You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

Bopping in the Balkans, Part 5

Lawrence Bush
October 17, 2017

by Lawrence Bush

For the first four installments of this travelogue, search “Bopping” to the right.

ONCE UPON A TIME, I was a puppeteer in a two-person hand-puppet troupe called Poor People’s Puppets, with our own storefront theater on St. Marks Place in New York’s East Village. Although the art of puppetry did not take hold of me as a career, I’ve always loved it — the miniature of it, the childishness and sophistication, and the magic of endowing little figures with life and character — and whenever I travel, if there’s a puppet theater to attend, I’m there. So it was on our last day in Ljublianja, Slovenia’s capital and cultural center, which has a multi-stage puppet theater right in its center. Puppetry is a very cherished part of Slovenian culture; there’s a museum in Ljubljana dedicated to it.

The show we saw featured a family of frogs and was essentially about how the parents manage to handle their adorable, high-energy frog child while getting some rest and intimate time. The frogs were rod puppets, each held by a puppeteer who was on full display in blue-green clothes. The ongoing gag of the show was that frogs live in water — so when the father falls out of bed because the kid, sleep disturbed, is kicking his way into his parents’ bed, the father falls Into a tub of water; when the kid asks for a sip of water before going to sleep, and then for more, the father dumps a pail of water over the kid’s bed, and everyone is happy.

The actors were wonderful, their voices hilarious, their handling of the puppets expert and filled with empathy, and it was all accompanied by a sound-effects musician. It was a great, honest show (the child frog sits straining on the toilet in one scene), and very very pleasing to the audience (mostly 3- and 4-year-olds and a parent or grandparent).

The night before found us at a performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana at the Ljubljana opera and ballet house. I’m familiar with the main song of the piece (1936) and have long treasured Sandy Bull’s version of it on banjo from an old, old recording, but I never knew that Carmina Burana was based on bawdy poems written by monks in the 13th century, or that it was quite so erotic . . . Wowee zowee. Still, I’ll take puppets over opera any day.

Now we’re on Slovenia’s Adriatic coast in the 1,000-year-old town of Piran. The buildings are very Venetian and there are twenty-one churches (closed to the public, at least I haven’t yet found one open, but the doors are open so you can peek in through gates) in a town that is about half a mile wide by a mile long. We’re less than ten kilometers from Trieste, a Slovenian city handed over to Italy by the victorious powers after World War I.

We rode on bikes today to Piran’s salt flats, some 400 acres of penned-in ocean where pure white salt is harvested in a tradition that goes back at least ten generations.

This part of Slovenia, although primarily a vacation-resort area , now off-season (lots of elderly people and lots of people with babies), reminds me that Slovenia is a working-class country — an International crossroads between Eastern and Western Europe, yes, but only a couple of generations not-quite-removed from farming, fishing, and hard physical labor. The average income is only $1,200 per month, and taxes are high, 40 percent and more for people with higher incomes (but the taxes pay, as I’ve noted, for health care, K to College education, apartment rents scaled to income, and much more, for everyone). And unemployment is also a problem — especially so for better-educated people. Susan’s colleague Vesna, an assistant professor of education, noted to us, for example, that she is really the only person doing her kind of work (arts-in-education pedagogy) in the entire university system — so anyone else getting her or his Ph.D would likely have to go to another country to work in the field.

In its homogeneity (at least 95 percent white, 85 percent Catholic) and long-time traditions, Slovenia also feels like a fairly conservative country. A recent family law referendum was voted down over the issue of whether to allow gay people to adopt (there were no clearly visible gay hangouts or even presence in Ljubljana, the center of urbanity in the country). The street culture is none-too-friendly, either — no smiles or nodding hello between passing strangers.

Nevertheless, Slovenia has filled me for two weeks with visions of what a small country with a capitalist system modified by its socialist past can achieve. It helps, too, that the country is wonderfully green, with the magnificent Alps to the north, the Adriatic Sea to the south and west, astounding limestone caverns to the south, and very affordable gin-and-tonics in all directions.

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.