With the installation of the new Jøtul F602 stove (more about that soon), temperatures that could be described as ‘room’ have finally arrived on the ground floor of Breg House.
This marks a significant upgrade in comfort; for the last decade, heat downstairs was in short supply and female guests in particular had complained of the rather chilly situation in the WC. Well, visitors need endure the winter chill no longer; Breg House just got a whole lot hotter.
But whilst starting my Piazzetta e905 stove has never been a problem, I’m still getting used to the Jøtul with its much smaller firebox. This got me thinking again about firelighters. Now, I don’t buy firelighters. I dislike the stench of the common paraffin-soaked white tablets, and even the wax-woodshaving firelighters which I have used in the past and are very good, still use paraffin wax, and still have to be purchased.
In general, I have enough waste paper and card from everyday living to provide myself with sufficient firelighting materials but to facilitate the lighting of the Jøtul I started thinking about collecting some naturally-occurring firelighters from the forest that surrounds Breg.
Birch bark is the first natural firelighter that comes to mind, but birch trees are not in abundance in the area. There are however thousands of pine trees which naturally secrete resin from their trunks wherever they have sustained a wound. Pine resin contains terpenes and it lights very easily, and burns hot and long enough to make it an ideal natural fire starter.
I wandered into the forest to see if I could find and collect some of this amber. There was no need to make any fresh cuts; almost every pine I passed had a least some secretion of resin, but I was looking for trees which had bled so much that the once-liquid resin had solidified into a hard, brittle material – akin to the hardened blood of a scab.
Within just a few minutes of searching I found exactly that. But on my first expedition I’d come armed only with a penknife. This turned out to be inadequate for prizing off chunks of pine amber; I required a tool with greater leverage. So I returned to the house and picked up a long-shanked flat-head screwdriver, plus an old Pringles’ tube in which to collect my amber and returned to the Amber hunt.
The two-tool combo proved ideal for amber collection. I found it best to avoid the fresher resin which was still in liquid form (albeit highly viscous) and instead located aged resin that was brittle and easily prized from the trunks with little effort.
The Tree of a Thousand Cuts
Most of the trees that had bled some resin provided me with a piece or two of amber. But then I happened upon a tree that had so much resin flowing down the trunk, it looked like a well-used wax candle.
Beads of solidified resin coated the trunk, forming mini-stalactites in places. Even well up the height of the trunk, I could see resin oozing from this tree; it had clearly seen some action. In fact this one battle-scarred tree had produced so much resin that I was able to pick up perfectly-sized hunks from the ground below, which had already broken off and fallen of their own accord.
With the discovery of this fountain of resin, my Pringles tube was quickly filled and I returned to the house. I later tested the resin’s firelighting abilities in the Jøtul by placing a small piece – about the size of a sweet-chestnut – on a piece of cardboard and lighting it with a match. It worked perfectly, igniting the kindling first time.
I find a great pleasure in gathering things from the forest. As with my homemade wooden gutters that I made during the pandemic from tree trunks, there is satisfaction to be found in the hunt for materials. Yes, I could buy firelighters cheaply and easily, but I like that looking for resin takes me into the forest and it is rewarding to return with a useful substance that is completely natural and is found so close to home.
A word of warning for anyone thinking of collecting their own; pine resin is very sticky stuff. Even the hardened chunks tend to have a little viscous goo adhered to their surface so my screwdriver and my hands got a little sticky. But with a couple of drops of hand sanitiser (any strong alcohol will do the trick) it was quickly cleaned off.
With a Pringles tube full of the stuff, lighting up my new Jøtul F602 should be quick and easy, and as it only takes a small piece of resin for ignition – I expect my supply to last me until spring. And if I run out, ten minutes of amber hunting in the forest will quickly replenish my store.
This post takes us far away from the mountain Kingdom of Breg. In fact, it’s a rare post that takes us beyond the borders of Slovenia entirely. But heading south to Croatia’s Adriatic coast for the summer is a very Slovenian habit.
Almost all Slovenes that I know spend a significant proportion of their holiday time in Croatia. And why wouldn’t they? The summer in the Adriatic is hot, sunny and dry. There’s a vast coastline plus over a thousand islands to explore. It can be reached in a couple of hours by car, and it’s inexpensive. Plus for Slovenes, both language and culture are very close to home. So, along with climbing Triglav mountain, fighting with your neighbours and wearing slippers in the office, heading to Croatia each summer is just the Slovenian thing to do.
Fun in the Sun?
I’m not a beach person. I have zero interest in trying to make my skin go a slightly darker tone (probably due to it just going pinker) and certainly not having to endure hours lying on a beach in order to accomplish said pinkness. I’m not good at lying down during the day for long periods (I do that during the night thank you very much). Which is why I have succeeded in never ever having been on what you would call a ‘beach holiday’.
Whilst many of my British contemporaries were heading off to the beaches of the Costa Del Sol, Mykonos, and Ibiza in their twenties, I actively avoided any and all such destinations. Instead, I was attracted to the more active (and literally cooler) nature of winter sports, so started pursuing trips to high mountains, starting off in familiar European Alpine destinations and later exploring more exotic locales; Canada’s Pacific Range, The New Zealand Alps, Slovakia’s Low Tatras, Kashmir’s Himalaya, Macedonia’s Šar Mountains and Bosnia’s Dinaric Alps, to mention a few.
Now, that’s not to say I don’t like to be beside the seaside. Oh I do like to be beside the sea. But despite growing up on the island of Great Britain where shore is never far, the sea just didn’t play much part in my upbringing.
Until now, the longest I’d ever spent on a beach was a couple of days. And that was only facilitated by other activities; surfing, swimming, skim boarding, fishing, wandering etc. Never has sunbathing featured.
But my attitude to shouting too loudly about secret spots completely changed during a summer I spent living in Barcelona. There, I experienced first-hand a city that has been heavily degraded by over-tourism. The sheer volumes of visitors have made certain parts of the city miserable; slow-moving tourists taking horribly contrived photos for their Instagram feeds. Ever-present queues in supermarkets around the centre. Brits behaving badly in rented apartments. A crammed promenade and far-too-busy beaches. Now, this is true of most large cities popular with tourists, but I noted there was also hostility from some of the locals. I saw ‘Tourists go home!’ graffiti, and Anti-AirBnB stickers on lampposts in various quarters.
I don’t blame the locals for feeling this way. If you are a resident of Barcelona who works a job that is unrelated to tourism, the excessive visitor volumes simply lower your quality of life yet bring you no benefits. If you’re a doctor or a programmer or a teacher or a warehouse worker – huge numbers of tourists just make your everyday life more annoying and more expensive.
The Island of Otok
So, coming back to our Croatian island, for the reasons above, its identity shall remain secret. I shall call it ‘Otok’ which just means ‘island’ in Slovene. And left to my own devices, it’s likely that I would never, ever have lain on a beach, let alone a beach on Otok. But my girlfriend has been visiting Croatia since she was a child and thus possesses the ‘lure of the sea’ gene which compels her to lie on a beach for as many weeks as possible during summer. It’s always good to go a little out of your comfort zone and following three years of shorter ‘training’ trips, I agreed to going for a whole week.
Though we could have driven, we opted for trains, buses and ferries instead. Ferries (by which I mean any sort of large, diesel-powered boat) are my favourite form of transport. I love the slow, relaxed pace, having plenty of space onboard, being able to go out on deck and watch the waves pass. Trains are in second place, and buses, well, they were more a necessity to fill in the gaps.
Our hosts told us that it hadn’t rained for three months. It was ‘ni normal’ – not normal – they told us. But despite the dry spell, Otok was surprisingly green. A hilly landscape, the island was covered by thick, scrubby, evergreen underbrush, which itself was punctuated by tall umbrella pines, fig and olive trees.
The air was laced with salt and pine resin. And upon the airwaves, the ever-present buzz of cicadas meant that silence did not exist. Green lizards and geckos skittered away as we disturbed their sunbathing. Large, colourful butterflies flapped about like small birds; some had a taste for wine. There was a healthy wasp population who were keen on our drinks too, though they preferred beer and coke (clearly less sophisticated than the butterflies). I saw relatively few birds, but plenty of dogs, many of which arrived on the sailing yachts which moored in the small harbour overnight.
Otok has just a couple of villages and we were staying in the ‘capital’. Our apartment had a large terrace which overlooked the blue bay and was framed by a magnificent vine, which covered the entirely of the ground and first floor.
There is only one real road on Otok. The long-term locals were easy to identify as they drove cars with no number plates (and presumably no insurance, registration or road tax). Houses varied from brand-new villas, to half-finished red-block buildings, to derelict ruins. In the midst of the village ‘centre’, said houses were separated by narrow concrete paths, just about wide enough for a car, though not in all places. Most people used scooters, bikes or just their own feet to get around.
Apparently there were once over 1000 people living on Otok, and the metre-thick stone walls which still remain all over, must have once separated the islanders’ sheep and goat territories. Indeed, one day whilst trying to reach a hidden beach via a narrowing footpath, we startled ourselves when we stumbled upon a group of rather miserable looking sheep, tethered to the trees. We pushed on for a while but were eventually forced to turn back when the path faded out and the thorny scrub became impassable.
The Cheese Brothers
On the harbourside of our village, there were two small restaurants, a pizza and grill shack, a cafe/bar and a small kiosk selling fruit, vegetables, home-made wine and olive oil (which must be good as I saw an Italian couple load their boot with a crate of the stuff).
Every evening, two young brothers would appear with a basket of their grandfather’s goats’ cheese, which he makes on the island (apparently in the kitchen sink of their house). They spent several hours at the harbourside going boat to boat and attempting to temp sailors and other visitors to buy.
One evening we chatted to the boys for a while; they are from a town on the mainland but come every summer to Otok to sell the cheese. I asked if they enjoy it. The cheese selling part – not so much it seemed. I asked what the most cheese they ever sold in one evening was. The older brother once sold 13, the younger replied, clearly impressed by his sibling’s cheese-selling abilities.
I told them that I had tried their cheese (I had bought some from the bakery some days previous) and that it was very good (this was a white lie; it was good, but being a young cheese, a little bland). The younger suggested I could buy more. I politely declined, asked them to pass on my compliments to their cheese-making grandfather and wished them the best with the rest of their cheese-selling summer.
Heading a little inland we found the island’s only ‘super’ market, which was staffed by grumpy locals (woe betide you not having the exact change), and the island post office. I later visited another tiny store in another village and found the owner equally grumpy. Must be a requirement of running an island general store.
There was also a small bakery beside another beach, but it was staffed by a cheerful, helpful girl who was quite happy to provide change and actually say hello, thanks and goodbye. She sold white bread, burek, and other cheesy, salty, doughy delights.
Into The Wild
Away from Otok capital, the island felt quite wild. We followed narrow footpaths of red soil that cut through hot scrub to discover hidden bays, channels and secret beaches. At least three times, we had the shore entirley to ourselves.
At first I found the heat oppressive, but as the days passed, I got into the routine that my beach sensei taught me; swimming early in the day, then warming up in the sun then cooling off in the sea again. Sun, sea. Rinse, repeat.
My sensei takes a stack of books with her and is happy to read all day long. I took one book with me, but didn’t open it until day four. Perhaps it was just a bad book, but I found that I was not in the mood for reading.
Instead, I discovered that observing underwater life via snorkel and mask was more interesting. I had snorkelled occasionally as a kid, but ever since I inhaled a lung full of French sea water on a family camping holiday, I had never felt particularly comfortable breathing underwater.
I decided to try again and I ended up spending a couple of hours each day observing the marine life. It was only the danger of sunburning my back that prevented me from spending all day in the sea.
There is something sultry and sensual about heat, sun and sea. People shed their inhibitions and clothes and lounge with little on. One day, on the most beautiful little sandy cove, three young women appeared and de-robed entirely. They were promptly joined by a middle-aged man who seem delighted to have found fellow nudists and positioned himself directly in their line of sight. It’s strange that such behaviour when on a beach is acceptable, yet almost anywhere else, it would get you arrested.
The Old Man And The Sea
One morning, whilst I was still in bed, I heard someone calling me. It was Mirko, the kindly gentleman who built the very house we were staying in. After several days of slightly-too-windy weather – he was able to go out and check his traps. The fishing trip was on! I hastily clothed myself, grabbed my cap, sunglasses and a bottle of water, and headed down to the waterside.
Mirko had already boarded his small wooden skiff, which he kept in the harbour. It had seen some action; the paint was peeling and some of the ribs cracked but it was still ship shape. Mirko jerked on the outboard’s starter cord bringing it to gurgling life, and we chugged out of the bay.
Mirko spoke Croatian and no English. I speak a little Slovene, and no Croatian. However, Slovene and Croatian have some overlap, so I was able to ask him questions in crude Slovene and get the gist of his Croatian answers.
Due to some outboard issues (‘bad benzene’ Mirko said) we made slow progress but eventually crossed a wide channel and reached another piece of land. As we neared the shore, Mirko cut the engine and began to peer into the water, scanning the clear, blue depths. After several minutes, he grabbed what looked like a small anchor, and threw it into the sea.
At first I thought we were stopping there, but the anchor was in fact a grappling hook, and somehow, Mirko had located one of his traps and hooked it with his hook, even though it was not marked or tethered to any buoy. He hauled on the rope, arm over arm, until a metal cage surfaced. But Mirko was not happy. His basket was devoid of any fish, and the slim opening where fish would enter, was much wider than it should have been.
The discovery provoked a barrage of heated Croatian, and though I didn’t understand the words, the meaning was clear. I later discovered that Mirko thought his trap had been emptied by a diver. It would certainly be possible for a spearfisher to help themselves to Mirko’s catch, or perhaps a vegan snorkeler set them free?
Mirko spent 15 minutes repairing the trap which was constructed of a thin metal frame covered with chicken wire. Viewed from above, the trap is heart-shaped, with a flat top and bottom. Fish swim in through a narrow slit, and can’t figure out how to swim out again.
Eventually Mirko was satisfied with his repair, and re-baited the cage with stale white bread and mussels, which he smashed with a piece of wood before throwing into the trap. He then laced the rope onto the trap and carefully lowered it back to the sea bed.
Mirko bore a blurred tattoo on his forearm and I asked him about its origin. He explained he was in the Yugoslavian navy for three years, stationed in the Croatian coastal town of Pula, working as an electrician. He mentioned the word ‘torpedo’ several times, making me wonder if he worked on the small Yugolslav subs, one of which I once visited in the Slovene town of Pivka where they keep one on display.
We repeated the process for another four traps. I was amazed that Mirko found each one so easily. When I looked down into the depths, I couldn’t see anything, but decades of experience allowed him to pinpoint and hook them out with ease.
The haul, however, was slim pickings. The first two traps were empty. The third had one tiny fish, which surprisingly Mirko threw into the ‘keep’ bucket. The fourth trap had two slightly bigger specimens, and the fifth another couple more small ones.
Mirko was a little disappointed with the catch, explaining that sometimes he can get 10kg of fish in a single trap. But it was enough for a delicious meal which Mirko prepared later, grilling the fish over hot coals, and complimenting with a potato salad plus figs and grapes from his garden.
Could I become a ‘beach guy?
Although at the start of the week I was restless, I did get used to not doing a whole lot. The heat does force a certain slowness to life, and though I’m not naturally predisposed to lying around all day, I could certainly see myself getting more into the snkorkelling and perhaps even taking up spearfishing.
And if you’re going to make me do a ‘beach holiday’ on a Croatian island, then Otok, with its quiet coves, hidden beaches and clear seas, is exactly the sort of island I want to come to.
It’s a cruel irony that Slovenia is experiencing one of the snowiest winters in recent years, yet most people can’t take advantage of it.
The snow timed its arrival perfectly this season, with heavy falls landing from the start of December and continuing all month, ensuring a white BREG Christmas, and an excellent start to the season. Temperatures have remained cold since then, preserving the snowscape in much of the country.
However, even though some ski resorts in Slovenia (and Austria) are now open to locals, the ever-changing Corona travel restrictions mean that crossing borders (both municipal and national) is not always allowed, so it’s harder for people to capitalise on this season’s excellent snowfall.
Luckily for a snow lover like myself – there’s more to winter than snowboarding packed piste in a ski resort. I have long since diversified my snow activities to include cross-country skiing, ski touring, splitboarding and snowshoeing – none of which require a ski lift. Thus, wherever there is snow, I have the right snow-tool to tackle the terrain.
On the flat fields that lie a five-minute walk from my girlfriend’s apartment, I take my narrow, tooth-pick like cross-country skis, and ‘skate’ over the snow-surface. Akin to going for a run, I’ll often pop out for an hour during the day, to glide around the fields. It’s a great work out for the arms, legs and heart, and in the most beautiful of surroundings. I love the simplicity of cross-country skiing; you don’t need any lifts, you don’t even need a slope. Any expanse of flat, snow-land becomes a cross-country ski circuit.
If I want a bit of a ride down but the terrain is not too steep, I apply my skins to my touring skis and head up the snow-covered logging track at Breg. I’m not a good skier but this route provides a nice little hike via a forest-framed route, and then a gentle run back down. A few years ago, I even skiied to the Pikovo hut, and stopped off for a beer and some gulash before returning home. Sadly, the hut is rarely open these days, otherwise I would visit regulary.
Where there’s more steep terrain and deep snow, I don the splitboard and ascend higher. I’ve been lucky to have my girlfriends’ family to guide me into their mountainous backyard: the Karawank and Carnic Alp ranges in Southern Austria. Keen ski-tourers, it’s rare that a winter weekend passes and they are not hiking up and sking down some peak. Here, I’ve experienced some incredible snowscapes from spikey frozen forests, to the smooth domes of the ‘dumpling mountains’.
I’ve come to realise that splitboarding and ski touring are almost entirely different sports. My ski-touring friends are all about the hike up. The run down is almost inconsequential, and routes are not selected for their descent, meaning it can sometimes be a flattish logging road. As a splitboarder, my thoughts are always about the run down; wide open terrain, with a decent gradient and deep untouched powder is what I seek.
So as the sole split-border in the group, my ski-touring companions sometimes have to put up with the impracticality of my board (when it comes to flat sections – boards are a real pain) but they kindly humour my unstrapping/strapping-on stops and starts, often pulling and pushing me through the flats to get me to the bottom.
Whether it’s split, ski or snowshoe – I don’t really mind. I just love to be out in the snow and I love having the variety of snow toys to play with, whatever the conditions, terrain, weather or just my mood.
I’ve been mulling over writing this post for years. It’s not a post specifically about life in Slovenia, or the Slovene language. Instead, it’s a post for anyone who has spent extended time in a country where the local language is not their own. It’s a post for people who share life with a partner, but not a native tongue. And it’s a post for those who recognise the ‘Lingo Loneliness’ feeling but until now, didn’t know it had a name.
So what is the Language Isolation Chamber?
I have coined the Language Isolation Chamber term (a first I think?) to describe the feeling of social isolation, disconnectedness, awkwardness, exclusion or loneliness, due to being immersed in an environment where you do not understand the vast majority of what’s being said around you.
You might think that any time you visit a country where the native tongue is not your first language, you would immediately enter the LIC. But in my experience, this is not the case. For the most part, in the foreign lands in which I have lived, I have spent most of my time in the Blissful Ignorance Zone (BIZ) rather than the LIC.
There can be a cosy comfort to the BIZ bubble, your train of thought completely uninterrupted by the world around you. When out in public you are oblivious to the conversations in which you are immersed. Like a boat on a lake, the water flows around you. You move through it, you are surrounded by it, but you are not part of it.
The LIC experience only truly occurs during social settings where etiquette demands your attention; at the dinner table, perhaps in an office or at a formal event. And you only truly enter the Language Isolation Chamber when you are:
a) Not fluent in the local language and
b) The conversation moves exclusively into the local tongue and
c) You are not in proximity to a native speaker of your own language
My First Taste of The LIC
I had my first taste of the Language Isolation Chamber way back in 2004, when I spent two years living in rural Japan. (If you’re interested in reading more about that experience check out the book I wrote about it: For Fukui’s Sake; Two Years in Rural Japan).
At this time, everything still felt so new to me, that initially, I didn’t have a sense of feeling isolated. I remember sitting at a low table in a tatami-floored room, sipping on sake at one ‘enkai’ (a social event with my co-workers) and just listening to the tangle of high-speed Japanese that was flying over my head. I remember feeling quite content to just let it wash over me, and to enjoy the delightful exoticness of the experience. However, as I spent longer in Japan, I did start to undergo times of loneliness too.
Sometimes, some time could pass, with me having no ‘adult’ conversation at all. Aside from classroom English, and a few pleasantries with my colleagues, I could go a few days without any level of intelligent verbal communication. That was my first realisation of the importance of spending time with people with whom you could speak completely effortlessly.
The Expat Factor
I believe this is one of the reasons that expats bond so rapidly, especially in countries where the local language is not their native tongue. Until you have lived outside of your own language comfort zone, you cannot know how much you begin to miss the simple act of talking effortlessly with people who truly understand you.
You begin to crave connection through natural conversation; conversation that isn’t laboured, or child-like. Conversation that flows and brings humour with it. And when such conversation is in limited supply, you’ll take it anywhere you can get it. Hence expat friendship groups often bring together people who would – in their natural habitat – never be friends, but quickly become close on foreign soil.
It’s now been almost three years that I have lived in Slovenia, making it my single longest stint of time outside of my native UK. I suspect this is one of the reasons why I am now feeling the Language Isolation Chamber more acutely than ever before.
But there are other factors too. The Coronvirus lockdowns of 2020 meant that my opportunities to ‘recharge’ in English-speaking settings were severely curtailed. Normally I would spend some time in the UK, catching up with friends and family, enjoying the simple pleasure of being able to converse without effort.
Likewise, I normally welcome a few visitors to Slovenia, meaning my year is punctuated with opportunities to get my English-speaking fix with good friends and family. For 2020, this was not so. And I have now, more than ever before, come to realise how much I value such times.
Thirdly, related to the lockdowns, I have spent more time than ever in the close presence of people whose language I do not speak well, or at all. When I moved to Slovenia, I thought I might end up meeting a Slovenian girl. Instead, I met an Austrian girl who lives in Austria. This has further complicated my language situation, as I have been attempting to improve my Slovenian, but now frequently spend time in social situations where there is yet another language that I need to learn from scratch, at the same time.
I must say that I am fortunate that most of the people I spend time with on an extended basis can speak English very well and are kind enough to do so with me. As for my own foreign language abilities, although I have some (see: Struggles with Learning Slovene) a sad reality I’ve become aware of, is that I suspect it takes a very, very long time to become fluent enough in a second language, to truly be free of the Language Isolation Chamber. Though it is of course a spectrum; the greater your linguistic talent, the less trapped in The Chamber you will be.
But when I think back to my relationship with a French woman some years ago, even though my French was at an intermediate level, when sitting at the dinner table en France, trying to keep up with multiple conversations, where slang and unknown cultural references were being bandied around, I quickly switched off and retreated into The Chamber. Such times became a source of conflict between us.
The Awful Awkwardness
The absolute worst part of the chamber is the terrible awkwardness it creates. This is most severe when you’re in a setting such as a meal at the table. Social etiquette dictates that you must be attentive but if the conversation is taking place in a language you don’t well understand, you very quickly switch off and enter your own head. On the outside, you must still appear like you are enjoying yourself. But the reality often is that you are just feeling awkward.
The awkwardness spikes when a joke is cracked and the table erupts in laughter. You have a decision to make: do you laugh along, pretending you got the gist, or do you sit in silence, further highlighting your inability to understand?
If you feign comprehension, you risk being asked if you got the joke and the even greater embarrassment of then admitting that not only did you not understand, but you committed the sin of fake laughing too.
When in Rome
There is an even greater complexity to the situation, and that is that you, as the idiot who can’t fluently speak the local language, don’t want to be responsible for everyone else having to speak your language.
Especially when you are the one who is abroad, and you are the one whose own lack of linguistic ability is the cause of the situation. For most people, speaking a tongue other than their own requires effort. Even for those who have strong grasp of a second language, it requires additional thought. It’s tiring. And you’re never going to be able to articulate those jokes so well and craft those sentences as quickly as you can in your own language.
So why should everyone else be expected to forego the fluidity of speaking their native tongue in their native country, just because you – the idiot abroad – haven’t learned theirs yet?
The Other Side
I have been on the other side of the table too. During my first ‘proper’ job in my early twenties, I worked with some foreign colleagues, some of whom were new to the UK and did not yet speak English particularly well. I remember sometimes during afterwork drinks, feeling slightly guilty for not wanting to sit next to them, because I knew the conversation would be limited to a more basic level and that I might miss out on the rapid-fire banter occurring amongst my English-speaking colleagues. This must be exactly how my Slovene or Austrian companions feel, when they get the short straw and have to sit by me now.
A common prelude to the Language Isolation Chamber (LIC) is that at the start of the evening, everyone kindly converses in your native tongue. But as alcohol consumption goes up, people break out of the second-language group to speak their own, eventually leaving you outside of the conversation and inside The Chamber.
An irony of this situation is that the greater the social exuberance of the gathering, you more isolated you feel. The fact that people are chatting and laughing away right next to you, only serves to increase the feeling of you being outside of the group. You are excluded from all peripheral conversations so miss context and background infomation. There is no malice or bad intention in this. It’s simply the natural preference to speak one’s own language. But at such times, I miss the ease of being able to understand what’s going on around me. I miss being able to listen. I miss being able to contribute and dip in and out of talk at will.
At such times, I’d sometimes rather be alone than feel so awkward. At such times, I’d like to be permitted to ‘check out’ of the situation in a socially acceptable way. But of course, pulling out your phone or grabbing a book would translate to your hosts as:
“Hey! Forgo your own conversations and talk to me. In my own language.”
This would of course be rude. So instead you must grin awkwardly and bear it.
I have found myself not wanting to spend too many hours in such environments due to the fear of finding myself in The Chamber. A few hours being immersed in partial incomprehension is fine – but as the hours pass, your novelty wears off, the dynamic often changes and the likelihood of entering the LIC increases.
I suspect anyone who’s in an ‘international’ couple will have spent a stint in the Language Isolation Chamber at some point (unless you are fluent in each other’s language, in which case – congratulations – you can avoid it).
I am fully aware that the only way to avoid the LIC is to continue to learn the languages of the countries I spend most time in. But I’m also aware of the reality that it takes a long time, and the likelihood is that the LIC will always be part of my life to some extent – as long as I live outside of my native country.
The social exclusion caused by the Language Isolation Chamber is self-inflicted. I chose to live in a country other than my own, and it’s my own lack of linguistic fluency that is the source of the problem. There are many pros to living in foreign lands, and I recommend everyone should spend at least one year living outside of their homeland. It really does give you a lust for life because everything is new, and every day an adventure into the unknown.
But as the number of years I spend outside of my Motherland increases, the honeymoon phase diminishes. I increasingly understand there are challenges to being a longterm fish out of water. They are however not insurmountable, and I hope that by working on my lingo skills, I’ll reduce the amount of time I end up in the Language Isolation Chamber.
Until then, the LIC is just part of the rough that comes with the smooth of venturing beyond your borders for a life less ordinary.
With lockdown restrictions and pandemic chaos for much of 2020, I knew that getting back to the UK for Christmas was going to be unlikely. I held on for as long as I could, delaying my decision to travel back to The Motherland, but by the start of November I knew a return was unlikely.
It turned out to be the sensible decision. After saying that there would be a relaxation of the lockdown restrictions in the UK over the Christmas period, there was a last minute reversal of the rules, meaning that much of the UK were unable to travel beyond their cities or towns, let alone travel from other countries.
I was not the only stranded expat in Slovenia; two fellow Brits were in a similar predicament, so as the reality of not being able to return set in, I suggested the idea of BREGxmas – spending Christmas in The Kingdom of Breg.
However, as the 25th of December approached, even making the two hour journey from Ljubljana to Breg started to look troubled. Slovenia had banned movement between municipalities, meaning that we would potentially risk fines if we were caught high-tailing it out of Ljubljana. Now, as I own Breg, I had justification to be traveling there, but my two compatriots were in an altogether greyer area, and though we did formulate a justification for our journey based on an exception loophole, we travelled in fear of it being rejected, and our wallets emptied of several hundred euros for breaking rules.
So, in the run up to Christmas, there was still some debate on whether we should attempt BREGxmas or not. However, just three days before Baby Jesus’ B-day, we decided the risk was worth it – and off we went, freeing ourselves from months of Ljubljana lockdown.
It turned out to be a good plan. Breg delivered a truly white Christmas, with snow already on the ground, which was topped up on Christmas eve and Christmas day and then followed by a cold, crisp, sunny Boxing day.
My guests for BREGxmas were – Tom – deep-thinker and founder of KickstartYourCommunity – and Jason – a former chef and the now-founder of Cultisan – who prepared a delicious menu for our stay, featuring Sea Bass, Roast Turkey, and all the Christmas cuts.
Together we spent our evenings in front of the log burning stove, warming ourselves whilst snow fell outside. We punctuated the festivities with walks around the snowbound landscape, down the white meadow and into the frozen forest, with Jason taking Ronnie – the local farm Alsatian for whom he has a great affinity – along for the ride.
Four years previous, I had spent Christmas in Breg with my family. It had been a slightly more challenging experience as Breg house at that time was in a less developed state, with no oven (so no roast) and due to some temporary problems – no water! There was also no snow, although it was an extremely cold period – hitting lows of -10c.
Thanks to COVID-19 it’s been over a year since I’ve been able to return to the UK. But in absence of my family, it was great to spend a couple of days with two fellow Brits – Tom and Jason – feasting and drinking, and watching some Christmas classics: Die Hard, Elf and The Office Christmas Special, all selected from the Breg House DVD collection.
Breg truly delivered a picture perfect Christmas the likes of which are normally only seen on Christmas cards, which was not only great to experience for the first time myself, but also lovely to be able to share with friends.
A big hvala lepa to Tom, Jason (and Ronnie!) for making BREGxmas 2020 one to remember.
It started with a virus. Then followed the excitement of the lockdown-high. I had zoom calls with long-lost friends and was added to a zillion new WhatsApp groups. Then came the come down. Winter returned, life was cold and isolation felt strange.
Now, a month after running to the hills of Koroška, and I have found a certain peace. We humans have the ability to adjust to our situation, no matter how strange, and I seem to have reached a gentle contentedness to living more simply, more frugally and more physically than before.
This has been achieved by turning to a more pastoral way of life. In addition to working on various home improvement projects, (I spent two weeks with a chainsaw and chisels, making traditional wooden rain gutters for my house from tree trunks) I have been helping my neighbours – forty-something Štefka and her 74-year old mother Ančka, Breg’s Matriarch – work their land.
They have a mountainside farmstead (think Heidi landscape); a couple of cows, two pigs, a few chickens, some alpine pasture and a scattering of plum and pear trees. And with each new season, there are new tasks to be done.
Assisting them was the least I could do considering their extreme generosity. They have been bringing me homecooked meals, to the point where I had an excess of food and had to protest. And that is just their most recent act of kindness. Ever since I bought Breg house in 2007, Štefka, Ančka and Jaka (God rest his schnapps-drinking soul) have been nothing but the best of neighbours to me.
I spent two afternoons raking dried leaves and dead grass from the meadows with Štefka. It had the instant gratification of cleaning a dirty window with a squeegee. It was a simple, even mundane task, yet I enjoyed it immensely. With this simple act of raking, we were helping to maintain the meadow and hold nature in stasis by preventing the forest from reclaiming the ground. No tractors, no machines. Just hand rakes, exactly as it has been done here for the last 300 years.
I have come to enjoy all this physical work. There’s wood to split, logs to bring in, the Piazzetta fire to light. There’s a fence to repair, a pipe to be fixed, a stone wall to build. I have found pleasure and fulfilment to the slowness of lockdown life. I am never bored. I become completely absorbed in my tasks. I forget all other worries and lose awareness of time passing. I feel fitter, more focused and more content.
I recently watched a documentary about the Amish. They believe that daily physical labour is a joy in itself. This is why they shun modern-day labour-saving devices as these would, in their eyes, reduce the amount of hard work required, and thus reduce the quality of life. I’m not about to swap my car for a horse and buggy, and grow a weird beard, but my pastoral BREGxit lockdown has made me realise that perhaps the Amish are on to something.
It is also through interaction with my neighbours that I have been able to practise speaking Slovene on a daily basis. Which is ironic. Because in my normal Ljubljana life, when I see far more Slovenian people, I speak far less Slovene. Though my level remains crude, we have been able to converse to an interesting-enough level. And I have discovered more about their lives as we have toiled together.
“My brother would have been 50 today” Štefka told me, as we pulled our wide rakes towards us, gathering hay and leaves at our feet.
Though I knew she had a long-deceased brother, I knew nothing of the circumstances of his death. I decided it would be an appropriate time to enquire.
“He hung himself. His girlfriend left him for someone else.”
A little later, Ančka arrived with a can of cold beer and two glasses.
“She’s come to check on our work!” Štefka joked.
We took a seat on a wooden bench, sipped the beer and looked out over the mountains and Meža valley below, now in the golden sun of spring. I asked them if they knew everyone who lived in the farms we could see, perched on the sides of the surrounding hills. Štefka proceed to point out each farm, recount the family name and the number of inhabitants of each.
“Do they ever come here?” I asked.
“Yes, once or twice each year.”
“Do you ever go there?”
“No!” – Ančka said, shaking her head, as if the idea of her leaving Breg was absurd.
Indeed, Ančka does not leave Breg. Incredibly for a Slovene, she has never seen the sea. She has no desire to visit lands beyond her borders. She believes she has everything she could want right here on the planina of Breg.
If you want to see Ančka, you must come to her. And come they do; she has no shortage of visitors. Despite living 850m up a mountain, the gravity of this Matriarch is strong. There is always someone popping in for a kava or homemade schnapps – be it the snow-plough driver, a relative or one of their many friends. No matter how busy, there always seems to be time for a little malica.
The difference between their worldview and mine, perhaps makes our friendship an unlikely one. I have jumped at chances to leave my own country and go far beyond its borders. I have lived in Asia and North America, and visited exotic lands: Beirut, Beijing, Burma and Kashmir.
Back home in the UK, I had never spent so much time with such deeply rural people. But I seem to have an affinity for rural folk in secret corners of the world. Indeed, amongst others, it was the lives of the farmers, fisherman and other local characters of rural Japan that fascinated me most, during my two years living there. There’s something appealing to me about those who still live the ‘old way’.
It’s thanks to Štefka and Ančka that I have met many other Slovenes in the area. But I have returned the favour too. Whenever friends come to visit me in Slovenia, I always take them to Štefka’s and Ančka’s. So ironically, Ančka, who rarely leaves the borders of Breg, let alone her country, has shared her kava and klobasa with people from America, Scotland, France, Iran, England, Austria, Ireland and New Zealand – and she seems to enjoy such visits.
Štefka and Ančka run a tight ship up here in Breg and keep a critical eye on my projects. After I have finished any given construction or garden task, Ančka soon arrives to inspect my work. My wooden gutters met with her approval, but at the same time she remarked on my untidy garden. She approved of my new vegetable plot, though instructed me to make a fence to keep out the deer.
Often when I am working away outside, Ančka will suddenly appear. Normally, I would rely on Štefka to translate her mother’s heavy Koroškan dialect into more understandable Slovene for me. However, a few days ago, Štefka was absent, so for the first time ever, I had a long, one on one conversation with Ančka, and to my surprise (and joy) I found we could communicate.
We talked about the number of eggs the chickens are currently laying (seven or eight a day) when the cows will go out to pasture (late May), if they’ll be any plums this year (last year there wasn’t) and when it’s time to start planting the vegetable garden (first of May). I also learned that despite their ample supply of eggs, Ančka doesn’t eat them, and for all the plums they pick, she never drinks schnapps. Instead, such commodities are used as currency; gifted to friends who visit and help out on the land.
As lockdown goes on, I have started to go the way of Ančka, becoming almost allergic to leaving Breg. When I had to make a trip down to civilization this week for supplies, I didn’t enjoy the strange, new COVID-mask world, and I was glad to get back to the sanctuary of Breg.
And so, I have been settling into the rural Slovene life, working with my hands and working outside. Global lockdown makes it easier to appreciate this simple life. Because for now, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) has been cancelled. One thing we can all be sure of right now, is that there IS nothing to miss out on. And this allows us to gain contentment from life’s more simple pleasures.
This morning it was ‘casually suggested’ by Štefka (likely she was delivering orders from up on high) that it was time I got my flower beds in order (which I confess, have been neglected for more than a decade). So, I spent an hour weeding them, and as I raked in the last of the cow-manure compost, Ančka appeared. She lent on her stick, silently observing my progress.
I awaited her ruling nervously. Had I done enough to please The Mighty Matriarch of Breg? Finally, she put me out of my misery:
“OK, now your house is beautiful.”
It’s taken me over ten years, but I think I just got my priden* badge.
*Priden is a Slovene word meaning ‘diligent/hard-working and seems to be a Slovenian trait to aspire to.
When I first visited Slovenia more than 13 years ago, I was immediately enamoured with the liberal use of wood as a building material.
Once outside of the cities, I saw a lot of traditional-style houses, barns and kozolec (hayracks) made from wood. Wooden roof shingles are still quite common (although not as prevalent as they were 50+ years ago) and many of these traditional-style houses have wooden rain gutters.
Breg House itself had wooden gutters when I first bought it but they were at the end of their lives, and with interior renovations the priority, the house had remained gutter-less for over a decade. Which was probably not a good thing. Slovenia gets plenty of rain (which is what keeps it so lush and green) and there is some damp present in some of the old stone walls.
It was always my intention to replace the wooden gutters. I had planned to do that at the same time I replaced the roof (which was also originally a wooden shingle roof).
It was to be a learning curve. Despite numerous searches, I was surprised that I could not find any information online about making traditional wooden gutters from tree trunks. So I had to make it up as I went along, modelling my designs on gutters from a nearby building.
The are just two parts to the traditional wooden gutter design; the gutter itself and the brackets that attach the gutter to the roof, normally at the rafters. The gutters are fashioned from single, straight tree trunk, with a ‘V’ or ‘U’ shaped channel carved out from the middle. Impressively, the brackets are also made from pieces of wood; branches that have been selected specifically for their curved shape which cradles the gutter and holds it in place.
Fortunately I already had some suitable lengths of trunk. I was unsure as to the exact species, but some type of conifer. There are certain types of wood that will last seven or so years, and some that will last many more. Mine is likely the former, but ever since I started renovating this place, my Breg ethos has been to reuse, recycle, upcycle or repurpose materials already present, rather than buying new, wherever possible.
My first job was to remove the remaining branches, nodules and bark from the trunk which I did with an axe. Then I secured the trunk down and did some rough measuring and marking. I aimed to remove a 90 degree section of the trunk, leaving behind a V shaped channel.
I contemplated several different methods for this. I began by using a hand saw and chisels, cutting vertical lines into the round of the trunk, then chiselling out the waste. Whilst it was satisfying to make wood chips fly, it was slow going, and with some 20 metres of gutters to make, I decided to break out the chainsaw on the second day.
I spent that day using the chainsaw to cut the lines, and the chisels to remove the waste. This was much faster than with the hand saw, but still quite labour intensive. By the end of the second day, my hand was blistered from pounding my chisel with my makeshift mallet (a round log off the wood pile; the Breg ethos strikes again).
By the third day, I decided to remove the bulk of the waste wood with the chainsaw alone. I was feeling confident enough with the saw that it wouldn’t pose too great a risk in these coronavirus times, and I used the bottom and the tip to slowly edge a line up the trunk. I’d then rotate it by 90 degrees and do the same again. This method allowed me to slowly cut out one continuous segment of wood, that ran the whole length of the trunk.
This still took me some hours to do. I had to keep checking my cuts to see where I needed to go deeper, and keep rotating the trunk. A more skilled chainsaw operator could have likely done the job in minutes, but I took my time, and it was still much faster than relying on chisels alone.
Once the wedge came out (assisted by my favourite axe) I then widened and deepened the channel as the trunks were not completely straight, (and neither were my chainsaw cuts).
To make the brackets to support the gutters, I searched for and selected branches of the right shape and size. This part was quite expiermental, and my first mistake was to make brackets that turned out to be too short. Due to the position of the rafters in relation to the roof, I required brackets with long, straight shanks.
Eventually, I found and shaped suitable pieces. The final stage was erecting the brackets, ensuring the gutters lay as close to the roof edge as possible and created enough fall to channel the water down the gutter. It turned out to be a particularly arduous job getting the brackets in the right place, in part because I had to hacksaw through the old metal brackets to remove them, whilst up a ladder, in a very arkward position, with a tiny hacksaw.
After days of chiselling, chainsawing and struggling with bracket positions, I finally got the gutters up. Over the course of the project, I became completely immersed in their making. I was totally focussed on them, and spent almost all the daylight hours toiling over their construction.
It was hard work, and it did make me realise why metal and plastic guttering are now the norm. And I have only made half of the gutters required, so there are days more work to come if I want to complete the task.
They are certainly not pieces of precision work. Due to the fact that the current roof has been laid down on top of the old wooden roof adding additional height, I was unable to get the gutters as close to the roof edges as I would like. They are rough and basic like much of Breg house. But I hope the original creators of Breg who, some 300 years ago, simply used whatever they had to hand to get the job done, would appeciate the effort. And they are up, they do seem to catch most of the water I poured on as a test, and I do like the look of them.
I now await the next rainy day, when I’ll observe them in situ and make any further adjustments required.
After months of work, starting with ideas in my head, moving to basic concepts sketched out in pencil, to inked-in line drawings, to polished vector files with the aid of a graphics expert, to searching for and selecting a local printer, to deciding which shirt cuts and which colours to go with, I was all set and ready to unleash BREG Apparel – my new brand of Slovenia-inspired t-shirts on the world. Then along came Coronavirus.
Just a week after we had set up a display of the hot-off-the-press t-shirts in ČRNO ZRNO – Ljubljana’s best specialty coffee shop – the first place in the world to stock BREG Apparel, COVID-19 struck. Within a few days, Slovenia, like many other countries, was essentially closed for business.
Unfortunately, like many others I’m sure, I have picked THE worst time to try and get a new business project off the ground. Right now, my six unique Slovenian t-shirt designs are the last topic of interest in a world obsessed with the latest lockdown news.
But although you’ll have to wait till the pandemic passes before shops in Slovenia are open and selling BREG Apparel – thankfully you can still buy the shirts online at the BREG Webshop, which ships worldwide.
So – if you like the look of the designs, and the stories behind the shirts – take a look and treat yourself to a new, original BREG shirt. The perfect attire for self-isolation.
What a difference 5 days makes. The world right now is a far stranger place than it was just a week ago, as Coronavirus craziness sweeps the globe.
Just a few days ago, the idea of an enforced shut down of schools and universities in Austria and Slovenia seemed quite nice. It meant that my Austrian girlfriend, who is a teacher, and I, could look forward to spending some unexpected additional time together. As we ski-hiked a mountain on the Slovene-Austrian border last Sunday, enjoying impressive views of the Karavanke range, the whole COVID-19 attack all seemed quite the fun adventure.
But within hours, the situation became far more serious. As we gathered around the TV later that evening to watch the news, Austria announced new, stringent self-isolation policies. People were no longer allowed to leave their homes except to buy food, or for emergencies. Gatherings of more than five people were banned. All but the most essential business were to be shut, and all public transport between Austria and Slovenia was to cease.
I had caught the train from Ljubljana to Austria, but my return journey had just evaporated. Which put me in a pickle. The next day, everyone was glued to their phones, constantly refreshing media sites to get the latest Coronavirus updates. And the news got worse and worse. It’s hard enough having a long-distance relationship between two countries when borders are open, but the threat of closed borders makes it a whole lot more difficult.
But then on Monday, some good news arrived. My car – which had been caught up in the Corona craziness requiring repair – had been fixed. Beyond all odds my mechanic had managed to source the spare part and finish fitting it. Freedom was back on!
So, my girlfriend and I made a mad dash back across the border in to Slovenia to pick up my car, put it through its tehnični pregledi (the equivalent of the MOT) and get it insured again. Thankfully everything went smoothly, because the following day, Slovenia put all tehnični pregledi on hold, and the insurance offices closed their doors.
After a couple more days back in Villach, Austria and it was time for me to put my COVID-19 plan into action: run to the hills and spend the next three, four, maybe more, weeks in Breg.
But even getting here turned into a nail-biting journey, as, while driving down the Austrian motorway, I lost acceleration power, and had to limp all the way up to Breg. It was a great relief to finally arrive; Bregxit could now begin.
I have long imagined Breg to be an excellent Armageddon bunker to escape to in the event of some sort of doomsday situation. And finally – it’s kind of happening. I have a good supply of food and although there seems to be no problems with food supplies in the supermarkets right now, should stocks run low, I’m connected to farmers in the area who grow and rear produce.
Breg also has its own spring-fed water supply, and with my trusty Piazzetta woodburner – I have a source of heat even if problems were to come with the electricity supply. And the Breg House DVD collection – long-mocked by my friends whilst I trawled every charity shop I saw in the UK during visits home – will now serve me well for the long evenings ahead, which will largely be spent completely alone.
So my plan for now is to hunker down at Breg for the foreseeable future. I have a long list of spring tasks to be working through, including BregDesign.com – my new Slovenia-inspired Apparel brand. And I can keep myself fit and healthy, walking in the mountains all around. Plus, any further draconian policies that might be imposed, such as curfews, cannot be enforced on me as I can simply melt into the forest without seeing a soul.
There are still some worries about the Austria-Slovene borders remaining open, which may prevent my girlfriend and I seeing each other for a while, but at the moment, there are still some crossings which are passable.
The next few weeks and months will be a very interesting time for the world. I am fortunate to have Breg and be able to hunker down and live the simple life till things improve. But I know many people who are now in very difficult situations that aren’t likely to get better for some time.
I’ll be writing regular posts on Life Under Lockdown @ Breg House – so subscribe if you want to hear more.
It’s two months late, but winter finally landed in Slovenia. Last week saw the first decent dump of snow around Breg since December, and I was keen to get amongst it.
The journey from Ljubljana, however, turned out not to be an easy one. It was already snowing heavily as I reached Jezersko. The road had not been ploughed, but I switched to 4×4 mode and forged ahead anyway.
At the start of the Jezersko pass – a steep, winding ribbon of road that ascends the mountain border between Slovenia and Austria – I began to doubt my decision. There was some 30cm of snow already on the road, and no other vehicles. I made my way up, slowly and steadily but became increasingly anxious at each hairpin. I had no idea how far I could make it up, and feared I would get stranded.
After making it about a third of the way up, the decision was made for me; I reached a sharp corner and my car would go no further. With wheels spinning, I had to admit defeat. I cautiously edged my car around by 180 degrees, and headed for lower ground.
Back in Jezersko, I took refuge in Kočna, a restaurant come bar come café, that I often visit. In crude but functional Slovene, I managed to explain to the landlady where I was trying to get to, and asked if she thought the snowplough would soon come. She assured me it would pass within the next hour, so I took a seat and a radler, and waited.
Sure enough, within 30 minutes the plough came rattling along the road. I settled up and resumed my journey. With the snow cleared I got to the top of the pass without incident, but to my dismay, found the Austrian side of the mountain had not been ploughed at all. After a brief pause – I decided to continue anyway and made my way down the serpentines, driving through deep snow, cautiously.
Once I reached the valley, the driving conditions improved and the onward journey to Mežica passed without problem. That was, until I reached the very last part of the route – the steep, single-lane track that leads from Mežica to Breg.
This road has thwarted me in the past – most notably during the road trip from hell: Barcelona to Breg – when my fully loaded van got stuck and we broke the snowchains. But this was the first time ever that I had problems in my 4×4, winter-tyre-equipped car.
Approximately half way up the track, my wheels where spinning, and try as I might, I couldn’t get enough traction to continue. So, I reversed the car back to a suitable passing place, took the essentials out, and made the rest of the way up the mountain on foot. In all, the journey that normally takes 2 hours, took 4.5 hours.
It was however, worth it. The following morning, I was up early and so was the sun. With blue skies above, and trees laden with dollops of fresh snow, the scenery was beautiful, and I wandered around Breg capturing the glorious scene.
The sun was strong that day, and a slow thaw began, but after seeing to some works on the house, I had time to strap on my splitboard, and head off into the snowy forest. For some years, I have had my eye on a mini ski route up above Breg.
My plan was to use the forestry track to ascend, and then to descend via the clearing under a powerline, which is steep enough and long enough for a decent run. However, when I got to the top of my desired piste, I found there was not quite enough snow to cover the tree trunks and brush. So I had to modify my route and take a narrow footpath down instead. The snow was deep enough – but there wasn’t much room to manoeuvre so little in the way of turns.
Despite the narrow nature of the path, it was a fun ride and great to just be out in the snow again. I suspect this will be the last of the heavy snowfalls this year, so it’s been a very lean winter for snow overall. I can only hope next year bears heavier fruit.