Category Archives: Slovenia

Any post that mentions Slovenia in more than passing.

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.

Notes on The Monkees, Slovenia, Micky Dolenz, and furniture making

Monkees 2013Here’s a link to my latest piece for the Austin American-Statesman, an interview with Micky Dolenz of The Monkees (they’re playing Austin’s Long Center on Wednesday, 7/31). It’s premium content, but now that the first-publication-rights clause has expired I’ve put the entire article up on this blog.

It’s not in the article, but I did note that I had a couple of odd geographical coincidences with the congenial Mr. Dolenz or, rather, his parents. Dolenz, an actor since childhood, is a native Angeleno, but his late mother Janelle grew up in Austin, my current city, and his late father, George Dolenz, was born Jure Dolenc in Trieste, a member of that city’s large ethnic Slovene community (I lived in Ljubljana, the Slovene capital, for several years). Micky Dolenz has never been to Slovenia, but, he told me, “It’s on my bucket list.” We talked a bit about how he inherited the handyman gene from his dad.  ” I think he worked a lot as a carpenter around town while he was waiting to be an actor, so he passed that on to me and then over the years of course I kept it up, and I’ve always been a huge do-it-yourselfer kind of guy,” he told me.

Today, when he’s not Monkee-ing around, Dolenz and his daughter Georgia operate a popular sideline custom furniture business. They were busy making hope chests on the day we spoke. “She’s coming over in a few minutes and we’re cuttin’ and rippin’ and planing and joining, making dovetail joints; we’re having a great time. I’ve always been very, very handy, always had a workshop, and it started with my dad. He said there was an old Slavic saying, ‘Don’t buy it if you can build it yourself.’

Which is, I confirmed, a very Slovene thing to say.

So Much Is Missed, or Duša Počkaj’s Greatest Hits

In the film Plesu v dežju (Dance in the Rain), 1961

In the film Ples v dežju (Dance in the Rain), 1961

During my years in Slovenia (1996-2001) I became quite fond of the local version of cabaret theatre, not necessarily the kind that was current in that era but also from decades earlier. In particular, I grew to love the songs of Duša Počkaj (1924-1982), a theatre and film actress who occasionally recorded in the chanson tradition, or, as they say in Slovenia, šansoni. A CD compilation of Počkaj’s songs was produced by Slovenia’s Ministry of Culture in 1998; since I was living in Ljubljana then, I snapped up a copy on sale at an Old Town kiosk during the holiday season.  I treasure it still. (If you were wondering, her name is pronounced DOO-sha POACH-kye. The word duša also means “soul” in Slovene.) The songs on the compilation, titled simply Šansoni, were collected from various radio and TV broadcasts, films and stage performances of Počkaj’s during the 1960s and ’70s. Although she never performed specifically as a singer and never released an actual record during her lifetime, her expressive, world-weary alto was perfect for the chanson genre. Počkaj had tons of innate style, her natural snap and wit rendering even the darkest lyrics palatable for eager consumption by her fellow Slovene sophisticates in the audience. Thirty years after her death she still has a place in Slovenia’s artistic canon, if an understated one. Last October, during the annual Mesto žensk/City of Women arts festival in Ljubljana, a performance inspired by Počkaj’s life and art, Draga Duša (Dear Duša) was presented in, appropriately enough, Duša Počkaj Hall, an intimate 60-seat performance space in the Cankarjev dom, Ljubljana’s answer to Lincoln Center. (Here’s an English-language link to a short description of the piece.)

Počkaj was born in November 1924 in Lendava, a smallish town near the Hungarian border in Slovenia’s remote northeastern corner.  Lendava is part of the Prekmurje region, which I think of as Slovenia’s answer to northern New England in its isolation, spareness and relative poverty, and one of the country’s primary incubators of folk traditions.  (The balladeer Vlado Kreslin, who has been called Slovenia’s answer to Bruce Springsteen, also hails from Prekmurje.)

Počkaj studied architecture in college for a time but then enrolled as one of the first female students in the new Academy of Dramatic Arts in Ljubljana, which was founded in 1945. She soon found work onstage in the National Theatre and made her first film in 1953. Počkaj was a busy trouper to the end, performing nearly constantly in TV shows and movies for domestic consumption along with stage productions. I don’t know if she ever appeared in any foreign productions, or performed in any other language besides Slovene, which made her a star at home and utterly obscure beyond Slovenia’s borders. According to her Slovene Wikipedia entry, she actually died of a heart attack during a stage performance in Ljubljana, at the young age of 57, on June 24th, 1982, while appearing in ‘The Forest’ by the Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky.

Here is a link to Šansoni (I haven’t downloaded it myself since I have the CD, so all I can say is good luck and be careful). Here is another one with which to try your luck, which includes the CD cover and liner notes.

So much is missed for lack of translation; so much great art never gets heard by people who would appreciate it.  Here are the lyrics to one of my favorite songs on that album, Življenje (Life), first in the original Slovene, then in translation — I couldn’t find an English translation so I translated it myself, and it’s probably spotty and inaccurate at points — I don’t get to practice my Slovene much these days — but I at least tried to improve on Google Translate.  (You experts in slovenščina should feel free to suggest alternate wordings. If you suspect I’m trying to sneakily crowd-source a better translation, you’d be correct.)

The thing is, if Duša Počkaj thought it was important enough to expose her fellow Slovenes to translated versions of song poems by the likes of Dylan Thomas, Brecht/Weill (“Pirate Jenny” and “Barbara Song”) and Robert Burns, along with poems by her fellow countrymen (who have a grand poetic tradition dating back to the ubiquitous 19th century national hero, France Prešeren), shouldn’t I at least try to return the favor and translate a lyric by the Slovene poet Kajetan Kovič, as best as I can, for whoever is intrigued enough to read this far?

So, here’s a link to Duša’s recording, on YouTube (titled for the occasion Čudno Življenje, or Strange Life).

ŽIVLJENJE 


(Kajetan Kovič)
Tak čudno je naše življenje,
srečno in hkrati nesrečno.
In kratko je naše življenje
in eno samo za večno.

Dokler smo tu sta nebo
in zemlja v naši oblasti,
vendar mora drevo
o sojenem času pasti.

Tak čudno je naše življenje
s svojo mračno zavestjo,
da se pesem konča
v plitkem jarku za cesto,

da se včasih konča,
preden se je začela,
brez zemlje in brez neba
kot roža nedozorela.

Tak čudno je naše življenje,
srečno in hkrati nesrečno,
o pesem nedokončana
in ena sama za večno.

My translation:

LIFE

Such a strange thing is our life,
Happy and at the same time unhappy.
And brief is our life,

And we only have one, forever.

As long as we are here, the sky
And the earth are under our power,
Yet still, the tree
Is judged during its fall.

Such a strange thing is our life
With its dim consciousness
And the song ends
In a shallow ditch on the road

That sometimes ends
Before it began,
Without earth and without sky
Like a flower yet to bloom.

Such a strange thing is our life,
Happy and sad at the same time,
An unfinished song
And one alone, forever.

#####

Happy belated 88th birthday, Duša.

The CD cover

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.”