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I was cleaning out my closet a few weeks ago when I came across a humongous box that was filled to the brink with old photos, albums and a ton of negatives. I sat cross legged and curiously opened each photo envelope only to discover eight packs of photos and negatives from my first overseas…ever! I eagerly unraveled each roll of 35mm negatives and held them up to the light to examine each photo, frame by frame. After looking at the negatives, I then busted open the pack of prints and flipped through each photograph, which then spiraled into two hours of going down memory lane and also had me questioning my super short black afro hair choice that I was growing out from my previous short, punk rock spikey hair. Nobody needs to see those pictures! Oh, man!
My first trip overseas ever, was to Slovenia. Not only was that my first trip overseas, but it was also my first time on a plane…EVER! I can’t exactly recall if I was nervous, excited, or a combination of both emotions. It was this time exactly twelve years ago in the summer of 2005 that I said screw college graduation day and took that memorable, once in a lifetime trip. Getting a piece of paper saying I had graduated seemed a little less enticing than travelling to Europe. Sorry, not sorry! I travelled with my mom and grandma and we were staying with my great grandma in her little farmhouse in the tiny village of Mota, Slovenia, which has an approximate population of 330 people and about six square kilometres in size. Yup…it’s that small. It’s part of the Municipality of Ljutomer, Slovenia and is surrounded mostly by vast vineyards and sleepy little villages and of course, a village bar where local patrons stumble out of and drunkenly peddle their bike home after a few too many.
After eight hours of flying to Vienna and then hopping on a quick one hour flight to Zagreb, we were greeted by my grandma’s niece, who spoke not a word of English and who would be driving us to Slovenia and to my great grandma’s house in Mota. From the moment I stepped out of the airport, everything was just visually fascinating to me because it was all so brand new to me. I had my 35mm film Minolta SLR camera slung around my neck and ready to shoot. Yes, I mentioned film camera, as digital cameras were still fairly new and just gaining some popularity within the market at that time. I only had a select few negatives digitized onto a CD back then, so I could place them on my computer. These are the photos you are seeing in this blog post!
My first impression of driving through the Slovenian countryside was mostly positive, although I do remember it being insanely hot and the car we were in had no AirCon, which made the car ride quite miserable and uncomfortable. It turns out, that we just happened to be travelling during the crazy heatwave that hit all of Europe with temperatures hitting a scorching forty degrees Celsius. I would at some point during this trip actually have a slight case of heat stroke and almost black out in a grocery store parking lot while sitting on a cement block. True story. *Enter a sarcastic thumbs up*
As we pulled into the little village of Mota, we were mainly surrounded by farmland and not that much else. We pulled up to a tiny home that was connected to a farm, which had chickens clucking and a barking dog that looked quite vicious and was tied up. There was a little old lady who stood less than five feet tall and was waiting in the driveway for us. This would be my great grandma. My grandma’s mother and my mom’s grandmother. I’d be meeting her for the first time and there would be four generations of women in my family together at the same time. How cool is that? As I stepped out of the car and said hello, I realized that the next two weeks would consist of me trying to communicate with her with the very basic Slovenian words I knew, a lot of translating through my grandma, as well as a lot of charades.
Once we were finished saying our hellos, we were taken inside the small home and shown our rooms. My mom and I were directed upstairs to the loft room, which required us to climb (crawl) up a flight of stairs where we had one queen size bed that we had to share, a window that didn’t have a regular screen, so bugs could still get in and hardly any airflow. This was no fancy Airbnb, no hostel, or hotel…this was the real deal. THIS was REAL European village living. My mom and I looked at each other and just basically said, “Alright, this is it,” and let out a sigh. We then went downstairs to have a bite to eat. I was starving, but I was also vegetarian at the time, which would prove to be my demise in Eastern Europe. You try to explain not eating meat to your Eastern European family. The look you’ll get is pretty much the look you’ll get if you killed someone. It’s almost a look of sadness mixed with disgust. I shit you not! After having my grandma try to explain what a vegetarian was to my great grandma, I received a plate of some potatoes and salad and chowed down. It proved to be an interesting first day, that’s for sure.
After I finished eating, I decided that I would go on a walk to explore the tiny village. Within my hour walk, I came across some old buildings with worn out brick walls and facades that almost made them look abandoned. Of course, I popped in a roll of film and got snap happy!
The first few days were definitely a culture shock and were spent getting used to being in small town Europe, away from main cities, bustling roadways and towns all while breathing incredibly fresh air. The days were also spent visiting relatives in neighbouring villages and navigating around some major communication barriers with those relatives as well. Apart from that, it was extremely refreshing to experience and see other parts of the world and to visit family members that I’ve only heard about in conversation. I was curious to see and do as much as I could while in the region of Slovenia that we were in. Was I bitten by the travel bug? It was hard to tell at that point and me being 20 years old, I didn’t know what to expect.
We took a day trip to a small town in Hungary and visited an open air flea market, filled with what my grandma calls, “gypsies.” We were told by my grandma’s niece to keep a close eye on our bags and belongings, as a lot of the women recruit their children to be little pickpocket masters. I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t see it with my own eyes. A little boy who must have been no older than four years old, came up to my grandma and asked for some coins. As my grandma reached into her purse, the little boy then decided he would “help” her and he reached into her purse as well. Well, my grandma was quick to slap his hand and he ran away into the market. It was so weird to witness that happening and it was also completely normal, everyday life, which made it even harder for me to understand as a newbie traveller.
A few days later, we visited The Postojna Jama Caves, which is one of Slovenia’s most popular tourist attractions, and within minutes of stepping inside, it’s clear to see why. The cave was formed by the Pivka River and is a twenty kilometre (12.5 miles) long karst cave, and is the most visited cave in Europe. As you step foot inside the cave, the temperature drops and the dim lighting transports you into a whole other world two kilometres (1.2 miles) below the Earth’s surface. Your journey through the Postojna Caves begins with a tiny train ride deep into the caves, which is a pretty sweet experience in itself. As you make your way further into the depths below, you’ll see stunning stalactites, stalagmites, calcite, and other incredible geological formations, as well as a bunch of otherworldly looking wildlife. The caves are home to the Olm, which is a salamander type of animal that lives only in these specific caves. There are also many different kinds of insects and other amphibians that are unique to cave environments. Because of the darkness that these animals live in, they highly stress that tourists use NO flash photography, as you may blind the creatures. A lot of their skin is somewhat see through as well, due to the lack of sunlight exposure they receive. It’s a really cool experience and really neat to see these animals that live so far underground. The caves also feature an impressive concert hall, which famous for its unique acoustics. The hall can seat up to 10,000 people and is frequently visited by symphony orchestras and soloists. What a show that’d be!
After spending a day in the cool (literally) underground caves of Postojna Jama escaping the blistering heat wave that was hitting Europe at that time, it was back to exploring villages and towns in the heat and humidity again. The next day, we jumped into the car with no AirCon and headed towards the tiny town of Ptuj, which is the oldest recorded town in Slovenia and dates back to the late Stone Age. Walking around the cobblestone streets of Ptuj, you’ll see brightly coloured buildings with flowers hanging off every windowsill and the faint sounds of people chatting on the street corners. Perched high above the city sits Ptuj Castle, which has incredible views overlooking the Drava River and a sea of red tiled rooftops. The more time I spent wandering the streets of Ptuj, the more I fell in love with it and its charming alleyways and beautiful architecture. After exploring Ptuj, I think that’s when the travel bug actually bit me. It was moments like that, that made travelling the world more of interest to me. I think I went through a solid few rolls of film that day while snapping away. Ptuj was such a gem of a city to wander through.
The next day, we ventured into what would be considered a “bigger city” to the village folk. This city was known at Ljutomer, Slovenia and had a population of approximately 3,400 people. Much bigger than the 330 people that lived in Mota, that’s for sure. My mom, grandma and I walked around the streets after parking the car that my grandma’s niece had lent us for the afternoon. My mom also taught me how to drive standard over in Europe, but I quickly freaked out because, well, in Europe they drive like maniacs and I just pulled over in a corn field and basically said, “Fuck this!” Pretty sure that was the last time I drove stick? Good times! I had the last laugh though when my mom freaked out going through a roundabout for the first time. Karma! Ljutomer consists of a bunch of cozy little side streets and some shops, restaurants and of course, the quintessential European church smack dab in the middle of town. While my grandma was in a store, I obviously had to wander off to snap some photos. As I turned the corner on one street, I came across what I would consider a photographer’s perfect photo op. It had a bike as a subject, pops of colour and not a soul around.
Throughout the remainder of the trip, we would go on to visit the little town of Maribor where I’d be propositioned for sex from an old man, due to me wearing a skirt and tank top then watching my grandma swear at that same old man in Slovenian and call him a pig. I befriended the vicious dog I had mentioned at the beginning of the post by buying him real dog treats at the store. We almost got squished by a transport truck while driving with a little old lady on the highway. We would sneak across the Croatian border through a forest and my mom and I would stay one full night in an actual hotel, but have to kill the biggest spider ever in that same hotel. I also woke up one night scratching my skin so hard because I had been bitten by bugs that managed to get in through the screen of our bedroom at my great grandma’s place. My mom still vividly recalls me bawling my eyes out while scratching and saying, “I’ll never take anything for granted again!” Although it happened twelve years ago, it still sits fresh in my memory bank as one of the greatest opportunities I had ever been given. The opportunity to travel and to see where half my family comes from and how they live and how they get by, even to this day, with so little. After living in a rural European village for two weeks and having never travelled anywhere overseas before, I think it has shaped me into the person I am today. I never complain about having too little, or wanting more of anything.
My first trip overseas was an extremely rewarding experience. It made me grow as a person and appreciate other people’s ways of living off the land and seeing how happy they are living so simply. Most importantly, it humbled me and made me grateful for everything and everyone in my life.
Where was YOUR first trip overseas? Did you go alone, with friends, or with family? Have you ever visited relatives in their homeland? What were your experiences like? Tell me in the comments below! xo