You’ll hear the universal word for ‘Hi!’ and ‘Bye’ everywhere – more in Zagreb than Dalmatia – but this simple and short greeting should suit most social situations. Not dissimilar to ‘ciao’ in Italian, the term spans generations and, thankfully, is almost impossible to mispronounce.
‘Thank you’ is a phrase you’ll need, one that’s never shortened but rather embellished and elongated, according to the extent of your gratitude. Most commonly, ‘hvala lijepa’ is used to mean ‘thank you very much’. In return, you may hear a ‘nema na čemu!’ or ‘think nothing of it’.
Govorite li engleski?
The classic question, ‘Govorite li engleski?’ or ‘Do you speak English?’, should elicit a simple affirmative ‘Da’ or negative ‘Ne’, but the answer may go a little deeper than that. Your interlocutor might tell you that, ‘Razumijem, ali slabo govorim’, i.e. they understand it but speak it poorly. In most situations you’ll find yourself in, certainly in tourist resorts, the answer is invariably, ‘of course,’ in perfect English.
Mogu li dobiti jelovnik?
‘Can I have the menu?’ is a useful phrase if you’ve been sitting at a restaurant table for 10 minutes and nobody has noticed you there. Note also that the word for ‘menu’, ‘jelovnik’, is important in certain rare cases when, without you gesturing the outline of a menu to the waiter, he may just ask the kitchen to prepare you the menu, i.e. the menu of the day, or that day’s suggested dishes. Nearly all menus in tourist areas will have English translations.
Ja sam vegetarijanac
Telling your waiter that you are a vegetarian, ‘Ja sam vegetarijanac’, will probably elicit a rustle of the menu pages to the fish and seafood section. However, if you then say, ‘Ne jedem ribu’, ‘I don’t eat fish’, then he will go on to suggest basic salads, perhaps a pasta or pizza with a vegetable sauce or topping. Croatia is by no means a culinary wilderness as far as vegetarians are concerned – particularly when compared to neighbouring Serbia or Hungary – but the non-carnivore will always be the exception at any given restaurant.
Literally meaning ‘only a little’, ‘samo malo’ is one of those wonderful phrases that you hear all the time without quite realising what they mean, until it clicks. ‘Just a minute’ is its everyday use, the kind of thing a local might say when looking for the right change in the supermarket and half-apologising to the check-out employee that they’ll find that one-kuna coin in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.
‘I have a reservation’ is the usual opening gambit when you stride into a hotel you have booked online. Rare is the Croatian hotel whose receptionist does not speak English, but two words in the local language and a smile never hurt. The phrase is also useful if you’ve reserved a table at a busy restaurant, or in a train compartment during peak season.
‘Cheers!’ is the one phrase everybody needs but somehow forgets to memorise along with all the ‘Hellos’ and ‘thank yous’. Pronounced ‘Zhiv-yelee’, ‘Živjeli!’ is invariably accompanied by a communal clinking of beer glasses. Grammatically, if you’re toasting with just one other male friend, the phrase is ‘Živio!’ and with a female companion, ‘Živjela!’
The one phrase so sorely missing in English – ‘Dobar tek!’ – is what you say before your dining companion/s tuck into their meal. If you’re with Croatians, even ones who speak reasonable English might ask what the phrase is where you come from, at which point you’ll probably have to explain that ‘bon appétit’ is probably the best you can muster.
Koliko je to?
To avoid having to resort to the universal, if somewhat grubby rubbing of thumb and index finger to indicate ‘money’, knowing the phrase for ‘How much?’ might smooth the transaction and make you feel less like a silly tourist. Of course, if the vendor then assumes you’re fluent and comes back with ‘osamdeset devet’ you might be stuck, but at that point you’ve probably broken the ice and they would be happy to write down, ‘89’.
‘Oprostite’, ‘Sorry’, is always handy, say if you accidentally bump into someone in the supermarket, but it’s also useful to get someone’s attention. Much as an English-speaking stranger might react upon hearing, ‘Excuse me…’, so a Croatian might stop and help you with directions if you approach them with a polite ‘Oprostite’. Though you shouldn’t have to, you may also need it if the waiter has walked past you just one too many times and you’d like to order your food.