Zagreb, Croatia Report of what it's like to live there - 02/18/14
Personal Experiences from Zagreb, Croatia
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
First overseas tour.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Washington DC - about 13-15 hours.
3. How long have you lived here?
3 years - from 2011 until 2014.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
There are 3 major housing locations.
The Hills (at the foothills of the mountain): These houses are pretty large and offer great living spaces and fantastic views. The roads and the commute to the Embassy can be a bit hairy. It usually takes most people in the hill 30 minutes (on a good day) and up to and hour on difficult days to get to the Embassy. Most people choose to live in these houses because they are closer to the American International School of Zagreb (AIZ), and the houses are the nicest. Most offer parks in a walking distance. They are also pretty far apart from other the American families.
Downtown: These are generally apartments and are also pretty large. There layouts can be a bit confusing to the Western mind, but nothing you can't get use to after a few months. They are usually within walking distance to cafes and bars, the limited (good) food options in the city, and the local open air market (dolac). They come with the normal prices you pay to live in the city; noisy mornings, smaller living areas, flights of stairs (or rickety elevadors), and distant parking. You can expect a 25 to 40-minute commute in this location. There are a many parks near the downtown area if you need to see some green.
Near the embassy (in the cornfield): These houses/townhouses are a bit smaller than the ones offered in the hills. They are grouped together and offer more of a sense of American community (which you will either hate or love). The major advantage these houses have is the 5-minute commute to work. You can also easily run or bike which is about 3 miles. The bus will come and pick up your kids for school, but that just means that they are the ones with the 40-minute commute while you have 5 minutes to work.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
The fresh food in the grocery stores is pretty good and reasonably priced. They lack some of the staples of the American diet (items that come to mind are peanut butter, cheddar cheese, and sliced/good bread). The local stores lack high quality goods and offer products that are similar to what you'd find in an American dollar store, but not at dollar store prices. We thought that this would get better once the country joined the EU but change for the better has been extremely slow moving.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Our own personal mattress, snow tires, beach supplies (for the 2-hour drive to the coast), any BIG item you can't order on Amazon.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are about 8 McDonald's in the city, and 4 KFC's. That is about it for Western Fast Food but is that really a bad thing?! Don't expect any good food other than the local cuisine (which gets old after the first few months). They do have ethnic restaurants but they are just silly imitations at best.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Yes, there is DPO and pouch mail at the Embassy and it usually arrives pretty quickly. Pouch tends to take about 13-15 calendar days and I've seem DPO take less than 5, but I've also seen things get lost and show up weeks/months later. So the rule of thumb is if you need it fast, but can risk losing about 3% of your packages, use DPO. If you need to make sure it arrives within 2 weeks, use Pouch. Also note the restrictions for each.
Pouch = NO liquids over 16 ounces, limited lithium battery support (smart Phones, tablets, and laptops are cool), and nothing over 70 inches total dimensions (w+l+h) and nothing over 70 lbs.
DPO = No weapons, a lot of places won't ship to DPO, but you can use shipping forwarding services like myapobox.com
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
They are plenty and they are reasonable (US$7-9 an hour).
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The Embassy has an okay gym (the basics). There are MANY gyms in the area but they tend to have strange hours of operation and close for part, if not all, of the summer. There is a BIG MMA culture here so they are a TON of MMA or boxing gyms. So if you like to fight, you're in the right place. Just ask the local guards at the Embassy and they will be more than willing to take you to one and show you around.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
ATMs are good. We use them daily in the city and at the Embassy.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
They have a few for the major holidays.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
A few local phrases will carry you your whole tour. Most of the locals speak GREAT English, especially the younger ones. Almost all the movies at the 5 theaters in town are in English with Croatian subtitles.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Like most older European cities (especially Eastern Europe), the infrastructure is extremely lacking and if you were handicapped, you'd have a real hard time.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
The local bus/tram in about US$2 for a few hours of riding. Taxis are pretty reasonable. I would only recommend a company called EcoTaxi. They are very good, clean and consistently priced. Most other cabs will charge you different rates all the time.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
You could bring anything here, but I'd recommend something with 4WD like an Audi or small SUV. During the winter months the streets aren't plowed very well and the Embassy doesn't get the same delays and snow days like people in DC do. I would definitely bring a set of snow tires in your HHE no matter what car you drive.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Depends on your definition of "High Speed". Most of the houses can get a maximum of 10 mbps down and 1 mbps up. A few houses can buy a 20 mbps package, but they are lucky if they see 14 of that. Most streaming service work without too much lag. If you use a service like unblock-us.com (to get your full bandwidth via a traditional VPN) you can get netflix, amazon prime and hulu (along with MANY others) to work.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
The Embassy provides a blackberry and also a brick phone for the spouses. If you wish to bring an unlocked smartphone, you can get a duplicate SIM card and add a data plan to your account (about US$14 a month for 1GB of data). Your spouse can just use the SIM card from the brick phone in their iPhone/Android.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
When we arrived, our dog wasn't even noticed in our carry-on bag and we were required to present no papers. I believe people who have had bigger dogs did not have to quarantine them, but they had to show their paperwork.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
There is always a CLO trip to help out at the orphanages. Also a lot of people like to help out at dog shelters.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Suits at the Embassy, jeans and polos in the city.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Nothing that any other city doesn't have but I would consider it safer than most. Being that most people here are highly religious (and not in a fake way), the day to day people you interact with are generally VERY honest.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
I have heard some great things about people having knee surgeries and other medical procedures. But I've also heard horror stories about people who have gotten hurt and gone to the emergency room.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
It's pretty good. No worse than DC or NoVA.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
We consider it VERY similar to DC. On most days you can look at an iOS or Android weather app and you will see both cities have very similar climates.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
No real exposure to the schools. Other families say the school is okay, or good.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Not really sure about this one, but I know other families have had a difficult time.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
Yes, there are 3 to choose from and we have heard good and bad things about them all. Nannies are also a viable option and pretty reasonably priced (about US$8-10 per hour).
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
We haven't actually heard of anyone taking their kids to any team sports, but once again, Croatians have a fighting culture and there are a lot of Martial arts places for kids. We have also seen a lot of families take their kids to swimming lessons. I am sure there are soccer clubs too, we just haven't seen or heard of anyone participating.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
I believe the American expat community is around about 100+, but if the Embassy is any indication, the morale is quite low. Since I have been at the Embassy, everyone has always been replaced by an incoming officer that is the complete and polar opposite of the departing officer. Normally that would not be a bad thing, but unfortunately this is not the case for the present officers. I try to look for the best in people, but it has been really difficult with the group that is currently at the Embassy. There is a big rotation in the summer of 2014, so I wish the place the best of luck.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
In the city, people mostly like to sit around the cafes and drink coffee or beer, and smoke cigarettes. But on the weekend, most expats leave for a weekend trip somewhere.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I would say that Zagreb is a good/better city for families, and couples. From what we hear from the singles, the dating scene is pretty difficult to break into. The locals tend to be either shy or resistant to outsiders getting into their circles. The people who have been here and had any luck at all usually did so with the help of another Croatian that they were mutually friends with.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
As far as we know the Croatians are not very receptive of the LGBT community. A vote was held not long ago banning same-sex couples from getting married. Granted, the same things also go on back in the U.S. but we feel that the highly religious tendencies of the locals has made them less accepting of any people from an alternative lifestyle.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
This country is VERY VERY white... I haven't seen or heard of anyone of an ethnic background being openly bashed or treated horribly, but they do get a lot of stares, and maybe even a few unfriendly ones. But some of the Marines here have had great experiences and never any real negative things happen.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
This should give you some insight about our tour... Our highlights of being posted in Croatia have been traveling down to the coast, and also visiting the neighboring countries. So if it's not a long weekend out of town, don't expect a good time from the city of Zagreb. There are been a few fun festivals and celebrations but our true highlights have come from getting OUT of Zagreb.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
We really enjoyed going to Jarun (the Croatia olympic training park). They have a lake there and several cafes and bars. It also has some of the best nightlife in Zagreb. There are clubs that rim the lake that can get really hopping in the spring and fall. During the summer most people are on the coast, so it tends to thin out.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Croatia is known for inventing the neck tie and the ballpoint pen. Other than that there isn't much you can get locally that is extremely nice.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
The city of Zagreb itself can be great, but also frustrating at times. Zagreb is so close to so many other amazing locations that are VERY easy to travel to. But the city of Zagreb has some ways to go. It's not completely unmanageable, and is an awesome place for maybe a 2-year tour, but you will be ready to leave after two years.
The local people are GREAT! Most speak perfect English. They are mostly very friendly to Americans (and most other foreigners). There are many restaurants and activities, but they are all very sub-par in comparison to other places only an hour away. Don't expect any good food other than the local cuisine (which gets old after the first few months). There are ethnic restaurants but they are silly imitations at best. The local stores lack high quality goods and offer products similar to what you'd find in an American dollar store (but not at dollar store prices).
We thought that this would get better once the country joined the EU, but change has been extremely slow moving. Diplomats have long been tax exempt in the country (through a very difficult process) but the process has stopped working altogether once the country joined the EU. It has been almost 8 months and there has been no traction to regaining our diplomatic tax free status. The COLA has not been raised either. Hopefully it is resolved soon, but none of us have high hopes. You also cannot sell your car tax-free anymore. So between traveling from Zagreb, the lack of tax-free status, and the changing policies, Zagreb has been a VERY expensive tour.
10. Can you save money?
Not really... this tour has broken our bank.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yeah I guess... I just wish the people we worked with were more interested in doing things together and/or hanging out.