Grape bloom coated my fingers and clumped under my nails. It felt chalky and sticky at the same time, like I’d dunked my hands into a barrel of honey, then twirled them around in talc. I stepped carefully to the next plant in the vine row, placing my foot through a gap in the native grasses and wildflowers teeming with insects. Bees and other winged creatures buzzed through the warm autumn air, which was clear and had a fresh, almost tropical aroma rising from the baskets of fresh grapes that hung on the arms of a dozen grape pickers, including Shelby and I.
Back in 2019, we spent two full days helping vineyards in the Vipava Valley of Slovenia harvest grapes. I have stayed in contact with one of the winemakers over the years. When I messaged him in late 2021 that we had returned to Ljubljana, his response was, “Welcome home :).”
Near the end of our stay, we rented a car and drove to the Vipava Valley to see him. He sat us down at a table in his tasting room and asked which bottle of his wine we’d like to share, then pulled the cork out and poured three glasses. Shelby had been reading a book about Slovenia and asked the winemaker about the rivalry between Slovenia and Croatia.
“The countries further south don’t have to work because life is easy. Here, the weather is not as friendly and you have to work. Everything is not given to you. It can make them lazy,” he explained. “We are a stubborn people. From 810 to 1991, Slovenia was occupied by the Romans, the French, the Habsburgs,” he declared, tapping the side of his hand on the table with each empire listed, “Napoleon. The Ottomans. Hitler. We kept our own language for those years even though the entire time they were telling us, you can’t speak your language.”
When Serbian nationalism took hold of socialist Yugoslavia in 1991, both Slovenia and Croatia declared independence, sparking the start of the Yugoslav Wars. What followed was a bitter war and the first genocide in Europe since World War II. I’ll discuss this more in an upcoming chapter covering our brief visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, but the important piece of context is that both Slovenia and Croatia resisted Serbian authoritarianism, but geography was on the side of the Slovenians. Of the six states of former Yugoslavia—Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro—Slovenia is the most northern and only borders Croatia. Croatia acted as a natural buffer, shielding Slovenia from the war.
The Yogoslav Wars were also largely motivated by Serbian ethnic purity, and since the president of Serbia viewed Slovenia as “independently and ethnically pure” with a small ethnic Serbian population, he granted them a mostly peaceful independence, focusing his ambitions on Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina where there were large Serbian minority populations he could rally to his cause.
Slovenia quickly organized into an independent country recognized by the United Nations in 1992 while undergoing a cultural revolution of free speech and democracy. They applied for membership to the European Union in 1996 and were admitted in 2004.
Meanwhile, Croatia bore the brunt of Serbian aggression. Croatia’s borders are extensive in relation to its land area, halfway encircling the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, touching Serbia in the north and Montenegro in the south, and sharing a northern border with Slovenia.
The Yugoslav Wars lasted from 1991 to 2001 and ended in the creation of six separate countries, one each for the six former Yugoslav states. Following Slovenia’s lead, Croatia applied for European Union membership in 2003, but their status has been in a state of semi-purgatory for nearly 20 years. Based on my brief research, it seems like every few years the European Union drops a crumb for Croatia to follow, but they have still not been granted full membership like Slovenia. And Croatians (at least in part) blame Slovenians for this reality.
Our winemaker friend explained it, “The Croatians will say Slovenia is twisting arms to keep them from joining the EU, but that is not the case,” he pushed his pointer finger into the table and drew outlines as he spoke, “For the EU, you have Slovenia here, which shares borders with Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia. If you let Slovenia in, you decrease the size of the border you need to secure since Italy, Hungary, and Austria are also in the EU. It’s easy to secure Slovenia’s small border with Croatia.” Then he drew a long line, “Croatia is like this. It borders Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro. It has coastline. It is not true that Slovenians are keeping Croatia out of the EU, their borders would take many more resources.”
As of the time of writing in late 2021, Croatia is technically a member of the European Union, though they are not part of the Schengen Area (their citizens cannot live and work visa-free in all EU countries and there is still a guarded border), nor are they allowed to adopt the Euro as their currency. Croatia anticipates full EU rights sometime in the next three years, but as always, things could get held up by bureaucracy.
There is a Slovenian aphorism that states, “If you stare at the stars, you’ll step in shit.”
At first, I dismissed this as an out-dated remnant of socialism. The bite of the words has an oppressive sting. It’s a warning not to stand out. Not to have ambition. Not to strive to make your life better. But our winemaker friend made me reconsider my initial interpretation.
When we first met two years earlier, I asked him if he exported his wine to the United States, hoping that once we returned to Colorado we’d be able to purchase more. He told me back then that he didn’t export, but that he might in the future.
Since it had been two years, I asked him again if he was exporting his wine and he answered, “There was one man from Chicago who came and loved the wine and purchased a few crates. They are in Chicago and Minnesota and he is almost sold out.”
“Will he help you sell more?” I asked.
“He wants to, but I don’t want to give him all my wine. Then we have nothing to sell here. Sure, I could send it all to America and sell it for €15 or €20 instead of €9, but I don’t want to. If Irena’s [his wife] father hosted the tastings, he’d give the bottles away for five or six euros, because to him, that is what they’re worth. I want to share my wine here and have people visit.”
Then our conversation shifted to the winemaking process. I asked him what lever he feels like he can control that has the biggest impact on the quality of his wine.
“Pruning,” he declared without thinking. He explained to me that he prunes his vines to yield about one bottle per vine per year. When you prune grape buds, the plant produces less fruit, but theoretically each piece of fruit produced is higher in quality. Around one bottle per plant per year is what he views as the best balance between quality and volume output. “I could prune so that each vine produces only one grape, but the marginal improvement in quality decreases after a certain point.”
“It’s more of an art than a science,” he told me, “I move the vines to give the grapes shade. I visualize how they will grow. The weather matters. In the cellar, I can screw up a wine, but I cannot make miracles. The wine can only be as good as the grapes.”
I observed this spirit of craftsmanship all over Slovenia. If I grant myself the liberty to paint with large swaths, I’d say that Slovenians are hardworking, analytical, and love perfecting skills, but that they stay true to the cultural wisdom of their heritage and control the urge to “reach for the stars.”
Take the woodworker in downtown Ljubljana, whose shop was slightly wider than a hallway and slightly longer than a car. His shelves were lined with necklaces adorning pendant leaves carved from walnut; decorative cabinets sanded from maple into whimsical, Dr. Seuss-style swirls; bowties whittled from ebony into crotchets and quavers flowing across a wavy musical staff; figurines of lance-wielding knights mounted on rearing war horses; and kitchen knives whose varied wooden handles were attached to damascus steel blades his blacksmith friend pounded in his forge.
“To me, wood is a jewel,” he told me. “So so many people have offered to sell my product across Europe, but I say no.”
“Can you earn more selling them yourself?” I asked.
“No, I earn much less. If I sold these in Germany or France,” he said, pointing at one of the Dr. Seuss-style cabinets, “I’ve been told I could sell two or three per week. Here I sell it for twelve hundred euros. In Europe, it would go for four or five thousand. But it is all I would do. I can only make one in one week. I would have to close my shop and could not experiment with new things, so I say no. I will never be a rich man, but I love my shop. I don’t want to be in a box.”
There was a bakery under our third-floor apartment that sold an eclectic assortment of sourdough breads, focaccia, croissants, brioche, cinnamon rolls, and other flaky treats. Their style was an interesting mix of French, Italian, and modern baking. If you ask Ljubljana locals for food recommendations, almost all of them tell you to go here.
Skutull and I stopped by this bakery most mornings to pick up a pastry for breakfast and to replenish our bread stash as needed. Many of the employees changed based on the day of the week, but the owner—a young man with long, dark hair sticking out the top of a headband—was always in the kitchen methodically shaping dough and pulling sheets of bread out of the ovens. He never manned the register; there were three girls about my age who handled that duty.
Each day, the smell of warm bread wafted down the narrow street below our apartment, filling our bedroom with the smell of fresh bread and beckoning me to come outside. Dark gray tiles lined the floors inside the bakery. A wooden island with free-standing glass dividers displayed neatly stacked loaves and pastries. The kitchen was behind the counter and had a large worktop in the center covered in flour and blobs of sticky dough. Hot ovens and racks of cooling boules surrounded three bakers, who folded dough and slid croissants into ovens. The only sounds were the soft shuffle of bakers’ feet and the hiss of steam escaping through the airy crumb of sourdough bread.
The bakery did not accept credit cards, nor did they always have adequate change in their purse to break a twenty euro note. The employees came to recognize Skutull and I, and when they ran short on change, they would let me take home whatever I had picked out without paying, trusting that when I came back I’d remind them how much I owed.
The bakery was closed on Sundays, but on Sunday nights when I took Skutull potty one last time before bed, we’d pass by and see the same man with dark hair sticking out the top of his headband shuffling massive blobs of dough in the dimly-lit store. He waved at me sometimes.
I share these stories because I think that as an American, I’ve been taught to reach for the stars at all costs. If you aren’t reaching for the stars, you aren’t thinking big enough.
If the winemaker were American, he’d probably export all of his wine to sell it for max profit and use the proceeds to acquire neighboring vineyards. If the woodworker were American, he’d submit his work for national awards and set up a manufacturing center full of junior woodworkers producing his designs in quantity. If the baker were American, he’d probably franchise his bakery and open locations across the EU. Indeed, this is where my instincts would take me if I were in their shoes. And the sad part is that in each of these scenarios, the craftspeople morph into business people and no longer have time to work toward perfection of the craft they love.
One of the strengths of American culture is its belief that anyone can reach for the stars. There is so much opportunity, and if you succeed, you will be rewarded. A downside of this mindset is that it can make people anxious, entitled, and overly competitive. By definition, you cannot reach for the stars and succeed without many other people failing. Your success is judged by the number of people who tried to do what you did and failed. If everyone succeeded at reaching for the stars, nobody would reach them. The stars would cease to exist, because the essence of what they are is defined by their rarity.
If everyone was worth $1 billion, no one would be rich; if we all had pieces of art displayed in museums and starred in Hollywood movies, nobody would be famous; and if we all received a Nobel Prize, none of us would be distinguished academics.
While I still cringe at the thought of someday teaching my kids that they don’t have to reach for the stars, I can’t help but notice how happy the Slovenian craftspeople are. They are just as skilled as anyone in the US baking bread, making wine, or working wood, but they stay out of the spotlight. They grade themselves not by how much of their product they sell, how expansive they grow their business empire, or how much acclaim they receive, but by the simple joy of perfecting their craft.
At the time of writing, I’ve now spent two months living in the states of former Yugoslavia, and while I appreciate how dedicated these three Slovenians are to their crafts, I know that I’m cherry picking them as extrapolations for the country as a whole. In many ways, they are cultural rebels. They may not be reaching quite as high or as ruthlessly as some people in America, but they are acting to change their circumstances in defiance of cultural norms that frown upon lofty aspirations.
This situation reminds me of a city park.
On one side of the park you have American-types stomping and yelling at the top of their lungs, spraying dog shit all over the place as they fight amongst each other to snag a star from the night sky; on the other side you have the traditional socialist-types, who step so carefully through the grass avoiding poop that they only ever see the ground.
I think the three Slovenians who inspired me may have discovered a hidden option—wait until daytime, methodically pick up all the turds, and then play in the park.
The Slovenian craftspeople make me think that there’s something to be said for dedicating your life to quietly perfecting a skill rather than clawing to make a name for yourself in the American rat race.