Monday, June 07, 2004

"Smitten With Slovenia"
western Slovenia
Monday, June 7th, 2004

Okay, before this next update I MUST thank a couple of you for making this all possible...thankyou to Peter Kozodoy for suggesting a trip to Croatia over dinner with mom, thankyou to my sweetheart, Doug Crane, for supporting me and understanding me everytime I need to go off and have adventures (at least once a year!), and a big thankyou to Andrea and Sylvia for demanding that we go to Slovenia and for introducing us to their cousin Andrej!
For starters, I think we'll be coming back to Slovenia again for sure. About a week ago we headed North from the bottom of Croatia and took a 24 hour ferry along the length of the Adriatic Sea up towards Slovenia. Mom and I decided through travelers' boredom that we'd go ahead and drink our bottles of Croatian Lemon Liquor to pass the time. We started to swig it straight from the bottle by the time we were on the train into Slovenia. We were packed into a little train car with two Aussies and a well-traveled Kiwi Firefighter who had just been trekking in Kyzirgistan and taken the Trans-Siberian Railway across the length of Russia with a girlfriend, a good book, and not enough alcohol.

We opened our hearts and our lives up to each other within a matter of hours as travelers do and in a flash at one of the train stops they were gone in a blur of backpacks and whistles of the train.

When we arrived in Lujblijana (dam, I always misspell it) we called up Andrea's cousin Andrej for suggestions and he's been taking care of us ever since. We're staying on the Western Edge of Slovenia along Lake Bled and he lives in Lujblana (there it is again!). He's a bit like Peter Kozodoy only really tall and with a Slovenian accent. He's an engineer, incredibly patient, generous, and he never says 'no' to mom and I which we really like! We're smitten with him. Mom keeps asking him, "Andrej, do you have a much older brother or a single uncle you could introduce me to?" He keeps blowing us away with gifts of chocolate, music, park entrance fees.

Slovenia is stunning and charming. Like a miniature Switzerland. This tiny country is lush and verdant and resplendent with tiny villages and homes with flowers spilling from the gardens and windows. Half of it is virgin forest of pine, sycamore, beech, maple. The Northwestern corner shares the Julian Alps with Italy. We're rented this fairy tale little chalet with kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living room that looks out over a garden, a meadow of wild lupine, daisies, and queen anne's lace and the snow-capped mountains. On sunny days the air smells like fresh cut grass, flowers, and has the coolness of a breeze blowing off the local lake.

We were stunned when we walked down the hill toward Lake Bled to behold a tiny forested island with a tall Cathedral poking out from a canopy of trees. On the edge of the lake silhouetted against the mountains is a several thousand foot jagged cliff with a castle perched on its edge like a scene out of Van Helsing or Dracula. Little rowboats carry visitors across the lake to the island where they can ring a sacred bell and profess their lifelong love to each other. Ancient Slavs once worshipped the Goddess of Love and Fertility on this island. No matter how many photos one sees of this place, nothing compares to the reality of looking upon it for the first time. The castle and the lake's moods change with the setting sun and storms passing overhead like a living painting. It's truly a romantic landscape in every sense of the word. (Happy 3 Year Anniversary Sweetheart!)

So what have we been doing here, anyway?
On the first night we had an exquisite dinner with Andrej (no, he hasn't ever heard of the movie) with fine crystal and china and cloth napkins. I didn't know how to behave with all the fine cutlery! fresh slices of carrots and celery with a horseradish cream sauce, peppery Veal and noodles, rolls of baked chicken stuffed with bacon and onions set in a creamy leak sauce, penne pasta with fresh basil, tomatoes, mozzarella and smoked eggplant, roasted cream of asparagus soup, fresh crusty bread, and for dessert...buttery chocolate crepes, chocolate souffle with fresh strawberries, creme de caramel flan, and chocolate mousse with a dollop of mint sauce. Okay, so that's a couple of meals. We're definitely NOT going to lose weight on this trip. With every good meal we have, we take another step further away from the dream of returning to the developing world. We're turning soft, man! Cloth napkins?!! For god's sake! I don't eat this well this often in Santa Barbara. (Although I do miss Mexican food all you PPSB gang...I'm dreaming of enchiladas and chilaquiles and beans)

This past weekend we've visited one of the largest limestone caves in Europe (as opposed to all those granite caves!) and saw tiny Ë_human fish,Ë_ blind albino cave salamanders which live 50! years and can go up to 5 years without eating by lying really, really still.

I don't think I can go 5 hours without eating. They must be really, really slow little buggers.

Also visited one of the world's most famous Stud Farms for the Lipizaner Horses that are famed to be from Southern Slovenia. Our tour guide spoke proudly of their heritage coming from a mix with 'Italian Stallions,' An English woman and I couldn't help snorting in the back of the group. We'd seen quite a few Balkan Stallions of our own here on our travels. I think the joke was missed on our guide though.

The greatest highlight so far however has been catching an outdoor summer music festival concert with Eliades Ochoa from the Buena Vista Social Club here in Lujblllannannan, how ever the hell you write it. For only 17 bucks, we saw an Italian A Capella Men's Choir, Eliades Ochoa and his full band complete with percussionists, stand-up bass, back-up vocals and guitarists, and horn section....and! a very famous Serbian Brass Band (10 of them) with a guest artist, one of the most famous Gypsy Singers from Eastern Europe and her accordion player. I know it sounds all rather eclectic and it was and it was wonderful.

How surreal to hear all the languages spoken yet we understood each other...

The Italian Group addressed the packed and jubilant audience in Italian, French, and broken Slovenian. Eliades Ochoa addressed us in Spanish which we translated to Andrej into English, and the Serbian Brass Band spoke and played in Serbian, Croatian, and a Gypsy Language which Andrej translated for us from Serbian into Slovenian and then into English.

The Cuban music was rich and full and absolutely moving...I started plotting a trip in my mind to the island, it was like seeing the Buena Vista Social Club in its entirety only surrounded by a bunch of Slovenians who couldn't understand any of the lyrics. But the highlight was the brass band and all of its riotous energy. The lead trumpet player had us all kicking and screaming and singing 'lalallallalalalal' out of key and then cheering as the older Gypsy singer took the microphone. She was no taller than 5 feet and a little bit rounder in width. Dressed in a long dress and head scarf in red and gold, she grinned and laughed and wailed and shimmied her little Balkan Buddha Belly back and forth across the stage. One of the horn players kneeled on the stage out of respect as he played to her and it was obvious that her presence and performance there was an absolute honor to several thousand Slovenians. I looked all around us at the mix of Slovenians, Croatians, Serbs, Italians, Germans, and French and thought of how magical the power is of music and how, despite all the languages spoken there, it was the energy of the music that we all understood and that united us. Thousands of us were kicking and screaming and jumping and laughing and grinning wildly. If only we could remember this Iraq, in Former Yugoslavia, in America and around the world.

Andrej drove us home around 2:30 in the morning. I don't think mom has been out that late in years. She and I stayed up a while more gorging ourselves on the only chocolate bar we had left and revelling in the magic of the night.

We'll be heading to Prague soon but for now, we're lingering in the magic of Slovenia. That night before the concert, I was walking through the wet streets of the city and looked up to see a vivid rainbow set against the steel grey sky and arcing over the Lubjliana Castle.

'This is a good omen,' I smiled to myself.

I hope you all have similar rainbows in your skies over the next week. I know that magic happens everywhere around us. It's sometimes easier to be open to it on vacation but it is there all the time if we'd only open up to it.

much love, Rachel and Mamacita