I was sitting on the sun-soaked balcony of my London apartment, taking in the verdant greenery sprouting from the flowering pots around me. I replaced the sounds of traffic with my favourite playlist streaming through the headphones and lifted my bare legs onto the white cushion of the rattan chair in front of me. Fully stretched in the sun, I picked up Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights and lost myself in the story she weaved. As she described Kunicki’s wanders around the island of Vis, I too traveled back to the sunny coasts of Croatia. Between the warm kisses of the spring sun against my skin and the elaborate descriptions of the vineyards and rocky coastline of the Balkans, my bank holiday Friday managed to transform into a true retreat. With no plans for the day, and no obligations to meet, I was able to slip into the relaxed ease that usually comes with the laziness of beach holidays.
Although thanks to my natural introversion, I have been finding the self-imposed quarantine brought on by the pandemic significantly easier than most, I missed the freedom to travel and was occasionally giving in to the worry associated with the uncertainty as to when “normal” life would resume. I thought of writing many times, but somewhere between adjusting to the changes in my personal and professional circumstances, I felt my creativity mirroring the cold and gloomy weather outside. I became more introspective, removing myself from social interactions even more than usual – partly to shelter my mind from the negativity around me, partly in search of a respite from the constant bombardment of messages, memes and news that all my devices seemed to be exploding with. But just like nature coming alive with the first rays of the sun, so was my soul retuning to the world of the living. It was time to rejoin the world, to flourish and to go back to writing.
There is a complex, invisible network of connections between writing and reading – as if somehow the mere existence of the written form has an ability to generate more words. Just like the budding process in mushrooms, so the words seem able to reproduce each other and the more I read about Croatia, the more I could feel the words I had been bottling up trying to escape. It’s been nearly a year since I traveled to the Dalmatian coast but the more I read about someone else’s experience, the more flooded my mind became with memories that demanded capturing.
My husband and I had been staying in the downtown Dubrovnik, spending lazy days swimming in the refreshing waters of the Adriatic or taking breaks from the summer sun in the shade of the nearby cafe where we sipped frozen coffees while observing families roasting on the towels awkardly arranged across the pebbled shore. We had been in Croatia for a few days when we decided we should explore the country beyond the trips to the local beach and evening strolls through the romantic cobbled streets of the medieval town.
There was a sense of excitement in finding our way to the local islands. The tour guides everywhere tried to sell us the island-hopping tour, but knowing there are ferries used by the Croatians traveling to and from the mainland on a daily basis, we decided to head to the port and ask around. Soon afterwards we were on board the local ship, which for a fraction of the tour’s price was taking us to the Elaphite Islands. Thanks to the sun-kissed wind and the ever-changing views, the journey seemed to pass quickly and before we knew it, we were disembarking.
Arriving at the local island was like stepping into a different world – charming and relaxed, where time seemed to have stopped. The crystal clear waters and the ever-present greenery seemed to point towards the harmony between the local population and the nature. Humans occupied the coastline, but let the wilderness reign everywhere else. There was a sense of pleasant escape from the buzz of the mainland, as if the Croatians living on the island have purposefully chosen their self-isolation, recognising the value that lies in withdrawing from the mainstream and exchanging the commercial charm and opportunities of the larger city for the simpler yet meaningful life driven by nature and connections with those around them.
There is a passage in Flights that really resonated with me. In it Tokarczuk writes “According to travel psychology, the island represents our earliest, most primal state prior to socialisation, when the ego has already individualised enough to attain a certain level of self-awareness, but without yet having entered into complete, fulfilling relationships with its surroundings. The island state is a state of remaining within one’s own boundaries, undisturbed by any external influence; it resembles a kind of narcissism or even autism. One satisfied all one’s needs on one’s own.” In these few sentences the Polish Nobel laureate managed to capture the essence of what I recognised on that Croatian island, as well as what I was seeing around me in the midst of the pandemic.
Like the islands of the Dalmatian coast, isolated but self-sufficient, now was the time for which we have been learning to cultivate the art of independent existence. The life on the islands is different to the mainland, your physical perimeter may be smaller but your life can be just as big. Some may feel trapped, constantly comparing the little piece of land to the great opportunities of the mainland only to one day realise that all they ever needed was right there next to them. Because what we truly need is water, food and love with a dash of dreams to sprinkle on top. It’s not the physical lock down that traps us but the limitations of our own minds and the constant search for distractions. We all know this too shall pass, so why not make the most of this unusual time? Why not take this opportunity to organise those old photos and connect with your loved ones in reminiscence of the good memories you brought from those trips? Why not replace the frustration with inability to travel, with getting lost in a new country through the pages of a book? Why not travel to Spain from your balcony by practicing Spanish over the phone with a friend as you sip on a home made Sangria in the sun? Our bodies might not be able to travel far, but our minds are as free as ever.
We must always remember to walk towards the light.