War lasts longer than three hours and is not a popularity contest. Therefore, few American journalists can understand war. Reciprocally, perhaps, most American journalists can understand NATO. It's ecumenical; photographs of it show mostly office space; when asked to do something, it is as surprised as everybody else, and gamely joins in the debate these requests always occasion. To those for whom such civil languor is precisely the point of having something like NATO, letting something like Slovenia into it must seem perfectly normal. To American journalism, both are benign, their union frivolous and safely barren, a gay marriage if ever there was one.

To someone who has actually been to Slovenia three times...well, I have to admit it is benign. The country is the size of Massachusetts, with politicians to rival that state's (there is a Slovene Retirees' Party, with some rather young-looking members). But, unable to shake the idea that NATO is technically an armed force, I keep expecting something like menace. This is eastern Europe, after all, and these are Slavs. Can you provoke 'em?

That wasn't my intent, really. All I wanted was to practice the language and cross from Italy to Hungary. But the Slovene reaction might be interesting. It might be something like Americans sure are impetuous - this one came in without waiting for the green light from Mexico or Cameroon.


If you choose to dismiss Slovenia out of hand, as just another country waiting for America to invent something that China can make and it can buy, it will be hard to quarrel with you. But consider, please, what you're passing up. 42% of Slovenes think Beagle 2 was shot down by Martians. Asked whether they'd ever phoned a psychiatric help line, 60% answered, "I don't have personal problems." Asked whether they smoke, 4% answered, "I don't know." With excitement tempered only by the prospect of pedaling even a nanometer in Italy, I reassembled my Raleigh at the Trieste airport and cycled to Slovenia, about 14 miles distant.

There was some gratifying obstructiveness at the line. As a non-European, I was told, I couldn't cross at one spot but I could cross at another spot four blocks away. One month after entering NATO, Slovenia entered the EU. I say "gratifying" because it seems odd that such a young country should have joined the latter so quickly.

Slovenia won its sovereignty chiefly by waiting a thousand years, until nobody, not even the Serbs, cared to contest it. Reading aloud the history of Europe, you can sound like Monty Python's "News For Wombats" discussing Slovene participation. In 1848, revolutionaries manned the barricades - NO Slovenes were involved. There was "the War for Slovenia" in 1991, but it lasted just a week and a half, with casualties in the dozens. It ain't much, but it worked, and we now know that it's more than Iraqis could ever do. You can't damn Slovenia, but when you try to compliment it, these diluting qualifications are hard to avoid. Well, that's Europe. History seldom flatters it. Europe's cardinal aspirations have been to cut deals with monsters and look perfect doing it. Europeans might ludicrously assert there are big differences among Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam, or (this is what Slovenes did) they might stand back and watch, but either way, they don't shine.

Even being European, though, Slovenia isn't too ominous. Recently there was a referendum on the fate of "the expunged," but it was harmless. "The expunged," izbrisani in Slovene, were 18,305 people who declined or neglected to make a proper claim to Slovene citizenship at independence in 1991, and so were expunged from certain registers. This doesn't seem to have mattered: to judge from numbers on banners carried by protesters, there are now about 22,000 "expunged," suggesting they've not only settled down but raised families. The referendum had only to do with a "technical law" for regularizing their situation, so its rejection - even by a 19-to-1 margin - meant only that nothing would change for the time being. There may be another referendum coming up, regarding the construction of a mosque in Ljubljana. This smells - there shouldn't have to be a vote on religious freedom - but Slovenia's unemployment is 11%, whereas Islamic unemployment seems to be 49.9% (i.e., all males except bus drivers and the President). Clearly, this is a figure Slovenes want to go down, not up. It remains to be seen whether they resort to such a blunt instrument.


Eric Ambler's Judgment on Deltchev, set in a fictitious southeast European country, alluded to nonfictitious May rains, some of which fell hard on Nova Gorica during the night. The morning TV news predicted more, but as I packed carefully for them, the sun broke through. It didn't matter either way, though, for blue indeed is the sky whose defense has been officially delegated to the Italian Air Force.

Within days of its admission to NATO, Slovenia wrestled with this very fact. Some legislators were very displeased: they accused government negotiators of incompetence and also unawareness of Slovene history. (Italy occupied the southern half of Slovenia during WWII; it was "liberated" when Italy changed sides.) The headlines puzzled me, though, since the word "airplanes" was used, not "air force." I thought maybe there was some doubt whether the machine gun could be fired without hitting the propeller blade...but no, the objection was not to the hardware but to the citizenship of the guys flying it. To mollify lawmakers, the government observed that NATO has no air force all its own. Europeans are compulsive joiners, so it is not surprising that Slovenia didn't think to inquire too closely into NATO's credentials.

With Italy Slovenia is otherwise serene. There has been a border dispute with Croatia, though. When polled about possible fixes, many Slovenes picked "There is no solution." The option "War" was not provided. By the way, about a third of Slovenes think that joining NATO means they can either abolish their army or retain only a symbolic force. A map of NATO countries on rtvslo.si didn't even show the U.S.

Anyhow, back to the bike ride. If Slovenia didn't have "right on red" before, it does now, thanks to me. The roads were narrow. Traffic was speedy but polite: today's Slovene drivers, like yesterday's Italian drivers, swerved efficiently, with no honking or bullying. I had trouble only on a limited-access highway. Some cops pulled me over to enforce the limited-access part. We loaded my gear in the back of their truck, and they drove me to the nearest exit. "Take him to the shooting range," said the boss cop, and this was done. At a small dirt parking area, marked by a hand-lettered sign reading STRELIŠČE, I was let off, with a stiff warning, a conclusive handshake, and a promise of fine weather.

This is as good a place as any to observe that Slovenes, though Slavs, aren't particularly big. Making conversation, the boss cop noted a few are in the NBA, which by the way gets close coverage. (This is one duty of Slovene sportswriters. The other is to express deep surprise whenever the home team loses.) In his excellent book The Impossible Country, Brian Hall remarked that he was six-one and in Montenegro he was talking into men's shirt buttons. Like most books about Yugoslavia, however, Hall's had little to say about Slovenia, so let me say this: I'm five-six and in Slovenia I was talking into men's shirt buttons.

Be that as it may, the mention of the shooting range wasn't scary because I only decoded the word as I crunched up the long slope of the side road. I'd seen the root before, in the words for "to shoot down" and "to blow up." My Slovene was pure journalese. I couldn't talk to girls, but I could describe a crime scene. I needed all the practice and any kind of practice I could get. While it is exceptionally good Slavic-consonant drill to say "weapons of mass destruction" in Slovene, I hoped to do much better, even if much better only meant yelping "What!" at my captors.

All the aforementioned poll results, by the way, came from newspaper and television websites. Only four universities in North America offer courses in Slovene, so this is very nearly the only way to study the language outside Slovenia. Or inside Slovenia, for that matter: most Slovenes, like most Europeans, will not help you with their language. Why should they? They're multilingual. Even these cops, who clearly weren't finishing up their masters' degrees, could get through in my language. My trying to speak theirs amounted to a tedious stunt. Ignoring that stunt and giving the bare minimum response in good English, or German, or Italian, or Serbo-Croatian, Slovenes show lots of social skills without any social flair. In this sense, they are the exact opposite of Brazilians. This isn't always a good thing to be the exact opposite of.

I did the 80-odd miles to Koevje in seven hours, lunching on Coke and pistachios. Such restaurants as there were were closed on Monday. I passed through numerous villages, all in good repair, all empty. Everybody was at work or in school.


Still on the subject of law enforcement: the girl at the hotel in Koevje excused her request for my passport data by telling me the police checked hotel records. I suppose that if Europeans think terrorism is something you combat with police, not soldiers, this is why.

Koevje was tranquil, with or without hospitality audits, and had been from 1330 approximately to 1942 precisely. In all that time, it had been Gottschee, a German tile on a Slavic patio. My grandparents had been born and raised in the area, never learned Slovene, and left in 1921. Shortly before his death in 1938, my great-grandfather wrote to offer my grandfather the farm. Dad says his pop really, really thought about it, before definitely choosing America over Yugoslavia.

Way. To. Go.

On my first visit here, I marched out to roughly where my grandparents had lived, but the map was coarse and I misread it and I frankly didn't care. Lots of people can say My ancestors came from Europe but I can say I almost walked to Croatia by accident. With very few exceptions, all the old place-names, indeed all the old places, are gone. True, Schwarzenbach is now Črni Potok, a literal translation which I bring up for all the many German-speakers I know who think Slavic languages are German too. Note: they aren't. Anyhow, I did hike the fine mountains that overlook Koevje, landmarks my grandparents would still recognize, unlike the town itself, which is light-industrial and apartment-boxy.

Maybe it was very different in the days of the Kaiser, but Slovenes now seem unimpressed with the bigger pieces of Europe. I mention this here because certainly nobody in Koevje says Y'know, we're actually kinda German. They may like or even love the EU, but this is just a (currently advantageous) commercial arrangement - if there are any practicing Francophiles or Germanophiles in Slovenia, I missed them. The flag bears the traditional Slavonic colors, but it is flown modestly, and I scarcely thought to wonder about Pan-Slavism. In the last 99 years, has anyone wanted to be Russian? Prestige is a kind of male perfume; anyone in whom or for whom it increases confidence is guilty of bad taste and probably a lot of other things too; Slovenes appear to lack the crude energy that the exercise of bad taste demands.

I decided this the next morning, as I coasted across the pretty lowland to Dvor. I was ready to conclude that there are no Slovene hillbillies. And although there is no connection, I was also ready to conclude there are no Slovene pickup trucks.


Brežice was quiet time, time to decompose one's prejudices. Slavs mowing lawns - who'd'a thunk it? Asinine, but I thunk it. Another was This place needs winter. It just felt weird to be in eastern Europe and also in a flat sunny land. Where was the drama? Contemplating the full-orchestra dissonance of Laibach (a Slovene musical group), its disco beats, parody-patriotic recitations, and military getups, I could hear old Partisans snarling, "We bled in the snow for this?" They'd never snarl, "We crawled through the dandelions for this?"

Silly ideas. Now here's one that isn't. Aspiring Slavists, you have got to get the grammar right or nobody'll understand what you're talking about. Brežice isn't neuter singular, it's feminine plural. (And so is Jesenice, on the other side of Slovenia.) Asking about hotels "in Brežice," I used the wrong locative case ending, and it showed in the faces of my would-be informants. Who didn't tell me what I was doing wrong: I figured it out myself later, by reading a billboard.

Anyway, here I was in Brežice - all of them, I guess - after a brief but sunburning ride, an easy descent of the Krka and Sava river valleys. East of Novo Mesto, I'd seen Trdinov Vrh, one of the border areas disputed by Croatia. (Most of the others are in the Adriatic.) It was conspicuous, a mountain with a telecom tower on top and a helicopter hovering nearby. Later, I saw two military jets, trainers I think, landing somewhere on the opposite plain. I wasn't wishing for a war, but it was good to see frontier affairs in the hands of people more serious than online poll respondents. I'd considered pedaling to Zagreb, just 20 miles away, but my sore knee and my runny nose kept me on this side of the line, to everyone's relief I am sure.

Idling in a sidewalk café (my waitress had gone off duty without telling me), I just sat and stared through the piped music. I suppose if anybody had asked, I would have said, "Oh, I'm just counting the hours between my arrival in Europe and the first time I hear an ABBA song on the radio. Why? What're you doing?" Readers need not be told about Euro-pop music because it is inescapable and they have certainly already heard plenty of it. However, I feel I should give honorable mention to Macedonian music videos, which leak into Slovene airspace and are, like Macedonian TV in general, oddly ingratiating. It all seems to have been produced by very bright high school kids. If you were an art teacher, you'd be proud of them, and also wonder what they would do when they, and their country, grew up. They're adolescent, but in the very best sense of the word.

Macedonia, Croatia..."Yugoslavia" is still out there. Even at this range, however, it's barely visible: you have to imagine the acne and bad haircuts. In March, there were ructions in Kosovo. Albanians attacked some Orthodox churches, and French peacekeepers helped U.N. officials run away. The usual. Who cares? The Slovene news media had far more to say about flu in Thailand. In his Yugoslavia chapter in All The Trouble In The World, P.J. O'Rourke observed that most modern horrors are optional. I think Slovenes know that, have always known that. Perhaps this is their ancient virtue: Slovenes don't make bad moves. It doesn't sound like much, and it isn't, but think of all the dumps of this Earth where nobody ever got out of bed in the morning, flung open the window, and announced, "Today's the day we stop making bad moves."

To answer my last question: I did, but just a little. The travel agency next to the café had posters for Hvar, Dubrovnik, etc. One was in Serbo-Croatian. Quite a lot of local radio was in Serbo-Croatian. As far as I could tell, it was tame, uninfluenced by Laibach. Young people wouldn't be paying attention, as elementary-school instruction in this language ended when independence came. For some reason, though, Croatian TV was available all over Slovenia. Macedonian TV wasn't, but perhaps this was an artifact of the cable service one's hotel subscribed to. (When I wrote that last sentence, I knew it was a day well spent. Though he was stationed in Yugoslavia during the war, Evelyn Waugh could never have written that.)


North of Brežice, I wondered if all those tidy empty rural homesteads I'd seen my first day were really Ljubljana's suburbs. On that leg I'd been as close as twenty miles to the capital. On this leg I had true dirt farms, with true dirt farmers and true dirt smell too. I also had mountains and even a swamp, the word for which is not in my dictionary.

"Dacha" isn't in there either, but that's all right because neither Monday's country places, today's farms, nor any of the intervening vineyards - and there had been many of those, even though my Slovene primer warned that Slovene wine only gets good after several glasses - were dachas. These installations were bigger, mostly neater, and where the ag wasn't neat, it was businesslike. They weren't quaint, and they also weren't cheap sops from a politburo.

There is to this land no stately dust: if Slovenia were a book, the book's foreword could not have been written by Patrick Leigh Fermor. On the other hand, there is almost none of the ponderous crappiness of Communist achievement. Less than 24 hours after my first entry into the country, I conceived the idea of photographing Tito-era municipal sculpture; less than 72 hours after my first entry, I pretty much dropped the idea. There just wasn't that much delinquent hardware lying around.

The sight of Ptuj made me reconsider, though. If Slovenia ever gets a serious postcard industry up and running, it can pound out images of this compact medieval pile atop the Drava. Right away - before crossing the bridge, in fact - I could see it was not just ancient but old-within-memory too: stark small-windowed Communist architecture to go with stark small-windowed castle architecture. The former had a few more curves, a small but richly tacky flourish. All of it had the kind of decay that tells your nostrils Urine Any Minute Now. My hotel had a casino attached, for just the right tang of disreputability. Here, surely, would be Red Art.

There wasn't. And no pee, either. A totem pole dated 1986, and some kind of anguished mollusc of no stated vintage - that was it for the modern. More numerous were monuments to centuries past, military victories and a citywide fire. There were also a few imperial structures, giving the place some welcome (to me!) k.-u.-k. tone. I liked Ptuj. What's more, I could like it without having to admire it. Despite the splendid weather, I bypassed the outdoor pizzeria. The patrons were all on cellphones, and those who drank beer drank inferior Zlatorog. I found a snug indoor restaurant, and had a liter of Union.

One almost unique item: a bust of a local hero who'd lived from 1915 to 1966. Maribor, just up the road, had an erection to the memory of someone who died in 1953. But every other commemorated patriot had passed away during WWII. To those there were little roadside shrines here and there, almost always with candles and fresh flowers. You couldn't miss 'em.


Unless you tramped with the Partisan underground in WWII, you could not have had a long tour of Slovenia. As I said, it's the size of Massachusetts. And this hardly makes it exceptional. Portugal is the size of Indiana. Norway, way up there so to speak, is the size of New Mexico. Nobody in Austin has a sense of humor, but one person comes close with a bumper sticker that says "Texas - Bigger Than France." Tininess doesn't ensure impotence (the U.K. is the size of Oregon), but it should not surprise us when European countries act as puny as they look. When they forfeit defense of their own airspace and cease to print their own money, you can be pardoned for wondering whether they're even countries at all. They wonder themselves - that's why they cling so fiercely to the U.N. It is almost impossible for an American to imagine, but these places need the U.N., to remind themselves they technically exist. The proven fraudulence of this institution is utterly beside the point.

This all started with NATO, but the U.N. and the EU can be thrown in too, for all these outfits will extend membership to anyone whose motto is Calculation and defense of national interests would be inconsistent with our lifestyle. Now that Slovenia was physically shrinking - this final leg, to Murska Sobota, was in Pannonia, the plain where Hungary begins - I found myself even less aware that I was in it at all. To any number of local cyclists I'd waved; not one had acknowledged the greeting. I hadn't seen a single newspaper for sale. Some Slovenes complimented my Slovene, but extravagantly, and in English too. I could have learned more of the language staying at home.

Just about the only surviving token of nationhood was the currency, strangely enough. Euros were legal tender, but tolars hadn't yet been phased out, and they'd appreciated substantially, from about 275 to the dollar in February 2002 to a little under 200 now. Before leaving the U.S., I'd gathered up all the Slovene banknotes I'd been using as bookmarks. They were still worth something.

No regrets about the bicycling, though, even with today's chilly rain. The Raleigh shone, as perhaps it had dreamed of doing the day I'd bought it for $15 at Goodwill. I'd carried it home as if I'd rescued an unloved dog. Now look at us! And in this Soviet town, too: Victory Square actually had a monument, with legends in Russian as well as Slovene, and with a wreath from the Russia-Slovenia League, celebrating a joint defeat of Fascism. This had to have been stuck up in that special Triennium Of All-World Proletarian Lovie-Dovieness, though the wreath was new.

Funny how these things were relatively common at this end of Slovenia, the little knob that in WWII was occupied, not by Germans or Italians, but by Hungarians. Had there been something especially galling about that? Who's next...Gypsies!? I don't know. I also don't know why, in Radenci a few miles back, there was a street named after Nikola Tesla. He wasn't Slovene. And Slovene streets generally aren't named after anybody, unless you count "Partisan."

But Murska Sobota was otherwise not too stimulating, and I figured to lapse into one of those travel vacuums, one in which you're just standing there telling yourself, "Maybe a Slovene will walk right up to me and say I saw that cat collar around your pantleg and I thought here is a man who is serious about his bicycling." But that didn't happen, and so I looked at this land with so undistinguished a past and, entirely for the mental exercise, tried to imagine its future. Europe's future, actually: I pictured Germany having a taxpayer revolt about the same time it started rereading its Hegel. Remembering its uniquely, uh, kinetic history, and tiring of paying the rest of Europe to believe in German docility, the country might start to seethe. And then what? "Some damned thing in the Balkans..." But Slovenia isn't in the Balkans. Never was. Never will be. I suspended further meditation on Slovenia's future.

Until suppertime, anyway. A Slovene did approach me, in the person of a small boy on a bicycle. I was eating chicken and fries at an outdoor stand. He greeted me; I greeted him; he said something I didn't understand; I said, in Slovene, "I'm sorry, I don't understand. I'm not Slovene." Rightly disregarding this non sequitur, he pursued: would I give him 300 tolars? No. "Then loan it to me." Ah yes, that's what might be in store: a debt crisis. I refused terms. He asked for some food; I gave him the whole tray. Munching, he came down to a hundred, but I wouldn't budge.

I sipped my beer as he did in the food. Then I remembered my manners.

"Dober tek," I said. Bon appetit.

"Thanks," said the boy, his mouth full.

© 2004 J.A.Hutter

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