Ljubljana and the hipster of world travelers, Alma Karlin

Ljubljana (lyoob-lya-na) wins the award for most fun capital city to pronounce.

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With just over 200,000 people it is also the smallest, most relaxed capital city I’ve been to in the world.

The Cooperative Business Bank Building (the “Pink Bank”), designed in traditional Slovenian styles by architect Ivan Vurnik and his wife Helena Vurnik.  The Pink Bank has been called the “most beautiful building” in Ljubljana.

The Cooperative Business Bank Building (the “Pink Bank”), designed in traditional Slovenian styles by architect Ivan Vurnik and his wife Helena Vurnik.  The Pink Bank has been called the “most beautiful building” in Ljubljana.

Ljubljana was originally the Roman city of Emona and Roman remnants, including remains of a stronghold on top of the hill, can still be seen around the city.

castle

Ljubljana Castle is at the top of a small forested hill on the east side of the Ljubljanica River.

Ljubljana Castle’s now modern courtyard

Ljubljana Castle’s now-modern courtyard

The castle’s old funicular was closed when we visited but the 15 minute walk up to the castle is no problem.

My favorite exhibit in Ljubljana Castle was not about the castle itself, but about a woman born in Celje named Alma N. Karlin.

Karlin was the hipster of world travelers.  She did it WAY before everyone else thought it was cool.

Alma

“I am a lone traveler, much like a hermit crab . . . I imagine that I know how to write.  A person should have at least one illusion!  And this illusion has led to my journey around the world.”

I imagine that I share Karlin’s illusion, though my writing is a result of, rather than a cause for, my decision to journey around the world.

Outside the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Ljubljana

Outside the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Ljubljana

In the early 1900s, Karlin began a journey around the world that makes my travels look elementary by comparison.

To boot, Karlin was a woman, and to travel alone back then as a woman was unheard of.

Inside the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Ljubljana

Inside the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Ljubljana

Karlin was born in Celje (now part of Slovenia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire) in 1889 and as a young girl, spoke German with her Austrian family.  In her teens she learned French and English and in 1908, moved to London, where she took her language studies to the next level.

Shoes hanging on a wire in Ljubljana’s old city

Shoes hanging on a wire in Ljubljana’s old city

Karlin was relentless about learning new languages, using the days of the week to dictate her study schedule.

Karlin would study Norwegian on Mondays, French on Tuesdays, English and Latin on Wednesdays, Danish on Thursdays, Italian on Friday mornings, and Swedish on Friday nights.

A look over the Ljubljana River

A look over the Ljubljanica River

And Karlin didn’t take a break on the weekends. On Saturday Karlin would kick it with her Asian friends and practice basic phrases.  On Sunday mornings she would do the same, this time with her Spanish friends, and on Sunday nights, Karlin would dive headfirst into Russian lessons.

On Monday mornings Karlin would start the week all over again by studying Sanskrit.  Every morning of the week, Karlin would commit to learning at least one song in the language (or languages) she was studying that day.

After the start of World War I, Austrian citizens were no longer welcome in England so Karlin migrated to Scandinavia, where she continued her studies in Norway and Sweden, adding books on the Inca culture to her ever expanding knowledge of different cultures.   It was in Scandinavia where Karlin first decided she would embark on a journey to visit the places she had read so much about.

In 1918 Karlin returned to Celje and founded a language school, now beginning intensive preparations for her journey, studying history, geography and natural history of the countries she was planning to visit, basically a reverse of how I’ve done my travels.  I learn as much as I can about the place I’m at while I’m there, but end up doing most of my research for my blog posts after the fact.

In 1919 Karlin began her journey, bringing with her only 130 dollars, 950 Duetsche Mark, and a portable Erika typewriter.  Karlin was banking heavily on the fact that her foreign language skill would allow her to earn money, perhaps through teaching, as she traveled.

Karlin spent her first four years traveling through southern and central America, Hawaii, Japan, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and down on to Australia and New Zealand.  At the end of these four years Karlin was physically and emotionally exhausted.  Even more so then,  than now, backpacking was (and is) no vacation, no picnic, no walk in the park.

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But she continued on through Southeast Asia, up on into Myanmar, Calcutta, New Delhi, and in 1927 ended up in Karachi, then part of India, now in Pakistan.  In Karachi she received a letter from her sick mother saying she wanted to see Alma before she died.  Alma, deeply depressed and sick herself, returned home after eight years of Globe-trotting.

I can relate to this feeling.  Even though traveling leads one to meet hundreds of new people around the world, the inherently transient nature of these relationships makes them far less fulfilling than the meaningful relationships that can be developed at home or while living in one place.

Even the most robust of souls can begin to feel lonely and a bit depressed.  On each of my four big trips, I have always felt a tinge of this feeling, usually about three months in, when the long bus rides and hostels start to wear on you.

A colorful train in Ljubljana’s train station

A colorful train in Ljubljana’s train station

But overall I would say the positives of long-term world travel (too numerous to list here, but read a few of my other blog posts and you’ll get the idea) far outweigh the feelings of loneliness and depression that can occasionally accompany a long-term vagabond.

And though the titles of Alma’s subsequent writings about her travels might indicate otherwise  – “Einsame Weltreise” (The Odyseey of a Lonely Woman) and “Im Banne der Sudsee” (The Spell of the South Sea) among them – I would venture to say she would agree with me.

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One thought on “Ljubljana and the hipster of world travelers, Alma Karlin

  1. Fascinating story! You just confirmed that i really want to go there one day.
    Keep writing and making us travel all year long, Matt!! 🙂

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