It’s been a warm day in Domžale, and humid too. I arrived yesterday evening after what felt like endless miles crawling up and then coasting down Austrian mountain passes, above dandelion-flecked meadows, with road and railway ribbling along past towns with names like Spittal an der Drau. I’m not so fond of manicured Alpine landscapes, at least not the inhabited ones; the predictability and tidiness of it all makes me think of the wild jaggedness that they have lost. The rain didn’t help, either, decapitating the mountains’ majesty with fog, and leaving only the staid, mannered human landscape below. Eventually the change of train conductor to one in a blue-green suit alerted me to the fact that we had crossed into Slovenia, where I was met by Breda at Ljubljana train station – which feels like a sleepy provincial station somewhere in the past. I rather fancied that there should be a station-master in a jacket with brass buttons, saluting the train as a cat slept on a painted wooden bench.
Breda and her friend Lynda drove us to a gostilna or pub, where we ate some excellent food, chatted, and then were unexpectedly serenaded by mariachis – probably the last thing that I was expecting, but fun all the same. In the middle of a spectacular rainstorm, we then drove back and I collapsed into bed, looking forward to a better night’s sleep.
Today, Breda and I mainly just chatted; over breakfast, on the short walk into town (short because, although it is the ninth largest city in Slovenia, Wikipedia tells me that in 2012, Domžale had only around 12,000 inhabitants, or around quarter of a Salisbury); at the market; over coffee; over lunch; back at the house, and so on. It’s amazing how much you can have to talk about with someone you’ve only met in childhood – as I have said before, you only need to have one loved person in common and you have a whole world of conversation.
It’s been really enjoyable – a wide range of subjects often including filling in gaps in each other’s knowledge of my grandfather and Breda’s mother Ida, and so on and so on. One of the nice things about storytelling of this nature is the amount of information about society and attitudes more widely that are coded into it; recollections of Communism obviously enter into this, and it’s easy to forget (especially so if you have been to Poland or Russia, where so much of what was old was erased by WW2) that not all of Eastern Europe was grim apartment blocks, though Domžale does have some of those.
But there’s a lot of continuity. Breda pointed out several businesses that have been in the same family for generations. One of these, at the end of Breda’s street not 25m down the road, is a bakery belonging to a Pavel. Delightfully, his father, also a baker, also a Pavel if I understood right, was the baker during the war; and Ida, who also lived in the same house as Breda (in fact, Breda was born there), used to make trips there before setting off to Austria for work. She would buy good artisanal bread, and give it to my grandpa when he was a prisoner of war. So the cheese roll that I ate with my breakfast this morning came from the same oven that sustained him seventy years ago. I found this thrilling.
All in all, much seems to have survived Yugoslavian Communism, which as an ideology seems to me to have had rather softer edges than elsewhere, though not entirely so. Ida, who had had a career during and after the war, reached a level of seniority in her job where further progression would have required her to join the Party; she was a strong Catholic and this did not sit well with her, and eventually this was one reason she gave up her job and married Franc, who was twenty years older than her. He adopted Breda and she gained a father. I’m sometimes struck by the dilemmas of this sort that existed under Communism, but to pretend that we have no such choices to make in capitalist democracies, or that our choices have no consequences, is a big mistake.
The other thing that I enjoyed was Breda’s recollections of time spent in London in 1966. It’s always interesting to hear the reflections of an outsider on your country. Yugoslavia, as a non-aligned state, was a lot more open than countries under Russian influence, and Breda was able to travel, first when my grandpa wangled her a job at the hospital where he worked (and where I was later born), and later much more widely when she worked for Adria, the Slovene airline. She came to London expecting to improve her English at work but in fact worked mostly with migrants – Iranians, Norwegians, and Irish among others – so some things about the NHS have not changed much down the years. But there were some other stories I really liked – a snooty ward sister who had mistrustfully remarked on all her Communist ideas, and another time told her that she was not allowed to speak to the doctors – to which Breda’s retort was that my grandfather was her uncle!
And possibly best of all, Breda’s experiences of shopping in London. When she grew up in Domžale, there was only one food shop in town – the same chain as in the rest of Yugoslavia, with the same limited range of goods, and the same affordable prices. When Breda went into town and went to a shop to buy nylons, and then remarked to my granny on the exorbitant price, my granny was not surprised: she had seen the bag, which came from Harrods!
Tomorrow, having booked myself into the youth hostel there, I’m off to Klagenfurt, where I can share my grandfather’s photos of camp life with the man from the museum. On Monday it’s back for a mosey around in Ljubljana and maybe later some walking in the Julian Alps.