“Eva, do you want to come to the Polhanje tonight?” Uhhh, for a second I’m confused. Polh, is that the same animal as a puh, a dormouse? “Yes, it is. It’s very important here, we have a tradition of polh hunting.” Is this real, I wonder. Is there really a special polh hunting night, an evening or a whole weekend to celebrate this tradition? In that case, sure I will come!
At 7PM it’s completely dark and freezing cold. Literary, it’s October and the temperature drops below zero at night. I finally get to wear my warm woollen socks, gloves and extra long-sleeve, which until a week ago only have been unnecessary extra weight in my backpack. “Where are we going?” I ask. “To the forest.” Of course that’s where the dormice live. In trees, acrobatically running, jumping, flying from bench to bench.
I still did not know what it was that I would be doing this night. “Wait and see and oh, can you carry the wine and beer?” Aha, hunting and drinking goes apparently hand in hand. I should have known by now. Everything goes hand in hand with drinking. Yes, I’m still in the Balkans.
Before I found a place to sit, a man with a bottle of rakija came in my direction. “Have you tried our schnaps yet?” Schnaps, rakija. Is it the same? “Yes.” Great. Slovenia might be the most Western country in the Balkans and not everybody agrees if it actually still is part of the Balkan, but some habits won’t die. Home-made rakija that shows up at every possible occasion is in my opinion in any case not a very “Western European thing.” And I like it.
While we were driving into the forest, I turned on my GPS. Slowly we were going up, deeper and deeper into the dark, higher and higher up on the mountain, until we almost hit the White Trail. Wow, somewhere in the bigbig Snežnikforest, I’m going to learn about the dormouse hunt. Witness and experience the Polhanje. “Following the footsteps of Dormice.”
Earlier that day the owner of the property set up several traps. The only thing we had to do was check them. I have to confess that it was a little disappointment, it didn’t feel like hunting at all, more like a nice night walk in the forest. Nevertheless, it was quite exiting. In a small group with mostly kids, we made our way along the traps. Amazing how they exactly knew where to go, to me it all looked the same. Yes, I would get terrible lost without a GPS to track down my own footsteps.
This is where I started to realize that for the people who live here, the kids, the older generation and everybody in between, the forest is a big part of their culture. And that the environment, the place where you live, the nature (or lack of nature) has a huge influence on your lifestyle. Of course, this is nothing new, but sometimes I have a moment that I become more aware of things that are very obvious. This evening was one of these moments. I just followed, watched and experienced.
Unfortunately, most traps were empty, except for the last one. The poor little puh was still alive. Wounded. With his fingers, the property owner tried to break the neck of the sweet, trapped dormouse. It took a while. I felt sorry for the little creature. ˝Please, just kill it! Don’t let it suffer longer than necessary.˝ I’ve never killed an animal, I’m not sure if I could. Maybe that’s different when you have no other option, when you really have to hunt in order to survive. I had a hard time watching the man, holding the animal, that now and then made a spastic move with one of his legs.
Back at the campfire others started to prepare a bunch of dormice they caught earlier. It smelled good. I definitely wanted to try. I have been a vegetarian half my life, until I started travelling to the Balkans. People eat more meat here, but they also eat better meat. I still don’t buy or prepare it myself and I certainly avoid everything that comes from the big industry, but food, eating and sharing this is actually part of travelling for me. It’s part of the experience. I eat what people offer me, I eat what others eat and in this case I ate grilled puh, a delicacy of the Notranjska region.