In the last 36 hours, two feet of snow has fallen on the little town of Bohinjska Bistrica. This terrible photo from my balcony shows a potential avalanche on the roof next door. The ill-defined lump in the middle is the farmer's car.
Every road reminds me of a bob-sleigh track and yet these drivers continue on their way as if nothing has happened. Slovenian drivers don't seem to slow down for anything. For those of you who are used to the American notion of obsessively giving way to pedestrians, you will be shocked by the Slovenian drivers' complete lack of courtesy. If you are in their way, they simply assume that soon you won't be. This is even the case when the road is barely wide enough for one car and pedestrians are presented with solid walls of snow as the only escape route.
Callous disregard for idiot Englishmen aside, a walk in Slovenian snow showed me once again that this place is all about family. When people were digging, the whole family was digging. Digging is a family thing in the Alps. Some of the children digging were small enough to be lost to the elements, and yet there they were. My First Shovel, was presumably the logo on some of the digging gear I saw.
We are expecting two more days of snow. Extrapolating, I get four feet. When walking it is best to avoid the edges of roofs in case the whole lot comes down. That would crush you, probably. Then you'd be run over as a final indignity. I might not go out for a while.
Welcome to the first post from the new billet. We moved in on Wednesday so this is the third day of living like a U-boat Captain.
I'm adjusting to the new space reasonably quickly, but I have to admit, a little padding would be good. There's very little in here that's soft and sound-muffling, so I find myself creeping about to avoid the echoing clang of the intruder.
Tyson is happy. We have a log fire and a big telly. He has the bed he's always had. Along with food, water and the natural spendour of the Triglav National Park right outside the door he has all he needs. There's even a balcony for him to sit on if he ever feels the need. So far he hasn't felt the need. Like me and swimming pool diving boards, he acknowledges its existence but doesn't feel compelled to try it out.
I'm happy so far. This morning I was feeling a little dispirited but that soon evaporated. It might be because I'm sleeping in a bed made for a 10 year old. It might be because I'm very slightly worried about other people arriving at the apartment building and shattering the silence. It might be because I'm here for a year and the fascinating wonder of where I'll live has crystallized into these four walls. Whatever it was it was gone by the time I was half way round my dog walk. I got back and cleaned Das Boot, made some lunch and then, for your delight and edification, I took some video of the place. My camera phone isn't very good, and the brain makes more sense of grainy footage than grainy stills. And so...up periscope.
Last Wednesday I checked the balance of my new Slovenian bank account and found it to contain over 3000 euros. This was a good thing for several reasons. Firstly, the info I gave Sarah was correct and the wire transfer from the US bank to the Slovenian bank worked. The money -- almost all of my money -- didn't get lost somewhere over the Atlantic.
Secondly, it means I can now get paid directly into my Slovenian bank account from the publishers in London because I know it won't get lost over the Alps.
Thirdly, and for you at least, more interestingly, I could tell my prospective new landlord that I had the means to give him one full year of rent on the apartment. We arranged to meet on Friday.
I was nervous on Friday morning, to be honest. I was about to give away 80% of my money to a man I had only met once and who's only apparent proof to being the owner of the apartment was that he had a key. He lives in Ljubljana too, which gave me cause for concern and I still have no idea why.
I spent the morning examining the situation as if it were a crime scene and the more I thought about it, the harder it got to find Gregor guilty of anything. I liked him when I met him that one and only time, and we have been exchanging emails. I had the contract read by a neutral party and it seems ok. As the appointed hour drew closer I came to understand that I was nervous only because I was handing over a large amount of money, and I don't like handing over even small amounts of money. I agonize over any purchase, and what at first might appear to be iron self-control on my part is actually a fear of letting loose and enjoying the concept of spending. I would have made a great Puritan or member of a similar 'don't buy that'-type religion.
We met at the apartment at 3pm and went over everything. During the next hour I became happy with the place and happy with Gregor. By 4pm we went to the bank and all that money became his. We signed the contract, spent an hour in a bar drinking coffee then went back the apartment building.
There is a woman called Maria who lives upstairs, a pleasant woman in her mid sixties (maybe older, I don't know) with bright eyes, a quick smile, and absolutely no knowledge of the English language. Until now she has been the only full-time resident in the 10-apartment building. Because she speaks no English, Gregor took me up to meet her and performed the introductions. He gave her 300 euros as payment for the year toward water and garbage (she pays the bills because she's there all the time), and she plied us with blueberry schnapps, made by her own fair hand from fruit gathered from some Heidi-esque Alpine meadow. I shall try to learn Slovene so we can chat on the stairs. Two people -- the only residents in a 10-apartment building and neither speaks the other's language -- this is an indie movie script in the making.
The other apartments are owned by people who, like Gregor, use them for weekends and summer holidays. The rest of the time it's going to be just me in number 3 and Maria in number 6.
Frank and Sally are going to Venice tomorrow and I shall keep one foot in both camps for a few days. The new apartment is only five minutes away. We have had such a deluge of rain that Frank's basement is flooding, so I'll be here to sweep water into the pump-hole-gurgling-thing down in the basement. I shall move in slowly this week. I also want to spend just a little longer in this large house. I am about to move into a nice clean modern apartment with cable tv and broadband, a wood fire and a balcony, but it's really just a large open-plan room. It will be the smallest living area I've had since the late 80's. I am desperate to start my independent life in Slovenia, but I know that the change in living space will be an issue for a while.
Ah yes, I have a wood-burning stove despite it being a new apartment on the 2nd floor, and a balcony big enough for a small table and chair that looks out to the church and a farm. I spoke to the wife of the farmer the other day. Her name is Sabina, she is the same age as my son David, she has 4 children, she is actually Swedish and told me that I can buy milk from them in the evening. Already I have neighbours with home-made schnapps and unpasteurized milk.
It's going to be fun.
"Hi Dad, just to let you know that Max was born this morning at 2.26am, weighing 6lbs 3. He's a lovely little thing. I have him in my arms right now so I'm typing with one finger, so I'll keep this brief for now. I'll send you some pictures soon."
That was an email from my son Matt, sent two days ago. I am a grandfather again (he also has young Rufus). Well done Matt and Louise. Max, I wish you all the love in the world.
So what have I been doing? It's been a week of non-stop drawing. Every day I've been re-acquainting myself with a job I left a couple of years ago, but I'm back into the swing of things now. But there were exciting events too. Since last I wrote, Frank and I went in a cable-car to a world of skiing and beautiful people. A mountain called Vogel.
That's right. Imagine a place with no snow, warmth, birds in the trees and cars on the roads. Then you step into a cable car that's 10 minutes away from your house to find yourself in a magical winter wonderland. There are snow-covered pine trees, little wooden buildings with steep roofs and cartoon snow. There are people skiing everywhere, some super fast and some bent over and uncertain. Chair lifts carry them over your head and the bright blue sunshine dazzles you in every direction. You are surrounded by lesser peaks, zinc-nosed children, expensive clothes and beautiful women. You can buy a beer or a coffee, dinner or a snack. It is so unlike the world at the bottom of the mountain that it feels oddly impossible.
My fear of heights becomes more acute with age, and it was perhaps a lack of imagination that led me to walk so casually into the cable-car. Once it got going my vision swam and I clung to the rails while small children and experienced cable-car-types looked out and pointed to objects far below. When it went over whatever cable cars go over to stop the lines from sagging, it swung and everyone went "Ooooh!". I don't think my fixed grin fooled anyone. Strangely horrible was the creeping slowness of the thing as it got the top. Finally it docked and we got out. I didn't like it.
Once among the beautiful people I was fine. We had no skis and I don't look like someone who embraces the ski lifestyle, but I loved it. The cafe has the most incredible view of the valley and surrounding peaks. Frank took a photo (Bohinjska Bistrica is arrowed, just down the valley).
And so, to wrap up this tale of Shangri La, we went for a drive yesterday to a place called Kranjska Gora, a ski resort near the Italian and Austrian borders. It was a bit crass, I thought, lacking the sophisticated ambiance of Vogel. Hotels played pop music into the street from vulgar speakers and the restaurant menus had pictures of the food. But a mile down the road is where they ski jump. The world championships were held there and never before have I witnessed such bravery. It's scary to watch on the telly, and mind-boggling to watch up close. Animals must see us humans at play and wonder how we dream up such madness.
And then we went to Italy for a while, and returned home.
I don't want my new grandson to ski jump, but how nice it would be for Max and Rufus to come visit grandpa and slide with confidence in this beautiful place.
Way back in the middle of November, five days before I left America, I packed a whole load of things into a cardboard box. My desktop computer -- the main machine for work, writing and communication -- was wrapped in extra clothing, along with a monitor and keyboard and all those other things you don't realise you need until you don't have them. I grabbed so many things that the box weighed almost 80 pounds, so I reinforced it with a second box.
This magnificent brown object was placed in the back of the car and Sarah and I set forth to a Polish parcel service which has an office in Philadelphia. The online price quote was too good to be true, and the woman in the office quoted me $103 dollars, just as the web site had predicted.
"Where will it go?" I asked; an odd question to ask an employee of a parcel service, and she felt obliged to inform me that Poland is not a third world country. To rewind a moment, I had investigated shipping freight by air, which is very expensive. I investigated shipping by sea, where the shipping companies will abandon your belongings at a sea port or an airport -- your choice. Now I was sending this Cardboard American Life to, well, Poland. I thought it worth asking where it would end up.
"We will send to the address on the box," she said. That address was Frank's house, so I gave her $103 dollars and genuinely believed I would never see me bits and bobs again.
Yesterday the doorbell rang and a young thin Eastern European man with a bald head and a white van told me I had a parcel from Poland. My box. The box I last saw when Sarah and I drove into Philadelphia and dropped it off.
I don't care about the contents. Not really. All I cared about back in November was Tyson and getting him safely to Milan airport, but now I am filled with a sad joy at seeing the cardboard box that I bought at U-Haul out near Charlie and Cecily's house. I remember dragging this heavy brown object as being one of the last things that Sarah and I did together. We went to McDonalds on the way back. We had a day out. The box has made me sad all over again. I miss her. The contents do not make me sad. The object does.
I had things to do on Monday, and Frank took this picture of Tyson sitting on the stairs waiting for me to come home (he might have seen someone with sausages or maybe a cat, but for me, this is my dog waiting for me to come back with good news).
I did come back with good news. I went out to organize a bank account and that was a roaring success. I went out to buy a mobile phone and that too was 28 euros of technological perfection. The phone even connects to the internet and has a built in FM radio. With 15 euros of call time thrown in, it was a bargain.
One other thing was successful. Over the weekend I was perplexed. I had seen one apartment and liked it. It's 5 minutes walk from this house, near the shops, a bar, a bus stop, a cycle path to areas of outstanding natural beauty. When the snow comes down to the valley it's 5 minutes from a cross-country ski area. It has a balcony with a view of the church. It has, wonderfully, a wood-burning stove. It's a good place, and yet I had told the man I wanted to sleep on it. Surely one shouldn't take the first thing one sees?
Over the weekend I couldn't stand it any more, called him and said yes. He said good.
I seem to have somewhere to live.
Anyway, he wants the whole year's rent up front -- the main reason I wanted to think about it. At 250 euros a month I can afford it, but it's almost all of my money until I get paid for the drawings I've been doing. On the other hand, if nothing goes wrong with the deal at least I don't have to worry about rent for another year. He sent me a contract and while Tyson was sitting patiently on the stairs wondering where I was, I was in Alinka's little ski hut drinking schnapps at noon. She was reading the contract to make sure I wasn't going to sign away my children or a kidney. She thought it was pretty standard, so I returned to Tyson a huge step closer to Phase 2 of the New Life.
I have to move most of my money around the globe (something which Sarah is helping me with) and when it's in my Slovenian Bank, I can do the deed and move 5 minutes down the road. It's exciting and obviously I'll be giving you a blow-by-blow account. I think I'll be in a position to pay him in about 10 days. I see it as my first place in my new life -- convenient if not exactly what I'd go for if I was buying. But it gives me 1 year of security while I discover the country and find out how it all works and where I want to go next. It's a good start. He's organized broadband and cable tv too, which is 40 euros a month. I can have 40 channels and Tyson can have 40. We'll be ok.
Meanwhile I'm getting drawing work, thank goodness, and yesterday I sold the first writing of 2014. I awoke to see e-book sales of Like Minded, The Wonderful World of Linus Bailey and The Midlife of Dudley Chalk! I have started the next novel. I don't know what it's about yet, I'm still feeling my way into it, but I have a working title in my head -- The Homeopathy of Lauren Cooper's Couch. There's a story in that title isn't there?, and I want to know what it is. I will only discover it as I write more and, like Dudley Chalk, suddenly the characters will gain momentum and I can just sit back, watch and report it.
I'm going to give you some photos to look at. I don't have a good camera so I get them from Frank, but it takes a bit of time. The pics of me on a grassy slope high above the local lake is the take-off point for paragliding. If finding a place to live is Phase 2 of this new life, then learning to paraglide is Phase 4 and launching myself from this deceptively terrifying place is Phase 5. You have to know what you are doing to fly from this garage-sized patch of grass. The drop-off behind it is vertical and it's a LONG drop. This isn't the rolling hills of the South Downs, where I've tried paragliding before, nor the hills of New Hampshire where I spent 3 days learning in 2010. This take-off point is for experts, but it's a cycle ride from here so it's the perfect goal. Also, on the other side of that lake, there is a hotel where Agatha Christie took her holidays. I might go there for a cup of coffee and turn The Homeopathy of Lauren Cooper's Couch into a whodunnit. So many things to do...
It is noon on day 3 of 2014 and I can't keep up with events.
Firstly, there's New Year's Eve. In Bohinjska Bistrica there is a large Nissen hut-like building (looks like a place for indoor tennis or for growing mushrooms) which attracted most of North West Slovenia. It was free to enter, included a traditional um-pah um-pah band and lots and lots of beer. At first the um-pah um-pah band was so traditional we wanted to leave, so we left. We went to a bar nearby that was perhaps the smallest working bar in the world. If the customers were dressed as clowns, squeezing together for charity or attempting a world record it would have been truly marvelous, but really it was just very very small. After one beer we returned to the Nissen hut.
Where, you will be relieved to hear, the traditional music had changed to such favourites as Mississippi by Pussycat and The Green Green Grass of Home by Tom Jones. Sung in lederhosen and accompanied by a man on a tuba, the night was unforgettable. We drank the night away until the appointed hour, when large numbers of fireworks were set off in no particular order (outside, thank goodness). The place was by now crowded and fairly raucous. We got home just in time to turn on the telly and watch the new year celebrations happening live from London, a mysterious benefit of being one hour ahead of them.
Yesterday, a mere two days into the new year, I went cross country skiing! This happened because Frank and Sally have English friends, Simon and Michelle. They own a house up the mountain and they suggested we all go on a skiing adventure, then made it happen. Never before have I attached skis to myself.
We all met at Andre and Alinka's ski-hire hut and Andre drove us up the mountain. At the level of Frank's house there is no snow but at the ski centre, high up amid the fir trees and clouds it's a winter wonderland. The skis were attached to me and for the first time in my life I had to abandon walking and embrace sliding. I stood motionless for a few minutes wondering how on earth this could be accomplished. Andre is a good teacher and we slid about for two hours, the snow falling harder around us. I had some great moments of going downhill but I never got the fluid, graceful slide of a cross-country skier. However, the going downhill parts, despite being short and not too steep, were enormous fun. I loved it and I can't wait to try it again (there are photos on Frank's camera which I shall post when I can get them).
After the lesson we returned to the little hut and drank schnapps and beer and whatever else we could find to make the afternoon last a little longer. The company was excellent and it was the most concentrated enjoyment I have experienced in a long long time. One has to concentrate so hard when skiing, and the surroundings were so beautiful that I had no time to reflect on anything other than the happiness of the occasion. We ended the day by going out for pizza because tiredness overcame the urge to cook.
This morning my tax number arrived in the post, and to celebrate, I picked up the phone and called a number I had found for an apartment here in Bohinjska Bistrica. It is very close to the Nissen hut where you can play tennis, grow mushrooms or listen to Mississippi with tuba accompaniment. To my relief, the man on the other end spoke very good English, so this afternoon I went to see it. It is small and he wants a whole year's rent up front. But I took Tyson and he liked him, and when the landlord likes your dog you don't take that lightly. Also it's an apartment but he has a wood-burning stove, which is both wonderful and unexpected. It has all the furniture I would need and a small balcony with a view of the church. The monthly rent is low, despite having to give a whole year up front. I said I would let him know, because the pros and cons are 50/50. Tomorrow I might be seeing another which is cheaper, but it's a good cycle ride from the shops and might be smaller. I'll keep you posted.
So far, 2014 is going very well indeed. Long may it continue.
Slovenia, writing, other things