Netflix, using its more amusing of algorithms, has suggested I'd like to watch Zombeavers, a heart-warming tale of, and I quote:
"A group of randy college kids partying in a woodland cabin gets a nasty surprise when a horde of ferocious zombie beavers attacks."
At the end of a long day of rock-climbing, white water rafting, parkour and the like, I enjoy no more than to settle down on the long blue couch here in Das Boot to watch a film. It's a perfect part of the day. The TV remote is mine to command and I have the choice of Telemach cable TV plus, with a bit of jiggery-pokery, BBC I-player and Netflix via the laptop.
The BBC reminds me of the UK, and we all need an anchor. The programs feel more slick than I remember; more American. But excellent shows pop up now and then and I'm grateful for the technology that allows me to see it. Sometimes it makes me feel homesick, but usually it shows me how much the place has changed in the 16 years I've been away, or dispels any myths that may have taken root. My inaccurate ex-pat brain still imagines The Vicar of Dibley to be an accurate portrayal of English life, a trick common among ex-pats, it seems. In America I spoke to a German who held the same feelings about his own country. The reality doesn't match the amalgam of childhood memories and old films.
I often pepper my posts with references to movies, suggesting that maybe I watch too much TV or that I'm a secret film critic. Actually, I'd like to be a film critic but I don't know anything about the movie business. My thoughts would be no more useful than the user comments on Netflix.
That said, I love the user comments on Netflix. I get sucked into the world of amateur critics the way others get sucked into Facebook. Those who comment include the film school graduate-types who endlessly compare and contrast the film with works of obscure directors and must -- simply must -- begin by mentioning the film festival where they first watched it.
Then there's people I take note of, who review with honesty and without reference to enfant-terrible Argentine directors and give a balanced, common-sense opinion.
Sometimes the comments reveal a world of Bible-belt puritanism, xenophobia, misanthropy or just plain dumb ignorance (like any blank slate in internet-land). Some are funny for no real reason. A comment I saw the other night described a film as being "absent of violence or language. My daughter could watch this." Firstly, I quite like language in my films. It helps to follow what's happening. I was also immediately concerned for the daughter, who, I imagine, is locked in a silent room tied to a table. Some people hate sub-titles, others claim to watch nothing else. Some people need action and quickly bore if the principle characters remain un-maimed.
Like all potential entertainment opportunities, I screen and filter, reducing my choices to the point where the vast Netflix database seems devoid of anything watchable. I do that in everyday life too, reducing the vast panoply of Alpine wonders to a quick bike ride or a beer across the street.
I don't watch anything that starts with "An elite group of..."
The same goes for "...is called out of retirement..."
I avoid anything with the word "heist" in the description and flip past "must act quickly to prevent him from killing again." With these I don't even get to the comments section, so loath am I to watch them.
What did I see that puts zombie beavers high on my "Recommended for Pete" list? I watch documentaries, detective, foreign-language films, courtroom dramas, comedy that doesn't rely on shouting or "language," and Indie stuff. I like anything that devotes more to the script than the CGI. Netflix therefore thinks I'd love to see a film where the front cover is a spread-legged girl in a bikini with a lively but dead beaver fast approaching. Maybe I'm being narrow-minded. Maybe Netflix has an altruistic algorithm designed specifically for broadening one's external horizons. Perhaps it's not about getting you to watch more of their films, but getting you to try a different pub, climb a different hill, engage in an activity that's not for you.
Last night I watched "Cracking the Maya Code." These intricate Mayan pictograms -- chiselled into stele erected in their jungle cities -- were a meaningless mystery when first discovered. The detective story of their unravelling required no car chases, explosions or indeed girls in bikinis to keep me enthralled. Cracking the code reminded me somewhat of my trials with Slovenian TV.
A problem specific to living in foreign parts -- greater even than avoiding ferocious zombie beaver attacks -- is that my welter of channels are marked up in a language I don't understand. The films on offer are many and varied and they don't dub them (thank goodness), but I never know what's going to be on.
Some are easy. Later today on TV1000 we have "12 opic" with Bruce Willis. One requires no degree in epigraphy to work that one out. On Fox Movies we are treated to "V iskanju sreče," with Will Smith. Google Translate gives up "In Search of Happiness," so no brain stretching there either.
However, I'm reminded of an amusing list of movies shown in South Korea where they seem to prefer more literal titles. Field of Dreams was changed to "There are baseball players in my garden."
That happens here too. This evening on Cinestar there's a film called "Izginjanje," with Christian Bale. Google translates this to "Disappearance." IMDB is my next port of call to examine the plot of this Christian Bale minor masterwork, but no such film is listed. Plucky and determined I return to the TV info page to read more. The first name given is, I guess, the director. Brad Anderson. He made The Machinist. It stars Christian Bale. That's got to be it.
I first noticed this oddity of nomenclature during my first Christmas. We all like a film at Christmas and I was determined to track one down. Being able to predict the schedule seemed like a good idea. "Battle for Christmas," was playing (at least, that's what Google Translate called it). As a first test it proved a baffling disappointment, because the film was really called "Deck the Halls." A cheap and easily forgotten film, the plot was based entirely around a play on words. It's Christmas and the annoying neighbours are named Hall. A neighbourly fight breaks out. Get it? Christmas? Deck the Halls?
To a Slovenian that would be meaningless. The joke (if that's not too majestic a word) was lost. So they changed the title.
It's a faff, all this walking from the TV to Google Translate to IMDB, trying to remember the unfathomable list of letters that is Izginjanje and finding it's not a literal translation of the movie title. Watching TV in foreign parts makes heroes of us all.
There is no literal translation for "Zombeavers," so if it comes on cable TV it'll be called something else. "Kaj za vraga je, da grize moje pomanjkljivo oblečene noge" is the Slovene for "What the hell's that biting my scantily clothed leg", so that might be it. I shall keep an eye out for it. I don't want to watch it on Netflix for fear of what they'll recommend next.
Oh. If you translate that back into English you get "What the hell is that biting my legs encased inadequate." I'm never going to find it on cable.
Netflix assures me I'll like it, so perhaps I will give their copy a whirl. It could change my whole outlook on life.
Yesterday I stood on an empty hotel patio, adjoining an empty hotel. I was hot, in need of fluids, and the large red Gostilna (pub) and Union (beer) sign was mocking me. There was no beer. There were no patrons. At the very least I wanted to see ghostly faces at the windows and hoped, perhaps, that I had always been the caretaker there, a la The Shining.
I arrived at this patio after a longer than intended cycle ride. I'd worked in the morning and mooched about in my post-bad-back lack of get-up-and-go. By five o'clock the early rain had gone and I deemed it ridiculous to be wasting a bright and sunny evening, so I pulled the bike from the small patio and manoeuvred it down the staircase to the waiting world.
Outside my apartment building, the little road leads right to Sabina's house or left to the main road. There is, however, one of Slovenia's many cycle paths just across the river and it leads, after about 12 km, to Lake Bohinj. It is a cycle path festooned with Slovenians of all sizes casually cycling vast distances without the slightest need to clutch their chests. Old ladies hurtle along chatting. Old men shepherd their grandchildren who, as I proved, travel at my speed despite not progressing past training wheels. Young families often roller-blade their way along it as an after-dinner treat. There are even places to rock-climb, if that's your thing.
I thought I'd trundle along as far as Brod, where a handsome wooden bridge goes over the Sava river. It's a good spot to play Pooh Sticks or wait for the chest pains to subside. The Sava river runs out of Lake Bohinj and winds its way down through much of the old Yugoslavia (being a bit travel-writerish here, I feel compelled to tell you that the Sava is over 900 km long, connects four countries and ends in the Danube in Belgrade). And it starts just up the road, pouring out of Lake Bohinj.
Perhaps a rush of oxygen to the brain caused me to continue all the way to the lake. I fancied an ice cream. Ribchev Laz is the village on the lake and it's rather popular, as one might imagine. There are hotels and cycle hire shops, rafting and kayak rentals. Ice cream, obviously. Even Alenka and Andre (my winter skiing teachers) have a climbing business there in the summer. It's a busy place.
Too busy, I decided, for my unappealing demeanour. By this time I was positively steaming. The tarmac was wet from the earlier rain and the sun was boiling it off in jungle-like clouds. Damply, I considered turning back.
But there is a road that leads away from the tourists and heads up into the mountains again. A sign for the Bellevue Hotel proclaimed it to be a mere 600 meters away, so off I struck, walking this time. It doesn't take a page of diagrams to explain that a valley has a bottom (the lake, the river, the ice cream) or sides (up hill). I meandered upward in a way that made 600 meters seem a lie of sorts. Rock cliffs and steaming trees put me in mind of Martin Sheen when he went looking for the frankly insane Marlon Brando. I pushed my bike ever upward.
The Bellevue Hotel commands, perhaps not unsurprisingly, a beautiful view. It looks down upon the lake and across to the craggy peaks on the other side, where Triglav -- Slovenia's highest mountain -- stands like a pyramid in the distance. From this place you can't see the Japanese tourists or tour buses. You can't see a building of any description, just a placid lake and a whole host of mountains. It is a perfect place for a hotel.
Struggling manfully around the last bend I came to the building itself. A car was in the car park and I nodded steamingly to the Slovenian couple who were exploring the grounds.
"I've always meant to come here," I said. "Perhaps I should have driven."
The man laughed, perhaps wondering if he should call a paramedic. "Yes, it's quite a hill."
"Is it open?" I asked, seeing the large red Union Beer sign.
"No. Not for some time. Such a shame. I came here when I was a student."
"If it's not a rude question, when was that?"
It might have been a rude question and, without knowing the history of the place, a frankly odd one. But the Bellevue Hotel has a small but interesting reputation.
"After she was here," he said smiling. "1970 I think?"
'She,' was Agatha Christie.
In 1967, Agatha Christie and her husband Sir Max Mallowan took room 204 at the Bellevue and set about doing very little in the way of drawing room revelations or, indeed, talking to the press. Apparently their room remains very much as she left it apart from (one hopes) a little light cleaning. Visitors, when there were such things, would ask to see it.
The patio is a large rectangular space with a wall to prevent the tipsy from falling down the hill. Broken wooden furniture lies scattered about, a half-drunk pint of Union sits on the wall and peering through the windows shows an abandoned bar. Typical of the Alps, the building is almost all roof, it's low walls made of white rock. The huge triangle developed by the roof holds a series of balconies in dark wood, each with green-shuttered windows looking down onto the water. One of those balconies belongs to room 204, and I looked up to imagine Agatha sunning herself, writing nothing more challenging than a postcard.
If one of those balconies was Agatha's, then the one next to it was taken by a cheeky reporter who, knowing how determined she was to be left in peace, took the room and handed her a bunch a flowers across the small wall that divided them. She answered a couple of questions before bludgeoning him to death with a lead pipe in the library.
Her famous answer to the question, "Will you be setting any of your books here in Bohinj?" was "...it is too beautiful for murder."
That is proudly taken as a compliment to the area, but to me it feels like a terse politeness, followed by the less well reported ..."now bugger off."
Standing alone in a tragically run-down but majestic setting I wanted a hot-tub time machine, or to magically see 1960's patrons through the window of the restaurant. I wanted to wave to Agatha then walk into the bar, sport's jacket slung over my shoulder and a Martini on its way. I wanted to always have been the caretaker there.
My friend Alenka, she of the glowing Slovenian health and new roof, worked there at the time. She travelled around the country with them and was a given a signed book.
So many little things in this country, hidden around the next bend. I should ride my bike more often.
I called upon the company of my brother Frank yesterday, demanding that he drink beer and eat ice cream. Ice cream and beer. An odd combination perhaps, but ice cream is big here. All the bars sell ice cream of the vibrantly coloured scoop variety, or the swirly stuff that comes from a machine. Grown men, youths, old people, cattle wranglers, they sit outside bars with ice cream cones as if they are children at the beach. In Slovenia, people don't outgrow these simple pleasures.
Sitting at a table watching the people of Bohinjska Bistrica go about their lives, unencumbered by the notions of age-relevant foodstuffs, we chatted about the life of Englishmen who have nothing much to do, living in a town with nothing much to do. OK, you're reading this thinking...there are mountains. Go climb them. There are rivers. Go do river-based stuff. Go sightseeing. These are good ideas and flow naturally from people who don't have access to such things, but I remember when I was young and would travel 350 miles to North Wales to climb the nearest mountains. In the villages of North Wales the youths sit in bus shelters and vandalise things, unable to see the very objects I had travelled 350 miles to see. Also, from a personal viewpoint, we aren't Englishmen with nothing to do. I have drawing and writing, while Frank has a house and wife to maintain. But these are things that we did yesterday, and will do tomorrow. We don't have a well-circumscribed project, a leaping out of bed at dawn, hand rubbing sleeve-rolling start with nothing, end with something project.
And when I say the town has "nothing much to do," I am referring to entertainment. This town doesn't offer much in the way of raucous entertainment. The bars sell beer and ice cream. The food is created from a very narrow palette and will be pretty much the same wherever you go. We live in a valley with one way in and one way out: A glorious valley, but essentially a cul-de-sac. I'm told it was different in years past. Sabina's husband Igor had a fantastic time in a former and quite happening Bohinjska Bistrica. People were bussed in. It was lively. Clem and Marco -- twenty-something friends/helpers at Sabina's farm -- bemoan the lack of liveliness. They have to travel to see any lights of sufficient brightness.
Across the road from the bar is a building which has stood empty since I've been here, and for a year or so before that. It has a glass door and the wall facing the street is composed of windows with yellow blinds and piles of dust. On the outside are a series of brown cracked panels that were once posters depicting the natural wonders of the Bohinj Valley.
"It was the tourist office," Frank says. "They moved because the rent was too high."
Ice cream in one hand and beer in the other, I wondered what we could do with such a building (one has to chat about something while taking in the sun with a beachless ice-cream cone).
Frank suggested a cinema because the nearest is too far away for an impulsive evening at the flicks, but we decided that the ceiling was too low for a screen. Walk-through cow wash? Brothel? Beer and ice-cream bar? They seem popular.
I then hit upon an idea that made me quite excited. A snooker hall.
I like snooker. I'd have a game if such a place existed. I recently watched the World Snooker Championships on Eurosport and discovered that it's becoming not just international (it's now big in China) but also respectable. The ability to sink a snooker ball was once a sign of a misspent youth but now it's on the Chinese school curriculum.
The Slovenians have the temperament for snooker. They aren't overtly excitable. They are patient, the men flock together in agreeable clumps with predictable regularity, seemingly doing nothing at all beyond watching the cars go by. And they are naturally sporty. If your skiing days are over, snooker would be the perfect sport. Even the furiously fit can't ski in the dark, and snooker halls are haunted by evening-types. Besides, they could put their ice-cream cones in the side pocket while taking a shot.
More beer, more musing, and I became convinced that despite being two of us, single-handed we could introduce snooker to a waiting country and make large amounts of money. Or at least have something to do. All we'd need would be backers. Large and dangerous men, presumably, who would want their money back ten-fold or we'd have our legs broken. I liked this plan a lot. Remembering my snooker days, a typical snooker hall epitomized the word "dingy." They were dark and the floor had a hint of tackiness. The air smelled of fried food. In the old days, the World Championships was sponsored by a cigarette company, a fact that was not at all surprising.
We could sell chips and burgers! Oh for a pint that sticks unhelpfully to a tacky table top, some chips in a gaudy plastic basket, a cheeseburger and the sound of snooker balls being racked up, all enveloped in a kind of fried unhealthy smoke-filled subterranean gloom.
On paying the bill, I asked the barman if he'd ever heard of snooker, and mimed the game, adding thwock noises for extra clarity. He said "one moment," and spoke to two men who were eating ice cream, drinking beer and watching the cars go by.
"Stara Fuzina," they said after much head-scratching. "The Hotel Triglav."
Well well. A hotel in a village near the lake has a table. Would it be a snooker table? My mime and thwock noise could equally apply to pool or bar billiards. Indeed, not being classically trained in mime, we could discover a dart board or a basketball hoop.
At worst it would be a voyage of discovery into the very heart of, well, a small hotel in a fairly small village. At best it could be the germ of a plan to build a snooker empire in the heart of the Julian Alps, followed by threats from large and dangerous men who want their money back. Brilliant. A project fraught with danger in the best traditions of doing things you wished you hadn't.
Flushed with notions of entrepreneurial madness and hyped up on a heady cocktail of Lashko beer and vanilla/chocolate swirl, I headed home. I rarely look at Facebook but recently I went there and clicked a few friend requests. I befriended Tatiana, a Russian who, with her husband and kids, moved to the town and have begun running a small B&B. She's lovely and I wish them luck. I thought that befriending her would be a sign that I wish them luck. What it's actually done is fill up my Facebook page with beautiful Russian women with whom I have one mutual friend, making me look like I'm either in the market for a bride or I want backing from the Russian oligarchy.
Ohhh, now there's an idea...
Slovenia, writing, other things