If you’re anything like me, you scrutinize the little glossary of “useful” words and phrases provided at the back of most guidebooks while jetting through the skies toward your next destination. I always like to know how to say a little something. And after mastering please and thank you, I’m usually game to try a little something more. Without fail, though, these lists of words seem to jump from “hello” to “Could you point me in the direction of the nearest dry cleaner, please?”
I give up.
Even after taking Croatian language courses, I found that I still lacked useful expressions that make plain getting around a little easier. But after living in Zagreb full time for a few weeks, I picked up a few that are so simple they just beg to be shared.
Samo malo – just a little. I suppose this could be a useful phrase if you are, for example, staying in private accommodation and your generous host offers you some homemade rakija. “Samo malo,” you could say, but you’ll definitely sound like a tourist and your host will just ignore you. (Just a little rakija? As if.) When the expression really comes in handy is on a crowded bus or tram, or in any type of crowd, really. In Zagreb, people have the inexplicable habit of planting themselves firmly in front of the tram doors, even if they have no intentions of disembarking at the next stop.
For a while, I couldn’t figure out how to get them to move. Pushing always works, and for plenty of people this is the modus operandi, but I usually like to accompany such a brusque gesture with an explanatory word or two. You’ll read, as I did, that oprostite means “excuse me.” It does. But it’s used as more of an introduction to a question or an apology than a polite way of asking someone to step aside. At any rate, whenever I said it people just turned to look at me instead of getting out of my way.
Then, one day, I had a revelation. I was standing on the tram, and a girl behind me said, gruffly, “samo malo.” I was momentarily confused. I didn’t understand why she was using this phrase. Then she said it again, louder, and pushed toward the door. In this context, I realized, “just a little” actually means “move the heck over a smidge so I can get on my way.”
Samo gledam – I’m just looking. This phrase, the most phrasebooky of the four I’ll give you, is pretty self-explanatory, but it’s something I often use, and often multiple times a day. You enter a shop in Croatia, and immediately someone asks if they can help you. “Samo gledam.” Enough said. Tack on a hvala (“thank you”) if you’re feeling polite.
Moze – multiple meanings. This strange word has become one of the most important in my transition from American girl who speaks really awkward textbook Croatian to American girl who can at the very least smoothly make purchases in Croatian. The fact is, though, this word is everywhere. In one sense, it means “okay” or “sure.” Wanna go stuff ourselves with Croatian chocolate? Moze. It also means “can,” as in, “He can eat an entire cauldron of frog leg and eel brodet in one sitting.”
Another meaning, the one that has changed my life, might be related, but I’m not a linguist and I don’t want to bore you with grammar. It is basically used as an introduction to something you want – a sub for “could I have” or “I’d like,” for example. It’s not nearly as proper or polite, but everyone seems to use it. If you’re at a café, you can order a coffee by simply saying, “Moze kava.” If you’re at the grocery store and you need a shopping bag, “Moze vrecica.” At the market and you see some delicious-looking apples you want to take on your adventures in Paklenica that afternoon? “Moze pola kile” and you’ve got yourself a half-kilo.
Side note: if you want to say something more polite when ordering that’s still not full-blown textbook Croatian, you can say Ja bih kavu. That means “I would [like] a coffee.”
Nista, hvala – nothing, thank you. Like samo gledam, “nothing, thank you” is a good phrase to know when someone hopes to sell you goods you don’t intend to buy. It’s also an appropriate response to cashiers or market vendors who have just asked if you would like anything else (Jos nesto?)?
Sorry – sorry. Okay, so maybe this one seems too obvious to even be here, but it wasn’t in my phrasebooks. It’s probably not in yours, either, but there might be a couple of other much more complicated options. Sorry works just as well in Croatian as it does in English, at least for simple mistakes in passing, like stepping on someone’s foot as you get off the tram or bumping into someone while absent-mindedly snapping photographs. The only difference is in pronunciation, but people should be able to understand you even if you yell it out in your own accent.
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