On my thirtieth birthday I ate a pound of steak. On my fortieth I changed hotels. I was in Amazonia and I changed hotels. For my fiftieth, I would be in the Julian Alps, walking, close to the place where, almost exactly 89 years earlier, my grandfather was captured by the Italians and held for a year after the Armistice. If a cease-fire means anything more than ceasing fire, it means madly scooping up all the chips that are still on the poker table and daring anyone, in his exhaustion, to contradict your ownership of them. My grandfather didn’t, and seemed never to have borne Italy any grudge.
None of this was planned, but my fiftieth birthday did happen to fall on the observed Veterans’ Day (ours, not Austria-Hungary’s), and I had wanted to take another walking tour of Slovenia, and nobody I knew was overly sick or infirm, so I could get away for a bit. That’s what really distinguishes a 50th birthday from a 40th: the awareness of luck, yours and that of many other people. It took several charmed lives to let me be here. If you reach 50 and you don’t have people back home to worry about, then all I can say is, "50 of what?"
In front of a Ljubljana boutique one gray February morning I saw a sign that read Ljubezen je v zraku. In English, this is "Love is in the air." This datum alone proves the superiority of English over Slovene.
Nevertheless, Slovene, and all Slavic, attracts as no other languages do. (Arabic actually sounds great, but is any Arab anywhere trying to convince you of this?) Robert Kaplan published not long ago a gracefully slim volume on his early travels around the Mediterranean, and he wrote of what an invigorating shock it was to arrive by boat in Yugoslavia and see, cold, all those alien syllables. Well, that's how it was for me this time. I'd arrived by train, from Munich, and in the Jesenice station the words Vstop strogo prepovedan were like stepping on an electric doormat. It mattered not at all that the door was insignificant, the words were above it, and they meant merely "Entry strictly prohibited."
Jesenice is in the far northwest corner of Slovenia, and in point of fact I probably shouldn't have entered it: bus and rail connections to the Soa River, or the Isonzo to use its better-known Italian name, were poor, and there were no hotels. But hey! It's Slavic! It seems a conflation of Jasenovac and Lidice, two Famous Atrocity Venues. It isn't at all, but it does remind us that Slavic mostly means ominous. Later that evening, in the congenial dining room of a fine little hotel in nearby Lesce, I thought of how this must oppress. Countries need named refuges that are also frontiers - "California," "New York," "Alaska," "Hawaii," and so on. Whether or not you really mean it, you have to be able to say, at any time, "Forget it, I'm just dropping everything and lighting out for ___." Most countries have no such facilities. (I guarantee you Brazilians don't fill in the blank with "Amazonia," nor do Canadians with "the Yukon.") Worse, they know they don't have them. That has got to hurt.
There are things you always say on your first arrival in a foreign country. Here they both are: "Maybe the beer is good" and "Maybe the girls are pretty." And there are the things you always say on every arrival in certain foreign countries. Being the age I am, I always say in Moslem countries, "Wow, I still can’t believe Cat Stevens cashed it all in for this." And in Slovenia, I always say, "Wow, I am so relieved no one here looks like me." (It has happened elsewhere, though. And when it has, I have always said, "Man, I have got to get a better haircut.")
I was still relieved, but this time it was never even close: on my Monday hike, I saw no one, or at least no one’s hair - five or six European cars were all I saw, and when you stuff a Slav inside one, the coiffure is pretty much squashed into the ceiling. A quick train back to Jesenice, a quick bus out to Kranjska Gora, then a five-minute dead end. There was no transportation to Bovec, where I’d proposed to begin my descent of the Soa. A sign indicated that I’d missed the last bus by 3½ months. But another sign indicated I might hike at least to Vrši, the problematic pass in these mountains. "These mountains" were sharply beautiful, far taller and steeper than anything else in this country, and so, rather than turn back and kill a day figuring out an alternate route to Bovec, I decided on the spot to drop the original project and just get walking. I bought a bottle of water and a chocolate bar, declining a trail mix bluntly named in German Studentfutter, which I’d translate as "Doesn’t make ‘em smarter, just makes ‘em bigger." Thus equipped, I plunged in.
It was exactly the right thing to do, a 13-mile, 4-hour roundtrip, to a place that was not only at 5000 feet but had a vowel/consonant ratio of 0.25 - find one thing wrong with that! Ladies, trust me on this one: yours is a great birthday if the sun is bright and you’ve got snowflakes in your beard. Officially, my 50th birthday is to be annotated thus: I saw a beachball in the Alps. It was green and white, and rocked gently on the snow, preternaturally spilling the wind.
There was a hiking path out here, but I followed the paved road, which twisted nowhere but up and was not good at all for buses. Nor for about 300 of the 10,000 Russian POW’s who helped build it during WWI: they were wiped out in an avalanche. Slovenia renamed this the Russian Road, a nice gesture and nothing more, I am sure - negotiations over a gas pipeline to the Gulf of Piran could not have been influenced, because what Russian is sentimental when money’s in the air? Less nice was the little chapel Slovenia recently built. Perhaps when the wood weathers, it’ll look less like a toy. Next to that was a low gray obelisk from a far earlier age. On it was a simple Russian inscription: To the sons of Russia.
At the time I thought it actually said To the sons of the Russias, but while Russian grammar is very close to that of Slovene, it is not identical, so I had to stop musing on when, exactly, Russia "achieved singularity." Anyway, it was tasteful and spoke of bygone greatness. A monument like this could not be built today - not anywhere, not at all. If there were a dolmen at Gitmo, it would say, "We Got Fat And Complained."
That Europe is full of Nazis is, I believe, beyond question. One wonders, though, if it is also full of Serbs. Not "people from Serbia," I mean, but people who, like Serbs, view Moslems in any number as an intolerable security threat. On mladina.si a while ago I read of a group calling itself the Slovene Eagles: it had supposedly issued death threats to Ljubljana city councilmen who were of a mind to allow the construction of a mosque. (Which, the last I heard, had not been constructed.) I do not know how much illegal political violence Slovenia is capable of, but I am fairly certain that most news outlets would never report it, and I am also fairly certain that the reason they would suppress such news is that its spirit might just catch on. Slovene journalism promotes Islam the way American journalism promotes Islam, which is the way American journalism used to promote the U.S.S.R.: Russians, it insisted, were White Like Us.
Which may itself completely explain why Slavs fascinate. Except neither Russians nor Moslems are like us, plus Moslems aren’t even white, except Yugoslav ones, and we know what Serbs thought of them. Establishment journalists plow on all the same. In the Slovene pulp media, as in the American pulp media, you’ll never find "Islam: Psychotic Death-Cult Or Bad Lifestyle Choice?" But I wonder if you’ll find it - quite a lot of it - elsewhere.
There are a few Serbs in Slovenia, or at least people whose surnames end in , a letter not proper to Slovene. I haven't knowingly met any, but next door to my hotel was a Serbian restaurant. The guy checking me in told me that, and added that it wasn't very good - "greasy." I went anyway, and duly noted the evapii, whose Turkish equivalents are indeed that. (Just a guess, but Serbo-Croatian may be the only Western language to have borrowed significantly from Turkish.) Then I ordered spaghetti with Bolognese sauce, and it was OK. The waitress looked like my graduate school advisor, and seemed surprised to receive a tip.
This was in Most na Soi. It had taken a lot of the rest of my birthday to get here - a bad connection from bus to train, then a bad walk from train to town. The latter was only a mile, but on a winding road with fast traffic, no shoulder, and no lights at all in the darkness. Luckily I had one of those LED armbands, which I usually use as an ankle strap when bicycling to work. Perhaps every Slovene who missed me by a foot looked exactly like me - we’ll never know.
I decided to spend two nights here. Just hike the ten miles down to Kanal, then choo-choo back in time for lunch. Do laundry. Let it dry. Sit on my balcony facing straight up this tight valley, and elevate my feet. Read, maybe. I’d picked up a copy of Žurnal24, which was interesting for its price: zero. The website of Delo, a newspaper you still have to pay for, tut-tutted. It made condescending comments about people to whom ads in such a paper might appeal.
This, from a paper that had once carefully informed me about World Puppet Day. Slovenia’s mainstream media love it when UNESCO gives them something to do. On World Puppet Day delo.si had a picture of a big puppet posing with Dario Fo. You know - the 1997 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. That Dario Fo. I was delighted to learn that it took only eight years for someone this exalted to wash up on an eastern European website. Like ol’ John Donne said, "a torment not threatened in hell itself."
The San Antonio Spurs used to have two Slovenes; they have now two Argentines; they have had a Turk; the Cleveland Cavaliers have a Brazilian and a Turk and a Lithuanian, and so on. I believe this internationalism began in the '80's, when players from what was then Yugoslavia were appearing. I think that speaks volumes about a sport about which I myself have nothing to say: Basketball is a game to which Yugoslavians lent tone. Anyway, I never had seen a basketball court in Slovenia. My idea of having an idea about Slovene basketball is observing that "Rašo Nesterovi" and "Tennessee Tuxedo" scan the same.
In Most na Soi I did at least observe a basketball net. I was the only hotel guest, the night staff had forgotten about me, and while trying to break out - I was locked in - I noticed the hoop out back.
At last a housekeeper showed up. By then I’d found a key and let her in, which appeared not to surprise her. Soon I got breakfast, and paid up, and was on my way. To Kobarid, a/k/a Karfreit, a/k/a Caporetto. Just about every town in this part of Slovenia had three names. The best way to keep track of them is to read John Biggins’s novels of WWI. Maybe the best things to read about WWI are these novels. The narrator is an Austrian naval officer (yes), and his account of himself is amusing, informed, sympathetic to all around him, and - unlike WWI itself - has a plot. There really is no figuring out WWI, even when you are there where it happened.
Kobarid was up the Soa; Kanal was down it; I say these things because they are evident and because "up" and "down" this river ought to be the whole story. The Soa itself is a shimmering green, the poetic lime in limestone, and not especially wide or deep, but the mountains on either side of it are very steep and in most places surge right up to the river’s edges. This ought to be a natural frontier. It isn’t. Above Nova Gorica it is in Slovenia, and below this city it is in Italy, and that is that. In WWI the forces of Generals Cadorna and Boroevic swarmed "right" and "left" as much as "up" and "down," and a front that should have been settled instantly by geology was made to move through one dull muscular policy reflex after another.
From Tolmin up to Kobarid there was in fact some wiggle room, a broader valley where I could see traffic well ahead and step aside easily. The safety was not unwelcome, but I missed teetering on the edge of things.
Just out of Tolmin, a woman pulled over and offered me a ride. You never know what you really sound like, but I went ahead and said raje grem peš, "I prefer to go on foot," because it was true and I knew no other way to phrase it. In English it sounds frosty at best, but in Slovene it made the woman smile with genuine understanding, and I was relieved I had caused no offense.
Somewhere in this composition I was going to say something about "DeCecco girls." Like the picture on the pasta box. Healthy as horses, and a rack and a half. Gallantry prevents me from mentioning it here. Or anywhere, really. The Italian border is where it is for a reason. I better drop this subject right now.
Kobarid was not simply "on the river" but also "by a mountain" and "by a plain," so it had naturally received a lot of the wrong kind of attention in WWI, and I felt obliged to visit its war museum. I am pretty sure my grandfather was in none of the photographs. He was definitely not with Tito and Nasser in 1960 (this was not just a war museum but a Kobarid museum), nor was he on hand for the big earthquake of 1976 (Slovenia has quite a lot of seismic activity). I found these more "modern" images the more captivating, because there are lots of people who still think 1960 and 1976 are modern and you can always be excused for laughing at them. Back to the war, I spent time on the visitors’ log, flipping through, seeing who’d been here. Just eight days previously, a Brazilian had been in town. In Portuguese she wrote of her grandfather who had fought here. I struggled to extract her name from her elaborate signature, but was unsuccessful.
On a "Today in History" feature on a Slovene news website, I read about Andrija Mohorovii and understood, at last and precisely, how Eastern Europe and South America differed. The two places aren’t really the opposite of each other, and when I toil to compare them, which is more frequently than most sensible people would think possible, I do so chiefly because these happen to be the regions I know best. Yet with Mohorovii, I finally had two nearly equal masses on the ends of one seesaw.
Mohorovii started out as a meteorologist in Croatia, in Austro-Hungarian employ, which is funny all on its own: "in the name of the Emperor, I see which way the wind blows in the provinces." But he got interested in seismology, and his considerable discovery was that waves emanating from an earthquake’s epicenter occur in two distinct sets, one traveling faster than the other. They do this because some move through the Earth’s crust and others move through lower layers; or to put it another way, the Earth has a crust and lower layers, and there is a discontinuity - the Mohorovii Discontinuity - between the two.
Mohorovii’s switch from the air to the ground was self-managed, as was, I believe, his mastery of several languages - Czech, German, Greek, English. A snoozing Slavic place produced a great polymath. And that is what you don’t see in, say, Brazil. Brazil looks frantic and is, yet one-on-one, its citizens come across as perfectly, honorably, and exclusively earthly.
Slovenia’s citizens, meanwhile, weren’t coming across at all - so maybe they were all in their kitchens, building Tesla coils with nanotechnology? It’ll take a better man than me to find out. Suffice it to say that on my walk to the Italian border, the country seemed even emptier than usual. In Robi, I did see a basketball court. When General Cadorna was here, perhaps he inspected the troops, sank a few free throws, and vamoosed before all the Slovenes finally woke up.
Plan 1.0 - I’d say I was up to about 2.2 by now - had been to follow the Soa all the way, but as soon as I’d got a look at the road to Italy, I’d decided at once to do some "left" myself, and vector away from Kobarid. In the trees that lined this old two-lane for a good three miles, the sun sparkled and the wind roared. They just don’t have bad weather in Slovenia. Impractical? Maybe. But bad - esthetically maladapted? No. Never.
Robi was at about the 3-mile point. Then the road swung more explicitly Italy-ward, between the mountains that defined the Nadiža valley - just the sort of broad, flat, watered platform you’d need to pour troops into the Habsburg Empire, or (as happened in the 12th battle of the Isonzo) back out into the Friulian Plain. I myself was going both ways. The idea was really just to kill time before the bus ride to Ljubljana, and this ten-mile roundtrip made for a splendid morning.
As on my approach to the Croatian border the last time, the very air seemed to get cautious, baleful. Then a little car shot by me, distancing itself from something as quickly as possible, and to the empty valley I loudly played the skeptical sadistic cop. "Whatcha got in the trunk, sonny? A little contrabando, hmm?" I don’t know if there even is such a thing as smuggling between EU members. But while I idled about twenty yards short of the line, just enjoying this big lonely scene, a Slovene official did come out and check up. Was I a Slovene citizen? How did I know the language?
But he was polite. In slow English he said, "I have to look." I said, "You should!"
When I visited Swaziland in 1995, it never occurred to me that twelve years later there might be "websites," that this country would have at least one, and that I’d look at it. But all this came to pass, and when it did, I was surprised at how little had changed. I’d enjoyed Swaziland, yet then and now I felt the only thing that ever varied there was the dust-to-mud ratio, and then only between 0.49 and 0.51. I assume, carelessly, that Mexico owns the franchise on crumminess (as distinct from filth, grime, and sewage), but surely Africa has and preserves a piece of the, uh, "action."
The funny thing is that the Slavic world, what little of it I have seen, doesn’t. Where have I been? Odessa, Kiev, Grodno, Warsaw, Rijeka, Opatija, and pretty much all of the Big Slo. I still expect Communist ineptitude, in both style and substance. And I still don’t get it. All these places have at least looked great (and as long as Europe is eye candy, it will be taken as formidable).
In the Ljubljana station the fat old timeserver was breezy in English on my prospects for an easy train ride back to Munich, even though the e-mail printout taped to her window made it clear in Slovene that the German railway strike was NOT going to be over and it WAS going to thwart international traffic before I showed up. Back at the hotel, I got right on the ‘Net and made a plane reservation, and when I found I couldn’t print it, the girl at the desk instantly suggested I have it e-mailed straight to the hotel itself, which would print it for me. This was done. Later, walking out to Tivoli Park to enjoy the cold autumn sun, I reflected on how no Brazilian hotel clerk could ever have thought of, or been talked into, receiving and passing on that e-mail.
Thus my last full day in Slovenia, this time around. As on all other times around, I successfully avoided polenta. And as on all other times around, I have no idea why I’d ever return, but I always seem to have thought of a good reason. Reading an ad on the side of a passing bus, I learned that "An apple a day keeps the doctor away" rhymes in Slovene, and history has shown that it's morsels like that that just keep me coming. But forget Žurnal24: it told me today was World Tolerance Day. All I can say is: oh yeah?
© 2007 J.A.Hutter