5 Years Living In Croatia As A Foreigner: What The Fuck Was I Thinking?
Jesus H. Christ. What the fuck have I done moving to and living in this Croatian insanity for the past five fucking years?
I never thought about the long-term realities of living in Croatia before packing up and leaving the sunburnt country I called home for 35 years.
Australia is the land of opportunities. Where government administration offices are open all day, without a ‘pauza’, and the staff can hand you a brochure with a complete list of what you need to know.
Before relocating to Croatia, I only daydreamed about the Croatian beaches, raising bilingual kids, having coffee with my newly-made Croatian friends, and living a European lifestyle.
Oh, how foolish I was.
How foolish I still am. After all, I am still living here.
Heels stuck in the sand, desperately trying to make it all work and often faking the easy-breezy coastal life, making it look like it all comes so naturally.
It does not. Not even close.
Croatia is flawed. This place is filled with nepotism. Bureaucracy gone mad – actually, sometimes, not even gone mad – often not even moving at all. Insane taxes. Bullshit builders. Workers who don’t show up on time – or never at all. A giant wind that’ll keep you housebound. Fake people are always trying to get you to blog about them for free. A place where on an almost daily basis, I have to justify my desire to live here. In some cases (like at my doctors’ office), I have to explain my rationale every visit.
So, you may ask, what in Gods name am I still doing living in Croatia?
I love it. That is why.
I love it in equal parts as much as I hate it.
Sometimes it does not sound like I do, but sincerely, I cherish Croatia. I am so thankful for my life here.
Kids are free to roam about. The playgrounds are plentiful and safe. In fact, the whole country feels safe; I have wandered the streets late at night and never once felt like a mugging was around the corner. The landscape is extraordinary – and right on my doorstep. I have made a family out of new friends. We are in the process of building an excellent business.
My travel blog, THIS BLOG, has become insanely popular (2.6 million page views in 2017, and already 1.3 million this year) – despite never getting a single shred of help or financial assistance from the Croatian National Tourist Board – I have asked several times. Still, alas they won’t help me in any way.
My good days are fantastic. The days spent with family and friends eating and laughing, seeing my kids happy, playing, and being loved by others, and traveling and exploring.
My meh days are when I barely manage to stay optimistic when faced with an onslaught of bureaucratic challenges, or when I spend days at a time alone without speaking to or hearing from a single friend, and all I can think about is calling my sister and telling her to pop over for a visit.
My dark days are rare. But sheesh, they are harsh. Being an expat is much harder than I ever imagined. I try never to speak of them, as they are the days when if spoken about, it is all people will focus on. I will hear people tell me to “go back home’, and that “nothing is stopping me.”
But there is one big problem with that. Something is stopping me. Croatia is my home now.
I can not imagine moving back to Australia.
Croatia is all my sons know. One came here when he was nine months old, and the other was born here.
I spent all my savings in building a (wonky-as-fuck) house. Despite the fact my windows and walls leak in the rain, and that the basement has been flooded three times, and more than one neighbor won’t speak to us, I can’t leave my home. I love it too much.
And more than that, I feel I have given too much, spent too long pushing forward to give up – not yet anyway. Each year that passes gets a little easier to adjust to the situations that might edge me toward those rare dark days.
I am a traveler and have to keep exploring, so maybe one day I will move away. But, there are no plans too, and I would say the same thing no matter where I live.
In my first year of living in Croatia as a foreigner, I had short bouts of depression and anxiety. I still have them, but they are small periods, not everlasting.
The first 24 months came and went very fast; in all honesty, I was so busy building this blog. Building a house and being a new mum. I wrote a post back in 2015 about my experience and remembered writing that:
Life abroad is fun. Life abroad is scary. Life abroad is rewarding. Life abroad is crazy. Life abroad is what you make of it.
I also wrote that when you make the ballsy-ass move and leave everyone you know, everything that is comfortable, known, and easy behind you and choose to throw caution to the wind and move abroad, there is stuff about the move that you simply can’t know until you’re ‘living the dream.’
Read any expat blog, and you pick up re-occurring themes of loneliness, adjustment periods, and exploration.
Back in 2015, when I wrote about my 11 struggles of being an expat, I thought I had come a long way in my first two years. Now, looking back over the past five, I laugh. The issues that held me back then still do, but I have grown as a person, and there are just some things I no longer care about.
Back then, I was always worried about being the ‘freak.’ I am ashamed to say, but this still holds true. I am often too shy to join new social situations, make new friends for fear of being a freak, and being rejected.
Then, of course, not speaking zero Croatian in my first two years was the primary issue. What the heck was I thinking of moving to Croatia without taking classes and learning this horrifically hard to learn the language? Like, der, rewind the clock and let me correct that colossal fuck up, please.
After five years, I no longer have sweaty palms and suffer from my heart racing when I walk into a store and need to find something. Shopping, coffee shops, and all necessary doctor appointments are now made in Croatian. Yay, go me.
Let me not kid you, and I am not fluent. Far from it, in fact. Notwithstanding many readers over the years telling me things like, ‘Oh I moved to Germany and became fluent in a year, so you should too’ or ‘Just watch Croatian TV and make more Croatian friends and you will learn,’ I have come to learn that I am a slow learner. So judge away as you will, but I am not fluent and often need help.
I deprioritized many things to focus on building this blog, and then having a new baby, and then starting a business… and oops, as a result, my language skills are way short of what they should be after five years. Even by my own standards, I am behind.
But you know what, imagine if I did not spend the time building a business model to maintain our life here as I have – and had instead focused on speaking the language and making more local friends, that would have all been in vain. I would have gone back to Australia, broke and with my tail between my legs. Admittedly that would have meant that I could have told the story of our failed Croatian adventure in Croatian – but for what?
I think I chose the correct linguistic path. Or, at least, that is what I tell myself. Only more time here in Croatia will tell. And, I plan many more years here. God willing.
Sorry Croatia, I promise to try much harder over the next five years about learning to communicate better. In fact, I restarted my Croatian lessons again a few weeks back, after an 18-month hiatus, and I was super impressed with myself for how far I have come. I completed the first few pages of the workbook with 98% accuracy – okay, so it was the beginner book, but, heck, five years ago, I knew zero on those pages. Literally not one question.
The daily game of charades I once played now is more like once a month. I had some tradesmen return to my house recently, and I held a small conversation with them in Croatian – and one commented that five years ago, I was unable to understand anything he said, which was in fact true. He smiled and seemed proud of me. Warmed my heart for days.
Three years ago, I missed my friends more than I ever could imagine – ack, that was damn painful. But now, I am just sad that I have lost so many of them. Thrilled with my new friends but uber sad deep inside, those relationships with my girlfriends that I once thought would last a lifetime now no longer exist. Not even on fakebook.
Way back then, I could not accept help. I remember once I had no power for four days when I was alone with a baby, and I had people offering to have us stay with them. I declined. I despised the idea of needing and accepting help.
Now, I can proudly say I take help. I even ask for help – and at one very low point, last year accepted more help from several friends that I could never have imagined I could. I realize that you need a community around you – no matter where you live – and even more so as an expat without any family of your own.
I have been back to Australia twice in 5-years and have zero desire to go again anytime soon. Not even for a vacation.
I don’t dislike Australia; I just don’t have a life there, as I do here in Croatia. I would not have the work experience to get my old job back. My kids would be in daycare all week, and I’d probably be stuck living out in Western Sydney again, with no access to the beach, cafes, and traveling opportunities like I do here. No thanks.
Instead, I encourage the family and friends I do speak to, to come instead to visit us here – we have a big house and live opposite the beach. Hint, hint.
And, when you come, please bring food – I miss so many Aussie treats.
I have declined many requests from Croatian TV, radio, and some print publications to interview us in the past three years. I had a horrible experience with one newspaper article that took what I said out of context and made the dumbest click-bait style headline – for which I was roasted – and still feel the effects of now. Since then, I have hardly written about my personal life – having two kids now makes me even warier in sharing details about my life.
Even this blog post took me weeks to write and days of editing before I was ready to click publish.
I also have declined many coffee requests from people who just moved to Croatia or were planning a move – as I did not want to expose myself and wanted to stay in my cocoon. But that’s slowly changing now. I feel more settled and ready to meet new people, which I now realize is essential for making Croatia home.
So, yeah, what the fuck was I thinking about moving to Croatia? I guess I wasn’t, but I am okay with that, as I do (mainly) relish the life I have here.
Living in Croatia is no picnic, but neither is living in a ‘richer’ country like Australia, so you just have to decide what is more important to you and go with that.
For me, I value working for myself for much less, being with my kids at the beach after work, and having time for coffee with my friends on a Tuesday, over a corporate career, driving a luxury car and $5 lattes which I only have time to enjoy on the weekends.
Tips For Moving To Croatia
Sigh, I really get sick of being asked this question because moving to Croatia is not the same for everyone.
That said, if you are planning to move to Croatia, do not take advice from anyone who does not live in Croatia 24/7 – 365 days a year – for at least a full year.
Anything less than a year (or two or three), they are too fresh to really know.
If they do not live here, 365 days a year, they have a skewed view of real life here.
I would say you REALLY need to be prepared. Come for at least six months, try it out, and do not come when it’s summer, sunny and everyone has pockets full of cash.
Come between November and April when the tourism and apartment money has been spent, and the weather is less than outstanding. Keep your eyes open, and be honest with yourself.
Don’t quit your job, pack a shipping container, or anything until you really know what you are in for. I have spoken to many people who returned after a failed attempt. They returned home almost always, as Croatia did not meet their unrealistic expectations about finding work, cost of living, etc.
Remind yourself that there is a reason that hundreds and thousands of Croats have moved abroad these past few years. This country can be a tricky place to live and survive – it is not for everyone.
Also, join all of the ‘expats in (city)’ Facebook groups (see below for the list of them), and start making connections with others who have situations like yours. Just don’t take anything that one person says as gospel. Not even mine.
Getting A Croatian Visa
Oh god, what a head fuck.
Getting a visa as a foreigner in Croatia is like winning a fluffy toy at the carnival – sure, it can be achieved, but it isn’t easy and will take many attempts. The only difference is it is free.
Oh wait, it is only free so long as you are from the EU. If not, be prepared to fork out thousands of Kune for the mandatory health insurance back payment fees. When you go to your local Hrvatski Zavod Za Zdravstveno Osiguranje (HZZO) office, you’ll discover that you have to pay for the 12 months you were not in the country. Ours was over 550 euro each.
The legislation is changing all the time, so be sure to ask at the Croatian embassy where you live – more than once. But, be warned, most embassies are hopeless. They don’t always know the current legislation, and what I have heard from many people over the years – many embassies just do not want to help new people move back to the motherland. Head straight to the Ministry of Police (MUP) when you arrive and start the lengthy process of getting your visa.
While we are on the topic of the MUP, be sure to take someone with you who speaks Croatian fluently. Even in the foreigner’s line, getting an English-speaking staff member is not always possible – and if it’s like the one in Zadar, the service will also be provided without a hint of trying to speak English.
My recent trip there to inquire about getting my citizenship was met with a deathly look of disgust; the women at the counter had to ask a colleague what the process was – and all they could agree on was that I should just come back when it expires and see what the rules are then.
Five years ago, I was told that once I made it to the 5-year mark, I could return to MUP and be given my Croatian citizenship. But now I am not sure. So, back I go in a few months to see what rules apply and have changed now. I am mentally preparing to take the citizenship test.
If you don’t speak Croatian, life will be tough. I know that everyone says that Croatians speak English – and they do, but not in all cases.
You’ll be able to communicate with the majority of people that are younger than 40. But even then, maybe the doctor just will refuse, and you’ll find yourself explaining your symptoms with hand gestures.
Croatian is a damn complex language to learn and even harder to speak correctly. Why must there be so many crazy grammar rules? I mean, seven noun declensions……
Please don’t leave it too late to take lessons, and get help. Trust me; you’ll need it.
I restarted my Croatian lessons and can genuinely say that life here would have been even more challenging had I not taken them.
The salaries in Croatia are very low when compared to most developed nations. Once you pay bills, rent an apartment, and buy food – not much is left over.
Now, on the other hand, if you have a salary from abroad, you’ll live like a King or Queen. If you plan to work locally, you’ll have to live like a local.
Eating out, traveling, or paying for services like a babysitter are affordable, so long as you earn more than minimum wage (or have those dollars from aboard on hand), otherwise you’ll be hard-pressed to get someone to look after your child. At the same time, you work, so you’ll need to enroll your kids in a kindergarten.
Want a job as soon as you arrive? Good luck. It’s not as easy as you think. Make your own plans to freelance or set up your own business if you need money straight away. Or else have savings to get you by until you can find work.
If you plan to move to Croatia with school-age children, then you’ll be happy to know that public education in Croatia is (almost) free. Just be sure to have money for lots of books and appropriate school clothing as there are no school uniforms.
Kindergarten (suitable for ages 1-6) is not mandatory, and while this is subsidized, it is not free and will set you back at least 600 kune a month, up to several thousand if you plan to go to the British kindergarten in Zagreb.
Primary school education is, of course, compulsory – that begins at seven years of age.
The secondary education system is vastly different from what I am used to in Australia, and I have yet to master its complexities, so be sure to ask people with kids the same age as yours how it all works.
Hmm, this one is tricky.
You can obtain primary healthcare all over the county no matter where you live. You’ll just wait. And wait, and wait. I have heard of people wait 6-12 months for an MRI. for 6 Months for a mammogram to check a breast lump. We waited four months for a specialist appointment for my newborn son.
That said, my son was treated with immediate and astounding care when he was born with serious complications. He spent several weeks in Zagreb in the NICU at the country’s best hospital – all expenses paid. The treatment of me was less than stellar (think plenty of tears and confusion), but I never once doubted the care he received.
He also spent a week in Zadar hospital, and I have zero complaints. Sure the place is old and run down, and I had to sleep overnight sitting up on a desk chair, but his medical treatment is what I would have received in Australia.
If you have a job, your employer will pay your essential healthcare contributions, and you can also pay a small amount extra to avoid paying fees when going to the hospital or each time you go to the doctor or dentist. If you do not work, budget around 400 Kune a month per person to pay for this.
BUT, and now this is the tricky part – getting access to this ‘free’ service (should you be eligible) is a royal pain in the ass. Leave around 2 or 3 days over three weeks to achieve the steps necessary to get access to this service, and then about another six months for your card to arrive in the mail.
My advice is to have a savings fund for emergency healthcare to go private. You can find blood tests, MRIs, doctors, dentists, etc., all over the country that you can see fast, provided you have money in that pocketbook.
As a rough guide, we paid between 200 and 300 Kune per appointment for private doctors to see my newborn son to avoid waiting months for the hospital to get him into an appointment.
Retiring In Croatia
Sigh. Yeah, yeah, Croatia is an excellent place to come to live out the end of your days. But really, where are all of the young families, singles, hard-working movers, and shakers? This aging country does not need any more grey-haired residents just sitting around—# SorryNotSorry.
Open a business, mentor, and contribute somehow, please – our country needs you.
What a place to live. After five years of traveling this magnificent country, I can tell you there is no shortage of things to do and new places to discover. And, when you are bored with Croatia, we have so many neighboring countries just waiting for your euros.
Visiting New Friends
You’d be hard-pressed to find any Croatian family where there is not an emphasis on family, friends, and with that food. Hospitality towards your guests is critical. Offering drinks, pre-meal snacks, a meal, a second helping, even a third helping, cake, coffee, and then more drink to your guests is a must. Then your responsibility in return is not to decline… ever. Saying no would be plain rude.
To avoid being rude (or, in some cases, being nagged), here is what I suggest you do:
- Take a small serving the first go, thus allowing plenty of wiggle room in your jeans for that second helping you will be required to consume. Failure to heed this warning will see you having to hear repeatedly how you are too skinny; you must be hungry, and so on.
- Your host may also use guilt to force you into a second helping. My favorite one (yes, I have become one of ‘them’) is “Oh, did you not like the food”? Boom! Host 1-guest 0.
If you have listened to this very sane advice, by this stage, you are still hungry, so when your hosts ask you to take another serving – you eagerly oblige. Everybody wins.
The tricky part is the third serving; you may want one, but chances are you’ve already indulged in two plates of Kiseli Kapus and yummy ribe sa žara, so when that time comes, you’ll need to be polite and say no thanks. If you want to show off, you can use the phrase “ne mogu više, hvala,” which means you can’t take (eat) anymore.
Word of warning: be sure not to overuse this phrase, as your hosts may come not to believe you.
The same people in Croatia who will tell you that you look fat and gained 10 pounds are also the same people you can call when you need help. And you will need it.
Be warned that the Croatians are brutally honest – some too much so for my taste – but you have to just roll with it for the most part. It will be worth it; my Croatian friends are worth their weight in gold – I treasure them dearly.
It is also the case that people can be such bullshitters. The plumber will tell you he will be at your house at 7 am, and by 10 am (if you are extra lucky), and you are into your second cup of coffee, he will knock on the door like nothing happened. Either that, or he will show up, have forgotten his tool, and say that he will be back tomorrow – which can quickly turn into a week. True story.
It’s always who you know. So, network. You will have to ask a lot of people for references and help along the way. We never networked at the start; it seemed so fake. But now I realize, here in Croatia, that old saying rings true, it is not what you know – but who. Don’t fight it; just go with it.
You will have to do many rubbish admin types jobs, just like you would any place in the world. But here, things are beyond disorganized.
While at government offices (and doctors), be warned. There are these breaks known as ‘pauza.’ It’s when the whole place goes on a lunch break, and you just have to wait the 30 mins till they come back. Do your homework, find out when they are, and avoid them like the plague.
If your request is out of the ordinary, or you need extra help, or the staff member is having a bad day, you’ll probably end up leaving in a bad mood and with nothing accomplished. I always assume that I can’t complete a task, and then if I do, it’s a win. But, usually, when I do not, I take myself to a cafe and shake it off, and try again in a few days.
- ECC Croatia
Racism in Croatia. I do not have any firsthand experience with it. I never confirm nor deny racism rumors in Croatia on my blog, social media, or any form. And I do not plan to start now. If you want to read a post covering both sides of the topic, I suggest you start here.
I normally love everything you write, but totally turned off by your title and using God’s name in vain like that. Sure as an unfortunate way to capture attention.
God knows who I am. I don’t have to defend my use of his name to you or anyone.
Why don’t you ask some people of colour about their experiences in Croatia? Maybe some of the refugees trying to get to west Europe.
Nobody gives a fuck what a bunch of niggers and parasitic mud people feel, the less of them in Croatia, the better for Croatia! Make them feel unwelcome as possible, so Croatia will stay a safe place.
Wow, I find this such a sad and xenophobic comment. I wish you more love and light in your life.
That racist comment summarizes mindset of a typical radical leftist Croatian. But don’t worry about those idiots, they are keyboard warriors and besides, there are plenty of good and honest people around you, thing is you just haven’t met them yet.
Btw SJ, telling you all this as someone who lived in Croatia for 35 years before moving just a bit to the west, and as someone who is planning to come back in coming years to open my own business and fight windmills once again;
you need to be more vigilant and aggressive with anyone and anything you face, whether it’s an institution, person or roadblock you face, that’s simply how we function.
Croatian people are generally VERY hot tempered people, we are extremely proud nation despite all the corruption and nepotism, we are jacks of all trades, we are loud, we are noisy, we love our food, we drink a lot, we always have fun, we can love and hate shit at the same time and we don’t care about other people opinions. Simple.
And to avoid any future problems similar to ones you already faced (f.ex. workers on your house) be loud, angry (you can fake that) and always have your stand, people will notice it and will treat you differently (in a good way ofc).
So my advice (since i personally know many English speaking expats living in Croatia and you all carry similar traits :) ), don’t be a cocky westerner although i have a feeling you are past that stage. But yeah, no one here likes that attitude. Act like a local, meet your neighbors, find common interests, try to bond with them in any possible way, ask for help, offer help, call them over for bbq, invite yourself to their place (that is normal here), go for a round of beers to city center etc. Croatian are generally knows for sticking together when needed so just be bit a more engaging and you’ll be fine. Also
And language is least of your problems, there are plenty beginner language courses and language learning groups and you can always pick up words and phrases on the go. Especially when your kids start school, it’s gonna be a piece of cake.
Croatia is so lucky to have you. Miss you.
Wow SJ – great post. You guys are amazing. What a journey and inspiration to pursue a sea change!! Xxx