Tuesday, November 18, 2014

China and America in Slovenia

This is a picture of the Chinese Embassy in Ljubljana.  It's a converted large single family home in a residential area about 10 minutes from downtown Ljubljana. It has a flag and some cool round windows, but it is remarkably low profile.  I only spotted it because I sometimes bike past it when I am going to the indoor swimming pool.  It's a weirdly small and out of the way little spot and I'd passed it three or four times before I figured out what it was.  For comparison purposes, we live in a different residential area also about 10 minutes from downtown and the Romanian embassy is around the corner from us:
Weird, right?  The Romanian embassy is maybe not quite as nice as the Chinese, but they're remarkably similar.

The US Embassy, however, is a different animal altogether.  Right downtown, it is accross from the Museum of Art and the Museum of Slovenian History and a 5 minute walk from the Parliament and all of the relevant government buildings.  It is the star of embassy row and is right next to the German Embassy in a beautiful old building:

Here's me and my family in front of the massive Embassy Seal after we met with the Ambassador (one of the Fulbright perks!):
America has a massive footprint in Ljubljana.  Believe it or not I've heard the US Ambassador on the morning drive radio show TWICE in the three months we've been here, telling jokes in English with the Ljubljana morning zoo.  He's in the newspaper all the time.  

And of course almost everyone under 40 speaks excellent English and many American tv shows and movies are aired here in English with Slovenian subtitles. I see American brands and American language and American styles everywhere I go. This does not mean that America is 100% popular.  To the contrary, there's a bunch of grumbling that comes with being so high profile.  

But it is super weird for me that China is comparatively so low profile.  In America we are continuously interested in, and worried about, China and its meteoric rise.  It's almost like Russia and Japan from the 1980s rolled up into one, with better food (at least better than Russia).  I guess Slovenia is a small country without a lot of useful natural resources, so why would China care.  But still, being here is a reminder that China has a ways to go if it wants to be a global superpower. 

It is also a reminder that the EU is a much more protected market than the U.S.  I've heard a bunch of complaining here about cheaper labor in Croatia or the Czech Republic or Estonia, but almost nothing about Chinese labor costs, which I feel confident are waaayyyy lower than any country inside the EU.  Maybe there are strengths to having that kind of protected market, although Slovenia and the EU are pretty clearly in the economic doldrums right now, so it's not the best time to make that argument.  To the contrary, the idea that the biggest threat to middle class workers in state owned industries in Slovenia is Croatia (or any other country in the EU) is a deep misunderstanding of international labor economics.  But that is a post for another day.   

Saturday, November 8, 2014

An American Dog in Slovenia and the Joys of Being Local

When we decided to move to Slovenia for the year we struggled hard with whether to bring our dog Bobo with us.  He's a huge sweetheart and a member of the family but it was going to be a large expense and massive hassle to bring him.  How big a hassle?  We would have to fly to Munich rather than directly to Ljubljana, because we needed to fly only on planes with a pressurized cargo hold, i.e., only huge planes.  Also, the Fulbright program would only pay for tickets on a US flagged carrier, so we had to fly on a codeshare Lufthansa/United flight, and Air Adria (the Slovenian airline) did not count.  Also, we needed to get him a doggie passport, which included another round of rabies shots and a new, international standard i.d. chip, and of course all of that had to be done within ten days of our flight, so the USDA could stamp "approved" on the reams of paperwork.  The USDA office conveniently located in Nashville, mind you.

And of course there was the question of whether Bobo would even want to come.  His "B" option was pretty solid: he could stay with our (and his) best friend Tina, who is like a second mother to him, and miss a transatlantic flight in a crate.

When push came to shove we could not leave him.  We knew moving to Europe would be hard for the girls, and nothing makes a rental in a foreign country homier than bringing your dog.  Here's Dahlia and Bobo as proof:

Bobo has been great.  He's missed Tina and all of his doggie buddies from Knoxville, but he's got a whole new round of sniffs and spots to pee on.  He also has a new favorite place to walk/swim: Koseve Pond.  It's a 20 minute walk or 7 minute drive from our place, on the north end of Tivoli Park.  It's a pretty spectacular spot.  On an early morning it is often empty, with gorgeous fog on the pond.

 It's got this big wooden deck that can be quite crowded on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

It has this modernist apartment complex behind it:

And an AMAZING view of the nearby foothills of the Alps.  and yes, that's Bobo out there chasing a tennis ball that I've thrown:
But the main reason we love it is because Bobo loves it.  Here he is awaiting a toss into the pond:
And here he is swimming:
It turns out it is sort of weird for a dog in Slovenia to be so into swimming and fetching.  If the park is crowded and I start tossing the ball for Bobo we draw a legitimate crowd that oohs, aahs, and even giggles as Bobo jumps headlong onto the water and swims as hard as he can.  Here's a Mom videoing Bobo while her son leans in for a better view:
Bobo does have some natural enemies though.  There is a pretty tough gaggle of geese that do not care for Bobo's interloping.  Here they are on land hissing:
Even more frightening was this battle formation as they swam towards Bobo in the pond:
Seriously, they swam very aggressively right at Bobo and only turned around when I almost hit their fearless leader with a rock.  Bobo was, needless to say, totally oblivious.  he even started swimming towards the swans to check out the splashes my rocks made.  Safety first for that dog.

And by the way, because Slovenia is super into exorcise, the park has a little area of exercise machines.  When Georgia comes with me, she takes advantage:
And of course Indya needs NO equipment:
Dahlia just comes and looks fashionable, wearing her pink boots, my jacket to stay warm, and her fake Elvis Costello glasses:
The great thing about this little pond is that we NEVER would have found it even if we'd spent a month in downtown Ljubljana.  The only reason we found it is because we're local and we're here for a while.  Aaahhh the joys of being local.  Yes, it's been quite a find for all of us.  Georgia captures the spirit of the place quite nicely:

Monday, November 3, 2014

Greek Protests and the EU

Our last Saturday in Greece we decided to walk from our hotel down to the National Gardens located behind the main Parliament building and Syntagma Square.  As we got ready, both Dahlia and Indya thought they heard some kind of loud bullhorn, which was pretty amazing, since any bullhorn would have to be super loud to rise above the general level of noise and chaos in Athens.  We walked about five blocks and we found the source:

 
Apparently we had stumbled across one of the staging grounds for a protest in front of the Parliament building on Syntagma Square.  All over the city different disaffected political parties gathered and then marched on to the square, closing traffic on several major arteries and the square itself.  Here they are about to head out with a police escort:
Indya asked one of the marchers what the protest was about, and it was an objection to austerity measures and the firing of government workers like policemen and fireman.  As Glenn Reynolds would note, anytime a large government entity makes cuts they unsurprisingly describe them as the termination of popular government workers like teachers, policeman or fireman . . . .

Anyhow, when we got to the National Garden we found it closed "until the protest ended."  It was closed because it was apparently the staging ground for the police.  Disturbingly, there were busloads of police in riot gear with plastic shields and what appeared to be teargas masks.  We have no pictures of their preparations, they didn't seem likely to enjoy any photo ops.

So we lapped the Garden and found the protest in full swing.  It was a pretty big and loud protest, with a couple of thousand people from various political parties waving flags and making loud speeches.  Here is Dahlia getting excited about it:
In the end there was no riot.  Apparently after the riots of 2011 the police take no chances though.  Indya asked a bystander how often these protests occurred.  His answer: "Every day.  Beats working."

That is obviously an exaggeration, as we traveled through Syntagma square daily in our four days in Athens, and this was the only protest we saw.  But, what at first seemed to us to be a pretty big deal turned out to more akin to background noise.  Just off off Symtagma Square is one of the main shopping districts in Athens, and with various All Saints Day sales in full swing we saw an equal number of Athenians enjoying 20% discounts just a block or so from the protests.

It was a very weird juxtaposition for us and the girls.  The whole experience taught us a few things.  First, I have had several Slovenians tell me that they admire American self-reliance.  (An equal number have told me they hate our obtrusive and pushy diplomacy and insistence on free markets, but that is a different post).  In Slovenia, and apparently in Greece, when something is wrong with the economy people march on Parliament and demand that the government fix it.  Obviously this happens in the US too, but there is definitely more of an understanding in the US that hoping for the government to create growth is suboptimal.

Second, Dahlia is a budding capitalist for sure.  Georgia asked us what the protests were about and Dahlia asked if she could explain, and launched into a hilariously pro-business and libertarian attack on the protesters and general laziness that included this gem: "Did you see all of the riot police?  They are protesting to keep police jobs, and the protests themselves lead to a bunch of police officers working overtime on a
Saturday, loafing around in riot gear.  Coincidence?  I don't think so!" 

Third, Indya is usually our defender of the government (and in East Tennessee it is hard to get too exorcised about what is a pretty lean and whipped government), but the bureaucracies and government spending policies of Greece and Slovenia make even her quite uncomfortable.    

Fourth, the EU has a lot on their plate.  Theoretically the EU unifies countries as diverse as Greece, Germany, Slovenia, the UK, Sweden, and Estonia!  We were really, really surprised by how relatively poor Athens seemed.  It is a city of five million, and yet we saw fewer office buildings or signs of a functioning economy (outside of tourism) than we see every day in tiny Ljubljana (which is hardly a beacon of economic growth).  Underemployment was rampant.  One of our cab drivers was from Bulgaria and he told us he was headed home after 14 years in Athens: "No jobs." 

Fifth, more than the different sizes and types of economies in the EU, Greece reminds you of the very, very different cultures.  How they possibly get elected officials from Greece to agree with elected officials from Germany about governing things as random as highway construction standards or the requirements for becoming a lawyer in the EU seems absolutely crazy.

Last, Athens is probably the wrong way to gauge Greece. Greece is not even close to the bottom of the EU in GDP per capita adjusted for purchasing power: it is ahead of Portugal, Poland, and Hungary and waaayyy ahead of Bulgaria and Romania.  In particular, our trip to the Mykonos showed us that life on the Greek Isles is pretty sweet and that tourism is certainly alive and well.  Mykonos reminded us of Nantucket and St. Bart's, as a comparison point.  Proof?  Here are the girls enjoying a rousing game of hearts after our resort breakfast:
 
   There are worse places to be underemployed for sure!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Greece!

So it is October break at the QSI American school.  Being an American visiting professor I went ahead and cancelled class this week and we all headed to Greece. Why Greece?

When we first announced our year in Slovenia both girls were pretty negative on the concept.  A whole year away from home!?!  Missing eighth grade and sixth grade?!?  One way we tried to combat the blues was to promise that each gal could choose a place to visit/vacation in Europe.

Georgia knew her location right away: Greece!  Georgia has been obsessed with Greek Mythology since kindergarten.  She's read all of the original myths, as well as the Rick Riordan modern day versions, and loved them all.  Her long time favorite goddess has been Artemis.  Don't believe me?  She dressed as Artemis Halloween, 2012:
We call the moon Artemis.  When it's a full moon Georgia will say "Artemis hunts tonight!"  So expectations were high for Greece.

In all honesty our first impressions were sort of sketchy.  Athens is a crowded, noisy city that is packed with speeding motorcycles and honking taxis, none of whom stop when you cross the street.  And it is WAY poorer and noisier than Ljubljana, which is quiet and calm and almost Scandinavian in its attention to design and quality of life.

And yet, once we got to the Acropolis, all was forgotten.  We walked up through narrow, white washed alleys:
And when we got there Georgia lost her mind.  Here she is hugging herself with joy:
She was super generous in her enjoyment of the whole thing:

Dahlia was likewise amazingly patient as we walked through ruins and went to museums packed with old statues, jewelry and pottery.

We followed up Athens with Mykonos and Delos, the ancient birthplace of Artemis and her twin brother Apollo.  Here's Georgia at their birthplace:
And of course we tried to work it out for Dahlia too.  We let her choose our accommodations on Mykonos, and because it is the OFF season, Dahlia selected (and we could afford) a pretty fancy beachfront resort.  Here's Dahlia enjoying the fruits of her labor:
Indya and I even snuck in two different hikes up to island mountains, with the most amazing 360 degree views of the Aegean and the Cyclades:

But the star of the show has been Georgia.  As she swam in the (freezing cold) Aegean she called out "Dreams do come true!"

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.