Free Hugs in Ljubljana

Stephen Morgan tries “couchsurfing” in Slovenia.

After finishing a language course this past summer, when I was low on cash but flush with enthusiasm for a week of care-free European travel, I wanted to try something that would allow me to have a unique travel experience, to really connect with locals, and above all, to save money. In other words, I decided to couchsurf, which basically means crashing at someone’s house instead of a hostel or hotel. In my case, I signed up with CouchSurfing.org, so instead of sleeping on the sofa of a person I knew (or friend of a friend, etc.), I would be staying at the home of a total stranger. What a great idea.

One of the first stops on my brief trip was Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. After too little sleep in a hot, smelly Munich hostel the night before, I was ready to get away from the typical Eurobackpacking scene. Following an eight-hour train ride, I got to Ljubljana and met my host, Andrej, who at this point had hosted over 100 couchsurfers (I was #137, I think). With him was a fellow couchsurfer, Arto, of Finland. Andrej had to go to work, so Arto and I set out for the castle overlooking the city. Arto has the distinction of being the second Finn I’ve ever met, and I enjoyed the chance to converse a bit. On the way up the hill to the castle, I started to understand that this couchsurfing business was about more than just freeloading.

Obviously, I was in it for freeloading. Sure, I wanted the “local experience” and to meet people. It all sounded very “authentic.” But really, I was sick of hostels and especially sick of paying for them. But as Arto described his lifestyle of travel (biking from Finland to Turkey, then all over India, etc.), his dedication to some kind of free software that I didn’t remotely understand, and his love of hitchhiking, I began to really see the ideological component to couchsurfing. More than a network of freeloaders, CouchSurfing.org has elevated crashing on someone’s sofa to a lifestyle and subculture. It is a lifestyle apparently all about “trusting people,” “spreading kindness,” “sharing,” and so on. And of course, not actually having to pay for stuff. It seemed like a world made up of all the people I would normally avoid.

After we’d seen the castle, we headed back to the station to meet Andrej, and found that he had picked up more travelers. With him were a couple of French-Canadians and four Danish kids on their gap year after high school. So we piled into a van and headed to Andrej’s house, which was not that big, to drop off our stuff, and get cleaned up before heading out on a tour of Ljubljana given by Andrej. The Danes were what you’d expect — looking for a little fun before college. The Canadians were more interesting. They were hitchhiking their way to Istanbul; Laurent had just joined Brigitte, who had been at it for months. They were basically professional vagabonds, working just long enough to save for another trip, which apparently cost them little, since they hitchhiked almost everywhere and couchsurfed or camped out almost every night. They invited me to hitchhike with them, in fact, to Sarajevo. Since I didn’t want to hitchhike in an area where I could get blown up by a land mine, I politely declined.

Ljubljana is a lovely city of culture and history. Unfortunately, I learned almost nothing about it. Andrej is a great guy who loves his city — or more precisely, he really loves the architectural achievements of Slovenian architect, Jože Plečnik. So now I know all about Plečnik’s Ljubljana. We topped it off with a dinner at an interesting restaurant on a boat that served only meat — much to the chagrin of the vegetarian Canadians.

When we got back to Andrej’s, the Canadians suggested that the next day, rather than enjoy the city like normal people, we should spend some time organizing a strange display of the kind of naïve optimism and zealous enthusiasm for life that characterizes couchsurfers. The Danes, whose goal was to party it up in other countries, wanted nothing to do with it. Arto was totally on board, being a true couchsurfer in worldview, who loves things that require him to “trust others by instinct.” The activity, of course, was a Free Hug event, for which they blocked out about two hours the next day.

Now, I generally like to be supportive of people who are trying to do good in the world. That said, I had no desire to 1) make a sign that says free hugs in various languages, especially Slovenian, 2) actually stand in the center of Ljubljana holding said sign, and 3) follow through with those who, improbably, would take me up on the offer. I told them I’d “try to make it,” which of course meant that I wouldn’t.

The next day I got a late start, headed into the city, walked around, and basically played the part of the tourist. It was a decent day. I planned to show up at the free-hug-a-thon late, pretending to be really disappointed that I missed it. So at six o’clock, when Arto, Andrej, Laurent, and Brigitte were supposed to be wrapping things up, I strolled over to the Triple Bridge (designed by none other than Plečnik) to ask them how it went. But they were just getting started. Somehow I failed to realize that people who live for months at a time by crashing on couches, hitchhiking, and camping by the side of the road don’t typically keep to the schedules that they set. Also, it had begun raining about 30 minutes earlier.

So there they were, under a kind of long arcade by the river (also designed by Plečnik), making posterboard signs with colored markers, like arts and crafts in elementary school or Vacation Bible School. In a kind of willful regression into their own notions of an innocent childhood past, they were making colorful signs to hold up to the passersby who were dashing along to get out of the rain, hoping to convince them that what they really needed on this dreary day was not to get dry, but to be hugged. It all seemed stupidly idealistic, and, above all, deeply lame.

Unfortunately, even when I’d like to, I usually can’t bring myself to rain on someone’s parade.

So I picked up a marker, made a fairly uncreative sign with free hugs written in Slovenian and English on it, and held it up. My lack of enthusiasm must have showed on my face and through my body language, because people basically scurried away from me as they would from a creepy guy in a trench coat and sunglasses. But then, they did that to all of us. Some literally ran away. So much for spreading warm feelings. Finally a few people came around who were open to being touched intimately by foreigners. We gave some hugs, then we packed it all up.

I got out of town the next day and headed for the Dalmatian coast, where I could soak up the sun, swim in the ocean, and not hug anybody.

Stephen Morgan is a Ph.D. student in Modern European History at the University of Notre Dame. He has been known to insist that his students refer to him as "future professor Morgan." He is currently caught in a brutal dialectic of terror known as comprehensive exam preparation.