First, fill out a contract seven times. This is not a lucky number. It’s just fact. The first two you will fill out in the house of your uncle, but they will be wrong because they include a piece of land you have changed your mind about. The next two you fill out in a cafe, but they are wrong because you have the buyer and seller the wrong way around. Five and six are sacrifices to the gods. The seventh time you manage to fill everything out correctly and only need one copy because everyone is suddenly reminded of the existence of photocopiers.
Next, in the midst of all this form-filling, panic that you have no idea what’s going on and nobody is bothering to explain it to you in even the most basic Croatian or hand gestures.
Stand up abruptly and leave the table, muttering words in no language that you actually know, and phone your drinking buddy who you remember is not just an alcoholic but also a lawyer. He will explain the exact process you will need to go through, which sounds suspiciously and stupefyingly simple, for this nutty bureaucracy-loving country. He will be brushing his teeth during this conversation.
Next, stop at a cafe for a drink. The seller and your cousin will order coffee and smoke cigarettes, and you will smash a beer, although it’s only 8am.
Visit the public notary, who at first refuses to deal with you because she thinks you don’t understand Croatian. She will throw the contract on the counter and say words to the effect of, I cannot possibly provide any advice to someone who doesn’t speak the language. You will, in your best Croatian, slowly explain that you do understand but that you are very tired because you have been working since midnight. You do not mention the 8am beer. She relents and looks over the contract.
An intriguing stumbling block emerges when it turns out that neither you nor the seller are resident in Croatia. The notary has never seen anything like this before. Fortunately, your passport proves your unequivocal citizenship. The seller, however, only has a Slovenian ID card. He explains with much hand waving just how far back his Croatian roots go and in which village he was born and yes he lives now in Slovenia with his Slovenian wife but he’s more Croatian than god for god’s sake and eventually he must sign some sort of declaration to that effect to appease the notary.
For reasons that are never clear, you wind up paying for this declaration.
Finally, the contract is in order. The notary notarises it. You sign a book saying that you have visited the notary. She congratulates you and you say hvala in a daze. It reminds you of the time you got your citizenship, just an A4 piece of paper that was handed to you over an office counter. “This is it?” you said at the time, wondering that it had taken almost a year to get this chit of a thing. “Yes,” the embassy clerk had said. “Oh. Congratulations.”
She did smile, that day in the embassy. When she realised. You do remember that.
So here you are with your notarised contract, and let’s keep in mind that you haven’t actually paid for this cottage yet. You sent a deposit, entirely on trust, and now here is the owner, handing his ownership to you, also entirely on trust. You tell him you’ll wire the money as soon as possible.
But first you go down to the land court where a woman who looks like a schoolteacher takes your passport and the contract and sticks them in a folder. She hands you a slip, telling you to pay 250 kuna at the post office, which you go and do, and when you come back she gives you back your passport but keeps one copy of the contract. It’s hers now, apparently, or rather it now belongs to the land court, and she labels the manila folder and looks very pleased.
“Is that all?” you ask your cousin, because here in Croatia you can’t do anything without at least one cousin in attendance.
“That’s all,” he says, lighting a cigarette. “I thought it would take longer.”
“So did I,” says the former-owner, and nobody is stupefied by the fact that over the course of 90 minutes you have become the owner of a shitty rundown cottage at the top of a hill in the middle of nowhere in Croatia.
And because this is Croatia, you stop for a celebratory drink, although it’s only 10:30 and you have been up since midnight and haven’t eaten for 20 hours and this is now your second (and, let’s face it, shortly your third) beer of the morning, in a smoke-filled bar at the bottom of that very hill on the top of which sits your new house (let’s face it, your very, very old house).
You buy the first round, because you are the buyer, but the second round gets away from you, in fact the whole day just seems to be getting away from you, except for one solid irrefutable unbelievable fact.
You now own a cottage in Croatia.