How to split the difference in Croatia
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.