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.

After midnight

While reading through the 2022 Oban Winter Festival programme, I realised that the forthcoming festive season would be the first we have had without restrictions in three years.  It’s striking the way that something so momentous and life-altering can now barely merit a thought.  These days, talking to others about the timeline of the pandemic is like trying to tell someone about the film you watched last weekend while you were drunk and half-asleep.  Everybody’s perception of the Covid years is different.  For something that at the time seemed totally unforgettable to be living through, it has suddenly become very difficult to remember.  

There were definitely no restrictions last winter quickly turns to, ah, but I remember that I could only sit at a table in the pub on HogmanayDid they change the rules after Christmas?  Celebrating Christmas was only strongly advised against last year, remember.  Was it last December that we had to provide a negative lateral flow test to be able to go to the work party?  I could have sworn that was the year before.  2020 quickly converges with 2021 and even seeps into 2022.  Are you sure we were supposed to wear a mask when we were shopping for Easter eggs this year?  I know that I stopped wearing mine long before then.  Talking about it nowadays, the whole thing seems absurd; completely make-believe.  Imagine future generations reading about this stuff in their history books.  What do you mean they went outside onto their doorsteps every week for two years to clap for the ‘brave and heroic’ NHS workers then refused to pay them a proper wage when the economy collapsed?    

Clearly, Covid won’t ever go away, but it’s different now.  It comes as a surprise when you hear that someone has tested positive for it, sort of like how it is with a road traffic accident.  You know that it’s something that happens, but you don’t imagine it happening to anybody you know.  People have more important issues to be thinking about these days:  The Russian invasion of Ukraine; the cost of living crisis; Qatar hosting the 2022 World Cup; Taylor Swift dropping Midnights without warning.

Of late, when I haven’t been writing profile prompts on the dating app Bumble I’ve been listening to Midnights, like everybody else on the planet. Although things have felt more like the pre-2020 version of normal lately, and this year I have been able to do things such as go to the cinema with friends, attend gigs, and travel all the way to Sarajevo, it was when I heard the new Taylor Swift album that I truly began to feel that we are out of the woods in terms of Covid restrictions and lockdowns. A couple of weeks after it was released, we had a community play of the album on Guy Fawkes Night, when the birdwatching accountant invited a doctor of words and me to his place to watch the fireworks display. I don’t know when I last listened to music in a social setting, but I was quickly reminded of the joy of it when we were dissecting the lyrics of Lavander Haze and entrenching ourselves in the back catalogue of Edinburgh’s Young Fathers over beer and mulled wine.

The birdwatching accountant’s kitchen offers a birdseye view of the bay, over which the fireworks were being set off.  We gathered around the chrome sink as the display began and the sky was quickly lit up in technicolour.  A window was opened to enable us to enjoy the authentic experience of hearing the crackle and sizzle of exploding rockets whilst shivering and pretending that we were enjoying ourselves.  A fireworks display always has a limited ceiling of interest, I find.  Mine is usually between twenty and thirty seconds – so twenty-five seconds, I guess.  That’s the point when people start discussing things like how was it that the first pyrotechnic discovered that fireworks could make all of these shapes and colours, and then you find yourself standing in hushed reverence as the thing goes on and on for an interminable period.

Not all important occasions need fireworks or a Taylor Swift album to make them special, and so it was when a group of us went out to celebrate the Doctor of Words’ birthday over cocktails and chaos.  We went from the Lulu Lounge to The View, where Oban’s best bar band The Fold were rocking the place.  Usually the bar is filled with people who are half my age and you’re left feeling as though you are standing out more than an antler at the town’s reindeer parade.  On this night, however, it belonged to us.  Our gang of forty and near-fortysomethings had staged an accidental coup and reclaimed the dancefloor for our generation.  We danced and drank like twenty-year-olds; shots of Tequila going down faster than our butts could brush the ground.  It was the most fun night, the sort that just didn’t seem possible two years ago and now you don’t know why it wasn’t.

Outside after closing time, when the alcohol on my breath wheezed into the night like an underwhelming Catherine Wheel, I was approached by a young woman who wanted to talk to me.  She began with the words “me and my boyfriend”, which is an immediate damp squib of an opening line.  It turns out that the couple had been in the audience on the night when I read from my notebook as the support act for the comedian Gary Little and they recognised me from that performance.  I didn’t consider until long after the encounter that if the couple had witnessed my emphatic moves on the dancefloor inside there is a danger they might be second-guessing their original impression of me being the hapless loser that my carefully crafted persona says I am, but that’s just the way it’s going to be now that we can all party like it’s 1999 again.

The boyfriend quickly lost interest in anything I had to say and wandered off up George Street, but his partner stuck around.  She had taken a shine to my navy corduroy jacket, which despite once being told that it gives me the appearance of someone who has gotten lost on their way to a yacht club AGM is still one of my favourite items to wear.  People often seem incapable of stopping themselves from stroking the arms, even if there is nothing immediately impressive about them.  This particular woman went one step further and asked me if she could wear the thing.  I have been longing for a woman to invite me out of my clothes, but the idea isn’t usually for her to wear them instead.

I removed the valuables from the pockets of my corduroy jacket:  my phone, the keys to my flat, and my leather cover notebook.  Who knows what someone would want with a book where the most recent, barely legible entry was of a conversation I had had with a woman at the bar in Aulay’s after that week’s quiz, but I know that I would feel naked without it.  She was unsure which variety of rum she should order for her friend since she has never drunk the spirit herself.  “Has a bottle of rum in her kitchen cupboard that predates everything in the house” reads the note, followed by a reminder of the story of the time her father had visited from Australia and brought a gift he had picked up at the airport, only he had mistaken her favourite drink, Jim Beam bourbon, for this bottle of rum that still sits in the cupboard.

Sometime after two o’clock on a Sunday morning in the middle of November, I entered into a jacket swap with a young woman I had just met. She wore my corduroy piece, while I tried on hers, which I believe was made from Merino wool and had more colours than a fireworks display. The fit was terrible for my physique, but it was still comfortably the warmest thing I have worn on my body. This exchange wasn’t enough for the young lady, however. These things need to be memorialised, not like a pub conversation in a notebook, but on video. And so she propped her mobile phone against the foot of the MacIntyres Countrywear clothing store, walked back out to the edge of the pavement and hooked her arm around my elbow. Instinct took over and we strutted across the slick concrete as if it were a catwalk in Milan, the two of us modelling our brand-new wears for the Winter 2022 collection. Who knows where these things wind up once they have been committed to film; an Instagram reel or on Tiktok, I presume. After two years where nobody seems to remember much about how they have passed the time, it feels important to store these moments somewhere.

Nobody I spoke to could confirm it due to their collective lack of degrees in meteorological sciences, but most people agreed that November had at least felt wetter than usual.  It must have rained nearly every day, and the weekend the Winter Festival got underway was the worst of them all.  Things had been dry and mild during much of that Friday, but by the time the Reindeer Parade was due to leave the Corran Halls, pellets of water the size of wholegrain rice had begun to crash to the ground.  People were still keen to get out and support their community, though, and the various craft markets around town were bustling with souls braving the elements.  Dozens of local artisans had stalls at the Corran Halls, Oban Distillery, the Perle Hotel, and The Rockfield Centre where they displayed and sold their own goods crafted from glass, wood, metal, paint, and paper.  

We took a family trip to The Rockfield Centre on Sunday, where we had heard they were offering free mulled wine.  Before we could help ourselves to the wine, which was homemade by the cafe manager, we made sure to wander around the entire room and cast glances of vague interest towards each of the stalls, sometimes nodding and commenting on how beautiful the products are with the sort of quiet admiration usually reserved for a fireworks display.  Although there is no denying the impressive talent and dedication we saw, I don’t believe that any of us had any intention of putting our hands in our pockets.  The charade just felt like something we should do to at least earn our sweet alcoholic beverage.

The town’s Christmas lights were officially switched on the following weekend in the first full-scale festive event since 2019.  I don’t remember a time when the display was as full, vibrant, and busy as it is this year.  When I walked home through the station that first night and encountered an enormous penguin casually sitting against the clock tower, I couldn’t be sure if I had had too much to drink or if the town was going all-out to make up for the years lost to Covid.  Everyone is doing their best to recover that time.  Since the night of the birthday celebrations in The View, I have discovered that I have a liking for Tequila that I didn’t have before the pandemic, and now I’m drinking it whenever it is offered.  In the way that many people struggle to recall the timeline of restrictions, I can hardly remember a time before I liked Tequila.  Of course, I don’t remember anything after Tequila, either.  I awoke the morning after seeing the giant Christmas penguin, wearing my pyjama bottoms and the shirt I was dressed in the previous night.  My orange chinos and pyjama top were strewn across the bedroom floor, Midnights still playing on repeat from the speaker in the living room.  Out in the hallway, the keys to my flat were lying by the door alongside a solitary earpod with no sign of its partner.  There are some things that are best forgotten.

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.  

Sarajevo: Correct or connect (part 5 of 5)

It was tempting to walk around Sarajevo feeling sorry for myself on my final full day in the city.  That day before you are due to fly home from an incredible time exploring a new place is always a bittersweet one, after all.  Like last orders at your favourite bar:  you know it will all soon be over, but you still have one more drink to enjoy with your friends before it is.  My flight back to London was scheduled for six o’clock on Saturday morning, and by Wednesday evening I had composed a list of the things I needed to do before leaving Sarajevo.  The page in my pocket notebook had so many items on it that it didn’t look as though I was going to have time to be depressed about departing Bosnia and Herzegovina.  There were the usual things, such as picking up a souvenir copper coffee pot and some fridge magnets for friends, but other considerations on my list would require a bit more effort.

Instead of going to the pekara for my usual game of roulette with the bread, I wanted my last morning in Bosnia to be different, so I visited the restaurant inside Hotel Hecco, as Armin recommended earlier the week. While ordinarily I like my coffee ground, this cafe is found on the tenth floor of the hotel and its terrace offers a panoramic view of Sarajevo. The terrace itself is narrow and populated with white plastic tables and chairs which resemble garden furniture, while the coffee tasted no better than something you might be served from a machine in a supermarket. Nobody goes to Caffe Hecco for the quality of the hot drinks, though. It’s all about the view. From up in the hills, the city can appear so far away, a blur of buildings stood beyond those chalk white gravestones, but on the terrace, you are suddenly sitting amongst the steeples and minarets of Sarajevo. I couldn’t have chosen a better place to begin my farewell to the city, and it was another benefit of talking to the locals through Meet Bosnia, since I would never have otherwise thought to venture inside the unassuming hotel entrance.

My primary objective after coffee was to find a way that would best express my gratitude to the young women in the tour agency who had helped make my trip so memorable, and what better way than with fresh produce from the local market?  I had noticed an abundant marketplace across the road from the pekara I visited regularly and came to realise that it is the infamous Markale Market, where 111 people were killed and more than 200 injured in two separate mortar bombardments in February 1994 and August 1995 – the latter of which is widely regarded as being the incident that finally provoked the NATO airstrikes against Bosnian Serb forces, eventually leading to the Dayton Peace Accords and the end of the war.  The road and pavement outside the open-air market are scarred with bloody roses, and somehow it seemed appropriate that I should give the gift of roses as a mark of my appreciation for the hospitality I was shown.

The market wasn’t as busy as I expected for a Friday morning.  There were maybe a dozen people browsing the displays of apples, peaches, potatoes, courgettes, cauliflowers, cabbages, aubergines, spring onions, and the largest peppers I have ever seen.  Close to the entrance were the flower stalls I was seeking.  The first one I approached was owned by a small elderly woman who appeared to have nothing but her two front teeth, though that didn’t stop her from putting on an extremely cheerful face.  I told her that I was looking for two bunches of flowers, and she wanted to know if I was buying them for home, as a gift or for somebody special.  I explained that they were for two young ladies who had been very helpful during my time in Sarajevo, which prompted the flower seller to promise that she would pick out the very best roses and lilies she had.  Through English that was almost as fractured as her dentures, the woman assured me that she has been working with flowers for more than 47 years and so knows how to put together a beautiful bouquet.  Despite this wealth of experience, on the recent occasion of the couple’s 45th wedding anniversary, the florist’s husband went to a rival flower vendor to purchase forty-five red roses as a gift for her.  This was the best story I had heard during my ten days in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and although we both laughed about it, I could tell that the woman still felt aggrieved by it.

“He was probably wanting to surprise you,” I said, having no idea how a married couple of 45 years can possibly still surprise one another. “Of course,” the florist responded with a shrug of her shoulders. “But come on. It’s like cheating.”

If there is a moment from my Bosnian voyage that I could freeze in time, it would be the look on Medina’s face when I walked into the Meet Bosnia agency with the two expertly-picked bunches of flowers in my grasp.  For a moment, I thought that she might cry when I handed them over to her, which would have been something new for me when it’s usually my floral language that brings a tear to the eye.  When she stepped out from behind the desk to thank me, it looked as though she was going to throw her arms around me, but in the end, it was possibly a relief that she didn’t.  It’s not that I wouldn’t have welcomed a hug from Medina, but it was only midday and my shirt was already saturated with sweat.  Nothing could spoil a friendly gesture more than the awkward sensation of perspiration.  Medina asked if I was feeling sad about leaving Sarajevo, which was a difficult question.  It’s true that I wasn’t looking forward to going home. Still, I told her that rather than feeling any sadness, I was more appreciative of how fortunate I was to have experienced such a beautiful, fragile, friendly, and fantastic place.  Her face lit up when I said that my eleven days in Bosnia and Herzegovina had changed my life for the better and that it would take some time for me to fully appreciate it.  I have never felt a connection with a place like the bond I developed with Sarajevo, and I vowed to anyone who would listen that I was already planning to return next year.

Almost as though willing myself to wallow in some form of misery on my last day in the country, I visited the War Childhood Museum.  Sarajevo has many museums, but this is perhaps its most traumatic, and yet at the same time also its most charming and hopeful.  The project was born from a book of the same name, when, in 2010, author Jasminko Halilovic appealed for people to send him responses to the question:  “What was the war childhood for you?”  Over two and half years he received more than a thousand testimonies, memories drawings, photographs, and artefacts which told the story of a generation that grew up during the war.  Rather than risk having these personal items permanently lost to history, the idea was conceived to preserve them in a museum – the world’s only one that focuses exclusively on children who have been affected by war.  Such is the nature of war, and history’s horrible habit of repeating itself, there is currently an entire exhibition dedicated to the children of Ukraine.

At the ticket desk, a beautiful young lady looked at me with a curious eye when I paid for my entrance. I believe that what I said to her roughly translates as: “Good afternoon. May I have [raises an index finger] adult? Please. Thank you.” Presumably it was my accent that tipped her off to something being awry, since her response was to ask in fluent English where I am from. “And you are learning Bosnian?” She swooned – or, at least, I translated it as a swoon. One of my favourite things about being in Bosnia and Herzegovina was how much the people appreciated me speaking even a few words of the language. Most of the time, in ordinary circumstances, people roll their eyes, shake their heads or sigh whenever I attempt to communicate with them, but not here. In Bosnia, they accept that I’m an idiot who doesn’t know what he’s saying. So enamoured was I with the woman behind the ticket desk that I purchased a copy of the War Childhood book after I had walked around the museum. Today it sits on my bookcase, still wrapped in its thin layer of cellophane. It is important to preserve memories.

Of all the points I had written on my list of things to experience before the end of my trip, one of the most important was to hear the Muslim call to prayer one more time.  While as I have grown older I have discovered that most elements of religion leave me cold, the call to prayer is exquisite.  I don’t know what it is I like so much about it, but I was determined to return to the bar from where I first heard it to find out.  Not only was it the first place I had heard the beautiful chant, but it was also my initiation into Sarajevsko Pivo.  As the embers burned on my final afternoon in Sarajevo, I took a seat outside and indulged in the local ale in anticipation of the speakers from the nearby Gazi Husrev-beg mosque bursting into song.  Honestly, it gets more striking each time you hear it.  

Whilst revelling in the afterglow of the call to prayer, I found that I was attracting the attention of an elderly gentleman at the table facing mine.  The group he was sitting amongst had left, and since I had finished reading the Malcolm Gladwell book Talking to Strangers, which I bought at Luton Airport, there was no buffer to prevent people from speaking to me.  This guy had the appearance of a spy in a 1950s war movie, and I was the informant with whom he had come to exchange information.  There were surely more clandestine meeting spots in Sarajevo than around the corner from its largest mosque, although it was difficult to tell what value his coded secrets could be to anyone.  I learned a lot about Drago in the brief time we spent over the beer he bought for me.  He is recently retired from his job in Silicon Valley and splits his time between San Francisco and Sarajevo, the home city he left in the nineties and returns only to visit his grandchildren.  His recommended holiday destinations are Hawaii and Mexico, where the all-inclusive cocktails are especially good.  Drago confided that he had lost his wife to a sudden bout of leukaemia four years ago.  It’s difficult to know what the best thing is to say when a person tells you something like that, especially when you have only just met them.  Nobody has written a book about that, as far as I know.  Even worse than knowing how to respond verbally, I had to find a way of telling him that I wanted to leave to go and have my last drink at Gastro Pub Vučko.

In my mind, I had built up all manner of expectations for my final visit to Vučko.  There was going to be rock music playing loud, Bijelo Dugme, locals calling out after ‘the Scottish man’, flirtatious banter through broken Bosnian with the barmaid, chat with the physiotherapist, and rakija.  Lots of rakija.  When I emerged from the smoky haze at the bar, it couldn’t have been any more different.  I didn’t recognise any of the staff, the music was at a tolerable volume, and the red Vučko draft tap was off.  I don’t know that I have ever felt disappointment like it.  With my 4 am ride to the airport in mind, I finished my last beer in Bosnia and Herzegovina and left the bar around ten o’clock.  On my way back to the hostel, I walked past Vječna vatra (the Eternal Flame) once more, and for the first time, I felt sadness about leaving Sarajevo.

Four in the morning is not a pleasant time to be going anywhere, let alone an international airport.  My body resented me, and after 11 days of feeling nothing but peace, love, and tolerance, I was hating everything.  The bright lights of the check-in hall contrasted bitterly with the darkness of the morning outside, but even that didn’t stop it from being unusual when I couldn’t see the desk for WizzAir passengers.  I paced up and down the tiny hall, unable to find anything.  Eventually, it struck me that the sensible thing to do would be to look at the flight information screens overhead.  That was when I first learned that the 6.15 plane to Luton had been cancelled.  My heart sank.  Nothing could have felt worse at that moment.  Rail strikes across the UK already meant that I was being forced to pay an inflated £300 to fly from London to Glasgow that day, but now I wouldn’t even be able to make that.  Although I am a 38-year-old man, I have never experienced anything like this.  What are you supposed to do?  I’ve been on trains that have been delayed or even cancelled, but you can always catch the next bus from Oban to Glasgow, or in the worst-case scenario, pay for a taxi – like I did for me and three strangers in 2014, when I was desperate to get to the city to see Limp Bizkit in concert and insisted on sitting in the back seat because I found one of the women attractive, only to have to stop less than an hour into the drive so that I could be sick by the side of a country road.  Although the remainder of the journey was painful in its awkwardness, I still saw fit to ask the young lady out on a date when I next saw her in a bar several months later.  It wasn’t any surprise when she declined the invitation.

After the initial shock wore off, instincts started to kick in. Standing in line at the ticket counter, I could almost feel the monkey within me beating its chest. All I could think about was how I could reach London the fastest possible way. That’s where I was supposed to be flying to, after all, so that’s where I was going to go. One man walked by and asked me, “is this the victims of WizzAir queue?” Behind me was the guy from Leicester who had taken the tour to Srebrenica with me a couple of days earlier. He had already figured out that he was going to try and get home via Zagreb; I envied his confidence. I reached the lady at the desk and asked her how I could get to London that day. She ran through various options, such as travelling via Frankfurt, Istanbul, or Basle, but they all involved 9 or 10-hour stopovers and a lot of money. What else could I do? I accepted her suggestion of flying through Switzerland and arriving in London at 9.50 pm, almost 16 hours after my original arrival time, though I had no idea how I was going to make it home from there. She was entering my passport details into the system when the monkey finally relented and I could get some relatively intelligent thought in. Why was I looking for a way back to London when it was Scotland that I ultimately wanted to reach?

With more urgency than I have ever mustered, even at last orders in Aulay’s, I stopped the ticket vendor mid-booking and went and sat in Sarajevo airport’s little coffee shop with an underwhelming cappuccino and an hour’s free WiFi and began searching for flights to either of Scotland’s two main airports myself.  The options weren’t much better than the woman had offered me, some of them not arriving until 2 am or 8 am on Sunday – more than 24 hours later.  I checked my messages, and as well as seeing that WizzAir had sent an email at 2 am advising me of their decision to cancel the flight from Sarajevo to London (although not the reason), I realised that they were giving me the option of rebooking my flight for free on the next available date, which according to their two flights a week schedule was Tuesday.  That would at least allow me to use the train ticket that had originally been scuppered by the rail strike, and upon checking with Hostel Franz Ferdinand that they had accommodation available for another three nights, it emerged that the sensible option was to stay in Sarajevo.  None of it was ideal, and it felt surreal to go from being sad over leaving the place to being disappointed about having to spend another few days in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but by the time I had taken a few calming breaths and the bus back into the city, I was feeling better about things.  Any chance I got I was promising people that I would come back to Bosnia, though I never anticipated that it would be this soon.  In the end, I only had myself to blame for drinking so much water from that damn fountain.

I made a beeline straight for Baščaršija and some proper coffee as I pondered my next move. It was striking the way that the survival instincts of the modern man have evolved from hunting animals to hunting for free WiFi spots. My favourite place for Bosnian coffee, Slatko ćoše, also happened to be one that offered an internet connection. Not very much time had passed before I was starting to enjoy the idea of having another opportunity to explore this city I had fallen for, although I spent most of the rest of that Saturday in bed, unknowingly missing what was the third Sarajevo Pride parade. The parade was all anybody was talking about when I finally ventured from the hostel the next morning, so much so that I was feeling disappointed for having not witnessed it. Instead, I was refreshed as I embarked on yet another trip with Meet Bosnia, this one taking me to Visegrad, Andricgrad and Drvengrad.

While it wasn’t the stamp I was expecting to receive on my passport that weekend, it felt pretty exciting to travel through Republic Srpska to East Bosnia and finally across the border into Western Serbia.  Along the way, our guide Armin took me and a Finnish couple to see the impressive Old Stone Bridge in Visegrad, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2007 and was the titular bridge in Ivo Andric’s 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature winning novel, The Bridge on the Drina.  In Andricgrad, we were visiting a town that is the project of the film director Emir Kusturica and is inspired by the works and characters of Ivo Andric.  Drvengrad, in Serbia, literally translates as “wooden town”, and that’s exactly what it is:  it’s an ethno-village which was originally constructed as scenery for Kusturica’s film Life is a Miracle, and eventually blossomed into a village made entirely of timber from conifer trees.  I can’t think that I have seen anything else quite like it.  From there, we took a ride on the scenic Sargan Eight heritage line:  a narrow gauge railway found high up in the Zlatibor mountains that once upon a time served as part of the train route connecting Belgrade and Sarajevo before it was closed in the 1970s.

The short journey on the nostalgia train alone was almost enough to make up for the cancellation of my flight home, while an unexpected second chance at a last day in Sarajevo definitely made it worthwhile.  The opportunity to see my favourite people, visit my favourite sights, eat cevapi at Nune, and drink in Vučko once more.  I was reluctant to build my hopes up too high following the disappointment of my first last night there, though I couldn’t help but look forward to it.  The night could scarcely have been better.  Everyone who I wanted to see was there.  The barmaid mentioned that she remembered me from my first visit to Vučko 13 days earlier, and asked if I remember her.  I wanted to tell her that parents forget their firstborn child more easily than someone like her could slip from my mind, but without the evidence to back such a claim up, I decided instead to tell her that of course I recognise her, since she looks much different to the physiotherapist who had been tending bar in her absence.  The barmaid’s laugh was hysterical.  “I would hope that I do!”

As I ordered yet more beers, the barmaid insisted that I was pronouncing the phrase “mogu li dobiti” (may I have) incorrectly, which came as a surprise to me since it is one of the translations I felt most comfortable with and nobody else in the previous two weeks had told me that I was saying it wrongly.  Either the other Bosnian people believed that I was using the correct wording, or they were too kind to correct me.  As soon as I’d made the suggestion, it struck me that it could easily have sounded like a subtle dig at the barmaid, but it turned out that she found it unusual I would consider Bosnians to be kind at all.  I asked if that is not her experience, to which she said it isn’t.  I found it difficult to believe, and suggested that maybe her people are kind to those they don’t know, like me, which she seemed to think makes sense.  “So it isn’t just you,” I concluded.  As if to prove my point, the barmaid taught me how to ask for one more beer to save me, and her, from going through the same charade over again.  I came to use “još jedan” many more times that night.

Despite all of my language faux pas in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it came as no surprise that goodbye was the hardest word to say.  I bought a rakija for all of the staff in Vučko as my parting shot, while the physiotherapist reciprocated by giving me a 330ml bottle of Vučko Red to take away.  It was by far my favourite of all of the generous gifts I had been given by people during my time in Bosnia:  the brush, the wooden spoon, a fridge magnet, a canvas bag.  The physiotherapist was right about rakija when he said that it will either correct or connect a person.  I couldn’t have felt any more connected to Sarajevo and this wonderful country.

When I turned up at Meet Bosnia in the small hours of the next morning to make my second attempt at flying home, it was Edin, the owner of the tour agency, who arrived to drive me to the airport.  The same person who gave President Bill Clinton a guided tour of Sarajevo was driving me to the airport at four o’clock in the morning.    I couldn’t believe it.  Inside, the WizzAir check-in desk was open, dashing the hopes of the small part of me that was wishing for one more cancellation.  I knew that I would be back in Sarajevo one day, it was just going to have to wait a little longer.

Sarajevo, Travnik, Jajce & Srebrenica (part four)

I had only been away from Sarajevo for 48 hours – a day less than the entire time I had actually spent in the city – yet returning there from my weekend in Mostar brought with it a feeling that was similar to the one I experience when I have been away from Oban for a while and the bus reaches the top of the Balloch-an-Righ, the main difference being that here I was met with blue skies and a bright sun sitting over the hill.  It’s not that I didn’t enjoy my time in Herzegovina; more that I really, really liked Sarajevo.  The best thing of comparing it with would be finding that you have developed a crush on the person who you pass on the street every other day, who even seeing for a brief moment somehow makes your day better.  Life doesn’t suddenly become terrible when a few days go by without seeing your street crush, but it just isn’t the same.  That’s how it felt being in Mostar.

Sarajevo was familiar to me.  I knew my way around the city, or at least the parts of it I had been in.  I had my favourite pekara for playing Russian Roulette with the bread, and I knew how to say hello to people in Sarajevo.  Amongst the things I was most looking forward to was getting back to my room in Hostel Franz Ferdinand.  Although the proprietors weren’t the type to pour a rakija for you before check-in and the room was as basic as can be, the people were friendly and I had a private bathroom, meaning that I could once again take a shower in the morning without the concern of becoming overly intimate with the stranger on the other side of the partition.  I picked up a four-pack of Sarajevsko lager from the supermarket on my way to the old town from the railway station with the intention of having a quiet Sunday night in the communal lounge while I caught up with some writing.  There was a part of me that hoped to find another traveller with who I could share my experiences, the way I did the night before I left for Mostar.  But there was only one guy around, and he used the kitchen to make the most pungent meal he could before going to his room.  Instead, I spent the night in my own company, listening to music and drinking beer.  It was just like being home.

My first six days in Bosnia and Herzegovina were spent undertaking vigorous sightseeing, indulging in challenging cevapi consumption, fending off the heat with liquid refreshments, and putting my pigeon knowledge of the language to the test. I deserved a rest; so it was on the seventh day that I didn’t leave the hostel until after 11am. There wasn’t enough time to make my daily trip to the pekara for breakfast, but that didn’t seem so important when I was going to be spending the afternoon taking a food & craft tour around Sarajevo’s old town with Meet Bosnia. The activity was one that I expected would have a lot of interest seeing as it promised a great deal of culture and eating, but I was the only person who had arranged to do it. My guide was Armin, a personable middle-aged woman whose hair was the colour of uncut butternut squash. We spent several hours walking the narrow streets around Baščaršija, where I couldn’t help but wonder what people thought at seeing the pair of us together: Armin the well-prepared, lightly dressed and air-conditioned local alongside me, the Scottish tourist whose face was as pink as the polo shirt that was sticking to his back.

Armin was amiable and well-versed in flattery.  Throughout our walk, she did her best to emphasise how much the Bosnian people appreciate respectful visitors to their country, frequently commenting on how polite, friendly and thoughtful she found me.  Initially, the flurry of compliments left me feeling bashful and had my features turning from pink to red, but over time I began to wonder what it would take to encourage people at home to talk to me like this.  Everyone I met on my tour around the city with Armin was like this; warm and genuine and massaging my tiny ego without even knowing it.  That’s what made the food & craft one of the most valuable things I did during my time in Bosnia:  If I had been visiting these traditional dressmakers, coppersmiths, or rugmakers on my own accord, I would never have been able to communicate with them.  However, with Armin acting as a translator in addition to being a guide, I learned more about what makes this place so unique than I otherwise ever could have.

For instance, I was taken into the back of one of Sarajevo’s last remaining hatmakers, where an elderly man was sitting at a gloomy-looking desk next to a portrait of Tito that could be seen through what was probably a permanent haze of cigarette smoke, carefully stitching a purple ribbon to a piece of felt.  Armin introduced me and presumably told him that I am Scottish, and as he shook my hand he asked when Scotland will become an independent country.  After almost a week of interrogating various locals about the complex political structure in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it surprised me that this little old man in a hat shop in Sarajevo could care about the issue of independence in Scotland, yet he smiled when I told him that I was hoping it would be soon.  Through my guide/translator, I was told that, since the beginning of the war in 1992, the hatmaker has only been able to work seasonally due to the falling demand and the drain on the country’s resources.

It was a similar story in all of the small family-run workshops I visited.  Everyone I spoke to is intensely proud of their craft, their history and their country, but they are not very busy and it is becoming more and more difficult for them to survive.  Young women no longer want to weave rugs, so many of them are now imported from Pakistan.  The female coppersmith I met sells so few of the traditional ibriks [coffee pots] these days that she has been forced to adapt the family business and turn the coffee pots into modern candleholders, though even then she is finding it tough to attract custom.  There is now only one brushmaker in the city; a once thriving trade.  The countryside is full of sheep, just like in Scotland, but few people are willing to farm them.  Many young people do not want to work in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and there is a belief that the government is corrupt and doesn’t do enough to support the struggling traditional sectors.  In 2021 alone, more than 100,000 Bosnians applied for a Visa to work in Germany.  At the same time, the older generation is fearful of another war breaking out soon, fuelled by the recent invasion of Ukraine and Serbia’s close relationship with Russia.  Armin mentioned that her mother, whom she lives with, has already begun stockpiling tinned food and clearing space in the basement of their home in case they need to shelter.   Sometimes your own worries, such as none of your neighbours being willing to take the bins out to the pavement for emptying, or whether Amazon Prime is worth a £79 annual subscription seem trivial when you hear about what other people are going through.

My tour began at a bakery close to the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, where they still give out free bread to the hungry every morning. From there, over the course of around three hours, I ate more food than I could ever imagine. There was a shortbread-like biscuit that was designed for being preserved for months at a time for people who were spending their time working in the hills. I tried cheese burek, some locally-produced acacia honey, a pistachio cream sweet, a large chunk of salty goats cheese that was as big as my fist along with some sliced ham from the market, japrak (grape leaves stuffed with mince and rice), dolma (green pepper stuffed with mince and rice), the traditional and heavenly Bosnian dessert baklava, as well as yet more cevapi at Cevabdzinica Nune. This place is run by the brother of Edin, who operates Meet Bosnia, and has been in their family since 1966. I believe that I had met the entire family by the time I left Sarajevo, which is probably inevitable considering I ate at the restaurant almost every night for the remainder of my trip. They easily serve the best cevapi I tasted in Bosnia & Herzegovina. My opinion was perhaps slightly biased by the fact that I enjoyed one of my few language triumphs in the establishment. As I arrived one evening, an American male who was probably not much younger than I am was placing his order in a manner that seemed to be a pretty good attempt at parroting the archetypal obnoxious American abroad. The young female server walked over to my table next, where the most rudimentary translation of my order would be: “Good evening. May I have cevapi? Ten [the dish is typically served with 10 or 15 pieces of sausage]. Please. Thank you.” There could have been a multitude of reasons for my plate being served before the American’s was, it could have been sheer coincidence, but the fact that it was was enough to have me forking raw onion into my mouth in celebration.

Amidst all of the food I was enjoying on my first day back in Sarajevo, my mind was chewing over a troubling request I had received in the Meet Bosnia office before my food & craft tour began.  Originally I had planned to keep the following day free and to take a trip to the towns of Travnik and Jajce on Wednesday, but when I arrived at the agency on Monday, Medina informed me that there had been an enquiry from another person who was interested in taking the same tour, but that she was only in Sarajevo on Tuesday.  It didn’t make any difference to me which day I went on the tour, and the fact that another person would be there meant that the cost would be halved since it would no longer be just me and the driver, but I was instantly filled with dread.  What if this other mystery solo traveller was Karen from the drive to Mostar?  I wasn’t sure that I could survive a full-day excursion with just the two of us.  Yet there was no way I could refuse.  I’m not sure that anyone could ever say no to Medina, after all.  I was just going to have to cope with the prospect the only way I know how:  by going to the pub.

Six days after my first visit to Gastro Pub Vučko, where my failure to read the Bosnian language menu led to me ordering a pepperoni and mushroom pizza, I returned hopeful that I could impress the barmaid with everything I had learned in the meantime.  I drank in several other bars during my time in Sarajevo, but none of them captured me the way Vučko did, not even The Celtic Pub, which occupies the space next to Cevabdzinica Nune.  The bar had been recommended to me by Mirza on account of its name, though the place struck me as being more of a Scottish-cum-Irish sports bar rather than it claiming any affiliation with my favourite football club.  At least that’s how it seemed to me when I asked the kilted barman if he followed Celtic and he responded that, no, he supported Partizan Belgrade, the Serbian (though at the time Yugoslavian) club who eliminated Celtic from the 1989 European Cup Winners Cup competition on the away goals rule despite famously losing 5-4 in Glasgow.  I mean, come on.  Walking into The Celtic Pub and finding a barman who revels in one of your most gutwrenching calamities was, well, no different to most other bartenders I have encountered over the years.

As fate would have it, the barmaid from my first smoke-filled visit to Gastro Pub Vučko was not on duty when I went in after the food & craft tour.  It was tempting to feel disappointment, even resentment, over the scheduling, but it turned out that the guy who was working behind the bar pouring drinks for the orders being taken by the floor staff was amongst the friendliest of all the friendly people I met in the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  He spoke fluent English, which he learned through listening to rock music by bands such as Queen and U2, as well as helping to translate for soldiers during the war when he was just a teenager.  Things like that are never not jarring when someone says it.  Although many young people have left the country, he stayed and became a qualified physiotherapist, while he still works in the pub to “pay for being a student.”

I visited Vučko on multiple occasions during my second week in Bosnia and Herzegovina, each time hoping to walk in and find the barmaid from that first night, and each time feeling strangely happy to discover that the friendly barman was there instead.  By the end of the week, even the bar staff who couldn’t converse with me in English greeted me as “the Scottish man” when I walked in, which seemed better than the pub titles I am usually bestowed with.  Drinking in here felt just like drinking in Aulay’s, or in the bar of a Ted Danson sitcom, right down to the music that played over the speakers; eighties synths soothing through the place in rhythm with the hops.  Sometimes one of the younger bar crew took control of the system and the typical tracks were replaced with some Yugoslavian rock.  

The young man pointed feverishly to the tiny buttons on my polo shirt as he asked, “do you like?”  I said that I did, but I had no idea what kind of coded message he was trying to communicate through my shirt.

“This is White Button,” [Bijelo Dugme] the English-speaking barman finally interjected having witnessed the sketch play out in front of him. “The biggest band ever to come out of Yugoslavia.” Their song Sve će to, mila moja, prekriti ruzmarin must have played at least once every night I was in that week. I had never heard anything like it before. It is a fantastic song. I didn’t understand a word of it, yet I couldn’t stop thinking about it. One night I asked the barman what the song was about, but I didn’t understand a word of his explanation either. Maybe it was for the best that the mythology I had built up in my mind surrounding the song wasn’t tarnished by learning that the verses were an operatic ode to a man who is sitting on a barstool contemplating a crushing 10-hour car journey with the human form of the Karen meme.

My food and craft tour taught me a lot about Bosnian culture, but there are some things that can only be learned from the other side of a bar.  What I wanted to know most about Bosnia and Herzegovina, more than anything else, was the rakija.  I told the barman about my experience in Mostar the previous weekend, where I arrived at my hostel and was offered a shot of homemade rakija before I had even checked into my room.  “They must have been Serbian,” he correctly identified.  I hadn’t especially cared for their grape distillation, though of course, I could hardly walk into the home of a Serb and tell him that, and wanted something a little mellower.  The barman suggested that I should try plum or honey, but warned that a person should have no more than three or four shots and that these should be taken slowly along with a glass of water.  “With rakija, you will either correct others or connect with them.”  It was a beautiful turn of phrase, and I knew exactly what he meant.  It’s the same when you consume enough of any alcoholic drink, I suppose, but the way the barman spoke it seemed particularly poignant.

All the rakija in the Balkans couldn’t have prepared me for the prospect of spending an entire day travelling through central Bosnia to the historic towns of Travnik and Jajce in a car with Karen.  I felt certain that she was going to be the second tourist in my party of two, and I could already tell that it was going to be the worst day.  The thing about an early morning cup of bitter Bosanska Kafa is that while it is seemingly great at combatting a rakija hangover, there isn’t much it can do to quell anxiety.  I could feel my heartbeat rattling around my ribcage like Sarajevo’s old trams reverberate across its streets as I paced the Meet Bosnia office at eight o’clock waiting for my travel companion to arrive.  Eventually, she made herself known to Aid, our guide for the tour, and I couldn’t have been more relieved to discover that it wasn’t Karen at all, but was actually a young woman who was visiting from Singapore.

Almost immediately, getting into a car with Aid and Liyana felt more like embarking on an adventurous road trip with friends than it did an organised tour.  There was a relaxed vibe among the three of us which made the long journey a breeze.  The atmosphere was so chilled that, in a sense, we could have been three components of a refrigerator assembled in a factory and working together for the first time.  Over a breakfast of uštipci (salty doughnuts served with cream cheese and ham), an hour or so into our drive, we dived into a deep conversation about marriage, and specifically why people such as myself and Liyana are better off out of it.  Aid was curious to know Liyana’s age.  He speculated that she must be around 29, which I immediately recognised as the typical male ruse of purposefully underestimating a female’s age in a thinly-veiled attempt at flattery.  Liyana made a counterproposal, which was to bet that she was the oldest person at the table.  I scoffed, finding that suggestion even more risible than Aid’s:  she clearly was the most fresh-faced of all of us.  In the end, almost predictably, Aid and I were both left looking foolish when Liyana revealed that she is 39 years old, several months older than I am and a few years beyond Aid.  Though I couldn’t help from feeling that the uštipci was probably going to take several years from all of us.

Travnik and Jajce was the tour that I had booked purely to fill a day in my itinerary; mostly because I liked the people at Meet Bosnia and wanted to give them my business. I didn’t know much of anything about the towns we were visiting, but it turns out that they are two of the most culturally significant places in the entire country. Once upon a time, Travnik was the capital of the Bosnian province of the Ottoman Empire. It is also the birthplace of the Yugoslav author Ivo Andric, who won the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature. There are several well-preserved buildings from the era, most impressive amongst them being the 15th-century medieval fortress which rests high above the town. From up there, we were afforded spectacular views of Travnik’s many mosques and its pair of 18th-century clock towers. Liyana and I later discovered that we had, unbeknownst to the other, captured each other in photographs we had taken from either end of the fortress. It’s the sort of thing that, if we were a couple, would make for a stomach-churning post on Instagram, but on this occasion was an amusing coincidence. I told Liyana that I wouldn’t make for a successful criminal getaway guy due to my yellow chinos making me stand out from a great distance, but she responded simply that the trousers suit me. As if I hadn’t already figured it out, it was at this point that I knew I liked Liyana better than Karen from the Mostar trip.

In Jajce, Aid took us to the enormous waterfall dominating the town’s centre.  TLC famously warned against it in their 1994 hit, but I found that in Bosnia and Herzegovina it is impossible not to go chasing waterfalls.  I could swear they are everywhere.  We walked down to the point where the river Pilva collides with the Vrbas river in the most tremendous racket, where many locals were soaking up the June sun in the water.  Liyana had come prepared, her solitary goal for the day being to take a swim in the water.  

Jajce is spectacular. The town has a castle, old fortified city walls, enormous mountains, and deep river valleys. Down the Pilva Lakes, Aid took us to the old watermills where during the Austro-Hungarian period the local farmers ground wheat into flour. The little collection of wooden, windowless huts stand over the gushing water, giving the impression that you are walking through a tiny village in a children’s storybook. Before I came to Bosnia and Herzegovina, I hadn’t given places like this a single thought; all of my excitement was for visiting the two largest cities, Sarajevo and Mostar. That almost made the trip to Travnik and Jajce like discovering some hidden gems, and now I can’t imagine visiting Bosnia and not seeing these places. Of course, it was all the better for having made some new friends along the way.

Aid, Liyana and I exchanged phone numbers when we arrived back in Sarajevo and vowed to keep in touch.  It turned out to be sooner than expected when I next heard from Liyana, but I guess not knowing anybody else in the country will do that.  She had been planning on travelling to Mostar on Wednesday morning but decided that she liked Sarajevo so much that she would stay an extra day, so she messaged later that evening and asked if I would like to do something the next day.  It is so rare for a woman to ever ask me to spend any amount of time in her company that I sat at the bar in Gastro Pub Vučko and messaged just about everyone in my phonebook to ask if I was going on a date.

We agreed that we could convene outside the Meet Bosnia agency where we first met at ten o’clock the following morning and walk out to the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  It was nice walking around a foreign city with a complete stranger, because nobody else knew that we weren’t together.  They were as oblivious as I usually am.  For all anybody could tell, we were an actual couple, Instagram and all, on our way to a hot date at the museum like any other pairing.  The National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina is a vast complex situated on the infamous ‘Sniper Alley’ and across the street from the infamous Holiday Inn, which was built for the 1984 Winter Olympics and went on to become the headquarters for international reporters during the conflict in the nineties.  Probably the greatest draw of the museum is that it is home to the 600-year-old Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish manuscript that was smuggled out of Spain as thousands of Jews fled the Inquisition.  The book is so delicate that it can only be displayed to the public for an hour every Tuesday and fourth Saturday, making it nearly as difficult to see as me in the company of a woman.

We spent several hours strolling around the many exhibits in the museum, though we still didn’t cover nearly all of them.  Despite all of the artefacts of interest in the building, perhaps the most interesting sight of all was the American couple who were working their way around the place taking numerous photographs in spite of the many signs stating that photography is forbidden.  The woman was dressed in a long, elegant black gown which had a neckline that plunged deeper than a Bosnian waterfall.  Her outfit was so glamorous that it was as though she had been misinformed about how they were going to be spending their day.  Most of the photographs were of her striking poses next to the ancient second-century Roman gravestones and Iron Age tools.  It’s entirely possible that she was a model on assignment, cast to capture the stories of the encased butterflies, but it was difficult to see how an attractive blonde could make those any more enchanting.

After a long walk back to the old town, where we were on a mission to find a place that would print Liyana’s bus ticket to Dubrovnik for the next morning, we stopped for a doner kebab for lunch.  Liyana had arranged an afternoon coffee with a girl she had met on a walking tour, the sort of backup plan that it is sensible to make when you know you’re going to be spending time in my company.  We parted ways under the belief that we would never see each other again, but I returned from Srebrenica the following evening to a message from Liyana telling me that her bus had never turned up and she was in Sarajevo for another night.  I don’t know if going for dinner with me was much compensation for missing out on a trip to Croatia, but I think we both enjoyed having a dinner companion for a change.  If nothing else, the stray cat who wandered from table to table in the outdoor restaurant welcomed our offerings of veal.

Not for the first time, I couldn’t help but feel that religion was conspiring against my pursuit of romantic relations.  My natural inclination would ordinarily be to try and steer things towards a bar, where alcohol might dull a person’s senses enough to make me appear funny or maybe even attractive.  Liyana, however, was a practising Muslim, and so I was forced to rely on my God-given talents for conversation.  It put me at a real disadvantage.  Not that it really mattered, since Liyana was getting up early to make another attempt to get to Dubrovnik.  With the luck she seems to carry travelling, I said to her as we were leaving that I would probably see her again tomorrow.  She laughed for about as long as I have ever heard anyone laugh at something I have said.  Her laugh was my favourite thing about Liyana.  It sounded like a musical box, where you wind it up and it goes on and on and on.

I was still processing my tour to Srebrenica with Meet Bosnia when I met Liyana for dinner. The town wasn’t a name that meant anything to me before I started researching my trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina, but as soon as I learned what happened there through books and documentaries I knew that it was important to go. All the books and films in the world can’t prepare a person for a site of mass genocidal killings, though. It’s impossible to comprehend the scale of what happened here on 11 July 1995, even when you can see 8,372 graves sprawling out across the land before your eyes.

At the Srebrenica Memorial Centre, which sits alongside the abandoned UN Base, I couldn’t pinpoint precisely what I was feeling.  The only way I can describe it is as being similar to the sense you have when you leave home and know that you have forgotten to do something, but you can’t think what it is.  Seeing things like the graffiti left on the walls by the UN’s Dutch soldiers who were tasked with protecting the Bosniaks in the so-called “safe area” was haunting.  The entire day left me experiencing a raw mix of sorrow and anger over the lack of action by the UN, who had promised air strikes against the Bosnian Serb aggressors on the morning of the 11th but never sent the planes.  It makes it all the more humbling that people in this country, who have suffered all of that pain and betrayal, are so friendly and welcoming.

Coming soon: Correct or connect (the final part)

Read more about Meet Bosnia’s excursion to Travnik and Jajce here:

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)