By Jessica Summers
“It’s time,” I told my husband. “Put it on the market.”
And in one brief sentence, our whole world was catapulted into a maelstrom from which there was no return. In one week, our house sold; in two months, we were on a ferry carrying us toward Montenegro, a place we had barely heard of, let alone visited. I thought I was embracing life as a digital nomad, free from ties. Instead, I faced the one thing I had spent my life controlling or avoiding: relationships.
I was around nine when I began intensively masking my ‘weirdness,’ or what I now know as autism. Due to my constant work on myself as a hypno psychotherapist, I could not only pass through the world unremarked; I was actually thriving.
It just so happened that none of my close friends saw me for more than a couple of hours at a time, and then only a few times a year.
It was only when we moved to a farm in the Montenegrin countryside, and shared our lives with a family of nine, spanning three generations, that the cracks began to show.
We left the UK without a plan. The first few weeks felt like the three of us had been orphaned, hopping from one holiday rental to another. The responsibility to make things work for our daughter’s sake was crushing.
We were looking for a ‘village to raise a child.’ We found it sooner than I expected, at Haj Nehaj farm, in the south of Montenegro. This was where our deepest journey began.
Embracing a new culture
Coffee is drunk in Montenegro for many reasons. To start the day, to break from work, to celebrate togetherness, to punctuate a gathering or to lend gravitas to a business meeting. And so I found myself nursing a tiny coffee, whilst the matriarch, Melica, and I waited to see which room ‘the men folk’ of the farm would choose to become my family’s new lounge.
I carried out negotiations with all the grace of a bull in a china shop, so my husband was called in to discuss it with the men (I now realize this is what they expected). Melica and I watched with amusement as they wandered from room to room, discussing the drawbacks and possibilities of each room in turn; our eyes followed them through the open windows as if we were watching a tennis match.
Weeks later, Tony and I watched the sun go down from our terrace and reflected on the appeal of the place. A large family surrounded us; our apartment was in the centre of their yard. Their steps ran up and down until late into the night; we seemed to be at the centre of something, and it felt good after living on the margins since we had arrived. But what happens when the honeymoon period is over, I wondered.
Before three months had passed, I found out.
So close and yet so far
When immersing yourself in a culture, you see only similarities, and delight in each one.
Danica, our Montenegro neighbour, shared so many values with me. We took coffee together, lingering over intense dissections of the meaning of life, glowing with our shared purpose. At the end of each one, I felt elated but utterly drained – this level of closeness was proving hard for me to maintain.
Soon, there were comments from Melica about how we ran our household, how long we were in bed, and how often we cleaned. We seemed trapped in a family we had not chosen. When she began to let herself into our apartment, we realized we had to leave. Christmas was fast approaching.
And so, a rift appeared. We had not behaved in a way they understood or expected; we felt equally baffled at their responses. We could say nothing to anyone, blanketed in a centuries-old silence that we could not fathom. My anxiety increased. We moved, almost overnight, to a new town where a sense of failure bloomed.
Time to wise up
I had a stark choice: continue avoiding relationships or face my sense of failure. I travelled the two-hour journey and spent a day with Danica. I listened to her pain and incomprehension at our leaving and attempted to explain our choices.
We grew closer that day, and I grew stronger, knowing I had experienced what I had avoided my whole life: presence with my shortcomings and the ability to sit with irreparable damage.
The friendship has never truly mended, but I have deep gratitude for Danica’s insistence that I look at the pain. For the first time in my life, I have strong, close, female friendships. I have experienced betrayal; I believe I, too, have betrayed unintentionally. I have got it wrong on numerous occasions, and I have struggled against Balkan expectations of friendship. But ultimately, I have learned to forgive myself.
Jessica Summers helps empathic entrepreneurs and coaches connect with their authentic voice and big mission, allowing them to transcend the marketplace, and becoming much-needed thought leaders. She lives in Montenegro with her husband and young daughter. Explore her world at jessicasummershypnogenics.com.
All images courtesy Jessica Summers.