The Truth About My First Year Living in Croatia

Sell me an outfit from this rack…

I struggled and then I paused. My eyes swelled up with tears, tears that I held back.

You know, if this was in english, you would have hired me five minutes ago,” I said.

Most people dont know this but I had a really hard time settling into Zagreb when I first moved there September 2016, doors were just not opening for me. I couldn’t even get a job a Massimo Dutti because my Croatian language skills weren’t strong enough, a job I easily would have got in Sydney or London. 

Other places didn’t want to hire me because after seeing my CV and work experience, I was either overqualified or they assumed I wanted a huge salary. I just wanted a job. I eventually did get a job, a fashion start up with friends I had fortunately made and was paid the lowest salary. I made 2682kn (363€) per month and it was never on time. I had this job for 10 months. I didn’t care, a job was a job but this job meant that  I had to work harder to survive in my beautiful country Croatia, the country I had dreamed of living in and calling home… like most diaspora. 

Moving here made me feel very vulnerable and often at times really dumb. I left Sydney over five and a half years ago with one goal, to eventually and somehow present Croatia to the rest of the world as the country they should visit for their European holiday. Forget Capri, come to Croatia!

Last year, the Croatian media spun their own spin on my “new found happiness” in the country that I had admitted to in an interview with Croatia Week, fully aware that this would only provoke the Croatian public. Everyday in Croatia there is a new scapegoat, that particular day I was the scapegoat. How dare I admit that I was happy in a country where most people were notoriously miserable. Let’s all take the piss because we are so unhappy with our own lives, the only way for us to feel better about ourselves is to troll the happiness of others online. Ah, the Croatian public, they are so easily triggered. Whatever, any publicity meant more eye balls on my blog and so it was the case. 

I found it quite ironic that many people commented saying that I should try living here on the minimum wage and then talk about being happy in Croatia. The reality was, I was living on the national minimum and I struggled like the rest of them. My parents didn’t fund my life in Croatia, I didn’t live in their property in Zagreb because they don’t have one and most importantly I had 363€ to my name each month.

I dumbed down my life and lifestyle for Croatia to such a degree, at one point my parents sent my sister to talk some sense into me. I wouldn’t budge, I believed that something good was around the corner, I just didn’t know which corner or when. 

How did I survive? I borrowed off my friend in America, I borrowed off my sister and eventually I had to ask my parents to “buy” me more time in this country, my final six months. It was embarrassing, I was broke AF at 30.

For the first seven months I crashed with my cousins but eventually had to find my own place to live. I found a cheap studio in an area called Crnomerec for 150€ per month plus bills, the landlord lived upstairs and she was self-absored and self righteous, a typical narcissist. She would tell me how she refused to move to Pula for this (one of many) job opportunity and earn 7,000kn a month in an office because her skills, life experience and knowledge were worth more than that, she would rather stay home.

I was never home because I hated that flat so much, I worked over 60 hours a week in that boutique just to avoid going to that hell hole and to keep the store afloat. Each time I would come home and would find another ant’s nest in the kitchen and I would often cry and wonder what the fuck I was doing with my life. I had three whole minutes to shower because the boiler was so small and each month miraculously my bills kept increasing, yet I was never home to use so much electricity and it was almost summer. She knew I couldn’t read Croatian properly and took advantage of that. I eventually left and needed help from my sister to secure a much nicer and liveable flat in Zagreb.

Meeting New People 

In Australia, as much as I say I’d never live there again I’ll still admit that as a society people are a lot nicer and motivating. No matter how large your business venture is, how big you dream… nothing is impossible and people encourage you to make it happen.

You can go out to a bar or night club and end up with a handful of new friends, people are friendly and girls will tell you in the bathroom that they love your outfit. Growing up in Australia we naturally have this desire to help and support others, it’s embedded in the country culture. In Croatia (although, not limited to the rest of the balkan region) the story is a little different and meeting people with good intentions is not as easy.

I would meet new people and they’d tell me I was too ambitious for this country and eventually that it would defeat me, that I would “understand” over time or that I’m way too green now. While they weren’t wrong, who is anyone to give such negative advice?! Yes, I was very green and even more naive but I refused to allow this to break my spirit. Regardless of my experiences here, I don’t want this to discourage you if you want to move back to the motherland. You owe it to yourself to at least try. If anything, let my story inspire you that you can.

There were others who automatically assumed just because I was from the “diaspora” that I was a “typical diaspora.” Nothing wrong with that I’m just addressing the stereotype.  I am the most non-diaspora, diaspora. I never went to the Croatian Church, I never went to the Croatian club or hung around the Croatian community in Sydney, I don’t even know a Thompson song. Mind you, when I first moved to Croatia I didn’t even know what the word diaspora meant. I was born in Croatia, in my eyes I was Croatian.

Then I came out publicly in the Croatian media and spoke about my alcohol addiction recovery and struggles with mental health, noting how yoga has helped me with my battle with essentially, myself. You can imagine how much the word yoga triggered a number of Croatians, despite it’s positive impact in my life, healing and self discovery.

 Not only was I trying to find my feet in Croatia, I was at the beginning stages of my addiction recovery journey for alcoholism, one plagued with deep rooted self hate along with plenty of stigma attached and I was alone, trying hard not to burden my cousins with my problems while living under their roof. No one talks openly about these things in Croatia, mental health and addiction recovery does not matter. I was a taboo, I was totally doomed.

I had to deal with a whole group of “older and wiser” people baffled by my public honesty.

How will you find a man to marry in this country when you talk about yourself and past like this?

“Who will marry you?”

“How will WE marry you?”

As though everyone was on a mission to marry me off to a man who would apparently only accept me if I disregarded the most important facet of my life, my recovery. My recovery is what makes me beautiful today, I was not this beautiful before. I will never ever hide my demons in the dark again, never ever again.

I am an alcoholic and I will be three years sober September 11, 2019.

Surfacing my demons not only saved my life but the lives of many other people, most of whom, silently watch me.  A handful let me know that because of my courage to share my story, they didn’t relapse or they found their own courage to face the darkness and enter addiction recovery.

And guess what ladies and gentlemen? I did find someone who wanted to marry me and I found him in Croatia, against all odds. And when I did tell him about my alcoholism and my struggles in recovery, he fell even more in love with me and roses started growing in the darkest corners in my soul.

To all those who tried to silence my struggles, shame on you.

Funny, these are often the same people who now comment saying that I have a beautiful life.

When One Door Closes, The Right Door opens. 

When I first moved to Croatia, I wanted to be a public figure. This, I found through my recovery stems from a childhood trauma of yearning to be loved, validated and seen. I have gotten over this because I am now loved, validated and seen.

I wanted to be known as the girl who moved back home and shared her experiences for others to follow. I wrote on my blog, I used instagram a lot more openly back then and I connected with a lot of cool new people. I often found it difficult to show up as I was honestly struggling with my sobriety but I showed up as much as possible. Even if it meant faking my own happiness, I still showed up to my life with a smile on my face no matter how much of a fraud I felt like.

A lot of people don’t know this but when I first got here, I sent my media kit to over 100 PR and Digital Agencies in Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia. I wanted everyone to know that I was here and what I wanted to achieve. A handful got back to me, mostly to tell me that they had never had a blogger send a media kit to them or that they’ve never seen a media kit before. They were intrigued, it was “next” level to them. But not next level enough for any work.

I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older that the doors that don’t open for you are not meant for you and five years ago little did I know how premature for my “ridiculous” ambitions I really was. I met the social media manager of Croatia Full of Life in London at the launch of the Croatia full of Life campaign. He and his colleague from the Croatian National Tourist Board (CNTB)  were feeding seagulls from the boat and I was trying to capture a picture of the moment with London’s Tower Bridge behind it. He said something about me to his colleague and I turned and said in Croatian, “Boys, you know I totally understand what you’re saying…?” We laughed and that was it. It wasn’t until I moved to Zagreb a few years later that CNTB could come back into the picture.

“There can be 100 people in a room and 99 of them don’t believe in you, but all it takes is one and it just changes your whole life.” Lady Gaga

While living in Zagreb, I’ll never forget one of the first times I felt defeated by the nepotism in this country. There was a national competition I was asked to participate in and in my category I was leading via online votes. I didn’t win and my friend at the time was at an event with the winner. The winner told her that she wasn’t the real winner and that I was. The editor of the magazine wanted to give her the PR because she had just returned to the country and needed to lift her profile. Mind you, this person was “slotted” into the category a week after the competition had started.

She wasn’t more than a selfie, I was.

I’m not sharing this because I want to start drama, I am adult enough to recognise that everything happens or doesn’t happen for a reason.

The following day my life in Croatia changed.

By this time I was already working (and struggling) with that fashion start up and was called into the CNTB office for a meeting and presented with their first Epic Week Campaign. The door had finally opened and this was the only door that mattered because this door opened every other door that opened for me in Croatia.

This first lucky break helped me survive that first year when those odds were stacking up against me, it kept me in the country, it kept the fire alive in my heart… maybe I would finally fall on my feet and not on my face.

I wrote three posts for them, got paid for two. It wasn’t a lot but at that time it helped and it mattered. 

I will forever be grateful for that opportunity and many others such as my collaborations with the girls from Putopis who introduced me to Istria and the historic town of Zminj, where I visited again this year, eager to show it off to my husband and cousins. I’m a Slavonka at heart and that’s all I knew about Croatia but after seeing how people live in the istria region and how open and receptive they were towards me, it restored my faith in Croatia.

With the CNTB I was also invited to numerous press trips such as Sailing, a week in Slavonia, Plitvice Lakes and Salaj Land for Christmas. I learned first hand about my own country that I initially knew nothing about and I loved it. I loved sharing my experiences and what I had discovered.

They also connected me with the Director of the Tourist Board in Vukovar, the city I was born in and had never visited since returning to Croatia. I still consider this trip as one of the most heart breaking and endearing experiences of my life.

Am The most popular Croatian blogger? No. Do I have the most followers? No.

But I tell you what, if my analytics are anything to go by, I have plenty of people checking in on me and stalking on the sly. And like I said, whether I am talking about addiction, mental health or about Croatia, the right people show up and pay attention.

Nope, Not An Influencer.   

And I never will be.

Everyone in Croatia is a blogerica (or a blogger without a blog) or an influencer and I got over this whole scene. Sure, there are many who are genuine, I know them personally and we are still friends today but the majority are superficial wannabes who wouldn’t know how to function outside the borders of their beloved Croatia.. or balkan region.

They remain mediocre because mediocrity is celebrated in Croatia: don’t stand out too much, don’t be too different, don’t be too honest, let’s stick together and be mediocre together, pretend that they’re doing something influential with their lives…

Who are they really and how influential are they?

Everyone is still obsessed with presenting the best versions of themselves and fear that by showing flaws they will lose their followings. Not to their own detriment, Croatian society hasn’t matured intellectually or emotionally so I guess it’s the blind liking the blind.

I witnessed with my own eyes how influencers here in Croatia would do anything for a euro or to remain relevant for an extra five minutes. One thing I can put my hand on heart to is that I’d never ever promote a skinny tea or credit loan from a bank. Put my integrity aside for a moment, perhaps thats because I was raised in a country where that is actually illegal.

Moving on. I also recognised that I was never going to join influencers in on those fake international giveaways, despite having many opportunities to do so. Yes, they are fake, and also illegal too. This also would have bumped up my following and exposure rapidly but I refused.

So, I had to ask myself the question, what would actually set me apart from the rest of them? What had no one in Croatia achieved yet? That was being published on huge international platform. They may have taken great filtered photos, I had the writing talent and capability to reach an international audience.

Four years ago I sent a pitch to Arianna Huffington directly addressing what I could bring to The Huffington Post. She agreed and invited me to become a contributor. Life changing moment. I wrote a few articles but then moved to Croatia and had other battles to fight.

Last summer, I figured that I needed to challenge myself again, set the bar higher. I did some research on how to write for Lonely Planet and just like for The Huffington Post, there were several ways. Those who know me know that I am very good at writing pitches and PR proposals. I sent one to the editor at Lonely Planet that looks after the content for Croatia and forgot about it.

Three months later I received an email from Lonely Planet desperately seeking a writer to cover Zadar Region in Croatia. It was one of the few moments in my life I had to pinch myself.

I agreed and met the deadline. It was published and you can read it here. It was stressful but also my proudest achievement to date, considering that english isn’t even my first language, Croatian is. I’d like to make it clear that I received this project on my own and with no internal connections from CNTB or Zadar and Zadar Region Tourist Boards, despite my direct affiliation with them.

Everything started to come full circle.

And Now What? 

It wasn’t until the end of 2017 that my unlucky run in Croatia turned for the better. Firstly, I met Branka Cubelic, CEO of Dreamtime Events Croatia who bascally hired me on the spot and a week later I met my now, husband and soulmate. Someone who I never imagined would ever walk into my life and love me the way that he does, someone who took my broken wings and helped me mend them into the life that many people can’t keep their eyes off today.

I suppose ever since I met my husband and settled into a beautiful married life, the less I felt I needed to be visible online. I kind of felt the online social media world to be plastic. I left Instagram for seven months but only recently reactivated.

I don’t want to hide the life I worked so hard to achieve. I don’t want to hide a life that I used to dream of and now call my reality. I do have cheerleaders and I have people who want the best for me. I have incredible people around me and in my network.

If you are going through a time in your life right now and don’t know whether you’ll have a breakdown or a breakthrough but for some crazy reason trust that it will be okay, keep walking forward.

My sobriety journey is most important, I love sharing my travels but anyone can travel and create a blog resembling a wiki page. I’ve enjoyed adding this personal touch, one that never sold out and will always remain authentic because my foundation doesn’t revolve around getting the most clicks, it was always about slowly accumulating the right audience while I figured my own self out. Many of you have been patient over the years, thank you.

I can choose to look at my life in various ways, from all sorts of philosophies and angles but everything relays back to trust. Trusting the process. Trusting that my first year in Croatia had to be the way it was for me to appreciate what I have today.

You know, if I didn’t work in that boutique I never would have learned first hand about business, law and accounting in Croatia and how ridiculously difficult it is, so I commend anyone here with a business. Working in that bouqitue exposed me to how Croatian media works (and costs) and believe me it’s not that expensive. I also became more proficient with my language skills because what’s the best way to learn a language? By hearing others speak and being forced to speak it.

I wouldn’t have met so many beautiful young Croatians who would stop by because they found me on social media and wanted to get to know me, sometimes they would come into the store with their parents because they were that young and I would sit and talk with them also.

Moving to Croatia humbled me a lot because I learned the hard way the country owes me nothing for returning. If I wanted a great life here, like the one I left in Sydney, I had to create that myself and fight through the difficult times. I had to get off my attention seeking pedestal and literally grow up because Croatia is not the kind of country you want to be hungry in.

If I gave up after seeing those ants, I never would have met Branka who literally saw something in me I forgot I had within myself. Croatia does that to you after 12 months, you don’t even realise how much you’re losing your sparkle when you’re struggling on your own for so long.

If I left Croatia, I wouldn’t have met all the wonderful diaspora and expats living in the country who I am in contact with today. It’s easy to focus on what is lacking, there’s plenty- but there are people already here making a difference and together we are stronger.

And most importantly, I never would have met my husband who showed me what love is and how together we really can build a beautiful life.

I’m still the same Adriana, just like Oprah said, “I just wear better shoes now.

Read More About Life in Croatia

My Advice and Insights: If You want to Move to Croatia from Australia

 

**Dress featured in my feature image is by Hunic Design Sisters. 

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Adriana Kuprešak
Adriana Kuprešak

Adriana Kupresak is a travel & lifestyle writer with contributions to Lonely Planet, The Huffington Post & Tiny Buddha. She has been blogging for 11 years and is currently based in Croatia.

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