Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Slovenia: Nonviolent Communication on the Pohorje Plateau

8-24-17 Slovenia: Nonviolent Communication on the Pohorje Plateau
This week-long European Nonviolent Communication Summer Festival was the real reason I visited Slovenia. 

A very happy and empathetic couple from Canada, Cis and Cat, had thrown it out as a possibility while we gardened together in Bulgaria. Why not? I finagled a room at the over-booked conference by promising Ivana, who had a bed to spare, that I didn’t snore and I was in! In what I wasn’t sure but it promised to be an instructive week in a posh-ski-resort high above Maribor with lots of nice people. I could use that after getting lost, impersonal hostels and moving luggage. A place to stay put, be fed and it turned out .. to be loved.

Feel free to skip this blog if I get too saccharine but I promise you that this was one of the highlights of my year! 

I had already studied NVC (also called Compassionate Communicaiton) with David Warren (feel free to contact him at dwarren6768@yahoo.com, re. classes and resources) in Melbourne, Florida, USA for months but couldn’t say I was proficient. As I left home with conflicts unresolved, I was wondering whether this communication practice could have prevented a relationship fracture. And I surely wanted to arrive back in the States having changed parts of myself that were unskillful.

Just having to take the cable-car up to the Pohorje Plateau gave me an above-it-all possibility of change. 

What a break to get outside of entangled attachments and take a fresh view! And hopefully to land back into Maribor, Slovenia a week later with new understandings and practiced skills.

Nonviolent Communication is a communication process developed by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960’s as a result of his work initially with racial tensions. It is designed to rapidly shift conflicts in groups, improve compassionate connection in relationships and bring one’s focus back to self-empathy and defining one’s own needs. Sounds a little airy-fairy, I know, but I’ve experienced it as profound. It takes practice of course and is better learned with someone rather than with a book. (But buy the book by the same name for starters!)

The Giraffe and the Jackal

I don’t have many pictures to share, folks. In the center of our opening group are the playful but oh-so-real symbols of NVC.  The giraffe, symbolizing that wise and compassionate part of ourselves. And the ever-present jackal, that selfish irritable judgmental part of each and everyone of us! During the next week in workshops and events we got to work with all parts of ourselves and each other, with increasing acceptance and compassion. 

NVC is a constantly evolving field, being taught throughout the world and incorporated into politics, schools, therapy and the work-place. Yep, it’s age old wisdom but new in its innovative applications.

How did it work for me? 

Well, I was still working on problematic conflicts that I thought I had left at home. But nope – here I could transform them and move forward on this journey, with less baggage and more lightness in my being.

Not to get too personal here, folks, but those of you who love me know my issues. Usually around men, right? With your indulgence, I’ll describe the transformative process I went through. Maybe you can relate to it or at least breathe relief that I’ll stop whining  to you!

First, I was shown how to “step into your enemy’s shoes.” 

Not that anyone was truly "enemy", but just someone I had a conflict with.I thought I had vowed not to cast anyone out of my heart as the First Pearl of Macedonia.  And that I had “forgiven” him as the Third Pearl. But that didn’t mean I had actually stood in his shoes, which after all is the foundation of compassion. What was different about this facilitated process is that as I first stood in my shoes, I was given empathy by a partner. Then in his shoes, given empathy for him. Then back in my shoes, looking at him with new understanding. Knowing what I now knew, what would be the best possible relationship going forward? I got the answer.

Part of this is accepting the jackal in all of us! Its just there, folks! No big surprise.

Secondly,  I identified my “unmet need” that had led to so much ambivalence. 

Mine turned out to me (and it popped up from nowhere) – i.e. my need “to matter.” Of course we all need to matter to someone! We need someone to know us, to care about us… to love us! Especially, on these crazy travels I needed someone in the world to report to every day so that someone would know if I was alive or dead! Did I fall off the mountain, drown in the lake …? But I did not want this “need” to fuel an unhealthy relationship. What to do? OK, folks, getting really weird here… A group of us took turns lying on a recliner, while the others circled, whispering, touching, telling us whatever we requested so that the important “need” was filled. I needed “to matter” – and that’s what they gave me in this Love Bath. I can promise that whenever I lie in a hostel, unknown by bunk-mates, or travel anonymously, I can still close my eyes and receive their love. I do matter. Of course I do! Just need to remember it…. 

Here is my home/empathy group -- don't we all need someone to listen to us without giving advice? And to remind us to think with giraffe higher wisdom and compassion.

Thirdly, and then we come to strategies. 

Some practical ways to get the need met. Empathetic listening first, then strategies. Each of us stood in front of the group and listened to them brain-storm possible actions we could take to help ourselves or to ask for help. I listened and realized that just by simple daily text-messaging and skyping I can feel I matter. I can transform an unhealthy dependence on one person into multiple sources of love, duh! And relate to that one person in a less-needy way.

Descending in the cable-car back into the “real world” I was changed. I had found courage. (Even courage to go down to the "naked" sauna -- actually a normal thing in Slovenia and clothes are forbidden. Thank goodness no one else showed up!)

I had strategies. My sweet daughter April offered to message me everyday. Friends will email if I just remember to email them. And Cis and Cat, even though traveling to Sweden and having a baby, offered to  always be available as my “empathy angels.”  

If I get too critical of another I just remember this song, "See Me Beautiful."

Here is the inspiring link for Marshall Rosenberg singing it: https://youtu.be/9V1Bx4-5EnY

And here is our group singing it: https://youtu.be/9V1Bx4-5EnY

And you really want to get silly!!


Slovenia? I definitely experienced it as a place to love and be loved.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Lake Bohinj, Slovenia: Bathing Suit or no Bathing Suit

That was the question as I prepared to leave Ljubljana, Slovenia for a day at Lake Bohinj. 

Most tourists go to Lake Bled but I wanted to head right for wilderness. It is part of the Tiglav National Park.  Should I pack the bathing suit and towel in order to swim, assuming I could find a way to safe-guard the day-pack while I did? What a hassle it is to not have a car or at least a friend to help!

So, I decided to pack light and just walk the wild path around the famously beautiful lake.

I could climb the canyon! Climb beside the water-fall! Have a perfectly marvelous time without swimming… I told myself. Besides, what if the lake was dangerously cold? After all, I had almost collapsed of hypothermia while circumnavigating the waters of Pray Lake in Montana before my concerned partner, Andy, had hauled me out.

But the minute I saw the lake I knew I’d made the wrong decision. It begged it be entered! Look at these happy kayakers!

These paddle-boarders

These gleeful children and relaxing families! The purpose of Lake Bohinj is to be on it or in it! Sure I could see the one local sight of the 1300 AD Church of St. John the Baptist. Especially interesting was his wooden head.

And I could admire the strikingly white limestone boulders along the path. 

And try without success to find the path to the canyon. (Tourist-office guides aren’t always helpful – “Go to the right a little and then try to find the unmarked path in the meadow.”)

The further I walked, the fewer the people and the less the clothes. 

And the more the waters beckoned. They were almost Caribbean in turquoise color with white sandy bottoms – because of the lime-stone. What to do??? Finally I noticed two young women off-shore, looking suspiciously like they could be skinny-dipping. I waited and watched hopefully unobtrusively until they emerged. And yes! Apparently at this distance from the main beach the Slovenian etiquette is that it’s OK to have no bathing suit! But was I brave enough? I explained my shy dilemma to them and like daughters encouraging a cowardly Mother they said, “Just do it!”

So, I did it.  Sort of. 

Down to the underlying sports bra and  black underwear that sort of looked like a bathing suit. I boldly sat in Lake Bohinj. Actually there was no need to do more. Just talk to these fine young women who are working with “asylum seekers” in Germany. And finally when refreshed by the clear cold waters I stumbled out, they lent me a towel and kept a look out so I could change out of the wet clothes.

I don’t really know the point of this story. My timidity?  Depending on the help of others? A baptism of sorts? Or just the knowing that you have to do what you have to do. 
Next time? Pack the bathing suit!

8-24 Montana … or Slovenia?

Once again I was totally ignorant about a country. 

Yes, I had been to Yugoslavia in 1969 while traveling the world on the International Honors Program. And yes, I had heard that the country had fallen apart in the 1980’s after Tito’s death and that after struggling with ethnic wars and desires for independence had emerged into seven countries. I’d already enjoyed one of the poorer ones – Macedonia – and was about to partake of a richer one, Slovenia. Why? Because  Eva I met while gardening in Bulgaria was from Ljubljana, Slovenia  and the name just sounded too cool to miss. And because Cisco and Cat from Canada had told me of a conference to be held in Maribor, Slovenia. Sign me up!

So, I emerged from the airplane in Ljubljana, looked around and was convinced I’d landed in the mountains of Montana (actually that's what a local told me, getting off the plane.)

A  capital city, yes, but surrounded by forests, streams, lakes and mountains! And as I left weeks later I swore I would return. 

Ljubljana… isn’t just the name itself enchanting? 

I’m almost reluctant to share my enthusiasm out of fear that hordes of tourists will clog the medieval streets as they are in Prague. Maybe this is the new Prague? It surely is just as beautiful. And because it is smaller much more walkable and manageable. I could find my way to the gardens and not get lost, like I had in Prague.

If you go, take a walking tour. Take three walking tours like I did! The Medieval Tour reveals living habits and sights, including the hang-man’s house and the always visible castle. The Communist Tour dispels any illusion that Tito was a just nice guy. He was better than Stalin of course, and protected the conglomeration of areas that he called Yugoslavia from Russian control but he still tortured and murdered his perceived opponents.

And then just wander by yourself and be amazed at the beauty. 

Why is this place so special? Well, it was here that Perseus of the Golden Fleece, with his Argonauts,  killed the defending dragon and found his way back home. Its churches were never destroyed by the Turks – somehow it defended itself from those marauding invaders who captured little boys and turned them into janissaries. The swamps were drained and channeled into a managed river, now lined with cafes and music. (Although it is said that a dragon still guards the city!)

It is a very livable, safe and apparently happy city. 

The down-town is free of cars. Instead of dodging traffic, people walk, bicycle, and use scooters and wheel-chairs. Really! If I had to travel without legs this is where I would use my arms to navigate! I even saw a bicycle wheel-chair in which the lady was using her arms on pedals out in front of her to zoom along! Outside of down-town there are bicycle paths, bicycle traffic signals and slopes beside stairs, for bicycles. 

It is a playful place – see the downtown mist installation. 

See the lyric poet France Preseren gaze longingly across the square at  his unfulfilled love, Julija. (And his muse above, whose breasts were discreetly hidden by trees from the church goers.) 

Enjoy walking by the river and special briges day and night,

And enjoy Tivoli Park just out-side the down-town where families lounge on the grass, picnicking and listening to music.

But the real reason I would encourage you to visit is the architecture and city design. 

Google the Sloven architect Joze Plecnik,  who also worked on the  Prague Castle,  parts of Vienna and Belgrade and of course his home town. He built  buildings and embankments, churches and a cemetery and so much more. His design gives this special city a unified sense of beauty that I have never seen in my travels. 

See his National Library that looks like a Turkish rug, woven from bricks. The inside is constructed to lead you from the darkness of ignorance to the brightness of enlightenment!  

And this Triple Bridge, adapted for vehicular and pedestrian traffic. None of this was destroyed in the war. And no Communist concrete ugliness mars the old elegance. 

And once you have explored every nook and cranny of magical Ljubljana, protected by its dragon,

  ... take a bus to the surrounding countryside and understand why you could mistake it for … Montana!

The Third Pearl of Macedonia -- Forgiveness

I have been haunted on this trip by an unresolved issue.

A person who hurt me, I thought, and who acts like I hurt him. No amount of wandering and diversion, no number of sights and foreign languages have erased this solid lump of anger/sadness.

Will I find the answer here in Lake Ohrid? I’ve learned to not judge so much (see Pearl One) but yet the pain that guards the heart won’t let in the love that connected us.

What will be the final pearl? 

Everywhere they seem to be hawking Ohrid pearls! Apparently they don’t come from oysters but are some mysterious concoction from the scales of the Plasica fish in the lake. Repeatedly I hear that only two special families know the secret and that all the others are fake. Hence my focus on true wisdom and not glib answers.

And what is the attraction of this lake, the focus of our 5 day Macedonian tour?

Lake Ohrid has yet to be discovered by most tourists. Yay!!! In 700 BC it was inhabited by those who built houses over the lake on over 6000 piles. A reconstruction called “Plocha Mikov Grad” resembles the description by Herodot. One can only imagine the attraction to the bountiful fish and fowl here. 

It has been the destination for centuries of political leaders (Alexander the Great probably. Tito had a home there.) It has been the sacred place of Christian teachings, monasteries, and pilgrimage sites. I can’t even remember all the names of the churches we visit, much less the significance of the number of cupolas each has. St. Naum’s monastery contains his body and we are instructed to lay our ear over the concrete cover and listen for his heart. When I try to find out the name of the “Church in the Rocks” we visit, Wikepdia says is one of many churches in the rocks around the lake! Lake Ohrid is surrounded by the sacred.

The skies change their light continually. Indeed the ancient name was Lychnidos, “City of Light.” A boat ride in the lake yielded spacious photo opportunities of changing patterns and unfolding vistas, each more “picturesque” than the previous.

The sacred, the light … and the water! Ahhh… the water. 

That’s the attraction to Ohrid! That’s why the conquerors sought Macedonia! Witness the origin of much of the flow from numerous springs at the Monastery of St. Naum. They resemble the hauntingly beautiful springs in Northern Florida where I have kayaked and camped. Symbols of a spiritual source indeed, coming from the depths in a trust-worthy continual gushing flow.


This is an ancient lake, formed 2-3 million years ago. And because of the surrounding mountains a unique collection of plants and animals have evolved. It does feel unique and special. The lake is vast, mysterious, and deep. The water is clear and beckoning. It is primarily the Eastern Europeans who flock to its shores. Happy happy people! Something about the basin of blue-green held by the arms of forest and rock.

I don’t really associate with my friends here, just wander the ancient sites and ask for answers. 

Most of the churches are closed but one is open, the famous St. Sophie. Ancient, beloved, abused by the Moslem reign, restored with surprise as frescoes were uncovered, used for concerts because of its perfect acoustics. St Sophie. Well, I guess this where I am supposed to be after all, un-distracted by lectures or companions.

I wander its old naves. Wonder at the dulled painted figures – so many important men, popes, apostles, martyrs … It must have been absolutely glorious! A historical and Biblical story-book on ever wall, for those who of course couldn’t read. 

I’m supposed to be here. Of all the places, all the streets, all the lectures, this is it. “Is there an answer,” I ask? And opening my eyes, am shown. In the upper center of all these glorious, learned and heroic men she sits. The simple Madonna holding what looks like an oval platter. Containing of course her child, the Christ. Unadorned. Simple. Holding the answer.

The PhD guide had alluded to it. “Christ,” she had pronounced, waving flowers, “Is about love, forgiveness, understanding, trust…”

So here us the highest answer to my suffering and to that of the world.

I like visual answers! The feminine holding onto the Christ. Whether or not one calls oneself “Christian”, a powerful message of the New Testament is about forgiveness. Blanket forgiveness because we are all human and we all screw up.

As we know forgiveness is a process, over and over and over again.It is a very high intention. And it takes courage and clarity and help. So on the final day at Lake Ohrid I dive into the cold cleansing waters and do just that. Immersing myself probably  in the very blood, sweat and tears of the saints, I forgive him. And I forgive myself. And I ask for daily help to do what is best.

I’m leaving Macedonia with the final pearl. And actually laugh about the whole pearl thing! 

I’ve asked everyone from tour guide to hotel clerk what defines the “true” Ohrid pearl and the “fake” ones that are pawned off on tourists. The young lady in the expensive pearl shop owned by one of the two special families tells me the truth. “The true Ohrid pearl is layers of emulsion on top of a form we construct from abalone shell. The false Ohrid pearl is on some other base – it could be plastic!” Really? They are all fake anyway since they aren’t from oysters!

 Does it really matter I think? Underneath we are all so flawed! The only answer is to daily lay down new precious layers, new patterns, formed of suffering and wisdom, questions and answers, ever-changing patterns of dark and  light,… and let all the pain dissolve with intention in the boundless and continually renewed waters that, after all, connect us.

(Post-script: And I never tell him this. I just become clear about my own boundaries. And reach out in love to form an evolving genuine friendship.)

                                 My Ohrid Pearls from the shop recommended by the tour guide (probably a cousin) -- $30

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Pearls of Macedonia: Pearl One -- The Vow

“Where am I going and why?” I asked myself on the 9 hour bus ride. 

A 5 day, 4 night bus tour to Macedonia from Bulgaria, all lodging and most food for just $175 --- sign me up! Inexpensive and exotic- sounding.

“Where in the world is Kathy now?” I could hear my friends asking. Macedonia! "And where in the heck is that?" I was about to find out. Never mind that the tour was in Bulgarian. Sure I missed the history and descriptive facts, sometimes for hours at a time as the guide lectured.  Rather than be frustrated I decided to gather impressions. And to look for the pearls of Macedonia.

This relatively poor area that became a country after Yugoslavia dissolved has been sought and conquered for thousands of years. Alexander the Great is its most famous son. It has changed hands in battle countless times. Greece is still upset by the name Macedonia and has demanded they change their rising sun flag. Why? I wonder. Why is Macedonia so desirable?

Mountains, forests and some agriculture whizzed by on the bus ride and I hoped to answer those questions in Ohrid, the destination. 

But first was Skopje, the capital. 

Devastated in an earthquake it now sports marble bridges, marble fountains and marble sculptures. On one side of the river is the old town – Muslim with minarets. The Turkish baths have been turned into art galleries. 

On the other side, the new.

We were allowed one hour to sight-see after the walking tour in Bulgarian so I headed for the Holocaust Museum. 

Why? To determine if the Jewish situation in Macedonia was the same as in Bulgaria. Apparently the Bulgarian King and Church kept putting Hitler off when he demanded their Jews, appeasing him for awhile by donating some Jews from the outlying areas. No actual Bulgarian Jew died. What happened in Macedonia?

When I questioned the guard about the Bulgarians’ kindness to Jews, he just laughed and pointed to a room that was occupied by a cattle car. One that had been the horror transport to Treblinka for Macedonian Jews. On its side were the stenciled ownership of the car– “Bulgaria.” 

Tentatively, like approaching a graveyard or gallows, I touched it. The smoothed -from-wear wooden threshold which was the last taste of Macedonia for hundreds. The airless dark interior that surely stunk of urine and fear. We’ve all read the stories and seen the movies and uniformly hate Hitler. I’ve been to Dachau and seen the barracks and pictures. But there was something more real and urgent about this cavernous-mouthed structure. 

And rather than hate Hitler even more or wonder at the complicity of citizens, I made a personal  vow.

And please help me keep it! I decided to look at the underlying cause of intolerance and even violent thoughts – inside myself. Making a person, a whole group of people, a religion, a country -- “Other”. What drives us to do that? I know that I can “kill” someone with my thoughts, load them into a cattle car by my judgement and push them far away. (Note my careless blog references to "gypsies" or "corrupt politicians.") Why? Fear? Arrogance? Self-protection? Perhaps even the pleasure of judgement? 

And right then I decided to not do that anymore! To not contribute to the violence of the world by my thoughts and to cultivate peace. It sounds trite, doesn’t it? Don’t we all want peace? But even in Skopje there were instant challenges to this new vow! A Muslim man disregarded us thirsty women at a fountain as he took his time doing his ritual cleansing. A gypsy beggar boy annoyingly ran after me. 

But there was also inspiration!

Mother Teresa was born in Skopje, preached the family-hood of all humans and cared for the dying of all religions. In modern Skopje now marble fountains of women arise from the earthquake’s rubble. 

And mosques live peacefully with Orthodox churches.

This cattle car with “Bulgaria” boldly written on it, the horror of group discrimination in my own mind and the vow to not put anyone out of my heart -- this was my first pearl from Macedonia. I looked forward to more.