When I decided to leave London and come back to Croatia, people stared at me in disbelief. ‘Why would you leave the most exciting city in the world?’ they pressed me.
Why would I exchange an established academic career and a UK salary for the Croatian quagmire? And at the time when 15,000 young Croats move abroad each year in search for work and better living conditions.
In the past two years I’ve done little else but try to satisfy friends with a plausible answer. Often to no avail. Even when I finish with the argument that ‘everyone has their own path to follow’, I am looked at as a crazy person. Someone who had everything going for them and flippantly gave it up.
So ask me again. I promise this time I won’t try to prove myself right. Instead, I’ll borrow the words of a fictional Indian chef Hassan Kadam, who flees his country and, via London, settles under the French sun.
‘And why exactly are you leaving London?’ asks the customs officer.
‘I find that in England, vegetables have no soul, no life…’ Hassan replies.
The Hundred-Foot Journey film
show off your croatian culture
and dress in unique T-shirts and hoodies
pick from 3 different designs featuring Croatian interlace, Croatian tattoo symbols, Glagolitic letters and the Croatian checkerboard Šahovnica.
Help! I don’t have a Croatian pedigree line
Croatia is undeniably a difficult country to prosper in. More so if you’re not politically connected or if your ideas fall outside the lines of how things usually get done.
Old socialist mindset, mixed with close-knit mentality, inhibit people who see and do things differently. In a word, Croatia is a place where it’s more important who you know than what you know.
So for example, when you’re introduced to someone new, they’ll often ask you ‘whose are you’. What they want to know is your family background, your pedigree and connections you may have.
In London, in a similar situation you’d be asked ‘what do you do’. It’s equally limiting, but at least if you’re good at what you do in London, you can rise above the pedigree certificate. You can create your own individual worth.
So which would you choose? The power (and limitations) of belonging to a tribe or the power (and limitations) of being your own person?
Read more posts on Croatian culture and mentality.
Help! I’ll end up in a London phone booth
As a student of literature in Zagreb, I got a C for my paper on Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. The teacher told me to put aside my creative thinking and follow the rules of ‘good academic writing’. I was by then a published fiction writer – what a drag!
This ridiculous comment filled me with so much positive energy to immediately start packing for London. I didn’t realize it then, but it was hostile conditions that boosted my creativity and entrepreneurial spirit. I would do anything to succeed.
London made me spread my wings. Each project I applied for – artistic or academic – was accepted and supported. I flew ever so high, lulled on soft and favourable air currents.
I realized – Croatia made me do things despite stormy weather; in England I prospered because of calm weather. There is no way around this fact: living conditions in London, that so many Croats are seeking, are better. But there’s a point when calm becomes dead calm.
And that point is this.
I could continue my academic research only if my subject and approach fit the grant-giving bodies. A literary agent would take me on only if I made my novel ‘bloodier, darker and more Balkan’ to support the stereotype of Croatia as some Wild East backwater. My bank account would cushion me from ending up homeless only if I coloured within those lines.
And London is a place which gives plenty but takes even more: sometimes over night. If you don’t agree to its terms and conditions, you can easily end up like a friend of mine who slept in a phone booth because she couldn’t pay the rent.
That’s the dead calm. When you give piece by piece of yourself so that everything can come easy.
Back to Croatia: the turn of the screw
Before I decided to bid London goodbye, I spent more time in Zagreb working on an academic project. I was being reacquainted with the city I still held a grudge against.
One evening I had dinner at a friend’s house. Eight of us sat around the table, giggling and sipping the finest of Croatian red wine. We polished off prosciutto and Pag cheese for starters, and fillet steak as the main course. Then the jokes and complaints about how Croatia sucks kicked off.
I looked at the table and at the remains of our gourmet feast and asked:
‘How many of you are actually employed?’
There was silence. People glimpsed at each other as if double-checking the count. Only one person raised their hand.
So there we were, sitting in a cozy, modernly furnished house, gobbling luxury food, guzzling extra fine wine, living the shitty Croatian life.
Did that one person with a job pay for it all? Of course not. Everything we had for that dinner were gifts from family and friends – the pedigree line.
This is what I learned that night. There will always be lines that keep our colours from spilling out.
In Croatia, the colouring area is much smaller than in London, but crossing the line in London costs much more, if not everything. When you muster the courage to splash your paints all over the place, there will be a safety net in Croatia to take you in and cook you a slap-up meal.
In London, when your bank account dries up, you might end up sleeping in a phone booth.
Why did I come back to Croatia?
A wise old healer once took me plant picking in the rugged Lika near the Plitvice Lakes. It’s when I finally learned the true meaning of the Indian chef’s words.
A plant’s healing potency comes from its struggle to survive. The harsher the conditions in which it grows, the more healing power it has.
This is why Mediterranean wild rosemary smells much stronger than the one growing from a pot on the balcony. Water it every day and it loses its essence. But if it survives a summer drought, it can cure just about anything.
People are not much different. When we’re given optimal conditions to grow, like a farmed animal that is fed regularly but kept enclosed, we lose our substance. We are those perfectly, GMO shaped tomatoes, but we have no soul, no life…
Conditions in Croatia still perfectly hostile
For a while I was happy in my cozy and nurturing London pen. It was large enough not to see its fence, but it was still a pen and I was still a farmed animal.
I became a disgruntled academic and a frustrated writer because I did too much of the first thing and not enough of the second. To mix my talents like watercolours, I would have to go rogue from both camps. And in London, ditching a day job would only open a phone booth door for me.
I returned to Croatia and started this blog. My colours are again all over the place. I am mixing and matching my anthropology, my creative writing and my desire to pass down my knowledge. I do it under my own terms.
The conditions remain hostile and many people still think I’m crazy. But that’s OK. I have my own tribe who put up with me and would put me up if I ever needed it. I finally rid myself of the phone booth fear.
No matter the weather outside, I have my essence back – because the struggle keeps me creative. The wilderness is scary, but if you find an old wise lady to lead you, there’s a healing plant at each step of the way.
You my faithful readers, and devoted subscribers, are part of this journey. Thank you for sticking it out with me.
You gave me credit and motivation to keep going. Which is why Croatia Honestly has now won its first award! The Versatile Blogger Award. The nomination came from the inspiring Amanda from Amanda’s Wanderlust – thank you, Amanda!
The Versatile Blogger Award is given for the quality of the writing, the uniqueness of the subjects covered, the level of love displayed in the words, and the quality of the photographs.
I love your eloquent account of returning “home”.
In 2006 my husband and I visited his uncle in Sarajevo who mentioned he had had a year long stint teaching genetic science at an Ivy League school during the 80s. Being American (my Croatian veneer shouldn’t fool you) I couldn’t fathom anyone leaving such a lucrative gig on the East Coast but his answer made perfect sense to me: “America has plastic food.” Back to Sarajevo for Uncle Rifat…
10 years later it’s now our turn to escape plastic food and food with no soul. I think it was the green market in Split, the warm sea on the Markarska Riviera, seeing family in Mostar and Sarajevo last summer that convinced us to seek out a more gentle life. So Croatia here we come.
Dear Lucija, your story is beautiful. It’s amazing how we change priorities at different stages in our lives. When I was in early 20s, London was the only place in the world where I wanted to live. I didn’t even notice the plastic vegetables… 15 years later, my perception and my values changed. I am wishing you a successful return to Croatia. 🙂
Born and raised in America, Maine to be more specific, I have lived the typical sheltered American life. A trip to Italy 15 years ago was truly a directional mind change in my perceptions of life. Since then I have been to Kazakhstan to meet the woman I would marry 8 years ago, and Croatia this past summer. My wife has a childhood friend who has lived in Solin for 25+ years, hence our visit this year. That was the most amazing opportunity I have ever had to experience real life. The people are incredible, the food and wine I am in love with, and the country I pray will accept us as contributor to their success.
I totally agree with the “plastic food” comment. I struggle to understand how, and why, my friends eat the food they do. None of it is healthy or satisfying, but what do they know? It is what they have known most of their lives. We are the Campbell Soup/McDonald’s generation! The drive thru was the demise of American culture. No need for the family to sit down and enjoy good food and socialize about the day’s events. Hurry, hurry, on the the next “important” thing.
I liken our food system, which is heavily sponsored and subsidised by the government, to the British Empire providing opium to the Chinese population, or the Soviet Empire subsidising vodka. We have a population of fat, dumb, and happy people that will never realise the horrors of their ways.
My rant, please accept.
Hi David, very happy to accept your ‘rant’ 🙂 Thanks for sharing your experience. The quality of the food people eat and the way they eat and share it with others is a strong metaphor of the quality of life overall. Yes, the West is really losing out on much of it through fast food. I would even go so far to say that a focus on international cuisine is somehow misplaced. Why not eat what is local? Hope to see you in Croatia again…
Congrats on the award . You did that you really wanted! Thats what a free person needs for reaching inside serenity. Bravo for your decision. Nice pics.
Thanks for you kind words!
Amazing and sincere, thank you.
I sritno =) koliko se meni cini povratak ne znaci i ostanak, nikad ne znas gdje je iduca biljka =)
So true – we never know where life will take us next. Being like a bee in search of the pollen is a good way to go 🙂
I discovered your blog a few days ago, as I’m planning a solo trip in Zagreb next week. And it’s a real pleasure to read you. You’re inspiring me 🙂 (I fall in love with Croatia last month, I can’t wait to be back in Croatia, and discover my family history).
Leslie from Paris.
Hi Leslie, I am glad my blog has been an inspiring read for you. I hope you have a great time in Zagreb and I wish you many happy returns! 🙂
I also had to come up with an answer that would satisfy curious souls, especially since I returned to Croatia in ’92. when a lot of people were looking be anywhere else but here.
This is what I still say, whenever anyone asks why I left Toronto after 17 years: “Life is better in Canada, but it’s not nicer. Life in Croatia will be better one day. It will never be nicer in Canada than it is here.”
The only problem is that the “life in Croatia will be better” part is taking longer than I thought it would, but we’ll get there 🙂
So true, Ana. But good stuff always comes to those who wait 🙂 or as we say in Croatian ‘strpljen – spašen’ 🙂
Poštovana Andrea, sa zanimanjem i zadovoljstvom slušao sam Vas danas na Radio Sljemenu, pogotovo o usporedbi života u Londonu i Zagrebu o kojoj ste otvoreno i bez (hrvatskog!) kompleksa govorili. S obzirom da mi je supruga iz Sydneya, a živimo u Zagrebu, te da se gotovo svakodnevno susrećem sa čuđenjem zašto sam odabrao ostati u Hrvatskoj Vaše riječi su osvježavajuće. Hvala vam što usprkos obilju negativnosti kojima smo svakodnevno zasipani ukazujete na prednosti Lijepe naše koje se ne mogu kupiti.
Hi Andrea, this blog of yours is a sight for sore eyes! As someone who’s teaching English to locals and constantly turning the eyes toward the Isles thinking of a “better” life…moreover, witnessing many people leaving for the Isles…the fine weaving of your Croatian experience makes me calmer and more composed about the occasional FOMO I get. 😀 Will be recommending your work to others alike. #bringingthedomoljubljeback 😉
Alina, thanks so much for your compliment and for spreading the word. I hope your students get some use from my writing 🙂
Thank you for your blog, i just stumbled across it and find it encouraging. My family moved to Australia when i was 14 yo and for years, we have pined for home and have wanted to go back. I am now working on making this happen for myself next year but actually (maybe strangely) have quite a bit of fear over such a big move. Reading your post and everyone’s comments has been great and reminds me exactly why I am going there in the first place. Here, my life looks like i have everything i would ever want, but ‘something is missing’ and to me, every place has a spirit of its own/ its soul and Croatia has it on another level.
Hi Luciana, I’m really glad you’re finding encouragement in my writing and my readers’ comments. Thumbs up for your Croatia project 🙂
I left Croatia many years ago. I went back many times but now because of a physical disability I can only read, watch, listen and enjoy what many others, like you, are saying, showing about my dear country. I apologize to all those enthusiasts and lovers of Croatia whos pictures and videos I right clicked but from all that material I make slideshows or videos, everything in English, then spread them as far and wild as I can.
My “Blue Dalmatia” managed to get almost 700.000 hits and together with other video slides show, over a million.
“Whitehead griffons” from Island of Cres,
2 videos about “The history of Croatian checkerboard”,
“Christmas in Croatia” and others.
From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for spreading the word about the most “photogenic” country in the World.
Happy New Year to you and Nick ( if he’s still in your World).
Ned, thank you so much for your heartfelt comment. We all need to do what best we can to promote our beautiful country. And not only its natural wonders but culture too.
Thank you for such an honest and warm observation of Zagreb/Croatia….After 47 years in UK I am planning return….your story is prompting me even further for that final leap…
Hi Kay, thanks for your comment. I am glad my writing has inspired you and I wish you have a great transition back home!
Absolutely wonderful read.
Your path is one of familiarity.
My wife Karina and I are to begin our journey back to Croatia soon. We live on North coast of California and to are comfortable with in the box that we’ve made. She a Caterer me a Builder.
Pivitica was my favorite as a child. The smells from grandmas kitchen were luring. So I want to have your book for Karina and noticed it would be sent from Zagreb. We will be in Zagreb in January and would love to pick it up then. My question, what is the best way to proceed.
Thank you so much,
Dear Chip and Karina,
I just found myself remembering Karena and by extension, you
back nearly 20 years ago when you were dating. You would stop by the kitchen at Auberge to visit Karina. She was our wonderful Chef then, and we were so lucky to have her.
I just happened to find some pictures online of Karina catering in 2012. I’m just hoping you’re both well, happy, and doing the things you want to do. This posting of yours is a few years old so maybe you’ll never see this comment. If you do, I send greetings and best wishes to you both. Rich
Hmmm interesting article….(English “interesting” not Croatian meaning of the same word)
It is nice when you come from the obviously privileged Croatian family, right??
Why don’t you write HONESTLY about Croatia?? What is really wrong with the country?? Why 250 000 young people have left since 2013.?? Obviously this blog is for foreigners only …the ones who do not understand the culture or language so can get easily fascinated with truly amazing Croatian nature or food.
Do not worry Andrea you are safe in Croatia like rosemary on a balcony.
What do you know about my family?
Thank you Amanada!
As an American, I too am fighting the culture of ‘normal and comfortable’. I did a 10K road trip last summer, to be out of my ‘comfortzone’ and look forward to visiting Croatia.
I love the homes, the old world, and simple living plus I dream of white water rafting there!
You are a trend setter and you are doing a great job writing. (I am a writing hobbiest, that needs to focus, focus, focus!)
Thank you, TP (yes, we have tp in CA) hahahaha
Thanks for your comment, Tracey! I have only one thing to say: go write! Ooops, that was 2 words! 🙂