That is So Euro…
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.
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.
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.
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)