"Yes, I choose the music" said Alen when asked about the folk songs playing from the loudspeaker atop his refrigerated van, “though they need to be Slovene".
We travelled to meet Alen in the small market square of Komen, a village in Kras, a rural region about an hours drive east of Ljubljana and close to the Italian border. He works for a family business called Hapy Days that runs a small fleet of vans across the region. We learnt that these songs are important for people to retain a sense of the region's identity, given the proximity to Italy and even more so now with the EU accession in 2007. In a twist of irony, the fresh fish he sells are from the wholesale market across the border in Trieste.
He sells here each Saturday from 8am-12.30pm and on Tuesdays from 9-10am. Otherwise he criss-crosses the region, driving to villages in the Vremska or Vipavska Valley, or visiting several along the route from Divača to Sežana; Tomačevica, Mali Doli, Kobjeglava, Tupelče, Hruševica, Štanjel. He sticks to a regular timetable so customers know when to expect to hear his music, and takes Sunday and Monday off.
He told us he does house calls too, and reckons on some days he slides the van door open and shut 200 times. Sometimes for feuding neighbours, he needs to park outside one house, then drive the 20 metres or so to the neighbour’s house, as neither will buy from outside their enemy’s gate – a situation he said that’s typically Slovene.
Alen knows his fish, and so when asked, advises customers how best to store or cook bass, mackerel, etc., Though he thinks a big part of his job is to make customers smile, particularly those elderly customers who are isolated or now live alone. He adds the elderly particularly like to buy sardines as they are cheap and nutritious, ideal if you are living on a basic pension.
Customers now know him, and some call his mobile to order or reserve a type, or quantity of fish they may need for a party or BBQ. He’ll check if he can supply, then call back to say yes or no.
We asked his customers about the family tree of their purchase, who would eat the fish they had bought? We were surprised with the variety of our small sample. From a famous Slovene actor, a local designer whose father designed the Slovene Euro coin, a friend of our guide, to children running an errand for their parents, and individuals buying for themselves, their spouses and their families. In a further cross-border twist, people even came from Italy to buy from him because Hapy Days prices are lower.
Hapy Days was started in 1990 by Joze who then bought direct from Croatian fishermen to sell in Komen from the back of his Renault 4. Joze’s wife, Wilma, and daughter Janja take care of the accounts. At 4.30am every morning, Joze arrives at the Trieste fish market and stocks up 4 of the 6 vans they operate – 2 don’t run at present as they are short-staffed. Their son, Tomaz drives one van and Janja’s husband Damir drives another. Employees, Ego and Alen drive the other two. Each is responsible for a different route through Kras.
At the end of each day the vans return to base. Each driver/seller weighs the fish left, refrigerates the good stuff and tells Joze what’s needed for the next day. Any fish not fresh enough to go back on the van is filleted by Damir’s mother and father. These fillets are then sold to a local restaurant, ensuring what is being sold in the vans is always fresh and top quality.
Each day the drivers wash the inside of their vans, with the outside washed weekly on a Saturday afternoon. Alen says it’s hard work and long hours so the business struggles to recruit and retain staff. He’s looking to start a family, but figures his work at the moment makes it difficult to find a girl and settle down.