Category Archives: expats

A Nalepka Noir Novelette

Here it is, the longest piece of fiction I’ve ever written;zmajbigNALEPKE a comic noir novelette, complete, unabridged, with special-edition DVD-only extras, hot off the WordPress. Fair warning: there are a lot of in-jokes, puns, and references that only people familiar with Slovenia and Ljubljana will get, but I hope the rest of you will find something there of value. If nothing else, it’s original and it is My Thing. Access is free, but there is a button to donate something via GoFundMe if the spirit moves you. If you like it, share. And enjoy.

That URL again:

https://themesecnikfiles.wordpress.com/

You know you’re an American who’s been in Slovenia a while when…

[This piece first appeared in my original website, http://www.pogoer.org, under the title “You know you’re a foreigner who’s been in Slovenia too long when…” In retrospect, I don’t think there’s any such thing as too long, and the list is somewhat American-specific and, yes, a bit dated. So be it, then.]

1. You pepper your conversations (with other English speakers) with expressions like “ah res?” and “v redu!”

2. You think of Wheel of Fortune as your country’s version of Kolo
Sreče.

3. It seems normal to have to visit two cashiers’ windows to (a) pay and obtain a receipt, and (b) present the receipt to the clerk, who carefully wraps, tapes, stickers shut and bags your single 9-volt battery.

4. On trips home, you speak to shop clerks and waitresses in Slovene. Or at least think about it.

5. You stop thinking about how nice it would be to have a clothes dryer again.

6. When asked to spell out your name, you automatically do it pronouncing the letters the Slovene way.

7. You stop converting prices from tolars into your home currency.

8. You start following Slovene politics.

9. You tell friends you’re going on a short trip to Dunaj or Benetke.

10. The words “Jogurt” and “joga” look normal to you in print.

11. Shutters on windows begin to seem like a decadent Western affectation.

12. Your dreams are in English, but with Slovene subtitles.

Revisiting my visit to Sarajevo

I visited Sarajevo in April 2001 for about a week, and subsequently wrote this article with an eye to publication in a newspaper — any newspaper, really. For one reason or another, it was never published; I suppose it didn’t and doesn’t fit neatly into a typical travel section and is perhaps a bit too service-feature-ish for a more arty mag. But I still like it and wanted to put it out there, finally, for those who might be interested.

Sarajevo was an odd place for me; I felt very much at home in Ljubljana, but in Sarajevo I was uneasy and unsure of myself. In a diary entry at the time, I wrote, “There’s something very odd about listening to Kirsty MacColl singing ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ while walking through Freedom Square, Sarajevo, on Palm Sunday.” That about sums it up, I think.

This version dates from around the spring of 2002, shortly after I’d relocated to Austin; I’ve only lightly tweaked it here. I’ve left in the extremely travel-sectiony “If You Go” bits after the article proper, though I’m sure nearly all of it is now seriously obsolete info.

 

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Worlds colliding…in a good way

Of all the articles I’ve ever written over my career, this newly published piece has to be in the top 5 if not at the all-time peak, concerning as it does so many of my favorite things:  (1) Slovenia, (2) expats and foreign visitors, (3) alternative musicians and writers. Also, it appears in (4) the in-flight magazine of Adria Airways, Slovenia’s national carrier, which happens to be, in my opinion, the finest airline magazine I’ve ever seen.

On top of all this, it’s the first article I’ve ever done that you can read in Slovene (all the articles in the magazine appear in both Slovene and English, expertly translated). Love it to pieces. To read, go to the third dot at the bottom and scroll to what’s identified as page 46 (which is actually page 56 when you get into the page).

What more could I possibly ask for? Oh, yeah, there’s this one thing where a photo of musician Chris Eckman is miscaptioned with my name, to which I say, huh? We look nothing alike…

Goodbye to All That

You won't find her at the market anymore.

I’m afraid I’m not perfect. Ever since I repatriated to the USA at the end of 2001, I admit I’ve had a bit of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to putting up with the tastes and opinions of Americans who’ve never been farther away than an occasional week in the Caribbean or Mexico, as well as all those businesses that make their living catering to those tastes and opinions. (“I decided to go live in Slovenia on a whim, and I did,” I say to myself with chest puffed metaphorically out. “I’m just as good as anyone else out there! Maybe better!”) Whenever I go into a home-furnishings shop and browse through the photos and posters in the Exotic Destinations section, I know exactly what I’ll find: Paris, Venice, New York, maybe Tuscany, precious little else. What a bore.

Which is why I so enjoy talking to those folk I consider to be ‘my people’: those who either are, or have been, expats, well-traveled world citizens, or at least People Who Know Europe. Not that I should talk so loudly — I’ve never been east of Romania, never been to Africa (except for Tunisia), never been to Asia. I’ve always wondered about what’s around the bend, what’s beyond the farthest outpost in my experience.

I recently enjoyed writing an article on expat creatives in Slovenia — musicians, filmmakers, writers. It wasn’t part of my plan, but all those I ended up interviewing were Americans. It seems to me that the American expat is a breed apart from, say, the German, Australian or British expat. Because the USA is so isolated, American expats tend to think they have a lot more to prove when they move overseas — not to be seen as the typical insular, monolingual American, for example, they tend to throw themselves into their host cultures full-throttle. They need to Make A Statement, carve out their territory. They don’t want to be back home, they sense there’s other stuff out there worth exploring, and if they sometimes seem to want to become more Italian than the Italians or more Russian than the Russians, who can blame them?

Some expats are, of course, more, well, naturally out there (in more than one sense) than others. Take the notorious writings and escapades of Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi, who started the eXile newspaper in Moscow (and wrote a book about it, which I haven’t read). Ames and Taibbi, who haven’t spoken to each other in years, have relocated (not exactly with glee) back to the US and — as a recent Esquire piece makes clear — haven’t exactly mellowed with age. Nutcases, once-and-future addicts and world-class haters they may well be, but Ames and Taibbi are probably the expats all other expats should be measured against, the ones who actually lived the lives other, more timid sojourners only daydreamed about. (That most of these daydreams remained daydreams is probably a good thing.)

Nearly equaling those guys for gumption is New York writer/musician/cult figure Mykel Board, who decided to relocate to Mongolia for a year in 1995-96, for the heck of it, and had the adventure of his life — or at least one of them — and wrote about it to hilarious effect in his book Even a Daughter is Better Than Nothing (I’ve read it, you should too; it can be bought for cheap on Amazon.com).

I haven’t read any of those books about Americans relocating to Tuscany or Provence — too mainstream, couldn’t care less about these people’s plumbing and wiring problems in renovating that oh-so-picture-perfect farmhouse, reminds me too much of the silly posters in the picture-framing section of the store anyway.

I experienced a far different sensation recently, reading a memoir of a place I know well, by a woman who came to Slovenia before I did and remains there now. I’m speaking of  Erica Johnson Debeljak, whose memoir of her early years in Slovenia, Forbidden Bread, was published last year by North Atlantic Books. It is a passing strange thing to read a book written by someone I know, with whom I shared a city for a time. We didn’t see each other every week, but I knew Erica and her husband, the noted poet, essayist and educator Aleš Debeljak (for whom I edited a manuscript or two while I was living in Ljubljana and working as an English language editor), on a casual basis. I used to think of Erica as the Official American Female Expat in Slovenia, since she was obviously a smart and capable person who had done very well for herself in terms of switching careers along with countries, combining this with raising a beautiful family and maintaining a rather high profile in the SI (one wintry day on the street near my flat in Bežigrad, I remember seeing a large photo of Aleš, Erica and their young children on a billboard, in a winter scene, possibly riding on a sled, in what I’m almost sure was an ad for the ubiquitous Slovenian cellphone company Mobitel). As her memoir makes clear, though, the first years were anything but a smooth ride as she adjusted to and sometimes clashed with the customs of her new home, represented in all forms from the infamous bureaucracy of the new state to the rural lifestyles of her husband’s family.

Erica moved to Slovenia only a couple of years after it had declared its independence from the fast-fragmenting Yugoslavia, and battles were still going on just to the south between Croats and Serbs (at her otherwise idyllic wedding reception, she could hear machine-gun fire a few miles away over the border in Karlovac, Croatia).  You’d expect capsule descriptions of the history of the region and Slovenia in particular, and Erica provides them clearly and concisely, but the heart of the book is a personal story of her struggles with the new land. There’s the odd language, of course, but language is a fixed and codified thing; you can take classes in it, and it can be mastered with sufficient amounts of concentration and practice (lots of it).

You can’t, however, take a class in social attitudes (at least not, as far as I know, in Slovenia). Certain things can only be learned by direct experience, such as the Slovenes’ aversion to drafts of any kind (riding in a hot car on a hot day with no air conditioning, nobody opens a window — which I can vouch for), and triple-diapering a baby (which I’d never heard of before reading this book — something about worrying about setting the baby’s hips out of joint). Although the Slovenes tend to be competent and honest, they’re also not as direct as Americans, which can be both a blessing and a curse, but is ultimately just another detail for an expat to adjust to.

The book’s final chapter jumps ahead from 1995 — just after the birth of the Debeljaks’ first child — to 2008, when they have a teenage girl and two growing boys and Slovenia is a member of the EU and NATO, the tolar is history, and modernization has, as Erica writes, rendered obsolete much of what she covered in her memoir. It’s meant to be jolting, and it certainly was for me. Expats understandably tend to romanticize their chosen foreign destination, even when, as one hip Slovene woman once told me, “your paradise is someone else’s prison.” Over the five years I spent in Slovenia I could see the old ways fading out as certainly as the cafes with Tito-era decor gave way with a vengeance to postmodern facades and shops that wouldn’t be out of place in Copenhagen, Rome or London. I accept that time can’t be reversed, but at this point I wonder how I’ll feel when I set foot in Slovenia again. You can’t go home away from home again. I know that at the least, I’ll miss the tolars.

31 things about me

1. When I was about 11 or 12, I ran a race with my sister in the driveway of our house, racing toward the garage door, and stopped by putting my hands out on a window of the selfsame garage door. My right arm went through the window, slicing open the underside of my arm. I required stitches at the hospital. I still have a long, curving scar reaching nearly from elbow to wrist, plus a small scar shaped like a fish on the underside of my right wrist. I don’t mind the scars. They’re part of me now.

2. In 1983, while driving down a mountain on Maui, my sister drew my attention to a picture in a magazine of a pig at a luau, and I looked at it, drove off the road and down a cliff. The car was stopped by a thicket of bushes, and we were both fine. A few feet in either direction and we would have probably died there.

3.  Despite the evidence of #1 and #2, I do not consider my sister to be a jinx.
4. My wife and I were born eight minutes and about 25 miles apart on a hot day in July.

5. I spent my last birthday ending in a zero alone at the Pivo in Cvetje (Beer and Flowers) Festival in Laško, Slovenia. It rained.

6. Although that had its charms, my next birthday, which also ends in a zero, will be spent someplace else.

7. I am good at putting on accents and imitating voices, and have a pretty good ear for pitch. Or think I do.
8. I believe I have suffered some hearing loss from my years of clubgoing (mainly in Boston), although not badly enough for it to be a serious handicap.

9. Politically, I am more liberal now than I was in high school.
10. I didn’t go to a funeral until I was 29 years old. Over the following six years I went to three more.

11. I like drawing cartoon heads and have done so from an early age. My wife thinks I missed a calling as a cartoonist.

12. I like to sing, but have never done so in public apart from one evening of karaoke in the Water Tank bar in Austin, Texas. My wife tells me I could be a good singer if I took it seriously.

13. I lived in Ljubljana, Slovenia, from the fall of 1996 to the end of 2001.

14. And I haven’t shut up about it since.

15. I saw Bill Clinton speak in the center of Ljubljana to a massive crowd in the pouring rain on a June day in 1999, and later wrote about it for publication. A photo I took from the press bleachers shows a sea of umbrellas in Kongresni trg.

16. I have visited 20 countries in the world aside from the two I’ve lived in. I’d like to visit many more before I die.

17. On my short list of places I’d like to visit that I haven’t previously: Russia, Bali, Bulgaria, Thailand, Turkey, Israel, Serbia, Iceland.
18. One of the most daring (or craziest) things I’ve ever done was spend two weeks as the second-oldest camper participant in Outward Bound Romania in the summer of 1998. I think the main reason I stuck it out was that I didn’t want to be talked about as “the American who quit.” (You can read an extended diary of my experiences here.)
19. Most people think I’m younger than I actually am. Including me.

20. I’m probably the only person who has interviewed both Richard Hell and Joel Osteen. (Not at the same time, alas.)
21. I saw Bambi for the first time at the age of 31. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone younger than that see that sick movie.
22. In person I may seem quite introverted, although not nearly as much as I used to. I am more comfortable as an observer than as a participant, in the way of writers.

23. I interviewed Joan Jett at a club in New Hampshire in 1984. It wasn’t one of my better interviews.

24. I participated in plays and musicals in high school and can still sing much of the score from “Guys and Dolls.”

25. While in high school, I amused myself by writing parodies of the plays I was acting in and showing them to my fellow performers for their amusement.

26. One of these fellow performers suggested I abandon plans to become an actor and focus on writing instead. This was good advice.

27. I like all different sorts of music, but always seem to come back to new wave, punk and garage rock (both original and neo).

28. Since marrying, my wife’s tastes for cabaret, classical music and opera have rubbed off on me. To a certain extent.

29. My wife never ceases to amaze me.

30. I am the proud father of two nearly four-year-old fraternal twin boys who couldn’t be more different, yet delight me in equal measure. Yes, it’s worth it.

31. My favorite quote is from Raymond Williams: “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing.”

How I got to this point, part I: Kirsty and Donna and the mysteries of the universe

Getting from here to there, thereby hangs a tale. And since it’s past time to tell it…

Well, it’s like this. Sometimes the divine spark, call it what you will — God, or the Great Hand that Writes, or the Fickle Finger of Fate — makes itself known in a damned heavy-handed manner that leaves you reeling and wondering why me? and what’s going on? and thinking I’d better ride this wave for all it’s worth, because something bigger than just my little old life is going on here. And sometimes, like nature, the Great Hand likes to hide (thanks for the tip, Heraclitus).

Sometimes it hides for a very long time, indeed.

As the summer of 2000 turned to fall, and fall cooled further to winter, my life in Slovenia had become, if not exactly tiresome, then predictable; I couldn’t see much of a future ahead. Work had slowed, and I had by then long intuited that certain avenues would be forever closed to me if I remained there, and I would never be truly accepted by most of the locals. I loved Slovenia — still do — but the reverse didn’t hold: Slovenia didn’t love me back. The sense of wonder and discovery (and occasional moments of horror) that marks Year One of the experience of any expat worth the plane fare had, in that time-honored expat way, long since given way to same old same old. Not a bad existence, but still. It was static and holding.

I couldn’t escape a certain restlessness. I felt an inescapable sense of things coming to an end, as if my life in Ljubljana, rewarding, quirky and different as it was, had reached a point of no return. The wheels were still turning, but I was staying in place. I felt myself at loose ends, and didn’t quite know what to do about it except go into the old town, have another coffee, and stare into the distance.

The house in which I was living, my third and, as it turned out, final residence in LJ, was, for all its flaws, by far the best place I’d lived, and certainly the roomiest. I occupied the ground floor of Number 41 F. ulica, a modest two-story home in Bezigrad; the old couple who had previously lived there had died within weeks of each other, as old couples sometimes do, and their married daughter, a no-nonsense but fair enough woman who worked for a security company, rented out the flat; the second story was vacant except for a couple of weeks a year when the woman’s aunt, who lived in Switzerland, returned for a homecoming vacation.

The house wasn’t in the best condition, mold darkened corners of the ceiling, and the old man’s clothes were still stored in the cupboard and other artifacts (including a funeral album showing yet another old guy in his coffin) were in drawers in the house and the old quilts were still on the bed (my landlady obviously had no conception of giving away or discarding such effects). A crack in the bedroom window resulted in some very cold mornings. Hey, perhaps this was the way things were done here — garage sales in Slovenia were virtually unheard of, since nobody ever threw anything out even when someone died. But springtime strawberries grew in the garden, the house’s cool, dark cellar was ideal for storing wine, and I’d long gotten used to the slowness of dial-up Internet connections on my Mac laptop.
And so I passed the days, cooking my own meals, walking to the market, riding the bus to and from downtown, attending concerts and festivals, writing articles for various publications, editing for translators, and surfing the Net. Life passed rather glacially, and there was a vague sense of disquiet to it all.
New Year’s Eve arrived, and suddenly it was 2001 — the real start of the 21st century (so I was told).
On the second day of the year, I was sitting idly at the kitchen table and checking a site I hadn’t visited in awhile, which chronicled the recent deaths of celebrities and other notables, to catch up on anyone I might have missed. And read the following.

Kirsty MacColl (singer/songwriter) — Dead. Boat hit her while she was swimming. Died December 18, 2000.

Kirsty MacColl??? My God.

I’d seen Kirsty perform on March 19, 1995, when I paid $8 to see her and her band at the Paradise, a smallish club in Boston. The house was far from packed, but her fans were, as ever, much appreciative.
My reaction at the terrible manner of her death — killed by a speedboat while scuba diving (you can easily look up the details elsewhere) — soon sent me spiraling from disbelief into full-on grief. I started crying uncontrollably for a time every day for about two weeks.
I printed out various song lyrics, memorized them, and sung them out loud while standing alone in my sun-washed kitchen with its window looking out on the garden.
I soon found a Kirsty-devoted group on the Internet, where the members were sharing their grief, and I introduced myself and started sharing.
Although I always thought Kirsty was great [I wrote], and am happy to say I saw her perform live once in 1995, I don’t own every record she ever put out and frankly, hadn’t even thought about her for several years. I found out about her death shortly after New Year’s and was completely unprepared for the depth of my feelings, my sense of bereavement and profound loss. I suppose I always took her for granted.

I’m of the opinion that it’s dangerous to have heroes, since, politician or musician, they’re bound to let you down in the end, but everything I’ve read about Kirsty so far suggests that she was admirable and courageous (to the last moments) and — well, I can say that she was, if not my heroine, someone whose legacy appeals to what I’d like to think of as the better parts of myself. For me the infuriating thing is that it’s taken her death to make me realize this. It seems so obvious now. I think the major difference between Kirsty and most of the practitioners of what passes for the product of the pop scene today is only this: She was a completely realized adult human being; she knew who she was and did what she wanted to do, and damn the chart-topping fads and followers of fashion. And it’s only now I realize what I’m going to miss. Right now the fact that people with one-tenth her talent have enjoyed a hundred times the success she did, and the stupid, infuriating way she died (about which I could spit nails) seem like exhibits A and B in Resolved: Why the World is an Awful Place.
On the other hand, I can’t stand cheap sentiment and bathos, and one of the reasons I care for Kirsty is that she didn’t either, she saw reality and talked about it, and the last thing she’d want is a weepy overblown flowery tribute. Put away the rose-colored glasses; keep it real and it’ll be fine.

Kirsty was three months younger than me, and when you’re a teenager and discovering and exploring a new thing called punk rock, something of the spirit of it remains a touchstone for you, however much growing up you do over the decades. At the least, euphemisms and greeting-card sentiments won’t do.
So I don’t really know what else to say right now. Except that it’s still so hard to take; to echo what others have said, it’s as if I’ve lost a personal friend or a part of myself, maybe one of the truest, best parts. I don’t know where to go from here. I’ve thought about attending the memorial service but aren’t sure. In any case, “Walking Down Madison,” “My Affair,” and “They Don’t Know” keep playing in my head, in heavy rotation.The Kirsty concert I saw happened one Sunday night at a small club in Boston, filled with her proverbial small but loyal band of local New England followers. She teased us from the stage as “you Sunday night rockers, you,” and did all of those varied gems that belonged to her, and everyone loved it and was glad they’d come. Before the last encore, she hinted that the appropriate way to close such a show would be with something soft, gentle, filled with reverie. Then she and the band slammed into “I Wanna Be Sedated.” I went home with a big grin on my face.
And thinking to myself: Oh, yeah — she’s one of us.
Later that month I traveled to London to cover Kirsty’s memorial service for the Boston Phoenix (which I’ve reprinted here); I didn’t write, however, that I cried through much of it. (Well, so did a lot of people in the Church of St. Martin in the Fields.)
A woman in the US named Donna wrote back, saying how much she appreciated my post. I wrote back and thanked her.
About two days later, she e-mailed me again, asking if I was the same Wes that someone named Symboline (a/k/a Sally Cragin, astrologer and an active freelance writer based in Massachusetts) had mentioned in an e-mail to her a couple of years before.
What?? Yes, I was. I’d known Sally since the mid-’80s, in fact, when we were both doing the guest-list music-scribbling thing at clubs around Boston.
Before too long, Donna and I found out that we had been born on the same day, in the same year (as we later found out, I was eight minutes older), she in New Jersey and me in New York.
We started writing to each other, and for me, sorry if this sounds corny, it was like discovering a long-lost other half. We wrote about our families and our beliefs and a lot of things that aren’t anybody’s business but our own, and she had also seen Kirsty (in New York a couple of years before I had — her brother, also a big fan, had introduced Donna to Kirsty’s music).
In late August of that eventful year, I flew to New York ostensibly to see my family, but really to meet Donna in person. The future Mrs. Pogoer and I finally met on August 24 at a downtown Manhattan bistro (known as a hangout for writers and editors, although that’s not why I selected it). It couldn’t have been a more perfect setting for the encounter. Time seemed to stop, we fell to talking as if we’d known each other for ages, everything seemed perfect, and it was one of the most memorable days of my life and set the tone for every day I’ve had since then.
We continued the date with a concert at the Knitting Factory that same night. I remember we had to wait an interminable amount of time before a cab came to take Donna to the train station, and she kissed me goodbye in the cab as if signaling me to stay in touch, and do some thinking.
I then drove to Pennsylvania to visit friends and take in a music festival in Johnstown (more about that in an upcoming post), and returned in early September, where Donna and I met up again in Manhattan, in Bryant Park in midtown, near the main branch of the Public Library.

I realize that many couples have “met cute” stories, but I don’t think a lot of them can , in all honesty, come up to ours.

To recap, here’s an excerpt from our wedding Web page, circa 2003, on The Knot:

<<It’s a long and twisted story, but here goes. We met on the Internet – but not on any of the usual sites. In April, 2000, Donna e-mailed a question to an online astrologer named Symboline, who in real life is Wes’s longtime friend Sally. Sally/Symboline recognized that Donna shared a birthdate with Wes…and told Donna to check out Wes’s website, which Donna duly did. Hm, she thought, a bit peeved: this sounds like a person I’d really get along with, too bad he’s an ocean and half a continent away. Flash forward to January, 2001. British singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl (a favorite of both Donna and Wes) had been killed the previous month in a freak accident in Mexico. Donna logged onto an online bulletin board of MacColl fans, and the first thing she read was a posting by…Wes. Not realizing he was THAT Wes, she e-mailed him to tell him she liked what he’d written; he courteously replied. Soon afterwards, she put two and two together and realized: Hey! A whirlwind exchange of e-mail followed as winter turned into summer; in August, 2001 the two met face-to-face…in Manhattan. The rest is history. Make of it what you will… Wes and Donna would like to thank Symboline and Kirsty for making it all possible…and the fates for finally bringing them together after having been born one river and eight minutes apart on a hot day in July.

[to be continued]