Thursday, July 23, 2009


Next, we headed to the University in Koper to meet Taja Kramberger, another major contemporary poet. We’d seen her house earlier that day, and it looked like the setting for an urban fairy tale:

Taja met us at the “American Corner” at the University, a room full of American periodicals, books, and media.

Taja talked about her work as an anthropologist and poet. She read her poems and talked about the work she does uncovering voices of Slovenian women writers from the past, those whose works have been largely ignored in Slovenian culture, which, like America and much of Europe, has an inborn patriarchal structure.

My notes from her talk are mostly fragments that no longer make sense out of context. I wrote in my notebook, “to stand somewhere, not move with currents.” This might have referred to her discussion of moving from Lubljiana to Koper, though in some ways I prefer it to remain a mystery. I also wrote down the name, Sasa Vegri, who I believe is a Slovenian poet. I wrote down a detail about her father working as an assistant to a nurse in a lab during WWII like Primo Levi the chemist. I wrote down “science as refuge.”

I wrote down this fragment from one of her poems:

“The earth claimed her mother…the sky stole her father.”

Her work has been translated into eleven languages, and now I’m search of the English (though perhaps I will have to learn Slovenian just so I can read more of her work!)

She took us on a tour of the university—the main building used to be a prison and some of the details from the original building were kept and repurposed in the new building:

She showed us the library, which was beautifully designed with cube shelves and a staircase of wood and glass:

After the tour, she led us again into the streets of Koper for dinner. Here she is walking just ahead of me and talking to Wendy:

And here she is again at dinner with some of us, just steps from the water:

At some point that day or the day before, Nick Benson, another poet, and I made the discovery that we went to the same high school!! What are the odds? Two grads of Exeter who both attend Vermont College and both decide to go on the trip to Slovenia in 2009. ??!!? So we decided to use the Koper setting for a pic to send to the alumni bulletin. It took a few times to get a good one.

Stop laughing Nick!

No seriously….

Now I couldn’t keep from laughing.

Okay, once more now:


On the way back from dinner I took a picture of Nick and Glenn next to a memorial statue. They were not actually trying to imitate the statue, but the resemblance is curious:

Here is a view of the coast away from the big barges and ships:

Here is a picture of captain and co-captain of the white van:

Here is a picture of the whole crew from the rental car caravan:


We gathered in the main square of Koper before splitting off into separate groups to wander the city. The clock tower is a good reference point when navigating the city:

One of the buildings in the main square was under construction, and even the tarp covering the building illustrated the architectural charm of the city:

I set off towards the shore with Domenic and Laurie Alberts (also a fiction writer). Even though I’d worn hiking boots and knee-high socks, I was determined to wade in the Adriatic. On the way to the beach (which was really a rock beach with assorted shops and cafes), I saw a fitness center and promptly split off from the group to spend the rest of the afternoon on the Stairmaster (ha ha…not really):

On the shore, the view of the harbor betrays Koper’s identity as a port town. As in Trieste, giant ships, tugboats, and barges did not inspire swimming off the coast, though there were some diehards braving the waters and splashing around. Most people lay on beach towels or had picnics further inland. Domenic, Laurie and I went for the wading option—the combination of cool water and stones felt nice after hours walking around in boots. It wouldn’t have felt right to go to the edge of the Adriatic and not go in (at least partially). Once I’d stepped in the water, the experience felt complete.

As we headed back inland, it started to rain—first isolated drops and then a light drizzle. We looked for shelter and found some built into the city streets:

Someone had left their laundry out to dry on the wrong day:

We passed the Happy Shop, though I still have no idea what they sell there:

“Svilanit” is a Slovenian fine linen company and I happened to like the logo so I snapped a pic:

I got my first taste of the creative graffiti of Slovenian cities in Koper:

Also spotted a pizza place that looked good, though I later learned that it was not-so-good not-so-cheap fast food, but I still like the sign:

We met back in the square again and here is a pic of me, Wendy, and Kelly (our fearless leader, the poet and translator who braved the Hertz fiasco in Trieste):

Try This At Home

I wasn’t co-pilot in the giant white van because I had a secret death wish. Initially I wanted to talk to Domenic about his morning lecture on using myths and history as models/sources for new writing. After that, I became attached to the bouncing rhythm of the white van, the bad music on the Slovenian radio stations, and the convivial atmosphere in the van, which was always packed full and full of chatter and shouts for more A/C or louder music.

Alas, I don’t have a picture of this epic white van, but it was a Fiat, big and boxy, and was some cross between a safari vehicle and a shuttle van for senior citizens.

Before we get to Koper, I’ll pass along these writing exercises from Domenic’s talk, which asked us to consider the antecedents of stories, the history behind the seemingly original tale you’re trying to write. Two weeks later in Prague, Bret Lott would say, “there is nothing new” in the world of writing. Along these lines, Domenic talked about the classical seeds for contemporary works. Here are the exercises:

1. Take the underpinnings of the story of Julius Caesar and

a) combine it with a contemporary political intrigue
b) make the main character a salesperson at IBM

2. Retell a classic tale from the perspective of a minor character (as in Wicked derived from the Wizard of Oz)

3. Tell a story of a contemporary man and woman, one who almost betrays the other and is punished in a disproportionate way (not sure of classical root of this one…will look into that and report back)

Now…on to Koper!


If you need to hide from a threatening mob of marauding Slovenes (or American tourists), you might set up camp at Hrastovlje, a town with a fort-like church that looks out over terracotta-topped houses. While waiting out the attack, you can look at the 15th Century frescoes:

You can also look through holes in the wall for fugitive poets (that’s Wendy looking out at the view):

At night you can lock the door against unwanted visitors.

The best way to get there is in a caravan of rental cars, riding along winding back roads. If you are in the giant white van at the back of the caravan, just try not to drive off the road in an effort to keep up with the zippy Ford station wagon.

Domenic Stansberry, fiction writer, drove the giant white van and I was the co-pilot, mostly contributing such tips as “ummm…a bus is about to drive us off the road” or “watch out for that motorcycle.” In other words, he was there to steer the van, and I was there to keep us alive.

After Hrastovlje, we set off for Koper.

Morning Workshop

The next morning, I woke at the impossibly early hour of 7:30 a.m.—my roommate Wendy did everything short of drag me out of bed in her efforts to rouse me from my sleep-coma. I’d only been in Europe for five days and already my alarm clock was useless. The soft beeping was no match for my heavy sleep. Also, I’d figured out how to turn it off without opening my eyes.

Wendy’s footsteps in the hall did the trick, along with her calls from the staircase. “I’m leaving…I’m going outside.”

“I’m up, I’m up,” I insisted and slipped back into a dreamworld for ten more minutes. But somehow I managed to land in Skocjan for an early morning writing workshop with Mark Cox. The workshop was held under a little awning in a rustic bed and breakfast at the center of Skocjan. The shelter protected us from sporadic rain showers and the rising sun.

As a workshop leader, Mark was our quiet tour guide through the world of writing. He taught in a way that resembled his poems: down-to-earth, honest, and full of moments of transformation.

In “The Tunnel at the End of the Light,” Mark writes,

“The summer my body began to fit,
living seemed fluid
as putting my arm through a sleeve—
when I threw crusts of bread in the air,
they became birds….”

One of my all-time favorite desert-island Mark Cox poems is “The Word.” Here is one little piece:

“Sleep is also the only place I can type with more than three
fingers, I said. But I thought, it’s true, all this,
I speak best and most fully in my sleep. When my heart
is not wrapped in layer after layer of daylight, not prepared
like some fighter’s taped fist.”

The poem is one teacher and the person is another. Which is better—to sit in a room with a poet or to read his/her poems? A teacher of mine studied with Elizabeth Hardwick at Columbia years ago. In class, Elizabeth would talk about mundane things like cleaning house. Sometimes talk like that is more important than analysis of sentence structure and scene design.

In one of Wendy’s poems, she had a quote from Yves Klein: “In art, foolishness is essential.” Here is a picture of Mark Cox having a cigar and talking about something probably unrelated to writing. Behind him, there’s a house with a collapsed roof. Somehow that seems just right.

Monday, July 20, 2009

"Without poetry, there would be no world"

Meeting Iztok Osojnik, you would not guess right away that he’s one of the top poets in the country of Slovenia. He doesn’t mention his numerous awards or publications when you first meet him (or the next time or the next and so on). But when he starts to read, the whole room falls silent. Here is the opening of his poem, “Father”:

“You never said anything
and I never heard anything
but there is no doubt:
the best in me
comes from
the twilight of your

(translated by Ana Jelnikar)

In his poem, “Town/Place,” he says “This morning is one of many, but also exists for the first time.”

After reading his poems, Iztok gave a talk on writing. Poetry, he said, was language used to its highest potential. “Without poetry, there would be no world.”

Iztok spoke about translation and how it involved “entering into the Other,” using a form of communication that goes beyond the horizontal level. He referred to Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” and spoke of a poem as a way of thinking.

He told us to walk around Skocjan and absorb all the inspiration of this place perched above the underground caves.

Finally, he assured us that “language carries you through.” We have only to set down the words and that will lead us in the right direction.

Planet Vnck

After the circus of arrivals (lost luggage, cancelled flights, the caravan of rental cars), the writers started to land on Planet Vinck. Mao welcomed them to his totalitarian regime of slow days and nights, good food, and poetry.

One of the poets, Wendy Carlisle, and I stayed a short drive away from Mao’s world at the “Tourist Farm Jankovi” in Vremski Britof. Really this was a new apartment building in a tiny town with one restaurant, one bar, and a basketball court primarily used to play soccer. Our apartment was a light-filled space on the top floor with all the appearance of modernity but most of the limits of rural life. When we needed anything, we usually had to run across the street and ring the owners’ apartment building.

Here is a picture of the kitchen with the temperamental stove that only seemed to respond to me (and even then I had to jab at the flat electronic screen until it would turn on):

Here is one of the ceramic light fixtures that captures the style of the place—a meeting of the old and the new:

Walking along the back roads of Slovenia is not recommended unless you enjoy dodging traffic and playing chicken on a narrow winding road. Wendy and I traveled back and forth in one of the rental cars, usually driven by the writers leading the workshops. Mark Cox, a poet, was the most daredevil driver and he balanced speed and control, barely blinking when a car veered into our lane. All the drivers tested their skills driving stick shift on fast-driving roads with hairpin turns and blind corners.

Slovenian truck and bus drivers rarely appeared to use the sideview mirrors. They switched lanes and sped along like race cars. This reminded me of once when I rode in a car with an Italian man who was offended that I used my seatbelt.

“You think I can’t drive?” he said.

Our first group trip and caravan was to downtown Divaca for food and sundries at the “Tus” grocery store. I found mint-scented tissues, divine cream cheese, and sliced prosciutto that I ordered by pointing through the glass in the deli section. At “Tus,” shopping bags were not given out, but were available for purchase, thus discouraging waste. “Tus” was the Slovenian cousin of Italy’s “Pam,” with bright green and yellow signs that could be spotted from a distance.

Our group filled the whole store, causing human traffic jams in the produce section and long lines at the cash register. One of the clerks called for back-up through a loud speaker, and others appeared at neighboring registers. The impulse buys that usually crowd the cash register area of supermarkets—gum, chocolate, magazines—took on a new life at the Slovenian grocery store. Here, by the register, you could find candy, newspapers, Thomas the Tank Engine Coloring Books, alpine fleece jackets, and boots. Who knew? All in a quick trip to “Tus.”

After stocking up on snacks, we dispersed until dinner where the menu options were meat, meat, and meat. My table was mostly full of vegetarians. Many of the vegetarian options reminded me of “In and Out Burger” in California where the veggie burger is just the bun with lettuce, tomato, sauce, and no meat. But there were exceptions like the vegetable soup and spinach dumplings (yum and double yum). As an equal opportunity eater, I ate everything in sight that wasn’t nailed down.

Here is a picture of our dinner table, which consisted of three fiction writers and two non-fiction writers, three vegetarians and two omnivores, and five people happy to be in Slovenia on a night in June waiting for the arrival of the Slovenian poet, Iztok Osojnik.

Correction from last entry: Hvala is Thank you or Thanks. Hvala Lepa is Thank you very much. Lepa on it’s own means beautiful, so this phrase literally means “Beautiful Thank you”—how great is Slovenian?!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Radio Slovenia

One of the local village men proposed marriage over prosciutto the morning after my arrival. I hadn’t yet learned “no” in Slovenian, but I was pretty sure it was a close relative to the Italian—a universal variant beginning with “n.”

So far, these were the words I’d learned in Slovenian (apologies for lack of pronunciation accents):

Dober Dan – Good day
Hvala Lepa (“H” is silent) – Thank you
Lahko Noc (“c” is “ch”) – Good night
Racun (“c” is “ch,” “u” is “oo”) – check
Olinjo oljo (“j” is “y” or “i”) – olive oil
Nasdrawya (“w” is “v”) – cheers
Prosim – Please, you’re welcome, excuse me, etc. (almost everything else)

I’d also learned I could pass for Italian among the Slovenians and for German among the Italians, but no one mistook me for Slovenian, my pronunciation of Dober Dan falling flat each time.

I spent the morning with Mara (short for Tamara), Mao, and anyone who stopped by Vnck, waiting for the other writers to arrive. In the background a Slovenian radio station played vintage 80s and 90s, including Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero.” In case you need a memory jog, here is the extended version on youtube:

Holding Out for a Hero - Bonnie Tyler

If you play the song and look at this photo simultaneously, you’ll get a sense of the experience:


The political intrigue continued when we arrived in the tiny village of Matavun in the Western hills of Slovenia. In this part of Slovenia, a town might consist of ten houses, one bar, and a handful of wandering cats. In Matavun, the ruler of the town is Mao, a giant dog who resides at Vinck, a bed and breakfast a short distance from the Skocjan caves. Here is a picture of him looking very serious and ready to hold forth on his Communist Theories:

Here is a picture of Mao looking like he might just wait until next year to start the revolution:

Only two people live in Skocjan. I might have seen one during my stay, but then she ran into her house and closed the rickety green door:

There are so many paths that ask to be followed—

The town is build on top of caves. Beneath it all that lies is empty open space. Above it, the hills, none of which rise too high:

Sisterhood of the Traveling Backpack

On my last morning in Trieste, I tossed my map of Trieste (if I ever return, I won’t look at it even once), packed the last of my clothes and set off again with my red backpack. The backpack belongs to my sister. She brought it to Spain over five years ago when she traveled there to learn the language and see the Andalucian horses. She returned bilingual and full of stories of the food and nightlife in Spain, the country of naps. Clearly, the backpack has magical properties. I hope to return from my trip with a new language and a backpack full of stories.

The only magic the backpack lacks is weightlessness. I made it to the lobby of the Filoxenia hotel and already needed a break, so I left my bag and set off for my last walk in Trieste. This time, my mission was simple: to find Kelly Lenox, fearless leader of the Slovenian Writing Workshop—my next destination. We planned to meet at the Hertz office in downtown Trieste by the water, but as plans often go in Italy, there was a twist.

Unknowingly, I’d planned my visit to Trieste to coincide exactly with the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting of the G8 Summit. Streets were blocked off from use and I’d already spent some QT (quality time) chatting with the Carabienieri—heavily armed Italian policemen—about where I could and could not venture. I pictured James Joyce having it out with the Carabienieri—not too far-fetched since the Carabienieri was formed in the early 19th Century.

As I ventured in the general direction of the Hertz office, I spotted my friends in their stiff blue uniforms with their arrogant expressions. Ciao, come stai? I could have said, but when heavily armed Italian men are blocking my route, I usually find myself at a loss for chatty phrases. All my Italian went out the window, and I reverted to indignant American tourist (the worst role to fall into—not recommended in any situation, no matter how dire).

“Hertz!” I said, in the universal language of commerce (and rental cars).

“No,” they said. “No one is allowed in.”

How was I to know that the G8 summit was having their “Family photo” of the Plenary Session delegates in the Palazzo della Regione, just steps from the Hertz office? How was anyone going to rent a car today in downtown Trieste? The latter did not seem a grave matter of concern to the Carabienieri who were released en masse in the streets to carry out very simple orders. These guys were not about to bend the rules for me. I suggested the idea that we go to the Hertz office together, figuring that a group outing would be less threatening to them. No. No. No.

When I first learned Italian in high school, my teacher Mr. Hammond told me that the only word I would need to know when traveling in Italy was “no.” And here was that very word, calling out to me loud and clear. Thank you, Mr. Hammond.

Plan B: Call Kelly’s cell phone from the front desk of the Hotel Filoxenia. Good thing she wasn’t screening her calls…. She too was stuck outside the barrier in the other direction, having walked from the spot where her taxi abandoned her at the sight of the Carabienieri (the welcome wagon on the borders of Trieste). The Hertz official met her at the barricade and then cheerily informed her that the car itself was located a mile or so South in a random parking lot at the edge of town. Ah, the joys of foreign car rental.

I shouldered the red backpack again along with some books in a cloth bag, my carry-on from the plane, and the black bag with my lifetime supply of toiletries. I looked more like a pack mule than a writer going to a workshop, but I was on my way.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Bus 36

Castello del Miramare can be reached by taking either the 6 or 36 bus, and the rides are worth taking even if you don’t end up at the castle. The 36 makes a loop, staying always along the water. When I went, the grounds were closed, but I had a walk along the sea. The outskirts of Trieste are all sea and sky, with clouds piling up as if to compete with the sea.

This is the closest I got to the castle:

And this is the cloud formation I saw when walking back:

The 36 whisked me back into town when I’d soaked in as much sea as possible without diving in. The bus rocked from side to side mimicking the ocean waves on the way back to Trieste.

How to lose yourself in a city far from home

The Hotel Filoxenia is not one of those places where you’re tempted to squirrel away all the toiletries—the miniature soaps, shampoos, and lotions—because they’re so luxurious. It’s a place where you stay because all other rooms in town are booked due to a UN G8 summit and the Frommer’s guidebook recommended it as a value in an overpriced town. You’ll want shower shoes to wear in and out of the shower, and your own shampoos because the free packets smell like bad men’s cologne. The only reason to stay in the room at any time of the day is for Wi-fi access or sleep. Otherwise stick to the streets.

And whatever you do, don’t ask for directions at the front desk. In search of the James Joyce museum, I asked the woman for the Via Madonna del Mare. We perused the map and neither of us saw it. The woman recruited the cleaning lady in on the hunt. Si! Si! Via Madonna del Mare. She pointed to a spot on the map though none of the roads had this name. Perhaps, I thought, it was a tiny slip of a road that the map missed. In Rome, whole streets were lost to cartography. The unruly cities of Italy refuse to cooperate with precise forms of measurement.

So I set off in search of this street. After much winding and circuitous detours, I found a large sign that looked promising: Farmacia Madonna del Mare. The street couldn’t be far. I looked to the right and the left of the Farmacia. Around the corner, up the way, down a winding route to one side. No sign of the street. Several large yellow apartment buildings looked like the museum picture I saw on the web site, but none were the museum devoted to Joyce.

This wasn’t a personal pilgrimage. Joyce’s works remain distant to me and I’ve never attended marathon readings of Ulysses or toasted Joyce at an Irish pub on his birthday. I’m not a James Joyce groupie. But I wanted to know his Trieste, the one where he wandered while considering lines to his books.

In the course of my search for his museum, I found the house of one of his muses, Annie at 10 via Cesare Battisti. A small plaque with an etching of Joyce read: Casa Schleimer dove diede lezioni ad Annie, tra le ispiratrici di Giacomo Joyce. I found “Pam,” the supermarket chain of Trieste. The rows of pristine air-conditioned food in shiny packages mesmerized me more than a collection of Joyce notes and historical sketches would. I crossed through the train station and saw the people coming and going. I returned to the Filoxenia by the wide sea-side road.

“Did you find?” the woman at the front desk asked when I walked in.

“No,” I said and she covered her face in embarrassment. “Va bene, va bene,” I said.

In my wandering, I may have found Joyce’s Trieste more than I would have inside a museum with glass-enclosed exhibit cases and directional arrows. By losing myself in Trieste, I visited his original peripatetic home by the sea.

One Thousand and One Nights in Trieste

The blue-booted man I met at the airport popped up in a jet-lagged dream I had at the Filoxenia hotel. In the dream, people from home mingled with Trieste natives. Before I’d set foot in the city center, I visited my own dream version. Like the real Trieste, it was full of caf├ęs and piazzas, sun-drenched sidewalks. But in my dream, the water was missing. And in Trieste, water is everywhere: on the coast, in canals, in shop windows, in the air—the damp chill breeze that rises at night.

In an article on Trieste, “A Shot in the Dark,” Alan Taylor quotes Jan Morris saying that “My Trieste has been a place of transience.” “In Trieste,” she says, “anything might be true.” In her book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, Morris talked about the ever-shifting nature of Trieste and its people. Landing there after an 11-hour trip overseas, I fall into stride with the rest: travelers, nomads, diplomats, businesswomen, fast-talking school children. Old men look around, blinking and confused, as though moments earlier they lived in a different place entirely.

It takes a while to figure out how to be invisible in Trieste, how to blend in with the rest. Though its culture is varied and malleable, the influence of Milan and other cities of the North is not far. Those pale faceless mannequins with dramatic cheekbones and haughty expressions stare stone-quiet from the shop windows, bored with all things human and real. High heels are a must (the mannequins feel no pain, so why should you?) and large dark sunglasses. You should not dress like an extra on “Gidget Goes Hawaiian,” no matter how balmy and sun-soaked the day’s weather. Black is a good color choice. Dark blue jeans. If you want to wear flip-flops take the number 36 bus up the coast and flop around with the kids by the shore.

Dressed in my Trieste uniform (the black, the jeans, the heels), I set out in search of food. Here I am in Italy, prepared to relive the contorni – grilled zucchini, eggplant – of my days in Florence. Primi Piatti of pasta and secondi of fish. But no. My search for Italian food brings up Greek, Middle Eastern, Turkish—all with an Italian flair. I settle on a Middle Eastern restaurant: Mille et Una Notte. This after a so-so Greek meal on the first night, coconut gelato with delicious bits of coconut throughout, and a supermarket picnic lunch (the hours I could have spent at the supermarket, looking at all the shiny strange packages!).

Mille et Una Notte is tucked on a pedestrian street away from the water, sloping up towards the hills in a district full of students and narrow residential streets. Since tourists flock to the shore’s edge, to find a good meal for a reasonable price, it’s best to go inland. The street where Mille sits is all cobblestone and the center filled with tables and umbrellas for pursuing the main pass-time of the city: meeting friends for drinks/coffee/food outside preferably in a place so crowded you can hardly hear what anyone is saying. Both indoors and outdoors, Mille has cozy tables draped in brocaded Middle Eastern fabrics and seats stuffed with pillows. Kebab, rice, vegetables, broth, this is Middle Eastern food with no shortcuts and with hints of Italian influence: olive oil, thin noodles in the broth.

I chose the indoor seating option. My whole blending-in plan was going beautifully—an elderly woman even came in with her grandson and we had a whole conversation in Italian—until one of the waiters caught on to my ruse and addressed me in flat-accented English. When I stood up to leave, the elderly woman seized the chance to try her English:

“Where are you from?” she said.

“New York,” I said, since the New Haven answer often led to a longer conversation, possibly a map crudely drawn on a restaurant napkin.

“Lovely,” she said, and her smile was genuine. “Are you visiting?”

“Yes,” I said. “This is my first time in Trieste.”

“Enjoy my city,” she said.

And this fitted my impression of Trieste, that each person there felt they owned a tiny piece of the place and had a stake in the identity of this city on the shore.