My second-last day in Slovenia was the clincher. It had taken a full eleven days to feel the even-slow of near liberation, when it’s like flying, or at least like swinging on a really high tire-swing in a vast, elliptical twirl. I guess some people get it while skiing, probably surfing too, if they get to stand up for more than five seconds. And most everyone thinks they get it when the sex is perfect. Stop. Guys think that more than girls – girls know sex isn’t perfect so often – that when it is, it’s way beyond what guys think perfect is. Anyway, i got it on day 11 in Slovenia.
You might understand better what it’s like if i point out that it’s not same feeling at all as a really good day at home. When you’ve published it and cashed it and called your Mom and Dad and the spaghetti sauce you simmer down to impress Fun Eyes is shadily seasoned in cilantro and ginger with a secret habanero before you can drink too much wine and muck it all up so Fun Eyes likes it and has seconds plus turns out to be much crazier on the couch than you ever suspected and together you have a superfluous experience and then you have seconds before you can drink too much wine and muck it all up, well that could be, as archangel Lou might say “just a perfect day” but no day 11 in Slovenia. Although, day 11 was conceived on
I‘m feeling almost too awake when I hunker down into the socialist shag seats of the slow train from Ljubljana to Maribor. Since first reading the place name in an “I FEELsLOVEnia” leaflet months ago, i’ve been magnetized by a masculine-timbred word on a map near a green line that means the Austrian border. Today, it’s within reach of this grey, Sunday afternoon and i feel strange. I am a stranger, after all, compelled to unfamiliar places, sure, but no more special than any other passenger looking through a window on a slow train, being looked back at, waiting for it to happen, whatever it is. Antsy, i remember a flask of Canadian medicine in my bag and haul ass to a trackside bar then back to the graffiti-sheathed train with a couple mini- bottles of ginger ale and an empty takeout coffee cup. There’s a generic instruction branded on it and i try not to let my new paper cup annoy me. Re-examining an aversion to coffee, i re-consider it to be one of the more pathetic first-world fixations of recent years. Step right up folks, and get right off on some Miraculous Caffeine – we all fancy the stuff – but, ladies and gents, don’t profess hot, brown water to be something it isn’t. Leave the masturbatory, starry-eyed proclamations for wine, for chocolate…
for rye and ginger.
The slow train, quite empty, finally comes unstuck from it’s idle. It gasps and picks up and its passengers, possible leftovers from Saturday night in Metalkova, carry on. I maximize my mini- bottles : pouring, sipping, spilling the perfect Canadian cocktail. I never shake a sense of separation from the temporal pace of Ljubljana, its passing city limits, the steep, riverine countryside. My window is full, then empty of post-modern apartment buildings, then factories, then squat and cozy houses, all full then empty of people having Sunday lunch, halls full of empty dogs, watching them. I manage to get sugary drunk and stony sober again before arriving, finally, in Maribor. Nothing like a travelling day-boil. Waiting for me, up in the Stajerska, the northeastern corridor of Slovenia, Maribor has already generated mixed reviews from the people i’ve asked. Most mention Pohorje, the well-known ski resort adjacent to it. Several food-ier types speak only of its legendary pumpkin seed oil, aka Engine Oil, so dark green it’s almost red-black in colour, as ubiquitous in the Styrian region as the arugula and radicchio it lubricates at every meal. At home, i consume raw green pumpkin seeds daily – on everything from apples to fish to pasta- so i guess the Engine Oil sounds fine to me.
One hotelier (urbane host to a leg of my recently concluded press junket) tells me, unblinking, that the people in the region of Maribor are “not very nice”. When I ask for clarification, she can’t translate her statement’s context despite her unaccented English. I wonder if ” not very nice” refers, somehow, to Maribor’s relative prosperity, to its cultural history within the Austro-Hungarian Empire or to an ex-boyfriend who lives there. I suspect that the strain of E.U. competition is trickling down through the regional pockets of this young, old country. Perhaps in Slovenia, the battle for tourist euros is as closely drawn between its own districts as between those districts and their breathing-distance neighbours in Italy, Austria, Hungary, Croatia…
Over the last week’s whirlwind tour, the passion of the farmers, vintners and chefs i have met has been patently obvious – the stamp of distinct terroirs and artisanal traditions is clearly distinguishing Slovenia from its neighbours. Still, i have been oft-reminded, by oenologists, tourism reps, sommeliers and my guide, that Venice, Vienna and Budapest are just across that river, beyond that strait of blue Adriatic or over that Alp. Each region is tasked with artfully promoting its idiosyncrasy as delicacy, keenly aware that regional appellations, products of Protected Designation of Origin (PDO’S) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI’S) are emerging as the new currency of tourism and of future trade agreements with the world. Look what they’ve done for Burgundy, for Roquefort, for Proscuitto di Parma. So, after a dreamy week of professionally free-sampling offerings from the most charactered regions of this country a mark has been made upon my palate and on my traveller’s mind. It is on day 7, in the castle overlooking Ljubljana’s old city, the Alps chiseling into the Adriatic glow discernible at the horizon, that it becomes official:
But now official research has concluded and i’m exploring on my own ticket, so Maribor is the question – i hope the hotelier’s answer isn’t tipping me off to something no one else will admit. Then, three consecutive days in Ljubljana provide three more opinions: a saxophonist on the street, a jewelry designer in her boutique and the definitive gorgeous young Slovenian at a rooftop wine tasting (this face is an Art Nouveau flourish amidst a gallery of slavic bone structure). All three testify that the people in the northeast are “the nicest” in the country. Art Nouveau admits to possible prejudice, being from there. The no-nonsense jewellery designer says she goes often and i should obviously go too and find out “why” for myself. The horn-player, a sparkling Serb, interrupts his bread-and-butter performance outside of the post office when I tip my hat to him, and invites me for tea.
A few days earlier, striding heatedly through the square by St. Nicholas Cathedral, the same Sparkling Serb stops on a dime beside my cafe table, simply to commend me on my choice of hat. Today he is graced with a white fedora in a similar vein. When he hears my travel plans, Maribor is confirmed as a favourite destination. He knows everyone inside the cafe perametres and most outside of it, orders more hot water again and forgets, again, to drop in his tea bag, so busy pouring out stories of loss and gain ( he used to be an engineer with a wife he adored). Courteously, he offers to call his Kazakh girlfriend and to drive up to Maribor, all of us together. We compare our respective devices, i show him some photos of food and frescoes and we take some more photos of ourselves in our hats. I meet a few of his passing comrades in art and commerce, including a tall, scholarly-looking writer who eagerly unscrolls the current, European edition of Playboy from beneath his arm. Everyone in the cafe cranes toward it. He contributed the “Watches” section. It seems everyone in Ljubljana is up to something.
Our reunion has already been so satisfactory that i evade the Sparkling Serb’s kind offer to escort me to Maribor, but i will still grin madly on the inside whenever i revisit, in my mind, his full-on, faultless companionship and his tea-fuelled hymn to Goodness – blown over to me as a parting gift, from bent knee, in a busy lane of passers by. He draws a breath, deeply. The sax pierces the chill air with an arrow of intention, it’s gilded voice so warm that i feel my hangover melting and beginning to leak out of my eyes. When i pull down the brim of my hat to shield my forehead from the song’s full effect, Uros – the Sparkling Serb’s chain-smoking, trumpet-playing friend – is nudging me. “Listen carefully” he scolds, “this is your song.” “Why?” l am asking the universe, amazed. The universe will tell me on day 11.
Maribor. I read the station sign with a deep satisfaction. I know now that i simply like the sound of it. Maribor. Give it a try. Out loud with long, round euro-vowels. The slow train wheezes its final breath and empties its contents out into the air of our Sunday destination. I drop my bag on the platform and unfold a map of this city for the first time – where do i find the World’s Oldest Vine? I want to take a picture and
tell my Dad about it.