It was inevitable, this love. I could have predicted it. I saw it out there in the sea four years ago when I first came to Slovenia. It was the kind of wave that builds slowly, takes its time. You aren’t sure what its disposition will be when it finally gets to shore–a potent crash or a gentle caress of the sand–but the anticipation makes you crazy with desire, so that when it descends, you don’t care what form it takes. You’re just so happy to be in its embrace.
I am in love with a country called Slovenia. The mountains, the forests, the sea. And more than that even, I am in love with the city of Ljubljana.
Yes, it took a while. I was sick for much of my time here. I had to get strong physically. The doctors said, “stress,” along with, “get it under control or you’ll really have a problem.” Stress? I’d just been awarded a prestigious grant and was living in Europe so that I could write for nine months.
But I knew what it was. It was an unsettled feeling about my future at home. As hard as I’d tried to mold my life into a comprehensible structure, I couldn’t make it work. When your life is bound to someone who has a terminal disease, the future is unknown. You don’t make plans. You hold onto the hope that he/she will get better. But you don’t dare dream. You don’t tempt fate. So still not having a plan for the future four years after my husband’s death, had become stress-inducing–a low-level anxiety brimming beneath all my good fortune.
And then I came to Ljubljana.
Ljubljana invited me to puppet shows and offered me gelato by the river. Ljubljana showed me the apartment where my late husband lived when he was young. I sat by the Ljubljanica River and read the letters he’d written when he was a student here. I pictured him pedaling his bike along these same cobbled streets, maybe searching for something like I was, maybe sitting on this same stone bench by the river wondering what his life would be. I was comforted to think so.
I started going to acupuncture each week, beginning last November, here in Ljubljana. (http://centertkm.si/) It became my anchor. Originally I went for the relief of physical pain, but it soon became a ritual, a mooring really, a way to find calm in this foreign city, in this foreign phase of life. The wise smiling doctor and the young Slovenian women who translated my English into Chinese became a little team of allies for me. The weekly sessions helped me to come to a sort of peace with the continued unknown of my life. I’d been meditating since I was fifteen, had been to India and had followed a clear spiritual discipline for all the years of my adult life, but again, these have been strange years since my husband died and my practices had crumbled along with my sense of a known narrative.
But then to fall in love.
The Chinese doctor told me to eat strawberries, start meditating again and take care of myself–no guilt about putting yourself first! Every day in Ljubljana, I feel taken care of. I go to the market, I cook food, I walk the dog, I have a glass of wine, I sit quietly. I feel nourished. I roll the shopping basket to the outdoor farmer’s market–open every day but Sunday–and, for only a few euros, fill it with sauerkraut, potatoes, leeks, cauliflower. I buy cheese with truffles and bottles of Refrosk, strong red Slovenian wine at the shop on the corner. My daughter, who was here for five months, would go to the fruit stand and eat all the raspberries before we got home. She would sit in the kitchen doing her Slovene homework while I cooked. It was easy. It was simple. Work, bike, walk, hike. Take a break when you need to, slow down, have a beer, a cup of hot tea, a blueberry brandy, a piece of cake. Push and relax, push and relax. The ebb and flow of a healthy balanced life. I was nourished, my child was nourished, even my dog was nourished.
Dogs are allowed in restaurants, shops, on the bus, train–everywhere but the grocery store. The people of this city welcome my small dog with what I would call a vigorous and enthusiastic open-heartedness.
Before we came to Ljubljana, Beesly was often judged by her outside appearance: a 7-pound Yorkshire Terrier in a cable-knit sweater and pink down coat. She was stereotyped as a pampered lap dog. Noses were turned up at her insignificance. Some people even scoffed at us.
“That’s not a real dog,” I heard someone once say.
“Looks like a rat,” I heard someone else say.
But never in Ljubljana. Today Beesly stopped to say hello to a man sitting quietly by the river in a wheelchair. He talked to her in Slovene and she jumped into his lap, where she sat for twenty minutes, licking his fingers and enjoying strokes on her back. The man and I exchanged nothing. The relationship was purely between the two of them.
“Lepa punčka!” he said and she responded with so much love. Her life is not insignificant. People see what an earnest creature she is. She adds something to the world.
On the way home from acupuncture a few weeks ago, as I rode my bike home past the copati shop selling slippers, past cafés in Šiška, through Tivoli Park, past the National Gallery and the Opera House, I noticed that the pain I’d had every single day since October was gone. I barely recognized the feeling in my body–or myself really. It was subtle and explosive at once, and suddenly, I realized that the life I’d been trying to force at home was a life for someone who didn’t exist anymore. I had to change in order to create a new life–and I had to trust that changing might mean letting go of what I thought I wanted. Getting to this place was painful. It took work. But oh, there was Ljubljana, patiently encouraging me to grow, to cry, to scream, to take hold of my life in a new way, to become free.
The work for my Fulbright is finished. I’ve been here since October and will be going home soon. But, like a love affair that is able to contain a physical separation because there is no bitterness, just absolute trust, Ljubljana will continue to live in me, moving through me as I move into the newness of a place I once called home.
To fall in love.
To fall in love with a castle, a café, a cup of kuhano vino. To fall in love with poetry and festivals and center squares where giant birdhouses appear in the rain. To fall in love because you are able to open–into work, into life, into the newness of each day, regardless of being sick, regardless of feeling isolated, regardless of being lonely and so very unsure of the future. It was love that took hold of me, pulled me to shore and pushed me out to sea, pulled me in and pushed me out a little further, strengthening me more and more. It was love that guided me, made me able to see the beginnings of a new life. And it’s love that calls me into my future, even as it releases me.
Oh sweet Ljubljana. xoxo