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.
In this digital era, few people buy films in physical form. Yet over the last year or so, I have been steadily building a Breg House Film collection, entirely in DVD format.
Well, though Breg House is not entirely ‘off-grid’ (it is spring fed and has its own septic tank, but runs off mains electricity) I have so far refrained from installing a Wi-Fi connection. It would be possible to do so – the neighbours have internet – but I prefer to keep it unconnected, meaning disconnecting from the real world is easier.
Therefore, on those rainy autumn evenings, or those icy winter nights, when I’m sat in the wooden lounge, tending my Piazzetta wood stove, I wanted to have a library of films that I love, ready on hand.
You might ask why I don’t simply use a streaming service like Netflix or Amazon Prime to download movies and watch them on my laptop. Well, unfortunately, unlike the music industry, where there is now a single source providing almost any track I want, there is yet to be the equivalent of Spotify for film.
On the contrary, things are getting worse; the film streaming landscape is becoming ever more fragmented with the arrival of various competing services, each with their own set of content.
So you now have to subscribe to several services depending on which network currently owns the rights to the film or TV show you happen to want to watch. It seems that for the foreseeable future at least, we will experience a heavily fractured streaming landscape, with no (legal) single source of film.
And the fact is, many films – especially older, classic movies – are not available on Netflix, or Amazon Prime Video as part of their subscription offering.
Let’s take a few examples of movies I’ve recently wanted to watch: Apocalypse Now, Terminator (1 and 2), The Full Monty, Princess Mononoke, Alien, District 9, Seven Samurai, Gattaca, Moonrise Kingdom (I could go on..) – at the time of writing, none of these films were available to watch as part of the Amazon Prime Video or Netflix subscription.
So, on top of the internet connection requirement, and the need to pay a subscription to these services, you also have the ownership question. Netflix has steadily reduced its selection of films over the years and turned to producing its own content, as the licence for said films has expired and been re-acquired by networks who are now launching their own streaming services.
Whilst Netflix does produce some great TV series stuff of its
own, often I just want to watch a specific film, and if it’s not on Netflix or
Amazon prime video – I can’t. With a DVD, I have the film forever. Aside from
loss or damage, I’ll be able to watch that film for years to come. With streaming
services, a film can be available this month, gone the next.
Marry all this with the fact that in the UK, you can walk into any charity shop and find a healthy selection of DVDs starting from 50p, and it means that building a curated collection of films I love (and some I want to watch but just somehow never got round to seeing) is the cheapest, most sensible (and most fun), option. So whilst the CD really is now almost entirely redundant, the DVD lives on.
And finally – there’s just something nice about being able to browse a film collection in physical form.
Hence, I encourage all Breg House visitors to bring a DVD or two (as long as I don’t have it already) to help build The Mightly Breg House Film Collection, which hosts the largest selection of English language movies in the entire realm of Koroška. Probably.
It came late this year, but winter has finally arrived at Breg House. To celebrate the glorious Premier Snow – last weekend, I popped on my skis and went for a little ride near the house. The snow was calf deep, and I was sorry to get to the bottom of Breg Piste, and then have to de-ski and walk back up again. But as I did, I noticed something strange in the snow: caterpillars.
There were dozens of them, up on top of the snow. At first, I thought they were dead – but upon closer inspection, I found them to be very much alive and kicking.
Green ones, brown ones, speckled ones. How did they get there? What are they doing? It had been unseasonably warm the previous day, and I wonder if they had prematurely been roused, fooled into thinking spring had arrived?
I suspect the future is not bright for the Slovenian snow caterpillars of Breg House. With snow on the ground and temperatures set to fall to -8c, they may not find the food they are looking for.
If there are any caterpillar experts reading – please do add an explanation in the comments below.
Last weekend I headed up to Breg House to do a few jobs I wanted to finish before the winter snows fell. But I ended up getting roped into to dismembering an entire cow and being taught the finer points of butchery at a local family farm.
The farm belonged to my neighbours’ sister/daughter. I had met them several times in the past, and they had invited me to visit. Finally the day had come when I took them up on their kind offer, as I was running some errands in the vicinity of their home.
The farm sits just metres from the Austrian border. Indeed, some of their farmland is actually on the Austrian side of the border, a slightly unusual arrangement which may make their application to the ‘Farmers Without Borders’ organisation somewhat tricky.
It was about 11am when I was welcomed into their house by Marjeta, and instantly offered coffee, and schnapps. As I was quite thirsty I asked for a glass of water. Marjeta produced a small glass of schnapps, along with a small blue bottle from the fridge. This, I assumed to be the water, so uncapped it and took a massive swig only to discover it also contained schnapps! It was quite the faux pas, and I scambled to explain in broken Slovene my mix-up and why I had just downed half a bottle of her homemade Slovenian spirit.
We sat for some time chatting. It was great for me to get a chance to really practice speaking Slovene. As I have previously noted (see: Struggles with Slovene: 6 months of learning Slovenian), one of the downsides of Slovenians being, on the whole, excellent English speakers, is that most of my day to day conversation at work is in English. But in the hinterlands of Koroška, it is often out of necessity that I must (try to) speak Slovene. And though I know I still sound like a caveman, it is the best practice I can get, and I was able to ask numerous questions about life on the farm.
After a round of pork and bread, it was time for me to be put to work. So I headed downstairs to the meat room – to find Dani, the man of the house, and two of their friends Marko and Neva, slicing, dicing and sawing up a cow. They explained that the vast majority of the meat would end up as sausages and salami, with just a few choice cuts being used as steak or mince.
I was intrigued to learn about the process of butchering, so they armed me with a knife, dressed me in an apron, and demonstrated the process of removing the fat from the muscle tissue. Apparently, butchering your own meat is a long-standing, once-common Slovenian tradition. Known as koline, there’s a strong social element combined with the task, so it’s a sort of meat-butchering, sausage-making party. However, the practice is nowadays less prevalent than it once was.
Now, watching my Slovenian workmates, the process looked easy. But in practice, I found it was not. There’s a delicate technique required to gently remove the layer of fat without wasting any meat, and it took me some time to find the right angle of the blade and cutting action that would best allow the fat to come away quickly and in one piece.
I spent the whole afternoon de-fatting and chatting with my fellow butchers. It’s an often fiddly task, but with Neva’s patient tuition, I improved as the day went on. The day was punctuated with cake, coffee and beer breaks to ensure the workforce was kept contented. It was also interesting to really feel and see how different the various cuts of the cow were, in terms of the muscle tissue, fat content and general texture.
Dani was kind enough to give me a full tour of the farm, where he showed me his cow shed, cat collection (they have eight), impressive log supply (no danger of a log crisis here!) and his cider-making operation, where I was given a sample.
By early evening, Danjela and Mitja – the daughter and son – had returned home. Both of them speak excellent English, so I was able to ask some of the more complex questions that my basic Slovene had prevented me from asking. It also happened to be Mitja’s birthday – so yet more cake had to be eaten!
Log on. No danger of log shortage here.
There is something I love about learning how life works here in Koroška. Getting involved in the traditional practices like this is a pleasant contrast to my day job, working for a blockchain company in Ljubljana.
I left with improved blade skills and the desire not to eat another piece of cake for some time.
Over the years, various visitors to Breg House have kindly brought a bottle of whisky with them as a gift. This has led to a small, but growing collection of whiskies from around the world. Currently, Japan, Scotland and the USA are represented.
To help grow the collection, which guests are very welcome to enjoy too, Breg House now asks that all visitors bring with them a bottle of whisky of their choosing. The more unusual, the better!
Breg House looks forward to being able to offer guests a range of interesting, weird and wonderful whiskies, alongside the homemade local brew: schnapps.
Slovenian ants have mounted a full-scale invasion of The Kingdom of Breg House in an attempt to annex the kitchen.
Following weeks of increasing tension around the border area where the Slovenian Army of Carpenter Ants had upped military patrols, they have now crossed sovereign lines in to The Kingdom of Breg and proceeded to set up bases within the territory of Breg House, in an attempt to annex parts of the building.
An Slovenian ant prepares for the invasion of Breg House
Carpenter ants are one of the larger species of ant, with some ranks measuring up to 2.5cm in length. They are also equipped with significant mandibles and armed with formic acid spray.
The King of the Democratic People’s Republic of The Kingdom of Breg House (DPRKBH), who is also Head of the Military, Foreign Secretary and the Economic Minister (and who once scored 11 holes-in-one in his first ever game of golf) has taken a hard-line against the ants, issuing the following statement:
“I find ants fascinating. In fact, of all wildlife documentaries, I like ant ones the best. However, this is an attack on The Democratic People’s Republic of The Kingdom Of Breg House’s sovereign soil and it will be met with the total annihilation of the foreign imperialist ant invaders.”
Spoils of war: A member of the Slovenian Ant Army shows off a hammer that was captured by his platoon during the two-day conflict.
Journalists on the front line reported a scene of total destruction following two days of heavy fighting which has left several, if not quite a few, ants dead. Chemical weapons were reported to have been deployed by both sides; the Slovenian Ant Army launched formic acid attacks, whilst The Kingdom of Breg deployed booby-trapped food supplies, crystalline poisons and water, to repel the invaders.
At least one ant was taken prisoner and held for interrogation. However, in an uncharacteristic act of compassion not seen since the start of the conflict, The Kingdom of Breg later released the captive, unharmed.
Photos showing off a captured ant held in Gwantanimo Bay. The POW was later released unharmed.
Photos showing off a captured ant held in Gwantanimo Bay. The POW was later released unharmed.
Photos showing off a captured ant held in Gwantanimo Bay. The POW was later released unharmed.
This is not the first time ants have invaded another’s space. The Slovenian Ant Army have been known to move beyond their borders in the past; their population has rapidly expanded in recent weeks, and the ants have pushed into new territories as they seek more resource to support their rapidly industrialising nation.
For now, peace has returned to Breg House, with the ants retreating and both sides reaching an uneasy ceasefire. However, the border remains a flash point, and fighting could erupt again at any time.
The King of the People’s Democratic Republic of Breg House has insisted they will not take up arms, unless provoked:
“Here in the DPRKBH we have enjoyed many years of peace with our formic friends and we would never launch any attack outside of our own borders. We hope the ants will now keep their side of the peace treaty, having experienced the terrible fury of The Kingdom of Breg House. But if the ants attempt to invade our territory again, we will not hesitate to repel them using the maximum force necessary to keep Breg House free of imperialist insects.”
Over the last six months of wandering the wilds of Koroška, I have stumbled upon several representations of wangers. Are these some ancient Slovenian fertility charm, or is it just the lumberjacks having a laugh?
A pine plonker found in forest near Breg
Certainly, with the wooden willies, some effort has gone into finding and shaping of not just the winky, but the arms, legs and face. And in some cases, several wood wangers have been stockpiled, presumably for future distribution to areas where fertility rates are below average.
A cache of wood wangers, as found in the forests around Breg
During the heavy snows of the Koroška winters, when the forests were largely impassable, the ingenious locals instead took to crafting giant snow schlongs. Impessive attention to detail can be seen in their work suggesting this is more than mere child’s play. Indeed, they have gone to great lengths on their rendition of follicles on the cobblers here. Such art deserves wider recognition.
Giant snow schlong as seen on road to Breg, Koroška, Slovenia
I am yet to ascertain whether the snow and wood winkies of Koroška are purely for fun, or whether there is some fertility function surrounding their construction, but I will keep you posted on any new John Tompsons that appear in the vicinity.
Slovenia, like much of Europe, had experienced a heavy winter. The copious snow combined with some vicious windstorms had done its damage to the trees around Breg House; many had limbs dangling, some had been brought down completely.
Now that the spring melt had arrived and the patches of snow were rapidly retreating, it was time to tackle these now-defunct trees so I headed up to Breg for the Velika noč (Easter) weekend to spend some time sawing, chain-sawing, splitting and stacking wood.
The (hand) tools for the job
As the trees were ‘windblown’ I had to consult my brother (who is a tree surgeon) on the best way to tackle them. There are numerous forces of compression and tension at work, and with one tree lying atop the other, I had to be careful to dismember the tangle in the correct order to avoid me being crushed to death by a falling trunk.
My brother also advised me that it was ok to use sunflower cooking oil in my chainsaw (since I’d run out of chainsaw oil and being the Easter holiday, the shops were closed). The sunflower oil ‘hack’ worked and my chainsaw powered on through the job.
My brother told me I could use sunflower oil in my chainsaw as a temporary substitute. So I did.
Sawing up wood by hand is tiring but I prefer it for many jobs, especially when dismembering a fallen tree in a tangle of branches. However, using a chainsaw to slice up trunks and limbs is satisfyingly fast and there’s a joy in sinking the chain-teeth into a log and watching it almost melt through the wood it like a hot-knife in butter. Apart from when your chainsaw gets wedged in the tree – which thankfully only happened once during this operation.
The dream team: chainsaw and axe
But no wood work is more fun than splitting thick trunks and limbs, into fire-sized logs. For this I use my Struc Slovenian-made splitting axe or ‘maul’. Mauls have a fat, wedge-shaped blade which forces the wood apart, helping it to split more easily along its grain.
Check my wedge: maul head
Axes: turning wood into firewood since the Iron Age
However, my favourite axe is a smaller one that I bought in Britain some years ago, and never had much use for it, but at Breg House, it’s the perfect tool for splitting wood into kindling, or snedding. Snedding is removing side branches from a larger limb or trunk. This can also be done with a saw or chainsaw, but a good axe is a quick and fun way to do it. This axe is perfect for both jobs – it’s perfectly weighted, nice and sharp and just feels great in the hand.
My favourite axe
My third axe – a ‘Viking’ – was somewhat of an impulse buy. I saw it in the local DIY store, Inpos, in Ravne na Koroškem, and I just had to have it. I love the shape of the handle and the colour of the blade. It can also be used for snedding or splitting kindling, but as it’s a little lighter, it’s not quite got the oomph of my fave axe. However I like the way it looks and its light weight means it would make a great ‘travel axe’ for a camping trip.
The Viking; my smallest but sexiest axe
I spent two days dismembering two fallen fruit trees, hacking, sawing, lugging, splitting then finally stacking the wood in my Kozolec – a Slovenian hay rack which doubles as my log store. With a hot Slovenian summer, those logs should be ready to burn in my Piazzetta stove this winter, and therefore I hope never again to suffer the great log famine of winter 2017/18.
Pimp my log pile: a fine mix of freshly cut apple, plum and a touch of elder
One of the benefits of doing a bit of hard graft at Breg House, is that my kindly neighbours ensure I am kept well fed throughout the day. Numerous rounds of potica, an elevensies break consisting of Turkish coffee, homemade biscuits, and a shot of their schnapps (in Slovenia it’s perfectly normal to drink schnapps in the morning and/or whilst operating chainsaws or other heavy machinery), as well as a beef and horseradish lunch.
My neighbours also invited me round for ‘Easter breakfast’ which is a big deal here. Everyone eats bread, ham and boiled eggs mixed with horseradish. It was delicious, but I was to later experience the somewhat noxious side effect of eating six eggs before 9am.
Elevensies for loggers at Breg House, courtesy of my amazing neighbours: homemade biscuits, turkish coffee, and schnapps
I got back to Ljubljana early evening, feeling zonked. One of the things I love about being at Breg is that there’s always physical work to be done, and despite the weariness from a day’s logging – doing it feels good. Especially with potica and schnapps.