The desk in the Kuala Lumpur hotel room has a list of things you can buy as a souvenir. It actually says “Souvenir Price List,” on the top in case you're in any doubt as to what it is. I can understand Coffee Mug, at a moderate 50 ringgits (about 10 euros, just divide by 10 and double it). Or how about a tumbler glass at only 10 ringgits? These seem like souveniry things and you could get a tumbler glass on a plane couldn't you. But there are no less than 47 things on this list, including a 32 inch television (2,500 ringgits), a sofa chair, a standing lamp, or how about a Queen-sized mattress for 1,600? If you bought all 47 items you could completely recreate this hotel bedroom anywhere in the world, if you could get it all home. You'd have a souvenir hotel bedroom.
My last week in Bali was a lot of fun. The place was half hotel half hostel so it had a good social area where I had my most social moments of the trip. One night Ben, who was busking his way around Asia, played and sang and it was a good evening. A young English policemen, Darrel, turned us into a kind of trio despite me shocking everyone that night by having 3 beers, and much fun was had by all. Different nationalities, ages, backgrounds, reasons for being there, we all found a common place to become temporary friends.
After a week of that I descended into hell. I got a car to Denpasar airport and discovered just how miserable it is making a semi-domestic flight in this part of the world. It took a full three hours to get in the airport entrance and onto the plane. Bags are X-rayed as soon as you walk into the airport. Then again (with walk-through detectors) to get the check-in desks. Then again before immigration. The queue looks, to the untrained eye, like a queue. There are red taped-off lanes just like we're used to. But hoards of Chinese people simply think this is a way of slowing their progress to the front. Not just Chinese of course, but it's been the Chinese New Year which last for ever and large numbers of Chinese tourists are abroad, abusing the British notion of forming an orderly queue. Other nations use other techniques. They make the queue move faster by pushing from the rear. The walk in a group through the walk-through metal detectors as if they simply aren't there. It was, in a word, horrible.
After those three hours I had a three hour flight to Kuala Lumpur through some notoriously bumpy skies (please don't let the wings fall off, please don't let the wings fall off) and finally we had arrived. To another two hours of queue fighting to get through immigration. Two hours for someone to say Welcome to Malaysia. When I got to the baggage carousel, there were only three bags going around and around. One of them was mine. I bet the other two belonged to English people too.
There is a window in this room. It looks out upon skyscrapers and endless traffic. Behind me is China town and the famous Petaling Street where market stalls sell typical stuff to tourists. The guy who drove me into KL from the airport was Chinese and he pointed it out. So I thought that China Town was back the road a bit. But in the other direction – the direction in which my window points – is the equally famous Low Yat Plaza, Malaysia's largest IT mall. I know, because I spent the best part of two days there trying to buy a new laptop from the 20 million possible choices. I am typing this on one of those choices because it took me two whole days to actually buy one. The point I'm making is that, while Low Yat Plaza is in the other direction, it's madly Chinese. Have you seen BladerRunner? Harrison Ford has the job of tracking down androids who look just like us, and amid all this high tech is a world of noodles and back-street Orientals cooking up fake creatures and other high-tech wonders. That world was based on Low Yat and its environs, I'm sure.
So for a week now I've been immersed in Chinatown and high tech. I also seem to be in a place frequented by prostitutes, which at first I found slightly alarming. I kept wondering why I was suddenly attractive. I kept wondering why surprisingly alluring women saw me and reacted as though I had made their day. Then I realised that as a man of a certain age, alone in South East Asia, I'm sure I do look like the kind of man who would make their day, at least financially.
In fact, the first hotel I booked gave me such an uneasy feeling that after two nights I booked into the somewhat nicer hotel next door. I felt instantly better. Everyone was nice. Nobody looked like they were going to love me long time.
The first morning in the new hotel (this one, where you can buy a Souvenir 32 inch TV and matching Queen-sized mattress) I went for a walk (to buy a laptop) and when I got back the cleaning girl was cleaning the room next door. Mine hadn't been done but I didn't need it, and all my worldly good are in there and I prefer a damp towel to robbery. So I asked if I could just grab some more bottled water and coffee of the room.
“Yes!” the girl said. “You want your room cleaned?”
“No, I'm fine, just water is great. And coffee. I do like coffee!”
“Well, if you need anything, just call me,” she said.
She then wrote down her name and phone number. Sam. Not very attractive. She looked like she had a comb-over and stubble.
Later I went out and Sam was cleaning another room. “You are so SWEET!” she said.
Later, she explained to me how hard it is being a transgender person from Pakistan in KL and she tries to save money and send it home and she can't explain to her family that she wants to be a real girl and sometimes she has to take money for sex because we all need money and she doesn't like condoms.
You know the long queues and terrible turbulence in the plane and then the extra two hours of queuing? That was more comfortable than having Sam the cleaner try to gain entry to my room. I am, I admit, out of my depth in the big city, and I look forward to the next stop. Tomorrow morning I catch a train to the bus station, and then a 6 hour bus ride to the island of Penang up north. I hope it's less...challenging.
Ubud, for me at least, was a living hell. For my birthday I did nothing at all because I didn't like the expensive hotel and I didn't like the crowds who are funnelled to the place looking for enlightenment and tourist tat. I walked through a small market selling enlightenment and tourist tat, and for a while, the narrow street was held up by a westerner lying down across the entire width of the street to photograph a sleeping dog. He wore a green boiler suit and cowboy boots (it's magnificently hot and humid, remember), a bandanna, his hair in a bun and his beard was festooned with beads. Everything about him said “Look at me, I'm pretty awesome and different and cool and if you won't look at me then I'll lie down in a narrow street to force a crowd to wonder who I am.” You don't need to do all that to photograph a dog. I've photographed dogs. You point the camera, click the button on the top, and you have a picture of a dog. He was a twat and I'd had enough. In the morning, I would catch the bus to the seaside.
There was no bus to the seaside. Or rather, I was the only person who wanted to go to Amed where my madly cheap place was, so no bus. A taxi was half a million and it would be almost a million to get a taxi back to Denpasar (a million is what, 70 euros or 75 dollars, ish). A change of plan was conceived. There's an island in the south east called Lembongan. It's in the right direction. Half a million would get me to the port, on the boat, back on the boat to the mainland. Then it would be cheap to get to Denpasar, and hey, I'd get a boat ride. And I found a place on the island that was also madly cheap. I cancelled the Amed place, got the Lembongan place, and bought my ticket to an island for the following morning.
An hour after the bus should have arrived, I was still sitting in the heat of the hotel I didn't like. Would Ubud be the last place I'd ever see? Was it my own personal purgatory? No, the bus arrived and I got on it.
It wasn't a bus exactly. It was a minivan with no A/C and some travellers who looked like they might be dead. I got in and we drove around and around Ubud, forcing more people into the hot tin can of Doom. We drove past the hotel three times and it was the Hotel California. You can check out, but you can never leave...
“Are you going to Lembongan Island too?” I asked of the girl next to me. I wanted an answer before she slipped into a coma. “No, the airport,” she said.
Ahh. I had paid the hotel guy half a million and received a small damp piece of paper which the driver never looked at. How, exactly, would I end up on an island?
Mysteriously, he stopped at a port and took me into an office and the girl stuck a sticky label on my chest and the driver drove his limp damp death-defying travellers away. Ten minutes later my bags were grabbed and I had to chase after them. I have one enormous bag full of wedding clothes and snow gear, and one bag which I never, ever, EVER, let out of my sight. I ran after it, then I was put in the back of a trailer and transported along a bouncing road to a boat. My wedding clothes bag was carried into the sea...
Slightly useful travelling tip. If you're going on a boat, wear swimming gear. Boats float. You have to walk into the sea to get to it. I did that and found a seat and for 30 minutes we smacked and bounced at great speed toward Lembongan, powered by 5 car-engine-sized outboard motors. The up and down smacking wasn't too bad. The rolling to the side, where all you can see is water at the left windows and sun at the right windows, was disturbing.
At the other side I was impressed to still be alive, and even more impressed that my sticky label was there to inform a driver where I was staying. Me and several others were dropped off in an assortment of huts and dingly dells and fields and holes in the ground. I was the last of them, and my hole in the ground turned out to be a very pleasant room in the middle of a field. It had A/C, a fan, a bed, a cold water shower outside and a sort of toilet! What more could I ask? Well, electricity would have been nice.
It gets dark very quickly in these southern latitudes – there is almost no twilight – and without electricity I wasn't sure what to do about the situation. The owners had informed me that they were away for a few days and I didn't know where I was. I had lights, but no socket power, no A/C, no fan. I wondered if a fuse had blown. Beyond my porch light there was darkness.
I ventured forth and followed the sound of humans. The town, such that it is, was oddly dark, but not completely dark. There were lights but not many.
A quick chat with a local told me that the power to the island stops when it's windy, or raining, or there's an R in the month, or if it's dark, or if anyone admits to liking bananas. The lights of town were from generators, as was my porch light. I grabbed food, where I was told all about the problems of power and how I should really hire a motorbike and go to the other island. There's a bridge where recently 10 people died and 90 people didn't, and I should go there. On a motorbike.
I like power cuts, actually. Facebook seems to think that social media brings people together, but it doesn't. We all see groups of people studying their phones and never speaking. But in a power cut, everyone talks to each other. There's a wartime camaraderie that transcends even battery-powered connectivity and the noise of a generator is the music that we dance to. People cheered when the power came back. They laughed when it went off again. They cheered when once more, the generator could be turned off and we all went back to being strangers.
I returned to the room and a good night's sleep on the hardest bed I've ever slept in. Slept on.
I had four nights in the cheap room and I loved it. It cost 48 euros for 4 nights and it was better than the expensive hotel in Ubud. The locals were friendly, the tourists weren't looking for themselves, didn't hold up traffic to photograph dogs, and Ratih who owned the place was gentle and kind. On my last full day I had my birthday treat at last. I signed up for a snorkelling trip.
I was a little nervous about it actually. The sea has been choppy, I last snorkelled over 25 years ago and I rarely swim. Looking at the sea from the beach suggests it contains nothing at all. Every reason, then, to go snorkelling.
It was about 40 euros for a boat trip to 3 places, then all the food we could eat and a bonus boat trip through the mangrove forest. Sign me up!
A guy collected me the next morning and we drove on an unmade road along the beach to a very pleasant location, where I was given fried banana and a coconut drink that looked like the final moments of harvesting DNA – a kind of white glutinous...gloop. After half an hour of waiting for others we set off in a boat and were given instruction – very good instruction, I have to say – on snorkel-related themes, and then we fell over backwards into the water. And there, despite my previous doubts, was coral and tropical fish and things swimming too bright and numerous to mention. At one site there were Finding Nemo clown fish, some fish under a boat so menacingly huge I swore when I saw the first one. Swearing with a snorkel in your mouth is a bit like having a cleft palate, but I couldn't help it. They were monstrous fish. The coral was healthy and covered in large blue starfish and all kinds of aquatic whatnot. A lone sea turtle flapped by. I dived as deep as I could, and it was all less life-threatening than the hot bus from Ubud.
It was a good day. Even the slow float through the mangrove forest was oddly charming.
The following morning it rained as I've never seen it rain before, and nobody came to collect me for the 12:30 boat back to Bali. I made my own way to the port and got on the 4pm.
And now I find myself in the last port of call in Bali – a very cheap place on the outskirts of Denpasar, the capital. It is not at all scenic here, but the room cost 105 euros for 7 nights. The room is huge, with the finest shower a tired human being could ever want, and the softest bed I've slept in since I lived in France. There's a real desk for my laptop so no more burning my leg by resting it on my lap. Free coffee all day long and the guy downstairs will even cook a good meal at a good price. I wanted this time for work, and it is perfect. While I'm away I'm writing a sequel to The Wonderful World of Linus Bailey, because people liked the first one and I enjoyed writing it, and hopefully, if there's time, the sequel to The Midlife of Dudley Chalk. That's a much bigger undertaking, so we shall see if I can get at least a working first draft done.
Next stop, Kuala Lumpur, which happens on February 8th. I shall keep you posted.
There are three small birds sitting in a kind of fir tree. I don't know what the birds are but they are soundless, small, and are the colour of cappuccino, with a milky breast. They are simply looking at me. I can hear the sound of a waterfall gently plopping into a pool. I'm wondering if the screeching sound is monkeys.
It is my birthday today. I have not been given monkeys as a present – as far as a I know even people who are not 58 today are being plagued by monkey sounds – but I have taken it upon myself to get a room in a rather nice hotel on Monkey Forest Road, Ubud, Bali. It is terribly hot. I'm getting through T-shirts the way you get through tissues when you have a cold. They are collecting in damp piles in corners of various hotel rooms up and down the island. Soon I'll have to find a laundry (of which there are many).
I arrived in Bali on Friday the 13th of January, just to make sure that good luck was on my side, after a long flight from a London that was toying with snow. An Airbus A380, the largest passenger plane in the history of flight, took me to Dubai, and then a plane that wasn't the largest in the world but still pretty impressive took me to Bali. When I got out of the airport I wondered why I had packed for snow.
Yes, dear reader, I am one of the few people on the the island who will look pretty comfy in a snowstorm and I hold out hope that any time soon the monkeys on Monkey Forest Road will suddenly look up and say...so that's what snow looks like! It might happen. I hope it does or all this cold weather clothing is just dead weight I'm lugging around in 30 degree heat and 100% humidity.
I left Slovenia mid-December packed for three trips. I had Christmas in London (quite cold), then a wedding in Poland where I landed in a snow storm after circling Polish skies waiting for them to plough the runways. Then I headed off for the equator. My bag is packed for Santa in Oxford Street, my son's wedding in snowy Sopot, Poland, and monkey-strewn humidity.
I had no ticket to Bali when I left Slovenia. All I knew was that London at Christmas would be wonderful, and my son's wedding would be something I would remember for ever. I'd get to London, enjoy it, then find my way down to darkest Kent and stay with my brother for a while. I knew things would be okay when I bought a bus ticket to Kent, not knowing if I'd find a local bus to my brother's house on Boxing Day. I didn't need to worry. The bus driver from London Victoria was my nephew Nathan, who, in the summer, had been an estate agent. He dropped off the bus and took me right to my brother's door, where he lives. There were no local buses that day, so the Universe was on my side.
I had no ticket to Bali but upon visiting a random travel agent in Dover, the girl gave me a good price, I gave her my details, and she turned out to be my niece’s sister-in law. Family, it seemed, were all over this story.
I had read about the complexities of Indonesian Immigration (outstay your welcome and you'll be imprisoned) but it was a simple affair.
"How long are you staying?"
"Twenty seven days."
I think it's when you leave they clap you in irons.
Outside I was hit by the humidity of a balmy 11pm and taken by pre-arranged taxi to a small hotel about 10km south of the airport in a place called Jimbaran. I settled in, I fell asleep, I woke up to the start of four months of travel around Bali and Malaysia. I pulled on shorts and t-shirt and hid away the clothes I'd needed for Polish snow.
Jimbaran is near the airport and only seems to get passing trade. Tourists head south to Kuta or north to – everywhere else. I stayed for a week. It has a long beach and while it's not the kind of beach that cubicle hell office workers pin to their flimsy walls, it affords a very long, slightly messy walk in the mornings and a chance to get a base tan without too many people staring. For me, a week in Jimbaran was a good start. I adjusted to the time difference (when I get up, for my friends it's still yesterday). I adjusted to the money (I'm not paying 10 thousand for that! Oh, ten thousand is 70 cents.) I adjusted to the heat and the humidity. Okay, I began adjusting. It's still a bit like living in a sauna.
One thing I loved about Jimbaran is a road called Raya Uluwatu. Imagine everything in the world with the possible exception of whales and snowballs. Shove it all into one street and sprinkle it with a coating of rubbish, then fill it with motorbikes and dig up the pavement. What you have is Raya Uluwatu. Every step you take has to be carefully considered. Shall I step into a hole, get hit by a motorbike, or wonder what on earth this shop is selling? You can't do all three, you have to choose. At one point I chose to watch a man on a scooter carrying two small children and two dogs. One dog got off to have a pee, then it hopped back on and off they went. The rules that not more than 15 family members and 12 pieces of furniture are allowed per scooter seem to be flaunted on Raya Uluwatu.
My first impression of Bali was mess. Everywhere is mess. In the morning, every dwelling has a little ritual to give the house and its occupants good luck. They place baskets of leaves filled with small offerings of food, sweeties, perhaps a cigarette, a flower or two and burning joss sticks. It's lovely, and fuels the new-age traveller with a feeling of harmony and tranquillity. About half an hour later it just gets scooped up into the ever-growing pile of crap that litters absolutely everything. Rats eat it. Dogs eat it. Cats eat it. It isn't the snow for which I am sartorially prepared, but it drifts in a similar way and gives the whole place a coating of...crap.
I didn't like it at first, but after a week I began to embrace a culture knee deep in junk. It's artful. It is bad the way that Pavarotti was fat. I saw a very pretty girl on a moped, as beautifully dressed as any Balinese girl could be. She finished her drink and simply dropped the polystyrene cup, letting it bounce and roll and become part of Bali's perma-crap. And in this alternative version of recycling, the Balinese people are incredibly happy. They seem to have little – at least the ones who peddle their wares in Raya Uluwatu – but from the heaps of junk that surround them they smile, constantly. They smile at me. All of them. Yes, most of them want to sell something, but the ones who aren’t selling seem to to think that smiling and saying hello is the best thing ever. I smile back. "Good morning to you and your spectacular pile of discarded plastic," I say, and they clasp their hands together and wish me happiness and good fortune.
After a week I took a guided tour that ended up where I was heading next – Ubud. The tour involved batik, traditional Indonesian art, and civet-shit coffee. It's true. I saw not only the civets but the shit that is so lovingly collected.
Let me be a little more factual. Civets, a kind of weasely creature, eat the coffee beans. Only the best best, mind you. Civets are choosy. Having eaten the beans, they partly digest them and then crap out the rest. The actual bean is unharmed by the most determined of civet bowel movements and the plucky harvesters scoop it up, process it, and make coffee! I drank some and then was invited to buy some. Frankly, it tastes like it's been shat from a civet. The people at the plantation seemed saddened by my not buying some. Where had they gone wrong, they wondered. I think involving civets in the process might be a place to start looking.
Ubud is a town writ large on the tourist map and contains the afore-mentioned monkeys. From an anthropological viewpoint, the monkeys are just part of the family of man that ends up here. I read that it's a bit like Sedona in Arizona; a place of crystals and alternative lifestyle. This concerned me because I've been to Sedona and I didn't like it. Ubud, it seemed, would not be my cup of tea. I'm here for 9 days. This is day 7. I've seen far too many westerners who insist on sitting on small mats to eat, who chose breakfast as a way of cleansing their soul, who think that being surrounded by monkeys and civet shit will stop them from looking like twats. Some of them carry heavy things on their heads because locals carry heavy things on their heads and therefore it must make them one with the universe. No, it just makes them look like twats. From what I've seen, if they are trying to find themselves they should look elsewhere, because they are only going to find an even bigger twat.
If Jimbaran was full of junk, then Ubud is full of twats. So far the junk is better.
A stroll through Ubud is a walk through a never-ending throng of people wanting to taxi you somewhere, or give you a massage. A walk through Ubud is:
"No thank you."
"No thank you."
(you get the idea.)
In two days I head east to the coast and a bit more sea and hopefully, less people who are trying to find themselves, rub me or drive me somewhere. I've found a place that is really cheap for four nights. I'm going by bus, and I half expect my nephew Nathan to be at the wheel. "Hello Uncle Pete," he'll say, oddly brown and hopefully not carrying something on his head. I'll report back.
Meanwhile, what shall I do for my birthday? Taxi? Massage? Wait patiently at the far end of a civet for my afternoon cuppa? Who knows.
Yes, I know, it was June when I wrote last. Stop going on about it.
November has snow on the peaks and watery sunshine that makes this time of year perfect for walking, a massage, or buying stretchy shorts for dance class. Right, I'm going to have to explain that sentence aren't I.
This morning I woke up with the promise of a chest massage. The temperature outside was minus 2 degrees C, the coldest since living in the Magic House, and all seemed perfect for having my pectoralis majors well and truly rubbed. I made coffee, stumbled about in my typical morning way, and got a call from Tatiana, my own personal inspiration, ray of sunshine and potential pectoralis prodder.
"I have to buy stretchy shorts for a teenage dance class!"
I smiled. The demands of teenage dance classes will always outweigh the most amusing of alternative suggestions, and I was actually quite happy by the idea. A Slovenian autumn is just too good to spend inside having your chest rubbed. Really. No, seriously. Come see for yourself.
By way of explanation, my chest really does need attention because, (and here anyone who knows me may have to sit down or firmly grasp an immovable object), I have joined a gym.
It came about because since arriving in this country and living with my own cooking, I've lost weight. I have also, partly due to cows and getting rid of my old BMW, been walking a lot. As my clothes became baggier I was tempted by exercise and had a little go at jogging. Now, I'm not a natural jogger. My theory is that my legs are the wrong length for the resonant frequency of my body and the result is an ungainly disharmonious joggle, rather than a jog. I told Tatiana that I tried jogging.
"Oh well done. I haven't jogged for a while and I miss it." The next day she jogged to my house, 17 km, without the need to stop or vomit and she looked so fresh and comfortable that I thought she must have been joking. She wasn't. She caught the bus home while I secretly hoped her car was hidden in a bush 100 yards down the road. I decided that her legs must be the right length for the resonant frequency of her body and therefore found it easy. Either that or she's very fit and young.
The practical upshot of this was joining a gym, where exercise seems to be encouraged yet jogging is avoidable. I walked through the door somewhat nervous. It's been 57 years since I last thought about going to a gym, imagining that I might have thought of it when I was born and never considered it again. I felt a bit foolish.
I had seen the place of course. It's in Bled, that famous and frequently visited tourist destination that's about 5km from my house. The gym is part of the sports complex where Tatiana's son plays ice hockey and when watching him a few months ago I saw..."Fitnes", the Slovenian word for Gym. I saw it the way people see "Airport," but don't entertain the idea of becoming a pilot. I could make out equipment and people in Lycra (presumably) through the sloping translucent windows. I imagined depressingly beautiful people becoming more beautiful with every stretch.
And so it was with a feeling of depressing un-beautifulness that I broached the doors of this place of beauty ready to be laughed at. Of course, I couldn't have been more surprised. I was welcomed with enthusiasm by a young man who was eager to show me the place and photos of his physical improvement since the spring. "Rok is the guy," he said. "Rok's the best." He showed me a photo of Rok. Actually, he showed me a photo of Rok's muscles because you can't fit his face and his biceps into a single picture. I got Rok's number.
The next day I returned to Bled with an appointment to see Rok and he proved to be the most likeable bodybuilder I've ever met. Admittedly, bodybuilders don't make up the core of my social circle (suspecting them of being nothing but muscle and banned substances) and Rok surprised me, as so many things seem to do. He runs the place, he said he doesn't want someone overly beautiful on the front desk because this gym is for normal people who want to exercise and feel better. He said how impressed he was that at 57, I'd decided to finally do something. Everyone — patrons too — made me feel very welcome.
I have been going to the gym for a month now, three times a week, and Rok has a plan. He is taking a man who's nearly 58, has never exercised, sits all day long at a computer, and is preparing him for the task ahead. It's been slow, sensible, planned and coordinated. Yesterday it was "chest day," but this time he meant business. It was incredibly tough and the protein shake that ends the session was almost impossible to lift. It was so demanding that I paid for another month.
"Do you need a chest massage?" Tatiana asked when I reported on my progress.
So we went, instead, shopping for stretchy shorts in Jesenice amid the sunshine and snowy peaks. On the way back we stopped for a McDonald's breakfast and chatted. Sitting in the booth she reminded me of a young film star; exactly the kind of girl you'd see in a light romantic comedy. She thinks I'm insane.
And while on the subject of insanity, I told her of the Minister of Police in Ljubljana. Or, rather, the house that he apparently owns in Bled. I walk home from the gym and so, three times a week, I walk past a huge empty slightly crumbling pile only a minute's walk from the lake: A lake which attracts zillions of visitors all year round. And here's a house big enough for several tourist apartments in a prime location slowly falling apart. It's also one of those houses that you fall in love with. Houses are like people aren't they? Some draw you in and you cant help yourself. It's a bit Sound of Music this place. Green balconies, shutters, broken windows and overgrown lawns. It should be full of children and butterflies.
I finally decided to discover the story behind the crumbling house and I began knocking on doors. Eventually I found a woman who told me how sad everyone is that it's falling into disrepair. It has been empty for years because it's owned by lots of family members (including the Minister of the Police) and, typical of Slovenian families, nobody can agree on what to do with property. And so it sits, crumbling. She said, "The roof is okay," in a tone suggesting you shouldn't go too near the walls.
Agatha Christie used to holiday in a hotel overlooking Lake Bohinj. It's beautiful still. It has a commanding view over the lake, the mountains, the ski runs. And it's empty. It sits doing nothing. The people who own it argue among themselves while beauty and heritage and opportunity wither before them. There are many such places that prompt tourists to say..."Why? Why is it empty?"
Tatiana and I have been trying to think of a business to do together. I have been drawing for 25 years and I was tired of it 10 years ago. She works for a company in Ljubljana that manages private jets and the egos that own them, and she wants something of her own. We both do. She, however, has a very serious business pedigree that took her all over the globe and apart from looking like a film star, she knows what she's doing. Anyone would want a business with her. I told her that I can't leave this empty house alone because it's a crime to let it rot. We talked about that. It's not practical without buying it and we can't buy it.
So we chatted about crowd funding and if that would work for a business idea (rather than a film or a book). Slovenia has recently been put on the map through the US election and it really is an undiscovered jewel. The time is right, I think.
So, dear reader, here I am with some degree of excitement and, as these things grow through the written word I think it's time to write something. This could be a new development that would benefit from an audience. A journal of progress. If nothing else, it would make a good story for a book, but I'd prefer a book AND a place full of paying guests.
I shall investigate the English-speaking world of crowd funding and Tatiana, being from Moscow, will look into the Russian equivalents. Somehow we two foreigners in a foreign land will resurrect an old beauty and fill it with people, even if the place is owned by 1000 people.
Watch this space. I shall report back soon. I promise.
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.
My son has been here for a few days; he leaves in the morning. He came for the skiing and I told him to cancel for there was no snow. He chose to visit me anyway, and it snowed, and all was well in wonderland.
I love the local ski resort. It's beautiful, it's friendly, the views of snow-capped mountains would make an angel cry and they serve boar goulash and mulled wine. It's where I like to be in the winter, and the reason I wanted to go travelling in the spring. I wanted snow, crying angels, boar and warm herby wine.
Which is why it's a crying shame that Sabina, my neighbour, hasn't been there in the winter since she arrived on these shores 11 years ago. She has cows and children. Several chickens. A husband who's always working. A dog. All things that has kept her from the piste.
She's Swedish, and therefore skis. Well, that was my stereotypical assumption in the summer when I told her that this year we would ski. Yes, her. Me. Snow. Sobbing angels. Okay okay, she said, while it was still hot and the mountains were covered in grass and cow-pat.
My son David arrived for this, his second year of learning the art of elegant sliding. We went to Vogel on Wednesday in Andrej's van because my car is temporarily illegal, and spent the day sliding our way toward contentment. A perfect day of sun and snow, me kidding Andrej that "Valley" is not pronounced "Wellie," he and David discussing the mysteries of the Polish language (Dave's girlfriend is Polish), and generally being in a place which is intimate enough to feel like you're in some kind of reunion from summer camp.
I know people here, and I don't realise how many I know until I meet them on Vogel. I know one of the ski patrol men from cow-walking in the summer, and a guy called Rock shouted "Peter, enjoying the skiing?"
"Ah, yes! But I'm terrible!"
"Just have fun!"
I know Rock from his summer-time kayak business. I didn't know he teaches skiing.
It's lovely to be in a ski resort -- I mean me, in an actual ski resort -- and bumping into (sometimes literally), friends. The girl in the café. A guy driving a skidoo full of suitcases. Claudia who, for some reason, thinks it's funny to see me on skis (oh, wait, I do know why she thinks it's funny). Monica who, in the summer, helped me with solving simultaneous equations. All there, transplanted to that frozen but homely place.
It was, therefore, only right that my friend and first port in a storm Sabina should be there too. It was so much fun telling her that Thursday, she was going skiing. Have you ever seen an overly nervous Swede? I don't mean an averagely nervous Swede, which I image we've all seen at some point in our lives, but a Swede who appears to be on the very verge of explosion? I thought she might think...yes, that would be nice. I didn't think she'd hyperventilate and run around crashing into things. And that was before she'd hired some skis.
Thursday morning was a major event for Sabina. She grinned on the drive to Vogel with such energy that I feared she might melt the snow. She spoke continuously and then remembered to breathe. "I'm going to die! I'm so excited! I'm going to die!"
And so me, David, and a Swedish woman seemingly excited about imminent death, climbed aboard the 8:30am gondola to be hoisted up to where angels weep, boar go to that great goulash dish in the sky, and farmer's wives spin and laugh.
David went off to continue his mission to ski as well as his Polish girlfriend (he's learning to ski, learning Polish, and he's a man of whom I'm proud).
I stayed behind with a euphorically suicidal screaming Swedish woman.
She put on her skis and was going to tackle the kiddie slope. I was going to stay with her in case she fell over or exploded. But one push and she was off -- perfect, natural, irritatingly good. Clearly she was a great skier and it took only seconds for her body to remember. She went away on the flat, skiing in a fluid cross-country style, and came back beaming, the kiddie slope forgotten.
From the gondola station, the hotel, the numerous restaurants, you ski down to the main chair lifts. We got down there and she was ready to tackle the long blue slope -- the only one I'm capable of. The ride up in the chair takes maybe 5 minutes, maybe more, but it is a ride as surreal as it is beautiful. It's quiet. You are alone with your thoughts, the view, the tiny crystals of ice in the air, the blinding sun and the whole Triglav Range of mountains stretching snow-covered away toward Austria. You are carried from the happy families down at the chair lift station into something like orbit. A silent peaceful wondrous beauty.
When it's time to get off, you are jolted back to reality. There's a mad scramble for the safety bar, ski poles, getting ready to stand and not fall down. It's almost a shame the ride has to stop.
We met David on the way down and his skiing has improved immeasurably since last year. He had a lesson the day before with Andrej and the improvement showed. He was concentrating on control and style rather than the gung-ho speed of the previous year. I don't have lessons, choosing merely to count my limbs at the bottom of the slope and regarding the correct number as success. David, however, wants to actually ski, and he's getting there fast. Sabina slid to an expert stop when she saw him and then raised her arms and did a little dance. Imagine Rocky at the top of the Philadelphia Art Museum steps, but a girl and wearing a new ski jacket bought for this one moment. When we got to the bottom she was looking all around Vogel, a place unrecognisable from the summer meadows where she takes the cows.
"What's that slope? And that one? What about that one?"
"No," I said. "I'm responsible for you. You're not doing it. This slope is good."
So we did it lots more.
Then the three of us stopped at the top of the chair lift to eat hot dogs and chips and drink beer in the snow-blindness sunshine. Happy Happy Slovenian music plays, threatening to cause everything to joggle and bounce off the tables. All is colour. Skis and poles resting where they may in happy piles. Snow goggles and funny hats and bright people made ungainly by boots not designed for walking. Sabina phoned Igor, then friends, then anyone she had a number for. "I'm skiing! I'm having fun!"
I enjoyed her excitement as much as she. She's a farmer. She has kids. Time for fun is limited.
She had to leave around noon and before she went she hugged me and said thank you. I did nothing except tell her she was going to do it, but I loved that she thanked me. She's done so much for me since I've been here, and the mere thought that I'd contributed to her doing something she enjoyed made me happy. She left saying that she and Igor could do this together, and I hope they do.
Later, on this perfect day, David and I skied some more then returned to the top of the blue run for more beer and hot mulled wine, sitting in deck chairs looking out over more slopes, more mountains, more things than I have words for.
Beer and wine, and it was time to ski back down.
When we clambered from the deck chairs, David straightened up, got himself together, and said "Okay, we've had too much to drive, but we're okay to ski."
I laughed like a lunatic.
At the end of the day we caught the gondola down, ready to catch the ski bus back to Bohinjska Bistrica. After a minute of waiting, Rock wandered by and said Peter, you can come with me.
And so we did.
David and I skied today with my brother Frank. It was cloudy and the views of yesterday were gone. We enjoyed the day of course. David wants to ski and I love him being here. We've had quality time and no amount of snow or sunshine can compare with that.
But for the one big moment when Sabina got to do something just for herself, all the stars were in alignment.
And it was good.
I have been writing a lot of late. Writing so much, in fact, that I haven't had time to write a blog post.
No, that's not true. I've had the time, but when you write long fiction you get caught up in it. It takes over, it colours everything you do, it doesn't want the real world to break in. Recently, in one day, I wrote 11,000 words. I forgot to eat.
One day I became insanely happy. Happy beyond all reason. It was cold outside and the fire was lit. Brief Encounter was on the TV. I had written something I was genuinely proud of and I'd just put the kettle on for coffee. The combination of those things made me euphoric.
In the real world, my son and daughter came to visit and we saw the Christmas lights in Ljubljana, then spent a couple of days in Venice. It was perfect and I love to see them. While in Ljubljana I visited a travel agent and went back a week later. I bought my tickets to Bali. I fly April 21st and come back here in October.
On Christmas Eve, Sabina and the kids turned up with a tree, tinsel, baubles, a nativity, and in five minutes I was festive. Then they swooped off to do the 1000 other things she has to do.
Christmas day with my brother and his wife was quiet and nice, then they flew back to England for a bit, and Slovenia was all mine. I wondered what I'd do on New Year's Eve. Last year I was at Sabina's and it was lovely. This year I wasn't sure what I was going to do.
And then Bing Bong and it was Sabina at the door. "What are you doing for New Year?"
"I assumed you're coming to us."
Igor had asked her if I was going to be there and she had said yes. "Have you asked him?" he said. "Oh, no, I just assumed."
I hugged her. There's nothing better than becoming so close to the neighbours that they forget to ask because it's just assumed. I like it there. I like being part of the local celebrations, part of the family, part of Slovenia, which is how they make me feel.
I have finally admitted to being an incurable romantic. Dudley Chalk is a romance, dressed up as something else. Everything I've written of late is a romance, no matter how much I protest. I've recently bought myself an MP3 player -- the first time I've been able to listen to music while outside -- and it's transformative. I walked through the mountains with it, everything covered in frozen fog and looking like Narnia, with The Four Seasons playing. There were moments where I had to simply stop walking because the combination of Alps and Vivaldi was astonishing.
It's all a romance isn't it. Even when there's nobody for miles.
When I arrived on New Year's Eve the party was in full swing. All the kids were playing and the house was full of Slovenes, one Swede, one Englishman and five Russians. I love that. It isn't just that I feel special, but I actually love the fact that I don't know what people are saying. Really. You have to concentrate on more than words. But I also like it when a group of people speak English because I'm in the mix, and they are doing it simply to include me. Good people.
Matea arrived. Remember him? He got to fly in a helicopter when I didn't, and ever since we've traded insults. He rings the church bells during celebrations. "Peter! I'm ringing the bells at midnight!"
"Can I come!"
The church in Bohinjska Bistrica is old and lovely and I can see it from my balcony. Every fifteen minutes a bell chimes, but at moments of great import all the bells are rung by lunatic campanologists with a crazy free-form syncopated enthusiasm that can be heard for miles.
Just before midnight, we wrapped up and set off across the road to the church. Matea, me, Bostjan the farmer, Tatiana and her daughter from Moscow. In the churchyard was a drunk man and a couple I didn't know. Matea opened the great front door and we entered a completely dark church.
Flights of old wooden stairs lead up. And up. And more up. You have to crouch, you can bang your head on the ceiling, fall all the way down if you've drunk too much, which some of us had.
Up in the belfry there are three enormous bells, like Russian dolls with clappers. A huge one in the middle, medium and smaller to the sides (though smaller is a relative term). Matea and the drunk guy had a practice, Tatiana had a go and so did I.
And then, as the hour was nigh, Matea swung the giant centre bell back and forth to get it into a permanent rhythm and together, he and the drunk set-to with the other clappers. The drunk fell off his perch several times and was in danger of falling down the small hatch through which we had entered the belfry, but he gamely clambered back. You can feel the sound in your chest. There is nothing at all up there but the cold night air coming through the glassless windows and a deep down shaking coming up through your feet.
And then Bohinjska Bistrica exploded in fireworks. From the highest point in town, standing next to the very things that proclaimed the new year, the sky lit up and the bells got more manic and there was not one place in the world I would rather have been.
Champagne was poured into plastic cups and I learned how to say Happy New Year in Russian. Watching the fireworks, Tatiana and her daughter said we should be making a wish.
I couldn't think of one that was better than where I was, right then.
It's all romance, isn't it.
My writing of late has had a backdrop of Brief Encounter. To keep me focused, in the zone, I tend to put on the same film over and over, all day long. Like hypnosis. It's been Brief Encounter, partly because it has Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto running all the way through it and I like the way Celia Johnson says "Hat."
Brief Encounter is old, black and white, and at first you might think it quaint. Then you laugh at the accents. Then you wonder what all the fuss is about. Then you realise it's perfect. Every movement, every delivered word, every camera angle, the story arc. Perfect.
Like living here, really. All the same reactions.
We wandered back to the farm and there was much back slapping and shouts of Srechno Novo Leto.
Once again, a wonderful New Year at the neighbour's.
Happy New Year, wherever you are.
I have been at Clive's house for 6 weeks or so, and there's another couple of weeks to go. Patrick the giant dog looks normal now, and other dogs appear to have shrunk. Oddly, this is only noticeable with dogs. Cats are the same size.
I am living in a sharp valley, running north south, a geological trench carved out by the Sava River. The sun appears late over the eastern side and disappears early, giving me only a few hours of autumn sunshine before the temperature falls dramatically. It's like Mars, where the temperature difference is rapid, the dogs look small and the cats are the same size (I'm guessing).
But here's the thing. I'm only 10km away from Bohinjska Bistrica, yet everything is different. My work ethic has changed, my sleeping patterns, my view of things. Moving a few kilometres down the road has really stirred up the pot.
Try it. Not here, obviously, because Clive wouldn't like it and a dog the size of a baby hippo isn't to everyone's taste, but if you wake up in the morning and think "Same old same old," just swap houses with a friend on the other side of town. A month later you'll be bursting with creativity and renewed optimism.
I work all day on a laptop – something I thought wasn't possible considering I draw for a living, but vital if I want to become truly mobile – and it's working out beautifully. I sit on an old kitchen chair at an old kitchen table, and an ancient laptop I was going to junk has been resurrected into a youtube entertainment system. I've completely reworked my environment to fit the new surroundings and it's caused me to think differently, which is a good thing.
Yesterday I was thinking about writing again. I like to write. It makes me happy, but sadly, it doesn't make me any money. Drawing is a job, it pays the bills, and for a year or so I've been concentrating on that. But I miss the written word and I'm thinking that my new-found buoyancy can find the time to do it. Take it seriously again, like when I wrote The Midlife of Dudley Chalk.
While pondering, I got an email. Back when I lived in Greece I kept a diary, a bit like this blog but with a devil-may-care lunacy to it. I saw a competition for creative non-fiction. It was free, so I entered it. I shared first place. It gave me the confidence to send off other parts of my Greek scribbles and I got published. I still have a scan of the first cheque.
The email was from the competition organizer. He wondered if I was the Peter Lamb who wrote the piece some 14 years ago, and could he re-publish it in their weekly reader? I'll give you a link when he sends it.
It was a good email. It reminded me that I should be writing. Trouble is, I don't make any money from it. I think I've spent more than I've made. Amazon etc. don't pay until you make a threshold amount in each currency, so when I sold a book last month to Australia, the money won't be added to the Dollar pile, or the Pound pile, or the Euro pile. So far I haven't seen a penny. Well, not true. I did get a cheque from Audible but it went to Sarah and I told her to keep it due to the enormous hassle. But you get the idea. Working for my own amusement isn't sensible when I'm still in survival mode.
My free audio version of The Wonderful World of Linus Bailey has had over 20,000 downloads, but the really good version, up for sale on Audible, has been bought precisely 3 times. They set the price, and it's too high for a 4 hour audio-book. I also made a 10 hour audio version of The Midlife of Dudley Chalk, but Audible turned it down because of a slight hiss that I can't hear. So it sits on my hard drive, doing nothing. I can't remove a hiss I can't hear.
So here's a decision. It took 6 months to make the audio book and it seems a shame for it to be lounging about, so I'll put it up on this site under the “pay-what-you-want” model. So that's free, unless you're moved to send me something. If it gets 20,000 downloads and 1 in a thousand give me a dollar, I'll have $20! Which is $20 more than I've made so far. If it makes more than that, I might put all my work on here and see if I can generate some income. For the ebooks I'd need to buy an ISBN at $125 a pop, so lets see what the audio-book does. I might put Linus Bailey, the one currently on Audible on here too.
I'll do it before my Greek story is re-published. Who knows, I might even do it now. I'm in the mood. Things are going well. I'm on the old wooden chair and the garbage laptop is entertaining me with Mystery Science Theatre 3000.
Oh, I've just been out with the dog and I took a picture of the house from the other side of the river. Who wouldn't want to write.
Oh take 2. Here's the first chapter of Linus, and the first chapter of Dudley. In the next day or so I'll put up the whole lot. For free (or $20,000, your choice, no pressure). Please give me some feedback on the pay-what-you-want idea. It seems mad for things to sit, invisible, when it takes so long to create them. And if I make any money at all I'll feel like writing is worth the time.
The Wonderful World of Linus Bailey, Intro and Chapter 1. (4 hours total, on sale at audible.com for almost $15.)
Linus has an over-active imagination. When the amusing nonsense he's ever made up comes true, it takes him on a life-threatening adventure that causes him to re-evaluate what's important.
The Midlife of Dudley Chalk, Intro and Chapter 1 (10 hours total)
An unusual love story...
When I moved to Greece, Nik came with me. We'd been together 12 years and had our good times and bad. Bad lead to Greece and a better view for less money.
We were not going to have another dog, because in that fateful year (along with my dear old Mum passing away), both our dogs died. Both of them. That shouldn't happen and yet it did, within months of each other.
No more dogs. It's too hard to watch them go.
Corfu is, however, awash with them. There was (in those days) no sensible solution to the canine urge, save letting them breed and dumping the puppies on someone elses doorstep. That someone else dealt with the unwelcome addition to the village by poisoning them.
The winter of 2000 was fast approaching when we had notification of a new puppy struggling valiantly to keep up with the older dogs on Arillas beach. She'd been spotted by some English people. We went searching and couldn't find her. A few days later, in a storm, the English couple turned up at our door with the puppy wrapped in a towel. She was beautiful.
We called her Gracie, after Amazing Grace. She was lost, and now she was found.
Gracie was the perfect dog. News of her arrival spread among the itinerant dog population and a boy dog we called Skinny came a callin'. He stayed. He fell in love.
“How do we stop them from breeding?” we asked the locals. Easy, apparently. You buy dog contraceptive pills from the post office. We did that (they look like Alka Seltzer) and, as you might expect from a contraceptive bought at the post office, it didn't work. She had puppies under our bed. Tyson was the last one to be born. Pansy was in there too.
Nik went back to England in January 2002. My idea, not hers. The result was that I lived with numerous dogs for a year and a half till I found people to adopt them – people I trusted. Eventually I moved to France with Pansy and Tyson, and Gracie came too. I used France and its excellent, well, everything, to arrange the paperwork to get Gracie back to England. Nik came out and we drove her to her new home in the English countryside.
Pansy died of kidney failure when she was only 7. Tyson died of kidney failure a year ago, when he was 13. Their dad Skinny died before the puppies were born. He was poisoned, according to the vet. I now think he died of kidney failure too, and passed a faulty gene to his offspring. I think this because a) I made sure my dogs didn't go where the poison was, keeping six alive for 18 months when other people's dogs were dying around us and b) the vet turned out not to be a vet after all, just a Greek woman who failed as a doctor. I only found that out when Skinny was too sick to try her anti-poison medication any more and he needed to be put down. She said she couldn't do it, but gave me something that “would work,” and a needle to do the job. I had to do it myself, and the poor dog took 3 hours, in my arms, to die.
Life on a Greek island. It can be raw.
It's been 10 years since I've heard from Nik. In the back of my mind I guessed that Gracie was gone too, but she emailed me the other day with news about our old neighbour. In the email she said that Gracie was still going, but had had a stroke a year or so ago and was now deaf and her back legs weren't good. I was amazed that she was still alive and it made me happy to think of what a wonderful life she's had, considering how it could have ended up. It's hard to describe how special she is. She's like Lassie, but better, more beautiful, and a good deal smarter. She's been Nik's constant companion for over 12 years, going with her to work every day. They have been inseparable.
Here, I've been looking after Clive's dog Patrick and it's nice to be around a dog again. I brought Tyson's picture with me, as I'm away from home for two months and I didn't want him thinking I wasn't coming back.
I bought a camera the other day, thinking that perhaps I should have one if I'm going to be a world traveller. I'm no photographer – in fact this is the first camera I've ever owned. I took a picture of Patrick.
A couple of days ago I took him for a walk along the same stretch of river we always do, but I decided on that particular day to go just a little but further. Patrick doesn't walk too far – he's 8, which is getting up there for a big dog, but he was in fine fettle so I thought we'd risk a longer walk. I've never been further on this track, so it was all new, if more trees and more river can be described as new.
As we went round a bend I saw some small cabins and a picnic area down by the water. Such cabins are all over the place here. People have them for weekends. I stopped and looked at them, then turned my eyes to the water. I double took. What appeared to be a dog was swimming toward us, its head above the water and its body below. It only took a second to see it was a rock, but it surprised me so much I took a photo of it.
When I got back, Nik had emailed again. Gracie had taken sick, and was to be put down the next day. I could feel Nik's pain as I read it. I choked up, thinking of the small bundle of fluff that was rescued from a storm on Arillas beach. Of her days in Greece, her puppies under the bed, her running through the French woods and finally gluing herself to Nik's side for the next 12 years. She was a lucky dog, and we were lucky to have her, if only for a short while.
Many things have happened since last I typed. Life was once again punctuated by the dramatic lives of cows, I've been on a road trip, been swept downstream after falling from a kayak, not ridden in a helicopter, failed to grow longer legs, learned to drive a giant van and all but moved house. Oh yes, and made a future life decision.
Blimey. Let's crack on.
Cows. Last time I typed, one had gone missing, found later to have legged-it all the way back down the mountain to the village of Polje. Some time later, another went missing, this time with a less happy outcome. It was killed by a bear. Sabina and Igor found it near one of the only natural watering holes up on that stretch of peaks. She took a picture of the bear tracks with her hand as a comparison and bear experts judged its size to be, well, big enough to kill a cow. It also took a swipe out of another one, which survived. It was a classic claw swipe across its back, as if it had tangled with Wolverine from the X-men.
Igor removed the dead cow's ear, a task demanded by the insurance company, and a few days later I went with Sabina to meet the helicopter charged with returning the cow to the valley below. It was a vast machine from the Slovenian military, and after giving it directions to the watering hole, we awaited its return. When it came back, the cow was in a sling dangling from below the helicopter and the combination of days of putrefaction and military-strength downdraft filled the pleasant Alpine meadows with an incredible stink of dead animal. It seems that the bear ate the part where the milk comes out, therefore neatly spilling the contents of its abdomen and revealing all kinds of foul odours. Sabina's daughter cried, because she knew the animal from when it was born, and the helicopter flew away.
Some time later it came back with Igor and Matea and another guy, and it turns out we could have taken the ride back up the mountain to collect them! Sabina and I were gutted at the missed opportunity and Matea and I have developed a good natured hatred over the fact that he got to fly and I didn't.
In the first week of September I decided to go see Croatia for the first time. One of the selling points of Slovenia (of which there are many) is that it's small and bordered by four countries – Italy, Austria, Croatia and Hungary. The Dalmatian coast in Croatia is renowned for its beauty so off I went, testing my cheap old BMW to get me further than the shops. On the first day I got to the island of Krk and stayed in a small village by the sea. Day two I drove down the mainland coast then headed inland to Plitvichka national park, all lakes and waterfalls. Day three I headed for Zagreb and home. The car went well, the scenery was lovely, but despite going after the school year had begun, it was still far too touristy. I was knee deep in Germans, Italians and Koreans. Ultimately I decided that raging beauty was all around me where I live, but almost completely devoid of tourists. But at least I know that the car works.
Way back in the spring, I bumped into and Englishman called Clive who lives up the valley in a house by the river Sava. He has a Great Dane called Patrick (if you're not familiar with dog breeds, a Great Dane is like a horse in a dog costume. Big.) He asked if I'd take care of Patrick when he goes away for two months and I said yes. It would be a nice change of scene and who wouldn't want to take care of a giant dog. Well, that's happening now. I am typing from Clive's kitchen and Patrick is sticking his giant nose in my face wondering if I'm going to take him out any time soon. He's a lovely dog and only needs short walks because too much exercise is taxing for such a large frame and small heart. It's nice to be around a dog gain. My beloved Tyson died just about a year ago and while I still talk to him, it's not the same as having an actual nose in your face.
Clive has apartments for tourists and organises action holidays. Consequently he asked if I'd like a free kayaking trip. I said yes. I fell in the water. Not, as you might expect, while fighting the rapids of the raging river, but during a calm spell when the guide was explaining what to do next. Flat calm water, gently floating sticks, I fall in. It was half a mile of white water before I found the bank and Marco the guide wondered how I'd achieved such a spectacular feat. I don't think I'm a natural.
The house here is a change from Das Boot, my 32 square meter apartment in Bohinjska Bistrica. It's big, it has a generous garden, it borders the Sava river and I can sit and watch herons fishing and expert kayakers not falling into the water. On the other side of the river is a single track railway line, not very busy, and this morning the steam train went past. It's a lovely thing to see and the engine drivers always wave. I have a river, high craggy cliffs, endless forest, herons and chuffing steam trains, a giant dog that slobbers and a massive DVD collection. And a bath en suite. A BATH. I miss a bath because I don't have one. Bliss. There's a washing machine too. For two years I've been using 3 plastic buckets.
The only bad part about being here is that I have to drive Patrick to anywhere I can walk him. My place in BB is surrounded by excellent walks right from the front door, but here he needs to be transported. I tried him in the old cheap BMW but trust me, when a Great Dane decides to clamber into the front with you, you can't see the road, or indeed, anything else. It's not practical unless your objective is to go out in a blaze of glory and dog slobber.
So I drive him in Clive's van, a big 12-seater thing with the steering wheel on the right. I've never driven a van before and while Clive went out with me the first time and deemed me capable, I still don't like it. I'll get used to it. I'm here for two months.
Flushed with success from driving to Croatia, driving to Trieste in Italy to collect someone from the airport and manoeuvring a massive English van on bendy roads, I thought I'd tackle one of the hardest things in life – buying clothes. I hate it. I'm still wearing things I wore in England 16 years ago and it's time I updated. I found that buying things for the top half of my body went well, but jeans still defeat me. Due to the fact that I live next to a cake shop, where a disarmingly attractive girl is happy to sell me cakes, I've become rounder than I've ever been. Unfortunately my legs are still short. I haven't found leg clothing that fits and the mystery of getting trousers turned up becomes ever more mysterious. I've been given clues and followed them (one to a lady who lives “under the tunnel” in Radovljica, but so far all I've found is a tunnel.) I asked the Slovenian cleaner here at Clive's where I can get them turned up and she didn't know, and she phoned a friend, who also didn't know. Sabina said she'd do it, but she is the busiest person in the world and I don't want to bother her. My sister in law Sally said she'd have a go, but I feel it's a challenge that I must solve on my own. Especially if I decide to really do what I'm thinking of doing...
...and what is that, I hear you ask...
Well, my life is good, but it's missing something. Perhaps I will always feel that my life is missing something, no matter how many ski resorts I live by. Perhaps it's a curse, but I feel again the urge to wander. If I live in Das Boot for another year, I think I'll just get one year older. It is a fact that I have lived in numerous countries and that eternal wandering has always felt like a form of failure. The only way to resolve that is to stay put, knuckle down and get on with being where I am, or to see moving as a positive, proactive thing, rather than a reaction to events. While thinking along those lines, I discovered a BBC article about “digital nomads.” It was a eureka moment, because I finally discovered what I am. I found a club to which I can belong! No longer did I see myself as a man who moves, permanently, only to discover that he wants to move again, permanently. That way madness lies. Digital nomads – people who make money online and therefore have no need to stay put – wander about because they can. Suddenly a vague feeling of failure becomes a lucky and rare opportunity.
Before discovering that I'm a digital nomad I had thought about moving to somewhere radical like India, but I couldn't work out the visa requirements. None of them fitted, so I abandoned exotic for the simplicity of Europe. I thought about Spain (hence wanting to test the car by roving around Croatia). Rental opportunities are many and varied. I can afford to live there, it has a madly vibrant summer coast and not too far from that coast is winter skiing. It seemed like a good move, but the big question was, would Spain be any better than Slovenia? What would I find there that I don't have here (apart from the madly vibrant coast and the opportunity to fight bulls). Another consideration was moving to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. It's pretty, it's busy, and I like it. Then I read the article on digital nomads. It told of exotic places where people live, work on their laptops, enjoy tropical loveliness for a fraction of the cost of living somewhere normal. One place mentioned was Bali, where people have reported living in places for $200 a month.
I've been to Bali. It's gorgeous.
But how do they do it? Visas once again reared their ugly head. There isn't one for someone like me because I don't want to simply pass through, or get married, or work there. I became once again confused by work. What is, or isn't, “working,” when it comes to documentation?
An email to a digital nomad in Bali solved the problem about visas. “Ah yes,” he said. “There isn't one. So what we do is...”
So top of my list so far for a new and vibrant future is... I'm staying in Das Boot till the end of the ski season, then in April I shall go to Bali for 6 months. Then I'll see how I feel or how the paperwork works out, and probably come back to Slovenia for a year, then try somewhere else exotic. Having solved the visa thing, I can pretty much try anywhere. India is now back on the list, and Clive's wife is from the Philippines. She said she could help me with getting there if I fancied it.
So that's the plan. In April I'm moving (I've told the landlord), then I'm coming back for a year or so, then I'm off again. A life of moving done deliberately. That feels good. And scary. So I really need to solve how to get trousers turned up.
Slovenia, writing, other things