Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Slovenian beer fountains I saw back in 1987 were a bit different in conception, but to each his own.

The immediate pretext for this post is a news item that got much play earlier this year, then disappeared amid the nation's vastly reduced attention span.

This Slovenian Town Is All About Beer, So It’s Building a Beer Fountain, by Aarian Marshall (City Lab)

Could fountains of beer be a business proposition? That’s the bet of a Slovenian town called Žalec, population 20,000, which has announced plans to build a pragmatic monument to one of its best known exports: alcohol.

According to the BBC, by way of the Slovenian paper Dnevnik, the proposal was given the go-ahead this week with help from Mayor Janko Kos, who’s argued that beer fountains will be a tourist draw.

I had to look at the map: Žalec looks to be about 40 miles northwest of Ljubljana, toward Maribor. These are famous brewing places names in Slovenia, a place I've been only once.

Following is an excerpt from an unfinished travelogue ("Red Stars, Black Mountains") about my 1987 journey through then-Yugoslavia. Traveling stupidly on an evening train from Trieste, in Italy, Ljubljana was to be my first glimpse of the country, which was torn asunder by violence only four years later.

Slovenia came out of it largely unscathed, and I'd love to make it back there.

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Returning to the Trieste train station in early evening with a slight glow from restrained dinnertime libations, I suffered the first gentle lancing of my sanguine mood. Rounding the corner to the side platform, I saw the waiting, rusted, elemental, purely functional Yugoslav train with only three passenger cars; sans frills, one might say, and far older than the trains I'd been riding in Italy, Switzerland and Austria.

It was far dirtier, too, and I dreaded that first peek inside the all-important WCs (restrooms). Even on the most modern trains of the time, with the possible exception of the French TGVs, there was a direct path between commode and the tracks over which one was traveling – making for an interesting experience when flushing in cold weather.

Clean loos were more tolerable under the overall circumstances, but as I would soon learn, hygiene was about to become variable, although in fairness to the Slovenes, it was a phenomenon that grew in proportion to southward travel in Yugoslavia.

Given that my only previous trip into the East Bloc had been made aboard a sleek Finnish tour bus, this opening glimpse of a Yugoslav train very much set the tone for what lay ahead in terms of transport. Eastern Europe was going to be a bit different.

People began arriving to board this so-called "express," and many of them were encumbered with bags, bundles and boxes. Trieste is a port town, and a border town, and the city's final geographical resting place was much in dispute just after World War II ground down. Eventually matters coalesced, the powers that be bartered around remote conference tables, Yugoslavia's leader Marshall Tito (Josip Broz, a Croat by birth) backed away, and Trieste remained Italian, whence it had become only after being forcibly detached from the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire at the First World War's close.

Consequently, a sizable population of ethnic Slovenes became Italian citizens, most living in the Trieste's suburbs and hinterlands. Ethnic Slovenes like these appeared to be the outbound weekend riders on the train to Ljubljana, and it was easy to surmise that most were visiting relatives on the other side. Little Italian was spoken apart from one conductor, who did not pass through the border check.

It was as though the dilapidated Trieste rail siding was actually an extension of Yugoslav territory without the intervening kilometers. More people got on the train than got off as we rumbled slowly east, into the trademark blackened mountains for which the Balkans are celebrated and feared, these being oddly brightened by the sun setting behind us.

For me, the border crossing itself was cursory, and my passport merited little more than a glance. The visa inside it was duly stamped by the youthful, uniformed guard with the rifle slung over his shoulder, and yet it wasn't threatening. It all seemed unusually relaxed, a condition seldom to be repeated in the remainder of the Bloc that summer. The locals aboard had it somewhat harder, and their packages were inspected rather closely, but there were no incidents. Quite a few of them debarked at numerous stops following the border passage.

In the end, it took three hours to make the trip, and finally, just shy of 22:30, the train shuddered to a halt at Ljubljana's central station. Excited, I bounded down the steps into a warm and humid night, hoisted my pack, turned to follow the crowd, and was greeted by what might have been the outskirts of the Woodstock gathering, circa 1969, minus Yasgur’s farm.

In fact, a major league bacchanal was in progress.

Chorus lines of drunken young men were chugging bottled beer, the liquid streaming down their faces as they weaved across the rails singing verses of unknown songs, with nary a woman in sight. To my right, a group of them were merrily urinating on a rail yard wall. Some were half-heartedly wrestling with each other while others cheered.

Others were projectile vomiting, veritable fountains of pivo.

By contrast, the train station personnel, although obviously harried by the mayhem, seemed to look upon it with remarkably blank faces, as though it was a weekly performance they'd seen many times before. The scene was destined to remain a mystery for a few days, until I was on the train from Ljubljana to Zagreb, at which point my seatmate and new acquaintance, Rady, explained that the party I'd witnessed was in fact a regular occurrence.

The revelers were the new class of military draftees, celebrating their final night of freedom before shipping out to serve the Motherland for two years. But I didn't know this yet. Standing on the platform and watching the crazy party prompted a question.

Why the hell had I come here?

As throngs of thoroughly inebriated future Yugoslav soldiers milled through Ljubljana's otherwise deserted train station, I found myself an object of curiosity and attention, although it must be said that none of the scrutiny was threatening, and the general mood remained one of fraternity party revelry. Perhaps I was the only backpacker on the scene.

Picking my way gingerly through the ranks of the fallen, and avoiding numerous evil smelling puddles, I scanned the strange directional signs in an effort to locate the path into the station's nerve center. Two stood out: "Informacija," which I judged to be "information," and a pictogram of bank notes and coins.

I'd passed from Italy to Yugoslavia, and also from lira to dinars. In pre-Euro times, every border crossing required exchanging money into new currencies. In 1987, there were few if any ATMs in Western Europe, certainly none in the East Bloc, and the credit card in my neck pouch would prove to be almost useless in the East outside of special "hard currency" shops.

Instead, one changed money the old fashioned way, with actual dollars or American Express traveler's checks. I needed to save my small denomination American banknotes for use as wheel-greasers in tight spots, so if the station exchange couldn't or wouldn't trade dinars for Am-Ex, I'd be looking at a cashless night crashing with the crazy recruits.

The man behind the only populated window miraculously spoke a bare minimum of English and was able to answer my questions. Yes, he would cash a traveler's check. No, he could not help me find accommodations. No (gesturing at the cacophony), the baggage check room was quite full. He began slapping down one hundred dinar notes, one after the other, until the pile was an inch high. Not a bad rate: $100 per inch.

It was late, but I had a guidebook, and the search for lodgings commenced on foot. Public transportation had shut down, and there was a scarcity of streetlights, but I managed to navigate a half-mile to the first university-affiliated youth hostel. There were padlocks on the door.

The second hostel listed defied all efforts to locate it, there was no one on the street to ask even if I'd been inclined to do so, and it was well after midnight, so I reversed course and got back to the train station area, where I remembered there being a hotel of the more conventional variety.

A desk clerk finally responded to my repeated buzzing and offered the non-negotiable terms: Roughly a quarter-inch of my hard-earned dinar wad, or more than twice the rate I had been expecting to pay for a bed, but notions of a shower and bed were strong, and I agreed, though only for one night. On Saturday morning, I'd visit the youth & student travel desk and inquire after cheaper digs.

I did, and found a $10 bunk in three-bed room. The weekend was now free for exploring Ljubljana -- a sister city of Cleveland, Ohio – by foot.

Then as now, Slovenia seemed out of place, tied to Yugoslavia but far more Central European than Balkan. The hilly setting in Ljubljana reminded me of Salzburg, in Austria, and the red tiled roofs were a Mediterranean flourish resting atop imperial-era Habsburg buildings.

There were stone dragons lining the old downtown bridge and a market in the square; tarnished copper stains and chipped columns; the widespread occurrence of public spitting; and a curious aroma in the air that eventually registered as coal smoke.

In the old town, there was a pizzeria by the river, and I splurged on a small pie accompanied by draft Union Pivo, the hometown brewery, which I managed to locate on one of my walks. However, it was more cost effective to drink from the bottle. On Sunday, in despair that none of the stores would be open, I strolled past a line of people waiting to enter one that was doing business, later emerging with three half-liters of Union to be consumed while sitting on a park bench gazing at the hilltop castle.

Where the suburbs began, so did the lines of unpainted gray housing blocks that were Yugoslavia's solution to warehousing its postwar population. In these neighborhoods there were more examples of commerce than might be imagined, mostly products being vended from wooden kiosks: Cosmetics, street food and newspapers. Each neighborhood of housing blocks had a section built in for ground-level shopping, drinking and dining, with variable selections of goods.

On Monday, I returned to the station, bustling not with drunkards but daily commuters, and bought a train ticket for Zagreb, Croatia … and a fateful meeting.

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