I have a big photo print in my apartment. It’s a prime example of how I’m so incredibly rubbish at estimating the size of something in my head, but that’s not the story I want to tell.
It’s a cityscape photo of Rijeka, Croatia. I like the composition, the way the river (channel?) cuts through the middle as a leading line into the historical downtown area where centuries-old buildings are mixed with modern architecture, where clean ornate fronts hide away dirty loading areas for stores. And beyond all that is the horizon, the Adriatic Sea. I love this picture, even if I wished there was a third boat on the water, to balance it out.
I went to Rijeka in May 2022. The year I turned 40 years old, and on the anniversary of my Mom’s passing.
When I got off the bus from Zagreb, at the Rijeka bus station (such as it is; it’s just an area between two roads with maybe 4 bus stands) and started walking to my hotel along the small harbor beyond which I could see and smell the Adriatic Sea, I broke down crying.
See, Rijeka wasn’t always Rijeka. In World War I, it was called Fiume. Like Croatia itself, it used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In fact, Fiume/Rijeka housed the Naval Academy for Austria-Hungary, where generations of Hungarian sailors learned.
I know this, because when I was 7-8-9 years old, I was obsessed with a novel series from author András Dékány. More fictional than autobiographical (although he did work as a sailor for a while) the first book starts with him as the protagonist, along with some friends, arriving to Fiume with train to enroll at the Naval Academy and become sailors.
The novel takes place on the precipice of World War I, and their studies are cut short because of the war, and they end up sailing the Adriatic Sea (and then later the North Sea in the second, and the Mediterranean in the third book) aboard a schooner called ‘Jadran.’ (Not to be confused with the training ship Jadran.) “Jadran” is the Serbo-Croatian and Slovene word for the Adriatic Sea.
As I said, I was obsessed. I learned about ships: the schooners and the barks and the clippers and the others. I was grabbed by the notion of freedom aboard a ship, to go where you want, take the jobs you want, to be apart from the world and to have the opportunity to see the world. Over 80% of the world’s countries are with some kind of connection to a sea or ocean. Plenty for one person to set out and try to visit all of them.
Sailing is an old-fashioned mode of travel. It’s a romantic notion. It’s also perhaps more independent than any other form of getting around. You’re not at the whim of fuel prices, infrastructure, schedules. Just the wind and the open water. And you.
I visited Rijeka precisely because of the stories I read when I was a kid. I have the photograph printed and on my wall precisely because I never wanted to forget what I felt when looking down on a similar vista as my childhood hero.
Because I decided to dare to do. To go and complete a 30+ years old loop, to fulfill a childhood dream as an adult. Because what’s the freaking point of growing up otherwise?
Being brave can mean a lot of things. To me, in this scenario, it means being brave to stand against almost everything the world tells you to do. We’re living through a paradigm shift in how we view life and the boundaries of it, but conventional lifestyles are still the ‘law of the land.’
I decided to be different. Or, rather, to accept that I am. Bravery is accepting the way you are, even when the world tells you it’s “not normal.” In Captain America: Civil War, Sharon Carter quotes her aunt, Peggy Carter, thusly:
Compromise where you can. Where you can't, don't. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say, 'No, you move'.
(Yes, I know it’s unusual from me to not take Tony Stark’s side. Deal with it.)
Another way of putting this: “Do what you can’t.” (Casey Neistat)
Nobody ever changed the world by conforming to it. Even if it’s just my world, I don’t want to live in it playing by someone else’s rules, measured by someone else’s yardstick.
Be brave. Dare to dream, but more importantly: dare to do.