An abrupt change of plans.
At the Croatian border, our bus weaves into a silver compound. Uniformed Croats empty a hatchback of its luggage, its passengers vulnerably looking on. Our bus lets out a great huff of air and goes silent. The driver stands and sweeps his hands about his face, urging the passengers to exit. We enter a queue to have our passports checked. I watch as a stern-looking Croat glances over EU passports, handing each back without disruption.
I hand the man my passport as I approach the partition. He takes a hard look at the young, thin man with a thick head of hair in my passport photo. He squints up at my face like he’s trying to recall how he knows me. And before I can stop him, he pounds a stamp onto one of the last spaces in the visa section of my passport.
In this instant, my plans for the coming months abruptly rearrange themselves. Initially I had dreamed of roaming the Eastern European cities freely, trekking through Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Bulgaria, and all the other unfamiliar places that time would allow. I did not, however, understand the complicated system for stamps in Europe. As an American I’m required to get an entrance and exit stamp for each of these countries. But the last two years of travel has left my passport with one page of visa space. And without getting into the boring details I’ve been hammering out as far as regulations, long story short I can’t continue through Eastern Europe. After Croatia I’ll need to get back to the Schengen zone and spend the rest of my time there until using my last remaining visa space to get home.
I shrug, not quite disappointed. There are things outside my control and there’s no use fretting over them. Also, there’s plenty I haven’t seen in the Schengen zone. A passport heavy with ink is a good problem, and one I wouldn’t have dreamed of facing three years back.
An hour later, our bus shudders to a halt in the Zagreb station. I shoulder my tattered bags and walk across town to my hostel. Blue trams whizz by in the middle of the road. The streets zigzag between ornate yellow buildings. Empty stages are constructed in each of the squares, adjacent to bronzed statues of horseman frozen in a charge. Red and white-checkered cloth hangs in every shop. Many men and women in the street wear this same pattern, supporting the national team for their game in the evening.
My time in Zagreb is fairly lonely. I eat in outdoor garden spaces without company, gruff Croatian language echoing around me. In the evening I meet locals in our hostel bar. The space is fun, and the people are friendly, but something nags me about the temporal nature of these encounters. It’s unlikely I’ll ever meet the Zagreb city-folk again, and the other travelers are on a path where I can no longer follow. My time in Croatia suddenly feels like an aberration, and this makes me homesick.
After two days of working and wandering the capital, I board a bus for Zadar. From the station I trek a long sunny road through a deep, lush park and through a city gate. Within the old town there are no cars. The walkways are slick with use, polished squares gleaming by the sea. I check into my hostel on a lazy corner, close enough to hear the Adriatic waves crashing along the boardwalk nearby.
My deadlines doesn’t allow for any exploration on my first day. I set up my laptop in a tiny fluorescent kitchen, put on my glasses, insert my earbuds, and get to work.
After a couple hours I overhear a conversation from the office around the corner. The owner, in loud bursting language, is bemoaning the fact that he’s received a very bad review from a guest. He’s asking some shy English girls to help him with his reply. As I listen, it becomes clear to me that the man is not adept with the language, and that the girls have no idea how to help him. I sigh. I know I can help, so I shut my laptop.
I’m in the office with the man for an hour, correcting his availability, answering his reviews with thoughtful comments, and explaining to him and his staff how to move forward doing this in the future. Hotels were my business for several years and the work still feels simple and logical to me. I even find myself enjoying the tasks, remembering how satisfying it was to make an unhappy customer into something closer to a friend.
The man thanks me profusely. He shakes my hands, clutching them in his large paws. As we speak he interrupts often and loudly, too excited to contain himself. He smiles broadly and offers to wash my laundry, free of charge. I accept the offer and get back to work.
As I’m hammering away on my laptop, a young Canadian girl sits across from me at the table. She video chats with someone, the two pausing so long and so frequently that I often think she’s hung up. The girl relays a story of blacking out on a beach and waking in her hostel, someone thankfully having deposited her there. I want to say something paternal here, but decide against outing myself as an eavesdropper.
I work into the early morning hours, then pack up and head to my room. When I wake up, I realize the girl is sleeping in the bunk above my own. I meet her older cousin and we get along instantly. As I speak with her, I feel relieved that she’s travelling with her younger family member (a sentiment which I’m sure is echoed in the young girl’s parents). We spend the next few nights as an occasional trio, but for when I’m working in the mornings and when I take leave to explore the gay beach a short bus ride away. I use the words gay beach haphazardly, as Croatians are notoriously closeted. All of the men I meet in Zadar also sleep with women, and are sure to announce this to me before any physical relation ensues. It takes everything in me not to roll my eyes deep into my head when I hear this for the sixth time.
The girls, a Californian man, and I go dancing one night, in a completely empty club, our shoes kicked off, our feet polished black by the dark wooden floors. Afterward, we go to the sea organ, a collection of pipes carved into the boardwalk that play random symphonies with the tide. A large LED display, a blessing to the sun, beats in and out in fantastic color. We lie on our backs to look at the stars, then strip naked and leap into the inky waves.