Wednesday, March 9, 2016

From ‘Chasing a Croatian Girl. A survivor's tale’ by Cody Mcclain Brown

I was unaware that Croatians are very hospitable and out of politeness invite everyone everywhere, especially if they sense that you would like them to say you can come visit them.

In Croatia people give gifts to everyone for every possible reason, and more commonly for no reason at all…..most gifts are never ever even used

In the U.S. it is pretty easy to make friends. We move around so much that we develop the ability to enter into friendships effortlessly…I always had people, soon after moving anywhere, that I could call friends. We weren’t best friends, but we were friends. Usually, it just takes two or more people liking the same kind of stuff….. But then, over more time, you move away to another place…gradually drift away from your friend. Friendship in America is easy come, easy go.
Friendship in Croatia is not as fluid as in America, nor is it as fickle. Its thick. Its lasting. Its work. Its also the opposite to our atomized, individualistic lifestyle in the U.S. I feel like in America we run from being responsible to each other. We avoid any and all social burdens. We split the ticket. We keep everything in a balanced equilibrium. ….Being someone’s friend in Croatia basically means you can never, ever, say no to that person, regardless of what she asks of you……To penetrate into someone’s social circle is not easy, it takes time and several coffees before the bonds of obligation and reciprocity are strengthened enough that someone can or will call you a friend.

In Split [Croatia] ….nine people in a two-bedroom apartment? In the States there would be blood. But here, nope. No one seemed to ever be annoyed. No one fought. No one yelled. No one seemed to longly desire to put four walls and a door between herself and everyone elser. Beneath the surface there seemed to be an infinite well of patience, but it wasn’t because everyone loved each other so much they could never disagree or anything. ….The family just seemed to be more patient with each other. They were more prone to swallowing the annoyances and letting things slide.

In the U.S. we have an expression: Good fences make good neighbors.
And we live by it. Our houses have fences ….For those of us that live in apartments we purposely avoid each other, hurrying to open the door and get inside when we hear our neighbor coming down the hall. Anything to avoid getting stuck in an awkward, hi or hello. There is generally a mutual understanding that my business is none of your business and your business is none of my business. The ever-present nosy neighbor is a nearly extinct specimen, now only found in sitcoms and Hollywood films.
The Croatian version of this proverb is probably something like this: Thin walls, echoey corridors, and open windows, make …neighbors.
The idea of privacy from the neighbors is laughable. ….The shared awareness of each other among the neighbors fosters a stronger sense of community than what I had experienced in my adult life in the U.S. The bond between neighbors extends beyond the proximity of the apartment building and into all other parts of Croatia. The building or street that makes you neighbors is like its own country and the sons and daughters of neighbors, even if they now live in Zagreb, Italy, or Germany are your fellow citizens.

In Split, the neighbors and our doors were open almost at all times of the day. One Christmas Eve, just after I arrived from the States, Vana [wife] and I just came to Split from Zagreb at 11:30 p.m. and Vida [mother-in-law] mentioned that we should go see what the neighbors were up to and wish them…. In Oklahoma it would be very, very unusual to go over to the neighbors house on Christmas Eve at 11:30….with your daughter and son-in-law. Like almost-get-shot kind of unusual. Nevertheless, we walked across the hall and sure enough, the neighbors were up and they of course invited us in. Somehow or another we got into talking about Russia and America, and who has more soul. The Croatians said, clearly the Russians…

The neighbors also look out for each other. While Vana and I were living in Istanbul, Vida was very ill and lay bedridden….During that time, it was the neighbors who took care of her….the doctor upstairs came down with dinner and some company each evening.

…Paula [the neighbor] with all of her loving generosity and concern about everyone’s well-being is a string of curse words that precedes or follows anything she says. These phrases generally involve fornicating with your mother and would make any American grandmother’s hair stand on end….most memorably, when my daughter was born she proclaimed: You are the most beautiful girl in the world! Fuck your mother!
The relationship between neighbors is one of the most valuable things Croatia has going for it. Its crazy, annoying, but also comforting to know that everyone else knows what you are up to, what you need, and who you are. Being integrated into such a community is something uncommon for Americans. It’s something we talk about from the past. And sure, if it weren’t for all the cursing, drinking and dog singing, the neighborhood in Split would be like something from a 1950s television show, but with much, much more color. ….here people still rely on one another, whereas in the U.S., at least in the places I’ve lived as an adult, we are all trying to live on our own little island.

….once you have a baby in Croatia, everyone ….is full of not just advice, but downright demands, orders, commands, dictates. Grandmas, aunts, neighbors, cousins, total and complete strangers will tell you, with little embarrassment or apology, what you are doing wrong. ….The involvement of everyone in Sara’s [child] early months of existence is one my most valued memories about my early life in Croatia.

Since I was coming from Istanbul I was used to removing my shoes before entering the house…. I eventually figured that Croatia must be like Japan and people like to keep the house clean by removing their shoes. ….Prior to arriving in Split I had no idea that being barefoot can cause all kinds of illnesses. I was later to learn that walking around, sometimes even in socks, is a good way to get rheumatism, the flu, the common cold and bladder infections (or so I’m told. And frequently!). The first line of defense in the battle for healthy feet are the papuce or slippers. What made this even more confusing is the fact that what people were wearing as slippers were no really slippers at all. ….In Croatia, a “slipper” is…. more often … a sandal, a pair of flip-flops, any kind of open shoe, even a pair of Crocs (which is ironic because the only time a Croatian would wear Crocs is inside. Period.) ….What is even more confusing is how the one place Americans think we should never go barefoot is the one place Croatians insist we go barefoot: at the sea side……
Thy Grandchild’s feet shall never be bare!

Croatians are terrified of the breeze. More specifically, by any breeze indoors. Outside airflow is moderately safe. Indoor airflow is deadly. …Propuh ….is associated with all sorts of ailments……In order to preclude such maladies it is necessary to:
1. Immediately dry your hair after a shower. Never go outside or go to sleep with wet hair.
2. Never expose the back of your or your child’s neck to the wind during the fall, winter or spring. The back of your neck should always be covered with a hood or scarf.
3. Never go barefoot. Always wear socks and slippers (even during the summer on the coast)
4. Avoid having two or more windows open in the same room, especially if they are on different walls. The cross-breeze is one of the most nefarious forms of propuh.
5. Always cover your midriff and the vital organs contained therein, so that the breeze cant get to them.

….propuh is a force that guides and influences the entire way of life in Croatia…. Its why public transport is stifling. Open a window on a tram and you’d think you opened a window on an airplane flying 10,000 meters above the earth …..Propuh is why I am publicly reprimanded for being a bad father when our with my hatless daughter. …..this wind-phobia exists all through Southeastern Europe.

Croatians are generally a pretty stylish bunch…. What I dont get about Croatia is how the women often dresses like they fell out of the pages of a fashion magazine and the dudes dress like my uncle right after he’s mowed the lawn. And they’ll be TOGETHER.

The attachment people have for the place they are from in Croatia cannot be compared to anything I have felt in the U.S. ….I….have a friend …whose father traced his heritage back 400 years in Slavonia, but to him this explained why he often felt like an outsider because before those 400 years his family had lived in Herzegovina!

….if there is one thing Croatians love that comes close to coffee, its alcohol. This probably explains why Croatians, and well, everyone else all over Southeastern Europe makes booze out of everything….cherries, plums, grapes, walnuts, honey, quince (I don’t even know what that is), ROSES….and grass…. This shouldn’t leave the impression that Croatians are a bunch of drunkards….. I saw that drinking in Croatia is treated with a certain reverence and elegance that is usually lacking in the U.S. ….The respect for drinking is so strong and steeped in such ritualisms that a lot of alcohol is treated with the same care and reverence as if it had incredible medicinal properties, because well …. a lot of people believe it is medicine. ….. Going out and drinking in Croatia is treated with the same lackadaisical, easygoingness that characterizes much of the country. There is never a hurry. .. …The biggest difference between drinking in the U.S and in Croatia is that you can drink in cafes. While in America you usually have to go to the bar. ………I found that most American bars are depressing….dark and dingy….. Cafes, on the other hand, are clean and well-lighted…..Surrounding you is a diverse clientele that demands you behave. Your drinking has to be elegant. Since an older couple is talking over tea next to you……having coffee beside you, there is no place for the sloppy drunk …..

Croatians ….hate to end a good time. Even when this good time turns out to be a birthday party … for a two-year-old, attended by other two-year-olds. ….no one wants to be the “party breaker.” ….The first to leave is the party breaker. Its like the party is in some happy state of equilibrium, and the first to move will alter the stability, creating an exodus of partygoers streaming into the street. So you, and everyone else, are basically held captive by each other….. You just cant leave, even if you wanted to. If you leave, well buddy, YOU, and you alone, will be responsible for ending everyone’s good time ….. this is also ironic because the host might actually want you to leave, but there is no greater sin than for the host to be the party breaker.

…all the things I once associated with Croatia and the Balkans: violence, barbarism, brutality. I began to realize that actually life in Zagreb, and Croatia is generally much more peaceful, harmonious and safer than life in America. ….Why? ….With the country’s high unemployment rate and poverty we would expect everyone to be at each other’s throat, robbing, raping, pillaging and again because, you know, Balkans! …..Serbia has the second highest gun ownership per capita and doesn’t have the same problems as the U.S. ….I interviewed people all over Croatia….To all of the participants, the war seemed like an aberration….It happened….then the calm returned. ….Meanwhile, in the U.S. it appears to be the exact opposite. For whatever the causes, or origins, violence endures…..engrained into the very fabric of our daily lives….

Finding a full-time, steady, permanent job in Croatia is like winning the lottery. ……how do you get a job in Croatia? ….the most common way is through a connection of some sort…..when you look at anyone who has a job, you wonder whether or not they secured that job from merit and expertise, or by exploiting a connection. This breeds a social skepticism about anyone seen as successful…..I began to see the Croatia that most Croatians complained about. ….the Croatia that was suffering a brain drain, the Croatia that people associate with the Balkans: corrupt, nepotistic, and backward. …..In the U.S., rightly or wrongly, we still live under the impression that anyone who works hard enough will one day achieve success …In America wealth is not yet considered a mystery ….In Croatia, however, no such illusion exists….I couldn’t (and cannot) understand how someone in Croatia affords a BMW ….In Croatia…..They are symbols or someone who has defeated an impossible system, used the system, and dominated the system to their advantage …..

Croatian lines are ….symbols of the country’s discriminatory (and often dysfunctional) system. On either side of the glass partition it is US and THEM. Them who have the power, the information, access. ….but this is not how it is in the U.S. …..lines in the U.S. …are temporary affairs ….Service, anywhere, is quick.

…[in] the U.S. …She [the mother-in-law] looked to me and said, with a hint of strange sadness in her voice that no one was outside. It was true. Amid the manicured lawns and driveways there wasn’t a soul to be seen. It was another glimpse of how lonely and isolating America can be. By this time in Croatia, I would have met most of the neighbors. We hadn’t met a single one. I didn’t even know any of my mother’s neighbors names.

………….in Croatia when you go to someone’s house for lunch or dinner, you are always, ALWAYS, asked if you want more, and no matter what you say, no matter how much you refuse, say no, or no thanks, you will always get more ….on your plate.
In the U.S., the host will just ask once, and believe you when you say that you don’t want anymore.

It was near midnight and I left my wife and sleeping daughter outside of the bus station. This would never, ever, happen in the U.S., anywhere. Last time I was at the bus station in Tulsa, I was offered some crack cocaine and another guy was stabbed. But, in Zagreb, …or anywhere in Croatia, you can leave your wife and daughter unmolested at midnight outside of the bus station,

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