Tuesday, May 09, 2006

9 May 2006

Welcome to Ljubljana, would you like to buy a vowel? Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia, formerly part of Yugoslavia in the good ol' Communist days. European borders and politics are much harder to keep track of than US borders and politics. In the States, everything has been the same for the past 50-plus years, and even before that, it was just a gradual expansion to include more states in a westward fashion. I suppose you could say that we were once colonies, but even then, Maryland was already Maryland, and before that, it belonged to people who have been largely ignored in history books, so we aren't expected to nod knowingly about the Nanticoke tribe the way we're supposed to know about Milosevic and Slovenia.

We had a great time in Ljubljana, despite the fact that it rained for two out of the three days that we were there. We stayed in a hostel that was once a prison. Each of the cells had been designed and furnished by a different artist, the mattresses were firm, and there was free Internet. Not bad, for prison. Ljubljana is a small city with a very active arts and youth culture that hasn't yet made it onto the European Tourist Circuit, so it's relatively unspoiled: the prices are low, the people are friendly, the sights are uncrowded, and the gimmicks are minimal. I haven't had such consistently friendly and helpful service since… well, since before I moved to Europe. European service can be a bit surly, partly because they don't rely on tips, and partly because they have grown weary of foreigners, but the waiters in Slovenia seem to still work for tips and haven't yet acquired a distaste for tourists. I'm sure they'll learn to hate us, eventually, but for now, they're amazingly cheerful and eager to help.

Ljubljana is a curious mix of Eastern and Western Europe: the city is clean and picturesque, situated (like most old European cities) on a river. The architecture is a mish-mash of periods and styles. True to the city's Eastern roots, there is graffiti everywhere, but it isn't just any graffiti, it alternates between being artistic, clever, and political, and is seen as a significant enough art form to warrant a large exhibit in a local gallery. That alone was enough to make Ljubljana my new favorite city in Europe. Graffiti aside, though, there was also the food and the shopping. There is nothing like combining American consumerism with Eastern European prices.

Things have been such a blur lately, with six weekends in a row spent away from Zurich, that I almost forgot to mention that Sechseläuten was two weeks ago, the day I arrived back from Thailand. As you may recall, Sechseläuten is the Zurich celebration of the end of winter, and they torch the Böögg, an explosive-filled, gasoline-doused snowman, to predict how the summer will be. This year, there was added intrigue because the original Böögg was kidnapped by political activists (not sure what their platform was, unless it was anti-snowman or anti-explosives), and they had to put another one together in time for the festivities, because we all know that you can't welcome summer properly without setting something on fire.

I recently got a letter from the Swiss tax authorities saying that they had (finally) processed my taxes for 2004, and had determined that I am entitled to a refund. A refund of 50 rappen (about 40 American cents). They informed me that they would deposit the refund in my bank account. The letter cost twice as much to send as the refund itself; couldn't they have skipped the letter and tripled my refund, instead? My US taxes are due in another month. I won't have to pay any taxes, but I won't get a refund, either. I've never spent so much time on taxes before, only to get a refund that isn't even big enough to buy a candy bar. Unless you're buying the candy bar in Slovenia.

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