We arrived in Belgrade during the early morning of July second, bleary eyed and sore from bus travel. So much was unexpected about our new home in Serbia.
Kevin and I entered the gate of a Kneginje Zorke urban estate into a wash of airborne Serbian Bellflower petals. Our hosts hurried us upstairs to show off the flat and once past the tall, embellished wooden door, we looked at each other wide-eyed like kids on Christmas morning. Christmas circa 1991, though: Christmas before the internet stole a piece of childhood wonder.
"This place is so fabulous," I delighted. "Of course it is! It is mine," Vesna replied in richly-accented English.
Think about the things that keep you up at night, the things that frustrate you on any Tuesday morning. Think about the places you know, the places you avoid because of that one person, because of a pulsing fluorescent overhead light. The place to which you'll never return after being blindsided with a break up four years ago over pie. That still-cringeworthy time you forgot your wallet and faked an emergency at the checkout counter after ordering five different, complicated lattes.
These are not my stories. They're my imagination.
Think about how you get to work, to coffee, to your best friend's house, the fastest way home when you have a raging migraine. Think about how second-nature and mindless that can be. Think about the conversations you have with the people in these places: sometimes profound, sometimes perfunctory, but all -- most likely -- in your native tongue. You know who to call if your faucet breaks, if you got into a fender bender, when you’re unreasonably angry, when the boyfriend forgets your birthday. These are your people. These are your places. This is, unfortunately, your boyfriend. This is your comfort zone.
Now imagine removing yourself from all of that. Imagine that there is no comfort zone at all, that the few constants are the person in the mirror -- perhaps donning one, curious new “stretch mark” -- a berserk cell phone, and the computer on which you send thoughts, digital photos, well wishes, and your best joke every day into space.
You still hear the voice in your head. You still remember the people you love. You get text messages and social media posts. You play online games and share online music and everything is pretty well connected until it's not. Until it's disconnected. Until it breaks.
You know what you probably don't do among the comforts of home? You don't head to CNN with apprehension, wondering whether or not America still exists.
But I do. Sometimes I do that.
Take that inescapable eccentricity, multiply it by seventy five different flavors of crazy and you’ll find a lot of remote weird among Remote Year.
It can be enormously comforting to be a part of a large group of English-speaking multi-nationals having embarked on a shared journey. It can feel liberating to let go of the cadence of routine and to explore depths of your person perhaps forgotten or left to idle. There are moments of joy and strange marvel. There are moments of solidarity in numbers, moments of ill-conceived group vulnerability, moments that make you want to cry out of sheer delight or out of jaw-dropping distaste.
But sometimes it’s eighteen decibels past Nigel's volume eleven. It’s noisy and frenetic and dramatic and bogus like high school or your worst office job. It’s like holidays with that one weird in-law.
And so sometimes you’d rather sit home, alone, moping, unfollowing everyone on social media and wondering what type of insane person would uproot their life for this garbage? Because on top of all the things that congest adult lives -- the things that worry you or anger you while you're at home, surrounded by comfort and familiarity -- there is all this newness, uncertainty, anxiety.
Often, when I talk to my friends or family they say they're jealous of my adventures. I never know how to respond without sounding dramatic, brooding, braggadocios, or manic.
On every Tuesday indefinitely, I hardly know where I'm standing on a map, or in which direction I'm moving. Eventually, I'll tentatively grasp the best route to work, but even then, picking a place to order coffee along the way can be daunting: Will they speak English? Will they hate me for not speaking their language? Will they have chocolate muffins? Do I have enough cash? Where’s the nearest ATM? Why do I keep taking out such small increments of money?
What’s going to make me feel uncomfortable or comfortable today? What if there’s an emergency? Am I a piece of shit for being an American? How do I not look too American right now? What am I doing later? Who are my friends? Am I hungry? Is this a pigeon sandwich? Why am I so sweaty? Do I have halitosis or just a sinus infection?
Turns out it was just a sinus infection.
I say this in jest to illustrate that life is a whole lot of the same everywhere you are. You are not stuck and I am not saved because of where we are on a map.
Sometimes I can't fall sleep until five in the morning. Sometimes I'm asleep until three in the afternoon on the weekends. For nearly a month now my I've struggled to breathe through my nose, and I'm seriously not sure if it's because of allergies, a cold, or air quality. I've factory-reset my phone three times this week alone, and it took me seven hours to do a load of laundry for some unknown reason. I'm sick of my clothes but don't feel I can shop consciously. I need to throw out my shoes. I've already run out of all the clever toiletries I packed. My diet defaults to 1,000% carbohydrates and ice cream, much to my full-control and total disgust. I should go for a run. I should do yoga. I should start a juice cleanse.
Poor me. Boo hoo. Ain't life hard in Eastern Europe.
I have this theory about Mother Theresa and modern terrorists.
I think they're the same on a very basic level. Humans want structure, they want their chords to resolve: for their lives to make sense by way of purpose and belonging. We want to be heard, to be understood, to make our mark, and to feel important. A longing for connection, a sense of comfort in patterns, symmetry, and organization resonates across cultures and religions and societal norms and behaviors. The means are unfathomably different, no doubt, but I imagine the ends are the same.
The idea that we're driving at the same what and the same why, with absolutely zero consensus on the how or the when is both wildly exciting and wickedly frightening.
This is what I spend time thinking about, adrift in the Belgrade sea, bombarded with bad news and ugly headlines from around the globe.
I often wonder what differentiates an ordinary life from an extraordinary one.
Anyway, you should not put much weight into my theories or wonders. I barely know my left from my right after almost 31 years of so-called living.
Vesna Čipčić is a famous Serbian actress. She is also my -- and Kevin's, and Matt's -- landlord. Purportedly, she cannot walk down the streets in Belgrade without being stopped for autographs or photos. Sander is her childhood friend who now lives in the estate's rear home. He was described to us as an architect, though musician seems more appropriate. Sander asked from where in the States I hailed. When I replied "Massachusetts" he keyed the Bee Gees on our flat's piano, singing with a distinctively Balkan lean.
We were invited down to the courtyard despite the early (or late) hour. Kevin, Vesna, Sander, Sander's estranged Bosnian wife, and I chatted over Rakia and chips. Kevin was dubbed the cool design guy from Nashville. I spoke too fast for anyone to understand. Matt was in Budapest.
Once well-past exhausted, we retired to separate ends of our enormous new space. My sheets were orange. My pillows were orange. My towels were orange. I love the color orange. Blue and lilac bellflower petals covered my luggage and my new bedroom's floor.
Campanula is the proper name of the commonly known bellflower. Often given as a thank you gift, these blossoms are thought to represent gratitude and affection. Sometimes they're symbolic of loyalty and love, of humility and delicacy. Such are the markings of an extraordinary life.
Lipstick scrawled on the mirror in Kevin's bedroom read: "Carpe that fucking diem."