‘When I was in Laos I saw a baby elephant die. Aw man, it was horrific, but beautiful at the same time. Life is precious, you know? We really don’t know how lucky we are. I was there with some backchappers, that’s what we called ourselves, and the little fella had some disease or some shit. Death is really beautiful, you know?’
‘Oh yeah, that reminds me of when I was in Albania. There was this family on the street in Tirana, they were so poor, but so elegant, you know? I watched for a while. Such humility in the face of such misery’.
‘Yeah, Albania is like that. I saw something similar in Bolivia, up in the mountains. I saw an old woman tending to a dying alpaca, it really looked as though they were in some sort of dance with death, a race to the bottom. It was so real. I took a picture, but I couldn’t look at it properly until I was on the plane to Rio. Life is so fragile, you know?’
‘Dude, I saw a pigeon get run over in Leeds once. Splattered everywhere. Didn’t stand a chance. Sucked ass’.
Conversations such as the ones detailed above punctuate all hostel common rooms, or at least the ones where the WiFi is too poor to support multiple devices at once. Young idealists travelling the world will listen to each others stories like children, albeit children who are waiting for the right moment to break in and tell their own similar, yet slightly more extreme, tale.
Because that is what we do now. Travelling has become a race towards oblivion, a desperate game of oneupmanship punctuated by hiking and different alphabets. The ‘90s obsession with ‘being yourself’ has turned into the default, in that everything we experience must be unique and slightly more impressive than the experiences of those we meet. After all, my pain and sadness is more sad and painful than yours.
What does this have to do with Slovenia? Little, in truth, but introductions need to come from somewhere. Eventually, travellers are going to tire of the desperate search for the shocking, and instead the comforting boredom of not-too-shabby mountains, calm city centres, pleasant people and everything being just about fine will become the object of touristic desire. If you go on a particularly intense multi-day bender, it usually ends with a desperate need to be hugged by your mother. If you’ll allow the fairly flimsy analogy, Slovenia is your travel mother.
I recently spent a week in the small Slovenian municipalities of Zreče, Slovenske Konjice, Vitanje and Oplotnica, a collection of towns you will only know about if you have a specific interest in Slovenia or the towns themselves. Anyone claiming otherwise is lying. Herman Potočnik’s mother came from Vitanje, but I’ve written about Herman Potočnik for a book and I didn’t remember this until someone in the town told me.
The towns are located halfway between Ljubljana and Zagreb. That isn’t some vague descriptor either – Zreče is 122km from Zagreb and 119 from Ljubljana. The four represent the oft-ignored heart of Slovenia (not to be confused the with Heart of Slovenia), a nice region in the middle of the country that most Slovenes will know because of the skiing at Rogla. The region is full of calming hilltop views and idyllic villages with ageing populations that give an insight into a future that might see them removed from the map. It is one of those places that might compel you to stop walking or driving every now and then and get out of the car to take a deep breath and say ‘well, this is nice, isn’t it?’, unless you’re in a rush or the weather is particularly middling.
And yes, it is nice. That adjective has been dirtied over the last decade or so, for reasons that entirely escape the mental gymnastics this writer is capable of. American Beauty is a great film, but Angela Haynes’ insistence that there isn’t anything worse than being ordinary has done reality a disservice. 6 out of 10 has become a terrible score, and what this does is put unnecessary pressure on our every day behaviour.
In the minds of many, ‘ordinary’ is now another way of saying ‘boring’, when in fact the lack of distinctive features doesn’t imply boring at all. Travel is as much about the internal journey as it is about the external one, and whilst a nice day in a small Polish town isn’t on many people’s bucket lists, the truth is that the bucket list can go fuck itself.
It is high time someone stood up for the ordinary. This mile-a-minute need to scratch an itch that isn’t even located in a reachable place is exhausting, and nobody wants to go home even more exhausted than when they leave. The irony of all this is that if travellers are looking for unique experiences that they can call their own, the ordinary is arguably their best bet. Rather than going to new extreme lengths to discover some as yet untraversed spot in the Balkans, why not head to Jagodina and give it some love? How about Kostanjevica na Krki? What about the little Croatian coastal town of Crikvenica, or even an ignored Bosnian city like Prijedor?
Why not Slovenske Konjice, Zreče or Oplotnica? Rather than getting involved in pissing contests in bars in Belgrade, why not feel warm and fuzzy inside about the merits of a town that other travellers may have seen the train station of on their way to Ohrid or Mostar?
It isn’t a new idea, but it is one that many seem to ignore due to its inherent lack of sex appeal. The rewards of the ordinary (rewardinary!) are plentiful. Go that extra mile to give a shit about Kragujevac and Kragujevac will give you everything it has, eager to hold on to the intrepid soul who has given it a chance.
When I was in Oplotnica I was taken to the park by the local guide, a sentence which sounds dodgier every time I read it back. He remarked that it was a park, nothing special, parks is parks after all, right? Wrong. The park was a delight to my four eyes, the right balance of little stream and little bridge and a box-ticker in every sense of the word.
Was it Hyde Park, Tiergarten or Vondelpark? Of course not, but it was my park, and I made no secret of my joy at this teeny tiny patch of land to the guide. Two hours later I was in his kitchen eating a conveyor belt of home-cured dried meats at the insistence of his non-English speaking mother. Give a shit about the ordinary, and the ordinary will give you more and more reasons to give more and more shits.
Slovenia often gets saddled with the adjective ‘boring’, but all this really does is shine a light on the fickle and jaded nature of travellers. It is also insulting, but lets not get too dramatic here. How the balls can a church on an island in the middle of a lake backed by jagged mountains be boring? That is exactly what we want, we just don’t want everyone else to want it too. If you stumbled upon Lake Bled in the middle of a forest in Turkmenistan, you would believe that you had stumbled upon God herself. Mention Lake Bled to the throngs in hostels travelling around central and eastern Europe, and 90% will respond with ‘yeah, but Bohinj is way better’.
Whether they are right or wrong is irrelevant. The fact that they are desperately pushing some sort of hardcore credential that has no reason for existing in the first place is the wrong part. This is obviously part of a wider problem of how unique everyone simply must be, but that is another complaint for another day. Just rest assured – your pain and your sadness are just as sad and painful as mine.