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2010 Expatriate Writing Contest 3rd Place Winner

Sharing Paradise

Living and Working Abroad in Croatia as a Tour Guide

Hiking in Croatia

“Just here, among the blueness of the sky and sea, by the God’s love and affection of the Biokovo’s solid stone, all your beauty has been made.” (Author Unknown).

A Handbook For Prospective Tour Guides Aboard Sailing Ships in Croatia

List of items and skills needed for survival:

  • Earplugs, vitamins, first aid kit, tweezers, antiseptic, Visine.
  • Australian abbreviation phrase book.
  • Ability to survive an Australian drinking game.
  • Ability to talk like a pirate.
  • Pantomime skills when you lose your voice from talking like a pirate.
  • Ability to sneak out of nightclubs without your guests noticing.
  • Ability to share information even if you know no one is listening to you, and to repeat it many times without losing your mind.
  • Ability to conduct tours and organize groups even if you have lost your mind.
  • Ability to find hospitals, dentists, and police stations in a foreign country at unusual hours.
  • Negotiating skills (with grumpy captains, police, nightclub security, wait staff, passengers, doctors...)
  • Ability to withstand and find humor in absurd behavior.
  • An endless sense of humor in regards to the human condition.
  • Camera to document it all.
  • Ability to sleep and live in small hot places with thin walls separating you from others and their activities.
  • A very strong liver.

Falling in Love with Croatia

I had been spending every summer in Croatia for six years and eventually moved in with my boyfriend to his ancestral village on the coast in 2007. I put a hold on my busy career in film and television production, and rented out my apartment that looked out onto the traffic jams and sirens of Main Street, Vancouver, Canada. As one who has an elaborate travel history and a restless spirit, I never expected any place to captivate me enough to want to put down roots, and ultimately consider changing my career. I always expected I would be dividing my time between Canada and Croatia—or elsewhere. In retrospect, it is the experience of becoming an expatriate and not a summer visitor that set my life on a new path. The expatriate experience allows time for the intricate layers of a place and culture to reveal themselves and become part of one's state of mind. I had to leave for three months after spending my first winter in Croatia to realize this expatriate transformation that had occurred. I experienced sensations and emotions that took me by surprise upon seeing the harbor of Split at dawn when returning on a ferry from Italy. It was then that I realized Croatia, its mountains, sea, and all its complicated past, had cast a spell on me. I loved it for all its toughness, and the challenges I had been offered; as much as I loved its stunning natural beauty.

Croatia spring

Working as a Tour Guide?

It was not part of my plan to venture into the job market as a tour guide. I spent an afternoon in the Berlin airport with a tour guide on his way to Croatia. So impressed was he with my tales of living in Croatia and my passion for the country, that I received a call two weeks later, offering me a position as an onboard guide for their island cruises. 

I would spend the summer sailing the Dalmatian Coast and its archipelago of 1,100 islands and sparkling coastline aboard vintage wooden boats. I would share my love of everything Croatian with others. I would meet people from around the world. How could such an experience not be great?

Croatia boats

The Pleasures, Challenges, and Lessons Learned Working as Tour Guide

Imagine jumping from the boat roof and into the most aquamarine and clearest of waters. Our captain would drop anchor in secluded bays only reachable by boat, with no civilization in sight. There was an occasional blissful morning I had the entire boat's roof to myself, (with everyone still sleeping off their hangovers). I would lay watching the massive limestone cliffs of the island of Brac slide by, doze off and wake up to the terraced olive groves, and small Mediterranean fishing villages of the island of Hvar. At night the opulent spectacle of Hvar's harbor never ceased to amaze me as we jockeyed for space amongst unbelievably decadent luxury yachts, their celebrity cargo, and many other boats full of Australians. In Korcula, as swallows dove and lunged around the church bell tower, we would select a cocktail and watch the sun go down from a bastion tower sitting atop medieval walls. Over dinners of fresh grilled fish, calamari, and local wine I made great lifetime friends with my guests, as well as the Croatians that I worked with. I found unforgettable camaraderie with fellow guides. I have probably walked the medieval walls of the old city of Dubrovnik 60 times during the past two years. I have learned how similar keeping a group of 35 people together is to herding sheep at times. It takes a certain skill to manage large groups, and a certain degree of finesse to prevent your groups from feeling like sheep.

I have also visited the hospitals of various ports many times. A Broken rib, food poisoning, ear infection, sinus infection, and a toe crushed by 100 lb suitcase being among my personal list of afflictions. Extraction of sea urchin spines from various body parts (see tweezers in above packing list). Earplug stuck in ear, heart palpitations from consumption of 14 red bull/vodka cocktails, chipped tooth, lacerated foot, heat rash, swollen feet, bee stings, perpetual nosebleed, emergency birth control, and heatstroke are some of the afflictions belonging to my dear guests.

The Tour Guests

Cycling the fringe of trails that line the two beautiful lakes of Mljet Island’s national park, my guests were stunned into a reverent silence by the beauty, and the buzz of cicadas in the green pine trees. We swam in the waters at night.

Guests have astounded me, drinking beer from their shoes, and passing up my offer to see the historical sights of Dubrovnik's Old town. Others astonished me with their curiosity and willingness to follow me up a steep hillside in the early hours after a night of partying. Goodbyes at the end of tour were always a mix of tears, some relief that we all survived, and trepidation of what the next week would bring. I have been carried through towns on my guests shoulders and been given gifts of handmade cards full of praise for making them love Croatia as much as I do. I have mastered the basics of the Croatian language, Australian hyphenation of words, making history interesting, and the dangers of drinking games.

I expected as a tour guide to be meeting people from many countries, but to my surprise instead I believe I am now Facebook friends with a baffling percentage of Australians living in London, and a small handful of other nationalities. The company that employs me markets its tours predominantly to young Australians spending their "Gap year" in Europe. These tours are extremely popular with this demographic, because just as they do upon London, droves of young Aussies flock to Croatia every summer.

On Saturday mornings us weary guides have a few precious hours in Split to escape our boats and responsibilities. We would sit at an out-of-the-way cafe swapping the tales of the week. We shared disasters and hilarious events while relishing our few moments of peace and examining our upcoming passengers. For some it was either a horror or a gift if they had an unbalanced ratio of girls to boys, or which boat you were to be placed upon. I began to see each boat and each week as a social experiment.

Tour Guiding as a Profession

Tour guiding requires a lot of energy, people skills, and patience, but it is also very fulfilling when you are appreciated. It is a way to see a country's highlights and make some money while doing so. My employment as a guide was only a small percentage of what Croatia has to offer in regards to tourism and work options. An Internet search for Croatia will bring up endless travel and tour sites, whether one is looking for a deluxe luxury yacht with a crew of seven to sail the islands, an opportunity to pick olives with the locals, donkey tours or diving, there is a tour for everyone, and possible job opportunities with these companies. Many companies appreciate people who can speak English, German, and Italian. Croatians tend to begin hiring in earnest in late February or March, after they wake up from the winter doldrums. Many of the international companies seem to hire much further in advance, even a year prior, and many have training programs prior to season opening. I am fostering my love for walking the mountains and ancestral network of trails of Croatia for what I believe to be a budding niche in the tourism industry.

Living in Split and the Expatriate Experience

It is now January, and I am living in Split, in the center of what was once the retirement palace of the Roman Emperor, Diocletian. I wake in the mornings to the rounds of church bells. My stonewall apartment is so cold I can see my breath. Cell phones ring out personalized tunes, in the narrow alley below my window as the shops begin opening up for the day. A train whistle, Abba, a cuckoo clock. I listen to the morning banter, finally after two years able to understand conversational Croatian. A language that even Croatians say is a "katastrof!" (catastrophe).

This is my second winter in Croatia. Winters here are not easy, or for the faint of heart. Old stone buildings hold no heat, and Croatians have now worn out their hospitality that must go full tilt for the four months of the tourist season from May to October. Living alone, I feel as if there is a bank of social calls, and favors that I can only draw from carefully and respectfully. I am not a local, yet I am not a tourist—that is at times the essence of an expat experience. I am also an expat trying to build a new life, such as many locals are doing themselves. In winter when the going gets tough for locals, it is everyone for themselves, and the same goes for expats. I rented my first apartment in Split only to discover that my landlord had disappeared, all 6’ of him, as well as the three mobile phone numbers, none of which he was answering. Leaving me without Internet, he had also removed the television, sofa, and the remote for the heater was nowhere to be found.

There is no work in the winter for many, and tourist towns and cities are empty of tourists, seemingly overnight, in October. The village population drops from a booming 3,000 in peak season to ghost towns of 300 in winter. I walk through Split on a late evening in January with my only company being the odd cat sneaking around the edges of the piaca (square). I am regarded with curiosity from many being a female, living here alone. The little lady I buy vegetables from always asks, "Are you still living alone?" with a worried look on her face, sneaking a lemon or a few carrots into my bag.

The expatriate experience requires one to become in tune with the rhythms of a place. I spent my first winter in a small seaside village. Locals in Split shake their heads in wonder when I tell them where I was living. And then the inevitable question followed. "But what did you do there?"

Exploring a Land as an Outsider

I began walking in the mountains to escape the confines of the village I had moved to; and my boyfriend's mother did not understand or entirely accept me as the new addition to the household. I was embracing everything in my new life, picking olives, and helping to clear terraces of olive trees that had been left to grow wild for years. I fell into the Mediterranean way of life very easily

Croatia olive tree in mountains

Whether it was eating raw vegetables, walking in bare feet, or doing laundry when the wind was blowing the wrong way, I began to feel as if everything I did was a mistake. I began keeping a list of local household "superstitions" that got me into hot water. Sweeping the floor following a meal the day before traveling is very bad luck. Driving with the windows of the car open was surely to bring imminent death, and one that is deserved. My walks up into the hills got a particular shake of the head and fearful eye rolling at the heavens.

Yet walks amid the pine trees high above the village eventually turned into day-long cathartic tramps through the ruins of abandoned hamlets, lofty and empty cemeteries, and olive groves. I discovered that there were paths that ked to far-flung villages. I would arrive at sundown too exhausted and satiated to take anything personally. In the smoky bar at night locals would proclaim vehemently through the haze of cigarette smoke to me; “you have to stop that running, and all that walking, it will kill you!"

Brela, Baska Voda, Promanja, Krvavica, Makarska, Tucepi, Podgora, Drasnice, Igrane, Zivogosce, Mala Duba, Blato, Drvenik, Zaostrog, Podac, Gradac. These are the charming coastal villages of the Makarska Riviera in Croatia. They dot the 60 kilometer narrow strip of stunning Mediterranean coastline like charms on a bracelet, linked by a stunning cliff-hugging highway that is book-ended by the UNESCO heritage sites and cities of Split and Dubrovnik.

Originally, people of this region settled and built their villages high in the hills dwarfed by Biokovo, and above the Adriatic for reasons of protection from the barrage of invading enemies. Only once the period of marauding Turks and pirates faded and tourism developed, did people migrate down to the coast. Whole villages were left behind as people built new lives by the seaside. Ancestral stone houses, churches, and endless ancient rock walls sit above each modern day village along this coastline, connected by a network of trails running from Brela to Zaostrog and upwards to the peaks of Biokovo. The dramatic peaks of the Dinali mountain range and Biokovo national park rise directly from the coast, seemingly straight up from the sea to heights reaching almost 1,800 meters, creating a bewitching atmosphere. Especially impressive above the bustling town of Makarska, these great massif cliffs tower over you and leave your eyes no choice but to be drawn upwards to watch the clouds rushing over their peaks. I overheard a tourist remark, “I don’t know what it is, but I can’t help but to keep looking up at those mountains!”

I felt vindicated and encouraged that I was not alone in my fascination with these looming mountains that have occupied my conscience and compelled me to pursue a new career path and a life living in Croatia. It was soon after my experience that I discovered there is a very strong history and tradition of mountain climbing and hiking in Croatia, and it was not necessary for me to be wandering around alone. The Mountaineering Association founded in 1874 has active clubs throughout Croatia. Very organized, there are regular outings for members, schools, and well-maintained mountain huts in the many national parks. My life changed after I self-consciously walked into a room largely full of men in the Spring of 2008, with all eyes on me as I signed up for my membership. I left the village soon thereafter, realizing that I would have to eventually chose between my freedom or resign myself to always being misunderstood. In the village I would always be "Mali Vrag," an endearing Croatian nickname given to me by my mother-in-law. It means "Little Devil" and sums up how I was perceived.

I walk two minutes to a bank machine set into the ancient stone walls of Split, and cross the Peristyle where Diocletian would greet his followers, to my favorite bustling cafe that sits directly across from one of the oldest cathedrals in Europe, originally built as his mausoleum. Ironically Diocletian crusaded against Christianity. I am often lost in thought wondering what the Roman Emperor would think to witness this irony and modernity amongst the walls of his palace. The contrast of new and old makes the city what it is—a living ruin. The narrow alleys and alcoves are full of shoe shops, bakeries, bookstores and squares with elegant cafes which fill spaces where Diocletian's many servants and workers once inhabited. His waterfront access is now a modern Corso, or Riva, full of bustling cafes, bars and trendy benches by the seaside. There is wireless access in the cafe, and I am talking on skype to my friend in Canada. What would Diocletian think of that?

Checking my email daily, I am waiting to hear that I will be employed offering trekking and walking tours throughout Dalmatia for a well-reputed company. I will be once again rambling through the abandoned hamlets, pine forests, and olive groves that I so adore. I will take my guests to local konobas to sample domestic wines and cheeses and smoked ham. I will be sharing with others what I love most about this country. Taking my experiences and trials of the past three years, I am putting them all to use in order to create a new career in a country I have decided to call home.

For More Info

Tourist Information in Split: www.split.info.

Need To Get Away For Trip?

Ferries

Jadrolinija (Croatia), www.jadrolinija.hr.

Blue Line ferries — (travel between Italy and Croatia), www.blueline-ferries.com.

Buses out of Split

www.ak-split.hr, (buy tickets at station, note, various companies have different prices to different locations).

Airlines

Germanwings (reasonable flights to and from Germany).

Ryan Air, www.ryanair.com/en(seasonal only).

Looking For Work

Work permits. For work in tourism, 4-month work permits are issued to foreigners at employers request. A certain number of permits are issued each year and it is up to the employer to do the paperwork.

There are many companies that offer sailing Croatia tours of all styles and for all ages. Research on the web will help anyone interested in a career in tourism and which companies to target. Some require previous experience and others not.

Republic of Croatia, Ministry of Interior (work permit information), www.mup.hr/1268.aspx.

Employment/job website Croatia

Moj posao (Translation: My Job), www.moj-posao.net.

Things To Do in Split

HPD Mosor (Croatian mountaineering club); www.hpd-mosor.hr. Sinovcicenva 2, Tel/Fax 021/394-365. membership open. Trips range in price.

Mosor mountain — network of marked mountain trails, house with restaurant open on weekends and open for overnight guests.

Dalmatian and Croatian Food and Drink that should be sampled by the newcomer.

Drinks

Turkish coffee

Pelinkovac — herbal bitters. Best with lemon.

Krastovac — orange liqueur

Ohorovac — nutty liqueur.

Prosek — sweet dessert wines

Some decent wines — Posip, Babic, Grgic. Wines from the Peljesac region and Istra are also generally decent.

Rakija or Lhosa — fermented alcohol that destroys any inhibitions and should be drunk carefully. Made domestically, buy at markets, or homes.

Specialty Dishes

Cheese from the island of Pag — a must. A hard cheese that has the flavors of the islands herbs, and the saltiness of the sea.

Cheese wrapped in salted anchovies in a bath of domestic olive oil.

Prsut — Dalmatian smoked ham, prosciutto.

One must try the domestic olive oil, found in markets or sold by locals.

Kulen — homemade sausage from Slavonia (central Croatia)

Mandarins in the fall, winter. Grown locally and very sweet.

Wild Asparagus — grows wild in the Spring in the mountains. Look for it at the markets in the Spring.

Smokva — dried figs, plain or sugared.

Black Risotto — A Dalmatian specialty made with the squid ink.

Peka — A special slow roasted meal of meat and potatoes cooked under an iron bell. Order ahead from restaurants.

Grilled Calamari, grilled fish.

Goulash — meat stew. Austro Hungarian influence.

Sarma — a hearty winter meal of stuffed cabbage leaves in a savory broth, served with mashed potatoes. Supposedly good if you have imbibed too much the evening before.

Blitva — swiss chard, often cooked with potatoes and drizzled with olive oil.

Fazol — bean stew, served with kobasica sausage.

Soparnikblitva filled pancakes (find at markets.)

Palacinke — pancakes often served with nutella for dessert.

Avjar— red pepper sauce served with meat.

Kajmuk — a buttery spread.

Cevapcici— small savory sausages. Turkish influence. eat with onions, black pepper, kajmuk and avjar.

Pogaca — pizza pie covered with sardines, anchovies. Originates from the island of Vis.

Mussels Bouzzara — steamed mussels in a white wine sauce with breadcrumbs.

Brodet  — fish stew, tomato-based.

Gnocchi with Pasticada — Pasticada is a traditional Croatian dish served at important gatherings such as weddings, Easter. A sauce made with stewed plums and spices.

Givuni — small fish usually fried in a batter which is delicious.

Alexanda Cram has written a book of photography, titled "To stand between the sea and sky," about her experience in Croatia.

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