In Istria, English comes fourth

“Scheiße!” Davos said to us when he looked at our blown-out tire. And then, for good measure, “Mamma mia!”.

We’d been in Croatia barely 24 hours, staying overnight in Zagreb before heading westward toward the region of Istria, which borders Italy and Slovenia and juts into the Adriatic Sea. After a day of touring and eating and wine-tasting – this was a food-oriented fam trip, after all – we were driving along a dark country highway toward the lovely Hotel Lone in Rovinj when we swerved onto the shoulder to avoid an oncoming car that had veered into our lane to cut a corner. Except there was no shoulder – there was a curb. And a loud noise. And then our little rental Mercedes limped toward a pull-out lane and came to a stop.


A call to the hotel led to a call to roadside assistance – perfect English, and yes, ma’am, you can claim a refund from CAA – and we waited until a tow truck appeared to help us change the tire. (Try as we might, we hadn’t been able to get it loose.) And our new friend Davor, who emerged, saw the damage and realized we were Anglo, abandoned Croatian and went straight for his German and Italian in an attempt to communicate.

Of course, I would never expect someone to speak my language just for the privilege of changing my tire. And luckily, my rusty Croatian was adequate to the task of negotiating a payment in dollars, since we had neither Euros nor Croatian kuna on hand. But it was a useful example of day-to-day language use in Istria, a region that was part of Italy before the Second World War, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before that, and long ago part of the Venetian Republic, and which nowadays is functionally Croatian-Italian bilingual with enough German and Austrian tourists (besides the Italians) to make German an important language of business. Croatians don’t dub their imported entertainment, they subtitle it, which means exposure to a ton of spoken colloquial English through movies and TV. But in Istria, unlike elsewhere, that English doesn’t seem to be quite as important as other languages.

The Italian minority population in Istria sits at about 12 percent, according to Antonio, our guide earlier that day, who himself is of Istrian Italian descent. There are Italian schools in the region, which he said are funded by the Italian government. Signage in Istria is bilingual, you’ll hear both Italian and Croatian in stores and on the street, and the cuisine also betrays the mixed influences of the region. And in some towns, the Italian population is significantly higher: in Buje, for instance, which we visited briefly, the Italian population reaches 40 percent, according to this interesting Wikipedia article on the history of Istrian Italians. Many towns even have two names: Motovun, for example, a little old town on top of a hill that begs you to use the word quaint, is called Montona in italiano, and is known not just for its truffles (but do go there for the truffles), but for being the birthplace of none other than Mario Andretti.


What’s the point of all this, besides interest’s sake? Never assume you’re learning some phrases in a language just to travel to that language’s country, if such a thing exists. Languages don’t have neat little borders like you see on a map – a language is a political and social construct, not necessarily a functional one. And whether it’s because of local multilingualism or simply foreign language learning, you never know when and where that smattering of German or Italian will come in handy.

So if you run into Davos, tell him guten tag for me.

All photos by Kat Tancock; from top: the town of Rovinj; signs in Rovinj; Mario Andretti’s birthplace in Motovun

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