Thursday, October 23, 2014

Mini Golf and Bars

We live about a five minute bike ride from the pretty spectacular Tivoli Park.  It has a very well manicured southern portion that has pretty old buildings, bike and walking paths, and a mini golf course, with a bar attached to it of course.  Virtually every business of any size here seems to be next to, or to include, a small cafe/bar, and the minigolf course was no exception.

The nice thing about this is the general sense of camraderie and friendliness that a city full of bars offers. People seem to be out and about having coffee or wine at all hours of the day or night and many of the small neighborhood places look to be full of regulars chatting and enjoying each other's company.  The down side is, of course, that I'll see people out drinking al fresco starting at 10 am, and you'll be shocked to hear that many of these folks appear to have cleared the remainder of that day's schedule to really focus their attention on their current task.

Anyhow, last weekend the girls and I went to play eighteen, after we started out on the nineteenth hole with lemonade for them and red wine for me:
Attaching a bar to a minigolf establishment immensely improves both experiences, so much so that I think I'll just bring a bottle with me next time I putt putt in the USA.  Here's photographic evidence that fun was had:

Dahlia won by the way.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Trunk or treat Ljubljana style

One of the nice things about moving overseas for a year is the opportunity to recognize some of the great things about America.  Halloween is definitely one of those things.  Like Christmas it is a hilarious combination of American ingenuity, excess, and capitalism.  Kids get to dress up and then get plied with piles of cheap candy bought by happy homeowners, who also buy pumpkins and skeletons and lord knows what else, likely all made in China.  No such thing as Halloween here in Slovenia, and of course it is sort of puzzling to try to explain it to them.  (On a related comparative law note, last class I learned that there is no tooth fairy in Slovenia, but there is a magical "tooth mouse."  I expressed some concern over a magic rodent that crawled under pillows to collect human teeth, but was shouted down by defensive students).

Anyhow, the girls attend the American school, so last weekend they ran a "trunk or treat" celebration.  The student body is only 30% American and a bunch of those kids are embassy kids who have barely lived in the great U.S. of A., so the school itself has this nice mix of foreigners and Americans, while gamely trying to recreate an American private school.  The trunk or treat was a great example.  Kids dressed up.  Parents bought candy.  the school's courtyard was decorated and they had a laptop run a Halloween loop of music with Thriller and the Monster Mash. It looked great:
The girls dressed up.  Georgia as Hillary Clinton (including a great imitation where she lowers her glasses and brassily says "excuse me" to any question:
Dahlia and her local best friend Nella did the only respectable thing eighth graders can do and brought the makeup.  Dahlia was Marilyn Monroe and Nella was catwoman:
I was impressed that Dahlia's desire to get candy outweighed her desire to be cool and not dress up.  Next year I predict a refusal to dress up coupled with a desire to "distribute" the candy (in a one for you two for me mode no doubt).  

Indya also got in the spirit:
You could tell that some of the Europeans were a little puzzled about the whole thing.  A Mexican family decorated their car 100% in their national team's colors and they had this fun carnival style soccer game in their trunk.  Super fun, but not so Halloweeny.  

The best were the little kids who were doing it the first time.  I actually made a Slovenian 4 year old dressed up as Captain America cry by trying to force some candy on him.  But of course if I get too fired up I tend to have that effect on the young and old in the US, so it was probably me, not him.    

Monday, October 20, 2014

Comparative Law - French Governance

I'm teaching a class in Comparative Law over here.  One of my favorite parts of teaching comparative law is it helps put the strengths and weaknesses of your own system into perspective.  It also helps us to realize that much of what we take for granted as obvious or built in features of our experience are in fact pretty different around the world.  It reminds me of the David Foster Wallace joke: "There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, 'Morning, boys, how's the water?' And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, 'What the hell is water?'"  Basically comparative law helps me keep an eye on the water around me.

As part of the class I usually spend a little time doing a very quick and dirty overview of the political and judicial systems of various countries around the world, just so we can get a flavor for how differently even very similar countries handle governance.  Last week I did France and I ran across this graphic explaining French governance:
It made me laugh out loud.  Whenever you're worried that our political system is hopelessly gridlocked, just take a look at this graphic.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Ljubljana - same, but different

Even though we're in this exotic locale, our day-to-day life is not so different from home.  We work, get groceries (see Ben's posts), walk Bobo, do laundry, etc.  On weekends we have some adventures, like quick trips to Italy or Croatia, but we also do more mundane stuff like hike, go to movies, walk the dog, exercise.  

- Last weekend we hiked around Lake Bohinje (above).  What a glorious place!  

- Lots of dog lovers here.  I never see anyone picking up their dog's poop, but I also never see uncollected poops.... Hmm.  They are really good at trash and recycling here...

- We went to our first movie - Boyhood.  Really interesting movie.  They have assigned seats in movies here, even when it's half-empty.  

- Ljubljana is even whiter than Knoxville.  

- We got our first package from home (thank you Tina!).  No extra taxes, but the authorities had definitely opened it up and gone through the contents, which felt quite invasive.

- I've read that Slovenia is 90% Catholic.  The church bells ring, calling people to prayer every evening, but I never see any people.  The Catholic church is funded by the state and is one of the primary landowners in Slovenia.  Strange!

- We went to our first concert this week - Swans, a heavy metal drone band that had no harmony, melody or discernible lyrics.  Very loud.   Still, fun to have a night out!  Kino Siska, a cultural center and concert venue, is just a few blocks from our house.

- The girls have their first piano recital Tuesday.  Georgia is learning to knit.  

- Teaching is still really really hard, but I'm less stressed about it than I was.  

- School is going well for the girls.  I worry that they are missing a lot of academic rigor that they'd have back home, but they are learning so much outside of school, I'm sure it'll be fine.

Crossroads --> crosshairs
Whenever I meet people and mention I'm from Knoxville, Tennessee, they say, "Oh yeah, I drove through there once, on the way to _____ (Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, etc)".

Similarly, Ljubljana is 'on the way' to a lot of bigger, cities - Vienna, Budapest, Sarajevo, Venice, Munich.  This is great for our travel plans, but also means Ljubljana got caught up in a lot of conflicts.

The Romans took over Ljubljana, naming it Emona, about 2000 years ago.  Since then it's been part of various entities that I have only a cursory knowledge of.  I started reading Danubia, A Personal History of Habsburg Europe by Simon Winder, which I'm sure will clear everything up for me!

WWI brought the 12 Battles of Isonzo, Italy v. Austria fighting in the Slovene Alps.  Hemingway wrote about it in A Farewell to Arms.  Apparently the pass built by Russian POWs is one of the most scenic roads in Slovenia.

Today I went for a little run along the Path of Remembrance and Comradeship (Pot spominov in tovari┼ítva) (photo below).  This 33 km trail follows the line where Italian Fascists put up a fence and bunkers to keep the underground movement in Ljubljana from communicating with the partisans outside the city.  

The fence was there from 1942 to 1945.  They put these posts, with the barbed wire engraving, at all the bunkers sites along the fence.

If I ever need a dose of American patriotism, and WWII history, all I have to do is go to our basement.  The people we rent from have a son who is really in to WWII history in general, and the U.S. role in particular.  There are a ton of model airplanes, tanks, books and WWII posters.  And flags from all branches of the U.S. Military!


Fall Break please
We have one more week of school, then a week-long Fall break.  I wish we had a full week off at Fall break in Knoxville.  It's a much-needed recovery period for tired teachers (and students).  

We are going to Greece!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Alpine Dreams

Slovenia is a pretty small country.  It's only 20,273 square kilometers (about 8,000 sq mi), so it is a little smaller than New Jersey and a little bigger than Connecticut. It has a population of 2.05 million, so smaller than New Mexico but bigger than Nebraska.

But it packs a crazy amount of stuff into its small package.  It runs from a tiny coastline on the Adriatic, that feels very Mediterranean and Venetian, to massive peaks in the Julian Alps, that seem totally Austrian.

Because Ljubljana is a relatively flat and super green town, and the old city has narrow streets, it is easy to forget we are a stone's throw from some pretty spectacular mountains.  This is especially so when it is cloudy.  Even when it is sunny, clouds tend to sit on top of the mountains and obscure the view.  But when the sun comes out and I'm in my office, it is hard to take my eyes off of the Alps.  They just seem to dominate the view and the collective consciousness:

I have been advised by multiple people that the Alps are actually calling to be visited, so this weekend we went up to Lake Bohinj, which is just 78 kilometers away from our house.  Our first Alpine lake trip was in august to Lake Bled, which is deservedly one of the top sites in the country:
But Bohinj is even more spectacular.  Bigger, farther off the beaten path, and less touristy, it brings the SERIOUS mountain views:

The lake is fed by a river in and a river out, so it remains crystal clear:

We brought Bobo (who swam more than he walked):

Dahlia and Georgia were troopers on the 10 km hike:

It's been funny how much we've enjoyed the variety of the country.  From seashore to mountains is really just 3 hours or so, and cosmopolitan Ljubljana is right in the middle.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Pancakes to crepes in one quick jaunt across the ocean

Back in Knoxville we had a lovely family tradition on Saturday mornings.  Georgia and I would make pancakes or waffles for the whole family.  When we got here I had a really hard time finding gluten free flour or baking powder (mostly due to the brutal translation issues involved, everyone speaks English, but baking supplies require a really high level of fluency), so we were stymied for a time.

Then I figured out that buckwheat flour (which is poorly named in English and is in fact GF) is readily available at every store along with wheat flour.  I'm not kidding about that either, at the Slovenian equivalent of a 7-11 buckwheat flour sits right next to wheat flour.

Anyhow, Georgia and I decided to try our hands at buckwheat crepes, using the traditional French recipe, and to magnificent effect!  Here she is whipping up the batter:
I'm in charge of cooking them:

And naturally Dahlia takes charge of slathering them with Nutella.  Once dressed I think it is fair to say that crepes are well preferred to waffles or pancakes!  And do not be fooled by the presence of strawberries in the photo, those are only for Indya and me.

What We Learned on the Great Espresso/Gelato Quest

Before we came to Ljubljana the girls were pretty nervous and apprehensive, so promises were made.  these promises included daily doses of amazingly delicious European gelato.  So the minute we got here we set out to find the best gelato in town.

In a similar vein, I promised myself a daily dose of delicious espresso drinks.  Slovenia borders on Italy and Ljubljana is a foodie town, so I was looking forward to mouthwatering lattes every morning, noon, and night.

Then a funny thing happened as we searched.  We found that both the gelato and the espresso are very, very good here.  Weirdly, uniformly good in fact.  To the point where if you ask people where is the best place to get gelato or espresso they sort of waffle and say "it's pretty good wherever you go," and then if pressed they'll reluctantly choose a place.  I even went so far as to have my new Comparative Law students email me their suggestions, and we've tried every place they suggested for gelato and most of the coffee places.

Here's just one of the places I tried for espresso, a stand I call "cute hat, weak latte:"
But a funny thing happened along the way.  One of the better gelato places (Zvezda) was connected to a bakery.  I walked in and WOWSA was it a beautiful bakery.  I asked if they had anything gluten free.  And oh my did they.  A whole rack of top notch macaron, as good as any I've had in NY or London (but not Paris obviously):
Plus a whole case full of gf cakes:
And they were all ELECTRIC.  

So our new obsession is Slovenian cakes.  Our first love is Zvezda, of course, but we also found a neighborhood place around the corner from us called Mihalek, which is this lovely family bakery/one woman show where the owner is the baker is the friendly woman at the counter.  If anything the cakes are better than Zvezda, and again, because of the Slovenian tradition of baking with nut flours, she bakes a half dozen jaw-droppingly delicious cakes, all of which are naturally gluten free:

The lesson, as always, is to enjoy what you find when you travel, rather than seeking only what you think you want.