2020 has been a flaming bag of poo. 2019 put a paper bag filled with dog excrement on our porch, then lit it on fire, rang our doorbell and ran for the hills. Our instincts told us to stomp out the flames, and so we did.
To me, this is an appropriate metaphor for 2020. This year started off innocent and optimistic as most new years do, then it all went up in flames and we got buried in crap trying to put out the fire.
I definitely had a lot of very bad days this year, but I also had a lot of hella awesome super fantastic days for which I hold Croatia personally responsible.
I’ve always been a silver linings kind of girl, and my life was filled with them this year amidst the tsunami of garbage that continues to pound us into submission.
There is some quote that floats around the internet that says “You can’t appreciate the good days without the bad ones”. It is my belief that all the badness of 2020 enhanced all of the goodness. It made it more intense, memorable, and special.
While I spent less time with my friends and family this year, every moment I did see them was cherished and is forever cemented into my brain. When I could see friends, we made sure that we did something new and different.
Because we were a little boxed in due to pandemic restrictions, it forced us to step outside of our comfort zones. Instead of going left like usual, we went right and discovered new paths forward.
Given that traveling outside of Croatia has been restricted and complicated, I jumped at each opportunity to explore new places within this country that I adore. I saw and did more in Croatia this year than any other year. I had experiences that never would have been possible without the pandemic.
2020 is a year I won’t ever forget, and frankly I don’t want to. Instead of going on about how much I wish this year would end, I’d like to share some of the good, weird and magnificent parts of my year riding out the pandemic in Croatia and how it changed my life for the better.
I think we’ve talked about the bad parts quite enough.
First Skype call during quarantine
On March 25, I had my first video chat with two of my closest friends in Croatia. One lives on island Brač, and the other just 2 buildings away from me in Split. Croatia had only been in lock down for a week, maybe 10 days at most. This whole mess was still brand new.
We didn’t quite understand what was going on yet or what was yet to happen. Life had come to a screeching halt. There was not a single thing we could think to talk about except for this, just like everybody else.
To best explain, I will use a dated pop culture reference. In 2000, Jennifer Lopez wore a show stopping dress to the Grammy Awards that has since become iconic. While presenting the first award of the night, her co-presenter David Duchovny said: “This is the first time in 5 or 6 years that I am SURE that nobody is looking at me”.
At that point, there was absolutely nothing to talk about except for the pandemic. COVID was Jennifer Lopez in that Gucci dress, and we couldn’t stop looking at it. Everything else was irrelevant.
I will always remember sitting in my lođa, drinking wine, and working through the collective shock and awe with two of my closest friends over a pixelated Skype chat. Together, we came to terms with the fact that we were living through a substantial moment in history and that life was going to be very different for a while.
Birthday picnic at Sustipan
I love birthdays. They give me a chance to see all my friends in one place at the same time. For the last 5 years, I’ve picked a bar and told everyone and their mother to meet me there for an all-night bash. This year was different.
Croatia started letting us out of our homes the first week of May. By the second week, parks had reopened and we were allowed to have gatherings of 10. I called my closest friends and posed the idea of an outdoor picnic. After discussing risks and logistics ad nauseam, we decided to give it a go.
We held it at Sustipan, a beautiful park that overlooks the Adriatic. For most of us, it was the first time we’d seen anyone in person in 2 months. We all sat on our own blankets, brought our own food, drinks and hand sanitizer then chatted the afternoon away. It was weird but also wonderful.
Having Plitvice National Park all to ourselves
In the middle of May, the national parks reopened. Croatia’s borders were still closed to tourists. To incentivize Croatians to visit, they offered big discounts on admission. Tickets for Plitvice were just 50 kuna. That is quite a drop from the 220 kuna of 2019.
I had only visited Plitvice once back in 2012 during my first year in Croatia and avoided it ever since due to its high prices and constant flood of tourists. This was an opportunity to see it affordably with fewer people. When would this chance ever come again?
I grabbed 3 of my best girlfriends and we road tripped it out to Plitvice. It was magnificent. There was barely anyone there. After trailing around the park for 3 hours, we made our way to Veliki Slap, the biggest waterfall in the park that is a fixture in any Plitvice postcard.
In any other reality, we would have to battle hoards of tour groups and selfie-sticks to take our own photos. Not on this day. On this day, we were the only people there. Nobody was in front of us, nobody was waiting for us to finish. We had it all to ourselves and could enjoy the waterfall in complete peace. It was glorious.
Interview on Dobro Jutro Hrvatska
In June, I received a call asking if I was interested in being interviewed on the morning show Dobro Jutro Hrvatska (Good morning Croatia). To which I responded, HELL YEAH I DO.
I just couldn’t believe it. Little ‘ol Sara Dawn Dyson from Irving, Texas was going to be on a morning show in Croatia. How did I get here?
And then the panic attacks set in… I don’t like attention on myself, I don’t like having my photo taken, I don’t like being recorded. Talking on live television was absolutely out of the question. Dozens of times I thought to myself “I can’t do this. Absolutely not. No freakin’ way.”
Despite all of my fears, I knew I could not let my social anxiety prevent me from jumping on an opportunity of this magnitude and thankfully, I had tons of friends and family and readers cheering me on. So I did it anyway. And I’m so glad that I did because that was the moment that changed everything for me and my little-engine-that-could Expat in Croatia.
For several years, I wrote Expat in Croatia anonymously. I liked hiding in the shadows, because as we’ve established, I don’t like attention on myself because of the crippling anxiety that comes with it. Although, I will admit, watching people in the Split expat groups try to figure out who was the wizard behind the curtain served as an enjoyable bonus.
When I got really serious about building Expat in Croatia into a business so that I could help more people and also do what I love all day, I asked a number of friends for their feedback. I wanted to know what I could do better. They all had one consistent suggestion – “We need to see you, Sara”. It was a hard pill to swallow, but I listened.
Dobro Jutro was the turning point I needed. It forced the spotlight on me in a way that made me extremely uncomfortable. In the months following, I’ve become more comfortable with being “public”, expressing my true feelings, having my photo taken, making videos, speaking in public and being the face of my passion project. You have responded with even more enthusiasm, so I suppose my friends were right. They usually are.
My anxieties are still here, but they have lessened considerably. Expat in Croatia has grown substantially since Dobro Jutro, and I’ve also evolved as a moderately-adjusted adult human. Win win.
Meeting readers and fans
Writing a blog can feel very one-sided. Yes, I communicate personally with you through emails, comments and direct messages. I hear your stories and struggles. I pick up on personalities and character traits, but it’s still not the same as being face-to-face with someone.
This year (of all years), I finally came face to face with many of you and it was AWESOME.
On my recent road trip up the coast, I wandered Zadar with a Cro-US couple who I’ve been chatting with for more than a year. Three Texans hosted me for a dinner of pulled pork sandwiches in Kostrena. I sunbathed with a reader in Trinajstići. A couple hosted me for tacos and a tea ceremony in Motovun. I had a socially-distanced chat in the park with a couple down from Zagreb, while peacocks wandered around in the background.
At the one Split expat event I attended this year, I met two more readers. The moment I was introduced as “Sara”, two women popped up and said “of Expat in Croatia?!” Then I discovered this lovely second hand shop on Instagram and this sweater. When I went to pick it up, I was greeted by the fabulous and lovely owners, also readers of the blog.
On top of all of those magnificent rendezvous, I spoke with 21 people just in the last 4 months over video chat and in-person. I consulted on their situations to help them save time and make their transition to Croatia easier.
During all of these meet ups, one common thread stood out. Every single reader that I met shared with me how Expat in Croatia had positively impacted their life. Listening to them describe their journeys and how my little blog played a substantial role was overwhelming.
This isn’t an easy job. The Croatian bureaucracy is a pain in the ass and sometimes I want to flip over tables and set things on fire. Knowing that all the hard work is actually making the lives of people easier and better makes it all worth it.
Thank you thank you thank you for the privilege. I hope to meet more of you in 2021!
Dining at Stari podrum
My recent road trip up the coast took me through Zadar, Rijeka, and Risnjak, but my final destination was Istria – my favorite place in Croatia. This county is home to my favorite restaurant of all, which is always a one-of-a-kind dining event. Every time I visit Istria, the same trail is followed. I eat here, I go there, I see this. Each stop slowly escalates to the eventual crescendo that is Stari podrum.
Stari podrum is always saved for my last night in Istria. It is the pinnacle. It is the showstopper. The place that showcases everything I love about Croatia.
This restaurant is family-owned, like most in Croatia. It was at this restaurant 8 years ago that I met Marinka, a member of the family. Over the years, my visits have become more than just an exceptional meal. Marinka sits down with me and my friends, we chat, we drink rakija, she introduces her friends and then somehow, it is 4 o’clock in the morning. Every. Single. Time.
Because I am a lucky lucky girl, two of my best girlfriends drove up from Split for just one night to share this meal with me. I got to introduce my Split family to my Istrian family. Every other time, I’ve brought visitors from outside Croatia. This was the first time my Croatia people tagged along. I loved every minute of it.
I loved watching my friends’ eyeballs pop out of their heads with every dish that was placed on the table. I loved watching their eyes close in utter calm during their first bites. I loved watching them drift off into blissful, happy drunkenness. I loved hearing my California friend rattle off Croatian to Marinka.
So, what about 2021?
Lots of us are eager for 2021, myself included. But, that doesn’t mean I ever want to purge 2020 from memory. Too much awesome shit happened that I want to remember for the rest of my life.
I’d also like to carry over some lessons learned into the new year.
I want to make sure that every moment I spend with a loved one is exceptional. I want to make sure I explore as much of Croatia as I can. It may be a small country, but there is a never-ending supply of experiences to be had. I want to take more chances and conquer more fears. I want to evolve. I want to continue to step outside of my comfort zone. I want to be prepared for whatever comes next.
What were your favorite moments of 2020? What will you remember? Share your experiences with me in the comments.