Earlier this year, 24-year-old Stanko Zovak left his job in Los Angeles and headed off to the Croatian capital Zagreb.
Stanko, and his good friend from home George Dulcich, decided to take up an opportunity to study the Croatian language at Croaticum at the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb.
“Zagreb is really beautiful and has some of the nicest people. I like that it’s safe to walk around and has an easy tram system to get to all parts of the city. People seem to be outside a lot, either having kava or enjoying nature and I really like the vibe and energy here. It’s also a more affordable compared to LA,” Stanko told us when he first arrived.
Now that the first semester has ended, the comedian and musician has had a chance to reflect on the past three months in the new city he has called home.
Stanko, whose father’s parents were born and raised in Veljaci, Ljubuški, whilst his American mother has Italian and German heritage, says there are some things about Zagreb nobody tells you.
Below he describes six of them:
The Croatian language is hard!
Croatian is a difficult language, and that’s not including the Zagrebački slang of insiding out regular Croatian words. For example, gužva (crowd) turns to žvagu. Not to mention the official translation of ćevapi in restaurants seems to be “minced meat fingers” (I promise you they taste better than they sound). However, people like when you try to speak it! I always try to at least start off in Croatian and then transition into English when I need to ask important things like where the closest bar is or how to get to Jarun for a lake party. You can see people’s excitement when they recognize a stranac (foreigner) that is speaking Croatian.
I have gotten a lot of smiles when I mispronounce a word or trip over the padeži (grammatical cases from Hell) but people tend to be more helpful when you do. And though Croatian may be difficult, it is a beautiful language and in general, people are happy to hear their native tongue and appreciate if you make the effort!
Cash is King. (But only if it’s small enough!)
Unlike in the U.S. where credit cards are now accepted at most lemonade stands, Croatia runs mainly on cash. There are of course places that accept credit cards, but for most of your bakeries, kiosks, and other small operations, you will need kune. Make sure you always have some on you, and you can get to an ATM or a mjenjačnica (money exchange office) when you do run low. One important thing to note is that sometimes you can have too large a bill that employees won’t be able to give change for! It’s best to have bills smaller than 100 kuna when buying cheaper items like pastries, drinks, or tram tickets. There are also coins with smaller denominations of kuna that you should try to carry for small transactions.
One big mistake people from the U.S. make is thinking that Croatia works the same way. People want papers, documents, and their questions answered right away, and when they apply for something, they expect a response quickly.
Unfortunately in Croatia, and especially Zagreb, you must be patient. There is a lot of bureaucracy and everything has its own separate department. If you send an email asking for something, expect to wait a while before it is answered. Once it is, you can be sure that you actually need to follow up with someone else from a different department! It might take a while to get used to the differently paced lifestyle, but make sure you do or you will just end up getting frustrated!
Coffee and beer is acceptable (Expected…) any time of day!
Speaking of laid back lifestyles, Croatians are known for having long coffee breaks, and Zagreb is no different. Back in Los Angeles, you get lost in the hustle and bustle of the city full of workaholics and bumper to bumper streets. While Zagreb does have its share of traffic, the public transportation system is very cheap and easy to use, and you can always find people enjoying a coffee or beer out on the terrace.
Don’t be concerned when you see a couple of old guys drinking beer at 10 in the morning, and keep in mind that “Hoćeš na kavu?” (Want to go for a coffee?) also can mean “Let’s go drink beer and rakija!” Either way, make sure to take the opportunity to drink some kava (coffee) or pivo (beer) out on a patio and watch the city life go by!
Motorcycles can be pedestrians. (And bicycles have to be!)
In Zagreb, it might shock you that people can park on the sidewalk, and motorcycles will sometimes drive on them! It takes a little getting used to, but there are parking spaces that are located on sidewalks and you will sometimes see cars driving on them. It is also not uncommon to see motorcycles “turning themselves into pedestrians” to beat traffic so always keep an eye out while you walk. Since food delivery services like Glovo and Wolt are so popular, there are also many bicyclists riding on the sidewalk trying to get to their destinations before the food gets cold. Drivers in Zagreb are a quick to the horn, so if you rent a car, make sure to be ready when the light turns green!
Anything can be blamed on the weather!
If something goes wrong in Zagreb, it can most likely be attributed to the weather. When people are having a rough day, you might hear “loše vrijeme” (bad weather). Even if it is perfect outside, it may have been cloudy yesterday, and the change from yesterday’s bad weather to today’s good weather is the cause. Aside from being the main blame, weather is also a common topic of conversation. Brush up on your language skills to say that it’s too cold, too hot, or just a lijep dan (beautiful day)! All of that being said, Zagreb has a lot of beautiful days and the people are almost always happy and enjoying life!
Zagreb is an amazing city and I would definitely recommend checking out its many shops and bars, incredible nature, and its wonderful people. There is so much to experience there so make sure you do your research to fit the most important things in your schedule.
Since Croatians are fanatics about their sports teams, especially nogomet (soccer/football), try to visit during events like the Euro Cup, World Cup, or Olympics! I was blessed to spend 3 months in Zagreb but there is still so much more to do and see. I hope to be able to stay for many more!
Stanko and George have headed to Split now where they will be doing another 3-week Croatan language program. After that they will be spending the rest of the summer on the coast before deciding what to do next.