On December 3, 2021, I was interviewed by Paula Hađur, reporter for Večernji list. We discussed the downside to Croatia’s tourism, my challenges over the last 10 years, and how Croatia and its people helped me become the best version of myself.
You can read the original article in Croatian and see the video online here.
You may read the English translation of the article below.
American: Even after the divorce, I didn’t want to go back to the United States. Here they taught me generosity.
Split is exactly what it should be: it is not too big or too small, and she was most impressed by the hospitality and friendliness of Croats.
Just as some people know from an early age that they want to be firefighters and cops, Sara Dyson knew she wanted to be European. Along the way, she became a journalist, confectionery specialist, web developer and company owner, and decided to turn her life upside down when she moved to Croatia.
“Europe seemed like my home even before I came here. I still remember the moment I first landed at London Airport 18 years ago. I knew I was home,” a Texas-born American woman who moved to Split in May 2012 told us, and will soon be applying for citizenship. “I arrived in Croatia for the first time on vacation – and I liked it. At first I was supposed to visit Italy, but I stumbled upon a blog in which an American couple praised Croatia. I thought – what kind of country is this? I want to know more about her.”
“Thus, from the original plan to spend seven days in Italy and three days in Croatia, it came to the point that I would spend three days in Italy and seven days in Croatia and, in the end, that I would only go to Croatia on vacation,” the American tells us. It didn’t take long for Sara to realize that she didn’t really want to live anywhere else.
She has lived in New York and Amsterdam before, and tried her hand in Split in Croatia. Just the way it should be – “[Split] was perfect for me. It is not too big and it is not too small. Even when I’m running around town and trying to do all the chores, I know how to think about what it would be like to do the same thing in Texas and it’s just not comparable.”
“And every little thing is so much better here,” says Sara, to whom many foreigners ask why she decided to live in the suburbs, and not in the center. “When foreigners think of Croatia, they think mostly of the sea and the old parts of the city, but there is a completely different part that I simply adore. I like Saturday the most when I go to the market nearby, come to the cafe I normally go to and get coffee without having to order it at all.”
“The community here has completely embraced me, I think I have become the best ‘me’ just because I am here. They taught me generosity and authenticity, something I had never experienced before.” Apart from the Croats, she was also delighted by the Dalmatian pašticada, but not by the Croatian language. “It is very difficult for someone who is not from here, but the community helped me a lot in learning the language,” Sara told us in her mother tongue and emphasized in Croatian: “I am better and better every day!”
Although she arrived in Split with her husband, three years later she found herself in a very difficult situation – she went through a divorce, and the Croatian authorities did not know what to do with her. – The Ministry of the Interior told me that they had never been in such a situation before, “My ex-husband had an EU passport from Romania, and I did not have Croatian citizenship.”
“Given the circumstances, they decided to convene a separate committee that voted on whether I could stay,” Sara tells us, who was eventually allowed to stay. “After the divorce, I was left alone, but it was a good thing that I adored Croatia, and he didn’t, so I could ‘keep’ Croatia after the divorce. At no point did I think about going back to the US, that was not an option for me. It took me many years after the divorce to return to normal, but I succeeded because of my life in Croatia.”
“That energy helped me here, the support system from both locals and foreigners, the whole community embraced me and I am very grateful to them for that,” she said. In the last 10 years of her stay here, Sara told us that the Croats were extremely friendly and kind to her. Her real estate agent even went to the Ministry of the Interior with her on her own initiative so that she could get the documents. “Although I didn’t know each neighbor by name, I knew that everyone would help me if I just asked them.”
“It was like that from the very beginning. People thought I had ancestors from Croatia and that they would help me, but I came here without anyone I knew and no Croatian heritage. On one occasion I was walking down the coast and an unknown man had a basket full of home-grown tomatoes. Neither I knew him, nor he knew me, but he approached me anyway and asked me if I wanted tomatoes too. It’s still an incredible act of kindness to me today, if it had happened to me in Texas, I would probably have called the police.”
Her neighbor cut her olive tree.
However, she admitted to us that not everyone accepted her well. After buying an apartment on the ground floor of the building a few months ago, one of the neighbors decided to cut down an olive tree from her garden just because he found out that an American woman would move into that apartment.
“That really breaks my heart. I still don’t know why I bother him so much. I plan to bake him cookies and bring him a bottle of rakija because I want him to know I’m not one of ‘those Americans’. He doesn’t know that I have lived here for nine years and he doesn’t know how much I love Croatia. I hope that they will see what I am like and that I do not identify with the American mentality, and if they do not, I will plant a new olive tree.”
And what ‘those Americans’ are like, Sara tried to bring us closer from her perspective. “It is very difficult to see the flaws of the American way of life when you are within that system, but when you distance yourself, you really start to understand everything that is not good there. I don’t feel safe there.”
“From the moment we are born, everyone tells us that the United States is the best country [in the world] and you create the impression that everyone else is of lower status than you and that you have the right to do what you want because everyone owes you something. I have to explain to many Americans who come to live here that this is not the case,” says Sara, who decided to create a blog to help foreigners get along here.
After five years, this blog has turned into the Expat in Croatia website, which has three other employees, and is currently looking for a fifth. In addition to helping foreigners deal with the Croatian bureaucracy, Sara also devised a way to help Croatia. “With a lot of effort and help, I created a system of a dozen Croatian lawyers, real estate agents and notaries who help foreigners, but also Croats who decide to live here and need someone they trust.”
“With this service, I can help everyone who is not familiar with the system, and at the same time we help get money from abroad into the hands of Croatian entrepreneurs and businessmen. Everything we do at Expat in Croatia is to be able to ultimately help Croatia,” she said. Before founding her own company, Sara was a foreigner, so it was impossible to find a job here.
“Not only because there are a limited number of jobs here, but also because [I didn’t] have the right to work. For a while I worked as a freelancer in developing websites for foreign companies. There are a lot of foreigners here who are not allowed to work and because of that they have to create their own way just like me,” she said.
‘Croatia is more than tourism’
Although she is considered a fan of Croatia, she is bothered by the fact that there is too much focus on tourism. “I think that tourism is very important here, but I get the impression that it is trying to get as much money from foreigners, no matter how much it harms Croatia. For example, I can say first hand that we really don’t need cruise ships here. They pollute the sea, and most tourists do not even know where they are, do not buy souvenirs and barely eat in restaurants.”
“Some neighborhoods in Split are no longer neighborhoods, they are Airbnb complexes where no one lives anymore. In addition, tourism is very fragile. We deserve to have something other than that, most citizens here live well for those three to four months over the summer, and the rest of the year they have nothing,” says Sara anxiously.
“A friend told me that her children were taught not to get anything for Christmas because at that time they did not have enough money to buy them presents. That is really tragic,” she thinks. She would like to see changes with the arrival of new authorities in cities across Croatia, primarily because she wants to stay in Croatia for the rest of her life.
Because of her, Sara’s father is even considering moving here after retiring to the United States. “Everyone who came to visit me here likes Croatia. Most Americans think that because of the Homeland War, most of Croatia will be in ruins, and then they are surprised to see that this is not the case at all,” she says.
“I cannot thank the people in Croatia enough for giving me this experience. I would best describe it with the adage ‘ko to more platit’,” Sara concluded and told foreigners that as long as they respect and appreciate this country, their life will be, just like hers, a Croatian dream.
Please note: All information provided by Expat in Croatia is only for the purposes of guidance. It does not constitute legal or financial advice in any form. For legal advice, you must consult with a licensed Croatian lawyer. For financial advice, you must consult with a licensed Croatian tax advisor or accountant. We can recommend one if you contact us.