Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Bureaucratic Wastelands

This post is about bureaucracy. It will be a long, ponderous piece with little or no point. Bureaucracy, anywhere, is unpleasant. In Croatia though, it seems especially painful. This is because our fates are irrevocably intertwined with the mystery that lurks within the bureaucracy. We have no choice but to traverse those labyrinthian corridors and stand in the long lines, searching, waiting for answers. There is no escape.
In my experience, discussions over coffee can easily involve a friend’s bureaucratic problems. Ask how a friend is doing and you are very likely to get a story about how she is some kind of bureaucratic purgatory, waiting for someone, in some department somewhere to do something that will move her life along. Housing permits, working permits, being able to graduate, seeing a specialist, receiving a paycheck, all of these often hinge on the bureaucracy. 
Who’s Driving This Thing?
In each case there is a cloud of uncertainty hovering over the fate of these friends. No one really knows what the problem is with their specific situation or who is actually responsible for resolving it. In a monarchy, I guess responsibility resides with the king. In a bureaucracy, the bureaucratic state, responsibility is so defuse it resides with no one. I have the feeling that under these conditions any bureaucrat that attempts to burden any of the responsibility for a decision, risks undermining the whole enterprise and the system’s wraith. Or maybe, they don’teven know what to do. 
 You ask the impossible
I think one of the key negative traits of a bureaucracy is when it asks you to provide the impossible. I have the feeling that we can be asked to perform miracles (walk on water, raise the dead) just to get some vital document. One timeI waited four months for a paycheck because the accounting office demanded that I produce a JMBG (Unique Master Citizen Number). I have an OIB (a personal identification number), but that wasn’t good enough. I also needed a JMBG, which was kind of hard since I was born in Oklahoma, not Croatia or even Yugoslavia. 
But apparently, I was more responsible for where I was born than the person, whose job was to pay people, was… for… figuring… out… how to pay people?  It was only after I inquired about getting a JMBG at the Ministry of the Interior, and at my bank, that the accounting office finally accepted what I had told them at the beginning: legally, metaphysically, logically, I cannot possibly have a JMBG. 
Could it be easier?
Now, if we live in a modern state we have to have bureaucracy. We can aspire to the kind Max Weber advocated, a hierarchical system, governed by clearly defined rules. Or, we can get the kind Franz Kafka wrote about, opaque, formless, and well, eerie. 
Some simple changes might make it nicer. Let’s remove the big glass barriers between the bureaucrats and us. What are those things even for? Sneeze guards? Not being able to clearly hear the person you are talking to certainly adds to the whole affair’s frustration. Or how about those doors that only open from the inside? I’ve never seen anything like that until I came to Croatia. If we can’t have real openness and accountability, let’s at least have its aesthetics. Give us the illusion of a light at the end of this maze. That, would be a start.
This post originally appeared on my blog on The Voice of Croatia/ Glas Hrvatske: 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Unreality TV

Most American TV is not an accurate portrayal of US society. I know, I know… sorry to ruin your day. The violence, the crime scene investigators, the people preparing for the end of the world, all that might be closer to the truth. Where American TV goes wrong is in its depictions of life in sitcoms. In my experience there are few, if any, places where everyone knows your name. 

It was only after I moved to Croatia in 2011, that I started to see the unreality of American sitcoms. While these shows are far from reality in the US, the way of life on all of these shows began to look suspiciously familiar. I realized US sitcoms are actually about life in Croatia! Don’t believe it?  Here is some evidence. 

Another reality TV

On Sex and the City, Carrie and her gal friends sit in restaurants, cafes, or bars,  sharing heartfelt tales of heartbreak sprinkled with sexual innuendo. Sitcoms also involve going to the same cafe/bar over and over again. On How I Met Your Mother the gang spends most of their time drinking with each other in the neighborhood bar. On Seinfeld Jerry and friends are always at a place that’s simply called “Restaurant.” Look familiar? Yes, this is just like having coffee in Croatia. When is the last time you went some place new?

Then there is the very “involved” neighbor, like Urkel, Gibbler, or Kramer, who comes over all the time, often unannounced. And perhaps most notably on many shows like Everybody Loves Raymond, Fraser, and The King of Queens there is an older, aging, dominating, family member that constantly “complicates” things, especially for the male protagonist.  

We don’t really do that.

From the vantage point of a sitcom it looks like Americans spend all their free time socializing over one kind of drink or another, live with their relatives, and go to the same place again and again. If you replace socialize with watch TV, place with living room, and drink with pizza, then sure, we do that. Having coffee is rarely like it is imagined on Friends, sitting around, and you know, drinking coffee. Life in the US is hectic, often rushed and very rarely does anyone seem to have time for sitting around drinking coffee. If anything, you get it “to go” and talk to your friends on your mobile, while driving to your next appointment. Neighbors? I hardly even knew their names. Living with family members? No. Out of three siblings only one of us lives in the same state as my parents.

We Aspire to be Croatians?

Think about what is says when the ideas of levity, humor, laughter and comedy on American TV really resemble life in Croatia. Maybe this explains why I love living in Croatia so much. Countless hours of American TV have taught me that this is actually what life should be like. Based on our sitcoms you could argue that in the US we want to have a life like life in Croatia. Frustrating? At times. Complicated? A little. But ultimately, it’s a good time. In middle English, the word comedy was used less to depict a humorous event, but instead referred to a play or poem that had a happy ending. In that sense, I believe life in Croatia, a life with friends, having coffee, friendly neighbors, and even punica, can be truly comedic.   

(This piece was originally published on my blog for the Voice of Croatia)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Croatians are some of the most hospitable people that I’ve ever met. Being a guest is like being a prince, albeit a force fed prince, but a prince no less. And then there is of course the gift giving, the birthday treating, the coffee buying, the lunch, the hosting and being hosted, and usually some more gift giving for no real reason. Now, all of this is in stark contrast to the miserliness of Croatian public life. Yes, outside of the personal, private experience between friends and family, Croatian society seems incredibly cheap. Where’s the schwag? The freebies? The pro bono goods? The free stuff? 

In America you can find free stuff everywhere. Usually it’s little things, but it’s often the little things that count. Ketchup. Ketchup is free and plentiful. There are piles of it on the condiment bar. And you’re like condiment what? Yep. See, in the US we have so many free condiments that fast-food restaurants actually have a special place in the restaurant for said condiments. You can find free packets of ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, hot sauce, hot mustard, relish, duck sauce, soy sauce, and barbecue sauce (not to mention salt, pepper, and sugar) on the condiment bar. And, if they don’t have free packets then there is usually a whole jug or tub or something with a pump stuck in it, so you can douse your food with duck sauce until your heart’s content. 

Meanwhile in “Croatia” (those are sarcastic quotes by the way) the ketchup is kept behind the counter like it’s some kind of tomato-based methadone, and you have to not only ask for it, but pay for it too!    

Then there is the scarcity of paper products. Again in the US, walk into a public restroom and there is a strong certainty that it will have a) paper towels in the towel dispenser; b) toilet paper. In Croatia, this certainty is greatly diminished, especially if you are in a public facility. At the University of Zagreb paper towels are about as rare as Bigfoot. There have been sightings, but I have yet to confirm their existence. Toilet paper too. 

In the US you can always find an ample supply of napkins and tissues for free and open for the taking almost anywhere. Secretary’s desk at some firm: box of tissues. Classroom at school: box of tissues. Cafe: stack of napkins. Grocery store: stack of napkins. Fast-food place: napkins. In Croatia the napkins are delivered only on request and tissues only come in little handheld packets.

How many times have I had a sneeze attack on a sunny, spring day in Zagreb and not had a tissue? Well, three. With my hand over my face I walk into the nearest cafe or bakery, mumbling in Croatian for a napkin or something to wipe my nose. Sometimes I succeed. Other times, well you don’t really want to know. But each time I think: I miss America.

You might think people here would take advantage of it. Don’t worry, in the US we do. When I was a kid I used to go into Long John Silver’s (it's a fast-food seafood restaurant, mmm landlocked fast-food fish.) and ask for a water, which came with lemon, then I’d go to the condiment bar and poor enough sugar in to make my own free lemonade!

Maybe it has to do with how skeptical Croatians can be compared to Americans. Or perhaps it’s is just one of those inexplicable differences. It’s funny because it really is in such contrast to the generosity of personal and private life here. And it’s also one of the few things I miss from home. Then again, the sea is free (for now). 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Middle School.

For a long time I've tried to understand how I can feel less alienated and detached from the world in a country where I am a foreigner. A common thing on Zablogreb is how much more social Croatian society is than the US. Here the relations are THICK, and I think I've found an answer. School. But, not in a way that has anything to do with curriculum or the quality of teachers. Nope. The biggest difference between Croatian schools and American schools is that in the US we have a special hell called middle school.

Right, so Croatia has middle school (srednja škola) but this middle school is actually high school (again with the names Croatia— it’s confusing). Before Croatian “middle” school there is just elementary school (osovna škola,). Middle school in the US is completely different. Not only is it the worse time in any American's life, it occurs in the actual middle of your schooling. Middle school is the inky-black abyss that swallows grades 6-8.

See, in the US we begin school with kindergarten, then it's on to the 1st grade. Grades K-5 are known as elementary school. Then comes middle school. That's right, everything you've known and loved, the adoring teachers that have seen you grow from a 5 year-old to an 11 or 12 year-old, the friends you've had for the last 6 years, well, all of that is suddenly stripped away from you. The feeling of home, comfort, familiarity, continuity, all gone. You are left naked. In the wild. with wolves. 

At the same time, this is when kids start to change into adolescents. And since the school is much bigger than its elementary counterpart, there is more "diversity." What that means is that I entered middle school looking like a 9 year-old and found myself walking the halls with guys that shaved. The variety of biological and hormonal differences, coupled with newness of everything, adds to the already unpleasant experience of transition from kid to teen. 

Middle school has a steep learning curve, what the launches you into the realities of American life, realities that you may or may not be prepared for. In my middle school we had real gangs, in 8th grade there were 11 guns found in the school and a friend was beaten into a coma. It's where I first learned what pot smelled like, because a fellow student came to school smelling like pot. 

Each year in middle school is filled with new strangers, and you grope for friends like a drowning rat. It's easy to befriend someone without really knowing them. Middle school was the first time I had friends that would brazenly steal from stores. It was also where everyone suddenly became programmed into trends, switching and backstabbing friends with rapid frequency. Middle school is where social pressure became palpable.  

And the teachers. It must be hard for a teacher to invest herself into a student she may only have once. Not because that teacher is bad or lazy, but teaching is emotionally exhausting. I can only imagine teaching a new batch of kids in the full flux of adolescence is, well, just awful. Especially when you are unable to have a longer, more durable relationship with them. Middle school, like so much in the US is transitory. In such a world of turmoil, the students, friends, and teachers are interchangeable, and expendable. 

Croatia, on the hand, doesn't have this system. HOORAY!! Why? Because you guys are nice. This makes all the difference. Kids here get to enjoy the familiar up until high school. And by the time you're 14, you're ready for something different. To maintain some sense of continuity at a time when you and everyone around you is changing just makes sense. What better way to raise a kid, than by giving her steady and constant friends, classmates, and teachers during the most awkward stage in anyone's life. 

I've noticed that there is bond that exists between students here in Croatia that doesn't exist in the US. The students in a classroom have solidarity with each other. While this may help them cheat, it also serves as the beginning foundation for the relationships, connections, and networks that make Croatian society stable. I'd guess that a large part of this behavior begins and evolves in primary school. It is then perfected in high school, rather than destroyed in middle school.


Shout outs to Marko and Jelena, whose conversation got me thinking about this post. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The "Magic" of Croatian Intuition

It seems to me that Croatians are not really concerned about being precise. Croatia is a world of horseshoes and hand grenades, where close enough is… well… enough. Or  it may be that I don’t have the cultural acumen needed to accurately decode these ambiguous expressions into the bursts of clarity they really are. I lack what I like to call Croatian Intuition.

It’s that point during a meal when someone says “no” to more, and I’m left there holding the cheese and pršut plate, trying to discern whether or not they mean no, no, or yes, but are just saying no. Or, at the end of a coffee when a friend insists on paying, and I’m not sure if she really means that or if she’s just saying it. The list goes on. When the hosts says stay, do we go? In these situations I feel so disoriented that I’m like an insect with his antennae snapped off. 

It gets worse. One time I was getting an x-ray and the nurse said: “Take everything off” (Skinite sve or se). So, I. took. everything. off. Well, one awkward scene and one startled nurse later, I learned that what she actually meant was “take your shirt off.” Great. 

Here in Croatia even the things that should be precise aren’t, like numbers. Distance, temperature and TIME! All are open to interpretation. Look at the weather forecast. The hundreds of kilometer stretch of sea is given one temperature and the rest of in-land Croatian is given another. What? How can that make any sense? Do we live on a small island? No. We don’t. There is even a 20 kilometer discrepancy on the signs telling you the distance from Split to Zagreb, or Zagreb to Split. Or the television schedule, sometimes it says 20:05, but that actually could mean 20:00 or 20:10, maybe even 20:07. 

The uncertainty culminates in trying to interpret any set of institutional or bureaucratic rules. In the US we say rules are rules. In Croatia it’s more like rules are rules when someone wants them to be, otherwise they're just rules. Which ones matter is often shrouded in ambiguity. At one job, the accounting office insisted that I had to have a different kind of account number, and then after someone from another office argued with them, they changed their minds. What? There are of course other instances with some regulator or bureaucrat insisting on some rule, only to have his insistence suddenly wither away on a whim like a dried leaf  in the wind. 

I’ll admit that Americans are not the most intuitive people on the planet. In fact we loathe ambiguity and nuance. It’s why we split the bill. Forget fairness. To me, paying for my own coffee is worth not having to do the awkward little shuffle-fight for the bill. Or spend energy interpreting what someone says. Just. tell. me. what. you. want. puhleaze. When someone says “no” for seconds we say…um… O.K. And that’s that.  

What’s most amazing to me is how the discrepancies, nuances and uncertainties don’t seem to really bother anybody.  This could be a result of passive resignation to one’s uncertain fate, but I think it’s more likely that everyone here can understand each other, regardless of what is or isn’t said. Or, maybe it’s just more fun getting naked when you aren’t supposed to and surprising your friend with a coffee. Not necessarily at the same time, of course. 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Other posts

Dear Readers,

So life has been busy and I've neglected Zablogreb like an adolescent kid that's no longer cute. But I'm sure once we get over this rescheduling and book writing, Zablogreb will mature into a real beauty! Belle of the ball people! Belle. of. the. ball!

Seriously, I hope to have something soon. In the meantime here are some links to the posts I've written for my other blog "Love Croatia" on the Voice of Croatia for Croatian Radio Television (how many times can I put Croatia in one sentence?).

One Batman and Philanthropy

One about Route 66 and Croatia's D1 highway:

Friday, January 3, 2014

Expat Vs. Diaspora

Dear Readers,

Here is something a little different, A JOB. In Croatia? Huh? They have those? Yes! (sort of). I am happy to announce my first blog for Croatia Radio Television (HRT). I’ve joined the English language section of HRT’s Voice of Croatia. I’ll be blogging weekly and reporting for Weekend Magazine. Often times the blog will relate to the radio story.

 And you’re thinking: Alright, so how is this different from zablogreb?

 And I’m thinking: Alright, so how is this different from zablogreb? 

At this point it’s not clear, but it will probably have less punica and more other stuff. I know, what a great slogan: 

Less Punica, More Other Stuff! 

 Will zablogreb continue? I hope so. I’m going to do my best to do both. 

Anyway take a look at: Expat vs. Diaspora: 


And again, thanks for all your comments, support, and reading.