Monday, October 8, 2018

The Best and the Worst

My wife and I just returned from Slovenia, a slice of eastern Europe, and from the adjoining Friuli Venezia Giulia province of northeastern Italy. A different destination to be sure, and an interesting one. Away from major cities, it allowed an uncluttered look at the Slavic zeitgeist, with all of its promise and problems. And there are plenty of both.

Slovenia is not a major tourist destination for Americans, at least not yet. It's a sparsely populated country of only 2 million people. Sixty percent of the land is covered by forests and the geography is diverse -- from the seashore at Piran to the Julian Alps. Once part of Yugoslavia, Slovenia still has vestiges of Marshall Tito. (Few know Slovenia is the home of our current first lady, Melania Trump.)

Our guides were as diverse as the countryside, ranging from very young to middle-aged, from fourth-generation natives to transplanted Chinese. All, as perhaps required of guides, were very proud of the traditions, culture and even wines of the region (the wines could be charitably described as "different"). But there was an undercurrent of reserve, an uncertainty about the future, a feeling that the action was going elsewhere.

One guide, a seasoned 30-year professional, rued the shift toward socialism, well underway with taxes of 36-49%. "Socialism," she sniffed. "One worker, five bosses." Another guide, a former stonemason and son of a blacksmith, said you had to hustle and avoid regulations to survive. He and his grown children are ski instructors, but they also buy and rent apartments and run zip lines. Still another guide is cobbling together several jobs, some menial, to make ends meet.

Every one of the guides (we had five of them) spoke disparagingly about the refugees. One guide said, "The Syrians came here expecting handouts. Work was a foreign idea." Even in Germany, where there is a labor shortage, he said, most refugees were shocked they were expected to work. Italians we spoke to were even more bitter and disdainful. Admittedly this was not a cross-section of the populace; these were working people of modest means. But we came away feeling populism was more wide-spread in Europe than most realize.

And maybe for good reason. Factories are closing in this part of the world. Jobs are going elsewhere. Light manufacturing -- leather goods, auto parts, furniture -- is being shipped overseas, mostly to Asia where labor is cheaper. And not just light manufacturing. Jesenice, a steel town in northern Slovenia, is 1/4th the size it was 12 years ago. A guide said, "We never recovered from 2008."

Some of the fallout is humorous. One enterprising visitor was said to have doctored a photograph, replacing the iconic island church in Lake Bled with an Oriental temple, and started selling bogus real estate on the island to unsuspecting Chinese speculators.

But the situation isn't funny to those without a job. "You're best off if you have a trade, if you can work with your hands," one person told us. College degrees don't help much. Another said, "The old Italian father-and-son way of doing business doesn't work any more. You need efficiency." We saw one shuttered factory after another, particularly in Friuli.

What are the young people doing? They're going to big cities, to urban centers where the job prospects are better. I asked one old-timer what that meant for his country's future. He just shook his head.

But there's no reason to end on a gloomy note. We didn't. We finished the trip in Venezia, in Venice, a fairytale city of the past. Detractors say Venice is a decaying relic populated by venal Italians preying on the hoards of tourists that clog the streets and canals. And that's all true. But you know what? It doesn't matter. Venice was and is the most photogenic city in the world. To photographers (and probably artists) there's no other place like it.

The key is to stay away from the worst of the crowds, overwhelming even in late September. Spend time in Dorsoduro, San Polo, Cannaregio, even the outlying islands of Murano (think glass) and Burano (think lace). Around every corner is a postcard-like scene. Quite the place where you catch a bus by climbing on a boat and hail a taxi that's bobbing in the water.

And there is water everywhere. Here's a caution from the musical "New Faces of 1952."
"Dancing in Venice with you... "Isn't so easy to do... "If you take one more step than you oughta... "You will be doing the waltz in the water."

So stay dry and enjoy. We did.

It's a fascinating part of the world, from Slovenia's castles to Friuli's old-world facades to the remarkable vistas of Venice.

Nostravia! Salute!

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