Izvolite: How to Survive Shopping in Croatia

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August the 20th, 2019 – ”53 kuna. Imate sitno? That’s 53 kuna / Do you have any smaller bills?” the cashier lady asked looking timidly at the guy in front of me who was digging through his pockets with his phone surgically attached to his ear.

He didn’t even look at her, just pulled out a few bills from his pocket, talking on the phone, threw it on the cash register and left the store. I tried to smile at the cashier lady, but one look behind my back pursueded me that those angry faces wouldn’t wait long while I made small talk with her, trying to make her feel like a human being.

They all looked stressed and in a hurry. So I put the things into my shopping bag as quickly as I could, trying to find my credit card in my wallet, feeling them breathing down my neck. And at that moment I realised – that shopping is a huge source of stress for me. First, of all, If you’re going to read this article, I think it’s only fair that you know one fact –  I really don’t like shopping.

It wasn’t always like that, though.

When I was a little girl growing up in Karlovac, shopping was a bit more fun. Going shopping in Karlovac in those days was a synonymous with going to TEKSTILKA. TEKSTILKA was a huge shopping centre located in a grey building with orange TEKSTILKA letters plastered on the roof, which at night you could read as T KS T LKA because some of the lightbulbs had apparently burned out.

TEKSTILKA was based on a one man band philosophy – we have all you need at one location. And it really did have everything. A papirnica (stationary shop), drapery products, kitchen supplies – ground floor to the left. Buttons, wool and kniting supplies – ground floor to the right, next to the candy store.

Shoes, clothing and carpets – second floor. Third floor was reserved for the furniture – on your right, and LPs, tape recorders and cassettes – on your left.

Tekstilka was a magical place which covered all of your purchuasing needs.

”Mum, I need new notebooks for school,” I mentioned to my mum politely.

”Idemo sutra u TEKSTILKU pa ćemo kupiti. Moram ići kupiti neke gumbe! / We’ll go to TEKSTILKA tomorrow and we will buy them. I need to go and get some new buttons anyway!” she’d reply.

Having matching buttons was a really big deal to my mother. She was always in search of the perfect buttons. Hours of my childhood were spent in the TEKSTILKA buttons department watching my mum choose between the right shade of deep red buttons for the new sweater she was knitting.

Nobody would rush you in the buttons department. After hours of strolling through TEKSTILKA, mum would pull out her chequebook and slowly write a cheque at the main cashier register. The cashier lady would then take all of her receipts and put a purple stamp on them.

Well, actually, to tell you the truth, I don’t dislike everything about shopping…

I do like to buy old books and stroll around Britanac, or perhaps better to say Britanski trg (British square), a beautiful picturesque Zagreb sqaure where on Saturday morning, old ladies will sell you used tea cups with matching teapots and candlesticks from the Habsburg monarchy, dusty paintings and oxidated old silver photo frames.

Oh, and I also like to buy scented candles! But, there are only so many scented candles and photo frames in the world that you can buy. At some point you just have to go out – and buy some groceries. Or even worse… Shoes.

As much as I dislike shopping, my nine year old son adores it.

”Što si kupila?/ What did you buy?” he asks instead of ”Bok, mama, kakav je bio tvoj dan? Jesi umorna? / Hi, Mum! What was your day like? Are you tired?” and he starts sniffing around my shopping bags in my hands with a hunting glow in his eyes – spotting me on the doorway getting home from work.

”Nothing, just bread,” I answer tiredly.

”Bread? Bread?! he screams at me.

”You just buy stuff for yourself, nothing for me!” he proclaims as he walks away angrly and slams the door behind him. And I put my brand new halfwhite bread, collection spring/summer, limited edition, on the table.

Going to the store with him, you feel as if you are re going hunting for foxes in the forest nearby.

”So, listen, we will just spend 400 kuna, not a penny more! We’re going in and out,” I state as I give my kids a lecture while standing in the parking space infront of the supermarket.

”Nema žicanja! / No pestering! – repeat after me! Nema žicanja! / No pestering!” I command.

”Nema žicanja, mama!” the three of my kids repeat obediently in the back seat of the car. I’m not entirely convinced, though. One look at the back mirror and I spot that familiar little hunting sparkle in my son’s eye.

”Madam, do you need more bags? / Gospođo, trebate li još vrećica?” a nice cashier lady yells across the cash register to me.

I didn’t quite hear her because she was yelling from the other side of a huge hill made of organic bananas, toilet paper, notebooks, pencil sharpners (didn’t I buy one for you last week?), pencil cases, wallnuts, chocolate flavoured cornflakes, cocoa cookies and milk. I’m pretty sure I saw a chandelier and one or two stuffed animals somewhere in that same pile.

”To bi bilo 1,500 kuna, Gospođo. Gotovina ili kartica? / That would be 1,500 kuna, Madam. Cash or credit card?” she asks kindly.

I feel my blood pressure dropping by the second, I feel dizzy, my heart is rapidly pumping, I hear a buzzing in my ears… and just before I faint under the counter, I squeeze the words through my lips:

”Može na rate? / Can I pay in installments?”

And then I look at my son. He’s overcome with happiness. That sparkle turned into a glow while his eyes danced over the treasure on the cash register.

”Hvala, mama! Volim te! / Thank you, Mum! I love you!” he yells while packing his ”prey” into the shopping bags.

The real challenge, however – is the summer vacation with children somewhere on the Croatian coast. Let’s say that you’re going with your three lovely, modest and undemanding children on your well deserved summer holiday, feeling happy for looking at the sunset, lounging around on the beach while your children collect pebbles and throw them into the sea. You’re very pleased with yourself, because this year you’ve outsmarted the ice-cream sellers.

You booked a nice hotel, which covers all of your meals, and more importantly – ice creams and sodas, guided with the slogan: ”There is plenty of ice-cream in the hotel! You don’t need soda! Drink water! It’s healthier for

And then one nice day you step out onto some beautiful Croatian beach wearing your huge sunglasses and a bathing suit, ready to dive into the Adriatic sea. But, where is the Adriatic sea? Oh there it is! That little blue thing in the background behind the stalls packed with plastic toys and glittering useless stuff. Every Croatian beach is packed with those. I imagine locals just dragging that same dusty stuff from last summer from their garages every May, waiting for new naive and totally helpless parents to arrive.

”Ajde, djeco, idemo na plažu! / Come on kids, let’s go to the beach!” I yell naively.

”Mum, Mum, can I buy this? I really need that!”

”Look, Mum, these are free!” my daughter proclaims.

”Lucija, only air here is free of charge!” I say impatiently, carefully looking around me for the sign: A place in the shade – 15 kuna.

”Can we buy this swimming pool? I want a swimming pool,” asks my son as he points me towards the huge box with photos of suspiciously happy looking people grinning in a plastic garden pool.

”We’re not buying a swimming pool! We are two metres away from the most beautiful sea in the world. We came here to enjoy the sunsets and the sea! So enjoy it!” I finally flip out at them.

”Well, I am enjoying it” my sons notifies me and wanders off to the next stand.

Next summer, I’m thinking just of renting some wasteland in the middle of nowhere and putting a big plastic swimming pool there, and some stalls with plastic stuff around them, and call it a summer vacation.

There is only one thing more stressful for me than summer shopping with my children. Shopping for jeans – one of my worse shopping nightmares. I timidly enter the modern store in one of Zagreb’s shopping malls. I try to find the sales lady, but all I see is a seventeen-year-old with too much red lipstick and a pony tale laughing her head of on the phone, and making chewing gum balloons. And then it hits me: That IS the sales lady.

I yell across the store trying to speak over Justin Bieber singing from the loudspeakers.

”Excuse me, I would like to buy some jeans”

The girl rolls her eyes at me, reluctantly, leaves her phone and pulls out a pair of extra small tight jeans, looking straight through me.

”Do you have something for the other leg?” I think to myself, while I’m breaking out in a cold sweat, but I force myself just to ask her politely: ”Do you have something in size L?”

”It’s all universal,” she replies and makes another chewing gum balloon nervously. Her boyfriend is waiting on the phone, come on already!

Did I say that buying jeans is my worst shoping nightmare? Please, forgive me. I forgot about the shoes.

If I ever get really rich (it’s just about to happen, any day now), I will open a shoe store. But not just any kind of store. It will be a little shoe store with a flashing sign in front spelling: 41. And, yes, you guessed it; it will sell size 41 only (size 9 USA, 8 UK). Ah, 41, the mysterious shoe size and an everlasting secret of Croatian shoe stores.

You see, there is a pretty big amount of very tall women in Croatia. Myself included. And a large number of them wear the shoe size 41. Which brings me to my next point, an obvious Croatian shoe paradox. I enter a regular shoe store in Zagreb centre, a city with around one milion residents, and judging by the amount of high heels clattering on Zagreb’s streets, at least half of those residents are women.

And I spot them! The best looking shoes I’ve ever seen. The ones I’ve dreamed of! I lift them upside down and check the price. Also nice!

”Izvolite” says a nice shoe store lady as she approaches me.

And then I take a deep breath, trying to use all the mindfulness philosophy I know and enjoy that moment, holding the perfect shoe with a perfect price in my hand and with heart in my mouth, I ask:

”Imate možda 41? / Do you maybe have these in size 41?” I ask, holding my breath and squinting helplessly with one eye, in fear of the shoe truth.

”Jooooj, nemamo, prodali smo sve! / Ahhh, I’m sorry, we don’t, we sold them all!” the sales lady replies to me.

”Are you sure? Can you check?” I put on my sad face.

”I’m afraid not,” she says as she shrugs her shoulders.

Sometimes they don’t tell you at once that size 41 is sold out, feeling sorry for you, standing there with that shoe, like a sad puppy. Some of them go to the warehouse or in the back and pretend for five minutes they are searching for it.

Before, I was naive thinking that they were actually searching. Now I’m positive that they stand there there between all these pretty little size 38 shoes counting to 100, before they come out with the disappointing answer:
”Ne, nažalost, ništa / Nope, I’m sorry, nothing! We always order only 6 pairs of size 41 and they sell out the first day they arrive!”

Six pairs? Six pairs?!

If someone could please explain to me how the shoe store owners got to the fact that only six women in all of Zagreb would ask for size 41, I would be very grateful to them! In every store I asked at, they give me the same answer: We order only six pairs of size 41!

How difficult is to call the factory in China and ask for another six pairs, I wonder…

With years of shoe shopping gone by, I gave up hope on ever finding nice shoes in size 41. Now I just enter the store and yell from the door: ”Što imate da je 41? / What do you have that’s in size 41?” and follow the nice lady to the working boots department.

A few days ago I was sitting with my friend at the shopping mall, drinking coffee after shoe shopping. I spotted a little sign at one store saying: ”We are here for you!” Well, nobody is here for you in the store, not even seventeen-year-old sales girls with extra lipstick making balloons with chewing gum.

But maybe, maybe there are some people that really are here for you at the stores… Remember my magical childhood shopping store TEKSTILKA, from the beginning of the story?

Well, there still exists a little sweet place like that in Zagreb, called N…, oops, I must not advertise.

A huge building with old-fashioned dark blue lettering on the roof with – everything you need.

A stationary shop and bags on the first floor, right to the candy store, clothing and kitchen supplies on the second floor, furniture, carpets and washing machines on the top floor. They don’t accept chequebooks there anymore, but nobody’s rushing you, rolling their eyes at you because you interrupted a phonecall from soneone’s boyfriend and you don’t need to try to compete with Justin Bieber when asking for things in your size.

And, most importantly, no matter how tired the sales lady is, you will always get a warm smile and a kind ”Izvolite? / How can I help you?” Sometimes, that is all we need for a nice day.

If you want to learn more about Croatian language courses for foreigners, click here.


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