Upon dropping haphazardly in a propeller plane on the runway at Jože Pučnik airport outside of Ljubljana, Slovenia, I met a pomade-slicked driver who assured me that his roundabout bus service to the city was exactly what I required. I ducked into his muddy van in the stifling August heat and encountered a few Australian girls who were doing the classic Balkan route, hitting some combination of Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia. They were equal parts blonde and chatty, and one of them wore a wide straw hat that sliced the air treacherously when she fidgeted. Squeezed beside me in the backseat was a British couple – a perfect vision of middle-age in cargo shorts and hiking shoes. This was their first trip alone, they told me, since their oldest son was born—he’d just started university.
“We’re thrilled,” the woman gushed, her enthusiasm wholly endearing, “it’s going to be so romantic.”
“The world is a beautiful place,” her husband added, “and we can’t wait to get really drunk in our hotel room!” As true a sentiment as any.
I met Adam in Slovenia’s quaint capital city, in our humid shared room at a dirt-cheap hostel on the banks of the river. I walked in to see him sprawled on his bunk in the middle of the day, napping off the previous night’s exploits. His shoulders were red and peeling from too many days on the beach, and he had mysterious welts on his back which, I later learned, may have come from bed bugs in Split, Croatia. Adam was an accountant from Birmingham. He made one too many jokes about having a drinking problem, and he exclusively wore soccer jerseys. It was his personal belief that you could get to know the soul of any city through the simple means of a lengthy walking tour and a wild pub crawl—the ultimate cultural immersion. My first night in Ljubljana, jet lag trumped morality as I encouraged him to go out drinking to cope with his garrulous version of insomnia.
Natalie showed up the next day, a generous smile and dangling legs in the upper bunk. A red bandana encircled her face like a halo. She was from London but had spent several recent years working in fashion in Melbourne. I learned over a dinner of hearty Balkan fare that she’d just quit her job in London and was on her way to Zagreb to meet a man with whom she had a complicated romantic history. She wore thick silver hoops that knocked against her jaw as she spoke, and her eyeshadow was meticulously executed. She relished the local ice cream, drank only aperol spritzes, and loved the idea of living in a houseboat in London.
I spent several evenings with Adam and Natalie, bar-hopping along the Ljubljanica river that runs through the city. They were both hilarious, easy to befriend. We ate cheap Argentinian strip steak with chimichurri sauce from an open-air food market on the boulevard. We sat for hours arguing about where-do-you-think-those-two-blonde-guys-are-from (Norway? Denmark? They’ve got to be Scandinavian), discussing our travels and our lives. Natalie describing her father’s heart condition and Adam his father’s relationship with alcohol. We intently watched and covertly narrated the lives that were occurring at the tables beside us—two guys making moves on a pair of ladies, some teenage lovers having a spat. None of us learned of the others’ ages until the last night—Natalie was thirty years old, Adam twenty-eight, and me a paltry nineteen. I have a shimmering image of Natalie’s silhouette cast against the night sky, her skin auburn under the warm lantern light. First Adam left for Dubrovnik, then Natalie for Zagreb. According to their recent Facebook posts, someone referred to Adam as a “budget Brad Pitt” and Natalie’s been doing a lot of yoga.
Alone again, I wandered through Ljubljana’s modern art museums, pondering the graphic paintings involving fruit and vaginal penetration, and a stop-motion animation film about a drunk anthropomorphic badger getting hit by a car. Caught in a sudden downpour one afternoon, I huddled beside a girl from Manchester under an old oak in the city park. The mud rose over our sandals, rain rinsing the gnarled tree roots. She soon made a run for it, drenching her white tank top, before I worked up the courage to do so. On a bridge one evening, I ran into a group of teenagers from Berlin, traveling for a month with a EuroRail pass. High-waisted jeans, cigarettes, and a typical European standoffishness. They asked a street performer, an improvisational DJ-rapper, to spin something about getting high, and also something about soup. One of the guys was really cute—I regretted not asking his name. At the morning flea market, an old vender yelled at me for touching too many things without making a choice. My meager protests were drowned in a torrent of angry, guttural Slovenian. I mastered the art of the solo dinner out, people-watching, wine-sipping and trying to look picturesque under the changing light. White to rose to gray, a sunset painted on the cobblestones as the streetlamps buzzed to life.
A smeary-windowed bus jolted to the nearby village of Škofja Loka. I trekked between the ruins of old fortresses on the hilltops, and from a perch high on the wall of a crumbling lookout tower, a rich fabric of forest rolled out before me. In the afternoon, at a local swimming spot in the Sora river, the whole village was strewn on the splintered wooden platform. Contentedly, massive beer bellies stretched on the dock alongside twitching teenage concavity. I met a girl who spoke some English. We waded up to our necks in the icy water, tip-toeing on the flat stones. She, a twenty-something with a purple streak in her hair, had moved by herself to Slovenia from Lithuania. Yet she was altogether incredulous that I, a lone American teenager, had wound up on the dock in her village and demanded an explanation. I had none to give.
With my backpack stuffed into a rental car, I headed due East, rambling near the border with Hungary and getting lost among the dandelion hills. Somewhere in the middle of the country, a Pauline monastery in an 11th century castle stood nestled in the crook of a valley. It was an enormous structure with a striking gray facade and ornate white decoration, majesty against the cloudless blue. Monks dipped silently under the archways. The monastery chapel smelled eerily like the old Vermont house of my dementia-stricken grandmother, which hauntingly broke my heart. I sat alone that afternoon in the creaking wooden pews, the gold baroque altar before me. I’d never been one for religion but was pierced by something in that place, something that made me lose my breath. I later roamed down the slope from the monastery, through the garden of all the earthly herbs from which the monks brewed their medicines and tinctures. A place of healing.
A castle was built long ago into the face of a cliff at Predjama in the southwest. It had a secret tunnel underneath that led to a faraway exit, which the resident nobleman had once exploited to survive months under siege. He mocked his besieging enemies by sending them gifts of fresh smuggled-in cherries. The original fruits of wrath. In nearby Skocjanske, a network of Tolkienesque underground caves wound deep under the earth, a network of dark tunnels filled with startling stalagmites and stalactites. A path was etched along precipices that tipped and towered over a gushing river, small lanterns lighting the perilous way. It was the stuff of fiction– but ni fotografij. No photos allowed.
In the wine-growing hills of the western Brda region, Ljuba, my hostess for a night, lived on a vineyard. Her garden was buzzing and lush, tumbling with roses and vine tomatoes, a patch of cultivated wildness among the military rows of grapevines standing at attention. Her short dark hair was clipped sensibly back; her smile was ready. Ljuba made perfect fried eggs, and her fresh peach juice was divine. She had grown up in the capital, she told me, and was previously married to an abusive alcoholic. Back then, she’d also had a fulfilling career in public facility water management and research. Now she was a farmer’s wife. Ljuba hadn’t wanted to leave her job when Miran first proposed, so he waited ten years until she was ready to join his life. She was happy in many respects, she said, but village life sometimes drove her crazy. The neighboring women would gossip and judge her, calling her lazy and useless when she would go for a walk on Sundays after finishing her chores. She was also an ardent activist– she expounded on the history of the nation and railed passionately against the evils of communism. The young people only complain about democracy, she said, because they don’t remember how bad it used to be.
Piran was a pastel town on Slovenia’s precious allocation of Istrian coastline. An Italianate charmer, dolce vita! my guidebook proclaimed, and packed with well-to-do holidaymakers and their masses of white linen and pale suede. The seaside days were long and sun-drenched, but there is something uniquely lonely about the ocean—swells lifting you into flight—when no one is waiting for you on the pebbled shore. I sat in the central Piazza Tartini in the evening, savoring the last slice of prosciutto from my appetizer-for-two alone. Breezy Italian mingled with brusque Slovenian in the thick heat. Dinnertime entertainment was provided by the local tweens by the fountain. One kid with a mop of blonde hair, probably twelve years old, held a speaker on his shoulder and slouched around aimlessly, swelling with his curated persona. I watched with amusement as a much younger boy, miniscule and mousy, danced exuberantly to the blasting rap music and proceeded to taunt some looming teenagers until they nearly got into a fistfight. Brazen youth is unfailingly admirable.
In typical backpacker fashion I was staying in a dingy hostel room with three guys. Our fair quarters held the odor of mildewed towels and lacked any of the sunlight which was otherwise so plentiful. One of my hostel-mates came back very drunk every night and snored tremendously, a chainsaw in the upper bunk; another was a shy French fellow who skirted in and out of his bed as if the sandy floor was covered in hot coals. The third roommate was a man from northern Sweden. Encountering him in the hostel one afternoon, I explained my plan to climb up onto the old town walls, with a supposedly perfect view above Piran to watch the sunset over the Adriatic. He asked if he could join me—we sat high up on the ancient ramparts for hours, me painting horrendously and him sketching good-naturedly. We spoke softly, as if not to disturb the sunset. The light nestled into the rippling horizon, the swath of terracotta roofs below us fading into shadow.
His name was Jonas. He had a dark and angular face, aged denim shorts, scuffed All Stars, and a wry sense of humor. He moved slowly, each action precise and intentional. He was currently doing design for a new app and was on his way to Greece to meet family. His career hopes were really set on a friend’s idea for a children’s television show—Jonas wanted to do the animation, and they were working on the pilot. After sunset we headed into town and sat in a bar on the pier. I drank chardonnay; he drank a local brew. We talked about politics, philosophy, family, music, rebellion, the Scandinavian involvement in World War II. It was one of those moments when people fall in love, at least with the mind of another. It was long after midnight when we returned to the hostel. I don’t even know his last name. He wasn’t on Facebook, and I wasn’t on Instagram; I’ll never be able to find him, unless sometime in the future, I stumble upon a wildly successful Swedish animated kids show about the power of imagination.
My final day in Slovenia was as beautiful as all the rest. The sky was clear, but the air was cooler now as if summer was beginning to surrender its balmy claim. I awoke early to the quiet news that my grandmother had passed away the previous night. I spent the morning in shock, driving through winding mountain roads at speeds double the limit. Tears dripped over the steering wheel as if they belonged to someone else. At the highest point of a mountain pass, a herd of sheep stood lethargically in the roadway for a while. I sat that final afternoon by the forested edge of a vivid turquoise lake, mud-streaked on my jeans and summer foliage matted beneath me. I was dazed by the grace of my surroundings and confounded that my grandmother would never again witness anything like it, or anything at all. But the crystalline water lapped over my toes, and the air tasted like pine. A rowboat rippled through the water like a cirrus cloud across the sky, and my heart was filled with everything.