Every month, Fulbridge interviews Fulbrighters to get a sense of what life is like in different placements. This month, Lisa Gagnon, a 2017-2018 ETA in Latvia, spoke with Daniel Ansorge, a 2017-2018 Researcher in Slovenia.
- What was your U.S. university and major?
I attended California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and majored in Mechanical Engineering with a Music Minor.
- Why did you choose Slovenia?
I have first-generation Slovenian/Croatian grandparents, and during college I became more interested in the culture I had grown up around. In fact, my grandmother still keeps in touch with some relatives who live there today. As I researched more about the region, I was filled with a desire to find opportunities to meet the Slovene people, their culture, and homeland.
- Where were you located and what organization were you affiliated with?
I was living in a village called Grosuplje outside the capital city of Ljubljana and was affiliated with the University of Ljubljana (Univerza v Ljubljani). It is the largest university in the tiny country with the best access to research resources within the city. Dr. Svanibor Pettan, my mentor during my time in Slovenia, is an ethnomusicologist who guided me and introduced me to many opportunities I would not have had otherwise.
- What was the topic of your research?
The topic of my grant project was the Slovenian use of the tamburitza, a plucked lute instrument generally said to have evolved into its modern form in Croatia or Serbia. The instrument has been adopted across the greater Balkan region and beyond, even to the United States in diasporic communities, yet it is typically associated with the aforementioned countries. Little has been written about its use in Slovenia, yet there are ensembles in every part of the country, so I decided to learn more about Slovene culture through the lens of this musical niche.
- What did a normal weekday look like for you?
On any given weekday, I would commute from the village to the city via car or bus and walk to the University. I had the opportunity to take classes in which I was exposed to Slovene folk and popular music history, the Slovene language, and a few other topics which pertained to my research. Then, I would usually walk to a pleasant café near the river in which to consolidate my fieldwork over a cappuccino, or spend time in the National Library Archives digging for pieces of music history. Research was not just contained to the weekdays either; on many weekends, I would take trips to other regions of Slovenia or Croatia to attend music events and concerts, and interview musicians, conductors, and others involved in the tamburitza scene. In the evenings, I would arrive home and cook dinner with my host family before taking the dog for a post-dinner walk around the village.
- How did you get involved in your community outside of your direct research project?
The most rewarding experiences I had took place with the international community in Ljubljana via our language courses. Folks from all over the world wound up in Ljubljana in these courses: those who were dating or married Slovenians, those who were studying in exchange programs, and those seeking their family’s diasporic roots in Slovenia. Through this program I connected with fellow humans from around the globe: Kazakhstan, France, China, Turkey, India, Australia, Ukraine, Bosnia, Holland, Germany, Thailand, Brazil, Argentina, Bangladesh… Slovenia brought us all together. It was an incredible way to learn from and share experiences not only with locals but also with the international community. In turn, the language skills I picked up in that short time were sufficient for me to interact with, connect with, and understand Slovenians who didn’t speak English, with whom I would have never had the chance to connect otherwise. This was crucial to my experience and I highly recommend learning the language and living with locals to connect in this way.
I also joined the Ethno-Ensemble at the University, in which we shared and learned to play songs from different ethnic or cultural groups. We then showcased all of this music in the Faculty of Arts hall at the end of the semester for students, professors, and locals.
- What were some challenges?
While I do think that communing with people of other cultures is a beautiful experience, I did feel isolated or overwhelmed at times. It takes energy to be constantly doing, thinking, or experiencing something new. It can be exhausting. We Fulbrighters in Ljubljana tried to mitigate this with monthly lunch or dinner outings, and I found that relating to fellow Americans helped to alleviate some feelings of alienation. I also found that having friends in the international community who share these feelings helped me to cope in an empathetic environment.
- What were some highlights?
For me, the most rewarding part of my Fulbright experience was being able to connect with my host family and to speak with relatives in Slovenia with whom I otherwise would not be able to communicate. By the time I left, I could have hour-long conversations in Slovene with my hosts, and gained a valuable insight into the spirit of Slovenia. Simple activities with my hosts turned out to be the most rewarding: helping to plant the garden, taking the dog on walks together, teaching the kids to play guitar, cooking meals together, and celebrating holidays. These experiences have enriched my perspective immeasurably. When my family came to visit in the spring, I was able to be a translator and could share with them what had been shared with me.
- What was your best presentation or professional experience?
My favorite professional experience was playing with the local tamburitza group. It was a goal of my project to play tamburitza with local musicians, and by playing with and for locals such as retirement homes, I was able to connect with the Slovenian people and vet my beginner tamburitza skills. In this way I was able to feel firsthand how the different instruments worked together harmonically and melodically in an ensemble setting. It was also an excellent way to engage with the mainly-retired rural Slovenians in the group who may not otherwise have come into contact with an American. Since the older population did not speak as much English, I was able to bridge the gap using the conversational Slovene I had learned in the University’s language courses. And, of course, music knows no linguistic boundaries.
- What do you miss the most?
When I look back on my time in Slovenia, I miss the way that time flowed: slowly, deliberately, and vividly. Each day was full of exploration – I must have walked at least 10km every day around the city. Travel author Jedidiah Jenkins wrote, “routine is the enemy of time,” and I experienced this effect. When we are surrounded by new experiences, new faces, and new places, time seems to slow down and the smallest details shine brightly. It is as if I lived 9 years in those 9 months.
- Why should prospective researchers apply to Slovenia?
Slovenia is a gorgeous country with everything you could want in a small, accessible package. Towering alpine mountains? Rolling, flowering hills and farmland? Wetlands filled with graceful birds? Pristine coastline, seagulls, beaches? Wine country? City with nightlife and a music scene? Underground caves with bats and dragons? Yes, Slovenia has them all within a two hours’ drive. The country is a rich menagerie of the best parts of the Balkan peninsula, the Mediterranean, and central Europe, while being a perfect hub to Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia. The people were so welcoming to me and I could not have done my research without their help. Because Slovenia is such a small country, the experts in my field all seemed to know each other. When I begin pursuing my research, anyone I asked seemed to know someone who could help me. It was truly incredible how many leads, opportunities, and connections I stumbled upon just from talking to people. This goes beyond just research as well – a friend of a friend lent me a full set of ski gear for a trip to the Alps!
- What have you been up to after returning home from your grant?
After returning, I took some months off to reconnect with family in Northern California. I have since started working at an aerospace company in the greater Sacramento area while playing in my rock band, PS Lookdown. We recorded our first full-length album in May, titled Made In Voyage. Some of these songs were written between us while I was in Slovenia.
- Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I am eternally grateful to the Fulbright program for providing this opportunity to enrich myself as a musician, an intellectual, and a denizen of Earth. The experiences and new friends I have met will inspire me for a lifetime, and I know that I have inspired others as well to seek mutual understanding with cultures outside their own. I thought I would be an unlikely candidate when applying, but I encourage anyone that’s looking to broaden their horizons to give Fulbright a try. It may surprise you.