Adventures of a British Expat in Rijeka: Pools, Chestnuts and Inappropriate Gestures

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If Croatia was a person, I feel I would immediately fall into a state of lust: Beautiful, complicated and filled with mystery. Do I think I’m the sort of woman that can tame Croatia? Crack its complexities? Create a loving harmonious relationship where we can sit in silence, watch the sunset and know exactly what one another is thinking? …..NO. But I can still enjoy all it has to offer for my stay, and hope I can give something back.

I have been living in Croatia for 6 weeks now and culturally it is important for me to remember I am not on the Moon and live a mere 2-hour plane journey away from home, but it is the differences in Croatia that fascinate me and I seem to learn by making mistakes – many mistakes. Having adopted a diet of a northern British comedian in the 70s (beer, cigarettes and fried everything), I decided I must start looking after my physical health and inquired about nearby swimming facilities. Wow! An Olympic-sized swimming pool a 15-minute bus ride away; Rijeka really does have everything one needs! Just by touching my swimsuit I immediately felt thinner. On the bus ride I started to get very excited about my affirmative action to go for a swim and started to imagine the future me at an international swimming competition: “Oh I owe it all to the number 1 bus and Kantrida pools, the facilities were amazing. Thank you number 1 bus, thank you Kantrida, thank you Croatia.” I was quickly jolted out of my daydream when I was jabbed on the arm by a man who had kindly said he would let me know where my stop was.

I walked up to the pool receptionist with confidence, smiling like a lunatic, thinking ‘Yes, I’m choosing to exercise by choice’, and feeling amazing as the smell of chlorine filled my nostrils and I knew I was in the right place. As I left the changing rooms to enter the pool I saw some blue plastic covers by the side of the pool and thought ‘oh swim caps, are they mandatory, do I have to wear one? The receptionist didn’t mention this, oh god what do I do?!!’ Suddenly I felt very panicked as this was a spanner in the works to my professional swimming dream. Do I wear one or not? I picked up a blue plastic cover and decided to look in the pool to see who was wearing one on a Tuesday at noon. Unfortunately, all the people who were swimming at that hour where bald men, 11 bald men bobbing around in the water like boiled eggs. I thought this bald party of swimmers does not help me with my dilemma. For fear of not wanting to offend anyone I placed the blue cover on my head and nervously chose a lane in the pool. As I started to swim it filled with water and began to form a slimy smurf-like hat. I was so concerned with making the plastic cover work and not offending anyone that I continued to fill and empty the hat after each length. I thought Croatians were meant to be bloody good at swimming, how are they meant to get any swimming done with all this emptying business? I figured it must be a design problem and that I had chosen a bad cover. Adamant I did not want to offend anyone, I persevered with my new smurf hat. I decided it was time to leave and as I was getting out the pool, I saw a man put two of them on his feet. I realized it’s a foot cover to protect the spread of foot fungus. My thought process looked like this: OH… Oh right… Yes, that makes sense. HA HA HA HA. You need to leave… Now. I found myself feeling very red and then laughing whilst quickly trying to exit the pool. I thought ‘I’m bloody nuts, my desire to do what I thought was culturally sensitive had completely over ridden my common sense and led me to swim for 45 minutes with a slimy smurf hat on my head.’

I am yet to return to the pool, as I feel I have adapted to the drinking culture far more easily than the sporting one. Over the past few weeks I have met quite a few Croatian people and I have to say I really love how hospitable and friendly they have been. I only realized how much I loved Croatians when I hung out with some English people for the first time in over a month. I had 2 guests staying for Airbnb, two young English girls travelling. I wanted to take them under my wing so I offered to take them out and share all my knowledge. Unfortunately, the only knowledge I have accumulated is ‘don’t put foot covers on your head when swimming’, and regarding having a wild night out, this knowledge is of minimal value. It was a really busy night at the River Pub and I wanted to order them some rakija which I have become accustomed to and now love. But at the time, I had completely forgot what it was called and I was leaning over the extremely busy bar shouting in loud obnoxious English: “a shot, yeah a shot of honey stuff, yeah, what, nooo I don’t know what it’s called”, so I simulated doing a shot which also sort of looked like I was gesturing to her for a blowjob. Unsurprisingly, my first attempt to get the shot over AC/DC playing was unsuccessful. The woman at the bar got someone else who happened to be a very attractive man, so I decided against my gesturing as one doesn’t want to be too forward in these situations. He understood my description and managed to get some shots. After the shot, I thought GOD I MISS MY CROATIAN FRIENDS. I have really started to enjoy being a guest and lazily just sitting there whilst they order and be very nice to me making an effort to speak English which is generally very good.

Since I’ve arrived, I have found the people to be very welcoming. My exploits in Croatia so far include a cave walk in Lokve Municipality and a chestnut festival in Lovran. Croats really know how to celebrate the chestnut and truly appreciate nature’s bounty. A highlight of the chestnut festival was a female folk band show; during the performance one of the ladies held up a giant cardboard chestnut and raised it high above her head. It reminded me of the famous scene in Lion King, when Rafiki presents Simba on Pride Rock for the first time. ‘All hail the chestnut!’ It was beautiful, and in that moment I thought I had neglected chestnuts my whole life and this was a moment of change.

I was then invited to dinner which turned into karaoke where I sang a song called Mala Chi Chi – a classic 90s Croatian song. I found the video fascinating as a man dances for a minute with a chainsaw – I have never seen such a thing and thought more music videos need a man lovingly dancing with a chainsaw.

It was at this dinner party I discovered first hand that if you leave your bag on the floor you will always be poor, and that if you sit at the corner of the table you will never get married. As someone who always leaves their bag on the floor and will sit anywhere at a table I find this to be a fiercely accurate prediction for the future. Although I live with optimism, being broke and unmarried seems pretty on point, but I have a newfound appreciation for the chestnut so… peaks and troughs.


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