2006 Europe Trip Journal: 4

by Richard Grossinger on March 16, 2010

September 28 (Day Sixteen)

This is to be a travel day.  We are headed south to Piran, a town on the tip of a narrow peninsula (shown on the map as a hangnail spit of land) down the Istrian coast of Slovenia, roughly facing Trieste across the sea.  Estimates for the driving time from Ljubljana range from fifty minutes to an hour and twenty-five minutes—probably seventy to eighty miles.

Miha has given us careful directions for unwinding through the labyrinth of the city.  These got reinforced for Lindy, who wanted her own rendition, and waited ten minutes on line at the front desk to request duplicate directions from the morning clerk at Hotel Park.  The two routes are not quite identical, but their variance gives us some leeway in case we get lost.  Nonetheless, between Slavic names, one-way streets, and fast-moving traffic, neither of the trajectories are possible to adhere to; we lose any semblance of both of them almost immediately and end up on obscure streets I am not able to find on the map.

I think, when you are driving in a foreign country, it is hard enough but, if the local language is English, you get a lot of help without even thinking about it.  If the road signs are not in English but in another Romance language (like Italian most recently), you can figure out some things, for instance the basic syntax and intent of instructions.  Here, the only thing we have going for us is the alphabet, that it is not Cyrillic or Arabic or Japanese, so we can read street names, more or less, but there are no operational cognates otherwise.  All it takes is an unexpected fork without a pre-selected preference and not quickly identifiable on the map, or an alphabet soup of information on an overhead, for us to be clueless as to where we are and which way to go.  We are several forks and unreadable signs into chaos when Lindy elects to pull into a gas station.  It turns out that we are actually not that far from the main road out of town.  Two perfectly executed turns put us on it in a massive traffic jam.

A curious thing I have not encountered elsewhere: the radio turns on automatically to give traffic information.  I know that the Slovenian words contain traffic information because: 1. What else could they be?; and 2. There is always construction or an accident immediately afterwards.  If you are listening to a CD, a voice breaks in, pronounces its bulletin, and then the sound system returns to where you were on the CD.  The same is true of a radio station—something we almost never listen to here, as the language is inaccessible and the music not very interesting—but trial-and-error proves it; any station is eventually interrupted by a message.  In this instance the radio and CD player are both off, as the radio turns on and spits out a brief bulletin, incomprehensible to us of course.  Soon enough traffic comes to a halt, and we creep along a nondescript industrial road on the outskirts of town that could pass for the American Midwest about thirty years ago except for the language.  Up ahead we can see the flashing police lights, so we know it is not interminable.  When we get to the spot, we see an upside-down car in the center of the street—tow truck, ambulance, police cars.  Luckily right past it is the entrance to the highway—Zagreb, Koper, Trieste.

A style of road sign that is very helpful (once you get onto its method) is the negative-information place name, not unlike U.S. signs telling you not to exit a particular ramp.  On such signs the name of the place you are leaving is crossed out.  As long as you realize that the road sign means that the name displayed is behind you, not ahead, this can be very reassuring.  On the way to Ljubljana, for instance, a negative Trieste was quite worrisome, as we thought for a while we were mysteriously headed back toward where we had already left.  Soon enough, the meaning was obvious and welcome.  Now it is good to have it absolutely confirmed that we are leaving Ljubljana.  Likewise, after each choice of what we hope is the correct fork, it is reassuring to see towns crossed out as we pass them: Dragomer, Vrhnika, Logatec, Postojna—confirmation.

Before entering the highway, in encountering the accident, it was evident why there were so many policija. Yet, as we drive in the direction of the Italian border, it is not so clear why police cars and motorcycles, lights flashing, pass us continually, in fact all the way along down the coast. Policija are not only all over the highway but parked in convoys alongside it. The radio keeps turning on with bleats of Slovenian bulletins—but this is only tantalizing.  Has there been a jailbreak, a terrorist attack?  Since no roadblock intervenes, we just keep with the fast-moving traffic in a bubble of innocence, wondering what surprise awaits us.

Actually this is not the ideal schedule or itinerary for Piran, as we are having to drive much of the way back to Trieste before getting to head down the Istrian coast.  Our original strategy, provided by Roger and Eda while we were sitting at the deli in Freeport, Maine, was to enter Slovenia from Trieste and head immediately down the coast to spend two or three nights there, using Piran as a base to explore further, for instance into Croatia (Piran is less than an hour from Trieste, while the entire Slovenian part of the Istrian coast is barely thirty miles long before the Croatian border).  Roger had been quite confident that we didn’t need a reservation in the off-season but, not wanting to repeat our difficulties in Lucca, Lindy explored Istrian hotels from Lonely Planet on-line while we were in Siena and I emailed Roger her list of candidates.  He replied that none of them sounded good—“probably German tourist dives”: his kiss of death—and instead recommended Hotel Tartini, a site at which we got an immediate reservation by email for the 25th and 26th.  However, when Miha informed us that the only night on which I could read at the Writers’ Guild was the 26th, we had to change the reservation.  Later he offered Saturday, the 30th, as a day he and Irena could take us on a trip in the other direction, north to Lake Bled and the castle there.  Since their company and expertise were far and away desirable whenever available, we accepted the invitation at the expense of the coast.  Thus, as we were now invited to be outside Hotel Park at 10:00 AM Saturday morning, we really had only one night left for Piran, making exploration into Croatia all but impossible.

Koper is our benchmark road sign (shared with Trieste until we veer sharply south and T is crossed off).  Koper usually appears with its Italian name, Capodistria, a more distinctive alternative than Pirano, our destination.  Koper and Capodistria are two flavors of the same town, two histories converging and sharing the landscape.  The guidebook says that Capodistria comes from Caput Histriae: “capital of the Istrian peninsula.”  It also happens to be the place of origin for Bostjan Nachbar, the single Slovenian basketball player on my favorite team, the New Jersey Nets, though he came in a trade near the end of last season and was pretty much invisible, the last player off the bench.

After Koper, the coastal highway gradually disappears, and we are on a narrow winding road that feels like the entry to every beach town of my life: Long Island in my childhood, Cape Cod during college years, now the northern California coast. The inexplicable police presence is not only undiminished here; it is increasing by leaps and bounds, to the point of absurdity.  Deep in the countryside we pass six or seven police cars parked in a row at a minor intersection, crammed onto the shoulder.  After that congregation, there are police gathered every 500 meters.  As it becomes unclear to us where we should actually descend into Piran among confusing road signs (we keep worrying we have passed it), Lindy stops to ask one of the policija standing along the road.  His role must be important because he seems unamused and merely mouths a few syllables without a change of expression or movement of a hand.  She gets it that Piran is still straight ahead.

Both Miha and Lonely Planet warned that we should park outside of town and walk in, something that is hard to picture before getting there. Then things materialize so quickly that almost as soon as we see the sign for entering Piran, we have come to a gate, are given a ticket, and find ourselves driving along a thin strip of highway between the vast sea to our left and hotels and restaurants to our right.  We have obviously violated the warning and are “in town,” so we begin looking for the Tartini.

There are lots of hotels and restaurants to the right, but the location of ours is not evident.  Just as we are about to reconsider our choice or at least ask directions, we pull into a town square were the distinction between road and sidewalk has become negligible.  This marks several things simultaneously: the end of the road, the center of town, and our destination.  The Tartini commands a central place at the beginning of a central piazza, which we enter counterclockwise.  At the spot where the Tartini sits, the edge of the piazza comes closest to the sidewalk, constricting the road to an isthmus, but we wedge in there behind another car that is unloading, our tail sticking well out.

The scene we step into is the epitome of charming and inviting.  If the oval-shaped piazza is a wheel, all but its outer hub is marble, and the stone gives off a polish that has a faint reflection, making it appear clean and luxurious, though it is really just sidewalk.  A fairly typical statue of an upright figure graces the center, surrounded by an iron-railed enclosure.  Later we learn that the “square” is Tartinijev trg., and the statue is Giuseppe Tartini, a local eighteenth-century violinist and composer.

Encircling the piazza are tightly hugging ornate stone buildings brightly colored, none over four or five stories: lemon, pink-gray, orange-brown, umber rust—a familiar Italian palette.  The piazza immediately rises into a hill so that much of the town hangs over the sea.  A tall, thin pointed clock-tower commands the next tier of immediate foreground, a 1608 imitation of the campanile of San Marco in Venice, Lonely Planet tells us.  People are picnicking on the marble with drinks and food, and kids are chasing one another in zigzag dashes at high speed.  Some are kicking a soccer ball in a game that has no shape and traverses the whole piazza.  The ball bounces off oblivious adults, even the legs of Japanese tourists working their digital cameras.

This has the slight feel of Santa Cruz back in the Bay Area—a beach town serving the sea, a place of recreation, with dozens of paths here, all leading to the water.  For some reason I had pictured the Istrian coast as dark and ancient, small towns, old buildings—Miha spoke of coming here often as a child, so I imagined the late fifties.  The Tartini in my imagination was a faded ramshackle spa.  But this is not the case.  The Tartini is sleek and modern, diners at elegant tables on its patio, a spiffy lobby.  I recall a guidebook phrase I didn’t explore imaginatively enough because it suggested an elite opulence that didn’t go with Yugoslavia: Adriatic Riviera.

I am the one checking in while Lindy guards our nonparking place with car.  The young woman at the desk is speaking French to a guest she is just finishing with, and she switches to almost un-accented English for me.  I tell her where we are parked and that my wife is with the car, and she says we can leave it there while unloading; then we should drive back, park outside of town, and either walk or take the free bus back.  “It is only a ten-minute walk,” she recommends.  She explains that we will not be charged for the present auto incursion because you get one free hour, and she gives me a coupon that will get us through the parking lot at no cost when we check out.  Then she prepares a card-style key while I run back to tell Lindy the car’s okay and we should carry our stuff in.

Lindy goes to fill out the form, and I begin grabbing our things and depositing them in the lobby.  Then we take the elevator to the fourth floor, the top.  The machine actually goes a little higher and then does a brief dizzying drop.  This will happen each time we take it, and it is about the only thing in the Tartini that I will not mind leaving behind the next day.

The room is the largest and most tasteful of our trip, not lavish but very clean and thoughtfully designed—rich aqua carpet, bed set off-center toward a corner with a thin Scandinavian headboard, stylish contemporary lighting, abstract art worth examining more than once, and a balcony onto which Lindy immediately opens the drapes.  We are looking at a small inlet with motor-powered fishing boats parallel-parked on either side of it, crammed into the space so as to be almost touching one another; beyond that, majestic old stone buildings in the shape of museums or factories; beyond them blue-green water to the horizon, sailboats, and a liner.  The vision is rich green (trees), white (boats), orange (the last building on land) wrapped in spectra of brilliant blue (sea and sky).

Not wanting to exceed our hour, we don’t dawdle.  Passing the front desk, I ask the woman about the police we have been seeing.  “Is it always this way?” I add with rhetorical disbelief.

She laughs.  “No, we do not have police protection everyday.  There is a NATO meeting in the next town, Portoroz.  It is only a few kilometers from here.  Mr. Rumsfeld is there.”

“Oh, I thought maybe a terrorist incident.”

“They are supposed to be meeting to prevent that.”

We continue our drive around the circle, reenter the narrow road into town, figure out its method of exit after a brief wrong-way foray that elicits shouts from the toll-taker, hand him our ticket, and then continue a few meters further to a very crowded lot that requires maneuvering even to get up and down the aisles to look for a parking space.  We are lucky to find a departing car right away.  Lindy squeezes in, and then we head back toward the center of town.

Our thought is to take the bus but when, despite two in sight, we cannot figure out where it boards, we start walking along the spare strip of sidewalk along the sea, initially looking for the bus stop and then simply heading back toward the Tartini because it is hardly far.  The vista is so dramatic that, were we not so hungry and walking-weary from prior days, we would have welcomed the stroll.  Giant rocks are piled up in a makeshift seawall.  They are so rugged, compact, and similar to one another that the wall has the appearance of something artificial, as though concrete was poured into this shape in order to give a natural appearance, paper maché rocks on stage.  However, any close look reveals that they are very large stones of every imaginable possible shape and degree of jaggedness, like a pile of lunar meteorites, probably fitted together here by primates over centuries if not millennia.  They are steep and irregular and individually huge, but there is not a very thick zone of them separating the sidewalk from the sea.  Like in Trieste, intimacy between water and land prevails.

Almost from the parking lot, people have somehow contrived ways to use these boulders as a beach.  Every few meters, a man or woman in a bathing suit is sitting or lying atop stones on a towel or blanket.  Other people are out swimming.  They are mostly older folks, with old-fashioned swimming caps.  They have the look vaguely of walruses, or those clubs of Arctic swimmers that come out in January to bathe, the members grizzled and corpulent; here, most are women.  It is amazing how close to parked cars these ostensibly desirable bathing spots are.  Ladies dozing on the rocks could reach out a foot and tap a parallel-parked car.  I am assuming there are real beaches somewhere else but, if there were, I never found them.

The matter of a restaurant is foremost in our mind, but the riddle is whether we stop at one of these beachy joints along the road, purely out of hunger, or go into town and pick one of the recommended establishments out of the Lonely Planet book.  One fast-food outlet right on the water does have attraction, not the least of which is color photographs of its dishes on the outside wall, most of which are fish and shellfish, including whole fishes on platters.  The most striking to me is a larger-than-life poster of what appear to be broad grilled sardines.  Fast food albeit, they look quite appetizing lined up silvery in a dense row.  However, indecision about whether we can do better if we hold off leads us to keep walking, all the way back to the Tartini where the woman at the front desk names three good restaurants around the point that we can see from our window.

We cross the square, cut between the buildings on the other side, and find ourselves on a stretch alongside the sea, Presernovo nabrezje.  To our right are mostly restaurants, one after another, running together continuously with outdoor patios and umbrellas such that it is not entirely obvious where one ends and the next begins.  Tinted stone buildings, many with canopies of elaborate grillwork, rise above the restaurants, apparently ordinary apartments overlooking the bay. Their two-tone colors are off-white, dark green shutters; pale blue, white shutters; pale yellow; medium ochre; pale green.  Gulls circle these buildings, and the landscape has a sandy feel, though there is no beach, only a continuation of the rocky façade, with occasional openings every sixty feet or so for simple, direct entries to the water, much like the Trieste harbor.  Here they are stone steps flanked by hollow silver-colored guard-rails.  You can descend along these modest gateways right into Pirano Bay.  People are sitting or standing on many of them, but others are vacant.  The condensed scale of the landscape continues to be striking.  The rocky ledge is wider than most walls but quite narrow by any seawall standard, and it is close enough to the parallel-parked cars to be eligible for a car barrier if this were a lot.  The cars and boulders are just across the sidewalk from tables where people are dining.

I know that I want to swim here, so I worry about the hour getting late.  Our lunch is beginning at 2:30.

We pick Tri Vdove, The Three Widows, finding seats on the outer rim of the dining area, away from most of the cigarettes.  There are not that many people at this hour, but the ceaseless insouciant smoke is still a hazard.  The waiter is a grumpy, impatient old-timer, and he turns out to be little help on the food.  They list sardinos here, so I order them, but he insists in broken English that they are only an appetizer; he practically demands I get another dish.  I pick the least expensive of the other fishes: devilfish tail.  Lindy holds her position on just soup and a salad.

An hour and ten minutes later, long after Lindy has finished her food and we have polished off two bread baskets by dipping their contents in olive oil, the fishes come, first sardines and then, when I am halfway through them, the devilfish.  Each is an enormous platter with potatoes and vegetables too, the appetizer no less gigantic than the main dish.  There is no way I can eat both of these, and I feel both frustrated and pissed that this has happened.  Nonetheless, the sardines are very good, much more interesting hot from the broiler than raw from a can.  They have a fuller, more trout-like taste.  When I am finished, my plate looks like a cat has been at it—racks of thin bones.   Completely stuffed, I pick at the devilfish, trying not to waste it altogether.  It seems a shame that a fish died, plus that someone labored to prepare this plate, and there is no one really to eat it (Lindy is also full and not really attracted anyway by fish in such a blatant form).  The bill is the final insult, much larger than the cumulative prices on the menu and scrawled in indecipherable glyphs.  In fact, it is not clear what we are being charged until the credit-card slip comes.  We decide not to dispute the matter but leave no tip.  The sardines were good, and so was the seafood soup, but we have been scammed in much the manner the guidebook warned.

Lindy decides to rest in the late sun pouring over the sea into our room while I go back out in my bathing suit, towel in hand, seeking my own perch among the bathers.  The lady at the front desk suggests I continue around the point where the old fort sits, as there is more of a beach there, so I pass by numerous untenanted entries in hope of something more bountiful.  Many walruses are sunning now, most of them asleep on the boulders, a few in pretzel-like positions.

Around the point by the imposing fort ruins, I see no obvious beach.  In fact, it is rather deserted, perhaps because waves are hitting the shore with a great deal more force.  It is not where I want to risk swimming alone.

The most notable thing here is the cats.  There are so many of them, as if this is the meeting place for felines of the town, stray and domestic.  Along the water, each one commands its own boulder, and they perch there like turtles, absorbing the warmth.  I count them, seven in a row on seven rocks, each distinct on its throne.

I retrace my steps along the bay and pick a vacant entry ramp, making sure that I am also out of immediate sight of our untipped waiter.  I talk off my sneakers, socks, and shirt, set them in a pile willy-nilly in a crevice, and step down into the water.

It is mild.  The sweet smell blowing in off the bay is a habitat.  I paddle around, staying close to the shore, occasionally bumping into a tall boulder underwater.  Gradually I work my way deeper, though aware of “no lifeguard.”  A gull hovers directly over me, and I am filled with a powerful image of swimming in the old Mediterranean, the planet’s ancient Western sea.  Though it has been used by so many cultures for so many centuries, the overall effect is not, at least not blatantly, dense pollution or a sense of collective debris and pulverized rot of shipping and urban life, but a clearness.  I can see right through the water to the rocks on the bottom, even away from shore where my feet can’t touch them.  It is almost virginal.  If Rome and Atlantis are still here, they are now homeopathic.

The waves toss me a bit, and I dive under, a somewhat daring move.  I am on my own   No one knows where I am.  No one is going to rescue me.  When I am underwater, I don’t exist for the world.  It is transparently murky and quite mysterious—my imagination goes to Greek myths and Cretean vases.  I taste the salt that burns my eyes.

I lie on a rock on my towel in a sublime state in the sun in a semi-trance, drying off, while a number of typically chubby men and women work their way down the same passage into the water around me.

Walking back through Piran Harbor, I see the people working aboard their boats in the inlet.  Many of the fishermen look like young hippies, though that is probably not who they are.  In America they would be NASCAR more than hippie.  Two boats are occupied by whole families.  A man and a woman work on large heavy nets.  On another craft the equivalent man and woman are adjusting large flagpole-like sticks with black plastic on them.

Lindy and I decide to go for an exploratory restaurant walk before dinner and, heading in the other direction, behind our hotel, end up on Frederich Engels Street, its name a classic Yugoslavian throwback.  One narrow, narrow alley leads into another, like in Siena and, as it is getting dark, we decide that we are better off looking for a restaurant by the water.  Giving Tri Vdove a wide birth, we chose the second of three recommended by the desk clerk—Ivo.  We are sitting down not long after a big lunch, so we order only bowls of soup.  Each of us picks the seafood one, quite a different stew than the lunch variety, a new, rather indescribable fishy taste.

Cats dominate the patio the way that pigeons did in Ljubljana.  Several patrol the tables, looking and begging for droppings.  One even jumps up on the chair of an adjacent table and manages to paw a scrap before being shooed away by its diners.  I want to make an offering of something solid from my soup, but Lindy, despite her love of cats, declares, “Absolutely not!”

After dinner we sit in Tartinijev trg., watching couples in romantic daguerrotypes, another juvenile soccer melee in progress—a kind of festive air all about.  We go to the gelato place around the corner and each of us gets a fruit one.  In trying to pay, we discover that we are both out of coins, European or Slovenian, and the smallest note we have is 20 euros.  The counterman gives it back, waving us away.  “Pay next time,” he says.  (In the late morning I will try, but his replacement does not speak English and refuses the coins I offer.  I guess that he won’t take money unless he understands why—so the gelatos were a gift of the town.)

We find ourselves back in our room with a lot of the evening left, but this is intentional.  I planned to catch up on my trip journal, and Lindy wants the computer as soon as possible to stack up her email.  Apparently we can then buy wireless time from the front desk.

I write a few pages of today’s notes, save (but don’t bother to back up on the flash drive), then hand the laptop to Lindy.  As she changes the screen, the cursor freezes on her email, and we can’t get it to re-start.  I do the only thing I know, take out the battery.  Then I put it back in and restart.

The sound is horrible, a grinding noise like loose change.  I immediately suspect that this is the dreaded hard-drive crash, but it takes many hours before this fact is ratified and its full ramifications hit home.  All that will come up on the screen is the basic square-faced Apple icon alternating with an ominous question mark.  The computer is saying that it doesn’t know what it is, has no context for itself, no beginning—nada of anything.

Because it has been behaving oddly the last few days, not responding to many commands and losing settings, I have been fearing a worm, perhaps picked up by my promiscuous wireless forays.  So this is my prime consideration now.  I call our office nine hours earlier in the day in Berkeley.  Thus far, I have been avoiding the cell phone with its 99 cents a minute charge, but I suddenly have a sense of being cut off from the world down the Istrian coast.  I speak to both Mark, our associate publisher, and Ed, our manager—the former to catch up on things I was going to email him later; the latter to discuss the computer.  Ed runs me through a series of tests, holding down different keys while restarting, to by-pass systems, and “zapping the parameter ram,” as he puts it—but none of them work.  He gives me the phone number for Paul, our tech person.   I leave a message on his voicemail.  An hour later he calls back and, at his instruction, I start the computer up while holding the option key down.  All I get is a clock with a hand circling, interminably.  At least it’s not the same old question mark, but it is actually even worse.  “I can’t do anything,” Paul says.  “It’s a hardware problem.”  He thinks not only that we cannot restore the computer but that we will likely lose all our information on the hard drive.  Luckily everything important but my last “trip journal” entry is on the flash drive, but this is still a blow and hard to recover from.  The journal was a big part of the trip for me, a way of logging each day, a dialogue with people back in the States.

A rather manic, high-flying ride is history, and I am slowed down to the reality of our situation here in the room.  The computer is over with—and all the games that go with it.

Rather glumly I take up my abandoned notebook and begin making shorthand comments about the day, so as not to lose my narrative or forget the details.  After a while I resign myself to the obvious; I go downstairs and purchase computer time from the Tartini.  The way it works—and I will find it is this way almost everywhere—is you get a password and a code, and you key it in when prompted on the screen—that allows them to log your time and bill you.

The first hurdle is the Slovenian keyboard.  Many things about it are unusual, but two are very problematic: I do not know how to find the “@” key (the clerk, when summoned, shows me that it comes from holding down the alternate key with a letter not on an English keyboard)—and “y” and “z” are reversed.  The latter is a continual problem, and I finally give up on the remedial hunt-and-peck solution and inform correspondents right at the outset that henceforth, y = z and z = y.

The first thing I have to get involved in is a complex business transaction involving a potential copublisher and, not only do I have the y/z problem, but the remote server I am going through in the absence of the direct connection on the laptop, fatcow, is losing half my emails before I can send them.  Thus, I end up writing: “I just sent zou a verz long email, and it wouldnct send again.” (The “c” was actually a “c” character with an acute accent, in the place of the apostrophe I meant to type.)  After another “send” failure (a lost email in which I tell him “zes, we can work together” and refer to a “yen” moment), I reconstruct the content from memory and then suggest, “Zou can call mz cell” and give him its number.  Then: “Get me off this crayz kezboard.”  Before the night is out, I will have run up almost $200 on the cell, but that can’t go on.  I will need to get used to weird keyboards and rented time.  In fact, I won’t use the cell phone for the rest of the trip.

Travel note:  Most people know this, even me, but I had to rediscover it—it is better to do laundry little by little and hang it in a window or bathroom than to look for a Laundromat every time.  Laundromats are hard to find, require lots of exact coins and dead time, and are fairly expensive (it cost us $20 to wash and dry our cumulative clothes in Siena).  It takes about ten minutes to wash out a few items and hang them, as long as you have at least two full days for drying or, as in Piran, a hot sun with a balmy breeze and a balcony.

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September 29 (Day Seventeen)

The Tartini breakfast is the first one on our trip that I consider worth eating without bringing outside food—lots of cold fish and fresh fruit.  Afterwards I get a new code for the computer and do email and check scores while Lindy drinks tea and reads a book.

After breakfast we agree to take separate time in the piazza.  I pay 320 tollars for three postcards at a stationery shop and strike up a friendship with the clerk.  In fact, with no other customers, he comes outside to continue our conversation.  As he lights a cigarette, I circle out of the way without attitude or comment, a skill I am developing in Europe’s retro smoking culture.

He is a young bearded guy from Croatia, likes Piran especially for its intellectual activity during the summer, has been in this shop for seven years.  What is surprising to me is that he never learned English either in school or from any formal teaching, simply picking up bits here and there from talking to strangers.  He brushes off my compliment by saying that his fluency is a mirage, he knows only a few hundred words and is good at bluffing; yet he knows at least the words to communicate that concept, and our conversation is seamless to me.  As we continue to discuss languages and I admit my American ignorance, and inability to speak any other than English, he figures he can do French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Flemish, and German at about the same level as his English.  His real fluency understandably is in several different dialects of Serbo-Croatian, including Slovenian, plus Russian.

Multilingualism of this sort is an improvisational ability I envy, a totally different route to words, syntaxes, and cross-cultural semantics than formal study that almost no one gets to explore or develop in the States.  What this self-educated guy has is really different from the mastery of individual tongues.  It is a general fluency with language itself—or at least the European branch of Indo-European—that allows him either to talk with anyone or begin to cultivate that possibility (when a stranger speaks an unknown language).  I wonder how he converses with someone at the rough beginning when he wants to learn their language.  I imagine they could pick another tongue they both know at least rudimentarily, a possibility with almost any European.  At the same time, American language illiteracy is no longer a problem for him because he can manage the one vocabulary Americans know.

We discuss Slovenian authors, Miha in particular (whom he has read and thus is surprised I know and am going to Bled with tomorrow); he tells me some others I should look up, but I didn’t write them down.  From there we move to international politics and seasonal differences in tourism in Piran.  He explains to me how one would travel down the coast into Croatia from here.  Although the border is near, I should drive at least forty-five minutes to reach anywhere interesting.  I lament that this will probably have to await another trip.

Lindy sees us standing there and joins our talk, remarking idly that there are still police all over the place.  “Police state,” comments the clerk.  “The cops were out at 6 in the morning, guarding NATO.”

He gives us some useful tourism information, pointing to a street that we can use to ascend through the city.  After the conversation we enter its dark alley and begin winding up.  The path is incredibly attenuated, like a tunnel.  At a couple of spots it seems like a dead end with nothing up ahead and then, as we arrive, it bends around stone into another alley.

We emerge into a courtyard with churches on opposite sides.  Though neither are obviously marked, from the guidebook we guess that these are the cloister of the Church of St. Francis Assissi and Our Lady of the Snows.  A woman is kneeling at the entrance to the former, turning her rosary before candles, a strikingly large clamshell next to her for donations, so we depart her sanctified space and cross the courtyard into the other church.  Its ample anteroom holds, surprisingly, an exhibit of modern art, modest and playful, a giant gameboard that invites inquiry.  There is no guard protecting works made up of separate small, quite stealable pieces.  In fact, there is no one at all.  The exhibits simply sit exposed, flaunting the possibility of theft.  One is a plastic map of abstract puzzle pieces coming apart in representation of former Yugoslavia.  Another is a pile of little round, smooth stones of various sizes.  Another comprises objects of the same irregular oval shape in different scales, colors, and materials: pottery, wood, stone.

We leave and continue up the moebius of cobblestone.  A vine with clusters of tiny yellow aromatics fills the air like a sweeter Queen Anne’s Lace.  Soon we reach our primary goal, the old city walls.  Entries lead into steep stairways rising to parapets connected by deep narrow aisles—stone tunnels without a ceiling.  Access to different levels of these walls are through the tight winding stairs such that one has to duck several times and emerge around a curve before gaining a place at the next outlook in a parapet or along a thin corridor between towers.  The whole structure has a Gothic chessboard feel that is difficult to classify, especially without architectural language, though I look closely and begin writing in my journal.  There are seven crenellated towers of a structure that, according to the guidebook, once ran all the way to the sea.  Now only 200 meters in the hills remains intact.  Each of the four corners of each tower is itself a miniature tower rising to a fin-shaped summit, the spaces in between the subtowers yielding the crenellated look.  The passageways between parapets are likewise marked by rows of stone pillars that rise triangularly to archlike apices.

We are a bit like children, exploring this massive play structure, peering over railings and between pillars, checking the different views.  We can see, as through a wide-gapped picket fence, the spread-out city and sea below.

Piran reads visibly as what it is: a thin peninsula of intricate and densely packed stone buildings twisted every which way.  The ancient habitation juts like a perfect finger into the vast bay.  Different sounds arise from its labyrinths: the voices of children, an accelerating motorcycle, a hammering, a single cat.  In the far distance a ferry is arriving from a distant hazy coastline, trailing a broad fan of ripples behind it as it approaches the counter-cross-rippled waters of the harbor, towers on either side of a narrow passageway it will enter to the pier.  Sailboats and motorboats also move slowly but at different speeds across the enormous mottled aqua skin, as if all in different dimensions or time zones from one another.

During the time we are watching from here, we will see the boat arrive, the passengers leave, cars depart from the lot, and the ferry turn and head back out to sea, its wake reversed.  Chestnuts and grapevines hang over the fifteenth-century walls, and small plants grow out of most of their crannies.  Now and then a lizard suddenly shoots ninety degrees up the stone and disappears in a crack.

We finally come to the highest parapet with its especially cramped viewing booth.  A family is occupying it: two adults, a roughly eight-year-old boy, a young girl of about six.  Her face set in the opening between two arches, she is singing, very slowly and methodically like an incantation, “Good-uh morning to you.  Good-uh morning to you….,” over and over like an imp putting a spell on the city or really just a little girl saying good morning to everyone at once.

We continue along the hillside to a large cemetery flanking what is probably the Cathedral of St. George.  The array of tombstones has a Greek Orthodox look, big slabs of highly polished marble with raised gold leaf and attached photographs of the generations of deceased in hexagonal frames, or at least this is the twentieth-century representation of an entire family Jurisevic.  Next to them Lelas has a sparer look, crosses on pale stone, lots of sunflowers, two photographs attached in oval frames.

Many of the plots have little tended gardens of live multicolored flowers, pansies and daisies.

From any spot the markers of the dead have a somber but carnival-like appearance, stretching to the end of the densely populated crosses and monuments where a spacious ballfield begins and ancient stonework meets modernity with its fencing and floodlights.

We come back to the Tartini, pack, put our bags in storage behind the front desk, and then head out for the third recommended restaurant along the bay, Gostlilnica Tratttoria.  Lindy is not much for swimming in bodies of water even in the best of circumstances, and this setting is a too brusque and wild for her, so she feels a bit taken for granted in that I have my bathing suit on under my pants and am carrying a Tartini towel.  She thinks I am being socially childlike in my enthusiasm to swim again, especially since we are really headed to lunch.  My desire for even a quick second splash in the Adriatic affronts her propriety about dining and makes her irritable.  Yet this, in a sense, is a part of my strategy and interest: I want to experience the proximity of the restaurant to the staircases into the sea.  I can order my food, swim, dry off, and get back to the table in ample time for the meal.  Lindy’s look says: “And I’m supposed to just sit there alone while you play the child.”  What she does say is: “I don’t want to have to watch you, okay?”

“Don’t watch me.  I’ll be quick.”  In fact, I spend less than five minutes.

Out in the water I have a different appreciation of the city.  I look up into the hills in which we have been walking, then down to the colorful umbrellas of the dining area.  Ducks bob and disappear on one side of me and come up on the other.  Cats watch me from the boulders.  Large boats pass dramatically past in the distance.  I feel safer with Lindy present, even reading a book instead of tracking me, so I go further out, further into history, into my own imagination.

My mind suddenly lands on the computer, now blank, a dead object to tote for the next few weeks.  I recall Ram Dass’ soliloquy about his first LSD trip.  First he realized he had no social identity, then no personal identity, then no body, but he still existed.  The sea is just so large.

We walk along the shoreline to the car.  Chastened by the experience in the garage back in Trieste, we have each memorized our license, in fact slightly differently but close enough (we didn’t have a pen handy), and we find the vehicle quickly.  However, once we are seated, Lindy cannot get the key to turn.  After a while I give it a try with the same negative results.  It is the kind of thing that you assume you will solve if you keep at it long enough but, after fifteen minutes, we finally have to admit that we are stumped.  We just hope the car isn’t the problem.  Various options gradually occur, all of them unhappy and either expensive or time-consuming or both, so Lindy hails what-turns-to-be a German couple, a successful method for auto advice at Pisa.  The man comes over, takes a look at our car, and says drolly, “Alpha Romeo, best of Italy, pride of Italian technology; let’s have a look.”  He slides into the driver’s seat and in two seconds has it running.

“You did it!” Lindy exclaims.

“You have to push the key in a little more at the end,” he shows her with an exaggerated twist.

We drive back, repeat our entry at the Tartini with an hour ticket, collect our stuff, and head out.

Motorcades accompany us all the way back to Ljubljana.  As it turned out, our visit to Piran coincided exactly with the NATO meeting, the precisely same period of time.  Yet we really came to different dimensions of Istria, and our overlap was as irrelevant as it was incidental.  I am sure neither of us made any progress on Afghanistan or were able to decode Bushian geopolitcs if they could be dignified with such a name.  I wonder to what degree they had to play “the emperor’s new clothes,” these serious soldiers across the table from Mr. D.Rum.

Outside Ljubljana we manage to make exactly the same mistake as the first time and end up in a suburban village rather than the city.  This time we remember enough to poke our way in without further misstep and even to find the Hotel Park on our first try.  We get one of the six parking places by the front door again.  Obviously few of the occupant tourists drive there.

The dormitory is like “old home” for us.   I stand on one of two long lines to reestablish our interrupted reservation.  People must wait at the desk for everything—obviously to check in and out, but also for directions to town, to raise the gate to let people in and out of the traffic circle onto Tabor Street, to answer general questions for people speaking many languages, and to provide computer codes from a little machine that spits them out like credit-card receipts.  There are three computers for guest use in the immediate lobby, and the hotel gives fifteen minutes of free online time per guest per day.  After that they charge.

There are never enough clerks for the 300 or so people in this establishment.  When my turn comes, the guy on duty tells me, by way of apology when it turns out they have lost our reservation and rented our room, so have to give us the adjacent one—in fact (whew!) the last vacancy left: “It’s no accident.  They try to overwork us and make us quit; then they hire a young guy for less money.”   After expressing my outrage and sympathy, I get a code from him.  I have a cute response to last night’s email:

“I’ll look forward to talking with zou when zou return.  Well, I have to go now, I gotta take my daughter to the yoo.  She reallz likes the yebras.  (OK…so it was a stretch to get some z’s in my e-mail, but I’m sure zou get the point!)”

As we return to Preseren trg. through the early evening by Miha’s original route, I realize that the landscape has become familiar and registers in me at a deeper level.  Things are not so novel and strange.  I understand the place better and inhabit more normally: the avenues, the shops, the movements of people and things, their relations to each other.  The statue of Preseren and Triple Bridge are not something any longer to stare at but to be recognized and absorbed automatically as landmarks on our way to Chez Erik.  Ljubljana is softer and more intimate, almost commonplace.  Its texture and layers of internal experience and cohesive phenomenology are beginning to take over from exoticness or caricature.  I like it here.  I understand how you could live your whole live here undeterred.

It occurs to me that this is how people take the first baby step toward living in a place.  The landscape sinks down to a comforting, subliminal level.  Leaving for a day or two and returning has begun that feeling in me.

The staff of Chez Erik are happy to see us again, and we engage in new conversation.  Our waiter tonight worked in the States doing catering for a cruise company for two years and had to speak English all that time.  That’s the only you learn another language and get to think in it, he explains.  You speak it because there’s no other choice.  He says it got so that it was hard for him to remember Slovenian when he phoned his mother.

After dinner we cross the bridge and discover a concert on the temporary stage before the Ljubljanica.  This one is less interesting: ten clean-cut young people playing instruments and singing polkas.

Every night all through central Ljubljana, workers and vehicles are cleaning the streets of the city like a dream making everything fresh for the morrow.  There are men with hoses, brushes, street sweepers with floodlights working their collective way over the cobblestone.  It is a remarkable commitment to scrub a place this thoroughly everyday.  The crew moves along with a determination and even a pride that is rare in the West, certainly the U.S.

We stand and watch for a while and then head down a side street on a variant route toward the Park.

After a while our route is quite deserted, but we feel safe, even walking down dark alleys.  I am not sure if this is delusion or reality, but I don’t question my basic feeling.  My paranoia level is unusually low.

Eventually we reach the student area and the shops.  Lots of teenagers are out, playful, razzing each other.  The scene has a light energy, sort of like the fifties or sixties in the States.  The only English sounds come from a few boomboxes.  It is otherwise all Slovenian.  Faraway we see the sign “Hotel Park” high up on the side of its giant building, our beacon.

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September 30 (Day Eighteen)

This morning I welcome the bells of Ljubljana, even though they wake me.  Something I have forgotten to mention in any previous journal entries is that all of these European cities (starting with Ravenna) have bells, big reveille ones starting at 7:00 AM (remember the symphony of Siena) followed by periodic, more discreet rings throughout the day—a few clock-towers sounding every fifteen minutes, others on the hour.  I suppose that, if you ordinarily sleep past seven and live here, you get used to this ruckus and after a while it recedes into the background (as it has in this journal).  Today, however, I not only hear the chimes distinctly, I recognize their unrestrained tintinnabulation, a meaning their clanging confers on the aborning day.

Bells shatter one silence while creating another, deeper one.  They transform the sacred time of dreaming into a sacred awakening.  Days initiated and marked by bells can never be as jagged and randomly secular as days that lack this ceremonial ringing.  The sound of the bells clears the mind and sets its attention deeper.  After all, a different kind of bell—a tinier chime—begins and ends zen meditations.  A marker is needed to enclose time, to tie its passage to something more harmonic and contemplative than a clock.

Cities that have lost their bells or have relegated them to the general din have forfeited a piece of their own history and internal space.  Overriding sacred space, they dispatch their modern pedestrians and traffic onto an enervating platform of achievement and acquisition, repertoires of shapeless acts beyond boundary or resolution.  Losing bells is like losing the night sky, in each case to technological pollution.

After getting a code for my free fifteen minutes online, then reading emails and Yahoo sports, I join Lindy in the cafeteria.  She is sitting with two sisters from Austria, one of whom, Karin Homberg, happens to be a retired homeopath and speaks sufficient English for a lively conversation.  The other (a nurse) has only enough vocabulary to smile occasionally.  Our age or a little older, they are on a “roots” journey, tracing the course of their father, mother, and grandparents to their family home in southern Austria, a journey that encompassed addresses in both Ljubljana and Trieste (where they are headed next).  We hear  about their discoveries in Slovenia,  these stories  punctuated by trips back to the buffet line.

When we planned our own itinerary back in Maine with Roger and Eda, Trieste and Ljubljana—in Italy and Slovenia, respectively—were two entirely separate cities that happened to occupy proximate space.  Trieste was an Italian place merely on the way to Ljubljana.  Now a more integrated reality has declared itself.  Trieste, Vienna, and Ljubljana are part of oneancient country.  Where they come together, Italy, Austria, and Slovenia share a Central European geography and culture that has always transcended their national borders.

The Italy-Slovenia-Austria overlap reflects the barbarian migrations that established the original European duchies and ethnic zones, was incorporated as a province within the Roman Empire, formed a flank of the eastward cusp of Turkish conquest, fell inside Austria-Hungary and the Hapsburg Empire, and was part of a greater pre-World-War Italy.  Even within (and across) the Soviet bloc, these countries and cultures came together in a larger regional entity that included Croatia and Hungary.  During the years of the Cold War, Eda, for instance, traveled across Tito’s lax borders to the Italian Alps and nearby Austria throughout her childhood.  Slovenia and Croatia stood then in relation to Yugoslavia roughly as Georgia and the Ukraine stood in relation to the Soviet Union.

The imagined hard line between Italy and Slovenia is merely a gradation that not only virtually flows across the present 2006 border but historically found permeable barriers between what are now distinct countries.  We will learn later that Slovenia’s twentieth-century masterpiece novel, Alamut, Vladimir Bartol’s account of Ismaili assassins during the eleventh century, was written in Trieste in the months leading up to World War II.  Its author died virtually unknown in Ljubljana years later.  (The irony of this novel is that Bartol meant his tale of the first suicide bombers and Islamo-fascists set in northern Iran to serve as a metaphor for Italian fascism, so he dedicated his book satirically to Benito Mussolini.  But in the sixty-plus years since its publication, the metaphor become more powerful and consequential than the events for which it stood.  World War II is long over, in Ljubljana as in Trieste, but the Christian West’s confrontation with jihad, dormant during the Cold War, dominates global politics today.  Alamut is suddenly prescient, a post-modern deconstruction of early Muslim terrorism.)

So Trieste doesn’t just happen to be an Italian city that is near Slovenia.  It has been and is part of Slovenia, at times politically, always aesthetically and ethnically.  While a significant portion of Yugoslavia has at one time or another been contained within greater Italy, the relative paucity of Italians in modern Slovenia is the result of their expulsion after World War II when Mussolini forfeited land and the Slovenes kicked out the kin of the fascists.  Only yesterday….

The ancestors of these two sisters with whom we eat breakfast in Hotel Park treated this geography (Slovenia, Italy, Austria) as one homeland, so they seek their origins across borders.  We share our perceptions about Trieste, their destination tomorrow,  with them, reporting on restaurants, stray cats on the hillside, the scenic view from Colle di San Giusto, and  the Milano as opposed to the James Joyce.

This Italian-Slovenian theme continues unexpectedly in the car with Miha (no Irena today—she has gone unexpectedly to Maribor, the second largest Slovenian city near the Hungarian border, to tend to her mother).  Meanwhile he has brought us one of his other novels in English translation, The King of the Rattling Spirits, a fictionalized account of his childhood and family.  The back cover calls it a “coming-of-age memoir in 1970s Yugoslavia where rock ‘n’ roll—regardless of what mothers or dictators believed—was king.”  At its beginning, he explains, a young Slovenian girl, a fictionalized version of his grandmother, is smitten by a fictionalized version of his grandfather, an Italian architect who came to Slovenia to build a church tower.  Miha’s surname is Italian—Via Mazzini was one of the streets in Trieste that we kept crossing along Via Roma between Hotel Milano and the central piazza.

During his synopsis we are whizzing along E61 through moderate-to-heavy weekend traffic at a speed I find disconcerting, a steady 140 to145 kilometers per hour, occasionally creasing 160—but Miha has been doing this his whole adult life, so we have to trust the video game in which we find ourselves hurtling along.  It is one of the hazards of travel that you occasionally forfeit control in order to be part of the event rather than a pampered tourist.  Miha is now telling us that he used to live in Radovljica, the town prior to Bled, our destination today, and he commuted regularly from there to Ljubljana.  He has done this trip too many times to count.  Our present journey is really killing two birds with one stone: the reason Miha is able to give up Saturday for us is that he is picking up his thirteen-year-old daughter Lana who still lives in Radovljica and is coming back with us later to Ljubljana to spend a few days with her father.

The drive is actually pretty exhilarating because we do not have to worry about directions.  We are with a pro, and he is pointing out sites, providing interesting color as we zip along.  I had mentioned to him on our parting two days earlier that I had CDs of Country & Western with me, and he urged me to bring them along, so Dave Insley provides a curious juxtaposition to the Tyrolian landscape.

Pointing to a church on a mountain, Miha remarks on its evident fortification.  “Whenever the Turks were coming,” he explains, “people ran to the church and hid inside those walls like a snail crawling into its shell.  Most often the Turks wouldn’t bother them.  They were interested in the big stuff—Vienna.  It was too much trouble to attack every little town along the way.”

At our speed we reach Bled in under an hour and immediately take a shortcut Miha knows, skirting much of the town to the parking lot for the Bled Castle (Bledjski Grad).  This is a—perhaps the—signal Slovenian landmark, a “central casting” mediaeval castle with huge ramparts and a moat, perched on a hill overlooking a lake (also called Bled) with a small island, purported to be the only true island in the country.  As we walk up the path to the castle’s entrance, our host fills us in on its history:  Protected by a ring of mountains, this spot has been a habitation site since Neolithic times.  The Slavs probably arrived during the sixth or seventh centuries, constructing their villages around Lake Bled.  The town was formally founded in 1004 around the time the castle was being built.  Bled later became part of the Hapsburg Empire and then, in the mid-nineteenth century, it was reborn as a spa and tourist destination, famous for its mountain air, hot springs, and mild lake.  It is now the most popular resort in Slovenia, a mecca for Germans, Italians, Austrians, and Hungarians as well as Slavs, a tourist cash cow, mobbed in season.

Miha proposes a scenario: he will wait outside and read while we tour the castle, as he has seen it “maybe 100 times.”  Then he will meet us and we will walk around the lake—or at least around as much of it as we have energy for.  Entry to the castle is about $15 per person in American currency, and he thinks there is no reason to waste money on him.

Lindy will have nothing of that.  Still smarting from the dinner debacle after the reading, she wants him to come as our guest and, also, she says, “it will be much more interesting if you can tell us things.  We can benefit from your long-time experience.”

Initially reluctant, Miha finally gets into the spirit of the event.  After entry for all of us eats up most of two 20-euro bills, we find ourselves in a museum of the Middle Ages with other exhibits showing the history of Lake Bled from the Iron and Bronze ages to its nineteenth-century conversion into a resort.  There is mostly stock stuff, vintage fare: armor, swords, halberds, later firearms, barrels, jewelry from old burial pits at Pristava by the lake, paintings and carvings, baroque artifacts, an original Gothic-style chapel room.  It turns out that, although the castle was first built in the eleventh century, the current structure is predominantly sixteenth-century architecture, the seat of the Bishops of Brixen who received it formally from German Emperor Henry II in 1004.

Far and away the highpoint of the half-hour visit is the terrace to which Miha leads us.  On a clear day, he says, you can see higher peaks, Stol and Triglav, to the north.  As it is, even in the light haze, we see three tiers of mountains, ranging from dark green nearest us to pale blue on the horizon.  These are artistically arranged, as if by feng shui, their descending profiles coming from alternating directions and meeting at the crest of the lake.

Lake Bled is as utterly smooth a body of water as gravity could pat.  From way above on the hillside hanging over the steep edge of the castle’s cliff, it looks like bluish silk, the only fold in it cut by a small tourist gondola taking a group toward the island that sits in its center.  Bled Island (Blejski Otok) has a classic church sitting just off-center to the left.  This building dates from the ninth century, Miha says, though there is archaeological evidence of pre-Christian ceremonies at the site.

From faraway everything forms an aesthetically perfect mirror double in the lake, the church amid the dense foliage of its tear-drop island.  Over the spiked iron railing of our perch the drop is pretty close to ninety degrees, making an assault on this site a challenge—but then that was the point, wasn’t it?  It is interesting to lean a bit and look straight dizzyingly down and then gaze at the calm mandala of the lake itself, a relatively small body (2 kilometers by 1380 meters, a sign tells us) which earns its grandeur not from its size but its picturesque locale and appearance.

Miha proposes that we go straight downhill and get ourselves on the trail around the lake.  This meandering footpath’s total circumference is 6-7 kilometers and we can either do the entire walk, back to the castle, or we can hike partway, as far as we want, and then turn around.  With the question left open, we are accelerated down the steep winding path through the forest, a course reminiscent of our hikes in Maine on Mount Desert Island where we are continually trekking up and down small mountains.  This path is quite well constructed, with railings and wooden walkways in spots, pleasantly surrounded, in fact overhung, with very old chestnut, willow, and linden trees.  When we reach the hillside’s bottom we emerge onto the clearly marked route around the lake.

The walk along the lakeshore is generic, with its main distinctive feature being shifting views of Blejski Grad and Blejski Otok, dramatic features with dynamic reflections.  As we amble along, the conversation runs a wide gamut.  Miha bitches for a while about the new protocol of  running screenplays through computer programs before human beings get them in order to check them first for commercial elements.  If the computer doesn’t accept a story, then no one in authority will ever read it.

We supply parallel horror tales from our publishing world, for instance the secondary auction of used copies on Amazon providing a “value” for an author’s books and the  being used rather than an actual submitted manuscript by large commercial publishers considering whether or not to consider a book.  Miha then tells us about a Slovenian TV show dedicated to literature that interviews three to four novelists weekly.  As there are roughly forty to fifty novels published each year in Slovenia, one might assume, he states, that, a man with nine novels to his credit would have been on the show at least once during the last decade, but he hasn’t ever been on.  “I am not a Slovene,” he says.  “Not to them.”

On the more upbeat side Lindy and I are excited to imagine how we might reissue some of his novels in America.  He then explains his history with Scala, the small publisher in Seattle that unexpectedly took on his writing when his agent could find no one in New York.  “They all liked Hanna and my first book, The Cartier Project, which after all sold more than 50,000 copies in a country of two million, but they didn’t see any market for a Slovenian guy there.  Luckily Mark White did, though I’m afraid his optimism was not proven in sales.”  Not only did Mark publish all three of these novels (Rattling Spirits as well), but he brought Miha to the States for a book tour.  Reminiscing about this, he describes his time in Seattle and minor adventures along the Northwest Coast and in San Francisco.  He is very anxious to have another shot at America so, upon my suggestion that he try again with North Atlantic, encourages us to talk to Mark to see if we can work something out together.

The path winds in toward and away from the shoreline, through foliage and landscaped parks.  There are various boat slips, wooden walkways, points of land to detour onto, rocky streams gurgling into the lake from the surrounding hills, stone and wooden bridges, and constricted passages formed by rocky slopes on the non-lake side.  I remark at one point how everyone that we pass looks normal even though we have never seen any of these people.  “We recognize them as regular people because they fall within a genome range of permissible variation.  There are no Dogsbodies.  If there were, we’d recognize them at once.”

It then becomes a game to look at people and imagine what makes them normal, what it would take to fall outside the margin, and also what makes them not American.  In fact, except for the occasional beret and ethnic clothing, most of them could be circling a lake in any American urban park—and even those could too, just not in the high percentage that they contribute here.  Everything about this hike is ordinary.

We are getting tired and a little punchdrunk.  Much of the discussion becomes haphazard and low-energy, sort of an adult version of teenage bullshit.  At about the one-quarter point, a wooden dock extends into the water, and we walk out onto it to visit the two swans at close proximity.  I regret not having brought along the stale rye bread I have been carrying from the street fair in Trieste, but Miha reminds us of cake he has brought in his shoulder pack, a kind of imitation chocolate confection developed from a folk recipe during World War II when the real stuff was scarce.  It has a slightly bitter carob-like taste, and there is far too much of it to consume without a digestive consequence.  In handing a chunk of it to a swan, Lindy has  her hand almost bitten by the bird’s aggressive snap.  “It looks pretty,” I say, “but it is actually a feathered pair of serrated blades attached to a hunger neuron.”

This is quite a hefty walk, especially once we commit to the whole circumference, which happens at about the point at which Miha points to the castle approaching a position directly across from us, saying it would not be much less now to continuing around than to retrace our steps.  Tired as we are, neither of us wants to revisit the same things.

The most interesting scenery at this point is the large number of visible fish, some very large, carplike and troutlike, hanging offshore, plus very dense clusters of little dark fish, much like clouds of mosquitoes in the water.

We pass the hamlet of Mlino and wind away from the lake through the outer grounds of the luxurious Hotel Vila Bled. This was where the one-time dictator of Slovenia liked to vacation.  Here a Tyrolian alpine look is evident, though merging into other Tito-era buildings and typical Soviet-style housing built so that everyone could afford them, even in a resort area.

Up ahead we see into two strange guys ahead, closer to the Dogsbody Homo sapiens margin, settled along a stone bridge amid the trees.  As we approach them, Miha whispers that he knows one of them; he was a neighbor in Radovljica and still lives there.  He is a kind of itinerant artist-beggar, MM confides more softly.  Once we get closer, we see he is selling pencilled landscapes that are stacked along the stone.  A thin old wiry guy, he is wearing a pullover cap and crouched elastically into a small crevice in the rock.  His partner is bulky and snowman-like, bent over, walking with a crutch; he looks like Gump Worsley, the old Ranger goalie, ten years after facing too many pucks and Molsons.  Our arrival triggers a burst of conversation in Slovenian that runs from wildly enthusiastic (at first) on the artist’s part to conciliatory and restrained at the end.  When we are far enough away, Miha comments that he knew this guy would try to sell him some paintings, so he postponed that outcome as long as he could.  “We ended graciously.  He complimented me on my recent article in the newspaper.”

After that encounter we pass some concessions with very old rowboats and swanboats, e.g. rowboats with swan prows.  These craft look as though they have been in continuous use since the 1950s and will continue to be launched with tourists until water seeps through their pores.  Then again this is a calm lake.  Miha comments that his daughter jumped in at age six and, to the astonishment of her parents, swam to Blejski Otok.  This leads to a discussion about the risk of cramps while swimming and what one would do, followed by an even lazier conversation about whether the abundant black berries on bushes by the lake would be poisonous.  They are clearly not edible but, when Miha is extra passionate about my not trying one, something I would never do, Lindy worries that I will take him up on his dare, so she hovers whenever I want to examine them or crush one and smell it.  She remembers my encounters with huckleberries and wild cranberries in Maine and is concerned.  No chance I will taste a wild Slovenian berry.

Realizing we are poor candidates for climbing the castle hill, Miha proposes we stay in the parking lot of the Gothic church partway up while he retrieves the car.  Despite the tourist crowds milling there, I lie down on the stone outside the building and fall asleep (ten minutes) until he pulls up and honks.

On the way to Radovljica I notice that Miha keeps turning down the volume a little more every few minutes, a pattern that actually began as we approached Bled, so I try to unobtrusively remove the Slaid Cleaves CD that is playing.  “I prefer women singers,” Miha explains, “Emmylou Harris, Loretta Lynn.  These are too male, too folk or too rock, too cowboy.”

He had planned our lunch at an interesting fish place nearby, but now we are out of time and Lana is waiting, so we end up instead in Radovljica in a shopping center, a place he likes for its highly garlicked pizzas.   Grajska gostilnica doesn’t mean “Denny’s,” and it is certainly not a chain, but the feeling is similar.  The restaurant is also a den of smokers, and there is no escape possible.  The masks I bought along in case of an environment like this are not in my backpack on this mini-trip and, even if they were, the social stigma of putting them on would outweigh the hazard of the smoke.  By the end of the meal, I have a splitting headache.

At Miha’s suggestion, I order the same local fish that he was going to recommend at the other restaurant.  It is okay steamed—not much you can do to ruin it.  During the meal our host gives us a lesson in what he calls “Slovenian software,” a continuation of his critique of the national art scene and Slovene character.  “It’s programmed into the genes.  A Slovene does not want to stick his head up.  There is always some marauder on the horizon.  The Germans are coming!  The Russians are coming!  The Italians are coming!  The Turks are coming!  The Serbs are coming!  All of this is unconscious, of course, but it is the national mentality.  Hide behind the church walls.  It translates into culture.  You cannot be successful or aspire to make anything that draws attention to itself.  You have to be a sheep and follow the herd.  That is why I am not considered a Slovenian novelist.  I break with the software.  I write in slang.  So I must be an American.  I’m too popular.  I sell too many books.  Of course, I am an American artistically because I began watching American films and listening to American music from the age of six.  That was my escape from my family and from Slovenian conformity.”

He rather precisely, if circumstantially, corroborates this account by telling a story about an Italian journalist who had heard about his work, read one of his books, and was in Slovenia to interview novelists.  Someone at the Writers’ Guild discouraged her from contacting him by saying, “‘You don’t want to talk to Mazzini.  He’s not really a Slovenian novelist.’  It’s going to take a generation,” he adds, “for Slovenian thought to catch up to Western Europe and America.”

Lindy grabs the check like an owl pouncing on a marmot.

We stop at the housing development where Miha and her mother live, a duplex where Miha himself used to dwell years ago, before he escaped to the upper floors of Hotel Park and then his present Ljubljana life.  He points at once to the adjacent building.  “That’s where that artist we saw lives.  You wonder how he can afford it—well, that was Slovenia under Tito, all subsidized housing.  The question is: how does he afford it now?  Hard to figure it’s by selling sketches along Bled.”

A chubby young Englishman is painting the outside of the downstairs, and I stay in his society to get some fresh air and work on my headache while Miha and Lindy go inside to fetch Lana.  Back in the car Miha explains that wealthy British people are somewhat randomly buying up inexpensive properties in Slovenia, in fact throughout Eastern Europe, wherever they can.  “Cheap Ryan Air flights,” he adds.  “They figure they can come for the weekend any time they want.  This fellow, though, has taken to living more and more in Radovljica, and his friends have also bought houses in the area.  It’s just more of the suburbs of Cambridge to them.”

Lana is a bubbly, solidly-built teenager with much to say, almost all of it in Slovenian and to her Dad.  Eventually he encourages her to speak English.  In fact, he had told Lindy and me that this trip back to Ljubljana should be a good practice session for her on English (though of course she also has her neighbor).  Her main Anglo excursion is a story right out of Miha’s songbook.  It seems she has won the best-actress award for a play with her school drama group when they went to the state finals, but she has been asked to withdraw from the competition because she is too advanced and offering unfair competition to the other girls.

“Enough for a drama teacher to say, you had your turn, now step aside for somebody else to shine.  See,” Miha shouts, “there’s your Slovenian software, hate and fear towards achievers.  Every success must be degraded into ‘everybody else can do it.’  Talent or hard work doesn’t exist.  It’s just God giving presents blindly.”

Lana also just got in some sort of trouble on yesterday’s class outing and had to be held in detention with a boy she was fighting with.  Sitting in the back with Lindy, she tends to start her sentences about these matters with a few perfectly pronounced English words and flawless syntax and then, in a paroxysm of bashfulness, bursts out a spate of Slovenian sentences for Miha to finish.

With them speaking in tandem, I realize a habit of English speech both have.  It probably comes from Miha.  They use the word “okay” for a number of meanings.  It means “okay, yes” but, more than that, it is a kind of particle, a strategic bi-syllable either without a definitive meaning or a range of meanings in relation to something being said or about to be said.  For instance, “Okay!” is inserted suddenly, to slow things down, to ward off possible interruption by a listener, to pause and take stock, to get a second wind in English and remind a listener that, hey, English is a second language here, perhaps also to be hip while struggling.  In this latter sense, “okay” is cooler and more American than another “duh” or stumble-pause.  It means, more or less, “we are going to be in a holding pattern for a moment.”  Conversely, it is inserted to indicate that something just said is either interesting or obvious as, after reporting on her detention, Lana declared, “Okay!”  She is in fact a symphony of all different tones and accentuations of “okay” and, as she punctuates her speech with them the way many people in America use “you know,” I realize that Miha mainly inserts his own assertive ones to hold the floor when a topic is subtle or difficult and his mind is still laboring for the appropriate English.

A long nap gets rid of most of my headache, and then Lindy and I set out on the early side for dinner.  The lobby of the Park is packed with a tour group of young people from England, queues of them checking in, overwhelming the single clerk and making request of a code for fifteen minutes online impossible.  (It is interesting that for all the Anglophones we run into into Slovenia, almost none are Americans; there are lots of British and almost as many Australians.  In fact, there are more South Africans and New Zealanders than Americans at the Park.)

Taking a different route into town, we cross the Ljubljanica at Zmajski Most, the closer, dragon-headed span referred to the other day as the “mother-in-law” bridge by our tour guide on the premise that mothers-in-law are dragon-headed.  In the light of street lamps, we see one of the bridge’s four open-mouthed, spitting dragons, leathery stone wings partially unwrapped for flight like those of a bat, its tail wrapped around on the pedestal on which it is poised to leap.  Ms. Guide had also informed us that this was a 1901 construction in honor of Fran Josef, emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire within which Slovenia fit at the time.  Zmajski is far more impressive and sentient at this deserted hour in artificial light than in the daylight in a tour group.  There is a dragon aura about it.

We are looking for a Chinese restaurant called Shanghai, listed in Lonely Planet at Poljanska 14, which means crossing the river here and then going the opposite way from town center.  Not only are the streets  black and empty enough to be foreboding in an American city, but the restaurant itself is down an alley into a courtyard.  Though our own built-in software is on high alert, we are never actually concerned.

It is a little surprising to be the only patrons in a large dining room (two young women come in a little later and sit on the opposite side, against the aquarium glow).  The menu, as promised in the guidebook, is a photo album of the dishes, which makes the fact that neither of the two Chinese waitresses speak English less of a problem—though I don’t know whether I convinced them and the summoned chef to use—or not to use—MSG, or whether they ever heard of it or even grokked the general domain of my hand gestures and wasted words (except for the acronym, maybe).  In any case I don’t notice an MSG burn either now or in the middle of the night (when it usually comes as a craving for water).

After dinner we continue down the far side of the Ljubljanica and cross the Triple Bridge into town.  Preseren’s trg. is filled with activity, lit by bright street lanterns and a huge chandelier suspended by wires from adjoining buildings over the approximate spot from which the tram leaves for castle in the daytime.  This anomalous “street lamp” was always there, but I am noticing it for the first time.  The square is actually incredibly bright with all its various lighting.  It is also surrounded by taxis and a few police cars at leisure.  Punk-style youth with mohawks are encamped on Preseren’s statue, smoking and drinking beer.  Other people among them are scooping gelatos from cups.  Street cleaners are out in force, a massive brush-spinning tractor entering the square and continuing toward the Grand Union Hotel, other crew working their brushes and setting hoses onto a real dousing of the day’s debris.

How different a real place is than any dream or imagination of a foreign country.  Walking its streets at night, we get to see all the density and detail.  Everywhere we look, there is more, there is some detail to relish—graffito, poster, face, cobblestone, courtyard, alley, façade, shop window human face, energy holding groups together and dispersing.  We make quite a splash on the face of the Galaxy.

Saturday night carousers shatter my sleep at 4 AM, as they take an incredibly long time to move through Tabor and out of earshot.  I am sure they must be doubling back or circling, but gradually the sounds fade before vanishing.  Their chorus is repetitive and always ends on the same two-syllabled stropjhe.  The rest of it is unambiguously Slovenian, and maybe it is just my drowsy state that leads me to imagine them crescendoing each time into “Asshole!”

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October 1 (Day Nineteen)

This morning while Lindy goes off with Veronica for tea, I sit in the park down the street from the hotel with the goal of finishing Guarding Hanna so that Miha and I can talk about it in the evening.  The day is a bit chilly, as befitting autumn, leaves yellowed, but the sun itself is hot.  I lie back on the bench after finishing the next-to-last chapter.  I feel as though I am outside of time, merely alive.  There is no one I will ever recognize here, mostly old people out for Sunday walks, men in wheelchairs talking Slovenian to each other.  My appurtenances are gone.  There is no English, no football game on TV here, no plan for the day.  The world has a nostalgic, dreamlike feeling.

The Italian-Slovenian regional connection continues to reveal itself.  When Lindy gets back, she reports that Veronica actually grew up in Trieste, while her family is Slovenian on one side, half-Slovenian, half-Croatian on the other.  She is going back to Trieste next week to join with some local poets there in a reading.  During their meeting, she and Veronica explored the possibilities of translating a number of Slovenian female novelists into English, so Lindy returns, quite stoked, notepaper filled with lists of potential writers, publishers, translators, and grants.

What we thought we could do today is walk toward Tivoli Park, eating lunch on the way.  I have mapped out a route that takes us by the only moderately interesting restaurant I can find in the Lonely Planet dining section that is open on Sunday for lunch.  If it were any other day, it would be maybe our fourth or fifth choice.  The description reads, “Pod Roznikom, Cesta na Roznik 18…known locally as ‘Cad.’  It serves southern Slav-style grills like pljeskavica (spicy meat patties) with ajvar (roasted red peppers, tomatoes and eggplant cooked into a purée) and starters such as prebranac (onions and beans cooked in an earthenware pot).”  That last item was what hooked me.  Also, not far beyond Pod Roznikom is the zoo, so that seems a fruitful trajectory.

My route involves a number of street changes out of Preseren trig. in a direction in which we haven’t gone yet on our own, roughly northwest, through the museum and finance district, perhaps replicating our path to the Writers’ Guild with Miha.  These are notable things that we pass on the way:

Crews are setting up in Argentinski Park and a crowd gathering for what looks like a concert.

A graffito in English on a wall on Wolfova is worth scribbling down: “Fuck You I Am Free.”

On Ejavceva a  group of people have gathered, almost completely blocking the street with policija and camera crews.  Once we make our way through the crowd to the front, we see that they are filming either a commercial or a scene from a movie in a small plaza between institutional buildings.  What holds our attention is that the set-up casts a sort of optical illusion.  The collection of actors and actresses posed in frozen stances prior to each shoot turns out to be mostly cardboard cutouts with life-size photographs pasted on them so that, at a distance, they look like regular people.  Every five minutes or so, the director, who is continually agitated in a totally stereotyped fashion (and for real), reaches a peak of yelling; there is a moment of repose; and then four young people run through the mannequins and people pretending to be mannequins.  A lot of hoopla over nothing, it is still fascinating to watch.  These dashes last only a few seconds, after which the director screams, “Cut!”  Only then does it become clear which of the statues are alive.  After they gradually go into their poses again, and the whole sequence is repeated.

A man carrying a baby in front of him from a sling over his shoulder turns out, surprisingly, to be a mannequin, but the teenager next to him whom I was sure was cardboard moves and walks away.

We stand there through three of these shoots because it is compelling to see some of these statues suddenly stir while others, by not moving, become perceptibly cardboard props.  Meanwhile, as people turn into mannequins, after a while I forget which are which, whether a particular figure is alive or not, and have to wait again for the shoot.  The artistry of the disguises and acting is earmarked by the fact that I am wrong more than I am right.

The whole shebang is a bizarre unintended performance piece on the street; that is, a scripted performance piece that is also a natural piece of performance art once you factor in the larger context of pedestrians, onlookers, crew getting bottled water and chomping from their buffet table, overwrought director, and repetitions and variations.  I recall, from my old college cognitive-psychology textbook (circa 1964), how the mind imposes what it thinks it sees onto pure perceptual streams.  Only when something contradicts the imagined form does the gestalt change, and then it changes so instantaneously that it is near impossible to track the transition.  Much as the vase on the textbook page turns into silhouettes of two women facing each other without anything in between, and the face of a crone with a wart on her nose becomes a full-figured stylish woman demurely fashioning a hat, so these mannequins become people and people flatten into cardboard mounts.

We continue along Ejavceja cesta to Cesta 27 April, then after a long exhausting walk, crossing a highway, reach Cezna na Roznik.  It is not at all as I pictured it on the map; it never is.  There it looked like city streets gradually turning into park, but in reality the countryside begins early on, and the map’s scale changes without warning so that we are making radically less headway against cartography than we were at first.  If we had known it was this far, we would not have walked.  Either we would have tried to figure out the buses or chosen a different itinerary and destination altogether, but now we are very hungry and way too far along to bail on this route.

When we finally get there, Cezna na Roznik turns out to be a loop, something that wasn’t clear from the way the words were labeled on the map but is obvious once we see it.  Given that the loop looks to be half a mile or so all told, we do not want to enter the wrong side of it and have to make the entire length.  A street sign that we notice then seems to contradict the map in that it shows Pod Roznikom straight ahead rather than down Roznik,  We stand on the street deliberating.  It is pretty deserted out here, so there is no pedestrias to ask.  However, we see an embassy down the street with a policeman in front, so we walk there to ask.  He apparently does not speak English, but hears the name of the restaurant and points ahead out into a field in the center of the loop.  Now we understand the sign.  Pod Roznikom is on the street’s further intersection with the loop, about four blocks worth of walking along the field.  It takes maybe two blocks to get to the intersection, and then we begin the last leg under total exhaustion.

Cad is also different from anything we pictured.  The setting of the restaurant is not urban at all but like a country club with the field playing the role that a golf course might.  The site is surrounded by gigantic parking lots with guards directing streams of vehicles in and out.  Absolutely no one other than us is arriving on foot.

The establishment itself comprises several Tyrolian buildings such that it is unclear where to go, as there are people milling around everywhere.  In fact, it is pure chaos.   In the center is a courtyard area.  Tables are packed together on a patio, and they are all full.  Two individual restaurants are actually separated by the plaza, but one of those is so full that lines of people waiting to get in pack the entranceway, many of them whole families with four and five young children.  No point in going there.  The quieter restaurant has some empty tables, but no one is seating people and no one is waiting to get in.  After we stand there for a while, calculating it as the better possibility, we come to the conclusion that this half is a private and exclusive club and there is no way to avoid the mob scene.

If we hadn’t walked so far and weren’t in a rural area, we would have chosen another restaurant at once, but it would take over an hour to hike back into the city proper from here, and we are famished.  Next we try to make contact with a maitre d’ who is seating people outside.  He explains in English that the wait for tables on the patio is over an hour and we are better off trying inside.  Given the hordes there, that seems unpromising, but closer examination shows that what we thought were families waiting on tables inside were actually lined up for the patio.  Once we fight through their crowd, we grok that there is no line inside, but there are also no tables available.  We each do a thorough search.  It is a giant restaurant in itself, with two separate rooms, one of them winding far back, the other relatively small with nine tables full of people, none of them with less than six diners and several with ten or more, lots and lots of children of all ages.  There are even a few small tables in an isthmus between the two restaurants, but those are full too: each with a couple.  Even as we are pondering what our next move is, the woman at one of them says in English that they are leaving and will give us their table.

We try to find a strategic place at which to wait, but the landscape is perilous.  Strings of waiters are barreling in and out of the kitchen which itself is bursting with steam.  Carrying huge trays of platters, they are reckless in their trajectories and haste.  Their body language seems to say, “I don’t care if this whole tray goes flying and the food ends up crashing to the ground; there are fucking far too many people here and I need to plow through this and get a breather.  If losing a tray will get me a break, then dare me to drop one by getting in my way.”

It is hard not to dare them inadvertently, and we get yelled at in Slavic more than once.  The couple we are waiting on can’t get the attention of anyone to receive their check, let alone start the process of paying it, so they light up cigarettes and lapse into intense conversation such that it seems they have lost interest in leaving or us.  They even pull back mostly finished desserts from the center of the table when they were stacked one atop the other and begin poking at the crumbs with forks.

It is clearly beyond our authority, or language skills, to get someone to bring them a check, and we are actually not sure what to do next when Lindy, peeking around the corner into the room, sees that there is actually one small, previously unnoticed table in the corner and a couple has just gotten up from it.  Even as we spot it, a previously invisible woman in some official role points to it for us.  A half hour after arriving at Pod Roznikom, we are finally seated.

We experience ever dwindling relief for another twenty minutes, for it is as though we are among mannequins from the shoot.  No one clears the table.  We have no menu.  We see only one waiter serving this room, and he is a madman, carrying towering trays, shouting as he moves, practically throwing food in front of people so that it leaves the plates, then charging back into the kitchen.  If he’s it, we’re talking about one waiter for more than fifty people.

I finally can’t stay passive.  When he next enters the room, I stand up quickly and ask rhetorically, “Is there a waiter for this table?”  I await the explosion.

“Yes, I am your waiter.  You see that.  You also can see I am busy.”  Thus chastened we sit another ten minutes.  Suddenly he reappears, clears and sets the table so fast that it seems dirty glasses and napkins are turning into clean ones.  That is, he does not clear it and then set it.  He does them both together.  Then he is gone.  A few minutes later two menus land on the table, tossed from some distance, how I don’t know because, by the time I look, he’s got both hands on his overstacked tray.

Wonderfully the menu lines up with the guidebook and has English translations there.  We find not only prebaranac but ajvar without meat patties.  We realize then that we better get our entire order together and be ready to speak it quickly because we are going to have a small window and he is not going to tolerate dawdling.  As these are tapas kinds of dishes, we add spinach pies, vegetable kabobs, and two beers to the above and, when he appears before us for our order, we rattle it off in a mixture of English and attempted rendering of Slovenian names.  All he says back is the correct pronunciation of the roasted peppers and beans and onions, actually rather beautiful in their fluid state compared to our consonant-laden phonetic attempts.

The fifteen minutes before the food seems to fly by because at least we are going downhill now.  Lindy plays with a baby at the next table, and I catch up on my journal.

It all comes crashing down on the center of the table, along with two of the largest hard rolls I have ever seen, shaped like UFOs.  I am sure I have eaten better meals and healthier food than at Cad that day, but our 15:20 lunch seemed like the best food in the universe, particularly the earthenware pot of gruel and the UFO rolls.

It is late enough in the day, close enough to the zoo’s closing time, that we question whether we should go there at all but, after finding out from a biker on the street that it is just 400 meters ahead (and also that there are buses from the zoo back to the city center), we continue on ahead.  Either I don’t have a feel for meters yet or he was being optimistic because it took winding around several more bends, maybe another kilometer, before we picked up the crowd streaming from the zoo parking lot.

Too bad, we learn as we pay for entrance, the buses don’t run on Sunday.

The Ljubljana Zoo is not one of the high points of the city.  All zoos are sad, and this one is particularly so: the tiger and elephant both pacing insanely in their enclosures, the humans acting like animals (that is, a zoo of mostly primates, some in cages, some walking with their young, apparently intelligent, but how to explain the intelligence expressed by the guy who keeps holding his dog up to the bars of the monkey cage, almost wedging it through, the dog yelping, the monkeys squealing, and the ostensibly more intelligent primate yelling for his wife to photograph him).  Perhaps the most appealing sight at the Ljubljana zoo for me was the gamboling zebras, because they always seem like combinations of symbols and real animals, especially now that they have been called yebras.  I like their “z’s” and their iconic stripes.

We spend only a half hour at the zoo and then begin our trek back to the city.  As we are totally exhausted, the thought of retracing our long path is very unappealing, but the only alternative resembling a shortcut is through a self-enclosed rectangular matrix on the map marked Rozna dolina.  We passed its outskirts on the way here: a little suburban village of near identical houses and gridded numbered streets.  The map shows that, just as we can enter it from above, we can exit it below, and doing so will save a lot of the way back.  After all, our route coming was determined by the location of the restaurant, and we can go back any way we want.

Lindy is worried that we will get into the grid and find no egress at the bottom and thus have a lot of extra walking, but I figure the map can’t lie, and many streets lead out to Trzaska cesta, a major route into town.  Insisting that we at least try it, I am somewhat dragging her against her will and am walking too fast in a hurry to confirm that we can get out of this grid.  She reminds me of my bad habit and suggests an alternative to always snapping at me to slow down.  Choosing a graffito we saw a few minutes earlier, she offers the code “Melancholy Girl” every time I am getting ahead and she is rushing to keep up.  This makes the path through the likely Socialist-era village of suburban houses and well-kept lawns more carefree, as it leads (“melancholy girl”) onto Skrabceva ulica, then into Tivoli itself.

Tivolska cesta is much more the kind of landscape that we wanted on this day than the hilly woods around the Cad and the zoo; it is a realm of ponds, ducks, kites, museums, and wooded lawns.   We might like to dawdle here but have run out of time and are meeting Miha who has offered to take the contents of my backup flash drive onto his hard drive and save my files for me.

Having to select some street out of the park under or over the railroad tracks, we choose Carcarjeva cesta rather randomly from the map to get to go through a tunnel.  It is fortuitous because its lit passageway contains an entire outsider museum, elaborate murals of high artistic acumen invaded by traditional tags, as for instance the maroon 57.Orthodox Boys or Lupsa Ljubim.  In some tunneled areas, tags, graffiti, and cartoon images flow together in rambling Lascaux-like vistas representing different dimensions and intentions; for instance, a crude black Y in the midst of some red twirls with teardrop and oval, perhaps representing a skeletal ghostlike creature, stands on lavender tags in its hypothetical feet area; they almost unreadable but perhaps actually saying Moontag.  It is flanked to the left by a happy-faced five-pointed star in a light blue field in a spray-painted black bubble above a red, wavy-lined UFO with lines such that it could also have been the Loch Ness Monster peering above waterline.  The “sky” around these is various dots and shapes plus a gigantic red circle with orange dribbling inside, effectively the sun of this system.  The first planet orbiting it is a little red heart icon marked “heart” in black.

The best mural, filling a whole wall, is done totally in black and white, using the concrete as its white, very black paint.  Its crisp appearance is stained only by later, cruder milieus of occasional blue, brown, and pink tags and yellow spray paint.  Intricate in its detail, the mural shows an entire magical or science-fiction city, its many towers looking like computer code with their white-blocked windows, connected to each other by odd pipes, vents, and weird structures that look like wishbones, donuts, and small bananas coming out of large hollow hot dogs.  There are also futuristic aerials and a range of highly complex sci-fi variations on Gothic themes such that the mediaeval turns post-modern and surreal.  The towers are so close together that their visible parts arise out of one another.  A huge domino sits asymmetrically on one tower, four dots and then one dot, each one the size of two windows.  Various signs on the sides of buildings and hanging in front of them on long vertical billboards read: Mehki Hotel; Jepsur Huh, Meomet Bar; KINO; Jezus Fast Food (twice, wedged into the upper quadrants of a Cross); Juda Burger; Esso Bar; Po Zouri Zadnja Veceria; Yes We Are Open; Tudi Ti Brut; Deja Yu; Center Za Samporioc Sizif; Stanley’s Lounge (this on raised block letters freestanding across the top of one of the lower buildings, a giant flaming ball atop the scrunched words, its flames one of the areas contaminated with the yellow of extraneous graffiti).  This city on some imaginary world or in some future time has a split Slavic-Anglo identity.

Further on, we come to a whole new gallery that uses raised sections of walls plus portals to integrate relief into paintings, as when a peasant man and woman in a light yellow field decorated with black fleur-de-lis-like objects surround a portal in the concrete which becomes a window between them onto Cyrillic tags on the orange spray-painted far wall.

It takes half as much time—and four “melancholy girls”—to get back to Preseren trg, compared to what it originally took to get to the Cad from there.  No longer late for Miha, we sit on the statue of Preseren with the locals, me with a lemon and coconut gelato, Lindy with a chocolate and cherry one.

Miha quickly pulls my files off the flash disk onto his computer.  He will hold them and also email them to me as a backup if needed, when I get home.  Because he is short on time, we agree to meet at 22:00 and have tea on the Park patio to discuss his books and how we might get involved with Scala, his American publisher, in republishing them in English.  He is open to hearing a few optional minor suggestions about Guarding Hanna.

At dinner time Lindy takes me on Veronica’s route to the center of the city, avoiding the student area and shops and skirting the river.  Finding Chez Erik closed on Sunday night, we return to Zlata Ribica and order pretty much the same dishes over again.  The stage on the other side of the river features a guy with a violin and another guy with a guitar.  Although the music isn’t particularly interesting, we stand and watch, and I write in my journal: “Ljubljana, even though small, is a great city of the Earth, a city of bikes even at night, a city (post-Tito) still reaching for an identity, a city with too many mindless smokers.”

Miha and I sit for an hour with tea on the near-empty patio, discussing publishing. “Who knows?” he says.  “Maybe King of the Rattling Spirits would be a better book to start with.”

I promise to read it.

I offer three suggestions about Hanna: 1. Having Waiting for Godot appear on Hanna’s television is too symbolic and heavy-handed; best to let the Beckett parallel be discovered, if at all, by the reader; 2. It is not made clear enough, the book being through Dogsbody’s mind, that the main character is not as ugly as he seems, e.g. that the description of his own looks is a mixture of hyperbole, parody, and solipsism; and 3. Too much physically confusing stuff happens during the chase scene near the end when the focus should be the discovery that, far from being asked to guard Hanna, Dogsbody, like Clint Eastwood’s cop in The Gauntlet and so many other American movie characters, is being set up to fail.

Miha finds all of these fair and interesting, and we build up some excitement about finding a new American audience for Hanna. We hug; he says, “Safe trip,” then glides off into the night on his bike.

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October 2 (Day Twenty)

After packing we make a Monday-morning errand run, set up by weekend events, down Trubarjeva cesta:  I pick up my pictures of Trieste and Piran from a fast photo place that wasn’t fast, so this has to be it or… (they understand and the embarrassed woman this time has them ready for me on the counter); next door Lindy buys a discounted brown jacket she has been secretly eying for days for the Frankfurt Book Fair (because she is worried about not having dressy enough clothes there); then we stop at number 8, Zrno do Zrna, a natural-foods store that was closed all weekend, and restock on dried fruit, cereal, and crackers at (the guidebook translates its name as Grain to Grain, so Slovenian must have the equivalent of a dative or ablative for nouns).

The departure from Ljubljana is cheerful this time, and the highway across Slovenia to the border goes by in about an hour—quick passage, a trophy Slovenija stamp on the passport this time.  We come back down from the Trieste hills into the city again (there are those Italian cops in their hats), but our carefully planned route to the James Joyce is aborted, as we get turned the wrong way in traffic without realizing it, can’t locate ourselves on the map, and so head to the waterfront for a point of reference—then back to the central piazza, up the adjacent narrow streets to the construction area above the Via Cavazzeni alley.

Paolo had suggested parking here and unloading our things.  On that same brief trip up the alley, he pointed out informal spaces where we could stick the car for the entire time.  Unfortunately, by contrast with then, the zone is completely wedged in, cars blocking other cars.  We insert ourselves in this mess at least for the time necessary to carry our stuff to the Joyce.  On the way down Cavazzeni we do have some second thoughts about our choice of accommodations, as dust and stones are raining down around us, soot into nasal passages and lungs.  The entire block is being gutted, a city skinned to its bone.  One could have easily avoided this mini-desolation, but fate has a way of choosing what it will.

“Buongiorno!” is our greeting; we are back in Italy.  The owner, Andrea, on duty today, is a stocky, black-haired guy in his mid thirties with one of those ageless bulldog faces that can be either excessively harsh or friendly, and he is decidedly friendly.  In fact, when we debate with him where to put our car, he proposes to give us a discount on our room to offset more than half the twelve-euro a day parking fee.  “That ends the argument, no?” he says.  “I call the garage.”

Of course.

The room is spacious and colorful, which almost makes up for the noise and dust outside as well as office windows facing us just across the narrow alley.  We do a quick sink laundry and then prepare to go on a lunch expedition.

Downstairs I chat with Andrea while waiting for Lindy.  We find many mutual topics, the first being basketball, starting with Bostjan Nachbar and then proceeding to other Yugoslavian players on the New Jersey Nets, the present Nenad Krstic and Mille Ilic, both Serbian, and one Croatian, Zoran Planinic, as well as the former Croat star Drazen Petrovic, killed on the highway outside Berlin in 1993 on the same rainy day we arrived there from Amsterdam during our first trip to Europe.

Andrea shakes his head in tragedy.  “Half my family is from Croatia,” he says.  “Petrovic was a hero.”  He is led suddenly to try to reconstruct the trade of Petrovic to the Nets, and we both recall Sam Bowie, who went the other way, and then he uses the reference to the Portland Trailblazers, partners in the trade, to recall Clyde Drexler, a favorite of his whom he saw play here in Italy in some context.  His Italian-accented version of the Trailblazers’ name makes it almost a Euro-league entry.  He closes this discussion by reminding me that the number one pick in the NBA this year was, for the first time, an Italian.  I had forgotten that.

Next I tell him about Hotel Milano, and it turns out that he is a long-time, though lapsed, friend of Stefano.  “Stefano Stern!  He and I studied at the university.  We used to sit at the same table in the library.  He was reading medicine.  I was reading law.  Look at us now—both managing hotels.”  He sneers clownishly and reaches for the portable receiver.  He dials Stefano and succeeds in getting him at once to the phone.  In his enthusiatic rush of words, I make out “Americano” and “medico.”  He hands the receiver to me.

Stefano is delighted that I am back and hopes we can meet again.  He regrets, however, that he might not be able to make it to the castle, as his job is interfering; the Milano is mobbed for a football match, and he must go to the market for more food.

After the conversation, Andrea muses about the difference between his hotel, which he purchased six years ago, and the Milano.  He aims, he says, for a more literary, intellectual trade.  “Maybe it’s our name, but I try to live up to it.  That was the success of the man I bought it from.  Lately we’ve been getting professors from England and Australia.  We get lots of movie directors for film festivals, and poets, and statesmen.  And another thing: this last year or two lots of people are returning to Trieste looking for their roots.  American and British soldiers had kids during the occupation.  They grew up in other countries, and now they are looking for their mother’s side of the family.  I once got a former soldier staying here while he searched for a child he left behind.  Too bad; he didn’t find her.”

With Andrea’s help on directions, Lindy and I set out looking for one of Paolo’s recommended restaurants, Mama Rosa.  Skirting the edge of Piazza Unita D’Italia, we go down Via Cavana to Via F. Venezian, then turn onto Via A. Diaz.  We are trying to locate Piazza Hortis but somehow end up in Piazza Venezia, so work our way back by Via Torino.  Even so we cannot find the restaurant where it is supposed to be; we walk around the square, then up and down the streets leading into it.  Finally we ask at a bar and, from the directions, realize we have been standing in the restaurant much of the time we were looking for it.   All of the tables being served across the piazza belong to Mama Rosa, as it is called locally, though the formal name, Siora Rosa, presents itself rather modestly on a sign around the corner.

We select a table under a chestnut tree, and a couple of fat shiny nuts soon drop into the pile beside my chair.  A laid-back, articulate waiter brings the menu and, as it is all Italian, he translates, in no apparent hurry despite the number of tables on his watch.  He turns out to be the manager.  When he asks us how we found the place and hears our answer, he is delighted because, he says, though he does not know either Paolo or Andrea, he always recommends the James Joyce to his customers.  We order two vegetable dishes to share, spinach and artichoke hearts and a kind of nut ravioli.

While we are waiting for our food and staring at the mysteriously elegant woman seated alone at the adjacent table, silently making up our own romantic stories for her, we are interrupted by a burst of appellations directed our way.  Realizing simultaneously that someone has recognized us and that this is near impossible here, I turn to see the two Austrian sisters from our breakfast in Ljubljana.  Bubbling over with delight at finding us by chance, they take seats at our table but decline the offer of sharing a meal.  Conversation ranges over their archaeology so far in Trieste, their choice of a hotel (down the coast on the water), homeopathy’s minimum dose, psychosomatic medicine, and energy medicine in general (we search for an English term for something Karin knows in German and settle on “vibration”).  Of course, all of this conversation is with the dcotor, while her sister smiles far more gregariously than in the Park cafeteria, the sustained pleasure (I think) of the unlikely coincidence.  Karin is in all likelihood one of those great healers, a person whose heart and intellect are deep and transcend modality.

“Buonasera,” Andrea greets us that evening, as we come down to the lobby to wait for Paolo who is meeting us for dinner.  “Paolo called.  He is on his way.”  The dapper student we met a week earlier arrives, shakes our hands, and a few minutes later we are cutting through alleys, heading for the fish restaurant that Lindy and I were not able to find on two separate occasions.

In answer to questions, Paolo summarizes his mixed-media electronic music career.  After growing up outside Venezia, he came to Trieste because its university is pretty much the only place in Italy where there is serious interest in this kind of music.  Ultimately, though, he is aiming at Santa Barbara where that important composer, a friend of his mentor at Trieste, teaches.  Never having been to the U.S., he wonders about California—the kind of city Santa Barbara is, the weather, the distance (for instance, from where we live to there), public safety.  He says that he needs to improve his English, and tonight is a good opportunity.  I am surprised to hear that he, like the clerk in Piran, has no formal English-language education of any sort but has simply picked it up on the street.  In fact he asks us what we think of his English, and Lindy says, “Very good”; at the same point I chorus, “Good, good.”

“I need to improve if I am going to study in the States.   I need more than a few words.  You will challenge me tonight with concepts, no?”

The fish restaurant turns out to be dark, closed Monday nights, so Paolo halts at a distance and proposes that we backtrack to Citta Pisino and, though we mention our earlier, rather drab and alienated meal there, he thinks we can order much more interesting dishes this time.  We turn and head back toward the hotel

Though we pass Mama Rosa’s outdoor tables twice—going and coming—and see our lunch waiter both times, I can’t quite get up the gumption to introduce Paolo to him.  It would be complicated language-wise and perhaps not appropriate by local etiquette, plus he is very busy.  Speaking of waiters, we have the same one as before at Citta Pisano, though he doesn’t seem to recognize us, maybe because we are without the computer and accompanied by a real Italian, a regular—or maybe he just doesn’t acknowledge recognizing us.

Paolo suggests that we order in classic Italian fashion: a first course and then a second.  We are not that hungry but agree to follow his lead and order spaghetti and mussels and a vegetable soup.  Our second course, requested at the same time, is a platter of orata, a small flatfish freshly caught; in fact, the waiter brings out a giant pan of them to show us, whole fish just arrived from the dock.  I don’t remember such a presentation from the kitchen to the diners in any restaurant before, a whole day’s catch, but it makes a certain sense and adds a funky authenticity to Citta Pisano, even if a little more than one might want to know about the items for consumption.  I actually have no idea what kind of fish it is, and later that evening, after being shown the page in my notebook, Paolo has me cross out “errata,” which is what it sounded like, not a comment on correctness, and spells out the accurate Italian name.  “I don’t think there’s an English for it,” he adds.

While we are working the first course, his cell phone rings and, after a brief conversation—“ciao!” he tells us that that was his ex-girlfriend.  She has just gotten into town from Croatia and maybe will be joining us.  During the ensuing conversation he explains that they recently split up but are still good friends.  She is Croatian; he met her at the university, but she has finished her studies and is moving to northern Italy, near Austria, to take a job.

While we are finishing our first courses and still, in fact, hearing the nuances of Paolo’s and Katya’s situation (without learning much of substance), she arrives.  There is a moment, even though it is long before she is expected, that I think the very woman we are characterizing might be striding confidently in the door.  She is.  Even at a distance she is striking, kind of like an Italian model—very tall, thin, lithe, wearing a pale green jacket, a white polo shirt, and dungarees.  As she takes the empty chair and flashes a quick ambiguous smile at Paolo, one feels her skittery energy and intelligence, an almost crane-like presence—she is a woman to notice, a woman who will be heard.  Since Paolo is a handsome young classical musician in his own right, they make quite a celebrity couple, a bit off-Hollywood, maybe more Cannes, except that they are not a couple any more.  She wears small black rectangular glasses on a very round symmetrical face, pointed chin.  Once she starts talking in earnest, she sounds like the graduate student she is.

Her thesis in Italian was on Austrian German writers, particularly Arthur Schnitzler, the Viennese novelist whose book was the basis of Stanley Kubrick’s last movie (finished by Steven Spielberg), Eyes Wide Shut. She is very interested not only in that novel and Schnitzler’s work in general but the circle of literature and psychological theory around him.  Her specialty, though, is modern Austrian fiction, and she intends to keep pursuing it, even though her job is in the natural-foods business.

She has provided a lot to talk about in just a few minutes, and Paolo is more or less left out as we discuss both the Kubrick movie and her job.  Because we have not read the novel and do not know German, we are, by her estimate, quite a ways from qualifying for a cogent discussion on her thesis, but she condones some exploration of psychosexual and existential themes based on our knowledge of the movie and European literature in general.  When I point out that Kubrick possibly borrowed aspects of the terrifying masked orgy ball from a Kenneth Anger experimental movie of the 1950s or 1960s with a Janacek score, she writes that down on a pad, as Lindy and I struggle to remember the title and settle for Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, which might or might not be exact.  We each have edgy ideas to supply about Eyes Wide Shut, a provocative movie by any standard, from political conspiracy theories to levels of neo-Freudian symbolism.  We all agree that the single piano notes used to cover Tom Cruise’s character’s entry into the estate where the masked ball is being held are remarkably spooky—skeletal keys emptied of corporeality.

Katya has no particular knowledge of the natural-foods business, but this company, she explains, is well funded and own a lot of Italian farmland on which to do organic agriculture.  “It may not be the best job for me, but it is the best opportunity.  I can still study Austrian.  We will be opening the Croatian market to organic products from Italy.  The market is small now, but it is growing very rapidly.  I speak all three languages, so that is why they recruited me.  And, of course, I am from the place they want to sell to.”

She doesn’t even consider English one of her languages.  Like Paolo, she just picked it up.  However, she is a natural linguist because she is able to be playful and wry in a language she doesn’t consider that she knows, something that Paolo can’t yet do with his English.

We tell her about our publishing, the many natural-foods and health-oriented books, and I say we will send her samples of anything she thinks she can use in her job, though of course we are publishing in the wrong language.  She asks for cards from us—we each give her one—and she writes down her name and email address on a page from her pad and hands it to me: Katya Rose, with a Croatian circumflex over the “s.”  I don’t know if Rose is her surname or middle name, but I assume the former.

My journal notes from the meal indicate a few other random things:

•I remark that Trieste is where we have come instead of Venice, but now I don’t regret it.  Katya responds, “Venice is impossible.  It is always the same.  You can’t escape it.”  As far as she is concerned, it is no contest.

•She comes from a part of Croatia that was not affected by the war, in fact to where others fled during her adolescent years.

•She has no interest in ever seeing America but leaves it up for our interpretation why that is.  “There are many places I would like to go, but you would have to say that America is lowest on the list.  Maybe Texas.  I’d like to see Texas, but that’s all.”  Odd exception.

She asks for our point of view, and I give a short speech about how space is not particularly well used in America , so becomes part of a tyranny of isolation and distance.  Things here are crafted and organized complexly to fill geography.  Objects and relationships between objects are textured and cared for on a micro-scale.

When she asks next why guns are so common in the States, I am now able to say they are necessary to fill and guard the space because with so much exposure, with such undetermination of territory, one is constantly vulnerable.  America is linear in terms of danger and threat, and the outlaw mentality breeds the constant illusion of victory over space by attack.  Here everything is wound tight, like the James Joyce itself, an enlarged nautilus shell.

Her expression and quick glance at Paolo, I fantasize, convey that she is confirmed in her preference of Vienna over Santa Barbara.

•There is no great interest in “biologique” in either Italy or Croatia at present; in fact, Italy is notorious for “spraying everything.”  (Her emphasis on the word “everything” has an immediate impact on my enjoyment of the present meal, plus I think about our other restaurants since Damanhur.  Oh well, you can’t protect yourself from the cosmos.)

We pick up the tab for dinner, and Paolo immediately offers that they will take us for dessert, but first let’s walk in the piazza and along the waterfront.

As we enter Piazza Unita D’Italia, we hear a strange lilting music; it is quite loud and from across the other side.  The melody is very familiar, I think something like “Lullaby and Goodnight.”  We walk toward it.  “Maybe he wants we should go to sleep,” Katya says.

A shabbily dressed figure is standing at the corner of the piazza, hunched over an indescribable instrument with a box for donations.  Either he is strumming a harp with strings so thin that I cannot see them, or he is pulling on an imaginary harp, pantomiming music with theatrical fingers in midair, while a hidden speaker is blaring out a recorded song.

“That’s a theremin,” Paolo says.  None of us have heard of it.  In fact, Lindy thinks he is making it up, that there is no instrument there, just a tape playing.

“No,” says Paolo, “it is a real instrument.  It works by a magnetic field.  He is disturbing it with his hand.”

Lindy still is disbelieving.  The song changes to “Ave Maria,” which we hear in the background as we cross the piazza toward a dessert place. Since Lindy is unconvinced, Paolo continues to describe the theremin.  “It’s glissando, a gliding across scales.  There is no gap between frequencies.  One turns into another as field changes.  They just slide along.  That’s what makes the haunting sound.”

“It could be a more interesting selection,” Katya remarks in regard to the tunes themselves.

“There are whole classical symphonies composed for theremin,” Paolo says.  “He may not know them.  Or maybe he thinks these songs will bring money.”

The next morning he hands Lindy the following page, printed out from the Internet:

“One of the first electronic instruments, and the only instrument played without being touched, the theremin (taer’-uh-min) was invented in 1918 by Leon Theremin, a Russian physicist born in St. Petersburg who stumbled upon the device while working with radio signals for the Russian government.  It was first sold in 1929 by RCA; Big Briar (Robert Moog’s company) is the leading manufacturer today.

“The theremin is a synthesizer that uses a field monitored by two antennae (one horizontal and one vertical, forming a right angle) as the input device (instead of, e.g., a keyboard).  The field created within this right angle reads ‘capacitance’ to produce noise sounding something like a cello.  Moving your hand (or a wand) within that angle disturbs and changes the electromagnetic field between the antennae, one of which reads changes in amplitude (and produces changes in volume) and one of which reads changes in frequency (and produces changes in pitch)….  The produced tone is the ‘pulse’ frequency between the two oscillator frequencies.”

The piazza is quite magical with its great wide space so fully lit and bounded majestic buildings and the Gulf.  We end up at the same expensive dessert place as before our walking tour and, when Lindy wants to order tiramisu, Katya coaches her on the correct way to pronounce it, prompting her on the long “u” so that the two women repeat it a number of times to the point of goofiness, “Tira mis-uuuu.”  She suggests we also try the signature Viennese chocolate marmalade cake called sacher tort—so those are our two desserts.  Paolo remarks that Unita D’Italia is the only piazza in Italy that has no church and also the only one that goes all the way to the water.

As we walk to that water after dinner, I ask him about the mysterious blue alchemical lights that line the sidewalk at various points here.  He says, “They mark where the sea came to before the human construction.”

With other evening strollers we head out on the public pier, Molo Audace.  All along the shore here, little Roman-style pavilions-tents with curtains have set up in a row and sailboats have docked in preparation for the weekend’s coming spectacle and races.  From out in the dark of the gulf on Molo Audace, the night city shines with its own signature.   I have the intimation that “now” is both fleeting and forever.  It is not a new intimation; it comes and goes.

“Audace is named,” Paolo says, “after the first Italian warship to dock here when Trieste was returned to Italy after the fall of the Austrian Empire.”  I ask him about the name of the street—almost a parkway—between the water and the piazza, as it has my birthday: Riva Tre Novembre.  He doesn’t know.

We dash across the street to the piazza ahead of a swarm of motorcycles and set a course back to the James Joyce.  Passing kids in groups on the sidewalk with guitars, couples out strolling in the piazza—an active night life—we cut through a couple of narrow twisting alleys that smell like dust and urine.  As a small detour Paolo leads us to the site of the walls and entrance of the one-time Jewish ghetto.  This remains a poverty-stricken area: a few small scooters parked along a stone wall that merges into a towering wall of corroded concrete, windows in its crumbling façade.  A tiny passageway in the stone, maybe seven and a half feet tall by three and a half wide, is unexceptional until Paolo says that this is where they shut the ghetto closed at night.

Standing here in the dark three quarters of a century later, I feel some of the resonance of that event, as one wouldn’t by just looking at a photo or hearing an account.  The massive fortress of stone walls, even in decay, contrast bluntly with the constriction of the opening and the general squalor to cast a montage of the word “ghetto,” as it might be used both, say, in Los Angeles to depict a neighborhood, and, quite differently, in the forerunner of a twentieth-century prison camp (e.g. concentration habitat) or a contemporary American jail packed with political prisoners bearing life sentences (i.e., drug users and urban poor).

A mood of oppression, separation, and persecution still come across, along with the mystery of cruel human behavior, which has after all, apocalytpically, gotten even more callous and heedless in the decades since.  It occurs to me passingly that I am Jewish, something I don’t often think of.  I try to identify as a representative within our present group but, in truth, the “Jewishness” of this spot is not the main referent I feel for the situation—I imagine Somalia, Darfur, Bosnia, Gaza, the Mexican border—an indication of how the holocaust and its trademark European shibboleths of ethnic oppression and genocide have been fully globalized.   Yes, there is an “Anne Frank” moment here too, a sense of humans scurrying though this opening like farm animals into their sty—but we are too close to Bosnia and Sudan not to feel the modernity as well.

Back at the James Joyce, Andrea is in high spirits at our return.  He wants everyone to sit down, as he announces, “Schnaps” and goes for a bottle of liquor from the pantry.

“Andrea, what is Tre Novembre—Riva Tre Novembre?”

He stops and thinks.  “Maybe it is the martyrdom of Saint Giusto.  That’s what I think.”

“It’s his birthday.”

“Oh,” Andrea stops, giving me a curious glance.

I try to take pictures of everyone, but my old-fashioned camera, operated by a conventional battery, won’t snap when pushed.  Andrea, Paolo, Lindy, and Katya form a group and pose before the front desk, but nothing happens, though I keep pressing frantically.

“The camera is dying,” Katya proposes with mock drama.

“You need a new battery,” Andrea says.

Just as the group is breaking up, it clicks and the flash goes off.  I have a few pictures like that of the evening, not what was posed but what was shot after we had given up.

After one round of schnaps, Andrea goes and gets some prizes from his library to show off.  One of them is a fat bilingual translation of the poems of Umberto Saba, a Jewish writer of the last century about whom Lindy and I know nothing.  A brief glance at the poems shows them to be wonderful—moving, spare, contemporary.  Andrea tells us that Sabo had a bookstore in town, and it is still there, a small place selling used books now, and we can go in the morning, he will give us directions.  The Australian professor who assembled this book, he adds, stayed at the James Joyce during the process.

The edition is Australian, a publisher called Aeolian Press.  Lindy asks to borrow the book, and Andrea grandly extends it.  Then she takes the elevator to read it in our room.  I decide to bide a little longer with the group.

“Look in the eyes when you say ‘Cheers!” Paolo almost chides me because I am bashful as we clink glasses on our second round.

Andrea proposes a third round, but I am feeling like heading upstairs.  “It’s early,” he roars.  But I am not quite sure I belong in this group.  I think that these friends might like to be alone together.

Andrea pours, so we are to drink again.  “We are all getting so old,” he moans as he raises his glass.  But he is in his late thirties; Paolo is 31, Katya 25.

That night I write in my journal something that I have said more meticulously and poignantly elsewhere, but these are the words at this time: “I think we are all just frequencies, sliding along a scale, sustained by something invisible as we materialize and vanish through this realm, this place where we work so hard to be in bodies.  Time for anyone is always slipping away.  These solid shapes are just the ghosts we inhabit to be in this realm, this realm of solid-seeming confections and landscapes, made of electrical charges held between orbits to simulate the music of our lives.”

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