It's not one of those big, landscape-dominating signs. You have to look hard to find it nestled into greenery fronting the comfortable home on a narrow lane on the tallest hill in Holston Hills. Out back, a red and blue flag flutters atop a pole above terraced gardens bursting with vines, vegetables and flowers that fall away before a sweeping view of the distant Smokies,
The rolling hills of East Tennessee look a lot like one of the regions of Slovenia, say those who have been there.
Once seen, the shiny sign saying "Konzulat Republike Slovenj - Consulate of the Republic of Slovenia" stays with you, as much for its incongruence with its quiet suburban surroundings as for what it says. What the heck is a Slovenian consulate doing in Holston Hills?
A variety of things. On this day, it is hosting an al fresco wine tasting, designed to introduce Knoxvillians to an array of organic artisanal Slovenian wines accompanied by a couple of tables loaded with fresh, homemade Slovenian food. The door prize is delicate Regaska crystal stemware and a matching decanter, imported from Slovenia.
The consulate is the home of Lydia Pulsipher and Mac Goodwin, husband and wife academics who write geography textbooks together (along with Pulsipher's son, Alex). Pulsipher is a cultural-historic geographer and Goodwin an archaeologist. They met while both were doing research on the island of Montserrat. A volcano eruption drove them off the island, but they ended up together, and share many interests. They are dedicated organic gardeners and members of the Knoxville Permaculture Guild. They love to entertain, and Goodwin has built a stone pizza oven out back in the garden. Mayor Madeline Rogero has just appointed Goodwin to serve on the board of the Metropolitan Planning Commission.
They also love to travel, most recently leading a tour of Slovenia's wine country.
Part of Yugoslavia until it was dissolved in 1991, the Republic of Slovenia is a member of the European Union and borders Italy to the west, Austria to the north, Croatia to the south, and Hungary to the northeast, boasting both mountains and a stretch of Mediterranean coast. Although it is small geographically, with a population of slightly more than 2 million, it has a variety of climate zones ranging from Mediterranean to Alpine. Some call it "Little New Zealand" for its mountain vistas, and much of its soil and climate are well suited to the cultivation of grapes and the production of wine.
Pulsipher is from Chicago, and her father was a Slovenian immigrant. They helped found the Center for Slovene Studies, which, at first concerned itself mostly with linguistic issues. She says she and her father kept urging the organization to branch out into other areas. Meanwhile, she made frequent trips to Slovenia, spending time in universities there. Eventually, she met the Slovenian ambassador at a gathering in Boston. He told her he'd like to see some American universities, and she invited him to come to Knoxville to see the University of Tennessee, where she was a professor in the geography department. The vigorous young ambassador spent a week here and had a great time, giving speeches, running a marathon, and attending a party Goodwin and Pulsipher held in his honor. He was replaced after his political party lost the next election, but Pulsipher, Goodwin, and Knoxville obviously made a favorable impression on the Slovenian diplomatic corps.
"About a year later, I got a call out of the blue asking if I would be interested in being an honorary consulate," Pulsipher says. She was very surprised, but she and Goodwin had already hosted lots of young Slovenians who would come in the summers to work on their English, so it wasn't much of a leap for them to formalize what they had been doing all along. She says raising awareness of Slovenia among Americans is a big part of her mission as consul.
"The consulate is supportive of many community organizations," she says. "I do that on purpose, so people will say, ‘Slovenian Consulate,' just as a way of getting the name out in the community."
Maja Djorcev was one of the guest students who came to Knoxville to perfect her English language skills. That was four years ago. A bright, outgoing young woman from the Slovenian town of Rogaska-Slatina (the location of the crystal factory), she is the chief planner, organizer, and sommelier of the wine-tasting and recently completed her master's degree in wine production and marketing in the geography department at UT. She has another year on her student visa, which she is spending in the College of Business, researching a business plan for organic wine marketing under Professor Daniel Flint, a global marketing and supply chain expert.
She has organized wine-tastings in New York and Los Angeles and is planning another in Tampa, Fla., in 2014.
She learned to cook traditional Slovenian dishes, which emphasize fresh, farm-to-table ingredients, from her mother and her grandmother, who is a farmer and a winemaker. Djorcev spent the day before the wine-tasting in the consulate's kitchen, preparing a Slovenian feast that included grilled polenta wedges, roasted beets and goat cheese in endive leaves, roasted butternut squash (from the consulate's organic garden) sprinkled with crispy pumpkin seeds on radicchio leaves, beetroot crepes dyed bright pink with beet juice and stuffed with cottage cheese and arugula (also from the consulate's garden), crispy bread sticks wrapped in prosciutto, roasted baby peppers stuffed with barley and ham, fragrant pesto spooned onto chewy bread, savory leek tarts and sweet pastry tarts stuffed with brie and raspberries.
"Everything I do is non-profit, promoting Slovenia," she says. "We make beautiful small-batch organic wines, but we haven't been so good about letting the world know about them. At end of today, if people know the difference between Slovenia and Slovakia, I'll be happy."
Djorcev's boyfriend, Tyler Roy, a third-year law student at UT (and grandson of redoubtable community activist Julia Tucker), has helped prepare the wine-tasting and supports her in her efforts. He is frustrated by the logistic and legal barriers presented by living in Tennessee, a state with cumbersome and archaic laws regulating the sale of wine. He points out that only one of the event's 15 featured wines (a Tocai Friulano called Quattro Mani) is available locally (it can be found at Downtown Wine and Spirits). He believes that allowing wine to be sold in grocery stores (a law that Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey predicts the General Assembly will approve in the next legislative session) will make Djorcev's task easier in the future.
And, odd though as it might seem, Slovenia isn't the only country with an honorary consulate in Knoxville, although the Slovenian Consulate is the only one in a residential neighborhood. The office of Dr. Marek Pienkowski, an allergist, at 7417 Kingston Pike, was established last year as the Honorary Consulate of the Republic of Poland, thanks to the efforts of former Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe.