“What’s Different About Living In Croatia Than In California?” (Part II)

In the last (non)chapter about this particular question, in this (non)book about my back-and-forth life between California (where I am this summer) and Croatia (where I’ll head back to early in September), we focused on what’s different about my own brain waves while I live in each place.

Lots of that internal difference is based, I believe, on the vast external differences between California and Croatia.

Lots and lots of Croat ex-pats have settled, over the past century-and-a-half in California coastal communities, because of similarities in things like weather, growing seasons and foods, proximity to the sea, etc.

But as a twenty-first century Californian heading the opposite direction, I perceive . . . and appreciate . . . the differences.

And that’s what this (non)chapter is about: some examples and specifics about what I perceive as the most different/having the biggest impact on my daily life/personality/happiness/creativity.

In other words, this is going to be highly-subjective, and you might not have the same experience or perceptions at all because we are all . . . like all places . . . different.

So without further ado, and in no particular order . . . .

1. Life on-foot

The other day, a very kind and intelligent friend asked me, “Your Instagram photos of flowers . . . where do you FIND them?”

He meant the flowers.

I was dumbfounded.

Because where does one find them?

Why, everywhere!

Hiking. Walking down the street. At florist shops you pass. In plant nurseries. In bouquets at Trader Joe’s.

Ever since my friend asked, his question has rattled around in my brain. Because he is a smart guy. And he makes good photos himself.

And because the answer seemed so obvious to me.

Until I figured out that, apparently, it wasn’t so obvious as I’d thought. (Because the smart guy who makes good pictures sincerely asked it. Like, he really didn’t know.)

So, what does this have to do with the difference between California and Croatia?

It occurred to me that this thing . . . where do you find your flowers to photograph? . . . that is now “obvious” to me got to be obvious to me probably from Living Life On Foot.

In other words, spending March through May in Croatia with no car changed the way I see things.

It is the-having-no-car . . . the walking, or figuring out where you can get by bus or ferry and walking to those things and getting on and off them and then walking some more . . . for months and months at a time . . . that finally gets you to slow your ass down.

Which gets you grounded.

Which gets you to see things around you. Close up. Different ways of seeing, and different things. Seeing them — buildings, flowers, humans, spirit animals, clouds, trees, the sea — as your eyes are moving upon them and past them slowly enough for once in your life actually to notice.

Instead of whizzing, always and over and over again and every day ZIP ZIP ZIP over miles and miles at so-many-miles-per-hour in various metallic assault and assault-protection vehicles that are meant to get you places FAST. While you are only looking out the window at the road to get you there as quickly as possible, without hitting any of the other vehicles.

Of course, people in Croatia have cars. But I didn’t. And the population is small and spread out and the car culture is just not the same as it is in California. Which allows you the chance to fall easily (and happily) into the habit of hoofing it. And looking at things. And talking to people. And carrying your groceries home.

And burning more calories and breathing more regularly and feeling better physically, to boot.

Walking also spurs all kinds of emotional and creative epiphanies. And writerly inspiration. And photo opportunities.

In fact, the car vs no-car difference between my life in California and in Croatia might be the biggest game-changer in my outlook, productivity, creativity, and sense of connectedness (to the Earth I’m walking on, and to the people I see — even though I am not fluent in their language) from place to place.

[Yep. I could also have no car in California. But I’ve run the numbers: the cost of Uber rides to supplement the piss-poor public transportation we have here would be prohibitive. And it would take me forever to get from place to place that I need to be with family, lodging, work gigs, etc. Which would defeat the whole more-peaceful purpose.]

2. Beauty

Without a doubt, California has amazing natural beauty.

But square mile for square mile? And what you see out your front door? And what you walk past every day? Like this, as just one tiny example . . . .

Croatia’s got us beat.

Hands down.

And let’s face it: when things are hundreds of years old and even in disrepair in Europe . . . .

. . .they’re generally charming and beautiful. Exquisite. Sometime gut-wrenchingly so.

In California, when things get old and dilapidated, they are simply sad ugly and depressing. For miles and miles and miles of sprawl.

If your brain and spirit thrive on the beauty of nature and of human structure . . . Croatia’s always got your back. It’s filling you up, every moment, with breath-taking views and colors and old stones and laundry hanging picturesquely on lines. And that’s just for starters.

Sorry, California.

Yep, you’ve got the coastline and Yosemite and Death Valley and other gorgeous “spots.” But in Croatia, the whole tiny county is pretty much a “spot.” From old Roman ruins to turquoise clear seas to island vistas to world-class sunsets nightly to grey stone mountains to primordial waterfalls to walled cities to castles to wine countries that make Napa Valley look like it’s not trying very hard . . . Croatia is visual-beauty paradise.

3. Physical tribe-mates

This difference is very particular to me, in particular:

I totally dig the way most people look in Croatia.

Because they look a lot like me.

Which has never been the case in California.

I have never, not for one instant, ever since I’ve was tiny enough to recall perceiving, ever felt like I belonged . . . physically, beauty-wise, etc. . . . in the culture of California.

For example, I am hairier (everywhere) than most females living in California. I have black hair. I have a lot of moles. I have long-fingered, highly-functional, slender, veiny “man-hands.”

These are the things I got teased about a ton when I was little.

And I never felt “right” about my looks as I grew older here, either. Instead, I had a definite sense that this was/is not “what women are supposed to look like” in California. Nope. It appears one is supposed to be hairless except for long blond hair. And to have one’s moles removed. And “man-ish” hands and muscles? Ummm. No.

But in Croatia?

We’re everywhere!!!!!

With our very dark hair. And lots of it. In places most Americans think are “wrong.” And with lots and lots of moles. And efficient, effective, creative, expressive, veiny man-hands abounding.

It’s fucking glorious.

Because, do you KNOW what a breath of fresh air this is? To finally . . . in your mid-50s . . . finally feel like you fit in when you walk down the street?

And here’s another thing. And this might simply be due to the fact that Croatia is a relatively poor country, and thus most Croats do not have any/lots of discretionary income. Maybe if everyone got richer, they’d fall prey to what has happened in America: that your looks are what matters so much.

But for now?

The vast majority of people look like they used to look like here.

By which I mean imperfect.

And real.

Un “improved” by technology.

There are moles and birthmarks and wrinkles. Teeth are beautifully imperfect. The way they used to be here in America, before everyone had them straightened, replace, whitened, perfected.

There is a blessed dearth of surgical implants and other changes.

There are very, very, very bad home hair-coloring jobs everywhere.

Because that’s what people can afford.

And that is reality.

In its blessed, glorious imperfection.

So if you are someone who’s creeped-out when people are not being “perfect” in their appearance, and they don’t match your definition of what “beautiful” or at least “trying harder to look better” is . . . this is not necessarily the place for you.

But if you’re like me?

You’re in Heaven.

4. Notions of hospitality

When I was typing that just now, it occurred to me for the first time how much of “hospitality” is filled with the word “hospital.”

Which is just right for this piece. Because it was from what came to pass after my visit to Zadar’s hospital in the spring that I can give you the epitome of the difference I’m talking about here.

First, we begin with how things often go in California.

I was contacted at the beginning of this summer’s stay in California by a very lovely woman who asked if we could meet for coffee. Because we’d only known each other, so far, through social media. And we shared a making-of-greeting-cards. And people had suggested she meet with me to talk about card-making and card-selling.

I love this kind of thing,

We set up a meeting. (Which, even with what I talk about below, was wonderful and I am looking forward to getting together with her again.)

When she arrived at the cafe, I was in line for the bathroom. We said hi. She went and bought herself a coffee and waited for me on the terrace outside with it. I joined her a few minutes later, with my own coffee.

In other words, neither one of us bought each other’s coffee.

(Pissy aside: I judgmentally thought she “should have” offered to buy my coffee, based on what I’d assumed from her initial communication that we’d be talking about. Which was business. Or, former-life business. And when it became clear we were going “Dutch,” I piss-ily decided just to do it that way, instead of offer to pay for hers.)

This would have never happened in Croatia.


“Having a coffee” (English translation) with one’s friends is a big, big, big part of Croatian culture. It is friendship and camaraderie and a break and a pick-me-up.

And NO ONE discusses the bill.

And NO ONE goes Dutch.

Ne, ne, ne.

Someone picks up the bill (which is always left by the waitstaff on the table at the same time as the drinks are delivered) and pays the whole thing.

And it’s someone else’s turn “drugi put.” “Next time.” When someone else will take their unspoken, unkept-track-of turn and pay for everyone.

This is how it’s done in the country where almost everyone is way more broke than almost everyone here in California.

I have had many discussions with Croats about this difference between how we do things in California. About Californians’ discussions about how and if the bill will be split. Who will pay. How much. Etc.

The Croats don’t get it.

They think we are crazy.

They scoff at this.

It is inhumane and uncivil.

It is hard to disagree with them.

Which brings me to the even larger display of consummate humanity that happened after I came back from the hospital at the end of my spring stay.

With the concussion.

When I knocked on my next-door-neighbors’ front door and told them what had happened that afternoon and that I wasn’t supposed to spend my first night alone.

Which is when they said, “Come in!!!!! Sit down!!!!!”

And then those two wonderful people took care of me night and day for the next four days. I’m talking holding-my-head-when-I-threw-up taking care-of. Like awesome-parents-of-a-toddler taking-care-of. They went with me on the bus and in cabs to the hospital for follow-up care. They were my translators and cooks and laundresses and angels. They got an extension at the police station for me to stay longer in Croatia if I needed to.

They were amazing.

What did they say whenever I expressed that, and my eternal gratitude?

They looked at me like I was crazy.

“This is normal. This is what people do.”

No they don’t.

Not in California.

Your neighbors do not just drop what they are doing and invite you into their home to puke in their spare bedroom while they hold your head better than your own mom ever did. They do not make you home-cooked meals and have you sit with them at their table for four days straight, and ask you what you feel like eating that would help you feel better and then go to the store and buy the ingredients and make it for you. They do not tell you it will be okay, and entertain and distract you with tales of their own amazing travails when you are crying and terrified you might not be okay.

I am not saying people are mean and awful in California.

It’s just that we do not often or generally . . . even in families . . . treat each other with this specific, amazing brand of love.

Which Croats consider “normal.”

I am also not saying they are perfect.

Which is what I’ll discuss “drugi put.” Next time. In the last (non)chapter of this section.

Thanks for reading!

And if we ever meet . . . I’ll buy your coffee.