20 Ways Croatia Changed Me in 20 Years: 5. Love to Hate to Nirvana

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As with most things in life, my relationship with Croatia has changed over the last 20 years. I have been wowed by its beauty, felled by its bureaucracy, inspired by its brilliant people, depressed by the default negative mindset, and humbled by the kindness, hospitality and friendship on all levels. 

As a foreigner, I don’t think one can ever get to know a country or its people totally, and I am still very much on my journey to understanding certain aspects of Croatian society. Living in a different culture is of course fascinating, but it does come with its challenges, and as a foreigner, I have learned (as I wrote in an editorial a few years ago) that there are basically 3 Stages of Learning for Foreigners in Croatia: Love, Hate & Nirvana.

Foreigners interact with a country in different ways. In Croatia’s case, the vast majority, 90% or probably more, come as tourists and leave wowed by the beauty I mentioned above. There is a saying I hear a lot here among the default negative mindset that Croatia is perfect for a 2-week holiday and horrible for full-time living. No jobs, corruption, nepotism, no opportunity. None of which one encounters on holiday. And so the vast majority of foreigners only reach the first stage – love. Great news for our tourism, as they will come back and enjoy their holidays in Croatia year after year. 

Then there are those foreigners who choose to live in Croatia, the so-called expat community. And the vast majority of those tend to stay in the love Croatia section (they did move here after all) as they exist in their expat bubble, socialising primarily within expat groups, often not learning the language, and only having a cursory understanding of what is happening in Croatia outside their expat bubble. It is a very nice lifestyle, and one which I enjoyed for years. Indeed it was only after I started TCN some 13 years after my arrival that my idyllic expat bubble was burst. 

And so – at least in my opinion – the vast majority of foreigners who visit Croatia are blissfully unaware of the realities of the daily grind in Croatia and are very positive as a result. For many years after I reached stage two, I was a little envious of them, for once you get to stage 2, it is almost impossible to go back. But that envy disappeared when I discovered stage 3, nirvana. 

The second stage of learning, which I call hate, occurs to a much smaller number of foreigners who live in Croatia and decide to deepen their relationship with the country, often by opening a business. Now firmly out of their expat bubble, they are exposed to the full force of Croatian bureaucracy and many of the illogical laws that are applied. Suddenly that day at the beach is exchanged for being sent from office to office in search of a signature. And the more that they immerse themselves in business, the more they understand how Croatia really works, and why so many young people are leaving – I firmly believe that lack of economic opportunity is not the prime reason, rather corruption and nepotism. 

Suddenly, that relaxed Adriatic lifestyle in the sun has changed, eyes are opened to the daily grind and the realities of life here, and there is a greater understanding of what local people are going through. 

In my case, it truly took me 8 years in my little Hvar bubble to realise that things worked (or didn’t) the way they did for any other reason than laziness on the part of officials. That all changed around the time I started TCN and when I learned about the Cult of Uhljeb. 


Like almost all foreigners, even the ones who spoke Croatian, I had never heard of the Croatian word ‘uhljeb’ until I read it in a title about me and a public official on a national Croatian news portal back in 2015. When I asked on my Facebook page what it meant, there were lots of responses, and it felt like my relationship with some of my Croatian friends changed that day. It was almost as though I had discovered their guilty secret and that I was now descending from my expat bubble and entering their world of Croatian reality. If you want to understand exactly what an uhljeb is, I wrote an explanation some time ago – Welcome to Uhljebistan: A Foreign Appreciation of the Cult of Uhljeb.

Running TCN got me a lot more involved with Croatian politics and the Croatian media, neither of which are particularly happy or positive places to be. What had happened to my perfect Hvar bubble and idyllic life on the most beautiful island in the world? It was lost forever.

Or was it?

And then things changed, or rather my mindset changed. A coffee with a Croatian friend of mine who ran an adventure tourism business. She told me that she checks in on the politics about every six months and finds nothing has changed, whereas I was obsessing about it and covering it on a daily basis and being drowned in its negative messages. In fact, she told me, she stays in Croatia for her friends, family and nature – she is often hiking in the mountains – and contact with the state and the day-to-day grind is kept to a minimum. She accepts that Croatia is far from perfect, but she chooses to live in her own bubble. Life is not easy, money is hard to come by, but she has peace and is only surrounded by positivity. A much better lifestyle than emigration.

The longer I ran TCN, the more people I met. And in the search for positive stories (and there are MANY in Croatia, the majority of them are sadly left untold), I met SO many other people like my adventure tourism friend. They love Croatia and could not live anywhere else, but they protected themselves by surrounding themselves with only positive people, blocking out all the negativity in the media and elsewhere. Most did not want to be featured in the media or discovered or bothered in any way. Rather than spend all day complaining about the injustices in the Mighty State of Uhljebistan, they just accepted that that was part of the price of living in Paradise. 

It was a pivotal moment in my Croatian journey and I was reminded of the powerful words of that famous prayer:

Accept the things you cannot change, have the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I was at the Gates of Nirvana. I just needed to coin the sentence, the explanation, the justification (a little like I had done taking 15 years to define the essence of succeeding in Dalmatia in the first part of this series – Do not try and change Dalmatia, but expect Dalmatia to change you).

And then it came to me. 

Choosing to live in Croatia for the lifestyle is a little like being an alcoholic in Norway. The alcoholic chooses Norway for the lifestyle, for a beer costs 10 euro and he could drink 5 for the same price in countries like Croatia. But he wants to live in Norway and so chooses to pay the expensive alcohol tax. 

And so too in Croatia. One can still advocate for change, but rather than consuming all one’s energy in negativity, complaining about the way things are, in my head I now pay my uhljeb tax and – just like the alcoholic in Norway – I am free to enjoy the best lifestyle in Europe and focus on my positive bubble. 

Paradise indeed. 


The third stage of learning for a foreigner.  

Not only did I have my perfect Hvar bubble back, but also a state of mind and peace with Croatia that makes this truly the best place I have ever and will ever live. 

It took me 15 years to figure out the uhljeb tax and expecting Dalmatia to change me. If I can save you 15 years of frustration and pain, I will be very happy indeed. 

Come and join, the bubbles of positivity in Croatia are insane. 


What is it like to live in Croatia? An expat for 20 years, you can follow my series, 20 Ways Croatia Changed Me in 20 Years, starting at the beginning – Business and Dalmatia.

Follow Paul Bradbury on LinkedIn.

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


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