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An American’s Observations of Croatian Cultural Customs

(photo credit: Alexandra Cote)

(photo credit: Alexandra Schmidt)

By Alexandra Schmidt

I lived in Croatia for over a year, yet I still discovered something new about the people and their mindset with each passing day. A complex culture is packed into the country’s petite physical territory, with each distinct region painting a diverse cultural mosaic. Though Croatian customs vary depending on the region, some shared cultural customs stand out to the American eye.

In the home

The home is the centerpiece of Croatian culture. I didn’t realize how different the culture is to my own until I started to live with a Croatian family.

Customs at home are very much centered around food. Beginning at noon and into the evening, you’ll likely always find food on the table or stove. Croatian mothers will make sure you eat, that’s for sure. Even if you say no, expect that they will ask you at least three more times.

It’s common for young people to live at home into adulthood while paying for their own living expenses. Many people don’t leave home until they get married. This was an adjustment for an American like myself, who left home at 18. Being in a house with full-grown adults often brings a whole new light to family dynamics.

Peka (photo credit: Tim Ertl)

Peka (photo credit: Tim Ertl)

Even if it looks like a fight is going to break out with everyone yelling at each other, Croatians will respond, “that’s just how we talk.” It’s common that people swear every other word, waving their hands all around, when they may just be explaining their day.

I had to learn this one the hard way: many Croatians hate air-conditioning. As a matter of fact, many Croatians will literally blame any health problem on the thing. It causes a cold, dizziness, back problems; I’ve heard it all.

People in Dubrovnik are especially weary of the air conditioning, as they hate the high winds just as much.

In a typical Croatian house, you’ll find wooden crosses and pictures of Jesus decorated throughout the house.

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From dedicating specific days to celebrating Catholic Saints (name days) to every wedding in a traditional Catholic church, Catholicism is deeply engrained in the cultural customs.

In the café

We all know that Europeans love to sit and have their coffee, but this is especially so in Croatia. Essentially the most common form of socializing is going and getting a coffee in a local café, in contrast to Americans loving to get drinks and food. People in Croatia will often sit for hours, a cigarette in hand, without any rush for what’s happening next.

(photo: Marko Vrdoljak / Zagreb Tourist Board)

(photo: Marko Vrdoljak / Zagreb Tourist Board)

When you go to a café, you better know what you want right away. The waiter usually comes within the first minute, leaving one without time to even look at the menu. That’s probably because Croatians know exactly what they want before they even sit down.

In restaurants and supermarkets

Many Croatians love simple, quality food, as opposed to some type of fancy Asian fusion restaurant. It’s amusing to see several thousand restaurants with almost the exact things on the menu: pizza, risotto, fish, mixed meat, and tuna salad. The best part is that many menus will simply write “meat platter” with no description. Straightforward is how many authentic Croatian restaurants operate.

But it truly seems that Croatians would rather make food at home as opposed to eating out often. That’s probably why locals take at least two trips to the market a week. Most people buy very frugally, and will boycott items that seem overpriced, until they go on sale.

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The most stressful part of grocery shopping is checking out. You have about 45 seconds to shove miscellaneous items into a plastic Konzum bag before the cashier quickly tells you the total and is already ringing up the next customer.

In the car

Seemingly no one is in a rush in Croatia, until they get in the car. Suddenly, Balkan music is blasting, and it’s a race to get to the next destination. Many people drive aggressively, thinking that it’s everyone else on the road that can’t drive.

The funniest part to me is I know many Croatian who drive on an empty tank of gas. Instead of filling up the entire tank, they would rather put 50 kunas and just drive enough for a day or two. I know people who have even calculated how long their can drive when the light blinks empty. That is one custom I still have yet to understand.

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In the bar and in town

It doesn’t necessarily have to be in a bar; Croatians will always find a way to drink and sing. Wine, beer, and Rakija are practically parts of the main food groups for many. Croatians take much pride in singing all of the classic songs, like Majko stara while waving both hands in the air. If they are silent, they might be watching the football game.

Many men and women take the time to dress well when going out. Especially women, who keep in mind every small detail, down to their toenails, their perfectly shaped eyebrows, and their fur coat with 5-inch stilettos.

(photo credit: Alexandra Schmidt)

(photo credit: Alexandra Schmidt)

While there are still several other cultural complexities I struggle to understand, many Croatians are refreshingly simple. Most people are extremely hard working, yet when it comes down to it, they just want to enjoy. If you were to ask a Croatian what is their passion in life, many would likely shrug and say, “To be happy, surrounded by family and friends.”

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