The Long Goodbye
Almost seven months ago I found myself in the center of a city that traces its roots to a time well before the Roman empire. Ljubljana has been at the crossroads of European and Asian trade routes for several Millenia. History and lore are rich in this city with dragons featuring as prominently as the mountains that surround the valley. The Ljubljana we were introduced to was draped in lights and Christmas decorations. The city center was packed with people each night. The smell of kuhano vino – warm mulled wine – filled the air. This looked like a fun town.
Our introduction was festive but being new it was easy to feel anonymous. The culture and normal demeanor of the people we encountered did not help to diminish that sense of anonymity. People tend to keep to themselves, their eyes directed forward, even on the bus I would rarely make eye contact with people. The city felt cold, the people in the city seemed distant. It was easy to worry that it would be seven months of being outsiders, separate from the folks who called Ljubljana and Slovenia home.
Our kids felt the same, well except for my daughter. Within days she was hanging out with “friends” as if they had know each other since kindergarten. The boys hated school. They didn’t have friends, they felt excluded and they missed home. For a couple of months we heard only complaints and dread. I wasn’t dreading each day but I also didn’t have any friends that I could meet up with either.
But slowly things changed. We met a few people that we would spend time with. Our kids came home from school asking if they could go to a friend’s house and the anonymous faces that I passed on the street began to look occasionally familiar. The blank forward looks turned to the occasional wave or greeting. The cold hard edge that I felt had rounded and softened. The owner of the corner cafe would always wave. When I sat at one of his tables he was eager to engage.
The city was opening up to us. We were not just visitors, we were part of the activities and daily life in Ljubljana. The farmers at the vegetable stand that I frequented watched as my Slovene language skills slowly improved. I even received a compliment. One of the farmers told me she was impressed at how well I was now speaking Slovene. Ironically though, she said it all in Slovene and I had to sheepishly admit to her that I didn’t understand quite what she said. The fruit seller, a big Macedonian guy was always ready to toss in one extra pear or apple when he saw me. “My Friend,” he would say, “take this it is sweet and you will love it.”
Eventually, I would say, the city embraced us. Ljubljana now feels like home. Our kids were involved in basketball, drumming, voice lessons, skiing. It was much like life in Missoula except in a different language. After these many months I no longer feel like an outsider. We take short trip up in to the mountains or south to the Adriatic and return “home”. We all call Ljubljana home and consider it home.
Change can be frightening and difficult but it can also challenge a person’s ability to understand themselves and others. Moving to a new country provides a great opportunity to learn experience a new language, new food, new routines to the day and all the things that comprise culture. It has also offers an opportunity to redefine one’s self. I landed in Ljubljana with a clean slate, anonymous as I was. Everyone I met was new to me and I was new to them. How did I want to be perceived? What did I want them to know abut me? Would I make a positive impression on them?
My bike helped introduce me to a whole new community of people around Slovenia and Italy. These are folks with whom I would not normally meet, but our shared enjoyment with riding bikes provided the introduction. On my bike I feel at home, I am in my comfort zone. I was very fortunate here to meet up with a great group of folks of various backgrounds that are all part of a local cycling club. They have been exceedingly welcoming. I join them regularly for rides during the week and on the occasional weekend. The same was true in Italy. A random ride by myself exploring unfamiliar roads let to meeting a group of folks that ride together regularly. Their nature was all Italian, friendly, outgoing, welcoming and more than happy to be a tour guide. Man, I can’t help but love this place.
And now it is time to leave. I don’t want to say goodbye just yet.The last couple of weeks since the kids got out of school has been a whirlwind of sightseeing and being a tourist again. Trips to the mountains, trips to the sea, visiting towns and sights that have been on our list of places to tour. The list is longer than out remaining time here but we are making the most of it. We are packing in the activities and doing our best to make the most of our remaining time here. We should be good and exhausted by the time we get on the plane.
Most important is saying goodbye to our new found friends. As difficult as it was for our kids to make new friends, saying goodbye is turning out to be just as difficult. They talk about seeing each other again but it is clear from the tone in their voices and the looks in their eyes they all know it is unlikely. So their play resumes as if they will all be here together in Ljubljana far into the future, trying not to think of the inevitable.
I got out for one last big Hurrah! with the local cycling club. Every year they do a big ride around the northwest corner of Slovenia, The route goes through Triglav National Park and over a couple of big climbs. The ride is 230Km long. It is a full day on the saddle. The pace was casual but not slow. It was conversation pace and the group was full of conversation.
We had a couple of follow vehicles with us carrying spare wheels and extra gear. Quite a luxury. The follow van even had a speaker attached to the front that played a non-stop stream of music. Traditional Slovene music, Balkan pop music, English language oldies, rock and pop. It was quite a mix and very entertaining. This was a ride and not a race for sure. It included plenty of stops for snacks and drinks including two longer stops at a cafés. I stuck with water and Cockta – Slovene version of Coca-Cola but better – and the the Slovenes, well they opt for beer! Not just a small beer but a beer the way they normally serve them around here. I am not sure how they do it.
I think the beer gives them strength because on the last big climb of the day I found myself barely able to hang on to a pace that seemed to be increasing constantly. I may have to re-think how I hydrate.
The day ended with a great picnic that included baked fish that was caught in the local rivers. Sixty plus people enjoying the day, enjoying another beer and occasionally remembering that I only speak a few words of Slovene.
Thank you Slovenia. Thank you for helping make your country feel like our home. Thank you for the unique warmth and beauty that defines Slovenia. “It is small but beautiful”. That phrase is like a Slovene tag line. We hear it very often when we talk to people about their country. But it is true. High alpine mountains, rivers, seaside, vineyards, forests. There is a little bit of everything in a compact package. I hope we will be back. There is still so much to see and do. So many memories still to be made. Fortunately we are leaving with a memories that will last a lifetime. And maybe, with a bit of luck, we will reconnect with old friends. But we are not ready to say good bye yet! We are still here for a little while and so I am off to find one more adventure today. Time to make a couple more memories. Missoula, we will see you soon.