The Travel Curse: #1 – Croatia, First Time Abroad

My first taste of life abroad came in 2008 when I opted to do two months of my student teaching in Zagreb, Croatia. I was naive, ignorant of geography, and very sheltered; the only time I had ever been on a plane was two months earlier when I flew to Kentucky for a conference.

To say I chose to teach in Zagreb would be misleading. I was given a list of schools and countries that partnered with my college and asked to rank my top three choices. Unsurprisingly, Ireland occupied my top slot followed by Italy, and I struggled with number three.

“Hmm, Croatia. Isn’t that an island off the coast of Italy?” I wondered. Deciding that it was, I added it to the list and waited to see if I’d be accepted.

I distinctly remember my interview. I interviewed with three professors I had never seen before, one of whom could have been a hostile Stanley Tucci doppelganger. This short, bald man donned a turquoise cable-knit sweater over a white turtle neck and resented me for no reason at all. I eagerly described my reasons for wanting to teach abroad until he cut in.

“You’ve never been out of the country before? Why now? Things are going to go wrong. Maybe you won’t have hot water or your electricity will be shut off. What will you do? You won’t be able to call Mommy and Daddy for help.”

Stunned, I provided some mangled response and finished off the interview before retreating to a bench and crying on the phone to my friend Dave. I was angry that the man had challenged me, but now, more than anything, I wanted to prove him wrong.

I was accepted to the American International School of Zagreb, and was due to leave on January 4, 2008. One other girl would be teaching there also, and we would be sharing an apartment. Though she attended my college, I didn’t know her very well. Looking back, I realize that my experience would have been drastically different had she not been there.

To say I was ignorant is a vast understatement. Instead of researching the country I was going to, I threw all of my energy into developing perfect unit plans and cramming the bare minimum into one suitcase. (That’s right, one. I figured I could do a lot with seven shirts in two months.) It was January 3rd that I looked up Croatia and saw that it was not an island at all, nor would it be warm there. Still, I envisioned teaching in a breezy coastal town nestled against the Adriatic.

like zadar, pictured here

My father dropped me off at the airport where I quickly found Liz, my traveling companion. Liz was a very vocal Long Islander with an edge and some street credit. While I hefted my suitcase nervously, waiting for people to pass, Liz shoved her trolly full of leopard print suitcases directly into the line of people in front of us. Much later, my dad confessed that he had been seriously worried for me going abroad but these worries had quickly diminished upon meeting Liz. (Thanks for the vote of confidence, Dad!)

Once we vanished through security and I could no longer see my father, panic set in. Why was I doing this? What did I have to prove? What was the point? Just beyond the terminal gates was New Jersey, my home. I could run out of the airport and call my family, my friends, anybody, and have them pick me up.

We waited in the airport for almost two hours before boarding the plane, and they were some of the longest two hours of my life. Liz was enjoying herself; she had purchased a soft pretzel and was snacking on it, her feet propped up on her carryon, headphones in her ears. I had no appetite and passed the time by sending desperate texts to my best friends, declaring my love for them and how badly I was going to miss them.

It was dark when our plane took off and I realized there was no turning back. I watched our flight path on the screen, and it wasn’t long before our plane was soaring over the Atlantic Ocean. Watching the virtual plane flying over the huge ocean was unnerving; there was something unbearably isolating about it all, and I couldn’t shake the feeling. I couldn’t listen to music, because all the songs reminded me of my friends. I couldn’t read a book because I was too jittery. Instead, I watched the in-flight movie and caught a cold.

We arrived in Amsterdam the following morning, and I started to feel okay about everything. Liz and I checked with the desk about our luggage to make sure it was being sent through to Zagreb, and then we waited for our flight to Croatia. This airplane was a glorified paper towel tube; small and cramped, the plane seemed to fly directly against the sun. The food was awful, and the altitude changes combined with my cold had a painful effect on my ears. I spent the entire two hour flight feeling like someone was driving a knife into my eardrums.

When we finally landed, relief was short-lived. We waited at the baggage carousel for a half an hour before going to the desk.

“Your luggage isn’t here,” replied the bored-looking employee. “You were supposed to recheck it in Amsterdam.”

“Well we don’t have anything,” Liz argued while I fought back tears. “What are we supposed to do? When will it get here?”

At this point, we were with the driver the school had sent, and he managed to speak to the attendant in Croatian and procure us little baggies with bathroom essentials. This did nothing to satisfy me. How would I wash with a tiny slab of soap? Why bother to shampoo my hair – if they’d provided shampoo – if I didn’t have a blow dryer?

“They say the luggage should be here tomorrow. I’ll pick you up and we’ll come back and check,” the school representative told us.

He drove us through snowy streets and over icy rivers into Zagreb, politely rattling off the town’s history. Liz asked questions and I observed my surroundings with a mixture of panic and deafness, as my ears were now completely clogged. Zagreb was not a breezy coastal town. It was a snowy, monochrome landscape that looked dirty and gray.

it looked nice at night, though

Our apartment building boasted an inky gray exterior and a few broken windows. The stairway reeked of cigarette smoke. While our apartment was welcoming, it was cold inside and our kitchen was bare. The school had provided us with necessities: bread, cereal, boxed milk, water, wine, and crackers.

“Tomorrow the headmaster will come by and show you around. He’ll take you grocery shopping then,” said our driver. Then, with a shrug, he said good-bye.

The silence and solitude were deafening.

How am I going to last TWO months here? I thought. Oh my God. I have to live here for two months.

Two months suddenly seemed like an eternity, and I wanted to cry. Instead, I followed Liz around as she inspected each room.

“Let’s play rock, paper, scissors to see who gets the big bedroom,” she suggested at once. The big bedroom, as she called it, had a queen sized bed, two wardrobes, and a wall of windows overlooking the city. The other bedroom had one stand-up closet, looked like it might be a closet itself, and had one, small, twin-sized bed.

Guess who lost rock, paper, scissors?

I placed my single bag in the room and stood beside the bed, tears at the ready.

“You can do this,” I whispered. “It’s just two months.”

Now that we had arrived safely, I texted my family with the phone we’d gotten that worked abroad. Unfortunately, texts cost 50 cents and a phone call was outrageous. And the battery was dying. This was no problem, as I had my laptop. Liz and I went into the living room with our laptops, phones, and phone chargers and scooped out the adapters we’d brought from home.

“This should work,” Liz said, plugging them into the wall. The moment we switched on the power strip, there was a flash, a zap, and an exploding pop. The living room lights went out and so did our hope of charging the appliances.

“How much battery do you have on your laptop?” Liz asked me.

“I have some left. We can try and get internet,” I suggested meekly.

Judging by our luck, I should’ve known better. We carried my laptop all around the apartment for over an hour and picked up no signal. We’d been told the apartment didn’t have internet, but we’d hoped. Crushed, I brought my dying laptop back to my room and sat down.

It was barely four in the afternoon. It was dark and cold outside. I had no means of contacting my family or friends. I was sick. And despite Liz’s presence, I was lonely to my bones.

my bedroom

We spent the remainder of the afternoon watchingEverybody Loves Raymond, a show I’d never liked but found myself impossibly grateful for. Liz easily went off to bed around ten, but I lay in my dark room on the hard bed, unable to sleep.

I spent my first night in Croatia wide awake and crying, unable to sleep. The cable-knit sweater man had been right; I was not cut out for this. I had thought I knew loneliness because there had been times at home I’d been alone, endless days and nights I’d spent holed up in library. But I was wrong. This was loneliness. I was so cut off from everything, from technology, from company, from anything familiar. There was no comfort in knowing that anyone was close by. I was an ocean away. And I was sick and dirty.

That first weekend, the three days we had to “settle in” before school began, was one of the most difficult weekends I’ve had. Our luggage did not arrive at the airport on the following day, nor did it come the day after. My hair became laden with grease, and every night I lay down in my frigid bed wondering if I’d be able to sleep. My laptop died and, even though we bought new adapters, all of our other chargers were in the lost luggage. Each day Liz and the driver went to the airport and returned with little baggies of toothpaste and a toothbrush. Each day, we awoke to a cloudy sky that lasted all day. I wanted more than anything to call home or text my family and tell them how miserable I was, but I refused.

On the third day, we ventured out to an internet cafe and e-mailed home. I never told anyone how difficult it was for me there, partially because I knew they would feel helpless and couldn’t help me, and partly because I knew that there were circumstances far worse than this, and I felt guilty and pathetic for feeling so upset.

the steps we walked up en route to school (there were 161 of them)

It did get better. Our luggage eventually showed up and I was able to take a shower. Once teaching began, we fell into routines and I felt immensely better. We found internet in the apartment at the beginning of February, and I was able to connect with my family. One night in February, when we had two colleagues over for dinner, Liz confessed that the first weekend had been horrible for her.

“I wanted to get back on the plane and leave,” she told me. “I completely panicked. I spent the night crying in my room.”

This had shocked me. We both laughed at the idea of both of us, each feeling miserable, each alone in her room crying, each too embarrassed to say anything to the other, suffering in solitude.

When February came, I was very happy to go home. It might be one of the happiest homecomings I’ve had – despite the out-of-your-seat turbulence on the flight home and having to circle the airport for two hours. It had been hard, but teaching in Croatia was one of the best decisions I ever made, and I know that it’s a big part of the reason I’m here in Egypt now. I was able to overcome the feelings of intense solitude and panic, to get the most out of an incredible experience, and to travel. I became a different person because of that trip.

And I proved that interviewer wrong.

february sunrise in zagreb

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