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Slovenian writer explores his home city by walking from embassy to embassy

Monitoring Desk

‘Would you go round the world with me?” I asked a friend on the phone.

“Wow! But the pandemic …” she said.

I interrupted her, “Ljubljana is near the 46th parallel north and if we follow it west there are 16 countries along it. Italy first, then Switzerland …”

Now, she interrupted me: “The borders are closed. Flights cancelled. We have a curfew. In fact, we’re not even allowed to leave the province.”https://interactive.guim.co.uk/maps/embed/mar/2021-03-08T16:20:58.html

“We won’t. We will walk round Ljubljana, from embassy to embassy following countries on the 46th. We start at the Italian embassy tomorrow morning.” Not every country on the 46th has an embassy in Ljubljana but most do. I mapped the route on the Google app and it came to 27km. I optimised it to avoid zigzagging, and we were left with 20.

“Are you in?” She laughed, which usually means yes.

The Italian embassy lies just outside the centre of town, towards the south-west, appropriately close to the wall left behind by the Romans. The town has long outgrown the wall, but despite this there are still allotments close by, tended by older women who you could, until recently, still see pushing along carts full of lettuce to sell at the central market.

We agreed that for us the mention of Italy brings to mind food and then art, and it is sometimes difficult to tell the two apart anyway. I grew up in a town close to the Italian border and watched Italian films and TV as a child, but pizza places were nonexistent in socialist Yugoslavia. Being poor we didn’t travel, my grandmother was more interested in the afterlife than food, so we had boiled potatoes every day.

View of Ljubljanica River with old central market and Triple bridge, Ljubljana.
 Ljubljanica River and the old central market and Triple Bridge, Ljubljana. Photograph: Getty Images

By the time I had survived the first decade of my life I passionately hated them. And then – a miracle! The company my mother worked for organised a trip to Rome for its staff and she took me with her. I was even given some pocket money so I could buy myself the pizza I had been dreaming of. Indeed, after much searching, I found a place where I could afford one and the waiter placed the menu in front of me. I couldn’t understand a word so I pointed to one with my finger. I got a pizza where the dough was made of potatoes not flour.

Of course, most of the embassies are in the centre of town. Three large town villas are huddled together, the American embassy that looks a little like a fortress, the German one covered in technology (automotive!) and scientific posters, and the Russian one behind them. In between them is a nursery school and children, finally together again after a long time, duly loud.

A little to the east, close to the railway station, is the Serbian embassy and next to it, on the ground floor, a shop selling Austrian hunting weapons and equipment. In view of the fact that the first world war started when Austria (the Austro-Hungarian Empire) attacked Serbia, I must admit that I was slightly surprised by the combination.

US embassy in Ljubljana, Slovenia
 US embassy in Ljubljana. Photograph: Alamy

I discovered that I know nothing about certain countries. When I hear the name Kazakhstan, I smile, and I have noticed this effect is common. This is merely because of a fictional character, no need to mention names, who has hijacked the country in a sort of media-promotional colonialism, and I can just imagine people from Kazakhstan when asked abroad where they are from, watching people’s faces already laughing at the inevitable joke that will follow.

At least all that people do with us Slovenes is mix us up with Slovaks. Moldova does not have an embassy in Slovenia but its consulate is in a commercial building on the north side of a forested hill that the town has already enveloped and now seems like part of its centre. It is damp and shady, with water trickling down it in tiny streams, branched out like veins.

The walk would have been a short one had some of the embassies not been on the outskirts of town. We turned east to get to the Chinese embassy, alongside the river, past the main hospitals of Ljubljana with large marquees erected outside them for Covid testing. When we reach the embassy, we first see one building with a flag, then the next with a coat of arms, and it seems as if they are constantly expanding it, house by house, and it has become almost a mini settlement, all the facades snow-white, identical railings and CCTV cameras all round it.

Furthest out, beyond the motorway ring road, already at the hills and forests of the suburbs, is the Hungarian embassy. If Kazakhstan was hijacked by Borat (arrgh, I’ve mentioned his name!), Hungary has been hijacked by Orbán. It is as if its inhabitants no longer exist. In Slovenia he dominates all news from Hungary. People I knew there have either left or withdrawn into themselves. We Slovenes are currently watchful of Orbán, since our prime minister is trying to be his best friend though he is at best his clone.

Chinese embassy in Ljubljana
 Chinese embassy. Photograph: Miha Mazzini

Travelling round the world from embassy to embassy proved to be an excellent way of getting to know our town. We walked through parts we had never been in before and parts we would normally just drive through. Humans are designed for observing at walking pace. At times it seemed like a journey through time.

On the outskirts, a working farm with all the associated smells. Then the remnants of an industrial estate alongside the railway line, with a single factory still operating. We saw a van draw up with a sign that said Pig-on-a-Spit. The driver didn’t even have to beep his horn, the smell was so strong that the factory doors opened and workers in blue overalls came out and stood in line. Or perhaps he had just timed it right.

We crossed large residential estates with socialist-era blocks of flats. They were mostly put up in the 1980s on what were green areas outside the boundaries of town, but they are no longer on the outskirts. Sprawling beyond them are endless family homes on a Slovene scale that always fascinates foreign visitors as they are built with the notion that at least three generations of a family should live in the same place.

After walking for four and a half hours we were back in the centre of town and bought ourselves a takeaway pizza. We carried it round the corner, to the steps by the river, taking pleasure eating it and feeling the exhaustion numbing our joints, knowing we would groan when we got back to our feet.

“It’s funny, I always wake up with a bout of travel anxiety, strong reisefieber, at three in the morning before travelling, and it also happened to me last night, even though our trip was just a walk,” I said.

My friend laughed, “What about travelling around the world along the meridian next week?”

Courtesy: The Guardian