9. Germany, Holland, England, Scotland, England, Holland, Switzerland, France.

The coming of the autumn equinox upbraids me with the waste of time. Today, more than ever, I feel affinity with Tristram Shandy - self-chronicling alter-ego of that original meta-smith and completer of sentimental European journeys, Laurence Sterne – who, in realising that it had taken him a whole year to write about the first day of his life, lamented the fact that he should ‘live 364 times faster than [he] should write’. For my part, I’ve now been home a fortnight, but the blog me is still on a coach, peering through Austrian twilight and seeing the Alps for the first time.


I appreciate your reading this far. We still have two weeks and five countries to cover, so forgive me yet more stylistic infelicities as I speed on.


Germany
Munich. Arrived about midnight. Straight to Ibis. Paid £80 for one night, due to dearth of good Airbnbs close to bus station. The most for any accommodation all summer. No breakfast. Not really a problem as I would be up at six to take a coach to Berlin. I was in a hurry to get there as my friend CO, whom I haven’t seen for a year, would be there and, although I’d been to the Hipster Mecca (definitely the Shoreditch of Germany!!) twice already, I still fancied it more than Munich. Sorry to Munich. Not much to report from the Bavarian Capital – as in I didn’t see much. Confident streets. Kebab shops. Bars. Hotels. All very Kings Cross. But then I only saw like the Hauptbahnhof and surrounding streets. In the morning, traffic and commuters. What else would you expect, I suppose.


In Munich and in every town between Munich and Berlin there were street posters for the various German election candidates: predominantly, Angela Merkel’s CDU plus Martin Schulz’s SPD, the leftist party Die Linke, and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. [You’ve probably seen the news by now: the AfD look set to become the first far-right party to enter the Bundestag in six decades.]


Berlin. Well Berlin is Berlin. Each time I gaze out beyond a fairylit-graffiti-heavy-canal-street-terrace foreground, across the haze, at the Fernsehturm Tower and feel some unutterably comforting parallax effect and sense… something as lame as… ‘The Weight of History’, it stuns me all the more just to what extent Berlin is Berlin. Still, the last thing Europe needs now is another little pseudy Englishman’s rhapsody for Berlin, so I’ll just  focus on the basic reportage therefrom.


Very good to see CO, who lives in Ireland, and whom I’d actually physically met only twice heretofore, but she sometimes sends me messages about the moon over Twitter so I count her as an old and good friend. Spent the daytimes wandering around with her and catching up. She is breastfeeding and, though her baby is in Ireland with her parents, her breasts do not know that, which causes her a lot of discomfort and requires stopping every so often so she can use a battery-powered pump to purge herself of milk and then perform an almost libatory ritual of pouring the milk away down a drain in the street, or into the soil at the park, or into the sand of an urban beach.


CO was staying at a hostel in Kreuzberg - one with a fridge of weissbiers, and a permanent cast of semi-sullen sub 25 year-olds smoking out front, and a English lad who hasn’t been home in six months playing FIFA on his own. And, it goes without saying, David Bowie-themed art on the walls. I stayed there too and upon arrival came almost concussively quickly to the conclusion that I should have stayed at more hostels along the way. You were all thinking it. Had I done so there would have been almost nothing in this blog about how hard I’ve found it to talk to people, and therefore almost nothing in this blog.


First evening, Thursday – earmarked as a ‘quieter one’ in readiness for the expected comparative loudness of the following evening. Ended up getting as smashed as I’d been all summer, taking in only two or three bars in Kreuzberg and meeting Some Good Characters along the way: e.g. an 18 year old German woman called Tabbi who was sitting alone and drinking an absolutely massive alcohol-free weissbier and smiling. She was: fluent in English, apparently very intelligent, about to start university in Berlin, here to find accommodation, proudly Christian and ostensibly clued up about the relative merits, and shortcomings, of the German educational system. More sober, I might have retained more of what she told us about the separation of German students according to academic ability aged 10-13 and the consequent socio-economic determination this seems to foster.


And there were some more Good Characters after we left Tabbi but I’ve promised to hurry so they’ll remain in the purgatory of my mind, at least for now.


Got back to hostel. Drank more. Met people. Had wonderful chats. Blah blah.


Next day, Friday. Running at about 63% capacity due to after-effects of recent indulgences. CO (who’d read earlier sections of this blog and perhaps developed fears about what sort of pursuits I might try subject her to) had said very definitively the previous evening that she just wanted a relaxing weekend and was not very interested in educational sightseeing. And yet, somehow, still that day we saw Checkpoint Charlie, and the Brandenburg Gate, and the Holocaust Memorial and the East Side Gallery. At this latter site – a 1316 metre-long section of the Berlin Wall still in tact and now covered in mostly politically insinuating graffiti - CO expressed frustration at the fairly recondite nature of the first few pieces pieces and, when she suggested we download some kind of explanatory digital content or employ a local guide, I insisted that I would very easily be able to explain the pieces to her, thinking myself something of a Berlin veteran now I guess, and also being, as you well know, an Expert of Art.


In the event, I was able to offer little more by way of guidance than just pointing out the explicitly obvious components of the pieces and rudimentarily describing them.


‘There are some balls which maybe look like planets’.
‘This is a human figure with chains on it’.


Occasionally we’d encounter German text and this I’d encourage CO to use her phone to translate into English, usually yielding only gnomic sentences, which shed little light on the images at hand: ‘I love humanity’. ‘Freedom’ etc.


Overall, CO gave very polite audience.


One graffito simply read ‘BERLIN’ in Very Cool Lettering. I made CO let me take a selfie of us in front of this but failed to frame in the initial ‘B’. ‘We’ll always have Erlin’, I told her.


Tired, we returned to the hostel for more easy and warm conversation with strangers.


BUT, just when you were thinking dog days are over social-anxiety/self-worth-wise, cop a load of this:


Excitingly, it was organically determined that all the residents of the hostel should go out together that night, though a few of the more veteran tenants (i.e. those who’d been there more than one night already) slipped away in smaller groups before the major fleet of taxis arrived to gather up the newcomers. The more renowned clubs (Watergate, Berghain, ya know) might prove impenetrable for such a large group, went the general suspicion, so we would go instead to Sisyphus, a smaller, less renowned club, but nonetheless, apparently, a decent one and easy enough to get into. Out of the 20 or more in our group, only one other person - another English guy - had any interest at all in joining with my Sisyphus-based banter, premised entirely on the suggestion that if we didn’t get in, we should keep trying to get it over and over all night!!


There was some casual strategising in the queue over splitting up into groups of two or three (not more than three times over the weekend did I hear someone suggest it was best to go to a club in ‘groups of one’) and with no more than two men in any one group. This scheming came mainly from an American guy in shorts and running shoes and a waterproof jacket whom I looked at him and thought ‘you’re not gonna get in because you’re wearing shorts and running shoes and a waterproof jacket, my lad, so you might regret all this blowhard stuff about canny admission technique’.


I ended up in a fairly happy situation, queueing with an attractive and cool-looking woman (American) and an attractive and cool-looking man (Swiss-American), and I got to feeling optimistic about the whole business as I watched the rest of my hostel-fellows filter past the thuggish, undercut-sporting bouncers and into the club. My sexy co-queuers and I were discussing just how much Bernie Sanders reminds us of Larry David! when our own moment of reckoning came.


The bouncer looked at us for maybe 1.7 seconds, ushered us forward, but not towards the main entrance door - towards a side door, which was helpfully opened by another blonde beast, and out we went back on the street.


The woman was fucking distraught. She’d come to Berlin from New York, following a bad break up, which’d moved her to cut her hair quite short. ‘I shouldn’t have cut my fucking hair!’ she was now exclaiming. ‘I’ve never been turned away from a club in my entire life!’ The Swiss-American guy and I tried to reassure her that it was a random, even freak occurrence but she wouldn’t be talked down easily.


‘Look at these haggard women she said!’ gesturing towards some disappointed, not at all ‘haggard’-looking women who’d just also been dispatched through the door of shame and were now stumbling away dazed into the night. ‘These are the kind of women who are supposed to get rejected from clubs!’ she told the general scene.


Three more guys from the hostel came through as well, a Peruvian, an Indian and a French-man - as if in some hip, post-modern joke with no punchline. They joined our post-failure conference and eventually all concurred that the woman shouldn’t blame her hair, or anything about the way she looked! Clothes have little to do with it! That guy got in wearing shorts, for god’s sake! No, it was agreed, there were just too many men at the back of the group. We should have arranged it better.


I concurred to this reading of the situation but I knew a secret that I wasn’t going to disclose. The real reason we didn’t get in, or at least the reason the Swiss-American guy and the short-haired woman didn’t get in was… because of me.


Ya see: I’d gone (or tried to go) to Watergate - one of the ‘bigger’ clubs, one of the ‘cooler’ clubs - on a stag do, back, way back at the beginning of the decade and, after the bouncers had waved through the, like, nine other guys in our party, came my turn to be scrutinised and then ceremonially directed down a staircase of rejection back to the road, all the others dutifully and resentfully following, a swaggering chorus of angry resentment.


I’d seen the same look in the eyes of the bouncer here at Sisyphus, as they danced semi-approvingly over the other two and then rested conclusively on me, and as I now listened to the other members of this arbitrary international assembly declaim the irrelevance of clothing to one’s chances of entry, I remembered once more the strange social miasma that seems often to haunt me at life’s key moments, and always in Berlin.


And look, I’m being a bit facetious and I’m much better these days at resisting the self-victimising narratives my mind is prone too; like most wanton-hearted people of a certain age I’ve played Helena and Hermia with fairly equal adroitness. But if you reckon me paranoid and indulgent to draw great conclusions from, or simply to dwell too much upon, these two incidents, cop a load of this:


We went next to another club, Chalet, (‘easy to get into’). The short-haired woman skipped ahead. The bouncer asked her if she were with us. She said she wasn’t. She was let in, we weren’t. Those of us who remained, crestfallen men all, resigned ourselves to just having a beer and then going home. The French guy decided to buy a couple of bottles of wine and ‘just go back to the hostel and listen to some music’. I admired his spirit. So we all followed suit – shop booze for the hostel. Could be worse!


At the hostel, several people were awake and convivial, including a new American woman who said she loved Berlin and visits at least once a year but has never been to a club and isn’t interested in doing so (this cheered me up). Then two Canadian couples came in, in immensely high spirits. We asked if they’d enjoyed their night and they were like ‘we’re going out again! We just came back to get changed!’. ‘People in Berlin don't go out until, like, 2am!’ is a sentence I heard too many times over that weekend.


Half an hour later, the Canadian foursome came back through, all dressed entirely in black, looking like a student improv group. It was clearly an affected look. As they left, the French guy was like ‘why the fuck are they dressed like this?’ and I suggested they might have bought into the idea that you have to wear black to get into clubs here. Everyone claimed to be entirely ignorant of this notion and the shibboleth that dress-code is actually unimportant was multiply repeated.


Then the French guy decided he wanted to go out again. The Swiss-American guy acquiesced. So did the Indian guy. And, fuck it, so did I. The Peruvian guy went to bed.


And so, as in hip, some post-modern joke with no punchline, we decided to try to get into Watergate and guess what happened next?


That’s right, we split into two pairs and entered the queue separately. The Swiss-American and the Indian guy ahead and the French guy and me a few metres behind. We started a conversation with some women in front of us, which lasted about 40 seconds after which time they didn’t speak to us again for the remaining 30+ minutes of queue-time.


At last our moment was almost up. The American guy and the Indian guy got in. We didn’t. So there’s confirmation, if it were needed, that the one common factor in the rejection of members of the hostel contingent from Berlin clubs that night was…. yours truly, travel-blogger @funnylad5.


[One extra detail that’s just come to me: I’d read in the Google Comments for Watergate (I am a geek sorry okay) that it's common practice for the bouncers there to ask you which DJ you’re there to see and if you can name the DJ you might get in. I made a mental note to remember the DJs before we went out and then I forgot to do it and Lo and Behold the bouncer asked us why we had come to the club that night and I, absolutely no joke, replied ‘just for the chilled atmosphere, good music’. Also read in the Comments quite a lot of horrible stuff the bouncers say to people upon rejecting them, including at least one blatantly anti-Semitic comment].


The French guy and I went then to Suicide Circus, which is where we went on that stag do after not getting into Watergate. It’s alright, but, I think, renowned as the place you go if you can’t get in anywhere else. Very dark techno. A DJ called Cosmin TRG. I decided I would listen to techno a lot more when I got back home; one woman from the hostel who was a lot like Lady Gaga told me she likes to listen to techno when she’s coding (every other person at the hostel was a coder). I have not listened to any techno since Berlin, needless to say.


The French guy and I had a few beers and an hour or two of what might loosely be termed dancing. I do not remember his name but I will always remember ça homme fondly. He drank wine with a flagrant lack of abashment at national stereotypes and never once griped that I was stopping him getting into all the best clubs. At about 8am, I watched him eat a kebab by the Oberbaum bridge, with its glorious brick gothic towers, then we listened to a passing Berliner (late 20’s, bearded) talk complete shit for 10 minutes before making some vague point about either the former eastern sector being more ‘authentic’ than the western sector (or vice versa) and then we stumbled back to the hostel.


Next day was Saturday. Felt quite good and had quite a nice day. Got the iPad (now cracked from multiple drops) fixed. Had a haircut. Went to cinema and watched a documentary about Armenian refugees in Marseille called ‘Those From the Shore’ by Tamara Stepanyam. Very good, watch it if you can.


In the evening, was sitting by the hostel having a beer when CO walked by. Exchanged accounts of the previous evening. She’d had fun but by now was missing her baby very badly, having never been away from her for more than a day before. We watched a little girl dance and jump around indefatigably and entirely for our benefit for no less than half an hour (her parents seated a few tables away were patently exhausted of her). This enjoyable, desperate display made me miss Edinburgh.


We went for pasta and then CO suggested a more sedate evening, perhaps at ‘a Disco Bar’, before amusing herself by questioning whether a ‘Disco Bar’ is even a real type of bar. She’s a funny old thing, is CO. I said it sounded like a good plan.


Outside the hostel a New Zealand-ish woman was lighting a spliff and CO and I joined her. ‘A nice spliff will relax me before the Disco Bar’, I thought. But it turned out to be the kind of spliff (as most spliffs do these days) that utterly robs me of the capacity for language. I told CO I was just popping to my dorm for a quick rest and then went almost immediately to sleep for about 10 hours. (Though not before hearing somebody retching with demonic force into the nearby toilet; incidents like this slightly offset my regret at not having stayed in more hostels.)


Turned out CO did the same thing and she had to be up at the crack to get her flight home so I did not see her again after that clumsy, stoned semi-goodbye. But it was terrific to see her and I hope the moon continues to shine protectingly over her and her baby.


Walking through Berlin on a Sunday morning is funny because the visible public is 50% people going to work or shopping or whatever and 50% is people who’ve been up for two days and are only just facing up to the long march back to mental normalcy.


Düsseldorf.
Westward, Ho. To Düsseldorf in the Ruhr-Rhine region – Germany’s only ‘megacity’.. Around this time time read an article about the forthcoming elections in Germany and how the support base for the right-nationalist AfD party comes mainly from the country’s East. [Looks like just over 20% of eastern voters voted AfD, only about 10% in the west].  


Don’t know much about Düsseldorf. Chose to stop here for primary reason of breaking up long schlep from Berlin to next destination, Rotterdam. And for secondary reason that it gives its name to the title of a song I’ve been obsessed with for nigh on a year, ‘Düsseldorf’ by Teleman (not Telemann).


Zagreb and Slovenia, though almost alpine in character, retained something of the mediterranean and Berlin was a haze, so this is the first time in months I’ve really been exposed to the frigidity of Northern Europe. Seeing a ‘Back to School’ poster in the window of BHS is especially sobering.


This is the Aibnb mentioned in the last post whose host (a 30-ish white man with dark, sunken eyes) has no previous reviews and which I’m feeling paranoid about, largely as a result of watching a disturbing film about a murderer just after booking the place back in Ljubljana. I’ve reassured myself that I’ll arrive and be let straight in and find the host to be perfectly friendly and not at all unsettling and I’ll have no further cause for worry. As it is, I arrive at the street of the Airbnb and realise the host hasn’t included the flat number in the address. I call his number. Straight to voicemail. Take myself off to a Mexican restaurant over the road to use wifi to message him on Airbnb. Drink a cerveza while I wait. Eventually he replies with the number. I return and he arrives blinking at the door, even more vampiric than in his photo. From the dark living room the sub-woofered sfx of a violent video game resounds. He hurriedly shows me my room, which appears just to be his room, implying that he’s sleeping in the living room (not an uncommon phenomenon in my experience of Airbnbs).


This done, he bolts back to the living room. The digitally-relayed voices of other human players are briefly heard before he closes the door.


I look around the room, still undecided as to whether he’ll murder me or not. I pull the curtains back and find on the windowsill a huge sword. It’s probably not a murder sword, but more like a merchandise item for some RPG game but it does nothing to quell my fears. I go to the kitchen to get a water and find in the cupboard a Pepe the Frog mug. Pepe the Frog is a meme that became a mascot for the alt-right. I believe the meme had some life before its white-supremacist associations and this guy seems like the type who might have acquired it innocently but I'm starting to feel weird in a legit way. I’ve crowed on about how, after failing to challenge casual racism from previous Airbnb hosts, if I encountered bigotry again I’d confront, and if I had any guts I would have at least asked the guy about the mug but I don’t so I don’t. Later on his profile, he receives good reviews from two separate black guests and the woman who arrives the next morning is from China so if he is a racist he’s one whose prepared to let non-white people pay him to stay in his house (which, I realise, doesn’t at all preclude him from being a racist: ‘some of my best customers are black!’).


Go for a walk. A choir sings in a hulking baroque chapel, the Rhine bulges. From somewhere techno plays. The Rheinturm communications tower and other skyscrapers seem beacons against the dim sky.


There are many beer halls by the river. I sit outside one and order the only item marked vegetarian on the menu. I just take a stab at saying its name in German and don’t question what it is. It turns out to be boiled potatoes and salad. About the worst meal imaginable in my book. The beer comes in very small glasses. It’s a Sunday evening through and through.


Full, I wander home. A man settles in a sleeping bag under a mock-classical portico on the edge of a park. I take myself to bed, hoping desperately that I won’t be slain in the night.


Wake up alive. As I’m packing my things ready to take the coach to Rotterdam, the doorbell rings. I keep packing because it's not my house. Then it rings again. And again. Maybe the host has gone to work. It rings again. I shouldn't/have no obligation to answer it. I sometimes don’t answer the doorbell in my own flat. It rings again. I look out of the window. It is a young woman with a suitcase. I answer the door.


I help the woman bring her bags into the flat. She’s been outside for an hour. Like me, she didn't know the exact number of the apartment and the host is not answering her messages. She eventually managed to glean from one of the neighbours which apartment is the Airbnb.


She says she can not get in touch with the host. The living room door is shut but there is no noise from within and, reasoning that he would have heard the multiple door rings if here were in, I speculate that he must have gone to work. So I show her around the flat and tell her that I believe the bedsheets still to be clean. She then gets straight into the bed, seeming a bit overwhelmed by the whole situation. I tell her I'm going out for a bit but that I’ll be back to pick up my bag.


Want to go to the Rhine Museum (a museum all about the river Rhine!) but it is sadly closed (so many European museums close on Mondays!) so I have one of my famous coffees and then returned to the Airbnb. As I’m picking up my bag and saying goodbye to the woman, the host emerges from the living room, half-asleep. Abysmal stuff. Definitely not the way to get your reputation as ‘a nice person’ off the ground. If I had any guts I’d have left him a bad review but as I do not I do not. I just ignore all the emails from Airbnb asking me to leave a review and then all the subsequent emails asking why I did not leave a review.


Rotterdam
I wanted Rotterdam to be just a smaller Amsterdam, which it isn’t really, though it is an appealing city in its own right. Even looking from the coach window at Eindhoven I felt calmed. Something about Holland, flat and green and true, that indicates everything will be alright. And never have things felt more like they’ll be more alright than in Rotterdam.


Miles and miles of miles of functioning docks. Skyscrapers. Trams canals. Bike paths. Small parks. Trees. (I appreciate I’m now just listing nouns; I grow weary.)


I had a room with a bath in it and a huge bed and view of trees. Took a soak and listened to a Guardian Audio Long read about banter.


Later walked into town, heading for a specific coffeeshop (as in a cannabis café) I’d read about online. Got there and it was closed. A real shame as it looked fantastic, with a nautical theme and small submarine like pods, which I suppose allow you to get stoned while sitting inside a metaphor for your own drug-induced solipsism.


Now hell-bent on smoking a doobie, I searched for another coffeeshop. Turns out there aren’t that many in Rotterdam. Or at least not as many as in Amsterdam. Rotterdam probably has a density of coffee shops similar to London’s density of e.g. Dutch pancake houses – there are a few around but you can’t guarantee you’ll find one by just wandering the streets.


20 minutes later I found one but it was takeaway only – a heavily secured booth selling bags over the counter. The woman there directed me around the corner to another place and here, again past a bouncer and through a security turnstile, I entered a disarmingly over-lit shop-floor where I bought a pre-rolled hash joint, as I reasoned that if I bought tobacco to roll with I’d just start smoking again, which is the last thing I want. A friendly sign suggested I buy a drink with my spliff before going upstairs so I bought an ice tea from a vending machine before going upstairs.


Upstairs was the barest room you could ever see. It had maybe 10 tables, most of them occupied, but otherwise it was completely bare. No attempt had been made at a theme or even the merest scintilla of aesthetic effort. The crowd were all men, a range of ages. Mostly quite scruffy but none seemed threatening. A man and woman, apparently a couple, entered and sat at the table next to me for a nice romantic spliff.


I’d intended to sit here a while and read about dutch history on the iPad while smoking, as I’d done most evenings this summer (albeit usually with a beer rather than a spliff, and not dutch history but history pertinent to whatever country I was in at the time) but I felt too restless, not quite edgy but certainly not able to sit and relax and concentrate. So, as soon as the spliff was done, I stepped out again onto the canal-side.


In smoking specifically hash, I was trying to call back to an old high: being 15 and absolutely enamoured with everything and on the permanent brink of tripping. Then ‘it all became skunk’ I maintain and that’s the reason why I suddenly found myself able to derive little pleasure from smoking weed, rather than it being down to years of over-stimulation leading to the down regulation and desensitisation of my brain’s endogenous cannabinoid receptors, or at least to some less pharmacokinetically-identifiable tectonic shift in my psyche. Truth is though! These days! Very often I feel as in love with life completely sober and clear-headed, as much as, if not more than I did then stoned to my back teeth! (A nice coffee or a beer often goes down well though ;)


Now, drifting along the canals of Rotterdam I feel a very mild version of that adolescent buzz but it's not quite the same: as if the old buzz has been resurrected as a hologram or something. Wander down Witte-de-Withstraat, renowned as the city’s ‘nightlife street’. Spend absolutely ages trying to take a photo of a neon sign hanging above the street reading ‘WITTY’, which I decide would make a fantastic Twitter cover photo. The iPad camera proves incapable of picking out the luminescent letters against the dark sky and I end up with a photo of an iridescent blur. For the best really, as once I’m less stoned I realise ‘WITTY’ would have made for a terrible cover photo.


It’s still balmy here in the lowlands in late August and the bar and restaurant terraces of WITTY are full. But I’m not yet on an even enough psychic keel to sit amidst the cheerful crowds so I keep walking and walking until most of the city’s restaurants are closed. At around 11pm, all I can find to eat is chips but luckily chips is the dutch national dish so it feels special. So much respect for a nation which  will proudly call chips its national dish.


After the special chips, I’m steadier in the mind and I drink a small beer and read by a canal and then go for a lovely, big sleep in my lovely, big bed.


The next day have several hours to kill/enjoy before my coach leaves. Walk and walk and walk some more. Take in the docks. Consider a boat ride. Decide against it. Consider the maritime museum. Decide against it. Walk some more. Hang out in the massive, modern public library building for a while, studying a map of Holland. Then drift through a massive food market. Buy some cheese for my sister’s birthday present. (Not only am I not upholding veganism myself, I’m now encouraging others not to).


Go into to an architectural bookshop and find a fascinating little book about Rotterdam, which takes the form of a kind of meandering poetic photo-essay. Particularly intrigued by a section on the strange hotels of Graaf Florisstraat, which offer rooms for 40 euros a day, not, apparently, for carnal activity but for drug mules, ‘middle aged men from all corners of the globe’, carrying drugs within their digestive systems, who decamp in Rotterdam and exorcise the goods herein.


And finally it’s time to take my coach… To the ferry port. And then… To Hull. And then……… To Edinburgh. That’s right, the FOMO got the better of me.


Edinburgh is Edinburgh and I imagine that if you’re the sort of person whose interested in Edinburgh/ the Fringe then you’ve had your fill of Edinburgh/ the Fringe for one year, so I’ll say no more about it except that after four days up there, having spent a summer in Europe, I now appreciate just how Good and Special it is, the city and the festival both. I’ve never been so in love with the whole business.


I leave Edinburgh at midday on Saturday 26th August to embark on the most thrillingly gruelling session of travel I’ve ever undertaken:


Train to York. Train to Hull, in a carriage empty except for an attractive, young american couple with two infant boys. The boys scream and writhe around with excitement/bored frustration for the entire journey, including during some kind of card game, ostensibly a formalised version of Go Fish, which only the parents are really playing.


‘Have you got any clams?’
‘No’.
‘Have you got any starfish?’
‘No’.
Etc.


The boys continue to writhe and scream. The parents occasionally say to one or other of the boys, with incredibly calm voices, ‘I am very disappointed at you for screaming’ but it does nothing to reduce the intensity of said.


Bus to the ferry port, under pristine Saturday skies. While in the passport queue, notice a man walk into the terminal in motorbike leathers and surreptitiously take a few photos of the interior, despite stern instructional signage against doing so. Report this to the woman on the passport desk but she doesn’t seem very interested. 12 hour ferry to Rotterdam (terrific vibes out there, over the deep, on a Saturday night of a bank holiday weekend nestled down in MacGinty’s Irish Bar).


Rotterdam at dawn. Coach into town. Train to Utrecht. Get beef from the conductor who reacts to my e-ticket like I’m attempting to use a pentagram as permission for passage. Tells me go to international desk at Utrecht to sort it out. Woman at international desk tells me she can’t help me as it’s a Deutsche Bahn ticket. Walk round Utrecht (lovely city; flabbergasting churches) looking for somewhere to print the ticket, to no avail. Eventually get on train to Frankfurt expecting major beef. Conductor accepts e-ticket right away, barely looks at it.


At Frankfurt make quick dash to coach station to make next coach to Chur, Switzerland. Just get there in time. Going to small town called Flims where my friend JS has a family house. Bunch of pals are going to be there too. (Should say, if it weren’t evident already, this might be the most wonderful fortnight of my life). Arrive at about 1am, after a 300km coach reverie, to deliciously empty and quiet bus station and surrounding streets. Take a mind-bendingly expensive taxi into the mountains and arrive in Flims about two. Quick whiskey with JS and then bed.


I got through the tougher moments of that sometimes (entirely self-inflictedly) arduous day by telling myself it would make a good page for my blog and I think we can all see now that it has.


Was committed to completing the above schedule of travel, as failing to would mean arriving in Flims 24 hours later and thus missing a whole day of the three day stint. The time in Flims was so transcendentally enjoyable that I am not going to write about it here, primarily because pleasure (especially holiday pleasure) is boring, unless it's your own. Just one silly recollection though:


We went hiking in the Alps. JS promised us ‘a special surprise’ high up in the mountains. Throughout the day he drip-fed more details. We were going to a tavern. When we got there there would be a ‘treat’ waiting for us. Finally… The treat would be a massive dog!


When we arrived the treat was lying in the sun with a massive boner. We called him Derr Böner Hund.


Left Flims in the kind of melancholy state that only prolonged joy can bring about. In Zurich, with those of the pals who hadn't retreated normalcy-ward already, had a big old nice lunch (a massive hash brown with two eggs on it) and a big old nice hot chocolate and then said goodbye.


Another coach, to Strasbourg this time. At the first stop over the French border, Euro-Airport Basel, a squadron of no fewer than 20 border guards were waiting at the coach stop, only to board and start inspecting passports. Upon inspecting the documents of one passenger, one of the officers halted the operation and then shepherded said passenger, an old man of about 75, off the coach. Having made him remove his suitcase from the hold, they placed it upon a bench, in full view of all his fellow passengers, and went through it. They found some folder of documents and began poring over this and passing it around between themselves. The old man’s passport had Cyrillic writing on it and perhaps the documents were in Cyrillic too and thus illegible to the gendarmes.


We waited and waited and they did nothing but stare dumbly at this old guy’s documents and talk amongst themselves. They’d cordoned off a large rectangle around the coach, which seemed a pointless and self-important stunt.


After a while I couldn't help speculate about what criminal enterprise the old man may have been concealing. Was he perhaps one of the drug mules famed in Rotterdam for their fleeting hotel visits? I’d also recently read about the ‘Frankfurt Mafia’, a branch of the Macedonian Mafia which exists to transport heroin across the continent, and as this coach ultimately looped back round to Frankfurt, I wondered this guy might have been ‘connected’.


In the end, after putting his possessions roughly back in his case, they let him back on the coach, unincriminated, and off we went. Waste of time. Maybe there was more to it than met the eye but what might the eye was an innocent old man getting a load of unnecessary shit from 20 professional meatheads.


Get it into Strasbourg at dusk. All is calm over the bus station and the large park besides it.


Good Airbnb – a room in the modern, chicly-appointed apartment of a spellbinding young woman with round glasses and a very hench and softly spoken young man. Not an item, I don't think. My room is, I infer, the guy’s bedroom ordinarily. It has a large poster on the wall featuring one Jigoro Kano, some kind of doyen of judo, and several judo trophies on the shelf. Get up early one morning to find the guy watching the Judo World Championships on ESPN. Sit and watch it with him while drinking coffee from their espresso machine. Maybe I'll get into judo. According to the poster the sport embodies principles of: Fair Play, Respect, Hygiene, Self-Discipline and Friendship. All good things, in my book.


Strasbourg is a fine city. Particularly intriguing for its yoking of French and Germanic elements, sitting as it does, right next to the Rhine and thus the border between the two countries. The Grande Île area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a very nice one too. Elsewhere things get very, very gothic; the Rhineland black and white, timber-framed houses are particularly fine. The city’s cathedral once, the tallest building in the world, is also a  sublime late-gothic masterwork.


Visit the city museum and am equally fascinated and amused by the integral repeat pattern in the city's history in its alternation between German and French control every 50 years or so, as the border follows the whims of war and peace, before finally, after World War Two - as the museum text states with admirable confidence - Strasbourg becomes French again ‘for good’. Now the city is home to various EU headquarters, including the European Parliament.


On my final afternoon here – a clement Friday – walk to Le Jardin des Deux Rives (Garden of the Two Banks). A wonderful park where a bridge provides passage between the two countries. Walk over to Germany for a minute and then walk back to France. In the middle of the bridge, activists from populist left political parties Die Linke, of Germany, and Jean Luc Melenchon’s La France Insoummise, of France, are assembling to protest Emmanuel Macron’s proposed labour reforms, which they argue will erode workers’ rights.  


Saturday morning leave Strasbourg by coach, in a blisteringly good mood, partly because I've been so enamoured by the city, partly because I'm on my way to Paris and partly because after that I'm going home.


Arrive in Paris on a Saturday evening into Gare du Bercy, near that beautiful park I banged on about in the original Paris post. Walked past the restaurant I ate at first time around. Nice to see the terrace full. Bought a small Heineken and wandered along the Seine. Went back to the Airbnb I’d stayed at first time around. Had dinner on the terrace at a local restaurant. I wish terrace-going were commoner practice à Londres.


Went to the Louvre at last. Saw the Mona Lisa but spent more time looking at its protective glass screen and all the people reflected in it than at La Joconde herself. Otherwise got most excited by the Goyas, I think. Later went to a very good Japanese restaurant near Cadet Métro but it was expensive so ended up eating only a piece of tofu and plain noodles in broth. Afterwards, sat on a terrace by the metro for a couple of hours, looking at a McDonald’s. Drank a calvados. What a drink that is. Silky.


Set out mid-morning, coffee en terrasse. Went to Gare du Nord to leave my bag in the luggage storage. At the station entrance saw the comedian Mark Steel. Gave him a nod but he didn't acknowledge me. I once acted in a sitcom he wrote so he should remember me but I’ll forgive him the oversight. If this blog has proven anything it is that international travel can be distractingly stressful.


The queue for the storage is trop longue. Find another storage place a few blocks from the station but it’s an automated facility and requires going online and paying by card and downloading codes and, much like the ‘self-check in’ Airbnb in Athens, is just an annoyance to use, and probably augurs what the first few years of mass automation (if they are not already upon us) will be like – an utterly impersonal, administrative nightmare (and which which perhaps spells redundancy for many of us).


Resigned to keeping my big bag in my possession for the day, abandon plans to venture off to St Denis and instead indulge in the easiest day possible, by walking the relatively short distance to Paris’ Trendy Canal Saint Martin and having a long nap on the towpath wall. Genuinely about six other hipsters within spitting distance doing the same thing. In the afternoon, go drink a couple of glasses of Pays d’Oc – guess where – on a terrace! (opposite Gare du Nord) before extracting my tatty Eurostar ticket from the bottom of my bag, where it’s been secreted for the last three months.

Just one more post to follow.

8. The Balkans

An initial note: I feel obliged to offer an apology for my decision to title this post ‘The Balkans’, as it somewhat diminishes each of the great nations limned herein, especially given that e.g. Marseille got a post all to itself. I promise it was for reasons of expediency and not a reflection of my impressions of the nations in question, as, hopefully, the next 8500ish words will attest. Further, it’s a little rich titling the post after a region at least half of whose countries I did not visit - a bit like travelling around southern England and Wales and then writing a post titled ‘Britain’. To the good people of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro, I promise I will come to all your countries one day and write a whole new blog about it.


Skopje, Macedonia


I don’t want to be the guy who arrives in Skopje, southernmost capital of the former Yugoslavia, and feels moved to remark that the city’s central bus and train station complex is quite different from those he has seen elsewhere in Europe and perhaps still bears some traces of its communist era origins, but my hand was forced by the drab bustle of the bus station, the melancholic, cool-tiled empty largesse of the train station and the fact the woman at the luggage storage window told me the facility was ‘full’ even though there were several visibly empty luggage shelves behind her. Defeated in my quest to find an english language menu in any of the station’s small, frill-less eateries, I sat down quite arbitrarily outside of one and ordered the only item on the menu I recognised: the ever-reliable börek, a sort of cheese pastry - an item of the same genus as the cheese and spinach pies (spanakopita) so prevalent in Greece. I have, I’m not even kidding, now eating at least one pie or börek or some other similar cheese/pastry variant every single day for the past – at the time of writing (Düsseldorf, mid-August) – two weeks. I can’t even pretend to be ‘sort of a vegan’ any more, but in my defence, they are seemingly available on more or less every urban street in this 600,000 km (sq) swathe of the continent, rarely cost more than two euros (or local currency equivalent) and reliably fill you up for at least four hours. And I’m sure even history’s most brutalised cow would understand that.


My belly full of Bad Proteins, I sat and had a nice little self-pity: it was early afternoon and I couldn’t go to the Airbnb until 6pm, as the host, Mira, had gone away for the weekend. I had no idea how to get to the city centre. I couldn’t walk anywhere as I was carrying my big bag and it was 40 degrees. The stations seemed to form an island amidst a matrix of long, almost featureless roads. The waitress told me there was a bus towards the museums but wasn’t sure where to get on or off. For some (probably racist) reason I’d been reluctant even to acknowledge the forthright self-advertisements of the taxi drivers who were standing around the station entrances. But now I began to see their habit of going right up to passengers from the arriving coaches and almost blocking their onward passage while saying ‘taxi, taxi’ as a benevolent act of public service. There was, apparently, just no other way out of here.


I got cash from an ATM and went up to one bluff-looking fellow, strolling about in his shirtsleeves and asked how much to the ‘Museum of the Macedonian Struggle’, the foremost museum in the city, according to Google Reviews, where it scores a mighty 4.2 stars.


‘Struggle?’ he said, frowning a bit. ‘That’ll be 200 denars’, which, the conversion rate still fresh in my memory from the ATM, I reckoned to be about £3. ‘He’s not ripping me off’ I internally chuckled! I would later read in a guidebook the confident assertion that a taxi from the station to the city centre ‘should cost no more than 150 denars’. Inferring from the guidebook’s bent for hipster-based observational froth, that it was fairly up-to-date, and assuming that the country wasn’t in the grip of hyper-inflation, one could conclude that I had been ripped off, by a massive 25ish% or a mere 75p, depending on which way you looked at it.


Swindler or not, the driver was a nice guy, as much as you can make a judgement like that based on sitting and looking at the back of someone’s head for six minutes. He asked me if I was in town for the match.


‘What match?’ I asked.
‘Manchester United vs Real Madrid in the European Super Cup! It is being played tomorrow night, here in Skopje!’ he replied, aghast at my ignorance.


He told me excitedly that he had tickets for the game and that Manchester United was his favourite team. I replied that mine was too, nominally. Except, I left out ‘nominally’ for ease of comprehension. I asked if he had a favourite Macedonian team.


‘FK Vardar’, he answered, ‘but they are not good. Macedonian football is not good. We are a small country. In UK they spend millions and millions on football. Here they spend 2000.’


I wasn’t sure if this was quite a deft little gag or just a statement of truth but I laughed anyway.


I asked if he’d ever visited the UK and he said it was too expensive to get a visa but that he would like to one day.


‘We don’t need visa to travel rest of Europe though’ he said cheerfully.


We drove past the parliament building, to which he pointed and remarked ‘that is where the mafia lives!’.


‘Really?’ I asked.
‘No’ he laughed. ‘It is a joke. Not mafia’.
‘But is the government corrupt I asked’.
‘Yes’ he said seriously. ‘Very corrupt’.


[In 2016, there were mass protests across Macedonia in the wake of the incumbent government’s embroilment in a wire-tapping scandal. In late 2016, an election was held as part of a deal brokered by the EU to end the protests and the ruling nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party failed to secure a majority, allowing the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia to form a coalition (although apparently coalition talks are still ongoing.) Easy to see how you could be disillusioned by politics here, as this guy and my airbnb host both appeared to be.]


We arrived at the museum. ‘Here is Struggle’ he said and then gave me his card, telling me to call him if I needed another taxi or ‘any other help’. I took the card, imagining him becoming something of ‘a fixer’ for me here in Skopje. With neo-colonial self-importance, I’ve always semi-fantasised about having ‘a fixer’ in a foreign city – but I had never had reason to call him again.


Inside the neo-classical museum– upwards of 30 men and women wearing yellow polo shirts were cleaning the lavish atrium, some sweeping, mopping, polishing, dusting, wiping; others just kind of looking around for even the smallest speck of dirt to expunge. Otherwise this grand and preposterously clean space, with ice-white tiles, palatial staircase, and stained-glass dome ceiling held no staff presence. Maybe this is a ‘fake museum’ I thought, though quite what that would mean I had no time to ponder before a petite, blonde woman came purposefully down the stairs, towards me.


‘Hello! The museum is 300 denars she said’, landing at ground level. ‘It is by guided tour only. The next tour starts in 10 minutes. You can leave your bag in here.’ She pointed to a fairly small cupboard along a side wall.


‘Does it lock?’ I asked.
‘No’, she said. ‘But it is watched always by a camera’.


More able to now to quell my paranoid instincts, I questioned no further the wisdom of leaving more or less all my worldly goods in an unlocked public cupboard, and just knuckled down to spending a good minute kicking and then shouldering the large bag into it. In the end, it was so comprehensively wedged in that I wondered whether I’d ever get it out again, let alone a potential thief.


This done, I sat down in a comfortable armchair and began flicking through the aforementioned tourist guide, while continuing to try and make sense of the cleaners. A moment later another guy walked into the museum and gave the same quintuple take that I had at the sight of the cleaning activity. Out of my earshot, he then had a conversation with the small, assertive woman (which I assumed to be the same one I just had with her, minus the bag part) and then sat down in an armchair opposite me. He was a white guy of about 36, in shorts and t-shirt, with tousled hair with a face that, though friendly, bore the quality of having... seen some shit, you know. ‘He looks like a quintessential Balkans-man’, I thought. Then, in a strong Glaswegian accent, he asked me whether I was here for the museum tour too.


While we waited we related our respective travelling experiences heretofore. This guy had flown into Zadar in Croatia. Deciding to take a few weeks off work (he was a nurse in Glasgow), he’d wanted to go somewhere inexpensive and as different as possible from Western Europe.


‘I wanted to go somewhere where the alphabet’s different’, he explained. Now a few weeks into his trip he’d been around Croatia and Serbia (and possibly Kosovo; I don’t remember) and now he was weighing up his next move.


‘I wanna do like a three seas tour’ he said. ‘I’ve seen the Adriatic. And I might go to the Aegean and then the Black Sea.’


Eventually the diminutive dynamo returned and told us it was almost time to start the tour. I asked her whether there were always so many cleaners in the museum.


‘No’ she laughed. ‘They are here because tomorrow evening Manchester United will play against Real Madrid in Skopje and before the match the UEFA officials will attend a special dinner in this museum.’


Whether that’s why visits were tourguide-only she did not say, but if, for example, you’d wanted to enter the museum as a visitor, hide overnight behind a mannequin of e.g. Kole Čašule, founder and former president of the Macedonian Writers’ Association, and then, when the dignitaries arrived the following day, jump out and run towards UEFA president, Ángel María Villar, in order to ask him whether he’s considered that the new changes to the Championships League qualification procedure might harm domestic football in smaller nations, you probably wouldn’t have been able to.


For the first exhibit, a map of the Macedonian region circa 1900 (when it was still part of the Ottoman empire), the Scottish guy and I were the only people on the tour, but as we progressed through history – taking in the First Balkan War of 1912 – we were joined by other groups, including an Australian family, or two families (two couples and two children; maybe just one family – it takes all sorts!) who asked many questions about the events and details being relayed, most notably about the passage of Macedonian refugees to Australia following the Greek Civil War. They spoke a bit of Macedonian so it seemed reasonable to infer they might have descended from said.


I can’t delude myself that anybody comes to this blog for historical education, but what rudimentary knowledge I now have of the history of the Balkans was germinated here at Struggle, so, for those as simultaneously curious and ignorant as I was of the issues at hand, here are some of the key points I’ve remembered (with some help from your friend and mine, Wikipedia) from the tour (you probably know all this anyway sofeel free to just skip over!):


South Slavic tribes settled in the territory of the present-day Republic of Macedonia in the 6th century


Conquered by the Ottoman empire in early 15th Century. Remained under Ottoman rule for 500 years.


The region was captured by Serbia during First Balkan War of 1912 and was subsequently annexed to Serbia in the post-war peace treaties


The policy of Serbianization in the 1920s and 1930s clashed with pro-Bulgarian sentiment stirred by Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) detachments infiltrating from Bulgaria, whereas local communists favoured the path of self-determination.


During World War II,  ‘Southern Serbia’ was occupied between 1941 and 1944 by Italian-ruled Albania, which annexed the Albanian-populated western regions, and pro-German Bulgaria, which occupied the remainder


Following World War II, Yugoslavia was reconstituted as a federal state under the leadership of Josip Tito's Yugoslav Communist Party. In the 1963 Constitution of Yugoslavia it was slightly renamed, to bring it in line with the other Yugoslav republics, as the Socialist Republic of Macedonia.


During the Greek Civil War (1944–1949), many Macedonians (regardless of ethnicity) participated in the ELAS (Greek People’s Liberation Army) resistance movement organized by the Greek Communist Party. ELAS and Yugoslavia were on good terms until 1949, when they split due to Tito's lack of allegiance to Joseph Stalin (cf. Cominform).


After Croatia and Slovenia declared independence, 91% of Macedonian population voted for independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.


The Republic of Macedonia was established. Eventually all nations recognised the new state, except Greece who emphasised ambiguities in the naming issue between the Republic of Macedonia and the northern greek region of ‘Macedonia’. Greece would continue to identify its neighbour as the ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’.


In 1999, the Kosovo War led to 340,000 Albanian refugees from Kosovo fleeing into Macedonia.


In the spring of 2001, ethnic Albanian insurgents calling themselves the National Liberation Army (some of whom were former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army) took up arms in the west of the Republic of Macedonia


After a joint NATO-Serb ‘crackdown’ on Albanian guerrillas in Kosovo, European Union (EU) officials were able to negotiate a cease-fire in June 2001. The government would give ethnic Albanians greater civil rights, and the guerrilla groups would voluntarily relinquish their weapons to NATO monitors.


Apparently, ethnic relations have since improved significantly, although hardliners on both sides have been a ‘continued cause for concern’.


In March 2004, the Republic of Macedonia submitted an application for membership of the EU. On 17 December 2005, EU Presidency conclusions listed the Republic of Macedonia as an accession candidate.


The country now has the highest income inequality in Europe.


After Struggle, the Scottish guy and I wander around a bit. My initial impressions of Skopje as being, I suppose, socio-geographically ‘basic’ are made ridiculous by the city centre’s many shops and cafes and rooftop bars, and by the city’s Old Bazaar, one of the oldest and largest marketplaces in the Balkans. We sit outside a restaurant and the Scottish guy eats a steak while I have a beer (I’m still full from the borek!) and then we sit at/in/on a rooftop bar and the Scottish guy has a coffee and I have an orange juice.


He claims to now prefer Skopje to Zagreb and Belgrade, though he does also accuse the city’s grander structures of being ‘faux-classical’. ‘Faux-classical’ or not, these buildings, bridges, fountains and statues combine to seem convincingly imposing, though are at this moment somewhat thrown into relief by the UEFA iconography festooned all over the place. There’s a ‘Fan Zone’ and ‘a Fan Stage’ and a ‘Fan Screen’, and Man Utd and Real flags hanging from the lampposts, and a massive Nike advert installed by the iconic Stone Bridge, with a slogan along the lines of ‘BRING THE NOISE, SKOPJE’. A few portly and sunburnt United fans in vintage shirts stumble about the main square plotting their next beer.


We arrive at the Memorial House of Mother Teresa, some sort of, I guess, memorial house, dedicated to the Good Mother, who lived in Skopje between 1910-1928. It’s closed for the day so we just have a look at a statue of old MT, grab a few photos and try to remember why Christopher Hitchens beefed her so much. [Answer: he was too much of a cantankerous old skeptic to believe that one day in Bengal a beam of light shone out of a picture of the future saint, destroying its owners cancerous tumour! (and that she “spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction”.). Hitchens, of course, was a constant proponent of The Empowerment of Women……………...]


Bronze (or bronze-seeming) statues pepper the city centre. In the main, these are of (mostly male) figures from Macedonian history, but close to the Mother Theresa museum and a hypnotically attractive, gold-domed Orthodox church, on a commercial road can be found a bronze (or bronze-seeming) bull – surely a pastiche or homage to the bovine monument of Wall St. And near this there’s a statue of a ravishing, busty woman in revealing dress, talking on a mobile phone, a handbag hanging off her arm. Sexy and fun and in no way confusing in its significance.


Finally, I persuade the Scottish guy to have a beer and we have a good, wide-ranging chat in which he indulges me with his superior knowledge of Balkan history and I describe Glasgow as a ‘beautiful city, amazing city’ several times, before swapping emails and – only then – names (his is Alan, mine remains Liam). And then I head to my Airbnb and he to his hotel. Quite fun just having a mate for one afternoon. Like being a child on holiday.


I could write forever about my Skopje host, Mira, (not her real name), a Macedonian poet, novelist and cultural essayist, but I must keep moving, so won’t. Key points: I told her I was hungry but felt too tired to walk back into town for dinner so she said I could use her ingredients to make ‘whatever I wanted’, which turned out to be tuna, pasta, mushrooms, one onion and no sauce. I told her this was a traditional English dish and then had to explain I was joking when she tried it and apologised for not finding it nice. Then we drank Macedonian wine and discussed many things, including my best topic – feminism. Her line on the subject was that feminism has gone too far and women do not need more feminism and it has made ‘women into enemies, because they are now required to achieve more to be considered successful’. I told her that the feminists I know wouldn’t see the encouragement of competition between women as having much to do with feminism but it felt dangerously like I was sort of saying ‘well the fourth wave feminism that we have in London, which you probably haven’t got over here yet has it that…’. So I let the matter lie and we talked of other things before toasting to a good, impromptu chat and bade one another good night.


Belgrade, Serbia


At the Macedonia-Serbia border, a guard with holstered-pistol surveys me and my fellow disembarked coach passengers as we fidget under the mercifully cool and dull sky. There’s a nervous pause while he knits and unknits his brow, as if waiting for some strange mystery to be resolved.


He points at a man and says something in Serbian. Or Macedonian. Maybe the two South Slavic languages are similar enough as to be mutually intelligible to each other’s speakers.


The guard turns to me and says the same thing.


‘Engleski?’ I say. (Wherever I go I learn the word for English and then just desperately say it whenever I don’t understand what’s being said to me.)
‘Where you from?’ He clarifies.
‘England’. I answer. (My knowledge didn’t stretch as far as the translation of the noun ‘England’ (Engleska).


He looks unimpressed and then, apparently bored of the whole business suddenly, he lets us into the country.


At first sight, Belgrade seems more developed/ prosperous/ modern/ concordant with my weird Western European standards than Skopje first seemed. Certainly there’s a greater pedestrian bustle around the bus station as well as all the big signifiers of progress: high cabled bridges, complex road systems, digital-outdoor advertising, banks, a burrito place. Just when I was about to decide the city’s troubled past to be entirely undetectable I come upon a stretch of buildings with huge elements missing, as if demolished (possibly not by bombs) and a massive militaristic billboard.


My Airbnb, a small and stylishly sober studio apartment, reachable via a dark-tiled hallway, a utilitarian courtyard and a narrow and winding staircase, is pretty garrett-like, and aptly so, because I have to spend a large portion of the Serbian leg holed up here working on another writing job.


At last I’m at liberty, to get out there, get into it. ‘It’ being the the museum of Yugoslav History and the mausoleum of Josip Broz Tito, who lead Yugoslavia for 35 years until his death in 1991, which effectively brought about the dissolution of the Federal Republic.


Once again, I don’t suppose anybody’s here for the historical data but for the curious-ignorant, here are some key ‘facts’ apprehended at the Serbian museum and augmented with learnings and ideas from elsewhere (primarily your best friend and mine, Wikipedia) [if you do choose to read them, it’s worth noting that these notes get nowhere even close to providing a useful sketch of the region’s history, especially with regard to events post-1990]:


The Serbian principality established as early as 8th century by Slavic tribe, the Serbs - a landlocked country situated at the crossroads of Central and Southeast Europe. Conquered by the Ottomans in 1459.


1804-1815 - Serbian Revolution for independence from the Ottoman Empire


In the course of the First Balkan War in 1912, the Balkan League defeated the Ottoman Empire and captured its European territories, which enabled territorial expansion into Raška and Kosovo. The Second Balkan War soon ensued when Bulgaria turned on its former allies, but was defeated, resulting in the Treaty of Bucharest. In two years, Serbia enlarged its territory by 80% and its population by 50% it also suffered high casualties on the eve of World War I, with around 20,000 dead.


The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip, a member of the Young Bosnia organization, led to Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia. Russia mobilized troops to defend Serbia. Austria-Hungary's ally Germany declared war on Russia


Despite early victories in WW1, Serbia was overpowered and occupied by the Central Powers in 1915. Most of its army and some people fled through Albania to Greece and Corfu, suffering immense losses on the way.


As the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, on 1 December 1918, Serbian Prince Regent Alexander of Serbia proclaimed the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (the first Yugoslavia) under King Peter I of Serbia.


King Peter was succeeded by his son, Alexander, in August 1921.


Alexander was assassinated in Marseille, during an official visit in 1934 by Vlado Chernozemski, member of the IMRO. The organisation that would become the contemporary right-wing VMRO-DPMNE party in Macedonia.


In 1941, in spite of Yugoslav attempts to remain neutral in the war, the Axis powers invaded Yugoslavia.


The occupied territory was the scene of a civil war between royalist Chetniks commanded by Draža Mihailović and communist partisans commanded by Josip Broz Tito. Against these forces were arrayed Axis auxiliary units of the Serbian Volunteer Corps and the Serbian State Guard. Draginac and Loznica massacre of 2,950 villagers in Western Serbia in 1941 was the first large execution of civilians in occupied Serbia by Germans, with Kragujevac massacre and Novi Sad Raid of Jews and Serbs by Hungarian fascists being the most notorious, with over 3,000 victims in each case. After one year of occupation, around 16,000 Serbian Jews were murdered in the area, or around 90% of its pre-war Jewish population. Many concentration camps were established across the area. Banjica concentration camp was the largest concentration camp, with primary victims being Serbian Jews, Roma, and Serb political prisoners


During the war, Tito was leader of the Partisans guerrilla movement, according to Wikipedia often regarded as the most effective resistance movement in occupied Europe


Following the war, the victory of the Communist Partisans in the Serbian conflicts resulted in the abolition of the monarchy and a subsequent constitutional referendum. A one-party state was soon established in Yugoslavia by the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, between 60,000 and 70,000 people were killed in Serbia during the communist takeover.


Yugoslavia distanced itself from Soviet russia in 1948 and pursued its own policy of market socialism, which western powers cautiously supported.


There was relative peace between the groups and regions comprising the republic but occasional nationalist protests were habitually suppressed by the regime, which committed ‘significant violations of human rights throughout its existence’.


European economic crises of the early 70s affected Serbia, Macedonia and Kosovo more severely than Croatia and Slovenia. Though the 1974 Constitution reduced the power of the federal government, Tito's authority substituted for this weakness until his death in 1980.


Following Tito’s death, Serbian communist leader Slobodan Milošević sought to restore pre-1974 Serbian sovereignty. After Tito's death, Milosevic made his way to becoming the next superior figure and political official for Serbia. Other republics, especially Slovenia and Croatia, denounced this move as a revival of greater Serbian hegemonism.


In the 1990s, Croatian and Slovenia asserted more and more national self-will when the new regimes tried to replace Yugoslav civilian and military forces with secessionist forces, the Yugoslav wars broke out, being fought mainly in Croatia and Bosnia, with Serbia and Montenegro being relatively untouched by the war.


A different picture during the Kosovo War when NATO - in response to Yugoslavian persecution of the Albanian population in Kosovo - bombed cities across Serbia and Montenegro, killing around 500 civilians. This was the first time NATO had used military force without approval of the UN Security Council (due to Russia and China vetoing the action).


after the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević from power as president of the federation in 2000, Yugoslavia dissolved. Serbia and Montenegro replaced the republic. In 2006, Montenegro became an independent nation.


In the indictment which was judicially confirmed in 2001, Milošević was accused of 66 counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo between 1991 and 1999. These crimes affected hundreds of thousands of victims throughout the former Yugoslavia.
Due to Milošević's death during the trial, the court returned no verdict on the charges.


Serbia officially applied for membership in the European Union on 22 December 2009, and received candidate status on 1 March 2012, following a delay in December 2011. Following a positive recommendation of the European Commission and European Council in June 2013, negotiations to join the EU commenced in January 2014.


Remembrance of the time of the joint state and its positive attributes is referred to as Yugonostalgia. Many aspects of Yugonostalgia refer to the socialist system and the sense of social security it provided. There are still people from the former Yugoslavia who self-identify as Yugoslavs; this identifier is commonly seen in demographics relating to ethnicity in today's independent states.


At the House of Flowers, where Tito and his wife, Jovanka Broz, are interred, a museum archive provides even-handed, complex account of Serbia’s past, mainly via video interviews with people (‘experts’ and ‘real’) who have some unique perspective, personal or academic, upon it.


Most interesting of these was a recording of an economist, whose name I noted as Joze Mencinger, but further research has revealed that he’s a different guy, so I do not know what this economist is called and yet am going to quote him as a definitive authority on regional, and indeed global, socio-economic matters. His central semi-joke was that he has been unfortunate enough to live ‘under both systems’, i.e. Tito’s market socialism and free market capitalism thereafter. In both historico-economic periods he identifies problems of a different but equally grave order.


Under socialism, the Yugoslavian economy grew in the post-world war era of global development, but not as quickly as other Western nations, especially in the later part of the 20th century. Croatia and Slovenia developed more quickly than other Yugoslav republics, which fuelled their desire for independence. Furthermore, though Tito wasn’t a mass-murdering totalitarian like Stalin or a mass-murdering war criminal like Milošević, his regime sometimes suppressed free speech and violated human rights. [But other accounts maintain that he was a ‘benevolent dictator’. If you’re interest is piqued by the man I urge you to do your own research.]


Now the Unknown Economist observes, the former-communist economies are free to trade and ‘grow’ with all the urgency of the most free-market embracing of nations, but this has produced and accelerated inequality alarmingly quickly. He discusses the matter of inequality in Macedonia and predicts that, if the issue is not ameliorated soon, resulting resentments and tensions will be easily channelled towards nationalist and ethnic courses. This process, is already underway, he says. For such such a situation to worse much more in this region could have catastrophic consequences.


Namechecking economists Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty,  he gives some crumbs of comfort (or least cautious hope), talking of a ‘new social system’ which, which will have to allow growth and development and yet maintain equality. ‘The name of the system will come by itself’ he promises.


***


Next day it got hot again and I walked, sweat-diluted suncream running off me, up to the Belgrade Fortress and looked upon the Danube, a river I’d seen only once, some winters ago in Budapest. Now August sunlight glimmers on the surface of the water flowing to the Black Sea.


Zagreb, Croatia


I was flagging in Zagreb and I’m flagging now, two weeks on, so my reflections might become especially dull and dim at this point.


It’s a beautiful city. A new architectural style erupts here, characterised chiefly by pastel yellow and intricately facaded civic buildings with grey domes and pediments.


As I arrived in the city and boarded the tram towards my Airbnb the sky turned nighttime dark, though it was still two hours from sunset. I got off the tram and bought pasta and vegetables to cook at the Airbnb. Everything went strange with lightning, then thunder and then rain – the first I’d seen since Paris.


The Airbnb was behind a hotel called ‘The Movie Hotel’ whose theme was ‘Movie’. The entrance hall was cold and empty, eery in the premature gloom. It was a Thursday or a Friday. A sign pointed to the hotel’s bedrooms up a dark staircase. The reception was in a bar. The bar was large and something like the ‘Cheers’ bar or an English pub. It seemed to me like a lovely place to have a drink but it was virtually empty each time I walked through it. The receptionist didn’t seem readily familiar with Airbnb but suggested that I might be staying at ‘The Times Inn’, which could be reached via the car park. There was another large, covered seating area out back, also completely empty.


Some lads in caps went running through the car park, laughing and cursing the rain in Irish accents.
Then another dark staircase and then the Airbnb which turned out be a hostel, but not one with a kitchen or any sort of communal area. ‘The pasta and vegetables will go to waste’ I mentally lamented, but little did I know that I would end up eating the tomatoes and mushrooms straight out of the packet, dipping them in the cooking sauce, and then take the pasta and single onion all the way to Ljubljana and cook them there!


It was comfortable enough and its host, who had an office in the hostel with a bed in it, very friendly but it was perhaps not bourgeois enough for my liking and if I’d have known the score I might have stayed somewhere else. The fact that the property’s main image on Airbnb was a winking emoji wearing a red cap and giving a thumbs up perhaps should have been a giveaway.


Owing to the continuation of the rain and the writing job commenced in Belgrade, my tourist opportunity was frustratingly limited here but eventually I got out there. At it.


High amongst the internet’s ‘Things To Do in Zagreb’ lists - and absolutely stone cold top of the hostel owner’s - is the Museum of Broken Relationships. This is not an evocatively named monument to Croatia’s fraught historical relationship with its former Yugoslavian neighbours but an actual museum about breakups. Established in 2006, the MBR collects and exhibits individual items symbolising failed relationships (almost exclusively of a romantic stripe), donated by members of the public. These are displayed on mounts or in cabinets with as much gravitas as was bestowed upon any item I’ve seen in any museum all summer. Alongside the objects – items of clothing, CDs, books, drawings, love-letters, a concrete gnome, a copy of Football Manager 2013 – are accompanying statements from their donors, ranging from the blunt and gnomic (‘I bought her this. She didn’t want it’) to the expansive, and almost novelistic. Heart-rending, bathetic and/or funny stuff.


The museum was open til late (it was a Friday, I now remember) and after my visit I strolled around the nighttime streets, lost my mind a bit at the view of the city from the elevation of the Old Town, swooned at the buildings, ate an over-priced tuna steak (non-vegan) and walked around some more.


Arrived at Park Zrinjevac, where there was music and dancing and cheap beer and indescribable elation. After this went to a club but it was shut so just walked around some more, half-pissed, and then took the tram back to the hostel about midnight. Of the nights I’ve spent on my tod this summer, this one might have been the best.


More rain in the morning precluded a visit to Dolac market, the largest farmer’s market in the city, which every Zagreb guidebook completely creams itself over. Instead went to the Museum of Arts and Crafts, a veritable dream-factory of bourgeois interiors. This is the only time in my life I can remember being deeply moved by furniture.


Next, the Zagreb City Museum to trace the history of Zagreb from Baroque city of religious orders and gilds to socialist post-war rebuilding to capitalist metropolis.


Still have a lot to learn about Yugoslavian history from a Croatian perspective but did remember an excellent play I saw at the National a couple of years back called ‘3 Winters’ by Tena Štivičić, which portrayed a Croatian family and their Zagreb home over three generations, via three historical moments: the formation of the communist republic in 1945; the dawning of Croatian independence in 1990; and 2011 when Croatia is about to join the EU and the contemporary family feuds over the ethical dimensions of their bourgeois privilege.


Months ago, when rough-plotting my route, I think I had some vague intentions to go south - where , it’s said, the scenery is something else and young people dance all night on boats. But they came to nought. Spent my final morning drinking coffee and ogling the buildings around the train station.


Ljubljana


Ljubljana. Ljubljana. Lovely Ljubljana: capital of Slovenia, population 280,000, with the swag of a city three times larger and the placidity of one three times smaller.


Its beauty was fore-ordained by the scenery viewed on the train journey from Zagreb - an easy 140km course, running like an especially attractive contour on the face of Europe.


It basically went: glistening wind-rippled lake – open field with storybook-feudal castle – small town – glistening wind-rippled lake – open field with cylinder-towered church – small town – glist- (and on and on.)


The mental serenity this scenery engendered was interrupted only by the embarkment of armed border guards, checking passports. This happened at all international crossings in the Balkans, and then later again on the Slovenia-Austria border – even though Croatia and Slovenia are both EU member states – but not at any other borders as far as I can remember, even coming off the Italian ferry in Greece.


[So this I think is because of efforts to close off the ‘Balkans Route’ for refugees travelling through Greece towards Northern Europe. In 2016 Austria hosted a summit with its neighbours from the Balkans and Eastern Europe resulting in a resolution to erect fences and increase security checks in the region. The result, says historian Armina Galijas from the Center for Southeast European Studies in Graz: "The people have not disappeared; they are still there but their situation has become more difficult. Now they barely have any help and support, and the smuggling business is flourishing. Smugglers now ask for considerably more money than before.”]


When I arrived in Ljubljana, late on a Sunday afternoon, it was hot again and I hugged the high-rise shadows in the commercial streets around the station.


After skyscrapers and over-modern plazas came Renaissance buildings and green spaces - so many green spaces, and of such a fine calibre that the city was named ‘European Green Capital’ in 2016. I don’t know definitively that the title was awarded purely on the basis of its having some nice parks, but it was surely a factor.


Airbnb was good. The host was a slightly louche-seeming man of about 40 with the energy and air of a 34 year-old, called Thomas with centre-parted neck-length hair and a goatee. Rather than a traditional straight-armed handshake, his default technique was of a crooked armed/ elongated high-five variety, which you’d think should be quite unbecoming for an older white man, but he managed to carry it off okay, despite the fact that I shaped up for the trad shake on the three or four occasions he felt it necessary for us to manually engage during my stay.


Thomas showed me a map of the city with modish graphic design, and a legend of recommended sites and establishments, written in waggish, millennial-friendly style:


“Coffee drinking is a big deal for us - it helps us to catch up, complain about work or just gossip. We say ‘Prides na kavo?’ (Will you come around for coffee?) when we want to spend some time together, so don’t be surprised when locals invite you around for coffee and you end up with a beer in your hand!”.


(This did not happen).


There was just time to cross the world-class Tivoli Park International and visit the Centre of Graphic Arts (currently hosting the 32nd Biennial of Graphic Arts) before it closed. You can probably tell from my choice of font for this blog (Georgia, 11pt) that I am something of an expert of graphic design. [n.b. To make the text medium grey was not a deliberate choice: I’ve been working from an iPad and can not work out how to change the colour].


The 32nd Biennial was titled ‘Birth as Criterion’, an allusion, apparently to 20th century modernist poet Jure Detela. One critic discussing the Biennial in relation to a quotation from Detela writes:


‘Here I am, smaller than I ever was,’ in this context, seems less of a musing on mankind’s cosmic insignificance (as Detela meant it) than a statement drawing attention to those who are marginalised from, or choose to reject, mainstream and ‘sanctioned’ forms of visual culture.”


Here, I took in a succession of admirably conceived but unremarkably realised exhibits, comprising apparently a kind of competition for young graphic designers - basically, I decided, the Edinburgh Fringe of graphic design.


The contributions included: a room containing plasterboard and scaffold structures, intended as some kind of comment on the hidden structures of capitalist society; ‘surreal’ rap lyrics visualised and embroidered onto tea towels; and an installation devoted to “looking beyond the tongue and identifying this time nose and nasal phonemes (as opposed to the fricative favorites of the throat) a site of resistance to the empire-building enterprise that are alphabets”, whose main component was a book fastened to a wire to stop you stealing it. Fascinating but too dense for me.


A little underwhelmed and almost ready to declare 2016-17 a not-particularly-vintage two years for the graphic arts, I made my way to a second venue, a kind of softly germanic country lodge with confident jetties, tucked away up a hill behind the first, and here found a great deal more to stick my visual and mental teeth into (perhaps this was effectively more like the Main Prize and the first building had been the Best Newcomer category.)


Special mention must go to the following:


Carlos Monroy - a mesmerising video/traditional dance piece, watch it here: https://www.facebook.com/monroyperformanceservices/videos/1065480576885670/


Ebecho Muslimova - a mural depicting a delirious Rube Goldberg-esque act of female autoeroticism, featuring her alter-ego ‘Fatebe’.


Unknown Artist (as in I forgot to note the name and now can’t work out who it was) - video footage of glitches in violent video games intercut with with footage and audio from US military drone operations.


Unkown Artist (as above) - a short film about an immigrant (I think) Japanese worker, in (I think) America who lures his (I think (amazing how many details about this I failed to take proper note of)) boss back to his house, straps him to a chair, chops off his limbs, throws them in a crate, chops off his ear, fries it in oil with a portable stove thus enticing his cat into the room, throws the ear in the crate, throws the cat in the crate and finally nails the crate shut.


I watched this having, in order to protect my now depleted cash reserves, just made the somewhat risky decision of booking an Airbnb in Düsseldorf with no previous reviews. Its host, according to his profile picture, a slim, pale man of about thirty with thinning hair and sunken eyes, claimed to ‘like video games and skateboarding’ and be ‘a nice person’ who likes to ‘enjoy life’. Creepy. As I sat in the beautiful park outside the exhibition venue eating an ice cream, I can't remember ever feeling so simultaneously relaxed and terrified. He’s definitely going to kill me in my sleep and then feed me to his cat, I thought. Make sure to read my next blog entry to find out whether or not he did.


Later I took a walk towards the river, in search of food and drink and whatever else, and came upon a vegetarian establishment - of a kind now cheeringly familiar, with: a slightly confused English name such as ‘VegeNice’; a pleasingly naff illustrated logo, such as a smiling leaf or a carrot shaking hands with a bean; a bright and simple aesthetic; IKEA-ish furnishings; many posters advertising festivals and local charities; and a chalkboard menu listing dishes cheaper, healthier, more ethically derived, and not necessarily even a lot less nice than those served at rival carnist outlets. The place was closing but I made a mental google task to return the following day.


Round the corner was a bar, with a covered terrace and plants and fun murals on its walls. I bought a 0.5l glass of beer for about three euros and took a table. A laminated, home-printed sign was affixed multiply around the terrace, showing a big cannabis leaf with a red, struck-through circle over it and cyrillic text underneath. ‘That seems like overkill’ I thought until it dawned on me that almost everybody else on the terrace – 30 or so people in total – were smoking spliffs, unabashedly, right in front of the man and woman serving the tables, neither of whom batted a nostril. Flabbergasted, I took out the iPad and googled ‘is cannabis legal in Slovenia’. ‘No’, came the 385,000 replies. It is not legal, but that made no odds to the tattooed and droopy-eyed Ljubljanians here. A bit more reading revealed that cannabis laws are ‘fairly relaxed’. So either the signs were a kind of a joke or they were forbidding dealing rather than smoking. I internally smiled and sipped my beer and looked around.


What a place. If my first few hours here were anything to go by I had arrived in My Perfect City: cheap, artistic, with a fondness for casual drug use and a vegetarian café-restaurant on every corner. I just stopped short of texting all my nearest and dearest, instructing them to move here without hesitation, which was lucky because I then walked a few blocks and discovered a seething, scowling, selfie stick-brandishing mass of tourists filing over bridges and choking the river path. It is a brilliant city, but, it turned out, I wasn’t the first to discover it.


After walking in circles for 90 minutes, looking for a table, I eventually ate a good biryani and drank a Radler (something of a revelation – a low alcohol fruit flavoured beer popular in Germany and neighbouring countries). And then onwards I went to a – for want of a better word – place, which my cool dude host and the modish guidebooks had vaunted: ‘Metelkova City’, an ‘autonomous social centre’ near the train station.


This was a communist military barracks, which was squatted in 1993 and now houses several bars and clubs and a hostel (formerly a prison). Thomas had told me that this is where ‘everyone’ in Ljubljana goes after the riverside bars have closed at about 1am. I went on a Sunday (/early Monday) and slightly less than everyone had turned up but there were maybe a hundred or so spread out over a concrete yard, fringed by fairly indistinguishable bars and clubs, the majority of which were closed. A theatrical performance was taking place: one woman and two men, one without shoes on, all apparently in their 20s, were taking items of junk from a shopping trolley – I can’t remember specifically what, but I think maybe things like: a kettle, a computer keyboard, a mannequin’s arm – holding them in front of their faces and then, to a rumbling electro soundtrack, creeping forwards towards the encircling audience, most of whom were sprawling or sitting and smiling respectfully. Perhaps they were even putting the items into the trolley rather than removing them, because at the end of the performance the trolley was full, and there was only a soft toy polar bear left out. This was placed ceremoniously on the ground and the contents of the trolley were tipped onto it. Then the music abruptly stopped and it was the end of the performance and so a donation bucket was passed around. Some young women with Liverpudlian accents had arrived late in the piece and were loudly asking with facetious or at least drunken indignation why the trolley had been dropped onto the polar bear and was the polar bear okay. These women were, I would guess, dressed in ‘metal’ apparel: ripped denim and leather, fishnets, DM’s. Most of the people here were of this sort of stylistic stripe, with a few – and I’ll betray my ignorance of subcultural fashion even more here – being apparently of a more hippyish bent. Plus of course there were a few normie-hipsters like me dotted about, looking bemused. The whole effect was redolent of the kind of dreams you (I) might have in the nights following an alternative music festival at which you’ve (I’ve) felt slightly out of place.


I wandered around and found the only bar in the complex which was open, a kind of shack full of grunge and metal memorabilia, projecting footage of a Soundgarden concert onto a large screen. Don’t remember whether the matching audio was playing with it or whether some different, similar grunge music was playing.


I bought a can of something and took it outside, where a load more people were sitting around in what was effectively a playground. Some appeared to be destitute types shouting at each other and some were teenagers, from many different countries speaking in English about speaking in English.


About halfway through my beer, I was sinking into one of my famous self-pitying ruminations about how I was still finding it hard to start conversations when an Australian couple of about my age greeted me and soon we were all neck-deep in conversation, ranging from the very banterous to the very sincere. They bought me many beers because I had no cash on me, and of course you can’t use debit cards in an anarchist squat turned weird bars complex. Many other people, from many other countries joined the conversation (not including Slovenia I don’t think) until at about 4am we bade them all good night and I walked with the Australians as far as their hotel, on the way telling them the story of my broken heels – I guess because if I hadn’t broken them I would have gone to Australia.


We exchanged email addresses and, after I’d walked through the quiet city to my Airbnb, I received an email from them saying it was good to meet me and they hoped we’d meet again in London or Melbourne. I replied saying it was good to meet them too, and that I too hoped we’d meet again in London or Melbourne. And that, for now, was the end of that email thread.


The following day I’d planned to do once again what I do best: go to a museum, have some lunch, go to another museum, have some dinner, have a drink, go to bed. But hearing tell the previous evening of the plans of all the other young tourists, who were as a rule only staying in the city for a day or two before barrelling off to Triglav or Piran made me want to spread my wings a bit. So I took a coach, 50km to Lake Bled, which sounds like where a satirical vampire might live but is in fact just a beautiful lake, apt for swimming in and walking around.


And then back to Ljubljana, and the vegan café for a good burger, and then back to the stoner pub where a dozen or two new attractive young-ish things were altering their natural dopamine levels and smiling softly. And then to bed.


The next morning – my final morning in the Balkans (if we can still call it the Balkans) – I visited the City Museum of Ljubljana, enticed by an advert I’d seen for its exhibition: ‘A New Age is Coming! Industry - Labour - Capital’


This charted Slovenia’s social and economic history from the first stirrings of industrialisation to the present day. Surprisingly given that Slovenia had fraught relations with Serbia as the centre of Yugoslavian power, this was not wholly condemnatory about communist Yugoslavia. Many self-managed and co-operative companies were established, grew and, for a while, thrived in Yugoslavia. The new abundance of housing and the flourishing of other public services were emphasised and delightful photographs depicted the apparently steady and unproblematic urbanisation of the country, showing e.g. a horse pulling a plough next to a tower block.


But relations between Slovenia and Serbia grew worse. Productivity in Croatia and Slovenia was higher than elsewhere in the Balkans. These countries turned towards the west, diversifying trade and joining transatlantic trade institutions. It’s quite hard to work out, from my dilettante Googling, quite what happened to the co-operative and self-managed companies of Slovenia. One can only assume they were mostly sold off.


The final section of the exhibition expressed in familiar but nevertheless slightly haunting terms anxieties about the capitalist future, with an eery supermarket aesthetic and garish old adverts for numerous, basically identical domestic products. ‘Does (almost) free-market capitalism really make us as free and as we wish to believe?’ went the insinuation.


Certainly, on the modernised streets between the Airbnb and the train station, I felt fairly free and empowered, if I didn’t hold my gaze too long on the one or two visible beggars and the massage parlours and the police cars I passed.


[N.B. turns out by some measures that Slovenia is the most economically equal country in the EU.]  


And, as I ate a cheap-ish and delicious Greek salad on the terrace of an upmarket hotel, I felt the familiar cognitive dissonance once more: I was having a very nice time, bang in the middle of the beaten track.