“The three Balkan dares that rescued my self-esteem”
Dare number two. Let me put it like this: I’ve never unbuttoned my shorts in such a high-stakes situation
before. My fingertips are rendered useless by nerves, a lifetime of less terrifying unbuttonings springing to mind. For example, a secret, satisfied unbuttoning in the garden, charcoal in my nostrils, The Kooks in my ears, a second veggie burger in my belly. Or in my mum’s bathroom, hot shower steam flattening against tiles. Or an unbuttoning that coincides with a kiss, unfurling into an almost-homely bed, smelling almost-familiar detergent. All far preferable unbuttonings, in my view, to this.
“Just look for the horizon, your body will do the rest!” I hear Sophie, my sister, shout. I stare out at Montenegro’s opiatic mountainscape. It’s gorgeous, yes, but it’s also a reminder of how high up I am.
And then Sophie grins, freckles forming on her nose by the minute. “The longer you leave it, the harder it gets.” And then she is a hurricane of limbs and sun-bleached hair. And then she is the cackle and splash of saltwater below.
My knees lock. Wimp. I shake my head, gesturing to stop the camera that was ready to capture my bravery. So much for using this holiday to change your life, Kate.
Dare number one was a private dare, to myself. You’ll laugh when
I tell you. Simply put, it was to find my way from Edinburgh to London, then board a plane to Montenegro and visit the travel hostel my sister, her partner, Tom, and a handful of other intrepids had created out of a disused olive-oil factory. The Grove. In case you don’t know (I didn’t at first), Montenegro is a Balkan country, nestled in the elbow of the Adriatic Sea. Nervous travellers like to think of it as neighbouring Croatia and Italy. The plucky will remind you it’s also next to Serbia, Albania and Bosnia. I fell into the former camp. Don’t judge me.
Since the age of 17 I’d been singlemindedly chasing ways of making my parents proud; a place at Edinburgh University, a shiny degree, a good-enough job as a journalist. I’d never really travelled alone, apart from an exchange year in Barcelona, and, a victim of my academic anxiety, I’d never been the type to skip classes for long weekends in Copenhagen.
But that dream graduate job at the music magazine in Edinburgh? After a year, it wasn’t a challenge, and I curled into plodding, working life like it was a comfortable armchair. It didn’t seem to matter that my friends had all moved out of Edinburgh for pastures cooler, and that walking the streets felt like swimming through heart-ripping nostalgia. As a team (most of them five or more years older than me), we’d get drunk together weekly and head to the same karaoke bar, spill the same margaritas down our fronts, and scream the same old songs, eyeballs shining too brightly in the disco lights.
Then I’d walk home alone, a gap in my heart, shoving my fist into a bag of pretzels. Sunday would be an anxious, dehydrated day of laundry. Monday, work.
“So come help at The Grove,” Sophie had said, as I cried into the phone. “Do
“I’d never unbuttoned my shorts in such a high-stakes situation”
it. Pack your denim shorts, some tops you don’t mind getting paint on. And stay for the opening party.” So I did.
The sun was proud in the sky when,
on that perfect day in April, I extended a Birkenstock out of the people-carrier and caught my first glimpse of The Grove. A terracotta roof; tortoises hiding under pomegranate trees. Nonchalant mountain peaks. A hammock and a campfire. A donkey clicking heels on a greystone bridge; the frothy giggle of a clean river.
At the time there were concrete mixers and spilled paint on the patio, too. With only a week until the place opened, there were plenty of jobs to be done. Looking back, there were far more dares than I realised at the time. Tiny, inconsequential things, but dares all the same. Get over your fear of messing up the paintwork and grab a roller. Get an axe and chop firewood with Chris. Brave the social anxiety of cooking for a crowd and fill a stove pot with beans and sweet potato. Make friends with Jaki, the cool girl in the hammock, and Jaxon, the electrician who likes to juggle. Join in with Zoe’s improvised song at the campfire. Make a playlist for the opening party and ignore the dread of an empty dancefloor.
“Are you going to make a chandelier today?” Tom asked me one morning, glimmer in his eye, tin cup of coffee in his hand. He nodded past my denim shorts, drying on the washing line, towards a pile of cast-iron hoops. “Use those. Parts left behind from the olive press. There’s tools and fastenings. Ben will help you.” In reality, I helped Ben. Later that day, as the room clapped in glee at our installation, suspended 20-feet high, a dare accepted in cast iron, my heartburn disappeared.
Back to the cliff-edge and what felt, at the time, like dare two. I took off my shorts. My knees unlocked. A week at The Grove behind me, I threw myself into the empty space above the sea, body undulating, breathing postponed, a never-ending fall that finally finished in an echoing splash and bubbles surrounding me. The salt water pushed me towards the sunlight breaking, and Sophie’s delighted laugh bounced around the bay.
Later, at the customs queue in Heathrow under white lights, I’d open my passport to the picture page and feel a clench in my belly. And then, a week later on a warm day in Edinburgh, I’d rifle in my drawers for my denim shorts. I’d remember them forgotten, drying on the washing line, sea salt crystallising, dare two complete.
The next day would be dare three. I’d open a Word document and type
my resignation letter. I’d book a solo adventure around Europe, and then I’d move to London, to work at Cosmopolitan.
The Grove is different now. It’s still euphoric, pastoral, hilarious and tranquil, but it’s also slick. The renovation diet of beers, bread and burek (a local pastry) have long been replaced with patchwork feats of stonebaked pizzas, flatbreads, chilli-non-carnes and barbecues. There are chickens that roam and lay fresh eggs, pet cats, and there’s a bright-blue plunge pool for respite from the sun.
There are kayaking trips, hikes, yoga retreats and gin-drenched parties. Amazed travellers arrive every day, gratefully kicking off sandals and borrowing guitars. But what has stayed the same is that every week there’s a new group of people, each with their own locked knees. A new pile of shorts on the floor, a new set of toes gripping a cliff-edge, and a new firework display of bodies leaping into the unknown.