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I understand


We will make you wanna explore Croatia

From September 2017 onwards, I stayed one year for an exchange at a  partner school in the city of Pula. All my life I had lived in the Rhine-Ruhr area in the west of Germany. It was my second time in Croatia, as a 13-year old I’ve been on a family vacation on a campsite in the vicinity of Rovinj.

The main photo by Zoran Burazerović‎


I have blurry memories of looking at the cityscape of Rovinj from a boat tour, visiting the Pula’s Arena, swimming in the pool and having fun at the campsite. I even remember that the German newspaper „Bild“ was sold at the campsite, which surprised me at the time. Though I went to the beach and visited some touristic places this year as well, living here was a totally different experience. A phenomenal view on the sea, the huge Amphitheatre, sunsets by the sea which are „lifetime inspiring“ and much more. I got to the moment when all those things didn’t make an impression on me anymore, I would just pass by the Arena as if it wasn’t there.

Photo by Ewan Poppy

Through this time, I’ve realized a few things that one cannot really learn only from holidays in Croatia, or read in a travel guide. Now, I just want to make it clear that this describes the subjective experience I had through a certain period at a unique place. This is not the objective truth about Croatia as it is a very huge and diverse country, with people having different experiences. These are four tips based on my experience that I’d like to give to someone living in Croatia beyond a vacation.

Try to learn to understand and speak Croatian, but don’t be too hard on yourself! During my year in Pula, a city with strong tourism, I met both: people who speak only their native language - Croatian, and those who speak multiple foreign languages fluently. I have to say that the first group was in a minority. Before arriving, I heard that I wouldn’t need to worry too much about learning Croatian, as I’ll make it just fine with English or even German. That is certainly true for the majority of cases. For day-to-day activities, you’ll be ok just speaking English. In those rare cases of meeting Croatian-only speakers, you’ll somehow manage to communicate with a mix of broken English and/or using body language to understand each other. From my experience, there’s a catch: speaking English in Croatia very often means that you’re limited to very basic and superficial contact with the locals. When you go on a vacation to Croatia for a few days or even a few weeks, that’s enough for you, you don’t really need to make meaningful relationships with locals - you came to relax and have fun. The approach changes when you come to Croatia to stay for a whole year. Of course, it depends on the person, in my case I wanted to become a part of the community, participate in sports and activities with locals. Whenever I saw an advert of an interesting course, I would contact the organisers. Every time they would welcome me to join.

In most of the cases, after joining a new group of locals, I often had that feeling of being physically there, but not really living the experience, as I couldn't understand anything that was spoken. I know that locals didn’t mean to make me feel isolated. If they meant to exclude me, I wouldn’t be invited in the first place. In such moments I missed not speaking Croatian the most. This is when I felt that huge gap between what I knew and what I needed. You’ll survive very well speaking only English or German here, but you need to realise that the action is in Croatian. Call me naive if you want, but somehow this had not been clear to me before. Living somewhere is totally different than being on holidays in the same place. Even in very touristic places. Unfortunately, Croatian is a tough language. Every Croatian says so, and I’ve also discovered it myself. Croatian is the first Slavic language I’ve tried to learn, so most of the words I haven’t even heard before. My only option is to learn the vocabulary by heart, putting a lot of effort into it. Furthermore, the Croatian language has a lot of rules to remember, as well as (at least as I see it), just as many exceptions to those rules. For example, I’ve learnt that nouns ending on a consonant are masculine, but, vecer, as in dobra vecer, is an exception and feminine. Later it turned out that there are plenty of words ending on a consonant which are feminine: ljubav, buducnost, umjetnost, stvar, … How do you know then which one is it? You just know.

I learnt adjectives for neuter end with an -o. One day I stumbled on a sign reading „Svjeze domace mlijeko“. I was wondering, isn’t that a mistake? As it turned out, no. That’s another exception where in some cases the adjective ends on -e when there are certain letters before. For sure there are plenty of examples like this one. For some time, I felt bad for not speaking the language, for not understanding things. Now, as I understand more and more with time, and I’m able to understand some parts of Croatian conversation, I’m happy for every word which I hear and I’m familiar with. I try to communicate in Croatian as well as I can and don’t bother when I need to mix in English to bridge my gap. It’s tough but at the same time possible to learn the language. So be easy on yourself. Tourism is big in some places, but it’s not everything (even in popular touristic spots). When I told my family and friends that I’ll go to Croatia for exchange, their reaction was very enthusiastic like: “I love it! Great vacation spot!“ or „So you go to the beach every day?“. Those reactions are not really a surprise for me, as large numbers of German tourists visit Croatia and appreciate its beauty. Having lived in Pula for the whole year, I’ve experienced myself what role tourism plays in certain parts of the country. I arrived in the middle of September, when the season was still ongoing, but slowly and steadily closing. I experienced that state where the city goes into a sort of winter sleep, with many of its formerly open shops now closed, and pretty much no visitors coming anymore. I kind of got used to the city and began to appreciate it in this calm state. Around Easter Holidays formerly closed stores opened up again, visitors came and its number constantly grew. It was a shock at first. People are invading the city whose calmness and serenity I had started to enjoy?!? It took me some time to open up to these changes, to be open to so many people coming and sharing the same living space with me. This really requires some effort, and I kind of admire how people here are handling this influx of people. Over some time I’ve realised that locals and tourists don’t really share exactly the same spots. At least in Pula, visitors mostly stay within certain boundaries of the city. Walking on a hill or forests nearby, I’d have the same calmness in the high summer season as during winter. The situation was similar in the suburban neighbourhood I was living in, where the rise of tourists was not noticeable.

Photo by Ki Ka

And then, you’ll find plenty of other things in those touristic places: Pula has a cultural scene, a huge shipyard, and rich history in boxing, Rovinj was and still is a fishing village. There’s probably a lot of stuff I haven’t even discovered during my stay. Here I’ve learnt to be more relaxed and take life less seriously, but to be honest I’m not sure if Croatians feel the same way in their hometown. Let’s face it, life has its challenges, both in Germany and in Croatia. And yet I’ve felt that things here are taken less dramatically. How did I come to such a conclusion? Most of all I noticed this in myself. In retrospection, I’d say in Germany I was stressed for most of my life. After living in Pula for some time, I became more relaxed. It doesn’t mean that there are no challenges for me here — I’d even say living as a foreigner with little language skills in Croatia is tougher than being a German grown up living in Germany. Yet, what would make me immediately freak out in Germany, here is just a part of life.

Photo by Lea Finderle

Observing how others, newcomers go through various experiences of discovering this place, getting used to a new reality, and how they experience it can be very revealing. I’d notice them getting inspired by what also used to inspire me. They would complain about incorrect translations into German or about the differences in lifestyle comparing to the one in their hometowns. I’ve realized that I was the same at the beginning, but after a while living here, now I see things differently. I got used to the sea landscape, if it comes to language I’d still notice the mistakes, but be glad that someone tried to translate into German so I can easily understand it. All those experiences gave me a new, fresh perspective and attitude.

 Photo by Momcilo Nikolic

There’s a thing that’s tougher to scientifically pinpoint, which is the movement of people and their way of putting an impact on the environment. I find it always remarkable how people with experience in tourism, e.g. waiters or doormen, can quite reliably spot where people come from and which language they speak. I’ve experienced it myself while showing the city to visitors and first-timers. They would be invited for an ice-cream or to a restaurant — in German, of course! Throughout my time, people spoke mostly in English to me. After some time here and a few Croatian language lessons, I’d occasionally have someone talk to me or approach me in Croatian. Looking back, the chances of this happening were higher when I felt at ease when I smoothly went along with my life. When I felt grumpy or slouchy, and it was written on my face and through my body movement, no one would try to speak to me in Croatian. At the beginning of my stay here, I decided to join a night run through Pula finishing in the Arena. As runners got to the finish, dozens of stacked up delivery pizza cartons greeted all successful finishers with a delicious and highly needed snack. I loved it, and it was just a perfect reward after the race. At the same time, I realised that this would never have happened in Germany. Not that it would be impossible from the organisational site, there are pizza deliveries there as well, and not that Germans wouldn’t like pizza, even after the race. The problem lies in a different mentality. In Germany, you wouldn’t combine an „unhealthy pizza from a cheap delivery place“ with a semi-professional run. It’s way too serious, and it really wouldn’t fit there. It’s similar to why German bakeries don’t sell pizzas, unlike Croatian ones.

Photo by Zoran Burazerovic

Then again, every day I’ve seen people leaving the money for a coffee they drank right there on the table where I and everyone else could just steal it. Never in Germany did I see this happen, and I can’t quite imagine it. That sort of trust just doesn’t exist. Not only me as the customer would worry that the money may be stolen, but moreover that I may mistakenly underpay. I believe the waitress wouldn’t risk just picking up money from the table for the exact same reasons. People in Germany might even see it as an opportunity to pay less than they actually owe for service. Waiters in cafés would wear a day-to-day outfit, sometimes with their t-shirts containing quotes or funny slogans like „How about no?“. I appreciate this authenticity and how many Croatians wear casual style clothing. where everything is allowed, from being very fashion-conscious to not giving a damn about fashion. I felt that I don’t need to worry about what I’m wearing. I have felt that business transactions also happen more dynamically. To present an example, when Croatia reached the final of the World Cup, a public transmission event was spontaneously arranged in the Pula Arena. Or how stores in Croatia would close just in time for the game so that everyone can enjoy it. In general, I believe all local businesses are more flexible, adapting to the moment. In Germany, everything is more strict and regulated by law. Maybe unnecessarily.


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