Sunday, March 09, 2008

Red Stars, Black Mountains: Mellow Ljubljana (Part 3).

A continuing Sunday series. See also: Red Star, Black Mountain: Welcome to Slovenia (Part 2), Red Stars, Black Mountains: Roger in Yugoslavia ’87 (Part 1) and Red Stars, Black Mountains: Roger in Yugoslavia ’87 (Introduction).


As throngs of thoroughly inebriated future Yugoslav soldiers milled through Ljubljana's otherwise deserted train station, I found myself an object of curiosity and attention, although it must be said that none of the scrutiny was threatening, and the general mood remained one of fraternity party revelry. Perhaps I was the only backpacker on the scene.

Picking my way gingerly through the ranks of the fallen, and avoiding numerous evil smelling puddles, I scanned the strange directional signs in an effort to locate the path into the station's nerve center. Two stood out: "Informacija," which I judged to be "information," and a pictogram of bank notes and coins.

I'd passed from Italy to Yugoslavia, and also from lira to dinars. In pre-Euro times, every border crossing required exchanging money into new currencies. In 1987, there were few if any ATMs in Western Europe, certainly none in the East Bloc, and the credit card in my neck pouch would prove to be almost useless in the East outside of special "hard currency" shops. Instead, one changed money the old fashioned way, with actual dollars or American Express traveler's checks. I needed to save my small denomination American banknotes for use as wheel-greasers in tight spots, so if the station exchange couldn't or wouldn't trade dinars for Am-Ex, I'd be looking at a cashless night crashing with the crazy recruits.

The man behind the only populated window miraculously spoke a bare minimum of English and was able to answer my questions. Yes, he would cash a traveler's check. No, he could not help me find accommodations. No (gesturing at the cacophony), the baggage check room was quite full. He began slapping down one hundred dinar notes, one after the other, until the pile was an inch high. Not a bad rate: $100 per inch.

It was late, but I had a guidebook, and the search for lodgings commenced on foot. Public transportation had shut down, and there was a scarcity of streetlights, but I managed to navigate a half-mile to the first university-affiliated youth hostel. There were padlocks on the door. The second hostel listed defied all efforts to locate it, there was no one on the street to ask even if I'd been inclined to do so, and it was well after midnight, so I reversed course and got back to the train station area, where I remembered there being a hotel of the more conventional variety.

A desk clerk finally responded to my repeated buzzing and offered the non-negotiable terms: Roughly a quarter-inch of my hard-earned dinar wad, or more than twice the rate I had been expecting to pay for a bed, but notions of a shower and bed were strong, and I agreed, though only for one night. On Saturday morning, I'd visit the youth & student travel desk and inquire after cheaper digs.

I did, and found a $10 bunk in three-bed room. The weekend was now free for exploring Ljubljana -- a sister city of Cleveland, Ohio – by foot. Then as now, Slovenia seemed out of place, tied to Yugoslavia but far more Central European than Balkan. The hilly setting in Ljubljana reminded me of Salzburg, in Austria, and the red tiled roofs were a Mediterranean flourish resting atop imperial-era Habsburg buildings. There were stone dragons lining the old downtown bridge and a market in the square; tarnished copper stains and chipped columns; the widespread occurrence of public spitting; and a curious aroma in the air that eventually registered as coal smoke.

In the old town, there was a pizzeria by the river, and I splurged on a small pie accompanied by draft Union Pivo, the hometown brewery, which I managed to locate on one of my walks. However, it was more cost effective to drink from the bottle. On Sunday, in despair that none of the stores would be open, I strolled past a line of people waiting to enter one that was doing business, later emerging with three half-liters of Union to be consumed while sitting on a park bench gazing at the hilltop castle.

Where the suburbs began, so did the lines of unpainted gray housing blocks that were Yugoslavia's solution to warehousing its postwar population. In these neighborhoods there were more examples of commerce than might be imagined, mostly products being vended from wooden kiosks: Cosmetics, street food and newspapers. Each neighborhood of housing blocks had a section built in for ground-level shopping, drinking and dining, with variable selections of goods.

On Monday, I returned to the station, bustling not with drunkards but daily commuters, and bought a train ticket for Zagreb, Croatia … and a fateful meeting.

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