As part of getting to know more about the work of SILA we found out that their 2019 Spring Soirée would be benefitting Europa Donna, a Europe-wide organisation that works on behalf of women with breast cancer, as well raising awareness of the importance of screening. What’s more, one of the speakers at the event would be the group’s president in Slovenia, Tanja Španić, a doctor of veterinary medicine with a PhD in molecular and behavioural neuroscience. Curious to learn more, we got in touch with Dr Španić, who was kind enough to answer our questions.
How long have you been working with Europa Donna, and how did you get involved?
I have been active with Europa Donna (ED) since 2010. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, when I was 26 years old and at the beginning of my PhD in biomedicine. I went through different kinds of treatment, and after the primary treatment was finished I went to rehabilitation where I met other women with the same experience, who told me about Europa Donna and their section for young patients. So I decided to join them. Soon, I became the head of the group of young women with breast cancer, then secretary general and in 2017 president of ED Slovenia. Meanwhile I’ve finished my PhD and another research project. Combining both jobs was impossible, so at some point I had to choose. I decided for Europa Donna.
What’s the aim of Europa Donna, and what work does it do to achieve this?
Europa Donna Slovenia has been a member of The European Breast Cancer coalition Europa Donna since 1997. The European Coalition has 47 member countries. Together, we create advocacy initiatives in support of the 10 goals of Europa Donna and thus improve the lives of women with breast cancer. In Europa Donna Slovenia we connect the healthy population, cancer patients, individuals, experts and institutions.
The main goal of our association is to provide equal opportunities and access for all breast cancer patients in Slovenia in order for them to have access to screening, early diagnosis, immediate and effective medical treatment with rehabilitation. With our experience, we developed different kinds of support, financial, legal and psychosocial, for patients and survivors. We provide this through specific sections, workshops, meetings and groups. Over the past two years, we started with an active program to support relatives and children on this path with cancer. All psychosocial support is grouped in the ROZA program (www.europadonna-zdruzenje.si/kdo_smo/program_roza). For the broader public, we are mostly known for our awareness campaigns during Pink October activities like lectures, stands, walks and runs, exhibitions around Slovenia.
What are some of the systemic and social challenges that women with cancer face in Slovenia?
First, you have to face with the stigma of being diagnosed as a cancer patient. If you successfully finish the treatment, you come to a stage where you have to face other obstacles like going back to work, part-time retirement, lower income, how to change jobs, not to mention dealing with the late and long-term side effects of the treatment. Usually, these treatments are very aggressive and long, with quite a lot of consequences like fatigue, big and stiff scars, lymphedema. A healthy person never thinks about the consequences of the treatment like that. And lots of cancer patients face misunderstandings from their employer, because you look OK but in fact you are not. In collaboration with other cancer patient organisations we are very active in talking about the issues and social challenges that we face after treatment.
How can people get involved?
We make quite a lot of effort to provide most of the programs free of charge for users or with a very low contribution. Anyone can become a member of Europa Donna Slovenia and help with membership or a part of their personal income tax (dohodnina). Anyone can become our donor or supporter on a monthly basis.
You’re from Hong Kong – how did you end up in Slovenia?
I was hired before I came to Slovenia as a Traditional Chinese medicine expert a few years ago. Back then I was a bit exhausted with the busy and crowded environment in Hong Kong, so I was looking for a change. Indeed, it was the internet that found Slovenia for me after intensive browsing and Google searching. I visited Slovenia for one week before I took the job and that was the first time I came to Europe. It is, however, my personal choice to stay in Novo mesto, a relatively quiet and small "city".
In 2017, I had a major change in my job. At that time, I needed to choose whether I stay here or restart in other city. I even got another job offer in Koper. But somehow I feel responsible to all my clients who have been visiting me for years, and I would like to continue to serve them. So despite some good business opportunities offers, I chose to settle in Novo mesto.
What were some of the problems you faced when moving here, and how did you deal with them?
Frankly speaking, at first, not many problems because I was hired as an expert, so basically someone took care everything for me – renting an apartment, arranging job, even taking me to the government office and bank with a person who speaks Slovene. But then, slowly, the longer I lived here the more problems I had.
The first challenge I had was getting my driving licence. It took my more than a year, even with the effort of my Slovenian driving instructor, and yet I was not able to satisfy the ever-changing and never-ending request for paperwork from the Upravna Enota. At a certain point I just realised that he was asking for documents that didn’t exist. And every time when I wanted to get some clear answers, instead of giving me one, the guy just tried to think of something to send me away. So I took the advice from the expat group online, tried another Upravna Enota, and guess what? I finally took the practical exam, passed and got my license. I was not so lucky the next time with my visa renewal though, and I really do not want to get into the details.
But you know, similar stuff like that, they never tell you the things once and for all, so the whole procedure is dragging on for so long and at the same time the officers are complaining that they have so many jobs to do. For a person who comes from a city that is world famous for its efficiency, this is unbelievable and almost hilarious. Interestingly enough, sometimes this could happen in private companies as well, but at least I can choose another bank and telecom and live with it.
What are some things you miss from Hong Kong?
As mentioned above, our efficiency, maybe some more pragmatism as well. The government and companies in Hong Kong are (or maybe were) famous for high efficiency and quality. This is very understandable. For a small city with seven million people and as one of the largest financial centres in the world, everything needs to be fast, precise, no-nonsense. And for the previous generation of the Chinese community, they also needed to face rule under the British. They needed to find their space to keep their own Chinese heritage and customs, but at the same time adapt to the British.
The British were also quite clever, especially after the late 60s, when they finally realised that instead of just taking and taking, as they did in other colonies, they also needed to build and develop the city as a modern society. So for my generation who grew up in the 80s and 90s, we kind of have the best of both worlds. I was able to learn from my Chinese heritage for our hardworking and can-do attitude, respect for tradition and authentic Chinese culture while at the same time I am familiar with the practice of the rule of law, have communication with the free world and enjoy our economic success.
And of course, the variety of food from home is also what I miss. It is not just about having Chinese food. It is the variety of fresh vegetables, seafood and all kind of imported food from all over the world. I do enjoy the quality of food in Slovenia, but I do want to have more vegetables than lettuce, spinach, broccoli and stuff like this.
What things do you think Slovenia could learn from Hong Kong?
In some ways, I think Slovenians are too comfortable or even obsessed with being a small country. Look – being geographically small does not mean that you cannot think big. Sometimes you really need to break through the comfort zone and explore. And in this process, there will be pain and difficulty but you need to have a long term plan and bigger picture in mind together with a good faith. However, the Slovenians that I have met are either too passive and pessimistic for advancement, or they react aggressively protective of their own rule, despite the fact that those rules are causing more trouble or are impractical in the real world. So in short, what Slovenia can learn from Hong Kong is more of our can-do attitude, with more flexibility and pragmatism.
What things in Slovenia would you like to show people in Hong Kong?
I do not want to show them anything because I want this country to remain a hidden gem (laughs). Just kidding. Well, to be honest, it is a difficult question to answer. I enjoy the relatively slow and quiet pace of the country but if I tell everybody about this then I am kind of ruining the peace. Slovenia has everything, but just a tiny bit of everything. And for people in Hong Kong, we are so internationalised. We travel a lot. So if they want the European heritage, they go Vienna or Florence; if they want to the city vibe they go to Berlin or London; if they want the nature or beauty, they go to Switzerland or Iceland. In the recent years, more Hong Kong people are interested in visiting the Balkans or somewhere with less people. This is the only time when people from Hong Kong will look for Slovenia, and then have trouble pronouncing Ljubljana.
Do you speak Slovene, and if so, how did you learn?
I took some private classes when I was an employee. But ever since I started my own business, I do not have the time and energy for more lessons. At work, I can understand many familiar phrases or vocabulary items related to my work. I have a translator and interpreter for my business. For my personal life, I mostly speak English. For some occasions I just hire a personal assistant or consultant for complicated or formal things. In general, my Slovene is slabo.
What’s the situation of Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in Slovenia?
Just like many other things in this country, Slovenia has everything but on a small scale. The first TCM expert was invited by the former Yugoslavia. Somehow that doctor settled in Slovenia, and since then more experts like me were hired to come here. Still, doctors come and go, while TCM here is kind of controlled by the business owner, so the TCM profession is way less mature than places like Canada, USA, Australia and Switzerland.
At the same time, Slovenia is also in a difficult position with regard to training their own TCM doctors. There are acupuncture services in the hospital and there are medical doctors who perform acupuncture. But if we consider the more internationalised and widely accepted standard of training, the formal training of TCM is basically non-existent in Slovenia. Slovenians can go overseas for formal training, but it requires a huge investment. Therefore, importing TCM experts and training capable interpreters for non-Slovene speaking doctors is a more practical and cost-efficient way of providing authentic and quality TCM services in Slovenia. To a certain degree, we are quietly assisting the overloaded medical system herem while generating profit for the government and creating jobs.
What are some things that people get wrong about acupuncture?
Acupuncture is not just poking needles into the body. There are different types of acupuncture. The one that I am practicing is the classical Chinese approach which is under the Traditional Chinese medicine theory and system. Other Asian medicines like Korean and Japanese ones are similar to the Chinese, but still have their uniqueness. There are some “modern” forms of acupuncture, to be accurate “dry-needling”. They are not performed under the TCM theory, but using scientific and anatomical knowledge like trigger points or the nervous system.
As I have mentioned, acupuncture is not just putting needles into the body. There is a reason behind it. However, after hundreds of years of reductionist science, many people refuse to accept the fact that there is another rational and logical approach to understanding our body. TCM is a holistic philosophy which is a complete and sophisticated system, but at the same time fundamentally different from science. We may be able to get some scientific findings in TCM, but again they are only small pieces under a reductionist system. Anyhow, I don’t want to bore people with too much academic talk, but instead to emphasise the value and importance of an independent and mature TCM theory.
What are some things that acupuncture can help with?
Throughout my years in Slovenia, I have helped many people. Some conditions that I find more responsive to my treatment are digestive system problems like irritable bowels, thyroid problems and psychiatric problems like depression and anxiety. The list is too long, really, to name just a few.
Do you think you’ll stay in Slovenia “forever”?
I do have some plans on the personal, business and professional levels. But who knows what tomorrow might bring. I will try and do my best to provide and serve my clients as well as Slovenian society. May the people here will help me, value me and God bless me.
If you’re interested in learning more about Ms Cheng’s work in Slovenia, then you can visit Aku Energija online or at Ulica talcev 9, 8000 Novo Mesto
March 9, 2019
Human history is a story of migration, and Slovenes are no exception.
In the last century and a half many Slovenes emigrated to various New Worlds, especially North America, with the diaspora finding new homes far from the land of their birth. As such, over time and with each generation their hometowns became more and more distant, until their descendants lost touch with their roots.
As such, tor many who would like to reconnect with their family origins and explore their roots a little, or a lot, of help is often needed. And this is where Urban Gulič Tomšič comes in.
Urban, what exactly do you do?
I am an ancestry guide, sometimes I also call myself an ancestry detective as my job involves a lot of investigative work.
Say I was a USA citizen who had just discovered I had some Slovenian roots and would like to learn more. How could you help me?
My help would almost certainly begin with an exchange of emails. You would need to give me all the information you’ve got so that I can have some grounds on what or who we are looking for. I advise clients about the time they might need in Slovenia, locations to stay and visit, and information to help them travel hassle free to Slovenia. However, my actual services begin with data-gathering and investigation, be it on my own or together with my clients.
We begin with gathering the information in your country, in the example of someone in the US one of the resources is Ellis Island records of immigrants, and then proceed with our work in Slovenia. In many cases the names of towns and villages are in German and also in various fonts, such as Gothic script. It happens as well that five or more villages of the same name emerge while looking for a person’s place of origin. I clarify all this and prepare the grounds for our common investigation.
The next step is to go and visit the related archives. I sometimes do this task on my own in case my clients don’t have enough time for a long enough visit.
Equipped with this data we then go on our trip around Slovenia. We visit local parishes and check their archives as well, old cemeteries, we knock on people doors and pieces of information start to come together.
Most of the times we meet living relatives, find old houses or their ruins, even neighbours in possession of old photos and oral history.
Photo: Ancestry Slovenia
How come you decided to do this?
My friend and a fellow tour guide Barbara once called me to help with ancestry guiding, because one of hers colleagues got sick. I took the tour and got immediately hooked. I enjoyed the company of my clients but also the research, it made me feel like Sherlock Holmes. I also felt very happy when we found what we were looking for. I wanted to do more of this so I launched my own Slovenian Genealogy website.
Where do your clients mostly come from?
Most of my clients come from the USA, mainly Cleveland and Chicago, as well as California, but I get people from everywhere Slovenians moved long enough ago for their descendants to have lost touch with the old country.
Which part of Slovenia do your clients mostly originate from, is there a region that stands out in this respect?
Many people emigrated from the areas of Posavje and Dolenjska (Lower Carniola), as the living conditions at the end of 19th century were really bad in these areas. In general the majority of my research is conducted in the eastern part of Slovenia.
My clients are mostly descendants of this first wave of emigration (roughly between the years 1880 and 1920), which was predominantly economic in nature. Those who emigrated for political reasons following the end of WWII mostly haven’t lost a touch yet, as this wasn’t that long ago.
As a tour guide, what are the places you would recommend to visit in Slovenia besides the usual destinations of Bled, Ljubljana Castle and Postojna Cave?
Basically in Slovenia whether you head in one direction or another you can stumble upon a place of beauty: Soča Valley, the lovely city of Piran on the coast, the wine region of Goriška brda, Lake Bohinj, Velika Planina, the Mercury mine of Idrija and Škocjan Caves, to name just a few.
Urban, thank you for talking to us.
For more information please visit Ancestry Slovenia.
To an entire generation of Slovenes, the name Angela Vode would have meant nothing. Even today bringing up the name of Ms Vode in the company of Slovenes may result only in confused stares and faces of disinterest, confused as to why you interrupted their coffee to talk about some dead woman from the past. But Angela Vode isn’t just some dead woman from the past, far from it. Angela Vode was one of those unfortunate souls who gave their entire life over to helping their fellow humans only to be consistently arrested because of it. Her life story isn’t a million miles away from mirroring Slovenia’s own in modern times.
Angela Vode was born on January 5, 1892, the third daughter of five children in a poor, working-class family. Her father was a chap by the name of Anton, who worked as a railwayman until his death in 1904. Little is known of her mother, other than the fact she passed away in 1919. Angela’s upbringing was fairly typical of a working-class Slovene girl in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time, which means her future job prospects were ‘teacher’ or ‘wife’, or maybe even ‘wife of teacher’. ‘Wife and teacher’ legitimately wasn’t an option, unless it was ‘teacher and wife of teacher’. Married women were forced (by law) to give up their jobs unless they were teachers marrying teachers.
This is the societal system that Angela Vode was born into, and therefore you can understand why she was just a little bit miffed about it all. Angela graduated from a teaching school in 1911 and worked as a teacher in and around Ljubljana all the way up until 1917 when she was fired because of her ties to a youth movement known as Preporod (Rebirth), who were openly anti-Austria and all in favour of a future Yugoslav state. Despite being considered a ‘red feminist’ Angela continued on the educational path post-firing, studying special education in Prague, Berlin and Vienna before returning to Slovenia to work as what was then called a ‘teacher-defectologist’, which basically means ‘teacher of children with disabilities’. Angela actually published a number of articles on the education of disabled children, as well as a book in 1936 titled ‘The Importance of Auxiliary Schools and Their Development in Yugoslavia’. Well, it was called ‘Pomem pomožnega šolstva in njegov razvoj v Jugoslaviji’, to be precise.
The education of disabled children wasn’t Angela’s numero one focus however, no matter how forward thinking she was on the matter. The 1920s saw Angela Vode fast become one of the most vocal supporters of women’s rights in what was first the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (from 1929). The history of women’s rights organisations in Slovenia was not a long one, the first such organisation being established in the city of Trieste (now in Italy) in 1887. Angela was elected president of the Women’s Movement of Yugoslavia, as well as president of the Female Teachers’ Society of Slovenia (established in 1898), which carried the slogan ‘for equal work, equal pay’. The mid-1930s saw her publish a number of works on the subject of women’s rights and social injustice, although the events of the 1940s in Yugoslavia meant these books would cease to exist until after Yugoslavia had itself ceased to exist.
Again we must travel back ever so slightly. In 1922 Angela joined the then-illegal Communist Party of Yugoslavia, in what she described as an act of idealism born out of a sincere belief in the fight against injustice. She stuck with the party until 1939, when she was expelled for openly criticising the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that saw Hitler and Stalin agree to carve up Eastern Europe. World War Two soon came to the Yugoslav lands, and despite her frequent warnings about the importance of a united anti-fascist front, the resistance in Yugoslavia split into many parts. Despite her expulsion Vode decided to join the commie-led Liberation Front of the Slovene People, quickly becoming the top representative of the Slovene women’s movements. In late 1941 Vode joined Stara Pravda (Old Justice), but the expulsion of this group a year later signalled misery on Angela’s horizons.
She continued to do her bit to help the resistance however, organising collections of food and clothing for Slovene refugees and those in labour camps. How one gets food and clothing into a fascist labour camp I have no idea, but I digress. Vode was in Italian-occupied Ljubljana at the time, and whilst this wasn’t the greatest place in the world it was simply heaven compared to the existence of the Slovenes in the Nazi-occupied areas of the country. This led to a whole heap of Slovene refugees moving into Ljubljana, and in late 1942 the Italian authorities decided the best way to deal with this was to start executing whomever it deemed unnecessary. Like any human with a heart, Vode decided to appeal to Italian leader Benito Mussolini to stop the executions, but her protest was destroyed by the Slovene communists who wanted to be the sole source of protest and resistance in order to enhance their claim to power when the war was over.
The war was soon over (well, a couple of years or so later anyway) and things didn’t look too rosy for Angela. She went back to working as a teacher, but as the communist stranglehold on power increased her future looked increasingly bleak. The fact that she was one of the few who tried to organise legitimate political opposition to the communists didn’t help, and her standing as an intellectual on the other side of the fence all but guaranteed her a visit from the secret police. That visit came in the autumn of 1947, and Angela was arrested and imprisoned for two months. After two months of torture and abuse, Angela Vode was put on trial, by which I mean after two months of torture and abuse Angela Vode took part in a show trial. She was charged with treason, accused of being an enemy of the working class, a western spy and any other stereotypically 1940’s communist thing one could be arrested for. These were the Nagode Trials, named after the leader of the aforementioned Stara Pravda movement, Črtomir Nagode. The ‘trials’ saw 15 intellectuals found guilty of treason and sentenced to death or life imprisonment.
Vode got 20 years, and whilst she only served six of these years thanks to international fury, she didn’t exactly return to a free and joyous wonderland in 1953. Vode was declared a ‘non-person’, that is a human being without any rights whatsoever. She wasn’t allowed to find employment, enjoy a personal income or get medical insurance. She was denied her passport, and her name was prohibited from public life. Her works, such vital and important works concerning women’s rights in the country, could not be quoted in any way, shape or form. It was as if Angela Vode had never existed, and this vibrant and revolutionary mind was reduced to being completely in the care of her sister Ivana. In the late 1960s, Angela began work on her memoirs, finishing what was known as ‘The Hidden Memoir’ in 1971. It wouldn’t see the light of day until 2004.
After the death of Tito in 1980 there began to be small ripples of interest in her oft-whispered about works throughout the Slovene republic. On the 50th anniversary of her book ‘Women in Contemporary Society’, she gave a low-key interview to the magazine Nova revija, marking her first public appearance in over 30 years. One year later she passed away at her home in Ljubljana, dying in May 1985 at the age of 93. She didn’t live to see the Slovene court annul the verdicts of the Nagode Trials, although after being robbed of her final 30 years justice would be nigh on impossible.
Vode has been posthumously rehabilitated, and slowly but surely her works have begun to reach more people. Despite being written almost a century ago they are still relevant today, with Vode expressing a desire to cherish the natural differences of the genders whilst putting forward the necessity of equality at the same time. She attacked subjects that were almost holy at the time, such as the role of husband and wife in parenting, stating she did not understand ‘…why a wife by nature would be more destined for motherhood than a husband for fatherhood’. She wrote extensively about gender roles as well as the influence of nature and nurture in those roles. Vode urged women to learn about the past, believing that only by understanding society could one improve one's position. She implored that a healthy marriage could only exist with love, friendship, mutual respect, understanding and economic independence. She stripped down the question of gender roles in society, saying that ‘…a woman is as integral a part of human society, nation, state and family as a man, and her life and position are equally dependent on all political, economic, and cultural developments, and a demand for her participation in public life is absolutely natural and necessary’.
Angela Vode was and still is a vital voice in the women’s rights movement in Slovenia, and it is a tragedy that she simultaneously became a poster girl for the abusive and criminal side of the semi-totalitarian dream that was socialist Yugoslavia.
If you enjoyed this story, then consider picking up a copy, in digital or paper form, of An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery from Posh Lost Books or following the related page on Facebook, while you can read more of John’s work on his personal website.
Where did you live before Slovenia, and what brought you here?
I was born in Iran and moved to the UK when I was two years old. I lived in Cumbria until the age of 15 and then moved to London. My mum moved the family to London so I could fulfil my dreams of working in television, and opportunities for this are plentiful there. My husband is Slovenian and, to be honest, if i didn’t meet him, I wouldn’t know much about Slovenia, if anything at all. After he and I got together, we visited many times until we eventually moved here.
What were your first impressions of Slovenia, and how do they compare with what you think now?
In 2012, early in our relationship, my husband brought me a book about Slovenia. The images were breath-taking. He also brought me gibanica and a bottle of pumpkin seed oil. I loved them, but I’d never been to Slovenia and barely knew anything about it.
I first came here in 2013 and I fell in love straight away! I loved the vibe, the energy and hospitality of the people, how clean the country was, how easy it was to get around, the amazing places to see, the food, the fresh air - pretty much everything. I can’t think of anything I didn’t like. I’ve seen more of it now, met more people, made more friends and learned more. I fall in love with Slovenia more and more as time goes on.
What do you wish someone had told you before you moved here?
I wish I had the contacts I do now. I wish I had done more intense research before coming here so I would have been to more events and met people much earlier. I advise anyone who’s moving to another country to do as much research and create connections online prior to making your move more enjoyable, so you’ll settle in faster in the areas that are important to you, and for me that’s business.
Have you started to learn Slovene?
I’ve been hearing and listening to Slovenian for almost six years now so I’ve managed to pick up a few words. I haven’t yet mastered sentences or verbs, but I started classes in February and because of my experience with the language I’m finding them quite easy. I’ve heard several times that it’s a difficult language, and I can understand why so I’m even more motivated to learn.
What methods do you use to learn it?
I ask my husband and friends how to say things and I ask for translations almost every day and listen to people’s conversations. I Google Translate a lot of things, my mother-in-law only speaks to me in Slovenian, and like I said, I’ve started classes.
How did you start looking for work here, and what was that experience like?
I have my own online speaker trainer business. I teach business owners how to deliver effective and persuasive presentations to help leverage time, reach more people and make a bigger impact.
But I love doing live events, and at first I didn’t see a market for it here and I wasn’t looking in the right places, so I gave up the idea of doing those. Then I met someone and he pointed me in the right direction and introduced me to so many different people that eventually I realised that there is an opportunity for me to bring my business here, do live events and teach what I know and love in Slovenia. And that’s what I’ve started to do.
You have a young son, how is he settling in?
My son loves Slovenia (or as he calls it, ‘Felinia’). He loves čevapčiči, the road trips we take - we try to go out of Ljubljana as often as possible. He loves visiting his babi in Novo Mesto, skiing, Atlantis, Tivoli park, the castles, the various workshops for children. Slovenia is definitely one of the world’s most child-friendly countries, so as a family we pretty much settled in immediately.
What are some things from Slovenia you think your home country could benefit from?
How to deal with snow! London goes into a complete shutdown when it snows - trains stop running, major traffic jams and people don’t turn up for work. I was in Kranjska Gora a few weeks ago and it snowed heavily overnight. People started dealing with it effectively the following morning - they just started clearing the snow. By 11am, people were driving normally. Life doesn’t have to stop when it snows - and London can definitely learn a thing or two about this.
The UK can definitely have more cool spots and things to do for young children. For example, my son loves Mala Ulica in Ljubljana- nothing like that exists in London and at such a low price. He also ended up in hospital a few weeks ago they had a huge room in the paediatric wing filled with so many toys, activities and teachers. He loved it! I’ve never seen such a room in any medical centre in London. Also, cheaper cinema tickets, so an evening out costs much less than in London.
And what are some thing from your home country that you think Slovenia could benefit from?
All I can think of is how the country is marketed. I can understand why it isn’t so loud for Slovenia, but it’s such a gem of a country, and I think more people would appreciate visiting and experiencing what it has to offer. Also, I’m yet to understand why we need to drive with lights on when it’s fully bright outside. I sometimes forget to turn the lights on and I get flashed by other drivers. I’m getting much better now, though.
Where are some of your favourite places to visit here?
My favourite part of Slovenia is definitely Ljubljana - I’m a city girl. But Slovenia as a whole is such a beautiful country, it’s difficult to pick one or two places. I love Bled, I love the castles here, Bohinj is stunning, I learned to ski in Kranjska Gora, I love driving to Novo Mesto and Savica Waterfall is amazing! I really love all of it. As a family, we try to take as many road trips as possible.
How do you feel about Slovenian food and drink?
I love Slovenian cuisine. I’ve learned to cook quite a few Slovenian dishes. My mother-in-law’s dishes are amazing and I picked up various recipes from her such as goveja juha, bucna juha, goveji golaz and testani krompir. I really enjoy cooking and eating Slovenian food.
However, something I'm still trying to get over is eating horse. I couldn't believe it at first that it’s on the menu in Slovenia. Unfortunately, I did try some - I was tricked into it - but never again!
What things frustrate you about life in Slovenia?
The thing I don’t like about Slovenia is how cars can turn left or right at a green light the same time as pedestrians can cross. I think this should be stopped to allow cars to cross without putting pedestrians, and drivers, at risk. Sometimes cyclists race across whilst a car is turning, and it’s pretty dangerous. Someone once told me that they’re planning to get rid of this system, so I hope they do it soon.
And what things delight you?
I love how in Ljubljana you can get so much done in one day! Obviously, the fact that it’s small plays a huge part in that. I also feel super productive here. I can’t put my finger on why exactly, but like I said, there’s something about the energy here.
Would you advise a friend to move to Slovenia?
I always do, especially friends with children. Every person I’ve spoken to who has kids and have moved to Slovenia love how easy life is here. When I tell people about the country, they think it’s too good to be true.
So do you think you’ll stay in Slovenia for the rest of your life?
I don’t plan so far ahead. Moving to Slovenia was a last-minute decision. I know for a fact that I’ll be spending a lot of time in Slovenia even if I don’t ‘live’ here forever. But for now and the foreseeable future Ljubljana is home, and I love it that way.
Where can people find out more about you and your work?
Fanny Susan Copeland was a remarkable person whose life serves as a curiosity and inspiration. A British woman who was born in Ireland in 1872, grew up in Scotland, and moved to Slovenia in 1921, where she spent most of the rest of her life, dying at 98 in 1970, and buried at the foot of Mount Triglav.
Although she wrote an autobiography it was never published and will remain in copyright limbo until 2020. One person who’s seen this memoir is Eric Percival, whose great-great-great-grandfather, Fred Holloway, knew Fanny’s father, Ralph Copeland, once the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, with the two men meeting near Manchester in the early 1860's. Percival put together the original post that sparked my interest in Ms Copeland, and also kindly supplied some of the pictures that accompany this story. Unless otherwise stated, the facts set out below are also drawn from his account of her life, as based on her own and other reports.
Although British by birth, Fanny was a thoroughly European woman, learning French and German as a child and being educated in Berlin shortly after turning 13. She also learned Latin, Italian, Danish, Norwegian and – due to her father’s interest in the Balkans – Slovenian. This connection with the country would be enough to get our attention, but Ms Copeland holds it because she bucks the standard narrative in terms of when and how one can make a new life for oneself. A brief outline of that life is as follows.
Fanny got married in 1894, at the age of 22, to escape her mother, but her husband was a 36-year old man who she never really liked. The couple had three children and then separated in 1908, finally divorcing in 1912, when Fanny was 40.
She developed a stronger connection with what would eventually become Yugoslavia soon after this, during the First World War, when she supported herself by doing translating for London-based South Slavic organisations. As part of this she translated Bogumil Vošnjak’s Bulwark against Germany: The fight of the Slovenes, the western branch of the Jugoslavs, for national existence, as well as serving as translator for the South Slavic delegation at the Paris Peace Conference.
In "traditional costume"
With Oton Župančič at the Congress of Dubrovnik in 1933
Ms Copeland then moved to Ljubljana in 1921, aged 49, when the city was part of the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. She was hired as a lecturer in English at the University (which itself only opened in July 1919), a post she held until 1941, when the Germans invaded. At this point, aged 69, she was arrested by the Gestapo and handed to the Italians, who moved her to Trieste, then to Arezzo and finally Bibbiena (in Etruria), where she spent the rest of the war “in open confinement”.
In 1953, aged 81, she finally moved back to Ljubljana. The death of her brother meant that she now had some savings, and thus Fanny Copeland lived in Hotel Slon for the rest of her life, continuing to work as a writer and translator.
Ms Copeland, right, in the Hotel Slon, late 1960s
But Fanny Copeland isn’t just a fine example of a person who didn’t let their gender or age dictate what they should be doing and when, or of someone who managed to successfully integrate themselves into a new country, as she also played a key role in the development of Alpinism as a local tourist offering, and in the promotion of Slovenia as a tourist destination. This section thus draws from an article by Janet Ashton called “Buried at his feet”: Fanny Susan Copeland, Triglav and Slovenia, and from another, Fanny Copeland and the geographical imagination, by Richard Clarke and Marija Anteric, both of which are recommended for more detail.
Ms Copeland felt a great attraction for the Julian Alps, and Slovenia the Slovenes in general, claiming they were the most Scottish of the Yugoslav communities, perhaps because of the mountains, long dominance by other powers, and characteristics of pragmatism and frugality.
She first climbed Triglav in the 1920s, not having taken up serious climbing until her 40s, and did so for the last time in 1958, just before her 87th birthday. She also wrote two books on the Julian Alps, Beautiful Mountains: In the Jugoslav Alps (1931), and A short guide to the Slovene Alps (Jugoslavia) for British and American tourists (1936). As she said in 1957, this was done in the “hope of attracting to Slovenia tourists of all types, from summer visitors in search of little-known beautiful and inexpensive Alpine resorts to Alpinists in search of accessible mountain ranges not yet wholly exploited or explored”.
Such efforts to reveal what in those days was still a very hidden gem were not without their obvious dangers, as she noted in a much earlier letter from 1923 when commenting on one of her many trips up Triglav: “It is an interesting walk, but as an expedition it is badly spoilt by the path having been made fool-proof. Result, every holiday is made hideous by hundreds of trippers, and the average person has to wait for a holiday to go up.”
Slovenski planinski muzej:- Fedor Košir, president of the Alpine Association of Slovenia and Fanny Copeland.
As mark of respect for her work to promote the Julian Alps, and to establish Triglav National Park, when Fanny Copeland died her funeral was organised by the Mountaineering Union of Slovenia. She was buried in the cemetery of the village church in Dovje, where you can still see her simple grave, as shown below.
Wikipedia - Miran Hladnik CC-by-2.5
As Copeland wrote in 1931:
By fixed custom those that perish on Triglav are buried at his feet. In the pretty village church of Dovje, opposite the entrance of the stately Valley of the Gate (Vrata– truly a gate to be called Beautiful) they lie side by side. I think they would have it so. The long shadows of the regal avenue of peaks, down which they passed to their last adventure, sweep over their graves as the days and the years roll by; on All Souls’ day the mountaineers bring them pious offerings of prayer and lights, and from their tombstones their names cry greeting and warning to the hosts that go up year by year to visit the mountains, - greeting to the many who go up by the blazed trail where every danger spot is made safe with iron bolt and wire rope, to protect the unwary and put heart into the timid, - greeting to the few who seek, like themselves, to win the goal without guidance save the love of the heights, and no company except the extreme mysteries of life and death – greeting to the cragsman and the lover, to schoolboy and hunter, to smuggler and spy, and the ski-shod friend of the snows….
So if you find yourself in Hotel Slon, on Mount Triglav or by the village of Dovje, spare a thought for the remarkable Fanny Copeland, a woman who not only did as much as anyone else working in English to make the case for a separate Slovenian identity, one distinct from land’s association with the Habsburgs, Slavs and Serbo-Croatians, but also did much to bring the beauty of the land to a wider audience, and to share the best of her adoptive home with the world.
As to what life was really like under Tito for a woman born to the academic elite under Queen Victoria, Copeland addresses this at the end of her autobiography, with a postscript to the reader:
But have you really found good reasons to go and live in a ‘communist’ state? This was a question I was often asked soon after my return to Ljubljana. Well - for one thing it depends on what you mean by 'Communism'. If you mean a totalitarian regime then my reply is that no Yugoslav would put up with such a system… The Yugoslavs are stout individualists, but they appreciate law and order. Ask any British tourist who has visited Yugoslavia in recent years.
All our stories on mountaineering in Slovenia can be found here
If you’re reading this you almost certainly know of Dr Noah Charney, perhaps the most famous American living in Slovenia, who turns up regularly on TV and in print sharing his love of the country and exploring various aspects of its culture, as exemplified in his book Slovenology (2017), a new podcast of the same name, and a list of projects that seems to grow by the week. We thus got in touch for an email interview, with the focus on how he’s been able to settle so well, and so quickly, in his new home.
What brought you to Slovenia?
Love, which I believe is the primary import. I had dated a Slovenian girl when I was living in London and had come to visit on some holidays and try to learn the language a bit. Later on when I was studying at Cambridge but had ants in my pants and wanted to try living in various European countries one of them I went to was Slovenia. I lived here for a few months and during that time wound up deciding to transfer to University of Ljubljana to finish my Ph.D and I met my current wife as well as sold my first book all at the same time. It seems like Kismet.
How long after you arrived in Slovenia did you start studying the language, and what was the nature of these early efforts?
I tried memorizing some phrases and some of the basics before I actually moved here but to be honest I didn't learn much of anything and I never actually took a course in it until I started speaking with my mother-in-law. That was the best education. I still have trouble with grammar, and just about every sentence has a grammatical error in it. I never bothered memorizing the declensions, for example. But I speak fluently and quickly even with my mistakes and at least so far people seem to think it's cute. I'll ride that wave as long as I can.
An ebook version of Slovenology can be found on Amazon, while print copies are available in Slovenia
Have you ever engaged in a formal study program for the language?
No, nothing at all. I really should but what I need to do most is just take time to sit down and memorize declension endings and that would serve me well. But I keep on feeling like I don't have time to do it. I've certainly plateaued and could live my whole life here at this level without improving. That would be a bit of a shame, I think.
How do you feel about your level of Slovene now, and what do you do to improve it?
I'm entirely comfortable with my level of Slovene. A few years ago I began to host events in the language and make jokes in it and feel like I was my own normal personality even in this language. I'm not bothered at all if I make frequent grammatical errors. I would rather throw myself in and hope for the best. At this point I've almost made a positive personality trait out of speaking with funny inadvertently idioms. I host events regularly even do TV work in Slovenian and I've been told by many people that it would be a shame if I speak too much more correctly because there is a charm to my current level. If that's what they think sounds good to me
How did you build your personal and professional networks here?
I have no particular interest in meeting expats, especially Americans. That doesn't mean that I'm avoiding them but I'm making no effort to meet them as I'm most interested in meeting locals. That said, I had a strategy when I first moved here. I am a writer and occasionally write for magazines and newspapers so I have the ability to present people to the media and give them exposure to anglophone readers which Slovenians consider a plus, a bit out of the ordinary and something desirable. I used this to my advantage early on, as I wrote to various people. Because I admired their work, from rock musicians to comedians to actors to writers, and I asked if I could meet with them for an interview. About a third of the people I met became friends and the rest of them were useful contacts to have in a country with probably just a few hundred people living and working in the literary and cultural and arts sphere, so you meet one and you can easily meet the others. This was an intentional tactic that worked out well for me, and it has led to lots of collaborations with big names here. It also makes for a weird situation where I met really famous celebrities long before I met normal people.
How was finding paid work in Slovenia?
I am lucky in that I work as a writer primarily, and so my work is portable. It is probably the best of all to be working for American and British Publishers and publications and living here. But in the last few years I have done much more work locally. The work that I am asked to do most is in terms of hosting events and giving talks mostly about my perspectives as an American in love with this country, and noticing quirks and differences in the cultures that Slovenian find funny, and they especially appreciate the fact that I really do think this is the world's best country to live in, which often surprises locals.
I also find a lot of work writing text in English for Slovenians and Slovenian companies and editing text that was written by non-native speakers or translated into English by the same. I could probably do this sort of thing full-time but I wind up doing it part-time so I have the opportunity to do my own writing.
For anglophone foreigners using our language abilities is probably the most immediately desired thing, as just about every Slovenian company with any outward facing exposure needs to have texts in English and someone to either write them or proof them. There is also a real interest in collaborating with anglophone expats who are invited for consulting on rules for local projects, because they provide insight and a different perspective. So actually think there are ample opportunities. However, one should be aware that work tends to pay less here than it would in other countries, but the quality of life comes at a lower price here so it all balances out.
Culture shock is a well-studied phenomenon, moving through the stages of honeymoon, frustration, adjustment and acceptance. What has been your experience of culture shock in Slovenia?
I didn't have culture shock because my goal was always to live in a European country. I was not particularly interested in living the American lifestyle. So I am seeking out new cultural experiences, not hiding from them. The cultures are not so different here from what I'm used to in the eight different countries I've lived in. They're usually little details like grace notes that stand out to me, but nothing that would constitute shock. Maybe drinking schnapps for breakfast is one.
Are there some aspects of Slovene culture that you took to immediately?
I like pretty much everything and I'm particularly delighted to adopt local traditions. I'm totally into copati [slippers]. The American habit of wearing shoes outside and in seems weird to me now. I prefer living in a second language as everything is a bit more interesting. I'm excited to go to the supermarket for instance every time I go. Just different enough to be intriguing and moderate exotic.
Are there some aspects that remain challenging?
Really not at all. I feel completely at home here and did right from the start. I think the most important thing for me was achieving a comfort level with the language which allows me to interact with anybody. It is very easy to live in Ljubljana and speak only English, but once you get outside of the capital and if you want to talk to people of older generations or in more rural settings it helps a lot to speak Slovene.
What is something American you'd like to see adopted in Slovenia?
I'm not the biggest fan of America, so I'm not sure there's anything that Slovenia can learn from it. I guess I miss American breakfast traditions, but I can make those myself. If someone could work out the time zone differences so I can watch Boston Red Sox games live I would be quite pleased.
And what is something Slovene you'd like to see adopted in America?
America could learn a lot from Slovenia. I've written an article about it for the Washington Post and an extended version of the same article appears in my book. I feel like Slovenia has an ideal balance of the best bits of socialism with capitalism and freedom. It's hard to imagine a country that has a better balance, although nowhere is completely utopian.
Dr Charney also teaches art crime and art history, as well as writing for publication
2018 was a very productive year for you – what can we expect in 2019?
It's very kind of you to say. Yes, I seem to function only on creative overdrive, and I love starting and finishing projects, so I'm happy to skip the middle bit.
I just launched what will be a weekly free podcast that was sponsored by the US Embassy called Slovenology the Podcast. A new episode will come out every Sunday. I will also shortly be releasing a sort of a sequel to that book but coming out only in Slovenian. It will be called Zvezdologija and feature my interviews with interesting and famous Slovenians. I have been interviewing people here in public events for several years now, and my interviews are very idiosyncratic as most of the people I interview are friends so we tend to be very goofy and loose. So this book will include interviews and also plumb the depths of Slovenian celebrity from an unusual angle.
Anyone interested in keeping track of my escapades is welcome to join me on social media. I also host free of charge public interview events and workshops and courses with some regularity. There are enough of them that it’s best to keep track of my activities on social media or a blog that I'm hoping to update regularly this year at slovenology.co.uk
Do you think you'll stay in Slovenia "the rest of your life"?
I certainly hope to. I have two daughters born here and have never felt more at home anywhere. This is the place to be!
You can try and keep up Dr Charney on various platforms, including Facebook, www.noahcharney.com, www.slovenology.co.uk and www.artcrimeresearch.org. You can also follow the Slovenoogy podcast wherever you get podcasts, with the iTunes link here.
Moving to another country is often a difficult process, as you go through the stages of honeymoon, frustration, adjustment and acceptance, learning how to not just live but thrive in a new environment. Natasha Villone is someone who knows this well, having been born in Orel, Russia, and made new lives in the US and then Slovenia, where she’s now based in Koper and works as an artist – selling her works, teaching and leading art tours. We got in touch with her to learn more about her journey, and she was kind enough to send back some answers.
You work as a painter. When did you first get serious about art?
Since childhood the easiest and most natural thing for me to do was to paint. In spite of this, when I young, after high school, I wanted to run away from carrier as a painter. But my mom, a very wise woman, secretly signed me up for art collage, where I got diploma in theatre design.
Back then in Russia after me and my classmates graduated we were supposed to work by college referral in some type of village theatre or community club for a minimum of three years. I refused, and in order to stay in a city I took a job at the famous tray and samovar (Russian teapot) factory “Zostovo”. I painted traditional decorative trays with bouquets of roses. Later in my art life I’d use principals which I learned at the factory: volume, perspective, range of colours. But at the time the production line job and constant paint under my nails made me want to be somebody else.
Then the Soviet Union broke apart. Russia was under President Yeltsin everything went upside down with jobs, morality, values. The factory was closed and I was left with no direction. Maybe it gave me push to look for new life abroad.
In 2001 I finally moved to America, Seattle, hoping the grass was greener there. Then in the same year September 11 happened, followed by an economic crisis. I had to do many hard jobs, and wasn’t sure that I could paint again, so I changed direction and tried something different, not just to become an artist.
But ability and desire to create were still inside me. Once at church I heard the pastor say that it’s sin to bury your talent. There’s that story in the Bible about a servant who buries the talents (money) that his master gave him to make a profit on. He was afraid to use the money and so returned it without any gain, but the master wasn’t happy at all. It was this message that pushed me to start painting again.
I’m thankful to my husband Andrew, too, about this. Many times he would walk into galleries, meet the owner, talk about me, and I would have a show there. It’s very important if your spouse supports you, promotes you, or lets you know if you’re not producing enough art, or too much art, and not marketing it well. In this business being a good artist is just 10%, the other 90% is your character not giving up, and knowing how to present yourself to the public.
How did you end up in Slovenia?
While living in America, my husband started running a tourism business in Slovenia. Flying back and forth between the two countries was too hard. I remember one day he said: “Prepare yourself, you have one year, then we’ll move to Slovenia.”
By this time we had two little kids. I was working for good company. My mom from Russia was living nearby and helping with the kids. Art was my second freelance job sometimes in a evening. And now I have to quit my stable job, leave my mom, take kids and follow my husband. Women would not do it, only man could do such a crazy but maybe strategic decision . To be honest, I cried a lot saying goodbye to everything after 14 years establishing my life in America, hoping for some kind of change in our plans.
We finally did it in 2014, and things went smoothly, step by step. We even managed to get on the show “House Hunters International”. God thus made some fun for us, so we wouldn’t be sad just after cutting off our roots in Seattle. People where recognising us from that show for several years, even in Slovenia, so now we know what celebrities feel when they don’t want to be recognised.
How did you make the move to art here?
In Slovenia I’m wasn’t looking for an office job, because of the language, so art became my priority. Living in Europe helped me travel more, exhibit and sell my art. In 2016 I won the grand prix in the biggest European festival of naïve art, held in Poland. Last year I published my first children’s book Repa velikanka (The Giant Turnip). Perhaps it’s little easier here than trying get lucky with a New York publisher
Unfortunately it’s hard to sell anything in Slovenia, especially art, unless it’s very cheap. But still I’m very thankful to be able to paint. I always tell my students in the adult classes I teach that when you create you never feel lonely or old, you will not be afraid to be left without job, or to retire. It’s like you’re hiding away in a magical world full of new adventures. Yes of course sometimes you struggle, sometimes your idea reveals itself through an image easily. You never know. My only complaint is that I don’t have enough hours in a day to find some extra time to paint among my routine of being housewife with two kids.
Tell us something about the art tours you run.
As I said earlier, my husband works in tourism, organising food tours of Slovenia, so we started running art tours together. It works perfect between us. He’s the organiser and driver, and then while I’m doing the workshops he’s taking a nap.
We do a seven-day art tour that’s suitable for everybody: from beginners to experienced painters. On the tour you learn a few painting techniques and some tricks from me, so you can create art which looks look deep, textural, and a little vintage.
We choose the most picturesque places to do workshops in the open air. So Lake Bled, the vineyards of Brda, and in Piran, on the Adriatic coast. On a tour we paint, hike, eat homemade food from the local farms, and learn the recipes in a cooking class. There’s also wine-tasting in vineyards, and trips to an olive garden and other farms. You can find out more at my website.
What are your plans for the future?
Nowadays we live in Koper. Watching the sea, boats and cruise ships cheers me up and gives me new ideas for paintings. My hope is to find place and start exhibiting my art in Slovenia this year, so I can invite your readers to a show. Now I’ve been here a few years I’ve painted lots of Slovenian places, like Bled, Ljubljana, Škofja Loka, Idrija and others. My style is what they call naïve. I see things figuratively, symbolically – combining reality with imagination.
The assumed audience for TSN isn’t only English native speakers, but anyone with an interest in Slovenia who can’t yet understand the local media, as well as Slovenes who’re interested in a different perspective on the land they call home. We thus leapt at the chance to visit the Balassi Institute in Ljubljana (Balassijev inštitut Ljubljana - Balassi Intézet), the Hungarian cultural centre not far from Dragon Bridge, to carry out some interviews and learn more about how people from just over the border might see life here.
The first of these, presented below, is with Éva Schwetter, a language teacher who’s lived in the capital for seven years, and is working to enhance relations and understanding between these two neighbouring states.
What brought you to the Institute?
I was as a guest teacher at the university in Ljubljana for six years, but I was also teaching here, so when the university job ended I started working at the Institute most of my time. It opened in January 2016, and I’ve been teaching Hungarian since a few months after that.
Now I have around 30 students in five groups, both at the Balassi and SAZU. Quite often there are researchers, and what they’re interested in crosses over the border into Hungary, and that’s where I can help.
One of the many and varied activities at the Balassi Institute
Who takes the classes here?
We get all ages, and sometimes they’re just interested in the language, but usually it’s because they have some connection, a boyfriend, girlfriend, or maybe some family history with Hungary. So we have classes for beginners, but also for those who already speak good Hungarian and still want to practice and improve.
The classes are open to everyone, although there’s a fee. The first semester starts in October and the second in February, sometimes in March, with a beginners group in each. I teach the beginners in Slovene, but over time, as the students learn more, I use more Hungarian. I have one group who’ve been coming for five semesters, and now it’s almost completely Hungarian.
How different is Slovene to Hungarian?
It’s a totally different language family, Finno-Ugric, so the structures and logic are not at all the same. Hungarian is very logical, but it has its own logic, and it usually takes two or three semesters to get into it.
The Balassi Institute
What else is difficult?
Most people say it’s the vocabulary, which is very different to anything they’ve seen before. It’s even different to Finish and Estonian, other Finno-Ugric languages, because they’ve been separate for 3,000 years. So it’s not like Italian and French, but more like French and Persian.
Hungarian also uses a lot of suffixes, and that’s new for most people. What would be a structure in English or Slovenian is one word in Hungarian, but with two or three or four suffixes. It’s like Lego, and you just keep adding things, not taking away.
So in my experience, and that of my students, it’s difficult to start, but then it gets easier, and with the writing it’s written how it sounds. As a written language Hungarian has a long history, going back about a thousand years. First runes, then from around 1000 AD we implemented the Latin script at the same time as the formation of the Hungarian Christian Kingdom.
Has your experience as a learner of Slovene made you a better teacher of Hungarian?
I think so, yes. A lot of Slovenians are scared of Hungarian because of all the differences, but the problems go both ways, and when they see that I can speak Slovene then they know it’s not impossible. At first I spoke very little Slovenian in class, and I told the students to be patient, but they really appreciated my efforts, and it also helped when they faced difficulties in speaking Hungarian. Plus I think the relationship between a teacher and student is helped when both sides see the effort being made.
The new textbook that Éva worked on
You recently worked on the first textbook specifically for this market, Hungarian for Slovenians. Can you tell me a little about that?
Well, after working here for some years I knew the problems that students have with certain things, and that made writing the book easier. So that experience has gone into the book, and of course if something is very similar, or very different, between the two languages we emphasize that. We also focus on the common words. There are about 500 or so of those, which have Slavic roots in the both languages.
Does Hungarian have the dual?
Not like in Slovene, but we do have a special case for when I (first person, singular) am doing something to the second person (singular or plural), like if I see you, I call you, I love you.. And we don’t have gender, so all those declensions don’t exist. There are also things like two conjugations, depending on whether the object of the verb is definite or indefinite – I see the book or I see a book.
The Balassi Institute
What’s difficult for you in learning Slovene?
For me the gender is difficult, because we don’t have this in Hungarian, and all the combinations of singular, plural and so on, but today I can of course read newspapers, watch TV and give a class.
What surprised you about life in Slovenia?
Ljubljana is a small town, and that was a shock to me, after Budapest. And it surprised me how much people value their private time, so the busiest time on the road is after 3pm, as people leave work from then on. Also, if I send an email in the evening or over the weekend then I can’t expect a reply until they’re back at work, which I respect and understand, but it was still a shock.
I was also surprised by how much English people speak here, especially in Ljubljana. Of course, that makes things easy, but it’s also frustrating when you start using the language, because when you pause and try and think of a word people often just start talking in English.
Finally, I think Slovenes are more direct than Hungarians. For example, when Hungarians send emails they will say a lot, and not just get to the point. But here people will just ask for something, no polite forms, just business. So this offended me at first, but now I think it saves time and I also send these kind of messages.
The Balassi Institute
What about food and drink?
It’s really not that different, but we were part of the same Austro-Hungarian Empire, so maybe that’s not so strange, and a lot of the food in Prekmurje is the same as just over the border, with even the famous gibanica being very similar to the Jewish cake flódni, which is well known in Hungary. One thing that’s different, and maybe interesting to your readers, is bograč. In Hungarian this is the thing you cook in, like a cauldron, say, but in Slovenian it refers to the food inside, like a goulash.
Do you think you'll stay in Slovenia?
I love it, I feel integrated, and my life is here. After seven years I can’t imagine leaving, so I want to stay as long as possible. Learning Slovenian helped a lot, of course, because speaking the language opened some doors that had always been closed to me. And Ljubljana, where I live, is beautiful, clean, and friendly. When there’s a problem the attitude seems to be let’s solve it together, and I like that.
You can learn more about Éva Schwetter’s work at the Balassi, and perhaps attend an event if you don’t take a course, by visiting the institute’s homepage or Facebook, or just going in person next time you’re in town.
Exploring somewhere on vacation can often seem like a chore, as you move down a checklist of must-see sights and must-do activities, without really engaging with the streets and the public, lived environment. This is a particular shame in Slovenia, where the pleasures of its small towns and cities are perhaps best enjoyed by allowing yourself to get lost and wander as you move between the prescribed points of interest, safe in the knowledge that you’re never far from the centre. But how to structure such trips to allow for serendipity, discovery and success in terms of a new place known well? How to plan to be surprised without ruining the surprise?
One way is to let someone else take control of the situation, and a novel approach to this can be found in a new venture by three women working out of Murska Sobota, under the name Stride & Seek. We’ll get to the details later on, but for now just know that we were intrigued by the project and sent Hayley Handford-Brown, one of the founders, a few questions about her life and work in Slovenia that she kindly answered.
Where you before moving to Slovenia, and what brought you here?
I lived in Lincolnshire, which is fairly rural but quite flat, before coming to Slovenia. So, one of the things that really attracted us to Slovenia was the countryside, and the feeling of getting away from it all that we have here, whilst still having all the amenities you need on your doorstep. I love how safe I feel here and how friendly and neighbourly people are.
What were some of the challenges you faced on moving here, and how did you deal with them?
We actually bought our house here 10 years before we relocated so were well acquainted with the area. Also, in that time, my parents bought a house and retired here six years before we made the big leap. I suppose we had the luxury of time to become aware of any challenges that we may face and made plans for them.
The biggest challenge that we didn’t anticipate was how hard the language would be to grasp. During those 10 years, we visited twice a year, every year but during this period we were renovating either our property or my parents, so didn’t get out and about much and had the mentality that once we lived here, we would learn the language, be so immersed in it that it would come to us. Even though I’ve had lessons and learnt languages before (in fact, I quite like learning languages – it’s something I did at university!) it’s just such a difficult language. And what with one thing and another, haven’t been able to devote as much time as I would have liked to learn it. Oh, and sometimes when you do get the confidence to try and speak it, it’s all wrong and you’re not understood which can be very disheartening!
What were you doing here before Stride & Seek?
Stride & Seek Mini Adventures came about after a discussion I had about the concept with an expat business woman, I was picking her brain about something and she just enquired about our future plans. If she hadn’t had asked that question at that point then Mini Adventures wouldn’t be what it is now.
In the UK, we had been franchisees for the leading treasure hunt company, and having been in Slovenia for a while at that time knew that it would be a good concept here, but it wasn’t something I could do on my own – I really wanted Slovene business partners. So, she actually set me up with a Slovene lady she knew that would be perfectly suited, a bit like a blind date for a business partner, and it worked! Katja (the blind date) had a colleague who she brought on board so Tamara joined us and one became three.
The product we offer is pretty different to what I was doing in the UK, which has been great as we have really been able to be creative and imaginative with our Mini Adventures. And we all have different areas of expertise. Katja is responsible for marketing and sales, Tamara writes and translates the Mini Adventures, I write and do the operational side of things, as well as developing any new concepts. We are only at the start of our journey and have lots of exciting things in the pipeline.
The team at Stride & Seek
For people who haven’t visited your website yet (in English and Slovene), can you talk me through the experience of doing a Mini Adventure?
A Mini Adventure features a hand drawn map of your chosen city or town leading you on a self-guided tour by visiting the markers on the map where a clue has to be found and solved. Discovering the place in a different and unique way. A story accompanies the adventure, usually loosely based on a legend or myth of that location which sets up the mission ahead.
It’s great fun for all ages. Kids love running around looking for the clues and adults get to exercise their brains as some of the clues are more challenging. And it’s good old-fashioned fun. We love the fact that our product brings people together, making memories and getting them away from screens and devices. It’s perfect if you have friends visiting and you want to show them the area or if you just want a day out getting reacquainted with a place.
It’s educational too as well as healthy (don’t let the kids know, though!) as we feature information about the landmarks our “Seekers” are seeing on their adventure. Our Mini Adventures thus make people more aware of what’s around them whilst exploring rather than just wandering around aimlessly on their own.
Some of the finer details of buildings, statues and monuments are often overlooked. One of our reviewers said of the Ljubljana Mini Adventure he did that although he grew up in Ljubljana, he discovered landmarks he’d never seen before. We include more than just the more popular sights, we love the unusual!
What are some things you’ve learned making these adventures?
I’ve learnt so much more about Slovenia from producing these Mini Adventures, not just from a tourist prospective either, because they are for locals and tourists alike. I have particularly enjoyed learning about the history and legends of our locations and get a real buzz out of writing the story that accompany the adventure. And we have quite a few locations already, even though we are just starting out. We currently offer Celje, Lake Bled, Ljubljana, Maribor, Murska Sobota, Ptuj, Piran and Bad Radkersburg. We have Škofja Loka, Graz, Budapest and Bratislava coming very soon. And in the next three months – Kranj, Velenje, Zagreb and Varaždin will be added to the catalogue. So, we are keeping very busy but we still have time for a chat if you see us out about, looking intently at statues with a notebook and camera in hand, be sure to say hello!
A conversation with the woman behind the only restaurant with Lebanese food in Ljubljana
I’m a Trubarejva cesta partisan, decidedly on the side of this short street in downtown Ljubljana that still manages a mix of high and low, rich and poor. It starts in Prešeren Square with the fashion labels of Emporium, and ends with the graffiti-covered squat of Tovarana Rog. Most of the businesses are run by the owner / managers, and the diversity seen in its food offerings – European, African, Asian and Middle Eastern – is reflected in the people who live, work and play there.
Having moved here after two decades in Asia I love the colour and activity of this street, the grassroots entrepreneurialism and its multi-racial, multi-ethnic character. For me, it’s a model of what a more vibrant Slovenia could be if it looked to the future and took the opportunities that seem to be left on the table for a more interesting, brighter and open life.
The subject of this edition of Meet the People is someone who exemplifies all of the good qualities I see here, and who has turned them into a successful business. It’s Alja Hafner Taha, who runs Libanonske meze in drugi užitki (Lebanese meze and other delights), a very popular restaurant that’s slightly hidden away in a basement, between a building that houses a sex store and another that offers marijuana growing supplies. Walking through the door and down the few steps feels like you’re moving down into another world, an effect aided by the décor, music and – of course – the aromas of a Middle Eastern kitchen, which you’ll have to imagine as you look at the pictures and read my interview with Alja…
What’s your background?
My father is from Palestine, and he came here to study mechanical engineering in the 60s, then fell in love with a blonde, green-eyed Slovene, my mom, a Slovenian from Trieste.
A couple of years after I was born we left the country, and my dad was an engineer for various foreign companies in Arabic countries, and so for the next decade or so our lives revolved around his work. We started in Algeria, then Iraq, England, then Italy, then to Jordan, and then back here.
I went to eight schools in 11 years,. It’s hard to keep track of it all, but I went to English, French, Italian schools, although in an Arabic environment. I didn’t go to any Arabic school, but my father made sure his children had private lessons in the language.
What language did you use at home?
At home I used to speak Slovene with my mom, Arabic with my dad, but since both of them spoke Slovene I eventually switched to that with my father.
How did you end up back in Slovenia?
I studied in Venice, then in the States. When I finished there I got an offer of an internship in America. Now I liked the university system in America - in Italy it was ridiculous, you were left to your own devices, and if you lacked discipline then it just dragged on forever, like in Slovenia –, but I really wanted to come back here for the lifestyle and the culture, which in the States I really didn’t like, and I did that in ‘97
I spent the first couple of years in Koper, then I moved to Ljubljana and worked in marketing, specifically in advertising.
Did your international experience help with that?
I don’t know. The industry in Slovenia is as good as anywhere in Europe, so perhaps not, but certainly my background helped me be more flexible, adaptable, less surprised by things.
So how did you make the move to running a restaurant?
Well, I had a good career, but I wanted a change, and food – the hospitality part if it – was the thing I really felt a passion for. This is something from my upbringing, we always had a full house.
My mother was a great cook, so was my father. When we lived abroad our home was like a hub for dinner parties, garden parties, and I loved it, the whole thing, the preparation and so on, was very fulfilling, emotionally. It was also very eclectic, because we had my mother’s cooking, my father’s cooking, my mother cooking my father’s food, and vice versa, plus all the dishes we picked up on our travels.
What about your cooking?
I didn’t really start cooking and enjoying it until my mid-20s, but then I really got into it. I’d have, say, 50 people over at my place.
Is it easier to do that with Middle Eastern food?
No, Slovene food’s actually easier to cook for big groups. The food that I cooked then, like the food we cook here, takes a lot of preparation, which is true for most Middle Eastern food. For example, the restaurant opens at 11:30, but work in the kitchen starts at 07:00, because we make nearly everything fresh here, including the pitta bread, every day. We don’t have a lot of space, we don’t have huge refrigerators and freezers to make it all days in advance. We make everything fresh every day, apart from harissa (a chili paste) and makdous, which is small pickled eggplants with walnut, and those are Lebanese, which we get from Vienna.
Is sourcing ingredients difficult?
At first it was difficult, but now it’s easy because we have all our contacts. If you want to make it at home you can buy the same stuff in Ljubljana, but if you’re a restaurant you need to get it closer to the source, and get it cheaper. For our vegetables and meat we get those from the market. We have a small scale butcher so we know where it comes from. For things like tahini, makdous, beer and wine we have a Lebanese importer in Vienna.
Do you make many changes to suit local tastes, or is this authentic Lebanese food in Ljubljana?
Being authentic is important to us, but the name Lebanese Meze & Other Delights means we have some room for food that’s not from the Levant. That said, the only things we had to adapt were the level of sourness in some dishes and the amount of garlic, which are both a lot higher in Lebanon. But if we get Lebanese guests we make sure they have a plate of lemons, or if, say, we have Palestinians we put some olive oil on the table.
And has the menu changed much over the years?
The menu changes a little with the seasons, but in general it stays the same. Because I’d experimented with this food on friends for years beforehand, I was pretty confident about the dishes were going to have, so I had a strong vision, which is one we still follow.
Did your background in advertising come in useful?
One thing I learned in marketing was that the worst thing you can do is panic and make big changes in direction or the basic concept, plus my background in events management transferred pretty well to the restaurant business. That’s not say it was easy, because I had a lot to learn, but when there were problems or challenges I either had the skills needed to deal with them, or knew people who could help.
But the main problem in running a successful restaurant isn’t anything big, it’s consistency, its doing things extremely well day in day out. And that’s all in the details, not just the food but the way it’s served, the way the place looks, the music that’s played, the cleanliness, the energy that permeates the whole team.
What about the staff here?
We’ve been very lucky with our team. At first we looked at bringing in a cook from abroad, but that involves a lot of paperwork, and is quite risky, because maybe they come here, you help set up a new life, and then they don’t like it. So we got a local guy, a great chef, Matjaž , who’s been here since day one. He manages a staff of Middle Eastern cooks, and the rest of the staff have all been the same for the last year and a half, so they really know what they’re doing. I help out sometimes, when needed, but managing a restaurant and cooking there too is the way to madness, it’s impossible.
Do you have any changes to the menu planned for winter?
Yes, we always change it a little with the seasons, with some heartier food in the winter, but not too much, as there’s always a danger you end up disappointing regulars, which we have a lot of, because you’ve taken a favourite off the menu. Like I said before, quality is paramount, but consistency is the key to success here.
If you’d like to try some of the Lebanese food shown here, which is highly recommended, then you can find Libanonske meze in drugi užitki at 45 Trubarjeva cesta, Ljubljana 1000. The opening hours are Opening hours: Tuesday - Thursday: 11:30 - 22:00; Friday, Saturday: 11:30 - 23:00; Sunday, Monday: Closed. The website is here, while the Facebook is here.