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When we got to Piran, it would seem odd to me that the morning had begun with snow-capped mountains on every side. As Marketa drove us towards the coast, I marvelled at the way the scenery changed from mountainsides heaped upon with thick dollops of snow to an almost Mediterranean vista. In less than two hours, we’d gone from the Julian Alps to Piran, with its rocky coast, gleaming water, and red sandstone buildings. You could see Trieste on a good day. Why people always say this, I don’t know. Come here just to see there, hazily at that, as if the landmass in the distance were a slumbering mythic beast, reactive to your attention.
The Slovenian scenery had a quick-fire, video game quality, redolent of Zelda, a game that allowed you to travel in an instant between snowy mountain towns and vast deserts by playing a song on a wooden ocarina.
As I listened to Marketa talk, the idea had never seemed more appealing.
Her insights stretched beyond tour guiding to current affairs and social mores; Islam and its dangers, marriage its importance, divorce its recklessness and litter as a sign of moral decay.
I was looking out of the window. The sea was still in the distance. I longed for its salt-scented spray but could only detect a vague hint of the ageing pinecone air freshener, and the can of Coke Zero Marketa had in the drink holder between us.
The sun was beating down on the asphalt and cars up ahead as if it were a sunny summer’s day, not early January.
“People throw away marriages like trash,” Marketa said, after I had made the mistake of mentioning a high-profile celebrity who had not long ago divorced from her second husband. The accusations of infidelity didn’t appear to matter, nor the rumoured domestic abuse.
Marketa had a lot of friends who had divorced. Though disapproving of their decision, she had bitten her tongue.
“People have to make their own mistakes,” she said. “They don’t realise that when there is a problem you work on it.”
Nodding, I wondered if her husband’s marriage was based upon such a mutual outlook, or a convenient mixture of deference and poor hearing.
“These people never think of the children,” she said, all Helen Lovejoy of the Adriatic. “The damage it can do.”
“Maybe they think it’s better for the children if they’re not together and unhappy,” I tried.
She shook her head firmly.
“No. It teaches them that it’s okay to just give up,” she said, as if giving up on a failing marriage were equitable to violin lessons.
I drummed my fingers against the side panel, hoping she would stop talking.
I had met Marketa the previous afternoon, when she collected me from the airport in her Slovenia Luxury car, the branding and word order off in a way that amused me. She was obsessed, I quickly noticed, with business and work. People didn’t work hard enough now. She worked too hard. Her son didn’t work enough in school. Her husband worked too hard but also too little. His salary wasn’t enough for their needs but reason, she thought, why he needed to leave his position at the accountancy firm where he worked and seek out better opportunities. He never would. He didn’t have that kind of ambition. Opportunities are worked for, she said. One did not give up.
Neither of us spoke for a long time. Eventually, the discomfort got to me and I figured I ought to speak.
“I guess it’s better if people don’t stay together when they’re miserable,” I suggested.
There was a short pause, before Marketa responded, unequivocally.
“Not for the children.”
I left it unchallenged, thinking instead of all the children of undivorced parents from my youth and the nouns associated with them now: divorced, happy, dead, stressed, adulterous, faithful, scarred, indifferent. Imprisoned, in various literal and not-so literal forms.
“I suppose not,” I said.
With just a flick of the eyes towards her mirror, Marketa cut inside, changing lanes. The driver behind beeped. He overtook us, mouthing something I knew to be a curse. I lifted my eyes in solidarity and he drove on, as if aware that I was a hostage to nauseating conversation and dangerous driving.
“Children need a mom and dad at home,” said Marketa, continuing. “It is very important.”
I thought about this a moment. Hitler had had both. Tito too, and the only thing I couldn’t decide was if it were tact or cowardice that had me not make a smartass comment based upon the fact.
For the final thirty minutes of our journey the motorway remained quiet, a smattering of cars taking up the two lanes heading west. The mountains got smaller and smaller until they became hills. The sea became visible, and eventually we turned off the motorway onto a long stretch of road hugging the coastline.
The sun shimmered on the surface of a calm Adriatic like icing sugar on fairy cakes, and I looked forward to seeing the videogame-like contrast between Piran and the hotel at Lake Bohinj. Eventually, with no obvious prompt, Marketa spoke again.
“One of the problems in this country, is that we forget what it was like,” she said. “During the Communist time, you couldn’t throw things away. There wasn’t anything to throw. No goods. No luxuries. You had to stand in lines for things you buy in the supermarkets now. People forget this,” she said. “Sneakers. Clothes. Food. And – ”
“Marriages?” I said, lifting a finger into the air.
I thought about marriage, how it might be viewed as a purchased good if you considered the licence, the cake, the honeymoon and the invites. I took a long, inward, meditative breath, as recommended by Raymond, my therapist; counting one, two, three, four, hoping as I did that Marketa would jabber on without noticing. She did.
“Of course, it is better now. No mistake. But people forget,” she added.
Still on breath three, my attention had lapsed, and I was unsure whether I was meant to say something. She went on.
“There were problems. But we did not have so much crime. We did not have drugs.”
So, crime just didn’t happen? I thought. And people didn’t find ways to get high? I couldn’t decide if the trade-off rendered utopia a heaven or a hell. I exhaled, nodding, feigning involvement in the conversation. Looking through the windshield, I could see Piran gleaming in the distance, the city still taking shape as Marketa shifted the goalposts, slurping ungainly on her Coke Zero before she spoke.
“At least we don’t have Muslims.”
I breathed in again, then out, as if literally deflating. “No?”
She shook her head. The coastline was on the horizon, the large fishing trawlers visible in the distance, the shimmer of the water beautiful. Later, when I thought back on the day, I’d see that shimmering water and think about how it had been just trying to get on with its day, being water, doing what it did, whilst in a far-off car a human was doing their damnedest to stink up the place, through nothing more than their depthless stupidity.
“This is one of the good things about Ljubljana. We don’t have this problem,” she said.
“We have a Muslim mayor in London,” I said, hoping in vain that my tone might convey a stance. If it did, Marketa didn’t seem to notice.
“Wow,” she replied, taking a sip of her Coke Zero, shaking her head slightly. “Did you vote for him?”
“I voted for the Women’s Equality Party,” I said.
She lifted her eyebrows.
“I thought it would help me on dates.” She smiled. “But I had Khan as my second choice,” I added.
“Khan. The Muslim mayor.”
She nodded, warily.
“You vote for two parties in the mayoral elections,” I said. “A first and second choice. I knew he’d likely win but went with my Tinder-friendly option all the same. He’s done a good job, as far as I can tell.”
There was another long pause before Marketa spoke again.
“I read that there are parts of London that you cannot to go to.”
“Yes, they’re called private grounds.”
“You mean, there’s parts of London you can’t go to because of Muslims?”
“Yes,” she said.
“It’s not true.”
She laughed derisively. “I read it.”
She smiled thinly, giving me one of those side glances the knowinggive, a look that told me that my lived experience was not worth jam. Though I’d known it for some time, I was only now articulating the thought concretely in my mind.
Marketa was a fool.
The road either side of the motorway had become staid as it narrowed, signs of human influence clear close-up, with latticed metal wire keeping the sandy rock of the hills in place lest some fall and hit the cars below.
I avoided conflict like cats do water, so I suppose it’s no surprise I didn’t latch onto her remarks about divorce, deeply personal as they were. It was easier to act the role of the great, white saviour, than it was to admit I’d misgivings too about how readily Sarah had given up on us, much as I accepted – not just tacitly, I was a guest at her second wedding – her decision.
A little while later, Marketa and I ate lunch at a restaurant just outside of Piran. Food proved a distraction, the pair of us talking about Slovenian cuisine for the best part of an hour. I asked about rosé produce in the hills not a million miles from here. I enquired about cheese. The closest I got to politics was a question about the abundance of consumer goods following the fall of Communism. But then, with the memory of what she’d said flickering across my mind, I couldn’t help but ask a loaded question.
“You were there, no?”
She winced a little. She told me she was. I enjoyed the pettiness of my remark, in spite of all that I’d avoided.
After lunch, she had a meeting with the owner of the hotel where we were staying, then a Skype call with her boss. I had a few hours to myself to roam the city.
The buildings had sloping, red rooftops. The waves gently lapped against masoned walls and the sun beat down on the marmoreal paving stones near the water. There was a large casino in the centre of town, a place that seemed more sleepy than anywhere else. I felt at peace now, after enduring Marketa on the drive between Lake Bohinj and Piran.
There was not much city to explore, and I liked that no one was telling me there was. The Adriatic was beautiful. There was a belfry tower you could climb up. I took photos there and yes, could see Trieste, hazy in the distance. I wouldn’t say the view was spectacular. More like a watercolour starting to take shape.
Piran was sleepy and peaceful. I looked out upon the red-roofed houses and thought of what lay beneath. Lives found a way to feel unsettled, after all. I tried to imagine a time when the town might have experienced open chaos. The Second World War perhaps? Maybe during the Yugoslav Wars. I couldn’t picture it though. It appeared a sleepy place where nothing happened, where people went around with quiet dissatisfaction or contentment, where teenagers grumbled at the misfortune to have been born here and not Ljubljana, a place that almost fit into your pocket but was, to their mind, a big city.
I thought of all the nasty things people said and did to one another beneath the privacy of those pretty red roofs and thought also of all the things people think to air in public without a second’s thought.
In the morning, we left the hotel around nine to make our way to Sevnica, where the soon-to-be First Lady – the inauguration was tomorrow – grew up.
They were not keen on his politics here, said Marketa, of all people. Still, she said, it was a point of great pride to have a Slovenian First Lady in the White House. Her tone suggested this was something not to be questioned, and I didn’t.
When we arrived, the local guide showed me to a café where they’d named an apple pie in the First Lady’s honour, with a giant M in the middle made of pie crust. It’d be melodramatic to say I found it hard to swallow, false too; the pie was mediocre, but okay.
Still, untethered from liberal, Western rage, I didn’t feel at ease in Sevnica, didn’t feel at ease again ’til Marketa dropped me off at the modern hotel in Ljubljana, with its plush fittings and big bed.
We didn’t talk as much as we had the first couple of days, on that drive back to Ljubljana. There was a little more comfort in the silences. It wasn’t so much that we’d gotten sick of one another – although, for my part, I certainly had – as we had run out of things to say. But on the motorway, not all that long before we got to the capital, I remembered the thing she’d said not long before we got to Piran.
“You, know, there’s a big mosque in my hometown,” I said. “It was built a few years ago.”
“We were talking yesterday. About London. And Muslims. I forgot to mention the mosque in my hometown.”
“It’s nicer than the building opposite,” I said. “Harrow Civic Centre’s not exactly a peach. That no-go thing you were talking about. It’s just something the red tops make up.”
“The tabloids. You know, the newspapers. Sure, there are places you might stand out. But the no-go thing, that’s just a story. Most of the little boys I see on the school run have Barcelona football bags. The girls usually have Frozen.”
“It’s a Disney film about a princess,” I said and, hammering home the liberalism with a fictive but vivid flourish, added “Occasionally, the little boys have Frozen bags and the girls Barcelona shirts.”
I smiled, counting twelve cat’s eyes and three ships on the horizon before Marketa spoke again.
“We don’t like change here in Slovenia.”
Ten more cat’s eyes.
“My ex-wife was the very same.”
Her hands tightened ever so slightly around the steering wheel as the outskirts of Piran came into view.
“You were married?”
“I was,” I said. “Guess we threw it away like old sneakers.”
There was another long silence, ‘til eventually Marketa mumbled that sometimes these things simply don’t work out. She told me then that Ljubljana had a black mayor, which was okay, from her point of view.