Alpine water rushes by in glowing turquoise. Our carriage clatters through the mountains, sunlight intercepted frequently by long, dark tunnels. I’m sitting with a Sicilian man and his Chinese friend, discussing work and travel in concise repetitive responses I’ve been doling out for four months abroad. Two young Slovenian high school students make out in the seat across the aisle, the young man’s face pressed so hard into his female companion’s that I wonder if she’ll suffocate.
We click to a halt in a forest on the mountainside. A bright yellow station welcomes us to Bled, a picturesque mountain-town in the north of the country. As we exit the station, Lesce-Bled comes into view, a placid mirror reflecting the puffy sky.
We descend on a path around the lake toward the sleepy town. A chapel sprouts up on an island floating in the middle of the lake. A castle perches precariously on a thin ledge of cliff above, inspiring fairytales for the last thousand years. Long lines of buoys dot the lake, lanes for rowers. We wind up a path past a white spire bell tower into the quiet town.
I bid goodbye to my train companions and check into the hostel. A boisterous, smiling man greets me from behind a creaky wooden bar, his frame hardly fitting in the space. He makes jokes constantly, looking into my eyes to make sure his punch lines land. He slaps a map onto the counter and circles several places I’ll never go. I have three looming deadlines, so my recreational time will be brief.
As he scribbles, he mentions how many of his recommendations are a good place to take girls. On his second mention of this I tell him it doesn’t interest me as I’m gay.
“Why didn’t you tell me before!” he shouts, his large eyes rolling as hard as his R’s.
He snaps his fingers and points to a guest sitting at the bar.
“Is that gay guy still- no he checked out, right?”
The guest nods matter-of-factly.
“Sorry,” the man says, shaking his head.
“It’s fine,” I tell him.
I drop off my bags and attempt to work, the wifi dropping connection every four seconds. I give up and take a walk. It takes me five minutes to find the Bled casino. I hand my ID to a man in a tuxedo behind a glass desk. He types my info into a computer and I scale carpeted stairs into the basement gaming facility.
I step out of the building at four in the morning, my wallet stuffed with new Euros, my clothes stinking of beer and cigarettes. I ask a waiting taxi driver for a ride and he refuses because the fare is too short. He points up into the hills impatiently. I don’t want to amble home at this hour with so much money in my pocket, but it doesn’t seem I have a choice.
I walk along the lake, lamplight interrupting the slowly waking sky. I turn down a darkened staircase thinking how beautiful it is here, and begin to piss in a bush there. The sound of piss softly splattering leaves woos my eyes shut for a moment as I sway in place to imagined music.
The next day I hand a man Euros at the private lake club. He slides a ticket under his plastic partition and I scan it into a machine, a turnstile ticking open in front of me. I lock my bag in a long, empty room of lockers and stroll down the sun-drenched floating decks along the lake. I set down my towel and dive into the dark water, the crisp mountain lake drowning my hangover somewhere. As I climb back onto the deck to dry off, I peek back down over the edge. A fish the size of a small car glides by under my feet. It’s the kind of massive oddity that can only grow so large in a secluded lake with no predators. My eyes widen as it disappears into the depths.
I catch the bus for Ljubljana with one minute to spare.
“Is this the bus to the capital?” I ask the fanny-packed attendant, as I’m unable to pronounce Ljubljana.
She nods and hands me a ticket. After two days without functioning wifi I’ve decided to begrudgingly leave Bled. The bus ride is mercifully short, as are the walks from station to hostel on each end, my bags threatening to rip off my back as I walk.
After several hours working I walk through town to get a feel for the place. There’s a large park in the center, many cobbled streets, and squares with statues of important Slovene men I’ve never heard of. I don’t know it yet, but the city is an exact replica of many Central European towns. There’s pretty architecture interwoven with green sprouts of trees, and not much else.
In the morning I pick up afterbite at the pharmacy. My arms and legs are covered in bites that I assume are from gallivanting through Bled just before dawn. I’m wrong. I notice a bed bug crawl across the thigh of my jeans. I catch him with two fingers against the denim. He spurts my blood, bright red, onto my fingertips. I shake my head. Being a manager in a hotel for several years I’m well acquainted with the insect. I’m not panicked or angry, just slightly tired at the thought of the process I know I’ll have to endure.
I bring the news to the front desk intern, telling her I need to speak with her about my bike rental outside, to get her alone. She thanks me profusely for this touch, as I’ve not frightened my bunkmates. She calls the owner, who thankfully takes the situation seriously. He moves me to a private room where I strip out of my clothes and hand the clerk every piece of fabric I own. I inspect every inch of both my bags before showering and crawling into bed. The tv plays trashy reality television while I wait naked, trying not to scratch.