Whenever I feel low, I get easily intimidated. It all felt a bit much, coming out of that solitary week in rural Croatia, looking ahead at the forecast to a full ten days of rain.
I’m so alone sometimes, setting out with my pack to walk by myself, not just for weeks at a time but months, years. Just little me and the whole big world of uncertainty, the not knowing of where I’ll sleep or what will happen to me, only that it will be vaguely uncomfortable, even while I’m enjoying it.
I knew that I felt uncertain and that I needed to look after myself, more than I usually do. Normally I’m always pushing myself to do as many miles I can or walk a little bit faster. This week though, I knew I just needed to do whatever I could, everything I did would be acceptable, in this vulnerable time when I was only just finished feeling sad.
Here comes Slovenia, the first day was a full march on road, down to the border from Delnice, rain pelting at me nonstop. I focused on the edge of the road, marking where to step aside when traffic came towards me, stopping occasionally to clear clogged drains of their swill of autumn leaf fall or ducking into bus shelters in silent villages to breathe for a while, check my progress, shake the droplets from my clothing.
I’d made a miscalculation with the amount of Croatian currency I needed and found myself with a £15 excess at the border and nowhere to change it. What do you buy when you don’t need anything? I hunted around in the final shop, trying to pick the densest most expensive nutrition. Salami, yes. And tins of tuna, five of them. Loaded down with a week’s worth of animal protein, I crossed the border into Slovenia. Welcome to the Schengen zone and freedom of movement, no more immigration control until the English Channel and I am free to cross airy borders up high on mountain tops instead of having to descend for dreary road miles and official passport stamps.
The rain still came as I trudged along a back road beside the river that formed the border, a fresh green fence alongside it, topped with razor wire. I am free to pass but refugees are unwanted. I’ve been following the migrant trail since Bosnia, where hundreds of desperate people wait for administrative application processing that is years in the churning or instead, wait for their opportunity to climb fences, dodge patrols and make it to the hidden parts of cities, the shared rooms, the illegal working, living on the scraps that rich people let fall to the bottom of society. What have they left behind that makes this worthwhile? They hide in the shadows while I walk in full view. I am stopped by police to ask if they can help me, to take photos with me, because I am a part of the first world system that has created the mess this people are escaping from. It protects me because I am white, I am well dressed, I am one of its own.
I spent one night sleeping underneath the wooden roof of a summer shelter, four uprights supporting a roof over a wooden table and benches, wood fired barbecue nearby. It was very near to a village and I judged it public space, sat at the bench to eat, watching the dog walkers as they patrolled the road up and down, stopping to talk, turning umbrella shells towards each other. Dog walkers are new, I haven’t seen them outside of cities since I left the UK. Dogs are becoming house pets again, as I walk west, rather than chained forever on short leashes to tiny kennels, or roaming loose around yards.
The rain misted over me all night as I woke to low hanging cloud on the mountains that I was about to climb into.
Ahead on the map I saw that I climbed from the border up into what seemed to be a very remote area. A high ridge of mountains that curved away to the northwest, around an outstretched tip of Croatian territory. There were towns down in the valleys but up where my route trailed, a sequence of connecting blue dots, there was unbroken green forest. Good job I had all this food then, didn’t look like I’d see a shop for days.
What I didn’t expect in all this rain was a lack of water. Back in Bosnia, there were springs everywhere, stone spouts installed to provide water, cleanliness, the possibility of roadside prayer. There were also troughs laid to catch water for animal care. Here, nothing. Just forest, no cleared spaces for grazing. Strangely though, there were no streams. Perhaps something to do with the karstic rock that forms the dinaric alps that I have walked all the way alongside since Montenegro. The rock is limestone based and heavily porous, meaning there are often strange circular dips in the ground, walking through the forest is an endless curve of peering into bowls in the ground to see the flat leafy bottom ten metres below me. The water sinks into the ground, I find no streams.
For days I have not seen the sun, only a grey drab cloud covering that is sometimes far above me and sometimes surrounding me as I walk on high hills where sky has come to ground. The air is full of water, there is cloudmist hanging between the trees, every leaf drips. My body is wet with rain, my water bottles are empty.
I had to drop down from the ridge to take the road for a while, seeing from above a small cluster of houses as being somewhere that I could ask for water. A cottage with a smoking chimney in a village that showed few signs of life. It’s winter now, everywhere is closed up, people gone to cities from their summer houses, plucked the vegetables from their gardens and taken them inside, shut the windows, drawn curtains. There was smoke though, and when I knocked I found myself welcomed inside, into a warm kitchen where cats slept and there was a carafe of herbal tea cooling. Here was Aprilija, an artist, spilling her words all over me as she wiped scattered tobacco from the shining wooden table top. She offered me tea, coffee, a banana, then a bed for the night, she just had to leave for an hour, right now, she was late. And so I said yes, to all these things, and sat in the warmth of the wood fire, letting it seep into me in silence, touching the infinite softness of cat fur and wondering how I came to be here. Sometimes connections seem natural and Aprilija and I talked our stories across the table – cancer, feminism, activism, sexual assault, astrology, fear, recovery. She made an important piece of art in the late 90s, recording women speaking openly about rape, rejecting the label of victimhood, taking back dignity. She talked about the healing power of talking about trauma, of freeing yourself from the hidden poison.
When you knock on a door you do not know who is behind it. What will come of the knocking, the seeking. How far into someone’s life will you be welcomed? For Aprilija, it was instinctual to take care of me. She’d seen me in a village the previous day and wondered who I was, before I appeared at her doorstep.
Aprilija gave me a carved bear to wear around my neck, big enough to feel solid in a clenched fist. I decided it would be my talisman, my reminder of my power, of the strength that comes from accepting vulnerability.
We walked through the village to say goodbye, then I trundled away into the mist, heading for more forests, more silence. There is nothing more silent than a forest in winter, I’ve found. The hum of insects in summer, the morning birdsong give way to deep damp drenching silence. I stop and sound stops with me, the rustle of my clothing, creaking of rucksack and crunches of steps, they are all my pollution in a place where beetles nibble inside treetrunks and the loudest noises are droplets falling from leaves.
There was no water again that day but I’d taken enough from Aprilija and, as I camped that night in a thunderstorm, listening to wind roaring above me and counting the seconds between flash and rumble, I was happy and secure in the wild forest, sleeping on the pine leaves that blanketed the ground, green moss squelching like plumped pillows.
All the houses were closed up, the ones I came to in the forest. Closed and healthy, with neatly locked shed doors and outside taps that ran dry where the water was closed off, or closed and dead, with holes in roof and broken windows.
Aprilija had told me that her village had been a closed military zone since the second World War, only opened up to civilians for the last twenty years. Before WW2 this area of Slovenia was full of German settlers, who spent 600 years in this area before being moved back to Germany by Nazi occupying government, or then exiled by the following Yugoslav administration. Almost half the villages in the Kocevsko region were left empty, for forest to grow around them.
The migration of humans makes a mockery of modern borders, the idea that we draw lines on a map and say that’s where people should stay now. The Kraijna Serbs, the Hungarians of Transylvania, the Kochsee Germans, the Vojvodina, Kosovo, Albanians of Macedonia, the Sanjak Muslims, the Serbs throughout Bosnia, Muslims of Republica Srpska, forced population exchanges between Turkey and Greece, Turks in Bulgaria, the Roma people, the Saxons of Romania, Vlach people in the Danube Delta.
Empty villages means…no water, and when a car comes winding along the forestry track as I’m desperately on my way towards another cluster of houses that I don’t know yet are empty, I flag it down, show them my empty bottle. They are the first people I’ve seen in more than 24 hours. Father and son, Vinko and Samo, come to the forest to give Samo driving practice. We chat for a while, they tell me the news that all the names I see on the map are empty places, I can walk 3 miles out of the forest and down to the valley where the people live, or I can walk 12 miles to the first populated village on my route. I don’t have enough water to walk 12 miles and as I’m trying to decide what to do, Vinko offers to drive me down to the village, then, once we’re there, says I should come and stay the night. Well yeah sure, as long as they can take me back into the forest the next day. It’s a little inconvenient for them but they do it. And I find myself chatting with Samo for the evening, while Vinko goes into the garage to cut up the deer carcass that was in the boot this whole time. Samo is 19 and studying in Ljubljana, uncertain that this is exactly what he wants out of life but not willing to give it all up just yet. It’s a calm family home of grown up children, pans of food on the stove for people to help themselves, Vinko settling back on the sofa with the grunt of a hard working man. He couldn’t bear to leave me in the forest, he says, knowing that there are bears around. I protest my capabilities but gently, it’s OK to be looked after, to be cared for.
“How is Wales?” says Samo. He thinks of it as a place where it rains, populated mainly by old people, like the cute villages on Sunday night TV where mysterious crimes happen. “Poirot but English”, he says, making me laugh at this unexpected perception. I tell him that I think people have so much that the basic standards of living I’ve seen in the Balkans are viewed as poverty in Britain. That people are less connected to the land, that in just a few generations we have lost plenty of knowledge of how to live in connection with the natural world and now, people are struggling to get it back, to create a food chain that doesn’t involve supermarkets, to relearn wisdom from books. On the table is a carafe of soaking rosehips and whole wheat grain. Vinko foraged the rosehips and it’s a drink he likes to make.
“Imagine you moved to Ljubljana and became an app developer Samo, imagine you only bought your drinks in plastic cartons. Your children might remember the drink that grandfather made but their children would have to look it up in books. It only takes a couple of missing generations for traditional culture to disappear”.
Another difference as I’ve come to Slovenia is the lack of village shops; they’re a drive away now, in the move for ever more efficient capitalism, where roads are good quality and businesses can’t be supported on the few pence gained on a loaf of bread.
It’s wrong to say that Wales is awful but I think the idea that Britain is at the forefront of how life should be lived is completely misguided. We’re wrecking the planet in the delusion of ever more luxurious concepts of what consists a basic standard of living. We’re manipulating global economics, causing and interfering in conflicts, then voting to keep foreigners out when they come to us in desperation.
The rising floodwaters of the messes we managed to ignore because they were at the other end of the world, are beginning to lap at the end of our gardens and we’re afraid. It’s time to look after our own, every man for himself. Climate fear affects every vote. Bring up the drawbridge, there’s no room for compassion.
Of course I manage not to say most of this to Samo, these are half remembered versions of the sentences that form in my head as I drift off to sleep. To Samo I say good luck with university and I hope he manages to sell all that green tea he bought cheap from China.
We hug, again, as they leave me in the forest the next morning. I continue to walk the ridge, up and over the mountain shoulder and around to Bela Voda, the beginning of civilisatsija, as Vinko calls it. One last day of the vuko jebina, the place where wolves fuck, this amusing slang phrase I’ve been hearing since Serbia. The remote places, that will become ever rarer as I head west.