Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Propuh or The Great Cultural Chasm Between Us

“Someone is likely to mention the baffling absence of draft in the United States: Americans keep all of their windows open, and they don’t care if they are exposed to draft, although it is well known that being exposed to sever airflow might cause brain inflammation. In my country, we are suspicious of free-flowing air.”
--Aleksandar Hemon The Lazarus Project page 12.

The draft, or propuh, is an indispensable part of life in Croatia and much of the Balkans. A breeze blowing from one end of the apartment to the other, or a chilly wind on a cloudy day can result in all kinds of ailments. The draft is responsible for everything from muscle aches, headaches, colds, to infections or even inflammation of the brain. In order to preclude such maladies it is necessary to:

1. Immediately dry your hair after a shower. Never go outside or go to sleep with wet hair.
2. Never expose the back of you or your child’s neck to the wind during the fall, winter or spring. The back of your neck should always be covered with a hood or scarf.
3. Never go barefoot. Always wear socks and slippers (even during the summer on the coast).
4. Avoid having two or more windows open in the same room, especially if they are on different walls. The cross breeze is one of the more nefarious forms of propuh.

Before moving to Croatia I did not really believed in the explanatory power of culture. I was of the opinion that when someone said something was “cultural” they were trying to coverup their own prejudice. After all, most allusions to culture in the US are attempts to explain why blacks and hispanics are more impoverished than whites. As someone who leans left on the political spectrum I disparaged attempts to explain a whole population’s economic plight as a product of culture. Instead I tended to see black and hispanic poverty as a legacy of slavery, unbalanced immigration laws, discrimination, society structured in a way that gives whites an advantage, oh and white people talking about “culture.” In my book, cultural explanations were up there with phrenology and astrology. Then I moved to Croatia and came face to face with propuh!

The presence of propuh in Southeastern Europe or its “baffling” absence in the US is as indicative of culture and its importance as one can get. Propuh is a force that guides and influences the entire way of life in Croatia. Its why I sweat in the summer when visiting my mother-in-law. It is why public transport is stifling. It is why I am publicly reprimanded for being a bad father when out with my hat-less daughter. It is why we have to have extra slippers for guests and pack our own when we go visit someone. And my refusal to accepts its existence is why I will forever and always be an outsider.

My in-laws, friends, and students cannot understand how I cannot comprehend the reality of propuh. And whenever I meet fellow Americans we cannot understand how people can believe in it, at all! We laugh and poke fun at our friends and families’ fears of the wind, chalking it up there with other Balkans superstitions, like believing in Vampires, fairies and Big Foot. Those of us in mixed-marriages end up venting our frustration on our children’s relatives who we see as overdressing our kids to death. A friend married to a Bulgarian woman put it best when he said: “In Bulgaria, a sweater is something a kid wears when her mother feels cold.”

The scope of these differences is like when a group of explorers encounters a new and “undiscovered” civilization. Both groups have a completely different system of beliefs. The explorers learn that it seems impossible to teach these “new” people about their religion. Say the explorers have several gods and yet one god is completely incomprehensible to the other civilization. It is not that they don’t just have a god like the one our explorers believe in, they don’t even posses the concept to go along with that god. They cannot understand the deity since they cannot discern her purpose and nature.

Its not that Americans don’t believe in propuh we don’t even have a concept for it. To us the breeze, swift moving air is er... well.. good. Especially if you’re from the Great Plains. After all my home state’s song begins with “Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plains...” and this is considered a positive characteristic. (The Croatian version would be something like “Oooooklahoma, where the wind can. kill. you!”)

The wind is an iconic symbol of America. In our pantheon of heroes they all sit on horseback, silhouetted against the setting sun, with the tall grass beneath them rustling in the breeze and their hair blown back by the wind, ceaselessly.


Where does this leave us? I’d like to end by saying that diversity is great and that its wonderful we live in a world with such varying opinions-- but then I would be lying! I’m hot and sweaty. I hate blow drying my hair. My mother-in-law keeps reminding me that I’m barefoot. My daughter is wearing a coat, hat, and scarf when its 16 degrees Centigrade outside. And everywhere I go an old lady looks at me with a frown of disapproval. Propuh!


  1. I'm totally with you on the subject of propuh. I'm an Australian that's lived in Zagreb for 8 years and I equate the propuh to some kind of possessed spirit that will haunt you and cause you all sorts of trouble. It's good to know I'm not the only one that walks barefoot and when it's 15 degrees perhaps I'm not the only one wearing just a long sleeve t-shirt.

  2. You had me in stitches! I'm a Croat living in UK for the past 21 years and I will never ever get used to unspeakable atrociousness of the wind here. Just confirming how strong my Cro cultural beliefs are! Love your amazing blog!

  3. Hi, I am a Croatian believing in propuh living in Utah married to an American that thinks we are all crazy, and where everyone makes fun of me when I worn them about the dangers of propuh! :D
    Thanks for the good laughs, love your blog!

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  4. this is brilliant! i never realized 'propuh' as part of every day life..but now i see, we're all actually mentioning it constantly! hahaah yesterday in the bar, having three hours coffee ^^, waiter came to me and apologized for being 'propuh' (which actually was and was chilly because of it) and that he'll close the front door. and bulgarian comparison, i laughed as crazy.
    coffee blog - most beautiful truth about croatians :)

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  6. LOL, now this article got me rolling laughing man. This is one of the best written, funniest articles about Croatian culture that I read in a long time. I am Croat living in USA. I remember when I took American family to Croatia and they stayed with my family. We drove them around in a car without AC and when they wanted to open windows my mom would scream at them: "Close the windows, do you want to die ?!"
    Even after 12 years of living in USA and now in warm Florida, I still stay away from "propuh" and we never use AC, not even in summer. My husband is Croatian, of course.

  7. Heyo, i'm from Croatia and time to time living in Zagreb and well...
    Since here you mostly dont have wind as a constant like in your 'murica people are actually,yes they are, not used to being overly propuh'd in the face,ears,neck so therefore there is a difference between us! Go evolution and generations!
    that's what i can tell ya from this article.
    By reading the comments, that makes a difference but the hell with it. It's funny how people percieve it totally in an another way, just lovely:)

  8. Reading your blog for the last 2 hours and laughing like crazy. This is so true. If you're having a headache, the first question your mother will ask is - Have you been exposed to propuh?! And if the answer is Yes, well.. God have mercy on your soul. And it doesn't matter if you're feeling comfy in your T-shirt, if your mother says you're cold, you're cold.

  9. My favorite "propuh" story remains how my mother-in-law (and anyone else in the vicinity) always insisted on my having a pillow behind my lumbar area when sitting on the bench against the wall of the basement kitchen in their old house. Because otherwise you'd get a "propuh" from the concrete wall and your kidneys would "catch cold."

    Kidneys could also be in great danger from sitting on any stone or otherwise hard surface. You MUST always have a cushion to sit on. No sitting on low stone walls outdoors, even in summer. It's a wonder I'm still alive after all these years--with no kidney disease, yet!

  10. Have you noticed also how Croatians (at least some of them) believe in dressing for the calendar, not the weather? An April day of 80 degrees Fahrenheit but you can't wear summery clothes because "it's still April!"

  11. This is great, I cried with laughter. My husband is english and we live in Croatia and we constantly have arguments about propuh (me being croat). When he walks down to the kindergarden to pick up our son and he is wearing short sleeves on a warm April day everybody on street is shaking their heads and commenting.
    One of our neighbours, an elderly man, used to say that he caught propuh one summer evening a few years ago while listening to a concert outside and he's been not well ever since.

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    1. My husband Jason and I were reading this laughing with the tears! (Jason also said to me: "there is not 'the' before 'tears'...And, btw, he still refuses to wear the slippers.)

  13. "Propuh" is a trap or a weapon used by a socialy weaker person to excercise power and superiority over his/hers social circle!
    You shall never find a boss mentioning a "propuh" case in his/hers office.

  14. I'm croatian living in France and happy to tell you that my french boyfriend knows all the negative effects of propuh, it's his french mother and french culture that tought him, so at least we don't dispute over the logic that matter. can't say the same about the amount of water you use for boiling potatoes ...

  15. NEVER underestimate the power of PROPUH! :)) (I'm not barefoot, I have two sweaters and I have huuuuge hair that covers neck!)

  16. This is definitely the funniest thing I've ever read about Croats!!! I've never realized we were like that, I always considered that normal (wearing slippers, blow-drying your hair). I even spent some time in the States but it was summer time, so that's why I probably hadn't noticed anything different... But I must say - I believe in propuh!! :D
    I looooooove, love, love your blog, its so amazing to see Croatia from your perspective. I had a chance to see and to get to know the American lifestyle and I loved it very much! I can definitely say it was the same cultural shock for me, as it is for you. But discovering new things was the best part; something new, something different from your everyday life. Going to Wallmart was like going to the Disneyland to me!! :D

    Can't wait to read more,
    Cheers! :):):)

  17. Wearing a coat, hat, and scarf when at 16°C is not something Croats do willingly, mothers make them wear that.

  18. Propuh is real, i was exposed to it one harsworking and sweaty day 5 years ago, and got a minor lung flu.

  19. The really funny thing is that Croats are not afraid of the wind. Wind is OK. It's propuh they fear. But, somehow they refuse to accept that the two are one and the same -- moving air. No, there are hundreds of fanciful explanations of the difference.

    There must be a physical explanation, a model, something akin to a Helmholtz chamber, explaining when a movement of air is propuh and how and when it segues into wind.

  20. Had to share this with my three children...who, having been brought up in the UK, never ever stop poking fun at my fear of propuh and other such monsters. Over the years, they managed to win some rights: bare feet around the house but NOT in the kitchen and going out with wet hair ONLY if they put a hat on, sitting on a stone wall (summer only, obviously)...but there is one thing that I will just NOT tolerate - "gola leđa" (bare midriff). I better go get another jumper, it IS almost December, after all:)))

  21. Thanks for the post. It will remain unsolved question - is there propuh or is there not.
    I just laughed now when it all of a sudden came to my mind what was the most Croatian thing I did when I've been living in US: once I warned my land-lady that it was too cold to walk barefoot in the house.
    At the other hand, nobody mentioned the positive notion of propuh. When we are very unsatisfied with the functioning of some institution, company, family etc., it is not unusual to say: "somebody should make propuh there", meaning clear the things up, bring the smell out and start anew with better less corrupted people etc.

  22. Also, the great spirit propuh can be involved for your own well being - you can notice that the air is stale and summon up propuh by creating the crossbreeze to bring refreshment and stuff. And in the summer, or when buying appartments depending on where you are and what winds blow you can complain that it's impossible to create proper propuh in the summer (especially with older people who're still not used to air conditioning).

    Also a nother term for a burnout, washout of otherwise a slacker or loser is "propuh". "Comes and goes, doesn't do much good and is mostly made of air". It's like a less vulgar way of calling someone a "jebivjetar".

    Also, propuh, or rather getting a cold/inflammation due to wind chill is real (although we do take it way too seriously). You could probably hear about something like that where certain kind of winds blow (in the states most likely Chicago). Dalmatia, for example, is notorious for the Bura which is a strong north-east wind (doesn't really blow in Zagreb), which significantly lowers the temperature. It's strong enough to blow away clouds, so the weather looks sunny from the inside, but if you walk outside underdressed you're likely to get a cold. Not because of wind spirits but because it's actually bloody cold, and usually the coldest it ever gets (no snow, ever).

    Also, bura is a rather strong wind and having a crossdraft going on in your house when it's really blowing can lead to shattered windows, slammed doors, stuff blowing over/away, and well, it's not practical. Since there is mostly no gas central heating in Dalmatia (and there never has been), warming up an appartment takes forever and the heat is precious, so for ages creating a crossdraft was both expensive and COULD get you a cold/inflammation (again not due to magic, but due to less then stellar heating). My grandparents still "don't believe" that you can have more then one room heated in the winter and for them Zagreb is some kind of mythical wonderland simply because of central heating everywhere. It's also why some Dalmatians who settle in Zagreb wouldn't move back to Dalmatia under any circumstances - life with central heating and radiators in every room is a life in heaven even if everything else sucks.

    So the "propuh" legend does have economic/geographical background, and in some places makes perfect sense. Zagreb rarely gets any wind, but even a slight breeze makes 0 or -1 celsius seem like -10 (you'll notice the chill if you pay attention in the winter).

    Also, as opposed to Bura, Jugo is a strong Southern wind and it's WARM. So as a kid in Dalmatia I used to go out underdressed for the season just so I can enjoy the warm wind, and so did most other kids. It has it's own problems, as it brings clouds and does stuff to people with blood pressure issues. So if it blows for a week, and then the cold Bura chases the coulds away, people are actually glad about it.

    And dressing for the weather and not for the day is also related to what I mentioned about Bura - look outside, see a sunny day. WALK outside, curse, go back inside, dress up, walk back outside otherwise you'll at least feel cold, even if you don't catch one. If you've spent most of your time in Zagreb, and only visit Dalmatia during the summer, you're kind of in a protected bubble as far as reasons for "cultural heritage" existing go. Everyday life in Zagreb changed too much, so now what was once (and not too long ago) sensible good habits seems like superstition. :)

  23. Also, someone explain this one to me: Croatians love their beaches, and have no trouble swimming around in freezing sea water, but they're scared of air which is not nearly as cold.

    Great article! :)

  24. The "propuh" mentioned hear is as real as the sunlight and is not just some superstition. If i stand as long as 5 minutes in an air current, especially if my back is exposed, i get instant diarrhea. When we were kids, we would get sick for real if we went out without drying our hair. Maybe it has to do with the weather, maybe with geography. I can not tell, but "propuh" is a proven fact of life.
    Love the article though. :)
    I am Albanian.

  25. I agree with you. Thank you for sharing the update. It is interesting to have it discussed widely so that we can gain more objective opinions.

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  26. I saw this in Zagreb and I really find it funny. I am brasilian/croatian and I love open windows, I love chilling cold beer (I live in Brasil) - and I felt the Croatians really fear the propuh... All windows closed, even with tons of cigarretes... Never chilling cold beer...

  27. My husband is Balkan and for years I poo-pooed his claims to getting back muscle aches from drafts. I gradually came around and came up with a theory; if you baby a part of you since the day of your birth, of course it is going to be hyper-sensitive. If you've been covering your neck and back your entire life, then it's safe to say it will become achy if suddenly exposed to a draft.