"Compare where you are to where you wanna be and you'll get nowhere." - Sara Bareilles
Would you pay $511 for an invaluable life lesson and peace of mind? I beseech you, for the sake of my dignity, try to consider what I am about to tell you from this perspective.
Everyone worries. Obsessing over things you can't control is a prerequisite to our status as human beings. For me though, it has been a life-long, chronic affliction to the point of being debilitating - similar, I imagine, to the way a person only has a drinking "problem" when their alcoholism affects normal everyday function. I often joke that worrying is my emotional default. Too often, it seems, I am not happy unless I have something to agonize over, and when that particular concern turns out to be unfounded, I immediately look for something new, like the nervous habit of picking at a scab. It would heal if only I got out of my own way.
As the clock counted down to my departure from Italy, the daunting transfer from Florence to Croatia fought its way toward the surface of my consciousness. The looming trip was a nagging anxiety I couldn't help returning to over and over again, like a tongue to a sore tooth. How was I ever going to navigate the multiple train and bus stations it would take to get there? What was the protocol for crossing the Slovenian border? I'd done my research, of course, but when dealing with foreign, largely-non-English-speaking countries, there was always the very real possibility that you'd missed some vital chunk of information.
In one particularly unhinging fit of overthought, I even went so far as to abandon the plan to travel overland entirely, opting instead to book a flight from Florence to Pula. At the time I thought it would be simpler. Go to the airport, check your bag, get on the plane and let them take care of the rest. The next day, though, the reality of what I'd done became painfully clear. Not only was the flight I had booked at eight in the morning (meaning I would have to find a cab and be at the airport by six), but it also involved three connections and a nine-hour layover (during any one of which the possibility of losing my luggage was substantial) and didn't get me to Pula, on the opposite side of the Istrian Peninsula from where I needed to be, until eleven at night.
In trying to simplify the trip for myself, I'd only made it infinitely more complicated. The train/bus option would get me there in a cumulative travel time of eight-to-ten hours. I wouldn't have to worry about carry-on items or losing my underwear, and assuming it all went smoothly I would be in Rijeka (a mere half hour from my destination town) by early evening.
I gave myself one more day to think about it, to make absolutely sure I'd thought my decision through this time. Then I went online and cancelled my flight. I knew already that the ticket was non-refundable, but the train wasn't expensive, and after an inordinate amount of internal juggling I finally came to the conclusion that losing that money was more worth it to me than trying to follow through with a disaster waiting to happen just because it was paid for.
'Okay,' I thought, doing my best to make peace with the hefty budget cut, 'you just bought yourself a very expensive learning experience. Don't do it again.'
So I was travelling overland. Inevitably the day arrived and even though I felt better about this than I did about flying, I was still terrified. I hauled my bags to the train station in Florence, my head swimming - drowning, really - with every imaginable thing that could go wrong. I could get pickpocketed in the train station and lose my passport, I could miss my connection in Venice, I could get confused and end up Austria or Zurich, I could be held at the border in Slovenia....
I can remember being that scared only once or twice before in my life, and for no good reason except for fear of the unknown. My knowledge of the small Croatian town I needed to get to was vague, as was my idea of how long it would take to get there. I hadn't booked any accommodations for the night, as I wasn't sure yet how long I would be on the road. My plan was to get as far as I could, and stop for the night when I couldn't get any further. "One step at a time," I told myself. Still, it felt like doing a flying trapeze act without a net. My train ticket trembled in my grip the entire way to Trieste, though I suppose that could have had just as much to do with the fact that I hadn't eaten all day. I couldn't eat when I was distressed. The knots in my stomach were too tight to let anything down. If I could just get to Rijeka, I thought, I would be home-free. From there I could take a cab if I had to to my relatives' house in Crikvenica.
By some miracle I managed to change trains successfully in Venice. Once in Trieste, in Northern Italy, I rolled my suitcase next door to the bus station, where I bought a ticket to Rijeka. Now, as long as I got on the right bus and didn't miss my stop or any possible connections, it looked like I might just make it. I almost didn't want to believe it, as impossible as it seemed. I was still in Italy, I reminded myself. Any number of things could still go wrong.
When I boarded the bus at 4:30, I was granted a little gift from the Infinite. I was desperate for a sign, any sense of comfort or reassurance that I was safe and right where I needed to be. We pulled out of the station, and in that moment the Italian-speaking radio announcer faded out and the bus cabin twanged with the rich baritone of Johnny Cash. Swear to God. Instantly I was transported back to sunny weekends at Leisure Lake Campground with my dad, lazy summer nights spent around the fire listening to country music and toasting marshmallows.
Having been on the verge of tears all day, I suddenly laughed out loud, surprising myself as much as those around me. The outburst earned me more than a few sidelong glances from my fellow travellers, no doubt wondering who the crazy English-speaking girl was and what she found so funny.
When I looked out the window again, I was startled to learn just how heart-stoppingly gorgeous Trieste was. I almost wished I could just stay here amongst the ancient, tiered villas stacked along the sloping seaside cliffs, eating their frutti di mare and breathing in the clean brine of the Adriatic. We drove further inland, winding between crumbling, centuries-old farmhouses and green hills in which I saw a farmer and his collie bringing in the sheep for the night.
All too soon we reached the Slovenian border. The sole customs officer finished his smoke and pee out behind the booth, then came aboard to inspect the cargo. I was the only one to hand him a passport instead of a visa or driver's license. Eyeing my nationality and date of birth, he looked up at me as if to say, 'What the hell are YOU doing here?'. Then, passport still in hand, he continued through the bus. On his way back out he noted the panic in my face (my passport, more than my wallet and credit cards or my international phone, was my ticket home), made a stamping motion with his hand and then disappeared. I relaxed ever so slightly, willing the bus not to move until he returned. I grinned from ear to ear when he did, taking my freshly-stamped passport back with an ecstatic "Thank you!".
'Indescribable' is a word we were taught never to use in my fourth-year Creative Writing class. It's considered to be an authorial copout. But the truth is the cumulative effect of Croatia's pristine, rocky shores, glass-like waters, diving cliffs and impossibly green mountains is one which words are unqualified to translate. There is nothing I can say that would do this place justice except maybe this: the purity of this country's beauty will bring you to your knees.
Looking at it, the contrast of the colours intensified by the dying light, I thought about how utterly useless an emotion worry was. There had been no hitch. I'd gotten here safely, and as quickly as public transit allowed. The only thing that had made it difficult was my own stress over things I was powerless to change. I imagined how much more enjoyable this trip - life - would be if I could learn to sit back and enjoy the ride once things were out of my hands. This was something I had to overcome.
The rays of the sunset filtered down through silver-blue clouds, playing on the wave crests and mountains in a kind of celestial dance, and my thoughts drifted towards faith. I'd prayed before coming on this journey. Prayed hard. I'd even solicited the prayers of others, certain that something would go wrong. That trapeze act, I realized, had been a leap of faith, as necessary for my own growth as any part of this adventure. Once I had done all I could do, worrying over potential problems was nothing more than me getting in my own way. It was worrying that had CAUSED the problem of the non-refundable plane ticket in the first place. After everything I'd seen and done, after all of the good experiences I'd had, why did I still not trust myself?
I was giddy with disbelief when my bus arrived in Crikvenica around 8PM (I'd not only made to Rijeka but managed to get all the way there!). Truth be told I never really expected to be here, and now that I was, I couldn't believe my luck. Was it luck, though? I'm beginning to think there's no such thing. The magic of a trip like this is many mornings I wake up with the knowledge that I am capable of something I didn't know I was yesterday.
Taking my luggage from the driver, I turned and strode into a nearby bar. I felt like the freshman who shows up to a Halloween bash under the false impression that it's a costume party. Silence blanketed the room and heads turned to marvel at the young woman fearlessly wheeling a heavy suitcase and handbag through the smoke-veiled door. Taking advantage of the fact that I had everyone's attention, I asked if anyone spoke English. The bartender pointed to a bearded bear of a man in the far corner. "He does."
"What do you need?" He asked, his English accented but otherwise perfect.
"A hotel," I replied evenly. "With Wi-Fi."
"There is one up the hill." He gestured as though I could see through the wall. "I have a car. You come with me."
Red flag raised, I diplomatically declined, saying I would be fine to walk. "No," he insisted. "You have heavy bags. I can take you."
I was just about to turn and head out the door with a firm but polite 'thanks but no thanks' when a woman appeared, small of stature and not much older than me, a gerbil-sized white lapdog in her arms. "My wife will come with us," the man said and, taking in her open smile and warm brown eyes, I was swayed.
The offer was, of course, a legitimate act of kindness. The stranger from the bar (I never knew his name) drove me and my luggage in the backseat of his car up the hill to a stunning white hotel overlooking the Adriatic, carried my life-in-a-suitcase up the front steps on his shoulder as if it weighed nothing, asked the receptionist if they offered free Wi-Fi in their rooms and then translated for me when she answered. "Only in the reception area," he said, and I assured them both that was fine. I only needed it to e-mail my relatives to let them know I was in town.
"Do you have a room for one night?" I asked the receptionist.
She said they did. Would I prefer sea-view or park-view? Park-view was cheaper, so I went with that. I could tell from the lobby this was a nice hotel with unlimited hot water, a stack of clean towels and a bar/restaurant with a terrace, but it was too late to find another place. My relatives were letting me stay with them for free for the next week, so I figured I could afford to pay through the nose for one night. The receptionist asked if I would like dinner and breakfast included.
"How much is it?"
"Two euros extra."
Two full meals for the price of a cappuccino in Rome, and I had to eat anyway. I told her to tack it on. How much for the room? This was the final hurdle. "Twenty euros," she told me, "but you are on your own so..." she rang in the added percentage on her computer. I braced myself. "Twenty-six euros." Less than a meal in Rome.
"Grazie mille," I said. Then, remembering I wasn't in Italy anymore, "thank you very much. Merci beaucoup." It suddenly struck me that, compared to the amount of research I'd done on Italy, I knew virtually nothing about the country I was in now. All the same, I took stock: I wasn't cold. I wasn't hungry. I had a safe place to sleep. That was more than I could say for most people in the world.
With that, I learned my very first word of Croatian: Hvala. Thank you.