A summer in Croatia: parting with my inner perfectionist

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Kathryn Kemp/Staff

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s both a Bay Area native and a student at UC Berkeley, about midway through last semester, I found myself itching to “get out of here.” And “out of here” I went: I’ve just returned after spending seven weeks in Croatia, teaching English.

I felt like anyone I had talked to about their time abroad said their experience was “amazing.” And consequently, I found myself expecting a summer that was nothing short of “amazing.” If I’m being honest with myself, I think what I sought was a perfect summer, perhaps even an escape. The experience, however, was not perfect. If anything, it was a confrontation with reality.

I remember arriving that first evening in Split, where we had a week of training. I had been awake for 40 hours, was struggling to find my way to the hostel (turns out street signs are hard to read when they’re in a foreign language), and I was convinced that my luggage was about to rip off my arm. I was overcome with this unpleasant feeling that I was in way over my head. I was the youngest on my team and felt overwhelmed by the sense that I was entirely out of place.

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The days that followed were equally challenging. I kept thinking to myself, this is not how this is supposed to be. I felt guilty that I wasn’t soaking up all that this incredible place had to offer. I was putting pressure on every moment to be magical.

It was exhausting.

My first teaching placement was in a rural village, inland and closer to Hungary. I taught at the local English Language Club and was a camp counselor at a sleepaway camp, where we ate and slept. I remember pulling up to Koprivnica’s bus stop, the picturesque landscape coming into view.

I can vividly recall the expression of our “host grandfather,” Davor — his bright blue eyes and warm, strong grin eagerly awaiting us on the other side of the platform through the crowd. The next thing I remember is their puppy, Max, chasing through the flower bed to greet us “Amerikanke.” I was holding back tears from the unfamiliarity, trembling from exhaustion and yet, somehow, smiling with excitement.

… it eventually dawned on me that travel isn’t supposed to be anything. This first felt like giving up and like I had to lower my standards. But in reality, I was just letting go.

At times, I felt like we were foreign pieces thrown into a well-oiled piece of machinery, and it was harder to keep up than we had imagined. My energy level never seemed adequate, and as it turned out, this wasn’t just a personal observation. We soon discovered from one of the Croatian counselors that our hosts felt we “didn’t do much.” I was devastated that we’d disappointed our hosts, who had been incredibly gracious toward us throughout our stay.

Ultimately, though, this comment instilled in me a fervent drive to dive more wholeheartedly into teaching, which I now look back on very proudly. I was blown away by these students’ motivation to learn English, and I owed it to them to put my best foot forward.

As if I wasn’t already overwhelmed, during only the second week, I developed a health issue. In a panic, I called my mom, but since it was 3 a.m. for her, she didn’t pick up. While it wasn’t anything serious, I felt momentarily paralyzed knowing something was wrong while feeling unsure how to proceed.

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Despite these turbulent moments, throughout my time in Koprivnica, there was a constant thread of positivity: the group of friends we made in this community. The family who oversaw this “Sunny Village Camp” and the other Croatian counselors took us in as their own. No matter how hectic the day, I could always count on laughs and great conversation around the kitchen table that went on long after the campers went to bed.

Croatia had, at this point, felt to me like an aggressive washing machine that was tossing me sporadically between high and low points. But it eventually dawned on me that travel isn’t supposed to be anything. This first felt like giving up and like I had to lower my standards. But in reality, I was just letting go.

My next stop was Biograd na Moru, a small but busy coastal town on the Adriatic. The other volunteer and I lived in an apartment and taught at the local city hall. The placement had a distinctly different feel, and I was once again forced to adapt in the face of change.

I remember arriving the day of the World Cup finals. I wanted to cheer on Hrvatska in the barn with the campers, like we had for the other games. Instead, we found a restaurant along the Riva to watch the match, and I began to lose myself in the spirit of the game. The match meant so much to this young country, especially given its recently tumultuous past. Experiencing this spirit firsthand was absolutely unreal.

Looking back, I realize that my memories of this summer paint a vivid picture — a collection of rich, myriad experiences that taught me to let go and live colorfully.

Still, though, the first week in Biograd was undeniably difficult. It felt isolating at first, and I was hard on myself for not integrating quickly. But I also told myself to be patient. To just ride out the spin cycles.

I started to grow closer with these students, and I became invested in their learning in a way I hadn’t before. I fell in love with the fiery sunsets and came to appreciate the sea from my new vantage point. I started writing more and acquired a new sense of clarity.

And sure enough, saying goodbye to Biograd at the end of the placement was very difficult to do. It was different than Koprivnica, sure, but still special in its own way.

Looking back, I realize that my memories of this summer paint a vivid picture — a collection of rich, myriad experiences that taught me to let go and live colorfully. And it wasn’t just the extraordinary moments that made it “amazing,” but the unanticipated obstacles, too. This lesson has translated into a new life attitude as well. Perfect isn’t what I’m after anymore.

My travel experience prior to my time in Croatia hadn’t extended beyond vacations — idealistic getaways jam-packed with highs. But this summer, travel felt different. There was something about the newness and independence that heightened the highs and deepened the lows. I arrived in Split awaiting a transformative experience, but I realized experiences alone cannot change us. Rather, what’s important is how we interact with them and how they enter our personal narrative.

Contact Kathryn Kemp at [email protected]