Wednesday, April 18, 2012


After three cities (four if you count Pisa, where our flight back to Italy landed) in nine days, with countless transportation connections, a lot of late nights, various excessive and degenerate behaviors, finally coming back home in Florence just in time to start another week of school and work, we did what any reasonable couple would do. We went to Slovenia.

We did wait a couple of days, but then we hopped on a bus and went to Ljubjana, the capital of this exactly-as-old-as-my-students country, previously part of Yugoslavia. You might well be thinking, why did you go to Slovenia? And why so quickly on the heels of spring break? The answer is simple. We went because we could. Gonzaga-in-Florence organizes several weekend trips for students. I had talked with the Travel Learning Program staff earlier in the semester about the possibility of going on the Southern France trip (no go -- not surprisingly, that was a popular one), and they steered me towards the Slovenia trip. I guess Slovenia doesn't have quite the name recognition as France, because there was still room on the bus. So, following the rule "don't say no unless you have a really good reason," we signed up.
(not my photo -- you can tell because it is summer in this photo!)
I have to admit that I was, and to some extent still am, embarrassingly uninformed about Slovenia, to the extent that I had to look up the capital and the official language on Wikipedia the night before we left. It's a very small country -- perhaps the size of Washington state? -- and Ljubjana, the capital city, is about the size of Spokane. The country is famous for almost nothing, either historically or currently. It was essentially untouched by and did not participate in the war in Bosnia Herzegovina. It was a fairly sleepy part of the Austrian empire for several centuries, and then a fairly sleepy part of the Eastern Block (I was amused to see that the closest reference to the Soviet Union found anywhere in the National Museum of History was a line about how the twentieth century was a time "of experimentation with socialization.") I did discover one endearing fact: it is the setting for Twelfth Night, (my favorite Shakespearean comedy, should that ever arise as a trivia question) as it was known as the Illyrian provinces in the Early Modern Era. I guess Sebastian and Viola's ship crashed into the, er, swamps that constitute the country's coastal area. Shakespeare never was that good with geography.

Ljubjana (the first j is silent; the second functions as an y) is an fairy tale of a city. There is a castle hanging on a promontory above the city. The city itself was destroyed by an earthquake in 1511 and was rebuilt in a Baroque Renaissance style. There was another earthquake in the 19th century, which made room for a number of truly stunning Austrian Secessionist (basically, art nouveau) buildings. In the 1920s and 30s, the public spaces in downtown, including the large market area, the river walk, and several bridges, were almost completely renovated by Joze Plecnik. His vision was only finished two years ago with the completion of the wonderfully grotesque Butcher's bridge, decorated with terrifically creepy statues of largely flayed bodies, some bronze internal organs and mutated frogs here and there, and the best, most horrible Adam and Eve sculpture I've ever seen.

Actually, the Butcher's bridge is a bit of an anomaly, because the rest of downtown Ljubjana is shockingly picturesque. Most of Plecnik's style seems to be a curvilinear yet beefy classicism, which does a surprisingly effective job of blending the Baroque and Nouveau style of the city together. The river is flanked on both sides by broad, well lit avenues lined with cafes, bars, and boutiques. An enormous and deep pink Baroque church presides over the main square, and very cool dragons guard the aptly named Dragon Bridge. And then the castle seems to float above everything. The entire city seems brand new, well scrubbed, and ready for a Disneyland Main Street Parade.

What we did not find in Ljubjana was good food, alas, although the fault may have been ours. We ate some shockingly bad pizza, some very good Slovene bread, and some otherwise fairly generic food. We both avoided the "meat cheese" the hotel offered in the breakfast buffet. Fortunately, we had much better luck eating in Bled, the resort town on the shores of alpine Lake Bled. Lake Bled is like a smaller, post-Soviet Lake Como, by which I mean that, like Lake Como, it is shockingly beautiful and surprisingly Alp-y. It showed no signs of ever having had Lake Como's money, anything approaching Como's tourist industry, or Como's chicness. But, Lake Bled does have an island with a 15th center church on it, accessible only by gondola-like row boats, which Como does not have.

On the advice of our Slovene tour guide, who was born in Bled, for lunch we tried Burek, the local answer to a hamburger. It's a sort of meat pie, only flakier. Imagine a cross between a meat-filled danish and  spanikopita, except with meat instead of spinach. If what is coming to mind seems high on the grease and salt scale, difficult to eat, and pretty much destined to ruin whatever item of clothing you are currently wearing, then you get the idea. It was also really satisfying. The meat was simple ground beef (I think), but it had a subtle mix of spices -- I'm pretty sure there was some paprika, but also some nutmeg and maybe a touch of oregano -- that was really delightful. We also took our guide's advice and had a cream cake from the best sweet shop in Bled. It was good, but I don't think it was the cream cake to transform my understanding of what a cream cake could be, which is pretty much what she had promised me. I suppose it would have been difficult to meet that expectation, since I had no idea what a cream cake was to begin with. It was, at heart, whipped cream on custard with some sort of cookie base. Is that what you understand cream cake to be? Anyway, it was good, wholesome creaminess, but not exactly a revelation.

To top the trip off, the bus stopped at Postojna Caves. I've never quite understood the draw of caves as a tourist stop, but these are pretty cool. They are a Unesco World Heritage Site, which is euro-zone for National Monument, so they were extremely accessible, with a four kilometer train ride in and out and a 2 kilometer guided and incredibly well lit tour. The calcium formations really were breathtaking, diverse in color and in shape. I still probably won't go out of my way to see caves, but now because I'm pretty sure no cave will ever be as large or as pretty as the Postojna caves.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Spring Break, part 3: London, or, I'll Eat Ten More

Wednesday morning, we woke up in Argegno, Lake Como (I was pleased and frankly a little surprised that my encounter with missoltini the night before had not had disastrous consequences). We took, in order, a bus, a train, the subway, another bus, a flight, another train, and the London Underground, and by evening, we found ourselves in Soho, in the heart of London. All connections worked and were on time, so here's three cheers to public transportation!

We find a lot of our accommodations through AirBnB. The name is a little misleading, since basically none of the listings are bed and breakfasts. Instead, they are anything from rooms up to free standing homes, about half for commercial medium-length rentals about about half just people's places. We talked with one guy in Portland who lists his place every summer while he and his wife teach for NOLS up in Alaska. I know that AirBnB had a disaster, both of the real and the PR kind, last year, but so far we have had really good luck with them. As with any of these social networking style cites, it pays to read the comments CAREFULLY. So, no promises, but we found our great loft in Portland through the site, and we found this stunning flat in Soho. The location was almost miraculous, since it was smack dab in the middle of one of the busiest pedestrian neighborhoods I have ever experienced, and yet somehow felt tucked away and super quiet. The flat itself was well decorated, but the best thing about it was the ginormous rooftop terrace. No view, but so nice to have outdoor space in which to lounge.

London has a very special place in my heart, and not only because basically every piece of literature that I love (and study) get written there. The summer after my sophomore year in college, my parents wonderfully paid for me to join my then best friend Anjali for three weeks in London. She was just coming off her own year abroad in Rome (where she reverted to carnivorousness and, I think, had her first taste of alcohol outside of the Eucharist), and was staying with her extended family in, I believe, St. John's Wood, which was then a heavily East Indian neighborhood.

The trip was equal parts fascinating and wonderful and awkward. My commitment to art and literature was cemented, and my friendship with Anjali frayed.  The most important part of the trip, however, was that I became acquainted with the London Underground. I had done a decent amount of high-responsibility traveling basically on my own because of my horse, but this was the first time I had traveled totally solo, and the first time I had left the country (except for drives into Canada). I was pretty nervous about getting lost, about getting robbed, apparently about starving to death (I found my journal from that trip recently, and it was all about food -- no surprise! -- but mostly about the price and abundance of food. I was very happy to have discovered ploughman's lunches at pubs, which usually provided a lot of food for very little money, and I loved fish and chips for the same reason). Anyway, all that anxiety just melted away once I realized I understood the tube. I couldn't get lost! I could go anywhere! I was master of the city! It was one of the most empowering moments of my life, right up there with the time I took a 6'6" foot jump in warm-up by accident and cleared it, the time I stood up to Roland Greene during the oral defense of my dissertation, and the time I ran troublemaker in Alberton Gorge without having to swim.

London is an amazing city, and I wonder if it is maybe having a particularly shining moment. There was construction everywhere, and much of it had to do with public spaces large and small. Leicester Square was closed for construction, and the gardens in Covent Garden were being worked on. Everything seemed gleamingly clean. While I would normally say that was just in contrast with Italian cities, but we actually saw a guy with a steam wand and scraper removing gum from Carnaby Street. We were there for four nights, and that was no where near enough time to do everything even on our short list of must sees. We did make it to the Tate Modern, which was astounding, and to the British Museum, which was awe-inspiring. We did not make it to the National Library, the Tate British, the Tower. We didn't even see any theater!
(the punk/goth scene in Camden Town)
What we did do was gorge ourselves on food. One of the results of reverse-colonization is that London has an amazing diversity of cultures and their foods represented on their streets. Many of the other benefits are, of course, less desirable, but this one is definitely a plus. We had Indian twice, and never even ventured to East End where the good Indian restaurants are. We had Thai. We had amazing dumplings from a cart in the Stables Market in Camden Town. I ordered a restrained three of them, ate them all immediately, and then went back for ten more. Soho is right next to Chinatown, which allowed for a late night, post-drinking run for crispy duck pancakes, with actually crispy crispy duck! I ate ten on those, and then could have eaten ten more, maybe ten to the power of ten more. Three months in Italy, with its restrained use of spice so that the quality of the ingredients can shine through, and my tastebuds were prepped for some sizzle and spice.

(not my photo)
Did I mention that we found great Italian in London? We had a mid-day snack at Princi, an Italian cafeteria with the most beautiful little desserts. We had the millefoglie, which was layers of flacky filo interspersed with cream and berries. Sublime. It was so good we went back the next day and had exactly the same thing. If I lived in Soho, I would do that every day of my life, body shape be damned.

We also went dancing. Or, more precisely, we went to a dance club and ogled. I have never been to the kind of big city dance club where whether you get in is based on how good looking you are, so when we decided to go to the fairly well-known Punk, I was highly dubious. The benefits of being old is that even though I thought we were heading out ridiculously late (ten thirty), the club was still so empty they were trying to fill it up, so not only did we get in, we got in without a cover. The club started to fill up in the next hour, mostly with a group of about twenty kids who clearly knew each other. At the risk of sounding like a pearl-clutcher: I cannot believe what those girls were wearing. Granny panties. As outerwear. Lacy, sparkly, leather, and over sheer hose, but still clearly granny panties. It is an honest to god trend, and not some ridiculous, runway-only, not-in-real-life monstrosity. The only girls not in granny panties where in micro-minis that actually were shorter. Scales reset quickly, and one look at the brick house in a dress so short, shiny and tight even Heidi Klum would have passed it by, and the granny panties started to look downright chic. Especially the black embroidered lace number with the mesh booties. Keep in mind, neither Jeremy nor I packed anything approaching club wear, so we are both basically in jeans and t-shirts.
(also not my photo)
Anyway, the music was good, but by midnight nothing much was happening except the swilling of alcohol out of bottles at tables and posing, so we headed out. Given our attire, I think they were just as happy we were gone, since the place was filling up with the young and fashionable. You would think that, halfway around the world from home, fifteen hundred miles from Florence, in a city of eight million, my drunk run for chinese food would have been reasonably safe. But no -- just outside of china town, someone grabs my shoulders and says "Tredennick!" Three of my Gonzaga in Florence students, one of whom seemed thrilled to see me, one who seemed dazed, and one who said, several minutes into the interview, "O my god, you're my professor!" Makes one feel like a dog on their hind legs.

Anyway. London. Go there. Eat a lot. See art. Talk English. Can anything be better?