Sad to be leaving but so happy to have come

Once we were back, we started to leave. It was a drawn out goodbye: to our new friends, to the city, to the routine.

We wandered aimlessly through the now familiar passages of the palace. Stopped for coffee every couple hours out of habit. We made it a point to get ice cream at Luka one last time. A final round of beers at To Je To. One last Kaufland run.

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After coming back from Sarajevo late Monday night, I only had two full days before I would fly out bright and early Thursday morning. The last couple days were spent shopping and hanging out with friends as much as possible.

I have a (probably bad) habit of saving all of my shopping for the last day or two. During long trips, I spend most of my time getting a sense of what I want to buy as gifts and souvenirs and getting a feel for prices. By the time my trip winds to an end, I know where to buy what and I finally feel good about spending all the money.

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On my list this time around was mostly local goods to share with family and friends. Olive Oil and Sweet Wine and Fig dark chocolates from Nadalina. Local olive oil and wine, truffles and candied citrus. Embroidered lavender sachets. My favorite grocery store snacks. A Croatian football jersey for my brother.

The goal was to spend the as much of the kuna I had left, and fill up any room I still had in my suitcase. I probably blew more money in those last two days than I had in a typical week in Split.

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We also wined and dined. While most of our meals during the trip were courtesy of Kaufland or a university dining center, we splurged on our final meals. I joked that people who visited Split for only a couple days could probably give us restaurant recommendations even though we've been around for weeks. After all, there's no way we could have afforded this lifestyle for so long, even with reasonable Croatian prices. But hey, better late than never!

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We sat down for coffee on the west coast right before sunset. A few sailboats floated by, and there wasn't much foot traffic this far down Riva. We snagged a table just a few steps away from the water. We had a perfect panoramic view of Split. It felt surreal that not so long ago, I took in this view for the very first time, not quite believing I'd be able to call it a temporary home. Even more surreal that just a couple months ago, I Google Image'd this very view.

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That last night, we sat on the steps of Peristil listening to live music and people watching in the square. You could almost tell how long someone's been here by their expressions. Even though these smooth and worn Roman steps were familiar, it still felt like a dream. Looking up at the warmly lit tower against the dark sky, I couldn't believe I was actually here.

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All too soon, we were back in our hostel. I surprisingly was finished packing in just a couple hours, and climbed into bed one last time. Then, our hosts came over to say goodbye. Our personal tour guides and chauffeurs and translators and friends. So crazy to think we've made so many Croatian friends. I've gotten so used to seeing them randomly around town. I've even gotten used to having 6 roommates who I have practically been with 24/7 for the past month and a half. I didn't want to think about how that reality would change really soon. So we smiled and laughed and hugged and pretended that this wasn't really the end.

When we finally said goodnight, I fell asleep with a warm feeling in my heart. I hadn't realized how much our presence impacted the lives of our local friends. It's good to know we were able to give them as much as an adventure as they gave us.

Bright and early the next morning, two of us left for the airport. Two of our hosts offered to drive us over. So we whispered goodbyes to the rest of our crazy family. It's probably better they were still half asleep.

The plane takes off. I look outside and see the Dalmatian coast fading away, the islands becoming smaller and smaller. Soon, I am in Munich. One last goodbye, as we boarded our flights in opposite directions. She's off to India. And I'm a 12 hour flight from LA.

On the plane, a woman asks me what I was doing in Germany. Just a layover, I explain. I was actually in Croatia. Doing a volunteer project for six weeks. Even then, it already felt like I was describing someone else's life.

BACK TO REALITY

While sitting through traffic on the 405 (thanks for the warm welcome LA!), I thought about how crazy it is that I practically moved to Croatia on a whim. I booked the tickets two weeks before I left. I had just come home from Iceland less than a week before I left again. Travel is healing to me. It's a break from reality, from thinking, from burdens. It's a chance to wonder and wander. The experiences I had, the amazing things I saw, the lessons learned, the friends made: those are mine to keep, even a world away.