“That’s it,” is a common Croatian phrase, usually inserted abruptly when something comes to an end or someone want to move things along.
This College of DuPage sabbatical and US Fulbright Scholar award has been enlightening, frustrating, exhilarating and lonely – a combination of emotions that has ebbed and flowed over the past five months. I have learned a tremendous amount regarding the history of the region. When I think of international diplomacy, I imagined heads of state at official meetings in old buildings with armed guards and flags on their lapels, engaging in government-sponsored efforts. But what I have learned is that public diplomacy is about building bridges of understanding between people of other countries, not only government-to-government relations.
The phrase I heard about former Fulbrighters being “Pale, Yale and male” no longer applies, as gender, color, religions and various ideologies within our educational exchange programs is open and diverse, representing all scholars and students. I have learned the definition of public diplomacy covers a variety of efforts, both formal and informal, to cultivate meaningful connections between people of different countries and deconstruct stereotypes. Fulbright helps to facilitate the ongoing dialogue of cultural learning, friendship and understanding.
The Struggle is Real
Long distance is a difficult balance between feeling lonely and separated, but at the same time, empowered and curious. Admittedly, being away from my family and friends caused me to take a long hard look at why I like traveling so much. And as Nora Ephron, one of my favorite writers, said, “Everything is copy.” So I wrote a lot during these past several months, recording and trying to capture my observations through my own interpretive lens.
Not to get too granule, but here’s a list of my likes and dislikes during my time in Croatia:
- Dalmatinka Pekarna (bakery on my way to school where they called me by name)
- Spinach and cheese burek (fast food style sandwich)
- Riva Running (jogging on the promenade next to the sea)
- Piazza Market (open-air fresh food stalls with local vegetables)
- Slovenia Hiking
- Rovinj Biking
- Yoga (Sonia is an angelic local yoga instructor)
- Black ink cuttlefish pasta with truffle sauce
- Writing time
- iPhone Podcasts (Steve Dahl, NPR, Holderness Family, Armchair Expert, Skimm’d from The Couch, Story Corps, Fresh Air, The Moth, TED Radio Hour and The School of Greatness, Propuh Podcast, Pop Culture Happy Hour)
- Portable speaker for playing Spotify playlists
- Vitalis cereal
- Paski Sir (Pag cheese)
- Sunsets by the sea organ
- Boats in the harbor
- Jana forest fruit cranberry iced tea
- Kras chocolate with hazelnuts (locally made)
- Sour cherry strudel
- Students not distracted by cellphones
- Long conversations at cafes
- Unsolicited help in any form – Croatians are friendly!
- Lavender in small fragrant pouches sold everywhere
- WhatsApp (a must for texting and video chats)
- Throw blanket and portable heater (it gets chilly)
- Not being with my family and friends for a long time
- Silence in classrooms
- Skill and drill worksheets in college
- Darkness at 4:30 p.m.
- Military time
- Bus station walks
- Unreliable Google maps
- Electric stove top
- Absence of Mexican food (I miss guacamole!)
- Torrential rain for days
- Hearing shouting from the Old Town bar crowd walking home at 2:00 a.m. on most weekends
- Lack of fast food (it’s embarrassing, but true)
Run Forrest, Run!
There’s a line in one of my favorite movies, “Forrest Gump,” staring Tom Hanks, where his friend is urging him to run away and proclaims, “Run Forrest, run!” One way I regulate my emotions is to run. Maybe it is because I grew up moving every few years and internalized this idea, but during big, life-altering events, I tend to run. When my mother lay dying in a hospice bed in our home and she was gasping for breath, I asked my Dad if I could go upstairs – I could not bring myself to hear her struggle to breathe any longer. Later that evening she died and I returned to her bedside in the morning, feeling guilty. When my father in-law died, I visited him in the hospital and went to his wake at our church, St. Thomas the Apostle, but was so heartbroken (I was very close to my father in-law and confided in him – he was one of my life heroes), I asked my husband if he would be okay if I took our daughters to their Irish dance competition previously scheduled during his funeral mass. I felt so weak from crying about his loss, I wanted to run. And I did. More guilt. When my Dad died of acute myeloid leukemia, the first thing I did was get into my car and run to Saugatuck, Michigan, our safe place, our cottage. I physically ran along the shores of Oval Beach and cried, screamed and mourned my Dad’s death. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to run. And when our daughters both went to college this year and we had an empty nest, I knew they would be leaving and did not want to face an empty house, empty rooms and my empty heart. Not to be dramatic, but part of this time in Croatia was me running away – far, far away for awhile.
Admittedly, there’s a certain rush that comes from running – it’s the realization that not all problems necessitate solutions, not all queries require clarification. When I don’t have the patience or perspective needed to arrive at logical solutions, I run. It is empowering in a way because I can take my life back by ignoring parts that are painful. When I am in a new physical place, the pain can be out of sight, out of mind because I have new things to focus on.
But the mental gymnastics of running can be exhausting. I felt this at times being in Croatia and trying to belong. Am I a transient? Am I an interloper? I consider myself independent and am not generally comfortable asking for help. I like to rely upon myself. But in Croatia it became clear that my emotional ties run deep to being home, being with family, being with friends. I craved interaction with those who knew me well. And although updating my current city on Facebook was exciting, it also reminded me that I had left behind people I love most. I was trying to grab at something new with open arms, yet couldn’t figure out why it felt like I kept dropping it. I was fully invested in this venture and at the same time missed all of the sweet memories of home. Was I fully present or running again?
In Croatia I could no longer run from myself, but had to stay in place to work through getting to know myself, a person who can face challenges with passion and strength. I also needed to realize that my family and friends back home were not frozen in time and life was humming along while I spent a few months teaching in Croatia. My husband was juggling being a temporary single dad, packing up our house after we sold it and moving into a new house, working and paying the bills. He was our anchor, literally staying grounded while I was away.
Brian had been on double duty since we decided to make multiple moves all at once: our downsizing move from Naperville to Wheaton, our move to build a new primary home in Michigan, moving our daughter Morgan to college in New York to begin her senior year, moving our daughter Madison to college in California to begin her freshman year, moving me to Croatia for a semester while Brian moved in with his generous brother Mike and our sister in-law Janet before moving into our new tiny house in Wheaton. Brian really has been the glue holding us together this year. He steps forward to paint, unpack boxes, pick up extra shifts at work, take his mom to church and send care packages to Croatia. If you are lucky to find a partner who nurtures your wanderlust and supports a delicate balancing act between family, work and home, you are very lucky. I can’t wait to be reunited with my husband, our rock star who will cross the ocean and back with a smile.
Some days in Croatia were literally about persevering because of so many unfamiliar nuances, sensory images and longing for a consistent and comfortable routine. It was a mixture of hardship and blessings, which sometimes appeared confusing. I was so thankful, yet I complained. On low days I felt like the soundtrack from the movie Chicago was on repeat, playing John C. Reilly’s haunting song, “Mr. Cellophane:”
Shoulda Been My Name
‘Cause You Can Look Right Through Me
Walk Right By Me
And Never Know I’m There…
I felt anonymous and invisible in a city bustling with people – not speaking my home language, not eating my home food, but only seeing me as an “other.” From the thin walls of my apartment I could hear people walking by on the street, laughing, talking and singing. They surrounded each other in pairs and groups and I was three stories above them, sitting alone at the kitchen table. We were together, yet separated. I like to believe that any struggle we’re up against can be met by facing it or sometimes running from it. But when we change our environment and shift our mindset, we can re-set. We can be bold enough to step outside our comfort zones. There are times in life when we need to detach, to step outside of our regular environments and allow ourselves the chance to change.
To the people who run like me, leaving can be more comfortable than staying. Running can be easier than remaining. Packing up your life and flinging it into a state of perpetual chaos is your unique way of staying comfortable, because as long as we’re leaving, we have some sense of control. We choose the chaos. I am most comfortable with self-inflicted change, not externally imposed change.
Ironically, when you know yourself, the answers are often in stepping outside of your comfort zone. It is an impulse telling me to go. Living involves a careful balance between staying and going — understanding when to run and when to stand your ground.
And it was within these few months teaching in Zadar on the coast of Dalmatia, surrounded by the Adriatic Sea, that I thankfully found my way back home.