Sara Dyson grew up in Texas and moved to Split, Croatia, in 2012. Like many pioneer expats, she found the early going challenging, with little in the way of English language resources for foreigners wanting help with their relocation to Croatia. So she decided to share her own journey in order to assist others in a similar situation. Her website, Expat in Croatia, was born in 2013 with the primary purpose of charting her progress though all manner of residential bureaucracy and the discovery of the essentials and luxuries necessary for foreigners to thrive in Croatia. The website quickly became an authoritative, must-have resource for all foreigners looking to live the dream in Croatia and Sara herself is also available to give personalised expert guidance for those needing to fast-track their move or simply wanting more reassurance and detailed advice.
Sara refers to various key website posts in the interview. Direct links to these posts can be found at the end.
1. Please could you tell us a little of the background to your move to Croatia and why you chose Split?
I always wanted to live in Europe. As a young child, I was obsessed with the cultures of Greece, France and the UK. I just knew in my gut that Europe was the continent I was meant to live on. Long before visiting, there was something about it that felt like “home”.
I lived in Amsterdam from 2008 to 2009, until the Netherlands told me to leave. I was an American with no rights there, after all. So I retreated back to the US to regroup.
In 2011, while planning my first holiday to Italy, I came across an obscure blog post in the bowels of the internet that put Croatia on my radar. This American couple took a 10 day kayaking trip from Opatija down to Dubrovnik, camping on little islands (some inhabited, some not) all the way. At the time, I knew nothing of Croatia.
In their post, they admitted that Italy had been their plan too, but at the last minute they decided to go to Croatia instead. They found Croatia to be more beautiful and cheaper, with nicer people and better food than Italy.
After reading that, I started researching Croatia obsessively. The more I learned, the more I was intrigued. In the end, I skipped Italy entirely and instead spent 10 days in Croatia. The next year, I was ready to try my luck at moving back to Europe.
I had wanted to return to Amsterdam, but I couldn’t get a sponsor and it had grown egregiously expensive since I left. The next best choice was Croatia. While I knew nobody there, had no family ties and didn’t know squat about their bureaucracy, I figured I’d give it a shot. If it didn’t work out, it’d be a long vacation. If it did, hooray! Nearly nine years later, I’m still here with no plans of leaving.
When I committed to moving, Split was my default. I didn’t consider another city even for a moment. It’s not too big, it’s not too small. I would find out later, it’s more like a village. The sea is just glorious. You can walk the entire circumference of Split and be near the sea the whole time. Diocletian’s Palace is jaw-dropping to me, even now. When I run mundane errands and swivel through narrow stone alleys, I still have the thought “Am I really here?”.
2. What, for you, has been the hardest part about living in Croatia and what surprised you by being much easier than you thought it would be?
The hardest part about living in Croatia is being so far away from my family and friends in the US. There is a misconception that when we move abroad, it somehow means that we care about the people we left behind less, or that we somehow care about traveling more. That’s not it, at least not for me.
I believe we all fit in somewhere, and I know that Split is where I fit in. Unfortunately the place where I found my home is 6,000 miles away from people I care about very much. Some of them I only see in person every two to four years. This year has been especially challenging. The longer I’m here, the more unsettling that feeling becomes as I know I’ll inevitably miss critical moments. In likely a fruitless effort, I’ve been working on everybody I love to move to Croatia with the enthusiasm of a used car salesman.
Healthcare is much easier than I thought it would be. I have become a pretty big fan of universal healthcare. I won’t say there haven’t been some scary moments, but on the whole, it puts America to shame. If I want to have a physical, I just email my doctor and she writes the order – and it’s 100% covered.
Prescriptions are electronically transmitted to the pharmacy within five minutes. Most medication is free. The dental practice I go to is the nicest, cleanest and most modern doctor’s office I’ve ever seen in my life. Even without dental insurance (which is rare here), it only costs 350 kuna ($56) for a teeth cleaning with free x-rays.
There are a lot of horror stories out there about Croatian healthcare, but I personally know people who’ve had major successes within the system. Cancer was cured, backs were fixed, hips were replaced, and knees were repaired. It is very comforting to live in a country where I know that if something major were to happen to my health, I wouldn’t go broke dealing with it.
3. Do you find the Croatian Institutions and agencies generally helpful and appreciative of the assistance you are offering and how easy has it been to get the information you need from all the various government bodies and agencies.
I’m not sure I’m on the radar of the Croatian government. I know my resources have helped a lot of people battle the bureaucracy here with ease, which has indirectly made the lives of those working for the government easier as a result. I know people have specifically chosen to move to Croatia because of my resources, which has brought income into the country.
HDZ, the country’s leading political party, cites my post on political parties as a source on their Wikipedia page, which is wacky. Raiffeisen Bank has been giving out my guide on how to apply for an OIB [see link below] to their customers, which I think is pretty cool.
Many Croatians think I’m nuts for creating a job out of demystifying their bureaucracy. They are not wrong. It’s a daily Sisyphean struggle, but I think you have to be a little bonkers to do this every day. To me, it’s fascinating to learn how this whole system works. I really do enjoy peaking behind the curtain, and then sharing what I find.
I must give a big dose of credit to Marija Tkalec, my copywriter. She is the one that bothers HZZO, MUP, Porezna uprava and a dozen other ministries on a daily basis. She is the one that gets tossed around from department to department, asking endless questions of people who do not know the answer. I am grateful every day that she exists and has the patience to be on this fantastic, oddball journey with me.
Information often has to be dragged out of the government, and even then, it is often released in a non-descript, sometimes confusing trickle. There have been lots of posts we haven’t published because we can’t get that last 20% of the information we need to make a complete picture. It has always been my goal to offer all the information someone would need to make a decision or accomplish a task. That is not always possible in Croatia. We keep a very high standard for our content and if a post isn’t ready, then it doesn’t go live.
Yes, there has been. Over the last two-ish years, Croatia has allowed non-EU citizens to live in Croatia for one year if they prepay rent for the entire term. This has allowed a significant number of digital nomads (as well as retirees) to come to Croatia, who could not come before.
With the introduction of the digital nomad residence permit [see link to post below] in 2021, there will be an even larger influx. Croatia has also introduced a residence permit for 2021 specifically for people with Croatian heritage that do not yet have citizenship. Croatia is doing all they can to get the diaspora to move to Croatia, and it appears to be slowly working.
The type of expats is changing too. For a long time, the expat community was predominantly comprised of students, seasonal workers, retirees and entrepreneurs. It has not been easy for people to get legal residence and then make a life here. With the introduction of these new permits, I think we’ll see big changes in the types of people that come as well as the volume. Whether that is a good thing is yet to be seen.
5. In terms of day to day living and working for expats, how have things changed in the eight years you’ve been in Croatia?
Getting work has always been a challenge for expats since I’ve lived here, predominantly due to the language barrier, significant salary discrepancy and work quotas.
Most foreigners who do work in Croatia, work seasonally in the tourism sector on boats, in bars, and on pub crawls. Some Croatian companies pay them under the table, avoiding paying them benefits and having to get permission to hire them. It is much easier to get a job in tourism as long as you speak English.
With the elimination of work quotas in 2021, there may be a slight uptick in hiring foreigners but I think it will be negligible. The language barrier is still there and many foreigners don’t want to work for Croatian salaries.
With regards to daily life, that has changed significantly. When I first got here, there were no expat Facebook groups (now the hub of all social activity). Many of the restaurants and bars in the Split city center did not exist. When I say they didn’t exist, I mean nothing existed in those spaces. They were abandoned and unused. It was a lot quieter and harder to meet people.
About 18 months after I got here, the first Expats in Split group was started. Now there are 17 expat groups in Split and more than 60 across Croatia [see link to post below]. It makes it very easy to make friends and find your tribe, but also get help if you need it. Combine that with sunny four-hour coffees on the Adriatic Sea, and you’ve got paradise.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the downside to these groups. While they do offer a lot of positives, they can also be a cesspool of negativity and infighting. The expat community has also adopted a Croatian-style gossip mill, but I guess that’s just a sign that people are assimilating. Unfortunately, this causes its own kind of chaos that can sometimes stifle good intentions and drain the life out of us.
I encourage any new addition to these groups to take everything with a grain of salt.
6. Do you consider Croatia home now and what do you miss most about Texas? What would you miss most about Croatia if you went back to Texas?
Croatia has been home from the very beginning. When I leave Croatia, I get homesick. Hell, I get homesick the moment I start a journey to go anywhere. The moment I leave my house, or see Split pass by through a bus window as I head to the airport, I ache.
I won’t ever move back to Texas. Honestly, I won’t ever move back to the US. I have permanent residence in Croatia now, so I never have to. Someone would have to drag me kicking and screaming out of here.
That being said, there are things I miss about Texas. Aside from my family and friends that I already mentioned, I miss the food. I miss brisket and tacos and queso and enchiladas and chips and salsa and proper margaritas and stuffed jalapenos.
I also miss Texas grandiosity. Everything is truly bigger. I know it may sound like I don’t like Texas given that I don’t ever want to live there again, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I own more than 25 Texas t-shirts and hoodies. I have a Texas tattoo. I have Texas paraphernalia all over my house. I am a proud Texan through and through.
Let’s say hypothetically I did move back. The thing I would miss most about Croatia is the community. I love that I run into people I know every time I leave the house. I love that everyone in my neighborhood knows me, regardless of whether or not I know them. I love that my produce guy calls me “hobotnica” and that the butcher lights up when he sees me. I know that if I ever need help, I could ask anyone and they would help me in a heartbeat whether they knew me or not.
The community around me in Croatia is like a big bear hug. I’ve lived in Texas, Florida, California and New York. In all of those places, neighbors were always suspicious of each other. They had no desire to know me, or say hi to me, or help me if I needed it. They felt like very lonely places.
In Croatia, you don’t have to be lonely if you don’t want to be. You can meet someone for coffee with 20 minutes notice easily. There is always someone up for a coffee.
7. You take great care over your website and I see you even get a lawyer to check the content as well as being able to network followers with vetted lawyers across the country. How would you compare the Croatian legal system, and its exponents, with that of, say, Texas?
Oh gosh, that’s a hard one. I have significantly more experience with the legal system in Croatia than I ever did in the US, which is a shocking notion.
There is a compelling difference that is worth noting. Croatian lawyers are severely restricted when it comes to advertisement. For this reason, most lawyers don’t have web sites. When I refer my readers out to the vetted lawyers in my network, some of them are initially sceptical. They say, “Well, I googled this lawyer and didn’t find anything”. Yep, because they can’t advertise and that’s a good thing.
On the opposite extreme, you have Texas (and America as a whole) where lawyers can advertise anywhere, at any time and say anything they want. Whenever I go back to Texas, I’m confronted with nonstop lawyer commercials that I totally forgot existed.
8. I watched the video interview with Dobro Jutro Hrvatska on your website and was impressed to see that it was conducted fluently in Croatian. Could you tell us about your journey with the Croatian language and where you aspire to be?
I aspire to be fluent. I’m not sure that is even possible. Croatian has so much nuance that it seems impossible to ever learn it 100%. Dalmatian is practically a foreign language in Zagreb. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of dialects in Croatia. Some specific to counties, islands, cities, towns and even neighborhoods.
I have struggled a lot with this language. Not everyone excels at learning languages, and I’m one of those people. I’ve learned quite a bit, and am still learning, but it’s a daily challenge. I need fair warning before someone is going to start speaking to me in Croatian, and even then I have a hard time processing what someone is saying. It takes me a long time to put sentences together. Sometimes sparks fly out of my ears.
I’m pretty decent at writing Croatian, predominantly because I can take my time and think it through. If I’m put on the spot, I clam up and forget everything I’ve learned in eight years.
Something I’ve talked about on Expat in Croatia is my struggle with social anxiety. Learning a new language as difficult as Croatian is already a challenge. Couple that with anxiety and it can be paralyzing. There have been countless days when I haven’t left the house to accomplish simple tasks due to my self-induced panic of having to speak Croatian to strangers. Thankfully, those occurrences are much more rare these days.
I’ve had to overcome a lot of fear out of pure survival. I don’t understand how anyone can live here long term without learning this language. Maybe three years ago now, I remember ordering my first pizza completely in Croatian over the phone. Even in the US, speaking to a stranger over the phone would throw me into uneasiness. It was a giant milestone for me on multiple levels.
To be honest, I’m grateful for the Croatian language as well as Croatians for their endless patience and support. It’s helped me work through the intense anxieties I’ve suffered my whole life more so than any therapy ever could. I’m a stronger person for it.
9. When you are writing posts for your website, what’s your favourite subject/heading and why?!
Most of our posts are procedural guides on bureaucracy. They tend to be straightforward and honest but without editorial.
But, on occasion, I write a blog post that is filled with my perspective, thoughts and feelings about a topic. Sometimes I just get a lightning bolt of random inspiration, and sometimes I’m honoring some special occasion like my Cro-anniversary or Expat in Croatia’s birthday or the end of the year. Those are always my favorite posts, because I can write freely from my heart. They also tend to be the most popular posts too.
My favorite post of all time [link below – “Sara’s favourite post…”] was born from one such lightning strike. I wrote it in a steady stream of consciousness, all in one gulp. Incidentally, it was inspired by the Split expat group.
Oh, Istria is my absolute favorite. Specifically north-central Istria around Motovun, which is full of hill-top villages, rolling vineyards and truffle-filled forests. It still feels off-the-beaten-track to me. It’s certainly far away from cruise ships. Not only is it quiet and unpopulated and absolutely gorgeous, there is a huge concentration of fabulous restaurants peppered throughout the countryside. My best dining experiences have all been in Istria. Whenever I want to get away and hide in the woods, Istria is where I go.
One of my favorite food/cultural discoveries is Skradinski rižot. It’s a special occasion risotto that is only made in the town of Skradin. I always have it at La Cantinetta [see link below], but there is a catch. It is only made in very large batches for parties of 30 or more. If you wish to go with a small party, it needs to be around the same time they have a reservation for a big party so they can set some aside for you. The last three times I’ve contacted them to arrange it, they didn’t have any big parties so no Skradin risotto for Sara. If given the chance, it’s an eating event that should not be missed.
11. What direction will you and your website be heading in over the next few years?!
Oh man, I’ve got BIG plans. I need to clone myself so I can do them all. The only thing holding me back is time. Marija, my copywriter, just came on full time this month (but she’s been with me since June 2019). I’m also in the process of hiring a full-time coordinator to join our team. Once we add our third person, I know we will be able to do some truly kick ass stuff in 2021.
Over the last year, we’ve started focusing a lot more on cultural nuance as well as language. Helping people assimilate so they don’t feel like outsiders is really important to me. I want to dive a lot deeper into those areas. I have lists on top of lists of new things I want to try on Instagram. This channel still feels new to me and it’s been really fun to explore and try new things this past year. I know there is a lot of potential to connect with more people that way and I have a gazillion ideas.
Ultimately, I want to be the go-to resource for any foreigner living in Croatia, no matter how long they are here. We have some new services in the works to better aid our audience and make their lives easier.
Eventually, I would love to work hand-in-hand with the government at some point, but I think that’s a way off. For now, we will keep building, keep going deeper, and keep helping people to the best of our ability.
I’m so grateful to every one single person who follows Expat in Croatia. I still can’t believe this is my job. I just love talking about Croatia all day.
12. Where can we find out more?
Subscribe to Tuesday newsletter: https://mailchi.mp/expatincroatia.com/signup
And Below Are The LInks To Posts That Sara Refers To In The Text: