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What Should You Leave At Home When You Travel? Fear

The world is full of helpful strangers. Like Jure, in Postojna, at 2 a.m.

Patricia Prijatel
Source: Patricia Prijatel

It’s 2 a.m. and I am working at a hotel desk in Postojna, Slovenia. I am a college professor from Iowa and I know only halting Slovene, but should anybody need help at this hour, I have all the vocabulary I might need: ne vem and ne razumem—I don’t know and I don’t understand.

Jure, the regular desk clerk is at the train station picking up two of my students who misunderstood the schedule and ended up getting here in the middle of the night instead of yesterday afternoon with the rest of us.

Outside the plate glass window I can see buses that have brought tourists here from Germany and The Netherlands. I pray all those people stay asleep in their rooms above me.

The town’s one taxi driver doesn't work the graveyard shift, so I convinced Jure to pick up my tardy students.

“But who will take care of the hotel?” he asked.

“I will,” I answered.

“What if somebody needs help?” he asks.

“You will be gone only a few minutes,” I answer.

He finally agrees.

We talk at about 10 p.m., after which he tells me to go up to my room and sleep. He will call me when it is time for the train to arrive and for me to take over the desk. I cannot sleep for worry. What if Kate and Jennifer aren’t on the train after all? What if they’ve been robbed or attacked? What if, what if?

We’re on a travel writing class in Slovenia, which at the time—2004—is just emerging as a hot destination for Western travelers. Postojna is a required destination for any trip because of the 12 miles of caves that snake underneath the landscape, some expansive enough to house symphony concerts. Plus there’s the 16th Century Predjama Castle, built into the rocks like a turreted cliff dwelling.

Three of my grandparents emigrated from Slovenia in the early 1900s. The fourth left from neighboring Croatia. My husband and I lived in Slovenia for the 2001-2002 school year when I was on sabbatical and, while I understand that my grandparents left for a better life that ultimately benefited me, I feel such an affinity for this place I occasionally wish they had stayed put.

To share this beautiful country, I’m shepherding 14 journalism students from the Alps to the Adriatic. Their writing topics vary: the country’s beekeeping history, Ljubljana’s outdoor market, Slovene desserts.

Kate is writing about castles, which is why she and Jennifer went on a side trip to Maximilian’s palace in Trieste. I left room in the course for these types of individual adventures, for students to taste the country without my preplanning.

The women tell me later that they expected to sleep in the train station, knowing that such a small town would not have mass transit in the middle of the night. They had learned the essential truth of travel: Things go wrong and, when they do, you just go with them.

As I tend the desk, the hotel is eerily quiet. Air conditioning motors whirr soothingly in the background. Then I hear the clunk of the elevator coming up from the downstairs parking lot. The doors open, and there is Jure, grinning, with a mortified Kate and Jennifer. The women apologize and we all fall over ourselves thanking Jure, getting his full name so we can send him a proper thank-you when we return.

Then my students and I head to our rooms and Jure takes back his job behind the desk.

Teachers talk ruefully about teaching moments such as this, experiences that throw our schedules and equilibrium to bits, but end up being educational in ways we could never have planned. Usually in ways we never wanted. But, since that trip, both Kate and Jennifer have become regular travelers, so I know this summer trip succeeded in showing them how much you learn about yourself from traveling: that people elsewhere are just as nice as you are, that you like and enjoy them, that their food is fabulous and their country amazing, that their old cultures can teach us how to navigate our own, much newer, world. Most important, that fear has no place in well-planned travel. Excitement, yes. A certain amount of caution, yes, But fear, never. The world is full of Jures, of good people willing to help you in the middle of the night with weird requests.

I fall asleep relieved, thankful for the trust of this Slovenian stranger. I have no idea that tomorrow in Ljubljana my students will meet an entire English rugby team that is staying at our hotel, virile young men out for a game and then a party. And I have 13 beautiful American women with me. Another blasted teachable moment. As they say in Slovene: joj.