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Laughing in Croatia

Like anywhere else, telling jokes, preferably at the expense of the inhabitants of a certain region reputed not to be excessively bright or generous, is a popular pastime, and priests, nuns and mothers-in-law are other categories of typical victims. With the collapse of communism, politicians, once a favourite source of inspiration for jokes (even when it meant risking a few days or months of imprisonment), seem to have fallen out of favour.

Rumour has it that the favourite pastime of the people of Zagorje is suing their neighbours on the slightest pretext.

After working abroad for several years and having accumulated substantial savings, Štef is on the way back to his home village in Zagorje. The villagers on the train are impressed by the pile of notes he’s counting out, and they’re curious to know what he’ll be using the money for.People

Are you going to buy a house?


A vineyard, perhaps?

Definitely not.

A car?

No way.

Then what are you going to spend your money on?

I’m going to sue you all!

But whatever for? You’ve been away for so many years and none of us has ever done anything to harm you in any way.

Well, all I can say is, I don’t know myself yet, but I’m sure I’ll have thought of something by the time I reach my lawyer’s office!

The inhabitants from Zagorje are also well known for their very special brand of logic.

A tourist driving through a small village in Zagorje hits a cyclist, who indicated right but then turned left. The cyclist, gets up, unsteady on his feet due not only to being hit, but obviously because he’s had a few glasses too many, and curses the driver for not paying attention to his signals. “But you indicated right!”, exclaims the driver! “You idiot!” comes the reply, “Don’t you think I know where to turn in my own village? The signals were for you!!”

People from Dalmatia are famous for making the least possible effort.

In the deep south of the country, a Swedish tourist asks directions of two men, Mate and Jure, who are lazing in the shadow of a large tree at a crossroads. When he sees their blank expressions, he tries asking in English, German, French and Spanish, but to no avail. After he leaves, disappointed, Mate turns to Jure and suggests that they learn at least one foreign language, so as to avoid a similar embarrassment in the future. Jure rejects the proposal outright: “And what exactly is the point of being able to speak a foreign language? That tourist speaks quite a few, doesn’t he, but that didn’t help him, did it?!?”

The islanders are renowned for their tightfistedness, and the inhabitants of the island of Brač are the top of that league.

The smell of “fritule”, a local poor man’s delicacy, reaches the room where the grandfather is on his deathbed. His dying wish is for his grandson to bring him a tiny piece of fritule from the kitchen. Very soon, the boy comes back empty handed, saying “They say you can’t have it - it’s for the wake after your funeral”.

The same islanders seem to be able to amuse themselves without spending too much.

During an important feast-day celebration in Dalmatia, it’s customary to fire cannons and set off firecrackers. Villages compete to see whose display is most impressive. When no sign of fireworks was seen in a village on the island of Brač, just across the strait, the surprised visitors were given a very simple explanation. “You see,” they said, “this year the weather was very fine, and the sea was very calm, so that the lights and sounds from the coast were sufficient for us too!

However, joke telling comes second to teasing, something deeply ingrained in the social fabric, which comes so naturally, that it’s hardly noticed anymore. The near absence of the art of self-deprecation or understatement is more than compensated for by this skill, which Croats tend to develop from an early age. Friends will often mercilessly tease each other because of real or imagined ugliness, excessive weight, submissiveness to a shrewish wife, foolishness committed the previous evening when a few too many drinks were had, the game lost by the favourite football team, a broken heart, and absolutely anything else that comes up.

And when your Croatian friends, ordinary folk, start to tease you mercilessly, you’ll know that you’re no longer a stranger, that you’ve been accepted.

If you notice a certain sullenness, it’s shared by the populations of all of the “countries in transition”, and is probably of a temporary nature. People here are slowly maturing and overcoming their disappointment in the cruel market economy and (perhaps even worse), the unexpected levels of hypocrisy and selfishness of the “western” nations that had somewhat naively been idealized until very recently.

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How to survive in and even enjoy Croatia - a guide for smart foreigners © Jakov Buljan, 2006
Illustrations: Dubravko Mataković     Language editor: Francesca Brizi