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.
Moving with my dog to Slovenia.