Culture is everything in the Balkans. Croatian culture gets drummed into young people from an early age, an obvious hangover of centuries of occupation and having to fight for national existence. There is plenty to love in the culture, however, especially if you’re into red-and-white checkerboards.
If there is one thing that is synonymous with Croatia, it is the distinct red-and-white checkerboard design that is ubiquitous here. Whether it is adorning the jerseys of national sports teams, the faces of supporters or practically every flag in the country, there is nothing more Croatian than what the local people call the šahovnica (chessboard). The šahovnica has been the symbol of Croatia since the 10th century, although its use by the violently fascist Ustaše organisation in World War II means it is viewed with fear and suspicion by others in the region.
Many fans were surprised by the Croatian national team’s run to the final of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, but not the Croats. The beautiful game is king in Croatia and has long been a source of inspiration to ordinary people from Osijek all the way down to Dubrovnik. The love and passion are shown in how vociferously the fans protest against the ruling body and the corruption that holds back this already overachieving team.
Few nations have been as feisty as the Croats when it comes to demanding independence over the centuries. Croatia was a part of the Habsburg Empire for hundreds of years, many of which were punctuated by protests and riots demanding more autonomy for the people of Zagreb and beyond. These demands continued with the establishment of Yugoslavia following World War I (originally called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes), and it was the Croats who protested the most. Croatia was also the first republic to formally declare independence from Yugoslavia, doing so in June 1991. Croats take their independence very seriously, so don’t make the mistake of questioning it.
This one isn’t particularly unique to Croatia but bears repeating nonetheless. Do not mention the war. This is little more than common courtesy, and digging up old wounds is a surefire way to create tension and anguish in what may have been a joyful room to that point. If a Croat wants to talk about their experiences, then by all means listen, but do not barge in with opinions based on hearsay from far away.
The languages are about as different as British and American English, and you might not be able to tell a Croat from a Serb just by looking at the two, but don’t err in assuming the two nations are one and the same. There are similarities for sure, but you wouldn’t barge into a pub in Glasgow and tell the local people how fabulously English they are. Croatia and Serbia have separate histories, religions, influences and desires. Learning to respect this is the key to a good time in the company of Croats.
The Croats are very style conscious. Call it the influence of nearby Italy or maybe even another part of a longstanding desire to be a part of the European elite, but the streets of Croatia are chock-a-block with people looking their best and fully aware of that. You can certainly travel around the country in your tatty shirt and jeans, but why not embrace a little bit of class? As the saying goes, when in Croatia…
When you finally find yourself deep in your first major discussion in Croatia, don’t be surprised if you feel like you are under attack. Croats can be extremely assertive and abrupt when talking, but don’t mistake it for arrogance or rudeness. It is little more than the style of conversation here. There is little in the way of wasted words and even less small talk. Get to the meat of your point, and don’t be afraid to speak up.
Croatians are very proud of their food, and so they should be. The regional influences are embraced instead of being resisted, with little dabs of Croatian class added to great effect. The traditions of Central Europe and the Mediterranean are very much alive in the kitchens of Croatia. It might also seem like there is a never-ending supply of the stuff, and don’t be surprised to come home from Croatia with a bit of extra padding around the waistline.
Croatia isn’t a huge nation by any stretch of the imagination. What it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in diversity, helped no end by a curious shape that bends around neighbouring Bosnia & Herzegovina and touches on many different parts of the continent. People in Osijek and Đakovo are every bit as Croatian as those in Split and Šibenik, but the Slavonians and the Dalmatians are very different nonetheless. This is true even of the coast – your average person from Rijeka is going to be different than your everyday Dubrovnik gentleman. Take a little bit of time to explore the regional cultures, and you might just find yourself stuck for life.
Family is everything in Croatia. An extremely high value is placed on family relations, and they can often act as the social centre of life in the country. Children often live with their parents until they are themselves married, something that many Western visitors might find a little confusing. This isn’t quite as much about being a ‘mummy’s boy’ or ‘daddy’s girl’ as you might at first think – it is just how things have always been here. Blood is most definitely thicker than water in Croatia, whether they like it or not.
Despite the confidence and the conviction, Croatia is a nation that often experiences an identity crisis of sorts. For centuries, Croatia has gone out of its way to show that it belongs among the civilised countries of Europe while simultaneously wanting to retain some of the Balkan madness that keeps people coming back to this part of the world for more. Don’t be surprised if someone jumps between loving and loathing both Western Europe and the Balkans in the same conversation. The simple fact is that Croatia is stuck between the two, in a geographical, ideological, spiritual and cultural sense. Embrace it.