Friday, 7 December 2018

Life in Croatia: Reflections of a Foreign Teenager One Year in Zagreb

December 7, 2018 - There are not many foreign teenagers who grow up in Croatia. TCN is delighted to welcome Mira Maughan to the team, with her reflections on a teenage year in Zagreb to start. 

It’s hard to explain why I left London and turned down offers to study biomedicine, instead to move to a country I’d never heard of. A country where an estimated 24,000 inhabitants have left in the last year to live abroad and who continue to leave en masse. But with politics aside, I’m nineteen now and with my one-year anniversary just around the corner, I thought I'd look back a bit on life in Zagreb so far, some experiences and highlights and why I refuse to leave.

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The backstory in short, my family decided to make the move to Croatia to a village to build their own small farm and escape the everyday chaos of London. My mother, a Russian, and my step-father an Australian, chose Croatia as their new home since it happens to fall culturally down the middle (and is just a little cheaper than London). With a strong Slavic and European influence but still quite Western and modern, Croatia is a hub of beauty and diversity, from its language to its climate - and Zagreb is its capital. I followed the family soon after only to find myself moving out of our family home quickly when I managed to land a job in Zagreb. I movedinto a flat with a colleague from my new work. That was where I got a real taste for life in Croatia and the immense change it would bring.

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The short answer for ‘what do I think of it here’ would be "I love it" but that always gets followed with the inevitable "why" and then a long pause while I scrounge to piece together all the emotions and feelings I have for this city into a coherent sentence and substantive opinion. I can't explain why, in a city I've no connection to, I have felt so much more at home and a part the greater culture, than in my 'hometown' of London.

Sometimes I'll answer "I love it here more than England" so I can direct the conversation to a list of Zagreb's top ten best qualities, like low crime, clean streets, friendly people, wide open spaces and lots of greenery and most importantly - the whole city is just a tram ride away. For me, life here has been an ordeal in the most positive way and it ties in so deeply with these positives. The Croatian culture at large, and the relationships and experiences I’ve made will be those I’ll cherish for a lifetime.

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Croatia has a culture centred around socialising (and drinking) making it the perfect place to carve out a social life when you’re new. When I arrive at work, we greet the security guard. When someone leaves the elevator, they exclaim “dovidjenya” to say goodbye to anyone left waiting. When you arrive in a shop, we’re welcomed by the shop assistant, and when work finishes we sip a beer or coffee together in the local café.

There is always interaction going on day-to-day. It’s by no means overwhelming, but its small interaction like this that has pulled me into the community and banished any feelings of being alone in a big city. In turn, this has encouraged me to be more conscious of others, to be more open and outgoing. Little by little each day I felt more like I was a part of the city and it encouraged me to be bolder. I recently met up with a friend from work. She decided to stop by an old café she worked at a few years back. I met her there and was introduced to her old boss and colleagues. Before long we were sat around a table at the back chatting, drinking and laughing. I had no intention of being social beyond meeting a friend to do some necessary Christmas shopping, yet I went home that day with such a positive experience and a café I can go back to for a chat if I know I’m ever bored.

Still, almost 12 months later, I am meeting new people and trying new things. Just the other day, I came home from a games night. I showed up apprehensive and, admittedly, judgmental. But I could see the confidence of the players around me. One guy even exclaimed, "I'm a geek goddammit!" with laughter but there was no weakness to it. I've noticed that about Croatians in general, and in Zagreb a lot. They have pride and carry themselves with confidence. I am speaking in stereotypes, but it is something I'm noticing in more people I meet, making it the perfect environment to bring out the best in a less than confident teen.

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It starts with Zagreb being a small, safe city. I arrived as a scared and self-conscious eighteen-year-old. And while I still do carry these traits from time to time, I can see the change Zagreb and its folk have brought out. With a small population and the outskirts of the city held within a 30-minute tram ride radius, Zagreb was the best place to push me out of my comfort zone and made it very easy to meet people. A brother’s school friend’s older sister invites me out for coffee with a couple of her mates, and before long I’m filling out my calendar with New Year’s Eve plans and casual meetups.

My favourite memory to tell is the story of New Year’s night. I ended up getting a last-minute text from the friend-of-a-friend I met for coffee once. I was nervous and cautious but when I arrived it was instant conversation and laughter. We drank in the park playing games and chatting. We arrived too late to the club and waited outside while a member of our entourage tried to chat up the security guard to get us inside. It failed, but she did snap a nice picture with us all and we joked outside while we greeted the new year. Later we wandered down the streets and the same lad managed to sweet talk some people having a house party and we were warmly invited in.

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We were all complete strangers but we danced and laughed (to turbo folk no less) and went home as friends. It may sound reckless or at the very least unsafe, but the calmness and naturalness of the people and city made it magical.

While my year abroad has definitely been far from easy, and as much as I boast about happy times here, of course there are equal lows. What I did learn though, are that these lows often come from within, from personal struggles and no amount of travel will change that. Not everyone you meet will be life-changing and day to day life will always be, well, day to day life. Small struggles will need to be overcome and monotonous tasks need to be done. But I hope to inspire others to make a move abroad, even if better planned and thought through. Managing on your own in a foreign country definitely brings a new kind of confidence and the life lessons learned will be those you’ll be forever grateful for. If you can handle the Croatian bureaucracy system with limited knowledge of Croatian or law, for example, you can handle just about anything the world throws at you.

Mira will be contributing a regular column for TCN, Life as a Teenager in Zagreb. We look forward to the first installment. In the meantime, follow Total Zagreb for the latest on Croatia's capital.