That is so Euro…

That is So Euro…

Identity

I think that perhaps I am a bit too self-conscious about being an American in Slovenia. It has nothing to do with concerns for my personal security. Slovenia is lovely, safe and the folks I have met here more than surpass what anyone would expect from a gracious host. My concern is personal and internal. It is my own frustration with inability to fully and richly communicate with the folks that I interact with everyday. It turns out that I am quite easily identified as an English speaker and on occasion pegged as American. Man, I gotta tell you, I give my best effort to pronounce Slovene as best I can. I walk into the market and in my best Slovene I greet the farmers selling fresh veggies. The folks in line in front of me offer their greetings, ask for veggies and then pay. Their entire transaction is in Slovene and to my great joy I even understand some of what they say. Then it is my turn. I am really focusing on my accent and give my best shot. “Dober Dan” (Good day) I say. The farmer working the stall says “welcome, what can I get for you?” Spoken in English. Wow, I really thought I had it nailed. HOW did he know? Clearly my accent says I am an English speaker.

The communication gap can be a challenge. Conversation is deliberate. Language is precise and body language is expressive. It is all in the hopes that my words will convey the full intention of my thoughts. But never say quit. I am going to keep working on learning the language. It is important to me and, it turns out, is meaningful to the Slovenes.

I must say, Slovenians really appreciate when you attempt to speak their language. They are genuinely flattered and appreciative of any attempts to use their language. Slovenia is a small country and Slovene is a language spoken by relatively few people. It is a far cry from Spain where many Spaniards speak only Spanish or France where they would prefer you just stick to English rather than butcher their language which is obviously one of the most beautiful spoken anywhere in the world. No, the Slovenes are very humble and when they hear foreigners speak their language they are quick with the acknowledgment of gratitude.

For Slovenes their language is the defining component of their culture. It is the foundation upon which their identity as a Slovenian is based. If you ask most Slovenes to describe their culture they will respond briskly that their art is shared, their music is shared, their cuisine is shared, but their language, their language is unique and has sustained the Slovene identity through over a millennia of incursion and foreign rule.

There are 4.2 million Slovene speakers worldwide. Of those 4.2 million only 2.4 million live in Slovenia. The diaspora of the Slovene language is rooted in a dark period in Slovenian history. One that is not a welcome topic of conversation.

Last September (2015) I was on a short visit to Slovenia. My friend Irena, a Slovenian geographer and mountain climber invited me to a birthday party that was taking place in the hills about 45km west of Ljubljana. The party was for four women who had been friends since university. Each had gone on to careers in academia. They had been close friends for 30 years and they were celebrating milestone birthdays. One of their colleagues, a highly regarded geology professor from the University of Ljubljana was the host and he would be our tour guide for a long hike in the surrounding hills. The Karst landscape where we would be walking was his domain and also the area of his geological expertise. We had a wonderful walk and a lengthy discussion on the landscape, the geology, the caves and the vegetation. At one point I noticed hidden behind some bushes up on a hillside a small memorial. I quietly split from the group to get a closer look. It was a cement block about 40 cm square with a bright red star on it. There were words written in Slovene but of course I had no idea what they said. I ambled back to the group and asked the professor if he knew what the memorial was. He told me it was a memorial to a fallen soldier but he abruptly turned his back to me and continued providing his geological narrative.

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This is a memorial to a fallen Communist Partians is larger than most I have seen.

Irena, meanwhile heard me ask my question of the professor. She pulled me aside and told me that the memorial and the events surrounding it were a taboo subject in Slovenia and not spoken about publicly. Most Slovenes, she said still harbored very strong feelings about the events associated with the memorial. Later during the walk, the professor, in a very gentle manner, and with absolutely no animosity toward me said that the memorial had no place in Slovenia. Those memorialized were traitors he said. The calm demeanor with which he spoke his words was betrayed by the intensity in his eyes. A reply to my inquiry was something he needed to give me, however brief and cryptic. I unintentionally brought up the topic and it ignited something deep inside. I could not tell what it was. Hurt, anger betrayal, deception. I was not sure, perhaps all of those things, but the emotion maybe even the memories lingered and the emotions were as strong as ever. This professor is about 65 years old.

The global diaspora of the Slovene language is largely the result of the horrific events that took place beginning May 1945 near the end of World War II. Slovenia, then part of Yugoslavia was occupied by the German Nazis and the Italian Fascists but the Communists, who at the time were tenuously allied with the British and the Americans, were quickly driving out the Germans and Italians. Up to that point it had appeared that Hitler would be victorious in his pan-European campaigns. The Slovenes were divided between the two invaders. This division resulted in a Slovenian civil war. It was a war within a war and the line between good and evil, right and wrong were blurred and without distinction.

The two sides were the Domobranci (the Home Guard) who were primarily Catholic, and the Partisans. The Domobranci sided with the Italians and Germans despite being mistreated by them. In fact the Italian constructed a fence around Ljubljana to keep the partisans from communicating with compatriots outside of the city. The Partisans sided with the Communists. In the Germans the Dombranci saw an opportunity for cultural self-preservation as the Germans were likely to allow Slovenians plenty of autonomy once the war was over. They were also absolutely opposed to communist rule. The Partisans on the other hand saw great potential in Communist rule and Marshall Tito who was extremely charismatic had risen to power in Yugoslavia and was strongly aligned with the Communists.

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The city of Ljubljana constructed a beautiful walking trail along the entire perimeter of Ljubljana where the Italians once had their fence. It is also known as “The Path of Remembrance”

As the Communists continued to drive out the Italians and Germans the Slovene Catholics learned that Tito intended to eliminate any threat to Communist rule. This meant the elimination of the Catholics and the Domobranci. In late May 1945 Catholic Slovenes fled their homes in Slovenia for Austria, many never returned.

In Austria they were settled in refugee camps. The British, who were allied with the Communists wanted to remain on good terms with Marshall Tito. They did not want the soldiers of the Domobranci to return to Slovenia to rejoin the Nazis and Fascists to fight against the Communists. The British told the Domobranci that they were going to send them to a resettlement camp in Palmanova, Italy. Instead they were returned to Slovenia, delivered to Tito and summarily slaughtered. 12,000 Slovenes were killed in a matter of days by fellow Slovenes. Brothers, fathers, sons set against one another. It was a time of great confusion. Alliances, both the Domobranci and the Partisans were based on their best hopes for self preservation. To be sure, the Domobranci are estimated to have killed anywhere from 4,000 to 14,000 Partisans in their attempts to keep Slovenia free from Communism. But it the sheer brutality of the Domobranci genocide that resonates still throughout Slovenia. The red star on the cement block is a memorial to a fallen Partisan. I have randomly encountered more of those memorials on hikes and bike rides. Their locations are random, scattered but ubiquitous.

Most of the Slovenes that fled to Austria never returned to Slovenia but dispersed across the globe settling heavily in Great Britain (who by June 1945 had dramatically changed their course of action toward the Slovenes), Canada, Argentina and the United States. The stories of many of those emigrants is fascinating. Their industriousness and resourcefulness is reflected in the amazing contributions they made and continue to make in their new communities.

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Slovenia is an incredibly beautiful country. Slovenians have much to be proud of.

Being Slovenian is an identity that is defined by language. There are nearly two million people who, by virtue of their language, consider themselves Slovenian. Many of those people have never been to Slovenia. Such is the power of language.

My grasp of the language is limited but if I can use their language to find a deeper connection with the people who have so obligingly welcomed me I will make every attempt to do so.

Hvala za branje  (Thank you for reading)

Na zdravje (Cheers)

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That Is So Euro…

Winter here in Slovenia has yet to decide whether it wants to stay, go or whether it has even arrived. December and January were somewhat cold but mild by historical standards. On most days we walk outside with a warm jacket, hat and gloves. On the warm days I found myself wearing only a sweater and relishing the sunshine. There have only been two episodes of snowfall in the city that have had any lasting impact. When I say lasting I mean the snow stuck around for maybe a week at best, a bit longer in shaded spots.

The skiing early in the season left something to be desired. Most of the runs were on man-made snow. But leave it to the Austrians (our ski pass is for Austria), they are absolute masters at managing their ski resorts and making the most of what little snow they might have. At most areas the groomed runs were perfect to ski from the morning opening to the last run down at the end of the day. We just forced ourselves to avert our eyes from the edges of the ski runs. On either side all we would see was dirt and rocks. It was difficult to imagine how the areas off the runs could possibly receive enough snow to make them skiable.

By the time we reached the beginning of February the massive array of dark brown and rocky patches found themselves covered in a thin veneer of white. Still not enough to ski on but the image was encouraging. By the time we hit Valentine’s Day winter had delivered. The mountains in Austria were blooming with vast open and snow covered terrain. It was difficult to imagine that only a few short weeks prior the same gullies and chutes were rocks, bushes and scree. In Slovenia as well the snow has provided a bounty and the mountains were beaming with massive bright white peaks. Their nature and profiles transformed by layer upon layer of snow.

We took a trip up to our “local” mountain last week. The name of the ski area is Krvavec. It is set up in the mountains about 35 minutes from Ljubljana. It is a relatively small operation, only a few lifts, but it serves a huge variety of amazing terrain. Lots of steeps, lots of side chutes (if you know where to look), and really good snow. In a lot of ways it reminds us of Snowbowl. The folks that ski there are from town, they know each other, they want to share a good time but mostly they are seeking every last bit of fresh powder. Krvavec even has its own version of Star Wars Iconolgy.

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Krvavec has its own Star Wars iconology. It looks like a communication tower from Echo base on the Ice planet of Hoth.
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The entire northern boundary of Krvavec is a 500m cliff band. Yes, its pretty well fenced off.

The last two weeks have delivered a steady stream of big snowfalls to Slovenia and Austria. We have taken every advantage to make fresh track in the deep powder. Fortunately for all of us the kids were on winter break last week. It was mostly raining in Ljubljana but snowing up in the mountains. Rather than getting soaking wet on long walks in the hills we decided it would be best for our mental health to his the slopes. We managed to ski 6 out of 9 days of their break.

Back in Ljubljana it has been a matter of waiting for the gaps between rain storms to get out on the bike and ride. He period between rain is so small that even if it is not raining the roads are still pretty wet all the time. Riding in the rain or on wet roads is something I used to do with out a second thought. These days I have gone soft. The idea of getting wet and feeling soggy while riding does not appeal to me. I will trade a wet ride for coffee and croissant at the local café anytime. Even though I have made my best effort to avoid riding when there is the slimmest of chance of rain I still find myself returning home from a ride covered with a thin film of road grime. My bike is also covered in its fair share of grime. My chain grinds away with the sound of grit churning through the links. Each time I grab the brakes I can hear my brake pads scouring the sidewalls of my rims like a rough stone against metal. It is not a pleasant sound.

After the ride comes the maintenance. Wow, being at MBW on a nearly daily basis I have really taken for granted the ease and flexibility I have to work on my bike. Even at home I can put the portable bike stand out, rinse off the bike, dry it and get it back to a presentable condition. Here in Ljubljana, things are very different. I have no bike stand and only rudimentary tools. Our apartment building does not have a water spigot in front or in back. What this has meant it that I carry two buckets down three flights of stairs. One with water to rinse the bike and one with warm soapy water. It is a funny sight. My bike I hang on the clothes lines that are strung up in the courtyard in the back of the apartment building. The unfortunate thing is that One bucket of rinse water is sometimes not quite enough but I really don’t want to walk all the way back upstairs fill the bucket and then walk back down. Call me lazy, the worst I’m going to do is agree with you.

We have for years offered basic bike maintenance classes at MBW. In those classes we discuss very simple and very efficient ways of keeping your bike and drive train clean. Brushes, sponges, soap, and water. That is all I need. But, wow, I would love to have my bike in the stand, with a water hose and an air compressor. I’m not comaining, OK, I a complaining a little bit but that is only because I have been so spoiled for so long. My bike is looking good but it is a funny sight cleaning a bike that is hanging from a clothes hanger.

I had to find a new bike lube for my chain. I have been using Dumond Tech chain lube for a while and I love it. It is probably the best lube I have tried and I have grown quite comfortable with it. I went to my favorite local bike shop and asked for a recommendation. They gave me a lube that they said was their preferred lube. Trying new lube, for me, is like trying out a new brand of jeans when you already know that which pair of Levi’s you like. I have been riding the new lube for a while. It is good stuff, not quite like Dumonde Tech but it is good. The folks at my local bike shop have been really good to me. You can’t beat your local bike shop for keeping your bike rolling.

Getting out on the road bike is a great way to explore small side roads out in the countryside that I would not have reason to explore by car. Small side roads meander up narrow out of the way valleys. Along the way the roads pass through small villages where it appears that the pace of life and the daily routine have not changed in decades. Old farm houses and barns are spread out across the valley surrounding the village. The only obvious indication that I am still in the twenty first century are the satellite dishes on some of the houses. Despite some of the relatively remote locales I have explored I find that the roads are almost always in great condition. Smooth, clear of debris and great for riding. But that is not always the case. Everyone once in a while I wander on to a random side road with an unknown destination. Curiosity being the driving factor. Usually those roads are in good condition but every once in a while I find a road that makes even the worst roads in Montana look like new pavement. My Cannondale Super Six has been a great companion on these roads. Shameless plug, but my bike while designed to be a world class race bike is still comfortable enough to smooth out some pretty rough roads.

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Sometimes the roads are not perfect…
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Sometimes they are.

Only in the last week of February have I noticed that perhaps winter has relented and spring has arrived. The locals give a good indication of this transition. I have noticed that the fields are newly ploughed. Green is returning to the fields and hillsides, road crews are clearing dirt and debris from drainage ditches and one of my favorite locals has returned to town. I was out for a hike up to the castle with one of my kids and we came across a hillside covered in bright colorful purple crocuses announcing their arrival.

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This is always a welcome sight this time of year.

Perhaps spring will finally assert itself in March. Until then my seasonal indecision will be split between putting on the skis or getting out on the bike. At least I have a decent method of keeping my bike clean.