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ljubljana and other tongue twisters


The first thing I learn in every language is the all-important “thank you.” It makes a big difference. Even if you slaughter their language, the natives invariably appreciate the effort.

In Slovenia, the word is “Hvala” (which sounds like kvWahla, with an almost silent “kv”) It means “thank you ” in Croatian too. That and a border seem to be all the two places have in common.

Here’s another tidbit I picked up while trying to buy an ice cream cone: While Croatia and Slovenia together are smaller than California, both of them use different currency. Neither uses the Euro, mind you. I’ve crossed three borders and currencies in the past 36 hours..

My little brain short circuits when I try to translate Euros to Kunas to the Slovenian money which I can’t even remember the name of, let alone its value.. I’m sure the process takes up at least 16% of the 15% of my brain I actually use. Which means I have to make some choices. I can live with the fact that I usually wind up smiling stupidly while holding out a handful of money to a hopefully kind cashier who picks the correct amount from the pile in my hand.

The point is, Hvala is a tough word and I’m still having problems because the H sounds like a K which is silent. So I vary it, trying to hit on the right one by trial and error. Kuala, Voila, ala, aloha, huvula, hvwa-lah. No matter how I say it, It usually elicits a smile, if not outright laughter.

But on the way to Ljubljana, I resolve to do better. I’m going to learn a new Slovenian word.

Today’s word: Ljubljana. The capital of Slovenia. Population 1,970,570 people. Its symbol is the dragon, for the four fabulous green bronze dragon statues guarding the gates.

We’re staying in the Grand Union Hotel, which sounds like a US supermarket chain. It has a little more charm than the grocery chain and it’s the nicest, best located hotel in town. But it ain’t what you’d call a boutique hotel. I don’t think they’ve discovered them in Slovenia yet. But maybe it doesn’t matter because Slovenia is kind of a boutique country.

Ljubljana has everything a popular European city needs (except boutique hotels). There are tree lined canals. Quaint Medieval buildings. A big old ornate church in the town center. Little footbridges. Overflowing window boxes. The obligatory castle on the hill, but in Ljubljana, the hill is more like a cliff and particularly dramatic looking. There’s an outdoor market and fashionable little shops, always a winning combination. It’s not unbearably crowded. But it has a good, young energy in a Prague 20 years ago kind of way. It’s also got a mountain range in view and is only a 45 minute drive to the Adriatic coast, Italy, Croatia, Hungary or Austria. The environs are a spectacular combination of the Alps and Mediterranean shore, green, clean and temperate. It’s got cloudlike mounds of multi-colored ice cream for 200 of whatever the local currency is a cone…which is really only 50 cents. Why don’t I live here?

I’ve been pronouncing it “Lubjana,” But when I think about it, my pronounciation doesn’t make sense. why would one “J” be silent and not the other?. My dad has been pronouncing it “Loobiana” and my mom and niece have been avoiding the word completely replacing it with “the next place” or “the city” and “where we are now.”

The correct pronounciation is Looblanah.

Okay, now that I’ve got that word down, I’m going to try something more difficult. Like “Hello.” spelled “Pozdraveljena.”

I practice with the waiter. Postravlajenna. He smiles, but I know I don’t have it.

I practice with the ice cream vendor. Postrivlijina. He looks bemused.

I practice in my sleep. Posterdravlasange…postradravalinia…portolavenya….

I practice with the parking valet. Postravahlenah (I think I’m getting closer)

I practice with the toll collector. Postrahdravlenah.

He gives me a “by jove, I think she’s got it” grin and Postrahdravlenah’s me back and says “Hvala” as he takes the toll. I say “hvala” back. My first full Slovenian conversation! It’s a small step, but I’m thrilled. I’m hesitant to say goodbye to my new best friend.

But I must. The Adriatic awaits. I step on the accelerator and we cross the border back into Croatia.

fete de la cocagne — the mystery continues


Today is the first day of the Auvers”Fete de la Cocagne,” a two day event full of something in recognition of something.

I ask Carole et Jerome what this whole cocagnes thing is all about.   They bicker good-naturedly in French for a moment before admitting they’re not sure..   It’s just  a big nuisance as far as they’re concerned.   Kind of like a parade to a New Yorker, I guess.

According to my good friend, Google, Cocagne either has something to do with an ideal life of indulgence  or being cockney.     A commenter on my previous post (thanks, Sirius),  did some research and found that it has something to do with a life of pleasure.    Or climbing  a greased pole.  I’m going to go with ideal life of indulgent pleasure.

The festivities start with some sort of presentation on the stage in front of the Hotel de Ville.      Women with parasols, long dresses and Miss America type sashes that read “Cocagne”. The men on stage are wearing bow ties and hats, I assume from the same time period. They seem to be giving each other awards.  Perhaps for winning the greased pole climbing contest?

A series of rock bands perform–really bad ones that are only slightly better than Courtney Love.    Sausages, pommes frites and beer are sold in the parking lot and the construction site has become a lovely street bistro serving grilled meat, veggies, beer wine and ice cream. The carousel is moving and the children on it screech with excitement.

Knowing that the real fete doesn’t start until tomorrow, I go inside. But soon, I’m drawn back out by a band that’s actually quite good for a French band (no offense to the French, but they suck at Rock and Roll, and Jerome will back me up on this).  Oncle Oedipe, is the name, and I can only assume the reason I’ve never heard of them before is either because they’re French or because none of the members are particularly “hot” looking.

Young girls are dancing and screaming like groupies with clothes on,    I’m mesmerized by a little blond boy about four or five who is totally rocking out as his mother feeds him cotton candy like a Roman slave feeding a fidgety Roman Emperor grapes.    Seriously, this kid has moves.   Even the way he grabs at the cotton candy as his mother lowers it towards his mouth is completely in time with the music done done with a rhythmic flourish.   No doubt about it, the kid is  a rock star.

After Oncle Oedipe finishes their set, I take a stroll and discover that Van Gogh Park has been transformed into a petting zoo with rabbits, pigs, chickens, goats, sheep, donkeys and two huge unpenned bulls standing by the far wall. Children make animal sounds (I assume they’re animal sounds, they bear no resemblance to the sound American livestock makes), trying to draw the smaller creatures out from their tiny pens.

The goats are petrified, the donkey is accommodating and the pig obliviously snuffles in the dirt for imaginary truffles.   The bulls recline like Odalisque in a shady corner.

Judging by the pamphlets, fliers and posters, the real action doesn’t start until tomorrow. Perhaps then I’ll figure out what this cocagnes thing is all about. I fall asleep with visions of glaces et boissons dancing in my head.

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the rock stars of auvers

vWhere I come from, people stand in line for celebrities and iPhones.

Here in Auvers, it appears the most wanted men are the butchers.   On Sunday mornings before they close for their weekend, the line stretches down the main drag.

J.Y. Gicquel Boucherie  comes highly recommended by the Ladoux family.   I’ve been a little hesitant to venture in there because it will require speaking French and I shudder to think what adorable forest creature I might wind up taking home for dinner.   I’m also not sure whether those numbers before the decimal point in their prices, are ones or sevens and whether we’re talking francs or euros and I’m afraid I can’t afford it if I have to ask.

I’m feeling a little lazy tonight and have decided that my lack of energy is due to a protein deficiency and I need a good piece of red meat.   Preferably something someone who’s lived on takeout for the past 20 years can cook.

butcher window

I’m a little nervous entering, the vibe here is a lot friendlier than the boulanger down the street, where I feel I must apologize when I enter, again when I order and one more time when I pay.   Sometimes I apologize when I leave for good measure.

It’s not like I’m a total stranger here.  I wave to them every time I walk by and they wave back.  There are usually two butchers; a younger one with a roundish face and receeding hairline and an older guy with salt and pepper hair and a nice northern european face.  They may be wearing bloody aprons, but here, they’re captains of industry.   A woman mans the prepared foods counter (quiche, Frenchy salads, things en croute and terrines with hardboiled eggs in them) and cash register.

A couple of people are ahead of me which gives me time to get my bearings and look at all the meats behind the counter and try to figure out what they are so I can point knowledgably.   There are about 7 different kinds of chicken shaped items in various sizes.  Lots of fillets of chicken colored objects of various sizes,  slabs of red unrecognizable red meats.   Lots of unrecognizable parts.   Sausage galore.   Chops.   Ribs.   Rabbits.   Geese.   I’m getting a little sad and consider fleeing or at least turning to the deli counter, but it’s my turn.Meat Question

Here are the french words for meats I know I’ll eat:   poulet (chicken), agneau (lamb), boeuf (beef), dinde (turkey), porc.   But then we get into cuts and I’m lost.   Is an onglet a steak or some organ I don’t want to know about?   And is it an onglet de boeuf, ou cheval?   And what the heck is french for goat?   Je ne voudrais pas goat.   Or lapin (rabbit).   I’m now in a cold sweat and probably look guilty.

The younger guy greets me in French.    I try to say something in French, but all I can do is look behind the the glass and point desperately at a kebab and ask ‘qu’est ce que c’est.’   He doesn’t understand me.   Shit (merde).   He’s one of those French people who doesn’t understand English OR really bad French.   This could be a problem.

I point again at the kebab and ask “c’est l’agneau?”

He looks at me blankly.   I repeat myself slowly.   Nothing.   By now everyone in the store has stopped and watches curiously.   I really want to flee now, but I might want to come back here sometime, so I blunder on.

I point at the kebab and “baaaaah” loudly like a lamb.   His face brightens and he nods vigorously.   I point to my leg.   He nods again.

I shout excitedly, ca!   Un de ca s’il vous plait.  He doesn’t understand what I’m saying, but we’re on the same wavelength.

He wraps it up and I hold my hand out to take it.   He gives me a slip of paper and points to the cash register while babbling something in French.  And I totally get it.   They give me the meat after I pay.   I say merci beaucoup, he says something and the transaction is completed.    We’re both very pleased with ourselves.

Next stop, cash register.   Grand total about E4.92 which is about 9 dollars, so, pretty pricey.   It also presents the problem of whether I pay with the pocketful of coins in my pocket or just hand her the E10 bill I have and get even more coins.   If I pay in coins it could take hours for me to figure out the right amount.   But if I get my change in coins, I’ll just have to face the problem down the road.   I do the only logical thing and dump the contents of my pocket on the counter and let the very nice cashier pick out the coins she needs.

rock stars of AuversI leave the store with my package, calling out “merci, bon soir!” feeling very French.

I broil the kebab, which is all seasoned lamb cubes with a chunk of some sort of sausage at each end and make a salad.

All I can say is that kebab brought me more pleasure than Springstein, Jagger or an iPhone ever could.   Hours later, I’m still fantasizing the subtle seasoning and the tender juicy lamb cubes.   And the sausage!   OMG!  A veritable medley of spices in perfect pork harmony that I can’t get out of my head.

Tomorrow is Sunday, so I’m going to get in line first thing in the morning.   Maybe I should camp out front over night.   I’ll just die if they’re sold out when I get there.

Consult this meat translation guide before venturing into a boucherie.

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