The Power of Perspective
A life I built over five and a half months crumbled in three days.
Like most Fulbright ETAs, the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly ended my grant in Croatia and forced me to return to the United States. I scrambled to say goodbyes, close bank accounts, clean my house, and pack. I visited my advisor, Ivana, to say a last goodbye to her family. I brought an American football for her nine-year old son and taught him how to throw. “That was fun!” he shrieked, “When can we do this again?” I meekly smiled back at him, “we’ll find a time.” The pain was overwhelming.
Now that I’ve returned to the US, I’ve had a chance to reflect on my Fulbright grant. I think that the most valuable aspect of my experience was a series of lessons I learned during my time in Croatia that illuminated different perspectives.
Unfamiliarity characterized the beginning of my Fulbright experience. I applied for a position in a region I knew nothing about (the Balkans), in a country I had never visited (Croatia). I was then placed in the agrarian eastern part of the country (Slavonia), in the city of Osijek. Most literature on the Balkans is written by foreigners and muffles locals’ voices. That’s why, in Osijek, I searched for personal perspective. I wanted to learn about Croatia primarily through conversations with Croatians. I set off on my Fulbright ETA grant as a student disguised as a teacher.
My first lesson was Slavonia’s self-image. When locals discovered that I was an American, they often asked the same question: “Why?” While Americans might ask this question politely, Croatians asked me caustically, implying “Why would you ever want to come here…?” Most assumed I had come to Croatia believing I would live on the Dalmatian coast, but was deceivingly sent to Osijek. “Absolutely not!” I’d assert, a little shaken that they weren’t entirely wrong. I explained that I actually was very happy with my placement. Since I wanted to develop a better understanding of Croatia, I genuinely enjoyed living in Osijek because I was able to see how Croatians lived outside of the country’s touristy regions.
I learned that because Croatians are often emigrants—with large diasporic communities in Germany, Austria, Ireland, and America—someone voluntarily contradicting this trend was baffling. Slavonians regularly complained about Croatia’s weak economy, massive brain-drain, and corrupt government. This image of Croatia differs greatly from how many Americans see the country—as pristine beaches and the shooting location of Game of Thrones—and was an eye-opening experience for me. To Croatians who actually cope with the hardship of living in Croatia, touring the country was one thing, but choosing to live here—and not even on the beach!—was insane.
The next lesson I learned was Croatians’ understanding of time. While Americans obsess over productivity and efficiency, Croatians value socializing. Early in my grant, I had coffee with some of my students from the university where I taught. I drank the espresso in five minutes, chatted for fifteen more, and then got up to leave. “Pomalo,” (slang for “relax”) they said, “What’s the big rush?” An hour and a half later, they were all still on the same coffee and we were all still chatting. Spending large portions of the day unwinding with friends and family is Croatia’s national pastime.
As an American raised on phrases such as “time is money,” I never was able to fully adopt Croatians’ ability to relax. Conversely, a common Croatian idiom is “tko to može platit,” or roughly translated, “Who can pay for this?” A more comprehensive translation might read as “No one could put a price on how great this experience is.” This phrase describes invaluable, outwardly unproductive moments when the speaker is particularly relaxed, likely on a beach with a coffee and a cigarette. I asked my friend who taught me this phrase if it applies to family moments, like watching your kid walk for the first time. “No,” she shrugged with a smile, “someone could pay me to miss that.” According to my Osijek friends, relaxing is true happiness; money is only a means to achieve this goal.
My next lesson was historical context and occurred unexpectedly. I got coffee with my advisor on my last day in Osijek. She thought that I was making the right decision to leave. Hand-rolling her cigarette, she told me “You don’t know what a crisis looks like—what food shortages and economic uncertainty is—but we do. This is not something you want to experience.” She was referring to the brutality that Osijek endured during the Yugoslav War in the 1990s, and she made me think about how hard life has been at certain times for Slavonians.
I placed myself in my region’s timeline. I tried to imagine a scenario in which Osijek was my actual home. Where a disease had decimated the population and livestock, or a foreign army was invading, or an authoritarian government was rising to power—all of which had happened in Osijek.
As I considered the hardships Slavonians endured over the past hundreds of years, my own situation did not seem so dire. Historical contextualization gave me a different perspective to see my own circumstances. Instead of lamenting the shortening of my grant, I began to appreciate how phenomenal my Fulbright had been up until the pandemic.
And this leads to the ultimate lesson that I learned in Croatia: every aspect of my grant offered me a new perspective. I am immensely grateful for the inimitable five and a half months Fulbright provided me. The early termination of my grant does not diminish the value of this past year. As an ETA, I immersed myself in Osijek and absorbed all the lessons the city had to offer. My experiences from this past year are not simply negated because I am now here and not there; they stay with me as valuable lessons, indelible marks that will forever enhance my perspective.
Fulbright ETA Croatia 2019-2020