Authenticity, a towel thief and a reformation restaurant

There are lots of nice people in the school I work in in Ljubljana, but the person who I spend most time with is my co-tutor. She’s a well-travelled woman, and enjoys finding out about other countries, so I guess she’s in the ideal job for that.

I like finding out about other countries too, but I guess I’m not quite as extreme about it as she is.

She wants to constantly have “authentic” Slovene experiences. Whenever we’re out, she orders local wine. All the wine here is local anyway. We’re in the Mediterranean. She is insistent on greeting all the waiters in Slovene, in spite of their obvious pride in their excellent English. She is always disappointed that the restaurants we eat in turn out to be touristy restaurants, because she wants to eat like the Slovenes do, in the kind of place only Slovenes would go. I think that means she wants a Slovene to take her home, because from what I can see, all the Slovenes seem perfectly happy to eat in the touristy restaurants with the tourists. I can’t imagine she’d like what they’d serve her anyway. She’s a vegetarian and this is a country where the national dish is “burek”, a pastry stuffed with meat, a kind of ethnic sausage roll. She has also seen ads for a festival of Slovene traditional music. Now, I’m all for learning about other cultures, but I have no more desire to go to a festival of Slovene traditional music than I do to share a prison cell with someone on a dirty protest. I can just see the earnest flautists now. They are the guardians at the gates of my own section of Hell.

I’m fine with getting a superficial understanding of Slovene culture. I don’t need to get authentic.

***

One thing I am doing that the “authentic” Slovenes are doing is going to SaunaLand. I’ve been three times now and it never fails to make my day better. Yesterday, for the first time, I went wearing glasses instead of contacts. I left my glasses in my locker. If I felt naked on my previous visits, I felt a hundred times naked-er when I couldn’t see anything. That takes a special kind of bravery. Without my contacts in, no one has a willy. It’s really liberating.

Having done two stints in a sauna, I went outside for a dip in the pool. Again, it was absolutely beautiful. I had the outdoor cool pool to myself as I luxuriated and my muscles and joints sang for joy. There were a few people of indeterminate gender (no contacts mean no one has genitalia any more, no matter how naked they are) lounging on the deckchairs beside the pool, and there was an older (probably – for all I know, he could have been sixteen) man (could totally have been a woman) in the warm whirlpool at in the cave at the end of the pool. Once I had cooled down and was ready for another spell in the sauna, I climbed up the stairs out of the pool, imagining I was Ursula Andress in Doctor No emerging from the sea in her white bikini, as I do every time I climb out of a pool. I reached up to get my towel to take it to the next sauna.

There were two towels. One was mine. One belonged to the older(?) man(?) in the whirlpool. I didn’t know which to take. They were both white. The first one I took felt wrong. I took the other one. It didn’t feel right either. One seemed less fluffy than I remembered. The other seemed narrower than I remembered. I hesitated, feeling less like Ursula Andress, as the sunbathers watched me (or didn’t watch me – I couldn’t see their facial features) agonise between the two towels.

The only way to confirm would have been to check with the older(?) man(?) in the whirlpool. The only way to get to the whirlpool was to go through the cool pool and into the artificial cave. I would have to take both towels and carry them over my head as I made my way to the older(?) man(?) in the whirlpool. Knowing my luck, he(?) wouldn’t be able to speak English and we’d have to have a conversation in sign language, while I tried to keep the towels over my head and out of the water. I didn’t bother trying.

I took a risk and grabbed one of the towels and headed back inside. The second I got inside I knew for sure that I had taken the wrong towel. It just felt completely wrong. I couldn’t go back outside and shame myself in front of all the watchful(?) sunbathers and swap towels again. I don’t know how, but even when I shed my clothes and my long-distance vision, I still somehow manage to carry a great big crate of self-consciousness around with me. I laughed at myself, and made my way to one of the upstairs saunas. As I went into the sauna and placed my bottom on the towel, I felt a bum-based guilt. The older(?) man(?) would no doubt soon discover that his bum was in the wrong towel and he would come to find and punish me, taking my towel and his, leaving me towel-less in retribution.

I have to admit, even though I enjoyed my trip to SaunaLand a lot, I left somewhat quicker than I usually do. Going to the sauna still makes me feel much better in body and in mind and in the changing room, I did something I thought I wouldn’t be able to. For the first time in over a year, I put on my socks standing up. I genuinely thought I couldn’t. But I can. Yay!

****

Today, my colleague and I went to another restaurant. It claimed it served traditional Slovene food and it suited her desire for “authenticity”. There was a large, old-style picture of a man that looked vaguely familiar to me, but I didn’t really take any notice of it until I got my menu. This wasn’t just any traditional Slovene restaurant. This was a Martin Luther-themed restaurant. That’s right. Martin Luther, who led the protestant reform of Catholic Germany in the sixteenth century. All of the pictures were of Luther. The menu started with what can only be described as a Lutheran tract. It was in both English and Slovene, and among other things, it credited Protestantism with bringing meat-based diets to Southern Europe. Was eating here a religious statement? Was I going to be inducted into something?

The menu was certainly meaty, with dish after dish of foal and veal, and sometime foal/veal combos. I opted for a beefy risotto, which is actually probably one of the most Slovene dishes I can think of – light and Mediterranean and simultaneously meaty and Slavic.

As we ate our Martin Luther reformer dishes, I noticed the music. It wasn’t Reformation music. It was Eastern European covers of easy listening and country music, like Dusty Springfield and Shania Twain. They even had Garth Brooks’ “The Dance” in Slovene. I’ve never had a dining experience quite like it.

We were sitting on a little wooden stage overlooking the street, and when I got up to leave, I stood up a bit too suddenly and my chair went flying off the stage and onto the street. No one was hurt, but I do hope I haven’t angered the meat-loving God of the Protestants.

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