Slovenia – April 2011
As the train passes over the border from Hungary to Slovenia, I walk up and down the corridor. The only sound is that of the compartment doors sliding open and closed. I’m the only passenger on the entire train. The only public transport between Budapest and Ljubljana is a nine-hour train ride. One can drive the same route in around four hours. I’ve spent most of the trip staring out the window at the awakening countryside. Spring is early and exuberant this year. This trip was a spontaneous decision. I’ll have only a couple of days in Slovenia, but there have been rumors of the train service stopping. I could always rent a car, but I prefer the passivity of train travel. Daydreaming to the accompaniment of unfamiliar countryside.
When I arrive in Ljubljana, I check the weather report. Rain is predicted for the day after next. I’ll have to go to Lake Bled tomorrow. I try to sleep early, but my mind churns. I finally drift off to the memory of empty corridors on the move.
Lake Bled is like something out of a fantasy novel. Swans gliding on shimmering waters. A monastery on a tiny island in the center. All of it ringed by towering, snow-capped mountains. Branches droop under the weight of blossoms. I fill my lungs with their sweetness. I walk to the other side of the lake and make the short, but grueling climb to the Mala Osojnica viewpoint. Then I descend to the lake. Empty benches beckon, but lingering has never come easy to me. I don’t want to go back to Ljubljana, however. I have all day tomorrow to explore that small city. I make another, slower lap around the lake. Lingering in motion.
Ljubljana’s old city shakes off the final remnants of winter. Parasols and tables have emerged from storage. People stroll along the River Ljubljanica, smiles dusted off and ready for the sun. A light drizzle wets the warm air. I walk up to the castle, but don’t go inside. I never thought I’d reach the point of being blasé about castles and cathedrals. My memory can only hold so many souvenirs.
I walk along the trails at the castle hill. Beyond the city and foothills, the Alps rise towards the sky. I feel a slight twinge of regret. Two days is not enough in this little country. But it’s all I’ve got right now.
In the late afternoon, I head to Tivoli Park. It’s deserted, except for an occasional elderly person or woman pushing a stroller. I look at the artwork on display and then walk for a while on the forest trails.
In the underpass back to the city, a white-haired gentleman plays a xylophone-like instrument. The delicate chiming notes fill the dark cement corridor. He wields the little mallets with flair. His enthusiasm causes passersby to smile. Some of them stop to listen. I drop a few coins in his tip jar and smile, but I avert my eyes. I’m uncomfortable with people knowing that I give things. Once again, I can’t bring myself to linger and listen. I turn away, but he shouts something at me. He points a mallet at a red Gerbera daisy that’s lying on his instrument case and then he points at me. A gift.
“Hvala.” I bow to him with a smile. Warmth fills me. The flower’s head bobs in time with my steps as the music recedes and then vanishes.
In the morning, I pack my things and then zip the flower stem securely in the front pocket of my suitcase so that the petals don’t get crushed. I wait in the common room for the receptionist to arrive so that I can turn in my key. I had the only private ensuite in the small hostel. I notice a note that points to a key drop box. I slip the key inside and then turn to leave.
An elderly woman shuffles out of one of the dorms. Eyes downcast. Shoulders slumped.
I wince. The young people staying in the dorms couldn’t be bothered to return my hello. They probably gave her the same treatment. Some hostels don’t allow people over forty, which includes me. It’s too bad that there aren’t hostels for retirees. They should also be able to travel inexpensively and without discrimination. “Good morning,” I say.
A nod. “Good morning.” Her eyes come to rest on the flower. Her face brightens. “That’s lovely,” she says. Her accent is German.
I tell her the story of how I got it.
She breathes deep and exhales. Her posture relaxes. “Little things like this really help when you’re on the road.”
We exchange a long look of solidarity before I walk out the door.