Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Sunday, July 19, 2009, Ljubljana Slovenia
Sunday, July 19, 2009
Today, after sleeping late and missing breakfast, Michael and I met with the scholar, Milena Mileva Blazic, Professor of Children’s Literature at Ljubljana University. Milena, it turns out, is also a City Councilor and so our first meeting took place in City Hall. Entering City Hall in Ljubljana is like entering an old castle. Marble columns. Red carpets. Brass railings.
Generous does not begin to describe the reception and the information that Milena gave us throughout the day. She had, in preparation, translated something like sixty nonsensical count-out rhymes from Slovene folklore. She also gave us books with English translations of Slovene children’s literature and an anthology of Butalci tales, a type of absurd and sometimes surreal fools tale typical of Slovenia. And then there were the items she had requested from her friend, the folklorist, xxx, who prepared for us fifty or so pages of Slovenian folk tales and other texts. The list goes on and on. We were overwhelmed. If you’d like to hear Milena reading us some nonsensical Slovene count out rhymes, just click here:
Click here, and then click again to download.
While we were unprepared for the lavish resources handed to us today we were yet even more unprepared to encounter--as we had in Bulgaria--an entirely type of nonsense (new to us, that is). This might sound strange, but it is true. In Slovenia it was traditional in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to decorate beehive huts with a certain type of decorative board. Each beehive could be opened like a drawer, and each drawer was about the size of a license plate. On the outside of this piece of wood/drawer end, it was traditional to paint scenes from Slovenian folktales or religious scenes. If a beehive hut had twenty drawers, then there would be twenty tiny scenes depicted, one on each drawer. Often enough the scenes depicted on these drawers were of the above-mentioned absurd fool’s tales--and several of these tales are important in the history of nonsense traditions. One such classic tale, known throughout medieval Europe, is the tale of the World Turned Upside Down, where all order is reversed in the human and animal world, a story that was told and retold in a hundred ways and in a hundred different folk songs. One consistent aspect of the World Turned Upside Down tales is that animals that are usually hunted in real life, such as rabbits, turn the tables on the hunters and it is the rabbits that hunt the men, etc. Slovene beehive artwork has preserved images of several variants of this tale. Below is an example of one such piece of folk art. We purchased this beehive board in the marketplace in the city square in Ljubljana:
Milena’s generosity did not cease with her translations and research. She took us out to a traditional Slovene restaurant where the waiters were dressed in traditional costume. I ate venison and drank a Union. Mike had a large platter of traditional favorites including black sausage and buckwheat-mash. Later in the day Milena energetically led us up the hill to the castle that overlooks the city. From here the view of the city and the Julian Alps at sunset was excellent.
Milena insisted that the party continue from there and she took us to a favorite pub, and would not let us pay for anything. We tried.
Conversation eventually moved from children’s literature and nonsense to politics and history. Milena discussed the ins and outs of communism, and described the time the Yugoslavian army bombed the radio and TV tower behind the castle. She was not nostalgic about communism, but she said that she did miss the free health care and education that came with the socialist system. The move to democracy and capitalism has been natural, and successful, in Slovenia, (Slovenia’s democratic traditions date back about 1300 years) but these changes do not come completely without regrets. A slice of graffiti spoke volumes in this regard. Note below that while the message is sincere, the voice is gently humorous:
One image I will never forget from this night was the genius invention of an open-air concert, performed by a string quartet, playing in the hold of a small boat, as it gently floated down the Ljubljana River in the center of town. The sound of these musicians was amplified majestically by the white stone walls that line the river. Ljubljanians and tourists alike gathered at the stone railings along the river to watch, and kept shifting their locations in order to follow the boat as it drifted aimlessly down river. Thankfully Michael was able to film a short clip of this inspired performance. Click below to have a look:
Late that night, as we said goodnight to Milena, we tried to tell her how overwhelmed we were by her hospitality and generosity. She waved it all away with a parting smile. “It is a Slav tradition,” she said simply. And then she was gone.
We were left with a warm feeling and a pile of nonsense texts that will take us months to catalog and absorb.