Zagreb, Croatia Report of what it's like to live there - 04/08/16

Personal Experiences from Zagreb, Croatia

Zagreb, Croatia 04/08/16

Background:

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

No, multiple other expat experiences mostly in North Africa and the Middle East.

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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?

Washington, DC. Connections via Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Heathrow. Total travel time approximately 12 hours if all goes as planned!

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3. How long have you lived here?

We have finished 22 months of a 3 year tour.

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

Government

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

Embassy housing is really spread out all over the city. There is some housing available a mile from the Embassy, which I have actually never seen (and I have been here 2 years!). It is townhomes and stand alone houses in a development. Couples and families are placed there, and seem happy to be a 5-minute drive to work, although kids have a very long hour commute to school via bus. The majority of embassy families live "in the hills," north of downtown, in large, single-family houses. Most other diplomatic and expat families also live in the hills. Commute from the hills to the embassy is 30-45 minutes. Houses are large, all with some sort of outdoor space, although size of yard varies. All have some sort of garage, but many garages are too small to fit an American size car such as an SUV or minivan. Neighborhood parking is very limited, even in the hills, and roads can be narrow and windy.

Couples, singles and a few families with older children are placed in apartments closer to downtown, and most of them seem very happy to be so near to the center of things. The current GSO seems to be making a concerted effort to group housing, as well as upgrade housing, although there is still a vast disparity in age and quality of homes. Our home is a 45-minute drive from the Embassy, but only 10 minutes from the school. It is one of the oldest in the housing pool and has had a number of electrical, internet, plumbing and water issues, things we didn't expect to find in an EUR post. The potential move of the school to the Bundek area will greatly affect where the Embassy places families to live, although the school movement is still quite up in the air. There are very few facilities staff in the Embassy, so we have found that we have to wait a relatively long time to get repairs done.

Housing square footage is large, but there is often unusable space in hallways or bathrooms. Most people have wardrobes in hallways or guest rooms to use as closets. If you want to be near other embassy families, request that in your survey. Many of us in the hills are still 25 minute drives apart, and often not on public transportation routes. A car is necessary when living in the hills, although taxis and Uber are available if you don't mind the wait.

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

You really can buy almost anything you want here, or order it from Amazon via the APO or pouch. There is not a huge need to stock up unless you like specific brands. Many people also make regular trips to the military bases in Italy (4 hours away) to shop at the commissary. The things I would recommend are US brand over the counter medications, both for kids and adults. There are very few 24 hour pharmacies here, and much of the medicine is not labeled in English. Common name-brands of US meds aren't available here (Tylenol, Bendryl, Sudafed)---you can find the generics under a different manufacturer and label. I regularly order breakfast cereal for our family, as local options are usually limited to corn flakes, chocolate cereal and muesli. Many people order cake mixes and icing, as well as brownie mixes. There are new little organic food stores popping up every week downtown, as well as more and more "ethnic" products too.

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

Surprisingly few fast food places: McDonald's, Burger King and KFC only. Lots of bistros and tiny restaurants, but not very many family friendly spaces to take kids to. Good if you want a quiet romantic dinner out, but not good if you are in need of a high chair and some noise to cover the kids! :) Great pizza available from local pizzarias, delivered. Very poor quality imitation Mexican and Chinese. We really miss good "ethnic" food options when eating out here. Costs overall are very cheap to eat out---maybe US$20-$30 for a family of 4, depending on where you go.

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

None.

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Daily Life:

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

Embassy APO or pouch address.

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

Going rate among the embassy is about US$7 an hour, which I find really reasonable. The problem is finding someone to work for you. There is high unemployment here, but many expats struggle to find someone to work regular hours for them.

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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. There are numerous city gyms with cheap fees and good equipment. None have childcare as an option, for those moms who are wondering :). When the weather is good (April-October), there are numerous paths for running, walking and cycling, depending on where you live.

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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?

Used everywhere, very safe.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Anglican (anglican.hr website), evangelical/non-denom, international Catholic, mormon. All very small congregations (30 people or so).

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

People will tell you that you don't need Croatian at all and that everyone speaks English. I haven't found that to be true. I was able to do 3 months of full time study at FSI, as well as 6 weeks of tutoring at post, and I still struggle with language. If you live close to downtown you will find many English speakers. Further out in the hills and suburbs, not so many. It helps if you know German. Most labels in the grocery stores do not have any English---usually just Croatian, Italian and some other random language such as German/Polish/Bulgarian.

Younger Croatians usually speak English, but many of the middle-aged women who work as cashiers in the stores and malls do not. Most Croatians will tell you they don't speak any, but often they are afraid of making mistakes with the English they DO have. Croatian is a difficult language to learn, but getting some of the basics will be really helpful. The embassy language teacher is great, but the fact that the Embassy is 30-45 minutes drive from most family housing makes it nearly impossible for spouses to take language classes with her. Street and directional signs are all in Croatian.

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

There is handicap accessible parking, but it is very limited. Many, many buildings have stairs, sidewalks are often broken up or parked on.

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Transportation:

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

Because we live so far out of the city center, I have never taken public transport. Buses and trams are considered very, very safe and cheap. Taxis are plentiful, metered and safe. Uber is new here.

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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?

Most members of the embassy community have scratched their cars here due to parking issues. This is not something we expected coming to EUR! I have scratched my car more here than in the other 2 more developing world countries we have lived in! Some families have mini-vans, but I don't feel comfortable driving ours, due to narrow roads in the hills and difficult parking in the hills. It is rare to see a large SUV here. Many people have RAV4s. We have used the Toyota and Honda dealerships and been very happy with the service. A few people at the embassy have motorcycles. Parts still cost more here, so you may find yourself ordering parts.

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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?

If you live in the hills, the distance of your house and the age of the line running to your house will affect your internet speed. We have internet speed here which is slower than other less developed countries due to the fact that we are in an old house on a hillside. Downtown there is fiberoptic cable.

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Pets:

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?

We don't have pets, but people who do seem very happy. There is a pet store on every corner and multiple vets. You can take your dog into some malls and on the tram! Parks allow you to let your dog off the leash in certain areas. Croatians love their dogs and cats, and it seems that many people let their animals roam free in the neighborhoods in the quieter parts of the suburbs.

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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?

The embassy here is medium sized but has very few family member jobs. I think the current Management/GSO/CLO are trying to introduce new positions, as there is a great demand. Even the very entry level jobs such as security escort are filled, and all openings seem to have multiple people applying. The job market in Croatia is really poor for Croatians, with high unemployment, but also a high level of education. So the likelihood of finding a job on the local economy is very, very small. The few expat spouses I know who work are tele-commuting or teaching/tutoring English. I think many family members would like to work part/full time but have no opportunity.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Limited opportunities due to the need to know Croatian. However, I'd highly encourage you to volunteer via the Information Resource Center at the embassy---they are often looking for Americans to give talks in schools, libraries and other public places.

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Health & Safety:

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

This is the safest place I've ever lived. My iPhone was returned to me when I left it in a restaurant. I regularly leave my purse in the stroller and walk away from it to chase my kids at the park.

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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?

No major concerns, although I don't have great confidence in the medical system here. Post currently has a full time Croatian doctor and RN. We have used local pediatricians and an ENT. Care is adequate but for complicated (especially pediatric) problems I wouldn't feel great about using the system here. That said, I am a medical professional myself, so I think I am picky about what I expect. Many doctors here seem to have a lot of education but not a lot of clinical training. Some are still very old-school, Yugoslav, "doctor knows best" in their bedside manner. Some facilities are old and not as clean as you'd hope. Others are great, particularly the dental and opthalmological care we've had here. Cost is very cheap----maybe US$30 for a dental check up.

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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?

Good.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

Lots of hayfever and pollen allergies in the spring and fall here.

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

Very, very similar to Virginia/Washington DC weather. But longer, grayer winters (November to April are dark, drizzly and cold with very little sunshine and a low cloud cover). Summers don't get as hot as Virgina/DC weather, and the humidity here is lower than on the East Coast of the US. Although summers don't get as hot, you do need A/C and we have found some public spaces don't have any A/C including, surprisingly, the school here.

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Schools & Children:

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

The one accredited English school option is the American School of Zagreb (AISZ). It is small, with one class for each grade. Classes in the younger grades tend to be 14-21 students, with a teacher and assistant. Middle and high school are smaller, with 8-14 per class. The school meets in an old seminary complex, which is also home to a tennis center, medical clinic, university library branch and Catholic radio station. The facilities were not purpose built to be used as a school, and so are quite limiting. The playground is a small, interior courtyard with cement.

The positives to the school are small class size and caring teacher population. The negatives include limitations in classes offered due to size, limitations in peers due to size and high staff turnover. The school is trying to recuperate a large amount of money lost a few years ago when trying to build a new school campus. Some staff positions have been cut, or teachers are pulling double-duty. (One of the secretaries is also the high school biology teacher?) Our son has completed kindergarten and 1st grade there. We were overall happy with his experience, but found that the school offers very little in the way of enrichment for students who need additional challenge, particularly in the areas of math and science. It seems that at the elementary levels the school is putting a lot of energy into helping ESL students. Approximately 50% of the school is Croatian, and the expat/Croatian mix seems good in the elementary years, but I have heard it is clique-ish in the high school. I am thankful my son has had some caring teachers, but overall, I would not recommend this school for older students.

I also feel that the school is not doing well in general communication with parents, and you need to be pro-active to communicate yourself with staff. The embassy contracts with a mini-bus service to offer regular hour and after-school bus service, door-to-door, which is really helpful. Extracurricular activities are offered by teachers each semester at no charge, on a first-come-first-served basis (cooking, soccer, crafts, drama, games) There are "outsourced" activities such as hip-hop dance, karate and tennis which are offered through the school by outside instructors at an additional fee. There are no competitive sports programs for elementary school. In middle and high the only competitive sports for girls are volleyball and for boys soccer.

The high school and medical school send teams to regional model UN. One embassy family has a child at the French school.

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2. 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?

Limited English language preschool options depending on where you live. Kindy International is popular on the west side of town, and The Learning Tree, as well as Magical World on the east side. Most function as a daycare model, not as preschool.

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3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Many club sports, but all will be in Croatian. We have found coaches/swim coaches are willing to translate for English, but for our son, being the only English speaker in the group hasn't been fun. Very limited options at school. Preschool age programs are usually offered at the typical American dinner/bedtime of 5:30 pm or 7:30 pm, as most Croatian parents have 2 working adults and can only take their kids out after work. So we haven't had the chance to try those for our younger child.

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Expat Life:

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

Small expat community. Medium level of morale, depending on if spouses want to work and are able to secure jobs, and also depending on people's previous experiences with living overseas. Some people find Zagreb to be too quiet if they are used to more international cities. Others love the sleepiness.

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

Many singles here seem to enjoy travel opportunities and some seem to also get into the dating scene. This is a predominantly family post now, though, and I get the sense that it can be lonely to be here without a spouse. If you don't mind the club/bar/concert scene, you will find a lot to do!
As a family with young kids, we have had a much harder time here finding regular babysitters than in other posts, which has limited our ability as adults to go out and experience all the city has to offer.

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

Croatia is working on acceptance of LGBT issues, but has a ways to go. There is quite an active LGBT population here, and they are visible in the city. That said, Croatia being a predominantly Catholic country, many people still face discrimination due to sexual orientation, even as expats.

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

Adriatic Sea visits, enjoying a view of Sljeme mountain from our neighborhood, experiencing 4 seasons every year. Beautiful European spring flowers.

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

Maksimir park, Sljeme mountain hiking trails, visiting the coast in the summer...so many guidebooks available for all the new tourist hotspots popping up in Croatia. Just keep in mind when reading the guidebooks that Zagreb is 2 hours inland from the coast, and the scenery and feel in Zagreb is quite different than what you find in Dalmatia.

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

Beautiful Croatian coast, cheap goods if you are a diplomat and can file for the 25% VAT back, clean air, clean water, safe country, tons of hiking when the weather is good.

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7. Can you save money?

Yes, if you don't travel every weekend!

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Words of Wisdom:

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

We were not prepared for the European winter: Grey, drizzly, foggy dark weather from November to March, often with 2-3 weeks straight without sunshine. After many years in the Middle East, this was really hard! The coast of Croatia basically closes down from October to April, so a lot of the cool touristy things you see advertised aren't accessible during the off season. Zagreb is a small, non-central European capital. There is a very small English speaking expat community, and not many English language events for expat kids, outside the school. Most Croatian mothers have to return to work after the baby is a year old, so the parks are filled with grannies and older nannies, but not other moms. The embassy community lives literally all over town and is very loosely connected. There are many people in our small community who I only see every 2 months. There is no community space for people to gather in, such as an American club pool, or playground. We really miss the tight sense of expat community which we experienced in other posts, as well as missing a more international scene. Zagreb will be great for you if you are looking for a quiet life, with frequent road trips. This hasn't been a great fit for our family. Babysitting has been harder to come by here, which has limited our ability to get out and about.

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

Hmmm....it hasn't been a bad place for our family, and it's been a good, safe environment for the kids. But, as a stay-at-home spouse, I have found it isolating and not a "warm" culture. I wouldn't choose to come here again anytime soon. That said, some people really love it here, and I think that all depends upon your stage in life and ability to get out and explore, or not.

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