Last month, whilst driving through the beautiful Jesersko valley en route to Breg, I was reminded of a meeting I’d once had there with a man called Davo Karničar, seven years previously.
I had wondered what he was up to now. Was he still climbing up and skiing down the world’s gnarliest peaks? Most probably. I vowed to get in touch with him and see what adventures he had been on since our last meeting.
Sadly there will never be another meeting with Davo. Tragically, I learned he was killed last month whilst felling a tree near his home in Jezersko. He was 56.
Back in 2012, in the wake of a breakup, I’d taken my entire allocation of annual leave in one go and come to Slovenia for five weeks. My plan was to drive solo around the country and meet as many interesting Slovenes as possible.
Thanks to Rok and Ivo – two enterprising young Slovenians I met early on in the trip – I was lucky to be able to arrange conversations with many Slovene characters; bee-keeping experts, wine-makers, and Slovene celebs such as Big River Man (Martin Strel) and Davo Karničar , a world-renowned ski-mountaineer.
Amongst his lengthy list of achievements, Davo was the first man to ski down Everest, and the first to ski down The Seven Summits – the highest peaks on each continent (which incidentaly, he did on a pair Elan skis, the Slovenian brand which sponsored him his whole life). He also skied down the northern wall of the Eiger and the eastern wall of the Matterhorn.
Having a love for mountains and snow myself, I was keen to learn more about him, and Davo was kind enough to take time out from his highly active life, to meet me one September evening.
We had met in the café of a small hotel in Jezersko, Davo’s home valley. The evening was warm and we sat outside, where I watched the Alpine glow come off the spectacular spiky peaks of the mountains that dominate the Jezersko valley. Davo said he had climbed and skied all of them.
Davo was 50 when we met but looked much younger. He had a
wiry, muscular build and a crushing handshake. Like with all the people I met
during that trip, I recorded our conversation. I had always meant to do something
with these stories but never quite got around to it. Hearing about Davo’s
passing, prompted me to dig up that recording and listen to it again.
Davo was not just an extremely accomplished extreme ski-mountaineer, Yugoslavian ski champ, and adventurer, but a visionary, creator, hunter, hard grafter, gardener, father, family man and builder.
At the time of our conversation, he was in the middle of building his own mountain lodge, which would serve the guests that he planned to bring to the area for his climbing tours. He showed a deep love for his home of Jezersko and had dreams of sharing it with a larger audience.
“Skiing and mountaineering wasn’t a sport I chose to get into. Here in Jezersko, it’s just normal. My mother, my brothers, my sisters – we spent all our time climbing and skiing our mountains”.
Davo was cheerful, funny and friendly; we laughed a lot. I enjoyed hearing about his adventures, his family, his philosophy and how he lived his life in such a beautiful, wild place. He explained his ideas of trying to live from the land as much as possible. He said he took deer and chamois from the forest, which supplied half of his meat requirements for his family.
We discussed Slovenian independence, and his hopes for the new Slovenia, which hadn’t come to fruition. He mentioned fears of Slovenes losing their identity being such a new and small country.
He also talked about his visions for developing mountain tourism in his home town and the problems of being a well-known personality in a small village. (Although I noted it also had its benefits; when I went to settle the bill, the waiter had waived it, because I was ‘with Davo’).
Although Davo lived life to the full, racking up far more achievements
than most, I’m sure he would have had many more adventures to come, had his
life not been cut short. His death is a great loss to Jezersko, Slovenia, and
the entire mountain-loving world.
I only spent one hour with Slovenia’s most famous ski-mountaineer,
but learning of Davo’s death made me sad. Our conversation had ended with
invites to get in touch, go skiing together, and visit his lodge.
I never did. And now I wish I had.
It’s a harsh reminder to do things before it’s too late.
When I first visited Ljubljana, back in the late noughties, one of the things that struck me were the number of people on bikes.
Everywhere I went, I saw cyclists weaving through town. Never rushed, the pace of the Slovene two-wheeler was leisurely. Bells pinged as basket-equipped bikes cruised past carrying shopping, books and bags.
It was a welcome sight to see so many bikes, and now that I’m living here, I too have taken to being a two-wheeler for almost all of my city commuting. Because when it comes to cycling in the city, Ljubljana has clearly tired to create an environment that encourages cycling – and it has worked.
So why is Ljubljana a good place to get around by bike? Well, I think there are four factors that have made it such a bike-friendly city.
1. Bike lanes: they’re everywhere
Coming from Edinburgh, where there are a few isolated bike paths, but getting from A to B almost always requires predominately braving traffic, Ljubljana has an amazing bike path network. I can cycle to almost anywhere in the city, on a bike-only lane. I can (and do) even cycle to the out-of-town shopping centre (BTC), entirely via cycle paths.
Even better, most of the time these are completely separate from the road, either on a raised pavement, or completely segregated from the pavement or road.
Almost all traffic lights have a green bike, alongside the green man, and bike travel has been properly integrated alongside pedestrian and car travel.
2. The terrain: Ljubljana is flat
Within the city limits, there are few hills, so you can get
to almost anywhere without going up or down hill. In part, this has probably
aided he construction of the cycle network, and it certainly means that old,
heavy, or single-gear bikes, can still cruise along and get you from A to B, without
having to slog up any hills.
3. The weather: Slovenia has a nice climate
The amount of warm and generally dry weather in Slovenia (compared to the UK!) means that the times I can make a journey by bike is vastly greater than in Edinburgh, because most of the time it’s not raining.
4. Bickelj: shared bike scheme
Shared bikes are now very common in many cities of the world, and Ljubljana’s offering – Bicikelj – adds another spoke to the biker’s wheel. Costing just €3 per year – as long as you return it within the hour – it’s essentially free bike hire.
They only have one gear and are heavy, but they are solid city bikes, with a basket, lights, mudguards and a bell.
You need to register with a credit card, so it’s not quite so easy for the casual tourist (though not impossible) but for residents it’s great.
On dry days, I’ll take my own bike, which is faster and more comfortable than the single-gear, tank-like bicikeljs. But if it’s wet on the ground, or rain is predicted, I’ll jump on a bicikelj to save my own steed from rust. It’s also great if you just want to go one way, and take a bus back.
These four factors have combined to create a bike-friendly
Ljubljana. Indeed bikes can often be the fastest form of transport in the city.
Certainly, during busier traffic times, bikes can outrun cars, and most of the
time, they are faster than the buses (I know this as the bike route into town
runs alongside the bus route, and I normally beat it).
So, if you’re lucky enough to live in Ljubljana, ditch the car, skip the crowded bus, and get a bike. Healthier, greener, ‘funner’ and free.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve seen quite a few interesting animals living here in Slovenia. I am yet to see a bear (which are relatively common in the south of the country), but when it comes to Slovenia’s smaller creatures, I’ve managed to snap quite a few.
Here is a little picture post of a selection of Slovenia’s animals I have seen and pictured so far. [EDIT: there’s a bug with the captions function so I have disabled it for now.]
In this digital era, few people buy films in physical form. Yet over the last year or so, I have been steadily building a Breg House Film collection, entirely in DVD format.
Well, though Breg House is not entirely ‘off-grid’ (it is spring fed and has its own septic tank, but runs off mains electricity) I have so far refrained from installing a Wi-Fi connection. It would be possible to do so – the neighbours have internet – but I prefer to keep it unconnected, meaning disconnecting from the real world is easier.
Therefore, on those rainy autumn evenings, or those icy winter nights, when I’m sat in the wooden lounge, tending my Piazzetta wood stove, I wanted to have a library of films that I love, ready on hand.
You might ask why I don’t simply use a streaming service like Netflix or Amazon Prime to download movies and watch them on my laptop. Well, unfortunately, unlike the music industry, where there is now a single source providing almost any track I want, there is yet to be the equivalent of Spotify for film.
On the contrary, things are getting worse; the film streaming landscape is becoming ever more fragmented with the arrival of various competing services, each with their own set of content.
So you now have to subscribe to several services depending on which network currently owns the rights to the film or TV show you happen to want to watch. It seems that for the foreseeable future at least, we will experience a heavily fractured streaming landscape, with no (legal) single source of film.
And the fact is, many films – especially older, classic movies – are not available on Netflix, or Amazon Prime Video as part of their subscription offering.
Let’s take a few examples of movies I’ve recently wanted to watch: Apocalypse Now, Terminator (1 and 2), The Full Monty, Princess Mononoke, Alien, District 9, Seven Samurai, Gattaca, Moonrise Kingdom (I could go on..) – at the time of writing, none of these films were available to watch as part of the Amazon Prime Video or Netflix subscription.
So, on top of the internet connection requirement, and the need to pay a subscription to these services, you also have the ownership question. Netflix has steadily reduced its selection of films over the years and turned to producing its own content, as the licence for said films has expired and been re-acquired by networks who are now launching their own streaming services.
Whilst Netflix does produce some great TV series stuff of its
own, often I just want to watch a specific film, and if it’s not on Netflix or
Amazon prime video – I can’t. With a DVD, I have the film forever. Aside from
loss or damage, I’ll be able to watch that film for years to come. With streaming
services, a film can be available this month, gone the next.
Marry all this with the fact that in the UK, you can walk into any charity shop and find a healthy selection of DVDs starting from 50p, and it means that building a curated collection of films I love (and some I want to watch but just somehow never got round to seeing) is the cheapest, most sensible (and most fun), option. So whilst the CD really is now almost entirely redundant, the DVD lives on.
And finally – there’s just something nice about being able to browse a film collection in physical form.
Hence, I encourage all Breg House visitors to bring a DVD or two (as long as I don’t have it already) to help build The Mightly Breg House Film Collection, which hosts the largest selection of English language movies in the entire realm of Koroška. Probably.
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.