‘Ride it like you stole it’


The first cruise ship of the season has already come and gone from the harbor here in Zadar, Croatia. We are not far behind it. This is our last week in this beautiful country.

There is a word in Croatian that describes a state of mind I will miss long after we leave. It’s called “fjaka.” It’s a day-dreamy state I fall into when I stare out at the water and watch ships go by.

Here in Croatia, drifting into that fjaka fog is a way of life.

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When we arrived a year ago, I wasn’t sure how I’d fit into a place where it feels like time can stand still. In my American life, I’m impatient and overscheduled. Now I know the value of enjoying a more leisurely pace. There’s something captivating about the cafe culture here. There’s no shame in sitting down with friends for a coffee with real cups and saucers. They still believe that life is better without the distraction of cell phones.

Even our boys, who have been homesick at times, are feeling emotional about leaving. They’ve had their last sleepovers with friends. They’ve sold their bikes and given away their Nerf guns.

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Our oldest, “A,” has been practicing every night for a week for his last big school project. He has the role of American inventor Thomas Edison (the villain) in the school’s animated film about local hero Nikola Tesla. The script is all in Croatian, and I can hardly believe my 12-year-old can read it.

Our youngest, “W,” who’s almost 11, was determined to hate it when we got here. He went on to be voted class president. It took many more months before he would admit that he likes it here. My local friend says that makes him like a real Croat: someone who loves to complain even if deep-down he likes it.

Sarge, who came here to be an instructor pilot, is back at the airfield today. He’s off. I think he just wants to hang out with the guys. The other pilots took him out last weekend and gave him a Croatian football jersey. They said they expect to see pictures of him wearing it back home.

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As for me, I have been having the strangest dreams. One was about corporate jargon. One was about dryer lint overtaking my laundry room. Another was about sea surges. My dreams seem to be about my life here colliding with my “real” life back home. I will be glad to get back to my family and friends. But I don’t know what I will do without fjaka.

Some things here may not be as idyllic as I’ve made them out to be. There can be a frustrating side to time standing still. I’m still impatient. I’ve experienced the country’s bureaucratic offices and inefficient postal service. My local friends tell stories of bribery and corruption doing business here. My language barrier has sheltered me from worrying too much about the negatives. Every place has its problems.

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I’m still awed by the things that drew me in about Croatia. I will miss simple things, like church bells and cobblestone streets. I’ll miss seeing people stop and read the death notices on the corner bulletin boards. I’ll miss the sunsets and the eerie sound of the Sea Organ.

If we were staying longer, I’d buckle down and really learn to speak the language. I’d master driving a stick shift. I’d learn to garden.

What I do know is that life will not wait for you to get around to everything on your list. We are lucky that we have had a year to see more than most people who live here. I’ll savor those moments.

When Sarge quit his desk job to follow his passion, I thought it meant everything would fall apart. Instead, it meant we needed to adopt a new philosophy. “You only get one life,” Sarge likes to say. “Ride it like you stole it.”

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Learning to live more with less

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The average monthly salary in Zadar, the coastal Croatian town we’ve been spending a year abroad, is just under 5,000 kunas after taxes, or about $823 dollars.

That might help explain why shopping culture is so different here. For the most part, people seem to shop for their needs rather than their wants.

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That’s been apparent to me especially this week. We’re starting to let go of the extra things we’ve accumulated – bicycles, umbrellas, clothes and European appliances – as we prepare to move back home in a few weeks.

I listed items on the Croatian equivalent of Craigslist, and people have been stopping by to get good deals on items we’ve barely used. I’ve met a nurse, a university student, a fisherman’s daughter and a dozen others. One woman wanted to buy a sweater for her son to wear to his First Communion. Another wanted a bike to get to work. Most of the buyers spoke enough English to ask how I’ve liked living in their country. They seemed proud and almost surprised when I told them how I’ve fallen in love with Croatia.

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One of the things I like about living here is people don’t like to waste things. They fill tiny plots of land with gardens. They share their homes with multiple generations of relatives. They reuse plastic bottles to refill with homemade wine or olive oil.

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There are malls and supermarkets, at smaller scale than what’s available in America. Aside from the very wealthy with their yachts and vacation homes, the biggest extravagance I’ve seen here are well-heeled women showing off their designer clothing and pushing luxury baby strollers along the cobbled streets of Old Town, just to be seen.

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Most people I’ve met here would prefer a low-key lifestyle. They like to buy their groceries fresh daily from the open-air market, their bread from the corner bakery and their coffee or pivo at the neighborhood café. Maybe it’s the lingering influence of Socialism, but they don’t seem as caught up with “things.” There aren’t even many thrift shops or secondhand stores. There aren’t yard sales, Dollar Stores or warehouse superstores.

Shopping in Croatia reminds me of the “Rub-a-dub-dub” nursery rhyme. There’s still a butcher, a baker and a candlestick maker. And they’re probably not all in the same store.

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Living here has curbed some of my impulse buying and my Amazon.com addiction. Our apartment doesn’t even have a house number on it or a mailbox.

There are some things we just can’t get here. I talked my mother-in-law into bringing me Playtex tampons when she came to visit. My mom brought the largest-size bottle of Ibuprofen she could find. The kids talked our visitors into stocking them up with American candy.

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I know the boys are ready to get back home, and not just for the candy. I saw my 10-year-old’s calendar today. He wrote “finally” next to March. It’s starting to feel like we ran away and are getting sucked back into reality.

I hope one lesson here sinks in for all of us – how to live more with less.