To Sweden with love

I spent the afternoon of New Year’s Day with my laptop open on a PDF of the Argyll & Bute Council refuse schedule for 2023, setting a reminder on my phone for each date in the year that the bins would need to be put out for emptying.  It isn’t that I don’t have anything better planned for the twelve months ahead.  On the contrary, the Google Calendar app on my device is filled with a smorgasbord of activities.  For example, on 28 January I will be performing at the first of our quarterly Let’s Make A Scene open mic nights; the Oban Beer Seller is hosting her second ‘The Love of Beer’ tasting event at The View on 18 March; by mid-April, I will have attended four gigs, which is as many as I made it to in the whole of last year; the fourth of those gigs will take me back to Dublin for the first time since 2018; I will be attending two wedding dances during the summer; and in June I’m planning on returning to Sarajevo.

My sudden enthusiasm for the bin schedule wasn’t born of a renewed concern for the environment or part of a New Year’s resolution.  It wasn’t even the hungover equivalent of making a drunk purchase on eBay.  By the first of January, I had arrived at the realisation that without a proper structure during the Christmas break from work, I collapse into anarchy.  More accurately, when my daily routine revolves around going to the pub on as many nights as possible, things very quickly become shambolic.  One night I might come home from the bar and stay up until the small hours watching music videos on YouTube and then lay in bed until after midday.  On another, I’d start watching the Tarantino movie From Dusk Till Dawn and decide that midnight is a perfectly good time to open a tube of Pringles, reasoning that they are already in the cupboard anyway and what else are you going to do with them?  Everything was a negotiation that concluded with the promise, “I’ll do better in January.”  Chances are that I would have eaten pizza for dinner every day for two weeks if not for the fact that would have required the effort of leaving the flat to buy another one.  The way I was living my life was as if my 16-year-old self had been put in charge.  It was disgusting.

Filling my phone with serious adult tasks seemed like an easy win over the teenager who had assumed control of my life during the festive period; an acknowledgement that I was going to get back to leading a responsible lifestyle while knowing that I wouldn’t need to act on it for another couple of days yet.

The final Saturday of 2022 brought many of the same things that feature on any other Saturday night where nobody is spending their time watching the clock:  food, drink, and music.  A group of us went to The Lorne to eat our last meal of the year, where we amused the soulful barmaid who smiles as frequently as the traffic lights at Argyll Square used to turn red before they were fixed.  We complained first that the starter of mussels cooked in a white wine and garlic sauce will have dashed The Algae Man’s hopes of receiving a kiss at the bells, and followed that up with the proclamation that we didn’t have any reason to laugh about it since one of us would be forced to take it on the chin, so to speak.  The barmaid’s smile turned to a laugh, which left some of us wondering why we had waited until the last night of the year to be funny.

When we arrived in Aulay’s, the Plant Doctor and his better half had already taken residence at the table in the corner of the bar; a location they had purposefully chosen so that we could mark the one-year anniversary of New Year 2021, when three of us tested positive for Covid a few days after celebrating in that same spot.  In truth, I hadn’t thought about the Covid corner in all the times I had been in the pub since, but then most sites of significance are usually marked with a plaque, whereas the most remarkable thing about this table is that it is the closest seat to the jukebox.  It was intended as a funny moment of reminiscence, which it undoubtedly was, at least until nigh upon six days later when I registered a positive LFT almost a year to the day after my first bout with the virus.  My illness this time felt far worse than in January 2022.  The symptoms were much the same as before only stronger, and even now I can hardly walk the length of the street without being left feeling like a 1997 song by the popular Scottish band Texas.  Of all the traditions that people in Scotland have to mark the turn of the year, being infected with an airborne contagion ranks right up there with never receiving a kiss on the bells as my least favourite.

It has always seemed to me that the pub on New Year’s Eve is exactly the way a theatrical production set in a pub on New Year’s Eve would look. Nobody is anyone you would recognise from any other night in the bar. They are all dressed in their finest outfit, some even wearing a kilt, ordering drinks like bottles of Peroni, port, or gin and tonic. The enthusiasm for the countdown to midnight – something that by my watch happens every day – is portrayed in the manner of the pinkest of ham actors. Sitting in the Covid corner dressed in corduroy and denim, we resembled the understudies; the people who turn up every night hoping that this one might be their turn. It’s a role we are well familiar with and we played it with all of our hearts, choking the jukebox with coins whilst drinking our fill of beer.

Last orders at the bar were called at 11.30, which meant that we left Aulay’s with around ten minutes left in the year.  That gave us enough time to saunter along George Street towards the Oban Inn as crowds of people were gathering on the pavement to seek out the best vantage point for the imminent fireworks display.  In the dark of the distance, a lone piper could be heard serenading the cold as a countdown from ten began to filter through the masses.  I found myself stuck contemplating how it is that these things get started.  After all, how could anyone be confident enough to kick off an accurate countdown to midnight when the clock in the town centre has been showing two o’clock for as long as anyone can remember?  Get this one wrong and everybody’s year is out from the very beginning.

As the clock struck midnight, or close to it, fireworks erupted from the mouth of McCaig’s Tower and the sound of the horns from the CalMac ferries berthed in the bay pierced the night sky.  People were exchanging wishes for the year ahead while tiny flakes of snow started to fall.  It was a jarring juxtaposition to see snow as the sky was being lit up with rockets, one that surely would be easy to interpret as some kind of meaningful symbolism for the coming year if only we weren’t too drunk for that.  I moved closer to the Rogerson Shoes store to get a better look at the scene as fireworks were sent up into the snowy sky above McCaig’s Tower, crackling and sizzling to the delight of whooping crowds.  Even as someone who is never especially moved by a fireworks display, I could happily concede that this was the most spectacular one I’d seen all year.

Once safely entrenched in the upstairs bar of the Oban Inn, we once again found ourselves surrounded by people we didn’t recognise; actors in a play. Where do people from Oban go on Hogmanay? In the end, we were ingratiated into a table of complete strangers. Amongst them were two Irish women who visit the town nearly every New Year; they could hardly have spoken more highly of their travels to the area. A couple of gentlemen from our group entered into conversation with the women at opposite ends of the table, and from afar it appeared as though their interactions were going well. For a time I was standing at the bar nursing a Jack Daniel’s, wondering if I might be the only one of us who was going home alone. Just as it was looking like 2023 might finally herald a change in fortunes for our group, the guys almost simultaneously learned that the Irish women are married to one another.

They were a charming couple who enjoyed regaling us with the story of their engagement.  We were told about how the pair were walking along Eas a’ Chual Aluinn, which with a sheer drop of 658ft is the highest waterfall in Scotland, and indeed the entire United Kingdom.  It was a breathtaking setting, one which inspired a marriage proposal.  What really made the story sweet was the added caveat that to make the prospective wedding official, the recipient of the popped question had to ask for her partner’s hand in marriage in return.  While it perhaps seemed like unnecessary additional bureaucracy, I thought it was a nice touch and told the couple as much.  

“That sounds like the opposite of what Demi Moore received,” I commented as we were all walking towards Markie Dans, which turned out to be full.  I was met with blank looks.

“What I’m saying is it was a decent proposal.”  Much like our group’s luck with the opposite sex hadn’t changed with the beginning of a brand new year, it seemed that my streak of being able to make a woman laugh was going to be restricted to one night at the end of 2022.

After the blue recycling bins had been emptied and I was about over my brush with Covid, the first big event entered into my Google calendar was our planned leaving dinner for The Algaeman, who was departing Oban to take up a new career opportunity in Sweden.  He had come into our lives barely a year earlier, just a fresh-faced boy from India.  For a while it was hard to know what to make of him, the fact that our accents were barely decipherable to one another probably didn’t help.  But over time he became an integral part of our group; always smiling, always up for a beer.  If a social group can have a heart, then The Algaeman was ours.  He put himself forward for everything we had an interest in, even our weekly game of indoor football despite, I suspect, having never previously seen a football.  Aulay’s became a second home for him, where his early claims of never experiencing a hangover were soon in tatters once he was introduced to malt whisky.  Before long he was like a puppy chasing a toy when the jukebox was turned on; always the first person with loose change in his hand, usually with a view to playing Eternal Flame by The Bangles or Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler.  You could set your watch by it.

Organising a secret leaving dinner for someone who is always around and such a central part of the group became akin to a top-level military operation.  At one stage I think we had at least four group chats on the go across Facebook and WhatsApp.  We had to employ powers of subterfuge that I don’t think any of us knew we were capable of.  The Algaeman’s last day in Oban coincided with The Plant Doctor’s birthday, and knowing how much the Sweden-bound scientist enjoyed celebrating other people’s birthdays, it was the perfect foil.  As predicted, the closer we got to Friday the 13th, the more excitable The Algaeman was growing over the forthcoming birthday, as though he had just spied the jukebox loading up.  He was eager to arrange a meal and put together a list of people who we could invite, oblivious to the fact that we had already booked The Waterfront Fishouse for fifteen.  Eventually, we had to admit that there was a dinner planned, convincing The Algaeman that we were having a small gathering for The Plant Doctor’s birthday.  A web of lies was spun in an attempt to stop him from going overboard.  We told him that The Plant Doctor is bashful and wouldn’t appreciate a fuss being made over him, even that he doesn’t like cake, as if he’s some kind of sociopath.  

The harshest untruth was the story we concocted to keep him out of Aulay’s before dinner to allow us to hang the flag of Sweden and put up our “we never liked you anyway” banner over the bar.  None of us enjoyed having to be so dishonest to the sweetest and most innocent person we had ever met.  In a lot of ways for me, it was no different to the deceit we pull off every winter when we’re convincing our six-year-old niece to eat all her breakfast otherwise Santa might not visit.  It doesn’t seem right, but it’s necessary.

On the day of the dinner, we were updating our multiple group chats with The Algeman’s location, like a really underwhelming episode of the TV show 24.  When the rest of us met in Aulay’s an hour before dinner to turn the place into a territory of Sweden and gather signatures inside his copy of the book Morvern Callar, The Algaeman was off the grid.  Nobody had seen him in hours, and he had turned down an offer to meet The Nut Tax Man in Wetherspoons to keep him off our scent.  We feared that the lure of the jukebox would prove too strong and he would walk into Aulay’s and catch us all in the act of planning his surprise leaving night.  As it turned out, The Algaeman arrived late to his own leaving dinner because he was saying goodbye to a friend and shopping for a gift for The Plant Doctor’s birthday.  Nothing could have summed him up more. 

People come and go in life, like New Year’s Eve, fireworks displays, and snow flurries.  Some disappear, never to be seen or thought of again, like bad actors in a terrible play.  Others leave an indelible imprint, a touching decent proposal and a total eclipse of the heart.  That was The Algaeman.  For all the dates filling up my Google calendar at the beginning of 2023 and as much as there is to look forward to, it will be a very different year without The Algaeman.

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Homage to the 1984 Winter Olympics

Our final game of indoor football before the festive break was played on the Monday night following a three-day weekend that resembled a line from the hit 1997 song Tubthumping by Chumbawamba.  There had been the office Christmas party on Friday, a Saturday night spent in Aulay’s, and the rare occasion of a World Cup final taking place on a Sunday in December, all of which combined to produce the most torturous hour of my life in Atlantis Leisure.  It’s challenging enough trying to compete against your ageing body without adding extreme amounts of whisky drinks and lager drinks to the equation.  The five-a-side game, from my perspective anyway, was less decking the halls with boughs of holly and more decking the halls with balls of folly.  By the time it had mercifully been brought to an end, my shirt must have been drenched with enough Jameson to refill an empty bottle.

When I awoke on Tuesday, my nostrils weren’t filled with the usual scents of the season, such as a coal fire, pine trees, mulled wine, or mince pies, but rather the air was pungent with the deep heat gel I had applied generously to my aching leg muscles. In some ways, it came as a surprise that this was the first time I was using the heat rub in several weeks. First of all, the warming sensation of the gel was most welcome amidst the freezing temperatures of the last week and it turns out is probably at least as cost-efficient as turning on the heating. Apart from that, the weekend just passed brought the first snowfall of winter in the area, which in turn had left much of the town’s pavements unwalkable due to the ice. It seemed miraculous that a painful injury never occurred, particularly with my history.

Heavy snow, like a really hot summer or a woman accepting an invitation to go out with me, is always something that happened “around ten or eleven years ago” whenever it is talked about.  It’s memorable in so much as you know that it occurred but is rare enough for it to be uncertain when.  It was maybe around 2009 or 2010 when Oban experienced the most dramatic snowstorm that I can remember.  The stuff was several inches deep when it first fell on a Saturday evening, and another coating was added to it on Sunday afternoon.  In my memory, it lay around the street for days afterwards, and the ice was especially troublesome.  That was the year frozen water joined the top tier in my list of nemeses, alongside mushrooms and people who stand at the traffic lights by a busy road and don’t think to press the button.

I was working as a supervisor in the Co-op supermarket at the time, which involved starting at six o’clock in the morning to take in deliveries and prepare the store for opening at seven.  The walk down from Lower Soroba was like something out of a comic book sketch.  I left home with all the confidence of a man who had never fallen on ice, and by the time I’d reached the bottom of our street I had hit the tarmac.  I fell again just outside the hospital, then for a third time at the traffic lights opposite the high school.  My tailbone was the shade of a ripened plum, but even it wasn’t as bruised as my pride.  The only comfort I could take from the ordeal was that it had taken place under the cover of darkness and so there were no witnesses to my calamity.  With that in mind, I could probably have gotten away without anybody ever knowing about the failure of my feet, but I was soon betrayed by the wince on my face whenever I moved an inch.

Ice has been my mortal enemy ever since that December morning. There is nothing I dread more than the prospect of having to go somewhere on a frozen pavement. A 39-year-old man, afraid to walk. Much of the snow in the town centre had turned to a slush the colour of dishwater when I was going home from the office party in the early hours of Saturday morning. It was deceptive, however, and the conditions underfoot were treacherous. On George Street, I walked past an abandoned shoe shortly before I almost lost my own footing, while on Combie Street a wheelie bin was on its side. How anybody loses a shoe on a night out has always baffled me. A scarf or a wallet I can understand, but how do you not notice that one of your feet is wetter than the other? By Saturday when I went to my dad’s in Lower Soroba, I was filled with fear. The Facebook page Information Oban was teeming with posts from people who were warning of the dangerous state of the pavements and car parks and bemoaning the shortage of available grit.

I knew it was bad when I walked around the corner to Lidl to pick up my morning rolls and found myself gripping the rail at the back of the loading bay the way a nervous child clutches a comforting favourite toy.  It was impossible to travel anywhere with any kind of grace or poise, or at least it was for me.  Others seemed to be managing it just fine, striding along without a worry in the world.  I used to be like them, I thought.  Now I find myself hating anybody who shows just an ounce of composure on a frosty street.  I heard a lot about the 1984 Winter Olympic Games when I visited Sarajevo earlier in the year, and now I was being forced to channel Torvill & Dean just to be able to eat a bacon roll.

Walking back into town from Soroba, several beers deep on Saturday night, was one of the most challenging expeditions I have embarked upon.  A rain shower on the frozen pavements earlier in the evening had left the surface glistening under the streetlights like a jewellery store window.  Nothing has looked as menacing.  If I had put as much focus, concentration, and determination into other aspects of my life as I did into staying upright on that walk home then there’s no telling what I could have achieved.  There were points where the pavement looked so terrifying that there was no option but to walk on the road.  Having weighed up the potential outcomes, I guess that being struck by an oncoming car was preferable to the embarrassment of falling on my arse again.

Making it all the way to Aulay’s without incident felt like the greatest triumph I have experienced all year, maybe beyond.  It was certainly worthy of a celebratory pint.  The bar was thriving with festive revelry; groups of work parties filled the booths while stragglers boogied in the space between the jukebox and the ladies’ bathroom.  In a moment of surrealism from a virtual stockingful of them, someone selected the Marilyn Manson song mOBSCENE to act as the soundtrack to the Christmas scene.  One woman approached the bar and reached into her shirt to find the drinks order for her table.  Then she pulled her phone out from in there, and finally, after a prolonged period of fumbling around, she produced the kitty the group had collected to pay for their drinks.  I was mesmerised by the act, struggling to come to terms with the idea that this approach was any easier than carrying a bag.  The longer she spent searching for the next item, her torso resembling a bedsheet when a puppy has become trapped underneath and it’s trying to wrestle its way free, the more curious I became to see what would come out.  When a magician performs the trick where they pull tissue from their sleeve, you know that the paper is eventually going to run out, but with this, it genuinely felt as though it could go on all night.

Later, a group of young women came in to toast a birthday. One of them was wearing a large badge which was emblazoned with the number 22, presumably to indicate that she was just turning twenty-two. She ordered a glass of pink gin and asked the barmaid if she could “down this in the toilet.” Just when you think that you have heard everything in Aulay’s, someone will always come along and prove you wrong. Sure enough, she waded through the mass of bodies and took her drink into the bathroom, emerging moments later with an empty glass and a look on her face that would have matched mine after I made it down Soroba Road unscathed. The unusual request was all I could think about for the rest of the night. I can only imagine that it was part of some social media challenge that an older person like me wouldn’t understand.

Some form of normality was restored a few days later when, in Aulay’s after the final Lorne pub quiz of the year, Geordie Pete was seen for the first time in many months.  It would be a stretch to classify it a Christmas miracle, but I don’t think any of us expected to see Pete in the bar again, and there can’t be many things that are more warming than his big, toothy grin.  His smile belied the fact that he was using a crutch due to an injury he had recently sustained.  Pariss reached over from behind the bar and asked him if she could borrow the instrument.  She disappeared into the public bar with it, and we were left to assume that she had a troublesome customer who she was needing to resort to extreme measures to convince to leave.  However, she returned moments later with the crutch wrapped in a sparkling string of red tinsel.  

Initially, Pete didn’t like the Christmas crutch, since red is the colour of Newcastle’s fiercest football rivals Sunderland, but he quickly warmed to it and was seen showing it off around the bar like an excited kid with a new toy.  I couldn’t help but feel a little envious.  The crutch was colourful and striking; a charming piece of festive fun that would make for a real talking point as an accoutrement to my tweed jacket.  People have recently been telling me that I dress like a disgraced geography teacher, and the Christmas crutch would surely change all that.  Maybe I was too fast in trumpeting my recent transformation into Torvill & Dean at the 1984 Winter Olympics.  Deep heat soothed me on Monday, but ice might have been my friend after all.  There’s a Christmas message in there about embracing your fears and you never know what might happen, which is probably easier to get behind than the one about an Instagram Reel featuring you downing a glass of gin in a public toilet.

Bumbled lines

Bingo is one of those pastimes that I could never imagine enjoying.  Some things you just develop a notion that they aren’t for you and so you don’t bother wasting your time trying them.  I know that there’s nothing I’m ever going to need from one of the local tourist shops such as Highland Experience or Thistle Do Nicely and I’ve never stepped inside them, for example.  In my mind, based on nothing other than reputation, M&S is much more expensive than the budget meals I can put together from Lidl, so I don’t go shopping there, not even to browse.  Nobody needs to be exposed to the sight of my downward-facing dog, which is why I stick to doing yoga in my living room rather than attending a class.  People have a pretty good knack for knowing these things, or at least thinking they do, and so it is with bingo.

Previously when I thought of bingo I imagined dank, dusty halls reeking of Bacardi and L’Oréal; tables of competitive elderly women with screeds of bingo books spread out before them like a road map, the furious sound of dabbers and tutting heavy in the atmosphere.  Nothing about it appealed to me.  It, therefore, came as a surprise when my sister held a bingo night to help raise funds for her Happy Wee Health Club and I found that it is quite a lot of fun.

The bingo came at the end of the first week following the end of British Summer Time, when the night was continuing its relentless march as the daylight shrivelled and curled up at either end. Temperatures were moving in the opposite direction of energy prices, while hardly a night passed without me arriving home from my regular walk soaked through to my underwear. There is good reason why this is the only time of year I listen to the Guns N Roses song November Rain. Residents in some parts of town have complained that the streetlights in their neighbourhood haven’t been working since the clocks changed, whereas Argyll Square has been brightly lit by the Christmas lights which aren’t due to be switched on for another few weeks. In years to come, when social scientists are studying the complete collapse of society, it is easy to see this being exhibit A.

It was on the Sunday after our most recent Let’s Make A Scene open mic event that things really began to take shape.  These weekends always follow the same pattern.  There was the triumph of Let’s Make A Scene, where I felt pleased with how the material I read from my notebook was received.  It’s always nice being told by people that they have enjoyed my set, even if at the time part of me is consumed with wondering why the audience laughed at some of the lines that I have never thought of as being funny but were almost entirety silent come the punchline to the story.  A more considered person than me might dissect their performance for the parts that got the most positive response so that the act is even better next time, but I’m usually so weighted with relief that I spend the rest of the night guzzling Tennent’s and don’t stop to think about how it went.  Retiring to the Oban Inn afterwards is usually my favourite part of Let’s Make A Scene.   I found myself chatting with a couple of ramshackle scallywags whom I had met for the first time, and I even left with a phone number scrawled in my notebook.  Though just like every other number I’m picking up these days, it was from a guy who is looking to play indoor football.

After the high invariably comes the low. Days do not come more diametrically opposed than Saturday and Sunday, especially on a Let’s Make A Scene weekend. I went from being surrounded by friends and an admiring audience to spending an entire day with only my fern for company, waiting for the washing machine to complete its cycle and at the same time preparing a goulash in the slow cooker. I hated the humdrum routine of it all. It used to be that I would revel in it, bundling myself up in a big blanket of misery. I would write page after page in my journal about the frailty of trying to position wet socks on the airer so that there’s enough space for everything; the annoyance of slicing a carrot and having pieces fly like shrapnel from the chopping board to the floor; the elderly man who stands at the bus stop across the road from my window at the same time every Sunday, seemingly waiting for a bus that never comes, and how that’s exactly like the punchlines to my jokes. But that isn’t me anymore. These days I live for the nauseous feeling I get before reading; the sound of an audience laughing, or even not laughing; the celebration of talking to new people and hearing words used in conversation that you hardly ever hear.

It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself when you’re hungover and you know that you’re not going to the bar again for another three days, even more so when it’s the Sunday that British Summer Time has ended and there’s an extra hour of monotony to deal with.  The comedown from the previous night was particularly harsh.  I couldn’t shake it, and I spent the afternoon swiping through Tinder, hoping for something to come along and drag me out of my funk.  However, it turns out that I’ve pretty much exhausted Tinder.  Nobody new in the Oban area ever appears, and even when they do, they inevitably don’t match with me.  Sometimes I hit the “expand your distance” button so many times that I am seeing users close to the border ‐ the border between England and Wales.  I grew so tired of it all that I downloaded a couple of alternative dating apps ‐ Bumble and Hinge ‐ and worked on creating a profile that would be less Bangor and more banging.

Bumble was the most appealing of the two.  Their premise is that female users hold all the cards, so when two people like one another’s profile, it is down to the woman to make the first move.  She has 24 hours to send her potential partner a message, after which time the match disappears.  I liked the idea of having the pressure of the opening line taken out of my hands, since on the rare occasion that I have ever been paired with someone on Tinder my introduction has almost exclusively been met with either no response or being unmatched.  This way seemed better for everyone.

I took some time to scroll through some of the many prompts the app offers you to complete to give other users a better idea of your personality.  Things like:  “I get way too excited about…”, “If I could eat only one meal for the rest of my life it would be…”, My personal hell is…”, “I’m a real nerd about…”, “I quote too much from…”,  “If I could have a superpower it’d be…”, or “I’m a great +1 because…”  I wanted something that would really stand out and show me for who I am, so I settled on the following three:

The quickest way to my heart is…

with a scalpel and a degree in cardiac surgery.

I promise I won’t judge you if…

you wear a black robe and a wig.  Hey, that makes you the judge, not me!

The world would be a better place with more…

action and a little less conversation.

Within ten minutes I reached the limit of maximum ‘likes’ allowed without a paid-for subscription in 24 hours and I never made a single match.  As far as I could tell, Bumble was exactly like Tinder, only with better jokes.  By the time the working week began and I was amongst people again, playing football and thinking about the pub, I forgot all about Bumble.  Some things you have a notion for, and I’d long known that dating apps just aren’t for me.  Which is why it came as a surprise when I awoke on Friday morning to find that not only had I made a match on Bumble, but she had sent me a message well within the 24 hour curfew.  According to her profile, Emma* is 28, based in Oban, and a fish biologist.  She appeared to be smart, funny, and attractive as all hell.  It seemed ridiculous that such a person could even be paired with me, let alone that she would get in touch.  I could hardly wait to read her missive.

“Hey,” it read.

That was it.  She hadn’t given me much to work with, though to be honest, I was too giddy to care.  In a way, I admired that she had found the perfect loophole in Bumble’s system.  The app only requires the woman to send the first message, there is nothing in the terms and conditions about it being a good message.  Emma* had managed to put the opening line pressure back onto me.  I read her profile once more, seeking the key piece of information that would help me formulate the perfect response.  I liked that there was nothing vague about her.  Some profiles on these apps are like a badly‐buttered slice of toast, where what little butter there is is concentrated in the middle of the bread and doesn’t come close to reaching the crust.  

In her bio, Emma* noted that she is a certified forklift driver, so I decided that I would ask her what a fish biologist does with a forklift certificate. It seemed light enough to grab her attention ‐ after all, she must have seen the responses to my prompts ‐ whilst also enquiring a little about her. I thought it was a good opening message, but I decided to canvas opinion around the office before hitting send. After all, these are people who are either married, engaged, or in relationships. Almost universally, I was told: “why don’t you just ask how she is?” I wouldn’t hear of it. How are you? is the worst question. It is the “hey” of questions. You seldom receive a truthful response to it, unless everybody on the planet is “fine”. I refused to go down that route and instead stuck with my original gut instinct.

By the time our pub quiz team met in The Lorne to spend some of our hard‐earned £25 bar vouchers on a meal before heading round to The View for the bingo, I had not received a response from Emma*.  She doesn’t owe me anything, I attempted to soothe myself, and besides, she’d likely had a busy day.  With a bellyful of burgers and beer at a discounted bargain, we ventured forth in search of witty numerical calls and raffle prizes.  The scene in The View was nothing like what I’d been imagining all week.  It was bright, vibrant, and had the fragrance of just about any other bar.  The room was full of people, hardly any of them of pension age.  Overwhelmingly they were female, which immediately had me rethinking my attitude towards the noble pastime of bingo.  We each bought a book and a dabber, as well as enough raffle tickets to have our table resembling the ground outside a church after a wedding.  

Nobody has ever considered a bingo dabber to be the height of man’s engineering achievement, yet it defeated one member of our group.  Nobody saw it happen, but seemingly my brother struggled with the screw-off lid to such an extent that he ended up pulling it off with so much force that the green ink erupted all over the table.  Everything was green:  the table, his bingo book, his jeans, and his hands.  It was like watching Bruce Banner transform, and nobody knew what would happen if my brother got angry about this.  Our niece was incredulous with her amusement.

Despite having a book that was almost entirely ruined by the ink spillage, my brother managed to win a cash prize on a line in the only game that wasn’t covered by green.  I could scarcely believe that anyone could have that kind of luck.  As it turned out, most of the people at our table won a prize of some sort, either during the five rounds of bingo or in the raffle.  My niece drew the winning tickets out of the hat for the raffle, the proceeds of which were going to my sister’s Happy Wee Health Club.  She revelled in the role of pulling numbers out at random and delivering the prizes to the winning table.  Most of the time, she was coming to us.  By the end of the night it was getting embarrassing, and people from our group were returning goods to be redrawn, though I couldn’t be sure if the Nut Tax Man was just being overly sure of his own scent when he handed back the Jimmy Choo perfume set.  Other tables were jeering when yet another prize landed our way.  The whole episode was reminiscent of the Maryburgh meat raffle a year earlier where my niece once again had a skill for picking the raffle tickets that had been bought by her own family.  Just like then, I was one of the few amongst us who didn’t win a single thing all night.

Even though I wasn’t having any success, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the bingo.  It was tremendous fun.  What was noticeable was how deeply involved everyone became in the game.  There was tension as folk edged closer to winning a line or a house, drama, and no shortage of competitive action.  You immediately become engrossed in finding the numbers in your book as they are called as rapidly as a chopped root vegetable hits the floor in my kitchen.  I hadn’t afforded as much concentration to something since putting together my profile on Bumble.  Ultimately, when we convened in Aulay’s to analyse the night we’d just had, it transpired that I’d had as much luck on Bumble as at the bingo.  Emma* had unmatched me without ever telling me what a fish biologist does with a forklift certificate.  On Bumble, just as at the bingo, I couldn’t get a single line.

Usually these things don’t bother me.  I’m well used to not receiving a response on dating apps, or not making a match at all.  But these are always women from other parts of the country.  This was different.  Emma* lives locally; it somehow seemed more real.  In my head, I had already been dating her for most of the day, imagining all of the things we could be doing together.  I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that it hadn’t worked out.  People will always say that there are plenty more fish in the sea, but then, who would know about that better than a fish biologist?

*Emma’s name has been changed.

39 not out

That a man will attract some interesting looks when he walks into the bar holding a fern is just one of the lessons I learned on the recent occasion of my 39th birthday.  Of course, it isn’t every day that a man appears in Aulay’s carrying a leafy houseplant in his hand, but the eyeballing me and my fern took was something else, as though I was drunk driving into a handicapped space.  Sure, the scene had an element of farce to it, with me trying to navigate the busy bar to find a spot where I could rest my large birthday gift that wouldn’t intrude on anyone’s view of the football, but you’d think that people had never seen a 39-year-old man lovingly cradle a fern the way some of them were acting.  Maybe it was when I sat the ceramic pot down on the end of the bar and one of the leaves made a beeline for a glass of vodka and coke that things threatened to take a turn.  Eventually, it was decided that on the floor by the coat rack was the best place to store a fern until closing time.

On the face of it, the fern was a thoughtful present from my friends, but it felt like a cruel joke.  The fact that I can never keep a houseplant alive is almost as notorious as my ability to kill a flourishing interaction with the opposite sex.  All they had done was pass down a sentence on an innocent plant.  Some might say that by thirty-nine a man ought to be capable of showing some form of responsibility, and my friends clearly felt that I had a better chance of that with a fern than a female, but I wasn’t convinced.

A Tuesday afternoon is not my usual slot for getting my hair cut, though sometimes the head has to rule the heart and you are forced into breaking some habits.  My hair had grown into an unruly state that needed tending to before we went out for my birthday dinner in the evening, even if it was at the expense of the barber’s projected Saturday takings.  There’s always a fantastic story when you get into the barber’s chair, no matter what day of the week it is.  This time he told me about his recent holiday in Italy, which has resulted in an ongoing dispute with a popular package holiday operator.  In an effort to raise awareness of his struggle and to force the agent into refunding him the money he feels he is due, the barber is in the process of using the GoPro footage from his travels to produce a protest vlog of sorts.  It sounded extravagant, the means he was going to when most folk would simply fill in a form.  I wasn’t sure about it.  Something about the idea of a video blog made me uncomfortable.  What is it with people having the need to put every aspect of their lives online?  

The responsibility for organising the night out in celebration of my 39th birthday was taken into the hands of The Algaeman and the only person who I have ever seen pay the nut tax in the Tartan Tavern.  As far as I understand it, the sole condition they attached to their guest list, aside from that they would be our usual circle of friends, was that the invitees should be female.  Therefore it seemed pretty damning that the only women they could convince to join us for dinner were my sister and niece. That isn’t to say that I wasn’t thrilled to see them.  Everybody had a great time, and I could tell that my niece especially enjoyed having a larger than usual audience to play to.  She would wander between us like a trick-or-treater, performing for the gallery and seeking a response.  Her favourite game on this occasion was to unclip the gold chain from her purse and show us all how it could wriggle between her hands like a worm.  It was the sort of act that had endless amusement for a six-year-old, but for the rest of us, there was a limited shelf-life.  I foolishly suggested that, since the chain had clips at either end, it could be used to curate a pair of handcuffs.  Little did I realise that my niece would heartily take my advice.  With a relish I have seldom seen in anyone so young, she untangled the web of golden worms and wrapped the chain around my wrists, clasping it shut at either end.  As a jailer, she had done a pretty lousy job and my hands would still have been free if I wanted them to be, but there’s an unwritten understanding that you play along with these things.  I wrestled and struggled and proclaimed my innocence against the crimes I had been convicted of.  Then the waitress appeared with plates filled with pizza and pasta, and I sensed a way out of my predicament.  She placed a “Rio” before me – a pizza topped with all of the meats you can imagine – and I took my chance.  

“Would you happen to have the keys for these?”  I pleaded, holding my bound wrists up in the air.

“No.” The response was blunt. Not only was the rest of our food served by a much older and definitely more masculine employee, but we didn’t see the waitress anywhere for the rest of the night. There was a part of me that was feeling guilty for making the handcuff remark. Amongst our table, we imagined her fleeing to the city of Glasgow and beyond upon hearing my line, quitting her job and everything. I felt terrible about it. There will never be any way of us knowing why her shift ended at that exact moment, but much like with all of the games my niece will play, it is easy to join the dots. Perhaps there is a lesson there about the jokes you can attempt when you are 39.

Outside Bar Rio, on our way to Aulay’s to watch Celtic play RB Leipzig in the Champions League, the gang presented me with my fern.  I cannot think of an instance where I have felt both so touched and terrified at the same time.  I have been gifted a houseplant in the past, but that was a succulent which didn’t require much care or attention – and still it died within months of being introduced to the environment of my home.  The fern was different.  It was big, easily the size of a newborn baby, and a living, breathing being.  While it was nice that my friends trusted that I would be capable of looking after something so green, it has to be remembered that most of them are scientists who have been trained to consider the chance that all outcomes are possible, no matter how unlikely.  If there is a 98% probability of a houseplant dying within four months of falling under my guardianship, they’re going to look at the 2% prospect of it living for a year.

As far as the likely outcome of certain events goes, the Algaeman’s decision to drink his first-ever (and consequently second) cocktail was as predictable as the fate of my fern; a joke made to a waitress; a Celtic game in the Champions League.   When he first joined our group early in 2022, the Algaeman had a fresh-faced innocence about him.  He used to boast about how he had never experienced a hangover, though by summer that claim was flushed down the toilet when he arrived at work one Saturday resembling Linda Blair’s character in the Exorcist movie, only without the Satanic chanting.  We all knew how a dalliance with Passion Fruit Martini and a Strawberry Daiquiri would go, but sometimes you have to put your belief in that 2% chance.  Of course, on this occasion, the overwhelming odds proved to be correct once again, and the Algaeman was asleep on the table before half-time.

The thing about youth is that these setbacks are quickly brushed off as if they had never happened, and within minutes the Algaeman was leading a further presentation of birthday spoils.  A chorus of “Happy Birthday to you” barely rippled beyond our table as the group lit a ceremonial Colin the Caterpillar candle and stuck it into the flesh of a half-ripe mango.  It was a beautiful homage to the night a few of us were served a platter of sliced mango in the public bar, still the best time we have had in Aulay’s.  Next, I was presented with a copy of the book Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh, which was another callback to a historic episode in the bar.  Inside, the paperback cover was signed by all of the people with whom I spend the majority of my time:  the bar staff in Aulay’s.

It wasn’t long after Celtic’s inevitable defeat that the jukebox was switched on and we could get down to business. If there’s one thing we do well as a group, it is feeding pound coins into the jukey. On the face of it, it seems an easy thing to do, but there is almost an art to playing the right song. It would be easy to revert to your favourite Ryan Adams track or to request No Pussy Blues by Grinderman on repeat, but in a pub full of people who don’t share your taste in music that can quickly come across as obnoxious. Not many folks can balance this quite as well as our own jukebox Romeo, who has an uncanny knack for pulling out the most obscure and yet perfectly-timed tracks, mainly from the nineties. Jimmy Nail, George Michael, Coolio, Limp Bizkit, Backstreet Boys. On this occasion, it was another boy band, Blue with their hit One Love. I’ve often longed to have the command of the jukebox that he possesses. His unflinching ability to find the ideal mood music on the touch screen has earned him the nickname Dirty Finger. He’s the Bond villain that you find yourself rooting for.

While I was busy keeping an eye on my fern by the coat rack and Dirty Finger was slipping silver into the slot of the jukebox, the Plant Doctor became engaged in conversation with a man who was wearing the green jersey of the South Africa national rugby team.  The guy was only passing through Oban for a couple of nights and had a keen interest in science, which made it easy to see why he was so eager to talk to a group of blokes who are in the field.  Since he invariably became part of of my birthday night, we asked him to sign the inside of my book, where his signature took up almost the entirety of the back cover.  He even used the loose leaf on the other side of the last page to write down his email address.

Perhaps with hindsight and the benefit of my 39 years of experience, I should have known that there was more to Randy Ron when he began talking to us about how all women are nothing more than succubus who are only interested in sucking the souls from men.  “Domineering soulsuckers” is the phrase I believe he used.  It’s the sort of thing that someone says and it sticks in your head for days afterwards, particularly in this instance where it’s clear that if all women are looking for is another soul to harvest, I am wasting my time making stupid jokes about handcuffs.  The pieces really fell into place when we were all going our separate ways at the end of the night.  I gathered my fern and was left alone with Ron, who was hoping for an after-party.  I explained to him that I was working in the morning, so I walked him to the taxi rank, where he was seeking a ride to a destination in town he wasn’t familiar with.

“Can you tell me how I get here?”  He asked, handing me his phone, which was open on a text message he had received from a guy who had provided him with an address, followed later by the information:  “I’ve just gone to bed but the door is open.”

When we all reconvened in Aulay’s on Friday night, a handful of days older than 39, the rest of the gang was curious to know how I had gotten on with Ron and if I had been able to “shake him off.”  It was an odd question when I hadn’t thought of him as being a nuisance in any way.

“He seemed to have taken a shine to you,” they said.  “He even asked Dirty Finger if he would mind him going home with you.”  I was shocked, and more than a little annoyed.  I mean, here’s this guy who was presumably attracted to me, yet he’s arranging a rendez-vous with somebody else the entire time.  Of all the lessons I learned during the week of my 39th birthday, discovering that I can’t even be hit on by a guy was the harshest.  If it’s true what they say about life beginning at forty, then I have finally entered the embryonic phase of my existence.  If I am on the cusp of a period in my life filled with new and exciting experiences, I’m not saying that I want any of them to be with gay men, but it would be nice if they could at least hit on me right.

I will be reading excerpts from my notebook at Let’s Make A Scene at the Corran Halls, Oban on Saturday 29 October. The link is below if anyone feels like checking it out.

https://fb.me/e/2UDEFlG0L

Interest like confetti

In these days where turning on the news or opening your social media brings yet another wave of stories about energy price caps, inflation, the cost of living, markets collapsing, or interest rates soaring, it feels more important than ever to take all the pleasure you can from the small things in life. At least, that’s the only explanation I have for why I was standing at my bathroom sink for what seemed like several minutes one morning this week staring straight into a freshly opened jar of Lidl’s own brand moisturiser. It was so perfectly smooth and unblemished. I imagine that I was viewing the cream the same way some people peel back the paper on a new tub of butter and admire how nice it looks. That moment when your knife skims across the surface to make the initial disruption in the butter is such a quietly satisfying one. For the first time I can remember, I caught myself looking at the pure white moisturiser and questioning if I was even worthy of spoiling it by applying it to my face.

The thing is, it wasn’t the cream’s flawless appearance that had me reluctant to take my finger to it like a knife through butter, it was the new label on the plastic container.  It used to go under the name ‘Vitality Regenerative Day Cream’, which was neat and uncomplicated for a man who was new to the concept of moisturising.  Such is the way of life in 2022, however, things don’t tend to remain simple for very long.  The cream had been rebranded and is now known as ‘Vital Beauty Anti-Ageing and Extra Firming Day Cream’.  Nothing stays simple, you see.  This had me questioning everything from why I need to moisturise at all, to Lidl’s marketing department, and what am I doing with my life anyway.  Most of all, I couldn’t understand why I would need my cheeks to be extra firm.  The cheeks on my butt, yes, but the cheeks on my face?  It didn’t make any sense to me, but the tub was already open by this point, so I sliced my finger right through it.

I’ve never been one to let anything go to waste; you can’t afford to when you’re a single occupant. I’ll squeeze every penny of value I can out of my goods, whether it’s a tube of toothpaste or a lemon. This prudence seems all the more necessary now that we’re experiencing this cost of living crisis that everybody is talking about. Last week, just days after the new UK Government’s mini-budget caused the pound to crash, markets to panic, pensions to evaporate, and interest rates to rise, I received a letter from my bank reminding me that my original mortgage deal will end in February 2023. I mean, the timing alone was like rain on your wedding day or a black fly in your Chardonnay. From March, I will be paying interest on my loan at the Standard Variable Rate of 4.99%, rather than my current fixed rate, which is 3.92%. The difference is the cost of a decent night in Aulay’s. With a variable rate of interest, anything can happen. In theory, I could be making a different payment every month for the rest of my term. I’d be as well writing my future budgets behind a scratchcard.

It turns out that the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow is Capitalism.

Money is far from the greatest concern in my life, though.  I’ve found that you can have a lot more fun if you don’t even think about it.  Time spent with friends and family is where true wealth is found, and of late I’ve been rolling in it like Scrooge McDuck.  I didn’t know The Algaeman before the turn of the year.  In fact, I can’t pinpoint exactly when we all met him, but he has become a constant in our Friday nights.  It is difficult to imagine a time before The Algaeman was part of our group.  He smiles all the time, which is useful when it comes to helping me believe that at least one person has found something I’ve said funny.  The fact that he smiles isn’t all that distinguishes him from the rest of us.  When we are lined along the bar in Aulay’s, we could easily be described as a coffee shop order of four glasses of milk and a chocolate milkshake.  His Indian accent is one I have come to associate with pure, undiluted joy, while his words are almost musical.  One night recently, we taught him all about the word cunt.  It was a beautiful thing to hear him repeat it over and over again, and before long, there was cunt being thrown around like confetti.

The Algaeman recently submitted his Master’s thesis after a year of hard work, giving us all cause for celebration.  We joined him in the Whisky Vaults on Friday, where the staff were busy erecting a large tent in preparation for their German-themed beer event Oktobanfest the next day.  It’s amazing to see what finally completing a 36,400-word, 160-page paper does to a person, having a similar effect on The Algaeman’s complexion as dipping your finger into a tub of Vital Beauty Anti-Ageing and Extra Firming Day Cream.  I was feeling just as buoyed when I learned that I had been included in the acknowledgements section of his thesis.  Even if the mention was only for my ability to make an appearance in Aulay’s every Friday, it still represents my best chance of ever having my name published in print.

Most of the people in the bar were also marine scientists from SAMS, except for myself and the only man who I have ever seen being forced to pay the nut tax in the Tartan Tavern. We took a seat at the end of a table opposite two women we had never met before. I sat down and, for reasons that might seem peculiar with hindsight, decided to break the ice by announcing that “we may as well make this as awkward as possible.” One of the ladies smiled the way someone does when you tell them a piece of distressing news and they don’t know what they can say to reassure you.

Knowing that SAMS is the most multinational institution in town, and having heard an unfamiliar dialect in the woman’s voice, I attempted to advance the conversation by asking her where she is from, anticipating an exotic answer such as Portugal or Spain.  “Nairn,” came the response.  It transpired that the accent I was hearing was English, one that had been passed down from a parent.  Even by my standards, it felt as though the interaction was going terribly, though it recovered enough for me and the nut tax man to glean some of the most interesting pieces of information I have heard in a while.  We learned that she was named after one of the Shetland Islands, just like her two older siblings, and that because her parents couldn’t decide on a name, the midwife who helped deliver her chose one for them.  I couldn’t get over the pressure the nurse must have felt in that moment.  It’s one thing to deliver a healthy baby, but to then give it the name that is going to follow the person for the rest of their life is a whole other level.  I thought about the way that I can barely come up with something original to write in a birthday card, when a name is going to be repeated on every card a person ever receives.

Naming is a complicated business, as we discovered when we tried to talk to one of the other women from SAMS who was at the table. She was Italian and not yet fluent in her English, so much of what was being said wound up getting lost in translation. Even trying to find out which part of Italy she is from was an ordeal which resulted in the entire group striving to explain why I had asked which part of the boot she comes from. It didn’t get any easier when we had a go at talking cuisine; specifically what her region is best known for. Alan told a story about a friend of his whose surname is Gateau. This guy had a pizza named after him in an Italian restaurant he ate in often. Our companion was incredulous at hearing this. She couldn’t understand anyone naming a pizza Gateau, no matter how many different ways Alan tried to explain that it is true. It felt as though someone could have written an entire thesis on the concept of how things get their name in the time that passed before someone at the table came to realise where the confusion was coming from: the Italian word gatto is a male cat, and the woman couldn’t comprehend why Alan was talking about a cat pizza. It was easy to see why the idea was ridiculous.

Like completing a thesis, the first day of October doesn’t come around very often. This year, the Whisky Vaults marked the beginning of the tenth month with Oban’s first Oktoberfest. They had a menu of seven different German-style beers, as well as a selection of barbequed meats, and people dressed in traditional festival attire. We sat outside under the tent that was covering most of the beer garden. To begin with, the sound of the rain pattering against the roof sounded like tiny baby steps, though after six beers they could just as easily have been from an elephant. We opened with a wheat beer, the sort that could be enjoyed for breakfast if breakfast was at five-thirty in the afternoon. We were joined briefly by a Canadian marine biologist who told us that she had tried five of the beverages on offer, recommending the caramel-tasting Red Lager. She wondered how many we had sampled, though having just arrived we were at the start of our beer journey.

“This is just our first,” I said.  “But I hope I’m looking as good as you are after five.”

I am never so nakedly flirtatious, and I’ve no idea what possessed me to be in that moment.  What’s worse is that it was impossible to tell how it was received.  The Canadian smiled shyly before walking away from the table and returning to her group.  Who knew whether I had complimented or offended her?  Even apart from that, it was ridiculous for me to think that I could look as good as anyone after five pints, let alone an effervescent young woman.  All the Vital Beauty Anti-Ageing and Extra Firming Day Cream in the world won’t do that.  I returned home hours later, the remark still playing on my mind.  To distract me, I put on the 1980 film Airplane! and opened a Tennent’s Lager, placing the can on my coffee table next to the letter from my mortgage lender.  It’s still the most reliable way for me to see any interest.

Pure morning

Monday 12 September 2022:

Tonight we played our tenth week of indoor football in Atlantis.  Our game has grown quite significantly during that time.  In the beginning, we were eight men with a severe lack of fitness and no footballing ability who knew each other primarily from the pub; now we are fifteen men who met mainly through the pub, are a little fitter than we were but still have no footballing ability.

In those ten weeks, we have played with a Frenchman, a Belgian, a Polish schoolboy, and adopted a Turkish barber originally from Iraq who is so much better than the rest of us that he has taken to finishing games playing in his socks.  Our squad currently consists of, I think, four scientists, two accountants and six spectacle wearers.  It is the most placid collection of individuals you could care to meet in a leisure centre, yet people have suffered strained quadriceps, bruised ligaments, damage to their fingers, and on one occasion, a dislocated shoulder.  We aren’t a competitive bunch, but I guess if you throw a ball into a hall for a dozen or so men to chase after, these things are bound to happen.

Despite the rash of injuries, people seem to be enjoying the weekly game, so much so that there has been some discussion of potentially playing twice a week.  Apart from anything else, it seems that before long, hiring the hall for an hour is going to be cheaper than paying for heating at home.  Tonight I scored for the second time in ten weeks, which although a paltry tally when compared to most of the other players in our group, is a much more prolific return than in other areas of my life.

Tuesday 13 September 2022:

Other than the indoor game in Atlantis, there hasn’t been a great deal happening over the last few days. It has been an unusual time. There has been nothing on the television, sporting events across the UK have been postponed, the cinema was closed on Friday night, and even the Oban Pride Festival was cancelled over the weekend. To fill the void, I have found myself spending a lot of time listening to the 1986 album released by The Smiths. The title track is a classic, and surely one of the best-ever opening songs on an album.

Wednesday 14 September 2022:

After a fairly successful streak sometime around July, The Unlikely Bawbags are on a barren run at the Lorne pub quiz.  If we don’t win we are usually close, though there was one week where we fell down the rankings as far as fourth or fifth.  Tonight we were second, a point off the eventual winners.  It’s frustrating when that happens, and we’ll spend some time afterwards dwelling over it, trying to count the points we could have won if only we’d made different decisions and gone with the right answers; but this time there really wasn’t any more we could have done.

Despite telling anyone who would listen that I was going to have a refrained night on account of my plans to travel the following day, I once again ended up in Aulay’s after the quiz.  The winning team, Quiznae Me, were there celebrating their success.  It was all I could do to sit at the end of the bar and furiously contemplate what might have been.  Over the froth of a Tennent’s Lager, I watched as an elegantly dressed woman approached and ordered a glass of Pinot Grigio.  She remarked to her friend that she had recently made the switch from red wine to white, and the reason why became the question I most wanted answering for the night.  There’s little more fascinating to me than the thinking behind the seemingly mundane decisions people make, usually because it leads to an exchange of other similarly beige nuggets of information.  For example, the wine-quaffing quiz winner told me that she had been finding that red wine was going straight to her head, but that the green grape isn’t nearly as potent.  I noted that the glass of white wine she was clutching in her hand complimented the colour of her nails, which she told me had been manicured for the very first time the previous week.  I learned that the process behind picking a colour for your nails is broadly similar to when you enter a hardware store and you’re seeking the perfect tin of paint for your new kitchen.  The buyer goes in and thumbs through a colour chart which gives them the opportunity of seeing how a certain shade looks against their finger before having the material applied for real.  On this occasion, the woman had gone for a colour which resembled sand on a beach before it becomes wet, since she considered it a safe option for her maiden manicure.  

“Would it impress you if a guy could tell you that your nails are shellac?”  I enquired, immediately dispensing my only piece of nail knowledge, kindly offered to me years ago by a young woman who was standing in almost exactly the same spot when she insisted that a female would enjoy it if I could point out that “they’re shellac, bitch.” 

“I don’t think it would.  I don’t even know what shellac is, and I’d probably be busy wondering why the guy knows.”  My demeanour darkened, though in truth, I don’t especially know how to identify a shellac nail either.

The wine drinker has a pleasing, peaceful aura, and she smiles as often as the traffic light on Argyll Square turns red.  She told me that she has recently embarked on a new initiative to do one thing each week as a treat to herself.  Last week she had her nails done, while this week she visited a hairdresser for the first time since the pandemic began.  She picked up her drink and made to return to her group.  “Thank you for the great conversation,” she said in parting.  I didn’t know how to respond.  Nobody had ever thanked me for talking to them before.  I took it as a treat for myself.

Thursday 15 September 2022:

France’s largest air traffic control union, the SNCTA, has called a strike for tomorrow. Ordinarily, these things wouldn’t bother me and I would find myself on the side of the underpaid worker, but I was due to travel for a weekend break in Sarajevo, and the elaborate route I had sourced was to take me from Glasgow to Dublin, onwards to Paris and finally to Sarajevo. The final flight has been cancelled due to the strike action. I wasn’t looking forward to the journey itself, since it was going to require a seven-hour overnight stop in Dublin Airport followed by a further six-hour wait in Paris Beauvais, but I was excited for my brief return to Bosnia and Herzegovina. More than anything, I was keen to see some of the friends I had made there during the summer: Aid, Kenan, Medina, and the bar staff at Gastro Pub Vucko. To have the trip cancelled so close to departure was disappointing, but I suppose it was better than learning about it upon arrival at the airport. The task now is to find a way to enjoy the weekend that will keep me from mourning that I am not in Sarajevo.

Friday 16 September 2022:

On days like this, Oban scarcely looks real; more like a series of postcards have been pinned to the horizon in some dramatic exhibition.  McCaig’s Tower pierces the sky, leaving barely a scratch in the pinball blue.  From up there you can see for miles, islands in the distance are exposing themselves to the sun.  The sun itself dances provocatively on the surface of the still sea.  Beer gardens and al fresco dining areas are doing a roaring trade, pavements packed with the sudden jolt of tourists who spy a photo opportunity, while on the Esplanade, a couple with an A3 pad sprawled across their knees are sketching the scene on the bay.  I guess that’s easier than writing a thousand words.

In the evening, I joined a few friends in attending the Pictish Trail gig in The View.  I had listened to only a small amount of the Island of Eigg native’s material before the night, but there was enough of it to span two sets:  the first a solo acoustic warm-up for the full-band, lo-fi psychedelic folk experience that followed.  It was pretty great; energetic, interactive, and a lot more fun than I could ever have expected the performance to be.

Saturday 17 September 2022:

I like to buy whichever vegetable Lidl has on offer and then Google what I can do with it.  This week they are selling courgettes for £1.29 per kilo, which weighed out at 37p for the courgette I picked out.  The extent of my typical recipe search is usually to ask the internet for suggestions of pasta dishes I can cook using that week’s vegetable.  Easily the most awkward part of my shopping experience today was when I was approaching the sale items in the fresh produce aisle and the song Je t’aime moi non plus by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin began playing in my earphones.  The track is the audio equivalent of reading the articles in Playboy Magazine.  To my memory, it is the first time that I have been checking a courgette for firmness while hearing the sound of a female breathing heavily in my ear. 

I added the song to my monthly Spotify playlist due to an incident that occurred in Aulay’s last Friday. Amongst our group, we had become aware of three French women who were seated at a table in the corner of the bar. Given that most of us have no idea how to approach a table of French women, we were feeling pretty hopeless. Eventually, it came to me that the best way of communicating them might be through the true language of love – music – and so I dropped a pound in the jukebox and played the LaBelle classic Lady Marmalade. The song appeared to delight the damsels since they were seen dancing at their table, though they presumably never acknowledged our existence on account of there being no way of knowing who has requested which song. Besides, I had become distracted by our usual game of themed playlists and followed Lady Marmalade with Sugar, Sugar by The Archies and some track by The Jam. It was during his round of picks that the Plant Doctor played Je t’aime, but the ladies had long since departed by the time it came on. We were left only with speculating as to how they would have reacted to hearing it.

Sunday 18 September 2022:

Many people throughout the UK have the day off work tomorrow, and since there doesn’t appear to be anything better to do with the time, I decided that I would embark on the nearly mythical ‘Sunday sesh’ – an entire Sunday spent in the pub.  To start the day, Gary and I went to the Tartan Tavern to watch Celtic lose 2-0 to St. Mirren, which was the first time either of us had reason to grieve in well over ten days.  A pint of beer in there retails at £4.50, surely putting it around the mid-point of the prince range in Oban these days.  Gary arrived later than I did, joining my table with a pint of Guinness and a packet of KP salted peanuts.

“Help yourself to some nuts if you like,” he said.  “I only bought them to get the total up to five pounds.”

“What do you mean?”

“There’s a five pound minimum charge for card payments, so she asked me to get something else to make the bill up.”

It’s true that above the bar there is a sign clearly stating that the minimum card payment the place will accept is for £5, yet I was able to pay for my £4.50 Budweiser without having to buy a bag of nuts.  We found the discrepancy curious, and I was alert to it when I was next at the bar.  I studied the scene closely as the transaction unfolded.  Drink ordered.  Pint poured.  Bill rung up.  £4.50 paid by card.  As far as the things that happen in a hospitality setting go, this seemed fairly unremarkable, but we were perplexed.  Some time passed before Gary needed to have his Guinness refreshed.  This was the moment of truth.  The barmaid repeated the same process she had gone through with me, right up until the final step, where she invited Gary to buy something else to bring the bill up to the £5 minimum charge.

“Why are you having to pay the nut tax and I’m not?”  I wondered.  It was a question neither of us could answer, and as much as we were curious to know, I wasn’t going to be the idiot who asks a barmaid why he isn’t paying more for his drink.

We left for Aulay’s with Gary a pound lighter in the wallet and 100 grams heavier in peanuts.  There we were joined by a rolling cast of characters through the afternoon as we discussed our favourite cheesy eighties movies and quizzed the barmaid on her habit of adding items to her online shopping basket without ever checking out.  In a way, I guess it’s the modern equivalent of window shopping.  She had more than £400 worth of goods in her basket just from that day’s shift behind the bar.  In her view, she isn’t the type who cares for branded clothing or spends a lot of money on herself, she just likes imagining that she could own them with one click.  I tried telling her how I like to do the same on the World of Books website, with the difference being that I had recently gone through with spending more than £30 on second-hand titles, but she didn’t have much interest in that.

The most fascinating thing about spending an entire afternoon in the pub is observing the different people who come and go.  One minute it is quiet and the next there is a cacophony of flamboyantly drunk young women singing along to 4 Non Blondes in celebration of a 30th birthday.  From where we were standing, it seemed impossible that they could last the day, but by the end of it all, we would discover to our cost that we were underestimating the group.  

Unperturbed by the earlier nut tax, Gary found himself in conversation with an older Irish woman.  She was dressed as though she had been attending a funeral, though we knew that couldn’t have been the case since we had heard of nobody else who had died recently.  The woman integrated herself into our company, and we learned that she had in fact spent the afternoon at the classic car rally that was held at the station square.  Some of the antique automobiles on display were so beautiful that “they would take the knickers off a nun,” or so we were told.  People had always tried telling me that my life would be simpler if I had learned how to drive, and I might have been more willing to listen if they could have put car ownership in such convincing terms.

The Plant Doctor and Gary had spent much of the afternoon in competition over ‘the Guinness challenge’, which requires the drinker to take a continuous mouthful of the black stuff with the aim of leaving the base of the creamy head resting in the tiny space between the bottom of the harp and the top of the branded lettering.  On observing this, I have calculated that a successful Guinness challenge should have six gulps; a skill that The Plant Doctor seemed to have mastered on approximately 50% of his attempts.  Our Irish guest had never heard of this highly-accomplished art and was eager to try it for herself, so she ordered a pint.  We stood back in expectation of witnessing a masterclass from someone to whom Guinness comes as natural as oxygen, water, or whiskey.  None of us had ever seen a Guinness challenge like it:  the mouthful went far beyond the white letters, all the way to the middle of the glass.  It was difficult to know whether to be impressed or disappointed.

I believe it was sometime after the nationwide minute’s silence at eight o’clock was observed by turning on the subtitles during Frozen Planet 2 that we left the pub to get something to eat before heading for Markies to take part in Oban’s second-best quiz.  We believed that the team we had assembled was capable of achieving great things, even after a long and emotional day.  Things were going well for a time, though we found ourselves trailing by several points going into the final music round.  A strong score of 16 out of 20 salvaged a tiebreak situation for us, but our miserable knowledge of the number of windows on The Shard skyscraper scuppered the whole thing.  It turned out that the young women from the 30th birthday party know their pub trivia as well as their alcohol better than we could ever have considered.

Monday’s bank holiday was already beginning to look bleak when we decided to partake in some consolation shots of tequila laced with Tobasco sauce.  Nothing was happening on Monday that I was aware of, so as far as I was concerned, I might as well confront it with the mother of all hangovers.  All that was left was to play that 1986 album by The Smiths one more time.  

Mostar and Medjugorje (part three)

Around 16 miles southwest of Mostar lies the town of Medjugorje, which until 24 June 1981 was considered little more than an insignificant village.  Even today, according to the most recent census, the town has a population of only 2,265.  Yet in the last forty years, thousands of hotel rooms have been constructed to help meet the demands of up to a million visitors annually.  Medjugorje is said to have the most overnight stays in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  All of this because on that day in 1981, six youths aged between ten and sixteen years old were walking in the hills, talking, herding sheep, collecting apples, and smoking when a vision of the Virgin Mary appeared before them.  Our Lady of Medjugorje, as the apparition came to be known, told some of the youngsters ten secrets that have yet to be revealed, while several of the seers claim to still receive apparitions to this day, often daily.  Subsequently, the town was officially recognised as a pilgrimage site by the Catholic Church in 2019.

I was recovering from my first experience drinking rakija when I woke up on Saturday morning to take my own trip to Medjugorje. Truthfully, I had never heard about the events of 1981 before my friends at Meet Bosnia suggested that I could spend a day at a vineyard in the region and I began reading about it. I was enraptured and stunned – who knew that Bosnia and Herzegovina produces wine? My room in the family home-cum-hostel was at the top of the stairs, while the private bathroom was situated in the hallway downstairs. The family lives in a separate building, so when I ventured down to wash in the morning, it felt as though I had the run of the place. Three doors were lined up one next to the other, with my key being for bathroom number two. Inside, there was everything a person could need in a bathroom: a shower, toilet, and wash hand basin; all in a space that is smaller than my bathroom at home, which until then is the smallest I have ever used.

I started brushing my teeth at the sink when I became aware of the sound of running water coming from the next private bathroom, not unlike the steady stream of the Kravice waterfall the day before.  It turns out that the rooms are separated by a thin layer of plasterboard, with a gap of around a foot between the top of the partition and the ceiling.  I froze, paralysed by the realisation that there was a person taking a shower on the other side of the wall from me.  My toothbrush was clenched between my jaws, blue paste foaming over my bottom lip.  From the next bathroom, I could hear excruciatingly loud gasps broken by the water, as though a man was being subjected to a round of water torture.  For some reason, he sounded Swedish to me, though I had nothing to go on but the sound of him gasping for air.  I don’t know why I felt compelled to stand motionless by the sink, toothbrush in mouth, until this other man had left his private bathroom, but for a while, it is the closest I have come to taking a shower with another person.

When I eventually felt comfortable enough to shower by myself, I was refreshed and reinvigorated, ready to make my pilgrimage to Medjugorje.  The driver from Meet Bosnia was due to collect me at nine o’clock, so I had time to go to a nearby pekara and play Russian Roulette with the baked goods.  I believe it was on this occasion that I got the chocolate filling.  Back at the hostel, I had been looking forward to enjoying my pastry with a cup of instant coffee, but I couldn’t figure out how to work the kettle.  It didn’t matter what I tried, the thing wouldn’t boil.  After all the complexities of trying to figure out the correct etiquette when drinking Bosnian coffee, this should have been a doddle.  Instead, the only steam was figurative and coming from my ears.  Still, I suppose it wasn’t the worst thing to have happened that morning. 

Mirza arrived exactly on schedule, though I was only aware of his presence when I heard him and the elderly woman from the family who runs the hostel engaged in an animated discussion in the garden.  Amidst their fluent Bosnian, the driver mentioned “42 Combie Street”, and it occurred that it would have been a heck of a coincidence if the street I lived on in Oban was also an address in Mostar.  I introduced myself to Mirza, and we began our journey to the holy pilgrimage town of Medjugorje.  He is an older man who has decided to spend his final working years before retirement as a tour guide.  We enjoyed a good conversation along the way, bonding mostly over subjects such as the best bars to visit in Sarajevo and football, which very nearly led to me offering an apology for the fact that my team, Celtic, had beaten his favourite club, FK Sarajevo, three times in the last two years.  What I felt most sorry about, however, was the fact that Mirza had left Sarajevo at 6.30am to come and pick me up.  He insisted that he didn’t mind the journey, but all I could think was that soon he would be watching me drink four glasses of wine at a vineyard and then having to deal with that for the rest of the afternoon.

I found Mirza to be a lovely and fascinating gentleman, even when I was forced to stop myself from laughing when he asked if I was aware that Sarajevo had hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics. He had a very particular policy whereby his car is the one place he refuses to smoke, which struck me as being unusual for a Bosnian since they smoke everywhere else. According to Mirza, most Bosnian people aren’t especially troubled by the cost of everyday essentials like bread, milk, or gas, whereas if anyone thought of increasing the price of cigarettes – which are widely available for 5BKM [£2.11] for a packet of 20 – “there would be riots.” I learned a lot about the importance of cigarettes in the Bosnian culture. Mirza said that they saved his life in the war; that he just couldn’t have gone through that without being able to smoke. Instead of being paid a monetary wage during the siege of Sarajevo, most people were given cigarettes for their work, which could then be traded for other goods. The first thing Mirza did whenever we left the car was to light a cigarette, and I could understand why.

When we arrived in Medjugorje just before ten o’clock, the sun was beating down on the little town. If God truly was looking over this place and sending the mother of Jesus to pass messages to its children, then he clearly wasn’t giving a fuck about my skin. Mirza invited me to take a wander on my own for a while, so I walked down what appeared to be the town’s main street. On either side of the road were tiny shops selling religious souvenirs. Next to “The Rosary Shop” was a store selling candy, and on the other side stood a place selling replica football strips bearing the names of players such as Lionel Messi or Karim Benzema. It goes to show that, for different people, salvation can be found in many places. Some seek spirituality in a church, others in a sweet jar, while some find it in their favourite football team. Though I’m sure that isn’t the point that was being made.

At the end of the road was the Church of Saint James the Greater, an impressive twin-towered Cathedral that, for some reason, had a clock on each tower.  The grounds were busy with worshippers who either funnelled inside for the service that was about to begin or posed for a selfie at the foot of the statue of the Virgin Mary in the garden.  My main purpose was neither, instead attracted by the fountain which was offering fresh water.  As I topped up my bottle under the tap, a voice whispered out from the loudspeakers on the side of the church building.  It was soft and American, maybe what you’d expect of a voice from above in a Hollywood movie, but not in real life in Bosnia.  The voice suggested that it is time for people to stop seeing Medjugorje as a pilgrimage, which seemed like an odd statement for a priest to be making to what I assumed was a full congregation inside the church, no different to a chef coming out and announcing to his restaurant that folk should no longer see dinner as a big meal.  The voice continued, “and somewhere to top up your tan.”  I peeled the polo shirt from my back, took a long gulp of cold water, and considered what it would feel like to have a tan that could be topped up, as opposed to spending my entire time in Bosnia a hot mess.

After a few minutes of reflection on the steps in front of the cathedral, I left to find Mirza, who was enjoying a cigarette in the shade of a coffee shop.  Even by eleven o’clock, the temperature was crawling into the mid-thirties, and I think even Mirza was struggling with it.  He asked if I was wanting to climb Apparition Hill to the site of the visitations from the Virgin Mary, which he reckoned would take around an hour to get up and back down again.  I could hardly even feign enthusiasm for the idea.  Given the option, I would probably have chosen to go back to the private bathroom in the hostel rather than climb a hill in thirty-degree heat.  “Are you sure?”  Mirza asked, probably wondering why someone would come all the way to a pilgrimage town without going on the actual pilgrimage.  “Can’t we just sit here and drink coffee?”  I whined.

Besides, we had an appointment at the vineyard, and while I have heard of water being turned into wine, I don’t believe there’s anything they can do with body sweat. I was surprised to see how vast the fields filled with grapes were in Herzegovina. To me, it felt as though we were driving through them for miles to reach Vinogradi Nuić, which was fairly remote from civilisation. The family endeavour began planting vines in 2004, and they have ambitious plans to expand their site with a full visitor centre and restaurant. The brothers took me around the facility, describing in tremendous detail the process of producing wine, from grape to glass, all within their philosophy of following nature and her laws without exploiting the soil. What struck me most was the pride they have in their work, although it was the same everywhere I went in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have never met people who have more pride in their country than the Bosnians have.

Finally, we were led back outside to the front of the building, where there was a table that was going to serve as our tasting station.  Mirza reached for his cigarettes, while I reached for my notebook, something that was effectively going to be my crutch as I looked to put on a front by making everybody else believe that I know what I’m doing when it comes to drinking wine.  The brothers brought out four of their favourite wines for me to enjoy a glass of with them, along with a plate of locally-produced sheep’s cheese.  With our table looking out across vines as far as the eyes could see, on the horizon was a group of mammoth hills, the other side of which was Croatia.  It is the most serene and exquisite setting I have ever gotten drunk before midday in, and I was keen to write about it all.

Žilavka:  White; he says that the wine has “floral notes” but I’m not sure that’s right since I don’t feel my hayfever complaining; easy drinking fruity flavour.

Pošip:  White; stronger taste; the kind of wine you would drink back home when you’re trying to convince yourself that it’s summer; Allegedly Melon [also my name for a ska band]

Blatina:  Red; just a big glass of elegant, juicy forest berries; 11.45 and I’m drunk.

Trnjak:  Red; the king of all wines; can’t tell if it’s from Mirza’s ashtray or if this stuff tastes like smoke; it’s a BBQ in my mouth; now I understand how those children could see the Virgin Mary.

I was too drunk to tell where Mirza took me after we left the vineyard, but as with so many places I saw in this country, there was a mesmerising waterfall along the way.  We ate at a nice wee restaurant by the lake, where Mirza recommended that we try the pljeskavica [Bosnian burger].  What we were served surprised even him.  The piece of meat was enormous; as big as the plate it was presented on.  Considering that we had just gorged ourselves on cheese at the vineyard, it was a real test of our endurance to make it through the burger.  I have rarely experienced a triumph like it.  The victorious lunch took its toll on us, however, and both Mirza and I were struggling to keep our eyes open during the journey back to Mostar; which was more troublesome for Mirza than it was for me since he was the one driving the car.

When I returned to the hostel in Mostar, the pljeskavica acting as a sponge for the wine in my stomach, a young Canadian traveller was going through the same check-in process I had the night before, though without the rakija.  She was talking to the wife of the family about how she and her friends were keen to go swimming in a waterfall, and my sun-kissed ears pricked up.  Finally, I was the Irishman from Sarajevo, able to pass on knowledge amassed through travelling.  I butted into the conversation to tell the Canadian about the Kravice waterfalls I had visited the day before.  She told me that she had heard about the spot but was concerned that it would be too busy for her on a weekend.  I assured her that when I was there on Friday afternoon it wasn’t overwhelmingly busy, and pulled the iPhone from my pocket to prove it to her.  She huddled over the screen as I scrolled through the photographs I had taken of the waterfall.  There was hardly a person to be seen in the pictures I captured.  The Canadian marvelled.  “Wow, there really aren’t many people there.”  I was forced to confess that while I didn’t consider the Kravice waterfalls to be so busy that the Canadian shouldn’t visit, my photographs didn’t paint an accurate picture since I was trying to avoid snapping semi-naked strangers.  Then I swiped a little too far into my reel, to the portrait Kenan had kindly offered to take of me standing by the impressive waterfall.  I quickly withdrew my phone and we both pretended that we had never seen the image of me posing awkwardly in my orange chinos.  As far as I know, the young woman never visited Kravice.

My plan for my final evening in Mostar was to take the free walking tour at six o’clock that was recommended by the hostel and then have some food and drinks around the old town, but there is a famous line by Rabbie Burns about the schemes of mice and men that often rears its head in my life. After a walk around the UNESCO World Heritage site, I was inevitably lured into a street cafe offering cheap Mostarsko on tap. I found it quite relaxing sitting by the side of a busy cobbled street in the old town and watching the world go by. Then a pasty guy in a straw hat sat at the table next to mine, and things changed. He asked the waitress if she had any alcoholic drinks suitable for a celiac. I believe they settled on a gin and tonic. A few minutes later, the waitress came back by our tables and stopped to ask me where I am from. She had obviously marked my accent out in her mind when she served me earlier, because when I told her that I am from Scotland, she turned to the gentleman at the next table and pointed out that he is from Ireland, and left us to it. It was like being a contestant on a terrible television dating show where prospective drinking buddies are paired up in accordance with how easily their accents can be understood. I guess it was kind of sweet of her to recognise that we were two guys sitting alone in a foreign country who are from the same part of the world, but still, I would have rathered that she had used her matchmaking talents to find me a Bosnian woman to talk to.

Nevertheless, I ended up missing the walking tour on account of drinking beer with my Irish date.  John Patrick had started the day in Dubrovnik, but decided to take a bus to Mostar because he was tired of how overcrowded Croatia was with tourists.  He had managed to find a hotel room for the night and was going to travel back in the morning, but in the meantime, he wanted to see as much of Mostar as he could.  In between discussions over the failed UK government, Brexit, Scottish independence, and Irish unification, John Patrick told me about his hobby of participating in Roman battle reenactments.  Apparently, the shows are especially popular in the Netherlands.  I asked him if he always plays the same character, but he told me that he likes to be flexible and perform roles from both sides of the dispute.  He purchased a new costume in 2020, just before the pandemic began, and hasn’t had the opportunity to wear it in public yet, but he was optimistic that the thirst for Roman battle reenactments would soon be reignited now that the world is gradually returning to normality.

I was told by John Patrick that the primary reason for him taking a holiday to Croatia was the news he had recently received which diagnosed him with an under-active thyroid and what he called “a fatty liver”, which he was at pains to point out isn’t caused by consuming too much alcohol.  He wanted to get away for a couple of weeks to take his mind off things.  It’s especially difficult to resent having your peaceful drink interrupted when you learn that the person you are talking to isn’t well.  The Irishman spoke of the difficulties he had been suffering in Croatia due to the heat.  His feet were swelling after walking for a while, he couldn’t sleep at night, and he was having to lather his skin in suncream.  “You’d know all about that,” he said.  What kind of line is that to use on your date?  His ambition for the next trip he takes is to invest in a pair of linen trousers he had seen on Amazon for £80.  Seemingly the linen shirts he was wearing on this holiday were doing a great job of cooling the upper half of his body, and next time the lower parts were going to be worthy of the same treatment.  

At one point, John Patrick opened up his backpack and showed me the traditional Bosnian Fez hat he had just bought from a stall near the Stari Most.  He told me that he was becoming concerned that he was bringing home so many souvenirs from his trip that he would have to go to the airport wearing some of his new t-shirts as well as the Fez hat.  To illustrate, he placed the cylindrical red felt headdress on top of his straw hat.  In the end, it was difficult to tell where the part of me that found the Irishman charming ended, and where the part that was drunk on Trnjak wine began.

I spent more than an hour in John Patrick’s company, which meant that I missed the six o’clock walking tour by a matter of minutes.  Instead, I took a stroll around some of the streets of Mostar and happened upon the Museum of War and Genocide Victims 1992-1995.  As far as Saturday nights go, this was one of the more harrowing ways I have spent mine.  However, it can never not be a valuable experience to learn about the ways other human beings have suffered.  Afterwards I stopped for some dinner, where I ordered dolma [stuffed peppers].  Having been in Bosnia for five nights by this point, I believe that I was yet to see a vegetable, and eating dolma seemed to be ample opportunity to rectify that.  Though in true Bosnian fashion, the peppers are of course stuffed with beef and rice.

By the Kriva ćuprija [crooked bridge], which was built in 1558 as a trial before the construction of the larger Stari Most, I found the Old Crew Gastro Pub, which had live music being performed outside on both nights I drank there.  Before visiting Mostar, I had never considered the tranquillity of drinking beer by 16th-century bridges, but there is a lot to be said for it.  Being from Scotland and feeling most comfortable at a bar, I evaded the system of table service by going inside and directly to the source.  There, the bar staff spoke entirely in Bosnian, except for the young woman whose job it seemingly was to wait for hapless tourists like me who she could translate for.  In my case, my grasp of the language could get me as far as to make it known that I wanted a beer, but then the barman would pose a question and the whole thing would break down.  “He’s asking if you would like a large beer,” the young woman translated after a few moments of awkward silence.

This same situation came up every time I went into the bar, like a really bad comedy sketch, so on Saturday night, I asked the barmaid if she could teach me the Bosnian word for large.  She didn’t understand what I was saying and initially pointed to the 0.5L marking on the side of the glass.  Honestly, it was like talking to my six-year-old niece, though I can only imagine how much more arduous it was for the poor woman.  I shook my head, apologised, and said with my slowest, most drunken slur:  “If I say large, you say…?”  That was enough to bring us onto the same page, though I fear that by the end of the night, I had forgotten what she taught me.  Part of the reason for that was the revelation when I returned for another large draft beer that I had been greeting people the wrong way since I arrived in Bosnia.  I had led with “dobar dan” before looking to impress the barmaid with my veliko [large] vocabulary, but she stopped me dead in my tracks.  “Veče,” she asserted.  I assumed that I had misinterpreted her previous lesson and corrected myself.  “Sorry, veče pivo.”

“No,” the barmaid came back. “Dobar dan is ‘good afternoon’, you should say dobro veče in the evening.” I felt certain that I was using an informal hello or hey, but that seemingly wasn’t the case. I tried to defuse my embarrassment with a joke. “Can I at least have the evening beer?” The young translator went about pouring my final large beer of the night when I asked her if all of this meant that I had been looking like an idiot walking around Sarajevo since Tuesday, wishing people a good afternoon at all hours of the day. If her smile could have said a thousand words, well, I suppose I couldn’t be sure what any of them meant.

There were no such difficulties with language when I passed the time before my late afternoon train back to Sarajevo at Craft Beer Garden imaimože.  The pub sells a vast range of local craft beers, many of them brewed in-house, while the food is all organically grown in the chef’s garden.  This was one place where you could be sure that there would be no mince stuffed inside your vegetables.  Their pale ale was the most refreshing beer I drank on my trip, and it needed to be on another hot day in Herzegovina.  The barman must have recognised my thirst, because he brought a schooner to my table on the pavement and invited me to taste the new beer he had been working on.  “It’s the same as the one you are drinking,” he said as I brought the glass to my mouth, “only I have added a vegetable to the brewing process.”  It is perhaps the first time I have hesitated from taking a mouthful of beer.  If all I could taste from a glass of wine was the allegation of melon, what chance did I have identifying the flavour of a vegetable from a gulp of beer?  As far as guessing games go, this was one of the most underwhelming I have taken part in.  I wasn’t getting anything from it after the initial flavour disappeared.  Eventually, the barman put me out of my misery – if drinking cucumber beer can ever be described as being put out of your misery.  I didn’t buy a full pint of it.

The train journey between Mostar and Sarajevo is regularly listed among the most beautiful in the world, not that I saw much of it.  A weekend of sun, wine tasting, and beer had taken it out of me, and I slept through much of the two-hour ride.  By the time I arrived back in Sarajevo, it was early in the evening, and at least now I could say it.  Although I missed the scenery from my seat, the few hours of sleep did me some good.  I still had much to experience in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Coming soon:  Sarajevo, Travnik, Jajce, and Srebrenica (part four)

Mostar (part two)

My time in Bosnia and Herzegovina wasn’t entirely spent eating cevapi, drinking the local beer and inhaling a lifetime’s supply of second-hand smoke, even if at times it seemed that way.  Sarajevo has many museums and sights of cultural significance to explore when one is riding the buzz from a pot of Bosnian coffee or seeking shade from the rising temperatures on an afternoon.  For the extreme thrillseekers, perhaps those who are visiting the area during the winter months for the thriving ski opportunities on the Olympic mountains, a walk up the city’s many steep hills can provide as much adrenaline as any Jason Statham movie.  While Sarajevo’s heart beats in Baščaršija, its life is in the hills, where ironically thousands of its people are buried.  The slopes are steep, narrow, and winding; built primarily for horses back in the days when popular modes of transport had four legs rather than four wheels.  It seems miraculous that there aren’t more accidents the way cars whizz up and down the single-track inclines.  Somehow the drivers of both vehicles are able to slam on the breaks right before the moment of impact, as though there is a sixth sense to driving in Sarajevo.  Often just watching the vehicles is as nerve-rattling as being in one.

While there are museums catering for all manner of interests, such as the Olympic Museum which recounts the 1984 Winter Olympics and was recently reopened after being destroyed by the Bosnian Serb aggressors; Muzej Sarajeva, dedicated to the events surrounding the outbreak of the First World War and found on the street corner where Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg were assassinated; the Sevdah Art House for an insight into sevdalinka [traditional urban love songs] and their famous singers, I spent much of my time in the museums which dealt with the impact of the 1992-1995 war.  These places are crucial to visit if you wish a better understanding of the country Bosnia is today.  If buildings could talk, many of them in Sarajevo would also weep from the horrors they have suffered, but places such as the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide can at least tell their stories for them.

I visited the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide on my second morning in Sarajevo. There weren’t many people inside when I arrived, and initially, I wondered if the name was holding it back. You could see why tourists might prefer to eat gelato and listen to the performers on the street nearby. The exhibits and stories within the space are stomach-churning. What the museum does effectively is not to overwhelm the visitor with numbers and figures, but rather it presents written stories from victims of the war alongside personal belongings that have either been donated by survivors of the genocide or recovered from mass graves. Many of the accounts are devastating, the sort of thing most minds couldn’t possibly imagine, and from the next room where a film was being screened, I could hear a woman sob. I spent between two and three hours in the museum, but even that doesn’t begin to answer how people can inflict some of these acts on another human. It is simultaneously the best museum I have ever visited and also the most terrible.

Sarajevo Brewery

If there is one thing that could lift my spirits after reading about the horrors of ethnic cleansing, I felt certain that it would be a visit to the Sarajevo Brewery.  It was never my intention to go to the brewery, but after Edin told our group on the free walking tour the previous day about how it was the only source of water for many Sarajevans during the siege, and since I wasn’t really in the mood for anything else following my visit to the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide, I decided to go across the bridge and walk towards the brewery’s distinctive red brick chimney.  I was hoping that there might have been a big tour around the historic facility showing groups of visitors how Sarajevsko lager is produced, but it turns out that they don’t offer such a thing, and the bar and restaurant that used to operate next door has been closed since the pandemic.  As it goes, the museum was no bigger than my living room – where people can at least watch beer being consumed – and it cost 10BKM [approximately £5] to get in.  It must have taken me ten minutes to look around the exhibits, which were comprised mostly of newspaper cuttings and empty bottles, but I stayed for around twenty-five since I had paid for it and was feeling awkward about leaving when I was the only person there.  During the entire duration of my visit, I could hear the young woman at the ticket desk eating potato chips and watching what sounded like a Bosnian sitcom on her phone.  At times, I couldn’t focus on the exhibits for wondering what flavour the crisps were.  It was surreal, but I suppose at least one of us was getting something from our afternoon there.

My intention was to enjoy a relatively relaxed evening on Thursday since I was due to take a trip to Mostar at eight o’clock the following morning with Meet Bosnia, but a sorrowful morning spent at the war crimes museum and an underwhelming afternoon in the Sarajevsko Brewery left me craving more.  In an effort to fill the void, I tried Bosnia’s other national dish, burek, for the first time.  It is simply thin filo pastry filled with meat.  In other Balkan countries, as well as in Turkey, burek refers generally to the pie and you would ask for it with whichever filling you desire, but a burek in Bosnia is specifically a meat pie, while other varieties such as cheese, potato, spinach, or pumpkin have their own names.  The taste reminded me of a Scottish bridie but without the onions.  I liked it well enough, though it has nothing on the cevapi.  As it is prone to do, beer follows beef, and soon enough I found myself drinking at the appropriately named Dilema Pub. This establishment presumably thought very carefully about whether or not to keep the additional letter ‘m’ from the English translation.  

As the name above the door implied, I was tempted by the bar’s cheap offerings, but at the same time mindful of the long journey ahead of me, and I returned to my accommodation at Hostel Franz Ferdinand before 11 pm. There, I found an Irishman and German-Bosnian woman drinking cans of beer in the communal area, and I remembered how life is often an ongoing dilemma. I continued on to my room, where I ditched my backpack and dried the river of sweat from my forehead, before returning to the lounge and asking if anyone had a Sarajevsko they could spare. The three of us sat until the small hours putting the world to rights. The Irishman was older than us, probably in his late forties or early fifties and travelling the region by bicycle, while the German-Bosnian was younger and was hoping to find the best way of confronting her strict Bosnian-Serb parents with the details of genocide she had learned while in Sarajevo; information they have previously denied. More than anything, I marvelled listening to two strangers who had only met in the hostel the day before yet seemed like good friends talk about their experiences travelling. In particular, the Irishman, whose head was as smooth as the taste of a Sarajevsko lager, was a seasoned traveller. It always seemed ridiculous to me the way that people can seemingly afford to spend their life going from country to country, often waking up one morning in Bosnia and deciding that they will take a bus to Montenegro on the spur of the moment, but if you are able to do it, I can’t think of a good reason why anyone wouldn’t travel. I felt quite sheepish when the Irishman segued from one of his anecdotes to ask where I had been before arriving in Sarajevo and the best I could come up with was that I had once been to a gig in Milton Keynes, had most recently taken a bus tour of Belfast, and visited New York City a couple of times. I confessed that I didn’t know if I could ever do the professional traveller thing like he does, but I already knew after three days in Sarajevo that my life had changed, I just wasn’t yet sure how.

Despite the late night, I woke up fresh for my journey to Mostar, where I had arranged to spend the weekend.  Our tour group for the day was an eclectic mix comprised of an older Norwegian couple, some fresh-faced Austrians who came along with an elderly Bosnian woman they seemed to know, a Spanish woman who now lives in the United States, along with our fearless and stylish driver and guide Kenan, who was surely the rock star tour guide of Meet Bosnia.  As the drive into Herzegovina unfolded, it was becoming obvious that the Spaniard is the first person I have met who has perfectly personified the “Karen” social media meme made popular during the Covid lockdown.  You could tell she was going to be trouble from the moment the tour left the agency and Kenan had to drive all the way up into the steep hills to find her rented accommodation, which must have been on the narrowest street in Eastern Europe.  It’s not that she didn’t think to come down to meet the eight-seater car at a more convenient spot, but rather that when she got inside the large vehicle she spent ten minutes complaining about how awkward it is staying in an apartment up there since the buses and even some taxis don’t come that far into the hills.  I could only think that it was similar to a remarkably successful psychic who has a powerful premonition about ending up with a horribly disfigured arm but goes ahead with the “advanced chainsaw operation for novices” class nonetheless.

Karen had a contrary statement about everything. When we stopped in Jablanica for some brunch, where they are famed for making roasted lamb sandwiches, she insisted that she didn’t feel like eating because she’d enjoyed a large breakfast, but was unhappy that we wouldn’t have another opportunity for food until the early evening. Kenan suggested that she could order a sandwich to have wrapped for later in the day, but she didn’t like that option either. The guide went to great lengths to explain how we were driving around the outskirts of Mostar on our way to visit some other small towns and would return to the city as our final stop. After all of this, Karen piped up and asked, “why do people visit Mostar? It looks boring.” It was the equivalent of joining a book club and turning up to the meeting to discuss Moby Dick and all you have to say is, “why do people read this book? The cover looks boring.”

Kravice waterfall

It was the same everywhere we went.  In Kravice, where they have one of the largest waterfalls in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and surely the most impressive, Karen refused to pay the entrance to see the natural wonder up close because she had already been to the Niagara Falls.  When we arrived in Mostar, we had the incredible fortune of getting onto the shore just as one of the professional jumpers was preparing to dive from the rebuilt 16th Century Ottoman Stari Most [Old Bridge] into the Nerveta river 20 metres below.  The leap requires a great deal of training from a young age, and before each one, a couple of fellow divers walk between the crowds gathering on the bridge and below seeking donations to make the risk worthwhile.  They won’t make the jump until they have earned enough money.  Most people put their hands in their pockets seeking spare change, but not Karen.  She had already seen people make a much more dangerous dive from a bridge in Mexico.  Honestly, I don’t know how Kenan put up with it.  His patience was admirable when it would surely have been easier to crash down on her like a cascading waterfall.  The best of it is that, since we were the only two solo travellers in the group, Karen spent a lot of her time talking to me.  I mean, Karen clearly wasn’t a bad person and she was probably just misunderstood, but there were times during the day when I would have rathered be stood next to the woman from the departure gate at Luton Airport.

Aside from Karen, our drive to Mostar was spectacular. While I had been struggling with the temperatures which were in the mid-to-high twenties in Sarajevo, you could immediately feel a change when we moved into Herzegovina. The mercury climbed at least another six degrees. It is said that in some parts of the region there are as few as 40 days of rain in the year. Even in a comfortable, air-conditioned car, I was beginning to worry that factor 50 wasn’t going to be enough to soothe my vulnerable Scottish skin. Some of the water in the rivers we saw along the way were so blue that it appeared green. I’ve never seen a colour like it, not even on the faces of passengers travelling in a car through Sarajevo’s hills.

Old Stone Bridge, Konjic

It often seems that every town in this country has its own beautiful bridge, and one of my favourites was in Konjic.  It isn’t as immediately striking or famous as the old bridge in Mostar, but it rests beneath a postcard backdrop – or I suppose, for the internet generation, an Instagrammable setting.  Like so many old structures in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it has recently been rebuilt after standing for centuries until being destroyed by the war, though in the case of Konjic’s Old Stone Bridge, it was brought down by retreating Nazi occupiers at the end of the Second World War.  In Počitelj, we were taken to an imposing Ottoman-era fortress village, while in Blagaj at the spring of the river Buna, Kenan showed us the historical Tekke [Dervish monastery] built around 1520 at the foot of a mighty cliff.  It’s the kind of thing that can really make a person’s jaw detach from the rest of their face, and all I could think was how much I wanted to tell the Irishman from the hostel about how I had finally seen something in the world, but I knew that he would be halfway to Montenegro or Albania by then.

After a pleasant dinner with the rest of the group in Mostar, we parted ways as they drove back to Sarajevo while I went in search of the Downtown Hostel, where I would be staying for a couple of nights.  It wasn’t very far at all from the city’s old town, although when I arrived, I wasn’t immediately confident that I’d gone to the right place.  Upon opening the outer door, I walked into what appeared to be the garden of a family home.  Sitting at the table by the porch was a couple not much older than I am, alongside another man, an elderly woman and a young toddler who was rampaging around the place.  They were all smoking cigarettes and drinking Sarajevsko lager and grape rakija.  I stopped in my tracks, convinced that I must have made a mistake.  My pigeon Bosnian could barely flap out of my mouth to say hello, but the wife recognised from my enormous backpack that I had arrived to check in.  As was so often the case during my time in Bosnia, my “dober dan” elicited a string of incomprehensible words in return.  I imagine that my face took on the same kind of blank expression that Karen’s had earlier in the day when she was staring at the Kravice waterfall and thinking of the Niagara Falls.

I held up my hands and confessed that I had only really learned four essential words of Bosnian ahead of my trip – those for hello, please, thank you, and beer.  It was my favourite joke to use once I was confident that people could grasp my Scottish brogue.  The woman laughed and called back outside to her husband.  “This guy says he only knows four Bosnian words,” she said as she marched me back to the table.  She encouraged me to repeat what I had told her, and the entire table was soon in uproar.  Her husband, who was sitting with his cousin, pulled a can of Sarajevsko lager from the plastic ring and asked me if I would like to have a drink.  I told him that I wouldn’t say no, “mostly because I don’t know what your word for no is.”

Before I had even been shown to my room in the hostel, which essentially seemed to be a family home that had been partially converted into accommodation for travellers, I was sitting at the table by the porch with the entire family, drinking a can of beer and being poured a measure of grape rakija, which was apparently homemade.  The two cousins were fantastically welcoming, and it didn’t take long for me to feel as though I was drinking amongst friends at home.  They bantered back and forth about a story that was obviously a favourite of theirs, where the husband of the household had bought a wood-burning stove from his cousin and installed it in the smallest room of his home.  The trouble is that the stove was so large that having it on for even just a few minutes made the room unbearably hot.  After a while, the husband just couldn’t take it anymore and decided to sell the stove, much to his cousin’s amusement.  “He’s the only person in Bosnia who has ever complained about having too much heat,” he laughed.

They bickered over the details of the story, and the husband felt that he was being hard done to by his cousin’s recollection of events. His cousin argued that the way he tells it makes it funnier and more memorable. I could see both sides of the dispute. I had sympathy with the husband since he was clearly me in Aulay’s on a Friday night; but at the same time, every funny anecdote needs a sucker who does something stupid, whether it’s buying a wood-burning stove that is much too big for your home, or spending 10BKM to look at a collection of empty beer bottles.

Stari Most

I just loved watching the family dynamic and being invited to be a part of it.  I no longer felt like I was on holiday; this was everything the folks in the hostel in Sarajevo were talking about.  The husband equalled the point-scoring when he reminded his cousin that he had been born in Serbia, while the cousin was only Bosnian-Serb.  I was curious to know how people in Mostar feel about their compatriots in Sarajevo, explaining the way that there is a rivalry between those living in Scotland’s two largest cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow.  I was told, simply, that “in a thousand years’ time, people in Sarajevo will still be telling everybody else about the 1984 Winter Olympics.”

With a bellyful of rakija, I finally checked into my modest room and headed back out into the old town of Mostar.  Down by the Stari Most where I had earlier watched a man plummet straight into the river, a small stand was selling Mostarsko Pivo [beer] on draft.  It seemed the ideal spot for me to unpack the first few hours of my Herzegovina experience.  A local radio station pumped hit songs from the eighties into the darkening June sky:  Is This Love; Total Eclipse of the Heart; Moonlight Shadow.  Couples sat on the rocks next to the unflinching Nerveta River drinking bottles of wine.  Groups of teenage girls laughed from striped deck chairs.  Usually, my Friday nights are spent standing by the ice box in Aulay’s, getting banter from Amanda, trying to catch Sammy’s eye, and putting up with the Plant Doctor’s terrible jokes.  But on this occasion, I was drinking beer while looking at a UNESCO World Heritage site.  If Sarajevo was life in the fast lane, then this was very much living in the slow lane.  

Coming soon: Mostar and Medjugorje (part three)

Click the above link to learn more about Meet Bosnia’s tour to Mostar.

Sarajevo (part one)

I was only meant to stay in Bosnia & Herzegovina for two or three nights. Late in 2019, I began toying with the notion of travelling through the Balkans by train; I would spend a couple of nights in Ljubljana, move on to Zagreb and Split in Croatia before heading for Sarajevo, and ultimately to Belgrade, Serbia – which for a while was the place I most wanted to visit. The entire trip was mapped out in my head, and just as I was readying myself to book it at the beginning of 2020, a large number of people in China developed a cough for undetermined reasons, and the world stood still for the better part of two years. Since the bars and pretty much everything else was closed, I had nothing better to do with my time than to watch YouTube travel vlogs and consume every article conceivable on the adventure I was forced to postpone. The more I watched and read, the clearer it was becoming that Bosnia would demand more of my attention.

For the last few months, I have been met with quizzical expressions whenever I have told someone about my intention to travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina for eleven days, as if either to ask why I would want to go there or where the country even is.  It is a part of the world that was torn apart by war between the years of 1992 and 1995, after all, and until recently all I knew about Sarajevo was from hearing the besieged city referenced in television news reports from my childhood.  I have a vague recollection that we may also have put together food parcels or mentioned the Bosnian people in our prayers at St. Columba’s primary school.  If I was being truthful, I would admit to people that I felt a little anxious about making the trip, especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  Depending on where you look, things in Bosnia are fairly fragile, and it was only recently that a new law was passed that banned the practice of denying the acts of genocide perpetrated by the Serbian army during the war, a move that ruffled the feathers of the secessionist Bosnian Serbs in Republic Srpska.  Even on the day I left Oban for an overnight stay in London before my flight, I was checking online to ensure that nothing had changed.  But, deep down, after almost two years of isolation and restrictions, I’m not sure that anything would have stopped me from getting on that plane.  Life can’t always be black and white, and if you don’t live in the grey, you will never know what colours are out there. 

Whilst sitting in Luton airport at seven o’clock on a Tuesday morning,  I was asking myself why anybody would want to travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina.  I had been there since at least 5.45 and was feeling the most tired I had ever been.  The line in the security hall was like a game of snake that lasts for infinity; the same as when you pick up your phone and decide to play one game before bed and you’re still there an hour later trying to beat your score – it kept going and going.  In a welcome change, I passed through the scanner without a hitch.  Of course, that had to happen when I didn’t have my brother and sister there capturing it all on camera.

The airport, as anybody knows, is where time goes to die. I was left with almost two hours to wait until boarding for my flight to Sarajevo commenced; it would have been as well being two days. In that time, I browsed the books in three different WH Smith outlets – they were all the same, and none of them stocked the new release I was hoping to find – shopped for aftershave, and ate the worst English breakfast a person has ever encountered. I believe it had the biggest mushroom they could find, planted right in the middle of the plate, while the orange juice was almost the same temperature as the coffee, which wasn’t a compliment for either of them. When the gate number for the flight was finally revealed on the departure board in the manner of the answer to a piece of trivia in a television game show, there turned out to be a reasonably lengthy delay before we were allowed to board. Naturally, I was next in line to the person who was taking this worse than anybody. She couldn’t understand why the airport would announce the departure gate in a way which makes passengers believe they have to drop everything and get there immediately, only to keep us all waiting in a stuffy narrow corridor for what felt like at least as long as a game of snake. It was difficult not to agree with the woman’s point, but she complained about it so much that I couldn’t have any sympathy for her. In fact, I was secretly hoping that we would be delayed a little while longer just to spite her. Eventually, the doors opened and we were led towards the aircraft, and I felt a strange mix of excitement and disappointment.

Much of my trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina was organised with the help of the Meet Bosnia tour agency, which I had found during one of my many research rabbit holes.  They arranged for one of their drivers to meet me at the airport since public transport is still quite sparse in the country.  It was a nice feeling being picked up by an older gentleman holding an A4 piece of paper with my name typed in bold letters across it, just like in the movies.  I greeted him with one of the four Bosnian phrases I had been able to learn before arriving – “dobar dan” for hello – and he responded with a string of incoherent words.  I looked at him with the same expression I expect I used on the mushroom a few hours earlier, and the driver spoke once more:  “I was asking if you speak Bosnian.”

It is difficult to put into words my first impressions of Sarajevo. On the car ride in from the airport, there is immediately a stirring juxtaposition of brand new buildings standing alongside those which are still scarred with bullet holes, if they are standing at all. A sign welcomes you to Sarajevo: “a city under siege for 1425 days.” Then you catch sight of the city itself, emerging like a jewel which is cradled in the bosom of the four Olympic mountains that snuggle Bosnia’s capital. There are red-tiled rooftops as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by the innumerable chalk-white gravestones that line the hills. Thick plumes of cigarette smoke cling to every corner. In the Baščaršija [Market Square], the city’s heart beats. There are majestic sights in every direction the head swivels: mosques, synagogues, orthodox churches, and cathedrals live within 200 metres of one another – peacefully until 1992. There are street merchants, people playing music, and a sign advertising draft Sarajevsko beer for the equivalent of £1.34. All of a sudden, the sound of modern techno music which is bouncing across the cobblestones from a nearby coffee shop is drowned out by the beautiful Muslim call to prayer. In the garden of the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, the city’s largest, it is an oasis of calm away from the thriving streets outside, where the only sound is birdsong and the constant running of fresh water from the spring. Stray cats are often seen sunbathing here on the wall. Pigeons dominate the square around the Baščaršija’s centrepiece, showing no fear – and why would they when tourists line up to buy boxes of seeds to scatter across the ground? One woman pours the food into her palms and holds out her arms. Soon she is cloaked in pigeons, resembling the heroic old lady found in Central Park in Home Alone 2.

Along the Miljacka River is the impressive City Hall, which was originally constructed in 1894 when Sarajevo was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  In time the hall was handed over to the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina, until Serbian shelling in 1992 caused the destruction of the library and the burning of more than a million books.  The building was restored to its original design in 2014 and is now a national monument, and it’s easy to see why.  It is a beautiful sight.  A walk further beyond the City Hall took me to the Latin Bridge, which is infamously the location where Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated on 28 June 1914.  Exactly one month later, the First World War began, sparked by the killing.  Almost 90 years after that, the indie Scottish band Franz Ferdinand released their hit song Take Me Out, which was the cause of countless spillages of Jack Daniel’s on the dancefloor in O’Donnell’s Bar when the chorus kicked in.  It was quite the thing to be standing on that very same bridge 18 years on from those nights.

After a few hours of drinking in the sights of the Old Town and fending off the heat with my first pint of £1.34 (3 BKM) Sarejevsko, which is the locally brewed pilsner lager, I ventured to Gastro Pub Vučko – Vučko being the cartoon wolf who served as the mascot when Sarajevo hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics.  The bar specialises in craft beer, and their house offering, Vučko Red, tasted similar to one of my favourite Brewdog beers, 5AM Saint, which was one of my favourite cultural discoveries of the day.  Sitting at the bar was a surreal experience, and not only because I was the only person who wasn’t taking advantage of the table service.  It was like being back in a pub in Scotland on 25 March 2006; the day before the national ban on smoking indoors came into effect.  Everyone in Bosnia smokes like it’s punctuation.  As soon as a sentence finishes another cigarette is lit.  This all still happens indoors, which meant that by the time I arrived back at my hostel five hours later, my clothes were reeking of tobacco.  If I could never wear that shirt again from the sweat I had soaked into it earlier in the day, I definitely couldn’t now.

The smoking didn’t bother me, though. Really, it was just the opposite of being at home where anyone who wants to smoke has to go outside; whereas in Bosnia if I am craving a fix of fresh air it is me who needs to step outside. It is around eight years since I last had a cigarette, but it was nice to feel as if I had inhaled an entire packet without having to do any of the hard work. My real problem was with language. The smoking barmaid was friendly and had a very decent grasp of English – much better than her colleagues, certainly. She smiled when, as I ordered my third or fourth Vučko Red, I attempted to add the word “molim” (please) to my infant vocabulary, even after I had to ask her if I was using it correctly. Indeed, so happy was she with my introduction of molim to our rudimentary interaction that a few minutes later a second beer appeared next to the one I had just bought. Of course, it was probably her way of reeling a fish in from the end of the line, knowing that I couldn’t possibly not buy another drink after receiving one for free, but it felt nice all the same. All I could imagine was the scene in Aulay’s if the bar staff could smoke behind the bar whenever they liked, poured themselves a shot on a whim and handed out free beer to any stranger simply for saying please.

My episode with the Bosnian language came before I received a free pint of Vučko.  Although the Smoking Barmaid was very pleasant and understanding, I felt reluctant to test her patience when it came to ordering food.  The menu in front of me was printed entirely in Bosnian, which is to be expected when a person is in Bosnia.  I had already achieved my goal of trying Ćevapi earlier in the day, so I wasn’t too concerned about eating anything ‘local’, I just wanted some pub food to eat with my beer.  I scanned the pages of the menu looking for familiar words, though other than the subheadings such as burger, chicken, pasta, and pizza, it was difficult to make head or tail of it.  Faced with such a daunting dilemma, the most simple option to my mind seemed to be to go with the pepperoni pizza.  You know what you’re getting with a pepperoni pizza.  There can be no surprises.  I felt pretty good about my decision, and when I saw the enormous wooden board arrive sometime later with a pizza the size of a pillow, my mouth was beginning to water the way every other part of my body had been in the afternoon sun.  Then I saw them, scattered all over the dish in the most indiscriminate fashion possible.  Mushrooms.  Tiny little pieces of the things; everywhere.  I didn’t know what I could do.  I baulked just looking at the atrocity.  It was right up there with the biggest blunders I have ever made, but I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t my fault.  There was a “fungi” pizza listed on the menu, after all.  Surely that’s where all the mushrooms would go?  Ultimately I had no choice but to eat the pepperoni with mushroom pizza, lest I look like an idiot in front of the Smoking Barmaid.  She already knew that I didn’t have a clue how to speak Bosnian, of course, but I had gone to such great lengths perusing the menu that I couldn’t possibly back out.

The mushroom incident was still fresh in my conscience when I went to the Meet Bosnia agency the next day for the first of the tours I had booked through them.  During the period of planning my trip, and the anxiety which followed the Russian assault on Ukraine, the people from Meet Bosnia were extremely helpful and reassuring.  It would be impossible for me to go overboard with my praise of Sejla, who helped prepare my itinerary in the months leading to my journey, and Medina, who looked after me in the weeks before I arrived and kept in touch with me while I was in the country.  They made what could have been – and at times was – a daunting trip remarkably comfortable.  I spent the morning learning the phrase “drago mi je” (nice to meet you), reciting it in my head as I walked to the mosque to top up my bottle with fresh water.  It seemed the least I could do after all the help they had offered me.  Somehow, implausibly, everyone at Meet Bosnia was even more beautiful in person, and I melted (though unfortunately, Sejla had left her job before I arrived in the country.)  Medina asked me whether I would like to sit and wait in the office for 15 minutes until the driver who was taking us on our tour out to the Tunnel of Hope arrived or if I would prefer to go for a walk.  I told her that since I am Scottish and already struggling with the sunshine I would take advantage of the cool space while I could, however, she didn’t have a clue what I was talking about.  But then, why would a young Bosnian woman know about the stereotype surrounding Scottish people with our milky sun-averse skin?  How could she possibly have known that by two o’clock I had already topped up my Factor 50?

I am learning new things each time I walk around Sarajevo.  For example, the Clock Tower in Baščaršija is the only public clock in the world that shows lunar time in line with the Muslim Maghrib prayer, which is said at sunset and marks the beginning of a new day.  It needs to be reset manually.  The city had Europe’s first tram system, on account of the Austro-Hungarian rulers using Sarajevo as a trial site for the new transport network before introducing it to cities such as Vienna and Budapest.  All around the streets, it is difficult not to notice the blood-red craters which mark the pavements.  These are Sarajevo Roses, seen on the spots where a mortar shell has exploded and killed at least three people.  There was an average of 330 mortar strikes launched on Sarajevo every day of the siege, and the way the bombs fell on the ground is said to resemble a rose.  After the war ended, the concrete scars were filled with red resin to leave a permanent memorial to those who lost their lives at that particular place.  There are approximately 200 roses around the city.  As well as all of that, legend has it that whoever drinks water from the Sebilj [historical fountain] in Baščaršija will be destined to return to Sarajevo.  It’s one of those folk stories that sounds really silly when you hear it as an outsider, but you can’t help yourself from wishing it to be true.

One of the routines I very quickly established after arriving in Sarajevo was to make an early morning trip to the Pekara (bakery) to purchase a couple of pieces of bread to take and eat with a Bosnian coffee at a cafe in Baščaršija. I never thought that coffee was something I would need to be taught how to drink, but on one of my tours with Meet Bosnia I was forced to ask the guide to demonstrate the proper technique for drinking the stuff. When you order Bosanska Kafa, you are brought a copper tray that has the thick, dark coffee in the ibrik (a little pot), alongside a tiny mug and another pot which contains a handful of sugar cubes and sometimes a Turkish delight. It isn’t immediately obvious how one is supposed to consume the beverage. I had spent many minutes researching the various techniques before I left for Bosnia and learned that people have different ways of drinking their coffee. Some folk put a piece of sugar in the mug and pour the coffee over it; others dunk a cube into the coffee and bite it; some hold a small bit of sugar underneath their tongue as they take a mouthful of kafa. It’s all to take away from the bitterness of the beverage. I think I tried them all before deciding that I didn’t enjoy consuming whole cubes of sugar with my breakfast.

My pigeon Bosnian was making the trip to the Pekara a real game of Russian Roulette.  I don’t have the ability to read the small ingredient cards in front of each item, and whereas in most bars or restaurants you can usually find at least one person who has really good English, it seems to be a condition of employment in the bakery that the staff only speak the local language.  Honestly, I reckon the women behind the counter in these places could get anyone to confess to a crime they haven’t committed with just a glance.  Each morning I go in there, I just decide what looks good in the moment and point at it, hoping for the best.   As a result, I have eaten some salty pretzel-like bread; pastry filled with chocolate, apple, and even tuna.  Everything I have eaten from a Pekara has been tasty, but you are always left with the feeling that one of these days the gamble could go horribly wrong, like ending up with mushrooms on a pepperoni pizza.

Finding the best bread to eat for breakfast was surely not very high up on the list of priorities for the citizens of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1995, if it ever has been. When Armin hosted our ‘Fall of Yugoslavia’ tour, it quickly became clear how little a piece of bread can mean, even one that has been stuffed full with tuna. Our first stop was at the city’s former maternity hospital, which had been deliberately targetted and destroyed by the Bosnian Serb army during the war, when it was still a functioning facility, in an act that was termed “the battle of the babies.” I don’t know that there’s anything more chilling than seeing an old maternity hospital reduced to an abandoned, bullet hole-ridden wreck. In Oban, ours has become a boutique hotel, but even £295 per night for a sea view in Greystones seems like something you can stomach in comparison.

Following the tour that took us high up into the Trebević Mountain, where the disused bobsleigh track from the 1984 Winter Olympic Games lies decorated with graffiti, as well as out to the Tunnel of Hope – the tunnel dug underneath the airport that was the only means which allowed goods and weapons to be brought into Sarajevo during the almost four-year siege, and where I learned the benefits of wearing a safety helmet – I got talking to the man who happened to be the Aulay of Valter 071 pub, though in this case he was named Vladimir, or Vlad to his friends.  You wouldn’t have known that he was the owner of the bar from the way he was sitting outside drinking beer and chain-smoking with his friend, but I suppose that’s just what happens in Sarajevo.  He was surprised when I told him that I was visiting Sarajevo for 11 days.  “Why?  Nobody comes here for more than two or three days.”

Early in our interaction, Vlad mentioned that he fought in the war, which surprised me a little since he didn’t look any older than I am.  “I picked up a rifle for the first time aged 15,” he told me between drags on his cigarette.  It turns out that his father was fairly high up in the newly-formed Bosnian army when the siege began, and he was wounded three times while fighting.  I asked Vlad where his father was wounded, thinking it was an innocent enough question.  He rhymed off the names of three cities or small villages whose names were too difficult for me to write down, however, I had been wanting to know where on his father’s body he suffered his injuries.

Over another beer, Vlad described how he and his father are reluctant to talk these days about politics and their experiences in the war as they often have disagreements over the direction of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I wanted to tell him that I feel the same way when I am sitting in Wetherspoons with my dad and brother and the conversation inevitably turns to politics, but somehow that seems different to what he was talking about. The bar owner was at pains to deny being “Yugo-nostalgic”, although he went on to speak fondly of the way things were pre-1992, which isn’t any different to the way anybody else feels about their childhood. I don’t know if Yugo-nostalgia is such a terrible thing or not, but Vlad is not the only person I have met in Sarajevo who remembers the days of Tito with affection. I liked Vlad, but I found myself questioning whether I should have another beer with him when he complained that “everything here is for the fucking Muslims” – although it turned out that his wife is Muslim, so maybe he was just upset that he wasn’t allowed to watch the Bosnia versus Finland Nations League game the night before.

Vlad’s claim was that until 2016, everybody would practice their religion in their own homes and not in public; presumably a reference to the volume of women you see in Sarajevo wearing the hijab.  I found it hard to believe.  It is counter to everything I have read about the place in my research before coming here, but then Vlad has lived in Sarajevo all his life and fought for the city, so what would I know?  I drank one more beer with him and promised that I would be back at his bar before I leave.  You have to live some of your life in those grey areas to find some of the colour, after all, and after just a couple of days, I already had a sense that there is a lot of colour to be found in Sarajevo.

Coming soon:  Mostar (part two)

Information on the tours offered by Meet Bosnia can be found here (non-affiliated)

The occupier

Life changing events don’t usually occur when I open the letterbox outside the door of my flat on a Monday afternoon. Still, when a small handwritten envelope greeted me, my hopes were raised that something special must have been contained inside.  After all, nobody communicates by writing letters anymore, so someone had to have gone to a great deal of effort to get in touch with me.  It seemed quaint; charming even.  My immediate thought was that it could be a secret admirer who had finally summoned the courage to make their long-suppressed feelings known, even when it didn’t seem the most romantic of gestures to address me as “the occupier.”  People go by all sorts of nicknames, I thought, and I could probably get used to it for the sake of a little loving.

The return address on the back of the envelope was a local one – Ganavan; so my admirer was apparently someone from money.  I bounded through to the kitchen and peeled the envelope open with all the delicacy of a nervous lover.  Inside was a beautifully handwritten note that had letters swirling across the paper like great rivers, along with a thin pamphlet posing the question:  “Can the dead really live again?”  The brochure provided three options as a possible response:  Yes, no, or maybe, and if the ‘dead’ that was being referred to was my hopes of finding love, it seemed that the answer was a resounding no.

Hazel is a Jehovah’s Witness. Her letter was making me aware of the fact that her organisation has produced an interactive bible course on their website. I have often joked that even the Jehovah’s Witnesses wouldn’t pay me a visit at my flat, but now it seemed to be the truth. The really bitter blow came later in the week when I received another envelope in my letterbox. It was penned in the same swooping writing, though this letter was intended for my neighbour across the landing, who was also given the name “the occupier.” Is nothing sacred anymore?

My correspondence from Hazel asked plenty of questions, but it didn’t contain the answers to the riddles that I’ve been thinking about as I’ve grown older, such as why there has been a pair of boots standing on the wall at the end of my road all week, or why two bees suddenly appeared in my flat over the same weekend when I have lived here for more than four years without so much as one finding its way in.  If the people at the Jehovah’s Witnesses could tell me why a bag of mixed leaf salad can often survive in my fridge two or three days beyond its ‘use by’ date, but a pint of milk starts to turn a day before the label suggests it should, I would consider signing up to their religion.

As I have aged, it has become increasingly clear that the answers to the questions I didn’t know that I needed resolving are not to be found in a church pew, but rather the barber’s chair.  At this stage in my life, most of the knowledge I have accumulated has come from the wisdom of my barber.  He has a different story every time you take a seat in there, and they always go in a direction you could never expect.  This time he was telling me about a rival barber from a mid-Argyll town who used to run the shop for him on a Monday.  He twice tried to set up his own business some years ago but struggled to attract customers, despite being the only barber in the town.  The story goes that this guy had an irrational dislike of people who whistled in his presence.  He couldn’t understand why anyone feels the need to whistle and it would drive him crazy if somebody walked into the shop with a jaunty tune emitting from their mouth.  So the story goes that whenever a resident of this mid-Argyll town came to Oban to have their hair cut, the barber would ask them that once they return home they visit his rival’s business and simply walk into the premises whilst whistling before turning back on their feet and leaving.  It was a mischievous scheme which seemed to please the barber greatly.  As clumps of brown and grey hair cascaded all around me, all I could picture was the scene in a ghostly quiet salon in the middle of nowhere as a freshly-groomed man strolls in whistling the theme from The Addams Family.

Where the tale turned was when the barber vowed that after he told me what he was about to say, I would never be able to go anywhere again without noticing it happen. My eyebrows were raised – at least until he trimmed those, too. According to the barber’s observations, people cannot help but whistle when they are walking between two points, such as the bathroom and the bar in a pub, the entrance to a supermarket and the first aisle, or the door and seats in a barbershop. It’s a nervous tick, a sort of placeholder to fill the void until something occupies their mind. I had never noticed this phenomenon before, and since I’m not yet ready to spend my time studying men as they enter and leave the toilets in Aulay’s I just have to trust the barber as the leading authority on the matter.

My entire purpose for going for a haircut in the middle of the week was the result of a chastening experience at the bar a few days earlier.  On the face of it, it was just an ordinary Friday night.  The Plant Doctor and I were talking to a guy who was telling us about how he’s teaching himself to play the guitar with the Pink Floyd album The Dark Side Of The Moon, which struck me as being the equivalent of learning how to paint by sketching the Mona Lisa.  In time we were joined by several other experts in algae, although I believe they learned their craft the conventional way.  At various points over a twenty-minute or so period, I noticed the four scientists as well as my brother and Geordie Dave conspiring over a piece of paper in the corner of the bar by the coat rack.  I had no idea what they were up to until I was finally introduced to the sheet and asked to judge which of the six drawings they had each created was the best likeness of me, and to guess who had drawn which one.  It was the first time I had ever seen myself in pen, while the portraits were a curious cross between touching and excruciating.  I think, ultimately, I would have preferred it if they had spent their time in the corner whistling.

Despite the quality of the sketches, I failed to correctly identify any of the artists. Amanda who was working behind the bar, on the other hand, was able to guess four of the culprits. Some people have an eye for these things, I suppose. What the artwork demonstrated more than anything – more even than that the scientists had made the right career choice – was that I was in dire need of a haircut. A picture speaks a thousand words, after all, and I had six thousand of them telling me that my hair is a mess.

While the display of artistic endeavour was something that we would go on to talk about again and again, it turned out not to be the most remarkable thing we would see in Aulay’s that night.  With the clock ticking towards closing time, the door swung open in the ominous way they do in horror films.  In walked a couple of young guys who were effectively carrying a much older man with them.  It was a slow, arduous walk from the door to the bar as the two men dragged their companion along the ground with them, as though they were moving a heavy piece of furniture.  They shuffled towards the bar and struggled to manoeuvre the elderly man onto a barstool, all under the eye of a bemused barmaid.  It was nothing short of a Weekend at Bernie’s scenario playing out before us.  The barmaid immediately told the gentlemen that she couldn’t serve them on account of Bernie’s practically comatose condition, and they had to turn around and go through the entire charade in reverse.  The scene was surreal to watch play out, and just like the theory of why people whistle as they walk between two points, the question of how these guys thought they were going to be able to buy drinks after carrying a drunk old man into the pub isn’t one that’s ever going to be answered in a pamphlet from the Jehovah’s Witnesses.