On Tuesday I had my second skiing lesson with Andre. This time it was up Vogel, that mountain 10 minutes away that is reached by means of a cable car. It was a day of blue sky and crowds.
Frank and Sally came along for an outing up the mountain, which means that I have some photos of the event. I was excited and somewhat nervous. Vogel is magnificent and my skiing isn't. I was worried I'd ruin its perfection by being, well, an old Englishman on skis (you know the type -- bent over, skis apart, a fixed grin, ungainly). I really want to be able to ski, just so I can go there and absorb some of the attractive essence that wafts from its patrons.
Andre is a man who doesn't muck about. He dispensed with the beginner slope to take me first down a small cliff, and then onto my first encounter with a chair lift. Seriously, everything is hard with skis on. Standing still is hard. Holding a conversation is hard because, without malice or forward planning, you simply begin to drift away from the person talking to you. One seems quite rude when wearing skis.
Considering the ludicrous complications that mount up when trying to achieve anything at all, I found myself in a queue of people four abreast moving slowly toward turnstiles and little flappy barrier things. Andre urged me forward for fear of being trampled to death and the more he urged the more I seemed to unwittingly travel backwards or sideways. "No no Peter, this way!" he would shout, as if I had made a conscious decision to slide sideways into perfect strangers.
Beyond the little flappy things, four of us stood waiting for a chair to come round the corner and smack us in the back of the legs. Of course, three of these people were standing in a nice straight line, poised, watching for the unstoppable furniture, while one person (me) was three feet behind trying valiantly to ski up a small slope toward them. "Hurry Peter, Hurry!" It's quite hard to hurry up hill on skis.
I just made it as the wide blue moving chair of destiny scooped us up and carried us off toward my first serious skiing event. The chair dangles you high above the snow, highest as it goes over the towers. After a few minutes the still warmth of the lower snow became a cold and windy waste, the view becoming so incredible that I completely forgot where I was. The day before, when I had booked the lesson from Alinka, I had bought some snow goggles. I thought they were overkill until I found myself being carried further and further into a scene from Scott of the Antarctic. Up there, the snow is dangerous, deep, and everywhere. I felt insignificant. I went to ski but I discovered something far more. I was being carried into a completely different world. Andre wrapped his coat around his face and had to shout above the wind.
Over the hump of the mountain ridge the chair descends slightly to a station and with Andre's instruction, I had to stand and ski away, using the chair's momentum to drive me away and toward a flat plain of snow. I did it badly, but with a little help I was out on the snow.
It was now a one kilometre slide back down the mountain. So far the longest I had skied was down a couple of short slopes. This was far more than I was expecting for my second lesson.
This route undulates, mixing fairly flat shelves that lead to steeper sections. Andre nursed me down and I fell once. When we reached the bottom, my feeling of achievement went far beyond the quality of my skiing. I wanted to go tell Frank and Sally, but we immediately did it all over again. This time I didn't fall.
I skied that slope three times before I was too tired to carry on. By the end I was hooked. I asked Andre where I should go when I return on my own and he said I should ski that slope. So that is what I'll do. Next week I am going to set myself the challenge of making my way to Vogel on my own, to ride the cable car to the top, have a little practice, then, alone, I'll go to the top in a dangling blue chair and slide back down. If I can do that, I'll feel pretty good.
It has been a week of moments. Good things and strange things have happened. The inhabitants of the capital city, Ljubjlana, decamped from their city homes and came up to the mountains to play. Every other car has a registration plate beginning with LJ.
This building with its 10 apartments has been half full all week, a strange comparison to the three weeks of silence that Tyson and I have become accustomed to. As I type, small children are on the third floor banging things together to test, or so it seems, the Mormon Tabernacle acoustics of this building. Their parents are trying to stop them, which simply adds to the noise.
Tyson has been perfect throughout, simply looking at me whenever things go bump in the night, then settling down again with a resigned and unimpressed sigh. To be honest, it's the construction of the building and my lack of experience with apartment life that causes me to notice these sounds. The people who own these apartments and who come to visit on weeks such as this (half-term) and very nice indeed. Meeting them transforms intrusive noise into the simple sound of neighbours going about their business. As the week has gone on I've become quite comfortable with community life. And no, I haven't actually heard a bump in the night. It seems that Slovenians go to bed early or creep about after dark.
Today marks one month since I moved in. This week, Gregor the landlord came around for the first time. It was arranged that he would come around on or about the 20th so I could pay him the monthly for the internet and electricity. He gave me copies of the bills and we signed receipts and then chatted about skiing. I continue to like him, and he made a fuss of Tyson. When the landlord makes a fuss of your dog you know things are going well, and I ticked this first visit off my list of major events.
Another major event is money, and the other company I work for has issued its first payment since I took up drawing again. It's heading for Slovenia even as we speak and that payment firmly establishes this new life. The landlord's visit, a significant first payment, one month of Das Boot and surviving the influx of neighbours, these are big things on my list and they gave the week a profound significance.
So did Adele.
I'm going to tell you this not to gain your sympathy. I don't need it. I live in the Alps and I can work without leaving the apartment. No, I'm telling you this because I am a writer and writers need to examine life's little oddities to make us better writers.
I was in the supermarket. I had bought some vegetables, some ground beef, some pasta. Near the pasta one can find spices in those typical plastic shaker pots and I felt it was time to expand my herb and spices collection to more than just salt, pepper and chili powder. I grabbed some paprika, some basil and went for garlic. Which one was garlic? I made a guess based on colour but while other spices had similar names, nothing looked remotely like the word garlic. Inspiration struck and I went to the vegetable section, whole garlic bulbs, checking the name on the label. Garlic, you will be interested to know, is Chesen. Just at the moment of discovery I heard Adele on the supermarket speakers. Someone Like You. I heard:
"Never mind, I'll find someone like you
I wish nothing but the best for you too..."
...and instantly, embarrassingly, I began to cry. It came out of nowhere and was devoid of build-up or mitigating circumstances. I said 'shit,' and I squeezed the plastic handle of the basket to maybe distract my brain. I had to seek refuge in the relative safety of the ice-cream section, and the mark on my hand from the basket lasted till I got home. I hadn't been sad, I hadn't been thinking about Sarah, my marriage, my former life. I had been shopping for garlic and Adele reached out from nowhere and tore me to pieces. It's not even a song I know very well.
Apart from the horror of people thinking I am so intimidated by shopping that it makes me cry, I fully recovered as soon as she stopped singing. I have thought about it long and hard, and two things come to mind. Firstly, the idea of two people breaking up and still wishing the very best for one another struck me as the saddest thing. Anger and resentment is so much easier.
The second, more powerful thing -- the thing that reached out and punched me so hard, was that I had spent the week ticking boxes. The final pieces of the puzzle had fallen into place this week. The landlord, the money, the mysterious neighbours who turned out to be nice. I have ticked all the fundamental boxes now. And then, happy that I had even mastered the problem of buying food in a foreign language, those words came out clear as a bell. They are saying Goodbye. Shit.
It's been a while since I posted and there's a very good reason for that. I kept starting and stopping. All over my desktop like some literary car crash lie little bits of tatty writing, the remnants of my multiple attempts to inform and entertain. I wasn't sure what the problem was until today, but the answer made me happy. The answer, as the name of this post suggests, came from a popular archaeology program and the need to replace my wood supply.
Let me explain. You may recall that I met my neighbour Sabina even before I moved into Das Boot. She lives in the farm that can be seen from my balcony. She's become a valuable ally and source of information, always willing to help despite having four children and a plethora of cows. As you may also recall, I have a wood-burning stove and therefore I need wood -- wood which is a foot long or less. Some time ago I asked her where I could get more wood and she wasn't sure. You see, wood arrives in 1 meter lengths and if you happen to be a Slovene you're probably all geared up to make those bits of wood shorter. I, as you know, have a computer. It's rubbish at sawing wood.
I asked other people and tried some compressed sawdust blocks that are available locally, but they're expensive and not visually satisfying. The people at the hardware store were manically helpful and gave me the phone number of a man in the next village who might have wood short enough to go inside my wood-burner, and I promised myself that at some point I would try phoning him. And then Sabina and her husband Igor swooped to my aid. She said they had enough wood to spare and they have a saw of such technical magnificence that it wouldn't take her husband long to saw each 1 meter piece into 3. She quoted me a price for a cubic meter of wood which was exactly what I was expecting to pay, and these new neighbours of mine made me happy in a way that was oddly personal; the kind of happiness that comes from making connections with new people in a new place.
That feeling of happiness became lost in the background of this new life because on the very same day I headed off to my first downhill ski lesson with Andrei. I have my skis, boots and poles and for 4 hours I was sliding down slopes and being pulled back up again by mysterious mechanical means. I left Tyson in the apartment on his own for several hours and he was ok. By the end of the day I had the prospect of warmth, I had tried skiing downhill for the first time and Tyson had proved to me yet again what a good and dependable dog he is. It was a perfect day. The best day yet in many respects.
I set about telling the world of my first skiing experience and nothing I wrote did the day justice. Surely I could write about my first day of skiing in a way that would dazzle and amaze? and yet nothing worked. I didn't know why. I gave up, oddly defeated by it.
Last night I watched one of my favourite TV shows, Time Team. Time Team is a British program which shows a group of archaeologists using their skills to uncover the story behind a buried archaeological site in only 3 days. They use geophysics and aerial photography, old maps, and finally dig a few select trenches to unearth the truth that lies buried beneath their feet. I, as a non-archaeologist, always imagine that gold, silver, magnificent and precious finds would be the thing that gets the collective pulses racing, but it isn't. They get excited by pieces of dull pottery and changes in the colour of the earth they dig up. Seemingly mundane things thrill these people. Dull things. Brown things. I never fully understood why but then it hit me. It is the non-sparkly things that tell them the true story of human activity. Sparkly things are nice, but the shape of a ditch or the presence of a post-hole speaks volumes about what was really going on.
I finally knew what to write. I knew what was important in the story of me being here. Skiing is the sparkly find that isn't really important. Anyone can go skiing, as indeed millions of people do (even me, as it turns out). But how rare and important it is to discover that I have made genuine connections here among the local population. You can't do that by simply choosing to, it has to happen somehow. Andre and Alinka will teach me how to ski but they will also help me in the everyday task of living. Sabina and her husband were willing to put themselves out to solve a problem for me.
Today I got my fuel. Igor drove his tractor to the front door of the building then Sabina, Igor, Clemmen, Marco and me ran up and down the stairs with piles of wood until it was all stacked neatly on my balcony. It was a major act of cooperation that is so much more important to this story than the thrill of the ski slope. Skiing was great fun and I'm looking forward to the next lesson with Andrei, but it's not the important part of this story. It's why the skiing angle didn't work as a subject for this post. It's why archaeologists don't just look for buried treasure (at least, not the buried treasure that the rest of us look for). They look for human activity. They look for human interaction, and they find it in the everyday evidence of the communities they built.
I'm feeling very lucky today. It's going well.
Snow has fallen large on the Slovenian countryside, causing power outages and failing internet. On day one of this technological interrupt, everyone's internet was down regardless of supplier, as were the bank machines, public payphones and my cell phone. Bohinjska Bistrica wasn't talking to the rest of the world.
By the way, I think we now know each other well enough for me to let you in on a secret. The J in Bohinjska is silent, and the C in Bistrica is pronounced like the zz in pizza. It's pronounced Bohinska Bistritsa.
Having got that awkwardness out of the way, I shall tell you that the power went off with a kind of strange indecision, often flickering, sometimes going off for ten minutes then coming back on again for ten and going off again. I'm sure the lights coming from my window made it look like I was signalling someone or pretending to be a lighthouse. The internet was more determined, however. It went off in long, steadfast chunks.
The lack of power or entertainment allowed me to sit in the flicker of the firelight, thinking, as I imagine neolithic types used to think, about life and its complexities. The 150 cable channels have dulled my wits and it was nice to have nothing to do but ponder. I thought about Sarah and how I'm adjusting to not having her around, and I thought about my new life compared to the old one. Actually, 'the old one' doesn't make much sense because having lived in England, Greece and France before moving to America, I have several old ones, each one subtly different. But one thing that has dogged me all my life is remarkable ability to stagnate. Given the opportunity I will muse on all the things I could be doing and not actually do any of them. I will sit here till spring wondering how much fun I could have had in the snow.
After this dramatic realisation, this morning I walked Tyson toward Alinka's ski hut. Alinka and Andre have a ski-hire and teaching business, and it was Andre who took us out on that little bit of cross-country skiing. It was Alinka who read through the contract on my apartment and told me it didn't contain any sneaky traps. They are good people.
I went to ask Alinka about skiing. I realised during my neolithic stint that I only went skiing that one time because someone else organised it and it was easy to say yes. Since that day I've spoken of how enjoyable it was and done nothing to further my desire to slide uncontrollably down a hill. It was time to take charge.
After an hour of chit-chat and schnapps I had bought some second hand downhill ski boots, some skis and some poles for the wonderful price of 65 euros. I thought that buying some second hand stuff would cause me to actually go skiing, rather than promising to come back some day and hire some. I collect them on Friday after she has tweaked things and I actually have 65 euros on me. Then it's a trip to Vogel, where Andre is almost permanently camped out teaching people. I will have some lessons on the beginner slope and then become one of the beautiful people.
Slovenia, writing, other things