Sunday, August 8, 2010

Dateline: Ljubljana


I just spent four days in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, because of a book. It goes like this: Some time in the late eighties I read an article by Robert D. Kaplan about the break-up of Yugoslavia. When his book Balkan Ghosts came out, I snapped it up. When my son was about twelve and a precocious reader, I gave him his own copy. He couldn't get enough. Born the year the Berlin Wall fell, spending time nearly each summer in the Balkan part of Greece where my family's roots are, and growing up with newspapers full of Slavic names and datelines in small Balkan villages where events of enormity took place, he almost had no choice but to be fascinated by Kaplan's book.

Fast forward to college and his decision on where to study abroad. Still the Balkans, always the Balkans, with Kaplan's flame alive in his thinking. And so, for the skiing: Slovenia. Now I've been there for the second time in two years--and all because of a book.

There are many interesting things about Slovenia, this tiny country with a passel of alps, turreted churches, just enough coastline to hold a town that dates to the Venetians, and an entire population seemingly on wheels (either bicycles or rollerblades).

And about that population: two million. If there are only two million of you, you all learn English.

I don't know any of the great names in Slovene literature. But I do wonder what will happen to that tradition if, as seems to be the trend, no one outside Slovenia bothers to learn Slovene anymore. Even vigorous translation programs might not be enough to stem the tide of evaporation.

And here I am, worrying about Slovenia because of a book I read (and re-read) and admired.

Q: Have you ever made a major to medium-sized life choice because of one specific book? OK, even a small life choice?


  1. Hello, Henriette. I identified with this so much! This is how Latin American literature helped chart the direction of my life: I dropped out of college and ran away to Mexico after reading The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes and Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo. Back in the US, my deep love for the people I met in Mexico then led me to interpret for immigrants in detention centers and other activities on behalf of Mexicans and Mexican Americans here in the US. While One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez took me to Colombia and involvement in the peace movement for that country.
    By the way, I was in Slovenia several years ago. The sad thing, in terms of literature, is that before independence, poets were revered because the Slovene language kept national identity and culture alive. In fact before the euro became currency, Slovene currency featured portraits of poets. One Slovenian writer told me that part of the problem facing national writers today is that mystery and crime novels are the most popular form of fiction and 'because we don't have any crime here,' murder mysteries set in Slovenia just aren't credible! (well, that was one opinion anyway). In the US, the poet from Slovenia who is best known is Tomaž Šalamun.

  2. Diane, thanks for this fascinating comment. I'm humbled. All I did was visit a country because of a book. You actually altered the course of your life. I suppose that might be true for my son, too.

    While in Slovenia, I noticed that a number of American thrillers were translated into Slovene and featured somewhat prominently in bookstore windows. But there was also a considerable amount of Slovene lit even more prominently displayed. Ljubljana had been chosen as one of the European cities to host a world book festival, which is promising. My son says it's true about the crime. There's no part of Ljubljana, anyway, that he says isn't safe to walk around in at any time of night or day. I'd be interested to know what the dominant themes of the literature are now, and how they differ from the themes back before independence. Very interesting what you say about the role of poets in sustaining the national identity. Thanks again for posting!

  3. Hi Henri - this is such an interesting post as I had assumed you/Eion were in Slovenia just as a random school abroad selection. I had the amazing experience of hitchhiking through Slovenia and other parts of Yugoslavia while it was breaking up. I was overseas at that time because my brother was killed in early 1989 and I needed a break from tending to my parents' grief. I had packed up and moved to Europe with no specific plan in mind (very unwise in retrospect). After too much time in Munich at Oktoberfest, I ended up enrolling at Salzburg Universitat. Although I was amongst party-hardy American undergrads and was going through the motions of having "fun" traveling and such, I was only just beginning to deal with (and accept) my grief over losing my brother and I was LOST. One of my very wise professors got wind of what was going on in my life and assigned to the entire class Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search For Meaning" - in addition to the incredible Holocaust story it contains, the book opened my eyes to my grief, its importance and why I needed to embrace it. Because of the Holocaust story within it, the book also deepened my understanding of and love for the Austrian people. I've reread the book many times in the 21 years since then and credit it with shaping me into the adult I ultimately became. As soon as they're a bit older, I fully intend to take my kiddos back to Austria with me and show them the beautiful place where I learned to heal.

  4. How about a major life decision? Kathleen Norris' The Cloister Walk made me think so differently about marriage that, I believe, it led me to see a flaw in my thinking about staying in one that wasn't going at all well.