Sunday, February 26, 2006

Costumes for Carnevale in Venice
The beginning of Spring in Slovenia.

It is time to celebrate the end of winter and the beginning of the Lenten season. Buds on trees and bushes are beginning to pulse and swell and everywhere there are preparations for Carnival. In Slovenia the celebration is called Pust based on pre-Christian traditions of driving the winter away to allow room for the spring to come rolling in. There are a variety of celebrations around the country each with its own traditions and costumes. The celebrations culminate on Shrove Tuesday where many of the floats and costumes are burned along with the negative bad feelings from the past year. Then after Ash Wednesday people fast [post] giving up the fatty foods and meats that kept them warm in the winter and prepare their hearts, souls and gardens for new life.

The Kurenti, which at one time were believed to have the power to chase away winter and usher in spring, are the central figures of the annual Kurentovanje festival.
The Slovenian rite of spring and fertility is called Kurentovanje. This event is celebrated for 10 days. Although the origins of Kurentovanje festivities are obscure, the celebration may have come from earlier Slavic, Celtic or Illyrian customs. Similar traditions are found throughout Central Europe in parts of Croatia, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria and elsewhere.
Kurentovanje is a distinctive pre-Lenten festival. The name comes from the festival's central figure, the Kurent, who in earlier times was believed to have the power to chase away winter and usher in spring. During this extravagant festival, Kurent, the god of unrestrained pleasure and hedonism, comes to life. Groups of Kurents (kurenti) dress in sheepskins with cowbells hanging from their belts. They wear furry caps decorated with horns, streamers, feathers and sticks.

The Kurent mask is a major work of folk art in Slovenia. The masks are made of leather, with two holes cut out for the eyes, and a single hole cut out for the mouth. The holes are surrounded with red paint. A trunk-like nose is attached, along with whiskers made of twigs and teeth made of white beans. The final touch is a long, red tongue which dangles down to the chest.
The Kurents travel throughout the town, moving from house to house to scare off evil spirits with bells and wooden clubs that are topped with hedgehog spines. A devil acts as the leader of the procession. He is covered in a net to catch souls. The Kurents are presented with the handkerchiefs of young girls. These gifts are attached to their belts. The people of the town smash clay pots at the feet of the Kurents for good luck and good health.

This info came from We attempeted to go to Ptuj where they have the largest Kurent festival, but the bus connections made it impossible to get there. We will try another year when we have a car. In other festivals the creatures paint their bodies green using leaves and growing things as decorations with bells to scare away the winter. These festivals are accompanied by costume parades, little children begging for candy from house to house, playing tricks on people and lots of parties with good food freshly made sausage and salami, and flansiti [a delicately thin fried pastry similar to elephant ears at the fair]. I went to the Karnival parade in ^Sempeter and there young men were dressed in the kurent costumes along with floats that made political statements about bird flu, the introduction of the Euro next year and the mayor who was being accused of being a gypsy.

Venice is all decked out in splendor for Carnevale. People from all over the world elaborately dressed in masked costumes stroll slowly under the porticoes posing to be observed for picture taking. Many of the designs are traditional baroque clothing excessively decorated with rococo in gold and bright colors, but others are elaborate statements of fancy in even more brilliant colors. Friday was the fashion show and the judging of the best costume for 2006. One of the judges was a famous Italian actress so the paparazzi were all over the place trying to catch the perfect photo of Miss Beautiful in her 18th century gown. The atmosphere was a frivolous elaborate pretense but the quality of the costumes and attention to detail was unbelievable and most of those who were unmasked seemed to be middle age and having a fabulous time.

At choir practice the celebration of sausage continues. Jo^sko cut his first homemade salami to share with us all. The carving was preceded with a speech sharing that he does not make sausages and salami just for himself, but for his family of relatives and friends and he wants to share the first flavor of the year with those of us in his choir. We toast Jo^sko with Na zdravje!, and everyone [except me] study the color, the texture and savor the taste of the new sausage. Dober, dober [good] is echoed around the table and more salami is gobbled up with bread, cheese and pickles. The wine this week is a different wine. Jo^sko was really surprised that I was able to discern the difference in the flavor, but this white wine has a greater depth of flavor, a richness that is different than that which he usually serves. He calls it a zelena [green] wine made from a grape unique to the region. Most of the wines are from French grapes, but this is a grape that is not often grown and the flavor is mixed and blended with a large dose of Slovenian pride. He offered me 100 congratulations because of my abilities to discern, and brought out the grand ringing crystal glasses for me to swirl, sniff and then taste. The glass did not make it taste better; I think I would have liked it even in a paper cup. Jo^sko’s wine is not aged in barrels, but made in and served from large stainless steel vats. I think the alcohol content must be low because the texture is light and easily consumed with very little residual affect. But I am discovering and there is so, so much to learn about wine.

I am experiencing a language break through!!! For 3 hours on a rainy cold Monday I studied Slovenian grammar trying to make sense of cases and declensions. Every noun or adjective takes a different ending depending on how it is used. So one must consider the four declensions 1. a feminine noun ending in “a,” 2. a feminine noun ending in a consonant, 3. a masculine inanimate or animate noun 4. a neuter noun ending in “o” or “e”. And there are no articles as in French or Italian to tell you the gender. Then depending on the use of the word the endings change in the different cases. The nominative case is easy – the subject of the sentence – no changes. The genitive case is the direct object of all negative verbs, 1. “a” becomes “e”, 2. consonants add “i”, 3. “u” is added to masculine noun [Robertu], 4. “o” and “e” become “a”. Each case has its own set of rules [plus the million exceptions]. The dative case is use for the direct object when something is done for someone or something. The accusative case is used when seeing someone or something. The locative case is used for location. The instrumental case is used with someone or something, and each has 4 declensions. And I haven’t even mentioned plural or dual [if there are 2 involved]. So for a simple word like table [miza] you have 1. miza, 2. ni mize, 3. mizi, 4. mizo, 5. mizi, 6. mizo, and plural 1. mize, 2. ni miz, 3. mizam, 4. mize, 5. mizah, 6. mizami. The breakthrough comes with understanding this. I can’t do it, but I understand it. Finally when I hear a word I can discern the root word and recognize that there is an ending and not become debilitated because of the different sounds [oh by the way sometimes the words are then pronounced differently or stressed differently because of the ending too]. Slow I plod along one word at a time, one phrase at a time and eventually I may be able to create an accurate sentence.

Pust Celebration in ^Sempeter

Kurant costumes

An advertisement for a bank that shows a "real Slovene" man and his love of sausage.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Trimming the vines in the vineyard near Dornberk

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Legal in Slovenia!

We have finally received our documents to stay and work in Slovenia!! We have been here 5 months, and it has taken this long to wade through the pylons of paper that balance the bureaucracy. I have no idea how Miha Rossler from the Slovenian Embassy in Washington realistically expected us to complete this process before we left the U.S. First we needed both a contract for work indicating the monthly salary and a contract for housing that indicates the amount paid for rent. The school did indeed send a contract to Bob at home, but it arrived a month after he had been teaching and had already been paid, and of course we needed to see the apartment before we would sign a contract for a year. With the two contracts and our passports in hand we first registered our presence in the city with the police as tourists and became legal for 3 months. With that stamp of approval from the city Bob applied for a work permit, but the work permit was only issued for the 3 months of our tourist registration. When he received the work permit he applied for the residency visa, but since the visas are only issued for the calendar year he was only legal for a month until the end of December. The process could not begin for me until my man with the work permit was legal so after 3 trips to Trieste, Italy to the Slovenian Consulate I too was legal, but for only 2 weeks. Then in 2006 we started the process again! After proving that we are not criminals in 2 countries, purchasing insurance in 2 countries and getting little round purple stamps on a pile of documents we are not able to read, Bob was finally issued his visa from Miss Amelia in the office of foreign workers in Nova Gorica. Ten days later I have my beautiful multicolored visa pasted in my passport and until the end of August it is legal for us to live here. I am not able to work legally without a work permit, but I am able to earn a little spending cash with concerts and English conversation tutoring for students.

Every Wednesday after choir practice the singers continue to socialize with homemade wine, homemade sausage, homemade ^snops, homemade pork rinds and often more food than we certainly need to eat at 9:30 pm. The vegetarian in me is a tad squeamish about all the pork by products, but I do understand there is real art in the raising, slaughtering, preparing and sharing of these delicacies. After careful preparation the salami hangs in a room of specific humidity air-drying for a month and when the creation is perfect the artist slices his salami into little pieces as if he is sharing his most precious sculpture with an adoring public. There is social tradition stuffed in these sausages as well. Men share the work dressing the pig, they have competitions with blind judging for the tastiest sausage and they gather with their friends and family to share the specialty of the house. Hogs are a part of many celebrations as well. The choir sang for a 50th wedding anniversary mass and to thank us the couple served a young pig roasted on a spit and presented whole. And all of this hog activity happens during the cabin fever months bringing people together around fires and glasses of home brew.

For 7 hours we shared the work in the vineyards with Jo^sko and Alida on a glorious sunny clear Saturday. The vines need to be deeply pruned so that the grapes will grow big and juicy from the new growth. They cut off all but 3 or 4 eyes and discard the rest of the vine. Bob follows Jo^sko while I follow Alida. They cut, we pull, removing all the old growth. The grapes are grown in different styles. Some of the vines are 30 or 40 years old and are twisted down from above and tied to lower wires in the style of Jo^sko’s father, while others will twist around the wire at the same level as the top of the trunk. The vineyards are terraced on the hillside with grape vines everywhere in view on all the hillsides around. Jo^sko has acres of vines that need pruning in the early spring, but care and cleaning every week during the summer and picking and preparing in the fall. The fruit of his labor is song and laughter in his wine cellar every Wednesday night.

We invited an American doing research at the Poly Technical Institute for dinner this week. Stephen is here for 6 months on a Fulbright studying issues of environmental chemistry. The 3 of us sat over dinner and never stopped talking for 3 hours. It was so good to be able to talk with someone with common experience and point of reference. The inability to converse on a level of deep understanding continues to haunt me. I test on the cusp of introvert/extrovert on the Myers Briggs test so that when I am comfortable I am very extroverted, but when I am in unfamiliar territory the introvert takes over. This is one of the reasons I don’t like to parties, because the noise makes it difficult to talk and there are usually too many people I don’t know. Living here without the language sends me into introvert survival hide in a corner mode. I am observing a lot, learning an enormous amount, but the extroverted Kay is feeling sorely neglected.

St. Valentine blesses the plants and opens up the growth of the roots in Slovenia. The result of his blessing is evident already with the snowdrops blooming, the pussy willow bushes fluffy with fur, little yellow crocuses smiling in the sunshine, and near our home I saw a male and female pheasant cavorting in the long grass. Spring is just a breath away.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Skiing in Slovenia

A drink at the bar?

Easy slope?

View from Kanin

View from the lodge

Friday, February 10, 2006

Ski Adventure in Slovenija

The Gimnazia takes first year students [9th graders] to Bovec for 3 days to ski Kanin. When they offered me a trip to ski, if I would do activities with the students in the evenings, the adventure was too great to refuse. Bovec is a village nestled in a bowl surrounded by iced peaks stretching for the heavens and leafless hillsides leading from the valley like the nap of a sculpted carpet or the stubble on the chin of a teenage boy. The mountain of Kanin looms 1765 meters [5790 feet] above Bovec. Slovenes and French privately own the ski area with a plan to open the slopes to the Italian resort on the other side of the mountain in the next year for international skiing. This is not a resort. There is no roaring fire and cozy lounge chairs. This is a place for serious skiers. The gondola shed/ski lodge is a metal building with a bar, a cafeteria and hard wooden chairs. The only redeeming quality is the view.

The gondola floats silently straight up the mountain stopping at 3 stations along the way. The “easiest” slopes are at the top, but easy is a creative description. There is nothing easy about any of this. The climb from the gondola shed to the towline carrying skies, poles and walking in inflexible plastic boots for the first time is almost enough exercise for the entire day. The tow is a circular disk that is shoved between my legs by the grunting slope worker that then jerks me upward flinging to the top of the hill. When my skis cross at the tip [which they are want to do on a regular basis] the ride comes to a screeching stop and I am twisted and tangled with poles, skis sliding into the path of the next skier on the tow. I thought the bindings were supposed to release on the skies to keep me from breaking my leg! Instead I need the assistance of 2 strong men to pounce on the bindings to free my boots. They were able to carry my skies to the top, but my only means of transport was crawling like a baby on my hands and knees. The personal humiliation is of course intensified by the 4 year old who dashes zipping past me on his cute little skies while I try to crawl out of his way.

“Skiing is like riding a bicycle – you never forget”, but I haven’t been on this snow-covered ride since before Aaron was born [he is now 30]. I do remember how it is supposed to feel, but my muscles don’t remember how to do it. Crouch, lean forward, snow plow, knees together, dig edges into the snow – sounds easy, but just as often as not I would go the opposite direction than I intended. On a large open slope this would be no concern, but on this “beginner” hill there are beginning snow-boarders sitting at the end of the tow, they are scattered prone all over the slope and their jackets are in a pile in the middle of the hill. An obstacle course is rarely the chosen path for an out of shape out of control skier who has a chronic tip-crossing problem. I think the Olympics in Torino should include a style of skiing that mandates tips crossed at all times – I would be a gold medal winner.

Sometimes [no often] the concentration of keeping my skis in “pizza slice” position with a grapefruit between the tips was distracted by the sun sparkling in the distance on the Adriatic Sea, or the echoing mountain ranges rolling to the coast, or the layered rock rising above me against a deep blue sky like building blocks stock piled to be used later for government buildings, or the intensity of the heat from the sun at 2250 meters [7,395 feet].

“Skiing is the Slovenian national sport”. Only 2 of the 70 students do not have their own equipment. Ski outfits match the boots, the gloves, the hats and goggles. This is a serious sport. I’m just thankful my friends lent me warm clothes, equipment and my mother sent me warm gloves for Christmas.

By the end of the first day I am no longer falling, the tow is a relaxing amusement ride, the sense of control is better and I am no longer causing fear in the hearts of the other skiers. By the end of the second day I think I am ready for the next hill. Alan, the high school student who has been giving me a little bit of guidance in very hesitant English does not agree. I throw his caution to the wind and climb on the 3-person chair lift to heaven. Fortunately I ask Alan just as we are about to embark from the chair lift for last minute instructions. All he says is “Go left.” [This is the point where I am really wishing that his English teachers had been very insistent that he be able to communicate in a second language]. What he didn’t tell me is that going either right or left is going to take me to the depths of this mountain. Getting off the chair lift is an exercise in extreme skiing. If I lean right I tumble over the cliff immediately, if I lean left the dive over the cliff is delayed a few minutes. Of course I am sitting in the far right seat and the moment I take to register fear is just long enough to almost get knocked in the head by the chair lift. [There is no mercy for the ignorant here!] Of course I follow Alan’s directions and go left, but the sight of the black diamond slope just a slip and a slide away from my crossed skis replaces the tiny bit of confidence with FEAR. I maneuver in pathetically slow “pizza” position along the narrow ridge to the gathering spot for the other “beginner” students. Here Alan sends the others on their way pa^cas [slowly]. It looks steep, but they seem to have a handle on their speed and form and I gather confidence. Alan looks at me with disbelief but coaxes me on my way. I do fine slowly leaning right into the hill, but when I turn to go the other direction my edges do not cut in, I gather speed and I careening completely out of control down the hill with way too much speed toward a drop off that has only a single rope as a warning. Fear is the wrong thought process, but as the drop off looms ahead and I am tumbling toward an unknown precipice the toddler survival technique sets in. “Sit down and hold on tight!” The bindings keep a death grip on my skis, so tuck and roll is impossible with my feet stretched to 6 feet long. The people on the chair lift above call out uredu? [OK?], and all I can do is laugh. Laugh because here I am at the top of this nightmarishly steep slope and somehow I have to get down, laugh because I am not hurt and laugh because it is a better choice than crying. After knocking Alan down he is able to hoist me up and I try again. But fear has its ugly little claws wrapped around my throat and the cliff with the unknown bottom is calling my name. I collapse into a pathetic heap, take off my skies; give them to Alan and I walk slowly down the mountain and sit the rest of the afternoon sipping cappuccino and staring at the top of the world.

Kanin is not the best place to be a beginner, but I was not going to let this mountain beat me. The next day I stay on the smallest slope, I stop thinking about “pizza” position, I keep my knees parallel the way they remember from 35 years ago in Colorado, I stop thinking about my skis and feel the flow of my body leading my torso to the direction I want to go. Now I am really beginning to have control, I am not falling and it is exhilarating. The third day is too short. I think I would have tried the bigger hill if I had one more day, but it will be waiting there for me when I return.

When I moved to Colorado 35 years ago I intended to stay there in the mountains forever. I was always looking upward circling around and around never taking my eyes off the colors, textures, and shapes of the mountains. I was in love with the mountains and I claimed them as mine. When I fell in love with Bob the flat fields of Ohio came along with him. The pain of unrequited mountain love was so great that I never returned to Ft. Collins or Rocky Mountain National Park. I was too afraid that my passion for the mountains would force a wedge between Bob and I and I would be discontent living the breadbasket of the U.S. Here in Slovenia the passion for the mountains is rising rapidly, the beauty pulls tears to the surface and sobs of longing for the mountains rise from my soul. Fortunately Bob is here to share this with me.

While I was skiing Bob was partying in the home of the American Ambassador Thomas B. Robertson and his wife Antoinette. The Embassy sponsored an essay-writing contest for students in the European classes. The students were asked to write about how the Slovenian and American cultures can learn from each other. Fifty students submitted essays and Bob was on the committee to read the top ten essays and choose the strongest three. The three winners receiveda lap top computer and the other seven received books. All were invited with their parents and teachers to the Ambassador’s residence for a celebration and American desserts. He enjoyed the opportunity to see the home and meet and talk with the Ambassador and his staff.

Ambassador Thomas B. Robertson is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service with the rank of Counselor. Robertson began his career in the Foreign Service in 1981, serving overseas in Moscow from 1982-84 as aide to the Ambassador, and as Political Officer in Bonn, Germany from 1984-86. From 1986-89, he was Deputy Director for Exchanges in the Office of Soviet Union Affairs at State.

In 1990, Ambassador Robertson moved to Budapest, Hungary, where he was Chief of the Political Section. He worked in the Office of the Special Coordinator for Counter terrorism 1993-94, as Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary for European and Canadian Affairs in 1994, and as European Specialist in the Bureau of Legislative Affairs from 1994-95. Ambassador Robertson was the Law Enforcement Counselor at the American Embassy in Moscow from 1995-1997.

In April 1998, he returned to the Embassy in Budapest as the Deputy Chief of Mission, where he served until March 2001. From March until August 2001, he served in Hungary as the U.S. Charge d'Affaires a.i.

Ambassador Robertson worked at the National Security Council as Director for Russian Affairs beginning in September 2001. In 2002, he returned to the Department of State to serve as a Career Development Officer in the Senior Level Division of the Bureau of Human Resources.
Before entering the Foreign Service, Ambassador Robertson was a guide and then an Exhibit Manager with the U.S. Information Agency, working on cultural exhibits in the Soviet Union, Hungary, Romania, and Zaire from 1975-81. He has a bachelor degree from Princeton University, masters from Johns Hopkins School of International Affairs, and has studied in Germany, the Soviet Union, and Italy. From 1997-98, he studied at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. He speaks Russian, German, Hungarian, and some Slovene, French, and Italian.
He is married and has two college-aged children.
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February 8 is France Pre^seren Day, the National Slovenian Day of Culture . Pre^seren was a poet who lived in the early 1800’s in Ljubljana. He had a life of unfulfilled love, disappointing work and too much drink, but his poetry is celebrated with a holiday, a statue in the main square of the capital and a portion of his verse is used for the national anthem.

God's blessing on all nations, Who long and work for that bright day, When o'er earth's habitations No war, no strife shall hold its sway; Who long to see That all men free No more shall foes, but neighbours be.

On this day the entire country closes down to celebrate culture. The schools, stores, banks, and businesses are all closed; you can’t even buy a loaf of bread. There are cultural programs of singing, dance and poetry readings broadcast on TV. The museums are free, the children are reciting poetry, there are local, regional and national song writing competitions and the flags are flying proudly. It is interesting that in the US we have days celebrating politics, but does the average person even know when Robert Frost, Emily Dickenson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, or Edgar Alan Poe lived?