A fog has descended upon the city of Ljubljana, wrapping us city folk in a chilly blanket which leaves us reaching for the winter jacket we were hoping to keep stuffed deep within the closet. The recently placed Christmas lights hanging from the trees and over the river scatter in the nighttime air. They create a subtle glow of blues and reds and greens resembling galaxies, stars, and other whimsical formations. Summertime’s daily scoop of gelato has been replaced with a heart-warming cup of kuhano vino, or hot wine, sold by folks behind small wooden stalls every few meters along the street. Mulling spices and roasting chestnuts combine to fill the city center with an aroma synonymous with the holiday season. The opposite of a sleepy city, the streets are filled with people until late hours as they huddle around standing heaters and enjoy the atmosphere.
Perhaps this romantic view of Ljubljana is shaped by the fact that I am writing about it while sitting in the back of a café sipping on a cappuccino, enjoying a break from ever-present need to complete lab write-ups and catch myself up to speed on the knowledge required to pass courses in geodesy. Haven’t heard of that discipline? Neither had I until I found it at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia after searching for a university offering courses related to GIS (geographic information systems). I am currently dividing my time between university courses and the study of Slovene language, a south Slavic language with three genders, six cases, and the dual form to speak of people and things in pairs. If it sounds complicated, let me assure you – it is. Merely knowing “Živijo” will take travelers far though since most people in the city speak at least Slovene and English, if not more languages. This tends to make it a bit more difficult for language learners however, as people are accustomed to switching to English once they realize that someone is from a different country.
I am relieved though to finally figure out that my accent is not as bad as I thought. When people ask me where I come from, I always respond “Sem iz Amerike,” which means that I am from the United States. They usually ask me to repeat this once or twice more before I eventually switch to English, believing that my Slovene must be so poorly pronounced that I cannot get the point across. However, I recently discovered that I people truly believe I am from the U.S. I suppose that would happen when in a country of only two million people, with few U.S. long-term visitors, and even fewer that attempt to learn the language. I am asked time and time again both from Slovenians and from other international students – if I had the choice to go anywhere in the world, why did I choose Slovenia?
Why Slovenia indeed…there are so many reasons which make my study here worthwhile. I did not know a single person who had been to Slovenia before I came here, which allowed me to walk into this exchange year without any expectations or preconceptions. This country is also host to various natural landscapes. At just a third the size of Lake Michigan, one can drive from any one point of Slovenia to the other in about three hours or less. Despite its small size, it is possible to combine a seaside holiday with a mountain climb; Slovenia’s 46.6 km long coastline along the Gulf of Trieste, reaching towards the Adriatic Sea, is just a hop, skip, and a jump away to the southern limestone Julian Alps range in the northwest. Villages are spread about the coast, mountains, and rolling hills of the south, and most students return home every weekend since home is so close (leading the student campus feel a bit like an airport on Friday evenings). This means my weekdays are for class time and weekends for outdoor exploration.
Fast forward to today…the semester recently ended and the semester break period has begun. I’ll be taking the holiday time to get a flavor for more Balkan states, so stop back in a couple weeks to hear about my travels south and east!