Vagabond Tales: Eavesdropping On An Elderly Soldier In A Rural Slovenian Café

The great nation of Slovenia has a wealth of many things, but it only has one island.

No, it’s not located off of the coastline that some have dubbed the Mini-Riviera. Rather, it’s set up in the mountains in the middle of a pristine retreat famously known as Lake Bled. It is a teardrop-shaped island in the middle of a placid lake. There are no inhabitants, and the main building is a 15th-century church where it’s popular for a groom to carry his bride up the 99 steps, which lead to the bell tower.

To call the setting of Lake Bled magical is not only a cliché, but also a travesty of justice; this place could be the setting upon which Disneyland was founded – the Magic Kingdom a replica of this sanctuary tucked at the base of the Julian Alps.

As fellow Gadling blogger Meg Nesterov pointed out in her article “10 Reasons To Travel To Ljubljana,” Slovenia is also home to a charming capital city, which features canals to rival Venice or Amsterdam, great wine, tasty food, affable locals and a massive castle, which stoically towers above the city.

Unbeknownst to many people, Slovenia is also reputed to be the birthplace of skiing, a sport which emerged out of the rugged mountains, which blanket the scenic northwest.

More than any of this, however, Slovenia is the site of one of the most intriguing conversations I’ve ever had the chance to be a part of – and I wasn’t even playing a speaking role. Rather, from the corner booth of a small café in Lake Bled, I craned my neck away from my potato rosti in an effort to make out the conversation taking place between two European youths and an elderly American soldier.”This is my 35th year in a row of returning to Europe,” boasted the fully gray and heavily wrinkled man. “Every year I bring my wife to somewhere new and we see what a beautiful place this has become.”

Seated with him at the four-person table were his wife and the two aforementioned youth, two German boys of about 20 years old traveling together on a backpacking tour of Europe.

“It’s good to come back here,” continued the elderly American. “It wasn’t always like this, you know. I first came to Europe when I was your age.”

Seeing as we were the only two tables seated at the café on this misty day in early June – the throngs of summer crowds still a few weeks away – it was easy for me to eavesdrop on their ongoing conversation. At first, I was intrigued simply to hear an American voice; now I was intrigued by his story.

The man explained to his two breakfast companions he had first come to Europe in his early-20s once America jumped into World War II. He spent lots of time in Germany, not far from their hometown.

For over a year, he fought the Germans on a convoluted course across Europe upon which he admitted to being exposed to a lot of suffering. A lot of friendships were forged, he claimed, but many more were lost.

Surprisingly, despite all the horrors he alluded to being a part of, he exhibited no traces of animosity towards the men on the other side of the line.

“You know,” he nodded with a wink of his eye, “the boys I was fighting against really just looked a lot like you.”

Obviously humbled, yet wholly intrigued, from my vantage point, it was remarkable to see the genuine interest of the two German youth in hearing testimony from this living piece of history who experienced so much of what modern Germans consider to be a shameful past.

They peppered him with questions about Germany during the 1940’s, but at the same time were respectful enough not to pry.

Even if they had, however, it was apparent that enough time had passed in this veteran’s life that wounds had healed, scores had been settled, and in this nearly empty café in rural Slovenia, they were just four humans enjoying a hearty breakfast together.

Standing to leave after finishing half his meal, the traveling former soldier steadied himself with a hand on the table and used the other to push off his knee as he slowly rose to his feet.

“It’s been really nice talking with you boys,” he offered with a wink and a smile. “You two enjoy your travels and be safe. Don’t worry, breakfast is on me.”

Tossing a fistful of Slovenian tolars onto the table (Slovenia changed to the Euro in 2007), the group exchanged final pleasantries and went about their respective lives, almost certain to never meet anywhere again.

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales” over here.

[Image credit: globalclaire on Flickr]