Living in another country is one of the best ways to experience shifts in perception. This week marked the end of my time with a group of American students visiting Croatia on a study abroad trip. During the duration of their visit I went from feeling more like a Croatian and less like an American to feeling all that in reverse.
Spending time with a large group of Americans, who know zero Croatian is a good way to boost your self-esteem, and to think you know Croatian really well. It’s kind of like when I watched the French film, Amiele. Reading the subtitles, I heard French, understood what was being said (from reading the subtitles), and then for a bit I thought knew French better than I did. Because actually, I don’t know French at all.
Another boost of delusion to my Croatian skills involved a not very clever disguise. See, like a chameleon when I’m placed with a group of Americans, or in the sea of tourists flooding Dubrovnik or Split, most everyone believes I too am a tourist. And then I say something in passable Croatian… and *Poof* the illusion dissipates like a cloud, revealing before the eyes of the waitress, the ticket seller, the woman in the kiosk a bona fide son-in-law of Croatia, a hrvatski zet, equipped with mildly humorous anecdotes about punica, his mother-in-law.
In these moments it is as if my Croatian cuts through the English babble of the masses like a hot knife through butter. I easily get the attention of the waiter, I take everyone’s drink orders and tell her what the group will have. I feel as if I’m C3P0, translating and engaging in protocol like a finely tuned machine. Of course it’s not just my Croatian that helps, it’s also me knowing how to order the version of coffee that best approximates American expectations. Psst: It’s bijela kava.
Us and them
I talk with the waitress, make a joke to the guy behind the ice cream counter, and I talk to the maitre d’ about how ‘these’ Americans don’t like fish with their heads still attached and the bones inside. I begin saying ‘we’ and ‘us’ when speaking with Croatians. Heck I’m feeling so Croatian I just might be personally related to Ante Starčević himself!
And then the Americans go. I watch them, a cluster of stuffed, fat backpacks, basketball shorts, pulled up sports socks, and caps graced with Greek letters, pass through security at the airport. And I’m alone. Without the mirror of their inexperience reflecting back my expertise, I’m no longer the Euro-savvy, cultural liaison I had been moments before. Now I’m just another foreigner at the airport who doesn’t know where to catch the bus.
I walk into a shop and ask where the bus is. I feel my awkward, inarticulate, grammatically clunky Croatian come falling out of my mouth. I feel completely and utterly exposed. My disguise is transparent, and obvious. In a matter of minutes I’ve gone from feeling nearly Croatian back to feeling completely American. But rather than pout, I’m pleased that I get to experience such quick shifts of identity. And I hope that in such moments, when we navigate different personas, we get closer to understanding who we really are.