Life in Slovenia

Monday, November 28, 2005

Week of 21 November

November 22 is the saint day of St. Cecelia, the patron saint of music and art, and the perfect saint day for my birthday. The priests at Sveta Gora presented a special mass for the choir in the small chapel to celebrate the gifts the choir offers the church community. After mass we were invited into the dining room of the monastery to be served dinner by the Franciscan priests. The priests dressed in their dark brown hooded robes belted with a white rope and sandals on their feet served trays of pru^sut, cheeses, noodle soup, salad, lasagna, wiener schnitzel and strudel along with “the wine of angels” and home made ^snops that took the lining off my throat. As is the tradition in this choir, the food was received with song, the toasts were sung and when requested everyone, including the priests, broke out in traditional songs. There are songs for everything, hello songs, good-bye songs, birthday songs, thank you songs, songs about singing songs and anything else you can imagine, and this choir loves to sing them all in 4 part harmony. The wine of angels with the voices of angels.

The person with the birthday is responsible for the food after Wednesday night choir practice. I made pumpkin and pecan pies, pumpkin, banana and corn bread to go with a vegetarian “4-way”chili. Fortunately the Mercator Center [which is like a large U.S. grocery store] has a small international food section where I was able to find Mexican style kidney beans, salsa and chili powder. The canned tomatoes come as whole skinless roma tomatoes floating in a tomato puree and the tomato paste is so thick it doesn’t want to come out of the jar, the baking powder comes in little envelopes and the sugars are crystallized and unrefined. I am starting to be able to adjust our favorite recipes for the differences.

We served the chili on macaroni with crushed crackers and grated cheese. They have no orange cheese here or anything that resembles Colby or cheddar cheese. At the deli case I tried to explain to the woman who speaks no English that I wanted a stronger cheese than their gentle Muenster like cheese. She gave me Parmesan, but when I tried to tell her that I didn’t want an aged cheese, but just one that was flavorful she brought in another woman who also didn’t speak English who showed me an even larger variety of Parmesan. Finally I went back to their lovely mild Jo^st cheese and it complimented the chili nicely. The chili had a little hint of heat, but nothing like Mexican food at home, but more heat than the choir is accustomed to. They were all a tad hesitant to try this new meatless dish [this is a country of meat eaters], but out of respect for my efforts everyone took a bowl. The first bite was hesitant and polite and then the grin started to spread across faces around the table and the surprised comment “dobro!” [good] and the dash for seconds. Now they are asking for the chili recipe. I guess it was a hit. Dinner was accompanied by wine from the casks in the cellar of Jo^sko and finally champagne accompanied by songs and songs and more songs. The perfect 2 day birthday celebration.

The American Choir at the Gimnazia had their first performance this week. The students performed at the final program of an exchange day with students from Udine, Italy, - Isola, Slovenia and Nova Gorica. We have been working on the rounds “I Love the Mountains”, “Song” and an arrangement I did of the spiritual “Can’t Sit Down!” There are only seven girls and one boy, but they performed like real pros with great confidence, serious performance presence and a full rich sound. They are putting forth enormous effort to sing American vowels and consonants, but their mouths are too accustomed to the Slovene closed vowels and rolled R’s. I continue to bribe them with Reese’s peanut butter cups hoping to shape their American sounds and with American flavors. They were such a hit that they now have 3 more performances scheduled before Christmas and they are begging for more peanut butter.

“The temperature never gets below freezing in Nova Gorica.” “We have 300 days of sunshine each year.” “We never get snow until January.” “We haven’t had snow like that in 40 years.” Are these tall tales, legends, the sick mysterious sense of humor of those who start their day with the weather channel or down right lies? We left Nova Gorica at 2:00 on Friday in a snowstorm and headed to Podlipa to have an American Thanksgiving with Bob’s Slovenian relatives in the mountains. It snowed all day and night. We were stranded in a Christmas card wishing Sre^cen Bo^zi^c. with18 inches of snow sculpted on sloped roofs, our rental car with summer tires buried at the bottom of the hill and sleeping in someone else’s PJ’s, but a most memorable Thanksgiving.

Bob’s cousin Monica and her husband Andy arrived from Denver on Thanksgiving. Day. It was such a joy to have family come to visit; to be able to laugh and talk about the things that are common and share with them the things that are new. I made pumpkin bread, corn bread, stuffed turkey breasts, gravy, corn pudding, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce [straight from Denver] and salad with pumpkin and pecan pie for dessert. Full turkeys are only available by special order, but I was afraid that Maru^sa’s oven would be too small for an entire turkey so I ordered large turkey breasts [puran] and I got 2 enormous turkey breasts. The butcher followed my hand signal directions and sliced the turkey so that I could stuff them like a stuffed pork chop, then put stuffing between the breasts and tied these fat bosoms up with string. For someone who does not eat meat this is a lot of flesh handling, but tradition had to win out for our first American family Thanksgiving in Slovenia. The Slovene’s eat a lot of turkey breast sliced very thin and breaded or served in light gravy, but seldom big hunks of turkey, and certainly never with a sweet berry sauce. They hesitantly tried everything and it was funny to watch their faces when the flavor surprised them and it actually tasted good. The pies were the biggest hit. At first small bites and pieces and then requests for seconds.

The Petrov^ci^c family lives on the side of a hill above the village of Podlipa where Bob’s great grandmother Barbara was born. Vinko still lives on the property of the family home where we visited him at the sawmill in the beginning of the snowstorm. He was cutting boards at the mill that once was powered by the water flume flowing between the house and the mill. The water also powered the flourmill that is no longer used and the sawmill that is now only used for cutting wood for friends and family. Vinko’s father Tony [and great grandma Barbara’s brother] was also a barrel maker and the tools of his trade still hang in the mill room. When Bob was 18, he and his grandmother visited Tony and his entire family in this house. You walk in the front door and you have the choice to turn right to the room where the barrels were made and the grain was ground, up the stairs to the bedrooms, or to the left where the meals were eaten. The dining room/living room was heated by a pe^c, which is a cooking, stove fueled by wood in the kitchen with a ceramic extension into the dining room. Benches were built around the out side of the pe^c where you could sit to get warm and the children would sleep on the toasty top on freezing cold nights. Vinko showed us the door he was rebuilding in the dining room and offered us a class of homemade [doma^ci] ^snops. He opened a hidden built-in cupboard in the wall and pulled out a bottle with one shot glass. He offered the glass first to Bob and, in good Slovenian tradition, but unusual for Bob, he downed it in one gulp. We all shared the same glass, but I’m sure no germs grow on anything that comes in contact with this shockingly potent fiery manifestation of apples and pears.

When we tried to drive back to Maru^sa and Janez’s house the accumulated snow prevent our little Italian “Smart Car” with summer tires from climbing the hill. The law requires that people have “winter” tires or chains during bad weather. There are blue round signs that display a tire with chains as a reminder of the requirement. We parked at the bottom and tried to walk. Monica had her fashionably gorgeous tall-heeled leather boots on and for every upward step she slid back two, which made walking in the “Winter Wonderland” precarious at best.

The festive time with Maru^sha, Janez., Ur^sa, ^Spela and Bostian was warm and welcoming. Ur^sa, ^Spela and Bostian speak English beautifully and serve as translators for mom and dad who understand a lot, but are hesitant to speak. Janez interjects English phrases he has learned from TV that send us into fits of laughter because they are always just the right things at the right time. Maru^sa opened her kitchen to me but suffered when I made her sit like a guest in her own home. She has assured me that when they come to the U.S. to visit she will act like a guest, but when I am in her home I should act like the guest. I wish we could speak together alone over a cup of coffee. There are so many things that can’t be said through a translator or with hand signals. The inability to really talk with people about things below the surface is becoming difficult for me. There is so much I want to know and so much that is misunderstood.

I had a performance as the soloist in a choir concert in the hill top village of Rovte on Sunday. Rovte is the one of the ancestral homes of the Leskovec family, the lineage of Bob’s grandfather’s family. The information we have traces the family to house 49 Rovte where Jurij Leskovec [1835-1876] lived with his wife Marija Voli^c [1856-1905]. The houses have been renumbered said the owner of the local gostilna and he thinks that the old house was torn down, but we hope to return to this little mountain village when there is less snow and search out the family home. We were told that 50% of the men from this town had to leave the country after WWII because they had fought for the Germans/Italians against the partisans and to stay would have resulted in imprisonment or death.

I was invited by Bob’s cousin Maru^sa to sing as a part of this evening of choral music. The two adult choirs sang traditional Slovenian folk songs and the girl’s chorus sang a variety of interesting arrangements. The choirs sang mostly a cappella with a few of the men’s songs accompanied by accordion. The sound was clear, in tune, straight bell tones lacking the wobble that is so often heard in older voices.

I sang “Simple Gifts” and “Shenandoah” to match the feel of traditional songs from home. While practicing the line “It’s seven long years since last I saw you” in Shenandoah I found myself fighting back the tears and longing for home. I can’t imagine how painful it must have been to be forced to leave your home, your culture, and your language because of poverty, political repression or even just the hope of a better life. The traditional songs would then become a most precious memory of family and friends and the emotional link to home. Now I really understand why the old men collected in the bar at the family weddings and gatherings and sang the old songs with the tears running down their faces.

I was surprised, after I sang my two songs with all the professional diva quality with in me, to be followed by a dozen preteen girls and one boy dressed in a variety of leotards with a hodge podge of tights wearing slippers and carrying balloons doing the Hubba Bubba Dance. If I ever have any delusions of grandeur, moments like this of being a part of the local variety act help to keep me humble. But the highlight of the evening was the singing of the old traditional songs with the accordion after the feast of local delicacies. The songs kept singing themselves long after most of the audience had walked down the hill through the deep snow.