Last August I left home — marriage, family and friends, work — to follow my intellectual curiosity, open to where I might end up. Almost a year later, it’s hard to believe that I’m almost at the end of this grand journey. I departed Italy a week ago after graduating with my masters in bioethics and it’s been an intense year, to say the least, where every day of my life has felt like a week in a normal life. The new relationships I’ve formed while away have also been compressed, and I’ve spent more time with some people in ten months than I have with others in ten years.
I don’t want to seem like an advocate for the mindless consumption of new places, but it’s true that I did very little research about Croatia before setting out for it last week. I did cursory searches online and otherwise relied heavily on the advice of a Croatian friend whose taste in travel is not so dissimilar to mine. During May I took care of the main logistical aspects, which meant booking some transportation — including overnight cruise ships to and from Italy — and the first few days of accommodation for me and three friends. The rest was left up to chance. In my books, a bit of planning ahead and a bit of open-endedness is a pretty good formula for travel. Also, this was first and foremost an experience with friends rather than travelling per se. When I’m on my own or with a partner I seem to have a particular way of exploring but I appreciate being forced to do it differently when I’m with others, especially when it turns out to be a lot of fun.
We started on the island of Hvar for a few days and it was the perfect spot for the four of us to hang out, talk (and debrief), swim, eat and dance. Our days were over-full; there were so many moments where it felt like life doesn’t get much better than this. If you follow my adventures on Facebook you’ll know that on top of everything else during our stay, we also spotted various celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres, Portia de Rossi and a couple of NBA players from the LA Clippers.
The best encounter we had was with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek who I recognised at dinner one night sitting at the next table. The resemblance was a bit too uncanny…so I went over to start a conversation with him. “Excuse me, are you Slavoj Žižek?” I asked. “Unfortunately, yes,” he responded. He was very affable and we had a far-ranging conversation with him while waiting for his food to arrive that included observations about his documentary, film, modern day imperialism and slavery, Filipino history — no doubt just some of the flotsam and jetsam in his mind. He was with a much younger woman, and an online search later confirmed she was his third wife and an impressive person in her own right.
On our boat ride to the Hvar that first morning, I had a long and interesting conversation with two retired British zoologists. They’d fallen in love with Croatia and it was their third visit in recent times…and after almost a week there I completely understood their feelings. Croatia was a revelation and I’ll have to return someday to spend more time learning about it and seeing more of the place. I know so little about the country and yet from the short time I visited I could see that it has a lot to offer with its rich cuisine, complex history and disarming people. It’s wonderful to leave a place wanting more; I feel like I’ve only just dipped my toes in its waters. And on first impressions anyway, I think I prefer it to Italy, which was not as easy to fall in love with as I expected. After three months in Italy it may be quite some time before I feel the urge to come back to visit — not counting that I’ve already made plans to be back twice more in July.
The group started to split in, well, Split — one to Brussels, two to Athens, and me, going to another Croatian island — but it was very much a see you later rather than a proper goodbye, because I’ll be seeing two of them in the next month and the third at the start of next year (hopefully). I loved Split, which had a great lived-in old town and tasteful new developments catering to locals and tourists. We stayed in a newly furbished room in Diocletian’s Palace, and felt that this is what it’s like to visit a country on its way up.
My aforementioned Croatian friend had told me that Komiža on the island of Vis was a must, and I decided to take his advice exactly with the last day and a bit on my own. The night before my trip to the island I booked a room online but cancelled after a few minutes because I realised that this was a perfect opportunity to go with the flow rather than plan. After all, I was by myself with little luggage, and I’d gotten the vibe of Croatia the past few days and it was a pretty safe place. So I decided to take the chance with the man asking people if they needed accommodation when I got off the bus in Komiža. He wasn’t a professional shyster and didn’t have a sign saying “Apartman”, so I guessed he was offering a room in his house…and it turned out to be just so. The other bit of reassurance was that he was standing there with an awkward teenage guy who I later found out was a second cousin down from Zagreb holidaying on the island for the summer with his family.
We arrived a short walk later from the main village to an apartment 100m from a beach, with a balcony that looked straight onto the water. I pretended to be dissatisfied that there was no internet access and bargained him down to 100 kune from the initial price of 120, which was still a very good price for him and I only bargained at all to show that I wasn’t a total pushover. From my perspective it was still a ridiculous price — about $20 — for a fully equipped apartment that could house five people comfortably. Business had been slow, he said, and there weren’t as many tourists on the island this season.
So that’s how my stay in Komiža started. Unlike Hvar, which is very touristic and ‘commercial’ though still gorgeous, Komiza is a beautifully sleepy and down-home destination for families — Croatians as well as Europeans in particular — and it’s charmingly under-developed. I noticed children speaking English in American and Canadian accents, though the parents were from Croatian backgrounds; so the parents would speak Croatian and the children would reply in English. Walking around the main part by the water, locals went about their business, and the pace of the island was predictably languid. The quiet back streets were full of gardens with productive fruit trees — lemons, oranges, pomegranates — and old weathered wooden doors and shutters in shades of green and blue.
Soon after settling in I had a hearty lunch of grilled sardines and octopus goulash at a portside restaurant, and I ended up finishing off the leftovers for dinner, accompanying it with a sautéed light green capsicum I’d bought at the local market. It was probably one of the best meals I’ve had in a while, sitting on the deck chair on the balcony, catching the sea breeze and watching the light change as the sun set behind the distant hills.
The water off Vis is exceptionally clear and clean, and I had gone for a long swim late in the afternoon…and while I was in the water I wondered if it might be possible to go skinny dipping later that night. It’s not something I’d honestly ever thought of doing before but it had come up a few times in conversation the past week and it appealed to my newly emerging desire to cut back on urban travel in favour of more natural wonder. This whole year of my life has been about extending myself and so I thought, why not? So later that night after a glass of local red wine in a hip bar, I walked home past the beach I swam at earlier that day with the thought of seeing if it would be possible to go for a late night swim…
…but it wasn’t to be this time. Skinny dipping wasn’t something I could spontaneously do. The area was too well lit with lots of young people hanging around throwing stones into the water. Winging it only gets you so far — and skinny dipping is something that seems to require a little more planning, to end up somewhere a bit more isolated. For me anyway…and because I didn’t want to be arrested!
I turned 33 two weeks ago and somehow had mixed feelings about it, but I’ve been reflecting that one of the main things I’ve learned up until now is plan a little, and a live a lot. Planning has been essential for me to achieve so many things in life that makes me feel happy and useful, but of course it’s important not to plan to the point where it forces certain outcomes and cuts you off from unexpected joy. There’s always lot of work that happens behind the scenes in order for a production to look effortless. I guess you could say that that’s my year in Europe in a nutshell, as well as my approach to the next five weeks of travelling.