It’s not me, it’s you…
After leaving my job of 20 years in the hospitality business in one of the best bars in Toronto, I made my way to Volosko, Opatija in June. Notice given and accepted, legendary goodbye party in the books, apartment sublet for 3-6 months, bags packed, triple vaccination certificate in hand, I made my way to my home for the summer, what I hoped would be my home for the future, Croatia.
First and foremost, there was more than one reason for me to make this move. It was not sudden or out of the blue. The move came through a series of breadcrumbs that led me here to this point in time. I had an apartment my mother left me in one of the most beautiful seaside villages I had ever seen. The sprawling place had been her very happy home for 20 years of retirement, and the view from the balcony was something I had never experienced on a daily basis before. I had a whole brood of cousins living across the street who I adored, and then the sea, ah the beautiful sea, was a 5-minute walk from my front door. After 2 and a half years of lockdowns, shutdowns, mask mandates, vaccination requirements, capacity mandates, and everything being closed for months on end in Toronto, I began to really consider what I wanted my life to look like… and it was not looking like Toronto was the place for me anymore.
Plus, with my dad being very ill with stage 4 cancer and in a home in Croatia. I figured this would be an opportunity to spend the summer not only on one of the most beautiful coastlines I had ever seen but also to help him through his last days of life. Nothing seemed more reasonable to me, and the breadcrumbs led me to Volosko in June 2022.
I took a plane, and bus taxi, entered my inherited home, dropped my bags, and sighed as I quickly changed into a bikini, grabbed a new book and a towel, and made my way down to the sea. I had arrived. All my Croatian friends congratulated me on the move well done, if not way too late. My family welcomed me with open arms and open bottles of Pelinkovac. My father somewhat stubbornly remarked, what took you so long, but conceded he was happy to have me so close by.
It didn’t take long for things to get “tough,” but I had anticipated this, somewhat naively, I can now admit. Language barriers, culture barriers, and lifestyle barriers hit me straight in the face like a flying bat in baseball.
First, it was the prices…how did everything all of a sudden get so much more expensive? From food to drinks to excursions – nothing was as cheap and cheerful as I remembered it. And speaking of cheerful? To get a warm greeting or a smile from a hospitality worker or someone in the service industry was very few and far between. Going out to eat went from being a joyful experience to one of frustration and disappointment. Having been in the service industry for my entire life, I couldn’t fathom how a country that lived solely off tourism could provide such a terrible experience again and again and again. Mediocre food for fine dining prices. Now, I must admit I am a pretty picky restaurant-goer. I believe and respect the experience – sometimes more than I respect the quality of the product. So I have to say that I am extremely disappointed with my overall Croatian dining experience. Like wtf. I have waited 10 -15 minutes just to receive a menu. Then I have waited an indiscriminate time for my drink to arrive. I have been overcharged and ignored, and I seem to feel like I am in the waiter’s way and not that they are there to give me quality service and an experience. I am a bother, not a valued guest spending hard-earned money.
Transit tickets are more expensive than taking the transit in Toronto (where the median salary is 5 times higher) for a system that is beyond in need of maintenance and upgrading.
3.25 CAD for a ride in Toronto to wherever you want to go and 3.45 CAD for a ride only in a 3-zone range. I’ve been on buses when it was so over capacity that it was dangerous, and young girls were fainting from the heat and nowhere to move. Long distance buses hours late with no one to tell you what is going on and when they might be expected. This is at bus stations with no seating or adequate washroom facilities. I have taken the same route to the same stop and been charged three different fares. When questioned, no driver knew the reason why it was so. I have not gotten change back and been charged a full rate and given a ticket for a cheaper rate so the driver could pocket the extra kunas. I have never in my entire life living and taking transit in Toronto ever seen a young generation more rude while on the bus. Teenagers and young adults nab the seats, and senior citizens and older folks with groceries are left to stand the entire way to their stop. It is not just sometimes; it is every day. My Croatian mother would have bopped me over the head had I not given up my seat to someone who looked even 10 years older than me. The kids scream and joke and goof around and get on without paying, while Nona and Nono are left to hold on tight to the railings through the hairpin turns. Disgusting. I am embarrassed for this new generation. I have argued with bus drivers, been talked down to, cheated, and dismissed. When I asked for my change once, I was told he did not have it, and it was not much anyway, so not to worry about it… the Canadian in me is appalled.
Trips to social security have left me dreading having to go back. One time I knocked politely on the door and waited – only to have the doorman/guard open the door begrudgingly a few minutes later, admonishing me as to why I did not just enter- that he was not a butler! I explained to him that in times of pandemic and covid, it was expected not to barge into an oﬃce but to wait politely outside in case they were at capacity. He grunted. I was surprised he knew the word butler.
Being a pedestrian in this country is like taking your life into your hands every time you step outside. Cars parked belligerently on every sidewalk, so you are forced to walk on the very busy small road hoping that traﬃc will not smash you to bits.
Trying to navigate the health care system is another nightmare that not only a foreigner but every Croatian who cannot afford paid healthcare has to go through. How many trips to the hospital with my very sick father ended up with me in an argument as to why I don’t have the proper forms and that I need to go here for this and here to pick up that and wait hours to see a doctor in a waiting room teeming with sick folks waiting for their blessed turn to please see someone to help them feel a bit better. One building for the test, then you have to pick up the results yourself to bring to the next building, and so on and so on and so on. It was so confusing and diﬃcult that my poor, very sick father gave up, and I had to fly over from Canada to help an 81-year-old man to get to see someone to help him deal with cancer. It took 7 weeks in total to get a diagnosis and to get treatment started. I myself saw a chiropractor for major lower back pain, and to be told it’s 80 CAD dollars for 15 minutes of work, and no he does not take credit – cash only. He scoffed when I asked to pay with a card. Cash only, cash only, cash only. Words that you will hear in many places around this tourist-based country.
No one will tell you that there is not a common taxi system here like there is in most modern countries – a standard fare and commute. I learned that the hard way. What was usually an 80 kuna ride, I was charged 140 kuna and the taxi driver told me that they were a private company and could charge what they wanted..no meter. Cash only. So in a city of no Uber I learned that you have to ask what the fare will be upfront so as not to be shocked when you step out. My ride from the airport to my friend’s place taught me that. I nearly fell out of the cab in shock when I arrived and was told a 15-minute ride cost me almost 80 dollars.
Jebiga, jebote and kurac are all I heard when I tried to explain my experience to others. If they are rude to you, be rude to them is what I was told. But it is not in me to be rude. Today I went to pay a bill at the Fina, and the cashier pushed it back to me. And I pushed it back to her. And she impatiently said (hearing that I was a foreigner with my thick accent) that I needed to fill out a payment slip which she pushed across the desk to me. Not knowing the language, I painstakingly filled out the form myself while she sat there and sighed and was impatient with my ineptness. I don’t need to be bowed to and coddled or handled with kid gloves; I just need a bit of patience and kindness and help. I want to be here, I want to belong. I want to pay my bills fast and take the bus without hesitation and not dread dealing with rudeness or animosity. But those experiences are few and far between. And when you find one nice experience, it can change your day by God!
Funeral expenses _ cash only. Who pays cash for a 2500 $ funeral? Getting a new remote for my garage door – cash only and no receipt. Over and over in a system that has no system. Maybe I am too Canadian and too “nice” as we Canadians are known, but when has nice ever been a detriment to society?
I will never forget my first argument in the hospital with the receptionist when I came from Canada to help my dad get care. We had an appointment with the throat specialist. We waited. We were called, and I handed over the form my dad’s family doctor had given us. It was the wrong form, and I was told to get another form and come back. I said no. She said what. I said no, I was not coming back, that we had an appointment my dad had social healthcare and that we wanted to see the doctor. She asked me if I understood her, and I said yes, but I did not understand why we could not see the surgeon if we had an appointment he had his medical card, and I had come from Canada to get him this help. So NO, I was not leaving and getting another form, and I did not understand and we were going to see the doctor. The horror! After much hesitation and annoying looks, she spoke to the surgeon, who took us immediately as my father’s case was urgent. I had to promise to send the right form the next day. Now getting to see my family doctor was another thing, You can call and call and call but never get through to make an appointment because no one really answers the phone there. You have to show up and wait and then get admonished for not making an appointment, but you had tried for hours and days on end. And so on and so on and so on.
One thing after another, and I tried and tried. Is it me? No, it’s not, it is you Croatia. Unfortunately for us both. Not only did you not make it easy, you made it really hard.
Would you like your returnee story – positive or negative – to be featured in this series? Contact [email protected] Subject Returnee.
Croatia, a Survival Kit for Foreigners will be out by Christmas. If you would like to reserve a copy, email [email protected] Subject 20 Years Book