sLOVEnia – then and now

I step out of the bus into the bright light and look around. In front of me is the railway station; a good example of Austro-Hungarian architectural style. Across the busy dual carriageway is a tree-lined park with minor streets and avenues leading to the old city centre. Nothing looks familiar: I look around hoping that some kind of recognition will take place, but I have no memory of this place – neither the station nor any of the streets.

Ljubljana Railway

Usually when I return to a city my memory clicks into place as smoothly as a child’s jigsaw puzzle. Not today though. I sigh. The smells are all wrong, the noises are wrong and the colours are definitely wrong. As the sun burns down on my skin and the noise of the buses and cars fill my ears I remember the last time I stood in this spot…

I stepped out of the lorry and into the gloom of a wet late autumn afternoon. The driver clasped my hand, grinned and bid us goodbye. A part of me was relieved to have reached this little border town of Ljubljana in northern Yugoslavia. The journey through the Austrian Alps with its hairpin bends in torrential sleet and rain, was not the most relaxing, but as the heavy rain ran down the back of my neck and soaked through the shoulders of my jacket I craved the warmth of the cab. We headed to the information booth inside the railway station to try to find a room to stay the night. Camping was definitely out of the question.

Doorway

A grey-haired woman in the booth gave us directions to a house nearby with a room to let. When we reached the address we looked up at the multi-storey building in dismay. Its concrete façade was black in the rain and the huge solid door seemed quite forbidding. Paul raised the heavy brass knocker shaped like a fish and let it fall. The noise was like a gunshot and startled me. After an interminable while we heard the sound of a key being turned in the lock and the door slowly opened. A diminutive grey-haired woman dressed in black stood before us, unsmiling. We asked her about a room for the night, speaking hesitantly in German and miming laying our heads on a pillow. A brief movement of her head indicated for us to step inside. As we stood dripping onto the tiled hallway floor we heard her locking the door behind us. I shivered: this did not feel good.

The woman beckoned us to follow her up the wide staircase with intricate wrought-iron balustrades to the second floor where she unlocked a drab brown door and waved us inside. The room was huge with high ceilings and a large sash window on one wall. Despite the size of the window the room was very gloomy mainly due to the still falling rain, but also the furnishings – a very large old-fashioned dark brown wardrobe dominated the main wall, twin metal beds with thin brown blankets faced the window, with a small worn rug between them on the brown linoleum floor. The only decoration was a dull painting of a castle in dark browns and greys in a dark wooden frame. My heart sank – but at least it was dry – and cheap.

Not wanting to go back out into the storm, we heated some soup on our little gas stove; glad of the warmth it gave out and then climbed into our sleeping bags to keep warm. It was not a great night for sleeping. The rain lashed down onto the windows, which rattled in their sashes. The beds were hard and uncomfortable and someone in the next room had a hacking cough. Eventually an overcast dawn broke through the darkness and we could get up and get on our way. The rain had stopped and a watery sun attempted to shine, but the wind was blowing from the Alps and was tinged with snow. Standing at the side of the main road to Belgrade we shivered in this grey unwelcoming communist country…

Then was October 1973 and we never did get that lift. By mid afternoon we abandoned our vigil and returned to the station to get a train through to the capital city of Belgrade and on into sunny Greece. Neither of us wanted to spend another damp, cold night in Ljubljana.

cafe culture

Now is June 2012: a cloudless azure blue sky, the sun caressing my skin and the light so bright it makes my eyes hurt. Walking into the centre of the city I find it to be filled with charming cobbled squares, baroque churches and brightly decorated art nouveau architecture. It is vibrant with pavement cafés lining the riverside and young people sit and drink their coffee and beer. A lot has changed in this region in the intervening years – Yugoslavia is no more and Ljubljana is now the young capital city of Slovenia and even the station got a face-lift in 1980 and the only grey-haired lady appears to be me!

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Life is cheap in Africa

Born into the family of a civil servant in the affluent suburbs of Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia he was a middle child and as such suffered from middle child syndrome. Squeezed in the middle unsure of his niche in the world, he became a loner.  As a young man he was drafted into the artillery in the Rhodesian army where he learned that having a beer or three helped him overcome his shyness. He was once chased by an angry hippo and had to hide in a tree until it forgot about him. He never knew before how fast a hippo could move. He rolled his first car and arrived bloody and disorientated on the doorstep of a young white woman who probably saved his life. He gained a third eye.

Drifting south from his land-locked country he found himself in Cape Town where he had not one, but two oceans to play in. He learned to sail. He dreamed of taking his boat, the Jenny Wren, across the Atlantic to South America in the Cape to Rio race.  He was a romantic dreamer.

He married in haste and divorced just as quickly. He started a new love affair with cheap red wine and a young abandoned mother. He had a brief sojourn to Europe where he soaked up the history of the ancient Greeks and Romans, but was less impressed with the Britons. He missed the warmth of the African sun on his face and returned with a new wife and child. His return to South Africa coincided with Mugabe being given his country through the Lancaster House Agreement. His country changed its name and the place where he was born no longer existed.

A few years later Mugabe took away his birthright and he became very bitter about the loss of his beautiful country. His manic drinking consumed his life and slowly, but surely, his friendships died. He hit a blue period and the bottle took away his job, his wife and his children. He almost sank without a trace, but fate wasn’t ready to release him yet.

With nothing left he abandoned the coast and retreated to a  family farm close to his elderly parents and tried to restore his fragile health by meditating under the fragrant orange trees and reading tomes about alternative religions. Sipping gins on the terrace he cast aside his other dreams and headed once more for the city of gold, though there was nothing particularly golden about his life there. Work filled his day and most of his nights as he battled with depression and the meaning of life.

The local township inched closer and closer to his boundaries with marauding bandits breaking in to his house – again and again. Disturbing one such person he was shot in the lung whilst giving chase. An inch away from puncturing his heart. With the surviving lung he dragged his lifeline out of the corridors of the hospital to have a cigarette, even though this resulted in a paroxysm of coughing.

By now the drinking had stopped. He had realised that there was no future in the bottom of a bottle, if indeed he had a future at all. Smoking was much harder to give up and with only one lung, breathing. not to mention life, was becoming a struggle. In the country everything rose – bills, food, petrol, crime. Everything that is except for his salary.

Then on a late summer’s evening whilst in the kitchen feeding his beloved Ridgebacks, something good to come out of Rhodesia, his luck finally ran out. A round of bullets sprayed through the window hitting him in the chest and killing one dog outright. He slumped to the floor, bleeding profusely and fumbled for his phone to call a neighbour for help.

As he lay dying beside one fatally wounded dog and the other one injured, he watched the rest of his life slowly leak away across the kitchen floor, helpless and alone. He was fifty-six.

They took his phone, his computer and a small amount of cash.

Life is cheap in Africa.

R.I.P. my anti-hero who died 28 February 2006.

Counting the Cost in Camels

Iranian / Afghani border @ Maschhad / Herat – November 1973

Having failed to reach the border in time (it closed at 6 pm) we found ourselves spending the night in a huge warehouse on the outskirts of Maschhad, Iran. I was amused to see an Australian couple roll out their rather large and lovely Persian carpet to sleep on. Goodness knows whether they ever managed to get it back to Oz.

Early in the morning we caught a bus to the border where we had to walk through no man’s land to the other side where we could catch an Afghan bus to Herat. It took hours to get through the border. The bored Afghani border guards were very keen to have some fun by offering to buy some of the females amongst us with anything from cash to camels!

Although in my head I knew (well hoped) that these border officials would not do anything illegal, I have to confess to being slightly worried at their comments. When half a dozen men with thick beards and black piercing eyes surround you, you begin to feel uncomfortable. When these same men are holding Kalashnikovs and sabres in sheaths at their sides you start to feel even more vulnerable and when one of them grins at you and strokes your hair with the end of his machine gun, you become decidedly jumpy. If he really fancied you for a ‘wife’ what could any of the dozen or so westerners actually do to prevent him?

Smiling inanely at the guards (I did not wish to offend) I handed over my precious blue British passport to be stamped. The man behind the desk looked at me for what seemed like hours studying my face and then the photograph. I tried not to feel embarrassed, but could feel the heat rising from my cheeks. He spoke aside to his colleagues who also looked at me and grinned fiercely. I have no idea what they were saying, but I knew I was blushing. Suddenly the main guy pointed at me and said,

Thirty five camels

his face breaking into a huge grin showing black and broken teeth amongst the mass of facial hair. Was he really suggesting that my travelling friend sold me in exchange for nasty, smelly, spitting camels?

My friend coughed nervously. He shook his head before glancing at me to gauge my reaction. I frowned – was I being undersold? Was he even serious?

Fifty camels then, a very good deal

I raised my eyebrows. How far was he prepared to go? The guard closest to me stroked my hair once again, grinning mindlessly and I was beginning to wish I had covered it as it seemed to be attracting too much attention. I was definitely not keen on this machine gun at my temple.

Eventually sensing my discomfort the main man stamped and handed me my passport back. Still grinning he asked my companion if he would accept the fifty camels. Uncertain of giving the right answer and not wanting to cause offence to me or the guards, he kept his gaze on the floor and muttered that he really didn’t need any camels. I held my tongue even though I was starting to feel quite annoyed. Eventually, roaring with laughter at our embarrassment, the guard shook his head and beckoned us to leave the room which we did in haste.

To this day I still wonder whether fifty camels was an insult or an honour.

The Kindness of Strangers

It was Christmas, 1973. I was in Cape Town, South Africa after travelling for three months overland from the UK to India and then by ship to Durban with a South African friend. Unfortunately on arrival in South Africa I was made to pay for a ticket out of the country and as I had arrived by ship the ticket had to be by ship. My cheapest option was from Durban to Mombasa – it took practically all my money and I truly hoped that I never had to use it!

Table Mountain

Arriving in the Mother City I was staying with my friend’s family in the southern suburbs. Due to my financial crisis I had to get work quickly and I managed to get a temporary job in the lovely pink coloured historic hotel in the city, the Mount Nelson, doing flower arrangements of all things. No-one can say I was not adaptable. As it was Christmas we were very busy with table arrangements and huge floral displays for the suites and public areas. It was hard work, but quite enjoyable and the best part was walking to and from the railway station along Adderley Street and through the Company Gardens where cheeky squirrels run around chasing you for peanuts.

Christmas Eve arrived and I was looking forward to spending my first Christmas away from home. The family were originally from Norway so this was the night for their main dinner and celebrations. It would be very different from my own experiences. It was very different alright, but not quite in the way I had imagined. On arriving back at the house in the suburbs after work I was met by the mother with my rucksack in hand. She told me I was not welcome in her house any more as she had friends and family coming to dinner that evening and I was too ‘common’ and didn’t have the ‘right’ clothes to wear.

I was gobsmacked! Christmas Eve and out on my ear! Her son, my travelling friend, took me to a youth hostel in Muizenberg where they fortunately had a vacancy. He dropped me off then left as he had to return to his family dinner. Thinking of the hospitality my own family had shown him in England, I felt quite sad and rather home-sick. I turned in early as I still had to go to work the next day.

Beach Huts
Beach Huts, Muizenberg, False Bay

I returned to the hostel on Christmas Day at around 6 p.m. to find the other hostellers sitting around having Christmas dinner together. They were all talking and laughing, wearing silly paper hats, being happy and having a good time. I tried to sneak past them to the dorm without being noticed as I was still feeling a bit raw, but the manager caught sight of me and insisted that I joined them, even though I hadn’t contributed to the meal. Quickly room was made for another seat and food hurriedly dished out onto a plate. Silly hat was found and a glass of red wine poured. For the next couple of hours I was welcomed into the fold and a normal Christmas resumed. I thank those strangers for their kindness.

A place I shouldn’t have been in…

Another late night shift in the restaurant where I worked had come to an end. I was ready to go home when Joel, a waiter, asked me if I’d like to go to Joseph’s place with a couple of other colleagues for a few drinks. Joseph was the barman and a really friendly person, often giving me a lift back to my bedsit in a nearby suburb after my shift. Being a newcomer I was more than happy to accept the invitation just so long as I could get a lift home afterwards. No problem.

An hour later we were in Joseph’s tiny, but cosy, kitchen sharing a few cans and a pretty decent Malay curry and laughing and chatting and exchanging stories and jokes. The atmosphere changed abruptly when there was a knock at the door. It was 2 am. Joel looked up at Joseph and raised his eyebrows questioningly. Joseph shrugged his shoulders and made his way to the front door. Whilst he was gone Joel told me to keep quiet and let him do any talking. I asked him what was the problem.

The date, 1974, was the problem. The fact that Joel and I were white was the problem. The fact that Joseph was a ‘Cape Coloured’ was the problem. The fact that we were in a designated ‘coloured’ part of Cape Town was the problem and in a house that Joel and I were not allowed, by law, to be in was the problem.

What would have happened to me had that knock at the door belonged to the security police I will never know. Thankfully it was a neighbour who had seen the lights on and who wanted to join the party. No problem.