Life in Slovenia

Monday, November 21, 2005

Week of 14 November

I got a bicycle for my birthday from Bob. I guess my rule that I receive no practical gifts for birthday, Christmas or anniversary does not translate into Slovenian. Nonetheless I am thrilled to have my own wheels. It is almost as exciting as my first car. It was an old Volkswagen crème colored beetle, and I loved that car. The only problem was that often it refused to start. Fortunately we lived at the top of a hill and, all dressed up for work, I would roll it out of the driveway, head it down the hill and run. Once the car and I got up some speed I would jump in, pop the clutch and we were on our way. For some reason this non-conventional start to my day bothered my father so much that over my rebellious objections he replaced my favorite car with a much more dependable clunker. I’ve never had the thrill of getting a running start since.
The startup of my new bicycle is not as interesting to my neighbors I’m sure, but I get the running start rush and it feels good.

We are enjoying bike transportation more than we ever imagined. Even though the air is getting cool and we are wearing hats, gloves and scarves while riding it is refreshing to be in the fresh air intimately watching and feeling the season change. There are always people out on bikes. Older men and women ride at their strolling speed, the teenagers ride as if they wish the driving age was less than 18 and the professional women with their spiked heels and extremely pointed toes ride with a confidence that matches a snazzy convertible Fiat. A bike makes life easier, it takes less time to get places, you can greet your neighbors while passing by and you don’t have to pay gym fees to ride a bike and never go anywhere. These Slovenians have it figured out.

We are discovering the bike trails and flat roadways around the hills. One ride through the woods is especially nice. It appears to have been a railroad bed, but the trees that canopy across the path indicate that no train has passed here in a very long time. It is a wide gravel path and most of those enjoying the cool sunny Sunday afternoon are walking or jogging. To get to the wooded path we pass a flat area with little gardens on both sides. People have built little sheds for their tools, with small gazebos for shade and side framed raised beds lined by paths. Many of the beds are cleared for the winter, but just as many have plastic hoop protection for the lettuce and other cool weather crops. Gardens and making food at home is a proud respected tradition, but the people I see in the gardens are mostly those who have lived most of their life under the socialist system when food was not always available. I wonder, if gardening is not an economic advantage, will the younger people will find it has value in their lives?

One late afternoon we trek to Italy to shop before my Italian class. The sun’s rays light the border with long angles and deep shadows and the air smells of wood smoke, crunchy leaves, sweet fall flowers and chicken soup. Coming down from the mountains are clouds that look heavy with snow. Dark and swirling they ride on the borja squeezing through the hillsides following the Soca valley on a collision course with the warm moist palm tree Mediterranean air. The clouds drop to the rooftops in the perfect setting for an Armageddon painting as the clash of these two weather systems lights up the sky with shocking orange, peach and strawberry colors. The warmer air from the Adriatic dispels the huff and puff of the snow clouds and a dribble of rain sends us into a café for cappuccino and MTV. But the people continue to walk, ride their bikes and go about finishing their workday without noticing the drama above them. The air is so free of dust and pollution that in this light everything has the brightness of being colorized. Objects are more real than real and we are more alive and connected because we are here.

There is ice on top of the cars this morning but the geraniums still bloom in the window boxes. They tell us that the weather never gets below freezing, but a boy wiped out on his scooter on his first frozen puddle today. The stores in Italy are stocked with lusciously warm sweaters, jackets and boots, but people sit outside savoring their coffee at the café. For the first time in three months I’ve seen people who make me sad; two beggar women in the town square on their knees in a prayerful stance with hands cupped in front of them, the middle-aged man who wagged down the street talking furiously to himself and the two older women in mixed-matched filthy clothes holding themselves up with canes while they carry a burden heavier than their arms can hold. Have these people moved south from the colder climates for the winter? Are the beggars with their beautiful dark skin and brilliant eyes gypsies? Where will these burdened elderly women lay their head at night when they realize that winter is coming here too?

I have been looking for pumpkins to make pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread and all things Native American-Pilgrim-Thanksgiving pumpkin. Everyone tells me that I can’t eat pumpkin. I assure them “but of course” we eat pumpkin every fall in the U.S. They think pumpkins are for decoration, but I know that they are eatable too! Finally a choir member brings me perfect small pumpkins and a gigantic squash. I am so thrilled to use the genetic lessons of my Puritan Mayflower relatives and share the goodness of my American heritage. The squash is decorative and will look great next to the front door. While Bob is watching the Travel channel and dreaming of going on a train in Switzerland I start the pumpkin puree process. Cut the pumpkin in half, it looks like pumpkin, take the seeds and stringy stuff out, it’s slimy like pumpkin, cut it into pieces and boil, the skin is pretty tough not like pumpkin. After the meat of the fruit is soft and cool I scrape it from the rind. The pumpkin skin is hard and crisp like a shell, but everything else looks and smells like pumpkin until I test a little bite. It is the most awfully shocking bitter fruit that no amount of sugar and whipped cream will hide. It all goes in a plastic bag and straight to the end of our street to the dumpster. In comes the squash with the hope that it will be suitable for pie and holiday fixins, and I can call it bu^ca pie and pretend it’s pumpkin.

Bob was without voice most of this week so I taught his classes on Thursday. The students had reading and listening assignments dealing with ageing, genetic modification of foods and the controversy surrounding the attempt to secure the integrity of the Tower of Pisa without straightening it too much. The conversations that surrounded these topics were impressively articulate, thoughtful and challenging. I am not certain that a class of Ashland teenagers could discuss these issues with any greater understanding and grasp of the language than these Slovenian students who are communicating in a second language. Very, very impressive.

I have been regularly singing with the choir at Sveta Gora. The church sits on the top of the holy mountain 600 meters above the city. On a clear day, looking to the north, you can see deep into the Julian Alps with snow on the tip of Triglav and Austria, and looking to the south you can see the Adriatic Sea and the coast of Croatia. The church was completely destroyed during WWI because of its strategic location and rebuilt to its current glory by the Italians. But there is no heat in this mountain church! On Sunday mornings the choir stands in the balcony wrapped in coats and gloves and toasting our fingertips on the little electric heater. The congregation does not have the luxury of a heater or the benefit of heat rising. We also attended an evening concert of the Faure, Requiem and the Vierne, Messe Solennele in the cold. The soprano soloist was wearing a hat and a scarf around her neck and her winter coat with the entire choir in their black attire beneath their winter woolens. I think it would be the rare singer and more rare audience in the U.S. who would tolerate freezing conditions for the sake of music. But now I understand why parishioners in U.S. Catholic churches never take their coats off during mass. Their bodies have genetic memory of a time generations ago when their relatives were freezing in church and that recollection of the frozen past demands that they never take off their coats and stay warm.

Each day I feel that I understand more and more around me, but words like vrt [garden], prt [tablecloth], smrt [death] send me spinning. Isn’t it an international law that every syllable needs a vowel? What spin-doctor told these Slovenians that “R” is a vowel? The tower of Babel certainly did send the world into a state of confusion. Doesn’t it seem logical that language would blend like color? If you work with watercolors and you place red and yellow close to each other, the colors blend to create orange that has qualities of both red and yellow, yet each color keeps its integrity on either side. I would think that language would blend like that as well. Here on the border of Italy and Slovenia there should be a blended language spoken with qualities of each. The color of the sound would have the nuance of one and the curl of the other using words from both and creating syntax that is unique to the Italian/Slovenian border towns. But no Slovenian is Slovenian and Italian is Italian. The Italians do not speak Slovene and the Slovenes resent that fact. So I plod along each day getting deeper and deep into that which I do not understand.