Whenever people find out that I’m living in Europe for two years, the first question (after a perplexed ‘Why?’) is whether I feel homesick. For Slovenes especially, the idea of being away from home for an extended period of time is difficult to grasp. The country is very small, for one thing (about the size of New Jersey), and people frequently go home to see their families for the weekend. The idea that I would see mine once or twice a year is nearly unfathomable. When I tell them that I live in California and my parents live in Memphis, and that the distance makes visiting more than twice a year nearly impossible even in the same country, they shake their heads and ask me how I cope. I guess Slovenes don’t talk on the phone to their parents much.
The second question I get is what I miss about home, and my answer is always that there is very little that I find difficult to live without. I miss my friends and family, and there are places that I miss seeing and things I miss doing, but in terms of stuff there’s just not that much that I pine for. I do, however, have a short list that I would like to share. There are some things that I truly do miss, and although I don’t necessarily think about them often, they come to mind immediately when I’m asked. The list consists of chai, Dr. Pepper, American pizza, doughnuts and cheeseburgers. All in all, a rather stereotypical collection, and yet there you have it. I’ll talk about these delicious treats for a bit now, in reverse order of intense feelings of longing.
It is true that you can get something like a burger almost anywhere in Europe. The Balkans, along with Slovenia, which is ‘Balkan Light’, are known for their pleskavica. This is a thin layer of ground meat, cooked on a grill, and garnished with about everything you can imagine except cheese (unless you count ‘nacho cheese’ as cheese). Pleskavica with a slathering of ajvar, a bell pepper spread that is truly scrumptious, is quite tasty, but it’s no burger as far as I’m concerned. Nevertheless, Slovenia does offer a twist that you won’t readily find in the US, and that is the horse burger.
Nestled among the hills and meadows of Park Tivoli is a little dose of strange. I say that not with condemnation but with admiration. It’s strange, but that’s what makes it interesting and worth checking out. Should you find yourself wandering the park, an unpleasant rumbling turning your stomach inside out, make your way to Hot Horse and have yourself a burger. Yes, that really is the name, and they truly are a horse stand. There you can order your thin slice of horse meat, along with all the fixins (nacho cheese included, of course), and the man in the stand even speaks some English if you’re having trouble deciding what goes well with horse. I recommend the experience, but alas, it ain’t no cheeseburger.
Next on the list comes your classic doughnut. I choose to write ‘doughnut’, by the way, instead of ‘donut’, but I have no problem with the alternate spelling (and the ‘ugh’ that it makes is just too fitting not to include!). These are even harder to find in Europe than true cheeseburgers, and when you do find them they’re usually a bit different than you expect. John F. Kennedy himself had trouble finding one. His famous quote, Ich bin ein Berliner, which translates not to ‘I am a Berliner’, but rather ‘I am a jelly doughnut’, was much more of a misunderstanding than people realize. What he had really intended to say was that he wanted a jelly doughnut, but his German was a bit lacking. In the end, his hunger for doughnuts was a diplomatic coup, and the people of Berlin love him to this day.
In Slovenia you can find krofi, which people will tell you are doughnuts, but trust them not a bit, my friends. They are made of dough, yes, and they are filled with jam and dusted with powdered sugar, but don’t expect Krispy Kreme or Dunkin’ or even your corner doughnut shop. They are much closer to JFK’s Berliner. Krofi are delicious, and it’s worth a visit to Trojane just to try some of the best that Slovenia has to offer, but doughnuts as you and I know them, they are not. The closest I have come to finding a real doughnut (‘real’ by my standards, I should stress) was in Niš, Serbia. The dough was perfect, there was a sweet coating of frosting on the top, and inside was some kind of cream. Still, it was not quite right. For all of its merits, I thought to myself as I devoured it, it was missing the glaze. There was something disturbing about that, and it did not take me long to pinpoint just what it was. Serbia is a country where people drink coffee and smoke cigarettes all day and consider schnapps to be part of a balanced diet, and yet they don’t glaze their doughnuts. What does that say about us that Serbs know when to show moderation here, and yet we don’t? In order to fully understand this problem, let’s examine the doughnut for a moment.
We start with dough, a reasonable ingredient that gives us bread and pasta (it’s not the healthiest thing, we now know, but it has provided the basic element of the human diet since time immemorial). But going beyond that, we sweeten the dough, and then instead of baking it, we fry it. Already we’ve got a lethal food product there, but we’re far from finished. We then glaze the thing, which is a fancy way of saying that we coat the entire piece of fried sweetdough in liquid sugar. But even this is not enough. This is only your standard doughnut. This is the basic model with no bells and whistles, the one without the thrills and frills of other doughnuts. In order to really get it going, you have to then cover it in some kind of topping: chocolate is a favourite, though I’m partial to maple, myself. Sprinkles may then be added as well, which is basically like carpet bombing the doughnut with refined sugar. Mmm, it’s like landmines for my teeth…But let’s not forget the filling! Cream, Boston cream, Bavarian cream…are these all different? Is there actually a Boston-cream, or is it just that the ‘cream pie’ is done ‘Boston-style’?
So all in all it’s possible to fry your sweetened dough, dunk it in molten sugar, dip it in chocolate, attack it with sprinkles and fill it with cream. And then we eat that? Well, that and a couple more like it. And man, do I miss them. I dream now of Portland and Voodoo Doughnut, the shop that dared to create the ‘bacon doughnut’, which I have yet to try. Top Pot in Seattle gives them a run for their money, though, and both have me wishing I was doing a trip to the Pacific Northwest rather than just the Mid-South. One day I’ll make it back up there and give bacon-wrapped maple a go.
One thing Slovenes are never clear on is the difference between American and Italian pizza. For a while now I’ve been trying to explain it to them, and I’m not sure I am clear on the precise breakdown. I do know for sure that no one in the US would ever offer to put ketchup and mayonnaise on your pizza and look at you strangely if you declined both. Let me be clear: I love Italian pizza, and I have no complaints about the way Europeans fashion their bread, sauce and cheese masterpieces. I will say, however, that I miss the American version, which as near as I can figure it is simply Italian-style with more of everything-more sauce, more cheese and thicker crust (and don’t start with me, New York-style fans). The spices are probably a bit different as well, but now we’re just quibbling. Ultimately, it’s just what you’d expect from an American interpretation of an Old World tradition.
My enthusiasm for the home-grown variety of my motherland reminds me of my first time in Europe, living with a host family in northern Germany. At that time I was possessed of many misconceptions about the world, and I was not shy about making a fool out of myself. For example, when leafing through one of the circulars delivered to the house, I saw advertisements for Braun products. ‘Oh, Brawn,’ I said. ‘That’s an American company.’ Silence filled the room, and had there been crickets they would have been a-chirping. ‘No, Brown,’ my host sister corrected. ‘It’s a German company.’ These sorts of observations just kept coming, and my excuse that I was 17 at the time seems like a poor one indeed. Perhaps most memorable, at least for my host family, was my announcement that pizza was an American invention. To this day, when I visit and pizza comes up, someone always says, ‘Ah, American food!’ Allow me to explain.
Somewhere I had heard that, contrary to what one might think, pizza actually comes from the US. What this person/article/television personality (I no longer have any idea where or how I heard this) probably meant was that the pizza that we eat in the US is decidedly American, very different from the original pizza from Italy. Being in the habit of repeating things that I hear and find interesting, I saw no harm in remarking to my family that pizza was American. You can imagine the laughs I received at this. Arguments back and forth ensued, and I clung to the ‘facts’ as I had once heard them. Silly boy. Eventually I was convinced that, yes, of course, pizza is Italian. But if you go to Europe and order a pizza, you will not get anything close to Zachary’s, and Bay Area folks will know just what a tragedy that is.
We are now leaving food and making our way into beverages. I discussed the Cola Wars and my non-aligned stance back in Kosovo: An Introduction. I drink Coke and I drink Pepsi, but when given the choice I reach for Dr. Pepper. That sweet and spicy bevy just knows how to please my buds, and I’ve been a fan since I was too young to have ever been given liquid candy of any kind. There are even pictures of me from the early 80’s with my ‘I’m A Pepper!’ t-shirt that I wish I still had (in a slightly larger size, naturally). I’m not sure what it is about the Dr. that is so special, but it does me right and I don’t ask questions. Sadly, Europeans tend to hate it, making it more than difficult to find here. So when I randomly saw it in a supermarket in Austria, I took it as a sign that life is not random after all.
If you find yourself in Klagenfurt, Austria, take a trip out from the center to EuroSpar. There is a refrigerated section in the store for cold drinks, and up on the top shelf, hidden in plain sight, you may be lucky enough to find a six-pack of Dr. Pepper. Now it’s in plastic bottles (shiver), but beggars can’t be choosers. Allow me to relate to you my experience of discovering these beacons of freedom and beauty. I had gone to Klagenfurt, a two-hour train ride north from Ljubljana, with two purposes in mind: begin my application for a Slovenian residence permit (which must be done outside of Slovenia, but not necessarily outside of the EU) and meet with a professor at the University of Klagenfurt. Due to my ineptitude at properly reading business hours, I arrived at the Slovenian consulate to discover that they were already closed for the day. After a few well-chosen swears, none of which were directed at myself, where they belonged, I headed in search of the university. Somewhere between these two points I stumbled upon the EuroSpar, and having an hour to kill I thought I’d head over and see what they had to offer.
I’m a big fan of Mezzo Mix, the cola and orange mixed-beverage that seems to be only popular in German-speaking countries. It was a hot day, and seeing the refrigerated area I decided to have a look. I found no Mezzo Mix in that cool interior, but as I turned away in dismay a familiar purple caught my eye. I was used to being fooled by the similar colour used for packaging of Union beer in Slovenia, but something made me give this a closer look, and sure enough it was a six-pack of Dr. Pepper, high above me on the top shelf and easily missed. There was only one, and I could not believe my luck. All of a sudden, showing up to an empty consulate made sense: if I hadn’t had all of that extra time, I never would have come to EuroSpar and made this important (yes, it was important) discovery.
I have been back to Klagenfurt for residency nonsense three more times since then. Each time I have made the pilgrimage to EuroSpar, and also each time I have looked in despair for that Dr. Pepper, only seeing it just at the moment when I have nearly given up hope. It’s as though what the doctor ordered is in fact a test of my resolve, and with faithful pursuit in the face of defeat, with that final, nearly hopeless look back for one last scan of the room, the Dr. rewards me by revealing himself. My most recent trip to Klagenfurt was no exception, and this time I truly wondered if I would find my soda of choice there at all. I had looked all over, examining every shelf, and I could not see it anywhere. Perhaps four times in a row of finding the only six-pack in stock was just too much to ask for. But then, as I prepared to leave, that flash of purple winked at me, and I turned to find two solitary bottles waiting to be plucked from their hiding places. Further back I saw a third, and although disappointed at having to settle for half of what I had wanted, I was happy to have them. It was then that the magic happened.
The third bottle was too far back to reach without standing on something, and just at that moment an employee entered the area. Reluctant to put my feet on the packages of soda that lined the floor in hopes of reaching my third bottle, at least in front of this guy, I decided to wait until he left. Seeing my distress, however, he offered to help, and when I told him what I wanted he, of course, stepped all over the packages of soda. Three bottles in hand, I was ready to go, but for some reason, perhaps because I enjoy idle comments, I happened to say that it was too bad there was no six-pack like there usually was. Oh, but this guy was not about to let me walk away unsatisfied! He told me that there must surely be one on the top shelf (the lofty place worthy of such a beverage!), and after a minute or two of searching, pulling down pack after pack of worthless other brands of soda, he finally had it. With a thank you and a good day, I was off with nine bottles of liquid gold that would last me until I left for my trip to the US. And they say there’s no order to the universe!
Chai (which rhymes with raj, which means ‘paradise’ in Slovene)
The final thing that I truly miss is chai. ‘What is chai?’ some of you might be asking yourselves. ‘Isn’t that ‘tea’ in Hindi/Russian/many other Slavic languages?’ others of you might be wondering. ‘Read you loud and clear, buddy!’ a handful of you surely chants. It is to all of you, though, that I address myself now to discuss what is possibly the answer to happiness and peace on Earth. Chai is all of those things you just mentioned-it is tea. Aside from the tea itself, masala chai, or spiced chai, is an Indian variety that is infused with an assortment of marvels that includes cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, pepper and ginger, and it is sweetened with, wait for it…honey. Honey. Just that word alone sounds like heaven. Slovene for ‘honey’ is med, and although the linguist in me cringes, there is a part of me that believes that the ‘med-’ in ‘medicine’ must surely have entered Latin from Slavic.
Chai is what St. Peter gives you as you walk through the pearly gates. It’s what Buddha is smiling about. It is the answer behind the Cabala, and what all of those virgins will be offering to the Muslim faithful. If you’re really good, you are reborn as the official taster at secret chai-appreciation ceremonies, and even Dante warned us all that there is no chai in hell. Thankfully, it is available in the here and now. You can make it yourself from scratch or buy it in teabag form, and this is all well and good, but a true master will brew you a traditional cup of this stuff that will make you realize that nirvana has nothing to do with a skinny dude with long, blond hair. I follow a different path, however. That same chai master, and anyone who is used to what they make at home, will cry foul when I say this, but for my taste there’s nothing better than Tazo brand concentrate.
Just saying that sounds like a cop-out, like an embracing of corporate phonyism that takes something pure and corrupts it, putting its own shiny label on the front and selling it to yuppies and college kids. Well, you’ve got me there, but I am addicted to this stuff, so there’s really not much else to say on that matter. Tazo chai concentrate comes in a box and is basically an extremely potent mix of tea and all of the ingredients I mentioned above, along with the requisite preservatives. Heat it on the stove and add a roughly equal amount of milk, and you’ve got yourself something very special. It’s sweet and far less spicy than what a traditional chai enthusiast would reach for, but damn if it doesn’t make the heavens open for me. I must narrow my endorsement somewhat, though, and steer you toward Tazo Organic Chai. This has nothing to do with the fact that it’s organic (although I tend to go that way with most things), and everything to do with the fact that it tastes better. Tazo Original Chai is very good, but it’s just not quite there, and both the Vanilla Chai and the Decaf taste like rhinoceros. That’s right, rhinoceros. Go to the zoo, find the place where they keep the rhinos, take a big sniff. That smell is what those last two taste like. The Decaf is watered-down rhinoceros, but Vanilla is rhino through and through. Buyer beware.
So I hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour of the things I miss in my Eurolife. Somehow I left out talking about KFC’s ‘Double Down’, which has been a recent but powerful craving…don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. Being back in the States for a while, I plan on consuming all of these as recklessly as possible, but I still thought that this would be a nice ‘welcome back’ post after my brief blogging hiatus. There will surely be some interesting US adventures that I will have the chance to write about soon, and it will be nice to get domestic in general here for a change. For many reasons, it’s going to be good to spend some time back home, and I look forward to getting to talk about it.