Michael Manske In Slovenia

The Slovenian Chestnut Conspiracy

You know it's autumn in Slovenia when the ice-cream stands disappear and are replaced by barrels of roasting chestnuts. Losing the ice-cream stands is tough. The scoops are luscious and creamy -- they taste as if they're from Willy Wonka's private stash. Since the servings are oversized, your fingers and lips get coated during the messy transit from tongue to stomach. But it's worth the struggle. In the summer, the lines for ice cream stretch ten minutes deep.

Albanians dominate the ice-cream businesses here. It's funny how groups come to find a niche. Many years ago, when Slovenian immigrants arrived in the New World, they dominated the straw-hat industry -- not exactly a business with long-term prospects, but they did it. In the case of Albanians and ice cream, their monopoly is deserved.

There's another noteworthy thing about Albanian ice-cream stands: the service is uncharacteristically cheerful. Anyone who's traveled to Europe has probably had an experience with the less-than-stellar service here. Slovenia is generally no different. You'd probably find happier faces in a prison labor camp than in most clothing stores. And waiters tend to see you as a rude interruption to what would otherwise be a glorious holiday.

You might think that Slovenes would be unhappy about rude or bad service. Some of them are. But many of them seem to prefer it. They consider it more "honest" and "natural" than the standard American "How are you today? Can I help you with anything?" spiel, which they consider superficial. And since the salaries in the service industry aren't stellar, consumers here are sympathetic to the frowns and sighs that accompany their purchases.

The exception to that last line of reasoning is that the Albanians, who work hard in stands across the country selling vegetables, fast food, and ice cream, manage to keep their spirits up. Let me give you an example of the difference -- a personal experience that I think illustrates my point.

I frequently go to an Albanian-run hamburger place. I've been to this place enough times in four years that the staff recognizes me and greets me warmly. We chitchat about how things are going. On one occasion, I forgot my wallet and was unable to pay. The chef smiled and told me to leave it until next time. Ashamed, I brought the money the next day, and added a lavish tip as a token of my appreciation.

The same thing once happened to me at a popular Slovenian pizzeria. Same premise -- the staff knew me; I knew them. When I realized I had no cash on me (I'm quite forgetful), I tried to pay with my credit card, which had just expired. We were at an impasse. The Slovenian staff debated what to do. After intense deliberations, their solution was to take a hostage. They asked me to leave my valuable insurance card with them. They would hold onto it until I returned. As part of their demands, I agreed to return the same day with the money. All this hoopla over a $5 pizza.

I suppose it was decent of them to reveal their suspicions, though. Long live honesty and all that.

This behavior doesn't bother me anymore. I'm more bothered by the encroaching winter and its lack of ice cream. Although the chestnuts are a nice consolation.

Until I arrived in Slovenia, I had never tried a chestnut. The closest I ever came to a chestnut was hearing "The Christmas Song." But they're popular here. They're roasted in thick barrels, about a gallon at a time, and then sold in little brown paper bags. This week I tried some for the first time and was surprised by their dryness -- they remove any saliva you have in your mouth.

I wonder if the roasted chestnuts aren't part of a plot to make people thirsty so they purchase Slovenia's other popular seasonal offering, kuhano vino -- heated red wine, spiced with cinnamon, sugar, cloves, and lemon.

If it is a plot, I don't mind.


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