Friday, November 28, 2014

Thankful in Ljubljana

We had some firsts yesterday.  It was the first Thanksgiving we have not spent with either my extended family or Indya's.  It was also the first Thanksgiving I have ever had to work.  I teach on Thursdays and am canceling class three times over Christmas (when they continue classes with only two days off for Christmas and one day off for New Years!), so I just couldn't pull the trigger and cancel again.  We let the girls stay home from school, but poor Indya trooped off to teach as well. My parents and my brother and sister-in-law and my niece and nephew are ALL coming over for Christmas and New Years, so Thanksgiving was bound to be one of the lonelier days of this year. 

We actually had a great Thanksgiving dinner hosted by U.S. Embassy folks and attended by Slovene and American families.  We had roast turkey and cranberry sauce and the cornbread sausage stuffing I made, so the food was great and pretty traditional, and the company was excellent (and of course the wine was better than we drink at my family's house!). 

But still, it wasn't the same as a family gathering.  I think it is safe to say that it is one of the days we have been most homesick since we got here, especially Dahlia who is a tradition hound.  Just last year my whole family came down to Knoxville and we borrowed a deep fat fryer for the turkey and then made some french fries in the turkey infused gallons of grease.  Mmmmmmmm grease.

Regardless, being away for a year is a sharp reminder to be ever grateful for what we left behind.  We have had some great talks about returning to the USA with open eyes, extra grateful and more aware of all of the amazing people, places, and things we have surrounded ourselves with at home in Knoxville, Tennessee.  we are always big on expressing a list of our "thankfuls" at Thanksgiving.  This year we are grateful not only for this year's adventure, but also that we get to go home at the end!  It's a funny lesson for Thanksgiving to remember to be thankful for what you don't have, but it's a good one.

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!