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by Lawrence Bush
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WE TOOK a free three-hour walking tour of Ljubljana today, with a cool and chatty young guide who knew his stuff and began by noting that “Slovenia is the only country to have ‘love’ in its name.”
And he meant it.
Ljubljana is a small, very green city, fewer than 300,000 residents, including 40,000 students, all of them cute, handsome, and casually stylish. The city banned cars from its center about a decade ago and is filled with strolling pedestrians and zooming bicycles. Most of the city was destroyed by an 1895 earthquake, so much of its ornate architecture is early 20th century, and a lot of it was designed by Jože Plečnik, who loved columns and balustrades and colorful facades. A shallow river runs through the center of town, spanned by numerous pedestrian bridges. Cafés and restaurants are as ubiquitous as taxicabs in Manhattan, and the open-air market near the river is filled with magnificent-looking fruit and vegetables grown mostly in a nearby suburb.
Slovenians in general, not just tour guides, seem to love their little country and have high hopes for its future as a kind of East-West hub and a lovely, inexpensive tourist center. (Right now, the city is swarmed with hundreds of Scottish men in kilts, as last night Slovenia and Scotland footballers played to a 2-2 match.) We were reminded by the guide what numerous people have told us, that the country is among the most egalitarian in Europe, with free education, kindergarten to graduate school, free health care, and relative income parity. You feel it on the street, in the restaurants: No one is hustling you, angling for a tip, pressuring you to buy, making you feel miserable about their poverty, or reading the Wall Street Journal . . . There is a general atmosphere of friendliness that is not overweening, a lot of great street music, and no one is condescending to us as tourists — they’re just helpful.
Our walking tour ended with a mini-lecture on the communist years in Yugoslavia, which crashed to an end with Tito’s death in 1980, as the country’s financial debts to Western banks were called in and the country fell apart into ethnic warfare. The guide, who hadn’t yet been born in 1980, nevertheless unselfconsciously praised Tito as a fierce anti-Nazi partisan during the war years, as the founder of the Non-Aligned movement and an important broker during the Cold War, and as a relatively liberal dictator who introduced some private enterprise into Yugoslavia’s economy, separated the country from Stalin’s USSR, permitted international travel for Yugoslavians, and ultimately, if unintentionally, helped Slovenia achieve its current social democratic status and strongly patriotic-communitarian sensibility.
We didn’t have time to discuss political prisoners, human rights, secret police, and the like. Looks like I’m going to have to read a biography of Tito . . .
Meanwhile, Susan is now off at a dance studio learning an authentic Slovenian circle dance, while I — neither cute nor handsome nor stylish any more — rest my weary feet.
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.