“But where will you wash your clothes?”

By Ivana Ventic

A year ago, I called my mother to tell her that I had quit my job and had no plans of returning to Chicago. Our conversation transpired something as follows:

Me: Mom, I’ve decided to travel throughout Europe after I visit Budapest and I don’t plan on coming back to Chicago.

Mom: What do you mean?

Me: I have two weeks to pack everything up and get my affairs in order.

Mom: What are you saying?

Me: I don’t like practicing law and I want to travel.

Mom: I don’t understand.

Me: I’m planning on traveling from country to country for a few months. I have thought a lot about this decision and I believe that this is the perfect time in my life to follow my dreams.

Mom: You will travel from place to place? You won’t have an actual home to stay? But where will you wash your clothes?

This was my mother’s reaction. In retrospect, she was probably shocked that her only child was planning on traveling throughout the world without any definite plans. To my mother this might have appeared as a spur of the moment decision, but the reality was far from it. Growing up in Europe as a child, I knew that I always wanted to travel to another country. It was so common there – almost a rite of passage. However, for years I kept delaying my decision. I had to finish college, and then there was law school and I couldn’t leave before passing the Bar Exam. It was one excuse after another.

There is nothing like that fear of thinking that you won’t find a legal job right after passing the Bar, especially in a place like Chicago where it appears that the lawyers outnumber the CTA bus drivers. I was too scared to leave with no money and no job prospect. So for years, I kept delaying my dreams. What appeared to others as a spur of the moment decision was a decision eight years in the making. I just needed a little push and a lot of faith that things would work out.

I finally had the associate position in a local Chicago firm and I was not happy. It did not make sense. This is what I had worked so hard for. Why wasn’t I happy? Maybe it’s because the study of law and the actual practice of law are vastly different. I enjoyed going to court, but mostly to socialize with the other attorneys. I was the attorney that was always reprimanded by the judges for speaking too loudly. However, I was genuinely interested in building relationships with my fellow attorneys. After all, that is how you got those last-minute extensions!

On September 3, 2015, I left for my trip. Oh boy, did this trip start on a bad note! My friend, Jackie, did not have access to any money in Vienna, so I had to wire her money. On the way to O’Hare, I broke my glasses and then busted my charger at the airport in Finland. To top it off, Jackie was unable to take the train from Vienna to Budapest because of the Syrian migrants traveling through the region. The last thing I heard from Jackie was that she had met a stranger who called another Hungarian man planning on going to Budapest that could give her a ride.

Jackie was planning on meeting the man at a subway station. If this doesn’t make you think of Liam Nelson’s daughter in “Taken”, then I don’t know what does. All kinds of thoughts were rushing through my head! That is the beauty of travel. Half the time you are scared and the other half, you realize that there was nothing to be scared about. Once I arrived in Budapest, I was greeted by my exuberant friend Jackie who told me all about her crazy trip. It was because of her courage to undergo this trip that I decided to do the same traveling throughout Europe.

Why is it that we are programmed to experience and expect the worst from people? Maybe it is too much news that is focusing on reporting all of the horrible things that are going on in our world. Yet, I have never met more generous people than while traveling. I’m a big believer that you meet the people you are supposed to for each person to teach you a lesson.

In Barcelona, I met Anya. She was an 80 year old Swedish woman who was arrested on the beach in 1950 for wearing the first bikini. She had purchased a bikini in Paris and since they were not that fashionable at the time, the police assumed she was indecent, arrested her and took her to the police station to buy her a dress. Anya spent two days with me telling me all about her family and wild adventures as a young woman traveling throughout Europe. There was wild fire in her deep blue eyes that could have existed from all of the experiences she had undergone.

In Italy, I came across Georgio. He was an elderly gentleman who approached me on the street to ask if I was interested in having a cappuccino. How could you possibly say no? The next thing I knew, his two middle-aged Italian friends joined us for coffee. The painter friend invited me to see his studio. How could I possibly say no to visiting a real-life Italian studio? Let me tell you, it was exquisite. It was better than the things you have ever seen in the movies. He told me of his travels, his career and what finally led him to become a painter. Afterwards, he gifted me one of his famous prints and signed it. I will treasure that day for a long time.

I knew that a stop in Poland was necessary. I had to see Auschwitz for myself. Warsaw really took my breath away. The feel of the city is unexplainable. There are some places that you visit that speak to you and forever leave an impression on you. For me, that was Warsaw. The people, the food, the culture, everything about it just seemed right.

I wasn’t fully prepared for my visit to Auschwitz. It’s one thing to read about a place and another thing to visit. There is this sense of dread that you feel once you walk through the gates that say “Arbeit macht frei.” [German for “ Work sets you free.”] The size of the compound was astonishing. It would have taken me days just to visit all of the various buildings. I witnessed several people becoming sick. Our tour guide told us that a visitor had once approached her and asked if he could have a copy of a picture of a woman. It was his mother and he did not have any pictures of her. Wow! How we take the people in our lives for granted until they are gone. It never even occurred to me how significant it would be to have a picture of my mother.

According to our tour guide, the prisoners returned to Auschwitz after they were liberated. Not because they wanted to, but because they needed to. They needed to make sure that the entire world did not forgot what happened at Auschwitz.

My journey to India was amazing. There is something about India that simply speaks to me. I love (almost) everything about it, especially all the times it has forced me to adjust my behavior and thoughts because India will not change for you. There is a reason that so many people travel to India to seek enlightenment.

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As soon as you get off the plane, the humid air hits you. The food is flavorful, the clothing colorful and the traffic chaotic. Its one thing to watch Julia Roberts sitting in a taxi in “Eat, Pray, Love” and another thing to step into the oncoming traffic, raise your hand and trust that all cars will stop. I’m told this is that “Hand of God” and can personally attest that it works. Scary as hell, but it works!

As with all trips, not everything is an amazing and pleasant journey. On December 23, 2015, I fell down the stairs and broke my toe. There I was, half-way across the world, without a job, without my family, right before Christmas with a broken toe wondering what I was doing with my life. In all honesty, I had no answer. All I knew was that I had a broken toe and it was going to be okay. It wasn’t the end of the world.

I managed to get appropriate care. Now that I’ve experienced the health system in India, I feel even more confident to undertake any challenge that I’m presented with. But my no means was it easy. In order to see the? doctor, you would sit outside of the curtain and wait until the person walked out. There was no sense of decorum. People walked into the room and sat down next to you on the gurney while you were describing your problem to the doctor. This whole experience has made me appreciate our doctor/patient confidentiality here in the United States.

Once I had my broken toe properly diagnosed by the doctor, which took a total of six visits to the hospital, I contacted my travel insurance. The insurance company was incredibly cooperative and wanted to fly me back to Chicago immediately. The only problem was that I had plans to visit my aunt in Australia. I was not going to go home now that I was so close to seeing her after 18 years. The adjuster did not want to hear anything about my plans. He informed me that I couldn’t fly to Australia because I did not have pre-arranged booking plans showing that I had intended to fly to Australia. With each email response, I became more upset. In total, we exchanged 30 emails back and forth. This might sounds like a miniscule number, but just to use the internet, I had to hobble to the nearest village and get on the internet café, draft an email, and wait 15 hours for a response because of the time difference. As the week was winding down and New Year’s was approaching, I was starting to lose my patience. Ultimately, my persistence paid off and the travel insurance company paid and arranged my flight to Australia. I ended my trip with a three month stay in Australia spending time with my aunt. I guess the broken toe was truly a blessing in disguise.

People seem to be scared of the language barrier when traveling to foreign places, but to me it just seems natural. I have always felt as a foreigner and have lived in three countries where I didn’t know the language. After the civil war broke out in former Yugoslavia, we moved to Germany for six years, before relocating to the United States in 1992. I was only six when we moved to Germany and the language barrier was terrifying. I remember how difficult it was going to school every day. I felt like a fish out of water and that no one could understand what I was going through. But the days got easier and the language become familiar. By the time, we moved to the United States, I already had a game plan -soap operas! There is no easier way to learn another language, than to watch “Days of our Lives” with the subtitles turned on. The actors are so prolific in expressing every emotion that it is easy to pick up the language.

Since children learn the language must faster than adults, I was always accompanying my parents to various legal functions. This experience taught me that sometimes good people do bad things because the law has not taken their situation into consideration when it was promulgated. To this day, I do not look at a person who has been charged with a crime as automatically guilty. I look at their life, their cultural and socioeconomic background, to obtain some kind of understanding as to what has led them to this act. The experience of speaking on behalf of my parents naturally led me to become a lawyer since your sole job as a lawyer is to speak for someone else.

I always assumed that the legal profession was better in other countries, until I met Vicky from Argentina. Vicky told me about the crazy hours she spent working at her firm where she received no appreciation. She was finally happy after she decided to quit her job. This was a startling realization for me. I have never once regretted my decision to leave. The only regret I have is not leaving sooner to follow my dreams. For once in my life, I do not have any plans. Instead, I am taking each day as it comes. Often, we put off our dreams for another day, except that that day never materializes. My favorite quote is from the fictional character Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption: “Get busy living, or get busy dying.”

Ivana Ventic is currently working as a contract attorney for various legal agencies in the Chicago area as she prepares for her next trip to India and Southeast Asia. Follow her journey on the WBAI blog and on Instagram @ hugs _and _goodbyes.
This article first appeared in the Fall 2016 Newsletter.