Adventures of a British Expat in Rijeka: What Are You Doing Here?

Total Croatia News

Moving to a foreign country can be a lonely experience, especially when one doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t have a tight-knit circle of friends as a support group. How to cope with the challenges of living in Croatia as a foreigner? A couple of thoughts on getting accustomed to Croatia from Dora the British expat

What are you doing here? This is a question that I am asked daily by EVERYONE during my time in Croatia. Every time I get asked this question, I have a small internal existential crisis and question why I am alive. To cover up this little breakdown and all the existence-questioning I smile, wide-eyed, and am usually surprised by my own response, as even though I am an an actor I have not come up with a well-rehearsed answer. Potential answers include ‘because I like having 70mph winds blow me off a new face’ and ‘because I really like being foreign and having no idea what anyone is saying 98 percent of the time’. A particular answer I used recently was at a moustache competition; being asked ‘what are you doing in Croatia?‘ by a young man, over the loud music I drunkenly shouted in his ear ‘I have come here for this moustache competition to talk to you’. Naturally, in my drunken stupor I thought this was a fantastic answer. He seemed slightly afraid.

I was getting a coffee before work and a waiter asked me “what are you doing here, are you an Erasmus student?” I explained that I’m working here as I got a job; his response was to laugh, then look confused, then look impressed. Facially it was a real treat to witness. He said “you got a job here, no one gets a job here, everyone’s leaving” and he seemed genuinely surprised, which is the overall feeling I get from a lot of people. Many of them seem confused as to why I would move to Rijeka and every time they look at me with their confusion I feel it bolt straight to my brain. Ultimately this confusion permeates around my body and I end up walking around like a radiating ball of confusion. If you see a confused British girl walking around Rijeka looking like she’s having an existential crisis, that’s me. I will usually have a burek in one hand and a copy of ‘How to survive Rijeka as a crazy English girl’ in the other. (This book does not exist as it may be slightly too niche.)

I have created a special ‘people are speaking Croatian’ face for occasions when people are speaking Croatian in groups. The aim of the face is to look entirely comfortable with not knowing what anyone is saying whilst looking completely engaged and fascinated with my own thought process. At the same time, I also look like a wrestler waiting by the ring to be tag teamed back into the conversation in case people decide to switch to English. I try to achieve this face by telling my brain ‘you are thinking of something interesting, tell your face that’ but I am merely thinking about the concept of an interesting thought I’m not actually having, as I want to be on high alert in case I’m back in the ring, ready to speak ‘engleski’.

Apart from my ‘people are speaking Croatian face’ I also enjoy imagining what people are talking about: I just take words that sound English and use that as a stimulus. For example, in my elementary drama class, I was watching 3 children have a very intense conversation about what Kevin Bacon would taste like in a sandwich. My job as a drama teacher is a constant source of education for me as the younger children speak little to no English so communication is always interesting. I adore the little Croatian cherubs. I rustle their hair, tell them they’re sweet, I give them high fives and I especially like hugging the chubby ones. Recently at work, my language assistant shouted very sternly at one little girl and I was surprised and asked what she had done. “She just called that boy a little faggot in Croatian”. Oh. I am running around doing my Mary Poppins routine, doing my la la la’s, and they are shouting homophobic slurs across the classroom. For all I know they could be organising a terrorist attack and I would pat them on the head and say ‘vrlo dobro Marco’.

Essentially, in Croatia I am stupid. Realising that essentially makes me less stupid, but still slightly stupid. I was talking to someone recently about speaking English as a second language and how during the filtering process you can lose a person’s idiosyncrasies and humour. Things such as comic timing poignancy and flow of conversation can be lost. I had never really thought about it and had selfishly only thought about it from my perspective. Being a true Brit, I had never bothered learning another language as the language of where I was born dominates the entire world. In that moment I felt very grateful for every single person that speaks to me in English and wanted to hold on to that understanding.

Overall, moving to Croatia is at times a lonely experience; trying to make friends as a 28 year-old is a completely different social experience to that of school, university and work. Anyone would find moving to a new city a challenge, let alone a new country. It’s hard trying to find the avenues to meet people, especially when you work with homophobic 8 year-old girls who can’t speak English. I am 3 months into this experience and ultimately it has been a learning curve; I have made mistakes but have learnt a lot. If I could give some advice to the girl who got off the plane, it would be to drink less alcohol (beer is soo cheap); I am a lightweight and find myself drinking to feel less socially anxious, but it can lead to disastrous results as I make far less sense and dance and sound like a sheep in roller-skates. I can’t keep up with the Croatian babes and, being an English stereotype, have a terrible tolerance to alcohol.

One thing I have noticed is how Croatian women are so very beautiful. I see them in bars with their shiny hair, bright eyes, fresh skin and slender figures, and they appear to be constantly chain-smoking and drinking beer – there must be something in the Croatian gene pool that has created these mega babes. Or they are secretly exercising, as I have not seen one person go for a run outside. As someone who has started running (jogging for 5 minutes, unable to breathe for 20) I wonder where everyone is exercising as the drinking culture is very big here but people look very fit and healthy. Perhaps they are all just blessed with the amazing Croatian genes. I would like to say I have also seen some people who haven’t faired so well and aren’t as shiny-looking for various reasons, but ultimately, Croatia is full of babes. This is a very scientific study I have conducted based on me walking up and down the Korzo for 12 weeks.

Ultimately I’m finding my experience here educational. I need to continue to be open to people, listen more and don’t worry so much about people asking why I am here. It’s not because I’m an alien, it’s because it’s not that common for people to move to Croatia for work. I’m never going to fully understand the social and economic climate of Croatia, I am just a visitor. I have experienced being in a few countries and I have to say I really like Croatian people; despite the apparent economic problems, Croatia is a country to be proud of. It’s clear they are very family-oriented social people, they are warm, friendly and very willing to talk about their country. I will continue to pioneer and learn more. Oh, and I have deleted Tinder. Delete delete.


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