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I visited my family in Croatia a few years ago and had the best time of my life. In fact, I return every year now and stay for several months. I bought a car there and keep it at my cousin's when I'm back in the States. I rent a furnished room for around $200 per month plus utilities; phone and Internet connection costs about the same as the States. The food is better (fresher, all grown locally) and a little cheaper. Overall, it's cheaper for me to live in Croatia, even considering the yearly airfare. I will probably retire there.
Croatians are the most real and down-to-earth people I have found. They live a sensibility that can't be found in the States. In their presence I can feel my real roots, and can see where many of my attitudes come from. It's a very satisfying experience. But even more satisfying is simply walking on the same paths and looking out on the same views as my 10g-grandfather. I guess I'm lucky in that regard; I can trace my mother's family back to 1426 in the same village.
I advise anyone to visit the village of their ancestors. If you can't find the exact village, go anyway. I have never heard of anyone not having a good time in Croatia. And you will learn a lot about yourself.
The information below is based on my experiences in southern Croatia and along the Adriatic coast.
When to go. There are many factors to consider. Airline tickets are cheapest in the winter (1 Nov. - 31 March). A round trip ticket from the West Coast at that time is around $980 (to Dubrovnik). The most expensive time is mid-summer when it's $1500-2000. I get a ticket that allows me to return to the States anytime within 6 months of my departure (but the return date must be given at the time of purchase).
I don't mind the winter along the Adriatic; inland may be different (it's certainly colder). The Adriatic winter is similar to a coastal California winter. It very seldom freezes. But there is the north wind (bura) that often blows. The best months along the Adriatic are April and May -- everything is green, few tourists, and the hot, humid weather has not arrived.
The very worst time is July, August, and Sept. There are a million tourists everywhere; no place to park in the larger towns and cities; the humidity is overwhealming; and everything costs more. Air-conditioned rooms are at a premium. Many people, including many Croatians, cannot sleep at night because of the heat and humidity. A cousin of mine intended to stay for 10 days but could not sleep because of the humidity. She blew her budget on an air-conditioned room and could stay only 4 days.
Finding Your Family in Croatia (an unannounced visit)
I find it easier to check into a room first and then go looking for the family. That's because when you find them, they may feel obligated to put you up. It's really easier for everyone concerned for you to have your own room. If you don't get your room first, you're stuck. They will insist that you accept theirs. And there is no way they will accept rent from you. Heaven and earth will move first. In fact, you would insult them if you offered it.
In the rural areas, you will likely not find a motel. But as you drive through the nearest town, look for signs that say "sobe" or "zimmer" or "apartmani" or "pansion." These are private places that rent rooms. If you don't see these signs, stop at the nearest bar or restaurant and say you are looking for a room. The word for room is soba. Everytime I've done this, they get on the phone and I have a room within 10 minutes. There are many private homes that rent rooms but don't put out signs (because signs are taxed). Only the locals know about these. The rates (per night) are around 70-100 kuna for a room in a private house; 100-150 kuna for a room in a pansion; 150-300 kuna for a motel room; and the sky's the limit for hotels.
I would do things in this order:
1. Get a room.
2. Look for your family (if you find them, spend at least 5 days in the area).
3. Hire a translator, if necessary.
4. Look for church and civil records.
5. Visit the cemetery.
Finding church records is easier if you find the family first. The priest will learn quickly that you are in town and if a family member introduces you, you will have access to lots more information than otherwise. Always leave a small donation at the church. The easiest way is to take a small envelope with you, put a 100 kuna bill (about $18) in the envelope, and hand it to the priest when you leave or leave it somewhere conspicuous in the church.
Finding a Translator
Usually a translator will appear from among the younger people. If he or she is from your family or a neighboring family, they will probably not accept payment. Even if they wanted to, they could not because it's just not the thing to do. They would be socially ostracized in some way if they did. So buy them some small gift instead. Or send them one later.
The local tourist office can find you a translator. The going rate is anywhere from 50 to 100 kunas per hour ($9-18).
There is a saying in Croatia: "Don't visit with empty hands." That means you should always take a small gift along. But that doesn't pertain if you are just doing recognizance work -- just trying to find if your family is there. So, IF you find your family, the next time you go to their house you should take a small gift -- this will probably be the next day. In the small local grocery stores are many different kinds of cookies and wafers for this very purpose. Also coffee or wine is appropriate. The gifts should be wrapped. Every store has gift-wrapping tissue paper for this purpose (this is plain white tissue paper with no designs). If you don't speak Croatian, just make hand-signals of wrapping something around the object. They will know what that means. There is no extra charge for this gift-wrapping service. Each family you visit (after your initial recognizance) should be taken gifts. If in doubt about who you may be visiting, take several wrapped gifts along with you in the car.
The gifts should be given to the head of the household. This may be a woman if the husband is deceased. They will take the gifts, put them aside, and never mention them. And they will never open them in your presence. This may make it seem that the gift-giving is not important but it is.
Food & Drink
At people's houses you will be plyed with food and drink every few minutes. It will seem as if they are begging you to eat and drink and, in a sense, they are. But it's just their custom. They must do this. You can politely decline as often as they insist. Of course, this is no problem at the first house. It's the 4th and 5th houses that are a problem. If you stuff yourself at the first houses, you will be in big trouble. Even cognizant of this problem, I have eaten so much that I could not sleep well at night.
The water in the cities and large towns is fine to drink. But the water in the small villages can sometimes cause problems for visitors. Every water has it's own variety of microorganisms, even ours -- the locals are immune to it and, therefore, think their water is fine. During a quick visit, you don't really have time to get sick. The solution is to have a very small amount of alcohol with your food and drink -- it kills the organisms. Brandy (rakija) serves this purpose well. I take a half shot right before I leave. Don't worry, a bottle will be on the table. But if you don't hold your liquor well, be very careful. That stuff is strong. Maybe try the wine instead. And, by the way, it's perfectly okay to mix wine and water to give it less of a punch. It's called bevanda. A pitcher of water may be on the table for this purpose. If not, fill your glass half full and motion for water. Or ask for voda (water).
Don't Be Pretentious
Traveling Americans are famous for being pretentious even when they don't want to be. And Croatians are famous for their dislike of pretentiousness. These two attitudes often collide.
The more frugal and resourceful you are, the more you will endear yourself to Croatians, especially those living rurally. They will notice the car you drive up in; the gifts you give; the way you dress. They will ask where you are staying; they will often even ask how much money you make at your job (this seems to be a normal question in their society). So you will have lots of opportunity to show your more down-to-earth qualities. Rent the cheaper car; buy simple, practical gifts; dress simply; don't stay at the most expensive hotel. As for the question about your earnings, just say you make "enough." Don't ever tell them how much. Even if you earn a salary at the poverty level in the States, it's still 2 or 3 times the Croatian national average and will seem a lot to them. Do whatever necessary to come off as a simple, down-to-earth person. If true Croatian blood flows in your veins, this should not be too much of a problem. But sometimes Americans have to be reminded of it -- especially those who are 2 or 3 generations removed from the old country.
This rapport with your relatives is not only important for you and your visit, it's also important for when your children and grandchildren visit 50 or 100 years from now. The story of your visit, and the impressions left from your visit, will be handed down, word-of-mouth, for many years. Your reputation will "exceed you," so to speak.
Take lots of photos. And be sure to have with you all the photos of your family from the States.