The days after death

“These feelings won’t go away … they’ve been knocking me sideways …”

For the two days after Grandma died, I walked around in a haze. Numb. Listening to the same song on repeat for 12 hours and not once getting sick of it, not once singing along. It was just background to my grief.

“There’s no words to describe it, in French or in English …”

I alternated between tears and silence. I had never felt so alone. So sad. So empty.

There was no one in Trogir.

I talked to my mom, messaged some friends, but even with their kind words, their love and support, they couldn’t erase the fact that I had no one to sit with me, to hold me, to tell me it was OK.

The first night was the hardest. After I wrote my last entry, I sent it to my mom to have her print it out and place with Grandma in her final resting place.

An hour later, I got an e-mail from Mom, reminding me once again how proud Grandma was of me, how much she liked what I had written and one little piece of information: She had asked Grandma to be my guardian angel and Grandma had nodded in agreement.

Now, I am not a believer in much. Never have been, likely never will. BUT, those words, aside from causing me to break into a fresh bout of sobs, also caused me to feel something I desperately needed when I was thousands of miles from home, from family, from hugs — comfort.

That night, I talked to Grandma. And, she told me she was OK. She placed her arms around me as I tucked the covers under my neck and hugged me.
Yes, I went to sleep with a tear-soaked face, but I also went to sleep feeling more at peace.

I went through a multitude of emotions in the next two days.

Sadness. Loneliness. Anger.

I’ve never had to mourn without the company of people I loved and who loved me, and being in Trogir, in Croatia, thousands and thousands of miles from home, was a test for me.

What do you do? How do you cope? How can you escape the myriad of thoughts running through your mind?

My homecoming wasn’t going to be happy. It was laden with grief. With loss.
Like a zombie, I walked through town, listening to “Sideways” on repeat for hours. I ate dinner. I sat outside. I was a robot, going through the motions. I wasn’t hungry. I wasn’t thirsty. And yet, I made myself eat. I made myself drink. I made myself keep moving.

I decided the next day I would head back to Zadar, spend the night there and then get a bus to the airport the following day.

On the morning I was departing Trogir, I wandered the town, looking for a Murano glass ring. I needed a quest to take my mind off of the sadness that was clouding every inch of me.

Then, I took the bus (without incident) back to Zadar.

“Well, diamonds they fade … and flowers they bloom … but I’m telling you, these feelings won’t go away … they’ve been knocking me sideways … I keep thinking in a moment that time will take them away … but these feelings won’t go away.”

The entire bus ride, the same song played on repeat.

I returned to Zadar, sat outside at a cafe on my last night of living in Europe. There was no ‘this is my unofficial last night in Europe’ night out. There was no ‘end of trip’ party. It came, and it went. I sat at the outdoor cafe, by myself, with some red wine.

Still numb. Still sad. Still a walking zombie.

The funeral was the day before I arrived home. I was too late, despite my best efforts.

In 48 hours I knew I would be home. Would be seeing my parents for the first time in 6 1/2 months. Would be able to sit in their arms, bury my head in their shoulders … and cry.

On my last official night in Europe, I had to resign myself to falling asleep listening to that same song on repeat, tears wetting my pillow and my heart heavy.

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Backtracking

I pulled up hostel after hostel, bus schedule after bus schedule, as I sat on my bunk bed in Zadar.

I had wanted to go up the coast to the Istria region of Croatia, to hop some islands before I boarded my flight from Zadar to Frankfurt, and from Frankfurt to Washington, DC.

No hostels. No beds. Too expensive.

What the hell am I going to do?

Staying in Zadar for four more nights was not an option. I didn’t need to go back to Zagreb. I had no desire to go back to Split and party away my remaining days in Europe.

Trogir.

I had wanted to go there, but opted to head to Zadar with Katie instead.
It’s a quick bus ride back.

Could I do three nights there?

It didn’t matter. I was going to.

The next morning, I crept out of the dorm room and walked to the bus stop, headed to the bus station, and boarded the first bus to Trogir.

Zadar and I don’t have the best bus relationship. Not even a year earlier, it was the scene of my bus riding debacle. Now, I have the whole riding-the-bus-thing under control, but on that afternoon, it didn’t matter.

As the bus wound around the inland road, it began to putter a little bit.

Great.

Then, we were pulled over at a little bus stop in the middle of nowhere.
The driver got out and walked around back. My eyes followed him as he returned to the bus, grabbed some sort of tool, and turned off the engine.
Oh, no.

For 15 minutes, we sat there. Finally, the heat began to get to me, so I grabbed my messenger bag and got off, sitting at the glass-encased stop, waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

After 20 more minutes, the driver motioned for us to get back on the bus.

Finally.

He started the engine. Then, a moment later, he turned it off.

There was little communication between him and the passengers. Everyone just got off of the bus.

“What’s going on?” I asked someone who spoke Croatian.

“The bus is broken. We have to wait here 20 minutes and a new bus will come and get us.”

Thank goodness I had no place to be. No flight to catch. An hour later, we were back on the road, in a new (and functioning) ride.

We arrived to Trogir shortly after and I found my way to the hostel, crossing a bridge over the water.

The hostel was cute, tucked into a little street behind a church.
There was nearly no one there.

I got a map, found out how to get to the beach (take a water taxi) and then went to get dinner. And a bottle of wine for later.

That night was a quiet one for me. I sat outside on the terrace messaging with Katie who had arrived safely to London (she hated the flight) and writing. And talking to my mom about my grandma.

“I just don’t know, D. I can’t tell you how long it could be,” she said. “It could be hours, days … I just don’t know.”

I’ll be home soon. It’s OK.

I could visualize my arrival on four days …

A group of people from the hostel parked themselves at the table next to me and we all began to chat. They were headed out. I was headed to bed.

The next day, I took myself to the beach. A gorgeous stretch of coast lined with little cafes and restaurants. I spent the entire day there. It was relaxing. It was beautiful. It was perfect.

What a great place to end my adventure. I’m so happy.

And then, when I got back to the hostel, that’s when everything changed.

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The final reunion

A wave of happiness rushed over me as soon as I saw Katie, sitting under an awning at the yellow bus station in Trogir.

The bus ride from Split to Trogir had taken a little longer than expected, and I had told her I would do my very best to meet her there by 10:30 a.m.

When the bus hit traffic heading out of Split, I began to get a little anxious.

One hour. I have one hour. Oh, Katie, please wait for me.

Fortunately, I was dropped off close to our agreed upon time. And, she was there. Laden with snacks for our 3-hour bus ride up to Zadar.

My smile grew larger and larger as I got closer to where she was sitting, and then she saw me, and smiled too.

“Hi!!!” I squealed, embracing her.

It felt so good to see her. Even if it had only been two nights since we last saw each other.

There is no better feeling when traveling to see a familiar face. Especially feeling the way I felt at that moment.

Together, we walked across the street to stand outside the Konzum to wait for our bus to stop and fetch us.

We had been told the buses come pretty regularly.

It took an hour. Under the beating late-morning sun.

“At least I can work on my tan,” I reasoned, dropping my bags at my feet and squinting my eyes up towards the sky.

While we waited, we kept ourselves entertained.

In Solta, David had tried to explain to us it was nearly impossible to not lick your lips while eating doughnuts.

And, Katie, being the awesome friend she is, remembered I liked doughnuts filled with jam.

She produced two from her plastic bag and we tried to prove David wrong.

Have you ever tried to not lick your lips while eating a doughnut? It’s hard.

I succeed a few times, but the little challenge grew tiring, so I succumbed and decided to just enjoy the fresh and delicious pastry.

Finally, a bus came and we got on. I looked back wistfully at the beautiful town of Trogir.

Next time, D.

Two hours later (not sure how we got there so quickly), we were in Zadar.
The bus station in Zadar is a hike from the old town where we had booked a hostel, so we decided to fork over the kuna and grab a cab to the city gate.

Zadar is not known for its hostels. There are really only two — the Old Town hostel where we stayed, and then a youth hostel outside of town. Both book up reasonably quickly, so we had been fortunate to reserve beds.

She and I made our way down the slippery marble main street of Zadar and found our hostel. It was smack in the middle of the little city, near an abundance of outdoor cafes and shops.

It was a perfect location.

We climbed the four flights of stairs and dropped our bags in our room.
We had one night together in Zadar. The next evening, she was boarding a flight to London.

We spent the afternoon lazily, grabbing an amazing lunch down the street from us, toying around on the Internet and relaxing.

Zadar is a small town — there isn’t much to do unless you take a boat tour of the Kornati Islands. Most of the tours go all day and are a bit pricey, so we opted to just chill out.

That night, we walked to the water and had a gourmet dinner with a spectacular sunset over the sea as our background. The oranges and pinks blending into the greens and blues, finally giving way to the black night sky.

It was expensive as far as backpacker dining goes, but it didn’t matter to me. I had less than a week left, and it was my last dinner (for real) with Katie in Europe.

After dinner, I insisted we stop by the Sea Organ and the Salutation to the Sun, both beautiful must-sees in Zadar. Then, we mozied through town, stopping at a little bar near the hostel and grabbing some beers. After a big beer or two each, it was time for sleep.

The  next day, she, Brian (a guy who I met in Sarajevo and ran into again in Zadar) and I toured the city, wandering down its twisting alleys, eating and drinking.

Katie doesn’t like to fly, so we had to accompany her to the cafes while she sipped wine. And well, she couldn’t drink alone now, could she?

In the late afternoon, she headed to the bus stop to catch a ride to the airport.

In just a few shorts days, I would do exactly the same.

I hugged her tight, promising we would see each other once she returned to America, and then she was gone.

Brian and I walked back to the hostel. He was prepping to go out. I was not.
I found myself craving some “me” time, so that night I stayed in, reading my book and writing.

And researching where I would go next.

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Realization

I never imagined my brain would tell me I wanted to go home. Early. But, it did that night in Split.

I had 10 days left of my trip. Originally, and for months, I had planned on extending my adventure, heading to Spain (for the sixth time), back to Merida to see my friends and celebrate my birthday on October 1.  I had looked at my funds earlier in the day, looked at the cost to get there, looked at the penalties I would face to change my flight, calculated the extra cost of staying in Europe for three more weeks, and realized it was just entirely not going to happen.

Suddenly, my body ached. My mind was exhausted. I craved my family. I craved a good night’s sleep. I craved home. I wanted to be with my mom as she coped with my grandma’s sickness. I wanted to be with my grandma.

I think I’m ready.

Realizing it is time to end the trip of a lifetime was hard for me. I struggled with the idea of ending it — especially early. I had ended my first trip in Europe early (for entirely different reasons) and had promised myself I would return and do the trip right the next time.

This adventure was my do-over.

And now, my do-over was starting to wear me thin.

I called my Dad.

“I want to come home. I want to be with my family. This is so hard to be away from home. I want to see grandma.”

“D,” he said quietly, “There is no guarantee that when you get home she will still be here.”

“I know,” I said, fighting back tears, “But I at least want to try.”

I messaged friends.

“Are you sure you want to come home early?” They all asked the same question.

“Yes.”

It’s time.

I called United and engaged in a three-hour long battle over changing my ticket.

Then, around 9 p.m., it was set.

I was coming home. Four days early. Which wasn’t much, but I hoped it would get me back in time to see my grandma. I told Dad not to let Mom know about my arrival. Together, we plotted a surprise arrival and I could hardly sleep that night knowing how happy my mom would be when I walked through the front door four days early.

During my epic fight with United, Katie messaged me from Trogir.

“Come up here!” she urged. “Meet me tomorrow and we can go to Zadar together!”

I was going to say no, then I looked around me.

I don’t want to be in Split anymore. I want to be with Katie. I want my friend back. I NEED a friend.

So, I agreed.

The next morning, after nearly oversleeping and power-walking to the bus stop in Split, I was reunited with Katie for the third time in as many weeks.

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What I learned in Croatia (The List)

1. If you want Zagreb’s Upper Town to yourself for wandering, it is deserted at 2 a.m. There is nothing more magical than having the city in your hands to breathe in. Even if nothing is open, to walk on the old streets, to see the gothic buildings, it is an amazing experience. Bonus points if you have someone with you to share the moment. And even more bonus points if the person is a cutie. A Hollywood ending. Almost.

2. For a trip back in time and an eerily beautiful moment of peace, wander around Zagreb’s Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s grounds. It is quiet — a great place to do some writing, thinking, or relaxing.  The unconventional tourist.

3. Plitvice Lakes National Park is quite possibly one of the most beautiful places on Earth. The bluegreen water, the waterfalls that lightly mist you as you walk by, the winding wooden paths — every turn is something new and more beautiful than the next. It’s about two hours from Zadar and Zagreb and a great day trip. Should you want to stay longer, there are a few hotels in the park. The prettiest day trip ever.

4. Don’t get lost. Or take the wrong bus. And, if you do, hope for the bus driver I had in Zadar. Quite possibly one of the kindest souls I have ever met. Remember — if you’re not sure what bus to take, or if the gate number is the seat number of vice-versa, ask. Croatian’s are remarkably wonderful and helpful. English isn’t a common in Croatia, but the closer you are to the tourist areas, the better chance you have. If someone doesn’t speak English, they will help direct you the best they can. I’ve always relied on the kindness of strangers.

5. Take the time to stop in Zadar. If you are time crunched while traveling Croatia, it is a great starting point to kick of Adriatic coastal adventures.  There are a lot of ferries from the city, as well as tours of the surrounding islands. While visiting the old city, be sure to head to the water and swing by the Sea Organ. It’s haunting melodies still play in my mind. Plus, the grilled corn is delicious. A Hollywood ending. Almost.

6. Spend at least two days in Split. Climb to the top of the cathedral in the old city for captivating views of the entire city and Adriatic. Every nook and cranny in the main square has something wonderful. Next to the Lacoste shop is a great little food stop with delicious breakfasts cooked fresh while you wait. The egg sandwich is mouth-watering. This could be heaven.

7. While in Split, make sure you hit the beach. The one with the sand. It’s outside the old city and perfect for swimming, sunning and people watching. Plus,  if you have the right company, it will change your life. Instantaneous enlightenment on the Adriatic.

8. If you want to bare it all in Croatia, you can. There are plenty of nudie beaches up and down the coast to run around sans your skivvies. Just  mind where you jump. Birthday suits and Split.

9. An hour ferry trip from Split is Hvar, an upscale island covered in lavender. Hvar’s beaches are rocky and pebble-y. It’s not too bad, but if you want smooth sand, venture to a surrounding island. Renting a little motor boat won’t cost too much, and you can negotiate. Rocky, rocky, pebble-y, pebble-y.

10. A bathroom can lead to another bathroom. And, it is possible to shimmy from one bathing suit into another without revealing anything. Well, almost. Booze, boobs and a beach bar.

11. The sea is not free of dangers. Those little black spiky things in the water? They are not your friends. In fact, Sea Urchin are the devil. No, seriously. There’s WHAT in the water?

12. Never say “goodbye” to the travelers you meet. You never know, you may just cross paths with them again. It’s not “goodbye,” it’s “see you soon.”

13. The bus ride from Split to Dubrovnik is a MUST. Yes, you hug the cliffs, but you also see some of the most stunning sights on the Adriatic. The city of stairs.

14. Dubrovnik is a city of stairs. Be prepared. The city of stairs.

15. Opening yourself to new people, new places and new opportunities can change your entire world. A BRIEF intermission: My 30-Life-Crisis … Solved?

Do you have questions about Croatia? Tips you want to share? Be sure to leave a comment.

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I’ve always relied on the kindness of strangers

 

The thing about traveling is you learn to roll with the punches.

Flight delayed? No problem. I’ll just go to the bar, grab a nice glass of red wine.

Flight canceled? Well, ok. I will get on the phone and re-book on another flight if the airline doesn’t do so for me. I’ve even slept in an airport (pre 9/11) to catch a flight the next morning.

Basically, I have learned you just do what you need to do to make it from Point A to Point B.

However, sometimes, there is only so much you can do. In reality, it is up to others most times to get you to your final destination.
Never has this rang more true than during my stay in Zadar.

After wandering through the old city, I stopped back into the internet cafe to check my e-mail one last time and then planned on catching a cab. I asked the girl at the cafe where I could catch a ride back to my Sobe and she told me I could do so on the other side of the foot bridge from the old city. I walked across the bridge, grabbing some amazing grilled corn from a street vendor on the way (I was starving and had not eaten since the feast Amy and I had earlier at Plitvice).  When I got across the bridge, there were no cabs. There was little activity going on at all. So, I stopped in to a restaurant and asked how I could get home.

“You will need to take the bus,” the server explained. “It is just up there. But, you have to hurry. It’s the last one tonight.”

With a new sense of urgency, I tossed the grilled corn that served as my dinner and booked it “just up there” (funny, no one ever really tells you exactly where, it’s always “just down there,” “or go a little and it will be there,” etc.). I got to the bus stop and looked at the map against the tagged plexiglass wall. It was a myriad of roads with large numbers overlayed, separating the city into numeric sections. I pulled out my map for reference, trying to make sense of it.

I figured out I needed to get on Bus 1. But, where to get off the bus to walk back to the Sobe? I had no clue.

Luckily, a girl was at the stop with me and she spoke a little bit of broken English. I showed her on my map where I was going.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I will take you there.”

So, we boarded the bus, and when it was time to get off, she got off with me, asking me to pull out the map again.

She looked at the map. Looked around at where we were. Looked at the map. Looked at me.

“Sorry,” she said. “I don’t know where you are going.”

I was about to get snappy with her. It was past midnight. I was exhausted. I was sad. I was, now, apparently, LOST. But, I stopped myself. She didn’t need to help me in the first place. The fact that she even tried was enough for me.

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The prettiest day trip ever

 

Before learning Jon was not going to be meeting me in Zadar, Amy and I adventured to Plitvice Lakes National Park.

After an hour of sleep, a haul to the bus station, and the pure adrenaline and hope pumping through my veins at what the day would bring, sinking into the seat on the bus was divine.

Quickly, my head bobbed to the window and sleep coursed through my blood. There were a few times along the way when my eyes would flutter open and I would marvel at the road we journeyed down. Amy had nudged me at one point to show me homes that had been destroyed by the 90s war; another time I was greeted with the sight of turn-of-the-century homes teetering over waterfalls and rushing waters.

When we finally arrived to Plitvice, you wouldn’t have known what was contained beyond the thick forest where we departed the bus.

To say Plitvice Lakes is a stunner would be an understatement. Its sheer technicolor natural beauty around each and every meandering turn is jaw-dropping. Its 16 turquoise lakes link together through waterfalls cascading down sheer rock cliffs. Unlike most water bodies I have seen, you can see straight to the bottom with astounding clarity. That twig resting on the lake floor? You can see even the most minute detail.

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