There’s nothing like a major earthquake, a global pandemic, and 110 days of isolation to drive you into a period of introspection. When your foundation is crumbling, how do you move forward?
When I arrived in Croatia on March 13th, I fully anticipated self-isolation. I work online and had been solo traveling since the New Year. So, being in self-isolation felt like the same song with only a slightly different tune.
The first 8-days were filled with much of the same – working, reading, writing, and cooking. I developed a comforting routine and convinced myself I could live this life for years to come. I had a window that looked out over the city with a beautiful view of the Zagreb Cathedral. I sat in front of that window reading and writing for hours each day. It was bliss.
On day 9 of self-isolation, March 22nd, I woke up at 6:20 am to begin working at 7. I walked to the bathroom which, in a small studio, was only a couple of steps from my bed.
At 6:24, on March 22, just as I was exiting the bathroom, the floor began to tremble.
Within milliseconds, the entire building was shaking so aggressively I couldn’t keep my balance. I released a sharp yelp, leapt onto my bed, pulled a pillow over my head, and a blanket over my body.
In panic and shock, my brain couldn’t process what was happening. I looked out my window, at the Cathedral I had stared at for hours, trying to decide if only my building was collapsing or the whole city. The violence was roaring. I heard car alarms scream, bricks fall, dishes break, my possessions hit the floor.
When it finally stopped, I slowly stood up from my bed and saw a cloud of dust cloaking the city. The only intact spire of the Cathedral had fallen.
Since it was my first one, I felt the need to confirm that the violent shaking I had just experienced was, in fact, an earthquake. I messaged my Airbnb host something along the lines of “was that just an earthquake? Sry, never experienced one before – thanks!” She replied instantly, told me to grab the essentials, and leave the building in case of destructive aftershocks.
I grabbed my computer and passport, forgetting a coat. There was a clearing next to my building where a crowd had already gathered. The temperature had dropped overnight, and I was freezing in a sweater and leggings.
When it was safe to reenter the building, I assessed the damages. Most were only surface level – loose dishes fell and broke, the plaster on the walls cracked and dropped, but the structure remained intact.
The most extensive damage, it seemed, lied within me. My sense of safety was gone, and following it, came overwhelming sensations of loneliness and vulnerability.
I had never experienced loneliness before. The need to be with people. I don’t need people to be entertained or comforted. I can do those things by myself. However, in this instance, sitting at my table with broken dishes and plaster surrounding me, loneliness took hold. If not true loneliness, then surely vulnerability.
I was alone and had no idea where to go or what to do. There was no one to consult or console. I was lost and scared. I called my mom after the initial quake, searching for a life vest in the sea of uncertainty. She listened as I panicked, assured me everything would be fine, and told me I could always come home.
Did I want to go home though?
My immediate thought was – yes. It would be so easy to just give up and head back. The aftershocks were coming by the half-hour, each one a reminder of what little control I had over my environment. My instinct to run was strong, but I forced myself to take time before making a decision.
Over one hundred aftershocks ensued in the following 24 hours, some above a 3 on the Richter scale. The initial quake was around a 5.5. Nothing to some people, but terrifying to me. My flat was on the sixth floor of a 100-year-old building that rumbles when the trolley passes. It was the strongest earthquake in 140 years. I feel I had the right to be scared.
I did some research about aftershocks and found comfort in the facts. The first quake is almost always the largest and most destructive. So, objectively, I had already experienced the worst and lived to tell the tale.
I would stay. No point in running when the worst was over.
The rebuilding process took much longer than making the decision to stay did. I still had to isolate, and the inability to escape the place of my ordeal made it all that more difficult to overcome.
I spent my empty hours in a book or writing. I found writing to be the most cathartic. It allowed me to dump all of my fear and vulnerability without the need for explanation or defense.
Eventually, I worked through my new fear of earthquakes. However, the waves of introspection remained aggressive. It was like the flood gates had opened and wouldn’t stop until I had reevaluated my entire being. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do, so I spent most of those 110 days evaluating the pillars of my identity. Guarding the details, I dissected 5 major points of self with evolving realizations.
I learned that independence is not a linear trait and can waver in times of fear and uncertainty.
I experienced loneliness for the first time and understood it is not equivalent to weakness.
I accepted that facts will always bring me more comfort than emotional reassurances, and I am not apologetic for that.
I learned that I am resilient. I can fall into fear or vulnerability, but I am always able to pull myself to higher ground.
Most importantly, I realized I don’t have to explain my life to people. I don’t need to justify why I’ve chosen to spend my days traveling, how I afford it, or why I’ve stayed abroad during this time. Many people will never understand, and it is not my responsibility to convince them that I am making the best choices for my happiness. I have no qualms about the decisions I have made. In a moment when I thought I was going to die, I was happy with where I was.
During those times of reflection, I often sat in front of my window, writing and watching the city rebuild – roofs reshingled, walls replastered, debris collected. Foundations were rebuilt, and we kept on living.
A week before I left Croatia, the spires of the Zagreb Cathedral had been completely restored. What was once unrecognizable rubble on the ground, was reassembled to perfection. Everything was whole again, and with some work, maybe even a little bit better than before.