Croats are a cheerful bunch. They love to party and they do so very often. But if you mix them with other nationals, they are hardly the life and soul of the party.
How can this be?
It’s simple. Croatian people party to bond with people they are already close with. They almost never throw or attend a bash to meet someone new.
In a room full of strangers, a Croat feels out of place, no matter how great the atmosphere is. We are not taught to small talk. And unless we arrive with our own crowd, we’ll probably stand in a corner and look aloof.
The truth is, we’d love if someone came to us and broke the ice.
The same happens if two groups of Croats end up at the same party. Each will linger in their corner and talk only to the people from their own flock.
If you’re a foreigner in Croatia, don’t let this discourage you from having a good time. There are plenty of other travellers and expats who’ll be happy to share a drink.
But to feast like a proper Croat, you’ll need a VIP pass. Actually, all you need is an invitation of a local.
Partying with friends
There’s a good reason why your friendship with a Croat is as golden as a VIP ticket. It comes with an added value: being accepted into a larger group. And once you’re in, the whole group talks to you. Laughs with you. Buys you drinks.
And speaking of ordering drinks, there’s a simple rule you should always follow.
When your Croatian friend picks up the tab, let them pay. Never offer to go Dutch with drinks. This is one of the gravest fouls you could do. It’s better to play dumb and let your friend pay for every round of drinks than to split the bill.
On a regular night out, the reciprocity is calculated at the last orders. A Croat will usually insist on getting the first round, then expect you to follow this me-you rhythm. Even if they end up paying more.
A different system is in place for birthdays.
If you’re British, you’ll fare best if you celebrate your birthday at home. You’ll have all your guests treating you to a drink. Plus, a bagful of presents at the end of the evening.
If you find yourself in Croatia for your birthday, expect a different scenario. Here, the birthday person is the one who pays for everyone’s drinks. Consider this when you’re drafting the invitation list.
You’ll still get presents. But that’s not the point. Croatian people celebrate birthdays to show their generosity. To treat others, not to stock on things from gift lists.
Partying with family
There are certain get-togethers which mark special occasions within a family. Like weddings, christenings, graduations. This doesn’t mean that friends are not invited. Only that slightly different rules of exchange apply.
What does that mean?
While casual partying is all about friends treating each other to drinks and/or food, family feasts revolve around gifts.
Croatian people will go all out with weddings and their children’s rites of passage, such as the first communion or confirmation. You can expect lots of food in smart restaurants and people showing off their best outfits.
The more lavish the party, the bigger the gift is called for. Even if some people opt for more intimate party set ups, the gifts should be grand.
Child births and christenings are usually sealed with gold. It’s incredible how much jewellery a tiny new-born can receive in the first three months of their life.
Couples use a simple calculation when planning their nuptials. The cost of the wedding party must never exceed the value of the gifts they’ll receive.
There’s also a hierarchy of gifts. The closer you are to the celebrator, the more you will want to give.
I noticed how deep this custom ran when a close friend of mine was getting married. We both lived in London at the time. I was a student, barely making ends meet.
When I sealed a 50 pound note inside an envelope – this was my gift – I felt embarrassed. I wanted to give at least ten times more, which is a typical value of a wedding gift to a close person.
My British friends assured me the amount was more than fitting. In London maybe. But in Croatia, we go all out with presents too.
To check if your wedding gift to a Croat is appropriate, follow this simple gauge. If it can buy a principal house appliance, like a fridge or a washing machine, you’re on the right track.
Bringing presents to a party
Small birthday presents, large wedding gifts – this all may sound confusing. So let’s solve the riddle.
We already learned that Croats love to party. Birthday celebrations are never skipped. And in a large family, this means we are making merry all year round.
Then there are no special occasion dinner parties when we just want to hang out.
If you get invited to such casual parties, your present can be informal too. Maybe just a token of appreciation, like flowers or a box of chocolates.
It can also be something funny. If your Croatian friend is about to travel to the UK, you could get them an umbrella. Of a pair of flip-flops if they’re off to Thailand.
But all this changes with once-in-a-lifetime kind of celebrations. Those that mark important changes in a person’s life.
This is why wedding gifts are so big. And not only in size. They should be useful to the newly-weds, help them make a great start.
Now imagine attending a large wedding party with 200 invitees or more – which is not uncommon in Croatia. What would happen if everyone bought a fridge? And keep in mind that we don’t do gift lists here.
That’s why meaningful presents come in an envelope. So people can choose how best to use the gifted amount.
Believe me, giving money as a wedding or a graduation gift is way more personal than it seems. Your Croatian friend will love you for giving them the freedom to choose what they need most.
Now you are ready to get festive with Croats. Just remember to take turns paying for the drinks. And don’t mix up small and big presents.
About Andrea Pisac
Andrea Pisac is a writer and cross-cultural expert. She writes about everyday ordinary life in Croatia from an extraordinary perspective on her award-winning blog Zagreb Honestly. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.