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Letters from Slovenia

Letter from Slovenia: 1. Special K and Politics

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October 26, 2007 This all started when I decided to shed by American induced shudders and buy a blemished granny smith apple here. I have not seen one in years. It was wonderful, much better than the perfect looking mealy balls of green cardboard I have been sampling in the good old U.S. of A. In this, my first foray into a small market, I wanted also to get some cereal. Choices were limited to about 30 options. This is not a complaint: I find this a good contrast to the 300 plus cereal boxes on display in a typical U.S. super market. The only brand that I recognized was Special K. ‘Why not?’ I thought, because losing some weight while here is a modest goal. Well, maybe not that modest in a land known for heavy food, I suppose. Next morning, I had some of the cereal and reading the packaging gave me an unwelcome surprise. I read “Women who choose Kellogg’s Special K stand out! They know what they deserve and go after it. They take care of their shape and their nutrition and feel confident and better about themselves.” If people here have taken these words seriously, it might explain some of the looks I was getting. (I thought people were looking at me as though I was strange because of my language incompetence and my distinctive outback hat from down under.) If their understanding of Kellogg’s stupid blurb induced their glances, the shame almost makes me want to shop furtively in a trench coat for my Special K just to complete the image. I would spare the outback hat its embarrassment. Somehow, musing on stupidity led me to think of Ann Coulter – which I know is unfair to Kellogg’s writers. A few days before leaving for Europe, I came across a statement of hers to the effect that it would be great if women were stripped of the vote in the USA because ‘we’ would never have to worry about electing Democrats. As far as I can tell, the right has nothing to fear from the Democrats judging by the current crop in Congress. Not even the far right she represents. Given that she equates all things evil with ‘liberals’ – her prime target of choice – I was surprised that she settled on Democrats as such a wimpy substitute target. (Equating Democrats and liberals is truly unfair to liberals.) Many conservatives, while blithely supporting most industry-led ideas support, or find nothing wrong, with genetic engineering. After all, it is very good for business. It sticks in their craw that over here GE is taken seriously with a healthy dose of caution verging on alarm. “If only those Europeans would get over their concerns and let ‘us’ export all sorts of artificially induced mutants, life would be really grand.” But with GE in my mind I began to wonder if Ann Coulter, the Republican slime machine grunt, has an enemy in her own camp. No doubt Special K has been genetically engineered. And it is pitched to women albeit in a very demeaning way. If women are able to get into shape with the product, I first worried about them all assuming the shape of a K because I would much prefer some voluptuous...

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Letter from Slovenia: 2. Politics and Perfect Presidents

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November 2, 2007 Slovenia is in the middle of its presidential elections. Voting finished for the first round. A run-off election will occur soon. I am fully aware that, to the political operatives inside the D.C. belt, it’s the United States that has the best democratic system in the world, one so great they would export it – by force, even. They might even believe that Americans have the wondrous opportunity to select the perfect – or maybe just the perfectly groomed – candidate given our much vaunted democratic polity. To them all, Slovenia is a little country somewhere in Europe, a backwater not worthy of attention nor worth emulating with regard to democracy. They are wrong. The Presidency in Slovenia is largely a figurehead position pursued by serious, powerful people while in the United States it is a powerful position pursued by frivolous, figurehead people. Candidates for president in Slovenia discuss issues rather than hurl sound bites at each other. Even more impressive, journalists ask probing questions rather than simper at the feet of the powerful. And they expect serious answers. The level of voter participation is much higher in Slovenia and all citizens can vote – unlike in the United States. Also, can you believe, they count all of the votes! Their system is so straightforward that there is no need for hanging chads, butterfly ballots or a rigged Supreme Court to throw an election to a particular candidate. Neither a president, nor candidate for this office here, has been assassinated. Nor has it been attempted. When presidential election outcomes are announced, there is no frantic, glitzy race of networks anxious to first declare winners and losers. People wait for the results and accept them calmly. Amazing! I watched a presidential debate featuring the top four candidates last week. Admittedly, I was handicapped by not speaking the language. I could not follow all the arguments even with helpful translations. But I could, being an American, focus on the trivial, by which I mean the packaging. The first thing that hit me was that three of the top four candidates – all male – were sporting beards. Actually, I am being polite: a better description is ‘trimmed stubble’. Even so, it was facial hair. In recent memory – all my memory is recent – I cannot recall a bearded candidate for president in the U.S. I am hard pressed to think of a bearded Senator or Representative in Congress. Yes, Al Gore grew a beard after 2002 to be a college professor, but he removed it pretty quickly. It seems that beards are not acceptable to Americans for presidents. It must be a major sign of imperfection. OK, I know Abe Lincoln had a beard, but I am now talking about the post-WWII world. One of the other candidates here was a severely handicapped woman. Intellectually, she is brilliant and, despite her handicap, she was on the ballot. I do not think that would happen in the United States for anyone. Apart, from Max Cleland, I am hard pressed to thing of recent handicapped people in Congress – and he was slimed out of office despite incurring his handicaps as a war hero. If there are handicapped people in Congress, there cannot be many – and I have...

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Letter from Slovenia: 3. Cultural Universals

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November 9, 2007 I had given up on social scientists – or anyone for that matter – establishing cultural universals. But my recent bus riding and walking around town prompts me to start a list. Offered also are fledgling theories about these universals and fragments of evidence selected to fit those theories perfectly. Lacking ambition, I have started small: only transportation related phenomena are considered. 1. In the modern era, since paved roads were invented, all road building societies have roads in which puddles form. This may be due to specific human construction methods used but I prefer an alternative account. If the physicists can have their string theory, I can argue that road building creates nano-tectonic platelets under the roads regardless of the techniques employed. They are tiny and only highly trained observers can identify them. (One of the great observational achievements was the creation of a nano-Richter scale for measuring infinitesimal nano-platelet movements.) These little imps – the nano-tectonic platelets not the observers – move abruptly, dare I say climactically, against each other as part of their mating. It is over ever so quickly! Energy is released but unfortunately for them and for us; all that is created is some subsidence and indentations ideal for puddle formation. (When the highly trained observers mate they only produce highly untrained observers.) 2. When it rains puddles form. That is a physical universal and not a cultural one, of course. (But a drunken soccer crowd can have the same effect with a coordinated urination.) The cultural bit comes when we consider that drivers of vehicles seem compelled to drive right through the puddles as fast as possible – especially when pedestrians are nearby. I cannot tell if the drivers are compelled or if they do by choice. The bigger the vehicle the bigger the splash – but that also is physical and not cultural. However, the urge to drench others seems magnified by the depth of the water and the number of proximate pedestrians. (For all you budding entrepreneurs: a great profiting making venture could be highly portable clothes drying machines. And if you could harness the energy released by nano-tectonic platelet movement you would have a free energy source and be very profitable – unless you give Halliburton the maintenance contract.) To my knowledge, Slovenia has no Hummers which saves me, while here, having to worry about the question of Hummer drivers being incompetent because they are prestige seeking dupes or because they cannot see out of the tiny windows. Ljubljana has a fleet of buses, however, and they can drench an entire city in one run. 3. Thinking of bus cultures, I have noticed the following: if one is running early buses arrive the moment you reach the bus stop but, when one is late, it seems as though an impromptu bus driver strike has been declared – except for those buses that would take you where you have no interest in going. Now, I recognize that I have a problem with this line of thought: What happens if two people show up when one is early and one is late? Time for a reader assignment: predict the outcome – you can’t expect me to do all of the work. 4. The next universal applies only to buses...

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Letter from Slovenia: 4. Learning In Another Culture

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November 16, 2007 Honestly, the title is misleading: it implies that I am learning. The wiggle room I have – to be not caught lying – is to declare that I have learned how little I know and that I am learning at a glacial pace, one so slow that the glaciers will be gone when I reach understanding. I was puzzled about how to dispose of bottles in a responsible fashion here. Trash is picked up at my apartment – daily! But not glass bottles. I punted after noticing, at a local store, a bin with empty glass bottles by a cash register. I took my empty (mineral water) Radenška bottle back to the store and put it in the bin while checking out. The cashier’s reaction was so severe that I felt my infraction was marginally worse than if I had picked up one of the empties and pissed into it. Of course, I understood nothing at this point and I am getting good at the French shrug of ‘what is it? – it cannot matter that much.’ It ended with her marching off and returning with a filled bottle of Radenška from the shelves. Then she put my bottle back into the bin. Watching more closely, I noticed that all of the empties, except mine, were either large (cheap) wine bottles or beer bottles. So I am working on the hypothesis that the store is running a covert clean bottle exchange program. Maybe pharmacies in the U.S. could do this with clean needles? Even better, we could require Bush’s faith-based agencies to run clean condom exchange programs. Later, I learned there are well marked large containers for depositing empty bottles responsibly. (This happened only after I asked how one does it – a distinctly non-masculine action.) So when I need to, I recycle – even though it increases my commuting time by 30%. Before you start to feel sorry for me, or be impressed by my civic spirit, I should tell you that the regular commute, for me, is 45 seconds. And the sound of empty wine bottles falling four feet onto other bottles has a nice ring. My lessons in Slovene are great fun but my progress is painfully slow. The most useful expression thus far is ‘ne razumem’ (I don’t understand.) I would have used at the store had I known it then. The problem is not the many complicated rules – these I treat as mathematics puzzles. Rather, remembering all the new words and sounds is hard. (Rote learning is required so my oppositional tendencies, alas, are counter-productive.) By the time I construct a sentence, any conversation will have moved on a couple of pages. I am grappling with the idea that nouns can be masculine, feminine or neutral and, worse, their endings change depending on the sentences in which they appear. Both parts of my name are masculine so, in an announcement of a public lecture that I will be giving soon, I saw that it will be given by Patricka Doreiana. I am so used to my name being a fixed part of my identity. Not here. It is good that I have a strong sense of self – otherwise, I would think that everybody now knows that I am eating...

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Letter from Slovenia: 5. My Promising Career As A Translator

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November 23, 2007 Observers watching my lessons in Slovene can be excused for thinking that I have the timing and style of a great comic. My teacher is often reduced to uncontrolled – even helpless – laughter on hearing what I say or reading what I write. Laughter helps the world go around and it is said that learning goes well when the learner has a good time. Alas, for me, the learner having a good time does not imply that the learning goes well. (But there are glimmers of hope.) After embarking on learning another language I have greater sympathy – and a deeper appreciation of the effort involved – for refugees learning another language late in life. I recommend that all politicians in the U.S. blasting away on the theme ‘every immigrant must learn English’ – usually within weeks of arriving – take three months of their busy lives and, instead of ruining our lives, use the time to tackle another language, preferably in a place far away from the United States. (But not Slovenia – the place is too nice to be asked to suffer this particular burden.) I was asked to translate a simple piece of prose. Using ‘translating’ when I am involved in turning the words of one language into words of another language is a major slur of a noble profession. On starting the exercise, I saw serious problems lay ahead when I translated the first sentence, correctly, as “Every day I get up at seven” (in the morning). In my life there is only one 7 – and I swear that it comes at least 12 hours after this one. Having no idea what happens in the hours when sensible people are asleep, I knew that anything in the remaining prose required leaps of imagination for me to produce a translation. Apparently, I made some leaps that required a better safety net. The next sentence in the original ought to have been rendered into “I do some exercises in front of an open window.” I did not even come close. My ‘translation’ read “There were no gymnasiums open so early.” Actually, I prefer my version even though it had little to do with the original. Oscar Wilde would approve. I think of the sentence attributed to him: “Every time the urge to do some exercise comes over me, I lie down until it goes away.” He would not look for a gym at any time of the day let alone at seven in the morning. Neither would I. Also, who would wants to exercise immediately on getting up? I thought we are meant to ease into a day. The real prose, the one requiring translation, went on “Then I take a shower.” My version was “Then I study.” In self-defense, I cannot imagine doing anything without taking a shower first. Deprive me of my shower and I have to think about what to do next and that means studying. Further, only an exhibitionist would exercise in front of an open window. Then the bozo writing the prose – by now I had decided that he was the bozo and not me – went on to explain that he drank white coffee for breakfast. This explained everything. To start the day – after...

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Letter from Slovenia: 6. Why I Love Being In Slovenia

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November 30, 2007 People notice I love being here. There is curiosity about my reasons. Or, as one of you put it “What’s with you and this thing you have with Slovenia?” The metaphysical answer is this: If I believed in re-incarnation, then in a prior life I lived here and so feel very much at home. Granted, my current efforts to learn the language belie this notion but no-one has said that the karma driving all the forms of reincarnated beings implies everything from the prior life is carried forward. While it is easy for me to give reasons for my delight, many people give them little credence: my reasons seem stupid. Their reaction may be to me rather than the reasons. Anyway, here is my starting list: 1. The major statue in Ljubljana features a poet (and a muse). France Prešeren is Slovenia’s greatest poet, a cultural icon. Imagine what our cities would be like if the major statues featured Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost (or any poet of your choice – even Abby Hoffman) rather than military men. How would the English react if Wordsworth or Lord Byron were atop ‘Nelson’s column’ in Trafalgar Square – named after a famous battle? (Have you noticed that imperialist, acquisitive, military societies prefer not to name big places at home for battles where they had the shit kicked out of them? There is a Waterloo Station in London but not in Paris while Paris has a Gare d’Austerlitz and not Vienna. 2. The major square is Prešeren Square and it is round – well almost round as it has a few kinks. What a fine sense of whimsy! I find squares so unimaginative, formal and boring. Maybe I react this way because they might be based grid systems or military formations. Please note that Slovenes have more sense than to form circular military formations and start firing guns. Bus drivers might lob a few water balloons though. 3. You have to love a place that can be written as s-LOVE-nija. This is not original with me: advertisement campaigns have been based on this concept. It is the only example of the absurd post-modern craze to deconstruct expressions and words making any sense to me. What could you do with USA? The best I can do is to expand it and form ‘U Suck Amigo’ as a declaration that many of our politicians appear to make about the rest of the world. Now, it is possible to do something with U.S. and simply write ‘us’. Come to think of it, the Bush administration is doing exactly this with a policy whose only coherence is that “it’s all about us”. 4. Culture matters – even among the young. I went to a concert featuring a Russian pianist, Grigori Sokolov, in an auditorium capable of seating two thousand. The place was nearly full and about half the audience was young. The response was fantastic in its intensity and enthusiasm. At the end of the concert, the pianist could shut us up was only by sitting down and playing more music. There were four encores. We could have clapped all night. No worrying about classical music dying out here – in contrast to the worries in the United States as the baby boomers...

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Letter for Slovenia: 7. Learning, Causality And Politics

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December 7, 2007 While diligent in learning Slovene, I thought that, while slow, I was making progress. I can say “Rad bi dvojno kavo in kozarec vode, prosim” and be understood most of the time. (“I would like a double espresso and a glass of water, please.”) I can even say “Greva na kavo!” an invitation “Let’s go for a coffee!” which actually uses the subtle and clever duo mode (a state between the ‘one’ and the ‘many’). If I am feeling especially perky, as I was before my public lecture, I can say “Gremo naprej!” (Let’s move forward!)  But there is nothing like cold hard objective evidence to put one in one’s place. I have been invited into several people’s homes during my stay. One is of a colleague whose mother, now in her 80s, has been showing signs of dementia. When I did visit, I saw no signs but recognize that they vary from day to day. Most Slovenes I meet are delighted when they hear that I am trying to learn their language. My colleague’s mother was no exception. So, she said something to me in Slovene that I did not comprehend. Seeing my blank face and hearing my “Žal ne goverim slovensko”, she did the obvious thing and repeated her words very slowly. And I do mean slowly – I thought I was back in an American airport sitting in a wheelchair. Later, I was walking behind a young woman talking to her toddler. Again, my comprehension was near zero. More recently, in the home of another colleague, I met his infant who is many months away from talking. This meant that I could say things that the infant could not understand. So my progress has been measured in brutally objective terms: I am ahead of an infant, behind a toddler and light years behind an elderly woman suffering from dementia. I do, however, have some understanding of causality. I was walking up by Ljubljana’s glorious castle when an ambitious dog trotted towards me. His ambition was measured by the size of the wide, long stick be carried in his mouth, one far too large to be carried comfortably. But he was moving forward with his head held high. The stick was so long it extended across the entire path. I stopped to let the dog pass and still received a sharp rap on my shins. With the impact, the dog yelped and dropped his stick. Clearly, the pain in his mouth far exceeded that in my shins. He desperately wanted to pick up his stick but he approached it always with ambiguity. He whined in fear each time he came near it, wagging his tail in anticipation while his ears were flat on his skull. He gave up and looked back forlornly at his lost treasure, one now gone for ever. He was shackled by his sense of causality: the stick had become a nasty, but still desirable, autonomous instrument of pain. I thought of the dog after the run-off election had been concluded for the presidency here. There had been one candidate on the right and one on the left. The current regime is to the right and while the rightist candidate was not formally endorsed by the government as its representative, there was tacit...

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Letter from Slovenia: 8. Thoughts On Fundamental Mistakes

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December 13, 2007 Living, albeit briefly, in another land brings surprises that change perspectives. This letter concerns some of them as they relate to fundamental mistakes. 1. Your first fundamental mistake might be your decision to read this letter. Certainly, I could be generous and excuse you for thinking this is the case – but stopping reading could be your next fundamental mistake. 2. Travel guides make a fundamental mistake by including, usually at the back, some sentences for travelers in lands where another language is spoken. I agree that it is important to learn how to say ‘hello’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in the local language wherever one travels. But sentences like “Where is the railway station?” are of little value – especially when the traveler says them correctly but does not know anything else about the language. When someone asks me a question in well pronounced English, I assume the questioner expects an answer in the same language. Even if I were able to do so, it would seem odd for me to respond in Urdu. When I ask a question in Slovene, it is natural for the poor sod who hears my question to assume that I will understand the Slovene response. But what if I do not? Suppose I was told, without understanding it, “I have no idea where the railway station is, but if you go down that street there a place where you find out.” If pointing was involved, I would trot off in that direction thinking I was headed to the railway station. 3. What if the (not understood) response was “I am a stranger in town and I have just stepped out of my hotel down that street” also done with pointing? The last time I checked, hotels in cities were stationary. What if Bob Seger was listening and contributed “You know, ‘Stranger in Town’ was my best album and you can buy it in a store down on Main Street” as he pointed helpfully – but down a different street? And if one of his entourage, hearing only the end of the sentence, said “You can buy Bob’s Main Street in a great store and pointed down a third street, I would by then be pretty confused about the location of the railway station. 4. At this point, I would be tempted to give up on my quest for any railway station. But it would be a fundamental mistake to pull out my guide book, turn the pages, find the sentence and mumble “Where is the nearest bar?” in Slovene. It would all start happening again, a perpetual Groundhog Day. Fortunately, I have yet to see an old guidebook with a translation of “Where is the nearest psychiatric clinic?” But, then, were I to asked and someone after looking at me in my induced state of confusion said “Look mate, it is right across the street” I would not understand. 5. December is “party time” in Slovenia with parties held throughout the month and even into the New Year. Naturally, drinking alcohol is involved for most people. I heard of a guy who prepared for December by not drinking in November. This strikes me as fundamentally mistaken: it makes much more sense to practice in November to get ready for...

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Letter from Slovenia: 9. In Praise of Simple Things

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December 21, 2007 Sometimes in the frenetic pace of modern life, we are so locked into routines that we see little but those routines, routines that can become ‘life’ itself. But what if we could step out of them and take time to notice simple things, things so simple that they have ceased to be noteworthy? Here are some examples that I have had the good fortune to notice and appreciate while here. Yes, I admit that it seems that I have gone soft in the head. 1. The word, in Slovene, is ‘ivje’ which I translate into ‘frozen fog’. (The dictionary that I have translates this into ‘hoar-frost’ or ‘rime’ but these renditions strip the magic from the images.) It was on the winery trip that I mentioned in my last letter that I first saw frozen fog. To state the obvious, the day was foggy and the temperature was below freezing. Oh, but what a result! Slender icicles were formed, not by streams of water freezing, but by soggy air captured by low temperatures into a frozen embrace. While straight, these icicles seemed to wrap around each other to cover the trees, trellises and vines is a delicate covering of white lace. With the fog there to add a shrouded mood, as well as the soggy air, this was a different world where mystery reigned and grace covered the land. 2. Prešeren Trg, the main square of Ljubljana, and its access paths and roads, are decorated for the season. Nothing gaudy, just some colors to make sights that differ for the rest of the year without being overwhelming. A tall quartet of trees, there year round by the river, each with a single set of lights of cobalt blue form an extraordinary sight: a simple, stark image leaving an indelible impression. 3. A Christmas tree has joined them temporarily in the square, also with a single color: white. It works; we do not need all the colors of the rainbow or the many hues created by demented color chemists in the paint industry to bring cheer. 4. A suspended galaxy, in lights hung overhead above a near-by street, signaled a wider universe that invited reflection rather than presenting an unimaginable object of overwhelming size. 5. Buildings etched by lights of a single color in light fog suggested a place of magic and gentle elegance. These lights and buildings did not compete for our attention with a riot of conflicting colors. Nor did they flash on and off to make sure our gaze was drawn to them (before repelling us with gaudy American chaos). They were there with a simple presence blending into a harmonious whole. 6. Another small park, near Prešeren Trg, has a prosaic set of fabric cylinders decorated inventively by school children and illuminated by lights inside. Hanging from the trees, their images did not compete with nature’s contributions of trees and falling leaves. Instead they were a reminder that celebrating any season does not require excess. 7. Two ducks paddling in the Ljublanica one early morning had the river to themselves with waters so still it was impossible to tell the direction of the water’s flow. The gentle V-shaped wakes created a moment of contact as they traveled in their own world, free of...

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Letter from Slovenia: 10. Thoughts on Gendered Nouns

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December 28, 2007 English nouns are simple. A house is a house, a car is a car, and a mouse is a mouse. (I will ignore the inconvenient fact that the plural of house is ‘houses’ while ‘mice’ is the plural of mouse. To quote the ‘decider’: “I never let facts get in my way.”) My struggles with Slovene have taken me into the realm of gendered nouns. I had encountered them in school studying French. So I knew (as far as I can recall, perhaps incorrectly,) ‘la chat’ means that ‘cat’ is female while ‘le chein’ means dogs are ‘male’. This never made sense to me. Well, dealing with French nouns now seems even more like child’s play compared to Slovene: nouns can be masculine, feminine or neuter. Their spelling changes according to gender depending on the sentence in which they are used. (I will not get into this here. Instead, I will quote the ‘decider’ again: “this is too complicated for me, I will ignore it.”) Seeking rules governing language is, I know, a fool’s quest – but as a fool I am fully qualified to look for them. I have learned that vijak (bolt) is male while matica (nut) is female. Leaving to one side the American slang expression that men have nuts, this makes perfect sense to me. So I thought that I was on to something when I decided that gendered nouns, basically, are about screwing. Vijak and matica fit the rule perfectly. With great confidence, much like the canine up by Ljubljana’s castle, I ventured forth into the realm of fruits and vegetables. My attempts to validate my rule came to a screeching halt. Banana translates as – surprise! – Banana. Only, it is female. Now of all of the fruits, this, surely, should be male. From a female perspective, I do not know if a stiff banana shaped rigid digit would have greater stimulus value in comparison to what is available – it might depend on whether it was bent upwards or downwards. Even so, a banana ought to be male. It even comes with skin that can be removed. So I retreated to vegetables only to find korenje (carrot) is neutral. I was transported back to a joke told in the French class decades ago. (It was not told in French nor was it told by the teacher. We were just trying not to be bored.) Two lads lived in a rural area. Tom was a bit of a wag with an impish sense of humor while Harry was rather gullible. Tom told Harry about a farmer’s daughter who was lonely and solved one of life’s problems by getting herself off on a carrot. (We did not know of dildos then.) She placed it in slot in a post holding up the barn. “You know” said Tom “you could stand against the post and replace the carrot with your dick – she will not notice. You will have a lot of fun – I guarantee it”. (Tom could have gone on the found Men’s Wearhouse.) The next day, Tom saw Harry walking to school in obvious discomfort and asked him was wrong. Harry glowered while saying balefully “Why didn’t you tell me that she peeled the carrot?” If his korenje was...

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Letter from Slovenia: 11. Identity, Place and Two Homes

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January 3, 2008 Thinking about ‘Who am I?’ seems the ultimate form of narcissistic foolishness. Yet I am forced to venture here by two things: 1) I am having a wonderful time in Slovenia and 2) I will soon be returning ‘home’. For most people, the latter should matter more. Yet, I am, at best, ambivalent about leaving here to return to America. Hence the struggle to figure out what is going on in my mind and, perhaps more importantly, my heart. When I return to the United States – for which the term ‘Disunited States’ now looks more appropriate – I know that I will feel homesick for Slovenia. This has happened before and explains why I relish every chance to return to this enchanting land. For the right wing, with their thrown gauntlet “love America or leave it”, I know their response is obvious: stay away, we don’t want you here. However in contradiction to this pathetic chorus line, things are not that simple for me. It was simple when I could say that “I belong nowhere; I belong everywhere” and could tell myself I was a ‘citizen of the world’. That now seems trite and rather naive. My identity is bound up – intimately and fundamentally – by my close personal relations. In this sense, the idea of having an identity rooted in a place makes little sense. I have networks with wonderful close ties and friends in Slovenia and in the United States. I have two homes, one in Slovenia and one in the U.S and my identity is located in both. It should not matter whether I am in one place or the other: I can enjoy them both in alternation. But it does matter to me right now. So, there must be something more than having my identity defined solely by the people for whom I care and who care for me. Place might matter after all. Under the European Union’s rotating presidency, Slovenia now has it – the first of the ‘new states’ to assume this position. This creates immense pride here – and rightly so. Yet, if I ask my Slovene friends about their identity in terms of place, the answer is always ‘Slovenia’ and never ‘Europe’. Indeed, the notion of Europe may be a tantalizing fiction dreamed up by bureaucrats in Brussels – just as ‘America’ seems a fiction created by ideologues on the right. Once upon a time, even though this is no fairy tale, I was proud to be an American. I still could be. Indeed, I put a national flag on my desk after 9/11. A few days later, when a bill calling for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as a necessary response to terrorism, was introduced in the Senate, I put the flag away. I knew all the goodwill towards the US had been stolen and corrupted by Congressional Republicans: partisan politics replaced bipartisan concern. No surprise things went downhill rapidly. Rigid ideologues break things. Rich powerful people acting solely for naked self-interest break things. Combine them and many things really get broken. America was one of them. America as a ‘land of immigrants’ no longer rings true – those of us who emigrated there – the ‘foreign born’ as we are called –...

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Letter from Slovenia: 12. Items for a Final Exam

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January 7, 2008 Yes, it’s final exam time and there will be an exam. Still in great spirits after the New Year celebrations, I will answer the first for you, but for the rest, you are on your own. We were in a fancy restaurant where, to my amusement, I watched wait-people set silver-ware with a white glove on one of their hands. Question 1. Is this because: a) Their right hands are sweaty and using bare hands will lead to corrosion of the silver utensils? b) The work is so stressful that wait-people develop eczema on one hand? c) It is a left over tradition from the Hapsburg era? d) There is a shortage of left handed white gloves in the country? e) They do not want to leave their finger prints on the silver ware? Answer: e. Question 2. When the Department of Homeland Insecurity finds out about this they will incorporate all domestic restaurants into their covert surveillance operations to lift finger prints from all items used by their patrons. True/False Question 3. They will not pick up any of the expenses that restaurants incur. True/False Question 4. In most buildings here there are pictures of stick people running to follow an arrow, all on a green background. Is this because: a) Slovenia ran out of other colors for their signs? b) The signs point the way towards the nearest emergency exit for the building? c) The signs point to the nearest toilet for those who are really desperate to pee? d) These are signs put up by stick people to protest their marginal status and actually point to garbage bins? e) All of the above/none of the above/one of the above/who cares? The Slovenian village of Lipica is the source for the Lipicanci which are world-famous Slovenian white horses (as adults). Just before the New Year’s lunch, my hosts had on their TV and there was a segment with men riding these horses. Music started and the horses were dancing in unison. Question 5. While we can teach horses to dance, it is impossible to teach a Bush to think. True/False All European cities have signs with concentric circles and arrows. Question 6. Is this because: a) They are there so that the police can stay on duty and have target practice without going to a firing range? b) They are signs put up by pagans to point the way to their ceremonial places? c) They are to help tourists and other travelers find the center of the cities? d) They are there to help the financially strapped American armed forces so that pilots can save fuel and taxi their jets to their targets? e) The National Rifle Association has secretly set up offices throughout Europe and has started a stealth advertising program? At one spot in Ljubljana, Bavarski Dvor, most, if not all, of the city’s bus lines converge and, at certain times of the day, the buses are in a line and stay there for several minutes. Question 7. Is this because: a) It allows passengers hop from one bus to another and make their connections? b) Some lucky buses can sniff the rear end of another bus? c) It is an attempt to set records for daily active bus line lengths for...

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