Life in Slovenia

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Gorizia, Italy

Candy at Festa
Licorice at Festa
Julian Alps from Sveta Gora

Udine, Italy

Mountains from Castle.
Shadows on plaza.
Bob enjoying the sun and the sculpture.

Weeks of 5 & 12 December

The past two weeks have twisted together in daily activity. We have settled into a comfortable routine of work and adventure. I have been practicing 2-3 hours every morning at the music school, assisting at the Gimnazia with English classes and the American choir, attending Italian class 3 nights a week and studying Slovene. Bob often has pre-hour classes that begin at 7:00am and with the teacher’s English conversation group, after school student tutoring and his French language class he returns home some days as late as 5:00. We have been regularly reflecting on our week at Bob’s favorite Italian restaurant on Friday’s and they are beginning to expect us. The bike rides have become the norm and even in the winter weather we feel invigorated rather than cold. Neither of us is looking forward to returning to the U.S. where the car is our best friend. We do not miss the 30 to 60 minute drive we have to anywhere from West Salem. 30 minutes on a bike challenges us to notice the clarity of the sky, breathe in the moisture of the sea air that floats up the valley, and tan from the rays of the moon. I’m afraid that we miss much of the miracle of the natural when we go from our warm home through the garage to the heated car and then quickly into our destination and away from the weather.

We have had trips to Udine, Trieste and Ljubljana. The train rides to the Italian cities make Bob giggle every time. When he was growing up his family would go for rides to watch trains, they had train sets in the basement and his brother still has a fabulous train set up in his home. I think Bob really can’t quite believe that he can watch trains from his front window and ride trains whenever he wants to. We even can watch the work on the tracks on our way to school. They have been replacing wooden ties on the track along the bike path. All the work is being done by hand with pick axes, shovels and pitch forks. The men doing the work look like they are surprisingly close to receiving their pension and certainly too old for the physical labor required of them. They scrape away the stones with the pitchfork, dig out the tie, pry it loose, slide it from the railroad bed, replace the old with a new one that is laid by hand, pound it in place and then the rocks are replaced one shovel full at a time. And all this is being done between the scheduled trains on this single track. The Slovenian population is so highly educated that labor jobs are probably not in demand by the young men and very likely these older men are from former Jugoslovian nations who are desperate for work to free them from the poverty of the post Bosnian and Serbian wars.

The day we went to the Slovenian Consulate in Trieste there was a line out side the buildingof 7 men and one woman who served as their translator. The men wore practical sturdy clothing and carried their papers in folders. They projected the energy of need. They were all very quick to present the documents requested by the guard with the desire to please and the hope that their dreams will be fulfilled. The guard had the power to let us into the building, but make them wait outside in the cold. He could hold them off with a flick, a nod or open the door to their future. We wondered at their stories and if their desperation was as deep as it felt.

We certainly understand the frustration of trying to get the proper papers needed to stay in the country. We thought that this trip to Trieste was going to be the last stage of acquiring my residency permit. The lovely colorful visa was pasted into my passport and we were all set to leave the office to celebrate until the woman behind the glass wall said “You know this is only good until the end of December.” December? 15 days from now? There must be a mistake. Bob’s visa is good until July. But when she looked at his visa the expiration date [which we can’t read because it is written in Slovene – imagine that] said December 31. She could only tell us that she thought they must have made a mistake in Nova Gorica. So instead of enjoying the pre-Christmas festivities in Trieste we dashed back to Nova Gorica looking for answers. Apparently only a temporary 3-month work permit was issued in September because Bob had a 3-month tourist visa. That work permit made it possible to get a residency visa, but the visa could only be issued for the length of the work permit. Now a new work permit is being processed and when that arrives that will make us eligible to reapply for the longer residency visa. Of course it was 2:00 on Friday the week before Christmas and no one was working in the office in Nova Gorica. The next two holiday weeks will certainly offer an excess of coffee breaks, holiday parties and shorten workdays. We can only imagine how that will affect the work permit/residency visa and our 31 December deadline. Bureaucracy [3] – Bob and Kay [0]. The adventure continues!

Holiday shopping is just getting revved up in new and old Gorizia. In old Gorizia [Italy] they have laid red carpet on the sidewalks in front of the stores, the streets are blocked off for tents selling wares from many places in the world, smiling ladies in booths are giving away glasses of hot spiced wine and Italian Christmas cakes, the candy booths glow brilliant colors in the darkness, the women are cuddly warm in their fur coats and the streets are crowded under the blinking snow flake and star lights. In Nova Gorica [Slovenia] blue sheds painted with snow drifts and white snowflakes are being built in the town square for the Christmas market that opens next week. The tall pines around the city have been draped with white lights and white lights are strung across the roads all over town. Live Christmas trees are not sold until the 20th after the last Sunday in Advent. The tradition is for the children to decorate the tree on Christmas Eve and the tree stays up until 6 January. St. Nicholas arrived for the children on 6 December and the 25th is a religious holiday. No Christmas carols are sung in church until after Christmas and then they are sung following the Jesus story. New Years Eve became the day of greatest festivities during the communist years. They now celebrate with fireworks and parties and gift giving for those who do not celebrate the Christian holiday. We have been invited to the home of Silvanha and her daughter Valentina for Christmas Eve and then the choir will sing for midnight mass at Sveta Gora. Christmas day we will join Breda and Rajko and their family after we have all sung for Christmas Sunday mass. For the New Year we will stay in our neighborhood where they have a big party between the houses. If we have to be away from our families and friends at Christmas it is nice that our new friends are including us in their festivities.

We gathered with Silvanha and Valentina this week to tryout the blueberry product of their new muffin tins. 13-year-old Valentina is the proud owner of a new violin made by Paolo Vettori e Figli from Florence. Paolo arrived while we were there to do a simple repair on her beautiful instrument. Paolo spoke Italian and English. His wife spoke English, Slovene and Italian and Valentina bounced back and forth between the three languages like she was playing catch. The energy of sitting with this man, and his wife, who are following the violin making tradition of his father and passing it on to their children was a pinch-me-moment. There was so much laughter, joy and celebration of music that this one night would have made the entire trip to Slovenia worth the it. I am so delighted to know Valentina. She has a loving maturity, open heart with no projection of being at all precocious. She and her mother have spirits that soar freely and make my heart sing.

At times the longing for the familiar hits me between the eyes. We went to the Mercator Center grocery store to buy the items needed for Christmas baking. I was standing next to a crooked mannequin wearing a very sad Santa Claus outfit with a scraggly white beard looking at the tree ornaments and burst into tears. Nothing around me reminded me of home or family and friends, but the energy in the space was of anticipation. People were pushing carts with festive fixing’s, the chatter had the edge of excitement [although I couldn’t understand anything] and the spirit was of hope. Christmas and the New Year are times of encouragement, hope for our world and the desire for goodness and peace. These sentiments are a very present energy even in a place where the language is not understood. And during this time when so much of the world is reflecting on peace and love it is hard to be so far from those we adore. So all who read this join me in lighting candles this season to represent the desire to be linked as one body, one people in the Light. Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 05, 2005

Trieste, Choir, Knights of Wine

Choir party in the wine cellar
Serbian church, Trieste, Italy
Knights of the Wine Mass
Jo^sko, Andy and Monica in the wine cellar

Week of 28 November

We finally went to Trieste to get Bob’s residency visa. This colorful piece of paper taped in his passport with all the necessary official stamps states that he is no longer a tourist, no longer an illegal alien, but a legal resident of Slovenia. Unfortunately I am still illegal, I’m still a tourist. Apparently my visa had to wait until Bob was official before they would process my documents. Now that the male breadwinner head of household is legal, they can send the papers of his wife. So soon I get to return to Trieste on a sunny day when the shops are all decorated for Christmas and birthday money in my pocket to get my official papers too. With his visa Bob now needs to reapply for the work papers to carry him to the end of the school year. When we asked the woman at the Slovenian Consulate what the process would be should we return to Slovenia next year, she said that we needed to start all over again. We will need another FBI background check and the same copies of our marriage license and birth certificates with new apostils. Hopefully if we decide to return we will have a contract for the job and the apartment before we leave here and maybe we can do the process through the Embassy in Washington. Unfortunately since we will only be home for 6 weeks the FBI check will again be the document that may cause us trouble.

Sadly it was not a glorious coastal Adriatic day, but variations upon variations of gray. We spent the day in the rain on the Slovenian coast of Isola, Piran and Porta Rose and then crossed the border into Croatia so that we each now have another country stamp in our passport. Andy’s goal is to visit so many countries that additional pages for the stamps will be inserted in his passport. We drove to the hill top town of Buje and walked the narrow streets to the tower built in the 1400’s. The poverty of Croatia is evident the first step into the country and in real contrast to Slovenia. The pastures are overgrown, the roads are in disrepair and this amazing medieval town is falling to pieces. Torrential rain did not assist the image of the country, but despite that I have a great desire to return and experience this place in the sunshine.

The cultural dynamics between the Slovenians and all the surrounding nations is something we do not yet grasp. There must be dynamics in the relationships between countries that have occupied the same land or have shared a government. The personality of this country has to be the result of never claiming their own country before 1991even though they have always had their unique language and culture. We were surprised to learn that between the wars this region, the Primor^ska Region, was the only part of Slovenia that was under Italian rule. The rest of the country was a part of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and each state spoke their own language. The people of the Primor^ska region were required to speak Italian and attend Italian schools. People were reported to the government for speaking Slovene or singing traditional songs. One of the teachers tells the story of her grandfather who was heard speaking Slovene and he was sent to Sicily to work leaving his wife and 9 children at home to care for them selves. The only place safe to speak Slovene was in church. Although the mass was in Latin, the fascists never came to church so the gatherings after church were safe times to speak their native tongue. I can’t imagine having one’s language, songs, culture stripped from you. The thought of it makes me tearful. There is concern by many that the officials of the current government of Slovenia are the children of those who escaped the partisans after WWII and they are attempting to rewrite history and present the partisans and Tito as a force of evil and erase the positive aspects of the past 50 years.

The Sveta Gora choir was invited to sing for a mass blessing the wines. The Knights of the Wine hold an annual gathering in a freezing church guarded by towering Roman pines on top of a hillside that rises out of circled with vineyards all around the base. This knighthood has been in existence since the times of the middle ages and the mass was cloaked with ceremonial presentations and decorations. The members are among the most active wine makers in the Primor^ska region and they bear their membership with great ceremonial dress in matching double breasted suits, matching ties and red, gold, and green ribbons bearing a medal around each neck. The largest wine producer in the area adorned himself in a black velvet cape while the standard bearers wore white gloves to carrying the red seals of the knighthood. The priest who performed the mass was adorned in a gold cassock lined with red with large a silver necklace hung with his medal spread over his shoulders. The mass is the annual celebration of the harvest, the camaraderie amongst these growers and a protection of a dieing agricultural art form. The government wants to close these vineyards and no longer use this land for growing grapes because the market can’t support the number of small producers. Unfortunately an economic decision like this will drastically affect the local culture and regional pride.

Following the mass we were invited to share in the wine tasting and food at the local tourist farm. We sampled 8 different wines from 8 different growers. Each stood up and told how his wine came upon such a distinctly different flavor. The wines of this area are not aged in barrels, but bottled as young wine giving the flavor a mildness that is different than I am accustomed to. We did drink a 10 year old Merlot that had a little more kick to the flavor, but most of the flavors are very gentle but neither really sweet or dry.

Monica and Andy shared the “after choir rehearsal celebration” with us. [Sometimes I think the celebration is more important than the rehearsing]. Jo^sko, the conductor, is a round scruffy looking man who oozes with passion for music and wine. The littlest thing can send him into a ten minute huffing and puffing tirade that I am thankfully unable to understand. The choir smirks at him a little, but in his defense they tell me to ignore his explosions because he has such a love for music and a warm heart. He proudly took Monica and Andy on a tour of his wine cellar and shared the flavors of all his wines with them. It is a feeling of doing something really sneaky to tiptoe into the wine cellar and fill your glass with the wine made by someone else. Yet nothing pleases Jo^sko more than sharing the liquid fruit of his vines. The celebration was the saint day of St. Andreas and the name saint for Andy too so he was warmly embraced with many, many glasses of wine, songs and genuine friendship. We so enjoyed having Monica and Andy visit. They were easy guests to have in our little apartment and they were bold about wandering the countryside on their own. We hope there will be many more family and friends who come to join us on our adventure.

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.


Monica, Bob, Kay, Andy
Our buried"Smart Car"
Andy, Ur^sa, Maru^sa, Janez, Bostian, Bob, Kay, ^Spela


Snow covered home
Kay dancing after the concert
Bob with ^Spela and Ur^sa
Road from Rovte



Kay, Vinko, Bob & Monica outside the saw mill
Andy, Vinko, Bob & Monica in the mill room
Podlipa under snow

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.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Week of 7 November

We both have been sick with a sore throat, cough and fever this week. Every Slovene we know has this fall virus so we decided to assimilate to be just like them. Actually I think we let our guard down when we came back from London. It was so comfortable to communicate even casually in our own language that we both felt a little depressed returning to “Struggle to make a sentence” land. I lost some of my positive perspective and allowed the germ of doubt to creep in. And when that germ is through the door the little bugger holds it open for every errant virus to take up habitation. So I am pretty determined to wear the cloak of positive energy all the time, because I know that the struggles will pass. Our language skills can only get better [believe me there is no way they can get worse] and we will begin to connect with more people now that they are getting to know us. And one of these days we will be able to read the labels on products we want to buy.

We went to the pharmacy to buy some vitamin C tablets. All of the medicines were behind the counter [even the over the counter are behind the counter] and as we stood in line contemplating the difficulty of requesting medicines without our dictionary, a line was forming behind us. There on the counter were cylinders of vitamins for children with a bright yellow Vitamin C label on one. This was easy. Bob picked up the vitamins neatly priced and with almost no communication skills needed. We bought the vitamins and were on our way. We walked home on this brilliant blue day and he opened the vitamins and gallantly offered me one. They are round and chalky and seemed kind of large for children, about the size of a $.50 piece, but we popped them in our mouths anticipating instant healing. The tablet started to fizz and explode in my mouth, frothing and sparking. The flavor was vitamin C’ish, but the sense of effervescence was unexpected and unbearable. We tried to let the entire tablet dissolve in our mouths, but as we passed a potted plant we both gagged the thing out. When we got home and finally read the label with dictionary in hand, it said to dissolve the tablet in a class of water to create a fizzy vitamin C drink. It was like sucking on an Alka Seltzer tablet.

Every time I start to feel sorry for myself for my pathetic language skills I think of the woman who sits next to me in Italian class. I think she is a Muslim woman from Bosnia. She seems to speak Italian with some confidence, but when we have assignments that involve reading she doesn’t do them. This week the assignment was to write a description of someone in our family. I began describing my husband Bob who is tall, thin with gray curly hair and a long nose, when I noticed that she was copying what I wrote. Her writing was reminiscent of 5-year-old Aaron trying to draw the letters without any understanding of how they are used. Each letter was formed with slow difficult strokes after glancing between each movement at my words. Bosnian uses the Cyrillic alphabet and she may be struggling with a new alphabet, but my instinct tells me that she is not only coping with a new world, a new culture, a new language, a new alphabet, but she is also learning to read and write for the first time. I am always overwhelmed and amazed by the determination of people to create a better life for their family, and what they are willing to give up for that dream.

This week was the best week Bob has had at school. He had a number of classes alone without the co-teachers, and he was able to find the “zone” of his unique classroom style. He has honed his style these past 30 years but here he has not been able to get into full Raplenovich dramatic presentation mode when the responsibility of the classroom lies with someone else. It is his nature to be very organized, teach subjects in sequence, provide the students with a wide range of varied opportunities to demonstrate their skill, assess their skills regularly and have a personal energized relationship with his students. None of these things are regular criteria for many of his colleagues. He has not been enlightened with the scope and sequence, provided with curricular guidelines or involved in departmental planning sessions [they are all held in Slovenian, and his ability to order dinner and ask for the receipt is not pertinent to these discussions]. . When he tells the teachers the number of graded assignments he had each grading period in Ashland their immediate reaction is “That is too much work!” The teachers do not assume the parental role of being responsible for the student’s learning, but they do have conferences together with both the parents and the students every trimester. The approach is more like our university system and although Bob is struggling with wanting to be more involved in the guarantee that the students learn the material, they seem to learn it as needed and are surprisingly knowledgeable and articulate.

Because of our experience with enlightened exchange students he was certain that he would find a more effective design for instruction in European schools. Instead he finds that students are given graded assignment and tests once every trimester [12 weeks]. Students are given homework, but no one checks or grades the work. The assignments are mostly “fill-in-the-gap” with words provided and a key in the back of the book. The students are seldom asked to create writings without very specific guidelines and they are proficient in copying the work belonging to their friends. The teachers do not seem to have a master plan, or they haven’t shared it with him. One teacher who was absent from classes this week gave him lesson materials that he had covered in the same manner with the same students a couple weeks ago. H e found himself without a sense of direction but went to the classes wearing his improvisation mask and engaged the students in some enlightening dialogues. Like all that we are doing, his experience in school is keeping him challenged and interested and working hard to figure it all out.

I have begun working with a math teacher at Bob’s school on my Slovenian [not on math!!!]. From the first meeting I liked Irina and felt a connection with her. She speaks multiple languages and is happy to help me with Slovene if I help her with singing. Everyone tells us with a certain amount of pride that Slovenian is a very difficult language. I wonder if the difficulty of their language is the reason they are able to learn other languages so easily. It seems to me that the language we learn as our native tongue effects the development of the dendrites in the brain and the way our articulators form the words. As we learn the structure of a language the brain has to wrap itself around the complexities of communication. If one is learning Slovenian, and needs to know how to use the appropriate ending and placement of each word based on the masculine, feminine or neuter gender, the nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, locative and instrumental case, and how to use it in singular, plural and dual, then the calisthenics of this brain is different than mine. As an example: Robert is a teacher. Robert je profesor. But Kay loves Robert. Kay ljubi Roberta. The [a] on the end of Robert is because he is the object of my affection and not the subject, and even though all feminine names in Slovenian end in [a] when a male name is an object the last vowel is [a] and when a feminine name that naturally ends in an [a] is the object the [a] is changed to an [o]. In other words I can have this language wrong in a multitude of combinations!

There is a real movement to protect the uniqueness of this language from the invasive words from other languages. The people on this border town naturally have Italian influences, but English words are also creeping into their daily conversation in strange ways. The influence of the monoculture of our world for the youth is going to make it more and more difficult for this small county, with only 2 million people who speak the language, to hold on to, not only their culture, but their language too.

Our daily walk to Nova Gorica

Our apartment is in a new neighborhood along the border. In the distant photo the cluster of houses is our area. Our street is a dead end so the only noises are the trains going by. The castle in Italy rises above us and is beautifully lit at night. The border crossing has a gate that everyone walks around when it's down, but cars don't cross here only people going to the bike path on foot or on bikes.

Past the Border

Once we pass the border crossing we walk the bike path that was once the train line between Nova Gorica and Sempter. The Kostanjevica Monestary guards the area and the new homes that have been built here. The single house sits right on the border and the fence jogs around it. It sits in Slovenia while the neighbors live in Italy. The only way they can drive to their house is carefully through the pedestrian tunnel. The tunnel is burrows under the olive orchard of the monestary and has a great echo in the middle.

On the way to school

Bob loves that fact that trains pass by all day long. The train station is the oldest building in town and sits right on the border of Italy. The streets are the paths to school.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Gimnazia Nova Gorica

Solski Center Gimnazija is a campus for a primary school, a nursing school, a technology school, a language school and the academic high school where Bob teaches. The orange building is the new and still unfinished "Sports Palace". It was supposed to open in August and they are hoping if it is "ever finished" it will help to solve the over crowding problems. There is constuction of a new library at the primary school across the courtyard, and the sound of trucks, and cement machines is the drone to all the gimnazija classrooms.

Main Square Nova Gorica

Just across the street from the school is the center square. The middles is open for walking gathering and sitting at the bar for kava [coffee], caj [tea], coke and cokta [the Slovenian coke] and of course wines and other drinks. The heated press bar gazebo was recently placed in the square for cooler weather. Across from the bar is a playgound for the children and the Kulturni Dom where concerts are performed and movies shown.

Business in Nova Gorica

Just past the square there is a large grassy area that is surrounded by the city hall, theatre and library. The football [soccer] stadium is across from the music school and is used not for high school games, but matches that look like they are played by professionals.