The Extraordinary Life of the Fearless Alma M. Karlin

A woman, inspired by curiosity, in search of the ultimate freedom

Alma Maximiliana Karlin statue (2021) by Domen GröglSlovenian Tourist Board

It was November of 1919. There was a lone, petite figure on Celje train station platform, shaking in the damp coldness.

Then 30-year-old Alma Maximiliana Karlin, a writer, globetrotter, polyglot, and theosophist with an intricate personality, set out on a journey of a lifetime. 

All she had was a modest suitcase with a self-written dictionary of 10 languages, her purse, a set of clothes and her beloved typewriting machine.

Alma by the window (2021) by Domen GröglSlovenian Tourist Board

Going away was her ticket to freedom. 

Ever since her father passed away when she was 8, Alma struggled to endure living with her etiquette-obsessed mother. She felt her mother never accepted her physical frailness and her tomboyish, distinctly individualistic character. 

Little Alma in a dressSlovenian Tourist Board

That is why free-spirited and extremely curious Alma adored her father. He let her chase the grasshoppers, climb trees and cut her hair short. Her whole life, she cherished the all-too-short years they had spent together and describes those times as the “sunny era of her life”.

Little Alma with a statuetteSlovenian Tourist Board

One day, when they were walking through their town of Celje in present-day Slovenia, her father said: “If you start to travel westbound and travel for a long time, you will eventually end up on the same spot.”

Alma M. KarlinSlovenian Tourist Board

That wildly sparked Alma’s imagination. She wanted to know it all. She wanted to experience everything. She was fearless – as a child and later in life. And she dared to believe there was more to life than what Celje and life in it was offering.

Alma in her roomSlovenian Tourist Board

Already as a teenager she knew that knowledge was her gateway to freedom.

She finished only Primary school, but was exceptionally well-read in many different topics. Through the years she learned to speak 10 languages. Everywhere she went, she was a regular visitor in local libraries and universities.

Picture of young Alma in museum (2021) by Domen GröglSlovenian Tourist Board

Her knowledge and hunger for more was so broad and unconventional, that she was always a misfit.

As she dreamt of following the paths of Christopher Columbus, her peers were satisfied by everyday life and could imagine only travelling to the nearest town.

Alma's black&white photos with train (2021) by Domen GröglSlovenian Tourist Board

She made a pact with her mother: when I can take care of myself, you will let me go. And off she went at 19 years of age.

First to London, then Oslo and Stockholm, working days as a teacher and translator to make ends meet. Although extremely lonely with a very frugal lifestyle, she got a taste of the free life she craved.

Little Alma with a typewriterSlovenian Tourist Board

Writing the war journal in Norway lead her to the realisation that would change her life. She later wrote: “My fate was sealed. I finally found the leitmotif of my life – writing. It filled me with respect and joy.”

Alma with her dogSlovenian Tourist Board

Although she knew (and later proved herself right) that the life of a writer was anything but simple, there was no turning back.

She was hungry for success and recognition.

Typewriter (2021) by Domen GröglSlovenian Tourist Board

Fascinated by Asian culture and her professor’s tales of South America, she returned to Celje. 

There she opened her own language school, quickly earned money, bought her Erika, the typewriting machine, and decided to go.

Alma's photo in the museum (2021) by Domen GröglSlovenian Tourist Board

Little did she know that she was bound on a journey that would last eight long years. In the times of extremely limited transportation options, she travelled all continents except Antarctica. 

When travelling, she fell in love with cultures, especially Japanese, nature and men she was never able to make partnerships with.

Alma's manuscript with plants (2021) by Domen GröglSlovenian Tourist Board

Her studious character enabled wild experiences. 

Collection of artefacts and offsprings (2021) by Domen GröglSlovenian Tourist Board

It resulted in a great collection of manuscripts and articles that were and are still published all over the world, photos and watercolour paintings, artefacts that were laboriously collected and catalogued, and stories that could not be told in one lifetime.

Alma's memorial plaque (2021) by Domen GröglSlovenian Tourist Board

Although she later led a fulfilling life with her soulmate friend Thea Schreiber Gammelin, she sadly never got the only recognition she most wanted – her mother’s.

But one thing is sure. She will forever probably be the first woman to travel the globe with no other means of survival than her own mind and with that one of the greatest travellers of all times.

Like the fig that surrounds her memorial plaque, she never gave up.

Alma with her hand fanSlovenian Tourist Board

Alma was indeed a traveller in time. Her thoughts, emancipation, ideas and lifestyle were way before her time. She embodied many values and was even familiar with the concept of reincarnation, and she was a true believer. 

So, one time she summed up her lifelong need for boundless freedom with these words: “If I was to be born again, I wish to be a bird, so I can travel.” Yes, Alma M. Karlin is the epitome of an eternal traveller. 

Alma's black&white photos in a dress with hat (2021) by Domen GröglSlovenian Tourist Board

Alma was fascinated by history. 

She was aware her hometown Celje was a great archaeological site, but would be hugely fascinated by recent extraordinary finds below the city grounds.

Credits: Story

📣 Special thanks to: Barbara Trnovec and Pokrajinski muzej Celje

🔎 Sources:
Kolumbova hči, Barbara Trnovec, Pokrajinski muzej Celje, 2015
Alma M. Karlin, državljanka sveta, Jerneja Jezernik, Mladinska knjiga, 2015
Sama, Alma M. Karlin, In lingua, 2010

Story by Anja Leskovar

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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