It remembers a time, some 300 years ago, when the land was all hers. And it wants it back. So it constantly gnaws away at the structure. Left unchecked, it would slowly consume the place. So I find myself in an ongoing fight to stave off its advances.
In spring, the vegetation around the house rises up from its winter sleep. It may appear an innocent observer, but in fact it’s constantly seeking for a way in. Roots reach in to the structure, ever working their way deeper.
Seedlings germinate in the smallest of gaps; a crack in the wooden stairs, a hairline split in a timber. Creepers search for a way to envelop the house. Damp is drawn up from the cool earth below in to the walls.
In summer the insects arrive. Wasps find cosy holes to build their nests, scraping away at Breg’s wooden walls, stealing pulp for their paper building materials.
The occasional wood-boring insect drills into the thick beams that support the structure. Slovenian ants have been known to invade, seeking to expand their territory into Breg House (but have been successfully repelled).
Hot sun scorches the black roof, blasting it with solar radiation. Each year, the corrugated tar material grows thinner and weaker, till eventually it loses its rigidity and allows for attack via the heavy summer storms, when the rain falls so hard, the slightest gap, hole or crack will be penetrated by water. The lightening strikes loud up here in the mountains of Mežica and although Breg house has never been be hit, the threat remains.
Autumn is perhaps the only respite Breg House gets, before the onset of winter once more. The plants are on the wane, the insects have diminished, yet the bite of winter is yet to arrive.
So I am in a constant fight against nature. Though I let the garden grow fairly wild – allowing the meadow grasses to flower, before cutting it back a bit – I have to be vigilant. Constant repairs are required. Clearing giant icicles before they damage the roof.
Ejecting unwanted insects seeking to cohabitate with me. Draining tanks and pipes come winter to avoid ice attacks.
Breg House has survived 300 years so far. I plan to help it survive another 300.
I frequently feel disheartened whilst trying to learn Slovenian. There are often times when I think I’ll never, ever get this language. There’s no sugar coating it; for native English speakers, Slovene grammar is an almighty pain in the arse.
I have sometimes found myself feeling resistant, hostile almost, towards the seemingly unnecessary complexity of Slovene. In particular, the declension structure, where you get to play Skloni Lucky Dip and choose any one of 18 different ways to end your nouns and adjectives, depending on context. (There are actually rules to it and I concede I could put more effort into memorising the system, rather than hours moaning about it).
But then there are the Little Victories. Times when I realise that I have learned at least something of Slovene. Today was one such occasion. The annual ritual of switching winter tyres for summer ones on my car had arrived. And I found that I was able to conduct my business, entirely in Slovene.
Granted, this wasn’t a complex situation, and I certainly ended many words wrongly and missed out a few useful prepositions. But it didn’t matter. I was able to explain why I was there, what I wanted, and answer the mechanic’s questions.
Furthermore, during the hour-long wait, I headed to a nearby café. Intrigued by a drink on the menu I hadn’t heard of, I asked the waitress what it was, and after a further question, I was able to understand her explanation.
These are just small victories. But they are important in the ongoing struggle with learning a language; brief moments of comprehension, in the world where incomprehension is my default setting.
It’s a reminder for me not to get too bogged down in the brain-damaging grammar. I may sound like the child of a Slovenian caveman when I speak Slovene, but communication is king.
Coming from the island isolation of Great Britain, life on the European mainland is an international treat.
Add to this Slovenia’s petite landmass, and ‘popping in’ to Italy for a quick pizza, or Austria for an afternoon hike is quite the norm here.
All of these things give rise to a very ‘European’ feeling in Slovenia. Unlike in the UK, where our island mentality has bred an ‘us and them’ attiude (see: Brexit), here you feel part of Europe.
In the UK, a foreign holiday ultimately means flying (or ferry). In Slovenia, an hour in the car will take you into a neighbouring country. Dropping down to Croatia for some coastline is a regular Slovene habit, and Hungary’s western border is easily within reach for a day trip.
Last weekend was Easter or ‘Velika Noč’ which translates as ‘The Great Night’. Easter is a big family affair here and I spent it visiting my girlfriend’s family in Austria, where it was a great night indeed. A feast of traditional ham, eggs and horseradish, followed by much wine, beer and various shots of hard-to-pronounce spirits.
The following day we hopped the boarder to Italy, hiking into the glorious Julian Alps, followed by a trip to a local pizzeria. A little over an hour’s journey after, and we were back in Ljubljana. Three countries; one day.
Slovenia was never part of the USSR. Indeed, by all accounts, Marshall Tito, Yugoslavia’s leader, was quite the thorn in the side of the Russians, who tried to assassinate him on more than one occasion.
It’s a common mistake that I often hear, but Jeremy – someone in your position really should have done your homework better.
Geographically too, Slovenia occupies a European sweetspot; a Mediterranean country, with high Alps, yet small enough to make day trips to the neighbours.
With Brexit looming, the advantages of a borderless Europe are ever more apparent to me, and the possibility of losing freedom to travel or work in other EU countries all the more painful.
Until then, I will continue to relish Slovenia’s central European location, where you’re never more than an hour’s car ride from adventure in another nation.
During my darkest hours of Slovene Grammar Hell, when I’m lost in the Slovenian Skloni Matrix, utterly demotivated to learn Slovene due to the fact there are 18 different ways to end every f*cking noun, there is only one thing that keeps me going: other foreigners who have made it through the horror.
So, I spoke to a selection of Slovenia’s Slovene-speaking expats to get their advice on tackling this most-tricky of tongues.
Anika Dziewior Pavlin
Nationality: Polish Number of Years in Slovenia: 6 years
It costs way less than a language course and it was encouraging enough to open my A, B, C … GREMO to finally learn the basics.
Passing the exam was like a friendly tap on the shoulder. It helped me to believe in myself. To advance my Slovene skills I surrounded myself with books in Slovene, friends speaking Slovene and Slovene YouTubers.
But what paradoxically helped me the most were other expats speaking Slovene. I was following Mariah Dolenc on YouTube and Kasia Rižnar on Instagram. Listening to them made me realize that it is the effort that counts. So I put the fear of being judged aside and tried speaking Slovene on a daily basis.
Top tips for learning Slovenian?
When someone asks me how to learn Slovene, I have the simplest tip: find your drive to learn and then practise, practise, practise. Even if it is just a few phrases to amuse your Slovene friends over a glass of wine. It’s a good start.
Hardest thing for you about learning Slovene?
The hardest part is hearing: “Oh, but it’s easier for you, you are Polish”. It sometimes takes away the satisfaction, but I learned to ignore it in the end. I think any progress is good and it’s the effort that matters.
Nationality: American Number of Years in Slovenia: this is my 8th…I think
US native Noah is quite the celebrity in Slovenia. Amongst numerous media projects with various Slovene celebs, Noah is the author of the excellent book (and now podcast) Slovenology. If you want a fascinating insight into Slovene life and culture – check it out.
Describe your level of Slovene
Fluid but I can’t say fluent because just about every
sentence has at least one grammatical error in it. That said, I do work
entirely in Slovene often, have friendships entirely in Slovene, and have even
hosted events and TV programs in Slovene…call it the Noah
How do/did you approach learning Slovene?
I did buy the book Colloquial Slovene and browsed my way through it half-heartedly, but the main way I learned was not seeking out expats, speaking Slovene whenever possible, not caring if I make mistakes, and having a non-anglophone mother-in-law. Also my dog, a Peruvian Hairless, speaks only Slovene, so this helps.
Top Tips for learning Slovenian?
I never studied (perhaps I should have) so I’ve no idea what the declension endings are. You just have to memorize them and I’ve never gotten around to it.
What’s the hardest thing for you about learning Slovene?
Declension endings. There are no rules. It’s like
Nationality: English Time Living in Slovenia: 3.5 years
Brit Tom Norman is a deep thinker, and the founder of How To Be Human, a fascinating and growing global project which asks the big questions about life, love and happiness. A resident of Ljubljana for three and a half years, Tom learned a thing or two about learning Slovenian.
Describe your level of Slovene
Simple conversational. I can hold conversation but there are typically mistakes with simple vocabulary.
How did/do you learn Slovene?
I used to ask lots of questions. All the time. And also working in a Ziferblat, a really cool time-cafe that used to be in Ljubljana helped a lot too. Every day I would try to chat with guests in Slovenian.
Typically they would switch to English quite quickly, but over time we stayed in Slovenian longer and longer. We held events called Let’s Talk Slovene where a group of foreigners and locals got together and chatted in Slovenian every Monday. This was amazing since it was 1.5 hours dedicated to conversations.
Top Tips for learning Slovene?
For me the key was using it as often as possible, unapologetically, without caring how I looked or sounded.
What are the hardest aspects of learning Slovenian for you?
1. Cases (skloni) – we simply don’t have them in English and in the beginning, they can really take a long time to get your head around. Especially because Slovenian people like to teach you by reciting the lessons the had at school “koga ali kaj?” which just don’t help a foreigner trying to learn.
2. People speak amazing English. This is great for maintaining a good social life here but makes learning Slovenian a luxury, not a necessity. And for many that luxury just isn’t worth acquiring.
3. Pronunciation and where you put the accent in the words are very important here. In England someone can call you “love” and it might sound like “loov” or “luv” but we understand regardless.
Here, if you misplace the accent slightly or if you pronounce something a little “unorthodox” you’re sometimes met with blank faces.
Alexander Niño Ruiz
Nationality: Colombian Time Living in Slovenia: 11 years
Columbian coffee scientist (café owner, architect and designer too) is the founder of Ljubljana’s best (and possibly smallest) coffee shop: Črno Zrno.
Situated in Ljubljana’s expanding ‘Latin Quarter’ (a new taco bar just opened opposite), Alexander’s mission is to share the true variety of flavours that coffee can possess, when made with the right beans, with the right grind, at the right temperate with the right amount of water.
Not only does Črno Zrno serve truly the most interesting and uniquely flavoured coffees I’ve ever tasted, it’s a great place to meet people too. Which is why it gets a place in my Slovenia: A-Ž.
Describe your level of Slovene
I consider I have a basic level when talking and intermediate when listening to street conversations.
How did/do you learn Slovenian?
been a constant evolution and struggle. At first (1st, 2nd year), I took
classes but I couldn’t apply what I had learned in real life.
Then (3rd-5th year) I got a permanent job as an architect and I learned words from my trade, but got isolated talking English most of the time. Whenever a meeting was in Slovenian I had to seriously concentrate, because people couldn’t be translating all the time for me.
stage, I went back to Colombia for 3 years (6th to 8th) and I wanted
to speak Slovenian with my wife as a way of having a private language.
stage, I came back to Slovenia and opened a café in which I can control my
interactions and am forced to be a host in Slovenian. People are kind to me and
I answer their questions in Slovene as much as I can. Since then my Slovenian improved a lot.
What are your top tips for learning Slovene?
Don’t close yourself in a comfortable position, try to be in situations in which you are forced to interact in Slovenian, and try to make those situations happen more often and for longer. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and kindly ask to be corrected.
What’s the hardest aspect of Slovene for you?
hardest thing for me to learn is new vocabulary. There is no relation between
the Slavic roots of Slovenian, and Spanish, so I need to memorize a lot, which
is something I don’t really like to do.
Nationality: Dual citizen of USA (birth) and Slovenia (ancestry). Number of years in Slovenia: It’s complicated. I divide my time between Southern California and Slovenia.
Californinan journalist Terry Anzur went to school with Steve Jobs, was a TV news presenter in the US, and is the author of the travel blog: StrangersInTheLivingRoom. She has beentackling Slovene as part of a desire to reconnect with her Slovenian roots.
How did/do you learn Slovene?
strongly that because I’m a citizen I should learn the language. My Slovene
grandparents were dead by the time I was born. My dad was born in America and
never learned the language, so I didn’t hear it growing up.
I vowed to continue practicing with my textbooks and the Memrise app, it was
hard to make any progress on my own in California, where I have no one to speak
I returned to the language school in the summer of 2017 and winter of 2018 in a slightly more advanced class each time. I now feel that I have hit a wall. I can say simple, childlike sentences, when asking for directions or making a purchase in a store.
As soon as I try to express anything more complicated I either don’t have the vocabulary or make so many mistakes that the Slovenes switch over to English.
I usually understand the basic meaning of what people are saying but miss the details and struggle to respond. I found the LearnSlovenian website to be a fun way to practice by myself but it stops at a very low level.
I recently tried a conversation class at Jezikovno Mesto and plan to attend regularly on my next trip to Slovenia. Getting more opportunities to speak and be corrected is the key.
Top tips for learning Slovene?
I’m a journalist so I follow a lot of Slovenian-language news as well as political and tourism websites on social media. I try to read at least the headlines and the posts with a dictionary to learn new words.
When I start to get discouraged, I look for opportunities to get out on my own in Ljubljana — without my son jumping in as the translator. When I can have a simple conversation with a street vendor or a postal worker, I feel a sense of accomplishment and motivation to keep going.
Hardest thing about learning Slovene for you?
Managing the cases and correctly changing the endings of the words. The second hardest thing is getting the words in the right order.
Andrew Anzur Clement
Nationality: Dual citizen of USA and Slovenia, as described above. Number of years in Slovenia: Full time resident for one year. Summer language school 2015, 2016 and 2017.
I learned Polish in high school and college, so Slovene was my second Slavic language. In addition to three courses in the summer school, I also took an advanced class offered in Brussels while finishing my PhD.
I was forced to improve when I moved to Ljubljana full time. In certain situations, like health care and official paperwork, people find out I’m a citizen and they expect me to speak Slovene.
Top tips for learning Slovene?
down the words. Many Slovene words are composed of smaller words and prefixes
or suffixes which change the meaning.
Hardest thing about learning Slovene?
Getting by at the bank or the uprava enota or the bank is one thing. When I’m in a social situation I find it hard to interact because I don’t have the vocabulary to discuss ideas.
Nationality: American Time living In Slovenia: 7 years
I understand just about everything, or at least the context. I’m still working
on speaking well, and especially without errors.
How do/did you learn Slovene?
tried to study a textbook on my own, but quickly realized I was getting
nowhere. Without any experience in the language, it was just too difficult. I
took a few classes: and introductory class and an intensive course.
These helped to round out my understanding on how the language works and is structured. However, coming out of those classes, I didn’t speak much better than when I started.
To really improve I began speaking only in Slovene for at least 15 minutes a day. Then I also started answering texts and messages in Slovene. This was slow going, but made the fastest improvements. Getting over the feeling of looking and sounding ridiculous was the biggest help in making progress.
Top Tips for learning Slovenian?
in Slovene every day is by far the best way to learn. Also, when making
mistakes, it is best not to be corrected initially. Just do the best with the
knowledge you have and eventually you will get to a point where you can ask for
corrections and it will be helpful instead of just slow you down.
Hardest aspect of learning Slovene for you?
hardest thing for me to learn has been the large amounts of cases or “skloni.”
I have lived here long enough that I am able to guess what sounds right, but it
really is challenging. The constant change in the endings of words is
Nationality: UK Time Living in Slovenia: 4.5 years
JL is a writer and editor for the excellent Total Slovenia News. Serving Slovenia’s expat community with original news content, investigative journalism and translations of Slovene media, JL is always on the lookout for a hot Slovenian story.
Describe your level of Slovene
Basic, but developing fast. I can understand daily conversations that happen around me, in terms of topic, attitude and some details, and I can watch the news and get things out of it, and can also read comic books.
With regard to production, I have most of the words needed to express the things I want to, but my declensions are all by rote (learned in chunks) or random, with no theoretical basis, and thus three errors can appear in the most basic statement. But automaticity is coming along well – I can babble like a 3-year old and amuse myself for hours.
To put it another way: I’d say after a long time of hacking away at a piece of wood I finally have something that looks like the human form, my new Slovene self. Now I just need to spend the rest of my life working down the rough edges and then polishing things to a high shine.
I expect to be “functionally fluent” by the end of the year.
How do/did you approach
I was very enthusiastic about starting to learn. Before Slovenia I lived in Taiwan for 16 years and learned Chinese on “the streets”, so I thought Slovenian would be easy. Then I got here and discovered skloni, and the good English of all the people I interacted with in cafés and stores, which prevented me from practising the basic I want, Do you have, How much, and so on.
So instead of speech I threw myself into reading. I took pictures of street signs and billboards and learned basic phrases from there. I started writing shopping lists in Slovene as soon as possible, and used (still use) supermarkets as immersive picture dictionaries.
I picked up some translated editions of Calvin & Hobbes and would spend 10 minutes over one strip. I made flashcards with Quizet (an app) and grew a huge vocabulary while barely speaking at all.
My approach remains one of total attack, by any means necessary. So I’ll watch dumb sitcoms with the Slovene subtitles on and the sound down low, pausing to look up words when needed, trying to get the set-up and the joke.
I’ll pick up the brochures and junk mail and go through the drugstore ads and learn the names of new things. If I go to a tourist centre and they have flyers with English and Slovene versions then I’ll use those as dual texts.
I also have a lot of dictionaries, which I like dipping into so I can see the related words and make notes of word families. And I listen to Slovenian hip hop to feel cool and get some idea of how the language can be played with.
What are your top tips for learning Slovene?
My favourite book, which I’m really starting to benefit from now, is Peter Herrity’s Slovene – A Comprehensive Grammar. This covers everything, and is an invaluable reference, with the best thing being that every example word, phrase and sentence is presented in Slovene and English, so you don’t need to turn to a dictionary every 30 seconds.
It’s expensive, but all books for learning Slovene are, and this one will provide a lifetime of learning. I have two copies – paper and e-book, so I never need to be without it.
What’s the hardest
thing for you about learning Slovene?
I live in downtown Ljubljana, so for me the most difficult
thing was getting motivated when everyone around me could speak much better
English than I could hope to speak Slovene for years.
Then when I did get motivated I’d ask what’s the word for X? And I’d get one answer in this context, and a slightly different one in another, and then the full horror of skloni was revealed in those tables that turn up in textbooks and I almost gave up, until I decided to just learn them in chunks and not worry too much.
Another problem is the lack of compelling Slovene language media. I’d love it if there were telenovelas in Slovene with Slovene subtitles.
What are your tips for learning Slovenian? Add a comment below.
Making schnapps in Slovenia is a winter affair. My car thermometer read -11c as I pulled up at the small farm, somewhere in the distant hinterlands of Koroška.
Ever since I was offered a small glass of the clear, strong, homemade spirit by my neighbour Jaka eleven years ago, I had been keen to see the schnapps making process for myself. Finally, a decade later, that day had come.
I was joining Viktor, Marina and their two (now adult) children – Ana and Martin – (as well as their rather long dog – Robbie), in a nine-hour moonshine making mission.
The day began a little after 9am with a spot of breakfast, which of course included a shot of schnapps, along with tasty cold cuts from the farm, finished off with dark, black Turkish coffee.
The younger contingent of the cooking team – Ana and Martin – spoke excellent English so I was able to explore quite deeply into their lives and the process of the cook. But there were numerous periods throughout the day, where I was with only Viktor or Marina (or Robbie), which provided me with ample opportunity to practise my caveman Slovene.
Let’s Cook! Stage 1
In Slovenia, you don’t ‘make’ schnapps, you ‘cook’ schnapps (kuhati šnopc). And my hosts had been cooking for the last 10 days straight. The 2018 autumn had produced a particulary fruitful harvest, which meant they had weeks of mash to get through.
Although back in autumn, during Making Schnapps Part 1, I had been plucking plums, today it was a batch of pear schnapps we were making. The mash had been sitting in a barrel fermenting through the winter. Now it was time to cook.
Upon stepping into the barn where the cook was taking place, I was hit by the sweet scent of pear. The first part of the cook was filling the 100 litre still with pear mash. The steel and copper contraption was 40 years old Viktor told me, manufactured by a then Yugoslavian company that no longer existed.
A wood fire was then lit below the copper cauldron, and we sat around the still, enjoying the heat and waiting. Viktor instructed me to feed the fire to ensure it burned hot and fast. A wheelbarrow of well-aged pine fuelled the burn, which popped and spat as it roared in the belly of the still.
It took around an hour for the first drops of distillate to appear. For those who have forgotten their school chemistry lessons, let’s recap. Distillation is the process of separating (in this case) ethanol, from a mixture of liquids.
The process works because alcohol has a lower boiling point than water. This means as the mash heats up, alcohol starts evaporating out of the mixture first. The vapour travels up the copper pipe and then down into the cooling coils of the still. These are kept cold by being immersed in a barrel of water, which was kept cool by pumping the water out through a pipe that sat in the snow, before returning back to the barrel.
The cold sides of the coil cause the alcohol vapour to condense into a liquid again, and this then comes dripping out of the condenser pipe and is collected.
The first cook produces something Victor called Meka Rakija.
“In Serbia – they drink it like this. But it is not yet schnapps. It is Meka Rakija. In Slovenia – we make schnapps.”
I was keen to sample the cloudy white liquid and found it to be very palatable. It had a sweet flavour with a tasty note of pear. I requested to capture some of this nectar and was duly given a 500ml Pepsi bottle which I filled. I later measured the alcohol content and found it to be a healthy 30%.
We kept the fire crackling, and as the mash came up to temperature, the flow of the distillate increased, filling several buckets which were then pooled with previous batches.
Before commencing the more delicate second cook – the still was emptied of its now alcohol-less mash, and given a thorough clean-down. I asked Viktor what happened to the steaming barrels of spent pear, wondering if perhaps the pigs would enjoy it. Apparently not. The animals won’t eat it so it ends up in a big compost in the forest.
We retired back to the house for lunch before starting the second cook. A hearty meal of beef goulash and polenta was served. When I asked Marina – the lady of the house – if I could help with anything in the kitchen, she expressed surprise, explaining that men are rarely seen in that part of the house.
Back to the now gleaming copper still, Viktor filled it with the proceeds of previous first cooks. The second cook is a much more careful and controlled stage. Ana and Marina showed me how to keep the fire small but as consistent as possible, burning just one or two small split logs at a time.
We sat in the welcome heat of the still, patiently waiting for the first drops to appear. I am always keen to hear Slovenians’ opinions of life before independence. Do they miss Yugoslavia? Was life better then? Or has independence been good for the people? Viktor’s answer was typical to what I often hear:
“Everyone in the country had a job then; everyone had enough. But then there were many situations where they had five people doing a job that one person could do.
Also – because Yugoslavia strictly controlled imports, it was hard to get certain products that weren’t manufactured inside the country. For example, we had to go to Austria just to get washing detergent and you were supposed to pay import duty if you brought it back into Yugoslavia.
I think Slovenia is better now.”
After a good hour, the first drops of liquid began to appear. Completely clear and colourless, Viktor explained that this was very strong, and for ‘external use only’. In other words – not for drinking.
Here the language barrier here proved to be too much and I was unsure as to whether it was methanol (a much more toxic member of the alcohol family which can cause permanent blindness by destroying the optic nerve if drunk even in small quantities), or just very strong ethanol (common drinking alcohol).
I noted that the first litre of the distillate was collected, bottled and measured (85% alc) but no futher testing was carried out on the rest of the batch. The only test performed was Viktor throwing a shot glass full on to the fire. Apparently, the ferocity of the ensuing flames, allowed him to gauge the alcohol make-up of the liquid.
I assume that even if the rest of the distillate contains some methanol, when mixed with the entire batch, it’s not at a dangerous level. At least that’s what I hope, else my optic nerves are going to get destroyed.
It’s All About The Angle of Dangle
After the first litre of this potentially-optic-nerve-destroying liquid had been taken, Ana explained that we had to keep the spirit flowing from the still, at a low, steady rate. And this was gauged by the angle at which the liquid ran from the pipe.
“The stream should fall exactly vertically” she explained.
At first I was unsure how it could not fall vertically, but as the fire died down, I could see how the steam started to bend back under the pipe. And when more fuel was added, there was an initial spurt where the stream arced away from the pipe. I played with the fuel, trying to keep the perfect stream as instructed.
Following a round of homemade pancakes, my hosts seemed satisfied that I was now a capable enough cook to keep the operation running. They duly left me to keep the fires burning, whilst they disappeared to milk the cows.
At first I felt like Jesse from Breaking Bad when Walter White leaves him to cook his first batch of meth on his own. A pang of responsibly hit me. After all, this was part of their commercial farm operation. This cook was money. Was I going to mess the whole thing up and ruin the entire batch? Would Viktor (aka The Slovenian Heisenberg) ‘disappear’ me?
I paid close attention to what I had learned; keep the flow coming gently. Stop when the liquid becomes milky. Don’t drink it all. As each 10 litre bucket came off, I measured the alcohol content, then added it to the main barrel. Each tier was lower in alcohol than the previous one; 75%, 65%, 40%, 30%. But when mixed together, the overall batch was still well over 60%.
Saying that, we were using an alcoholmeter for the readings. This is a calibrated instrument that looks a bit like a thermometer and is designed to measure the amount of ethanol in a liquid, containing only ethanol and water. As there are numerous other products produced by the distillation process (methanol, oils and higher alcohols) I don’t think the readings we took could be completely accurate but did provide an approximate figure.
As the cook entered its dying stages, Heisenberg returned and instructed me to feed up the fire up again. Squeezing out as much ethanol from the cook was the goal, and that required a roaring fire for the last few litres. For the final hour of the cook, we entered diminishing returns. More heat was required to get what was a weaker and weaker distillate, until finally, the output became a cloudy liquid. The cook was over.
It was after 7pm when I placed the fruits of my labour into my car. Heisenberg seemed satisfied with the cook and had kindly given me two litres of pear schnapps, diluted down to 50% alcohol. It had been an interesting experience. I had learned much and acquired a new appreciation for the hours and energy that went into this fiery liquid, which is to Slovenia, what tea is to Britain; dolled out at any hour to guests.
Finally, 12 years after my first taste of Slovenian schnapps, I had joined the cook. And na zdravje to that.
It came late this year, but winter has finally arrived at Breg House. To celebrate the glorious Premier Snow – last weekend, I popped on my skis and went for a little ride near the house. The snow was calf deep, and I was sorry to get to the bottom of Breg Piste, and then have to de-ski and walk back up again. But as I did, I noticed something strange in the snow: caterpillars.
There were dozens of them, up on top of the snow. At first, I thought they were dead – but upon closer inspection, I found them to be very much alive and kicking.
Green ones, brown ones, speckled ones. How did they get there? What are they doing? It had been unseasonably warm the previous day, and I wonder if they had prematurely been roused, fooled into thinking spring had arrived?
I suspect the future is not bright for the Slovenian snow caterpillars of Breg House. With snow on the ground and temperatures set to fall to -8c, they may not find the food they are looking for.
If there are any caterpillar experts reading – please do add an explanation in the comments below.
I’ll point out that when it comes to Slovenia, a) this list is far shorter than the best things list, b) most points are not unique to Slovenia, and c) this list presents somewhat of a ‘first world problems’ line-up, in that if these are the worst aspects of living in Slovenia, then overall – things are pretty good.
And of course, this is just my personal experience of life in Slovenia. Please add your own thoughts and experiences in the comments.
1. Slovene Grammar Destroys Neurones
As someone trying to learn Slovene but unfamiliar with the family of Slavic tongues, there are several concepts which exist in the Slovenian language which are quite head-twisting for me. Though Slovenes are quick to cite the ‘dual plural’ as being the foreigner-proof aspect of their language – for me it’s the declensions (skloni) which I find most frustrating.
This ongoing mental tripwire is what I call the ‘Slovene Skloni Matrix’; a giant table of word-ending modifications which intersects six cases, three genders, two types of plural and a single type of singular, (not to mention the different endings for adjectives and nouns), that must be memorised and applied in order to end your words correctly, depending on the context.
In Slovene, even proper nouns are modified, thus my name can be: Sam, Sama, Samu, Samom, etc – depending on what’s being said.
I acknowledge that if I spent more time actually learning the grammar rules, rather than complaining about them, it probably wouldn’t be on this list.
2. Death Wish Drivers: Blind-Corner Road-Hoggers
Too many Slovenian drivers have a terrible
habit of straying from their lane on blind corners. Every time I drive to Breg,
at least once during my journey (and normally several times), I will come around
a corner to find an oncoming Slovenian driver with at least 50% of their car on
my side of the road, forcing me to take evasive action. This also triggers my ire
in the form of a lengthy horn blast and some ‘Get the hell over!’ gesturing.
With this dangerous habit so common here,
it’s little surprise to me that Slovenia is ranked in the bottom third of EU
countries when it comes to road safety and has more than double the road deaths
per million inhabitants, compared to the UK.
It’s a strange and somewhat sad situation
here, that Slovenians seem to have an unusually high frequency of neighbourly
feuds and disputes; apparently, neighbourly envy is deep seated.
There’s a well-known Slovene saying which
illustrates this trait:
Naj sosedu crkne krava, če je že sami nimamo.
It translates as:
‘May the neighbour’s cow die, if we don’t have one.’
The longer version of the story goes
something like this: there were three neighbours, each owning a cow. One day, the
cow of the first neighbour dies. This makes the other two very happy. Then the
cow of the second neighbour dies. This makes the last neighbour even happier
still – neither of his neighbours has a cow, yet he still does!
But then he realises that his now cow-less
neighbours will come begging for milk, so he then wishes for his own cow to die
too, so that he doesn’t have to give them anything.
The rather sad meaning of the story is that Slovenians would rather see their own cow die, before having to share anything with their neighbours.
Now, I must point out that most of my neighbours have been very generous and very sharing. Despite hearing several stories from Slovenian friends and colleagues about their neighbourly problems, I took the whole ‘hate thy neighbour’ trait, as an exaggeration.
That was until I myself started having my own problems with one of my neighbours, which now makes the cow story sound quite accurate. Though my dispute involves neither dead cows nor any calls for milk, I have personally experienced the unfortunate depths to which neighbourly relations can fall, over the silliest and smallest things.
I’ll again say that all my other neighbours have been lovey, helpful and pleasant people, but if this really is as common as I’m led to believe from my Slovene friends, then for me it’s the most (and perhaps only) ugly side of Slovenia that I’ve so far experienced, in what is otherwise a very pleasant place.
4. Service Culture: Not Very Proactive
As with much of the rest of continental
Europe, table service is the norm here and going to the bar (like in the UK) is
generally not the done thing. This is good. I like not having to waste my time
queuing, waving a tenner at the bartender hoping he’s going to serve me next
rather than the guy who just barged in front of me.
However, in more than half of the places I go to, I find that although the table service upon first seating yourself is quite prompt, follow up attention is much less so. Normally you need to flag down the server, rather than getting a proactive ‘Would you like another drink/something else/ the bill?’ attentiveness.
I reiterate, there are some places with great service but there’s definitely room for improvement in the many of cafes and bars I’ve visited.
5. Unreliable Tradesmen: No shows and Radio Silence
It’s not unique to Slovenia by any stretch,
but I’ve found it even more difficult than the UK to get tradesmen here to
actually turn up when they say they’re going to turn up. I’ve had numerous
dealings with various trades over the years, and more often then not, they have
not appeared when they said they would.
This has been especially frustrating when I have driven two hours to Koroška on the agreed date just to meet with a tradesman, only for a no show, then radio silence, with my calls and texts going unanswered.
This has led to my default position being to expect them not to appear at the agreed time and date, and the acceptance that things always take longer than I want and require more pestering than I’m used to.
So – there it is. I suspect this list might change over the years; some things may improve (my grasp of Slovene grammar for example!) and new items may appear. I make no complaints about life overall here – but there’s always room for improvment.
I’ve been visiting Slovenia since 2007 and living here since 2017. Slovenia is the sixth country and on one of three continents I have lived, so I have some perspective on life in other parts of the world.
In the interest of balance, I also wrote a ‘5 Worst Things About Living In Slovenia’ article too. That was however, a considerably shorter piece, and one that is vastly outweighed by the positive aspects of life here.
1. Natural Splendour: Slovenia Is Extremely Good Looking
I have lived in Europe, North America and Asia (see: For Fukui’s Sake: Two Years in Rural Japan), yet no country I have visited is as consistently beautiful as Slovenia. It’s the type of beauty that constantly punches me in the face and demands my attention.
And it’s not just a handful of hotspots either. Yes, Lake Bled and the old centre of Ljubljana and Piran are the pretty pin-ups of the country, but almost everywhere, from the spikey mountains of the Julian Alps, to the vineyards of the south, to the terracotta towns of the coast, to the villages of the Slovenian hinterlands, makes my heart go boom.
Triple tone aquamarine in Lake Bohinj
2. Weather: It Has A Great Climate
For me, Slovenia has an almost perfect climate. If you like snow, you’ll enjoy Slovenia’s proper, cold, snowy winters. There are ski areas dotted all around the country including Krvavec which is just 30 mins from Ljubljana, plus many more a little further afield.
Slovenian summers are hot, meaning lazy days cooling off on the coast or by one of the lakes or aquamarine rivers. Spring and autumn are ideal inbetweeners; warm days, and crisp evenings. Plus Slovenia gets some really good, heavy thunderstorms, and everyone loves a good storm – right?
Yellow Canoe on blue Bled
3. Lingo: The Level Of English Is Amazingly High
Most Slovenians of a certain age speak English as a second language to a level only rivalled by Scandinavians. Indeed, it would not be possible for me to work for a Slovenian company, were it not for my colleagues’ impressive ability to speak English so fluently.
This is however, a double-edged sword; if you’re trying to learn Slovenian, (which I am), practice at speaking the language on a day-to-day basis can be in short supply. In fact, many Slovenians are tri-lingual, often having a working knowledge of German or Italian in addition to English and their mother tongue.
4. Location: It Has A Great Central Position In Europe
Slovenia prefers to be deemed to be in ‘central’ rather than ‘eastern’ Europe and for good reason. Geographically, it’s much further west than many might realise, bordering Italy and Austria, as well as Hungary and Croatia.
Ljubljana is only 2.5 hours from Venice, 3.5h from Vienna and 2hrs from Zagreb. Politically and culturally too, Slovenia seems to have more in common with western Europe than the (former) eastern bloc, and is modern, developed and advanced.
5. Crime: It’s Super Safe
Though not completely non-existent, crime rates are very low in Slovenia. It’s a country where kids still play in the streets without parental-fear, you can walk most anywhere at any time of day, and people often leave their cars unlocked when in the shops. Statistically, murder rates in Slovenia are the lowest in the EU.
6. The Great Outdoors: It’s Clean And Green
Slovenia has done well to preserve much of its natural beauty and most of the population are respectful of their environment. Litter levels are low and recycling provision is high, and it’s ranked the 3rd most forested country in the Europe. Slovenes love the great outdoors and spend plenty of time hiking, skiing, kayaking, paragliding, rock climbing etc etc.
On a more day-to-day basis, I have been particularly impressed with Ljubljana’s provision of bike lanes. Almost all major roads, and many minor ones, have a designated bike lane, and many even have a bike lane completely separated from the road. This is vastly superior to what I’m used to in the UK and enables me to cycle around much of Ljubljana, without having to worry about getting run down by a car, and encourages the population to use their bike.
7. Tech Jobs: Slovenia is a Blockchain Hotspot
There are lots of interesting start-ups and several established tech companies in Slovenia. A high level of developer talent, combined with a high level of English and a pedigree of programming has led to a petite, yet healthy tech-scene. Some Slovenians have historically sought employment in Germany, the UK or elsewhere, but the growth of Slovenia’s tech scene (especially blockchain and ‘crypto’) is also drawing foreigners to move here.
8. Rural Traditions Remain Alive
In contrast to #7, sometimes living in Slovenia feels like a welcome step back in time. Many things that UK hipsters deem ‘artisanal’ or ‘craft’ and pay big bucks for back home, are just part of everyday life here.
I do wonder however, if the next generation of Slovenian teenagers will continue with such a way of life, when it’s often easier, cheaper and quicker to buy such supplies from the local supermarket, rather than spend two days butchering a pig and making your own sausages, or tending your vineyard every weekend .
I once joined my friends Rok and Ivo at their dad’s wine cottage during the grape harvest. They complained bitterly that they had to put in a huge amount of work throughout the year in order to make wine which was inferior and in the end, more expensive, than what they could buy in the supermarket.
Though I could see their point, I love this aspect to life here, and I hope Slovenes will keep it alive for a long time to come.
Slovenians on the whole enjoy a high quality of life and there seems to be, overall, a good level of equality across the country. Saying this, I have found that Slovenians are a little over-obsessed with salaries.
I often hear them complain that salaries in Switzerland, or Germany or the UK are so much higher than in Slovenia. Whilst it’s true that the average salaries are higher in those countries, I feel Slovenes sometimes overlook the much higher living costs of those countries, and are therefore missing the bigger picture: the actual quality of life in their own country.
Beach time, mountain skiing, great weather, good quality food and great wine, a clean, green and safe country, are all aspects of Slovenian life accessible to the average Slovene, which can’t be said for the UK.
Do you agree with my list? What do you like about living in Slovenia?
Last weekend I headed up to Breg House to do a few jobs I wanted to finish before the winter snows fell. But I ended up getting roped into to dismembering an entire cow and being taught the finer points of butchery at a local family farm.
The farm belonged to my neighbours’ sister/daughter. I had met them several times in the past, and they had invited me to visit. Finally the day had come when I took them up on their kind offer, as I was running some errands in the vicinity of their home.
The farm sits just metres from the Austrian border. Indeed, some of their farmland is actually on the Austrian side of the border, a slightly unusual arrangement which may make their application to the ‘Farmers Without Borders’ organisation somewhat tricky.
It was about 11am when I was welcomed into their house by Marjeta, and instantly offered coffee, and schnapps. As I was quite thirsty I asked for a glass of water. Marjeta produced a small glass of schnapps, along with a small blue bottle from the fridge. This, I assumed to be the water, so uncapped it and took a massive swig only to discover it also contained schnapps! It was quite the faux pas, and I scambled to explain in broken Slovene my mix-up and why I had just downed half a bottle of her homemade Slovenian spirit.
We sat for some time chatting. It was great for me to get a chance to really practice speaking Slovene. As I have previously noted (see: Struggles with Slovene: 6 months of learning Slovenian), one of the downsides of Slovenians being, on the whole, excellent English speakers, is that most of my day to day conversation at work is in English. But in the hinterlands of Koroška, it is often out of necessity that I must (try to) speak Slovene. And though I know I still sound like a caveman, it is the best practice I can get, and I was able to ask numerous questions about life on the farm.
After a round of pork and bread, it was time for me to be put to work. So I headed downstairs to the meat room – to find Dani, the man of the house, and two of their friends Marko and Neva, slicing, dicing and sawing up a cow. They explained that the vast majority of the meat would end up as sausages and salami, with just a few choice cuts being used as steak or mince.
I was intrigued to learn about the process of butchering, so they armed me with a knife, dressed me in an apron, and demonstrated the process of removing the fat from the muscle tissue. Apparently, butchering your own meat is a long-standing, once-common Slovenian tradition. Known as koline, there’s a strong social element combined with the task, so it’s a sort of meat-butchering, sausage-making party. However, the practice is nowadays less prevalent than it once was.
Now, watching my Slovenian workmates, the process looked easy. But in practice, I found it was not. There’s a delicate technique required to gently remove the layer of fat without wasting any meat, and it took me some time to find the right angle of the blade and cutting action that would best allow the fat to come away quickly and in one piece.
I spent the whole afternoon de-fatting and chatting with my fellow butchers. It’s an often fiddly task, but with Neva’s patient tuition, I improved as the day went on. The day was punctuated with cake, coffee and beer breaks to ensure the workforce was kept contented. It was also interesting to really feel and see how different the various cuts of the cow were, in terms of the muscle tissue, fat content and general texture.
Dani was kind enough to give me a full tour of the farm, where he showed me his cow shed, cat collection (they have eight), impressive log supply (no danger of a log crisis here!) and his cider-making operation, where I was given a sample.
By early evening, Danjela and Mitja – the daughter and son – had returned home. Both of them speak excellent English, so I was able to ask some of the more complex questions that my basic Slovene had prevented me from asking. It also happened to be Mitja’s birthday – so yet more cake had to be eaten!
Log on. No danger of log shortage here.
There is something I love about learning how life works here in Koroška. Getting involved in the traditional practices like this is a pleasant contrast to my day job, working for a blockchain company in Ljubljana.
I left with improved blade skills and the desire not to eat another piece of cake for some time.
Ever since my neighbour Jaka, (God rest his Slovenian soul) plied me with his homemade Slivovka – the clear, strong spirit that is plum šnopc (or schnapps) some 10 years ago, I had been eager to join the making of it.
I remember my first visits to my neighbours, when Jaka would dole out the stuff regardless of the hour. Despite the somewhat ‘interesting’ flavour, me being British and therefore legally bound by British etiquette and politeness, I would of course finish the entire glass and remark how delicious Jaka’s šnopc was.
My contorted face clearly didn’t betray my true feelings, and encouraged by my apparent fondness for the spirit and pleased that he had found such a fan of his creation, each time I finished my glass, Jaka would immediately refill it. My protests had no effect and I would be once again faced with the prospect of draining another draught.
I eventually learned that in order to not become drunk on šnopc before midday, I had to fight my British instinct to politely drink all that had been poured, and risk potential offence to my host by leaving my glass at least half full.
Many Slovenes make their own šnopc and I have quite a supply
Since then I have been the lucky recipient of various bottles of homemade šnopc from various Slovene friends, and I have now developed quite a taste for the stuff. Alongside my whiskey collection, I have various bottles of homemade šnopc, including one of Štefka’s 2015 vintages – a fine year.
Unlike in the UK, where the distilling of alcohol without a license is highly illegal, resulting in heavy fines and prison time, in Slovenia it’s permitted and popular, especially in the countryside.
After a decade of drinking it, this weekend, in the Kingdom of Breg, I was finally able to get involved with the making of this most Slovenian spirit.
Purple carpets of Slive (plums) at Breg
Šnaps Team: Assemble!
I sat at the little table outside the house, where I was given – a small glass of schnapps (of course!). It was a clever move by Ančka – the Kingdom of Breg’s matriarch; a little taste of what was to come, if I put in the hard work. And Stage 1 of making Slovenian schnapps is to harvest the raw materials.
The one and only ingredient required for the most popular variety of schnapps is slive – plums. By design, The Kingdom of Breg is rich in this asset; successive generations of residents have planted and maintained a significant orchard of plum trees, the oldest of which are now around 100 years old.
The process started with each tree undergoing a thorough shakedown with a hooked pole. This relieved the branches of their burden and created a purple plum carpet beneath each of the 50 or so trees.
Bojan carrries out a plum tree shakedown
After a quick tutorial on quality control from Štefka, regarding which plums were v redu (OK) to collect, and which were to be rejected, I began to fill my bucket with the purple fruits. Once all our buckets were full, I was tasked with transporting the fruits via wheelbarrow, to the schnapps making HQ – Štefka’s barn – where the contents of each bucket was poured into a large, plastic barrel.
There was no washing of the fruit. Alongside our purple gold, each barrel contained a ‘seasoning’ of grass blades, stalks, the odd leaf, earth, an ant or two and the occasional spider. Once a barrel was full, it was simply sealed and left to liquefy and ferment. Nothing more was added. I appreciated the simplicity of the recipe, and it is probably a reason why making schnapps is so popular in Slovenia.
Future Šnopc: 100% plum (may contain trace amounts of ant, stalk and spider)
Whilst the procedure is simple, the work itself is more taxing than I expected. With thousands of plums to pluck from the ground and dozens of full buckets to be hauled up hilly terrain, it was hard on the back. Štefka alluded to this as we gathered plum after plum, hunched over with bent backs, and she exclaimed:
“Šnopc is expensive!”
I had to agree. For the first couple of hours, I was having great fun in my plum-picking bubble, but by the end of the day, my back was stiff, my body aching, and I was looking forward to the end.
Ančka: matriach of the Kingdom of Breg
Of course, the day was punctuated with numerous pauza – breaks in which I sat with the rest of the work crew: Štefka, her mother and matriarch Ančka, and two more of their friends, and was offered beer, cake, salami, bread as well as a lunch of potato salad, boiled eggs and sausage.
During these breaks I ascertained that each 300 litre barrel of plums would eventually produce about six litres of schnapps. The strange thing is, that neither Štefka, nor Ančka drink the stuff. However, it seems to be a good currency here in the Slovene Hinterlands and therefore a valuable asset to stockpile.
Now the hard work of the plum harvest is done, we must wait until January by which time the plums should have fermented nicely and we’ll be ready for stage 2 of the process; the distillation.