A traveler rediscovers the kindness of strangers
A general strike by Italian railroad employees has stranded me in Trieste, in the farthest northeastern corner of Italy, the last town before the Slovenian border.
I do not know the date and I no longer have any idea how many days there are until the Apocalypse, but I do know that it is Friday, the Italian railway workers are on strike again, and I am stranded. I start hitchhiking toward Slovenia, which is not far from Kosovo and the site of an ongoing war. Because Americans are dropping bombs as near to me as New York is to Washington, D.C., it seems advisable to tell people that I?m Canadian. This I do, spinning an elaborate tale of undergraduate study in Toronto to the woman who picks me up on the mountain road, not registering that in minutes I?ll have to produce my passport at the border and thus be outed as a U.S. citizen.
Slovenia has been a country for just over 10 years, and the people who pick me up on the way toward the capital city of Ljubljana are all enthusiastic patriots. Intense nationalistic feeling for a place that is newer than Return of the Jedi manifests itself in a curious paternal pride. It?s less like listening to the gross self-assuredness of the gung-ho American than like hearing proud parents tell you their kid?s Little League batting average or someone lovingly describe a supersweet car.
It seems that every Slovenian is eager to recite the country?s population (almost 2 million), its principal industries, biggest tourist attractions, and most successful cultural exports: the industrial band Laibach and the critical theorist Slavoj Zizek. ?Ah, yes!? nods a gruff, gray-haired car mechanic, his weathered hands wrapped around the wheel of his Soviet-era deathtrap econotruck, ?So, you know the little giant of Ljubljana!?
The mechanic drops me off in the middle of nowhere, telling me to forget about making it to Ljubljana tonight, advising me to sleep in a field instead, and to check out the nearby caves in the morning. I assure him that I will and then resume hitching when he leaves. Hours later, long after dark, the guy who finally picks me up is about my age. He speaks the worst English of any Slovenian I will meet (at about the level of the average American eighth grader) and seems one of the nicest and most tragically naive people I have ever met. He invites me to stay on the couch at his girlfriend?s house immediately upon hearing that I?m Canadian. I?m surprised by his hospitality?shouldn?t he be more wary of hitchhikers? But I gratefully accept his offer.
We drive to a small, condolike housing subdivision on the outskirts of Ljubljana. He buzzes his girlfriend in her apartment, and they have a brief exchange over the intercom. Though they?re speaking Slovenian, I get the gist of it when she responds to his pitch with a long pause and something along the lines of Not this again. Come on. ?I?m sorry,? he grins, flustered.
He drives me downtown and drops me off at the train station, which at 11 has just closed. It is the middle of the night and I have just arrived in a city I know nothing about, with a bunch of luggage, no money, and nowhere to stay. I drag my bags over to the nearby bus station to search for a place to stow them. The lone station attendant, a 19-year-old kid eating a candy bar, shakes his head when I ask if they have rental lockers. ?I could hide your stuff behind this desk for a couple days,? he suggests. When I hesitate, he quickly adds, ?We?ll work out a fair price.?
I leave the stuff and ask him to point me in the direction of something cool. He gestures vaguely towards the city center, which I begin trudging towards in an exhausted daze. Fortunately, the summer air is balmy and the ornate public squares are filled with people walking aimlessly, stopping to loll around at a fountain or by a statue. The only words addressed to me?STOP NATO BOMBING?are spray-painted on a bridge.
Eventually, I?m drawn by the sound of music to a square where a party is in progress on the lawn of a nearby art museum. Weird, abstract shapes are being projected onto the museum?s blank white side, and a band is skronk-ing and squalling out a version of the strange avant-garde jazz-rock-noise fusion that the Euros sometimes get into, especially behind the former Iron Curtain, where Soviet-style repression somehow resulted in a deep affinity for Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart.
There is a table filled with free hors d?oeuvres and plastic cups of wine. I haven?t eaten all day, and so it takes me about two minutes to get full and five minutes to be drunk. I like this country so far, I reflect; I?ve been in town for 45 minutes and I?m already wined, dined, and attending a psychedelic art opening.
The band takes a break and then returns for a second set, now joined by an emaciated, squirrelly looking singer, shirtless underneath a purple vest. His hair is matted and dirty, and his mouth sports a fuzzy, mustachelike growth above and a scraggly goatee below, framing pursed, shiny lips and crooked, crazy teeth. He sways unsteadily, obviously tanked. It doesn?t appear that he?ll be a formidable front man, but when the band begins playing ?Purple Rain,? it becomes clear that he is totally unstoppable. ?Por-pohl rhean, por-pohl rhean!? He wails into the microphone. They blaze through a set of Prince covers. He is masterful strutting around the stage, doing all the moves. The band has trouble keeping up (which is forgivable, since they consist of a guitarist, a jazz drummer, and a violinist), but he is undaunted as he launches into a rendition of ?When Doves Cry.? ?Ow can you joos? liv me standink,? he demands. ?Alone in a world zo krrrru-ewl!?
After the set I approach him to compliment his performance. ?You like Prince?? He grins enthusiastically.
?Sure,? I say.
?Then you are my brother! Where are you from?? I tell him the abbreviated version, skipping the Canadian student routine.
?My name is Clement,? he says. ?Like Clementine!? He asks me where I plan to stay and I point to a shrub I?ve had my eye on as a possible place to sleep.
?Oh no!? laughs Clement. ?You can stay with me! Would you like to go there now or would you like to have me take you out on the town??
?Town,? I say.
?Yes, good! But first: I must find a friend who is leaving Ljubljana tomorrow. I have to see her! Tonight is my last chance.? He slaps me on the shoulder. ?We?ll all go out together! I?ll be back in 20 minutes.? With that, he wanders over to a bearded man sitting on a bench nearby, exchanges a few words with him, and then pedals off on the guy?s bicycle.
My panic at the train station flashes through my mind again. I think about the kid from the bus depot who offered to hide my stuff, and my concern that this apparently well-meaning guy was actually taking me, the naive visitor, for a ride. Then I think about the guy who offered me the couch at his girlfriend?s apartment, an act of almost confusing kindness?what was his motivation? Are people really just that nice around here? Three nice guys in a row seems statistically improbable. Either Slovenians are by nature unbelievably giving and trusting, or at least one of these people has to be pulling some sort of con, scam, or mean-spirited practical joke on me.
Half an hour later the art crowd has left and I?m getting more skeptical about Clement?s promise to return. I spot the bearded, barrel-chested guy who loaned him the bike, and I walk to him across the square. ?Is that guy coming back?? I ask. He shrugs, grinning slightly.
?It?s just that he offered to let me stay at his house,? I continue. ?Do you know him pretty well? Is he a cool guy??
?I?ve never seen him before in my life,? he says. ?I hope he comes back. I just got that bike two days ago.?
I am dumbstruck. ?So, you just loaned a complete stranger your new bike??
?Well, he said it was really important, he absolutely had to meet a girl.?
What is the crime rate in Slovenia? Has the notion of distrusting your fellow man never occurred to these people? I am perplexed. The bearded guy?s name is Jan. He is a film student studying animation. ?We have great cartoons here,? he boasts. Postmodern critical theory, industrial music, animation?the GNP of this country is far more enticing than the tractors and barley I expected, or my own country?s current export to the region, short-range tactical missiles and smart bombs.
At that moment, Clement triumphantly reappears, walking the bike, with the girl at his side. ?Ah,? he exclaims, seeing me. ?Now we can see the city!?
Clement?s girl, a Dane from Copenhagen, wants to smoke a joint first, and we stroll over to a nearby park. She rolls the joint, but we have no lighter. A businessman in a nice suit bustles past, talking in rapid-fire clip on a cell phone. She calls out to him, gestures in the universal ?got a light? hand motion, and he veers over on apparent autopilot, immersed in what sounds like heavy wheeling and dealing on the phone as he holds out a lighter. When she lights the joint he snaps out of his cellular trance. ?Ah!? he exclaims. ?I?ll call you back,? he mutters, and hangs up the phone. Clement?s girl hands him the joint.
She tells me she?s leaving in the morning for Denmark to work on a horse farm. Clement holds her hand and beams. The stoned businessman is intrigued by the fact that I?m American. ?What do you think about the bombing?? he wants to know. In America, that?s the sort of topic you get stoned to avoid thinking about. For the hundredth time the incongruity of my life strikes me, the leisure-basis of my life, an existence on permanent general strike, just on principle, like the Italian railroad workers, playing hooky in the face of war, so close now?a few hours away.
We talk politics. ?How has the war affected Slovenia?? I ask. ?Oh, it?s been pretty rough,? the businessman says. ?Tourism is way down. We keep telling people, ?There is no war here, it?s fine!? ? I try to imagine the tourist board of Delaware dispensing similar slogans during a massive carpet-bombing of Maryland.
Clement?s girl takes off, leaving him heartbroken, telling me how tragically in love he is. They?ve known each other for three days. ?Time to see the town!? he announces. Clement, Jan, and I pile into a cab, Clement starts talking with the driver, and by the end of the crosstown ride they?ve discovered mutual affinities, common acquaintances, deeper bonds even than a shared appreciation for the Purple Rain sound track album. When we get out, the driver refuses to accept a fare. Clement slaps him on the back. ?You are a good man,? he says, and then to me, ?I know this man. He is a good man.? The cab driver nods and smiles.
Bass player for the Chicago band Milemarker, Al Burian is probably best known for his zine Burn Collector, which chronicles his peripatetic life. A dozen issues have been published since 1995?the first nine of which are anthologized in a book by the same title. This essay is reprinted from Natural Disasters #2, a Burian zine that focuses on travel. Sample copy: $2 from Box 220386, Chicago, IL 60622.