How to split the dif­fer­ence in Croa­tia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Europe In Winter - EL­SPETH CALLENDER

AS our plane touches down in the Croa­t­ian city of Split, I re­alise I don’t know a sin­gle word of the lo­cal lan­guage. Mute and ashamed, I watch my back­pack ride the lug­gage carousel. My lack of prepa­ra­tion is as thought­less as the time I tried board­ing an aero­plane with a pocket knife in my cabin bag. And that was only yes­ter­day.

Mean­while my trav­el­ling com­pan­ion gets proac­tive. By the time we leave the air­port he’s made a stony-faced se­cu­rity guard gig­gle and found out how to say good day in Croa­t­ian.

I fol­low his lead and po­litely ques­tion the bus driver, who teaches me how to say please and thank you. Our age­ing ho­tel clerk checks us in, then sends us off to bed with Croa­t­ian com­pre­hen­sion home­work.

The next morn­ing we over­sleep and pre­tend it’s on pur­pose as the only form of hello we know isn’t ap­pro­pri­ate, ap­par­ently, un­til af­ter 10am. We use it in uni­son when the clean­ing lady bursts into our room and then again at the near­est bak­ery. The girl be­hind the counter beams and teaches us how to ask for the last two de­li­cious cheese-filled break­fast pas­tries. She tells us we speak Croa­t­ian very well.

As we go in search of cof­fee I con­sider these en­coun­ters. The fact is we don’t speak Croa­t­ian well — in fact, barely at all — and our ac­cents surely must be ter­ri­ble. But we are try­ing. Split is al­ways crawl­ing with in­ter­na­tional tourists fas­ci­nated by Dio­cle­tian’s Palace and the an­cient city walls. Per­haps they show less in­ter­est in the peo­ple who live here to­day.

We find an invit­ing cafe and a waiter ap­pears sec­onds af­ter we sit down. I or­der two cof­fees by string­ing to­gether some new words and throw­ing in the word espresso, be­cause it needs no trans­la­tion in Europe. He nods and re­turns mo­ments later with two lit­tle cups of steam­ing cof­fee. It’s like magic.

The cafe menu is ideal for in­creas­ing our vo­cab­u­lary, as are street signs, posters, news­pa­pers and dis­carded cat­a­logues. I learn the words for ev­ery­thing from pegs to pil­lows, py­ja­mas to ba­nanas.

At the end of the day we take a well-earned break from our lan­guage-learn­ing at the bal­let. Then it’s time to mem­o­rise how to say good evening and choose a restau­rant for sup­per. Af­ter a de­li­cious meal, we ask the waiter how to call for the bill and then we do call for the bill. Back at the ho­tel we blurt out ev­ery­thing we’ve learned. The clerk, with the half-smile of a proud grand­par­ent, teaches us how to say good­night as he hands over our room key.

We want to take a coach the next day to Dubrovnik and rise early enough to learn how to say good morn­ing be­fore 10am. But the clerk in­sists on writ­ing out some im­por­tant phrases on the back of our bill and we miss our ride.

Killing time roam­ing the lo­cal food mar­ket while wait­ing for the next coach, we are given enough ham and cheese to taste that we just call it lunch.

A stall owner asks us where we are go­ing to­day. We know this one — it’s on the back of our ho­tel bill.

Af­ter check­ing and recheck­ing, we tell him con­fi­dently that we are head­ing to Dubrovnik. He’s im­pressed and prac­ti­cally force-feeds us more ham.

Af­ter two won­der­ful weeks in Croa­tia we ar­rive at our next des­ti­na­tion full of lin­guis­tic con­fi­dence. For our first meal in Mu­nich we care­fully choose a restau­rant with no tourist menu. In what I am quite sure is the per­fect Ger­man pro­nun­ci­a­tion, I or­der tra­di­tional Bavar­ian noo­dles with cheese and fried onions.

A plate of pan­cakes with ap­ple sauce comes in­stead. I es­cape to the bath­room in em­bar­rass­ment but have no idea whether I am her­ren or da­men and walk straight into the men’s.

TOM JELLETT

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