Wednesday, December 4, 2013

When Culture Shock Sleeps in Your Bed

We almost forgot. The Jurassic age that had arrived last week had disappeared over the weekend. We no longer had any expectations on Monday morning. So when we came into the living room to get ready for pre-school we were surprised to find our prehistoric friends very comfortable.

We were still in a daze so we didn't even think about how they might have made the popcorn. But it turns out food is a major part of their lives. 

There was no question their leader was beginning to assert herself more and more. 

In fact, all of their personalities were beginning to come through. 

After all the eating, terrorizing and building, they found some time for play.

But now it was time to spend a couple nights at baka's house. Would they follow us? Unfortunately, there were no dinosaurs at baka's but as soon as we got home, we asked mom and dad if they had done anything else while we were gone. They said no, so we forgot about it until we went to bed. 

Sure enough, they had made themselves comfortable in our beds while we were out. Which brings us to a truth about culture shock. Sometimes it's surprising, sometimes it's exciting, sometimes it's even fun. But no matter what, there are times when it gets too close. 

We threw the dinosaurs on the floor and went to sleep. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

When Culture Shock Comes to Your Home

One of the things about culture shock is that you expect to experience it to some extent when you move to another country.  New faces, different mentalities and foreign behaviors are all things you're ready to be confronted by when mingling with a new culture. And even though it's sometimes difficult, any reasonable person is ready to make some adjustments to the new world around them.

But what happens when that foreign culture enters your home? How is one to adjust to their personal space being invaded - especially when there's anthropomorphism and a time warp involved?

Monday morning was supposed to be a normal get-ready-for-preschool kind of morning. Yet, when we woke up we happened upon the following scene:

Our favorite peanut crunchy snack - bobi flips - were being consumed by prehistoric beasts! Yet, when we sat back and took it all in, there was something exciting about seeing dinosaurs outside of their natural habitat. Would this just be a one time occurrence?

We didn't have to wait long to find out. On Tuesday morning we found them like this:

They had climbed up our blocks, onto our bookshelf and found one of our favorite stories. Of course, no one was more surprised than T-Rex, but it took us off guard too. We couldn't wait to tell everyone about the creatures who had decided to make themselves at home overnight.

On Wednesday morning as soon as we woke up, we ran to see what they were up to next.

We started asking questions. How did they get up the stairs from their box in the playroom? How'd they open the door? Daddy told us he would make sure the living room was closed and locked overnight so they wouldn't come in. We were relieved...then disappointed. But I realized there were other places they could go if they didn't have access to the living room. Would they take advantage of other rooms?

Sure enough, on Thursday morning they were bathing in the bathroom.

We usually take our baths at night, but decided to join them right away.

How will this story end? How much longer will it last? Stay tuned.

Editor's note: This was not our idea! Go here to read the original. Go to their facebook page to browse or post your own pictures. There's still a week left of Dinovember!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Unplugged in Zagreb

Hrvatski prijevod: Iskopčani u Zagrebu

"If someone in walked in here off the street, they wouldn't believe what's going on."

My wife and I were standing in a former casino hall in Zagreb surrounded by 300 other Croats, Slovenes, Serbs and Bosnians enjoying a Slovakian band singing in Serbian. Some were dancing, others talking among themselves or simply listening; but everyone was having a good time. My wife was right; this scene was rare. The event that brought these different cultures and languages together was called "Srcokret" - a word that's not even a word.
Photo courtesy of Sara Delić

Suncokret is Croatian for "sunflower". It literally means "turn towards the sun". The wordplay was designed around a desire to see hearts (srce) in the former Yugoslavia turned toward Christ. This was the third Srcokret since 2008 and the second one my wife and I have attended. All three of them have been examples of how true Christian unity is stronger than the tradition, borders and history that divide these nations.

Yet the main point wasn't simply about reconciliation. Although everyone is aware of it, many of the young people in attendance were born after the conflicts in the early to mid-90's. No, this conference was about what it means to unplug from the system. The example of a matrix was used - the movie explicitly referred to. When someone honestly makes a decision to follow Christ, they're unplugged from the influence of the world. As the Apostle Paul said, "Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind". (Romans 12:1, NIV)

The whole conference was structured around six different workshops - all of which focused on unplugging from a specific cultural grid. But this condition of being unplugged doesn't just mean that Christians are supposed to stay in their little corner and wait for heaven. This was one of Srcokret's biggest strengths. Rather than being exhorted to withdraw, we were encouraged to be the best in our fields and engage in the culture around us. One of the workshops I attended was led by a successful law professor whose desire is to use the gift God has given him to its full potential.

Unity was also a major theme. The lead organizer, a pastor from Karlovac, concluded the conference with a passionate call for Christians to be plugged into the church. "We shouldn't have to pray for unity", he said. "Do I have to pray for my foot to walk? When we're truly part of the Body of Christ, unity comes naturally."

Maybe that's what would have seemed so strange to someone walking in off the street. Different nations, languages and traditions all having a good time together. The concert, which featured rock, rap, punk and worship musicians, represented a certain freedom everyone felt. Freedom from religiosity. Freedom from tradition. Freedom from the matrix.

Yeah, it was strange. Especially in this part of the world where events for young Christians are relatively small and where cultural divisions seem large. Maybe it was rare for those reasons. Or, maybe it's because this scene was as much like heaven as any other I've been a part of before.
Copyright Evanđeoska pentekostna crkva u Hrvatskoj 2013

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Thought that Counts

Croatia generally does not celebrate Halloween. Sure, you'll occasionally see cafes or clubs advertising Halloween parties, but the tradition of trick-or-treating has its equivalent in February here. Being outside America and analyzing how others celebrate holidays has led me to take a more critical stance on how I celebrate. So last year, while we were visiting America and anticipating Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, I asked myself this question:

How are we as American Christians supposed to celebrate the various holidays our culture emphasizes?

I think the decision should begin by making a distinction between participating and celebrating. For Halloween last year, my wife and I decided that our family would participate by allowing our kids to dress up and go trick-or-treating. We had several conversations before the event because we didn't want to do something simply because everyone else was doing it. Nor did we want to reject it simply because it's not a "Christian holiday". Our goal was to make a thoughtful decision knowing that this might create a precedent for other times we're in America during Halloween.

Surprisingly, I had quite a few reasons for allowing our kids to participate in Halloween. One of the reasons was because it seemed like a Jesus-like thing to do. For one thing, it's an extremely relational event - especially in the American context. There is no other time in America when it's ok for a stranger to knock on another strangers' door expecting to be fed. And even though the exchange that takes place is usually short, it is sometimes longer than the typical "hihowareya" strangers often engage in. There's potential for new friendships here.

Plus, even though Jesus took time to withdraw, he often went where the people were. Now, I wasn't taking my kids out with the goal of evangelizing Massachusetts through trick-or-treat. The only point I'm trying to make is that when I ask what Jesus would do, a harvest festival isn't the only answer. Jesus wasn't one to hide away while the crowds engaged in their social activities.

On the other hand, I don't want to simply dismiss the question I wrestle with many other believers; If there are such Satanic tendencies and traditions tied up with this holiday, why in the world would I participate?

I realized that like any religion, Satanism - or more relevantly paganism - is about a constant practice. If one is a Satanist once a year, that person packs no more punch than a Christian who engages in some sort of Christian activity once a year. Nominalism, regardless of the religion, says more about what you don't believe than what you do believe. If I allow my children to participate in Halloween for one day out of the year, the only rituals they are learning is that of dressing up, visiting strangers and eating more candy than usual.

But couldn't Halloween be a gateway for engaging in Satanic/Pagan practices? Could participation lead to celebration? Yes. But, there is nothing in life that is not a potential gateway for evil, overindulgence or excess.  If we are going to truly live, we will be tempted to celebrate all sorts of things that will prohibit us from living abundantly.

As soon as Halloween ended, Christmas advertising began. It increasingly became a way of life for anyone who turned on the television, went into a store or got on the internet between Halloween and December 25th. A habit has been formed. We have to buy. We so easily become slaves to the consumer mentality when it comes to celebrating Christmas right. And the climax to this two-month way of life is Black Friday.

Here the participate/celebrate distinction is important. By choosing to celebrate Christmas last year, my family chose not to participate in the American version of Christmas. In order to celebrate, it's important, I believe, to think about what I can do to try to reproduce the original intent of the holiday. Therefore I see Christmas as a time to thoughtfully engage in gracious gift giving.  Buying became a last resort.

Why? Because buying and consuming is not Christmas. Outside of the American tradition, they're not even related to Christmas! But here is where we get back to celebrating. By giving a gift to my son or grandmother, I am celebrating the fact that I received the most valuable gift from the Divine. That's a big deal! What can I give that will celebrate this fact? Or, even more importantly, how can I give that will celebrate the incarnation. Last year, the answer was for my family to divorce ourselves from the American culture of buy, buy, buy.

I am thankful for my mother and my wife for initiating conversations to this effect last year. After talking about it, we decided to only re-gift. Second-hand stores were the only places we could purchase anything. The other options were giving something that was already in our house or making  something. In the end, it made for a very creative, original and joyful Christmas celebration.

Certainly this isn't the only way to celebrate Christmas, but that's the point. I don't think, in our time and place, that there's only one right way to celebrate. Rather, we should continue to thoughtfully and critically allow our faith to inform how we are involved in those things the people around us celebrate.

What are some other ways we can go against the tide? How have you participated/celebrated Halloween, Thanksgiving or Christmas differently?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Drinking Coffee Religiously

Good morning!

I've never been shy about how much I love coffee. In fact, soon after I started this blog, I posted a New York Times piece that offered plenty of reasons why coffee is healthy. Just the other day, another article surfaced, maintaining that there are at least 11 reasons why I should drink coffee everyday.

Needless to say, I'm convinced.

That's not to say I don't tweak my coffee drinking habits from time to time. For awhile, my father-in-law has been appealing to my faith to get me to add milk and honey to my coffee like he does. "It's the only biblical way to drink coffee!" he tells me frequently when we're gathered around the coffee pot.

I finally tried it a few months ago. And then again. Now, I drizzle in a teaspoon of honey and mix in some milk just about every time I drink coffee at home. I'm not going to say that I've noticed any changes in my health yet, but research says that there are many, many, many health benefits to honey. With all the coffee options in both America and Europe, I wonder if any shops offer honey as an alternative to sugar?

Regardless, whether in reference to the Promised Land or John the Baptist, there's no doubt that honey is both a symbolic and dietary theme throughout the Bible. As a convert, I appeal to my coffee drinking friends with all the wisdom of Solomon“Eat honey, my son, for it is good."

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

An Eye for Signs?

The main reason I started my series on signs is because I find it fascinating that Europeans depend on pictures to convey important messages while Americans simply spell it out. Of course, the simplicity of European signs sometimes make their meaning harder to decode.  Since I've lived here though, I feel like I've gotten used to the traffic signs, and have noticed visual patterns on the other signs that help me understand what the sign is saying even if it's a new one.

...Until I saw this sign in Osijek the other day.
I looked around for context and found this set of signs close by. Even though I can guess what the signs on the adjacent glass window are trying to convey, they don't help me understand the first one. Notice they all have the black border and similar illustration style. They must be related, but I can't figure out how.
What is sign number 1 is trying to convey? How is it related to the four signs in the second picture?

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Zagreb Marathon and Family

As the countdown began I got a little emotional...osam, sedam... Here I am, one of  thousands of runners listening to the countdown in Croatian. tri...dva...jedan... Then Olympic gold medalist Sandra Perković shot the pistol. We slowly walked forward, then began to jog, walked, jogged, and then...freedom. I was off!

But where in the world was I?  The last time I was running in an individual effort to achieve a certain time was 12 years ago as a U.S. Marine qualifying for my PFT in South Carolina. Now, here I am, on my way towards a lifelong goal of running a marathon, but fully settled down in a foreign country. And now there are five more Bohalls - all of who came to Zagreb with me to support me as I ran the half-marathon.

That's when it hit me. Living in a foreign country would be much more difficult if it weren't for my family. Obviously, most credit goes to my wife whose help has been invaluable. She has done her best to help me flourish in Croatia - yesterday being a perfect example of her support.

There have been times I've thought twice about including my family on this blog as much as I do. But they are a major part of why I keep this blog going. My family has done more to cure the symptoms of culture shock than anything else. 

I have one piece of advice for anyone hoping to live in a foreign country: Make sure you have a support team. It's virtually impossible to know what life is going to be like when you get there. But if you're with someone with whom you share mutual support, adjustment will be infinitely easier. There's no more important way to blunt the effects of culture shock than having someone to share your experience with. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

An Air of Satisfaction

Her straggly blond hair streamed behind her and pointed towards the blue sky and perfectly placed clouds. But it was her wide eyes and growing smile that highlighted the exhilaration she felt as she came back to earth. Mid-70's, slight breeze, sun, a few clouds and a beautiful two year old who laughed more enthusiastically every time I threw her in the air. The swallows swooping around us accompanied our joy like a beautiful melody on the 12-string. This is it, I said to myself.

This is the moment you dream of before you become a parent. These are the memories you long for after they grow up. And already there are times my heart groans when I realize that these days won't last long. Maybe that's how I justified the offensive thought that came into my head the next time I threw her.

Is there a way I can toss her, grab my smartphone and quickly take a picture while she's in the air?

Of course, the danger of such an attempt, especially in light of the growing distance between me and her on every throw, was enough to make me think twice before I reached towards my pocket. But still, what did this initial thought say about who I am, what I think about and how I live my life?

We could talk about how access to cameras, internet and facebook all from one handheld device have changed the way we live our lives. Or we could discuss the concept of sharing - is sharing always good? Are there times not to share pictures, videos and memories? But these kind of conversations, as necessary and relevant as they are, already exist.

For me, the problem was my dissatisfaction. During those few minutes, everything was as it should be. All four of our kids are healthy. We have everything we need and are surrounded by friends and family. Circumstances allowed for me to take a walk alone with Emily while the other three were being well taken care of. This was the first time since she's learned to walk that we've walked together without her siblings or mom with us.

And for a few short minutes there was nothing else in the world she wanted to do more than be with her father. She pointed out the possible danger of falling in the ditch - "fall down!". She invited me to run with her, quickly asking to "wait me!" when I got a couple steps ahead of her. Then she pleaded with me to throw her "up high". My daughter was completely taken by her father, but her father wanted something more. He wanted to capture the moment, share it and have the chance to relive it again.

Even as I write, this incident seems trivial. Yet I'm convinced that this momentary temptation to want more than the perfection I already had is indicative of the human tendency to be dissatisfied. And technology hasn't made it any easier on us. Sometimes we forfeit some of our freedom to enjoy life when we buy into artificial opportunities to enjoy it more.

Of course, technology isn't the only tool in the shed of dissatisfaction. Emily quickly pointed that out after we began our walk home. She wanted to walk on the street when I told her she had to stay on the sidewalk. She wanted to chase the cat when I told her she couldn't go in someone else's yard. She wanted to enter the house from the front door when I took her in through the garage. Dissatisfaction knows no age.

As a Christian I believe that I am called be content in all things until that day when it will no longer be a struggle. But our culture operates under the assumption that there is a way to be completely satisfied in this lifetime. This is a strong theme in both countries I've lived in. In America it's about achieving satisfaction through money and hard work. In Croatia, I've found that a search for satisfaction usually involves completely strapping oneself to tradition, or totally fighting against it in one way or another.

Regardless of where one lives though, dissatisfaction is a human condition that affects all of us. The cure isn't easy. But I think it begins by practicing thankfulness. Unlike dissatisfaction, thankfulness most often does not come naturally. It's a discipline we have to cultivate - often at those times when it is most difficult. Thankfully, I was reminded of my tendency towards dissatisfaction at a time when I wasn't struggling. It won't always be this way though. There will be more obvious and drastic moments of dissatisfaction in the future.

In the meantime, the best thing I can do is remember this moment in hopes that my mind is more quickly drawn towards thankfulness rather than technology when I'm tempted to want more than that which I've been graciously given.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Where is Croatia?

My college roommates and I were out for dinner 10 years ago when I told them that I was dating a girl from Croatia. "Cro...what?" was the reaction of one of my friends. The others around the table confirmed that even if they knew what Croatia was, they weren't sure where they might find it on the map.

And while it is a relatively small country, in a part of the world where geographical borders have been redrawn often throughout history, it's worth talking about where Croatia is. Because it's not just a geographical question. Where one places Croatia, and how they talk about Croatia, can say a lot about what they think about the country, culture and people who live there.

Kukljica, Croatia 2013
In a post I wrote in the spring, I implicitly included Croatia as part of Eastern Europe. Several commenters took exception. In private conversations, I've talked with Croats who have, without hesitation, maintained that Croatia is indeed part of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Others have adamantly argued that it's not.

So, I'd like to open up this conversation to those who would like to argue from either side. Is Croatia in Eastern Europe? Why or why not? Where are the geographical, ideological borders drawn? Does Croatia's inclusion in the EU change anything?

I'm not sure we'll come to any final conclusions, but I think a civil conversation may help us understand what the issues are. I look forward to hearing from you. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Eight, Eight O Eight

Eight, eight O eight. Eight o clock in the morning. Our lives will never be the same.

Five years since we saw your striking face. Fascinated by your every move.

Three siblings following in their own seasons. Each reacting with their own unique voice. 

Two parents humbled by the grace shown in birth. Both prouder than can be expressed. 

One. Only one Enoh Daniel Bohall. 

Happy Birthday!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Happy Father's Day, Dad

May and June are full of Bohall family milestones; Petra and I just had our fourth child, my parents are about to celebrate their 40th anniversary, and Petra's 30th birthday is in less than a week. As often happens during these times, I've found myself reflecting. Specifically, I've been thinking about what it means to be a husband and a father. Doing so has reminded me of my father.

Obviously, he's taught me a lot of things. But there are two that stand out - especially in light of who and where I am. Ever since I can remember, my father memorized Scripture. Constantly. And he taught me to memorize as well. Besides the church program I was part of, my dad encouraged our family to memorize passages of Scripture together - even prompting me to learn the whole first chapter of Ephesians when I was eight or nine years old.

He also emphasized seeking the Lord's will and allowing God to lead in whatever decisions I made. As I grew up, I witnessed him making difficult choices while constantly trusting the Lord. Constantly.

Dad, you've taught me that being a man isn't as much about being able to make my own decisions as it is about seeking God's wisdom. And in order to do that, you've taught me to go to Scripture first.

Thank you for passing on such invaluable life tools.

I love you, Dad.

Happy Father's Day!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Meet Our Son David Peter

Ten months ago I asked our oldest son Enoh if he would like another little brother or sister.

"Yes,"he responded, "little baby David".

"But how do you know it will be a boy?" I asked.

"Because girls aren't named David." he replied as if there is such a thing as a stupid question.

Then, a couple months later when we found out we were having a baby, Enoh casually reminded us that his name would be David.

While we were still in the States we found out that he would be a boy and wanted to surprise Enoh and Ian with the news over lunch. Enoh wasn't surprised. In fact, he had already decided that David's middle name would be after a character he had been introduced to in preschool - David 'Mad Birds' (as he called it) Bohall.

I'm not even sure those who subscribe to "child led parenting" would go with Enoh's suggestion for a middle name. But we had to consider the first name. After all, King David was considered a man after God's own heart. I grew up hearing that phrase daily as my parents prayed for me to become a man after God's own heart. In turn, Petra and I have continued praying for our children in the same way.

Additionally, we thought it would be appropriate to give our 4th child a family name. His middle name is Peter - reminding us of his mother Petra and her father Peter. A first name decided on by our children, a middle name after his deda along with the Bohall last name seemed a logical way to connect our immediate family to our two extended families.

David Peter Bohall was born at 9:57 pm in Osijek, Croatia on Mother's day. 

Both he and Petra are doing well. 

After each of our children's birth we've been overwhelmed with thankfulness. David is an example of the Lord's incredible mercy - a gift graciously given. We are aware that many have kept us in prayer and we are so thankful for those who supported our family in such an important way before and during Petra's labor. 

The kids were excited to meet their baby brother. Their faces in this picture say it best. Enoh as the oldest brother was certainly the most proud. Emily wasn't sure what to think. And like he is so often, Ian was just plain excited. 

We have been surrounded by friends and family who have celebrated with us by helping with the kids, visiting us in the hospital, giving gifts and sending various forms of congratulations. Thank you! We are truly blessed. 

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Most Important Thing

Many of those who know my wife Petra wonder why her husband is the one with the blog. She is the more opinionated of the two of us, can usually (ok, always) construct a better argument, and she's incredibly creative and dedicated - all characteristics of people who write great blogs.

Well, now there's proof. She was asked to guest write for - a blog whose creator is passionate about helping children fall in love with their Savior. Petra's post is about the most important thing in parenting. It's good. And so is the blog. Take some time to check it out. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Lesson in Humility

The Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Tvrđa, Osijek, Croatia

What do you do when your car isn't where you parked it an hour ago?

That was the question running through my head when I walked out of a traditional Croatian restaurant in the old part of Osijek after a great conversation with good friends. Would this be the first thing I've had stolen in Croatia?

I soon found out it had been towed by a truck called "the spider". I had made the mistake of parking in a clearly designated walking zone. If it hadn't been for the 10 other vehicles parked there when I first arrived I probably would have thought twice about parking there. After explaining the situation to the waiter, he called me a taxi to get to where my car was impounded.

By the time I got there, I was prepared to accept the penalty. Even though it was an honest mistake, there was no denying the fact that I was in the wrong. When the policeman told me how much I owed, I asked if it might be possible to get a written warning. This was, in fact, my first offense since moving to Croatia. Plus, the taxi driver told me they have a policy of giving a warning if the offender is polite. As soon as I asked about this possibility, the police officer acknowledged that they normally give a written warning, and he would be happy to in this case - except for the fact that I'm not a Croat. "Foreigners don't have the right to a warning."

"Oprostite?!" "I don't have the right to a warning!?" I stuttered in Croatian. My willingness to pay for my offense was now off the table. I wanted to know why I didn't have the same rights as others.

I've been here for six years. We've gone through the visa paperwork process over and over and over again. I've taken the language and culture tests. In fact, just that day I had received a notice in the mail that my permanent residence was finally ready. I will be getting a Croatian ID card in a week that probably would have get me out of this mess. I had paid my dues. I deserved a warning like any normal citizen of this country. I have rights!!!

But I lacked the words, the patience or the tact to make a convincing argument. I told them I would wait to pay. I told them I wanted to verify the fact that foreigners don't have the right to a warning. And in all honesty I didn't have the cash on me. Yet the fact was, I was pouting like my three year old.

It was somewhere in the midst of  my sputtering words and ugly thoughts the word 'humility' came to mind.


It was a word that had come up a few times already that day. Maybe that's why it hit me. Or maybe it was just the fact that I was humiliating myself in the worst possible way.

Humility. The kind that presented itself to mankind in the form of a controversial prophet. We are told he was a foreigner with no place to lay his head. It is said of him that he knew no sin. The Bible claims that he humbled himself onto death.

And if we believe what the gospel writers tell us then we know the trial scene was one far less just than we can possibly stomach. It's not that his guilt was accidental. His guilt was non-existent. If we believe the account, Jesus died so we wouldn't have to.

I do believe. So when I think about the cross I am led to awe. Jesus humbled himself because of the numerous times I - and others like me - don't. Christ accepted the consequences of my wrong-doing. The servant suffered for my pride. And we are all offered salvation through the cross he endured.

As a result, I am told to emulate that humility - even (especially) when I'm in front of a triumphant law enforcement official. Theoretical humility isn't humility at all. Humility doesn't become the real thing until the rubber hits the road. Or, in my case, gets towed off the road.

I paid the fine. I finally calmed down. But it took a few hours. In that time I relized that humility doesn't come when we're comfortable at home. It only gets its chance to shine in those dark and difficult moments. I missed my chance that night. And I'll probably miss it again.

As I reflect on the incident, I am reminded of Christ, and my desire to be like him. I realize being a disciple isn't about asserting my rights as a citizen. True humility is about living as a foreigner. Sure, we have victory through Christ's death and resurrection. But his words and his example show us that our triumph is demonstrated to this world through humility. We're told that his strength is made perfect through weakness.

Maybe followers of Christ are never supposed to get over culture shock.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Elevator Parable

"Do you know the difference between Americans and ours (Croats) when it comes to elevators?"

I had just pulled into the new recycling center in Osijek and had begun unloading old plastic milk bottles into the designated bin when the man in charge approached me speaking Croatian. How he knew I was American within two seconds without even talking to me was beyond me. Plus, what in the world does recycling have to do with elevators? It must be joke, I reasoned to myself.

"No, I haven't heard this one before," I responded in Croatian.

He looked at me puzzled. Then resumed:

"Well Americans only get into the elevator if they can maintain their personal space. But Croats will keep filling the elevator until no more can fit..."

I was taken aback. He was absolutely right. He had correctly identified a key distinction between Americans and Croats. But this was a strange setting for a conversation about cultural differences - especially seeing that we hadn't formally met before. This was the first exchange we ever had. What was he trying to say?

I just stood there and waited for him to continue.

"So many people just keep piling the bottles on top of an already full container," he continued.

Then I put it all together. I had just piled my old plastics on top of an already full container. I was guilty of interrupting the order he was in charge of maintaining. In other words, in his parable, I was the individual who committed the crime of stuffing too many things into a small space. I was the person to whom the moral of the story applied. I was the Croat.

Now, in my defense, I placed my recyclables in the container with the removable sign on it. If the sign had been on the empty bin next to it, I would have placed my plastics in that one instead.

But I didn't care to complain. He had just made my day. In my effort to assimilate, this was a moral

I was finally guilty of not being American enough. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

From Culture Shock to Home

A basketball skitters along the gravel driveway prompting a dog to defend himself against the perceived threat. A mower to my right and a weed-wacker to my left provide white noise while the moon balances on a phone line above me. And barbecue, from every direction, reminds me of my former life. This evening could easily be part of a 4th of July weekend in America.

But the air around me, filled with these sensory stimulants, is foreign. Even though I call Croatia home, there are still days like this - days full of effort, hard work, preparation and presentation but void of satisfaction.

It's not always like this. I've received a kind word and a pat on the back before. There have been compliments accompanied by smiles. There have been warm greetings and fond farewells from genuine people. Still, encouragement seldom arrives when I need it most.

Nor do I suppose that America is the land of the carefree or home of the praise. Dreams built up by well-intentioned mentors in elementary school are often dashed by early adulthood. The number of people making a living off of the down-and-out tells us that discouragement is easy to find in the U.S.

But I’ve observed that discouragement is the number one reason why Americans leave Croatia. "No one said 'thank-you' for what I did...” one colleague once told me, "...never, in the two years I was here". Others have offered similar sentiments. Discouragement. Or even more accurately - lack of encouragement.

Having a wife who had pre-existing friendships in the town where we live helped tremendously when I moved here. It's a luxury most Americans don't have when they get off the boat, and a major factor in our decision to live here. I felt welcome immediately. And I still feel welcome.

But it's not the same as being encouraged. Isn't that what we're so used to as Americans?

"Good try!" I offer after one of my baseball players strikes out. I receive a glare. He had just learned that with two strikes, he should swing at anything close to the zone. The compliment seemed as empty as his swing because he had failed. Croats are not accustomed to receiving praise for anything - certainly not effort.  Nor are they penalized for lack of effort though: the results are all that matter.

So when the results are hard to find, the hard work often seems like a waste of time.

Complaining certainly doesn't help. In this case, neither does adaptation. Of course, shades of both are normal reactions to culture shock. But thriving in a second culture doesn't depend on everyone agreeing with how you do things. In dealing with culture shock I've learned that it's important to embrace the positives of my own culture without expecting those around me to do the same. It's a matter of valuing what you bring to the cultural table without devaluing what's already there. I've found that lower expectations bring less disappointment when things are bad and greater joy when they're good.

Of course, effort should be valued and hard work should be encouraged. For those of us with a deep love for Eastern Europe - despite the fact that we are foreigners - this is one of those things we have to offer that can make a difference. It's just that when we require others’ hard work and encouragement for our own happiness, we will often be disappointed.

Sometimes culture shock turns up in the form of a pig at your door on New Years or a dog at your feet during a funeral. But more often, in this part of the world, it settles in underneath the sights, sounds and smells that are familiar. Expectations often determine how difficult the shock will be and how long it will last. What I’ve found is that when those expectations are kept in check, Croatia has a lot of pleasant surprises. In fact, it can become more than just a nice place to vacation. It can become home.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Few of our Favorite Things

It's been awhile since daddy posted. It's been even longer since he let us post. So we'll try to pick up the slack a little.

No, this one doesn't have anything to do with culture shock. If you're looking for a more frequently updated American perspective on Croatia, head over to the zablogreb

For now, here are a few of our favorite things:

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Play the Matching Game

Like most siblings, there are many characteristics Enoh and Ian share.  For example, they both enjoy their evening routines of reading, being carried upstairs and even brushing their own teeth. 

The way they brush their teeth though is a different story. Any idea which toothbrush belongs to which brother? Both toothbrushes were brand new a month ago.

Friday, February 8, 2013

No Man's Land

My head bobbed back to level after bouncing off the tiled wall behind me. The just-woken-up feeling was familiar now after nodding off numerous times throughout the overnight flight over the Atlantic and the drive through Hungary. It had been eighteen hours since we left Boston and a half hour since I had been taken into border control. And I still wasn't sure why I was there.

The official had explained to me that I was the only one in my family who didn't have a Zurich stamp in my passport. They couldn't figure out how I was in the same car as the others, had a ticket that showed I went through Switzerland, but didn't have a stamp. They were determined to get to the bottom of it though. And my family was to wait while they did so.

Soon a police man came out and asked me what my mother's name was. I paused, thinking of several reasons not to tell him - including the fact that the document in which I was to write her name was only in Hungarian and there was no way to be sure that the blank space was really designated for my mother's name. But I wrote her name in anyway. I also wrote my place and date of birth and ultimately cooperated with whatever they asked me to do in their Croatian/English/Hungarian mix despite my grumpy mood. The police man thanked me and went back through the double doors.

A few minutes later the original border patrol official came out and asked exactly what time we landed in Zurich. I wasn't sure but I said that whatever time my wife's passport was stamped was probably the best bet. "But the stamp doesn't include the time", the official said. Stumped, I just said "then I'm not sure." He looked at me as if we had just reached an insurmountable hurdle. I thought about my jet-lagged pregnant wife and three children in the car and looked at him as if he was wasting my time. "I'm sorry", I said to him, "I really don't understand what the problem is." He shuffled back to his office, gun waving in its holster as the door hit his waist.

It was only another five minutes before he walked back in triumph. "We've created a stamp for your passport", he said happily. "Now you and your family are able to pass through the border." Relieved, I collected all the passports and paperwork and headed back to the car. As we drove the short distance between the Hungarian border and the Croatian border I took a look at my passport.

The two stamps on the left page are Hungarian as shown by the H with the European Union circle of stars around it. On the right page is the exit stamp from Hungary and the entrance stamp from Croatia. On each stamp the country is indicated on top and border town on the bottom.

Despite the wait at the border, and the confusion of it all, I'm still proud to have visited such a rare location. I
I can see the t-shirt now: "I visited Zurich, Hungary and all I got was this lousy stamp"

And a blog post. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Home Again

We returned from America exactly a week ago. During our first dinner, Enoh looked around and said "I'm so glad to be home!" Then he sank his teeth into some burek

Apparently the other two agree. Here they dance to their favorite Croatia song by October Light:

Friday, January 11, 2013


A Slovene by birth, my father-in-law isn't very familiar with American jokes. So he was a little taken aback when his Mujo and Haso joke was followed by a:


He paused, thought a little bit and then replied with a hearty grin:

"Come in!"

The house erupted in laughter. "No, Dad, you're supposed to say "who's there?" one of his daughters said. The joke took on a life of its own because it was indicative of the difference between the Yugoslavian culture he grew up in and the American culture he was celebrating Christmas in.

From the meter man to the next door neighbor, in small-town Croatia it doesn't matter who you are - guests are always invited in for coffee. I learned this first-hand during my first year in Croatia.

Even if you don't call ahead of time, your instant host will invite you in as if they'd been expecting you for a week. Then they'll get you out of shoes and into slippers faster than you can say "but I just came over to drop this off." By the time you get out of there, you'll wonder what happened to the previous hour-and-a-half.

Since that first year, I've learned that what probably happened during your stay is that your host neglected their garden, their plan to pick mushrooms or the elderberry flowers they were soaking in order to make juice. Or perhaps they're even late for work or an appointment. It's no exaggeration to say that in small-town Croatia, guests are at the top of any hypothetical list of priorities. Nothing trumps the person at your door. Even if they're a stranger.

So next time someone begins a knock-knock joke, make sure you beat them to the punch line. Because in Eastern Europe someone at your door is no joke.

Monday, January 7, 2013

On Sugar, Guns and Entertainment in America

Our five month stay in New England is drawing to a close. I've had very little time to blog, and even less to articulate any differences between the world I grew up in and the one I live in now. This post is an effort to catch up. Here are a few ways America shocked me this time around.

 Why in the world is there sugar in virtually every food product in this country?

Every time I come to America I go to the doctor for a physical. And every time I see the doctor, I am reprimanded for my high triglyceride level. This time it's happened twice. In fact, according to the  doctor: "if you haven't had a heart attack yet, I guess you probably can afford another 6 weeks to try to get it down without medication."

So I got the message. No red meat. Very few carbohydrates. And no sugar.

I eliminated the sugar from my coffee. I stopped eating desert. But then I realized there's sugar in everything around here - even the healthiest cereals and breads! (Update: No sugar in Ezekiel bread.)

I must admit however, now that I'm counting calories and tracking triglycerides, it's nice to have nutrition facts on the packages of most food products and on the menus of so many restaurants. Being on this diet will be much more difficult to maintain without this handy information once I get back to Croatia.

Guns: Do you realize how crazy so much of the rest of the world thinks our gun laws are?

Just look at the London Times. Or check out how Australia dealt with similar issues. As for Croatia, even though there are numerous veterans dealing with PTSD, many with other mental disorders and just as much video game use, the murder rate is still significantly lower. It's simply much more difficult to find a gun.

Additionally, in a culture where it takes a village to raise a child, it's hard to imagine a young man being so isolated that he would be able to develop a plan to go on a shooting rampage. In fact, as far as I know, it's never happened in Croatia. Isn't it interesting to think that a country ravaged by war 20 years ago is significantly safer than "the land of the free".

Commercials: Why in the world would I waste 30 seconds of my life trying to be convinced to buy something?

That's a question I never asked growing up, but thought about every time I turned on the television or radio during my latest stay in America. In Croatia, there are fewer commercials.The European soccer league doesn't interrupt their matches to advertise. And, as I've mentioned, the weather segment is just that - a humble prediction of how warm it will be or if there will be some sort of precipitation. There's no drama. You sort of get the impression that the television doesn't mind if its channels get changed or even if it gets turned off.

Of course, here I've been scrounging to gain any extra seconds in my day I can possibly find. With four kidsfour classes and last minute things to take care of in America I hardly have time for 180054GIANT or the Geico gecko. In a culture that is so schedule oriented why aren't people protesting the massive waste of time that happens on television, radio and certain video based websites?

My guess is because we love to be entertained. The Duggars, the Daily Show and the divisional playoffs all hold our attention through the breaks because we are dependent. If there's one thing I have been reminded of while here it's been how much America wants (needs?) to be entertained.

Am I wrong?