Under the gaze of a blood-orange sky, we wandered onto the cobbled streets of Zadar, Croatia. The square was filled with tourist-friendly bars: groups of young people surrounded by brightly coloured drinks sat in the middle, with men sucking on cigars tutting in far corners. Further along, families were huddled around dainty glass tables, bursting with the hearty laughs and slurred voices of happy holidaymakers.
I was not well-versed in the sighted guiding department as a visually impaired person, so I approached assisting Grace with some trepidation. I had just got the hang of navigating the winding walkways when we came across a narrow alleyway, which caused our canes to snag along cobblestone edges. As a result, the line formed ground to a halt.
Some tripped over in all of the confusion, including Grace and me.
'Wait for us,' I called out in a breathless panic as I scooped Grace up from the ground.
Some men lent up against a post office gawked at us as we walked by - its gleaming red door tinted a shade of burgundy in the evening glow. One man, in particular, stood poised, his thin-lipped mouth opening and closing as though the words were trapped.
'You want me to lift?' he hollered in broken English. This resembled a small act of kindness, which I later realised was typical of the Croatian people, although the loitering outline in the distance made it difficult to tell.
'No. We're okay,' I said as we brushed past, concerned not to lose the group.
At last, Zadar University - we had made it. The building was a grand, gothic affair, but the contrast of the fiery brick roofs against its buttery walls gave the impression that it was precious and largely untouched. And, absent of billboards plastered with fresh-faced students, it was worlds away from universities in the UK.
Once inside, we traipsed through a series of mosaic floors until we emerged in a small courtyard, with only a few wooden benches dotted around, which prompted the staff to greet us with the kind of exuberance saved for dear friends.
Grace was whisked away by an auburn-haired woman in round glasses, so I was left to work the room alone, feeling like a vampire during the daytime.
I checked my phone to see if my boyfriend, Ollie, had texted after a day of no contact, but he hadn't. I knew that it was only a short trip, although the reality of being thousands of miles from someone I truly cared about had begun to set in.
What started as a debilitating back pain had transcended into a series of black dots that terrorised him everywhere, and at that point, it was unclear whether he would lose his sight completely.
I put my phone away and tried my best to set my nerves aside.
A man with sparse, silver hair and weather-worn skin welcomed the group, with his rotund voice cutting through the chatter.
'Lots of new faces I see,' he said, making an effort to smile at me. 'There's plenty of wine and water,' he added before listing three or four names to call upon if assistance was needed.
Once he had finished, I noticed that clusters of new faces clutched their canes as they stared vaguely into the distance. Unlike most situations I had encountered, the camp was a place full of faces that none of us could see and voices we didn't recognise. I was determined to be bold enough to delve into the unknown, with the excitement of befriending like-minded strangers spurring me on.
I tried to stick with Naqib, a chatty, hefty man with an impressive beard and a thick Birmingham accent, and Eddy, who was slight, with steel-rimmed glasses and a beard almost as remarkable as Naqibs', because I'd spent the day with them, but they were engulfed in laddish banter. I needed to make my own friends.
'Hi, I'm Alice.'
I tottered over to a group of girls huddled by the drinks trolley. We exchanged pleasantries, and I soon learnt that, unlike me, they were volunteers despite being visually impaired. I mainly spoke to Lizbeth, who, with pixie-like features and head to toe in men's sportswear, had an androgynous look.
Our inhibitions, somewhat subdued by red wine's warming confidence, allowed the tightening elastic bands of conversation to loosen. I knew that everyone in the camp highly regarded Lizbeth, so I was keen to make a good impression.
She was halfway through recalling a story of a train conductor mistaking her for a small boy when she asked,
'Well, do you think I look like a girl or boy?'
The honesty in her abruptness told me that she wasn't intentionally trying to catch me out.
'I. Uh. I think you look like a girl,' I said, unable to mask the ambivalence in my voice. 'You just have short hair, that's all.'
Lizbeth gave a reassuring smile. ‘Yeah, I think so, too!'
Relieved that I hadn't ruffled feathers on the first day, I tried to lighten the mood.
'Not many girls can pull off short hair the way you can.' My voice trailed off as I tried to think of something funny.
We spoke for a while longer, with the new ease of our conversation attracting the attention of the Dutch participants. A particular character named Dean, tall and boyish with floppy brown hair, had an indifferent scowl which signalled that he was someone I was better off avoiding.
The next morning, I woke up early and spent a long time on the phone with Ollie, with the promenade's sea organ wailing in the background. Despite his weary voice, he reassured me that he felt better, but I wasn't convinced.
'You okay?' Lizbeth asked as I sloped into the breakfast hall just as everyone had finished.
'Yeah, just tired,' I replied, hoping that she wouldn't pry.
Lizbeth smiled politely, but I'm sure that she could sense that something was off even if she couldn't see my reddened cheeks.
After attending a talk on the Erasmus programme, we visited Krka National Park, known for its world-famous waterfalls. As we embarked on our tour around the river, the air felt sticky and acrid, perpetuated by the crowds. As a result, it made sense to continue in twos with all those with reasonable sight being asked to guide.
I was paired with Irina, cheerful and petite with sculpted cheekbones and silky charcoal coloured hair.
I had started to wonder whether the exertion was a complete waste of time when I noticed a cluster of tourists crane their necks at something up ahead. I decided to make the most of the space they had created and led Irina straight to the gap, conveniently positioned by the water's edge.
'Wow,' I said. 'Can you feel the force of the water?'
Cascades of Caribbean blue, coupled with the hallucinatory shimmer of foaming bubbles, shot down into the serene stillness of a turquoise bath. Glossy leaves of the deepest greens hung lazily on either side amid a backdrop of the glistening sun. So, with our swimming costumes on under our clothes, we waded into the water.
'Incredible,' Irina said with closed eyes and outstretched palms. 'I've never been this close before.'
Marvelling at the all-consuming whoosh of the flowing water, we were finally awakened to the healing power of mother nature.
I knew that Ollie was trying to be brave, but that hadn't stopped me from spending most nights agonising over what was yet to come; however, something switched that evening. The pitter-patter of trickling water put my mind at ease, making the experience just a touch more bearable.
The following five days were filled with workshops, late lunches on the promenade, and evenings spent drinking beer and watching the sun tuck itself in on the beach with Lizbeth, Eddy and Naqib.
One evening, we travelled to the region of Dalmatia to visit the Salt Mines in the popular city of Dubrovnik. Thanks to its geographical position, the Ston Salt Pans were initially known to the Romans as Stanum or Stagnum, meaning fertile fields with abundant water and salinity. The sacred mines were once responsible for a third of the city's income, so they are hidden among a fortress of rolling hills designed to protect Dubrovnik's set of crown jewels. Nevertheless, there was something ominous about the endless sea of crumpled grey, which reminded me of the shards of a shattered stone giant. In reality, the salt mines have a long and illustrious history, known as the oldest natural salt mines in Europe and the largest preserved in the history of the Mediterranean.
I sat on a bench as the guided tour came to a close, in quiet admiration for how helpful the locals appeared; no one was that considerate back home.
As a naive eighteen-year-old, I'd chosen to embark on this journey because I had been too concerned about slotting in seamlessly with the sighted world to care about how badly I had neglected my true identity.
A tall, platinum-haired woman was being guided by a broad-shouldered man who I later realised was her boyfriend. I swooned as I watched her face nuzzled into his shoulder as she hung on every adjective.
'I think it's so sweet how he describes things for her,' I said aloud, unsure if anyone was really listening.
'Not really,' Naqib replied. 'Your boyfriend should just want to help you. Does yours not do that for you?'
Damp and heavy, the words hung in the air like hanging washing. A tear gently rolled down my cheek. 'I guess not.'
I could no longer withstand the wall of anxiety that had barricaded my insecurities for weeks, which caused me to blurt out the truth. Since our phone call, Ollie had deteriorated dramatically, and it pained me to know that I was benefiting from an experience when I should have been by his side.
Luckily the rest of the group had moved on, so I took refuge in Naqib's sturdy arm as I sobbed into his shoulder. Once I'd finished sharing my story, there was a long pause. They didn't try to comfort me with thinly veiled optimism, and instead, they listened and understood: I was grateful for the comfortable silence.
After a while, Lizbeth did a great job cheering me up by explaining Belgium's long and confusing history. Did you know that they have six governments? Because I didn't.
'Guys, have you ever heard of the term non-binary?' Lizbeth asked.
It was a concept I was familiar with, but have never met anyone with that identity.
'Uhh, not really, I don't get it,' I admitted.
This was met with awkward silence. As someone with a disability, I truly understand how it feels to be marginalised and try to do everything to understand and advocate for underrepresented groups. A pang of regret sunk to the pit of my stomach because, as a cis-gendered person, I really didn't want to cause any offence.
'Uhh, well, I kinda am,' Lizbeth's voice began to crack under the weight of their words. 'And, I don't know what to do.'
We had come a long way since our meeting in the courtyard, where Lizbeth later mentioned that they felt unsure about how accepting I would be because of my feminine appearance - I guess no one is exempt from the ugly taunts of misconception. But all that remained was mutual respect and trust for one another. We spoke for a long time, and I learnt that Lizbeth had been grappling with this entirely on their own.
'When I close my eyes, I picture myself as an old man, not a woman: that's who I want to be. But then, I really don't mind who I am on other days. It's just so confusing, you know?'
As they had done for me, I didn't try to be the voice of reason. Instead, I listened with an open mind which proved to be enough.
My final day in Zadar was spent attending various workshops designed to help us discover more about helpful technology and effective communication. I had signed up for a Jaws workshop that had nothing to do with sharks, unbeknown to me. In fact, Jaws is a speech software designed for users who are totally blind, so this wasn't much use.
Ten minutes later, I was in the Effective Communication workshop.
Once settled, we were greeted by our smiley Volunteer Coordinator Claire who asked us to form a circle.
Dean pulled up a chair beside me and edged it uncomfortably close, which was heightened by the fact that he had made no effort to talk to me aside from the occasional sour remark.
'This is stupid, don't you think?' he said.
I clenched my teeth and looked straight ahead.
'So, what makes good verbal communication?' Claire asked with encouragement.
Dean exaggerated a yawn, and some of the younger participants sniggered.
'Facing the direction of the person speaking?' I suggested whilst trying to mask the screech of my chair legs as I moved away. Claire continued until she grew tired of the disinterested shrugs and murmurs.
We got into small groups to practise a body language exercise. I gripped my chair and spotted a table by the window where Eddy was sitting.
'Sorry. I don't mean to disturb, it's just that Dean's starting to creep me out.'
'It's okay, mate. I know,' Eddy agreed, clearing a space.
Although he was reserved and a little awkward, Eddy had a calming presence that helped me forget about what was on my mind. We sat and discussed universities for a while.
'What uni are you going to?' Eddy asked.
I stretched casually, exposing my stomach.
‘You have a really molely stomach,' Dean said as he and his friends came to sit opposite us.
I opened my mouth to speak, but the fragile fragments of my voice were swallowed up by their exploding laughter.
With Claire out of the room, I saw no reason to stay.
'Why do you dress like that? Dirty girl,' Dean called out in an elongated drawl as I reached the door.
I turned around, unable to hold my tongue any longer. 'What was that, Dean?'
Dean stood up and kicked his chair behind him - grunting, 'Why don't you go back to church and learn not to be such a slut?'
His words echoed around the room: some said nothing, others gasped, but his loyal followers sitting at our table were the only ones who laughed. I wanted to cause a scene. I wanted to humiliate him, but all that remained was a quiet embarrassment that felt as intrusive as though a thousand scorpions were crawling all over, invading the parts I didn't want anyone to see.
Then I heard a familiar voice. It was Eddy.
'What did you just say?'
Dean let out a guffaw of a man wanting to be challenged.
'Oh chill, man, we're only messing around.'
'Do you think that's funny?' Eddy said in defiance as he lunged toward Dean. 'You can't treat girls like that.'
The entire room sat with pricked ears as I dragged Eddy away.
'Eddy…Eddy, come on. It's not worth it. He's not worth it.'
'What an ass!' Eddy said once we were in the hallway.
I forced a girlish giggle, 'Well, he's ruined his chances. No one will want to talk to him after this.'
I turned in the direction of the bathroom, conscious that the ever-tightening lump in my throat wouldn't have kept my tears at bay for much longer. I felt naked and alone as I trailed to the bathroom, my hands covering my sluttish arms. I pulled out my phone to tell Ollie but thought better of it; he didn't need the burden of my trivia.
With the morning's altercation still at the forefront of my mind, I struggled up five flights of stairs in search of the visual aids workshop with some reluctance. However, I was relieved to learn that Kat, the Volunteer Coordinator, was the only person in the pokey classroom.
An obscure assortment of gadgets were sprawled across a table, with a giant TV, complete with a tray underneath, being the piece of resistance. I pulled up a chair beside it which prompted Kat to notice that one of my acrylic nails was missing.
'Did you do those?' she asked.
'No,' I replied as I snatched my hand out of view. 'I can't do them myself so I get them done professionally.'
I considered myself a fashionista back then so, sensing my embarrassment, Kat handed me a pot of hot pink nail polish and some clippers.
'Well, you can now.'
'Oh, I like this idea, but how?' I replied, curious about her whimsical plan.
She switched on the TV and pulled out the tray,
It soon emerged that it was a giant magnifier complete with a series of dials. I placed my hand underneath and zoomed in.
'Wow, look at that,' I said. 'I can see my nails clearly.'
I marvelled at my precision, fantasising about how easy life would be if I could zoom in every now and then. But, at that moment, Kat had captured one of femininity's precious fragments that my sight had stolen and delivered it back to me.
'Wanna go outside?' Kat asked, waving a pair of jam-jar style goggles in my direction.
I placed the glasses on slowly and opened my eyes to a magnified world. The smudged strip of blue transformed into the floating outlines of families playing volleyball, their golden tans glistening in the afternoon sun. And, for the first time, I glimpsed the shapes of boats bobbing steadily on the gentle stream of sapphire. In the distance, mossy peaks winked at me, a sight I wasn't aware anyone could see.
'Can I keep them forever?' I asked, still in awe of the secret stories within the sighted world.
I took them off and met Kat's Gaze, and with tear-filled eyes, she pulled me to her.
'Amazing,' I whispered. 'Thank you, Kat.'
Still basking in the afterglow, I sat on the steps and squinted into the distance, willing my eyes to interpret the blur I could see clearly just moments before. Dean sat down beside me and lit a cigarette and gestured to me.
'You want some?'
I shook my head.
'Haven't you got anything you'd like to say?'
His face was expressionless, and it was only when I met his gaze with an intense stare that the cogs began to turn.
'You know that was only a joke, right?'
As I walked back to the university's main entrance, I was reminded of a quote from the Chimp Paradox that will stay with me forever: the way to approach narcissists is to accept them for who they are or walk away. I wasn't going to let someone like him drag me down.
During my short stay in Zadar, I glimpsed what the kindness of strangers can look like. I experienced nature at its most beautiful and understood how it is intrinsically linked to healing. Flecks of burnt ember and gold coursed through my veins, elated that, after eighteen long years in hiding, a week surrounded by other visually impaired people allowed me to finally see the beauty in being authentically yourself. I was ready for the descent into adulthood - a long and turbulent voyage.
Congrats, you've uncovered my (not so) secret stories. I'm Alice, a partially sighted writer passionate about depicting worlds that reach beyond what my eyes fail to see.