Ljubljana / Bled / Maribor, Slovenia (July 12-14)

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Hitchhiking often feels like an attempt to answer the question “How to get a car to stop?” as if it is all about how can I get a ride or about having the power to make a car stop. There’s different ways to go about this: Signs or thumbs, or accosting people at service stations (which always seems rude, but most people are nice enough to answer smiling). Really though, getting a car to stop is beyond the hitchhiker’s power. Some small things that may help – such as looking like a normal person, hitchhiking as a couple, standing at a spot with lots of room to pull over, etc. – but these are about as much as we can do. People aren’t driving along hoping they’ll get to stop for hitchhikers. They have reasons for going wherever they’re headed, and the majority of drivers will drive on past hitchhikers, signs or thumbs or not. As hitchhikers, all we can do is stick out our thumbs and put ourselves at their mercy.

The question “How to get a car to stop?” is only answered in retrospect. A driver didn’t stop because Nino and I were standing there looking normal and slightly lost with our thumbs out; no, a driver stops for his or her own reasons – maybe he or she hitchhikes, or a friend or brother or niece does, or they stopped out of boredom or kindness, or because they are from a country where stopping is more expected (or maybe they have to stop, such as in Cuba). And typically we don’t become privy to these reasons. Hitchhikers don’t stop cars; drivers stop cars. We merely get it and see what happens.

More time was spent during our trip to Slovenia hitchhiking than actually being anywhere (assuming hitchhiking itself doesn’t have actually place). It was refreshing. Hitchhike there, hitchhike a little more, and then hitchhike back. What follows is a brief glance at the fifteen drivers (with nicknames) who stopped those fifteen cars for us during our weekend of thumbing, walking, and general enjoyment of crisscrossing the lovely little country of Slovenia.

1. The Old Slovak: We’d almost given up when he offered to drive us from Bratislava towards Graz, Austria. He drove along back roads through precisely designed vineyards and Austrian villages. More of the image of an older Central Europe – late 60s, not well-to-do, a Russian speaker – his type are prone to stop, but usually aren’t the quickest of drivers.

2. The Cool Dad: He’d never picked up hitchhikers with any of his kids in the car, but on this occasion one of his daughters and her friend were in the back seat. They’d just spent the day swimming at a lake and were heading home. He looked like he was in his early twenties but is actually forty-one. Nino made him show us his ID to prove it. He is a middle-school computer and sports teacher with a really soft smile and general air of contentment about life. He asked why we hitchhiked, and after we talked about it, decided that we do it “as a philosophy”. Well said.

3. The Smiling Austrian: We’d slept in someone’s yard in the village of Laa and spent a very pleasant morning walking through some Austrian villages before we were picked up. She didn’t say much but when she did, she seemed very happy to say it. She only drove us a short distance, but dropped us off at a service station and very happily went on along her way.

4. The Clueless Austrians: After trying for forty minutes to get a ride, we talked two guys into taking us to Maribor, which was only twenty kilometers away, but they didn’t know that until we showed them on a map. They also didn’t know English. At one point, the driver asked me if I was Edward Snowden. They were going to Croatia but seemed to pin Croatia’s existence on their GPS. They dropped us off a little bit south of the highway we needed, but I really hope they found their way to wherever they were going and safely back home.

5. The Loquacious Slovenian: Slovenia is very small and beautiful, and our first driver told us all about it, talking almost nonstop for the twenty-five kilometers he drove us. He told us about how everyone used to hitchhike but now no one does, which is something we would hear a number of times that weekend. He dropped us off and promised that he’d drive by again in an hour and pick us up if we were still there. Turns out it’s quite easy to hitchhike in Slovenia, but expect drivers to talk about Slovenia the whole time.

6. The Serbian Who Didn’t Like Me: He was mostly punk rock and a little bit scary. He kept asking me in Serbian if I was American and then had this look on his face that wasn’t very accommodating. At one point he asked me how much my wedding ring cost (or something like that). It was weird. We were glad to get out of that car.

7. The Girls Going To Bled: Bled is a beautiful lake north of Ljubljana in the Slovenian Alps. We didn’t know this, so when they said we could come with them, we said yes then thought about it and said no. They also talked about Slovenia and also told us that not many people hitchhiked anymore, giving cheap car-sharing as the reason. Both girls were wearing those big trendy sunglasses, so I can’t say what they looked like. It always slightly difficult to talk to someone when you can’t see their eyes. They dropped us off in Ljubljana approximately twenty hours after we left Bratislava, a journey that normally takes four hours by car.

8. The Woman Who Wanted To Help More But Mostly Drove Us To A Better Spot: We decided to go to Bled after looking at pictures online and after our host told us we were stupid for not going. We walked to the highway, Nino stuck out her thumb, and the next second a driver stopped. She drove us to a better spot about two minutes away and apologized that she wasn’t going farther. Not very much to say about her, only that she was very kind.

9. The Generous, Negative Slovenian: He was actually quite nice in his own way. A freelance IT guy, he talked about the lousy politics in Slovenia, the low wages, and about Slovenia in general. He lived in Bled and the ride was either silence or him pointing out different mountains and objects-of-interest as we drove along. Slovenia has it all – mountains, beaches, culture, history, problems, etc. – but always in small amounts.

10. The Old Slovenian: We’d walked around Lake Bled, with its castle, island church, and stunning mountain views, and once again were picked us to be taken to a better spot. He lived in a town nearby and looked like a young Santa Claus. Need I say more?

11. The Biologist: She’s in a graduate program in Canada, organizes blues festivals in Ljubljana, was once married to a Botswanan (and still married to him, legally, in Botswana), and I think used to play cello. More talk about Slovenia and how no one hitchhikes any more.

12. The Grandpa Truck Driver: After one of our longest waits ever, he finally stopped. He spoke a sort of Russified Slovenian with Nino, and for the hour and a half we were in his truck he had this grandfatherly glow about him. He tried to give us €10 for coffee or beer when he was dropping us off in Maribor, which was twenty-five kilometers out of his way. We politely declined and thanked him for the ride.

13. The Young Engineer: Nino and I had a bet for how long it would take from a rather poor spot. She said more than half an hour, a car stopped after twenty-eight minutes, and so I won. He didn’t drive us far, just to a better spot. His English wasn’t very good, and all I know about him is that he is involved with engineering in some way. Not much of a story here.

14. The Guy Who Always Picks Up Hitchhikers: Every morning, many Slovenians drive to Austria for work. Every evening, they drive home. Sometimes they drive there in the afternoon, as our next driver was. We asked him at a service station and he said yes as if it was the most natural and expected thing for us to want a ride and he to drive us. He wasn’t a hitchhiker, but he said he always picks up people if he can. He talked and laughed the whole thirty kilometers we were in his car.

15. The Slovak Couple with Two Dogs: It was hot, we’d been having no luck at a service station, and they both had a Bratislava license plate and two dogs. We made friends with the dogs first and then asked the humans, who seemed a bit reluctant, but mostly because they were in a hurry to get back. After a few minutes on the road and once we made the small world (though very common in Slovakia) connection that we currently live in the same building where they fell in love a decade ago, they were much more amiable. We sped down the highway at 160 kph (99 mph), our driver rushing to catch a late evening flight to Moscow.

Waiting for a car to stop always feels longer than it is. You begin to forget what it’s like for one to stop and sometimes start wondering what you’re even doing. Your right shoulder gets tired. If it’s your first spot, you begin thinking about what you’ll do at home if no one stops. But then a car slows down and pulls over to the shoulder, and the wait and everything vanishes as you run over to give the spiel about where you’re headed.

Once you’re in, you also feel like the person who stopped is definitely the type of person who would stop to pick up hitchhikers. I think there’s a type of person who stops for hitchhikers, but I don’t think I could make any rigorous claims about it. We’ve never been picked up by someone who doesn’t pick up hitchhikers (though we’ve been the first ever for a number of people). I don’t know how to get cars to stop or know why they stop, but we’re glad they do.

Outbound, Day 1: Hitchhiking – Bratislava to Ljubljana, SL

1st Car: Bratislava to Großwilfersdorf, AT – Service Station, Bratislava-Jarovce; WT: 50 minutes; Driver: The Old Slovak

2nd Car: Großwilfersdorf to Unterpremstätten – Onramp; WT: 5 minutes; Driver: The Cool Dad (Austrian)

Day 2:

1st Car: Unterpremstätten to Gralla – Onramp; WT: 15 minutes (after two hours of another spot and walking); Driver:  The Smiling Austrian

2nd Car: Gralla to Orehova vas, SL – Service Station; WT: 40 minutes; Driver: The Clueless Austrians

3rd Car: Slivnica pri Mariboru to Tepanje – Service Station; WT: 10 minutes; Driver: The Loquacious Slovenia

4th Car: Tepanje to Mala Pirešica – Onramp; WT: 10 minutes; Driver: The Serbian Who Didn’t Like Me

5th Car: Mala Pirešica to Ljubljana – Onramp; WT: 2 minutes; Driver: The Girls Going To Bled (Slovenian)

Total Time / Distance: 20 hours / 417 km (259 miles)

Lake Bled, Outbound: Hitchhiking – Ljubljana to Bled

1st Car: Dunajska cesta, Ljubljana to Celovška cesta, Ljubljana – Onramp; WT: 2 seconds; Driver: The Woman Who Wanted To Help More But Mostly Drove Us To A Better Spot (Slovenian)

2nd Car: Celovška cesta, Ljubljana to Bled – Onramp; WT: 5 minutes; Driver: The Generous, Negative Slovenian

Total Time / Distance: 40 minutes / 53 km (33 miles)

Return: Hitchhiking – Bled to Ljubljana

1st Car: Bled to Radovljica – Onramp; WT: 7 minutes; Driver: The Old Slovenian

2nd Car:  Radovljica to Ljubljana – Service Station; WT: 2 minutes; Driver: The Biologist (Slovenian)

Total Time / Distance:  1 hour / 53 km (33 miles)

Return: Hitchhiking – Ljubljana to Bratislava

1st Car: Ljubljana to Maribor – Onramp, ; WT: 30 minutes (after almost 3 1/2 hours of three other spots and walking); Driver: The Grandpa Truck Driver (Slovenian)

2nd Car: Maribor to Pesnica pri Mariboru – Onramp; WT: 28 minutes; Driver: The Young Engineer (Slovenian)

3rd Car: Pesnica pri Mariboru to Gralla – Service Station; WT: 10 minutes; Driver: The Guy Who Always Picks Up Hitchhikers (Slovenian)

4th Car: Gralla to Bratislava – Service Station; WT: 1 1/2 hours; Driver: The Slovak Couple with Two Dogs

Total Time / Distance: 12 hours / 437 km (272 miles)

Tips:

  • Slovenian’s love to talk about Slovenia. This is a good thing.
  • Hitchhiking is a mystery, but it works. This too is a good thing.
  • There’s a 50 km deadzone around Graz, Austria. Try to get through it as quickly and nimbly as possible.
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