This post was originally published on Beacon Reader, an experiment in crowdsourced publishing that has subsequently ceased to exist. RIP Beacon Reader.
I’m back in Ljubljana, Slovenia, sitting in bed in a drab hostel that is a considerable upgrade from The Prison Camp. Due to weather reports predicting an impending, record-setting heat wave, the Remote Year organizers agreed to book rooms in the local hostel for two days, as there were no fans and certainly no A/C in our dorms. Yes that’s right: We were upgraded momentarily. To a hostel. I am writing this now just in case I can’t find the will after I go back this evening.
This is a continuation from Part I, picking up from where I left off with the Remote Year caravan checking into our new homes for the month—a high school boarding school dorm south of the city center.
Living conditions aside, I found Ljubljana to be quite enchanting. It radiates a Balkan chill vibe reminiscent of Barcelona and Berlin, but hotter. When I arrived at our new co-working space for the month on Monday afternoon, I was warmly greeted by an American expat.
“Do you want a tour?” she asked me.
“Sure, if you don’t have anything better to do,” I said, sympathizing about what it must be like to have Remote Year descend, 70 deep, upon her otherwise calm work sanctuary. Amy* smiled and guided me around, pointing out various rooms of use until we got to the very back corner.
“And if you smoke…?” she said gesturing at the door behind her.
“Thank god, yes.” I stepped out onto the concrete porch overlooking the forest hills and an unfinished development project, rebar poking through the cement like hairs under a microscope. A garden occupied one half of the balcony, and there were ashtrays and chairs everywhere. It was perfect.
I lit a cigarette and chatted with Amy from Rhode Island, thankful to have found someone I could converse normally with. Within minutes I was introduced to Gavril*, the dreadlocked guy from the Maker Lab whose piercing blue eyes curiously scanned mine on the way in. Him and his friends were laughing about something on reddit and introduced me to /r/slavsquatting, a subredit dedicated to pictures of Slavic people, squatting. Finally, I met one of the owners of this gem of a co-working space, Ira*, a staglike woman with whom I felt an instant connection. We all got drinks at the jazz bar next door that night, and I listened to their crazy stories about the past weekend’s festival.
Suddenly I didn’t feel so alone out here anymore.
Mornings in the Prison Camp were rough. I would be awoken a dozen or so times by obliviously loud hallway conversations and slamming doors that resonated through the third floor’s paper-thin walls. I’d wait for everyone to disperse, then slowly attempt my morning routine of bathing, internetting, and practicing the flute—sans coffee, until the caffeine withdrawal would pull me out to the nearest café and onward to the co-working space. Our bathrooms, one for every “pod” of six Remotes, featured two showers with saloon style doors, an architectural decision for which I can’t fathom the utility. The first time I walked in barefoot, I stepped in a puddle of water from a flooded bidet.
The co-working space wound up being my saving grace that first week in Ljubljana. During the days, I’d slip out for smoke breaks with Aman and my new Slovenian friends; in the evenings, Gavril would show me around town; at night back at the Prison Camp, Brad (my vampire friend) and I would lament our conditions and talk about books.
On the 4th of July, there was an annual party co-hosted by one of the owners of the co-working space: the 4th of Juljubljana, where the locals gathered deep in the woods to happily mock the tradition of American excess. Brad and I rode over together with some of the Brazilians from the group, reassuring our driver that he was going the right way as we rode farther and farther from the city center. It was a cool party, even by my New York City standards. Most of the Remotes stuck together in clumps, half on MDMA they’d smuggled back from Berlin, cooing loving sentiments at each other in the grass.
Brad, Aman and I floated around together, passing the DJ booth where the words, UNITY, FREEDOM, VALUES, and TOGETHERNESS, splashed across an American flag. At one point, we wandered toward the bar in a stealth effort to escape one of Brad’s regrettable one-night stands who was hovering near us, when we ran into Heather, the disco queen of the bus and one of the more prominent voices that would wake me up in the mornings. She was slurrily bragging about her $1.50 boxed wine and trying to force it on one of the Brazilians, who looked nervous about this transaction. Make no mistake, we are a two-hour dive from Italy. There is no need for boxed wine anywhere, let alone in Slovenia. When she switched her attention to Brad, I poured the Brazilian some white from the bottle I’d brought, and we started talking about accents.
“Sometimes my accent changes when I’m around foreigners,” I told him. “Some people from Remote Year thought I wasn’t American when they first met me.”
“Yeah, well,” Heather interjected, gesturing at me with her box, “that’s because you’re like, your own thing.” She giggled and waved a hand over my essence. “You’re like an alien or something.”
Soon, word spread around the party that there had been a brawl; apparently one of the Remotes had gotten his ass kicked by a Slovenian while trying to buy drugs, bringing the Remote Year injury count up to five in four weeks. Not wanting any part of that or the transpiring gossip, Brad and I stealthily exited the thumping techno area to wander alone in some of the most beautiful nature we’d ever encountered. We compulsively ran into a glistening field where the moon was setting. I spread out a blanket and we smoked a spliff, talking about dreams and watching the sky change from navy to azure above the looming treeline. Eventually we cabbed it back to the Prison Camp and lingered outside for a while, not wanting to replace our visions of natural beauty with the glib scenery inside.
As stupid as it was, Heather’s comment resonated in my mind the next few days, poking at the remnants of depression from my high school days. I smoked a spliff with Aman and told him I felt alienated.
“Why do you feel that way?” he asked.
“Well, for starters, one of them literally called me an alien.” We burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. I worked hard the next few days to convince myself it wasn’t so bad. After all, I’d been more and more successful at avoiding crazed group activities and was bonding with my handful of secret weirdo friends and the Slovenians. Things were getting confusingly intense between Brad and me though. As nights passed and we grew closer, there were late night movies in his bed and back massages. One night he took me out for sushi and told me I was one of the only aspects of this trip keeping him sane. Each hug goodnight got a little bit longer than the last as we escaped momentarily from the strangeness of our circumstances into something that felt safe.
On my way to the co-working space the day I’d agreed to teach a writing class to 35 Remotes and Slovenians, I stopped for coffee and opened the facebook on my phone. I froze, mid-bite of my toast, when I saw the first thing on my newsfeed from one of my friends from my hometown in Chesaning, Michigan.
Lost for words and sick to my stomach. Just lost two amazing people. R.I.P Robert Gross III & Marci Barclay, you will truly be missed.
My appetite evaporated instantly and my whole body felt numb. I clicked through to their pages and saw the outpouring of memorial sentiments. It wasn’t a prank. My mind flashed to the last time I saw Marci and Rob the summer after my first trip around the world: dancing to Iggy Azalea on the dining room table in Marci’s apartment, floating down the river in canoes with a bottle of Fireball and a case of beer, laughing for hours, drunkenly flopping down in the grass after our friends’ wedding where Rob planted a kiss on my unsuspecting lips and we laughed about it because it made no sense but was still fun.
Now they were gone forever, their young lives extinguished in a split second. I would never see my friends again, I felt farther from home than ever. And, I had three hours to get it together or bail on teaching this class.