There is a large vertical cliff running behind my garden. Between the cliff and the house is an assortment of healing plants, some rose bushes, things that you can eat if you're a lover of salads. To my right is a work area mad with wood, tools, some half finished tables, a metal calendar made in Yugoslavia, when there was a Yugoslavia. To my left is a barn where, in the summer, an art exhibition draws too few people, some of whom may want to use my toilet.
"They may want to use your toilet," Alenka said.
"And I'd like you to feed the cats."
Alenka provides the cat food. I just give it to them, and to be honest, they don't come round much.
The house looks like it was born from the febrile imagination of the Brothers Grimm. Everything is hand made and the floor is brick. It is rustic. It has murals of cats (on spoons) flying across the ceiling of the bedroom which takes up the entire third floor. The lower floor is a wet room -- a large expanse of shower and antique sink. One gets to the bedroom through the agency of a wooden ladder up through a hatch in the ceiling. From the outside, the house appears to be made of Gingerbread. Indeed, there's a witch hanging amid the pots and pans, its eyes lighting up when you touch it.
There's a garden that catches the sun most of the day, and chairs a-plenty. A place for a barbecue too. And, perhaps most surprisingly, there's a badger. It walked past me the other night while I was standing outside. We viewed each other with great suspicion. It may have seen humans before, but it's my first badger.
It's been a while since I posted hasn't it. Last time I posted it was a badgerless winter of skis and visits from my kids. Since then I've had my very own annus mirabilis, my wonderful year. Miracle year. A year unlike any other.
And I cannot tell you about it.
How does one write a blog post when nothing can be said? Ah, the challenge of writing. Too challenging actually, so I wrote nothing. I chose to live life instead of writing about it, and it's been everything I ever thought it would.
So here I am glossing over all the things I want to write about and leaving you with the crumbs.
This year began in Das Boot, the small apartment in Bohinjska Bistrica that served me so well for two years. But I needed a change and thought about travelling for six months, until I finally came to my senses and decided not to. I went to see my friend Ralph and told him I was having second thoughts about travelling, so he said "Don't go then." Aren't things simple when seen from another pair of eyes? I had told everyone I was going, and now I wasn't. I just cancelled everything and stayed.
I had given up Das Boot. Before I left I had to paint it, and painting a small apartment white isn't a great challenge, but moving a lot of furniture about and not ending up with white furniture is a challenge and it took me a week. Then I had to pack. I thought I owned a computer and two pairs of socks, but apparently I own more than that and it took me two days to haul it all to one of Ralph and Jo's gorgeous apartments. They run a tourist apartment place in a tiny village and it has a kind of serenity to it that's hard to describe. Like where the elves live in Lord of the Rings but without, you know, elves. It's nuzzled under a long cliff escarpment in the valley that runs from Lake Bohinj all the way up to Bled, just off the road and set back under the cliff. I stayed there for a few weeks while trying to find somewhere permanent.
Permanent felt like it should be Ljubljana. I wanted a change from Bohinjska Bistrica and a change meant the city. I mean, why swap a mountain village for another mountain village? Where's the change in that? So armed with lots of enthusiasm and very little knowledge, I set about looking for a place in the city.
I found only one apartment that I liked and it was far more money than was sensible but I thought I'd go see it. It was described as a bachelor pad, very Austin Powers, with Tiger rugs and somewhere to shake but not stir a Martini. I thought I might buy a black satin dressing gown and buy jazz records. I was going to see it the next Tuesday.
While standing on the balcony of Jo and Ralph's perfect apartment, looking out over the valley and imbued with a strange Elvish tranquillity, I began to doubt the sense of the Austin Powers bachelor pad. I wished I could just stay here. Jo and Ralph's place does that. It's kind of magical. I stayed in one of their places when I still had Tyson -- they said I should just get away for a bit and treat it like a holiday. It was like a holiday, even though it's only half an hour away from Das Boot. Can't I stay here? Nope. Tourists have it soon and I had to find somewhere. Sadly, this village is tiny and there was no chance of finding a place.
I walked Jo and Ralph's dog down to the river (tranquil, peaceful, Elvish, lovely, can't I stay here please?) and on the way back I began asking everyone I saw if they knew of a place I could rent. If anyone was foolish enough to be outside, I asked them. It was like being back in Greece, where you find a house by asking people, not by looking at adverts. It was fun, and Slovenians are so welcoming, so friendly, so other-worldly helpful, that I was soon on a kind of Greek-style treasure hunt, going from one lead to another lead to another. I met half the village that afternoon.
On the way back, Jo and Ralph returned from wherever they had gone and I said "I'm on a house hunt! I like it here. I didn't think moving from one mountain village to another could feel like a real change, but this place is a bit special isn't it?"
So they went to find Alenka.
"Kipica might sleep on the bed."
"And Roison only likes this food, but he doesn't come around every day."
"So you like the house?"
"I love it."
"What?" she asked. "Why are you smiling?"
To answer that question, you'd have to see the house. I call it Hobbiton. When I sent a picture of it to my daughter, she said "Is that a real-sized door or do you have to duck down?"
It is a real sized door. There's a tree in the bedroom. Not a real one, it's painted like the cats on spoons. There are old clocks that are stopped, things made from trees but retaining all their tree-like qualities. Dried flowers. Antiques. Stuff that I've only just noticed and I've been here over 3 weeks. Stuffed owls. Paintings that look like a cross between nice English watercolours and Hieronymus Bosch. A piano stool. Lampshades made of baskets or bamboo. Fairy lights and chalk boards, ancient things and state of the art speakers. It's stone and wood and cushions and might be an English country cottage over-run by eastern European elves. There's even a wood-burning range for cooking in the winter.
The cliff is at the back. From the front windows you look out over the valley and can see the mountains that surround the hugely popular destination of Bled, with its lake and castle. And the railway line passes in front of the house. There aren't too many trains. Indeed, at weekends one of the not-too-many trains is powered by steam and chugs tourists twice a day. When I hear the whistle I run to the window to see, all too briefly, a piece of moving nostalgia.
The cliff that dominates the area behind the house runs for maybe a mile parallel to the valley, and at one end of the village there's a rock-climbing area and waterfall. And a footpath which goes up the cliff. The Slovenians, sensitive to the fact that not everyone carries 100 feet of rope with them, have provided a handy vertical rustic wooden ladder which will get you up this obstacle in comfort and style. I went there because Ralph said "Have you been up the ladder yet?"
"Hmmm. Go up the ladder. None of my English guests can believe that it's part of a footpath."
I can't either. I love this country.
I love the cat-filled badger strewn Hobbit house too.
It is nothing like Das Boot which was new, organised, functional. It is Hobbiton. And it symbolises everything about this year. Jo and Ralph went to see Alenka and Alenka said..."Oooh, I've been meaning to leave. I've been meaning to make a move, but the time was never right. Now it's right, and you come along with an Englishman wanting to rent my house. It's good. It's good timing."
Every star in the sky has been in alignment from the very first second of this year and I am falling over wonderful things that have simply been placed before me. I've never had a time like it. And the most incredible part of this journey will, I hope, be the subject of another blog post. A blog post like no other.
One day I will write it.
And so, without being able to write the full story of my Annus mirabilis, I have chosen to do things and not just write about them. I bought a piano! Since childhood I've been able to play by ear but never learned (despite doing 3 gigs in Philadelphia playing the keyboard in a blues band). Now I have an electric piano, not a keyboard, and I'm learning how to play, at last. But a writer should be able to make the vegetables interesting even if he can't write about the meat, so here's the magic house, the magic village, the cats and the cliff and the badger. The first badger I've ever seen. I am not at all surprised that such a rare and seldom seen thing should casually walk past me. Not this year. As Ralph said, armed with every detail, your life is like a novel. It is.
Slovenia, writing, other things