I was 21 the first time I left. I was standing in the Chicago O’Hare airport, holding back tears and feeling that uncomfortable knot in my throat as I hugged my mother and said “I’ll see you soon, don’t worry.” The next 16 hours I sat with anticipation, wondering what life in Dubrovnik, Croatia would be like. I didn’t know a single person. I didn’t speak the language. I had only heard stories from my mother and Croatian grandfather.
Yet I had this overwhelming sensation that something was waiting for me in Dubrovnik. The minute I saw the sparking Adriatic from the airplane window, I felt like I was coming home.
My story with Croatia started when I studied abroad at Dubrovnik International University in the spring of 2015. Prior to this, I left home at 18 to study at Loyola University of Chicago. I spent three years falling in love with the Windy City and building a life for myself. I decided I needed a break from the fast-paced city life and my mom’s pictures of Dubrovnik’s Old Town began to pull at my heartstrings. In a matter of months, I found a study abroad program where I could continue my studies in political science and took the first step of a new chapter.
Studying abroad in Dubrovnik was a magical experience, and quite possibly some of the best 5 months of my life. Not only did I get to travel all around Croatia, I traveled around Europe as well. Unlike Chicago, I felt completely safe walking the streets alone in Dubrovnik and within a matter of months knew half the town. I made both American and Croatian friends. I felt my Croatian roots come to life, like I was reliving my heritage.
The biggest game changer was falling in love with my classmate, a Croatian local from the Zupa area, who’s currently my boyfriend. It started as a “forbidden love”, being both emotionally unavailable for our own reasons, and blossomed into serious feelings we couldn’t ignore. When my study abroad program ended, I knew my chapter in Croatia wasn’t over. I knew I would be back; it was rather a question of when.
I didn’t realize how much Dubrovnik changed me until I came back to the United States. I had reverse culture shock, and many days felt overwhelmed to be back in a big city where I always had to watch my back. I watched as my career goals of becoming a lawyer started to change. I realized I just wanted to do what makes me happy. I felt like in America, that wasn’t enough.
Coming back to Dubrovnik at Christmastime was a no-brainer when my boyfriend wasn’t able to visit me in the United States. Staying with him and his family in a small village gave me a more authentic Croatian experience. Experiencing Badnjak and the Christmas festival along Stradun didn’t compare to any Christmas parades I saw in Chicago or Minnesota. It was my first Christmas in 22 years away from home, yet I realized I was building a new home in Dubrovnik.
I returned to Chicago to finish my final semester of college, but I was already ready to leave. The only thing keeping me was my incredible support system of friends and family, but I felt like half of me was across the world sitting on the rocks overlooking the Adriatic.
I once felt rushed to get into graduate school right away after college, but my time spent in Croatia reminded me that there’s still time. I was always highly ambitious in college, getting straight A’s while working and being involved in student organizations. Yet, I began to see that I was overworking myself. For once, I realized that if I kept going, I would get caught in a vicious cycle of unhappiness.
While my peers’ post-graduate plan was to find a shiny corporate job, mine was to find a one-way ticket back to Dubrovnik. After spending quality time with my friends and family, I was right back where I was a year and a half ago in Dubrovnik with my now boyfriend. I wanted to give myself time to relax after college, before hopefully finding a job or internship elsewhere in Europe. I came prepared to not return to America for a while.
In all honesty, living here, now immersed in local culture, is challenging. My Croatian is still terrible. I instantly cough in clouds of cigarette smoke. I always drop my coins everywhere at the Konzum checkout line, while the cashier is already ringing up the next customer. I’m the only one not singing every lyric at Croatian weddings. I’m an outsider on the inside.
But the fact that I keep coming back should say something. I gave up a lot to be here, but I regret nothing. Croatia has given me all the things the things my life in America was missing. I’m not staying in Dubrovnik forever, but when I do leave, I know I’ll be back again.
Alexandra Schmidt, also known as The Mindful Mermaid, is a globetrotting writer and travel blogger, who finds her self always coming back to Dubrovnik. She was raised in St. Paul, Minnesota and later moved to Chicago to study at Loyola University. She first came to Dubrovnik when she studied at Dubrovnik International University, and has returned to Dubrovnik several times since. She’s a mermaid-obsessed yogi, who passes her time playing guitar, exploring the great outdoors, and planning her next adventure. To find out more about Alex, you can visit her website or Facebook page.