The Croatian Journey of a Polish Girl

When I first came to Croatia in 2008 for summer holidays, in the beginning I thought: “What the heck is Croats’ problem with Polish people?!” I heard mothers’ weary voices chastening their children: “Polako, polako!” I couldn’t understand why they mention Poles so often (Croatian polako resembles a Polish word Polak which is simply a Pole). Years (and two levels of education) later I just learnt that polako has actually nothing to do with my nation and means slowly. And after almost three years in Zagreb, now I know that it’s not just a word – it’s engraved deeply in Croatian mentality.

That’s why you will see cafés full of people during working hours sipping one coffee endlessly. That’s why you will have to stand up from your seat in order to let people pass in the Croatian National Theatre despite the fact that the play started fifteen minutes ago. “Polako mentality” is also the reason why you can come a little late for your rendezvous with a Croat – they won’t even notice and will probably arrive even later than you. It used to piss me off a lot but considering that before I would wait in front of a classroom rather than come late and interrupt the lecture, now my easy-going attitude towards punctuality is a big step forward.

Patience is your best weapon while trying to get any bureaucratic thing done. A foreign accent is the second best. Croats are way nicer to non-natives than they are to each other. I remember paying by transfer in a post office – it was my first time and I didn’t have a clue how to fill in the payment slip. The lady at the counter not only did it for me but also complimented on my (not so good) Croatian by saying that I sounded like I had been born and raised abroad by Croatian parents, which was very flattering at that time. Now, I rarely get recognised as a foreigner but I still sometimes play dumb (or, as Croats say, “pretend to be English” – pravim se Englez) when I encounter a ticket inspector on a tram. And it works!

Unfortunately, patience is not Croats’ strongest point. I find it strange because their country gives them so many opportunities to practice this useful characteristic! They should be used to waiting in queues, being sent back from one counter to another, and other fun stuff you do in the face of the administration. No, instead of jointly opposing the sick system, they jump down each other’s throats. After all, they blame their “Balkan” temperament for this outburst of anger and everything is okay again.

Ovo je Balkan (“it’s the Balkans in here”) is often used as an excuse for doing something socially unacceptable, like throwing the rubbish on the ground or getting totally wasted on a Friday night and destroying half of the club. Another strange paradox in a country that wants to wash off the Yugoslavian burden by emphasising its European roots and values at every turn.

In spite of, or rather because of its numerous contradictions, I have been gradually falling in love with this country and its citizens over last three years. It became my “smaller homeland” and I have a huge inner conflict every time Croatia meets Poland on any kind of sports pitch. But there is also a good side of such dilemma – I always end up satisfied with the result, no matter who wins!