“17:30 would be fine? It take 15 minutes to get there…and I printed your bus ticket and I will provide you that,” Danko’s text message read.
“Sounds good my friend. Your father suggested 5:00 pm but it’s up to you. As long as we don’t hit traffic again. I’ll wait for you where we met yesterday. Thanks Danko.”
My response did not reveal the misgivings I head about leaving so late for my bus to Slovenia. It was scheduled to depart at 6:00 pm. Cutting it a little close, I thought.
Danko’s father arrived, once again calling me, “Mr.,” my moniker for the past two days. He tapped his watch emphatically proud that he showed up at 5:30 pm on the dot. He beamed the way a child might handing over a report card with straight A's to a stern parent.
We made our way towards the terminal in silence. As the wind blew through the passenger side window, thoughts swirled in my head of missing my bus, what on earth Slovenia would be like, what to do when I returned home, and just about everything else.
As Danko’s father skillfully weaved a car that was no doubt beyond its prime, I couldn’t help but feel Dubrovnik and I never really got to know each other. It felt almost like finally meeting the love of your life only to discover she was leaving the next day to accept a job somewhere across the world.
We arrived at the station at 5:50 pm. “Goodbye, Mr.” he said, as we shook hands followed by an awkward hug. I raced to my bus, took my seat, and watched as the clock hit 6:00 pm. We left exactly at the time we were promised; another reminder I was not in Italy.
The ticket attendant asked the man in front of me where he was going, just to avoid some geographical hiccup I suppose. “Ljubljana,” he said. I hoped he wouldn’t ask me the same as it dawned on me I didn’t even know how to pronounce the city’s name.
The bus ride would take 12-hours, a fact my parents would cringe at, asking why anyone would submit themselves to such punishment. If one needed to ask then no explanation would ever suffice, I thought.
The journey itself was full of constant shifting limbs and thoughts. Trying to get comfortable for such a long trip proved quite the feat at times. Just as my eyelids were on the brink of surrendering to sleep the bus would abruptly jolt, or stop at one of the infinite stops along the way. As passengers left and others boarded, they brought with them bulky bags and a new invitation for the driver to switch on the bright interior lights.
As we headed deeper into the night I thought a great deal about mortality. Not so much my own, but that which my father had spoken candidly of as of late. I’d been nudged to return home as he came to noble terms with his 71 years. My aunt and mom were also getting up there. It was the type of thinking I tried to fight off, but a far more equipped and numerous cavalry awaited me. Mortality was my Alamo.
In the end, I decided it was time to go home. My family wanted me closer, but I also sensed needed me as well. They’d made enough sacrifices to fill the Book of Kells for my fortunate life. It was time to think less of myself and return the favor, which I knew I could never do. Still, I had to try.
Coincidentally, when reading my daily para-grams, a series of daily spiritual insights a good friend had given me, I came across the one describing, “Universality.” It read:
You should first serve your family, then your friends, then your country, then the world.
We arrived at the Slovenian border at 4:16 am. I couldn’t believe the ride was nearly at its end. I wasn’t ready for the journey to be over.
At 6:20 am we arrived in Ljubljana. I was in desperate need of a shave, a shower, and a nap, and preferably in that order. I waited for my host to show up near a green McDonald’s sign as instructed. Soon, a young man approached me and asked if I was Nick.
His name was Jurij. He was about 25-years old and worked as a mechanical engineer. We made small talk during our 5-minute walk to the apartment on Cigaletova Street. When we arrived at the sleek and modern looking space he ran me through the amenities before we chatted for about 20-minutes in the kitchen. We discussed travel, namely of his recent trip to Los Angeles, Slovenia in the winter time, and a bevy of other topics we both seemed equally passionate about. Eventually, he left as we agreed to hang out later in the week.
After I cleaned up and took a nap I hit the town of just over 270,000. The city felt welcoming from my first step. In all my travels, I’d grown to appreciate how arrival to a new place was like being awoken in the middle of a wonderful dream. It was nearly impossible to return to it, and at best, it would never be the same as before. I learned not to take these precious first impressions for granted.
As I approached a busy intersection, I asked a young woman on a white Vespa what was ahead if I continued walking. “Not much,” she said. “How long have you been here?” she asked. “A few hours,” I explained. “You’ve probably already seen everything,” she said, as I laughed. “I can show you around if you like.” There were far worse offers in life than a pretty girl inviting me on the back of her scooter, so I got on and off we went.
Her name was Nina and she was a 26-year old teacher originally from a neighboring town. She had a beautiful abandonment of heart, a love of life that is a common hallmark of youth, but hers was different. I sensed it would remain with her for the rest of her life. She reverberated with life almost as loud as her white scooter as we sped down narrow streets.
I told her how the last time I was on the back of a stranger’s scooter was while living in Shanghai as an English teacher. I was returning home from the bars on Maoming Lu one evening, watching the cab’s meter carefully, planning to be let off just before the fair exceeded the coins in my pocket. When I was finally dropped off I still had a mile and half to go at nearly 3:00 in the morning.
I noticed a man about to get on his motorcycle and somehow communicated I needed a ride. He rubbed his fingers together indicating money, I pointed to my fake Rolex watch, he gestured back to the bike and off we went. Never was so much said in so few words.
There I was, a 24-year old punk kid, riding on the back of a stranger’s motorcycle in one of the world’s greatest cities just a few hours before the sun would rise. And now, over a decade later, I’d come nearly full circle.
We zipped past buildings and parks that Nina admittedly had very little knowledge of. “I can’t really tell you what these places are,” she shouted back to me. We made conversation, alternating which side to scream back to one another as we moved nimbly through traffic. During the ride, it occurred to me that Donald Trump’s wife was from Slovenia. She confirmed as much not giving it too much thought.
Soon we found a spot just outside the Gallery of Modern Art. We sat across from each other and spoke spiritedly about Haruki Murakami, Maslow, travel, relationships, and what I could not miss before I left.
She also mentioned that Slovenians were not a patriotic people, echoing exactly what Jurij had told me in the apartment just a few hours before. We don’t have that problem, I thought.
Now, it was time for Nina to run some errands. We agreed to meet up later in the evening. She wanted to introduce me to some of her friends and I suggested bringing Jurij along as well. We hugged as I thanked her for her kindness and generosity. “No problem,” she said as she put on her shiny white helmet. “You should always talk to strangers,” she said. I was sure glad I had.
When I asked, Nina for the best piece of advice she’d ever received she quoted Nietzsche: "You sometimes need some chaos to give birth to a dancing star.” Later on she added, “Everything fits in a puzzle. Everything will work out.”