September 2007

We awake in our hostel (actually it is a pod; we know this because it is called Pod Lipo) the following morning to a drizzling rain, falling from a depressingly dense sky that looks unlikely to lift. But do we care! No, we are still too busy congratulating ourselves on our good fortune with the Pod, courtesy of, which is not only as comfortable as many a travelodge but is also run by the Nicest Man in Eastern Europe, who shows us the free internet connection, free tea and coffee, mysterious workings of the hot water system and loads us with maps and leaflets in a manner so close to sheer joy it almost involved skipping. And it wasn’t a one-off either because we were woken at about 2am by the sound of him doing it all over again for another grateful arrival. The only thing wrong with the place is that the bathroom light continually turns itself on, times out and turns on again, but after I have spent a good thirty minutes in the small hours crouching in my pants and vest in front of what I later discover is a window that opens onto a square and must have the effect of a nice picture-frame for the seven thousand people in the block of flats opposite, I successfully fool the errant light into slumber.

In the kitchen, a foal is pottering about making bacon sandwiches. Not really a foal, of course, a blond male very young human who turns out to be a mathmo from Christs (thus lending further weight to a theory held by my mother that there are only about five thousand people in the world; it’s just that they’re all where you are, whether that be studying at your university, touring in Eastern Europe or queuing in front of you in the Holloway Road Waitrose; I intend to work it up into a paper one of these days). He is incomparably sweet and chatty and unsteady on his little hooves, and volunteers within seconds of meeting me to make me a bacon sandwich. I am sorely tempted because last night I made my first restaurant blunder (ho yes!) by trying to order something involving sausages and pickled cabbage which made my mouth water even in mistranslated English-via-German-via-Serbo-Croat. The waiter made a noise of pity. That is a winter dish only. A winter dish? It’s sausages. I make do with a creamy ink and squid risotto which turns out to be fabulous, but I am still left feeling oddly cheated of a quota of pig product that should have been mine. Pigs 1 – Mortimer 0, and the balance must be redressed. Nonetheless I decline the foal’s kind and wobbly offer, partly because I am afraid it will take him three quarters of an hour and the rest of his pocket money, and partly because I am impatient to get out into Dampest Slovenia and begin the Odyssey in earnest.

One of the great things about being badly travelled (and I am appalling; Judith is better but she makes up for it by not having left the country on her own account this side of the millenium) is that everything is so exciting. Everything. Road crossings, chemists, postmen (actually the postmen really are pretty damn exciting – they wear waistcoats, tight black trousers with silver piping, extremely shiny knee-high boots and ride about on Victorian bicycles. How arresting! as Mr Wingfield might say) We are delighted out of all proportion for example to discover that the pedestrian road crossings give you a countdown to the red lights – so delighted are we that we almost forget that Slovenian Green Men are LIARS and are nearly run over by a tram – and I for one steadfastly refuse throughout the entire trip to cross the road UNTIL the countdown has ended, and the pips that accompanied the countdown suddenly double to a speeding frenzy that is presumably intended to mimic the beating of your own heart as you scurry forth and attempt to outwit the lying little green men.

We meander down to the middle of town easily enough without a map – the streets bend steeply towards the river and we can see the castle high up on the forested crag on the far bank. It’s a very easy place to navigate because the surrounding hills are so sheer – they literally rear up at the ends of the streets – that you cannot be mistaken about which way you’re facing. The houses are curlicued, three-storeyed, ice-cream coloured, with neat little shutters picked out in white and window-basketed with vivid geraniums, like a miniature Napoleonic Paris, the bars are thickly ranged along the river in a pleasant cheek-by-jowl manner that promises much pivo (beer) and little walking, and the willows sweep pleasantly between the bridges. But it’s that shimmering river, the Ljubljanica, that pulls it all together. It is the most remarkable green I’ve seen running water anywhere outside Wales or the west country. It looks like someone has emptied a bucket of green primary school poster paint into it, and it’s so clean its little diamond reflections bounce off the buildings. You feel healthier just looking at it. We are so entranced by the pretty country market town feel that it is something of a shock to remind oneself – when we run across an embassy of some sort, I think – that this is actually a capital city.

 How green was my river?

 How green was our river?

How green was my river?The Tourist Information Centre is glossy, welcoming and professional-looking, in stark contrast to the staff who are uncertain, secretive and behave as if they’ve never really done this sort of thing before and don’t much like it now they’ve tried it. A dour-looking woman backs covertly away from her side of the counter as we approach. Over the next day or two, no matter how determinedly we manipulate the queue, we always seem to end up with this woman, whose day job is clearly supplemented by her work as a field agent for the Slovenian Intelligence service because she is reluctant to tell us anything.

The first thing we want to know about is stamps. We intend to send postcards from every destination no matter what the hardships involved, ha! never let it be said that we are unadventurous.

“You can buy stamps from any post office,” she says, expanding her arms to indicate the bounty of post offices throughout Ljubljana, and then turns to the next customer.

Well, thanks. And there was me thinking that post offices sold antique musical instruments. It is, of course, never true that you can only buy stamps from post offices and the alternative vending points vary in subtle and unlikely ways as you travel across Europe. If you go into a tabaccheria in northern Spain, on the hardly unreasonable assumption that they serve the same functions as French tabacs, and ask for stamps they look at you as if you are from Mars, because of course in Catalunya you can only buy stamps from greengrocers, tree surgeons and vending machine repair shops, tonto. We ask about river tours, and she concedes that they do, indeed, exist. Further cross-examination eludicates that an English-speaking tour takes place at 6.30 each evening and that the boat leaves from “just outside over there” – indicating the south-east quarter of Ljubljana. We think this is probably enough fieldwork for now and set off to Wander Round Aimlessly as is our preference.

We are carried by a flow of tourism up to an immensely juicy-looking vegetable market, where we walk in a happy daze prodding melons and Ljubljanans flit around us like purposeful minnows wearing expressions of tight-lipped tolerance that I recognise because I have one of my own for use in central London. In fact that scene – milling tourists, a graceful stone colonnade arcing round the market square – is vaguely reminiscent of Covent Garden, except that here there is actual food on sale rather than caddies full of organic rosehip tea, small bottles of body lotion costing £75 and thirty-four cuts of Diesel jeans. It is also noticeable that few Londoners these days carry baskets over their arms and having been to Ljubljana I can tell you that we are the poorer for it. We are drawn by a deep, watery succulent smell into the cool lower levels of the colonnade, where we goggle at glistening mounds of fish. We eat purply prismatic trout in the resident restaurant, mine poached, Judith’s grilled, swilling down pivo and Slovenian white, then we lean over the grand Viennese balustrade, gaze at the green river and feed the ducks the last of our bread.


Full of fish.

 The waitress hates us. As we are lingering over our drinks making contented noises and creating evil misrule among the ducks (“Heh heh! Look, you got that one on the head again! Hey, let’s try and confuse this one by throwing two bits of bread at once!”), two elderly women with those strange loose patterned dresses and stout shoes worn by elderly women everywhere come in. They hate us too.

I regret, the waitress says, there is currently no room for you.

The two old women tighten their mouths like dogs’ bottoms.

We too regret this very much, they reply ominously.

Ah but so. Would you perhaps like to sit on that little bench a foot away from and facing those two defenceless English girls, clutch your big handbags until your knuckles whiten and turn the awesome power of your Slavic hatred against them?

Yes, they would like that very much, and after a while we are sufficiently unnerved to make good our escape.

We take a spanking new funicular (lovely word, lovely thing) up to the Castle and dive in and out of the various exhibitions as the rain washes periodically over Ljubljana. This wasn’t what I signed up for at all! I have packed for thirty degrees of heat and as a result am having to wear all my warmest clothes at once - a short red stripey dress over jeans with a green cardigan and a brown rain hat. Mysteriously, any three of these seem to meld in fine together and look like products of the disparate indy-hipster wardrobe that they are, but add the fourth and I become Mad Aunt Mortimer of the Balkans. It is going to be a pretty poor look-out if I have to spend the whole trip drinking sweet sherry, using talcum powder and muttering to myself about mothballs, so I do hope the rain stops. I am also rather glum at this point because my camera batteries have apparently not charged successfully (later we try and buy some at a tardis-like shop near the Pod, which sells absolutely everything in the world except the only two things we need to buy, which are batteries and stamps). However, the latter problem looks like being solved when we collapse grumpily, exhausted by a difficult encounter with a pair of 3D glasses and a short film whose voice-over makes us giggle like the cynics we are, onto a red sofa which is, mysteriously, parked under a cloister in the castle bailey. The red sofa has Slovenian writing on its slipcover, but this detains us not at all as it has comfy seats and – joy! – an ash-tray on a stalk at arm-height. (Everyone smokes in the Balkans, so I am taking a treasured eighteen days out of my usual five-a-week huddled in a corner existence to puff away like an industrial chimney without feeling like a social pariah. And much good it does me, I’m sure.) It is only when a brightly-mannered girl approaches with a professional looking camera that we realise we may have stumbled into the middle of something.

“Ha ha ha that’s so funny!” she smiles fixedly as we ham it up. God alone knows what it is we are advertising. Maybe the writing says “Everybody in Ljubljana hates us”, “These people are laughing now, but eventually they will die of lung cancer and YOUR taxes will pay for their palliative care” or “Rights for arms-dealers (and Rupert Murdoch isn’t that bad either)”. I gave her my email address in the hope of getting them sent on to us but I haven’t heard from her – if you happen to be down Slovenia-way anytime soon and you see me on a billboard, do let me know. But my budding promotions career is almost cut short when we climb up the castle tower. This is done via an Escher-like iron staircase enclosed by red railings which appears to be wilfully playing with reality. People who I can hear above me are suddenly below me without having passed me on the stairs, people are stepping out for a breather onto stone ledges to which I do not appear to have access. Have I entered a nightmare? Am I still back at the pod? Worse still, am I actually still in Muswell Hill and about to miss the plane?

When we get to the top, all is explained by another entrance opposite ours – there are two staircases winding round each other like a strand of DNA, but I am too busy to remark upon this at the time because I am clutching frenziedly at solid matter as I goggle over the edge. The top of the tower is small – about ten feet square, and most of the middle is taken up by the hoods of the two iron stair-cases – and there are battlements up to about waist height, but in between the crenellations are great big chunks of nothing, and no railings (there’s no room) between Mortimer and a sheer drop of six hundred feet. Looking up at the Ljubljanan flag is somehow even worse, as what was a pretty little fluttering penant from the ground is actually a great five-foot long violently kicking piece of canvas, and provides perspective of a sort I could well do without.

 Bloody high castle

 Bloody high.

“Just imagine… if you had a moment of madness…” says Judith with what seems to me to be inappropriate excitement. This moment of madness theme is one we will revisit, I’m sorry to say, but at the time I merely gulp and take my eyes off the mind-stretching deathleap below.  By the time we have descended and meandered down the wooded hillside by means of a zig-zagging cinder path that presents challenges to our flip-flops, the rain has cleared off and the evening is turning calm and even a little warm. Encouraged, we mooch down to the river to catch our evening boat tour. There is a reluctance, which we are now realising is characteristic of Slovenia, to have anything to do with such fripperies as advertising. Slovenians appear charmingly confused by the notion that people might want to visit their country. It takes us a good few minutes to locate the pier from which the boat will depart and its total desertion does not give us confidence. There is no ticket booth, but there is a small sign that says we may, if we wish, purchase tickets at the Tourist Information Centre.

We troop back there, and ask our handler straight out if this is true.

“Yes,” she says.

Then why in the name of arse didn’t you sell us the tickets this morning? The tickets are €7.50 each, so paying for both of us I hand over a €20 note. She looks at it with distaste.

“Haven’t you got anything smaller?” 

She loses interest in us and leaves a brow-beaten colleague to locate our change, which he does only with difficulty because the backlit digital tills appear to be art installations rather than operative machines. As I wait a shattered looking couple enter, backpacked to the nines, and fall against the counter. I smile knowingly at them in a one-traveller-to-another manner, intending to empathise with the self-imposed plight of trudging into a tourist office in a strange city at 6pm with nowhere to stay, though unfortunately as the physical evidence of my ‘packer status is currently lacking, they may just think I am laughing at their appearance. Downcast, they turn hopefully to Control.

“Where is the nearest campsite, please?”

“Five kilometres away,” she says, and resolutely turns her back on them.

This is vot ve do to people who ask too many questions in ze Tourist Information Centre…

He asked too many questions in the Tourist Information Centre…

 Join OUR HEROES again next time as they GET ON THE BOAT and quickly CAUSE EVERYONE TO HATE THEM EVEN MORE!

Among my favourite procrastination tools of the moment (and bear in mind the competition is strong: Jetman, the IKEA catalogue, hating Nigella Lawson with every fibre and sinew of my being) is Lib Dem Blogs, which for the uninitiated is a central index to all the party activist blogs (I use activist in the broadest sense; some of them are quite lazy), an ever-unravelling stream of commentary, queries, poll results, ranting and – yes – procrastination written by a lot of Jolly Good Eggs who did awfully well in English at school.

And it was through said worthy medium, as I wrestled womanfully with Abbey on the phone today, that this Quite Interesting piece by Linda Jack came my way. The under-representation of women in the Lib Dems or any other party is not something I want to talk about because the paranoid washiness surrounding all such “debates” tends to make me want to eat my arm up to the elbow with boredom. But I was struck by Linda’s comment about the overwhelming masculinity (I’m talking about numbers here, you collect) of the Lib Dem blogosphere. Why so many of Them? Why so few of Us? A scroll down Lib Dem Blogs right now reveals approximately nine posts made by women out of some 60 (excluding those with pseudonyms). Of those nine, there are several pairs/triplets by the same person.

What is most interesting about all this is that in the “real world” women are, in my view, the more natural writers. I have always conceived of writing as an innately female activity (or perhaps innately yang activity would be better), self-reliant, processual, reflective, divorced from direct competitive context  – and I am not talking about bloody Jane Austen and Heloise but about the kind of unpolished writing that gets you through the day and allows you to respond to the world from where you’re sat – precisely the kind of writing bloggers do, in fact. Precisely the kind of writing I am doing now. I write constantly, about everything. It’s how I make sense of Stuff, it’s how I develop my thoughts and how I solve problems. I write when I get up and before I go to bed, I write all day in the course of work and I am the most prolific letter-writer I know. I write publicly and privately and I make no distinction between paper and electronic formats in any of these spheres (oh, I talk almost incessantly as well. But I’m still a more natural and instinctive writer than I’ll ever be a speaker.)

I can’t be alone in this among the daughters of Juno, in fact I know I’m not, and yet there is that undeniable ratio in the blogosphere and this leads me on to my own sidelight from Conference. On the Tuesday night I crashed the bloggers’ drinks because I thought (accurately, as it proved) that although I had no right whatever to be there it would be joll’gooffun, and I was welcomed with open arms (which was just as well given the number of times I nearly fell over; not the sisterhood’s finest hour for holding one’s beer, I’m afraid. Or, actually, humanity’s.) And at said drinks Mat GB commented – I hope he won’t mind me quoting him, even though he had to remind me the other day that it was him who said it – that female bloggers tended to write about everything, not just their politics. I think he’s right, and I think there is a sort of holisticism (sp?) about the female outlook which knits politics seamlessly into everything else. I’m new to blogging, probably because I’ve blogged on paper for years and wasn’t starved for an outlet, and I’m also new to the Lib Dems, which is why I’m not inflicting my blog on anyone via LDBlogs, because I haven’t yet got anything well-informed to say. Now, if my usual torturous self-inflicted standards pertain, I will probably consider myself “well-informed” after about three years (or the length of time it takes to do a degree, structure-spotters). But even when that does happen, I very much doubt I’ll be signing up to LDBlogs, because only one of my posts in six will be relevant and an account of What I Did On My Holidays is probably not central to the future of liberalism, however much it may have contributed to my own personal liberalism (see forthcoming chapters of the Balkan Odyssey – in progress). I daresay if more existing bloggers wrote about the peripheries of their political souls rather than focusing nearly every post on an “issue of the moment” and drenching the reader with obscure by-election references (and yes, I know they are sometimes germane and I also know there are honourable exceptions, many of which are on the current wall), I would feel less obliged to play at being a one-track political animal and more inclined to reveal the “political self in the round” that I actually am.

But that’s how the majority of the current crop of bloggers like to write, that’s how they make sense of Stuff. And why the hell not? The Lib Dem blogosphere has evolved on the shared basis that that kind of very targeted blogging is the most useful to the cause at large, and the most interesting to its key proponents, and it is an entirely self-sufficient engine – a product created by and for its own consumers which works perfectly as it is. And any wise writer knows to go where the love is. If the indications on LDBlogs are that the contributors like to read certain types of material which are not my natural forte then no-one will benefit from my expending writing energy there.

It should be said that I write this now in a position of total ignorance as to whether LDBlogs can be configured so that only posts under a certain category are redirected there. If they can, then hoorah! You are safe from my holiday reminiscences for ever. But my overall point remains valid and I would still hesitate before I signed up. I would split down Duncan Borrowman’s comment on Linda’s piece: blogging as such is not gender specific and even has an arguable female bias, but the language and mores of the Lib Dem blogosphere in particular has evolved under a male aegis which male bloggers find easier to fit into, which as I’m sure everyone involved would agree is sheer circumstance.

Evolution of society over the last x million millennia anyone?

I do wonder about this. Once you’ve added one, you might as well add them all, it’s sort of like selling your superego to the devil and fussily hanging on to the id; utterly pointless because the damage is done. So once you’ve added Superpoke and Foodfight which are kind of obligatory although seemingly a bit unfashionable at the moment, you’ve got your visual bookshelf and maybe some i-tunes up and running, you think, ooh, I’ll just play a bit of scrabble, and you’re all set to settle down and stop being an app-whore for a while when wham! you get bitten by a Zombie. And it’s rude not to, so you add that too, and then you think well, if I’m going to have Zombies then I’m going to have Pirates because it’s really more me (Pirates is brilliant by the way. It’s like the worst computer game in the world, there are no graphics at all, it crashes every five seconds and you could work out the probabilities involved on the back of an envelope. But for some reason it’s brilliant) and then as you’re experimenting with a bit of Pacman and Jetman you suddenly notice all your friends have started getting Friendwheels and Friendblocks and Friendcabbages etc, the sole function of which is to display digital avatars of people you love in a pretty picture so as to emphasise to all of them individually just how much competition they are facing in hanging on to your attention. So you add one of those (or more; there doesn’t seem to be a common human dignity alarm attached to these things) and then people want you to buy them drinks, give them fish, flowers and gifts, give their pet rabbit a ninja mask or feed their fluffy penguin, and then there’s the one that allows you to do anything you like to someone so long as you don’t mind it being wrapped up in oddly stilted phraseology: “X chose to [e.g. break wind in the face of] Y.” Really I don’t know why there isn’t a Bottom-sniffing application: “X picked fleas out of Y’s back hair because Y has a busier Friendwheel and X is therefore the beta-human despite currently leading 315-284 at Scrabble”. Then there’s the Sorting Hat, which is already completely lopsided because of course no-one wants to be in Hufflepuff, Top Friends which seems to me to be frankly cruel and socially divisive, the awesome combination of Purity Test, Compare and Hot or Not which allows the hapless user to expose their sexual histories and attractiveness to the world and then have them performance-rated by people in Oregon, more cat applications than I would be able to count before rushing away in revulsion, the strangely appealing Pope Quotes (“A New Quote Every Day!” – it’s awfully nice of the Pope to bother, really), and versions of every game from Texas Holdem Poker to Paper Scissors Stone. If I wished to rate beer, recreate myelf as a South Park character or put a Vibrating Hamster on my profile(why???) I would not find the awesome applications library wanting.

But I digress. The actual serious point I am making is that we are, of course, heading for apocalyptic data meltdown with all this. Not everyone gets sucked into applications. I tried to play Scrabble with someone recently (I know them in real life, but they weren’t even a Friend, they were a Friend of a Friend; that’s how much I love Scrabble) and was rejected on the grounds that he “doesn’t do” applications. I tished, pished and poo-poohed, but I’ll be the one laughing on the other side of my Face when I wake up to find an electronic cuff on my wrist and my citizen number, blood group and dietary requirements tattooed on my left buttock. There are many applications which have caused me to smile, but the one that provoked hysterical laughter was a simple little add-on that allowed you to state on your profile page, without apparent irony, “Say NO to ID cards.”

That the whole applications business is just an attempt by Them to control the 30 million of Us idiotic enough to let it happen because we want to be able to tell people by means of a little yellow face that we are feeling “Nerdy” is proven by the growing number of applications that are either totally useless or positively sinister. I got thrown a hot potato recently. Actually, three. “Pass it on! Watch it travel round the world.” No. Why? How can I watch it? I flatly refuse to press the Add button to find out. Then there is 6 Degrees, which even sounds like a secret organisation in a height-of-Cold-War-era Hitchcock film. I have just added this one, and what it does, it gives you a spiel about how it’s trying to prove that old saw (just why are they saws exactly?) about how everyone in the world knows everyone else at six degrees of removal. Fair enough, so you click on the button, and an ellipsis flashes for a moment while it “calculates”, and then you get a variation on the following statement:

Your rating is 5. The current average in 9.74.

That’s it. Totally meaningless. And when you next log in, the figures have shifted a bit, and you’re now on 4 whereas the average in 8.3. Er, is that good? What was it really doing while that ellipsis was flashing? If it wasn’t the NSA trying to access my voting record, then at the very least it is a total, total con and I intend to remove it forthwith.

Because that way I’ll free up some space on my page for Paper Scissors Stone. Oh and PLEEEASE play scrabble with me, I can’t get enough.

…with a full supporting cast of troubadours, mackerel, waiters, wide-boys, mud, Australians and lube. I choose to begin with a minute-by-minute account of events that happened six weeks ago partly because it dispenses with the whole first-post awkwardness – nervous laughter hello world gosh how jolly exciting it is to be actually typing the actual words that are going to appear on the actual internet heavens must be time for some multiple exclamation marks!!!!! – and partly because of course nobody will look at this blog apart from Mummy and Daddy Mortimer, and even they will only look at it after a six-month consultation period involving Dell, NASA and the makers of Norton Anti-Virus Software, and they asked me to write it down, so write it down I shall.

 We left England in good weather, but that was as far as our luck held…

The first thing we see on strapping up at Stansted is a harp with a harp cover over it. This nonplusses us slightly – should we have brought one? we have brought most other carbon-based things – but we recover ourselves and take it as a good omen for our Balkan Odyssey, which I feel guilty about because I cannot afford it and which Judith feels guilty about taking for hazier and more congenital reasons. Physically well-equipped therefore, but at a severe psychological disadvantage, we lumber to check-in for Ljubljana, and you see? Already we are having a fantastic time! No wonder people go in for this backpacking lark, it’s bloody hilarious. I pretend to myself that I am a tort-oyse and drop my sun hat. I bet seasoned travellers don’t have half so much fun just arriving at the airport.

We nervously watch our backpacks slide down a chute and then are patted up and down by a sweet-mannered transsexual with a five o’clock shadow wearing a badge that says “Security”. Afterwards this will spark an interesting debate about one’s right to be searched by a woman and at what point a transsexual “becomes” a woman but at the time we are distracted from these worthy issues because the only customs officer in the western hemisphere with a sense of humour is looking on and muttering Yeah, these two are def’nitely on drugs. As we stumble in a mood of mounting hysteria into Departures and head for Boots (and just why is it that every journey of whatsoever length and howsoever well-prepared for requires the last minute expenditure of £7 in Boots?) it starts to dawn on me that I am actually about to get on an actual actual plane for real and there are things involving hot coals I would rather do than that. No red hot coals are available at Stansted but there is a Wetherspoons which seems suitably infernal. I knock back a glass of cheap white wine and quiver with dread. Judith is not afraid of flying but she selflessly and supportively has a glass of wine anyway and will in fact nobly continue to match me glass for glass throughout the flight like the great friend she is.

Why in the name of arse do airports have windows? And not just windows, but great big floor-to-ceiling sheets of glass marching so pitilessly away along every wall in sight it’s a wonder the building is structurally secure. Is it so that we can look on as little biscuit tins wobble out of the sky and judder from seven hundred and fifty thousand kilometres an hour to a dead stop onto a motorcycle parking space designed by a parsimonious inner London council? So that we can watch the air traffic control tower playing shadow puppets with the slope indicator lights so that the ground crews have something to laugh at while they’re checking the plane isn’t going to FALL APART? So that we can watch the bendy tube we’re all about to walk through to get on the plane – ninety-odd sane adults, mark you - being fastened to the side of the Easymoneyjet with paper clips and string? But help is at hand once we board the plane in the form of three identikit stag parties who are wearing, in ascending order of folly, all yellow with their stag in a red fright wig, all black with their stag dressed as a giant bird and all pink with their stag dressed as a big fat sparkly fairy, which gives us cause for concern as we ponder the effects of air pressure on his false bosoms.

The flight proceeds in raucous vein and so successfully does this distract me from my internal death-flames-plummet monologue that I upset a full glass of wine into my lap, and so it is damp of trouser but unbowed of spirit that we stroll out of Ljubljana airport, scornfully eschewing the taxi rank where a fairy and a giant bird are glumly comparing notes on the exchange rate and make for the coach into town.

Slovenia doesn’t really feel Balkan at all. Quite what do you mean by that, Mortimer? Well, maybe it isn’t such a surprise when you look on the map, but it feels immediately sub-Alpine, like a less terrifying Germany in that everything is, yes, clean, but not so clean that it could have been scrubbed with bleach by an army of terrified toothbrush-wielding child slaves less than quarter of an hour ago. Hamlets of orange and pink chalet houses are nestled like baskets of eggs in alive-with-the-sound-of-music style hills, the forests are dense and piny and blue mountains creep slowly across the middle distance. The fields are often punctuated by peculiar structures something like a stretched-out wooden clothes horse, about ten foot long and a foot wide with a thin strip of tiled roof. Sometimes a pair of them march side-by-side to make a barn structure, and this I comprehend, but just as often they appear singly and look like they might possibly be portals to a multi-volume fantasy saga. To my disappointment, the cast of Dungeons and Dragons (yes, yes, they were cartoons, I know) at no point emerge bickering from one in a lazily drawn oblong of blue light, and by and by we discover from the guidebook that these are the kozolec, the typical Slovenian hay rack using for drying grains that is not found in quite the same form anywhere else. Hm. Real life is so prosaic, isn’t it. Beyond this Heidi-ish landscape lie cool wide lakes and vineyards, fretworked caves and hissing peaks of Alpine ice, the whole lot attended by a truly terrifying host of water- and mountain-sports. I know all this because the Loneliest Planet of Them All has told me so, you collect, and for no other reason. I ran into a surprising number of people who had been to Slovenia in the weeks before my departure and didn’t manage to clock a single “Oh but you simply must go to…” that didn’t involve having a car. I know it’s been said before, but is it really the same, just taking your car on holiday? Is it really? My parents do this every year, transport a familiar little metal torpedo casing to a foreign land (or mostly the Loire, in their case, which as any fule know is the French equivalent of Surrey anyway) and spend the majority of their actual, glorious, sunshiny, holidaying hours driving around inside it from place to place, never far from a comfortingly familiar nylon upholstery pattern and an Extra Strong Mint. Many of the same people who had recommended the pebble beach at Piran or the stalactites of the Postojna cave were faintly surprised-tinged-with-offended when I returned to find that I hadn’t managed to arrange public transport for myself over the fifty miles between Ljubljana and any of these places, as if it showed a want of spirit on my part. Mind you, these are probably the people who leave for work ten minutes before they are due in, rather than three quarters of an hour with more for rainy days like normal folk.

But I digress. On reaching the sovietish outskirts of Ljubljana itself we are immediately nonplussed by three things, to wit, that the street with our hotel on it is cleverly not marked on the map, that it is raining, and that when traffic lights illuminate a walking green man, they are lying. Yes. It is a LIE. And I don’t just mean the traffic surges forward eagerly to crush the bones of the innocent against the instructions of the lights, oho no, the green man goes green, two lanes of the traffic stop all right, but the third lane is permitted to carry on. It’s not so much a pedestrianised traffic system as a sympathetic state-sponsored lengthening of your odds. Can’t take a joke, shouldn’t have come. Ho well. We trudge on…


…innit dark in here…


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