11 Struggles Of Being An Expat In Croatia

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Post author SJ

Written by our local expert SJ

Sarah-Jane has lived in Croatia for 10+ years. SJ, as she is known, has been traveling the Balkans & beyond since 2000. She now shares her passion for traveling with her husband & kids.

It has been a life-changing 24 months since I moved to Croatia. The anniversary date actually came and went without any fanfare.

I forgot.

I only just realized this week when someone asked me how long I had been living in Croatia.

Life abroad is fun.

Life abroad is scary.

Life abroad is rewarding.

Life abroad is crazy. 

Living abroad is what you make of it.

It’s cliche (and you all know how much I love a cliche), but heck, it’s damn true.

When you make the ballsy-ass move and leave everyone you know, everything that is comfortable, understood, and day-to-day behind and throw caution to the wind and move to Croatia, there is stuff you can’t know until you’re ‘living the dream.’

What that stuff is can be different for everyone, but read any expat blog, and you pick up re-occurring themes of loneliness, adjustment periods, and exploration.

Struggles Of My Expat Life

Balkan Flags_Croatia 1

1. I Am Always The Freak

I knew people would ask me why I moved to Croatia and if I missed home. I just never in a million years would have thought that even after two years of living in Croatia, people would still ask me ‘why’ over and over.

It gets exhausting.

Really, why can’t people ask me about who I am, what I love, and who I want to be?

Instead, whenever I meet new people, I spend far too long justifying explaining my move. Then, after a prolonged explanation attempting to prove that I am not totally and utterly insane, I am exhausted and can’t always be bothered with the small talk.

Recently I was introduced to someone; the very first thing that she said, was why do you want to live here? With a real emphasis on here.

Sick of hearing that same statement or variations of it,  and so annoyed that she did not even say hello, or give me a chance to ask her what her name was, I snapped and responded in a snarky tone ‘because ‘I am insane, that’s why!

It was the straw that broke this donkey’s back!

It makes me feel like a freak. I’ve become so self-conscious about it.  I guess the other contributing factor is here in Croatia; the economic situation has not been so good for an extended period of time which means that more people are leaving Croatia than there are fewer freaks people like me moving here, so I try to tell myself it’s not personal.

I really hope that it’s not personal. It’s something that I am still trying to understand.

2. I Can’t Speak

Learn How to Speak Croatian - Croatia Travel Blog

I used to be funny.

No, really, I used to be able to make people laugh. Now I can just safely string enough sentences together to hold a conversation with the lady at the supermarket to fool her into thinking I understand 100% of what she is saying. But it’s not enough.

I can’t express myself. I have family that helps me often, particularly the Aunt and Uncle we live with while our house is being built – and I loathe how I can’t show my sincere gratitude in more ways than saying hvala (thanks) or hvala puno (thanks a lot).

I want to say warm and fuzzy things like thank you so very much for always being there for me; it means the world to me. Instead, I give big hugs and say hvala puno.

The other suffocating factor of not speaking the language is in the playground. The Little Donkey and I spend a lot of time at parks and playgrounds, and I wish with all my heart that I was able to spark up small talk with the other Mums.

If I could, maybe I’d have more friends (or perhaps not). Instead, I smile awkwardly and whip out my phone or walk over and pretend to help the Little Donkey. So lame, I know.

Check out the challenges of language during our homeschooling coronavirus lockdown.

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3. A Daily Game Of Charades

Zagreb Spiza And Coffee - With Flag

You know how the game of charades goes: you hold up two fingers, everyone shouts back two words. You open and close your hands, and immediately everyone knows you’re talking about a book.  

Then you begin waving your hands about and flailing your body in different directions in order to get everyone to guess the two words in your book title.

Now, imagine that daily. Only this time, you’re allowed to use words (well, just the few you know in Croatian), and instead of just two words, you need to come up with a whole story.

Sound like fun?

Daily, I find myself trying to communicate with my 70-year-old  landlords. They know a few English words, most of which they learned from spending so much time with the Little Donkey. It goes like this:

I say a few Croatian words to make a sentence no better than my two-year-old forms; then I get stuck. I don’t have the word I need. So, I wave my arms about and play a game of charades and hope they know what I am talking about.

They don’t.

So they say a few words, trying to help me and return the arm waving and wait for me to understand.

I don’t.

I whip out my iPhone and type into Google Translate the one missing word in the conversation.

Sometimes it works, other times it all fails, and we smile an awkward smile and shrug it off.

4. I Miss My Friends More Than I Ever Could Imagine

Suppose you’ve been away from all of your friends for a long time, you know exactly what I mean. If you have not, you might be like me and think you’ll do fine without them.

Missing my friends was not high on my worry list before I moved. Yeah, I knew I’d miss them. But not this much.

5. Family Means More To Me Than Ever Before

Sometimes being an expat in Croatia, it’s an utter nightmare. For me, my nightmare is not having our family around. I feel guilty about my son not having his Aunts and Uncles around to play with him.

I feel sad that his Grandparents don’t get to witness his firsts and spoil him like they’re supposed to.

That said, I’m grateful to what family and friends we do have here; you all know who you are.

6. I Can’t Accept Help

Now that I have a few great friends who have made this journey so beautiful, I can’t lose them. They mean so much to me. So, when they offer help, I cringe. I don’t want to be a pain. I don’t want them to think I am using them or taking advantage of their kindness, so instead, I rarely accept help.

Asking for help has to be the absolute last straw-like when I ended up in the emergency room, Mr. Chasing the Donkey was not in town, and I needed clothes.

I texted my dear friend for help. As soon as I clicked send, I hated myself. I hated that I was unable to find a solution on my own. She came to the rescue and was glad to help, but I don’t want to ask again for help anytime soon.

7. Going Home Was Not Fun

Croatia vs Australia - Chasing the Donkey

I went back home to Australia at Christmas time. It wasn’t as impressive as you would think.

I felt like it was not home anymore. I missed my life in Croatia. And, I was still a freak. People were again asking me if we planned to stay away or when we planned to come home.

Then there was the awkwardness,  I felt like I have changed, and I struggled to connect in the same way I had done just 18-months earlier. I loved seeing everyone, and I want them to come here now as I am not planning or even looking forward to going back anytime soon.

8. I Miss The News

Real news, not the pop-culture rubbish I can watch on E! Entertainment. I’m talking real news about politics, policies, and all that jazz.

There is a great site we love to read that has news about Croatia in English; the only downside is it lacks nitty-gritty details about politics – and everyooooooooone here knows something about politics. Even teenage boys. I am so clueless, and google translate just does not cut the mustard.

9. My Blog Is My Saviour

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Without my blog, I’d probably be super depressed. I left a super-busy-super-creative job to have a baby. I then took that tiny baby and moved to a small village.

And, while walks along the beach and traipsing about the olive grove is all kinds of fun that I can’t live without – when the Little Donkey sleeps, or on those rainy days, I need my blog. I did it at first because I liked it, and now I blog because I NEED IT.

My travel blog provides both a creative outlet for me and will soon be turning into a series of new business adventures that will hopefully pay the bills.

So thanks, thanks for being a part of my sanity for the past two years.

10.  Pictures On Facebook Make Me Cry

Weddings, christenings, birthdays, heck, just photos of your girls’ night out cuts me up. Deep. I want to be in those photos. I want to be the one holding my newborn nephew, not seeing some third cousin oohing and ahhing over him on my newsfeed. *wipes the tears* 

11. I Miss Shopping

Online shopping. Click, click, credit card, click. Hello, brown package in the mail.

I was addicted a regular user of internet shopping when I lived in Australia. I had everything delivered from the groceries to handmade baby clothes and everything in between.

Now, not so much. Now, so many places don’t even have Croatia on their approved shipping list – including far-too-many items in Amazon that I want but can’t have. Not precisely a struggle as the title would suggest, more of a massive-pain-in-the-ass.

All That Whinging Aside – I Would Not Change Any Of It

Don’t hate me for saying this, but as much as I feel like a freak and that I can’t speak, I’m still proud of myself.

Because I never thought about just how hard so many things would be, and I have not (yet) given up. Had I been given a crystal ball and seen just how difficult life would be in a foreign land, I may not have moved.

After 24 months of having periods feeling alone and sad, which is more than I ever have in my whole life combined (which includes being a reject all through high school), I have learned a lot about myself and what I want from life.

I love what we are shaping here and am very excited about our new business ideas and our life in Croatia.

Have you ever been an expat in Croatia or someplace else? What struggles did you face – and did they go away?

Comments (134)

  1. Great article SJ. Thanks for sharing. As i read it, i sat smiling, nodding, knowing and secretly, guiltily happy that there’s someone else out there going through the ups and downs of choosing to live so far away from home and family. You nailed it girlfriend

  2. My greatest struggle: where to find kiseli kupus to make some sarma for Nova Godina party ;) No, seriously, I miss food, fresh fruit, fish and other goodies that became luxury in the country of plenty. You can’t have it all!

  3. always enjoy your posts and blog. One question(food for thought): why are English speakers referred to as “expats” while everyone else is an “immigrant”?

    1. I always just called myself an expats as I don’t have residency here. I only use immigrant for the people who have residency… maybe I am wrong??

    2. There’s a massive debate over the use of “expat” versus “immigrant.” Considering the nature of the argument and the overlapping definitions, I don’t think it’ll ever end.

      I believe the general consensus is that an expat is someone temporarily living in a foreign country while an immigrant is more or less permanent. However, the term “expat” in this regard is often misused.

      I refer to myself as an expat because it is the most commonly used term that I’ve come across. However, I also still hold permament residence in the U.S., technically work in the U.S., and pay taxes in the U.S.

      1. Yes, I agree with you. And if you were non-white, you’d be an immigrant. :)
        I immigrated to the States from Croatia, moved to Germany for a few year as an expat (although I was born in Germany as an immigrant I guess?!), and now live in Canada as an “immigrant” (my wife and I joke about it).

  4. I understand this all too well. I lived in Germany for 11 years and although my language skills got much better, I still was an outsider. I always felt like someone had plopped me down to play a board game in the middle of the game, and no one would explain any of the rules. Germany is a beautiful wonderful country to visit. For a creative American it gets pretty stifling to try to live there and fit in their box.

    On the other hand, coming back to the states had it’s challenges too. I miss the world news, because frankly what passes for news in the US is crap. I have a different view of the world than most people in the Midwest. I think that’s why I am so drawn to travel bloggers.

    Keep writing your blog because we love it! Thank you for the honest post.

  5. What a brutally honest, thoughtful post. Thank you for sharing it. All of the hurdles you describe likely are the reasons others – including me – are not brave enough to follow in your footsteps. I love the idea of immersing myself into a new culture, but only for short periods, a few weeks at most. It takes real strength of character to take the bigger bolder step that you have taken.

    When people ask you “why,” likely it is motivated both by curiosity and admiration for taking the less-traveled path. When they ask “why,” a part of them is wondering “why can’t I do that, what does she know or trait does she have that I don’t.” Both questioning you but also questioning themselves. (And life is a series of phases, and who knows what you will feel in Year 3 or 5 or 6?)

  6. Yes, to aII of this. I Ieft New York City in 2009 to move to…. (drum roII pIease)…. GREECE! As soon as I open my mouth to say anything in Greek I instantIy get asked, ‘Where are you from’? The foIIow up comment is aIways something Iike ‘oh did you move because you feII in Iove with a Greek man’? And when I shockingIy answer ‘NO! I moved because I reaIIy, reaIIy wanted to Iive in Greece’, the conversation goes down in fIames. Not onIy have I had to ‘defend’ my decision as if I were on triaI but I’ve aII but been caIIed an idiot from my feIIow Greeks. In spite of my ‘untimeIy’ move, I have never had any regrets. Yes, it’s difficuIt adapting, absorbing and accepting the cuIture shock and every singIe point you make is spot on, but at the moment I wouIdn’t have it any other way. You think pictures on Facebook make you cry? My mother skyped me during EVERY famiIy event, hoIiday dinner or miIestone I missed the first year I was away – she thought it was a cute way to have me invoIved. :) SiIver Iining about Iiving in Greece; Croatia is onIy about 2 hrs away and I am so Iooking forward to my visit!!!! Thanks for this great post.

  7. Oh SJ. I get it. I get it WAY more than youll ever know. You’ve lasted 24 months & thats an amazing accomplishment. You should be very proud of yourself and the example you’re setting for your son.

  8. Great read! Just thinking, I don’t think i have ever asked any expats in australia why they are here lol. If they are asking u over there im assuming it might be to do with the economic situation over there, compared to that in australia. I don’t think it would be personal, especially if they don’t understand all the deeper reasons for your journey ☺

  9. I really relate to what you’ve written SJ – we’ve been in Italy for almost a year with our 3 kids, and it’s challenging.

    However, our kids have just about finished their first year of school in Italian! As much as I miss home (Oz), I am so proud of how far they’ve come. It makes it feel all worthwhile. They didn’t know how to string a sentence together in Italian before we left Oz, and now they are fairly fluent.

    I too get asked often, “Why did you choose to come here?!” I usually laugh it off, but I have my honest comeback down pat, “For the experience, for the kids to learn another language, and for them to strengthen their bonds with their relatives overseas” – no one tends to argue with that!
    Do you get asked the comparison question?! Which country is better?!
    I do, and usually (and honestly) say, “Italy and Oz are so diverse, you can’t compare them.

    You may enjoy reading this fun article I read recently:
    21 Struggles Of Just-Sort-Of-Kind-Of Speaking A Second Language:

    Loving your blog – keep it up!

    P.S. Are you able to take any structured Croatian language courses?
    (My parents are Croatian, so I can appreciate the challenges of learning Croatian)

    1. We travelled back & forth from Oz to Croatia with & without kids many times since my first visit in 1997 when I fell in love with the country. The one time I enrolled in a structured language course… I almost lost my sanity – damn hard language to learn academically! I’m bilingual, English is my second language, Spanish my language of origin, I speak some French and Italian. But Croatian… The homework brought me to tears night after night. The best way for me was simply to keep on keeping on, lived in Croatia for a year, one day the penny will drop. At first you will find that you begin to understand, then words will come. You will not look back

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