You have to suspend your need to understand everything or, really, anything. You need to treat the spoken word like music and simply lean back into the soundtrack of chatter and laughter. I’m spending my mornings at a piece of the waterfront aptly called Bla Bla Beach.
Language is a tricky thing here. I’m in Herceg Novi, Montenegro, about ten minutes’ drive from the border with Croatia. I’ve been doing a Pimsleur Croatian course since arriving a week ago, a lesson a day. The first things it teaches me, aside from the not-very helpful lie, “I am American,” are how to say “I speak a little Croatian” and “I don’t understand.” When I tried that out with the folks down at the beach, I was told (I think) “Not Croatian, Serbian.” Pimsleur doesn’t do Serbian, so now I’m doing my Croatian lessons in tandem with Google Translate set to Serbian. So far in my training, it seems I can just go ahead and speak Croatian and let the folks think it’s Serbian I’m trying to speak.
I’m not generally at ease in a public space, even when the language is English. All the protocols related to finding a space, placing an order, paying the bill, basic skills for the average adult, all feel like too much to negotiate. Last year, when I came to Bla Bla Beach for the first time, I had that same anxiety compounded with all the beach-related insecurities, like my body in a swimsuit, rows of lounging chairs feeling too intimate and slightly institutional, my clumsy way of getting in and out of the water on one of those pool ladder things.
The second time I came last year, I was reeling from the discovery of a stranger’s Instagram account full of #datenight photos with the guy I thought I’d been dating. (Talk about your communication failures.) In a nutshell—and please don’t let the cliché undermine the intensity of my state of mind—I had a broken heart. My first day here, I was swimming out there in the Bay of Kotor, looking back at this storybook skyline of mountains and terracotta rooftops, face wet with sea and tears. And, drying off after swimming, I wept underneath my sunglasses where nobody could see.
But the sadness did me a surprising favour. Because I was so profoundly sad when I started going to the beach last year, all my usual nervousness got suppressed. (I wonder if there’s some neuroscience to explain this phenomenon.) With my sunglasses covering the obvious signs of distress, I was able to give over to the pain, to feel it until it passed. Every morning, I’d rent my lounge chair and umbrella, swim for a while, and then drink Americanos while drying off. I watched the waves, knit socks, read books, and journaled, all without any anxious thoughts about whether or not I belonged here.
The sadness gave me a gift of stillness. Around me were lots of voices I didn’t understand, and it didn’t matter because they didn’t need anything from me anyway. After a couple days, a few faces grew familiar, and some folks would offer a “Dobro jutro” in greeting. The Americanos began to arrive after swimming without my having to order them. I began to feel silent but not alone, rich within my stillness. I felt so much more awesome than the woman I’d been while living on the scraps of affection I tried to glean through texts from a man whose heart was with someone else.
This year I’m back at Bla Bla Beach, making blabla attempts at communication. No heartbreak this time, but I’m practicing that conscientious stillness I learned last year. I don’t need the sadness to get to the peace of mind; I must just choose to inhabit it. The funny thing now is, I am sometimes caught oblivious when someone tries to talk to me. The unfamiliar language is still music to my ears, and I don’t always clue in that some of the lyrics are meant for me.