statistics, Dubrovnik has more rain annually than London. I can believe that! When it rains in England it is often just drizzle. But when it rains here, it really rains! It’s as if someone has turned a tap on! A couple of times Chester and I were caught out in the rain. In less than a minute we were completely soaked.
And as for the wind – bura and jugo. I have a large, and very heavy, plastic table on my balcony. When bura is blowing I have to turn it upside down and put the metal chairs on top to stop it blowing away. One time I didn’t do it in time, and I saw the table lift up and almost go over the side of my balcony onto my neighbours’ driveway! Since then I turn it upside down at the slightest hint of wind.
I’d been here a few months and was walking up the hill from the supermarket to get home. I was so out of breath after just a short way, and I thought my heart was going to explode! In the past I used to go to various aerobic classes at a gym, but I had NEVER felt like this before. I thought I was developing a serious health issue. I spoke to a friend about it who just said, in a totally matter-of-fact way ‘That’ll be when jugo was blowing.’. That’s when I found out that jugo can have a detrimental effect on your physical and mental health.
So, if you’re thinking of coming to the Croatian coast, read up about the different winds, and hopefully you won’t get the kind of surprises that I did.
Going to the vets with my dog was a new experience. In the UK if the vet wanted to take a blood sample, or do some tests, I would leave my dog there, pick him up some time later, and wait several days for the results to come back. Several years ago, while in England, Chester needed an operation. He stayed at the vets for 3 days, without me seeing him at all. Here, I was always with him.
When they wanted to do a blood test I would hold him while they drew the blood, and they tested it there and then. He became ill last summer and needed several infusions over the course of a few weeks to keep him hydrated. Each time, I was with him for the 1-2 hours it would take for each infusion. I was also with him when they did an ultrasound to check his kidneys.
Chester and I had been together for nearly 15 years so it was really nice to be included in his treatment, and try to make him feel less stressed by being there with him. (Perhaps British vets could learn something here and let owners be more involved in the medical treatment of their animals.)
Unfortunately, he continued going downhill and in July he had his last visit to the vet.
Where are you now with your life in Croatia? Are you happy here? How long do you plan to stay?
For me, in general, life here is good. Of course I miss my son, as well as other family members and friends from the UK, but with things like Facetime, video calling, WhatsApp, Viber, emails etc it’s very easy to stay in touch, and flights between the UK and Dubrovnik take less than 3 hours – when planes are flying! COVID brought big problems because my only form of income was based on tourists staying in my rental apartment, and, obviously, that all went out the window.
But, as with so many other people here in Dubrovnik, I’ve had to adapt. I was very fortunate to find work teaching English. (I’m incredibly grateful to the friends who helped me achieve this.) I enjoy teaching (most of the time!) and I have several other ideas of what I can do that don’t rely on tourism. So, yes, I’m very happy here, and I don’t plan on leaving. I can’t see myself living anywhere else.
What advice do you have for anyone wanting to move to Croatia in the future?
Do your research! Lots of it!
You might have come here for a week or so on holiday, and think that the weather is beautiful, life is good, and everything is wonderful. Take off those rose-tinted glasses because it isn’t always like that!
Economically, things here aren’t always very good. If your income is going to be from a business in Croatia, don’t expect to earn the same as you would in other EU or ‘Western’ countries (for example, when I lived in England I worked an 18 hour week and earned the same amount as a friend in Dubrovnik who worked a 40 hour week!).
Don’t think that because Croatia is part of the EU, everything will be the same as in other EU countries! It won’t! Often bureaucracy here can be very frustrating, sometimes taking several weeks, months, or even longer for a simple result.
If a tradesman says he’ll be with you at 8am, don’t be surprised if he doesn’t turn up until 9, or even 10!
As a foreigner, there is no point complaining. If you want to live here, accept how things are done here. You have to take the rough with the smooth.
Try to learn the language. It will help you to integrate more, and Croatians will appreciate that you’re making an effort. Teaching English to kindergarten children is good for me because I’m learning more Croatian at the same time. I write the Croatian on the lesson plans but don’t always know how to pronounce the words, so I often say to the children ‘Kako se kaže ….?’ (How do you say ….?).
As I mentioned previously, I took some lessons with the Croatian Language School before I came here, and I’m currently taking classes at a local school, along with 5 other people, which is great because we can complain to each other about how difficult a language it is to learn! I had a great plan of speaking Croatian with my friends here to help me improve, and I would help them with their English, but that just didn’t happen! It was much easier to just speak English all the time.
On the plus side, life is much more relaxed here, and it is definitely a much safer place to live than many other countries, especially as a woman on her own. I used to walk Chester 3 times and day, so I met a lot of people who live locally, as well as other dog owners. I don’t know all of them by name, but they would all say ‘hi’ and many would have a little chat (depending on their level of English).
Everyone has been very friendly, helpful and kind, especially once they realised that I was here all year round. Most of the time when I’m out, even if it’s just going to the supermarket, I will see someone I know and have a quick chat. It’s a lovely feeling and makes me feel like I’ve been accepted here despite being a foreigner who still speaks very little Croatian.
Join various expat groups, especially for the area that you’re thinking of moving to (personally, I’m in a number of groups for foreigners living in Dubrovnik, in Croatia, in the EU, and internationally). Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask what the down sides might be. After all, nowhere is the perfect place to live.
Thank you Kathy!
Here are the resources Kathy mentioned in her interview:
- Kathy on Instagram
- Croatian Language School
- Dopunsko health insurance supplement
- How to buy flour in Croatia
If you would like to be featured in this series, please contact Sara here.