Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Environmentalism!

I finally found something that Slovenians rush through that Americans are wise enough to savor: going to the bathroom.  The faculty-only bathroom here on the fourth floor has motion censors to save power, which is of course not that unusual in the U.S.  What is unusual here is the amount of time you have to sit still.  Here's a picture of the stopwatch I set from lights on to lights off:
FORTY ONE SECONDS!  You get 41 seconds to sit on the toilet and read or check your email or play scrabble on your phone before it is time to sit in the dark or get out.  I'm all for environmentalism, but come on!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Turning the corner


On our way downtown Friday night.
We are getting into the flow here in Ljubljana.  I am (finally) starting to adjust to the stressful life of full-time teaching.  I missed some days of exercise, so my 5-year streak is over, but I'm getting back to daily exercise.  

The girls are getting into the flow of 'normal' life.  They are both taking piano.  Georgia is in a knitting class.  Dahlia starts tennis lessons tomorrow.  All offered on the school premises, which makes things easy.  Ben's classes start this week.  We've found a good place for Bobo to swim.  With life being a little more settled, we can truly enjoy Slovenia!  


'Exposing' ourselves to new things
Last weekend we visited Rogaska Slatina, a spa town about 1.5 hours from Ljubljana.  It's been a popular destination since the Hapsburg Empire, and now seems especially popular among Russian tourists.

View from our after-dinner walk near Rogaska Slatina.

A magical time, thanks to Maja Roy and her family hosting us.  We walked around the historic gardens, sipped the healing waters, then headed up to this amazing spa, Terme Olimia.  Oh my.  Beautiful pools, waterfalls, hot tubs, steam saunas, dry saunas, every kind of water feature you can imagine.  In most areas people wore swimsuits, but for several saunas and some pools, swimsuits were prohibited.  The girls were sort of freaked out about this, and fled to the snack bar after a brief encounter with a sauna full of nude people.  But Ben and I just rolled with it and it was no big deal.  People here are much more relaxed about their bodies.

Maja's grandmother hosted us for a lovely meal at her farm that evening.  Homegrown everything, including the wine and Jagermeister.  Best grapes I've ever tasted.  They also made an amazing GF strawberry walnut hazelnut cake for Ben, which was delicious.



Quick Trip to Istria (Croatia)
This weekend we were going to stay in Ljubljana, but a colleague of Ben's invited us to join them for a day in Istria.  How could we say no?  So we drove to the Istrian Coast in Croatia, about 2 hours from Ljubljana.  It was our first time crossing a border that required a passport.  Luckily they didn't ask for Bobo's papers!  Beautiful day with Ben's colleague Katja and her extended family.  Basically we just hung out, prepared a large meal, ate, hung out, swam in the sea, more hanging out.  Wine.  Gardens.

  
Our lunch.
Walking to the beach.

Ben & Georgia doing yoga, Istrian coast.
People definitely seem to live a slower, more mindful life.  Not so much rushing around, not so goal-oriented.  It's very foreign!


Not-so-nice foreignness
There are so many more fees, fines, regulations and laws here!  There are laws that you have to have your car lights on all the time, even on sunny days.  You have to change your car tires to snow tires by December 1st.  You have to pay fees to accept packages.  Paying for things like gas bills is a huge pain because the meters are inside, and if you don't let the meter reader inside on the random day he comes, they just estimate your usage!  Maybe they send a letter about it, but it's in Slovene, so no idea what it says.  People are used to the idea that most everything is owned by the state (or the church), and they are accustomed to lots of bureaucracy.  The big exception is our school, which is tiny and private, so practically no bureaucracy at all, which probably explains how I got hired...


Empathy for immigrants
I have much more empathy for immigrants these days.  Everything is 10 - 110% harder when you're foreign - and this is true even though we aren't that foreign and most people here speak at least some English.  And we have google translate.

Everything takes a lot more time and a lot more patience.  I'm not used to feeling so incompetent.  My newest Slovenian phrase: Ne govorim slovensko... [I don't speak Slovene].


Teaching
I'm getting a little more used to the rhythm and flow of the classroom.  I still have lots of missteps and shortcomings, but I'm getting better at accepting them and moving on.  Of the 6 classes I teach, I most enjoy Writing and Cultural Studies.  I have a passion for those subjects, and that helps a lot.  Spanish is harder for me.  

I have really small classes, and generally pretty motivated well-behaved students, so that is a huge privilege.  Dahlia has me for 3 of her 8 classes, so I get lots of feedback from her.  I have Georgia for just one class, and she commends me for at least trying to establish some discipline with mischievous classmates.  I teach 5th graders up through high school seniors.  Well there's just one senior in the whole school, but he's in my Spanish II class.

Last week we did a dramatic reading of Gilgamesh with my middle schoolers.  The kids did so well, I'm thinking of taking them to a drama festival in December.  Could be fun, and I've always wanted to go to Bratislava!  This week we're tackling Hammurabi's Code.  Ancient Mesopotamia seems more relevant than ever these days.

I gave my 5th and 6th grade Cultural Studies class a very open-ended assignment on Ancient Egypt, and let them share what they learned to the entire class.  Their projects have been amazing!  I should let them teach more often.  We also did a formal debate on whether or not forced labor was a necessary evil in the course of human progress.  Some interesting dialogue, and they loved the format, so we'll be doing that again (good idea MCB!).

I learn so much from my students.  I have kids from France, Ukraine, Russia, USA, Canada, Mexico, Czech Republic, Japan, Albania, Slovenia, Croatia - it's very international.  My students speak many languages and are world travelers, and yet, under the surface, they seem pretty much like kids in Tennessee.

And now I hope my writing students don't read this post since I'm sure it's filled with the same mistakes I'm often accusing them of making!

Good night!

Indya












Friday, September 26, 2014

It's Not Them, It's Me

I will post about my quest for the best latte in town later, but for now it's important to know that I've gotten a latte or a machiato at maybe 20 different places in town, ever searching for the best one.  After the first couple of tries it became apparent to me that I was not doing it right.  I wanted to walk in, order an espresso at the counter, pay for it, drink it, and leave.  anyone from Knoxville who has seen me at Old City Java will be well familiar with this approach.  This is very much not the proper way to get coffee at a cafe in Ljubljana.  
First, you are supposed to sit at one of the lovely outdoor tables and wait for the waitress to come.  Then you are supposed to order the drink.  And then you wait at the lovely table.  Then the drink comes and you drink it, enjoying your seat and your view.  Then you have to find the very nice waitress and ask for the check, because for whatever reason they NEVER bring you the check in this country.  I think from asking Slovenian colleagues proprietors worry that they seem rude or pushy if they bring the bill, so they politely wait for you to ask.  

I'm not kidding about the lovely outside tables either:
After a few tries doing it the American way, I realized it would be less upsetting for folks if I obliged and sat down like a proper Slovenian.  And I could barely stand it.  Really.  I know I'm a horrible American, but sitting for 20-60 minutes just to have a cup of coffee drove me absolutely nuts.  I'm American, I have places to go!

But, the more I thought about it I realized that it was absolutely me and not them.  Look at these photos of people enjoying life al fresco:
And no one is looking at their phone or working on a laptop, they are just sitting still, often with family or friends, enjoying a beautiful day, and some good espresso (or wine or beer if it is any time after 9:30 am!). 

Seriously, who is the person who needs to rethink his priorities?  I'm the guy who rushes into a cafe, orders a drink at the bar, tries to pay before it is made, and then knocks it back and rushes out.  And it's not like I never waste time at work once I'm there (I'm writing a travel blog for God's sake), it's just that I am (so far) constitutionally unable to sit still for the amount of time it takes to properly order and consume espresso in this town.

Hopefully time will bring more wisdom and patience.  Or I could take what I imagine to be Glenn Reynolds' excellent advice: if espresso makes you want to rush off to work, give up on finding the best espresso and search for the cheapest and best glass of red wine to enjoy al fresco.  There are different implications to that path, but it would certainly encourage stillness.  

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Two Very Distinct Shopping Experiences

I mentioned that the law school is located right next to the large Ljubljana market.  Every day except for Saturday farmers, produce sellers, random clothing stalls, and purveyors of tourist junk all set up in a large square. Here's an aerial shot:
I actually found the experience sort of overwhelming at first.  There are a lot of stalls, and some featured produce that was clearly not local or farm fresh, like bananas.  I asked my colleague Katja and she suggested that I shop "with her farmer," Dovč.  Here is a photo of the stand and the farmer:

Very friendly, and the vegetables are electric every time.  And as a regular, she will slip me a few extra carrots on the sly, which invariably makes me happy.  It is a super personal and likable experience all the way around.

The weird thing about the market from an American point of view is that it appears that many or most Slovenians buy their food daily, from small producers, in a manner that has not changed all that much for the last 700 years or so.  I LOVE the Market Square Farmer's Market, but it is a reaction to the dominance of the American grocery store and a twice a week special occasion, while the Ljubljana market is an unchanging, everyday part of life here.

For comparison purposes, consider my other regular shopping experience: the very American (although French owned) E.LeClerc.  The girls actually call it the French Walmart, and that is about right.  It is in a large mall next to the ring road.  It is huge and carries everything from shoes to housewares to groceries and baked goods.  Here's a shot of the interior:

Here is what is awesome and super cheap at the LeClerc: Wine, cheese, chocolate, and coffee.  Seriously, check out a shot of my cart:
Here's what's expensive at the LeClerc: Everything else.  But if the wine, cheese, and coffee is good, you know I'll be back.  

The juxtaposition of the two experiences tells you a lot about European living.  There is a strong resistance to fully embracing ecommerce and the Walmartization of retailing.  Ljubljana still has about 15 different small bookstores, for example.  And yet, time waits for no one, as the various very American style malls ringing the downtown prove.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Generosity

Before we ever came to Ljubljana Dahlia and Georgia had a really good impression of Slovenia because of one person: Maja Dvorcev.  She is a lovely Slovenian woman who studied at the University of Tennessee and was dating (and has since married) my former student Tyler Roy.  The girls met Maja and Tyler when I had one of my torts classes over to my house and they have been big fans ever since.  She is a warm and kind person and ever positive in all regards.  When the girls worried about moving here I would remind them that Maja was from here and was basically representative of the country.

In 2013 we had a visitor from China at the law school and we had her to our house a few times and she seemed to really appreciate the gesture.  When the girls asked why we did this, I tried to explain that when you are a visitor to another country the very best thing that can happen is when someone invites you to their home.  You can see how others live.  You can see their family photos.  And you know that these people have welcomed you to their home.  Here are Georgia and Dahlia with Visiting Professor Cuifeng He at our house in 2013:


This weekend Maja invited us up to her home town of Rogaska Slatina, a beautiful old spa town on the eastern border with Croatia.  We went to see the sights, but mostly because Maja invited us.  She toured us around the town, found us a place to stay, organized a dinner for us on Friday, accompanied us on an amazing spa adventure (including european style nudity!) and even had us out to her Grandmother's farm for dinner on Saturday night.  Here's Maja and Dahlia at the spa:
 
The dinner at Grandmother's was one of those magical evenings you can only have when you visit someone's home in a foreign country.  The meal was delicious, the farm was gorgeous, and the company was the best.  Maja's sister Sonja and her boyfriend Gaspar and Maja's dad and grandmother (who spoke almost no english) all joined us.  The girls got to see the coolest kind of working farm, one with heaps of things ripe and in bloom and right next to each other.  Here they are checking out the grapes:

We ate them right off of the vine, warmed by the sun.  They were so much more delicious than grocery grapes, they just exploded in our mouths.  Georgia was particularly psyched about the walnuts, which gave me the chance to crack some by hand:
Maja's Dad met us with homemade Jagermeister (in a "Don't Mess With Texas" shot glass no less!):
Which was followed by house made wine, aged in these barrels:
After dinner we hiked up a small hill to the local church, which Maja asked the caretaker to open for us.  The view was amazing:

The company was even better:

We returned for a homemade gluten free strawberry walnut cake that blew our mind:
The cake said it all.  We were indeed welcomed.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Am Cham Breakfast

Earlier in the month I went and met with the super nice people at the American Chamber of Commerce for Slovenia.  Here they are known simply as AmCham.  BTW, they should totally rebrand themselves with that name in the US.  AmCham is awesome.

Here is their seal, with the red and white stripes plus the Slovenian Triglav mountain and the three yellow stars:

Here's an even friendlier version with shaking hands:



It is their fifteenth anniversary this year and as far as I can tell it is a pretty big deal here.  It serves as the voice for the international business community, as well as a general force for privatization efforts and pro-market reforms.  I've met with various Chambers of Commerce in the US and once gave a speech at one about deregulating the American legal profession, so I was happy to meet these folks over here.

They were kind enough to invite me to their first "Business Breakfast" of the fall, where they had a panel discussion of privatization experts.  It was fun to meet and greet with what I think were some of the Slovenian business elite and also to learn more about the country's economy (at least from one very specific point of view).

I'll blog more about the economy and privatization later (hold your breath!), but for now I'll focus on the event itself.  It was really well attended and fancy:
 
They held it at the pretty new Sheraton Four Points, naturally, as it is easily the most American hotel in town. Why do I say it was American?  First, it is located outside of town by the ring road and only accessible by car really.  No walking or biking here.

Second, the breakfast was a CLASSIC fancy American hotel buffet:
I almost laughed out loud at the pan full of bacon.  America!  It was also the first time I had drip coffee since I landed here.  And btw, it was pretty bad and weak drip coffee, so lord knows what they think we drink states-side.  I would personally hesitate from taking privatization advice from anyone who drank such bad coffee, but maybe that is just me.

Lastly, the conference room was big and beautiful and has an entire wall of windows that look out over . . . the highway and the parking lot.  Here's the view:
The view is particularly hilarious and American because the other side of the hotel actually looks out over beautiful fields and a forest, so they could have oriented the conference space towards a lovely, bucolic scene.  Instead, we watched commerce drive by at 120 kms an hour.  America!

Still in all it was a great experience and as per usual everyone was very kind and welcoming.  It is always good to imagine the impression we give off overseas and this was an excellent place to view it.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Hiking Slovenia



HIKING!
I finally got to hike!  Saturday Bobo and I hiked up Smarna Gora.  It is sort of like Ljubljana's House Mountain, except there are lots of shrines and of course a nice cafe on the top.  Apparently both Jesus and Mary hiked up this mountain outside Ljubljana - I even saw indentations in a rock where Mary knelt.  There is a bell which girls ring for good luck in love.  I rang it, but Ben did not appear.....  My favorite shrine was to a saint who stopped the onslaught of a Turkish infidel.  As soon as the Turkish leader's body hit the ground, all his followers turned to stone.  It's woodsy most of the way, but pastures on the top, complete with cows and their bells.




Sunday all 4 of us went to this amazing canyon on the far side of Lake Bled called Vintgar Gorge (Soteska Vintgar).  Really cool boardwalk along a rushing series of waterfalls.  Crystal clear water.





A good weekend.

Sunday nights are hard, with the week looming and so much to do to feel minimally prepared for 6 different classes.   But it's getting a tiny bit easier.  Or at least I'm growing more accustomed to the chaos of being a new teacher.  

Below Dahlia presents her model of a complex village.  Good bye paleo times, hello neo-lithic era.  Next you can see Georgia's class making hieroglyphics in clay, just like those Ancient Egyptian scribes!  I think Georgia has done this exact activity 2-3 three times before, but she still liked it.  And overall playing with clay was a HUGE hit.   The two kids who tend to be the most disruptive were super engaged.  So more hands-on stuff.   We don't have smart boards, but I am learning how to use Apple TV with my iPad, so that's been super helpful.  





No easy smiles, but yummy cakes
People here don't greet you unless they know you.  No casual smiles or 'hey howya doing'.  People do make eye contact, but with a straight face.  I know it's just a cultural difference, but it's sort of disconcerting.  I keep wondering if they can tell I'm foreign, if I'm doing something inappropriate or what.

We were looking forward to amazing gelato here, just because we're close to Italy.  Turns out the gelato is only so-so.  But the cakes are AMAZING.  And they have tons of gluten free and raw cakes, which are all tasty.  So when in Ljubljana, get the cakes, not gelato.

Ok, back to grading.

Indya