Saturday, April 24, 2010

Travel and Time Travel in Celje, Slovenia

From Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia
Memory does not work in linear fashion. Leave home to visit the Balkans and it will not be a struggle to recall how to drive to your favorite cafe when you return to your neighborhood three months later. The mind picks up right where it left off. The contrast of two very different places promotes this separation of the memories. A weekend in Rome, Italy feels nothing like one in Rome, Georgia, and so memories from both places will be sharply partitioned and stand in high relief, occupying their own islands which await your return should you ever revisit them.

My father spent a lot of time in England in the 1950s. While we strolled around a small English town in 1992, he stopped at a seemingly random spot and said, "I think I remember a little footpath off of this street." He then stepped through a gap in the hedge and, sure enough, the path he remembered was still there. For him, it had been about 40 years since he had stood on that spot. It must have been a head-swimming moment for him.

The thing is, unlike the west side of Atlanta, cities in Europe don't change much. Nobody is going to demolish the old town section of Krakow, Poland and replace the St. Mary's Basilica with condos. If you visit Krakow today, you can expect to return to a very similar Krakow anytime in the future.

A few weeks ago I experienced the pleasure of time travel for myself. The place was Celje, Slovenia, which I had originally visited in January 2006. At that time it was a gray-skied, snowy mess, with rain falling on my last day there. That did not spoil the city's magic: Roman columns poking out of the snow by the Savinja River, a lively crowd at Branibor Pub, and a photogenic castle perched high on a mountain overlooking the town.

The train trip from Maribor to Celje takes only an hour. In Lonely Planet's Croatia guide, towns an hour away from Zagreb are treated as day trips, whereas in the Slovenia guide towns an hour away from one another are treated as separate entities. Truthfully, everything in Slovenia is a day trip from anywhere else, but everything in the Balkans is relative, including town rivalries.

High school girls passed time on the train working on various types of puzzles, which included word searches, "regular" crossword puzzles, and a very popular variation of crossword puzzles where clues are embedded within the puzzle itself (a Romanian example is here). Celje seems to boast a large number of commuting students.

The sunny, blue-skied and verdant Celje I encountered in April stood in sharp contrast to the snowy one I saw in 2006. Despite the change in the weather, every step I took triggered old memories. These memories were more than mere recollections of things I had seen before. The visit rekindled recollections of how it felt to be a younger traveler seeing things with fresh eyes. It's highly ironic that such a feeling can be stirred by returning to a place, but in 2006 I was younger and less knowledgeable than I am today, and walking down those familiar streets after a four-year hiatus allowed me to emotionally pick up right where I had left off. In short, I felt four years younger. I suspect my dad felt 40 years younger when he found that footpath.

I returned to the Maverick Pub, a place where I once sipped coffee while gazing through the window at a college girl outside who sported pink and purple streaked hair and wore a complimentary pink and purple shaggy coat. Today they are still playing electronic dance music mixed with pop tunes new and old. (This reminds me; the origin of a stellar drum and bass remix of Daft Punk's "One More Time" I heard back in 2006 remains a mystery.) Branibor Pub, where I spent a night scribbling down the titles of pop songs I heard (Robbie Williams' "Angels," Roxette's "Joyride," and Kenny Loggins' "Footloose") continues to entertain. And in one square of this small town I sipped coffee under the auspices of a plague memorial: a golden woman standing on a pillar with a halo of stars around her head (plague memorials are as popular in Slovenian towns as Romulus and Remus statues are in Romanian ones; Austria also has plague memorials).

Among new Celje experiences to append to the old, I discovered, near the museums, a nice little pub called TamkoUciri, which offered a cozy, outdoor setting for sipping one's Lasko beer. Taking advantage of the nice weather, students lounged near and beside the river, some drinking beers. And there was an abundance of Mohawk/mullet hybrid cuts on Celje's teenage boys, apparently inspired, I was told in Maribor, by a now-defunct David Beckham style. The cut is not limited to Celje; I saw it sported in Austria and Germany as well. Imagine how amazed I was when I saw similar Mohawks in Atlanta last week. Clearly I missed the international memo.

You get travel points for visiting new places, not revisiting old ones, but sometimes coming back to a town a few years later can offer great pleasures.

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