The Slovenia Times

My Slovenian Church



The churches in Bled and Bohinj are fine examples, but cute churches can be found throughout the whole country, and even Ljubljana has quite a few (you already get to see two if you arrive from Kranj / Brnik and drive to the centre). With so many beautiful churches around, I often find myself wondering how come that I happen to live next to the ugliest church in the country. My church, the Church of the heart of Jesus, is an early 20th century colossus of sallow bricks, with a weathered greenish rooftop on a too steeple tower. This architectural ode to atrocity not just hurts the eyes though, because above all, it severely tests the ears.

The first time I noticed this was half a year ago, at my first night in my new apartment. After weeks of travelling and lodging at friends' and relatives' places, I was desperate to start the weekend with a long night's sleep in my own bed. This plan was brutally interrupted at 7am when suddenly the church bells started ringing in my bedroom. Well, they were not exactly in there, but it sure sounded like it. This was no sweet, restrained Alpine waking up call but outrageously loud banging: hard, shrill and well above the magical threshold of 100 dB, comparable to a large orchestra playing enthusiastically. This orchestra did not contend in just indicating the hour with seven brief bangs, but kept giving it all for five long minutes, after which the whole neighbourhood of Tabor was awake. And that on a Saturday morning - sweet.

Fortunately for me, the priest of this church has decided that, a 24-hour economy and flexible working hours notwithstanding, 7am is the time to wake up on weekdays only. (The reason that the bell rang at 7am in my welcome weekend was that some Slovenian Cardinal had just died aged 176 or so.) On weekends we are allowed to sleep later, although on Sunday the limit is set at 9:45am; the latest time to get our lazy asses out of bed and start doing something fruitful. Naturally, my window is always closed, but this just limits the noise pollution with a few decibels (to 90 dB, similar to average factory or construction site), something counteracted by one dog nearby that always starts howling along with the unearthly bell-ringing, although it does so more often at the ear-deafening chiming around noon. Have a coffee on the sunny terrace of the ethnographic museum at noon and try to have a conversation / listen to your Ipod / just withstand the pain and you will know what I mean.

My first instinct as a spoilt Westerner was to write a complaint letter and demand in a high tone that something be done about this crime against humanity. I figured I'd use the letterhead of my former employee, the University of Oxford, and that I'd use my experience in sleep research to warn the naïve priest how his antisocial behaviour deprived one-third of the neighbourhood from their sleep (in particular the one-third that are evening types, with which I mean of course me), and that chronic sleep deprivation leads to increased depressive and anxiety complaints, reduced functioning of the immune system and higher chances on errors and accidents, including motor vehicle accidents, where in around 20% sleepiness plays a role. The church, I planned to argue, was a culturally accepted public health hazard like smoking and alcohol. I even figured out the necessary negotiations: please don't start before 10am (me) / I won't start later than 8am (priest) / all right, let's call it 9 (me) / I'd agree to 8.30 (priest) / how about 8.45 (me) / deal! (both).

But you know how these things go. Work, study, obligations, busy-busy-busy and the few moments of freedom one rather wastes away vegetating in front of the TV instead of writing world-changing prose in a South-Slavic language. Complaint-letter 248 I'd never write.

Ventilating resentments is much easier done in conversations, but most Slovenians I'd talk to about this ghastly injustice simply shrugged their shoulders. "Yeah sure, the church is ugly and it makes a lot of noise, but that's the way it is," was a typical reaction. "It's God calling you," was another. Or a third: "Yeah, in my village the church starts ringing at 6am." Yes, loud church-bells are annoying, seemed the thought, but those are our church-bells and that settles the matter. No shared anger, but accepting calmness and even a touch of pride.

Maybe I would have responded the same had I been born in a country with a church on every hill-top, something that seems to reflect the attitude of Slovenians towards their church. It's good to be close to heaven once a week, and for the rest life takes place down on earth. A shoulder shrug is all it takes to leave everything you hear behind in the church, no matter how hard it keeps shouting at you - preferably at inappropriate times.

I'm still working on that shoulder-shrug. In the meantime, thank God for earplugs.

Victor Irving hopes that his ugly church will get the Amsterdam treatment and turns into a cool nightclub.


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