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It started as a joke…and now they want to stay longer!

Nikolina Kukoč

Nikolina Kukoč

10.05.2022.

Marie-Hélène and Louis-Michel came to Split in late September 2021 from Quebec City, Canada. We met them at one of the Locals’n’Nomads meetups they attended and would now like you to meet them, too.

That’s why we had a chat with them about what they do for a living, their life in Split, and the digital nomad experience in Croatia. The first thing we were curious about was why they chose Split and Croatia.

And we got a funny story right away!

Marie-Hélène: “It’s funny because it started as a joke. We were not even considering traveling at the time!”

Louis-Michel: “Yeah, we were under lockdown in Canada when a “Croatia, your new office!” Facebook ad popped up on my feed. I jokingly said that we should go. And lo and behold, from a joke it became a real thing!”

Marie-Hélène: “Especially because I already had Croatia on my wishlist of places to visit. So, we just started gathering up all the documents and applied for the digital nomad visa!”

Louis-Michel: “The next thing was debating where to go in Croatia. We knew we wanted to go somewhere on the Adriatic Coast, but we were weighing our options between Dubrovnik, Rijeka, and Split.

In the end, we opted for Split for a couple of reasons.

We wanted a nomad and expat community all year round, a city that would feel alive even in the off-season, and a good home base to explore the rest of Croatia. Split, being the second-largest city of Croatia, ticked all of those boxes.”

Marie-Hélène: “Yeah, I agree.

The reason why we chose Split in the end was that it seemed to have good weather, good internet connection, loads of expats, and just a great life quality in general!

I definitely wanted something on the coast – I didn’t want to go abroad and live with the snow and cold! That was my main reason for leaving Canada!

About the digital nomad lifestyle

Why did you choose the digital nomad lifestyle?

Marie-Hélène: “I’ve always wanted to travel, even from a young age. I remember fancying the idea of having apartments or houses in many countries and being a world citizen! To be honest, I still think this would be the dopest life haha.

I graduated from the University of Laval’s School of Business and Administration in 2015. From that moment on, I’ve always prioritized traveling over everything else. I’ve had my own online company, I did international cooperation, I did freelancing for a while, and even a bit of woofing at one point!

But in 2019, I decided I was tired of always starting from scratch.

The nomad life is great, but it also means new work and/or projects, new friends, new lifestyle, new food, new EVERYTHING. And that was just too much for me. So I decided I would look for a stable job that was open to remote working. It took me about 6 months to find the perfect one, and I have been in this position for 2 years now!

The pandemic only showed how efficient it actually is to work online and made it super easy to transition into a fully nomadic lifestyle.

I don’t think I could ever be full-time in the office, I really love this freedom and flexibility.

Not ready to give it back!!!”

Louis-Michel: “This was a totally new thing for me. I wanted to try something different because my job allowed me to do so. Before this trip, I had never left Canada! I didn’t even have a passport!

I think Marie-Hélène was a big influence. She had traveled all over the world before and traveling was a passion for her. She wanted to work and travel. I had never tried doing that, but I’m always eager to try new things given the opportunity. That Facebook ad was the perfect opportunity.

It was so surprising that when we announced at work that we would be going away for a year, nobody believed that it was my idea and not hers!”

Where else has your life journey taken you?

Marie-Hélène: “As an employee, I’ve only traveled in Canada (van life for a month) and to Croatia.

But I’ve traveled in total to 37 countries! Before Croatia, my longest stays were in Portugal (6 months) and Peru (almost 2 years). I’ve carried my computer with me on most of my travels, either because I was studying, volunteering, or freelancing!”

Louis-Michel: “This is my first ever destination. My first trip. A one-year journey.

Go big or go home they say!”

The work they do and how it changed in Split

Please, tell us a little bit more about what you do for a living.

Marie-Hélène: “I’m a Digital Strategist for a SaaS company called Didacte. It is an online Learning Management System (LMS) used to either train employees or sell courses.

We offer different plans for enterprises that want to train their employees as well as experts who want to sell their training online. Since we’re an online business, we have clients from all over the world, but most of our clients are in Canada.

I’m responsible for the marketing department, so I manage a Marketing Analyst and I hire freelancers for blog writing which I used to do before. I’m still in charge of most of the online content creation, but I’m mostly involved in elaborating strategies and coordinating our ongoing projects.”

Louis-Michel: “I’m the lead developer and an associate at Didacte. My day-to-day job consists of making sure the rest of the dev team can do their work as efficiently as possible, planning future features for LMS from a technical standpoint, and making sure the application runs smoothly for all users.”

How did you adapt your work to fit the lifestyle you desire?

Marie-Hélène: “I said it earlier, but I chose to apply for jobs that would allow me to work remotely. So I did adapt my career path a bit, and I was very transparent in job interviews. I said openly that traveling 2-weeks per year was not enough for me and that I wanted to bring my job with me, wherever I would go.

If I was not a digital nomad, I don’t know if I would’ve chosen an office job.

What’s missing for me is the human contact, I do sometimes miss doing fieldwork and giving on-site conferences or training. And that’s also why I do local volunteering: it fulfills this social/human need and gives me an occasion to meet new people!”

Louis-Michel: “The best part about my job is I didn’t have to change anything! Our team was already used to working asynchronously during the lockdown.

One of our business core values is allowing employees the freedom to work how and where they want, as long as they are productive.

One morning, I told the other founders: I’m moving to Croatia for a year. And it was as easy as that!

One thing we decided early on was to work from home. That meant getting a large enough apartment for both of us to work comfortably. We settled on a 3-bedroom apartment close enough to the city center that we could walk easily, but also far enough so we could have our quiet time while we work.

Our work schedule is typically from 9 to 18 with a 2 hours break for lunch. We get the morning and a big part of the afternoon undisturbed, and from around 15:30 to 18, we have our meetings with the team back home.”

Did coming to Split change your life and work in any way?

Marie-Hélène: “Changing the timezone made a big difference in my work. I decided to work on the European schedule, so we overlap with Quebec city for 4 to 6 hours per day.

When it’s afternoon here, it’s morning over there. What I ADORE about this, is that I have my entire morning to be fully focused. No emails, no calls, nothing.

I’ve been much more productive since I’m here, just because I’m able to execute in the morning and coordinate in the afternoon.

My life changed also for different reasons, the first being the fewer covid restrictions here. Obviously, Canada has been very strict for the past 2 years, so arriving here was like a big breath of fresh air. I started going out, hitting the gym, and seeing people again! It definitely made life here feel even better, just because of that extra freedom.

I think it also changed my habits because living in a sunny place made me want to spend much more time outside. Now, I go for walks every day and I take time to sit on terraces and drink a cup of tea, just to chill in the sun.

It’s not something I was doing before, but I do enjoy this slow-paced lifestyle a lot!”

Louis-Michel: “We had to adapt to new routines. We work Croatian time, but we have to collaborate with the rest of the team back home in Quebec. Working at a different timezone allowed me to have a longer undisturbed work period where I can fully focus.

Moving to a new city also means you have to reset your social life. You need to find new friends, and when you’re working for a company overseas, you get fewer opportunities to connect with new people. Locals’n’Nomads and other expat meetings allowed us to find new friends who shared our interests.

Growing back our network was easy!”

The experience with Croatia’s digital nomad visa

Could you please share with us your experience with Croatia’s digital nomad residence permit?

Marie-Hélène: “Even if I was traveling with my boyfriend, we applied individually for the visa. Gathering the papers was not super hard, so we applied quite early, in May of 2021 if I remember correctly. We were still in Canada and wanted to arrive on September 27th.

Less than 12 hours after sending our application online we received an email, saying that the criminal records were not stamped – it was not clearly stated on the government’s website that they needed to be stamped by the local authorities (Global Affairs Canada) and the Croatian representatives in Canada (The Croatian Embassy).

With covid, delays in mail, and bureaucracy in general, we only got our hands on the stamped certificate in early July.

We then sent the updated papers and waited. In mid-August, we received the confirmation for pre-approval. We got a bit confused because the instructions were unclear about what the next steps were.

It said we had one week to make an appointment with MUP, but since we were 6 weeks ahead of our trip, I wrote to the police station and asked if it was okay to book for September 28th.

I never got a reply to this email.

We also thought that we had to pay the fees in advance since they sent us the invoice and some vague instructions. We almost paid from our Canadian bank account, but it wouldn’t work so we waited and did that in a post office when we got here.

A piece of advice – DON’T pay anything before you go to MUP!

As many already know, the service in MUP was not very friendly (not to say rude), but we went with our landlord who spoke Croatian and it helped a lot. We got our OIB number super fast and the ID card within 3 weeks. We never went back to MUP ever since, and we’re happy about it!”

Louis-Michel: “We knew from the get-go that we wanted to apply for the digital nomad permit. We read as much as we could online about the permit. We decided to apply for the permit before leaving Canada as opposed to applying after arriving in Croatia.

My tips to people applying would be:

  • Start with the criminal record check. This is the document that takes the most time to obtain. It’s also something that is easier done before you leave your own country, because they have to take your fingerprints, and you have to get that document certified/apostilled, depending on where you are in the world.
  • Apply online. Having dealt with the Croatian bureaucracy, I’m pretty sure it’s the easiest way to get the process started.
  • Read, read, read! The Expat in Croatia blog was an invaluable source of information during the preparation of our stay.
  • Join Facebook groups of the city you intend to stay in. This is something we kind of did late in the process and regretted not having done sooner. Groups are an excellent source of information for all of the questions you could have.”
About life in Split

What attracted you to Split?

Marie-Hélène: “The sun and the sea for sure. After 2 years in South America, it was hard for me to go back to Canada and spend the winter at home. I hate the cold!

So Split seemed like a great place for a lot of vitamin D!

I also need to live somewhere close to the water, and the Adriatic is probably one of the best options out there. I also loved the fact that, although it seems very busy in the summer, I heard Split was very calm during the low season.

I liked that because it meant more quality time to explore the city, but also peacefulness. To be honest, I haven’t experienced the summer here yet, but I’m loving how life has been for the last couple of months!

And even if it’s calm, there are still a lot of things happening. I never got bored!”

Louis-Michel: “The only thing I can compare Split to is my home city, Québec. I would say I love the year-round good weather, the way the historic old town can live side by side with a modern city also reminds me of my hometown.”

You’ve lived here for some time now. Can you give us your opinions on the benefits of Split and life here?

Marie-Hélène: “Honestly, I love Split! It’s a small city, so it’s easy to go from one place to the other, either by foot, bicycle, or Uber. I also love that it is connected to Marjan Park, so you can find nature within the area. I’d say that Split is not the cheapest in the Balkans, but it’s definitely cheaper than a lot of European countries and Canada. Life here is much more affordable for me.

I already mentioned it, but the slow-paced lifestyle is also one of Split’s biggest perks in my opinion.

I like that I can take it easy, and never really feel rushed. It helped me a lot with managing my anxiety and feeling at peace daily! Finally, the weather! Yes – again! Nothing feels as good as sitting in the sun for hours in January and not feeling too cold!”

Louis-Michel: “Waking up, going for a morning run on Riva, stopping at a coffee shop afterward. Enjoying the sunny weather all year round. Going for a quick dip in the sea at Bačvice.

I don’t know what the perfect life is, but to me, this comes pretty close to it!”

Can you give your suggestions about Split regarding everyday life?

Marie-Hélène: “We live in Lovret, so most of our shopping is done close by at Spar, Tommy, BioBio, Joker Mall, etc. I’m not a coffee drinker, so I don’t really have favorite places for tea – it’s the same pretty much everywhere! But I love any places where I can sit in the sun: Basta, any place on Riva, the Art Gallery, Perivoj, etc.

I also have shortlisted a couple of places for vegetarian options since I don’t eat meat: Veg, UpCafé, Bistro Ka’doma, Silk, Opa, Fig, Bokamorra, etc. I’ll have to admit that when I don’t cook, I most often order on Wolt!

I train at the Joker health center as well, and I volunteer in Green Sail, next to the Diocletian’s Palace. I love going there, because not only can I help out a local organization, but I can also enjoy the city on a weekday, which I enjoy a lot!”

Louis-Michel: “I work from home, I bought a desk and chair when I got here, so I haven’t been to any coworking space. Drinking coffee is a social activity for me. I really like the D16 coffee. I also feel like the coffee shop inside the Galerija Umjetnina Split is a really nice spot that is like a well-guarded secret.

We loved Bokamorra pizza, one of the best in Split in my opinion. Šug Restaurant was a cozy place with delicious choices if you’re into seafood. For groceries, we settled on SPAR, because that’s where we found the largest selection of international products. As the name implies, Bio&Bio is the go-to place for all things bio.

The Joker fitness, while a bit pricier than some other gyms, has top-notch and modern equipment. They also have a sauna included in the monthly membership.”

Are there any other benefits of living in Split?

Marie-Hélène & Louis-Michel: “Work-wise, the internet connection is great – which was an important thing for us!

And you’re only a ferry away from so many beautiful islands!”

Passions, lessons learned, and advice for others

Moving to another country is never easy. Could you please share with us any struggles you might have had?

Marie-Hélène: “The hardest probably was the social part of life. Being more of an introvert, it was hard for me to kick my butt and attend expat meetings! And even when you go there, you don’t really make friends from the first time you get together, so it took a couple of weeks before I actually had people to hang out with.

For work, it’s the reverse situation. My coworkers are more socially active in the afternoon or the evening, so most of the time I miss the party. In the beginning, it was a bit heartbreaking, especially since I work in a very small company, but now it’s better. I guess it was just an adaptation.

The cool thing is my colleagues are very inclusive and try to organize events that I can participate in.

So sometimes I have social Zoom meetings where they’re eating lunch and I’m having dinner!”

Louis-Michel: “The language. Croatian is really different from French and Latin-based languages. I remember the first time I went to get groceries, looking around with Google Translate on my phone, trying to find what was what.

However, I feel like almost everybody I spoke with speaks very good English, and I never felt I wasn’t able to make myself understood.

The only place language felt like a bigger barrier was when we tried to complete the digital nomad permit.

It seems like, while almost everybody in the city can speak English, the exception is the police station (MUP). Luckily, our landlord was very friendly and offered to come with us to help and translate when needed.”

What are you passionate about and how do you combine these passions with your life here in Split and Croatia?

Marie-Hélène: “Apart from traveling, I’m a very curious person who loves to try many different things. Obviously, I’m trying to explore as much of Croatia as I can while I’m here, so road trips and photography are still my favorite activities to do around here!

But in Split I’ve been mostly walking around the city, volunteering for Green Sail, and learning a bit of the language (It’s a work in progress!).

I’m a very simple person and I enjoy that Split is very chill and laid back; you can spend a weekend just hanging out in the sun and that’s just a very normal thing to do!

I’m also really into healthy habits, so maintaining a balanced lifestyle was important to me. In Split, there are plenty of physical activities to do – swimming, walking, biking, dancing classes, yoga on the beach, fitness centers, etc. I also found many places to buy healthy and organic food, both in restaurants and in specialized markets.”

Louis-Michel: “I love exploring and discovering old and new things alike. For me, Croatia and more specifically Split with its rich history and beautiful monuments was a perfect combination.

There are also all of the surrounding cities and national parks that are close enough that you can visit them on a day trip.

And there’s some great outdoor space and beaches within walking distance. I am also a fan of urbex (urban exploration). There are some great vestiges of the old wars to be seen if you know where to look.”

What is the most important lesson that you’ve learned about life as a digital nomad in Split?

Marie-Hélène: “Although I’ve traveled for most of my life, I realized just recently how much I love being well installed for work. I don’t think I could spend many months working on kitchen tables or in cafés.

I enjoy having a proper desk/office space, a comfortable chair, and a quiet place to focus. This realization made me think about how I want to organize future trips, maybe slowing the pace down and taking more time.

I’m happy that the digital nomad visa in Croatia allows me to stay for one full year because Croatia is a great place to settle down a bit and still keep traveling. I guess that’s the beauty of Europe in general, easy access to other countries! Anyways, if it was possible to stay here longer, I definitely would.

I could see myself having a home base in Split and flying in and out for a couple of weeks when I want to.

Hopefully, they’ll allow us to extend our visa!”

Louis-Michel: “Go to local meetups. You will get to know wonderful and friendly people, from over the world and locals too. Being far from home even if you’re used to it can be mentally exhausting if you’re isolated.

It’s more fun if you have people to share your experiences with!”

Do you have any advice about life in Split, or Croatia in general, that you think could be useful to other digital nomads?

Marie-Hélène: “If you can afford it, apply on the digital nomad visa only when you’re in Croatia. And you could even wait and apply after 2-2.5 months. As soon as you apply, you’re allowed to stay even if your 90-day tourist visa expires. That will elongate your time around, I wish I would’ve known that!”

Louis-Michel: “Two things come to mind. First, if you can, get a car!

There is so much to explore in Croatia when you get out of the more touristy destinations.

If you stay here for a longer period, the off-season is the perfect moment to explore the country. Second – and this is a thing I wish somebody had told me before I discovered it myself – you will probably have to pay some račun (bill) during your stay here. Instead of going to the Tisak of the post office and waiting in line for a long time, you can pay those directly from your phone.

You only have to install KEKSPay and add your credit card. It works with international debit/credit cards, not just Croatian ones. From there you can pay your invoices by just scanning them with your phone camera.”

And any tips for us locals?

Marie-Hélène: “To be honest, I don’t really have a proper suggestion. I mean, obviously, it would be nice to have English translations in more places, but I don’t think it’s really necessary either. I feel though that everybody would benefit from clearer instructions for many services, like bus timetables and maps, for example!

I would say that, except at the MUP, I felt very welcomed in Croatia.”

Louis-Michel: “I rely a lot on websites, Google maps, Facebook pages, and other online media to find what I need. When there is a language difference, it’s even more important because I’ll be translating a lot to understand what I’m reading.

Keeping your business up to date on social media and your website is something that could be improved.

Simple things like updated opening hours – even during the off-season – a few pictures of your menu, or a description of what you sell can be really useful even to the locals. A few times, I made a reservation on a restaurant website, only to find out it was closed until the next summer when I got there.”

What do you love about Split?

Marie-Hélène: “The proximity to the sea and the most stunning sunsets, the fact that you can walk everywhere, Marjan park and the surrounding nature, barely any tourists in the low season, the number of different things to do – sports, bars, cafés, tourism, etc.”

Louis-Michel: “The amount of pedestrian-only streets. I love being able to get around walking. The food is good and the delivery is really cheap. The proximity of Marjan Park. I love being able to go for an afternoon jog.

I love the Diocletian’s Palace!

I know, it must sound cliche, but there is something special about being able to walk daily in something that was built 1700 years ago. I also love that there’s a bakery on every street corner!”

And what do you love about Split’s people?

Marie-Hélène: “They’re very welcoming and proud of their city, generally able to communicate in English, always have good recommendations and advice, easy-going and relaxed, patient with expats.”

Louis-Michel: “There is a nice expat community here. I’ve been able to make friendships that will last for a lifetime. People are a bit reserved, but very friendly and helpful if you ask them something.

They love when you try to speak Croatian, even just a little!

It feels like they consider you more as a local if you try your best! I also love that they play picigin all year round, even when it’s almost freezing outside!”

Anything to share at the end?

Marie-Hélène & Louis-Michel: “We really wish there was a way to stay more than one year.

If only it was possible to renew the digital nomad permit! Or maybe to apply for a different type of temporary residency without having to leave the country for 90 days. As third country digital nomads, we’re not asking for permanent residency, we’d be happy to be able to stay for one more year only.

We feel like this is something that would benefit the whole digital nomad ecosystem and would drive more people to Croatia. One can only wish!”

Photos by: Bruno Dubravec

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About author:

Nikolina Kukoč

Researching is woven into my DNA, but I am a musician at heart. Interested in too many things and always curious. Forever in love with Split and enchanted by people who teach me new things. When I am not creating content about Split's tech community, you will find me in singing rehearsals, somewhere in nature, in the theater, or with my head stuck in a book. I do my best to live by the verse from the opera "Fedora" by Umberto Giordano: "Love forbids you not to love."

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