Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Can A "Lady" Get A Drink?

View from Marija and Valentin's porch, with coffee. Slovenia, Sept 2016

Rovinj, Croatia entered my sleeping and waking dreams while traveling solo a year ago, and never left. We return so I can share this paradise with my partner, and I can ease my own "Rovinj Withdrawal" symptoms.

But we also take two days in Slovenia, and find the boundaries of paradise are further afield than we'd imagined (in fact, we never did find that boundary. Paradise went on and on).

Marija is our hostess, our landlady at the apartment we've rented in Slovenia, not far from Lake Bled. When we arrive in the evening, she and I start talking right away, like old friends who have some catching up to do. Her English is pretty good. She asks if we want our "Welcome Drink" now, or later.
Well, gosh. I didn't know anything about a "Welcome Drink."
Rudi is nodding yes, so I say "We'll have it now, I guess." Mind you, we haven't yet taken our luggage out of the car, and the booze is forthcoming.
We're definitely not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

Boat on Lake Bled, Slovenia, Sept 2016

Her husband, Valentin, smiles and waves from the balcony upstairs, and shortly after, comes down with a couple of fancy cordial glasses on a tray, with a couple of . . . I dunno . . . hybrid bread stick/cookies. I'm grateful for these, because it seems the traditional Slovenian welcome is to give you something that scalds your esophagus and then fills your chest with thermonuclear heat, giving you the sensation that you might be part human, part dragon. If you survive it, you're all the more appreciative to be alive. You're welcome.

Uh . . . Thank you?

But Rudi and I are hungry, and the restaurants in this sleepy town will close before long. So, Marija gives us a few recommendations and says we should get going if we want to eat tonight. "Tomorrow morning you come upstairs. I make coffee. We have chat."

[Dinner is good, by the way. A surprising mix of Italian and German influences. The service is efficient but also friendly, and I think our server might also be a linguist, as she's speaking a different language at each table.]

Cloudy morning view from our bedroom window
 Slovenia, Sept 2016

Barn apartment and fields where we stayed. Slovenia, 2016

Road to the apartment, with barn. Slovenia, 2016

So, when morning arrives, Rudi is off for his run, along a path near the forest and on a farm road Marija has suggested for him. I go upstairs for that coffee-talk.

"Excuse me," says Marija, "Quickly I just change it."
She whips the vinyl tablecloth off of the little table, saying "This is for working . . . but this . . . " she unfolds a lovely, embroidered linen cloth she's been holding under her arm, "this one is for drinking."
We are at a little table on her porch with a view of the surrounding mountains and fields. It is a lush, green paradise where, this morning, low clouds are burning off as the sun peeks through.
I notice that I don't hear cars. I hear birds.
I smile.
I exhale, slowly and long.

View from Marija's porch, Slovenia 2016

Hospitable details, Slovenia 2016

I love Marija's sense of occasion, her attention to the details of hospitality. She sits across from me, and I discover that coffee is Valentin's job.
He arrives carrying delicate cups and saucers, and an equally delicate sugar bowl, on a fancy tray. There is also a plate of small cookies in various shapes. Valentin says something to me in Slovenian, which Marija translates:
"I made these cookies."
"You made them yourself?" I ask. It's about 9am. "This morning?"

It's been said that "God is in the details", and as I bite one of these cookies and the smell of Valentin's coffee hits my nose, I have to agree. There is something of the divine at work here.

But I'm quickly reminded that it's also been said "the devil is in the details."
Marija jumps up and says, "Wait . . . I bring you lady's drink."

I have a flashback to the previous night's "Welcome Drink". I remember that it's quite early in the morning. I feel a slight sense of panic.
Marija returns carrying a bottle, and Valentin has more vintage cordial glasses on the tray. He pours some of the drink, and sets it in front of me.
I brace myself, and take a sip of the dark purple elixir.
Sweet, mild, and delicious.
This being a "lady's drink", I extend my pinky as I lift my glass. I'm mannerly like that. That should make it OK for me to ask for a second glass . . . shouldn't it?

Marija sees my expression and smiles, then points to the steep hills behind the house. "I pick them [the berries] there. I bring home, and Valentin makes liqueur."
This is a very good team right here, I'm thinking. Exceptional.

Lake Bled, Slovenia, 2016

Castle and church, Lake Bled, Slovenia 2016

Marija and I chat about our respective travels, and she tells me about life in Slovenia---now, and back when it was part of Yugoslavia. I'm reminded for a moment about those distinctions between countries and political systems that Americans so often refuse to make. Under Yugoslavia's brand of communism, for example, the citizens could still travel freely to "the west". She tells me how much she has loved to travel around the world, but how she also loves having this place to come home to. She likes her home, and I can understand why. She tells me of another traveling guest who said to her, "Marija, you live in paradise." Marija agrees, and says so with evident pride.
Occasionally Valentin chimes in with something that Marija translates. I think maybe he understands English better than he speaks it.

I tell her about our home base on this trip, in Rovinj, Croatia, and her face lights up. She tells me she has been all over the world, and even having seen southeast Asia, she thinks Rovinj has some of the most beautiful coastline in the world. I agree, and since Rovinj has taken so firm a hold upon my heart, I'm sure I'm smiling like a goofy teenager in love as she compliments my beloved.
We talk about Italy, and America, and Marija agrees with my observation that "Americans live to work. Italians work to live." We both have greater affinity for the Italian way. She has studied a little Italian and tries it out on my Italian-born partner, Rudi.

He arrives after his run on this humid morning, and as though he isn't suffering enough, Valentin brings a more "manly" drink for him. It's made from 62 different wildflowers that Marija collects from the mountains, which bloom at different times of the year. They're added to the mix once they've been collected. After a year, and the mixing of these flowers of different seasons, the liqueur is ready to drink.
It's worth the wait.
Stronger than the lady's drink, for sure, but still delicious and flavored with some honey, I think. Which reminds me to ask about a Slovenian institution: bee keeping.

Colorful beehive "apartments", Slovenia 2016

And by the way, can I just say "thank heaven for Google translate?" Because even though Marija does have a little English at her disposal, it isn't quite so specialized, and miming a bee at its hive, complete with buzzing, felt decidedly undignified, even with my pinky extended.

I've heard apicultre is very culturally and economically important in Slovenia. Perhaps to underscore that point, Marija and Valentin bring out three, then a fourth jar of honey. They're huge, and each is a different color. They are not store-bought. They're from neighbors and friends who make it.

Chestnut honey is the middle range of orange shade, acacia honey is the lightest.
Then there is a rare one from the local pine trees. It is almost black. The light can't pass through it, it's so thick. It is dense and stubbornly clings the spoon. Its taste has depth, as well. I don't know how to describe it, really.
It's earthy. It's complex.
It tastes like an ancient forest full of stories. I want to eat the whole jar.
I have to close my eyes, and throw my head back and sigh, so deeply have I just fallen in love with the bees that made this; my perfect little furry, winged lovers who know just how to please.
They tell me this honey is rare and expensive. It can't be made every year, because the trees don't flower every year. Yet, they are offering it to me freely.
I feel a little guilty about the second or third spoonful.

Shades of honey (this isn't my photo. Mine is lost somehow. . . but you get the idea.
The dark pine-tree honey was much darker than this one.)

They also bring out a middle range color of gold-tinged orange honey that's from a variety of wildflowers.
Did I mention that I got to enjoy this with some simple, just-sweet-enough cookies that Marija had made?
I did? Oh.
While looking out at stony peaks and the greenery of the valley?
Oh, I said that already?

How did I get here?
What did I do to deserve such a bounty of good tastes, beautiful sights, stimulating conversation, and warm, generous hospitality?
Slovenia has this in spades. It's like her mission to say, "See this abundance? It's yours. Don't ask why. Just take it. I have so much, and your enjoyment of it takes nothing from anyone else. We all deserve beauty, in all forms."
Slovenia is like the bees, themselves. "Here, take this sweetness. I give it to you. Go on, take it---I'll make more. This world is for making sweetness."

Boat to the island church (in background), Lake Bled, Slovenia 2016

The difficulty of returning to the USA is strong now; a country where, in this moment, anger and aggression seem to bubble up from the very soil, the vapor poisoning even those one would have thought immune. The benefit of the doubt, trust, and the willingness to listen to each other seem to have been the first victims. I fear any remnants of compassion might be next.

I cannot fix this. For years I really tried. And maybe this trying is part of the problem—so many who want vastly different things, trying to enact their own personal vision for everyone else. This is where, fundamentally, conflict is born.
So I've reached a point where I seek fewer people, holding fast to the ones I find who still possess humor and reasonableness and compassion.
I think my travels are a search for this, a search for reassurance and hope.
I seek those with the wisdom to recognize how much they don't really know, coupled with a sense of curiosity about the world and the people in it.
So, my dance card is not so full these days. I can't listen to any more people telling me what to think (usually over-eager college undergrads), what to eat (Go Paleo! Go vegan! Gluten is poison! Sugar is the devil!), whom to vote for, whom to fear, whose "side" I should be on (Side? What happened to nuance?). It's a country divided into many camps and looking like a roiling cauldron of hatred, ready to boil over.

So nature, and those who live close to her and still allow her to shape their lives, come to my aid, doing their best to restore my soul.
I don't need another argument, I need birdsong.
I need the babble of rivers, not politicians.
I need the wind whispering, or even wailing, through branches, soothing or drowning out that voice of despair in my head.
I need the peace of the forest, the kindest place I know.
I need to lay in the grass and melt into this earth, even before I'm forced to return to it.

This "terroir" of which I so often speak---I need to feel it in my bones; to see, hear and smell it in my dreams again.
For a suffering world, this is the truest medicine I know.
It is sweet to visit a place, and a people, who haven't forgotten this.

Photos of beautiful Slovenia below:

Lake Bled panorama

Cornfield panorama, near Lake Bled

And what do you do with all that corn? Hang it on the porch.
Pretty sure this is Slovenian for "Don't drive like a doofus!"

Predjama Castle, with cave entrance below.

Close-up of Predjama Castle facade.

Predjama Castle, built into the cliffs.

Interior of Predjama Castle.

Breathtaking Julian Alps of Slovenia.

Julian Alps

Madonna and child, in the Julian Alps.

About to drive down into the Soca River Valley.

Peaks and pines in Julian Alps.

Domestic architecture of Slovenia.

On the road to our apartment.