By Frances Vidakovic
When I was in my early twenties I lived in Croatia for two and a half years and during that time I discovered just how different the lifestyle and culture was from back in Australia. Though I learnt many valuable things along the way here are the Top 10 lessons that still resonate with me today.
1. There’s always room for more food
As a kid growing up in Australia I thought my mother was more than slightly obsessed with food. Every ten minutes she would ask me if I was hungry. Then I got to Croatia and finally understood she was no different from all the other food-obsessed mothers living over there.
Honestly – never once did I enter another person’s home in Croatia without being either offered a plate of pršut and cheese or an impressive display of kolača. It would be placed right under my nose within five minutes of arrival and wouldn’t be removed until – well, never.
To not offer food to a guest appeared to be a crime in Croatia – a crime of rudeness and blatant lack of manners – and as a guest, we were obliged to accept this offer otherwise we too would be charged with the same misconduct. Back in Australia, I would only eat when I was hungry. In Croatia I ate whenever food was offered to me and surprise, surprise: there was always room for more food.
2. The truth sometimes hurts but it’s better than hearing a lie
One of the things I quickly discovered in Croatia is that many people had no filter when it came to sharing their feelings. I received my first dose of this cold hard truth within minutes of greeting my relatives when my sister was told: what did you do to your hair? It looks ugly like that; you should have kept it long. Um…the simple answer was she had a haircut.
In Australia, we have a tendency to tell little white lies because we think we are protecting the other person’s feelings. People ask us all the time how we are and we say fine, even when we are feeling crap. We tell people that their bottoms don’t look big in a pair of tight jeans and that we really love their gift of a fluffy 80’s inspired jumper even when it’s two sizes too big.
To the contrary in Croatia people seemed to have no issue with being honest and as the saying goes: the truth sometimes hurts. Even though it took time to learn to appreciate this quality, I grew to respect hearing people tell me their honest-to-goodness feelings on various matters rather than some carefully-constructed lie. Indeed, if I wanted to hear the truth, it would be crazy to expect anything else.
3. The term “dysfunctional” is a relative term
As a youngster , I always knew my Croatian family was nothing at all like The Brady Bunch” (and therefore by default different from every other Anglo family). Unlike Carol and Mike Brady, my parents never encouraged me to stretch my boundaries – they instead liked me to stay well within the confines of their rules.
If I misbehaved I didn’t get to have a heart to heart with them like Marcia and Jan did. Instead, I was asked to go outside and pick out a šibice. For the most part children were expected to be seen yet not heard and my parent’s life did not revolve around making sure their kids were always happy.
It wasn’t until I lived in a small Croatian village and heard the familiar sounds of parents yelling at their kids to come home right now lest they cop a belting that I realised my idea of dysfunctional was in fact normal. It turned out my family wasn’t the only one that was loud! We weren’t the only ones who squabbled, fumed then quickly made up!
Like my own special family, others in Croatia also lived, loved, celebrated and feuded in so many different crazy ways it made the Brady Bunch look almost abnormal.
4. It’s never a bad time to have a party
Even though in Australia parties and other important celebrations tend to be delegated to the weekend, in Croatia it was never a bad time to celebrate anything. It didn’t matter if you had to wake up at 5 a.m the next day. It didn’t matter if it was a Monday night or the dead middle of winter and freezing cold.
As long as there was some wine to share, the best time to have some fun was never tomorrow or next week but right now. And for the record lack of sleep did not count as an acceptable excuse to miss any event EVER.
5. Singing always makes you feel better
I honestly cannot tell you the last time (or any time for that matter) that I was with my non-Croatian friends in Australia and suddenly, for no good reason at all, someone decided to let out a soulful tune.
On the other hand, I can’t even begin to count how many times this happened in Croatia. This includes: a) every wedding I ever attended, b) during the “pauza” and end of most dances, c) any other time when more than the acceptable amount of alcohol was consumed and finally d) when boredom struck (which was often during the winter months).
6. If something is bothering you, it’s best to let it all out
In Croatia I discovered people liked to “let things out.” If they had a problem with someone, the other person was sure to find out. Growing up in Australia I wasn’t accustomed to this idea – if people annoyed me, I tried not to let it show. If they offended me, I faked a smile and put on a brave face.
In Croatia, as much as this was initially confronting, it was also liberating to discover you didn’t need to keep your feelings locked up inside a politely pretty Pandora’s Box. To the contrary, the consensus was it was best to let your feelings out.
As a wise person once said, What you keep locked inside will eventually destroy you while what you set free will help you grow. And as I discovered during my time there, many Croatians had a strong, undeniable need to feel free.
7. You need to have thick skin to survive in this world
I admit it – when I arrived in Croatia I was probably a little thin-skinned. I had a tendency to let unwelcome comments bother me, even when they came from people I didn’t care about at all.
This came from a living a life in Australia where we were raised to work hard and be nice to everyone, even if it meant “people-pleasing” individuals who didn’t deserve to be pleased.
Then while I was living in Croatia I discovered the value of having thick-skin. And you needed it in Croatia to survive. Thick-skinned people didn’t care what other people thought of them, they weren’t offended by other people’s pettiness and they managed to stay optimistic when faced with challenges.
These Croatians were not the norm, but they existed nonetheless, sometimes as the oddballs or quirky individuals in the village who everyone else secretly gossiped about. In a place where conformity was expected I admired these Croatians the most – those who had the strength to live their own truth and walk to the beat of their own drum, without putting anyone else down.
8. It takes a village to raise a child
Growing up in Sydney I felt as if my parents literally knew every other Croatian living in the city. If they couldn’t live overseas, my parents were determined to make sure they kept in contact with every friend they had here and these friends eventually became my extended family.
This led to a flurry of activities which included Croatian picnics, Croatian dances, Croatian School and afternoons spent at the park, where the older men congregated daily to play their Croatian (note the trend) buće while their kids ran amok. Even though we were a small community within Sydney, together we felt large and complete.
Then I came to Croatia and witnessed firsthand the beauty and power in a village life. It was what my parents had worked so hard to replicate, though the same could never be achieved in a city where our houses were so far apart.
In my village back home I found safety and security, a deep sense of history and a connection between people who always watched out for each other without question or obligation. If I had overlooked or discounted the importance of a “village” as a teenager, its significance was evident to me after Croatia.
9. Perhaps there is merit in the philosophy: “working to live” rather than “living to work”
During the course of my life, I have encountered many financially successful people and visited many fancy homes. But the people and places that still stick out for me the most are those that I met and visited in Croatia.
They may not have had much in terms of money or prestige, but they had spirit, love, generosity and most importantly they were “rich” and wealthy in different ways because they understood the truth – that the most important things in life are free.
10. It all begins and ends with family
In Croatia, I learnt that no family is perfect. We all fight and argue; we have our differences and get angry with each other. But in the end family will always be family and the love, even when tested, will always be there.