In the warmth of the European summer in 2012, I was honored to be invited to my friend’s wedding in Croatia. I was very thrilled and looking forward to walking past the European airports ‘walls, at last. In the past, as I navigated between terminals to reach connecting flights at the London’s Heathrow or the Netherlands’ Amsterdam, I’d peek through the bus or airport terminal windows to gaze upon the city’s beauty. I wondered when I would be able to get out and wander in the streets of London but I was anxious to reach my destination at the same time.
On July 6th, we touched down in Milan, and were immediately waved onto two buses that would take us to customs. I have never seen more confusing signs than the Linate airport, Italy. As we stepped out, the driver signaled everyone in our bus to go left. I followed the crowd only to find myself before a sign that said “EU residents”. I quickly switched lanes to go to the “Non EU Residents” when a policeman rushed in my direction and harshly pointed me to go back. Exhausted and jet lagged, I gathered my courage to explain to him, in English, that I was not a European resident. Of course he understood none of the words coming out of my mouth, because it’s Italy, and who needs to speak more than Italian at an international airport! Unwillingly, I turned around and joined a very slowly moving line. The female Immigration Officer that checked our passports was the slowest I have ever seen.
After what seemed like eternity, it was my turn and I handed my passport to her. She didn’t seem to have a clue about the Schengen visa that was stamped in my passport and proceeded to asking me questions. In Italian! I respond to her that I don’t speak Italian; she keeps talking and I grow silent. She calls her supervisor and they chat in a language I don’t understand. Few minutes later, she comes back with my passport. I grabbed it as quickly as possible and disappear to avoid the possibility of being asked further questions I don’t get. I let out a sigh of relief and annoyed by the fact that this is the most touristic country I know, and yet, an Immigration Officer who speaks no other language besides Italian, at the airport. My friend on the other side began to worry about what might have happened to me because it’s been more than an hour or so since I landed.
The very next day, my friend Honorine and I board a flight to Paris, and Geneva afterwards. I don’t remember any questions asked in either of these two countries; perhaps because I understood their main language: French, of course! I enjoyed touring the city, visiting the Eiffel Tower, the United Nations Headquarters, the International Telecommunications Union HQ, riding in the Geneva Trams etc.
Fast forwarding to several days later, I set for Croatia, my main reason for this trip. On the way, my flight connection was in Berlin, German. I faced exactly the same issue: an officer who spoke only German and was yet to verify my visa to Croatia. Similarly, he talks to his supervisor before I am directed to the Security Check. Couple hours later, on a hot afternoon, I landed in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. Lining up to show our passports, I silently prayed that someone will at least speak some English, so that I can be able to explain that I had applied for the Schengen visa through the Italian embassy. This time, I am more concerned with the process mainly because I was told that I could use the EU visa as Croatia was scheduled to enter the European Union the following year, 2013. I was very afraid that the customs might wonder where I got that information. To my surprise, he didn’t ask a single question, and with a smile, he says: “Welcome to Croatia”. That was the beginning of my adventure in the most beautiful country I have ever seen.
My friend (the bride to-be) was running a little late picking me up. In the process of finding a pay phone and exchanging my cash into Croatian Kunas, then I see my friend’s fiancé, and we both walk to see my friend. It was great to see an amazing woman I met in school six years earlier, and haven’t seen in 3 years. Later that afternoon, she took me around to tour the city, run errands, chatting, exploring, talking and what not. However, every turn I made, I noticed at least one person staring at me. I checked my outfit to make sure I didn’t spill food on my clothes or have stains. Everything looked fine; a brown polka dot blouse and a light blue knee length jeans didn’t look any different from what other women around me were wearing. Children, older people, eyes on me everywhere I went.
Confused, and with million questions into my head, I decided that it’d probably be a perfect time to figure out what’s so different about me: not another single black person anywhere. None! Not in the super market, shopping center, ice cream shops, restaurants, nada. Only then, I came to a realization that many Croatians have possibly never seen a black person in their life time. I figured that this is probably the part of the globe where only white people live, almost exclusively. To this day, I wonder if my friend even noticed people looking at me or if I look different. Ms Z. is the most diverse and loving person I have ever met. To seal my anticipation, her parents are just like her: wonderful people. I have never liked the sound of my first name than when Ms. Z’s Dad called me. Their warm welcome overwhelmed me. I left a part of my heart in Croatia!
On the wedding day, the DJ was hired for the entire night. I am not a dancer by any means, but I was determined to make it up as I went for this special lady’s day. We danced until about 2am. When I took a break and sat outside to chat with other guests, two men and their wives approached to ask me about myself. They knew much more than I expected about my home country, Rwanda. In the end, they confessed that they have been talking behind my back, as I danced, saying that Beyonce had arrived in Croatia. I was not sure if I should say thank you or that’s nice. I gathered a smile and explained that it was just creativity, nothing of experience. And a “thank you” of course.
During my days in Croatia, I am sure that I counted almost all black people in Zagreb and Bjelovar: a teenage boy and girl who looked like tourists at one restaurant, and one couple at the Zagreb airport on my way back to Milan. A little girl (about 5 years old) one seat over, looked at me without blinking for about two hours during my flight from Zagreb to Berlin, leaning forward because her mom was sitting between us. Her mom was super nice. She patted my hand when I was scared from the turbulence. She offered a hug, should I need to be comforted.
Without a doubt, I fell in love with this beautiful country, and its people. I hope to go back when I have more time. In the end, I had traveled to 4 countries, boarded 10 flights at 10 different airports in just 11 days. I doubt I would do it again. Next time, I will plan my trip better! My very first night back home, a cold finally caught up with me and I was down for two weeks! Nonetheless, it was quite an experience!
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