Tis time I wished a Happy New Year to everyone, especially since I have just been drinking large amounts of red wine and schnapps. 2015 will be, I hope, a time of good news for my family and for everyone near and dear to me. And to you, if we haven't met. It feels like a time of good news.
Here in Slovenia it is snowy and perfect; a picture of white crispy perfection. Out my window there is a snow-covered church and hills of tree-covered whiteness. Beyond my door (at least in the morning) is a stairwell filled with the sound of children making their way to and from the ski slopes and the hastily created cross-country ski run from Bohinjska Bistrica to the lake at the end of the valley. The stairs are full of soggy boots and wet toboggans. Everyone, it seems, is throwing themselves whole-heartedly into living.
On New Year's Eve I was invited to Sabina and Igor's get-together. I trudged through the snow toward their other house out by the cow sheds, armed with nibbles and alcohol and, as usual, a complete lack of understanding about what would happen. This is one of the marvels about living in a country so innately foreign. It isn't just the language barrier that one has to navigate, but the other-worldly mysteries of how they celebrate the landmarks of life. Sabina's English is perfect, as is the English of so many people here, so I knew I would be able to chat at least with her. I also know that Sabina and Igor's friends are typically well educated and so I wasn't worried about the lack of communication. What always wrong-foots me is just how well educated these people are. It puts us all to shame.
The night began with an enormous quantity of food and then a spectacular quantity of beer and spirits. Slovenians have a healthy appetite for the things that enhance life. They don't abuse them, they embrace them. As the evening went on, more people arrived and the kids and the conversation wound themselves up into a crescendo until we left the heat of the house to crunch about, champagne glasses in hand, amid the snow and freezing air of the last minutes of 2014. The house is close to the church and we could could tell the moment of celebration by the clock bells. Igor popped the corks on the alcoholic fizz for the adults and the Disney Princess fizz for the kids and we wished each other a Happy New Year, while every house around let off fireworks. I laughed, spontaneously, because there was a magic in the frigid air that one can only really experience by being in a place where everyone is talking a foreign language. The lack of understanding suddenly becomes a complete understanding through the simple explosion of fireworks and kissing when the clock chimes twelve. Srecno novo leto is the Slovene for Happy New Year, and yet everyone, and I mean everyone, said "Happy New Year" to me, because they embrace the things that are around them, even foreign things. They are kind.
Sabina and Igor danced a Waltz. It was lovely to see. Sabina let off party poppers the size of WMDs and people of all nations were covered in sparkly things.
As Sabina wrapped up the kids for the trudge bed-ward, the men were left to talk and drink and explore the first hours of 2015 with Balkan banter. I got home at 4am, full of food, beer, and the quite excellent Jägermeister, a German alchemical spirit of over 50 herbs and spices, 36% alcohol and like a cross between cough medicine and Saturn 5 propellant. It was a wonderful evening of friendship. I love being in a room full of people who have protracted conversations in a language that is at once so alien and yet full of communication that I feel I know what they are saying. They slip seamlessly from Slovene to English in a way that resembles expert drivers who can slide sideways without crashing. One man, whom I have only ever seen herding cows with a stick, suddenly engaged me in conversation about Shakespeare and Dante's The Divine Comedy. Another explained the history of the Balkans, the Roman Empire, the Ottomans, and basically everything else. It's a bit like Atlantis here, but snowy and with more cows.
I moved slowly through January 1st, nursing a sore head and practising standing upright. Today, January 2nd, I felt a little more human and got down to some potentially money-making things. This evening I saw that my neighbour had arrived in the building. We shook hands across the dual piles of firewood on the balcony and he said to come in for a quick drink. I've never been in my neighbours apartment -- we have only said hello during his infrequent trips from Ljubljana. I turned off the rice I was cooking and headed next door.
I have just returned from my quick drink. The quick drink involved several long drinks and some Schnapps. Plus food. His wife, his daughter, her husband and their two kids, and his parents were there, and as seems to be the norm for this most incredible of countries, there was English a-plenty and the generosity and kindness knew no bounds. The whole family skis, the daughter is model-beautiful and her husband has just run the Berlin marathon. I returned to my apartment wondering what might happen to the world if it was all based on the Slovenian model. If it was, perhaps we would not be so obsessed with colonising Mars. We could live here instead. It would be lovely.
When I was there I mentioned that moving into this apartment a year ago was a departure for me. I had never lived in an apartment before and when strangers appeared in the building, standing right outside my door, I was defensive, nervous, protective of my personal space. I did not deal well with the sounds of other people. This included my immediate neighbours and basically anyone else who walked upon the stairs speaking in a tongue I could not fathom. But slowly, as I met these unseen voices and could put faces to the sounds, I became less concerned. The real breakthrough came when Tyson died. Suddenly I lived in a space that was devoid of life, containing a Tyson-shaped hole that I tried to manoeuvre my way around. Losing Tyson was hard to deal with, but the next time I heard voices on the stairs, or sounds of children on the other side of my walls, it made me happy. The sound was the sound of life, happening all around me. When I woke up this morning to the sound of kids running around before sliding down some snowy hill, it made me smile. I lost Tyson, but there is life all around me and the more I see of it the more I like it.
I have called this post Willoughby -- again. I've mentioned it before, but there is a Twilight Zone episode called A Stop at Willoughby. A man, overly stressed and basically unhappy, falls asleep on his train commute home and wakes up at a station that doesn't exist. Willoughby. It is a peaceful and perfect place, a place that fills him with a warm comfort unknown in his normal day-to-day life. This happens to him several times, until one day he decides to get off the train at Willoughby where he is welcomed by the townsfolk. It is a place which doesn't exist, except for him. Slovenia is Willoughby. It defies you to be lonely. It is a place outside of the norm.
So a Happy New Year to everyone. I hope you find what you are looking for in 2015 or, more importantly, I hope the right things come to find you.
[ps...Have you tried the Armchair Detective Challenge yet?]
Slovenia, writing, other things