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.