Developing Love-Hate Relationship with Quintessentially Croatian Skill of “Getting By”

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As a little girl growing up in New Zealand, the one thing I remember most is the taste of freedom. Bare feet, wild, sandy beaches, tramping through lush silver fern forests, driving for kilometres without anything or anyone in sight….and sheep, lots of them! School was a very relaxed affair, and also often included sheep – visiting sheep farms was a ritual that almost had a religious significance, and sometimes the sheep even came to us. We had no homework, no grades and spent a lot of time doing practical things – sailing, swimming, tying knots and lighting fires. Another ritual was pitching tents in the school lawn and having a sleepover together as a form of community bonding – first the parents held a sausage sizzle, and then, when it got dark, we sang songs around the campfire while our teacher played guitar. As a gifted child, I highly appreciated the free-flowing, casual structure of the New Zealand school system. It further stimulated my natural curiosity by allowing me to do my own thing, and I spent a lot of time alone, lying on the pillows in the reading corner, leafing through books and daydreaming away. The possibilities offered by the new technology that had just been invented – the internet – almost drove me mad with excitement. Just thinking about how many books could fit onto one tiny CD was enough to make me sigh in reverent, nearly pious awe, let alone imagining all the knowledge that was now at my fingertips!

And then I came to Croatia. Gone were the bare feet, the free-form classes that seemed to be changing every second, the endless sitting on floors and lawns. Suddenly, I found myself behind a rickety, ancient-looking wooden desk which looked exactly like the one I had seen at a museum in Auckland, where they had set up a model of a classroom from the Victorian era. Then they showed me the library, and I was genuinely confused and asked them to show me where the real library was, as it looked like yet another exhibit from a museum. Instead of just carrying a lunchbox and change of clothes in by school bag, as I was used to, suddenly I found myself lugging a bunch of books with names that sounded as heavy as they felt on my poor back. Udžbenik. Vježbenica. They were massive and forbidding, like a piano falling down the stairs, and they were full of boring, dry sentences that we had to learn by heart if we wanted to pass the constant tests that we were given. Soon, I realised that rote learning was the order of the day here in this strange new land, and I didn’t like it one bit. I wanted creativity, exploration and freedom, the thrill of the pursuit of knowledge, but there was none of that in my new school. And so my hitherto unquenchable thirst for knowledge started to wilt and wither, and a new skill started developing in its place – the quintessentially Croatian skill of “snalaziti se” – getting by.

In my case, that meant doing the absolute bare minimum, in order to preserve my energy for pursuits I deemed worthwhile. As a child, I had grown up with an unwavering faith in the system, and a sense of fairness and justice was inculcated deep in my bones – any type of cheating was unfathomable to me. Yet, very soon, I learnt to set aside my inhibitions in order to copy homework, cheat on tests…anything that was necessary to get by. I got through secondary school and university without barely touching a book, relying on charm, wit, natural intelligence and this new, seductive skill of getting by. Soon I observed that a similar slipperiness pervaded many aspects of Croatian life – everyone always seemed to be looking out for number one, and how to cheat the system in their favour. Now, since then I have turned into a Croatian patriot of sorts – I have developed a deep affection for the country that seemed so rigid and museum-like at first, and can’t imagine living anywhere else – but this is an aspect I still haven’t come completely to terms with. I have developed a healthy distrust of the system and learnt to get by when it is necessary to save my own soul, but this pervasive mentality of “screw the system before it screws you” is something that still makes me feel uneasy.

Many times, I found myself in situations where I would put in extra effort to rectify something in a business situation that wasn’t my responsibility at all. And then I would regularly be met by surprise – “Why, it’s not your job, what do you care?”. But, how can I not care if we’re all part of the same team, and our success depends on each other and the work we do? Again, this “getting by” mentality, mixed with the vestiges of socialism – I’ll just do the bare minimum, what I am paid for and not one lipa (or cent) more, and the rest is none of my concern, even if it affects me directly. I find it funny how Croatia is often collectivist in a tribal, nationalistic sense, in “counting blood cells”, as they often say – yet, on the other hand, it is often lacking in other, healthier forms of collectivism. For example, the one where we say – “OK, we’re all in this together and we depend on each other to succeed, so let’s see what we can do to make all of our lives better”. Naturally, this is a mentality that can’t easily take hold in a country where corruption and bribery are expected in almost every affair, and thus it is a natural instinct to just shrug in resignation and try to grab your own piece of the pie. Perhaps this would be the greatest mentality shift in Croatia, one that would revolutionise all areas of life – a transition from “getting by” to “getting (it) together”. A patriotism that is not about football, war veterans and waving chequered flags, but a patriotism rooted in working together for a shared cause and towards a better future, so that all of us that have found ourselves within the boundaries of this dragon-shaped land may benefit – not just those that were the quickest at “getting by”. This oh-so-quintesentially Croatian predilection for “getting by” is both a blessing and a curse, something I have come to love and hate in equal parts. Sometimes, it is good to cut corners and not trust the system – to save your own skin (and nerves!), if nothing. However, other times, it is the weight around the ankle limiting the growth of a country that has the potential for so much more.

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