The sunlight flowing through the blinds sang a song of late morning as I came to consciousness and the disheartening realization that I had, once again, slept until an unspeakable hour. My phone read 11:10 as I groaned, rolling over, knowing that the midday heat would suffocate me if I tried to run under the Croatian sun. “Well,” I conceded aloud and to no one but myself, “I guess it’s time to hit the beach.”
Realizing in the mirror that I didn’t look as puffy and elephant-like as I felt, I put on my bikini and began to pack my beach bag when I heard a knock at the door. Trepidation jilted its way up and down my spine; no one knocks on doors anymore. Those days are over–replaced by texting beforehand–and furthermore, this wasn’t my door. Who would visit me here? My fear of the unknown that lay directly on the other side of the wooden plank hinged five feet away from me was radiating around me. Slowly, with a caution that felt almost paralyzing, I unlocked and opened the door.
It was my airbnb host, an elderly woman who spoke next to no English. She was holding tomatoes and smiling. I greeted her graciously, hoping that my smile and welcoming demeanor would override the fact that we do not speak the same language. Manners, though, are the universal language of all people. I took the tomatoes and she made a square with her hands. I kept smiling, unsure of what to do. Did she want money? I didn’t want to buy tomatoes. And moreover, all I had in cash was a 100-kuna note. These tomatoes were lush and delicious, but not worth 100 kunas.
After some more pantomiming and awkward chuckling (respectively), I got the message that she wanted my passport. Reluctantly, I handed it over and followed her up the stairs to the main house where she lived. She signaled to me to stop, that I didn’t need to come inside. I asked her, slowly and with overblown gesticulations, why she needed my passport. All she said was, “police,” and disappeared inside.
The utter terror of that moment can’t possibly be pinned down with a string of words. I grabbed my phone, waiting at the base of her stairs on the patio, and googled “my airbnb host took my passport.” Nothing was useful, as all the results were pertaining to airbnb’s new ID verification system. I began, once again, to feel that drop in my stomach, that stab to my soul that things had gone terribly awry and that, despite all my hurdles thus far, I would end up in some kind of danger. What had I done wrong? Why did the police need my passport information? Was there some law that I broke without knowing it? Was I going to be tossed into some Croatian jail cell?
Having seen too many episodes of Locked Up Abroad and having a mind that never sleeps, my thoughts were racing, dreaming up all sorts of scenarios, all of the “worst-case” variety. It felt like half an hour that she was up there with the one thing that you’re never supposed to lose when you travel, the critical piece of documentation required for international mobility. What if it’s nothing? What if it’s just something required by law? Or, alternately, what if it’s everything? What if my life is about to take a sure nosedive into turmoil? In the moment, it was difficult to be rational, but I sat there waiting, keeping my head on straight. If the police really were after me for some reason, they would be here. An elderly woman wouldn’t casually knock on the door and offer me tomatoes if I were thought to be some country-skipping fugitive.
And, after time slowed to a crawl in the midst of waiting, I saw her come out of the door at the top of the stairs, passport in hand. I breathed a sigh of ultimate relief as she handed it back to me. I asked slowly, cautiously, “it is okay?” and raised a tentative thumbs-up as my voice went falsetto at the end of the question. She didn’t understand, so I tried my luck another way. “È bene?” my thumb still raised to the sky, still wondering what was going on.
She smiled and returned the thumbs up, then began speaking Croatian. I smiled the smile of a person wanting to be polite, a person not wanting to interrupt, a person who didn’t have a clue as to what was going on. She motioned to the street and said “mercato,” and I began to nod enthusiastically, hoping she could speak Italian, hoping that we could have a shared connection. And then, she looked to the sky, wondering how to translate and finally said, “pickle.” I smiled again as she motioned toward me, toward the street, and then said, “patate, pasta salad, mercato. Zwei minuti.” Her cocktail of languages made me wonder how old she was, how many years and decades of stories were locked up in her brain. “Grazie mille,” I said with a wave and took my passport back inside the apartment, hiding it in a compartment in my suitcase. I sent a quick airbnb message to Boris, the English speaker who handles the account associated with my apartment explaining what happened and asking for a little more clarification.
I set out along the affluent marina of the Splitska Riva, where all the wealthy docked their yachts and went for cocktails on the silvery-blue sea. I knew that there were beaches along the side of Marjan Hill, the enormous green divider between the city and the sea, but I didn’t quite know where. I simply walked westward, following the water line. I could have gone to Bačvice beach, but after seeing it in the periwinkle early-morning light after clubbing there, it didn’t look all that special to me. And so onward I walked until finally, I saw tan bodies splayed all over cliffs above the water. I saw people jumping, I saw people lounging in the sun, I saw people squirreled away in shaded corners of stone reading books. I kept walking, wanting not to settle, feeling like there was more to see. I was right.
Finally, I stopped along a secluded rocky cove where the water was teal and the sun was shining. I set up shop with a beach towel I had purchased on the way over for 50 kunas and fashioned my lifeproof case onto my phone. I sat on the rocks for a little while, surveying the sea below me. It was shallow and rocky for the first few meters, then an endless exhibition of blue. Feeling the heat of the sun on me, crackling my skin, I finally thought “just do it” and made my way into the Adriatic.
The rocks in the shallow water were covered in a fungus of some sort, they were slippery with what felt–disgustingly–like wet moss. My skin crawled as I scrambled off the rocks and into deeper waters, swimming until I could no longer touch the bottom. I peeked under the water to see that the drop-off from the rocks was a steep one; that all of a sudden, I was swimming in a 50-foot-or-so sea. To see straight down to the bottom gave me a sort of existential scare; it reminded me that I was a guest in this vibrant habitat, that this world where I was treading water wasn’t my own.
I took a picture with my lifeproof case and realized, to my horror, that the lens was foggy. I saw the trickling of water beneath the screen and immediately swam back to the jagged cliffs, back to the slimy rocks that served as my only ladder out of the Adriatic Sea. In my haste to get my phone to air as soon as possible, a serrated bit of stone jutting out cut my thigh and I began to bleed, but it didn’t matter. I needed to get my case off and turn off my phone immediately.
Miraculously, everything was fine. My phone is still in perfect condition despite the leak in my case. I didn’t question the good fortune and continued to relax along the coast, sipping wine and listening to Coldplay.
The cut on my leg eventually became just a memory corresponding with the dramatic red slash on my skin that closed itself with the passage of time. Soon enough, my entire leg was becoming pink and sun-soaked, and I decided that it was probably a good idea to feed the nagging monster of paranoia in my brain, the sinking, stabbing feeling that something could be wrong at my apartment given the occurrence of the previous few hours.
I walked back along the marina and my phone buzzed in my hand unexpectedly as I passed a waterfront café where I had stopped in for a quick drink earlier in my time in Split. My phone automatically connected to the wifi and Boris had responded that he was sorry for the misunderstanding, that by law in Croatia, hotels and vacation rentals must take down the passport number of guests for tax purposes. Again, I rode the roller coaster of worry and subsequent relief as I realized that—standing off to the side of this cafe and borrowing their wifi signal—I didn’t have to make the trek back home. Back to the beach it was.
I didn’t go all the way along the shoreline to the spot that I found before, just to the cliffs where young people were draped every which way, tanning and talking and smoking and drinking. Sun-splashed bodies dripping with seawater stood on cliffs and laughed, yelled at each other in indiscernible words from different dialects before leaping into the sea without a care in the world. I set my things down on a piece of flat rock and took off for the side of the cliff where I stood, gazing down at the expanse of blue stretched out before me, dancing in the sunlight, calling to me. And then, with no real warning, my legs developed their own mind, thinking a thought that propelled me upward and forward, down in a thirty-foot free fall toward a mighty splash of seawater. And in those few seconds of falling, I felt that familiar drop; that gravitational pull of uncertainty when all your insides feel fluid and cold and I became, suddenly, one with the water into which I crashed. And then, of course, there was the release that is always guaranteed to occur after a tension—any tension, be it a leap into the Adriatic Sea or a friendship-ending fight or any other example from the myriad of life’s rigors—and I flung myself around under the water in a maze of bubbles, springing around like a wayward rubber band flicked into the distance. I came up for air, salty and clear at the same time, and I realized that those few seconds when I was airborne were the most carefree seconds I’d felt in years, possibly ever.
And I did it again. And again. And again.
I kept jumping, doing cannonballs into the ocean until it all blended together: the sun, the sea, the sugary-sweet scintillation of summer. After jumping to my heart’s content, I retreated finally to my towel and the radiance of the afternoon sun, exhausted from leaving so much of my soul in the sea. I used to think that while money couldn’t buy happiness, it could buy security, which was better than happiness. Lying on my towel in the sun after hours of excitement that didn’t cost me a single kuna, I saw just how wrong I was. I remembered the child in the Frankfurt airport that brightened my day on the way out of Germany by bouncing a balloon in the air, never letting it touch the ground. I remembered the kindness of someone who sent me an instagram direct message offering to help me out with accommodations should I ever need them (you know who you are, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart); a message that renewed my faith in the kindness of strangers during a time when I felt like people as a whole were inherently evil. These are the things money can’t buy. These are the things that can’t be put on an AmEx, or procured from Amazon Prime in two business days. These are the things you need to go out and get for yourself, to uncover from the earth and claim as your own experiences.
Traveling alone is 10% exploration of the world on the outside and 90% of the caverns and mountains and oceans within. You self-reflect. You think. You find the real you. You may think you know yourself, and you may think you know how you see the world, but chances are that if you go somewhere new all by yourself, spend a few days not talking to soul but only observing the strange and beautiful surroundings in which you’ve placed yourself, you’ll find a different person standing in your skin on the way back. You can’t be the same after you’ve spent time totally alone, handling things all by yourself, making your own bonfire of entertainment. And it’s a sad fact that a lot of people will never attempt this feat, this leap of loneliness. Perhaps loneliness, though, isn’t the right word…because while you’re alone, as long as you’re alive and breathing with brain cells firing, you’ll never really be lonely.
I finally left the cliffs when the sun began to turn orange with fatigue and walking back to the little apartment in the Old Town, the city center of Split was doused in fiery hues with a backdrop of purple against the mountains. I could only shake my head and fall even more in love with the world around me, wondering what more sunsets in strange places awaited me in the years to come.
Having not eaten all day, I stopped in a little bakery on the way home and, in broken Croatian and mostly a silly pantomime routine, bought a fresh baguette, still warm from the oven in my hand. It was a steal at five kunas juxtaposed next to the fifty kunas I’d paid for pasta and tomato sauce the day before. Going home, I cut up the tomatoes I had awkwardly accepted from my airbnb host and, with olive oil and a little salt, recreated the meal from two days before for a fraction of the price. I purchased some Croatian red from a market earlier for only 13 kunas, conceding to the notion that it would probably kill me, leading to it being so cheap. And yet, it blended perfectly with the meal set before me. This was a scene played out so many times in so many locations across the globe: the go-to vegan meal abroad. I did a little research and then, finding my answer and feeling satisfied with the result, filled a glass with water from the tap to add to the spread.
After dinner at the small kitchen table of my rented apartment, I fell into a carb-laden sleep from which I fully anticipated to wake weighing a full fifty pounds heavier, and didn’t exactly care because of all the fluffy feelings of euphoria in the wake of all the white starches I consumed overrode any worries of weight gain. The United States is a place for running, a place for vegetables and moving around and keeping a routine. Europe is a place for wine, a place for carbs, a place to forget. And with that, I floated away in the flirtation of fatigue.