Slovenian Joys III: Slovenian Oddities

I’ll get to the charming hilltop villages and dramatic mountain skylines later.  Perhaps.  For now, I’d like to concentrate on some of Slovenia’s oddities. 

1.   The Remains of St. Deodatus 

The main cathedral in Ljubljana is called the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation.  If you want to see p050_remains_of_st_deodatusretty pictures of it, go here.  It’s a nice Baroque church with a pretty imposing altar by the Venetian sculptor Francesco Robba and an unusual pink-orange exterior.  But what interested me was the open glass casket at left, which stands at the left of the main altar, under a portrait of Our Lady of Good Counsel.  Inside this casket are the remains of St. Deodatus.  The pamphlet available at the church information stand informs us that his remains were brought to Ljubljana in the early 18th century by a Franciscan monk, and installed in this case in 1882. 

I tried, very discreetly, to inspect the remains in order to answer the burning question: is that really the carefully-embalmed, over-300-year-old body of St. Deodatus?  The flesh itself seems waxy and unreal, and the eyes are pointing upwards and away from the viewer and have no pupils, which seems to indicate this is a symbolic effigy of the saint.  However, there is an obvious wound on one of his arms, which seems like an unusual thing for a sculptor to add.  I wonder if anyone can answer the question whether this is truly the saint’s body?   

2.  Mary with Saints’ Bones

I visited Slovenia’s National Gallery, which I will of course describe at some later point.  It’s no Louvre, but it contains intriguing and lovely objects, including a small, surpassingly graceful sculpture of the Madonna from 1410 called "the Beautiful Madonna."  But more to the point, for the purposes of this post, is this painting by Giovanni Francesco da Rimini, called the Hoška Marija (i.e. the painting of Mary associated with a place called Hoska).  The painting itself is severe and elegant.  But look at the frame, which is much more visible in this larger picture.  It’s features 16 glass-encased apertures full of fragments of human bone.  These are saints’ relics — each painstakingly labeled with small piece of paper.   046_oval_plastic_knickknacks_3_1

3.  Unidentified Oval-Shaped Object Composed of Aged Plastic.

No, I’ve no idea what this is.  But you can buy it — or one of dozens of similar objects — at a shop located just west of the Annunciation Church.   

4.  Buried Lightning

At the National Museum of Slovenia, you can inspect dozens of artifacts recovered from the time when what is now Ljbljana was the Roman city of Emona, including a stunning gilt-bronze statue of an unidentified citizen of Emona.  But what caught my eye was something in the lapidarium — the collection of inscribed marble and limestone tablets from Roman times.  The object in question was a triangle composed of three slabs of marble, with the words "Fulg[ur] C[onditum]" — lightning buried.  As a sign on the gallery wall recounts: "The Romans also worshipped the divine force of natural phenomena.  The grave of the thunderbolt is interesting.  The place where lightning struck was fenced, and the thunderbolt ceremoniously buried in order to ward off its evil effect.

There you have some of the more intriguing oddities I encountered.  Of course, anyone who has a good guess as to what the oval plastic object is, or whether the saint’s body is real, is invited to contribute in the comments.  In the meantime I will gradually type a few more entries about my fascinating stay in Slovenia in the coming days, along with other miscellaneous subjects…

Slovenian Joys II: Governing Casually

It’s a balmy weekday afternoon. I’m sitting at the Tea House, an outdoor cafe in the Old Town of Ljubljana, a crescent-shaped warren of narrow cobblestone streets and baroque facades which rises from the east bank of the Ljubljanica river. The customers sit outside on a long wooden pallet, watching the people pass by as their tea brews in squat little jugs. We see a portly, white-haired man a short ways down the street, wearing jeans and a polo shirt, and carrying a shopping bag. My friend Samo notes casually "Oh look, that’s the Slovenian Minister for Local Affairs." Just before we spotted the shopping minister, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek — the world’s most famous Slovenian — had walked by. About a half-hour later, a prominent woman journalist, and then a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official, dressed casually but wearing stylish wraparound sunglasses.

It’s no surprise that these folks all walked by the same cafe — the Old Town is the place to go in Ljubljana, and the city is pretty small. What struck me was that these people were all wandering around the city on a weekday afternoon, at around 3:30, and that not one of them was wearing a suit. The casual observer might conclude that government officials run out of things to do at around 2, so they knocked off work and did a little shopping. Then, at 3, the journalists have finished their accounts of the day’s meagre events and follow suit.

Of course, this impression may not be accurate. These officials do have things to do, I was assured. But in Slovenia, it’s considered fine to take a little break in the afternoon, then return to work if there’s more to do. Nobody expects you to wear a suit unless the occasion strictly demands it. I meandered all around the capital city for days at all times of the "work" day, and saw thousands of people. Exactly 5 of them wore something that could be described as "business attire." They stood out. In fact, they gave me sheepish little glances, as if they were embarrassed to be seen dressed so strangely.

I began to think of Slovenia as a sort of a big college campus. On campus, everybody knows each other, there’s one or two meeting places where they all go, and nobody dresses very formally. Everyone’s relaxed because the very idea of a campus is to create a cloistered Arcadia of knowledge, where the stiff, demanding, results-oriented practicality of the outside world is kept safely at bay. The whole of Slovenia has this campus-like feeling. But outside Slovenia, there’s no "super-Slovenia" waiting impatiently with pocket calculators and timesheets.

The impression was deepened later, when I visited Metelkova. Like Christiana in Copenhagen, Metelkova is a complex of former military barracks that was invaded by counterculture squatters and turned into a mildly lawless zone where you can buy under-the-counter pharmaceuticals and mingle freely with other people who share your particular sexual preference. Like Christiana, Metelkova is perfectly safe to visit, as long as you don’t mind being walking through a few clouds of cannabis smoke. Among the usual stoners and backpack tourists, there was a sizable contingent of young journalists, government officials and business types milling about. When the joint came to them, most casually partook. I’m not going to identify them, of course, since there must be some people in Slovenia who actually disapprove of marijuana use. But the Tokers in High Places didn’t seem at all concerned who might be watching. Perhaps there’s an unwritten rule that "what happens in Metelkova stays in Metelkova," but I didn’t get that impression.

Everywhere I went, I got the impression that Slovenians paid enough attention to the rules to make sure everything worked OK, but saw no reason to add, or enforce, any more regulations than necessary. At the national museum, I looked for the coat closet, but was told just to visit the security guard outpost and put my bag in his room. The guard couldn’t have been more than 25, was wearing blue jeans, and smoking. At the Museum of Contemporary History, there seemed to be an elderly guard for every single room (perhaps relocated from a shuttered factory as part of a jobs program?). One of them, a ruddy-faced fellow with a large and decorative mustache, approached me and cheerfully engaged me in conversation. Apparently he had to work up some courage beforehand, because his breath nearly singed my eyebrows. He then wandered unsteadily away, nattering on about the beauty of "Slovenian Music." In the foyer of the contemporary art museum, all I saw was a group of sharp-looking twenty-somethings chatting over coffee. Two of them eventually got up and sold me a ticket, once they saw that I’d actually come to visit the museum.

Perhaps it was the late-summer weather, or the fact that the tourists were mostly gone, and I was often the only visitor most of the places where I went. But whatever explains the laid-back, improvised feel of Slovenia, it was a welcome relief from a country in which people routinely bark at you like angry terriers if you dare to cross against a red light in front of them.

Slovenian Joys I: Where it is and How it Came to Be

You may not know much about Slovenia, but Slovenia knows a lot about you. Not in a threatening, surveillance way, but in a curious, observing sense. The Slovenians, admitted to the EU in 2004, are very much attuned to developments in Europe and the United States. The bookstores are packed with books in all European languages, and boast a much wider and more interesting selection of books in English than I’ve seen in any German bookstore. Slovenia’s "leading intellectual," Slavoj Zizek, is better-known than many of his European counterparts, owing to his ability to write sleek, playful English prose.

The imbalance between what I knew about Slovenia and what Slovenians knew about my country was embarassingly large, and I’m wagering the same might be true of some Joysters. So here are the basic facts. Slovenia’s population is just under 2 million, and it sits near the Adriatic coast between Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia. Its capital is Ljulbljana, which has about 230,000 residents. Slovenians speak their own language, Slovenian, which is written in the Roman, not Cyrillic, alphabet. Slovenians are ethnic Slavs, but the majority are Roman Catholic. Slovenia joined the European Union in 2004, after only thirteen years of independent statehood.

Slovenia had declared its independence in June of 1991, prompting an invasion by the Yugoslav National Army. The national army faced resistance from the Slovenian population and police, for which they weren’t prepared. The Yugoslavs turned back after conducting only a few bombing runs and capturing a small amount of territory. Their retreat was so hasty that they left behind spare uniforms and equipment, which are now on display in the Slovenian Museum of Modern History.

Eventually, the EU intervened and brokered a compromise settlement according to which the Yugoslav Army would completely withdraw in return for Slovenia’s promise not to take any further steps toward independence for three months. The actual fighting war had lasted only ten days, and resulted in 66 casualties. In the following months, the Slovenes held a referendum in which 88% of the population voted for independence. After initial European reluctance to recognize Slovenia (for fear that regognition would speed the crack-up of Yugloslavia), Germany took the lead in December 1991 and recognized Slovenia and Croatia as independent nations. The EC followed suit a month later, and by late 1992, over 95 countries had recognized Slovenia.

Independence was the culmination of a long process during which Slovenia preserved its unique identity within the former Yugoslavia. First, Slovenia was the place where things got done. Slovenia had virtually eliminated illiteracy by the 1920s, far in advance of other parts of the former Yugoslavia, and its population produced a portion of Yugoslavia’s GDP far in excess of its numbers. Throughout the 1980s, Slovenians, often with the tacit approval of local Communist authorities, introduced greater political freedom and built the workings of an autonomous nation-state. The key development in this process was the 1988 trial of four Slovenian journalists, one of whom, Janez Jansa, had published plans formulated in Belgrade to foment unrest and justify an invasion of Slovenia, in case the Slovenes got too cheeky. The trial was held in Serbo-Croatian in Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana, which was perceived as a double affront, and which triggered large demonstrations. The trial helped crystallize the wish for national self-determination, and after 1988 Slovenians intensified their use of excellent European diplomatic contacts, media savvy, and language skills to begin laying the ground work for an eventual independence bid.

Of course Slovenia, unlike other parts of the former Yugloslavia, did not have a combustible mix of different ethnicities living side-by-side. This is a crucial distinction that makes comparisons between Slovenia’s post-Yugloslavia course and that of other nations of the former Yugloslavia very dicey.  Without downplaying this important distinction, though, it’s hard not to admire the skill with which the Slovenians outfoxed the authorities of the former Yugoslav state. While much of the rest of the former Yugloslavia was electing braying nationalist demagogues and forming shadowy militias, the Slovenes were doing grown-up things like establishing a functioning state apparatus and staging orderly referenda. They are the nimble Roadrunner of this story, and the Serbs the Wile E. Coyote. Just as he realizes the Roadrunner has escaped him once again, he notices he has run far past the edge of the cliff, into open air. He turns to the viewer, waves, smiles a weakly ironic smile, and plunges into the abyss.

Next: Government Ministers in Shorts; or the college-campus nation.

Introducing Slovenian Joys

Yes, this blog was once German Joys, and will once again revert to being German Joys.  But for the next week or so is Slovenian Week here at German Joys, with a festive blog banner to boot.  I will be posting a few reminiscences from my recent trip to Slovenia, an intriguing little country I just spend almost two weeks in. 

The banner is a picture I took of the charming hilltop town of Stanjel, with its distinctive suppository-shaped oval bell-tower.  I suppose now is the time to inform all readers of languages that use diacritical marks that my American laptop doesn’t "do" diacritical marks, so I cannot put the two little horns on the "S" in Stanjel, nor will I be able to put the horns, slash-marks, or cross-hatchings on other letters.  I hope you’ll bear with me.

In any event, the next week will take you all on a journey of discovery to the fabled land of Slovenia, which is not to be confused with Slovakia, one of the two countries that the former Czechoslovakia broke up into.  We’ll meet Slovenian poets, artists, philosophers, and government employees.  We’ll eat Slovenian prosciutto, drink Slovenian wine, fondle Slovenian women (err, maybe not), go deep under the earth into some of Slovenia’s fabled caves, and high into the Julian Alps, the part of the Alps that Slovenia calls its own.  I hope you enjoy it.  If you don’t, I suppose you really don’t have much choice, because this is my blog, and I can do whatever the hell I please with it!

So fasten your seat belts, check your insurance, pour yourself a stiff drink, and join me on a journey to the Green Piece of Europe ™!

German Words of the Week: Verunsicherung, verwählen, Verstimmung

In this week’s lesson, we learn the extraordinary versatility of the German prefix "ver-"; and we assess the results of yesterday’s inconclusive election. 

After some serious setbacks in regional voting for his Social Democratic Party, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder arranged to lose a confidence vote in the German parliament in July.  This enabled him to move forward the date for elections to yesterday, September 18th.  There was about a six-week phase of intense campaigning before the vote.  At first, the conservative candidate, Angela Merkel, had the decisive advantage.  The polls showed her party with a narrow majority when twinned with its preferred coalition partner, the Free Democrats.  She portrayed herself as a bold reformer, with the necessary ideas to break Germany out of its continuing economic stagnation and reduce the nation’s 12 percent unemployment.  Part of her plan was to pick Paul Kirchhof, a law professor who had long favored a flat-tax scheme, ably described by Ed Philp in this post.

Merkel’s bold move, however, led to Verunsicherung.  Here we encounter our first GWW.  The root is the word "sicher," meaning safe or secure.  But we also meet with the prefix "ver-" in its "inchoative" mode.  That is, it indicates a process of becoming.  Next we have "un," which means the same in English as it does in German.  So Verunsicherung means the process of making someone insecure.  So much meaning packed into one word!

To understand the use of this word, you must understand that many German voters, whom a certain German Joys contributor last night described as "pusillanimous," are like rabbits watching as a giant farm combine heads straight toward their nest, tearing up the ground as it goes.  These bunnies are too frightened or transfixed to abandon their warm, comfy nest, even in the face of imminent destruction.  This bloc of voters, like the bunnies, vaguely yearn for some way out of the miserable, rapidly-decaying state of their political economy, but are too afraid to change any of the fundamentals of the present political order.  Chancellor Schroeder sowed Verunsicherung among these voters by arguing that Merkel would introduce radical reforms (spearheaded by the Prof. Kirchhof, whose professorial arrogance made him the wrong messenger for tax reform) that could leave the "little man" in the lurch. 

Now, you can either think Schroeder was shamelessly exaggerating the results of a modest sensible proposal, or you can believe that Merkel’s plans would, in fact, have damaged the German welfare state without bringing the promised growth.  I leave it to the individual reader to judge the arguments on her own.  But there seems little doubt that Schroeder’s arguments, among others, brought the SPD’s approval ratings out of the low 20s and set the stage for their surprisingly good performance.  The CDU simultaneously descended from the mid-40s (where they would have easily been able to form a "Black-Yellow" ruling coalition with the Free Democrats) to the mid-30s.  Up to the beginning of the voting last night, almost a third of voters registered themselves as still undecided.  At the end, many bolted out of the two big mainstream parties into the smaller parties — the Free Democrats, the Greens, and the Linke "Left Party", which stands to the left of the social democrats.

The result is, err, utter chaos.  Neither of the two main parties has enough votes to form coalition with any one of the remaining parties.  Here is a graphic from a leading German broadsheet, the FAZ:

The only way to climb over the 50% hurdle to form a ruling coalition is for either one of the main parties to combine with two of the smaller parties.  The problem is, the small parties have very different agendas.  The FDP (yellow) are the party of the small businessman or independent professional.  They stand for lower taxes, deregulation, privatization, and market-based solutions to social problems, such as how to pay for pensions and health insurance.  The Greens are, well, green.  They are pro-bicycle, pro-wind energy, anti-nuclear anything, anti-genetically modified anything.  If these policies curb economic growth a bit, well then, so be it.  Nobody promised environmental protection would be cheap.  The Linke (purple, in the graph above) are the skunk in the garden party of this election.  Formed from an amalgam of former Communists and SPD voters incensed at the budget-trimming reforms undertaken by Gerhard Schroeder, they have been shut out of coalition negotiations by all the other parties. 

Nobody, but nobody, can predict how the negotiations will proceed.  The only possible scenarios that appear now are these:

1.  A "grand coalition" of the two major parties.  Nobody knows who would actually run the country if this were to happen, and most commentators think it would lead to yet more gridlock, when Germany needs far-ranging reforms.

2.  A "Jamaica Coalition" of the Black, Yellow, and Green parties.  This coalition is named after the colors of the Jamaican flag.  Green foreign minister Joschka Fischer noted during a post-election debate last night that this name also conjured certain other associations which one doesn’t normally associated with governance…  A Jamaica coalition would be hard to manage, since many Green environmental positions are incompatible with FDP ideas, and vice versa.  Yet it’s the only coalition that hasn’t yet been definitively ruled out by the various parties’ statements about whom they are willing to cooperate with.

3.  Red-Green continuing as a minority coalition with the tacit acceptance (Duldung) of the Linkspartei.  This is a very, very long shot, since there is huge bad blood between the SPD and the lefties, but it’s not completely impossible.

The result of this utterly confused landscape is that many voters feel they may have verwählt.  Now we meet the "ver-" prefix again, but it’s wearing a different hat.  When you attach it to a verb such as wählen — too choose or vote — it says you did it wrong.  Perhaps, these voters say mournfully, they should have just stuck with one of the boring old mainstream parties, since at least then somebody , for the love of Yahw*h, would at least have some kind of clear mandate to run the country. 

And finally, we come to the last instance of "ver-".  Here, you attach the prefix to a noun to indicate something’s gone wrong or been spoiled.  The noun in question is Stimmung or mood, so a Verstimmung is a crappy or lousy mood.  Which, despite the glorious early-fall weather, Germany is certainly in this morning. 

Ancient Chinese Poetry

No really, this post is actually going to be about ancient Chinese poetry.  I couldn’t help passing this little gem along from the liberal U.S. blog Washington Monthly:

UPDATE: This post obviously suffers from a lack of Bush bashing, so let’s add some! Geoff Waters emails to tell me that there is a genuine Chinese poem by the famous 11th century poet and government official Su Shi (a/k/a Su Dongpo) that could have been written by George H.W. Bush:

Wishes For My Son

Everyone hopes their children will be brilliant;
But I am too smart and my whole career has suffered.
So I hope you, my son, grow up dumb and simple,
And avoiding all my problems, become the Prime Minister.

Now, I wouldn’t leave Joysters with just quoting from someone else’s post.  No, there has to be original German Joys product in this post.  So here it is — more delightful short Chinese poems.  These come from a collection of Chinese letter seals in the Ashomlean Museum in Oxford, which I visited in June.  The first is from an 18th-century letter seal:

A byway is suitable to plant grass

The lovely room is better brightened with flowers.

By writing poetry and drinking wine during his whole life

Surely a man will meet the Immortals.

— Wang Po (647-675).

And, my very favorite saying, from 19th-century soapstone seal: "The way of the world is steep and rugged and one should seal one’s letters." 

Verliebt in Berlin – Three Places to Visit

I like Duesseldorf just fine, but Iwill admit, it’s hardly a hotbed of…well, anything.  It will never be named Germany’s most exciting city, although it has a very good claim to being Germany’s most pleasant and well-ordered city, thanks to the steely, Nutcracker-like sense of law and order projected by Mayor Joachin Erwin, Germany’s answer to Rudy Giuliani. 

But frequent and valued GJ contributor Ed Philp still misses Berlin, and has three priceless travel recommendations.  Book now to avoid the hordes of German Joys readers!:

Friends of mine in the Rheinland all have one travel destination in mind this summer – Berlin. The popular "telenovela" Verliebt in Berlin (In Love in / with Berlin) has again raised the profile of the Hauptstadt out here in the provinces, in spite of plane crashes on the Reichstag’s lawn, or Stoiber’s references to East German calves. Having recently arrived in Düsseldorf after living in Berlin for 18 months, I have been asked many times what sites I can recommend to visitors to Berlin. Thanks very much to Andrew for providing a platform for me to sketch these briefly!

1. Tilsiter Lichtspiele

The Tilsiter Lichtspiele is a small independent movie theatre in Friedrichshain which shows low-release, foreign and documentary films hard to find elsewhere. The atmosphere is familial and relaxed, with small wooden tables in front of the 60 seats and an actual person in the screening room who occasionally swears when a film reel is dropped. The theatre is connected to a vestibule bar, itself a perfect place to have drinks, view a collection of East German beer advertisements, or play with the "Tilsomat", a vending machine with lighters, stickers, or anything of interest that past patrons might have left behind them. The Tilsiter Lichtspiele is one of Berlin’s oldest "cinematographic" theatres, dating back to 1910.

Tilsiter Lichtspiele (no homepage)

Richard-Sorge-Straße 25 A (Friedrichshain)

UBhf „Weberwiese"

Program available at

2. Club der polnischen Versager

Founded by a group of Polish former students in 2001, the Club of the Polish Losers consists of three small rooms and a bar, some ratty furniture and bookcases and maybe a collection of photographs of people’s hairlines, or possibly a jazz quartet or a set of sculptures of carrots made from cheese. It depends entirely on the evening, and on the whims of the owners and operators, three very friendly Polish relatives. While beer (Polish and German) and wine are always available, coffee can be hard to come by if the owner doesn’t feel like going to the trouble. Perhaps Berlin’s ultimate slacker bar, the crowd is incredibly diverse and animated, making unique conversations the only consistent event on the program. In three separate visits, I ended up talking to a German Member of Parliament, a Romanian anthropology student and a gentleman who makes shoes for (presumably) well-dressed cats.

Club der polnischen Versager

Torstraße 66 (Mitte)

UBhf Rosa-Luxemburg.Platz

3. Restaurant of the Nordische Botschaften

Scandinavians are known as being friendly, efficient and blond. Outside of IKEA’s Kottbullar though, they aren’t known for their culinary contributions to the world cuisine. The Restaurant of the Nordic Embassies seeks to demonstrate that Swedish-Danish-Icelandic-Finnish-Norwegian cooking amounts to more than meatballs and ginger cookies. The Restaurant is officially the canteen of the embassies of these five countries (efficiently) located together on one of Berlin’s embassy rows in a modern glass and cedar wood building with lots of light and spaces for exhibitions of Nordic art, culture and history. Open to the public for lunch, the Restaurant offers excellent Nordic food at Scandinavian minimalist prices, for example, lots of seasonal fish dishes, hearty meat mains and fresh salads, breads and soups. Regional drinks and desserts are available. The Restaurant is best visited in summer, when visitors can eat in the center courtyard garden, rubbing elbows with the (blond) Swedish cultural attaché or the (friendly) Transport Minister for Iceland (boating tips are free). The manager, Kenneth Gjerrud, also runs Germany’s only Norwegian restaurant, Munch’s Hus, itself offering the best reindeer or deep sea cod available in continental Europe.

Restaurant of the Nordic Embassies

Rauchstraße 1 (Tiergarten)

UBhf Zoologischer Garten

In my next contribution, I will profile three places in Düsseldorf that Berliners should visit when the planned telenovela „leicht zugeneigt in Düsseldorf" (slightly attracted in / with Düsseldorf) is playing.

Ed Philp