In late June 2014, my graduate school classmates and I were invited to participate in the Young Rhymes Festival in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Slovenia is a tiny country on the edge of Eastern Europe, nestled between Croatia and Italy.
Slovenia is a beautiful collage of rolling orange and green hills, old Mediterranean stone architecture, and the eerie dust of a post-Communist regime.
It wasn’t on my list of countries to visit, and admittedly I probably would’ve never traveled there, had it not been an offering of my graduate school program.
I was completing my creative writing graduate degree at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a low-residency program in which students travel to the Montpelier campus twice a year for writing immersions called residencies, and then work with an adviser from home for the upcoming semester. For each residency, the summer and the winter, students have the opportunity to travel abroad, to Slovenia in the summer and to Puerto Rico in the winter.
Which is how I ended up in a spray-painted old building on a late June evening in Ljubljana, standing in front of a single spotlight, reading a personal essay to a crowd that barely spoke English.
Our group leader, Iztok, a native Slovenian who guided us through Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital, had submitted an entry for our group to participate in the annual, week-long series of open readings and live music at Klub Menza pri koritu.
It had a dark, energetic vibe, like a mix between a black box theater dance performance and a comedy show. People sat on plush red couches or at high-top tables and sipped pints of Laško, the national beer, or tiny glasses of red wine.
We arrived late, after winding our way through the city from Hotel Mrak, our hotel in Ljubljana’s old town, walking along the Ljubjanica River, past the bronze statue of Slovene national poet France Prešeren and through the crowds of tourists in Prešeren Square, turning left away from the river onto Resljeva cesta, and into the city’s arts and culture center: Metelkova.
Klub Menza was an old, tattered building, like an abandoned warehouse, dotted with blobs of mosaic tiles and covered in graffiti. Used as a youth center during the day, it became a mecca for live music after hours. Weathered statues stood in front of it, and there was a large courtyard with more statues and people smoking and shouting.
We arrived in the middle of an applause for a writer. I heard shouts in Slovene, which sounded to me like a cross between Russian and Italian, as a young girl with pink hair and a jean jacket ascended the tiny stairs from the stage.
“Five minutes,” Iztok told us. He disappeared, as he tended to do, and our soft-spoken, American faculty adviser tried to shout something to us above the crowd.
“I think Rick’s telling us to pick someone to read first,” my friend Kelly said to me.
There were 8 of us who had volunteered to read during breakfast that morning.
I would go fifth. We’d each get 5 minutes to read. As Kelly, who was fourth, and I made our way to the bar in the far corner of the room, my stomach started to turn.
With the dim lighting, it was tough to see how many people sat in the audience, but my anxious brain guessed a few hundred.
It was odd, really, how nervous I was. I had no fear of public speaking and was often the first to raise my hand to ask a question in a crowd. But there was something overwhelming heavy, like an extreme amount of pressure, about reading my own writing in front of a crowd of strangers. I wasn’t as nervous about reading in front of my classmates, although I had had this same feeling during my first residency, in January 2013.
Reading in front of a group of unknowns felt too risky, like I was sharing too much about myself too soon. It felt too…personal.
“Here, drink,” Kelly’s voice cut through my thoughts. “We’re up next.”
She handed me a clear plastic cup of red wine.
I took a few sips. The firm, dry taste didn’t help. I set it on an end table. At this point, just doing this was the only cure.
Kelly handed me her glass and walked to the stage. I cheered and shouted once her reading was over. She’d nailed it. I prayed I could do the same.
In what felt like 5 seconds, I was standing on the stage, in front of the single spotlight. A stuffed owl, probably 3 feet tall, stood next to me. The owl is the national animal of Slovenia, along with the slogan, “Lowly Slovenia.” In that moment, I laughed to myself. Owls were everywhere in Slovenia, so why wouldn’t there be an owl accompanying me on this reading?
I can’t remember what the cue to start was, but somehow, I knew I was supposed to start reading. I took a deep breath, and pretended I was reading someone else’s writing.
I was reading an essay I’d written about aspirations, focused on someone I knew who’d had a traumatic childhood. It was about how her family had stayed together because her Mom had had a dream of having a family, and about how my friend’s own dream of going to college had helped her when things were really bad.
When the reading was over, I felt this unexpected, wonderful feeling of calm, in the middle of the applause.