Zagreb, Croatia Report of what it's like to live there - 08/05/14

Personal Experiences from Zagreb, Croatia

Zagreb, Croatia 08/05/14

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Previous assignments in Kyiv, Ukraine and Tashkent, Uzbekistan. I also lived in Moscow, Russia for a couple of years before joining the Foreign Service.

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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?

There are a fair number of decent options for getting back to the U.S. from Zagreb with connections via Paris, Frankfurt, Munich, and London among others. Zagreb to Arizona was about 20 hours of travel time including layovers.

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3. How long have you lived here?

3 years from 2011 to 2014.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

U.S. Embassy.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

There are three basic housing locations:

1) Downtown apartments. Smaller units but walking distance to restaurants, stores, and just about everything else downtown. Most singles and couples with no children prefer to live downtown. Commute is about 20-30 minutes.

2) The Hills. Larger single family homes, townhouses, and duplexes with small yards. Most embassy staff live in the hills, particularly those with kids. Never did it myself but I understand the commute was 45-60 minutes depending on where people lived.

3) Velika Polja. Smaller townhouse-style residences near the airport and about a five minute drive from the Embassy.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Groceries were a little cheaper than in the U.S. Household supplies were significantly more expensive to buy in Croatia but the higher prices could generally be offset by shopping online or at Aviano Air Force Base (3 hours away in Italy).

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Nothing really given the availability of commodities in Zagreb, the ability to order via Amazon, and Aviano Air Force Base being located three hours away.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

McDonald's, KFC, and now Burger King are all in Croatia. Prices are a bit higher than in the States but comparable to the same fast food joints in other parts of Europe. There are tons of restaurants in Zagreb, the other major cities, and in most of the small towns in areas frequented by tourists. Quality of the food and price vary depending on the specific restaurant and where it is located.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

None. There are mosquitos on the coast but not so many that it was a problem.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Diplomatic Post Office or Diplomatic Pouch. Shipping times varied and we experienced the typical problems around the holidays but both were generally reliable.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Domestic help is readily available. Cost was about US$10 an hour give or take.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

The Embassy has a small gym that employees/family members can use for free. There are a number of other workout places around town.

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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?

I used my credit card and withdrew money from ATMs all over Croatia and never had a single problem. Obviously, you want to exercise basic common sense. Biggest problem with using a credit card is that some smaller guest houses and restaurants would accept payment in cash only, but even in these cases there was usually an ATM around the corner.

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5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Croatian is not absolutely required to live in Zagreb but is really helpful for reading signs and talking to people at some of the restaurants, grocery stores, and gas stations. The same goes for anywhere tourists frequent. That being said, Croatians really appreciate when a foreigner (especially an American) is able to speak even a little bit to them in Croatian so I would make an effort to pick some up even if not strictly required for professional or personal living purposes.

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6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Yes. Zagreb is an old Central European city and was certainly not designed to make living with disabilities easy. High curbs, narrow sidewalks, and old buildings with either no or very small elevators are among the challenges that someone with a physical disability would face living there. Newer or renovated construction is starting to incorporate ramps and the like, but these buildings remain the exception rather than the norm.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Yes to both, although you should stick to marked taxis with a meter.

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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?

I had a small SUV and it did just fine in Croatia. Parking can be problematic so I'd avoid bringing something huge. Getting parts for some U.S. vehicles locally could be problematic, but given that auto parts are significantly more expensive in Croatia than in the U.S., it is probably better to order them from the States anyway.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes. I paid about US$50 a month for what they said was 10MB download. I generally got less than that in speed tests but my internet connection was generally sufficient to stream decent quality video.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

There are several local mobile phone providers with a variety of plans and pricing options. Starting and stopping service can be a bit complicated so having someone along that speaks Croatian fairly well can be helpful. Coverage was generally good throughout the country with the occasional blank spot. The Embassy provides a Blackberry to most employees.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

You don't see a lot of slobs in Croatia and people generally get a bit dressed up even to do everyday things like go to the grocery store. Dress at the Embassy is either suit and tie or business casual depending on your specific job.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Not really. Zagreb is super safe with very little crime that affects diplomats. Biggest concern I had was with traffic - either avoiding getting run over as a pedestrian or not hitting pedestrians while driving when they stepped out onto busy streets without looking.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Healthcare is pretty good generally. Medical personnel are well trained and competent but the government-run facilities sometimes lack modern infrastructure and equipment. The Embassy health unit will refer Embassy personnel to specific doctors and facilities. The dentist the health unit sent me to was hands down the best dentist I have ever had anywhere including the U.S.

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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?

No problems at all.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Zagreb was comparable in many respects to some of the higher elevations in Arizona. Summers are hot with some humidity. Winters can be moderately cold with snow - my second winter had a lot of snow.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

I have no children so my experience with the American International School of Zagreb (AISZ) was second-hand and based on what I heard from other people. The facilities are not the best - the school is housed in an old part of an old convent - but the people I knew best seemed generally happy with the quality of education and their kids' experience there. Post and the school are working with the City of Zagreb to identify a location for a new school. That effort seemed to be coming along when I left although it will be several years at best before any new construction is finished.

There was quite a bit of controversy surrounding the school and its director just as I was leaving. Post management was very involved and spending a lot of time on the issue. My impression from the outside looking in was that most of the problems were due to unrealistic expectations from some who found AISZ lacking compared to larger and better funded schools in the U.S. or other places they had lived.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

The expat community seemed fairly small given that most international NGOs and organizations have closed up shop and not a lot of international businesspeople are in Croatia at this point. Most expats I met had some family ties to Croatia. It's not a super cohesive community but Croatia is such an easy place to live that it probably doesn't need to be.

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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?

Go to a movie, out to eat, or over to a friend's house for dinner. Weekend/holiday trips to the coast, or to a nearby location in central Europe. Croatians also spend hours day and night, summer and winter talking to each other in the coffee shops.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

My impression is that Zagreb is a fantastic city for families and couples. It was also a good city for singles from my perspective with the caveat that the Croatian social scene can be a little challenging to break in to so persistence is key.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

A qualified yes. Croatia is still a fairly conservative country so it is certainly true that significant segments of the population are not accepting of LGBT lifestyles, especially in the more rural parts of the country. That being said, harassment or violence against LGBT individuals are generally isolated incidents, and are not condoned or facilitated by the government. Croatia just passed civil partnership legislation that gives LGBT couples most of the rights/advantages of heterosexual married couples. Pride parades take place in Zagreb and Split and have been without incident the last couple of years, and the Milanovic government is strongly on the record in supporting equal treatment for LGBT individuals.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Croatia remains very homogeneous - white, Catholic, and Croat - and people who are different stand out. My impression was that Croatians were expected to conform to the norm but that foreigners are generally given a pass. There is a high degree of religious freedom, and most overt prejudice was directed against ethnic Serbs rather than racial minorities. Gender roles are still fixed to a much higher degree than in the U.S., although women can and do rise to positions of prominence within Croatia on a regular basis.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

The best part of living in Croatia was traveling around the county. In previous assignments, I felt like I had pretty much been everywhere in the country that I wanted to go by the time my tour was about half over. Not so in Croatia where my list of places to go kept getting longer right up until I left. Don't miss the islands, and also plan to spend some time in the continental and mountainous parts of the country, which are spectacular in their own rights.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

The Adriatic Coast is spectacular and offers hundreds of miles of small towns to explore and places to swim. The well-known places such as Dubrovnik and Split are definitely worth multiple visits, but travelers should also try to get off the beaten path and explore some of the lesser known places. I highly recommend a visit to the islands of Vis and Cres. They are a little more complicated to get to, but were two of my favorite spots in Croatia. In addition, don't neglect the rest of Croatia - the mountains are full of wonderful little towns.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Travel. Olive oil, pumpkin oil, truffles and truffle oil.

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Zagreb is a safe and comfortable city to live in. The Adriatic coast is only a few hours away and the same goes for virtually all of Central Europe.

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10. Can you save money?

If you work at it. But, don't scrimp so much that you don't experience all of the wonderful things Croatia has to offer.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

How easy it was to live there. While maybe not on the same level yet as Austria or Germany, Croatia is light years away from the places in the former Soviet Union I had been comparing it to.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Absolutely and without hesitation.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Thousand pounds of food and other consumables.

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4. But don't forget your:

Beach stuff. Bring lots of sunscreen. You can find it in Croatia but it is pricey.

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5. Do you have any other comments?

A couple of the most recent reviews talked about morale at the Embassy being not so good. I don't really know what these folks were referring to because from my perspective morale has gotten much better, which I attribute to the Embassy's new management team. The Ambassador arrived in late 2012, and the new DCM and other senior officers in summer 2013. I thought morale was quite good when I left in July 2014. It is true that Embassy Zagreb is not necessarily as cohesive a community as other embassies at which I have served, and if your idea of a Post with good morale involves lots of parties at the Marine House and other well-attended community events, then Zagreb may not be the place for you. But, I would argue that this has more to do with the place than morale per se. Croatia is a beautiful, safe country that allows people to make friends outside of the embassy community and to get out and explore rather than live, work, and play with the same group of people from Post all of the time. That seems to me to be a good thing rather than a sign of poor morale.

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