Slovenian Joys II: Governing Casually

It’s a balmy weekday afternoon. I’m sitting at the Tea House, an outdoor cafe in the Old Town of Ljubljana, a crescent-shaped warren of narrow cobblestone streets and baroque facades which rises from the east bank of the Ljubljanica river. The customers sit outside on a long wooden pallet, watching the people pass by as their tea brews in squat little jugs. We see a portly, white-haired man a short ways down the street, wearing jeans and a polo shirt, and carrying a shopping bag. My friend Samo notes casually "Oh look, that’s the Slovenian Minister for Local Affairs." Just before we spotted the shopping minister, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek — the world’s most famous Slovenian — had walked by. About a half-hour later, a prominent woman journalist, and then a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official, dressed casually but wearing stylish wraparound sunglasses.

It’s no surprise that these folks all walked by the same cafe — the Old Town is the place to go in Ljubljana, and the city is pretty small. What struck me was that these people were all wandering around the city on a weekday afternoon, at around 3:30, and that not one of them was wearing a suit. The casual observer might conclude that government officials run out of things to do at around 2, so they knocked off work and did a little shopping. Then, at 3, the journalists have finished their accounts of the day’s meagre events and follow suit.

Of course, this impression may not be accurate. These officials do have things to do, I was assured. But in Slovenia, it’s considered fine to take a little break in the afternoon, then return to work if there’s more to do. Nobody expects you to wear a suit unless the occasion strictly demands it. I meandered all around the capital city for days at all times of the "work" day, and saw thousands of people. Exactly 5 of them wore something that could be described as "business attire." They stood out. In fact, they gave me sheepish little glances, as if they were embarrassed to be seen dressed so strangely.

I began to think of Slovenia as a sort of a big college campus. On campus, everybody knows each other, there’s one or two meeting places where they all go, and nobody dresses very formally. Everyone’s relaxed because the very idea of a campus is to create a cloistered Arcadia of knowledge, where the stiff, demanding, results-oriented practicality of the outside world is kept safely at bay. The whole of Slovenia has this campus-like feeling. But outside Slovenia, there’s no "super-Slovenia" waiting impatiently with pocket calculators and timesheets.

The impression was deepened later, when I visited Metelkova. Like Christiana in Copenhagen, Metelkova is a complex of former military barracks that was invaded by counterculture squatters and turned into a mildly lawless zone where you can buy under-the-counter pharmaceuticals and mingle freely with other people who share your particular sexual preference. Like Christiana, Metelkova is perfectly safe to visit, as long as you don’t mind being walking through a few clouds of cannabis smoke. Among the usual stoners and backpack tourists, there was a sizable contingent of young journalists, government officials and business types milling about. When the joint came to them, most casually partook. I’m not going to identify them, of course, since there must be some people in Slovenia who actually disapprove of marijuana use. But the Tokers in High Places didn’t seem at all concerned who might be watching. Perhaps there’s an unwritten rule that "what happens in Metelkova stays in Metelkova," but I didn’t get that impression.

Everywhere I went, I got the impression that Slovenians paid enough attention to the rules to make sure everything worked OK, but saw no reason to add, or enforce, any more regulations than necessary. At the national museum, I looked for the coat closet, but was told just to visit the security guard outpost and put my bag in his room. The guard couldn’t have been more than 25, was wearing blue jeans, and smoking. At the Museum of Contemporary History, there seemed to be an elderly guard for every single room (perhaps relocated from a shuttered factory as part of a jobs program?). One of them, a ruddy-faced fellow with a large and decorative mustache, approached me and cheerfully engaged me in conversation. Apparently he had to work up some courage beforehand, because his breath nearly singed my eyebrows. He then wandered unsteadily away, nattering on about the beauty of "Slovenian Music." In the foyer of the contemporary art museum, all I saw was a group of sharp-looking twenty-somethings chatting over coffee. Two of them eventually got up and sold me a ticket, once they saw that I’d actually come to visit the museum.

Perhaps it was the late-summer weather, or the fact that the tourists were mostly gone, and I was often the only visitor most of the places where I went. But whatever explains the laid-back, improvised feel of Slovenia, it was a welcome relief from a country in which people routinely bark at you like angry terriers if you dare to cross against a red light in front of them.

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