Strange superstitions guide our everyday life. Not necessarily religious. Just quirky little beliefs that make us collect unusual souvenirs or spit three times if a black cat crosses our path.
I’ll admit to my own: I never take a photo or a souvenir from a place I want to go back to. This makes me a soul sister of Crazy Horse – an Oglala Sioux Indian chief who refused to be photographed for fear of losing his soul.
Sometimes I even forget about this weird belief of mine. I can easily return from a place with no photos and at first feel sad. But then, the light bulb goes off and I realize: no photos means this is the place I’ll keep coming back to.
We say that photography soul-stealing is nothing but a superstition. But what about our Western obsession with collecting photos and souvenirs? Believing that these mementos can deepen our bond with places and people we encountered on our travels?
Don’t fret – I won’t judge if on your last day in Croatia you storm a few shops for the souvenir classics: a tie, a Cerovečki umbrella or a Licitar heart. I know where the urge is coming from.
Souvenirs are keepsakes that remind you of a dear place. They sit somewhere on your shelf and wink at you from time to time to jolt you out of everyday routine. ‘Ah, that gorgeous Croatian holiday’, they whisper. And bam, you’re back on that pebbly beach, soaking up the sun.
They make great gifts for those who didn’t travel with you. If it could speak, the gift of a silken tie from Croatia might say: ‘I missed you on my holiday’. Or ‘Croatia is awesome, you simply must go there’. And if you collect souvenirs from your round the world travels, you probably want to be reminded of what’s important in life: sweet moments of discovery.
But there’s a better way to cherish the memory of a place than buying an object. Because a souvenir is just that. A thing specifically designed for tourists that, once uprooted, sits neglected in some corner of your home. What you really want is a relationship with a place you love: an ongoing exchange of things to use every day.
Weird Croatian souvenirs to make you keep coming back
I did a fun inventory. I listed all the places I love and divided them into those I lived in and those I visited and never went back. Next, I looked through all my souvenirs – little objects from Galicia in Spain, New York, Krakow, Paris… And the result? There was nothing from the UK! My twin home.
Could it be that we nurture the love for our home with something else than objects?
Many of my friends who live between countries dedicate a third of their luggage to ‘things’ they carry back and forth. But these are not souvenir type of things that get installed on a shelf. Migrants mostly shuffle consumables. Stuff that reminds them of home, stuff they can’t get anywhere else, stuff that will be eaten so another trip is required to treasure this love.
Here’s the list of what my friends and I load up with when out of Croatia. And don’t forget, these are not only to nurture our own Croatian connection – we offer them to friends in the new home in the hope to recruit more Croatia aficionados.
Weird Croatian souvenirs: outgoing
#1 Dry cured meet
Croats are heavy meat eaters. But carrying half a suitcase of dry cured meat across the border is not about our carnivorous appetites. We’re especially proud of how we make that meat. All types of sausages are packed up but Slavonian kulen – pork sausage spiced with red pepper – is our national treasure. Prepared in the same organic way for decades, it recently received a protected status in the EU. You know you’re dealing with a serious sausage when it becomes a state matter.
Prosciutto and pancetta from Istria or Dalmatian hinterlands are equally unique. Don’t ever try to convince a Croat that Italian or Spanish prosciutto are just as good. Ours is the best because it’s dried on the bura wind that blows only in Croatia.
The pickling season in Croatia is always approached ambitiously. Sure, you can get all kinds of jams, preserves and pickles in a shop. But a real home has a Mum or a Grandma who labours over a gigantic simmering pot of ajvar (red pepper relish) or plum jam.
Pickled gherkins and ajvar come at the top of the packing list. Both being in glass jars, they require a smart break-proof packing approach. Nestle them snugly among the clothes or stuff them deep inside a boot.
Olive oil has become widely available outside Mediterranean countries, so why lug greasy bottles around? Because, just like dry cured meat, it’s best made in Croatia. We usually take the home made, with no factory bottle top, even if this means risking oil spillage. Our next favourite is the rare pumpkin seed oil. It’s widely used in continental Croatia, but abroad, it can only be bought in health food shops – so we pack that too.
Pork scratchings are an acquired taste. Kids never like them, but as we grow older, we realize there is wisdom in simple fatty food. These crunchy lumps of fat are also emblematic of our small-scale meat production. We usually get them from a friend of a friend of a small farmer.
One year I spent Christmas in London. The one thing I missed for my festive meal was mlinci – Croatian cooked flatbread, served with roast turkey. This to me was so unacceptable that I tracked down a Turkish restaurant cook who was willing to prepare mlinci the right way – on a cast iron cooking plate. It’s much easier to pack them too.
Croats, just like Russians, eat buckwheat regularly, but in London, I could only find it in health food shops. The quality? Nowhere near ours. So, into the suitcase it goes.
Most Croats are partial to our oldest sweets brand Kraš. Their praline Bajadera, Griotte, and Ledene Kocke [ice cubes] have been a staple gift when visiting friends. I’d pack dozens of the smallest Bajadera boxes and hand them out as gifts to my London friends.
Among the weirdest items to pack is the chocolate flavoured baby formula Čokolino. Most babies grow up eating it, but how come we remember those early toddler years? We don’t. We cherish Čokolino because we continue eating it long after taking those first steps – some even base their student diet on it.
The Franck brick fills those small empty spaces between the clothes and the suitcase walls. Why coffee? Because Turkish style coffee is a symbol of home and you need finely ground blend to brew it. I could never find a shop in London where my coffee beans would be ground to perfection.
Some of my friends take it up a notch and even bring a džezva – a special coffee pot for a Turkish brew. I never went that far. My love for coffee taught me to be resourceful enough to rustle up a cup even in a saucepan.
Rakija – home made brandy – is the fifth pillar of every Croatian home. It can be made of every single fruit or herb. The most famous ones are šljivovica (plum brandy) and travarica (herbs brandy). Men, more than women, drink it – but women use it for all kinds of household purposes: for cooking, windows washing, or to cure fevers and swellings. Again, the best rakija is home made, given to you by a friend.
Not among the healthiest drinks, but also a reminiscence of childhood is Cedevita. When the Western world drank Fanta, we had orange-flavoured Cedevita. It comes as a powder and once mixed with water, it sounds and tastes like a fizzy vitamin tablet. But we pack it anyway!
Donat Mg is a Magnesium rich mineral water that sends you off to the toilet the healthy way. It’s not a laxative but it still keeps things moving. No other Magnesium supplement beats it. In it goes.
#8 Baking ingredients
To a migrant, the smell of Croatian cakes is like an umbilical cord with home. I actually started baking only when I moved to London. I’d use cake ingredients which heightened that connection even more: poppy seeds and carob. But I soon faced a problem.
We bake with ground poppy seeds and we use loads. Our carob cakes ask for a coarse carob meal, not powder. And in London, everything was the other way around: poppy seeds were whole and carob was too fine. I had to pack that too.
#9 Women’s socks, tights and stockings
My largest drawer contains tights and stockings. I buy them in all colours and patters, even those girlish ones that make me look like Dorothy. In Croatia, my go-to for tights has always been Jadran and Polzela brands. Imagine my surprise when I landed in London and realized most tights had a dowdy colour and a dull pattern.
I was stopped in the streets several time with the following question: where did you get those tights? They must have been catching to make a reserved Londoner talk to a stranger.
Never be short of ideas about what to bring back from your Croatia holiday. Choose from my hand-picked list of the best Croatian souvenirs!
Weird Croatian souvenirs: incoming
Just like any relationship, cherishing Croatia is a two-way street. We take stuff out of Croatia and when we consume it, we come back for more. But this is not all we go back for. There are some services we, outlanders, swear are best and cheapest in Croatia.
Dental tourism is now an official thing. People will travel to Croatia only to have their teeth fixed without running up a debt. I am on the same page. Not only is the service generally great but we tend to form monogamous bonds with the dentist of choice. I have exchanged vows with mine as a kid and only strayed once in London. I would’t do it again.
If you’re a woman, the same applies to a gynecologist.
#11 Beauty treatments
As a hairdresser, being trained in London is a stamp of quality. By this calculation, London should be full of amazing hair studios. Is it true? Yes and no. Great hairdressers in London do exist but they charge a hefty price.
When I first went to Tony and Guy’s, I was asked whose services I wanted. Apparently, there is a salon hierarchy to pick from: apprentice, junior, senior or master stylist. The cheapest option will leave you in tears for months to come. A mid-range stylist plays only to the tune of the currently trendy cuts. So if you want something classic and graceful, a master stylist at c £200 is the only choice.
For that money, I’d much rather get 2 plane tickets and 2 haircuts at my Zagreb studio. The guy is not Tony, but he’s my guy: trained at London’s Tony and Guy, he greets me with a hug and knows my hair even on the worst hair day.
I personally do my own manicure and pedicure, but I have friends who jump on a plane to Zagreb even for that!
For my sister-in-law, the biggest downside of Australia was the lack of shoes. In particular the children’s brand Ciciban and Frodo. She longed for them so much she even wanted to start her own import company. Australia was, unfortunately, not a plane hop away.
In London, I could find something suitable amongst a handful of high street shoe brands. But nothing of the falling-in-love quality. For those of us spoilt with the Italian shoe design, or the German shoe comfort, Zagreb trumps the abroad.
Some of my really fussy friends associate Zagreb with a place to get custom-made shoe insoles. What can I say – weird are the ways in and out of Croatia!
The easiest way to remember you Croatian holiday is to get a traditional souvenir. But if you want that memory kept alive, something to pull you back from time to time, try packing one of these unusual souvenirs. You’ll be coming back for more, because they’re gifts that keep on giving.
But here’s another way to keep your Croatian affair alive.
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