First Year Living In Croatia: I Came Up Empty

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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.

We pulled up into the driveway, tired and hungry. It had been over 40 hours since we departed Sydney and arrived in our sleepy little village in rural Croatia.

I looked into my then 9-month-olds eyes and told myself, “that sick feeling in your stomach is from being sleep deprived and not self-doubt.” 

But I knew I was lying…

Fast forward twelve months. Yes, twelve, count them. One, two, three… okay, let’s not. You get my point.

Fifty-two weeks ago, we packed our bags, boarded the plane, and left behind family and friends. My blackened, puffy, swollen eyes were evident when I approached the mirror at the airport. 

I’d had many sleepless nights and cried many tears in the days leading up to my flight from the sunny skies of Sydney, Australia, to the even sunnier skies of Croatia. And now, I can hardly believe that I have been living in Croatia for a year.

Expat Dark Clouds_nature

We had a dream, a wish, a yearning for something different. We wanted to seek out a new adventure, and although it seemed like the right thing to do – that is move across the globe. I wondered, how could we be sure?

Can I do this? What have we done? Oh God, what have I got myself into? Am I really living in Croatia?

We could not be sure; only time would tell. So we said our goodbyes and let time pass by. And so far, it’s been good. It’s far too early to know if this is our forever home – we hope so, of course, but as in life with all things, there are no guarantees.

So What Have I Learned In My First Twelve Months Of Living In Croatia?

Honestly and embarrassingly, I feel I have let myself down in this regard. On reflection this past week, I came up empty.

I could not think of anything meaningful to say. I honestly thought I would, but I was blank; nothing sprang to mind. I figured I just needed to think about it some more. So I thought and thought. Yet, still, my mind was blank.

A few days passed, and I was interviewed by a Croatian journalist about my life as a foreigner living in Croatia. He asked me to describe how I have changed since living here…crickets. There was an awkward silence on the call.

I could not think of anything meaningful to say.

After apologizing to him, I did offer one thought; that after 12 months of residing here, I knew we were on the right path. Living in Croatia, even with the bureaucracy of the Croatian system, the never-ending delays to the house, and the fact that we are still no closer to Mr. Chasing the Donkey having a job in Croatia, that things were as they should be.

He seemed unimpressed. And I hated myself for a short moment. That is until I realized that although not profound or life-changing, knowing that we were in the right place was enough for me.

Picking up your life as you know it and living or traveling far away from your family and friends is hard.

Delving into your thoughts about how that experience has changed you is even more difficult, at least it is for me. So I spent a few days pushing myself to come up with something I had learned about myself. I needed to, so I could see if this time next year anything else had changed. After much reflection, this is what I have learned;

I Get More Lonely Than I Ever Thought I Would

Living in Croatia SJ on the balcony Croatia - Chasing the Donkey
Me one year on… more wrinkles, but happy.

I have never been one always to need to be around people. My best friends back in Australia will tell you that I can go weeks or months without speaking to them. They’ll also tell you; I love to be in my Pj’s and stay home for days on end.

Here, I realize just how much I miss picking up that phone when I feel like it. The timezone changes mean that speaking to family or friends via phone or Skype has a limited window of opportunity.

When that window closes, and I miss it, I feel much more lonely than I ever thought I would. I have cried on a few occasions, in all honesty, but I have never thought that I wanted to go home.

Brands We Use And Trust


I Care More About What People Think Of Me As A Person

Not in how I look or dress, but rather that I am seen to be trying to fit in.’ I wear what may as well be a neon sign around my neck that says foreigner, the freckles and my new reddish hair color screams foreigner, and as I explained to the journalist, I often feel like an animal in the zoo.

People look and stare, they know I am not from around here, and they are curious. So I want to, as much as possible, fit in. I would never have thought that about myself in my old life.  I don’t lie or cheat to fit in, but I do work hard at understanding the social norms and asking questions about what is and is not acceptable in certain situations.

For the most part, those things are the same as they are back in Australia, but I still have the urge to find out – to avoid a big faux-pax.

I Value The Dollar More

Croatia’s currency is the Kuna (well, it was now it is the euro), and boy, do I appreciate it more than I did 365 days ago. With Croatian monthly salaries being less than what I used to earn weekly, I am very aware of how far people here must make each purchase go.

Nothing goes to waste. Items are not replaced willy nilly. Christmas time is not a pile of plastic gifts from China with mountains of torn paper. I have never ever spent so little on new clothes, bags, and shoes.

I have never skipped nail, hair, or beauty treatments for the sake of my bank account. Here I do often.

Having realized this, I wonder how I would be able to go if I was back in Australia. Could I still forgo these things? I am not sure, but I don’t think so; I feel there is too high pressure.

I am sure there must be more; I can’t think of any. I feel like I am hiding something deep within myself; let’s see if I can find out before two years of living in Croatia passes me by.

If you’re an expat or long-term traveler, what did you learn about yourself along the way?

If you plan on becoming an expat, you’ll find this great list of resources compiled by fellow expat Farrah super useful.

Other Living In Croatia Posts

I asked other expats and long-term travelers what they learned about being away from the place called ‘home.’ Here is what they said.

Expat living Farrah photoMy family and I are quickly approaching the two-year mark of our first expat contract. We’ve found the Netherlands to welcome us as Americans so well- we recently decided to stay an additional three years. What I (and we) have learned being away from home is that first and foremost, home is where you make it and who you’re with. Being an ex-pat doesn’t make the reality of life disappear.  Being an ex-pat illuminates the traits that you already possess and makes them more vibrant. A friend once told me that to be a successful ex-pat, you can bloom where you’re planted. I’m happy to say that my little family and I make quite the garden. FarrahThe Three Under

Expat Living Amanda.jpgAfter having spent almost a year as an ex-pat, I’ve learned a few important lessons; culture shock is real, home is not a particular place. The US isn’t “THE best,” and there’s no replacement for Reeses’ Peanut Butter Cups! I’ve faced my own insecurities and come to terms with what it is like to be an immigrant – something that will forever alter my life view. I wouldn’t change this experience for anything, and while I don’t think there’s anything more I could have done to prepare, the hard parts were much harder than I ever could have imagined. I’m so grateful to have had a partner who could navigate the difficulties and understand what I was going through. AmandaMarocMama

Where's Sharon Expat LivingThe biggest thing I learned about myself during long-term travel was to trust myself – Trust my instincts, trust my preparation, trust my communication skills… trust everything!  My long trips did wonders for my self-confidence, and I have always returned home feeling more self-reliant, self-confident, and self-assured. SharonWhere’s Sharon


When I arrived in Mexico last December after almost 24 months of being away, I began to understand fully how much traveling has of expat Living Raphael Alexander Zorenwhat we have here in my land instead of taking it for granted as I always did before. When my feet touched the sandy shore of Acapulco Bay for the first time in years, tears ran down my face as I remembered the beaches I visited abroad and how I’ve always ignored the beauty of my hometown. Some people say traveling makes you richer, others than moving makes you smarter. Me? I must say that travel has made me more humble. Raphael, A Journey of Wonders.

expat living sam.jpgAfter being away from home for nearly two years, I can say that I learned quite a bit about myself. I’ve always been a naturally quieter person. After diving into a foreign culture and language, I found out that I actually can handle awkward situations better than I thought! I’ve had several awkward cultural moments or language barrier issues, but I was proud of myself for handling them with a little bit of grace and charm and didn’t let them affect me. I guess I don’t get as embarrassed as I used to! Samantha, My Tanfeet

Expat Living OlgaSometimes, when you think you want one thing, you’ll end up getting another, and it’s going to be the best thing that happened to you. I never wanted to leave Poland, but here I am in the Netherlands, with a husband from somewhere else. And I feel like I belong here. I’ve never belonged anywhere, but I feel at home here. Olga, The European Mama

expat Living CorinneLiving away from home and all the comforts of family and familiarity, I have learned that all people are the same no matter where they live. Instead of worrying about strangers, I am the stranger and love to meet people wherever I roam. While traveling, I rely on the kindness of strangers quite a bit. I don’t hesitate to ask the person sitting next to me on the park bench where the best restaurant for home-cooked food is found. I love to jump out of my car to meet the man driving his donkey cart down through the middle of town or start up a conversation while photographing the tea-picking ladies. Corinne, Reflections Enroute

Expat living JamesTraveling in a foreign land long-term helped bring me a new perspective about what’s imperative in life. It also forced me to leave my comfort zone I’d known my whole life to learn a new language, discover a new culture, eat different foods, and interact with people whose lives are very different from my own. I now know that I can spend time apart from familiar faces and places and not only survive but thrive. James, Escaping Abroad


By living abroad for the last eight years, I’ve learned to be way more self-reliant and believe in myself. There were many situations in which I thought I could have been helped out, but things did not work out. I’ve also taught myself how to flexible and courageous. I’ve learned to take advantage of every fantastic opportunity that presents itself, trying not to be scared. Also, I guess by not having a stable home – sharing a room when on a budget, I have become able to sleep under any circumstances. There could be a party going on around me, and I can sleep peacefully. Anna, Anna Everywhere


expat living loisAfter three years in Poznan, there’s a part of Poland that I want to take home with me. My life here is simpler and richer. That might sound like a contradiction, but it’s not. We get by with a lot less stuff. Life moves at a slower pace. There is more time for connecting with people.  It’s OK to stop and smell the roses; it’s expected. There’s time for relaxation and sport, and that’s expected too. Can this attitude be incorporated into my life in the States, or will it be like trying to swim upstream? Only time will tell. LoisPolish Housewife

Comments (84)

  1. I’ve never been an expat, but I can imagine that it must feel isolating and alien at times. Do you feel that time is passing at a different pace in Croatia at all – faster or slower?

  2. I think what you learn from living somewhere is hidden in the finer details of daily life. Not readily accessible nor easily put into words as you live it each moment and it is in every small movement. That’s what I’ve found being an expat in the Arctic.

  3. Interesting perspectives from you and the other expats. I bet is it hard to not be able to connect with your friends/family due to the time zones. I have a hard enough time getting a hold of my east coast friends as I live on the west coast of the United States!

  4. A lovely introspective post, SJ. Trying to fit as much as possible is one of the most challenging aspects of expat life and it sounds like you are making the effort. The reflections of other travelers were great to read, as well – I really enjoyed Raphael’s story. I recently hit my longest period of time ever outside the US (8.5 months now) and can relate to a lot of this! Thanks so much for sharing.

  5. It can be a tough life can’t it this expat one? But you are right, it’s not the massive changes you expect that don’t usually happen that matter, but the small ones that do happen frequently that mean the most…

  6. I became an expat at 17, I left home in such a way that my family were not supporting me and it was a fair while before I talked to them. I kept in touch with a few friends, but not many. I, very literally, cut and run when I moved. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and at the time felt right- and it must have been because I would never be the person I am today if I hadn’t done it. It is lonely and scary, for sure, but it’s not until you come home and see the differences and the things that matter here as opposed to there that you realise how lucky you are. Plus I think I was too young to appreciate it. Now I’ve been back in the UK five years- a year longer than I lived in Fuerteventura- and I know that I’d do it all over again.

  7. The expat experience is a really challenging one to define. In my experience, it was hard to measure up positives and negatives until it was over and I moved back home. It was an emotional roller coaster at times, happiness one day and homesickness the next. It makes us all what we are, though.

  8. What a great post to read, as a fellow expat! I definitely get the loneliness and the animal at the zoo mentality. But I wouldn’t swap it for anything!

  9. I have been an international student, an expat and a foreign local (that is, living in a different city in my own country) and yes, it is definitely hard. Good post, SJ :)

  10. I’m an American who has been living in Malaysia for almost 3 years, and I think that it’s a big accomplishment for any expat to not desperately wish that they were back at home. So, good for you! It’s been hard for me to be away from my family as I used to live only a few hours drive away but am now 13 time zones apart. Not being there during deaths and illnesses has been the hardest part. Those are the times when Skype is no substitute for being there in the flesh. On the positive side, I’ve really been able to become more of a risk taker and less worried about the unknown.

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