Carlie: Hello there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus Podcast. When American Sara Dyson moved to Croatia in 2012, she couldn’t find any local resources in English to help her. So as she figured things out – like residency and healthcare, Croatian culture and learning the language, she posted about it on her website, expatincroatia.com, to help other foreigners. Close to a decade later, Expat in Croatia is a full-blown business, and Sara is about to become a Croatian citizen.
In this interview, we talk about why Sara moved to Croatia, the ‘one giant grey area’ that is local bureaucracy and how to work through it, and what she loves about the Croatian way of life.
Sara, thank you so much for joining me on the Expat Focus podcast.
Sara: Thank you, Carlie. It’s an honor to be here.
Carlie: And you run the website Expat in cCoatia.com to help other English speaking foreigners such as yourself, who are moving to Croatia. It’s something that you did in 2012. Can you paint me a little picture of what it was like when you did move to Croatia?
Sara: Sure, I’d be happy to. Well, I came to Croatia, I didn’t know anything about anything. I had no idea where to start. There were very few resources in English, even in tourism. Like, there weren’t really any blogs, here were maybe like a couple, but nothing expansive, nobody was posting regularly. And also the tourist board websites were still in Croatian, which I thought was really fascinating.
But to get anything about bureaucracy, like no way. Like, that was all still just in Croatian and the government websites were not like they are now, now there’s a little bit of English content. And their creation content was even very limited, so it wasn’t even possible to do research at the time. So when I got here, I just kind of relied on Croatians I met along the way to kind of help me.
So I found a broker, which honestly, it’s been 10 and a half years now, I have no idea how I even found that person, but that person’s the one who helped me get an OIB, which is a, like a national ID number. I had no idea what that was, but she took me to the tax office, she helped me fill out the paperwork, she talked to the people at the tax office.
And then she had introduced me to someone else about opening a company. And then that person is the one who actually took me to the police station to help meapply for residence. It was just very much the Wild West and the police station, that’s who handles immigration, when you go there, you go to the foreigner desk. So they only deal with the foreigners, but honestly, they weren’t used to English speaking foreigners, they were only used to dealing with foreigners from other parts of the Balkans.
So they’re all speaking some version of the same language. They were under no obligation to speak English to me. I mean, they still aren’t, but no one would speak English to me, in fact. Which, look, I firmly stand by the fact that you should always try and learn as much of the native language as you possibly can. But this is the foreigner’s desk.
Like, I just was there and the woman that I dealt with, I think maybe the second time she actually screamed at the woman that was with me, the Croatioan woman who was with me, because I didn’t speak Croatian. So it wasn’t even like she screamed at me, she screamed at the other woman for it. Like, wow, this is intense.
Carlie: Very welcoming country.
Sara: You know what? It is a very welcoming country. It’s just the immigration can sometimes be a bit intense. Aalthough, you know, living here, as long as I have, and growing to love this country as much as I have, I kind of appreciate that. I don’t know that many people go through exactly what I went through as when I first got here, but Croatia is a magical place, and I believe that there should be some filters.
And so if you can’t handle going through that process at immigration, this isn’t the place for you because that’s not an isolated incident. And whenever you deal with bureaucracy, you can encounter situations like that. And there are people that get too overwhelmed by that and they’re like, you know, I don’t want to be here. But I’d say 98% of the people who come and live in Croatia, they end up being okay with it because there’s so many other aspects to this country, to the people, the culture that overwhelmingly overshadow any challenges you might have with the bureaucracy.
Carlie: I’m curious as to how Croatia ended up on your radar. For me, I had a couple of mates at school who were Croatian, otherwise really, I suppose it was through Game of Thrones that Croatia really, in my adult life, was put on my radar. And to be honest, I haven’t traveled there and I’ve lived in Europe for about a decade as well. So how did you discover Croatia?
Sara: Well, it was by accident. So I was planning a trip, my first trip to Italy back in 2011. I wanted to eat.
Carlie: Perfect place.
Sara: Yeah, exactly. And as I was researching, I came across this dusty blog post that this American couple had written, and they had also thought about going to Italy, but in the end, they went to Croatia. And they had taken a kayaking trip from Opatija, which is on the northern part of the coast, down to Dubrovnik. That is a tremendous coastline to traverse. And they stayed on all these little islands, and Croatia has something like 1200 islands or something, many of which are uninhabited. It sounded like an amazing experience.
And they said in the end, they were so grateful that they came to Croatia instead going to Italy again, because it was cheaper, the people were nicer, the land was more beautiful, and the food was tastier. And I was like, what is this paradise I know nothing about? I didn’t even know that Croatia existed, like it was a country. This was the first time it got on my radar and I immediately needed to know more.
So I started researching Croatia, and I was like, oh, okay, well maybe I can go to Croatia for three days and Italy for seven days. And then it became, okay, I’ll go to Italy for three days and I’ll go to Croatia for seven days. And then in the end, I only went to Croatia. I didn’t go to Italy at all. And after that trip, I had wanted to go back to Europe, and ideally I wanted to go back to Amsterdam, but I couldn’t make it work bureaucratically.
And so I thought I’d give Croatia a try, and that’s how I found out about it. And it’s so funny how such a seemingly minuscule event as going down a rabbit hole on the internet can completely change your life. And that’s what it did. It completely changed my life.
Carlie: And you’ve since started a business where you are helping other foreigners navigate life in Croatia. What do you think is the attraction of Croatia to foreigners today?
Sara: Ooh, that’s a good question. So right now, the world is in a very odd place. Now, I know that Croatia has only been the most attractive in the last few years. And there’s a lot of circumstances that have created this kind of perfect storm of why people are coming to Croatia.
So one, about three years ago, start of 2020, Croatia substantially overhauled their citizenship act. And one of the things that they did was they widened the possibility for people with Croatian heritage to apply for citizenship. So before 2020, you had to take a test on history and culture, and it was in the Croatian language. So unless you’re fluent, it would be pretty challenging for you to do that. And that barred a lot of people from applying.
Also, they had a limitation. You could only go back to like, a grandparent. So they did away with the test and they also did away with the limitation. As long as you can prove it, then you can go back as far as you would want. Actually, we had someone recently who’s trying to go back to the first king of Croatia. That one should be very interesting.
Carlie: Oh wow. As like a claim for citizenship?
Carlie: Wow, that’s fascinating.
Sara: It is fascinating. It’s really fascinating. So that’s one thing. So we have tons of people with Croatian heritage who are like, oh, I can now get nationality and I can maybe go and live there. And so that’s part of it. So that’s happened in the last three years.
The second thing is the digital nomad permit. So Croatia had one of the very first digital nomad permits in Europe. And it has become the most popular program because of the benefits, and also just because of this atmosphere that you have in Croatia that’s very unique. So that’s another big part of it.
So, the third part of it is the pandemic. So during the pandemic, a lot of people took a look at their lives and they realized it was not what they wanted. They wanted to make a drastic change. And it wasn’t just that, it’s also a lot of people looked at the way their government was handling the pandemic and they were not happy about it, regardless of what that was.
So you have this huge influx of people that are choosing to live someplace else. And Croatia aligns with their values, it aligns with the quality of life they wish to have, and because of the permits that are available, you can at least, at a bare minimum, come to Croatia for a year.
So all of those things have created an environment where tons of foreigners are coming to Croatia. And they’re seeking safety. Croatia’s incredibly safe. They’re seeking a beautiful landscape, which Croatia has tons of, like unspoiled nature, it’s not industrial. We have clean air, we have clean water. I mean, lots of people like to live by the sea, and we have this beautiful turquoise clear sea everywhere.
You know, it’s, it’s not super populated, so a lot of people are coming from these big urban environments with tons of people. And I think, on the other side of the pandemic, people don’t want to be around as many people as they used to. So that’s part of it. And you can get by in English. In most cases, you can get by in English. You don’t have to feel like –
Carlie: Maybe not at the bureaucratic offices.
Sara: Not at the bureaucratic offices. I mean, look, there’s a myth that all Croatians speak English. That’s a lie. That’s not true at all, and anyone who comes here should try and learn something relative to how long they’re going to be here and that kind of thing. But you can get by, if you’re in a tourist center, you can get by. It’s not like going to France where you really need to know French, you know?
Sara: So it’s all of those things. And also Croatia handled the pandemic pretty well. Like we never had any kind of major crisis. I’d say those are the biggest things on people’s list as far as why they want to come here. And the culture is just an added benefit that either they’ve heard me speak about it, because I love the culture, I love the people, or they get here and they just realise, wow, this place is pretty special.
Carlie: And what is it that you love about Croatian culture and lifestyle?
Sara: Oh, oh my gosh. Well, lots of things.
Carlie: Just to put you on the spot.
Sara: Yeah. I could talk about it until next week, but I’d say the biggest thing is the community. Croatia is very community focused. It’s very family focused, but it’s also very community focused. So you have all these different kinds of communities, like big, small ones, you have a community just in your building, you know, you have a community in your neighborhood, you have a community at the beach, like all the people who go to that same beach. You have communities at the cafe bars, you have your work communities, you have all these different communities and they’re all tied together with this kind of unspoken understanding that you’re all in this together and you’re all humans and you all deserve mutual respect.
I mean, it’s not something that they ever say. It’s just, it’s inherent. And I think they thrive on human interaction, which I so deeply appreciate, because with social media and phones and everything, in a lot of places in the world, you know, that’s where we get our interaction, through the internet, through our phone. Croatia, it’s not that way. Phones are used for the purposes of setting up coffees. That’s it.
Sara: Yes, absolutely. So, going on a coffee, that’s how they’d say it in Croatian, they’d say, ajmo na kavu, which means let’s go on a coffee. So it’s kind of like an event. You don’t have to drink coffee. You could have tea, you could have Coca-Cola, you could have a beer. It’s still going on a coffee. So that means let’s go someplace and have a beverage and have a chat. And that is something that you do all the time. Like, it’s very common to have multiple coffees a day. I would never get anything done, so I can’t possibly do that.
But to give you an example, a friend of mine who’s from Split, she told me how she’s really concerned about a friend of hers, she thinks she is becoming antisocial because she only has three coffees a week. And I’m like, what?
Carlie: How is this possible?
Sara: Yeah, exactly. Like, that’s what you’re worried about? But no, you can have a coffee with anybody. It could be not just friends, it could be a landlord, it could be your plumber, it could be your mechanic, it could be your mailman. It’s also the way that you decide if this is someone you want to have in your life. It’s the litmus test. It’s the first date with anybody, regardless of whether or not it’s platonic. You just sit and you have a chat and you have something to drink and that’s your time. And they give you their entire focus. They’re not sitting there looking at their phone, wondering what’s going on on Facebook.
Carlie: I was going to say, but is there a phone out on the table? Are there lulls in conversation where people pick up their phones, which is so common here in France and in Australia and the UK where I’ve been. And you know, are people walking down the street interacting with their phones more than other people? Or is that just not there?
Sara: Younger people I’d say, people that are, you know, teenagers, maybe twenties, they’re more tied to their phones because they grew up, they came out of their mother with a phone in their hands. You know what I mean? There’s also an age thing, you just can’t avoid that. But that being said, there’s a huge focus on human interaction. I’ll give you one more example to really kind of drive home the picture I’m trying to paint.
So we had the first lockdown, like the entire world did. And then that fall of 2020, we weren’t locked down, but our restaurants and cafes were closed. Okay? And even though the cafe bars were closed, which we have more cafe bars than people in this country it feels like, even though the cafe bars were closed, Croatians would still go to like a tobacco shop, get a to go coffee and go to the same cafe bar and just stand outside of it in a circle of people to have their coffee.
Why? That’s how much of a ritual it is, that they continued that ritual even though they couldn’t get the coffee at that cafe bar. It was closed, there were no chairs outside where they could sit, but they still wanted to have that time where they sat there in a circle and had a chat and a coffee and got to see each other. Like, that’s how important it is. And they do it until the day they die. Like, you see men well into their eighties and nineties all just hanging out, having a chat. And I love that because we’re not islands. And having that kind of human interaction is just so vital to us as humans. It’s like oxygen.
Carlie: And do you find that interaction extends to foreigners for locals in Croatia? Are they, in your experience, as welcoming and inviting you into those coffee circles, or is there a bit of a separation?
Sara: That’s a good question. So I’d say it kind of depends. Foreigners who move here, for the most part, they all adopt that same coffee culture, because they love it. They absolutely love it. How could you not? Now, as far as intermingling with Croatians, Croatians, I feel like are much more open. It all depends on who they are. There are some Croatians that have no idea we’re here, which I think is fascinating. So you have to have some kind of overlap with them at some point. But if you make an effort, if you adopt the values, the culture, you’re nice, you’re engaging, you try and speak Croatian, they will absolutely invite you on a coffee app. Totally.
It takes time to build a relationship with a Croatian where you can be invited into their home. That can take years. And there is a ceiling you can hit with a relationship with a Croatian if you are not fluent. But they are so welcoming. I think France is also a comparison. Since you’re there, maybe you can correct me if I’m wrong. But I had a friend that lived in France for a very long time, and the way she described it to me was that unless you’re fluent in French, it’s pretty hard to get into a friend circle in France. Is that accurate?
Carlie: Yeah, I would say you definitely need some base French to be able to just interact. And even now, like I’ve joined sporting clubs in order to make more French friends and to be in those communities with French people. And I can be in them, but my French isn’t fluent.
So, as you said, there’s that ceiling, there’s that point in the conversation where you just can’t follow anymore or you are the quiet one in the group because you just can’t keep up and participate and really show off, I think, your possibly real personality as much as you could in your native language. But absolutely, they’re quite welcoming. But the language and having a certain level of it is key to unlocking that door, I would say. Yeah.
Sara: For sure. And that’s the thing. The creations that are even willing to open their doors or heart or whatever to foreigners, they’ll speak English in front of you. And they’ll do that, there’s just certain situations where, if you’ve got like five Croatians and it’s just you, like they’ll still do it. They will still do it. They won’t be super happy about it, and sometimes they’ll break back in Croatian, but they’re so concerned about not being rude and being inclusive that they will still speak English. It’s just, yeah, it’s that ceiling. You can’t get past a certain point unless you are able to completely engage in Croatian.
Carlie: I’m currently distracting myself by the dappled light coming in my window and framing my head. So, if you are watching this on the Expat Focus YouTube channel or on the expat Focus website, apologies for the distraction, that is the sunlight at the moment, but we’re moving on.
On your website, Sara, you described Croatia as one giant gray area when it comes to bureaucracy, and we spoke a bit about that earlier. You say that nothing is set in stone. So how has that, I suppose, gray area of bureaucracy played out in your experience?
Sara: Well, I can give you a perfect example. So, I came to Croatia and I was married to an EU citizen. That’s how I was initially able to stay here. Although Croatia was not even EU at that point, so it wasn’t like we were just able to walk in the door. We had to open a company and do all these things. But in the third year we divorced, and the Split police station didn’t know what to do with me because they’d never dealt with my situation before. I was the first.
Carlie: The situation being a divorced partner of an EU citizen when you are not an EU citizen.
Sara: Correct. They had not dealt with that before, and they’re very kind of regimented in certain ways where it’s like, if it’s not in the law, then they don’t quite know what to do. Like sparks fly out of their ears.
Carlie: They start bugging. Yeah.
Sara: Yeah. And I also got fined as part of that. I don’t want to get into the weeds of all of what that was, but… So I was dealing with the fine, I was dealing with, are they going to let me stay here? And I had a lawyer at the time, thank goodness I wouldn’t be here today without her, and she negotiated with them. First she got them to take off the fine, which was substantial. And then the second thing was, they voted on me. Like, they were just like, okay, well we don’t know what to do with her. There’s nothing in the law, the rule book that dictates this situation. So they got a few people together at the police station and they voted on me like it was Survivor.
Carlie: People at a police station, admin staff at a police station voting on your future in the country?
Carlie: That is crazy.
Sara: Yeah. So, thank goodness they voted to keep me on the island because I wouldn’t be here today. So I guess, you know, they didn’t have a problem with me. I hadn’t caused any trouble. I was nice, I was humble, I was all those kinds of things. So it worked out with me.
And then the second thing is when I applied for permanent residence, they should have applied a certain restriction to me and they didn’t. And if they had, again, I would not be here today. So when you are a third country national and you’re applying for permanent residence, you need to have a Croatian salary. Well, I couldn’t go and get a job, so my only option was to open up a company. Now, if you want to open up the company and you’re a third country national and you don’t have the right to work, you have to hire three full-time Croatians and invest approximately 40,000 euros into the company. And they didn’t make me do that. Why? I don’t know. But they didn’t. And I know lots of people that they have applied that to.
Those are two examples for my situation. I think I need to maybe position this from a different way, so I’m going to enter a different way into this story so that way it’s a bit more clear. Whenever you’re dealing with a bureaucracy, the individual human that you speak to has a tremendous amount of power.
They have discretion to either make things very easy or make things impossible and hard. Sometimes they’ll just say, that doesn’t exist. I’m not going to do this for you. You can’t apply for residents based on that basis because that doesn’t exist. But it does exist. And they just don’t wanna deal with you.
They’re either they’re in a bad mood or they don’t like you or you had an attitude or, I don’t know, they broke up with their boyfriend. Or it could be they haven’t had their smoke break yet. It could be a number of different things that people could use as a basis to not give you what you need. And if you are not educated enough to be able to push back, then there is nothing you can n do about it.
But there are scenarios where sometimes the rules say that it’s supposed to be this way, like you are supposed to follow all these rules, but you get in a bind and you just can’t meet those rules. And if you get the right person and you explain to them like, look, this is the situation I’m in and I need this, and I understand that you don’t have to do this for me, I get that, but can you help me out? And they will bend over backwards and do flips to help you because everything can be negotiated. For the most part, most things can be negotiated. Which I love because, like I said, if the rules hadn’t been bit, I guess, for me, I wouldn’t be here right now. And that’s, that’s crazy to me.
The only other immigration I went through was in the Netherlands. And if you don’t have exactly what it is they’re asking for, you’re gone. In America, you don’t have exactly what it is that they’re asking for, you’re gone. Sometimes even if you have everything they ask of you, they still make you leave. But in Croatia, not necessarily, there’s room to be able to just be a human. And that’s what I mean by gray areas. Usually things can be adjusted, but it also goes the exact same other way where, even though you have a legal right to something, someone will choose to make your life miserable.
Carlie: So speaking candidly, I did chat to an expat in Asia about his experiences there and how bribery was just par for the course in some countries and that’s what you do to get what you need. Is that sort of culture existing in Croatia or is that not quite how they operate?
Sara: Okay, I will tell you, and I need to make sure that I say this properly, because I had a guide for dealing with the bureaucracy and I got a call from one of our lawyers and he was like, you cannot say that Sara. And I didn’t mean it the way that it had been read, so I wanna make sure that I’m very clear.
Bribery happens. It does happen, but it does not happen usually at the levels that most foreigners are dealing. Like, it doesn’t happen with immigration. That’s would be a serious problem if anyone tried to do that. I have heard cases where it happens with like building permits and things of that nature.
Much larger procedures where, in some cases, that’s the way to get it done or to expedite it. Or in some cases where, whoever is it that is in charge, the case worker is just sitting there waiting for you to offer one. They’re like, I’m not going to move a muscle until you offer one. So it’s something that happens, but it’s doesn’t happen as much as it used to. There have been a lot of changes and a foreigner should never do that, unless they’ve been there for years.
Carlie: Don’t go slipping some euro notes in with your citizenship application.
Sara: No. I mean, I’ve had a few foreigners say, can we just bribe them? And I’m like, no, you will not do that. Do not, that will backfire horribly. Now I will say this, and again, this isn’t something I would do with immigration, but there are some situations where it’s not about a bribe, it’s about a nice little gift like chocolate or cookies or something.
Sara: Yeah, coffee. A brick of coffee. Yeah. It’s always appreciated. I was having conversation with someone recently about one lady at Split police who would not accept any of that stuff and she would get very offended by something like that. So you have to be confident that it’s going to be well received. And it also can’t be like, here’s some chocolate, here’s some coffee, can you make my thing work?
That’s not it. There’s an art to doing something like that. But at the end of the day, being kind and humble and, understanding and not being entitled, those things go a long way where you don’t have to do that necessarily. So, that would be my answer.
Carlie: I saw your Facebook video where you talk about your Croatian citizenship application. So congratulations to getting to the point where you are applying to be Croatian. That’s so exciting.
Sara: Thank you. I cannot tell you how excited I am. There are not enough words.
Carlie: You mentioned in that video that the local admin office is even rooting for you. That must be a really validating feeling. And, you know, as we were talking about before, that feeling of like unlocking that door to being in with the locals.
Sara: Yeah. You know, we specialize in the government. That’s what we do. And while we do talk about culture and some other things, really, the government is our biggest thing. We contact the government a lot. We’ve even been blacklisedt by the government a few times.
Carlie: Stop calling us.
Sara: Yeah. My colleagues, Lucia and Maria, they saw him on the caller ID, and also we have branded email addresses obviously, and they got tired of us messaging, so we had to be a bit more strategic about how we did it. But we really just didn’t know how much they knew about us and what we do.
To go into the office for to make the statement for my citizenship and have this woman tell me that they all know who I am, they all know who Expat in Croatia is, and that they’re thankful that we exist because we are taking a lot of the burden off of them, that was so gratifying. And that they’re all rooting for me for citizenship because of that reason. That’s just so cool.
I’ve never wanted to antagonize the government. Like, never. That’s not our thing. We always try to exude positivity and light and collaboration and we’re not enemies of the government. Like we may be blunt –
Carlie: You’re helping demystify local rules for foreigners so they can actually meet their requirements. Yeah.
Sara: Exactly. It’s all about achieving success, you know? So we’ve always tried to do that in a really positive way and we’ve never wanted to say anything bad about the government. And not in like a, oh we’re afraid of them kind of way. They’re government, like their job’s not easy. I don’t want to demonize them.
Like I can’t imagine what they deal with, you know, being at the foreigner’s desk and having this flood of people coming in from all over the world. Not just places that speak English, but people that don’t speak English, you know, who are coming in there and they’re asking questions that they’ve probably heard a thousand times, that sounds stupid and annoying and they’re just trying to get through their day. And I know because we deal with a lot of that stuff. I can’t imagine how, what they’re dealing with.
So I have mad respect for everything that they’re going through and I’m really glad that they appreciate and see what it is that we’re doing because we are trying to help. Yeah, I mean, I run a business, we’re trying to make money and stuff, but at the end of the day, I did this for free in my off time for the first five years and it was just to help people.
And that’s always going to be the biggest focus and it’s not just helping foreigners, we also help Croatians as well. But we’re also helping the government and it’s super cool that they see that at least, at the Split station. So, yay. That was a big surprise and it really warmed my heart.
Carlie: And so when do you expect to hear news on whether you are successful in your application?
Sara: Oh gosh, I don’t know. There’s a bit of a mix up.
Carlie: It’s a gray area.
Sara: Yeah, it’s a bit of a gray area. I mean, my lawyer told me, she said, Sarah, if something goes wrong with your citizenship, I’ve got this connection. We call it (inaudible), is a relationship. So a lot of things are done based on relationships. Like, oh, I’ve got a cousin or I’ve got an uncle or this or that in the government. Somebody knows somebody who knows somebody. That’s also another way that you get things done. But it’s really important to me that I don’t do this through (inaudible). Like I really want to go through the proper channels. I want to earn this on my own merit. It’s very important to me.
And anyway, so there’s a bit of a mix up right now with the Split police station not interpreting the law as my lawyer’s interpreting the law, as the ministry of tourism’s interpreting the law. So there’s a bit of a conflict there. So right now we’re waiting for Split police to send my application to Zagreb for processing. And once it gets there, which will be in the next week or so, then my lawyer’s going to contact Zagreb and be like, hry guys, let’s try and work this out.
But they started processing it pretty swiftly after the end of the summer. Because they don’t do anything during summer, because it’s summer; they’re on the beach. So I’m really hoping that it will be like by February, would be my hope. But I don’t know because I’m applying based on an article that is not used very often. Usually it’s for footballers, because to play for the national team you have to be a Croatian citizen.
So usually that’s what they use it for, it’s not used very often for any other purposes. And honestly, I don’t even know if Split even processes applications like that. So it’s just not standard. It’s not like you’re applying based on heritage or based on being married, so it’s hard to gauge how long it’s actually going to take. But fingers crossed it’s going to be by February. That’s what I feel like could happen.
Carlie: Yeah. Well you’ve got someone else rooting for you now too, so let’s hope it goes well.
Sara: Aw, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. Yeah. All the positive energy that can be put out in the atmosphere, I will take it.
Carlie: You’ve been in Croatia for a good decade, but I’m curious about what you miss about your life in the USA and where you’re from in Texas. Is there anything that you just can’t get in Croatia that you really miss from home?
Sara: Yes, a good enchiladas and tacos. Really the things I miss are food. I mean, I have friends that I deeply miss and I wish that they could be here all the time, but aside from that, it’s really just food. And even then, you know, and this is something that you might be able to appreciate, you know, in the first few years you’re like, oh, it almost hurts. There’s things that you miss so much, especially along the lines of food or different products that you want to buy, but the longer you’re gone, the more you realize that you can do without them. Or you find something that is a suitable replacement. Or you find a way to make something at home.
Carlie: Yeah, sort of substitutes. Yeah.
Sara: Yeah, you substitute. And then when you do go back home and you have whatever it is or see whatever it is or use whatever it is, then it just becomes a lot more special, like a novelty I guess you could say. So I’m never homesick, ever. To me, America’s not my home, Croatia’s my home. And yeah, there are a few food things, but missing those things has really dissipated over the years, especially the last couple of years.
Llike, okay, so this is my little hydroponic robot thing and I grow cilantro in here. And I couldn’t do that for many, many years. So there are ways that I’m able to kind of feed those needs.
Carlie: You can’t get cilantro in Croatia?
Sara: Not really.
Sara: Yeah, it’s difficult. Actually, I was in the UK a few years ago, and I was in like a Marks and Spencers thing, and there was this giant crate of cilantro and I just like stuck my face in it. I didn’t touch it, but I hovered over it for a while just to smell it.
Sara: They have these plants, like potted plants, and it’s just enough to maybe do one thing with It doesn’t actually grow more cilantro and it doesn’t taste like anything. So you can’t just go to the store and buy cilantro. It doesn’t happen. So you really have to grow it if you want it. It’s a bit laborious, let’s just put it that way. But I’ve become so not used to it that when it’s ready I’m like, what do I make with this? I don’t even remember what I used to do. But like in the States, I’d buy a huge bunch of it every week and I’d use it in a million different things and now I’m just so out of habit of using it. Now I kind of struggle.
Carlie: You definitely adapt to what’s available to you. Like tropical in parts of Australia, you know, you’d have mangoes just dripping off the trees and that sort of thing. And now I only see them in the exotic fruit section here. Where I’m in in France is definitely not, you know, south by the coast in warm climbs, so you can’t have a lemon tree, let alone a mango tree or a passion fruit vine or something like that. And sometimes I’m like, yeah, something like that just, you know, in my backyard would be so satisfying to have.
Sara: Yeah, absolutely. That and avocados. We have more avocados than we used to have here, but still it’s pretty hard to get them because when you go to the supermarket, they’re like already rotted.
Carlie: Isn’t that the biggest disappointment? We do online grocery ordering and when you order an avocado and they give you one that’s like hard does a rock, you can’t use it for two weeks, or it is way over ripe and gone brown and you’re like, what did I just pay for? Need to pick my own avocados.
Sara: Yeah. There was actually a couple from California that started an avocado farm on the island of Vis, which is about a two and a half hour ferry from Split. And we were all so excited and I remember talking to them like, oh, we’re going to have a crop this fall. And then it never happened. And then the next year, oh, we’re going to have a crop this fall. And then it never happened. And now, I don’t know if it will ever happen.
Carlie: Doesn’t it take like 10 years for an avocado tree to give you fruit? Maybe they didn’t realise.
Sara: I think maybe not. Yeah. So maybe seven years from now we’ll hear from them. Yeah.
Carlie: Yeah. I have one final question. You have an entire website of resources to point foreigners to, but if you had to offer one piece of advice to someone wanting to follow in your footsteps and make Croatia their home, what would you say?
Sara: Love it with your whole heart, because that affects every single part of your life here. Too often I see foreigners come here with entitlement, who are expecting Croatia to be the way they expected it to be, or to be the way that their home country is and to do things the way their home country does it. And they’re never going to have success that way. You know, if you experience something frustrating in the bureaucracy, swallow it and be fine and just move on. You know, don’t make it into a giant life earth shattering crisis because if you do that, you’re never going like it here.
You have to really love Croatia and when you just appreciate it for all that it is, you can open up your mind to this life that you never expected. I have an advantage because Croatia, their government, their bureaucracy has been my whole world for the last nine years or so. And because of that, I have so much knowledge about how Croatia’s system works, and why it works that way. And I’m not saying it’s not flawed, it has flaws, but a lot of things make sense to me. And I talk to foreigners from all over the world and they share with me how their governments work, and all it does is reinforce that Croatia is doing something right.
If you come in here with this expectation that it’s got to be the way you came from, you’re never going to open your mind to that idea that Croatia might do things better than where you came from. So come here, if you’re going to be frustrated, be frustrated for five minutes and then be a goldfish and just forget about it. You know, don’t let it drag you down and just accept Croatia for the way it is. It’s not going to change to suit you. You’re not entitled to it. Nobody has a right to be here other than Croatians, you know?
So just love it. Just love it for all it is. The complete package, including the rough edges and the flaws and everything. Because you can’t fully appreciate all the wonderful, magnificent, incredible things that Croatia is without accepting those other pieces too. So that’s what I would say.
Carlie: Well, along with the bureaucratic help on your website, expatincroatia.com, you also have some great articles and other posts about the beautiful aspects of Croatia and what you love about the country. So I do encourage our listener to check that out, expatincroatia.com. And Sara, thank you so much for spending time with me on the Expat Focus podcast today.
Sara: Thank you, Carlie. It was an amazing chat. I’m so happy for the privilege to be here. So thank you and hi to everybody out there.
Carlie: That’s it for this episode! You’ll find more interviews like this one with expats from all over the world in our podcast archive. Check them out on your favourite app, at expatfocus.com or the Expat Focus YouTube channel. Sign up to our monthly newsletter to never miss an episode – and claim your free guide to moving abroad. And I’ll catch you next time.