10 Things a Teacher Learned by Teaching Croatian

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”The teacher and the student constantly switch places” – I remembered that wise sentence while I was impatiently sitting in front of professor Maria, waiting for my first Italian language lesson to start.

Finally! I was thinking to myself, gazing proudly at my brand new fancy pink notebook, and a sharpened pencil, I get the chance to be a student, to sit down, just relax and let somebody teach ME a foreign language!

I’m pretty sure that, by the end of that lesson, professor Maria thought that I was completely out of my mind because I was enthusiastically grinning at every Italian word she uttered. Not to mention the fact that I gave her a big hug at the end of the class!

You see, teachers don’t often get an oportunity to be students. Or do they? Come to think of it, over these years of teaching Croatian, I have indeed learned a lot.

Let’s have a look…

First there were the time zones

Teaching Croatian online to students from all over the world, I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland at first, trying to discover what time it is in different parts of the world.

It feels a bit bizarre when you start your Tuesday morning at 6:30 saying ”good evening” to your Californian students in San Diego!

Soon, though, I developed this mental image in my mind – like those huge wall clocks simultaneously showing the time in Tokyo – Paris – London. In the blink of an eye, I could tell you the time in Johannesburg, Melbourne, or Detroit. And that was all right. Untill that early spring Monday occured…

…And then there were the daylight savings times

There was one particular Monday in the early spring, when I got a very concerned text from my US student. He was worried about me because I didn’t come to the lesson that morning.

”I waited for you for one hour, just let me know everything is alright!” he said.

It took some common sense and a bit of Googling that day – and I learned that Americans change their daylight savings time just a few days earlier than we do. Over the next few days, I caused quite an overseas time confusion. Eventually, I found out that South Africans haven’t cared about daylight savings since 1944, and that not all Canadians change the time equally. I’m not even going to mention how long it took me to realise what they do with time in Australia.

Skandinavian lessons – Jantelagen and Systembolaget

One of my rules is never to teach my students how to swear in Croatian. They can acquire that in one short tram ride through Zagreb. But I myself have picked up some interesting swear words on the way, for example from Swedish! However, that’s not all I’ve learned from the Scandinavians.

We Croatians have many good qualities, but modesty and self-restraint are not among them. So, if by any chance in your Croatian life you come by a huge amount of money – your first task is – making sure your neighbour knows it. You’d obviously buy yourself a flashy red car, some flamboyant trendy outfit and put on huge designer sunglasses while driving through the neighbourhood. Let them see that you’re more successful than them!

Imagine my surprise when Anna, my Swedish student explained to me that Scandinavians have an unwritten social rule called Jantelagen which states that bragging about your affluence and showing off is considered inappropriate.

”Oh,” I replied. We can do that in Croatia too…” – I defended my nation.

As long as your house is taller than your neighbour’s by at least one storey and you can occasionally drive your new flashy BMW really fast in front of their house – I see no problem with Jantelagen!

Systembolaget is another Skandinavian word that puzzled my mind. As I came to find out, in Norway and Sweden, you can only buy alcohol in specialised stores called Systembolaget. I can understand that. But those stores do not exist in small towns or villages. That I find slightly problematic!

– Hm! – let me understand this – I told Ulrika, who lives in a little village in the south of Sweden, and who has revealed this rather unusual fact to me.

– So, if on Saturday night you want to have a glass of wine, you cannot go to the first supermarket or kiosk and buy it ? – I was puzzled.

– No! – Ulrika said – You just need to plan on buying it in advance. How am I supposed to know that I will need that glass of wine on Saturday – I still have no idea.

But Systembolaget and Jantelagen are not the only thing(s) that distinguish Scandinavians from Croatians.

I’ve learned quite a number of things about Sweden, as well. One of them is how to play Monopoly in Swedish with my kids. That Swedish swear word helped me in this regard!

A few things on barefoot kids…

When we are on the subject of kids, I have to thank my American student Amanda who thaught me that:
– babies can actually survive room temperature below 27 degrees celsius
– they will not freeze if a breeze touches their cheeks
– and, that kids are the happiest growing up – barefoot!

That was quite liberating after spending years yelling at my children: Put your slippers on! You’ll catch a cold!

American cookies and Croatian pies

I’m not embarassed to say that Amanda also taught me how to to make the best American chocolate chip cookies. But I’m a little ashamed to admit that she taught me how to bake the best traditional Croatian pie ever!

Yes, you read that right! A Croatian pie. I’m not much of a cook, you see. My dream of a perfectly cooked meal takes place in a traditional kitchen. I’m sitting with a glass of wine in my hand, watching some guy cooking that meal.

I’ve also learned that:

In Italy, the worst fashion crime you can commit is wearing sandals with socks.
Americans put their Christhmas tree up way before Christmass, and the Polish, unlike Croats who get rid of their tree in the first week of the New Year – keep it up until February.
In general, Swedish people like to avoid conflicts, and unlike Croats, who love to argue about anything from sports and politics to parking places – believe that compromise – is the key to happiness.

Anna was very surprised finding out that, living in Croatia, sometimes you just have to pick an argument with the waiter to get your order!

– We don’t like conflict! We haven’t been involved in a war in 200 years! – she complained to me.

I’ve learned that not all New Yorkers live in high grey-coloured buildings on noisy Manhattan avenues. Some of them live in romantic little villages covered with snow and travel to and from work in romantic trains.

I’ve learned that the worst gastronomic crime in Italy is to order pizza with pineapple on top of it.

Sometimes students teach you more than you teach them. I realised that years ago, working in a small town high school. I was a young Croatian teacher preparing a huge school graduation ceremony with my teenage pupils. We made a movie about the school that was supposed to be shown on stage. Minutes before the grand opening, we spread our projector screen and noticed a big patch on it! I started panicking.
But then, one of my pupils just said: Professor, don’t worry about it! We all have patches on our souls!

By working with people from all over the world, I’ve learned that being so different in fact makes us all the same.

Sure, we laugh at different jokes, order our coffee differently and eat different food, but inside, we’re all happy and sad, funny and serious, scared and brave and carry a patch on our souls – which makes us both unique and the same.


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