It’s the 25th June 2011. It’s my graduating day and it’s Slovenia’s birthday.
Exactly twenty years ago today, on 25th June 1991 a small but unique corner of the former Yugoslavia jumped-ship and declared itself independent.
Approximately 10 years later, two young Bearders (me and Tim) and a youthful Paul Miller, crossed a small border near Jesenice to checkout this new, mysterious and largely-unknown (to my generation anyway) place called ‘Eastern Europe’. Driven by a sense of curiosity and adventure (and no-doubt by many tales of ridiculously cheap beer and beautiful girls) we decided to ditch the Spanish package holiday and try some adrenaline sports in the Alps.
At the time, the name Slovenia was, and to some extent still is, inextricably linked to the Balkan Wars which had dominated the 6 o’clock news bulletins for large parts of the previous century. However, thanks to large amounts of internet-based research and after reading many glowing reports of Slovenia, our initial fears were laid to rest and thanks to the arrival of RyanAir with cheap flights to obscure places like Klangenfurt in Austria – we put together a two week tour, packed our bags and left.
The rest, as they say, is history. However, I would never have predicted the effect that this initial trip would have on the next 10 years of my life. Crossing the border in 2001, we were travelling in a comfy but smoky looking old train. The border guards came through with guns on their belts and their turquoise uniforms seemed to match everything. Hours later we hopped of the train at the impossibly unpronounceable train station in Ljubljana and two weeks later I was in love with the place. The hospitality, the food, the beer, the incredibly beautiful countryside, the weather, the complicated yet strangely addictive history, the fact that people sometimes danced on tables – even the National obsession with turquoise, I was sold.
OK, it’s not been perfect, I have seen a Slovene man attempt to masturbate over the public computers at a language school, on another occasion I walked passed a man in a suit squatting in the middle of a busy street and I assume shitting (I can’t be sure, I looked away in horror) and I have been poisoned by one or two bad pints of Union, but since that trip 10 years ago, I have been a self confessed Slovenophile and an evermore committed European. In May 2004 I joined Silvia and all my new Italian friends at the party in Gorica/Novo Gorizia when Slovenia joined the European Union. I arrived on the 1st ever Easyjet flight from London, I was there on the 1st January 2007 when Tollars turned into Euros and in 2009 became ‘more real’ than many of my Slovenian friends by climbing Mr Three-Heads, Mount Triglav.
However, the greatest thing that those two weeks in 2001 did for me was to trigger an interest in the region. This triggered an interest in travel and by the time of my 30th birthday I was partying in Iceland with many friends (including a Slovenian) having visited every single country, every State andevery wannabe State in the continent.
My fascination with Europe soon trumped my academic and professional interest in computers and come 2008 I was sitting in a classroom in a small and lovably obscure Hungarian town called Koszeg. Today, I’m sitting here again and about to graduate with a Masters Degree in International and European studies. I’m here with a Moldovan, a Hungarian, a Russian, a Lithuanian, a Belarussian and a proffessor from Ireland.
ISES, the school I studied at, was launched with EU funding and has been set up as a Jean Monnet European Centre of Excellence. The course was taught in English and the time I’ve spent here has been as valuable as any other education I’ve had. Twenty years ago we couldn’t have done this. Thirty-forty years ago when my parents were young, the countries I just mentioned were the Communist enemy and we all faced nuclear annihilation. 70-80 years ago when my grandparents were young, Europe led the world into a bloodbath. This shouldn’t be forgotten.
I’m not from a generation that remembers where they were when the Berlin Wall fell, I’m too young, but I have seen enough to know that Europe (all of it) has been profoundly affected by the twin evils of Fascism and Communism. What we have today might not be perfect. Corruption remains a problem, many have lost the work and social guarantees that communism provided and capitalism just screwed up on a grandiose scale, but, Europe today is richer, freer, fairer and more peaceful than it’s ever been.
So, when I collect my certificate this afternoon and raise a glass of fine Hungarian wine, I will do so to say Happy Birthday Slovenia, well done to Europe (this includes the UK) and thanks to all of you who have had to listen to rants like these over the last 10 years.
Finally, I dedicate all of it to a small Russian piglet called Dilyara. She’s done as much to inspire over the past 4 years as everything else combined.
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