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)

Mostar (part two)

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

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

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

Sarajevo Brewery

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

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

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

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

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

Kravice waterfall

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

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

Old Stone Bridge, Konjic

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

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

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

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

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

Stari Most

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

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

Coming soon: Mostar and Medjugorje (part three)

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

Sarajevo (part one)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming soon:  Mostar (part two)

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

“Who needs a shower?”

On a recent walk home along the Esplanade one evening, I was accosted by an elderly woman who had been standing by the seawall which is adjacent to the motorcycle parking bay.  If I was to guess, I would speculate that the lady was in her late seventies, while she was dressed the way I imagine someone who attends a flower show would.  As she stepped into my path the woman thrust her smartphone in my direction – it was an iPhone, though I couldn’t tell which model.  I removed my earbuds in time to hear her ask if I would be willing to take a picture of her by the sea.  Her phone was practically in my hand before I could answer.  In a sense, it felt nice to be trusted, even if I was mildly irritated about being interrupted in the middle of a song I was enjoying.

“It’s so still,” the old lady marvelled as she sat on the end of the stone wall and cast a glance out over the bay behind her.  I tried to frame the shot so that the woman could look back at the end of her holiday and see herself there in her favourite lilac coat, the North Pier and some fishing boats in the background, capturing the way the light was changing on the water.  Channelling my inner Ansel Adams, I suggested to my subject that she “raise your chin a little and maybe look into the camera.”  I thought that I sounded pretty convincing that I knew what I was doing, but the woman clearly wasn’t buying it when she asked me to “take a couple more.  Just in case.”  So much for trust.

With no fewer than three photographs added to her camera roll, I handed the phone back to the elderly tourist as a couple were passing behind. The female from the pair approached and called out to us: “Would you like me to take a picture of the two of you together?” I almost choked. What kind of relationship did this woman think she was witnessing? Whatever it was, it was difficult to say which of us should have been taking the insinuation more harshly. Deep down, there was a part of me that was feeling buoyed by the idea that a complete stranger could look at me and believe that I am capable of being part of a couple, albeit the feeling was short-lived once it was considered that my would-be partner is in her late seventies. On the other hand, this respectable-looking elderly lady was surely thinking that she could do better than a man who needs three attempts to take a simple portrait picture. Just like in most of my other relationships, the atmosphere between us quickly became awkward, and when I left it was with a more purposeful stride than before – not only to get away from my photography subject, but also to overtake the woman who had offered to take our picture, as if to prove to her that I am still young and agile enough to be dating pre-pension age women.

All I could think about for days afterwards was that passing question.  It was haunting me, which I am certain was the cause of an incident at Glasgow Airport at the beginning of the Easter weekend.  I was travelling with my brother and sister for a couple of nights away in Belfast, the first time we had taken such an adventure together.  Our flight was departing at 7.25 on Thursday evening, giving us plenty of time to bruise our bank balances with a round of drinks that were costing us more than £20 a time.  I was feeling confident that I had done everything to be prepared for going through the security process.  All of my liquids and creams were neatly packed in a clear, resealable bag; my electronics were placed in the large grey tray alongside my watch, and I was even unbuckling my belt whilst waiting in line.  I couldn’t have done anything more, yet the scanner still went off as I walked through and my bag was pulled to the side to be searched by hand.  It turned out that my Joop! Aftershave was larger than I had believed and breached the 100ml limit, meaning that it had to be confiscated.  

I would probably have checked the bottle more carefully before leaving home if my thoughts hadn’t been consumed by the elderly lady in the photograph, but there was no way of explaining this to the airport security.  My attempt to carry a forbidden 25ml of cologne to Northern Ireland had tipped the Border Force off to my dubious character, and the man who was swabbing my luggage began interrogating me about an iPad he insisted was in it.  

“Is there an iPad in this bag?”  He asked, having presumably seen something on his screen.  

“No,” I asserted with the same confidence I had when I initially strode up to the security line.  

“Are you sure?”  The border agent probed in a manner similar to when I was looking after my six-year-old niece earlier in the week and had challenged her to find the bunny toy I had hidden in my flat.

After another firm denial of the existence of an iPad in my rucksack, the security bloke once again asked me if I was absolutely sure that there wasn’t another device in my bag.  Despite having never owned an iPad, I began to doubt myself, questioning if there could somehow be a tablet in my carry-on.  Is that something a criminal would plant in an unsuspecting traveller’s luggage to be picked up by an accomplice on the other side?  I’ve heard of U2 putting their album Songs of Innocence on every Apple device on the planet, but never Apple products being foisted upon a person without their consent.

Eventually, we were able to agree on the absence of an iPad and I was allowed to join my brother and sister on the flight to Belfast.  Not for the first time, I was assigned a seat in the emergency exit row.  It has become something of a habit of mine to be approached by an air stewardess before take-off to be asked if I mind that I am seated on an emergency exit, and I am always panic-stricken when it happens, especially when I am three beers deep.  Considering all the vetting that is done of airline passengers, it amazes me that someone like me can be put in a position where they could potentially be the difference between life and death for everybody else on board.  When evidently I can barely pass basic airport security, how can I reasonably be expected to inflate a life vest under the pressure of a flight going down in the Irish Sea?

In Belfast, we had booked the hostel-like accommodation at Titanic Apartments.  Out on Lisburn Road, it was nowhere near the Titanic Quarter of the city, but seemingly having a cartoon poster of the doomed cruise liner on the wall by the television that doesn’t work is enough to enable a place to use the name ‘Titanic’.  The first question we were asked by the porter when we checked in to our two-bedroom apartment was whether we would like any towels.  Naturally, we quite liked the idea of being able to dry ourselves after a shower, so we said that yes, we would like some towels, only to be told that we could go to the reception building across the street at nine o’clock the following morning to request them.  Upon looking around our living space for the next two nights, we discovered that there was also no soap or handwash – or anything, really, aside from the beds.  It didn’t take very long for us to develop a sinking feeling about the Titanic Apartments.

Fortunately, since our time in the city was so limited, we had little intention of spending much time in the hostel anyway. We had barely touched down before we were out again to the Speakeasy bar along the road from us. The pub forms the student union for the nearby Queen’s University, and boy could we tell. Even with it being the Easter break, the place was rammed with young people playing pool, watching football and listening to the woman who was playing guitar. We were the three oldest people in the bar by quite some distance, which only served to remind me why I drink in Aulay’s when I am back home. There isn’t much that can make a person feel so dazed, lost and helpless as being the oldest person in the bar, except maybe being hauled before airport security for an iPad that doesn’t exist.

We were adopting the fly by the seam of your pants method of exploring Belfast since the entire decision to take the trip was reasonably last minute.  It tends to be my favourite way of travelling anyway, and as with most cities, I came armed with a list of bars I had either visited or intended to visit when I was last there in 2017.  As we weren’t able to shower on Friday morning on account of the saga with the towels, we decided that we would leave early for the opening of St. George’s Market – the last surviving Victorian covered market in the country’s capital city.  I was hoping that the residual essence of Joop! that ordinarily clings to the collar of most of my shirts and jackets would see me through the trip since I could no longer top it up, although it was a different scent that was filling the air around the entrance of the market.  The very first stall we encountered was selling trout that was the size of a dachshund, and some of the pieces of fish looked so fresh that I was sure that if I looked at them closely enough they might still be twitching.  

Other than the usual fruit and vegetables, some locals were offering the most remarkable goods.  Things like hand-crafted jewellery, canvas paintings, slate coasters, and scarves.  It was a real feast for the eyes – which we enjoyed – but it was a feast for the belly we had turned up for.  My sister got talking to a pair of very enthusiastic Spanish guys who were running a French crêpe van, while my brother and I went off in search of fried food served on soda bread.  The breakfast was prepared right in front of our very eyes in a display that was almost theatrical with its sizzle.  Combined with a cup of coffee from a nearby vendor, we were all feeling pretty good about our spoils.  It is an especially pleasing thing when a spur of the moment decision works out so well, and our satisfaction was registered with the phrase that was coined in that moment:  “who needs a shower?”  Of course, we returned to the Titanic Apartments later in the day to properly cleanse ourselves before going out for dinner, but for half a day at least, we went about town without giving a fuck about towels, soap, hairbrushes, aftershave or any of that.  You can enjoy yourself in any circumstance, you just need to allow yourself to.

Over our one full day together in Belfast, the three of us walked more than 22,500 steps according to my brother’s smartwatch, which is the equivalent of approximately 11 miles. Looking back, I can’t help but feel that we were testing the limits of what deodorant can achieve. We took one of the hop on hop off sightseeing red bus tours that every city seems to have, and it gave us a pretty good overview of the place. Belfast is a relatively small city, but it has an enormous history – much of it recent. It would be difficult to visit the area and not think about the Troubles – a term which in itself has always struck me as being quite quaint. Spending an extra few minutes going through airport security is troubling, whereas civil war seems much more significant. The most interesting section of the tour was the journey down the Nationalist Falls Road and the Unionist Shankhill Road. These areas of Belfast are covered with flags and the buildings decorated in murals; they are fantastically brightly coloured and in a way beautiful, yet they are shrouded with darkness and a horrific past. Even to this day, there are still gates that close every night at seven o’clock to separate the two communities. It was surreal seeing the whole thing turned into a tourist attraction of sorts – particularly when tensions have been raised off the back of England’s decision to take the rest of the UK out of the European Union and the problems this has created for the island of Ireland. When you think of it, it’s pretty mad that you can pay £17 to sit on top of a double-decker bus and drive through these sites of sectarian violence. Things are still so palpable that it practically feels as though you are watching one of those horrid reality television shows everybody talks about. I had never imagined that a red sightseeing tour could stir up so many different feelings, but I found hearing some of the stories from both sides of the divide quite sorrowful.

From the bus, we stopped off at Crumlin Road Gaol, which closed in 1996 and at times housed some of Northern Ireland’s most notorious political prisoners.  Seventeen criminals were executed in the prison, with the last being hanged in 1961, and towards the end of its use, the jail was so overcrowded that there were as many as three people to a cell.  The self-led tour told stories of hunger strikes, escapes, bombings, and cramped conditions.  Looking at the tiny cells had me thinking of the Titanic Apartments, only the occupants here at least seemed to be given towels.

Part of the reason for our 22,500 steps was the fact that the hop on hop off bus was rolling past the entrance to the visitor centre as we were leaving, at which point we decided to walk back to the city centre rather than wait for the next one.  We rewarded ourselves with a hot beverage from Established Coffee before embarking on a free walking tour from outside City Hall.  Our guide, Barry, was informed and passionate about his city, making the two hours a pleasure.   Through his stories, it was easy to see the charm of Belfast that exists beneath its rough exterior.  We learned about some of the city’s quirky features, such as how it is apparently the case that none of the public clocks in Belfast shows the right time.  I wondered how such a thing could possibly be true, but then I look at my own flat and see that there are three different objects displaying a time and none of them are the same.  Imagine being in charge of hundreds of the things.

As well as being the 110th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, our stay in Belfast also coincided with the first time in history that pubs in Northern Ireland were permitted to operate their regular trading hours over Easter weekend.  Previously they had only been allowed to open for a greatly restricted period, and it was plain to see that people were keen to make up for lost time.  Every bar we went into on Friday night was busy, and each one had musicians performing.  There were around 4,000 people in town for the World Championships of Irish Dancing, though it was hard to say if the scenes we witnessed on some of the barroom floors bore any relation to that.  I think that our favourite pub was The Thirsty Goat, where the music was best and the atmosphere was crackling.  The walls of the pub were decorated with dozens of photographs of goats participating in all sorts of antics, such as chewing on a newspaper or drinking bottles of beer.  It was funny, but in the sort of way that would have you questioning just how drunk you are after a certain point.

In the Dirty Onion, we queued for an eternity to get a drink in the bustling courtyard. It wasn’t until we got talking to Connor that we were introduced to an invaluable hack for getting around the long wait, which was to dive into the nearby Second Fiddle and get served there. The Second Fiddle was cosy and not nearly as busy as the other pubs we had been in. By the bar was an inscription on the wall which read “the older the fiddle, the sweeter the tune” and I just had to get a photograph taken beneath it for a future addition to my Tinder profile.

There had been some discussion between us through the night about having a wager on which of the three of us could pull first.  Although I am usually happy with placing losing bets when I put on my football coupon on a Saturday, there is a faint hope that one of those might actually win.  This sounded like the sort of reckless gamble that the professionals warn you against making.  We didn’t go through with it in the end, which was for the best since we were all destined to lose our stake when Connor suggested to us that when the pub closed we could carry on drinking until 3 am in the gay club at the end of the street.  My sister and I were considering it, but the one positive about the Titanic Apartments was that there is a Domino’s nearby and a pizza was the more appealing meat feast on offer.

Little did anyone know it, but for a brief time in Belfast, I was probably closest of all to winning our hypothetical lottery.  Earlier in the day, whilst on the free walking tour, I discovered that I had made a match on Tinder.  Emma was 36 and living in the city, and given that it was Easter weekend there was only one question I could ask her to open our prospective conversation.  

“Hey Emma, are you having a Good Friday?”  

She never got back to me.  When I was eventually unmatched, the prospects of a resurrection were doomed.  It was probably for the best, all things considered.  There would have been no future in the relationship, after all.  I can’t do long distance, not with my difficulty with airport security.  Sure, it would be nice to have someone who is closer to my age to have photographs taken with by the seaside or beneath novelty signs, but the reality is that I would only ever have been using Emma for her towels.  

Oban gang foiled in Maryburgh meat raffle scheme

In the sort of occurrence that can really make a person step back and take stock of how their life is going, I was recently on the receiving end of a diss from a garden centre Santa.  It wasn’t a cruel jibe or a personal insult per se, but until that moment I had never been dissed by a man who impersonates Santa Claus for a living in the approach to Christmas, and these things only ever give pause for reflection.  In the days since the incident, I have been doing little else but think back on the events immediately leading up to Santa’s slam and trying to determine for myself whether or not there was something in his words.  In my quieter moments, towards the end of my morning meditation, for example, I would convince myself that the faux Father Christmas had gotten it all wrong; that an old man who operates out of a shed at the back of a garden centre couldn’t possibly know enough about me to make the kind of judgment he did.  But something about it was still haunting me, and in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help from thinking that he might have had a point.

On the last Friday in November, my sister drove my brother and me up to Inverness so that we could all take my niece to the virtual reality sleigh ride at Simpsons Garden Centre on Sunday morning.  At least, we were telling anybody who would listen that we were going to see Santa for our five-year-old niece, but the truth is that we were just as excited about it as she was.  We used to travel up north to visit mum’s side of the family quite often when we were growing up, but I hadn’t made the trip since we went to the Belladrum Tartan Heart music festival in the summer of 2014.  The drive on this occasion made me think a lot of those journeys as kids when dad would play the same mixtape on repeat every time.  Without even looking you could almost map where we were on the route by which song was playing:  Sit Down by James, Radio Wall of Sound by Slade, Joyride by Roxette.  In an attempt to recreate the memory, we synched a phone to the car’s SatNav system and streamed a 90s playlist from Spotify.  It seems to be that nostalgia and Christmas go together like mulled wine and mince pies; pine trees and fairy lights; the eighties Swedish pop duo Roxette and a family car journey to Inverness.

It was funny to think back on those trips and how I would struggle to make it as far as Fort William – or through one play of dad’s mixtape – without feeling car sick. I had a terrible stomach for travel sickness. It’s something that I appear to have grown out of, and this time the journey was a breeze – even with the conditions outside the car being far from a breeze, as 65 miles per hour winds from Storm Arwen raged across the country. If I hadn’t already given up my lunch by the time we stopped in Fort William then it was a near certainty that I would find myself on the shore of Loch Ness in Drumnadrochit with Urquhart Castle in the distance. There aren’t many more picturesque places to be sick, as the tour buses at the side of the road would attest. The old ruin wasn’t visible this time due to the thick veil of mist that was drawn across it by the winter storm, but I could picture it all the same. Back in those childhood days of weak-stomached travel there is a case that could have been made for the role played by Smarties in my car sickness, whilst as adults we were all snacking on oranges, Royal Gala apples and those mini cheese bites with the herbs on top. Time, as well as Covid, has changed us.

While my sister stayed outside the city with her friend Hannah for the weekend, my brother and I took residence in a city centre flat along the bank of the River Ness.  It was an ideal location for sampling some of Inverness’s watering holes.  Just a ten minute walk away was Glenalbyn Bar, whose sign advertised it as being “the oldest pub on the west of the river.”  It seems that these days every pub has to claim that it’s the oldest in some category.  The place wasn’t particularly busy for a Friday night, but it seemed friendly enough, and it was difficult to argue against the accuracy of the sign once you had seen the interior decor and the clientele.  We were advised by the barmaid that it would be best not to take a seat in the large leather chairs by the corner of the bar since many people seemingly have a habit of falling asleep in them, but such was my brother’s and my confidence in our youth and the proximity of the seats to the bar that we felt we could risk it.  As it turned out, the leather chairs were fantastically comfortable and it’s likely that the only reason we didn’t doze off in them was because someone had put a Slipknot song on the jukebox.  In my list of places where I would least expect to hear heavy metal music, Glenalbyn Bar is right up there with Monster Fish & Chips, where we stopped in Fort Augustus earlier in the day and could hear the drumbeat from the car park.

The music was considerably better in MacGregor’s on Academy Street, where a man who was wearing a cream straw hat and a white tie with black musical notes played classic rock songs on the piano.  It was impossible to imagine that anybody ever comes to MacGregor’s just to hear this guy play, but there was at least a table of women who were seated in the corner near the door who lapped it up and I believe even convinced him to come back for an encore.  My favourite part of his performance was when he segued from Space Oddity into Rocket Man, a transition that was almost as smooth as the Cromarty beers on tap.  I told a couple of locals I met the next day about the pianist and they immediately knew who I was talking about.  That being said, they spoke of a chap who “looks scruffy but plays better than he dresses” which was not at all the impression I had of him.  Maybe the tie was a bit gimmicky, but as someone who has been known to match his pocket square to the colour of his socks, I didn’t feel it was my place to say anything. 

By the time we returned back along the river at the end of the night, Storm Arwen had really taken hold. My blue corduroy jacket couldn’t be pulled tightly enough around my body to shield it from the biting winds, which according to reports had already forced the closure of much of the rail network in the north and east of the country. Small snowflakes were seemingly suspended in mid-air, caught up in a struggle between gravity and the storm force winds. It could have made for the perfect festive scene, against the backdrop of Christmas lights and the sight of the moon peeking out from behind black clouds over the shoulder of Inverness Castle, had it not been for the fact that the wind was reaching into the very core of my body and tormenting my bladder the way it was ScotRail’s timetable, which was making it dangerous to stop and admire the view.

Although the snow seemingly never did make it all the way to the ground in Inverness, the roads and towns on the outskirts of the city were full of it, adding to my niece’s excitement when we all visited Smyths toy store the next morning.  The shelves in this place were stacked so high that even if you craned your neck the way you would gaze up at the stars in the sky, you still wouldn’t see the very top.  Every shelf down every aisle was greeted with a breathless “oh wow!” from my niece. I could just about relate to how she was feeling:  Smyths is very much to a five-year-old toy lover as Oban Beer Seller is to a grown-up craft beer drinker.  

Even when we were sitting in the popular coffee chain next door recovering over a cup of extravagantly priced froth and she spied a young man walking in wearing a Smyths uniform it provoked a great deal of animation.  At the time I wondered at what age we lose that wide-eyed wonder for absolutely everything, but really, I don’t think that we actually do lose it – we just have to work harder at it.  Following the multiple lockdowns of 2020/21, I’ve been finding that I get a thrill from doing all the simple things that I probably took for granted before, such as standing at the bar in Aulay’s on a Friday night or going out for dinner with friends.  I was ecstatic upon finding a pair of green chinos when I was browsing in Next having arrived in Inverness to the realisation that I had only brought the trousers I was wearing.  It was the same twelve hours earlier in MacGregor’s when the pianist eased from Space Oddity into Rocket Man.

With a fresh head of steam gained from our mugs of milk and steam, we ventured forth to the Eastgate Shopping Centre, which was resplendent in Christmas lights and decorations of all shapes and sizes. There was an enormous sleigh suspended above the escalator, gift-wrapped presents dangling wherever you looked, stars, reindeer, and baubles the size of your head. As we approached the old part of the building, we were suddenly reminded of the Noah’s Ark clock which dominates the back wall. It is one of only six such automation clocks of its kind in the UK. Each hour a monkey climbs up to the top of a tree and chimes a bell in order to tell those shoppers who aren’t carrying smartphones what time of day it is, while a piece of organ music plays and some of the windows of the ark open out to showcase a different animal every hour. I think we got a pair of reindeer, which I don’t remember featuring in the original Biblical tale, but I suppose Christmas is a time for indulgence. At midday each day the clock embellishes us with an even more dramatic display when all of the windows are opened and the entire diorama operates. As children visiting the Eastgate Centre with our parents all those years ago we would sit patiently on the nearby benches for up to thirty minutes before the hour waiting to watch this event, as though waiting for the lights to come down at the theatre, and on a good shopping trip we might even see it a second time. In some ways, I think we were probably more excited about the clock than my niece was.

When my sister and Hannah carried on to go shopping at one of the larger outlets outside the city centre, it left my brother and me with the unplanned opportunity to go to the pub and watch the football scores on television, in a turn of events that I can only imagine as being similar to rounding a corner and finding a display full of L.O.L. Surprise dolls.  With the addition of a rare treble coming in for a grand winning of £11.35, it was just about the best Saturday ever.  

Those additional digits in my online betting account proved useful when my brother and I took a £30 taxi from Inverness out to the Cottage Bar & Restaurant in the village of Maryburgh, where we had reserved a table for dinner with my sister and the rest of our family.  Our driver was a friendly and talkative young fellow who professed that he had once driven the 66 miles from Inverness to Fort William in under an hour and a half.  Having never been behind the wheel of a car myself it was difficult to know how to react to such a claim, but I think we were supposed to be impressed.  If nothing else, we at least knew that we were probably going to arrive at the pub well before six o’clock, although it is probably the uneasiest my stomach has felt in the back seat of a car without having a bellyful of Smarties.

The Cottage is a cosy little family-run bar with further tables for dining out in the conservatory.   It was the perfect setting for catching up with family who we hadn’t seen for too many years.  I learned that my uncle is a huge fan of the four-piece Irish band U2, which for some reason surprised me.  It seems like the sort of thing you should know about a close relative, especially when we had seen them play on the same tour, albeit on different dates.  At the bar, over a pint of Cromarty’s wonderful local pale ale Happy Chappy, we even met a man who had left Oban more than forty years ago and worked with our grandfather in the hydro.  People from Oban have a habit of getting everywhere.  My attention was caught by an A4 poster on the wall behind the bar which was advertising the drawing of the monthly “meat raffle” due to take place that night.  I wondered what the letters M.E.A.T stood for, presuming that it must be an acronym for some cause benefitting the surrounding area, and thought of how funny it would be if customers were buying tickets for this lottery without realising that the prizes on offer were, in fact, entirely cuts of meat.

As I discovered when the barmaid arrived at the table during our meal with a book of raffle tickets, a meat raffle is exactly that – a drawing where the winners each receive a different piece of meat. I couldn’t believe it, though since my luck seemed to be in for the day I paid a pound for one ticket. If I had thought it through I would have realised that transporting any winnings back down the road on a three-hour car journey on Monday would have been ridiculous, but a pound stake for a steak seemed too good a deal to pass up. The draw was being held back in the main bar, and my sister took her daughter through to watch the ceremony. To my niece’s delight, she was invited to assist with the raffle – an important job that was seemingly no less exciting than an entire shop filled with toys. Within minutes she appeared back in the conservatory clutching a green ticket and the whole chicken that evidently my uncle’s wife had won. The same act was repeated moments later when Donna had the winning number for a joint of beef, at which point I began hoping that no one else from our table would win a prize. I worried how the whole scene might look to the regulars in the pub when this five-year-old was just so happening to pull out all of the tickets that were bought by the adults at her table. It was all I could do to imagine the front page of the following Monday’s edition of the Press & Journal: “Oban gang foiled in Maryburgh meat raffle scheme.” It would be impossible for us to show our faces at any fête or fundraising gala ever again. We were innocent, of course, but then everybody says that.

Sunday was the big day, the one in which we were scheduled to meet Santa, and it began with an unusual request.  We were due to meet our sister in the city centre sometime after 10:30 en route to making our way to Simpsons Garden Centre, however, our niece had awoken with a desire to wear a Christmas party dress like my sister and Hannah were kitted out in, and my brother and I were given the task of venturing across the river to Primark to pick one out.  Whilst I have amassed plenty of experience in shopping for chinos and corduroy trousers, I’m not as familiar with what I’m looking for in terms of dresses for a five-year-old girl.  I had never knowingly been in a Primark before, but it struck me as being the retail equivalent of international waters; a place transcending boundaries and laws.  There were some people who had clearly wandered in there without knowing where they were going and they couldn’t find their way back out.  Who knows how long they had been there.  Typically, the girls clothing section was as far away from the entrance as you could get.  To our surprise, there wasn’t an abundance of Christmas party dresses, and it took a bit of effort to find the two they had left in stock.  It didn’t take very long for me to become aware that we were two men in our late thirties wearing black masks, a dazed look in our eyes and doubtless the fragrance of stale Happy Chappy still clinging to my corduroy jacket, wading our way through the girls section of Primark at 10.30 on a Sunday morning.  I couldn’t help but feel that we were attracting curious glances from passing mothers, and not the sort of looks we’re usually hoping for.  Suddenly Monday’s Press & Journal was looking worse and worse.

Fortunately, of the two dresses Primark had one of them was in our niece’s size, and she was so delighted to receive it that she conducted an outfit change in the car park of Simpsons Garden Centre.  You don’t want to meet Santa without wearing your party dress, after all.  Before we could see the man in red we were taken through the virtual reality sleigh ride experience, though only after we had resolved some confusion caused by the fact that we had somehow booked tickets for two different dates.  We arrived at the right time but three-and-a-half weeks early for one slot and thirty minutes late for the second.  The elves were thankfully very understanding of our predicament and helped rearrange Santa’s entire schedule to accommodate us.  Our group of six was led through to sit in the large mechanical sleigh, where we were each handed a sanitised set of yellow goggles that felt as heavy as an Argos catalogue.  If I’d thought that I was going to be wrapping something like this around my head then I probably wouldn’t have spent so much time combing my hair before we left the flat.

The ride itself was probably more enjoyable for the adults amongst us, with the presentation taking us through the skies of cities such as London and New York City and then out into orbit, looking back down on planet Earth before guiding us to Santa’s workshop in the North Pole.  It was pretty cool, though it ended with one of Santa’s animated helpers informing us that we had failed the trial to join his team on Christmas Eve and that they were just going to carry on delivering presents themselves.  I don’t know, I felt like I could have done without a virtual reality failure being added to all of the real ones.  From there we walked through Santa’s living room, which had a human-sized taxidermied owl and an enormous bear dressed in a three-piece tweed suit sitting on a golden throne.  As far as feng shui goes, Santa’s energy is all over the place.

Meeting Santa was always a magical experience, I seem to remember.  It didn’t matter if one week he was big and jolly when dropping in to the primary school Christmas party and the next he had gone through a remarkable weight loss programme to greet children in the Caledonian Hotel, or if his whiskers had a distinct whiff of tobacco.  Our capacity for suspending disbelief when young is incredible.  The Simpsons Garden Centre Santa was on the short side, had little festive cheer to speak of around the stomach department and was clean-shaven on his cheeks, with only an explosion of fluffy white covering the front of his face like an oversized surgical mask.  He was very pleasant, though, and seemed to be following the How To Be Santa Claus manual to the letter.  Santa asked the usual questions about what my niece would like to receive from him on the 25th of December, what she would be leaving out for him to eat and drink when he visits on Christmas Eve and whether or not her house has a chimney.  Upon hearing that there is no chimney in my sister’s home, Santa showed us the key he uses to enter any house in the world that doesn’t have a fireplace for him to flop down into.  It was pretty big, probably as long as a good-sized television remote control – the sort of thing that would be a nightmare to find a replacement for in Timpsons if it was ever lost.  

Santa asked my niece about everyone who had come along with her to meet him, and when she reached my brother and me at the end of the room he paused.  On the desk before him were a few different sheets of paper, which Santa reached for.  He repeated our names and announced that, as he suspected, both of us were on his naughty list.  My niece found this greatly amusing and laughed out loud, whereas on the inside I was seething.  It seemed like an unnecessary slight on my character, particularly when one of my most proficient failures is my effort to get on anybody else’s naughty list.  I couldn’t understand where the garden centre Santa got off making such a statement, especially when he doesn’t have the powers to see everything as the actual Santa has.  Maybe if he had witnessed my part in the suspected ruse to defraud the Cottage Bar’s meat raffle of its two main prizes I could concede my place on the naughty list, but then nothing was ever proven, and by rights our entire family should have been struck from the nice list if that was the standard Santa was holding. 

Usually garden centres are a place of boundless optimism, filled with all of these beautiful plants that you look at and imagine how much colour and life they could bring to your home.  It is easy to believe that I might one day get around to taking care of a plant like the ones you see there, even if in reality it never happens.  My optimism was being stifled by Santa’s barbed comments, however, and I was finding it difficult to concentrate on anything else.  Even when Simpsons had an assortment of Christmas decorations as far as the eye could see and every fragrance you could think of, from scented candles to bath bombs to chocolate, I could think of nothing but the fake Santa’s announcement that I was on his fake naughty list.  Word was beginning to spread around that my niece had confided in my sister that Santa had probably put my brother and me on the naughty list due to all the wine we drink, which was the moment I realised that we were probably going to be stuck on his list forever, despite being told by him that we had around twenty-seven days to change our ways and be transferred to the nice list.

The episode was still playing on my mind when we went out for a couple of games of bowling at the Inverness Rollerbowl later in the afternoon.  Bowling, like seeing Santa, isn’t something that I had done since being much younger, and I could only hope that it would go better than that particular event.  Somehow the red and blue bowling shoes complimented my navy corduroy attire quite well, which made me feel more at ease with things.  I had never considered what a bowling look should be, but I think I pulled it off.  The shoes were actually so comfortable that I walked out of the place at the end of the night with them still on my feet and didn’t realise until my uncle pointed out my mistake.  Imagine adding the theft of a size 12 pair of bowling shoes to the shame of rigging a meat raffle and being caught wandering around the girls clothing section in Primark.  The woman behind the counter didn’t seem too perturbed when I walked back inside and confessed to my crime.  Apparently they see this sort of thing all the time, and often people will phone the alley when they get home and realise that they are still wearing the bowling shoes.

Away from the catwalk and onto the actual sport, my niece opened our game by knocking down nine pins with the very first bowl of her life.  Despite having the advantage of the bumpers that are available to children, she didn’t even need them on her second round when she rolled the ball straight down the middle of the lane and hit a strike.  Things were going so well for her that she was developing her own wee victory dance after every round she played.  I threw two gutters in my first round; the pins weren’t even close to being troubled, and everyone else was fairly terrible, too.  It was gutting.

I went up to the bar hoping that another beer would be the thing to help improve my hand-eye coordination.  It’s my experience that alcohol at least gives the illusion of developing better physical qualities.  The young woman who was tending bar had hair that was as dark as a stormy winter night, and as she poured my drinks I thought to ask if she could see the spectacle that was unfolding on lane 22.  I described the way that my five-year-old niece was giving us all a bowling lesson and how I had to get myself out of there after completely missing the pins with my first two attempts.  She laughed as I explained how all this had come after I was mercilessly dissed by the garden centre Santa.  “It sounds like you’re having a pretty bad day,” she said with the kind of sympathy that only a barmaid can have for a drunk bowler.  It is difficult to say with any certainty whether it was the beer or the sound of someone laughing at my jokes, but I returned to our game and found that I could suddenly bowl.  Within minutes I actually smashed a strike.  Throughout my life, I have become used to striking out, but this was different altogether.  

Although it was probably only in my head, things were beginning to heat up in a competitive sense. I could tell that my niece was starting to tire of the game as it reached the later rounds, as is always likely to happen when you’re five and there’s an arcade full of games to explore. The closer the margin between our scores narrowed, the more desperate I became to win. Perhaps the best thing for an uncle to do when it became clear that a competent final round would snatch a comeback win right out of the hands of his niece would be to roll the ball into the gutter and allow her to have the glory. Maybe anybody else would have done that. But the way I saw it, my niece would have forgotten all about whether she won or lost her first game of bowling by the time she fell asleep that night. It wasn’t like meeting Santa, exploring the vast aisles of Smyths toy store, drawing the tickets for a meat raffle, or even listening to a mixtape on a long car journey.

For me, on the other hand, winning a game of bowling – even against my five-year-old niece – was everything.  It would probably be the achievement I would remember years from now when everybody else I know is proudly talking about their career, their wife and their children.  So I picked up the medium-sized purple ball which had become my weapon of choice in this battle, strode up to the line and bowled a strike to win the game.  The garden centre Santa might have been right about me all along, but at least now I could justify it.

Jute, jam, journalism, high-jinx & Joop!

There are two reasons why I wanted to travel to Dundee from Edinburgh Waverley Station rather than Glasgow Queen Street.  The first is that I was keen to stop off for a couple of beers in one of my favourite bars, Brass Monkey, seeing that it had been nigh upon twenty months since I was last able to venture in.  It didn’t matter that at two o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon I was the only person in the pub for much of my time there.  I was just glad to be back, sitting in blissful solitude with a pint and my Bill Bryson book.  Notes From a Big Country and peace from an empty bar.  On my way back to Waverley to catch my train north, I stopped into The Piemaker on South Bridge for a quick steak pie – not that there is ever any other kind.  As I sat devouring my meat and gravy encased in pastry, I listened as an American woman entered the store to enquire about the ingredients of a cottage pie.  She left immediately upon learning that it contains mince and potatoes, and I couldn’t stop thinking for the rest of the day that this American woman had most likely been disappointed not to find a pie with a traditional sweet filling, such as apple, cherry or pecan.

My main objective for making the journey to Dundee through Edinburgh instead of Glasgow was the anticipation of seeing the Forth Bridge, which was completed in 1890 and was once voted Scotland’s greatest man-made wonder. The bridge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the subject of one of the country’s most popular colloquialisms for describing a never-ending task – that it is “like painting the Forth Bridge”; a saying that comes from the famously mistaken belief that the bridge is so vast that it requires a fresh coat of paint as soon as the previous one has been applied completely. My nose was pressed against the glass windowpane as the train began the crossing between the villages of South Queensferry and North Queensferry, eyes eager to catch sight of the iconic landmark. Across the glistening Firth of Forth, I could see the new Queensferry Crossing sitting behind the Forth Road Bridge, which was around the same point that I realised that of course I wouldn’t be able to see the rail bridge when I was travelling on the rail bridge. I could hardly mask my disappointment. It was the first time in hours that I wasn’t thinking about the cottage pie.

Scotland’s fourth-largest city had never appealed to me in the same way that it did now that we have been through a pandemic.  Dundee has always had a hard-earned reputation, both at home, where the 19th Century judge Lord Cockburn once described the city as “a sink of atrocity which no moral flushing seems capable of cleansing” and abroad, such as when the American travel writer Paul Theroux wrote of it as being “an interesting monstrosity”.  People in every part of Scotland will often use the unflattering moniker of Scumdee in reference to the city, which was historically the most industrialised in the country.  A problematic relationship with alcohol pervaded the place, something which particularly irked the infamous poet William McGonagall – often referred to as the world’s worst.  

Despite regularly denouncing publicans for the perceived sin of pedalling alcohol, McGonagall would frequently recite his terrible poetry in pubs, knowing that he could make money from the drunks. During his performances he was often pelted with bags of suit, tins, rotten eggs, and old boots, until he was finally forced into retiring from the stage when he received a brick in the stomach, making my own spoken word performances seem like a resounding success. Back in those days, it is said that Dundee had 389 pubs – one for every 43 people in the city. Today it has 115 such establishments, approximately one for every 1,278 people. I just had to find the right one for me.

Directly outside the entrance to my hostel stood the statue of one of Dundee’s many comic book legends, Desperate Dan.  How funny that there should be two of us in the same place, I thought, with no one to make the joke to.  There are statues to be found all over the city centre, from Minnie the Minx to Oor Wullie, and from an enormous green dragon that stalks the main shopping precinct to the titular Lemmings from the popular computer game that was created here in the early nineties, whose bronze beings can be found climbing a wall on Perth Road if you follow the right route.

Having dropped my luggage off in my modest private twin room, I ventured over to Trades House bar & restaurant for something to eat and to watch the football. It was there that I was reminded of the absurdity of dining on a solo trip, when you usually end up feeling like an exhibit in a wildlife park. It’s similar to the sense of utter dread and shame I have if I am ever sitting on a public bench eating a bacon roll I have bought from Greggs, when I can’t help but think that every passer-by is viewing this strange and unbecoming scene in judgment as I try to catch the brown sauce before it trickles down my chin. It never seems to matter that I am perfectly aware that everyone has much more important things to be doing than watching a stranger eat, such as checking their messages, pushing a pram in a straight line or keeping their eyes on the road.

Upon walking into the bar, the waitress began to wipe down a table for four, and already the scene was playing over in my mind.  Groups of people staring at the three enormous empty chairs surrounding me, talking amongst themselves, speculating on the reasons why I wasn’t with company.  It was only when the waitress had concluded her duties in line with current Covid protocol that I suggested I might feel more comfortable if I could sit at the table for two by the television, something I could never have done without the security of a mask stopping my lack of confidence from spraying all over her.

My order of beer-battered halloumi with sweet potato fries was simultaneously the best and worst decision I have ever made. Everything on the plate was perfectly palatable, but the three chunks of halloumi were as thick as a child’s fist, and after eating them I worried that I might never be able to sleep again. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that at the table facing me sat a couple who, on all available evidence, appeared to have tattoos on every part of their bodies. Arms, ankles, faces, scalps. Virtually every inch of visible flesh on the pair of them was inked. I could hardly concentrate on finishing my food or watching whichever game of football was being screened for wondering whether the couple had as many tattoos before they met one another or if they just became hyper-competitive during the course of their relationship.

It was with a belly full of barely digested Cypriot cheese that I waddled forth, onwards to The Pillars Bar a street away.  Any lingering discomfort soon dissipated once I walked in and found a pub that looked just like any of my other favourites.  The bar seemed busy for a Wednesday night, though something told me that you would find most of these same people here regardless of which night you happened to drop in.  There was a crackle in the air, and it wasn’t just from the sound of voices.  You could tell that something was going to happen; it could have been anything.

One guy ordered a pint of Peroni and sat it on the bar next to where I was standing.  He was around my height, needed glasses like I do, had hair that was maybe a little shorter than mine is, and wore a thin layer of stubble on his face.  Everything about him was like watching a bad sci-fi doppelgänger version of myself, with the exception of the multiple piercings he had in each ear and the Dundonian accent he spoke with.  The Dundee Doppelgänger abandoned his lager and wandered around the bar, trying unsuccessfully to engage in conversation with various people.  It was uncanny.  He managed to convince one guy to show him how to operate the jukebox, which was free, but he couldn’t get the hang of it.  I could tell that he was becoming exacerbated, so I nudged him in the ribs and reminded him that he still had a pint to drink, knowing that lager usually helps soothe me in such situations.  Whether he could see the same similarities in me that I was seeing in him I’ll never know, but he started talking to me all the same.  That is when I should have known there was something odd about this guy.

The Dundee Doppelgänger was incandescent with curiosity about why someone would want to visit a city that he regarded as “a shithole.”  It was difficult to find a complimentary way of phrasing the words “it seemed easier than organising a series of PCR tests to travel somewhere I really want to go”, so in an effort to evade the question I instead asked him to focus on one positive element of his hometown and suggest the best place a tourist should visit. He recommended the Verdant Works, a restored 19th Century jute mill, but since it is ranked a lowly #2 of 120 things to do in Dundee on TripAdvisor, I decided that I didn’t have time to fit it into my strict schedule. 

As the minutes passed, it was becoming ever clearer to me why others in the bar were giving this character short shrift.  He had suddenly grown insistent that Pillars is the biggest gay bar in Dundee, which didn’t seem plausible when I glanced around the place and observed groups of poorly-dressed middle-aged men, elderly heterosexual couples and your traditional bleak bar decor.  Yet he repeated the claim often, before adding that although he isn’t gay he doesn’t mind drinking in a gay bar, sort of like the old Seinfeld joke; “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”  It turned out that the Dundee Doppelgänger had been going around the pub asking people if they are gay.  I heard him ask the middle-aged barmaid the question twice.  He asked the only single woman in the bar about her sexual orientation, and when she informed him that she isn’t gay he inquired, “are you sure?  Not even bi?”  In ordinary circumstances, I might have been able to somehow spark conversation with this young woman, but even my doppelgänger is ruining my prospects with the opposite sex.  Of all the 1,277 other people I could have found myself in a pub in Dundee with, it had to be this guy.

Whilst he was outside smoking a cigarette, the barmaid confided that she was finding the inebriated interrogator deeply uncomfortable and intended on cutting him off if he ordered another drink.  Upon his return, he asked me my name and where I was staying while in the city.  Realising that he had clearly forgotten that I had made the mistake of telling him my real name earlier in our conversation, I decided to take the opportunity to improvise a new backstory.

“My name is Mikey and I’m staying at the Holiday Inn for a few nights.”  I couldn’t be sure that Dundee definitely has a Holiday Inn, but I figured it was a pretty safe bet that they do.

“Mikey?  Are you sure that’s your birth name?”

“Aye, that’s the name my parents gave me.”

Smelling a rat the way I could smell the stench of tobacco from his breath, the doppelgänger challenged me.  “What’s your full name?”

I stumbled.  “Michael Alan Ross.”

“Ah-ha!  So Mikey isn’t your name!”

I had long suspected that I didn’t have the skillset to make a successful secret agent, but all the same, to have it confirmed in such a shameful manner was a bitter blow, and it left me resenting my doppelgänger so much more.

Fortunately, my ability to improvise false information on the spot wasn’t going to be needed for much longer, since when the doppelgänger moved to order another drink the barmaid was true to her threat and refused him service.  You could tell he knew it was coming.  This was just as another man, who looked like he had been teleported in from the 1990s, was kicking up a fuss for being asked to leave by another barman.  He was dressed in a dusty nylon tracksuit and looked about as drunk as I felt.  His main gripe, apart from the fact he was being thrown out, was that the bar doesn’t serve Buckfast.  The guy was adamant that he was going to have a tonic wine, and challenged the barmaid to phone the police if she wasn’t going to let him have one.  She picked up her mobile phone and did a better job of a fake dial than I could ever have managed, at which point the man staggered away, ranting and raving to himself, a couple of locals standing by the door to make sure that he didn’t think about coming back.

As soon as both men were gone, I pulled my notebook from my pocket and immediately scribbled down as much as I could remember.  The barman from the adjoining lounge bar reappeared, and on seeing my prolific penmanship asked what I was writing.  I told him about how I occasionally produce a blog detailing the everyday things I witness, and that I need to make note of my thoughts as soon as they occur to me, otherwise I tend to forget them.  He smiled warmly, in a manner that suggested he was interested, and proceeded to tell me about the night he was closing up the bar when he hadn’t realised that there was still a customer in the toilet.  “He was locked in the pub all night, and of course, he helped himself to all the drink he could manage.  When I opened up in the morning there was money on the bar for every drink he’d taken.  That’s what people are like here.”  This long-haired barman promised that he had hundreds of stories he could tell me, and I believed him.  It wasn’t until later that I learned he is the proprietor of the pub, and that Pillars has been there since 1864, making it the oldest location for libation in Dundee city centre.

After my experience in Pillars, the very first thing I would do when visiting a new joint was to reach for my notebook and either hold it in my hand or sit it in front of me. I liked to think that folk take me more seriously when they see a notebook before me on the bar or table. I imagined that they probably believe I am writing things of great significance, when the truth is that it’s usually something along the lines of: “Thursday 16 September – Henry’s Coffee House: I saw a bald guy who literally has a face tattooed on the back of his head. An entire face. It was possibly even his own face.”

The notebook was as much a social crutch as anything else since I didn’t have anyone to talk to and I couldn’t carry my Bill Bryson book with me after the strap on my leather satchel broke in Edinburgh.  It was when I was traversing the Discovery Walk in Slessor Gardens that I learned that I am not the only person to have ever used a notebook in such a way.  The walk has around a dozen plaques celebrating the achievements of people who have lived and worked in Dundee.  One such plaque was commemorating the physicist Sir James Alfred Ewing, who it is said kept a notebook on a table by the front door of his home.  In this notebook, he would ask visitors to draw a pig with their eyes closed and then sign it.  Down in the bottom-right corner of Ewing’s plaque is a sketch of a pig.

Many of the historical sites of interest in Dundee are within easy walking distance, which seemed fortunate when the bright blue sky and blazing September sun were making a mockery of my casual jacket. In City Square, there is a public arts display by way of the carvings in the four fountains, each representing one of the elements, either that or a popular seventies soul band, Earth, Wind & Fire (and air). Each one has a quote from a local poet or author, such as Mary Brooksbank, who was the first woman as well as the first Communist to have her words inscribed into the wall of the Scottish Parliament. From City Square, you can see Caird Hall, the concert auditorium that is named after its benefactor, the jute baron Sir James Caird, and which like many other places today serves as a Covid vaccination centre. The statues of the five marching penguins on the wall of Steeple Church are nearby, as is the plaque commemorating former local MP Sir Winston Churchill and, further on, the birthplace of the feminist abolitionist Fanny Wright; a building which is now a solicitors and estate agents.

Eager to enter some more notes into my book, I returned to The Pillars on my second night, only to find that none of the characters I had been introduced to the previous evening were there, yet the bar was just as busy as it had been.  To nurse my disappointment I went straight to the Jack Daniel’s.  I expect that I was cutting a fairly forlorn figure standing at the bar with my notebook in hand and nothing to write about.  After a while, an elderly gentleman over my left shoulder asked me if I knew where he could get a German Shepherd.  I informed the guy, who had a graveyard tan and a white moustache that trembled like a pigeon on a telephone line as he spoke, that I’m not local and wouldn’t know where he could find a German Shepherd.  We returned to our respective drinks.  The silence was excruciating, and eventually, I had to ask why he was looking for a dog.

“I killed my last one.  The vet wanted to put him to sleep, but I don’t believe in that shit.”

I could tell that this guy is an animal lover.  He spoke fondly of the loyal companionship he has been afforded by his three German Shepherds, each of whom he has had to kill for one reason or another.  But killing his dogs out of mercy was always more difficult than taking the lives of men in combat during his military career, which seemingly came to an end after he suffered a head fracture in the Falklands.  

Soon the conversation had transcended into his time in Spain, where he claimed that he had befriended a wolf.  Said wolf would often follow him on his daily walks, into coffee shops and bars; they had formed a bond beyond words.  Apparently the key was respect, each knew their place within the pack.  People would approach him and ask if they could clap his dog, and he would firmly tell them that it wasn’t a dog but a wolf, he didn’t own it, it was merely with him, and that they could pet it at their own risk.  It sounded like the terms and conditions when you click on the ‘cookie consent’ button.

The Falklands veteran’s fondness for animals extends beyond canines to donkeys, which are seemingly a popular mode of transport in the area of Spain he was living.  He told me of an occasion where he witnessed a local who was using his whip much too vigorously on his donkey for an animal lover’s liking, so he approached the man, snatched the whip from his hands and proceeded to beat him with it.  Evidently, this attack was witnessed by a crowd, because the vengeful veteran was arrested later that evening and subsequently spent ten days in a Spanish prison.  “They fed me bread, cheese, tomatoes, and wine.  I was quite happy.  And the best thing is, the guards searched me and they never knew I had a knife in my sock.”

I noticed him reach into his backpack for a flask, which he unscrewed the lid from and discreetly poured his entire glass of whisky into.  He unhooked his cane from the lip of the bar, clearly making to leave.  Unlike the previous night, this wasn’t a departure from Pillars I was ready for.  As he pulled the straps of his bag over his shoulders, I bid my farewells and chanced to ask the man’s name.  “They call me Hawkeye.”  There wasn’t much more that could be said.

My stubble trimmer had inexplicably run out of charge by the time I could use it on Friday morning, leaving me with no choice but to further explore Dundee with more than the 0.5mm of stubble I usually like on my cheeks. Like my face, the sky was noticeably more grey on Friday, though the look definitely suited the city better than it did me. Despite the rough-around-the-edges reputation Dundee has, the 30-year £1billion regeneration of its waterfront is a true triumph. From the Discovery Walk through Slessor Gardens, past the bright new railway station, down to the splendid V&A Design Museum, the whole area is impressive. Beyond the car park of the Premier Inn and Beefeater restaurant, there is a spectacular view of the Tay Rail Bridge.

The V&A is the first built outside London and the only design museum in Scotland.  Sitting next to the RRS Discovery, which was part of the successful 1901 British National Antarctic Expedition, the pair make for an aesthetically pleasing coupling.  I gorged on the sight from a nearby bench as I enjoyed an Italian bagel and coffee from the nearby Heather Street Food pop-up van.  Even with little pieces of mozzarella dropping from the bread like they were lemmings and balsamic vinegar threatening the integrity of my shirt with every mouthful as museum-goers walked by, it couldn’t spoil my enjoyment of the view.

As far as buildings with an ampersand in the title go, the V&A would rank high in my list of most beautiful. It is a piece of art in itself. Reasoning that it would be foolish to travel all the way to Dundee to eat a bagel outside the V&A without stepping foot inside, I wiped myself down and entered the museum. The thing I noticed most about the place was how much empty space there was. In a way, it reminded me of my living room, where parts of the walls are decorated with prints or photographs, and there is a collection of barely living plants on the mantelpiece, but there is a gaping emptiness amongst it all. The V&A has a mighty stairway from the ground floor to the exhibitions, and the room on rave culture was fairly interesting for what it was, which was basically a series of photographs of a young woman taking drugs in different places over a couple of decades. One room, titled “What if…?”, asked communities from across Scotland to share their hopes and dreams for the future of their hometowns. A host of cards dangled from the ceiling, each one containing a written wish. Things like, “I wish more homes were homes, “I wish the train would come to my town (St. Andrews)”, “I wish we had paths at the side of the road for cyclists and pushchairs,” and “I wish my neighbours could club together for a government grant to put solar panels on the roof of our flats.” It was a nice idea, but for me, it wasn’t any different to what you might hear said in any pub. “I wish I could find the company of a German Shepherd,” or “I wish gay pubs were gay pubs.”

I left the V&A feeling very underwhelmed.  For such a beautiful building on the outside, there is a disappointing lack of substance inside.  I imagine it is a lot like the way anybody views me after seeing me in a tweed suit and then spending a few moments talking to me.  A much better introduction to Dundee was found at the McManus Gallery not but ten minutes away by foot.  There you can not only learn the story of Dundee’s heroic homing pigeon Winkie, who earned a Dickin medal for saving several stricken RAF bombers during the Second World War, but you are also afforded the opportunity to view her taxidermied torso, which is on display in the museum.  There are exhibits dedicated to the city’s pioneering role in Scottish journalism, comic books, and video games, as well as other aspects of everyday life on Tayside.  Ideally, I would have spent much longer than I did in the McManus Gallery, but I still had some drinking to do during my time in Dundee.

Though I have long since grown out of being the sort of Catholic who insists on eating fish on a Friday, I was very much looking forward to a meal of beer-battered fish and chips in the St Andrews Brewing Company.  The place was vast, like an aircraft hangar for craft beer.  It struck me that they probably needed such a large location to store all the fish they are serving, since when mine arrived it was the biggest piece of fish I have ever seen.  If the haddock was still alive it could surely have swum in the puddles of beer-batter grease on the plate, which probably went some way to explaining why it was so delicious.

The travails of dining solo fortunately prevented me from asking for my second beer, the Yippie IPA, as “Yippie IPA, motherfucker,” though I believe that if I had thought to put on my mask I could probably have gotten away with it. At the table in my immediate eye line were two elderly couples who were toasting the beginning of a weekend getaway. Once their four drinks had been ordered, the organiser of the group pulled a sheet of paper that had been torn from a notebook out of her bag and announced that they were going to have to compile a shopping list for items they would get from Tesco in the morning. She had already taken care of the basics, things like bread, eggs and flour, but the type of milk they were going to need was the first source of debate. They were still working on this list when I paid my bill after my third and last beer. Who knew that writing a shopping list would be like painting the Forth Bridge?

My final destination in Dundee was Tickety Boo’s, which was another of those bars that looks and feels like every other pub you have loved.  Before doing anything, the young lady behind the bar informed everyone who came in that the card machine was out and they were only able to accept cash.  I hadn’t felt such panic since my first night in Pillars.  My worry was quickly replaced by the long-forgotten joy of discovering an unexpected £25 in my wallet.  It was probably around March 2020 since I had last paid for anything with cash, and just seeing and handling banknotes again wasn’t any different from one of those exhibits in the McManus Gallery that gave a glimpse into how it was to grow up in Dundee in the 60s and 70s.

Actually seeing money disappear from my wallet in a pub, as opposed to not seeing it leave my bank account with every contactless payment, was a reminder that £25 doesn’t take you very far, especially in a city centre bar.  Soon I was reacquainting myself with the lost art of counting change, and when I finally encountered a shortage of coinage, I leaned across the bar and asked the barmaid to pretend that this was my first time in Dundee and provide me with foolproof directions to the nearest cashpoint.  As well as furnishing me with the funds to continue drinking for the rest of the night, the remark also proved to me that I don’t necessarily need to wear a face mask to have the confidence to make stupid comments.  When I returned to the bar with my first cash machine withdrawal in 18 months, I beckoned the barmaid over and told her that her cashpoint suggestion was a success.  Somehow, the line wasn’t as flirtatious as I was hoping it would be.

Despite my inability to produce interesting conversation about the location of Dundee’s ATMs, the barmaid did kindly offer to take a high seat over to the bar for me to sit on.  I thanked her for her generosity and wondered if she was concerned for my wellbeing.  I assured her that despite my increasingly worn appearance, which doubtless wasn’t helped by the fact that my stubble was surely longer than 1mm by this time, I am deceptively good on my feet.  Declining the stool was a foolish act of bravado, however, since it looked very comfortable and I would have loved to sit down.  I asked the barmaid which style of chair she would like to have behind the bar if she was allowed one, and she instantly responded that it would be a rolling chair, as though she had previously given it some thought.  She would be concerned about the mess caused by spillage from serving customers on wheels, but it would be a fun way of getting around the horseshoe-shaped bar.

Three nights of the kind of alcohol abuse that would make William McGonagall seethe were beginning to catch up with me, and my last hour or so in Tickety Boo’s is lost in a haze of Jameson and ginger ale. The last thing I remember is ending up in the company of two people who I believe were the last pair standing from a work night out, some department from Dundee City Council, perhaps. In a break from the norm, the woman initiated conversation with me when their group first entered the pub and she was sent to the bar with the drinks kitty while the others took a table. She must have made mention of her status as a key worker, since there would have been no other reason for me to regurgitate my joke about being unable to understand why Timpsons was closed during the various lockdowns when they are surely key workers, too. Her laughter was a tonic, like the ginger ale to my whiskey. Even more delightful was to hear her recite the line when she returned to her group, though her delivery didn’t do it justice.

When the council worker returned to the bar for another round she asked my name, which was a lot less troubling than when the question was last put to me.  There was no need for improvisation this time.  I did my usual act in these situations of providing the two initials of my first name and asking the inquisitor to guess the rest, but she got them both immediately and took all the fun right out of it.  The tables were turned when she revealed that her first initial is also a ‘J’, which seemed fitting when there are three J’s everywhere you look in Dundee.  Eventually, the two work colleagues got a taxi to Broughty Ferry and I walked the short distance back to my hostel, passing the large green dragon – which is a much more imposing sight at the end of a night than it is at the beginning of the day – and the Desperate Dan statue on my way.  I had only seen a very small sample of the city in my time there, but it was enough to make me think again about Dundee’s reputation.  The place has a rich history with many quirks.  More than that, even in the 5% of the city’s bars I visited, I found the most interesting and bedevilling characters.  Enough to fill a notebook with sketched pigs.

Swans, swords & stings: a weekend in Stirling

The hangover from my first night of vertical drinking since March 2020 had all but subsided by the time the train from Glasgow arrived at Stirling station last Thursday.  For me it was my first time visiting Scotland’s seventh-largest city; it was my brother’s first time back since studying at university there; and for our ‘beer club,’ it would be an unprecedented step in the relationships many of the seven of us had only formed during the various lockdowns of the last year.  When we met for drinks at No. 2 Baker Street, which is not only the name of a pub but also its address, they were the first pints of many consumed over an entire weekend spent together – a weekend that by the end of which the drinking would be better described as being horizontal.

Originally we had decided to spend the weekend in Stirling with the intention of attending the Doune The Rabbit Hole music festival between 12-15 August, but uncertainties over the council’s ability to license the event in the current climate led to it being postponed for the second year running.  Since we had already organised accommodation in the city it was agreed that we should travel through and make the most of the weekend anyway, especially when it was the first one after the majority of Coronavirus restrictions were lifted earlier in the week.  We had a core cast of four people for most of the weekend, and the others dropped in to spend either a day or a full 24 hours, in the style of a television sitcom where a beloved character returns for a special guest appearance.

Stirling Castle

Upon toasting our arrival in No. 2 Baker Street it was exclaimed that this was “Beer Club on tour,” which to my mind made us sound like a bunch of twenty-somethings sitting by a pool in a Spanish resort downing shots of all-inclusive Tequila, when the reality was that we are all in our mid-thirties and were sitting in a bar in Stirling drinking £4 pints of Peroni, Innis & Gunn, and Deuchars.  

Our flat was but a stone’s throw away from Stirling Castle, which would have been ideal if we were an invading English force from 1297, but it was equally as suitable for a group of men whose only war to wage was on the boxes of beer they had brought with them.  The apartment was spread out over two floors, with a lounge and a pool table upstairs, and the kitchen, bedrooms, dining room, and bathroom downstairs.  My brother and I shared a room for the first time since our ill-fated family holiday to Orlando in 1998 when I fell in love with a Tallahassee lassie and ruined the Magic Kingdom for everybody else.  The Plant Doctor and Adam, the lobster scientist who has strong opinions on shoelaces, bunked up together, and the third bedroom was left spare for our guest appearances.  From every room in the flat the Wallace Monument could be seen in the distance, never more spectacularly than when a vivid rainbow looped across its face on our second day in Stirling, and never more ominously than when standing in the bathroom and glancing out of the window to be confronted by this enormous phallic structure.

After enjoying a delicious homemade vegetable curry in the elegant dining room, where we spent more time debating whether or not there is an angry dog depicted in the Georges Braque painting which hung above the fireplace than we did admiring all of the other interesting features in the room, the original four of us along with special guest star formerly amongst the ten best bar staff in Aulay’s and now the best Covid test site operator in Oban went upstairs for a session of pool before embarking on our first tour of Stirling’s pubs.  There was a wide range of abilities in our group:  from those who had the ability to play pool, to those who didn’t.  Unfortunately for anyone with an interest in the sport, Adam and myself – the two amongst us who fell into the latter category in the range of abilities – were somehow nominated to play the first game.  It must have been around fifteen minutes before either of us potted a ball, by which time everybody else had taken an unusually keen interest in the St. Johnstone vs Galatasaray football match screening in the next room, and by the time the game was finally put out of its misery we had both thoroughly disgraced ourselves.  Adam at least improved as the weekend went on, to the point where he was regularly making shots and winning games, whereas my pool game was resembling my sex game:  best described as a lost cause.

It was alleged that I fell in love four times during the course of our weekend in Stirling, but by my count, it was no more than three, and only one of those was true love.  On Friday the 13th we booked a two o’clock tour of the Deanston whisky distillery, giving us ample time beforehand to have a wander around the village of Doune, which was the entire purpose of our weekend in the first place.  It was a brooding morning, the sort where the clouds in the sky were as grey as the stone on Doune Castle; which is the perfect weather for viewing a 600-year-old building.  The castle has been used in many films and television series, including Game of Thrones and Outlander, but walking around its perimeter felt no different to walking around any other grey and windswept part of Scotland.  It’s part of the enduring charm of the place.

Doune Castle

We continued down through some woodland beyond the castle, where we walked alongside the River Teith, which had the strongest current I have ever seen.  Along the way, Adam mused aloud about composing a strongly-worded letter to Stirling Council complaining about the lack of benches along the bank of the river, only for it to become evident that there was one solitary wooden seat sitting on the other side of the fast-flowing water.  A person would have to be really keen to rest their weary legs to reach the bench from where we were, but it would undoubtedly be the council’s out when challenged on the matter.  The saga with the benches seemed to be repeated throughout Doune with their pubs.  We tried the doors of no fewer than three pubs or hotel bars on Friday afternoon, eager for a drink and maybe some bar food to line our stomachs before the whisky tasting, only to find that they were all closed.  In the end, we resorted to purchasing cheap sandwiches and the Bud Light beers with the screw off tops just to see us through.  Doune was a quaint wee village, though.  Every house seemed to have a hanging basket dangling on one side of its door and a noisy wind chime from the other, which on a day like Friday carried more than a hint of menace.  On the main street, there was a video player repair shop and a cartographer, and it was then that I knew we were finally on the right track.

The Deanston distillery has been producing whisky since 1965, when the site was transformed from a cotton mill following the decline of the cotton industry.  From the outside, the building doesn’t look very much like a distillery.  If it wasn’t for the white lettering on the side facing the car park, you might be forgiven for believing that you have driven into an industrial office complex or a mid-level insurance company, rather than a whisky distillery.  We were greeted inside by our tour guide Erin, who led us through the gift shop and beyond the cafe into a courtyard, where she opened the door to the warehouse and gave us an introduction to the brand.  Before leading us into the cask warehouse, Erin asked each of us whether we prefer drinking sweet or smoky whisky.  Everybody answered in a calm and sensible manner until it reached the end of the semi-circle, where I was standing.  I could barely contain myself.  My hands were practically shaking, so pleased was I with the line I had balancing on the tip of my tongue, ready to drop like a lemming.  I looked straight into Erin’s eyes:  “I like my whisky the same way I like my bacon…smoky.”  She hardly flinched.  It was impossible to tell if she was smiling or not due to the face coverings, but I like to think that she enjoyed it.  “You’ll probably be disappointed, then; Deanston is a sweet whisky.”  It was ever thus.

During our Warehouse 4 Experience, we tasted three 15ml drams straight from the cask, though there was a fourth that was not advertised which Erin claimed she had given to us because she liked our group.  This sounded more like theatrics to me than any justification for my joke about bacon, but either way, it made the £35 cost seem like good value, especially when it felt quite steep earlier in the day when we thought we were just going to be walking around a distillery rather than sitting on a bench in the warehouse drinking shots of whisky.  The first dram we sampled was a 2001 Organic Fino Hogshead Finish cask at 55% ABV, which would also be the favourite for most of us.  I always struggle when people talk about whisky tasting notes, and I especially did when Erin spoke of hints of nut and sherry on the nose or a taste of red fruits and chocolates, partly because I was still distracted by the question of whether she had found the bacon remark funny or not, but also because when I swallowed a mouthful of the stuff my throat felt like a dentist had performed an oral procedure on me with a blowtorch.

Our whiskies had strengths ranging from 55 & 59% to 61%, significantly greater than the 40% I am used to experiencing in my Jameson, and I could still feel it the following afternoon when we made our way up to the Wallace Monument.  I didn’t have any more than the crib notes on the life of Sir William Wallace and I’ve never seen the film Braveheart, so I saw the trip as a good opportunity to fill in some gaps in my understanding of Scottish history.  Once you have made the long trek from the base of Abbey Craig to the monument, you buy your tickets and are given a raffle token in return, and when your number is called you are summoned to begin your climb up the structure.  Whilst we waited for our ticket to come up, Arctic Fox pulled one of the tennis balls she is famous for carrying everywhere out of her bag, and we began kicking it around amongst ourselves.  It is the highest altitude at which I have ever played any ball sports, and I could tell that there was a lot of panic about losing it over the edge.  The more we kicked the small tennis ball against the side of the Wallace Monument, the easier it was to imagine returning there the next day and seeing a newly-installed plaque warning:  “NO BALL GAMES,” particularly when we were attracting the attention of two separate dogs who became very interested in the fluffy ball.  Even now I can’t stop thinking about how mortifying it would be knowing that you are the party responsible for Stirling District Tourism feeling the need to put up a sign asking adults not to mess around at a site of significant national interest.

There are 246 steps leading to the top of the Wallace Monument, and I was aware of every single one of them.  The narrow stone spiral staircase up to the observation platform doesn’t lend to grace or elegance, especially with the requirement to wear a face covering and the way those can fog your glasses in heated situations.  I was wearing my salmon chinos for the first time in several weeks, and when I dipped my hand into the pocket to reach for a tissue to wipe the condensation from my lenses, I found a light blue mask I hadn’t used in a while.  I think I ended up with three separate masks on my person that day.  It occurred to me that face masks have become what a £5 or £10 note used to be back in the days when we were still carrying cash; something you unexpectedly discover when you slide your hand into the back pocket of a pair of jeans, or maybe even down the side of a sofa cushion.

After visiting the three exhibition galleries within the monument, you finish up in the crown at the top of the building.  The first room played an animated video that told the story of William Wallace’s rise to prominence, as well as housing the mighty sword that he carried into battle.  Wallace’s sword weighs approximately 3kg and is 1.68m in length, close to what we recently knew as social distancing.  The second exhibition displayed thirty sculptures of significant Scottish figures who have contributed to the history of the nation, including the first two women to be added to the Hall of Heroes in 2018.  In the final gallery before reaching the summit, we learned all about the geography and military strategy behind the 1297 Battle of Stirling Bridge, which was pretty cool to see before stepping out into the crown and witnessing the landscape for ourselves.  The view from the observation platform was well worth the whisky-soaked sweat.  We could see all the way out across the Ochil Hills and the Forth Valley.  From our perspective, it was easy to see how William Wallace trapped King Edward’s English army at Stirling Bridge.  Though at the same time, I had walked up all 264 steps carrying the tennis ball in my jacket pocket and never felt as much temptation as I did there on the observation platform to toss it to the group.  Somehow I resisted.

The crown at the top of the Wallace Monunent

Once safely back down on steady ground, we took a leisurely stroll around the grounds of the University of Stirling.  I could tell that it was quite cathartic for my brother and the Plant Doctor, who both studied there at different times.  Arctic Fox attempted to feed the ducks in the pond with tiny slices of carrot, but despite their vociferous quaking, the ducks seemed unwilling to dive their beaks into the water to catch the sinking pieces.  Soon a couple of swans who were surveying the scene from a distance began wading their way through the thick algae.  Seemingly they had seen enough of the attention the ducks were receiving and were keen to re-establish their territory.  The ducks quickly fled, and we were forced into re-thinking our carrot distribution when the swans puffed out their chests and hissed at us.  This happened at a couple of different points around the point, and every time it seemed to be Alan who was the subject of the swans’ ire.  

We were all brought to a panic when a dog who was walking by the side of its owner on the path behind us became attracted to the scene on the grass.  This dog came barrelling down the slope and bounded straight into the muddy water to a cacophony of cries from its owner, hissing from the swans and howls of shock from us.  The owner was quickly able to coax the canine from the pond without anyone being hurt, at which point it became the most playful pup in the world, parading from one horrified person to the next, tongue hanging from its mouth and mud dripping from its body and legs, seeking all the affection it could get.  I have never felt so terrified as when it approached me and all I could see was the end of my salmon chinos.  Something about this playful, mud-caked dog trying to befriend a complete stranger with its mischief as the rest of the group looked on unimpressed reminded me of Erin at the Deanston Distillery, but I couldn’t place what.

As if the 264 steps to the top of the Wallace Monument weren’t enough, we then embarked on a steep climb up a hill at Sheriffmuir, but at least this time we had beers.  For all the good I believed that 18 months of yoga had done my fitness, this day was really testing me, though that it was the fourth day of considerable alcohol abuse probably didn’t help.  At the top, we took a group selfie in which all of us are surely sporting the wildest hair any of us has ever had, and we could see as far afield as Grangemouth.  In fact, it was more or less the same view we’d been treated to from the Wallace Monument, only this time we could see the landmark in our photographs.  Whilst up there, the Plant Doctor revealed the deeply personal story behind his reason for wanting to take the group up that particular hill, which was probably the most touching moment of the Beer Club on tour.

The walk back from Sheriffmuir was not without its trauma.  The introduction of beer into the mix invariably meant that a call with nature was going to be required for some in the group.  My brother, the Plant Doctor and Alan wandered off into the forestry at separate sides of the road while I took it upon myself to look after the beers.  From my position on the roadside, I could hear my brother warn that there was a hole in the ground containing a wasps nest.  The next thing I remember is seeing Alan moving faster than he did even during our game of football with the nine-year-old boy in Easdale.  He had a rapid turn of pace, and it turns out that he did so because he had been stung three times; twice on his arm and once on the back of his leg.  It was the first time he had been stung by a wasp since he was a boy, and it was obviously extremely painful.  

I remarked how the incident put me in mind of the 1991 Macaulay Culkin film My Girl, but nobody else understood the reference.  I tried to explain the scene where the young boy, who it is earlier established has an allergy to just about everything, accidentally steps on a beehive while trying to find a ring belonging to the titular girl and dies from the allergic reaction to the sting.  None of this meant anything to the rest of the group, and I was finding myself increasingly more concerned with the fact that nobody had ever seen My Girl than I was about the health of my friend.  Alan became curious and asked how long it took for Macaulay Culkin’s character to die and whether he went into anaphylactic shock, as though the movie was a medical journal.  I tried to assure him that, to the best of my memory, the kid was killed instantly by the bee sting and he probably didn’t have anything to worry about, but it had also been around thirty years since I’d seen the story.  To the best of my knowledge, Alan is still alive today, though between the swans and the wasps he really had a day of his 24-hour guest appearance in our weekend.

Since we first met him, the Plant Doctor has been waxing lyrical about his hometown pub, the Settle Inn.  As much as anything, this trip was a pilgrimage to the bar.  When we walked in on Friday night it could just as easily have been Aulay’s.  It had the same kind of homely vibe; the regulars sitting around the bar; the barmaid who knew everybody’s name; the jukebox to throw money into.  They even had my favourite beer on tap, Caesar Augustus from the nearby Williams Bros. brewery.  Really the only difference between Aulay’s and the Settle Inn was the flytrap which we found on the windowsill by our table, a contraption that was little more than a glass of Coca-Cola with clingfilm wrapped over its top and a hole big enough for the barflies to be tempted into.  It plays on the anomaly that while flies are excellent at finding their way into tiny gaps, they are terrible at getting back out.  The glass must surely be the subject of some outrageous wagers on a weekly basis.

Like Aulay’s, the Settle Inn became the central focus of our weekend; the ultimate goal and the place our days revolved around.  We went in on Saturday night and found ourselves talking to the same people we had met on Friday.  I was in conversation with an older gentleman who had an impressive head of white hair and wore an immaculate Harris Tweed coat which I swear he claimed he had paid a thousand pounds for.  He was wearing this expensive coat with a garish tartan shirt and a pair of jeans, which seemed at best ill-advised and at worst offensive to me, as I’m sure it would have to Marco the director of an Italian menswear company, too.  I couldn’t comprehend the thought process that would lead someone to spend a thousand pounds on a quality coat only to pair it with denim jeans.  You don’t see a Versace necklace resting over a black bin liner, or a notice warning against ball games on the Wallace Monument.

On a couple of nights we invited some folks from the Settle Inn back to the flat for some post-pub drinks, although those never ended well.  One red-haired woman was offended by the way Adam and I would make crude jokes at one another’s expense, whilst another guy grew increasingly exasperated by our failed attempts at getting the movie E.T. to play on the DVD player.  As he stormed out of the flat he was heard to say, “my ex-missus is dropping off the kids in the morning.  I don’t even know what I’m doing here.”  

Invitations to the Settle Inn seemed to be more difficult to convince people to accept.  Whilst in Molly Malones watching the Celtic game, we struck up conversation with two of the barmaids who were on duty, intending to ask them to join our team for the pub quiz in the Settle Inn later that evening.  We learned that they are both from Dublin, or just outside the city, have the same first name but spelt differently, and are in Stirling studying nursing.  I asked them how it was to be watching a bunch of thirtysomethings nursing pints of beer, and it is hard to think that that wasn’t the point where our offer began to look less appealing to them.  If not, it was probably when I pointed to the pint of Icebreaker IPA I was drinking and asked the Irish barmaids what their favourite icebreaker is.  “I’ve never tried it,” one of them responded.

Remarkably they seemed to be warming to us as time went on, and the young woman who was first to finish her shift went as far as to join us at the bar for a drink.  At one point she even agreed to come with us to the quiz, though it was doubtless induced by the hit from the initial mouthful of cider after a long shift, and as soon as the friend she was going out with turned up, all bets were off.  It’s difficult to tell how much difference a couple of nursing students would have made to our cause anyway since the quiz was extremely difficult and we went on to suffer a crushing defeat, but it’s something we will never know for sure.  What we did know was that even amongst the wreckage of all of our defeats, from hissing swans to wasp stings, and whisky hangovers to poorly-judged remarks, we had somehow survived Beer Club on tour.

Revenge of the sheep

I’m currently sitting on a train bound ultimately for Stirling via Glasgow, the first time I have travelled out of Oban since late 2019, and it’s too early to say how I feel about it.  When I was last on the train I expect that I had a four-pack of Budweiser and some snacks to keep me nourished through the journey, and the only suspicion I had about my fellow passengers was whether one of them was going to interrupt my solitude by sitting in the empty seat next to me.  Today I brought a 500ml bottle of Highland Spring still water, which I was annoyed with myself for having forgotten to put in the fridge yesterday, and a 50ml tube of antibacterial hand gel.  Most people are wearing masks, except for one woman who has fallen asleep with hers clinging to her chin and her sunglasses perched atop her head.  It’s like nobody ever showed her how to wear these things in the proper way but she’s quite pleased with herself for almost getting it.  The others who aren’t wearing face coverings seem to be either a generation older than I am, English, or eating a sandwich.  It is possible that some are all three, but if they are they at least have the consideration to not speak with their mouths full.

Virtually all of the few remaining Covid restrictions in Scotland were lifted on Monday 9 August, meaning that life is beginning to feel a lot more like it did back in 2019 before any of us knew anything about a novel coronavirus.  Many of the things that we were only able to do over Zoom during the last 18 months, or in strictly reduced terms, we can now enjoy almost without limit.  Pubs are back to operating under their usual hours and you can finally drink at the bar again, people can gather in large groups where the only cap on numbers now seems to be how popular you are, travel – at least within the country – is firmly back on the agenda, and The Lorne pub quiz is up and running.  Other than the advice that people should still wear a face mask in certain settings and the ongoing threat of a highly contagious respiratory virus, things are pretty much as normal as they have ever been.

On the final weekend before those last restrictions were eased, when Scotland was still in what was commonly being referred to as “level 0.5”, the Plant Doctor was visited in Oban by his brother David and his partner Laura.  I had met Dave once before a few years ago, on a night where the Plant Doctor lured us back to his flat after the pub and tricked the two of us into eating mushrooms which had been hidden in a large omelette.  Whenever I tell people that story they usually react with shock and horror, commenting on how dangerous it was for the Plant Doctor to secretly feed us halloucanagenics in an egg dish, until I am forced to correct them and confess that it was only closed cup mushrooms we were eating and Dave and I just don’t like them.  It’s amazing how quickly you become the dick after people who initially had sympathy for you when they believed that you had been drugged learn that you simply don’t like to eat mushrooms. 

After many months where the only contact we had was through our ‘Beer Club’ Zoom meetings every Friday night, I met the Plant Doctor, Dave and Laura in Aulay’s, where they were sitting with my brother and the man who the previous Friday was so drunk from celebrating his birthday that it took him several minutes to be able to get up from his seat.  This guy was in a jovial mood once again – his face was blazing with it – and he looked at me from across the table with curiosity in his eyes as he sipped from his pint of Tennent’s, his surgical mask tucked underneath his chin.  I wondered if he had recognised me from our last encounter, when I was so in rapture with his heroics, but it turns out that I remind him of somebody else and he was struggling to place who that person is.  He was putting almost as much effort into trying to summon the name of the famous figure whom I resembled in his mind as he did rising out of his seat seven days earlier.  In the meantime, all I was interested in was finding out more about the hat he was wearing, but all he could tell me was that he had bought it in Croatia some years ago and hadn’t taken it off since being told how well he suited it.

The question of my appearance was evidently plaguing our companion.  Every so often he would interject into the conversation the five of us were having amongst ourselves to give us another piece of trivia in an effort to jog his and our collective memories.  It was said that I look like a character from a television show.  A show from the 1960s.  An animated character, or maybe a puppet.  We are all in our thirties and had no idea who he was thinking of.  Eventually, in the same way that he was able to push himself from the very same seat a week before, he dug in and found the name he was searching for.  It came out of nowhere when he extended his right index finger and pointed in my direction.  Suddenly, in the manner of someone who might suffer from Tourette’s Syndrome, he loudly exclaimed:

“Joe 90!  That’s who you look like.”

I am familiar with Joe 90.  At least I remember dad referencing the character when we were younger.  Initially I wasn’t sure how to take the comparison, whether it was insulting or flattering.  I suppose it is difficult to be insulted by the prospect of being a 9-year-old prodigy who is recruited as one of the world’s leading spies; whose glasses are the source of all of his powers.  Coming from a man who had already so impressed me, I decided that I would accept being told that I look like Joe 90 as a compliment, even if it wasn’t exactly what I was hoping to hear.

Although the weather forecast for Saturday was looking very unsettled and threatened some thunderstorms, the five of us arranged to meet at eleven o’clock to walk the mile-and-a-half out to Gallanach so we could catch the 11.30 ferry to Kerrera.  We had barely crossed the railway bridge when it began to rain heavily and we learned that not only did my brother bring the fewest beers with him out of any of us, but his jacket also didn’t have a hood.  I usually take some comfort in knowing that I am not the most ill-prepared person in a group, though my relief on this occasion was quite short-lived when I discovered that my boots are not even nearly waterproof.  Thankfully the rain shower was brief, and we had as good as forgotten about it by the time we reached the ferry car park.  

As fate would have it, we overestimated our ability to walk to Gallanach carrying backpacks filled with beer in the time we had set ourselves and arrived a few minutes after 11.30, so we resigned ourselves to sitting on some rocks drinking beers until the next advertised sailing an hour later.  To keep us amused in the meantime we questioned one another on which of the many boats in the bay we would rather own, judging each one on its size, shape and colour, as though any of us would ever have the means to buy a yacht or be sober enough to sail it.  Our eyes meandered around the busy shoreline, drinking in the floating vessels as well as our lagers, the 55 minutes we were waiting to pass feeling like they might as well have been an eternity.  In a fit of pithy, my eyes catching sight of a little black boat that was slightly longer than all the others and the only one moving across the narrow passage of water, I asked the others:  “Wouldn’t it be funny if we were just sitting here getting drunk and that was the ferry coming back?”

We quickly gathered ourselves together and came to realise that when it is busy they tend to operate more sailings to get everybody across to the island, meaning that we were able to pocket our beers and get over to Kerrera close to our original schedule.  The day was gloomier than when the Plant Doctor and I had been in April; the sea looking less like a blue marble and more similar to a curling stone, while the lambs who were on the cusp of being born back then were growing and had obviously well established how the different parts of their body work, judging by the carpet of shit on the grass.  After stopping at the top of a hill to take a photograph of the five of us around a dishevelled and broken down old digger – the end result looking like it could be the cover of our debut album if we hadn’t missed our slot in the recording studio and sat on the pavement outside getting drunk – we ventured down towards the beach, where we spread out across the rocks and ate our lunch.

Around us there were a couple of different groups who were seemingly interested in taking a dip in the water, and the Plant Doctor was considering it too.  Once the first man had gone in, a succession of swimmers followed, with the Plant Doctor stripping down behind a rock that presumably provided some kind of modesty, at least for a moment anyway.  Soon he was striding into the sea, a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale clenched in one hand, the other serving as something akin to a modern fig leaf.  Amongst us we were discussing how the scene was as compelling as a car crash:  horrific, something nobody wants to see, but yet impossible to take your eyes off.  He swam about twenty or so feet out, and before long the Plant Doctor was involved in a conversation with the three other swimmers, who were from Bristol.  It was funny to us knowing that he was completely naked in the water, compared to the rest who were swimming in their underwear.  There was no way of knowing if they could see from their perspective what we had seen.  We could only hope for the sake of the mother, son and daughter triumvirate that they couldn’t.

A foreboding cloud was rolling across the sky from the west, swiftly suffocating any colour that was once there.  It wasn’t long after the Plant Doctor had shaken himself dry and gotten dressed again that the cloud carried out its bleak threat and erupted into rainfall.  The stuff was crackling off the ground like an explosion in a joke toy shop, drenching us instantly.  The next hour was a miserable, sodden traipse around the northern loop of Kerrera conducted in a seemingly endless barrage of rain.  It touched me in places I haven’t been touched in years; every part of me was wet.  At one point we encountered a herd of around five wild goats who were sheltering from the storm under a large rock face, even staring down a couple of sheep who attempted to join them.  In the adjacent field there were dozens of sheep who were standing perfectly still.  We watched in awe for several minutes, wondering what they were doing.  They didn’t move an inch the entire time, almost looking like they were participating in some satanic ritual.  If the scene was taking place in a horror movie, this would be the point where the group of bedraggled hillwalkers should flee with all of their energy, but we were too soggy to run, and they would surely have identified us from the sound of our squelching anyway.

Further along the track, once the rain had stopped, we encountered a new problem when the Plant Doctor dropped his rucksack after one of the straps had snapped.  We stopped by the side of the road not far from the ferry as he investigated the damage inside, trying to ascertain whether any of the bottles had broken.  Having presumably spied the spectacle from his window with some suspicion, a man appeared at the end of his garden path and peered at us over the top of his fence.  We greeted him with a hello and were met with stony silence in return, as though we were sheep trying to nudge in under a cliff.  I explained that the buckle on the Plant Doctor’s bag had broken, and then quickly followed it up with the line:  “the buckle buckled.”  Still nothing.  We quickly picked ourselves up and carried on our way, but even now I wonder what he thought we were up to and if he would ever have told us.

Straddled either side of the trip to Kerrera was the return of the Lorne pub quiz, which was being held for the first time since The Unlikely Lads finally won the thing in September after more than a year of coming up short.  Our original trio had reduced by a third in the meantime with one unlikely lad moving to Edinburgh for university, meaning that the Trig Bagging Quiztress and I were in the market for new members to join our team.  On the first quiz back we had a pair further complement our outfit, one of them a lone Bawbag who didn’t yet have the rest of his team ready to return.  We did alright considering it was our debut outing as a team, finishing inside the top three places, but we knew that we were going to need to do better if we were going to avoid waiting another year before this team wins a £25 bar voucher. 

Our smorgasbord of trivia knowledge was added to the following week by a bird watching accountant, and from the opening two rounds, we were leading the pack.  However, it was beginning to look as though we were getting ahead of ourselves when our initial run through the geography round produced only three answers from ten questions that we could be confident were right.  The rest we had no real clue for and were going to have to take a stab in the dark at answering before the silver-haired host came round to collect our paper.  When the answer sheets were returned to each team, we found to our amazement that we had scored something like 11 from the 14 available points and even my completely blind insistence that Carson City is the state capital of Nevada proved to be correct.  Our ragtag collection of Unlikely Bawbags went on to win the pub quiz by two points – largely thanks to our guesswork, but we weren’t caring about that.  We even won the bonus round bottle of wine with another wild guess at the combined total of Subway, McDonald’s and Starbucks chains worldwide.  It was a spectacular double triumph.

I went round to Aulay’s after The Lorne closed since I was still on a high from the quiz victory and I wasn’t travelling through to Stirling until midday the following afternoon.  When I walked into the pub it was as though the door to the lounge bar was a portal to another time long since forgotten; something taken straight out of a sci-fi movie.  The bar was packed with so many people that I had to wade through the crowd just to get to my usual cool spot by the ice bucket.  There was a chattering buzz about the place, and I had to assume that not everybody had heard of what had just taken place in The Lorne.  Music filled the room as I fought my way to the bar, although it was an unfortunate coincidence that the song which was playing as I walked in was Dude (Looks Like A Lady) by Aerosmith.  Brexit Guy was propped up by the bar, a row of half-drunk measures of Quntro strung out like fairy lights in front of him and the Plant Doctor.  He had returned to Colombia shortly after the pandemic began last year and nobody was expecting to see him back in town, yet here he was.  It was like a Saturday night in 2019 all over again.

In the company of Brexit Guy and the Plant Doctor at the bar was Marco, the director of an Italian menswear company who was holidaying around Scotland.  He was immediately charming and it was easy to see why he was attracting so much attention.  It didn’t take long for Marco to turn his focus onto the way I was dressed, and more specifically onto fixing the casual look I have been attempting to fashion for the midweek quizzes since they started again.  He began pulling at the sleeves and shoulders of my light jacket, fluffing it like it was a throw cushion on a sofa, before telling us that in Italy men leave the top two buttons of their shirt undone if they have visible chest hair.  Marco demonstrated this by asking me first to unfasten my second button and then he began manoeuvring the collar of my shirt so that it sat over the lapels of my jacket, while finally some random button partway down the jacket was closed over.  For those few minutes, I was effectively reduced to the role of a mannequin modelling the summer 2021 casual drunk collection.

I didn’t really know what was happening – to me, it seemed the fashion equivalent of taking wild guesses at the geography round of a pub quiz – but I was happy to go with it.  Marco explained that the collar was opened out over the jacket to display the shirt, whilst the whole thing was done to “frame the chest hair,” which was the first time I have heard body hair spoken about as though it is a da Vinci.  It was impossible to tell how the proper way to dress casually looked in the mirror of the bottle gantry behind the bar, but in a way, it didn’t even matter.  It had been so long since I could stand at the bar after a pub quiz with a pint in my hand and without a mask on my face, being dressed by a complete stranger while the jukebox provided a soundtrack to the night, that nothing could detract from it, not even being told that I look like Joe 90.

Skimming the surface (part two)

The first part of this story can be read by following this link.

Not only was Saturday the first day of May, but it was also the first Saturday morning in a long time that felt even close to resembling a “normal” Saturday.  I had arrived home from our in-person beer club drinks behind the lifeboat station in the early hours of the morning and fallen asleep in my tweed suit on the couch with a 568ml can of Tennent’s Lager by my side whilst attempting to watch the 1998 film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  It was the second time I had tried and failed to see the entire movie in recent weeks.  All I really wanted to do was to lay amongst my tangled sheets in a pitiful stupor and consider why the hell it was that I couldn’t make it all the way through that damn film, but I had made breakfast plans with the rest of my family and the alarm clock was about to go off.  Some things just aren’t meant to be.  

That hungover struggle to get out of bed and into a presentable state before my sister arrived to pick me up at 10.30 was maybe the first time I felt certain that things were beginning to return to more familiar territory.  We hadn’t been able to do our weekly breakfast at Poppies as a group of five since last summer and probably hadn’t been together as a family in as long.  For our father, it was the first time he had gone anywhere other than to Tesco for his shopping once every other week since August.  It was a big morning.  There was nothing like the rich, creamy Eggs Benedict from Poppies or the way that first cup of coffee would do to a hangover what finding God does to a heroin addict.  I could see myself one day sitting in a park telling complete strangers about that coffee.  We took a seat outside since Ardmucknish Bay and Dunstaffnage Castle in the distance were bathed in May Day sunshine, but the temperature wasn’t living up to the promise.  Since it was my suggestion that we eat at an outdoor table I felt compelled to make sure that I enjoyed myself more than anybody else, although that was difficult when my niece was so excited for finally having a group to perform in front of again.

Around twelve hours after parting, and with most of us refuelled with coffee, eggs or well-fired rolls, the beer club reconvened outside the Premier Inn to set off on our proposed adventure to Easdale Island.  Despite the island being only around 16 miles south of Oban, or a 31-minute drive according to Google Maps, it took our two cars closer to 50 minutes to make the journey to the ferry after both vehicles conspired to miss the two separate turn-offs from the main road.  Considering that the six members of our group had been split evenly between the cars, with each having a born and bred local and at least one scientist, it was pretty damning that we managed to miss both of the road signs.  I was in the lead car with the Plant Doctor and a red-haired biologist, which meant that we probably had to carry the can for the blunder, though carrying cans was our speciality.  It was no defence in hindsight, but at the time our car was deeply involved in a three-man rendition of the Britney Spears hit Oops!…I Did It Again which we later proudly performed on speakerphone for our trailing companions.  The red-haired biologist insisted that he had been looking out for a waterfall by the side of the road which he knew was close to Easdale, but I warned him against falling into the same trap as TLC once did, which I thought was the best joke I had ever made.  The detour was worth it just for that.

Easdale is the smallest of the Inner Hebrides’ inhabited islands and was once the centre of the Scottish slate industry until the great storm of 1850 flooded most of the quarries.  Today the island hosts the annual World Stone Skimming Championship which brings people from all over to the area.  The small boat to Easdale Island was carrying six passengers at a time, and we happily kicked our football up and down the slipway as we waited our turn to be taken across the water.  The crossing was only a matter of minutes, and you’re sat so low to the ground on the little speedboat that you can feel the ocean spray on your face.

Virtually the entire island is covered with tiles of slate, almost as far as the eye can see.  For a group of people who enjoy nothing more than casting sardonic comments at one another this was the perfect place to be.  Every piece seemed to be perfect, which led some of us to go off in search of the ideal coaster to take home.  It was a fun forage, but also very frustrating to know that I had spent £10 on two packs of four slate coasters at the time I became a single occupant when there was an endless supply of the stuff barely an hour’s drive down the road.  I reminded the red-haired biologist that it is important not to settle for the first one that you see, though in honesty I think I probably only told him that because he had found a piece of slate that was the desired shape and size for a coaster when we had only been on the island for ten minutes, and I wanted it.  He agreed and placed it back on the ground amongst the rest of the slate, though there was little chance of me finding that coveted piece again.  It was ever thus. 

There are fewer than 60 people living on Easdale and although we only encountered a handful of them, they were memorable meetings.  Due to our interest in examining the usefulness of pieces of slate as items that could protect a coffee table from rings, my brother, the red-haired biologist and I were lagging behind the second trio of our group.  We were idling over the terrain when we passed one of the few houses we saw on the island.  There was a young family out sitting in the calm of the afternoon.  We were in possession of the football, rolling it along the dirt track between the three of us.  That feeling of touching the ball with your foot never grows old, especially when there was none of the pressure that there was back on the slipway when we were terrified that the ball would end up in the sea.  A wee girl, maybe two or three years old, was standing on the grass outside the gate of the family home we passed.  She looked down at the ball in awe.  It could well have been the most wondrous thing she had seen that day.  The three of us spent what could easily have been five or ten minutes just kicking the football back and forth along the dusty path to this little girl.  

She squealed with excitement each time she kicked the ball, and at one stage even declared “Goal!  I win!”  The girl was having such a great time that we found it difficult to pick up our ball and leave.  The rest of our group had already disappeared into the horizon, and the girl’s parents kept telling her, “okay, one more kick and then say goodbye” but there was always another kick.  She didn’t care that we had quarries to visit or that our backpacks were full of beer.  She would tap the ball in any old direction, the red-haired biologist would exaggerate a dive over his bag and the trundling football, and this girl would celebrate like she had scored the goal that won the World Cup.  People often throw around the phrase that something is “as easy as taking candy from a baby” yet here we were, three grown men who couldn’t take a football from one.

Eventually we were able to say our goodbyes, but that was only the beginning of it.  A few hundred yards along the path, not long after I had taken a can of lager out of my bag, the three of us had our balls busted by an older gentleman who was out painting a shed.  Nearby his wife was sitting in a garden chair reading a magazine and minding her own business.  We exchanged greetings with the couple out of courtesy of being visitors to their island, then the man turned from his shed and called out to us across the slate and the grass.  “Do you have tickets?”  As though we were entering an exclusive museum, which in a way we were.  We smiled awkwardly.  

Noticing the can of Tennent’s Lager clutched in my left hand, unopened, he addressed us again.  “You know there’s no drinking on the island?”  I raised my hand above my hip.  “Oh, I only carry this to balance me out.”  It was the sort of response that sounded better in my head and didn’t really help the situation.

“Just remember to take your rubbish with you.”  We assured him that we were good citizens and continued on our way, not entirely sure whether the bloke had been serious or if he was pulling our legs.  We were convinced that he was joking, but his delivery was so dry that it was hard to tell.  As we were walking away we could hear the man’s wife scold him in the distance.  “Och, you do this to everyone!”

We caught up with the rest of our group, greeted by the sound of beer cans opening all around us.  Some of us noted the distinct whiff of gunpowder in the air, similar to the scent you get after you pull the string on a party popper, only in this instance there were no streamers to be seen, just steamers.  It didn’t take us long to reach our desired destination, which was the first of the two largest of the island’s seven flooded quarries.  From above, the water was the most exquisite colour you could imagine.  As a shade it was indescribable, like something you might see in the window of the Gem Box.  It was mesmerising to look at, especially when the water was surrounded by those towering columns of grey slate.  I asked the rest of the group what colour they thought the water in the quarry was, and the overwhelming, scientific, response was that it looked to be aqua.  It was difficult to argue the logic, just as it was difficult to hide my disappointment that they hadn’t come up with a word I hadn’t heard before.  That is the only thing that would have done it any justice.

The six of us descended into the quarry to sit by the water’s edge.  Although it was all slate and a reasonably stable climb, I felt terrified with every step I took – even more so than usual – but it turned out alright in the end.  There was no peace like the peace we found down at the base of the quarry.  It was the most tranquil place I have ever sat; so still, so unblemished, so aqua.  I parked myself on a rock that was just the ideal shape for a seat and cracked open a can of Innis & Gunn Lager, which being brewed in Edinburgh was really just a middle-class Tennent’s.  I rummaged in my backpack for the only item of substance I had brought with me on the trip – a Lidl Deluxe tub of Spanish olives with Gouda cheese.  They were intended to see me through the entire day, but that turned out to be wildly optimistic.  Around me others were indulging in a packet of mixed nuts, some rough oatcakes and a Tuna Subway on nine-grain wheat bread.  Between us I think we managed to name what eight of the nine grains would have been, but struggled on the ninth.  I wondered what the former heroin addicts who had found God and who the previous night had accused us of looking like a group of socialists from Glasgow University would think of the scene if they could see it.

Before long, the red-haired biologist had finished his Subway sandwich and stripped down to his swimming shorts, almost like the way the cartoon superhero of the eighties would eat a banana and be transformed into a muscular, caped figure.  He strode into the aqua water without any hesitation, like it was the most natural thing a person could do.  It looked so impressive, until the screaming started.  Soon the air was turned almost as blue as the water; an indescribable shade of blue.  I had never heard someone being tortured, but I expect that this is how it would sound.  Yet that didn’t stop the Plant Doctor from removing his clothing and wading into the quarry.  It was hard to tell if it was braveness or stupidity, or most probably that drunken spot right in the middle of the two.  That’s where most things tend to happen, after all.  The Plant Doctor didn’t swim all the way to the other side of the quarry like the red-haired biologist did – twice – but he at least got into the water, which was more than the rest of us could do.  Some dipped a toe into the aqua, but I forgot to even do that.  It was speculated that the temperature in there was no more than ten degrees.

The second quarry we ventured to was the one where the World Stone Skimming Championship is held in September every year, or at least it was during normal times – like in 2020, the 2021 event has been cancelled.  Along the way, some of the guys gathered up handfuls of what they believed were perfect stones for skimming in the quarry.  I didn’t particularly understand what they were looking for and took a greater interest in the flecks of fool’s gold that each piece of slate on the island seemed to have in it.  They each took turns tossing their stones into the water, the face of the aqua appearing to shatter like pieces of crystal with each throw as the stones skipped across the surface.  Somehow these stones could defy gravity.  According to the official competition rules, it is a distance of 63 metres from one end of the quarry to the back wall, and some of these throws threatened to go all the way.  

There was talk amongst the scientists about how the ideal technique seemed to be to try and throw your stone parallel to the water, which only had me less enthused about trying one for myself  I didn’t want yet more numbers to think about when the pollen count was still troubling me.  Yet being surrounded by all of these pieces of slate was no different to having a football within striking distance; your instincts compel action.  So I picked up a stone and stepped to the water’s edge, winding my arm back just as everybody else had.  I swivelled it forward with all of the might I could muster and released the stone from my grasp, sending it towards the water.  There was no bounce, hop or skip:  it immediately sunk, pretty much as I was expecting it would.  I returned to my seat with my beer, satisfied that the best use I would ever have for slate would be as a coaster on my coffee table.

As we made our way back to the slipway where we would get the boat returning to Ellenabeich, we passed by a small grassy area that had two sets of goalposts erected at either end.  It was impossible to resist.  Four of us threw our jackets, bags and beers down and began kicking the football around the field.  It wasn’t any different from when we were playing on Friday night, only this time we had a purpose; we had goals.  We arranged ourselves into a two-on-two game which was fairly ramshackle from the beginning.  A couple of young boys were walking along the dirt track beyond the field, and they seemed to take a keen interest in watching our game.  They could have been no older than ten, maybe younger.  Presumably on the island they had never seen four grown men – three of them inebriated – taking such delight in playing a game of football using children’s goalposts.  I booted the ball in their direction, a universal invitation to come and join us.  Only one of them did.  He told us that his friend wasn’t interested in football, that he preferred rugby.  I think we were probably just glad that he recognised that what we were playing resembled football enough to be bracketed in that category.

The ten-year-old boy joined the Plant Doctor and me as we faced off against my brother and the red-haired biologist.  He was wearing the blue jersey of the French national team, embroidered with the name of Antoine Griezmann on the back along with the number 7.  I asked him if he supported Barcelona since he had chosen to have Griezmann’s name on his shirt.  He dismissed my question as though I had asked him if he had landed from Mars.  “I hate Barcelona!”  Apparently he likes Arsenal and Juventus.  We were thankful to have young Antoine on our team – not only because he was a fairly skilful player who plays for the Oban Sunday league team Oban Galaxy, but mostly because he had bags of energy.  He hunted our opponents for the ball relentlessly.  It was tiring just watching him buzzing around the field, and it’s fair to say that he easily shamed us all.

Back in Oban we took some beers and sat on the shoreline, where we digested the weekend’s events.  Some chucked stones into the bay, and without a back wall to stop them it looked like the possibilities were limitless.  They could go anywhere, and so could we – almost.  We were astonished that the football had lasted the weekend and made it back from Easdale; not only due to our difficulty in taking it from young children, but because we were convinced that it was inevitable someone would kick it into the sea at some point.  We couldn’t stop thinking about the God-fearing former heroin addicts we had shared Friday night with, and how the tag of ‘socialists from Glasgow University’ had kind of stuck with us.  The whole weekend seemed normal, even if for the time there really wasn’t much normal about it.  More normal adjacent, or skimming the surface of what normal used to be.  It wouldn’t be long, surely, until we could plunge right in.