Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, makes you wonder what lies beneath your feet. The Divje Babe Flute, a bear bone pierced with spaced holes was found here. It might have been a Neanderthal toy from sixty thousand years ago, or it might have been one of the world’s oldest musical instruments.
Slovenia, a country of two million people, declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. The long war that followed lasted just ten days here, then going on to the other regions and lasting several years. Without as many territorial disputes as its Balkan neighbours, and blessed with a diverse natural landscape and geography, Slovenia could retain its resources and focus on building itself as a nation.
A summer evening in Ljubljana is as you would expect to find it – people spilling on to the streets, then resting – their chairs moving with the last rays of the sun.
The city’s architecture suggests the influence of both the Roman and the Habsburg empires. But the influence of one architect is prevalent. Though centuries apart, Jože Plečnik was to Ljubljana what Christopher Wren was to London – bridges connecting the square and the old town, the summer theatre, birch trees lining the river, the promenade in Tivoli park – Plečnik was alive everywhere.
The night was warm and everyone was outside, including the city’s musicians. A group of men sang old folk songs in harmony. A big Jazz band played in the park as their audience tapped their feet or danced to the beat. One woman separated herself from the masses, her eyes raised up to the skies, moving with no particular grace but with much joy. A man at the other side was dancing too. I watched them a while, two strangers in a trance, a few feet apart, lost in the same music.
Before my trip, I became obsessed with a sample in a song by a Slovenian band called YGT. The band didn’t know what the sample was but told me it was an Iranian aunty of a friend. After much searching, I found the original song. The band invited me to a party in a dilapidated building with blue lights. There was odd trance music in the background and I felt uncomfortable being there. At midnight, the DJ finally changed, the music improved and I realized it was the band that invited me. Later, I got talking to some guys who were celebrating a bachelor party, a sort of civilized, non-rowdy, fun version of a stag do. The music played on, several highly entertaining conversations were had, and in the end, it was a great party after all.
The next afternoon, I ran into some people from the party. In a small city like Ljubljana, one must run into their friends quite often. I bid them good luck for their party part two, and walked past the river and its canoes, sipping a coffee, munching a potica, a jazz band playing somewhere in the back.
In one day in Slovenia, it is possible to eat a brunch in a hip bistro, take a rickety bus to the lakes, then climb in the Alps.
On the bus to Lake Bohinj, I met some girls from London and we decided to hike together. We laughed as goats with bells scurried by. At the top, the mountains stretched on infinitely. They were rugged and different from the Alps I had encountered in Switzerland. We lay on our backs, in silence, surveying the sky and the vast expanses of peaks.
After the hike, I bid the group goodbye and went to cool my legs in the lake, as Slovenian families shared moments of peace in their campsites.
Lake Bled’s reputation precedes Slovenia’s and I expected to find it full of tourists. I walked past the medieval hotels, trees, fields of flowers, boys jumping into the lake.
The feeling of fulfilment at enjoying so many experiences in one day was heartening and I lost sense of time, till I realized I was back where I had started. I got something to eat, and sat on a bench. An old Grandpa came and sat next to me on the bench. We acknowledged each other with a curt nod and sat looking at a Spanish family taking photos of themselves jumping, the sun’s last rays shimmering on the lake. There was certainly a resort like artificiality about the lake, and yet, now, at dusk, when most people were gone, there was a lot of serenity to be found here.
I chanced upon a nice couple. They had met each other from a wrong text message, texting back and forth and finally meeting after months without having exchanged a single photograph or hearing each other on the phone. I was delighted to know that romance was alive. They took me up Šmarna Gora hill. We stopped on the top and sat with our backs against a tree, the view of the city in front of us, the mountains out in the back, discussing the Balkan region.
That winter, my work took me back to Slovenia. This time to Portorož in the south, past the forests, countryside, and by the Adriatic sea. In the 13th century, Benedictine monks came to recover their health in the saltpans and seas. The sea was very calm, almost like a lake.
It was fun to meet other colleagues. I ate dinner with people from various parts of the Balkans, talking to each other in Serb Croat and for the first time hinting at some of the history of the region.
I ran to Piran one morning, giddy from the beauty of my path. I had to stop myself smiling incessantly at the orange roofs, the cats and children in the square, the narrow curving streets, the open sea views, the light dancing in the church, a man scraping the roof of the church, the feeling of being in a very different part of the world. I stopped as I heard people speaking Italian that wasn’t quite Italian. This was a mixed land, at the border of an even more complicated land, and I thought of how many people had passed through it.
No doubt the crowds descend here in the summer, but this was winter, and the place was all mine.
I communicated with my colleague’s kids using technology. They didn’t speak much English, but that didn’t deter them from quizzing me without pause in Slovenian.
‘are you scared? do you have a husband? do you have a dog? do you have children? if you had a pet what would you have? what’s your favourite colour? where do you live? you are beautiful. can I have a picture? do you have friends in Slovenia?’ and so on and so forth until a solemn proclamation… ‘I want to marry my brother.’
‘Darling, you cannot marry your brother,’ said their mother with the patience of a saint.
‘And why not, Mami?’
‘Because you have the same blood.’
‘Oh, oh okay,’ said the little munchkin and turned to me, ‘Can we come to London?’
And we proceeded to imagine what we would do and the places we would visit together, if they were to come to London. The waitress gave us some shells to paint on and the little girls were on cloud nine when I gave them mine. It was an evening of much laughter and much dreaming.
As I left, it snowed. The image of the fields caked with snow, dramatized the landscape and mixed in my mind with the memories I had from the summer of small birds eating bread from my palm in the park, the Dalmatian motifs of Zoran Mušič, the nap in the park on a warm day heavy with the richness of my experiences, then back again, to the coolness of the wind, the winter haze of the sea-lake.
I wondered about that haze and I wondered about what it concealed and I dreamed about it.
I don’t always agree with him, but I understand what Slovaj Žižek meant when he said, “What makes us happy is not to get what we want. But to dream about it.”