The Croatian Diaspora

Meet the Bloggers of Croatia: SJ from Chasing the Donkey

By 16 January 2016

Meet the English-language bloggers of Croatia, whose advice, opinions and experiences influence a percentage of the growing number of tourists visiting the country. We start with Chasing the Donkey from the Zadar region. 

From Sydney to life in rural Dalmatia without the language and a house to build. Plenty of material to write about for sure, but the adjustment was not easy for Aussie Sarah-Jane Begonja, who took the plunge with husband Mate in May 2013 to discover his Croatian roots and change their lifestyles completely. A blog appeared on the way, as did Begonja Junior three years ago, often referred to as Little Donkey as part of the team that comprises the hugely successful Chasing the Donkey blog. 

The blog first caught national media attention in August 2013 when it was featured in Jutarnji List, and SJ (as she is commonly known) has not looked back since, servicing her growing army of followers with a winning combination of passionate writing, practical advice and a keen eye for relevant topics, as well as popular features such as Donkey Friday, which celebrates the Dalmatian cultural attachment to the donkey. Her blogging has proved an important bridge between the homeland and Croatia's sizable diaspora, and quirky blogs such as the definitive guide in how to swear in Croatian set her apart from many rival bloggers. 

TCN caught up with SJ over a glass of Plavac Mali at Paradox Wine and Cheese Bar in Split on January 15, 2016 to learn more about the Aussie donkey phenomenon. 

1. An Australian in rural Croatia commenting on life in your adopted country. What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a foreign blogger writing about Croatia?

The primary benefit of the blog, and social media is by far the beautiful people I’ve met or have contact with. Two of my closest friends here in Croatia (one being a local, another a fellow expat) found my blog, reached out to me and for that I’m forever grateful. My friendships with all of those people have been essential for me to feel like I made a life here.

What people may not know about me, is that I am shy. Very shy. Hiding behind my keyboard talking about my travels in Croatia is easy - but standing in the local supermarket wondering what people think about me, my blog and my family living here leaves me in a cold sweat. I’d call that a disadvantage - wouldn't you? It is in those cold sweaty moments when I wonder if blogging about Croatia and my life here was a smart choice or not.

Having a popular blog outside of Croatia is one thing - but when I meet new people and introduce myself, and they say things like “I know your blog” or ‘‘yeah, I saw that article in the newspaper you wrote” or when they don’t smile back at me I want the ground to open up and swallow me whole. What do they think about me? Is it good or bad? Last year I had a journalist take what I said in a conversation the wrong way, and he wrote a sensationalised story of what I said. A story that people still judge me on. What I said was taken so out of context, it prompted locals to send hate messages my way. Some so vile, I contacted the paper to ask them to remove my suburb from the online version.

I am often reminded - including by you - that you have to take the good with the bad. It’s part of blogging life. I stopped writing about my house build and very personal thoughts - after negative comments on the blog and in social media as it just became too much to bear. My heart pounds when I see a new comment, as I wonder “is it good?” or “will I cry?” I am still not sure what direction I will take on my personal musings on the blog; I feel far too vulnerable right now to share anything personal. So, for now, It’ll just be a travel blog.

2. You have built a large and loyal fan base very quickly, with some excellent and quirky posts, such as the unforgettable guide to swearing in Croatian. Tell us a little about your readership and where they are from.

I started my musings back in 2013 before coming to Croatia, so it’s taken almost three years to build up that following - I love social media. Yes, we have some loyal fans, and they often make my day. Many have come to my rescue when I have posted a question about needing help or advice. My readers have also taken charge on commenting on some of the blog posts when not-so-nice- comments were left.

Our readers are a mix, many of whom use the site while preparing for a vacation in Croatia - which is why I have spent so much time writing posts on various places and providing tips on things like what to pack. We also have a portion of people, who use the site when they are already in Croatia - when they are looking for recommendations for what to do and where to eat. I often receive messages of travelers telling me they are in a particular city and would like info on something specific.

Some readers, are of Croatian descent living in other parts of the globe and they use the blog to connect with home - those readers are the ones who mean the most to me. My blog’s analytics report shows we have some regular readers from Croatia - it’s just hard to know how many given I know foreigners read the blog while in Croatia.

Still, most of the readers are from the United States, followed by Australia, United Kingdom and Canada.

3. Life in Croatia is a little different to back home in Australia. What advice do you have for people considering moving to Croatia to live?

Yeah, things here are just a little different. My advice was previously to tell people to come; you can do it - just bring all your savings and a good business plan. Now my advice is much the same, but I also tell people to bring lots of patience and to come and stay in Croatia outside of vacation time before deciding to move here permanently. Many people have written to me telling me of their own tales of disappointment with trying to make Croatia home. From what I can see some had a nostalgic view of how life is here - while others just were unable to make the money needed to support themselves given the tough economic conditions. If you plan to move to Croatia, you’ll need a decent size savings account to get you through until you can start making money here.

4. Croatia, the good, the bad and the ugly. What are the three things you love and hate about life here?

I love the space and freedom. I don’t fear in a busy place that my son will be snatched up, and I enjoy that we can live so close to the beach - that alone brings me to much happiness.

On the flip side, I loathe how still after almost three years of living here people still ask me, why I am here, and when I plan to return to Australia. When will my love for Croatia and enjoyment of my life here be enough for people to stop asking me that?
I also find it tough to accept both the politics and bureaucracy involved with almost everything. I have softened and come to learn that, it’s simply how things are - but I do still get overwhelmed. I don’t complain very much about them as I always know the response will be ‘just go back to where to came from if you don't like it’ and I have to say, my life by the beach, taking my son to kindy and having the freedom to watch him run in the playground without being on edge worrying about his safety is enough good to outweigh the bad.

5. Croatian tourism is booming, and the news is full of more flights, great beach holidays. Tell us a little about the undiscovered Croatia that is perhaps more interesting and doesn't make the headlines.

One of the most lovely parts of Croatia that I still never see in the headlines is Marja Bistrica. That area is so green, lush and the area surrounding it is filled with nice wineries. Of course, there is also the Black Madonna in the Church and it’s the best place to buy those gorgeous wooden toys!

6. One of the interesting constant themes in your blog is your progress building your family house. Summarise the experience in a paragraph, when do you expect to move in, and if you had known then what you know now, would you have started the project.

Building a house in Croatia is a test of patience. I guess building a house any place is - but in Croatia, I also had the language barrier and had to navigate my way around the different ways in which houses are built compared to Australia. It’s not for the faint of heart. We moved in a few days ago, more than 16 months after breaking ground - although it’s not complete, we still have much to do - it’s livable, and the internet works. Had I known then, what I know now, I still would have started the project - but, we would have built a smaller home, choosing several different materials. We should have done better research on some of the contractors we engaged. We made mistakes, but along the way we learnt a tonne about the building process here. All-in-all it’s a great house we hope is enjoyed by future generations.

7. Your blogging is overwhelmingly positive about Croatia. In a sentence, why should people visit, and are you here for good?

It’s a cliche, but Croatia truly has something for everyone. Beaches and ancient sites, plus it’s also a great place for families with outdoor activities and a relaxed vibe. Yup, I plan to stay. The house is almost done, and now I hope that together with our growing travel business and my social media clients we can make enough money to pay the bills and call Croatia home for good.

Now that we've moved into the house, I am super excited to expand & develop our social media management and travel businesses and get back into promoting Croatia. Above all, I am pumped about making a beautiful life here in this beautiful place! Bring on 2016 for the Begonjas!

To learn from about donkeys in Croatia, and indeed all aspects of life there, visit the Chasing the Donkey website.