It's strange, the things that inspire one to write. It's 11:40pm and a moment ago I was sleepy, but now I'm typing.
I don't think, "Oh hell, it's been a while since I wrote something so I should". I don't manufacture events to amuse or inform. I'm all about doing nothing, usually, and then...well, this...(listen. I'll tell you what it is at the end, and maybe you'll be like me. Captivated.)
A few days ago, Sabina knocked on the door and asked if I'd accompany her up Vogel again. Vogel, if you recall, is the ski resort where the cows spend their summer. It's a long plod up and a very long plod down. One of Igor and Sabina's cows went missing. They check on them regularly and there should be 11. Now there were only 10. Mavrica (pronounced Mawritsa, meaning Rainbow) was not there. Gone. The next morning Sabina and I went to look for her.
Vogel is vast, in cow terms, and the only areas that dont have a welter of trees is where skiers wouldn't like them. Otherwise, it's a vast expanse of tree-filled mountains. It's also very (and I mean VERY) hot at the moment. Mavrica had been gone three days, maybe a week. Cows drink a lot and there are no rivers up there, just plenty of troughs near where they should be.
And there were reports of a cow being killed by a bear some miles away.
I felt sorry for Mavrica. I wouldn't want to be lost and thirsty up a mountain, with or without a bell round my neck. We split up and called her name. I checked dangerous pits in the rock, headed for grassy breaks in the trees, tried to imagine where a cow might go.
When I realised that Vogel is a lot bigger than I ever imagined, I sat down and decided to do something strange. Strange for me, that is. I decided to listen.
I tend to use my eyes for most stuff. I'd forgotten about hearing. With my eyes closed I listened to the world around me. Perhaps I'd hear her bell, or a forlorn moo. Perhaps, sadly, I might hear a swarm of flies. Listening as an active process rather than a passive one is quite revealing, as though there are two worlds and I only ever bother with one.
I don't know why this came as a surprise, because I write about an invisible world all the time. I continually mention how I came here because of my brother and mountains, but discovered another place entirely, consisting of help, friendship, respect for others and quality of life. I came here for one reason, and found another quite by accident. This is the beauty of living in a place, rather than visiting it. There are two worlds, and visitors, like a deaf man up Vogel, don't experience the other.
It's the little things that surprise you, isn't it? The human things.
Last night I was watching stuff about Pluto. I'm somewhat nerdy when it comes to space, physics, that sort of thing. I've been following New Horizons for months, clicking on the fuzzy images of Pluto and its major moon Charon from when New Horizons was still a gazzillion miles away. Now we know that Pluto has a heart.
On the show a planetary scientist spoke with enormous enthusiasm about unexpected geological features. I'm not usually blown away by unexpected geological features (geology, nah. Rockets, yes) but there was something about the animated scientist that made me sad. Speaking about the farthest planet (or not) from earth, she reminded me of my friend Cassandra back in America. She reminded me so much of her, that I went to the computer and wrote to Cassandra. I missed her. Just then, she was a friend who was too far away.
Another small slice of humanity came from the show. Clide Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, is sadly no longer with us. But some of his ashes are on New Horizons. I was pleased for him. Or are those ashes lost out there in the cold, never to be home again?
And where is Mavrica the cow?
I now know. Sabina phoned later in the day to say she had turned up. The plucky bovine had walked all the way back down the mountain and arrived in the small village of Polje. It's a long way. Pluto-far, if you're a cow.
I am amazed by what scientists (and cows) are capable of. For Tombaugh to have spotted a tiny dark rock 3.5 billion miles from earth was a pretty incredible feat in the first place. To actually send a spacecraft there was (and I quote from the show) the equivalent of throwing a ball across the Atlantic right into the hand of someone on the other side. We get pictures too. Lots of them.
But here's the thing. Pluto has a heart. Charon, its major moon, has a sort of gully thing. We can see them in the pictures. But like sensory overload, I look at them and say wow, and then get instantly, I don't know, un-wowed. I've seen rocks on Mars, clouds on Jupiter, rings on Saturn in obscene detail. I know it's incredible, but how many rocks do we want to see? Sometimes you have to close your eyes and imagine. You have to listen for a cow bell, a plaintive moo, a buzz of flies. Listening seems to be far more human than looking.
So I'm writing this, post Pluto pictures, post lost and found cow, post sadness for a lost distant friend, to say I've discovered what closing your eyes and listening can do for you. It brings another world right up close.
That audio file? I'll tell you what it is.
Once upon a time, a rocket set off toward Saturn. It wasn't too interested in Saturn; it went to its moon, Titan. Titan is big. Titan is so big, it has a dense atmosphere pretty much like ours. So they sent in a probe. Huygens. It dropped into the atmosphere with parachutes and took hours to reach the ground. On its way down, the air whooshed past, and a little microphone recorded it. That's what the sound is. It's air blowing past a microphone. On a moon of Saturn.
Give me a million photos of rocks, and nothing will get me closer to Titan than the sound of the wind. It gives me chills.
Last week I sat on the edge of Lake Bohinj after a somewhat laboured swim in the non-buoyant fresh water. As the water lapped about my feet I attracted the attention of a large number of fish. I don't know what kind of fish they are, but they all look the same apart from their size, which ranges from minute to about 9 inches long. Pale they are, and sleek.
Ah, Google tells me they are grayling, which sounds more like a verb than a fish.
Anyway, the fun really started when I got out my sandwiches. From nowhere, a duck apocalypse descended upon my person in the form of a reasonably sedate mother and a bunch of hilarious ducklings. While she sat back (floated back, I guess), the youngsters simply ran straight toward me and clambered over my legs to form a gang near my Gentleman parts. The ducks weren't very old but they exuded enthusiasm. One of them climbed onto my abdomen and leapt high in the air toward my lunch as though my reluctance to give them everything I had was merely a tease. I laughed so much a woman from along the beach came and filmed the event.
It was lovely. I fed them. Then they went away to break into houses or whatever young ducks do.
The weather has been intense, hence the swim. Just before the weather turned duck-feedingly hot, Frank and I decided to climb the one mountain I've had my eye on since getting here. It's called Crna Prst and it sits, glaring at me, 1844 metres high with a satisfyingly pointy top. The signs say it takes 3 hours to walk to the top of Crna Prst, but you have to remember one thing about Slovenian signs; they are geared toward Slovenians, who are quick as a hungry duck when it comes to reaching the top of things.
We left my place at 8:30 in the morning and six hours later we had reached the top. We got back at 8:30 in the evening. We were slower than your average Slovenian because sitting down, I decided, was the key to success. The weather forecast had promised an overcast day but that all changed come Monday, and by Wednesday it was the blue-skyed start of things to come. I'm glad we did it. When something 1844 metres high has been looking at you for 18 months, it seems right to go climb it. Besides, everyone else has. Two thirds of the way up, when the ubiquitous Slovenian forest ends, there's a Kocha, a mountain house with food and beer and accommodation. We drank beer before finishing the last -- and very steep -- part of the climb.
On the top is an ugly building which looks like a former communist administration centre. Its blank green walls are punctuated by dull metal-framed windows and from within we could hear a radio playing, but we saw no people. Nobody ran out to serve us beer. There might be aliens in there, or document-shredding machines. Behind the building, up a final rise, is the metal thing that marks the height and points to all the other places that you could, if you ever recovered, go and climb.
Administration buildings are everywhere in Slovenia -- even in hard to reach places. As a hangover from a paper-strewn past, one has to navigate the mass of documents that the country seems to require. I don't like it. I don't like filling in forms that say where I live -- where I REALLY live. I don't live here, not according to the forms. I still live in America. The fact that I don't have a residence outside of Slovenia is something I have to keep under my hat. The myriad of offices insist that, despite feeding the ducks, identifying the fish and climbing the mountains, I'm not really here at all. Where am I then?
The bank gave me forms the other day for the IRS in America, and my Slovenian temporary residence card will only go up to the date on my apartment contract. After that day, unless I can produce another, I will disappear across some Event Horizon of the administrative black hole. Sometimes I feel like a ghost.
I thought I'd try to settle my tax affairs with the UK instead of America, because let's face it, since Sarah decided I should go I simply returned to Europe, being more European than American. If I leave Slovenia and go somewhere else, it might be nice to have one central administrative centre in England (sorting out tax in Greece, for instance, was impossible). Trouble is, I don't know who I am any more. I don't know my National Insurance number, for example. That number is me, in the system, and I don't know what it is. Sixteen years of wandering has lightened my collection of official trinkets quite a lot. All I have is a passport and a birth certificate. Oh, and an SSN from a place to which I'll never return.
Anyway, the tax people in England gave me a number to call to sort it all out. I phoned it. To get past the automated security system, I have to give my National Insurance Number. Chickens. Eggs. Hungry ducks.
My car is also tied to my Temporary Residence card. I can't insure it beyond that date. This doesn't stop the paperwork though, and yesterday I placed my car in the safe keeping of Andre, my friendly mechanic. He drove it off to get its Technical Inspection for me and performed some magic with the endless documents, and now it's back. It passed. I am shocked. Well done Andre. The only thing the technical people said was that I should consider doors that open. Of the four, only one opens from the outside. But I have a year for that.
Of course, you can't get it passed without insurance, so I had to do that first. I went to my insurance company in Radovlica, where the ever-friendly woman made me laugh. She has one of those faces that, well, delights. Even when she's speaking Slovene she makes me laugh. There may be a lot of paperwork here, but the officials in charge of the merry-go-round are the nicest I've ever met. After chatting to her for more than an hour about this and that, she informed me that should have left the office an hour ago but I could come back any time I wanted for no particular reason. We spoke of cows, of midnight walks in the winter mountains, of the mysteries of her language. I enjoyed it a great deal.
That's the thing about this country. The people might be required to demand strange things, but they do it with such an outpouring of gentle fun that you can't help going along with it. They make the merry-go-round a merry-go-round.
And so, as summer gets under way, I avoid the heat and wrestle with paperwork and find myself occasionally swamped by ducks. I'm not a fan of the tourists, however. They come mainly from Holland, Germany, Italy and Austria, and aren't the fun-loving wags that so characterized the British holidaymakers who poured into Greece when I lived there. These people look stern and serious. They are here to cycle and climb things. They are sinewy. They cycle with a grim determination and treat the area more like a training camp than a place to relax. In Greece, the tourists drank cocktails with risqué names and danced until they fell over. Here, they eat salad.
I'm starting to miss the Greek summers. I would also miss the Slovenian winters. How, I wonder, would I navigate the maze of bureaucracy if I lived in both places? I shall find out.
As you may know, I live in a valley. It runs roughly east west, with Bohinjska Bistrica somewhere in the middle of the valley, and Lake Bohinj marking the western end where it sits in a bowl surrounded by the higher peaks of Triglav National Park. It's like a horseshoe. To the north is Triglav, the highest mountain in Slovenia, and beyond that is Austria. The mountains on the southern arm of the horseshoe separate this valley from the next, the Socha valley, with its famously emerald green river. Keep going south and you'll be in Croatia. Veer off right a bit and you'll be in Italy.
The Slovenians, tired perhaps of clambering over the top to get to the Socha and the south, dug a railway tunnel through the mountains leading from this valley to the next. If you like trains and you like tunnels, it's a doozy.
Numerous English people live in the Socha valley and a particularly fine couple called Pam and Alan made it over to this side of the great divide to hire a car. They took me to lunch! It was a lovely gesture and very enjoyable (thanks guys, if you're reading this). Chatting with English people comes as a welcome boost. No matter how well a foreigner speaks English, one misses the chance to ruminate over shared experiences and to sink into a conversational style that relies, albeit subconsciously, on a shared upbringing. It recharges the soul, if that isn't too lofty an expression.
The ability to flop into comfortable chat also, I have discovered, helps with climbing mountains. Yes, a week ago the mammoth task of taking the cows up Vogel came around again. Sabina and Igor have a plethora of cows and some of them (the younger ones that don't need milking) spend their summer up Vogel. To give this some context, Vogel is the place where I ski in the winter and forms part of the mountain ridge that separates the Bohinj Valley from the Socha Valley to the south. Sane people, and those who aren't accompanied by animals that weigh 400 kilos, get to the top in a cable car. Cow-encumbered types have to walk.
The weather was cool and threatened rain, both good things for hiking up Vogel in the summer. Another good thing was an English woman called Kelly. She lives near lake Bohinj, is married to a Slovene and is a good friend of Sabina. Like last year, the humans in the party were fairly numerous. I could therefore safely get on with the simple task of keeping up and didn't have to worry too much about what the cows were doing. Kelly hadn't done this before and we chatted on the way up. To my surprise, this conversation took my mind off the punishing steepness of the trek. It genuinely helped. Since my bad back I have exercised very little and I wondered if I would even make it (at one point I came close to giving up). Chatting, plus a second wind, caused me to feel pretty good by the time we got to the top. It was a very enjoyable day and that made Sabina happy. She is a very enthusiastic woman and sometimes she worries that I agree to things that I don't actually want to do. It was a good day (rounded off by an excellent barbecue at Clemen's house) and I was only mildly exercise-crippled the next morning.
Despite my earlier euphoria I was genuinely surprised to hear myself agreeing to do it again a week later. Again? Surely all the cows had gone to that non-deadly pasture in the sky? Apparently not.
I assume that the ski-resort cows had been facebooking their friends about the opportunities for cud-chewing or head butting tourists up in the mountains, because on Friday three cows from the south of Slovenia -- a place called Novo Mesto near the Croatian border -- were coming by truck to be walked up Vogel. We had previously walked about a dozen cows, so three would be no trouble. It being a Friday, however, meant there wouldn't be as many people available to guide them. Would I go? Yes, I'd love to.
Friday taught me a whole lot about moving cows. Way more than I had bargained for.
Again, for context, the earlier trip was all about walking Igor's cows up Vogel. They are used to it, they are sensible, they got an early night. We left at 7 in the morning and the weather was cool. There were also lots of cow-people there to gently guide the beasts to where they know they'll have a good time.
On Friday, however, it was three cows who live in a place that's flat. They spent hours in a truck. There were only three of us to walk them, and one of them was English who spends all day on a computer. By the time they arrived at the cable-car at the bottom of Vogel it was almost noon on a hot day. The cows got out of the truck like teenagers on holiday with their parents. Recalcitrant is the word. Recalcitrant cows with a very long and steep climb ahead.
I quickly realised that (for the first time) I wasn't going to be a passenger. This wasn't just a case of being proud for keeping up with the pace. These cows were going to be ferret-jugglingly difficult.
I had a stick for cow-whacking. Don't be alarmed by all the whacking that goes on in the video. For those of you who may not have had to persuade a cow to go somewhere it rather wouldn't, trust me, it needs goading, and these beasts are half a ton of leather and muscle. It doesn't hurt them and if you let them simply stand that's exactly what they'll do. Or go back down again. Or fall off the edge, and there are several base-jumping opportunities for a naive cow on the way from bottom to top.
It started well, I have to say. I was able to think only about making the hike to the top. It was when we got to the first real incline that they became less inclined to move. Then, as an amusing addition to their stubbornness, they would make a break for lower ground. When a cow gets that glint in its eye and you think, crap, it's escaping back down again, you have to run down and head it off. Seriously, as a man elated to have made any progress up hill, running back down again was not something I wanted to happen more than once. I found myself winded and needing time to recover once the beast had once again been pointed up hill.
My contribution to the herding process was relative. The others did the lion's share, obviously, but compared to my previous trips (where my contribution was nil) I felt very much a part of the team. Later, Igor shook me by the hand and thanked me for my help. It was generous of him, but I do actually think it would have been insanely difficult with only two people.
For a while there were four of us, giving me time to do some filming. Tomash had come down from the top to help. Later, Clemen returned to the bottom and I never actually spotted him leave. "Where's Clemen?" I asked, during one of the numerous pauses where one of the cows simply sat down and wouldn't get up. "Gone back," Igor said.
"Oh," I said, and got back to the glorious task of resting.
These were milking cows and we delivered them not to the pastures at the top but at the milking and cheese-making hut below the ski resort. The ladies who run it gave us soup and beer and strudel. I saw where the cheese is made and watched Igor and Tomash doing technical things to check a cow for mastitis. The cheese hut was a good end to the walk: Fascinating, social, friendly, and once again, that special feeling of not being a tourist but being invited in. One of the ladies in the cheese hut suggested that we should get married on the grounds that we are both single and exactly the same age. Clearly she likes her men red, soggy, and on the verge of collapse. Or perhaps she is unused to the level of gratitude I showed at her excellent soup.
The three cows saw other cows and I'm sure, once they were able to stand and graze and say hello to new friends, they realised it was worth it. Even the hyper-annoying toffee-coloured one who caused me to chase it twice down hill looked grateful. I developed a soft spot for that cow. Near the top I patted it and told it I understood why it didn't like hills. They are hard work even when you don't weigh 400 kilos. They did well.
I managed to film a bit on both trips and I'll post it below. Annoyingly, a movie clip can't do justice to just how steep the route can get. It's not the north face of the Eiger by any means (in winter it's a red run on the ski slopes), but for the three cows from Novo Mesto, it might as well have been.
(Note: this post is now 10 days overdue because of video problems. So I'll post without.)
Slovenia, writing, other things