Al and I have been away from home now for a few days short of three weeks. Our first week in Slovenia was a glorious montage of exciting new places, endless adventures, delicious food, and stunningly beautiful surroundings. On our last night in Slovenia, we swam in the sea; our heads bobbing up and down as we took in the panoramic view of Piran’s 600 year old skyline.
It was the perfect way to end our last night in our first country, filled with happiness, just like every day in Slovenia had been so far.
It wasn’t long before I started to wonder how long this feeling could last. Up until then, we were still spending each day walking around in a euphoric haze. In the back of my mind I knew the haze was bound to clear soon. Even though I was enjoying every moment, I was still catching myself looking over my shoulder after each perfect day, glancing up at the clouds waiting for the inevitable shit storm to roll in. It had to come eventually. Things couldn’t go on this way much longer.
I told my dad over FaceTime that I felt like everything was too good to be true. I had never experienced such a positive transition into long-term travel before, or into anything before, for that matter. This particular transition was going so well, that it made me nervous.
Over dinner that night, Al and I talked about this idea and realized that everything still had that vacation feeling to it, but since we weren’t on vacation, it was confusing. The longest vacation either of us have ever taken while working at home was two consecutive weeks (which, sadly, is actually considerably longer than many people in the US are able to take at any given time). We were still under the two-week mark at this point, so our brains were still filing our current experience accordingly, putting our default emotional setting squarely on ‘vacation mode.’
Anyone who enjoys a good vacation might understand the shift that happens when you are on one. Your mind slowly detaches itself from whatever it is you typically spend your non-vacation time thinking about. Time goes from revolving around a strict schedule, to an infinite stretch of freedom. You might spend your entire day rotating between reading and sleeping, or choose to fill it with endless activities and adventures.
The point is, on vacation, your day belongs to you. It’s your time. Your choice. Eventually the time runs out, and you pack it up and return back to “normal” life hopefully refreshed, and refocus on whatever daily obligations fill up the calendar.
So, that is the frame I was putting my mind in to understand how I was feeling every single day. Exactly as though I was on a vacation.
I worried about when the other shoe was going to drop, thinking that it was just unavoidable that once you get used to something, even something as exciting as travelling the world, the shine will eventually start to dull.
It was like there was part of me that still thought I might wake up after the two-week period ended, and find myself sitting back behind my old desk, as though this whole thing never happened.
Then, the next day, we left Slovenia and crossed over the border to Croatia, on the way to our first city, Pula.
We were sad to leave Slovenia, but made a pact almost immediately that we were going to do everything in our power to not compare everything we did in Croatia to our time in Slovenia. This would prove to be slightly more difficult at first than I realized.
Once we crossed the border into Croatia, it was like everything shifted slightly, but just enough that it was instantly noticeable. The landscape became flatter and drier, and the sky became just a little bit darker. Every five minutes, it seemed like we were stopped in the middle of the road to pay some outrageous toll fee, or to be handed a piece of paper advertising 40% of admission into a huge obnoxious Croatian water park.
I tried really hard not to think about turning the car around to the green rolling hills and stunning mountain ranges we had just left behind in the magical land of Slovenia.
We made several stops along the way in Pula, none of which seemed to work out for us. The caves we tried to visit were too crowded, so we didn’t go in. We stopped over in the town of Rovinj, a touristic city on the western side of the Istrian peninsula, and it was completely packed with people, to the point that we could hardly walk around.
At one point, we were walking down a long set of marble stairs in the middle of the city. There was a huge family of tourists taking up the entire stairway. I turned to Al to vocalize my irritation with them, and the second the first word moved from my brain to my mouth, I felt my feet fly out from under me. I tumbled down the stairs with my camera held high in the air, like a bouncing clumsy cartoon character. I fell down the stairs in front of the entire family I was getting ready to complain about. They understandably couldn’t hold in their laughter at me (and neither could Al, for that matter). A lesson in instant Karma, learned the hard way
I think it was then, lying on my ass at the bottom of the stairs in the middle of a crowded city, that I realized the vacation was over.
After I recovered, Al and I left Rovinj, and headed towards Pula. Once we arrived to Pula, we realized really quickly that the two days we had booked to spend there were more than enough. It was another crowded city, but unlike the other cities we had driven through, it didn’t have the occasional charm or cleanliness to balance it out. We were constantly stuck in traffic, or behind masses of people.
The main point of interest was the old Roman amphitheater, which is the 6th largest remaining Roman amphitheater in the world, something we genuinely enjoyed seeing:
Amphitheaters aside, we felt like we couldn’t wait to move on from Pula. The next day, we decided to drive about 25 minutes out of the city in search of something good to find, or at the very least some solitude. We stumbled across a beautiful national park. We spent the day reading, exploring, and swimming. I was finally starting to feel a little bit more fondly towards Croatia.
A couple days later, as we drove out of Pula, we both agreed that we had actually enjoyed our time there, despite all of the things that went wrong. Every moment wasn’t perfect (far from it), but we were able to find parts that we enjoyed and laugh about all of the things that we didn’t. We had made Pula fun, in spite of Pula itself.
I realized then that I no longer cared if things were perfect anymore. When I went on vacations at home, they carried so much expectation because I was so unhappy with my daily life. I always wanted to make sure I was optimizing every minute of freedom I had, because I could literally feel the clock running out each second. The last thing I wanted was to return home from a vacation feeling less rested than when I left.
The two-week mark had officially passed, and although I was right to think things would feel a bit differently, I was wrong to associate it with the negative feelings connected with the end of a vacation.
This trip is not a vacation. This trip is my life now. I am constantly learning and growing, and often that means I am uncomfortable. Some days will be amazing beyond belief, and some days will be irritable, frustrating, filled with homesickness, and sometimes, even boring.
Even when we were lost in the middle of a busy intersection, weak with hunger, and struggling to read the street signs for clues, I was frustrated, but I wasn’t truly miserable. Not even comparable to the kind of miserable I had felt so often before. And even sitting in my lowest feelings of the trip so far, I still didn’t wish I was back in Chicago, or anywhere else, or doing anything differently.
This may seem pretty obvious to most people, but it was a refreshing realization for me. What I didn’t realize before, but do now, is that bad times aren’t really that bad when you are feeling genuinely happy internally.
Sometimes you don’t realize how unhappy you were before, until you realize how happy you are now.
Anyway, it turns out all I really needed to do was just have a little bit of patience because Croatia started to turn around for us; dramatically and almost instantly after leaving Pula. We headed to Plitvicka for a night to visit the famous Plitvicka National Park (a park of glorious lakes and waterfalls).
It rained the entire day, but Al and I still considered ourselves lucky, because it meant we got the entire park to ourselves for hours. When we were leaving around noon, the rain had cleared and the line to get into the parks was over a mile long. We’d never been so thankful for the rain.
Unfortunately, my pictures are limited because of the weather, but just trust me that it was amazing.
After Plitvice, we drove to Zadar and the dry red landscapes from our first day in Croatia were completely forgotten:
I finally understood why everyone gushes over Croatia. It seemed like we were greeted with a new landscape every half hour:
Zadar was another busy city, but in a much better way than Pula (no offense to Pula, I’m sure there are plenty of people who love it there). Zadar was recently named Europe’s best destination of 2016. At first, we weren’t completely blown away, but the more time we spent in Zadar, the more we ‘got it’:
It was in Zadar that I found myself really falling in love with Croatia. It wasn’t in the instantaneous, head over heels way that we reacted with Slovenia, but it didn’t make it any less meaningful.
Now, we’re settled into a tiny, beautiful island town a few hours off the coast of Zadar (which I’ll save for my next post) and I can officially say, now that we’re in Croatia, the vacation is over.
And for the first time in as long as I can remember, I’m actually glad the vacation is over, because even when it is nowhere near perfect, ‘real life’ is so much better.