After two days on the tourist packed streets of Venice, I was more than ready to head east to Ljubljana and see a different side of Europe. Even prior to removing my wallet from the equation, the cheapest transport I could find was through blablacar, a ride share website that’s sort of like couchsurfing with cars, except creeper escape is a lot more difficult, unless you’ve perfected my stunt double skills. Bee and I agreed he would pick me up on his way from Milan to Ljubljana for 20€ – because driving alone with a Slovenian-Albanian-Bosnian-Estonian stranger across international borders is definitely worth saving 15€.
As we headed onto the dark highway bereft of city lights, signs were quickly changing from the semi-comprehensible Italian, to a language with letters over their letters, I hoped we were en route to Ljubljana and not to some cabin in the woods where the hills have eyes. Observing my surroundings while making small talk, and keeping my hand close to the door handle, I took note that the highway signs and GPS both indicated Ljubljana as a possible destination. I crossed my fingers and hoped that my bad luck had ended with the missing wallet.
Two rather pleasant, murder, mugging and rape free hours later we arrived in Ljubljana at the address where my hostel was supposed to be. I could see a stark building behind bare trees and a heavy chain strung between two poles blocking the road. The unmistakeable bass of a party filled the air and I saw shabbily dressed people stumbling towards the noise, bottles in one hand and cigarettes in the other. Bee assured me that this was my intended destination and took off.
As I headed down the dark road past a graffiti covered basketball court, I could see some guys standing adjacent to the door being drunk and rowdy in a language I couldn’t understand. Turning to ask them if this was in fact Hotel Celica AKA the former prison turned hostel, and I was greeted with a “Sifu!” followed by hands pressed together, and a bow. This roughly translates to “Hey King Fu Master.” At least they thought I could kick their ass?
Fortunately, walking into the building I was greeted by a warm looking reception with lots of backpackers chilling in the common area and sitting at the bar – with no devices of torture to be seen. I slid my passport across the desk and told the receptionist that I had a reservation and a missing wallet, and immediately tried to connect to wifi to see if someone had found my wallet at the bar I had been in earlier.
As soon as I got onto facebook a few messages popped up from Mayor, a guy I was acquainted with from work. He was from Ljubljana (LJ from here on out) and told me that if I decided to come to his city he could offer me a couch to crash on, and a city tour. Unfortunately, LJ had been a last minute decision and at the same time, the paranoid New Yorker in me, despite all my tricks for saving money traveling, is very hesitant to stay with anyone I don’t know very well – especially now that I was in Eastern Europe … and did hostel take place in Slovenia or Slovakia…why can I never remember important details!?
Mayor’s first message apologized for not being available (I had only told him that afternoon that I was coming), then he inquired about my lost wallet and asked if I needed help, or to borrow money until I sorted things out. The email concluded with him telling me he had sent his friend Says to meet me at the hostel at 11 to give me a tour of the city, and take me to the club they worked at. It was currently 10:58 pm. On cue a guy in a leather jacket was approaching, “Hi are you Risa?”
After a day of being in tourist trap Venice, losing my wallet, crossing international borders with a stranger, walking down a shady road to a hostel, and now having a mysterious stranger appear to show me around the city, my guard was up higher than a head on a spike at Vlad the Impaler’s. The New Yorker in me was all “hell no I am not going out at night with a stranger in a strange city,” on the other hand, Mayor had really gone out of his way to provide an insane level of hospitality. Then again, Mayor was an acquaintance, and I’m pretty sure this is actually how hostel starts. You meet up with a friend of a distant friend, then the friend takes you partying, gets you wasted, and then sells you to a disgraced German surgeon who wants to burn your eyeballs out with a blow torch. But on the other hand… free party!!!
Before my brain exploded from an overwhelming amount of problems needing to be addressed at once, I started weighing my options for the night. I could stay in, pass out, and wallow in the misery of having lost my wallet. Or – I could go out with a complete stranger who might attempt to kidnap and kill me, BUT I would at least get to see some of the nightlife of Ljubljana with a local. Seeing as I had already pushed my luck with the car ride, I figured I should push it a little further. When in doubt, always pick the worse of the two evils – it makes for a better story.
It being either time to have a great night, or time to get murdered as soon as we left the building Says turned to go further down the road, away from the street and towards the music – and the shady looking fellows I had earlier mentioned.
“So…where are we going? What’s the plan for tonight?” (Murder? Eye ball scorching? Achilles heel snipping??)
“This is Metelkova, they have a party and each of the different buildings has a different kind of club with different music.”
While I may have normally thought that this was code for different rooms of torture, another contact from Ljubljana told me about this place, and told me Friday night was THE night for Metelkova. As we walked around he explained to me that it was kind of an artist colony/autonomous zone – much like Christiania in Copenhagen. There were murals, graffiti, mosaics, sculptures and other forms of street art all over the buildings, which were somewhere between innovative and decrepit. And of course the unmistakeable odor of my French-Korean-Spanish friend, Mary Joo Ana.
Starting to let my guard down we headed into a bar and Says offered to buy me a shot. I asked what he ordered to which he responded a shot of schnapps that was made from “young spruce trees when they first come out of the ground.” I watched the bartender pour the liquor and then we both proceeded to sip the oversized shot. It wasn’t bad, and didn’t taste like roofies, so after a minute or two I downed it.
After spending some time checking out the scene and having him explain the different types of clubs/music (rock, chanson mashups, electro, GLBT, etc.) we decided to walk over to K4, the club he and Mayor worked at. As we walked through the city he pointed out various buildings generally indicating ‘This used to be (insert building here) but now it’s a (insert other type of building here).” What I gathered is that the city likes to recycle.
Walking across the tiny city, we got to chatting while I nervously eyed every dark alley and kept my eyes peeled for other people on the street. I have a note in my phone quoting him as saying, “Who says I think you’re skinny. Taking into account that you’re Asian, you’re actually pretty fat.” I think this is the part where I decided to drop my reservations and started enjoying myself a bit more. There’s no faster way to get into my good graces than racist humor.
A few minutes later we arrived at the club and Says asked me if I wanted to see their office, which was the empty building located over the club. Because that also sounded safe, I agreed. Inside there was art fused with science exhibits, from an exhibit on jellyfish as their pulsations corresponded with a synthetic heart, to photos of previous events at the club which combined with Says’ descriptions, seemed to be avant-garde performance pieces that rivaled the fecal stupendousness of The Box in NYC. After a fascinating story about a performance piece during which a guy plays with his poop inside a glass box, it was time to check out the club – which hopefully wouldn’t be covered in doo doo. It wasn’t. Mayor had set things up so that we were able to gain free entrance, and drinks. Slovenian hospitality was turning out to be amazing beyond my wildest dreams.
Enjoying the loud electronic music and light shows Says and I started dancing and decided to put our jackets down on a ledge near the wall. I also moved to put my drink down while I took off my scarf and he warned me to be careful. In the last few months there had been a small roofie problem but he told me not to worry too much about it, since “people got drunk but nothing happened to them.” For what I considered to be an Eastern European country, it was sure seeming pretty safe in LJ. Or maybe how roofies work hadn’t caught on here yet. Let’s keep it that way
After a few hour of dancing to great music, and full day of travel hell I was getting ready to call it a night. Says went to grab our jackets and I was left on the dance floor enjoying the music. A local guy approached me and started talking to me in what I can only assume was Slovenian. Come on dude, how many Chinese people do you know that speak Slovenian? Then again, I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a single other non-local in the bar, so it might have been a reasonable assumption that I lived there. When Says came back I asked him about the Asian population in LJ, because I wanted to bond with my peoples, and to determine the odds of an Asian person actually speaking Slovenian. He told me there were a few (Me: “Few like a hundred or few like count on two hands?”) and that I should just “take it as a compliment and a reflection of our openness.” Touché.
After that we walked back to my hostel, contemplated going into a few of the Metelkova clubs, and then realized it was 3 in the morning and I was cloudy headed, red eyed and ready for sleep. It had been a long day. I had lost my wallet. I took a ride with a stranger across country lines. In case anything happened, I had no phone or money. I neglected to cancel my credit cards. I went out with a total stranger and told him where I was staying – which is basically rule numero uno of “Taken” – Don’t be the ditzy girl that tells people she’s traveling alone and where her accommodation is.
Says dropped me off and said that he hoped I had a good first impression of Ljubljana. I don’t know if he and Mayor both worked for the tourism board, but after coming off a stressful day, I was still able to really enjoy myself in LJ and get a great impression of the city and the people from my few hours out. Slovenian hospitality FTW – seriously guys, thank you so much, you really made my experience, and saved my day.