Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sleeping over in Slovenia

Views from our Farmhouse Balcony

Lying under the low wooden eaves of our third floor apartment, I can hear children’s footsteps running two floors down and see one shining light in the Julian Alps out the window. Somewhere below in the yard sleep four chickens, one donkey, and whatever kinds of animals help produce the breakfast we’ll be eating in the morning. We are spending our Christmas break on a farm in Slovenia, high in the hills above Lake Bled. We’ll sleep tonight to the radical sound of silence, and wake up to homemade cinnamon plum jam and bread, pastry made from local walnuts, muesli plumped by warm milk and farm eggs and sausage smoked in the ping pong house/smoking shack.

On mornings when the lure of bed was not enough to overcome the hundreds of chimes of the town bells, Brett and I would head out for runs. Running on a Zgornje Gorje morning means three things: a warm scarf for the first few icy inhalations, sunlit or cloud-swirled alps to look at, and cats springing up in unexpected places. While Brett set off for the highest reaches of the local roads, I explored the neighborhood, inhaling wood smoke from all the wood-burning furnaces and mistaking extra well-fed cats for beavers. The clouds drifted overhead in that soft wintry brightness, and the local people I passed by greeted me with “hello” instead of “Dober Dan.” Obviously, anyone running in this village was from the United States and would not be doing farm work of any kind that day. From my ridge, I could see a sparkle from Lake Bled below, whitened Alps stretching protectively across the valley, and frozen fields turned over for winter. And just when I started to get tired, I turned back into my own farmyard, knowing Valentina was scooping some of her jam into a bowl and boiling eggs for tiny china egg cups as I ran up the stairs to a warm waiting shower. How much better could a day start?

The Bled region is full of things to do after breakfast. Though it’s clear we are visiting during the least tourist-friendly time of year - not enough snow yet for serious winter sports, not enough sunshine to leave long underwear at home - we nevertheless find Slovenia a gorgeous winter playground. Lake Bohinj beckons one valley over, with a sparkling green sheet of water to hike around and a ski-resort stocked temporarily with man-made snow. Lake Bled is as much a fairytale as the postcards report, though between taking photos of the towering Alps behind the island church and rowing over for a visit, it’s easy to hop on the internet or stop in to Pizza Rustica for the most delicious “vegi” pizza this side of Italy. Bled manages to blend modernity with the same charms that made it a resort town long before our parent’s parents were born. Everyone seems to speak English, right down to current slang, and everyone seems happy to see us.

As we circle Lake Bled on our first day, we see several small paintings nestled in the inland rock. An older man with long white eyebrows wearing a beret and at least two fuzzy sweaters – maybe four - sits on the wall holding a brush, well-used paint boxes scattered around him. “Four Euros,” he tells us. Four Euros for a hand painted island scene? We’re in. He quickly flips over the painting we choose and starts dabbling in a dark paint. Suddenly we are looking at our own painted silhouettes – the painter on the wall, Brett standing tall with his backpack, my winter cap angled rakishly to one side as I look down at the painting I am now in. When asked, our friend shares his political philosophies, explaining his opinions on Slovenia’s transition out of communism, the pressure of lobbyists all modern leaders are under, the new global culture being created and the loss of national identity. I find myself mainly agreeing with him.

As a matter of fact, I just agree with this mountain bit of Slovenia. I didn’t know what we’d find as we drove up from Venice, but what we did find: wood smoke, cats, pizza, painting, smooth waters and snowy mountains, added up to peace.

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