From Slovenia, with love

A traveler rediscovers the kindness of strangers

| July / August 2003

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.

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