Monday, August 26, 2013

Slovenia July-August 2013

Belgium has been testing me this year. Weather, relationships, work- each compartment of daily life has been its own choose-your-own adventure novel. I seemingly chose only the dead-end routes, the routes that send you back to the beginning, or paths that lead to some sort of bandaged mummy or toothless goblin and an inevitable sequestering in a damp and rotting cave. 

Sure, I have a flair for the dramatic- I'm the proverbial magnet for ridiculous or absurd situations (cognac with Buddy Guy? hitchhiking in Harley parades?). And I by no means advocate a comfortable existence- that would run against the grain of my DNA- but, damn Belgium, that was a tumultuous six months. You kicked me in the pants and left me lying at Place Annesseens in a pool of post-Tuesday market fish water. July, for all its warmer days and brief adventures (hiking in the forests, Bruce Springsteen concerts, Brussels aperos and a new wave of US visitors), left me in dire need of an escape. Or a whiskey. Or both.

escaping the camper-lined Ortho near La Roche en Ardennes

Luckily, a nerdy profession has its benefits: summer school. So off to Ljubljana I went for three weeks of mathematics courses. The hectic June and July schedule provided no time for preparation; I genuinely had no idea what to expect nor was I cognizant enough to realize I was relocating to a Yugoslav-Italian-Hungarian-Austrian mashup of history, culture, and food. Talk about sensory overload: reading Slovenian history is like reading the who's who list of conquers and empires. Charlemagne, The Habsburgs and their architects (those regal real estate moguls!), the Austro-Hungarians, the Nazis- all had their way with Slovenia. But the Yugoslav empire post World War II, led by a man with a boxer's name (Tito) and an uncomfortable coziness for Russian-style socialist dictatorship, etched the greatest mark in the Slovene history. 

As a slight aside, Tito's second name was Broz- wasn't that any indication that this lad was perhaps working with a frat house moral code? 

Anyway, the point is that the colors of Slovene history are tattooed all over the country, most obviously in Ljubljana. I mean that literally, not metaphorically- the buildings are genuinely multicolored, the city is painted pastel and capped in orange tiled roofs you'd expect from the Tuscan countryside.

More impressive is the country's calm coolness. Ljubljana is the poster child for acceptance (historical and cultural) and creative outlets, proof that if everyone just relaxed a little, all would be good and right with the world. There's a squat-cum alternative arts center where you're as likely to rub shoulders with a local politician as you are to be offered a free history lesson by some pierced, head half shaved teenager (who will follow up the conversation with an offer of something less savory and slightly more illegal). There's a cafe-lined river dotted with retired American tourists and up and coming Slovene fashion designers. Boats float down the Ljubljanica river every evening at 7pm decked with jazz or pop or rock bands. Graffiti-covered walls are omni-present but compliment the hodgepodge assortment of architecture. The Alps butt up to the city, their shadows peeking down the end of the main boulevards and lingering beyond rooftops. And like a wise, weathered older sister who's already been to college, a castle/former war time hospital is perched on top of a hill, keeping a careful eye on the emerald river that wanders through the historic center below (and offering free movies under the stars in her courtyard every summer evening).  

st. nicholas cathedral under the shadows of ljubljana castle

st. george and the dragon- two local legends cum statues

eyes on the alps- view from the castle

True to form, I let myself be absorbed by this city, this country. I was already feeling lifeless and rundown, so a few pivo's, vino's and kava 'z melkoms (beers, wines and coffees) proved welcomed medicine and fuel for mentally demanding academic work. I followed Girl Scout protocol, as well:  a friend and classmate from Leuven, lovingly nicknamed "Slovenian Princess",  and a new friend/"housemate" aided my endeavors, sharing favorite cafes, nights out, and friends.

The takeaway? That understated and underestimated- whether city, country, person, place or thing- are usually more wise and more spiritual than the more obvious. That a quite humbleness leaves a bit of mystery and enchantment, creates an air of cool and appreciation. Good lessons for those feeling a bit defeated.

artwork in metelkova, a squat/alternative art center 

lovelocks on bronzed fish over the ljubljanica river

Monday, August 19, 2013

Summer Visits

A second wave of visitors made their way from the US to Belgium in the last few months. Granted, I've been advertising Brussels, Belgium, and the area in general to anyone within earshot, but I've been extraordinarily lucky to show off (one of) my adopted country (countries?) to people I adore. Here's what we've been up to:

We've explored Brussels...

Grand Place

Portuguese BBQ at Stadhuis St. Gilles

We've made short journeys to Leuven and to Antwerpen...

We sampled some of the country's finest products...

We celebrated holidays and birthdays...

We even made it to the Ardennes...

We're nearly four years into this Europeanization and after three years in Belgium, my list of favorite restaurants, bars, museums, pleins (squares), parks, shops, etc, is ever expanding. There is nothing better than being accompanied by friends and family from home to these local gems- these visits transform even the most tedious locations like Grand Place and the Mannekin Pis from average tourist attractions to meaningful, beautiful spots.   Now I just need to coax my parents into (finally!!) planning a fall tour to the lowlands- it will be a quiet and cold autumn with no visitors...