‘Ride it like you stole it’

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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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Lessons from the Birthday Boy

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My biggest shortfall after being in Croatia for almost a year is that I still can’t speak Croatian. I know only the pleasantries.

I’ve discovered the limitations of charades and Google Translate. I know greetings, basic numbers and days of the week (barely). But things like parent meetings at the kids’ school leave me lost. I’m still intimidated by the circle of school moms whose conversations I don’t understand. I get excited when I know the words in Croatian television commercials. I’ve given up trying to decipher the local news.

When I’ve ordered pizza for delivery, I put my son on the phone to speak in Croatian.

I make shopping mistakes all the time. I once bought sour cream instead of coffee cream. Last week, I opened a can of something like Spam for lunch when I was expecting it to be tuna. And it’s not only Croatian that gets me. When we were in Germany in December, I bought a goose when I thought I was buying a chicken. We feasted on our first Christmas goose purely by accident.

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I keep thinking if we were staying longer, I’d put the effort into taking language classes. It’s been pretty easy for me to get by relying on the kindness of strangers. I’m just embarrassed that I haven’t caught on to the language the way Sarge and the kids have.

Moving abroad has been harder for the kids than it has been for me. Yes, kids are resilient. They have made friends and adjusted well. At school, even though it’s international, not all classes are in English. Math, for instance, is in Croatian. I’d be in tears by the end of the day. They’ve learned how to adapt.

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Today is our oldest’s 12th birthday. Almost every boy in his class showed up at our place last night to help him celebrate. They didn’t eat as much as American birthday-goers his age. That might be because they were playing outside most of the time. I asked them if they wanted to watch a movie, and they told me they didn’t want technology to spoil the party. They wanted to play. I love these kids.

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The most stressful part of the party for me was writing the invitations in Croatian. I’m still not sure if they were accurate, but they worked. Everyone arrived on time, even the one whose mom called and tried to speak to me in Croatian to get directions. I had to put Sarge on the phone with her husband because we couldn’t get through the language barrier.

This afternoon, our birthday boy is happily playing with Legos. He is looking forward to dinner at our favorite restaurant and having more of his chocolate cake. I interviewed him with a little birthday quiz I found online about his favorite things.

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One of the hardest questions was: “Who is your best friend?” He told me it was too hard to name just one. He has friends all over.

Back to škola

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There are many simple things I love about Croatia. One of them is back-to-school shopping. Or lack of back-to-school shopping, actually. All the boys needed to start their international school classes this morning were some notebooks, pens and pencils and a pair of slippers.

I was used to ridiculously expensive and specific American school shopping lists. It was fantastic not having a list at all this year. I didn’t have to search for blue pens with erasers, folders with prongs, book covers in multiple sizes or family packs of Clorox wipes.

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The only school item I do still need to find is something that exists to torture parents worldwide: a recorder. I thought we had escaped the plastic, flute-like instrument this year. I used to ask my kids to practice on the porch so the screeching wasn’t so close to my ears. The music teacher here insists recorders are essential for the fifth grade. I don’t know if this is the right instrument for developing a love of music. I thought recorders were universally despised. I think the other parents here are with me on this.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell what the other parents here are talking about. I’m still getting by on charades half the time. I’ve tried to befriend school moms who are kind enough to speak to me in English. I went to a parent meeting the other day that was an hour-and-a-half – all in Croatian. I could follow the gist of what was going on: Parents at our private school were demanding smaller class sizes. They let their voices be heard, loudly, and they were effective in getting results. I just needed the CliffsNotes version.

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Thankfully, the boys’ teachers text me in English. That’s how I found out the first day of school was going to last only 30 minutes. I was so excited that the kids were going back to school that I had already invited my expats’ group to coffee to celebrate. The kids got out of school so early this morning that they had to crash the coffee party.

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I was glad to see “A” and “W” run out of school smiling. My fifth- and sixth-grade boys might not admit it, but I think they were happy to go back and see friends they made when we got here in the spring. They’re developing skills to get past the language barriers. They both started correcting my Croatian pronunciation when I tried to make small talk with locals this afternoon. I’m taking that as a good sign. We’re all in for a good education this year.