We all love snow. It had started falling when I left Wales on the Monday, the fifty-mile late-night drive to the airport bus winding through Powys and the Gwent hills in a darkness flickering with drifting bits of silver. After nine or ten hours of the purgatorial nullity of buses, queues and the holding-pens of airports, I felt a jag of excitement when the plane dropped below the formless clouds and suddenly we could we see Slovenia below us, close and brilliant with detail, the clustered steeples of immensely tall fir trees ermined with the weight of the stuff, cars with their headlights on moving on whitened ways.
In Ljubljana airport my lift, Vesna Kelbl who runs GOGA publishers’ bookshop, was a little late because of the snow. As she drove me the seventy kilometres or so along snowy roads to Novo Mesto, where I’m staying, we talked over plans for my month’s visit and much else. Vesna’s funny, sharp talk about ‘synthetic nationalisms’ (which she’s studying), and plans, and the bears that live in these forests generated a welcome thawing of my travel-numbness. I watched the rolling snowplastered landscape and thought about this road. Keep on going past Novo Mesto, not very far, and you cross the border into Croatia and quickly come to the capital Zagreb. It’s almost a cliché that Slovenia is a country on a crossroads. Diagonals through Ljubljana run through many of the major cities of Europe. The linguistic crossroads is equally extraordinary, with Slovenia’s related Slavic languages to its south, Finno-Ugric in Hungary to the east, the German of Austria to the north, and Italian to the west. Many Slovenes I’ve met are good linguists and can speak fascinatingly about the variations of Slavic languages, sometimes with a sharp sense of irony.
Over a decade ago at a book fair in Brittany I shared a stage with the great Slovene writer Boris Pahor. He was very old even then and I was amazed when planning to come to Slovenia to discover that he’s still alive and active. Pahor who’s a hundred this year, has seen five or six empires and dispensations come and go in his land. His book about his time in concentration camps, Nekropola, republished in English recently by the Dalkey Archive as Necropolis, is a tough, compelling read of great directness and power, and it strongly suggests that Pahor’s survival had something to do with his skills in languages: he worked as a translator for inmate-medics in the camps. I concluded that it was both the fortune and the misfortune of the Slovenes to be on a crossroads for much of history, and it was Wales’s fortune and misfortune to be on a by-road.
In St Malo he spoke in French. Small, bald, spare and bespectacled, he reminded me a little of the old English actor Robertson Hare, but he had an unmistakable energy. It seemed to me that a young Slovene author also on stage with us that day, who’d switched to writing in French, was a little cowed by his uncompromising moral presence. My brilliant interpreter, Jocelyne Bourbonniere, self-effacingly discreet, sat near me and whispered in my ear like a reminder of mortality as Pahor spoke in defence of small languages. At one point the interpreter paused and sniggered before translating one sentence. ‘A dialect with tanks’ she murmured, ‘is a language.’
Vesna, like many Slovenes, speaks excellent English. Just as when I was in Finland recently, I was both grateful for and terrified by the ubiquity of the English language.
A friend of hers ran over a bear once, she said. She, Vesna, had been in a car following.
I said I’d love to see a bear.
Vesna looked at me and shook her head. She was twirling her hair with one finger while she drove.
It was a baby bear, she said. Her friend kept driving, but she stopped. The bear was trying to get up.
She mimed an injured baby bear trying to get to its feet, dabbing the heel of one hand drunkenly against the dashboard, then went back to twirling.
She wanted to help, she said. Didn’t know whether to get out and try to rescue it somehow, or ring someone, or maybe run it over to put it out of its misery. Then, she said, her phone rang and it was her friend in the other car.
She mimed an anxious face and a telephone-hand. Vesna, get the fuck out of there, the mother bear is coming.
And she spotted the mother and another cub on the verge and drove away fast.
She went back to twirling, this time with both hands, then remembered the car and resumed steering on the slathered road.
Under thick-lying and still falling snow the centre of Novo Mesto is rather beautiful, with the towers, spires, clocks and finials of the Town Hall, a Franciscan monastery and a cathedral church punctuating its whitened roofscape. The small, quiet, old town is piled on a small hill pinched in an impossibly tight ox bow of the river Krka. As the newer industrial parts of Novo Mesto have grown on the other bank, southward across two bridges, this gives the old town the feeling of being almost an island. The wide main street runs up a small hill from one of these bridges, Kandijski Most, turning into the main town square, the Glavni trg. The shop fronts at the top end of the square, and Hostel Situla where I’m staying, are arcaded with low, flattened arches. Many buildings are painted in pastels and yellow ochres. The deep pads of snow softening the roofs hung like albino thatch that first day. That together with the white ridges on the black leafless branches of the trees in the town square gave the town a Breughel-ish look.
Vesna, a thoughtful host, took me for coffee to GOGA’s cafe-bookshop, through one of those arches in the square. In a partly glass-roofed courtyard people sat drinking coffee and smoking, the red blankets provided by the cafe over their knees, a little snow sieving through the gap in the glass overhead. Later she and Nastja, who also works for GOGA, took me on a lightning tour of the old town.
But it was the following day when I’d recovered from the buslag that I was able to look round when fully conscious. On the way in to town from the motorway, you see a large bronze of a partisan, a knee thrust forward, his arms forking the air in victory and liberation. That day the snow had settled on his thigh and gathered between his upraised arms so that his head had vanished. On the hill above, the church of St Nicholas turned out to be a bit smaller than its imposing position led me to think. The outside of the nave and the belltower, square at the base surmounted by an octagonal section and then a spire, is a yellowish buff colour. The exterior of the nave and presbytery are in natural stone with a polygonal apse and deep, weathered offset buttresses running higher than the long lancet windows. Inside the chancel, which stands at an odd angle to the nave, is a Tintoretto (or alleged Tintoretto depending on which book you read) of St Nicholas. It looked impressive to me but you couldn’t get close to it. A rope across the chancel steps has a notice telling you it’s alarmed.
Outside, a notice said: ‘The appearance of the church is somewhat uneven’, and ‘the navel originates in the first half of the fifteenth century’. I supposed that anyone whose navel originated in the first half of the fifteenth century would have a somewhat uneven appearance by now. Outside the south door of the chancel was the bronze bust of a cleric. They’re big on bronze busts here, often quite impressive ones, of local notables, sacred and secular. You find them outside the Town Hall, the monastery, and elsewhere.
But the cleric, like the rooftops and the partisan, was transformed by snow. A few days later I’d see an ordinary bronze head with the regulation skullcap, but for now, as the snow still fell, he was wearing a luxurious high white collar that curled up over his head and bent forward, like the curved saffron hats Tibetan monks sometimes wear, or, come to think of it, like a Smurf’s hat. Behind him, the two points of a cypress echoed the gesture of the temporary headgear, bending with the weight of snow so that they looked like a couple of yetis, perhaps as imagined by Dr Seuss, standing guard.
That joker, the snow, obscuring and caricaturing both the partisan and the cleric, made me suddenly connect these two images. This is a crossroads of ideologies too. Aesthetically at least the partisan came out of this looking a lot less silly. But the bronze eyes still staring through the gap in the snow troubled me more.