“Let’s have cake for breakfast.”
We wandered the streets searching for somewhere serving something traditional.
Eventually we found a cafe with a window display of freshly baked Slovenian cakes. The establishment was called Gujžina Prekmurska Gostilna.
Naomi had tried Prekmurska Gibanica on her first morning here whilst I was still on the train, but I was yet to try the layers of filo pastry, poppy seed, apple, and cottage cheese.
We entered the dimly lit cafe and took a seat by the window.
The Prekmurska Gibanica was delicious. Not too sweet and not too creamy. It balanced the flavours beautifully. What I’d thought would be a gelatinous or soggy texture, was instead smooth.
After finishing our cake we decided we were still hungry and so walked back up the way we’d come to a small eatery we’d noticed called Klòbasarna, serving traditional klobaso with crusty bread. We ordered a whole one to share between the two of us.
The simple flavour of the sausage with the sweet mustard and horseradish sauce, hit the spot perfectly.
We have a tendency in the UK, to overload our plates with hundreds of different flavours, sauces, and relishes. But there is something to be said for a plain crusty roll and a really good sausage. Less is indeed more.
I met Nina earlier this year at The Parrot in Carmarthen. I was out drinking with my friend Dave, while Sion worked behind the bar. Nina and her friend, also named Nina, walked in and sat at the table closest to the door. They were playing some sort of game together, and as the night progressed, I decided I would drunkenly introduce myself to them. The game they were playing was called Hive, and Dave and I attempted – badly – to learn how to play. Nina and Nina were on their way home to Slovenia after two weeks of travelling around the UK. They were catching a midnight train from Carmarthen, and had been couchsurfing for the duration of their trip. We exchanged email addresses, and now I was on my way to meet and stay with them. This time, sober.
As soon as I walked through the door it was like seeing old friends. Both Ninas were there. We hugged, we laughed, commented on the fact that I was sober this time. We unloaded our things, Nina offered us both muffins, she took out a map and drew us a route from her home to Tivoli Park. Ljubljana’s largest and most beautiful open green space.
“There is an outdoor art gallery there of photos from the National Geographic. They change them every week.”
We walked through Mostek at the top of the park. A woody forest with steep ups and downs. Walking to the highest point and tumbling down the other side. It was beautiful. The sky so blue. A second summer.
I hadn’t been outdoors surrounded by nature like this since I’d left Wales. It made me feel at home.
We came out the other side and into the park. We walked through the green expanse. Two people walked towards us, arms linked, smoking a huge spliff without a care in the world. Other people lay on the grass reading, chatting to one another, enjoying the October sun. It was 20°C.
Leaving the park we were back near the centre of town. We decided to find a cafe and order two lemonades.
Time was ticking and it wouldn’t be long before Naomi had to leave to catch her bus for the airport. We went in search of food and found an Italian. We ordered pizzas and ate them silently.
“Are you OK?” Naomi asked.
“Yeah, I’m just starting to feel really tired all of a sudden.”
Later that night, back at Nina’s home, I felt exhausted. Both Ninas were so full of energy. So enthusiastic to share so much with their guest. But I was drained.
We played board games and I devoured more muffins. They were delicious. This batch different from the first.
Nina and Nina spoke to me fluently in English. We talked about the language.
“It has so many silly words that you don’t need! It’s so inefficient! Like the word ‘phase’ and ‘face’. They’re practically the same sounding, why do you need two different spellings? Why not make them the same?”
At first, I felt myself wanting to defend the language. For a start, ‘phase’ and ‘face’ do sound distinctly different, but I felt this nugatory to point out. I refrained.
“In Hebrew there are only 45,000 words, whereas in English there are 171,476. You just don’t need that many!”
This posed an interesting perspective for me. As a writer, having a plethany of words to choose from is a dream. I love it. But for Nina and Nina, it seemed absurd and counterproductive. Wasteful and complicated.
From a second language perspective, I could see their point. It must make learning English a nightmare.
We were listening to music when a song came on. It was from the 90s. Nina, the younger of the two, 17, started singing along. Nina, 25, said, “You’re too young to know this song!”
I laughed, “Isn’t it the Backstreet Boys or something?”
“You don’t know this?!” shrieked younger Nina, “But it’s evergreen!”
“Evergreen? What does that even mean?”
“You know, evergreen, it’s an English word!”
“It’s definitely an English word but we don’t use it that way. Trees are evergreen.”
“Yes you do!”
“Umm… No we don’t. I have never heard anyone describe anything other than a tree as evergreen.” They looked at me in disbelief.
“Yes you do,” said younger Nina, “I will google it.”
The meaning was correct, you can use ‘evergreen’ in this sense, but nobody in Britain does. At least not anymore. “We would say ‘timeless’,” I corrected her.
“Timeless.” They said the word. “But evergreen is so much better!”
That night I slept soundly. I pulled the blankets up over my head to create a tent of warmth, and dreamt that Jeremy Corbyn sent me an email to ask how I was. I have no idea why I did. But I did.
The next morning I woke up with the duvet still over my head. I didn’t want to get up. I didn’t want to move. I was so tired. So drained. The notion of talking to people, to anyone, made me ache with fatigue.
I got up and showered. Tried to put on a brave face. Tried to smile. But I knew the mask was cracking. I knew that Nina could tell.
We ate breakfast with her brother.
Nina’s brother spoke English with a dramatic high-pitched English accent, asking me humorous questions about Britain and my life there. We were hysterical by the time we had finished eating, but I was still clinging onto a mask that I knew I couldn’t hold to my face for much longer.
“It is beautiful outside, shall we go for a walk and make the most of the weather?” I wanted to say no, to hide, but I didn’t want to be a rude. And maybe a walk would be OK after all, maybe the sun would energise me.
But it didn’t. I felt a weight on my shoulders growing heavier. I tried to engage in conversation with Nina but I was struggling.
You have to say something. You have to explain to her. She’s going to think you’re rude or bored. You need to open up to her. Just tell her how you’re feeling…
“Are you OK?” Nina looked at me earnestly. The question came at just the right time. I needed her to ask.
“Actually, no, I’m not. I’m sorry. I’m just so tired and I really miss Sion for the first time since I left, and he hasn’t had time for many phone calls this week because his work has been so busy. I think I’m suffering from burnout and I just… It takes a lot of energy to be a new guest in someone’s home when you’re doing it every three days, to constantly be meeting new people, changing location, packing up your things and moving on. I didn’t realise how exhausting it all was, and now, I think I’ve reached my limit. I’m three weeks in and I’m shattered. I think I’ve burnt myself out.”
“Do you need a hug?”
“Yes, I really do.”
She put her arms around me and I let my head rest on her shoulder and tried not to cry.
“We don’t have to do anything today. We can just lie in the park and not talk if you want to. We can even go back right now if you need to.”
I needed her to say those words. It meant so much to me to be understood. To have my needs heard and my emotions unloaded. Her kindness held me.
When we got back to the house I cooked dinner for everyone. It was nice to have something to focus on, something I knew how to do, something that made me feel at home in a home that wasn’t my own. I made chilli, fried potatoes, and rice, with hummus, sour cream, and guacamole on the side. We sat round, like a family, and enjoyed the hot food. Everyone loved it. Nina asked for the recipe. They were surprised by the ingredients.
“It’s from Jamie Oliver.”
“Ahh! Jamie Oliver!” cried younger Nina. “He makes GREAT brownies!”
After we’d eaten I went and sat in Nina’s room on my laptop. I needed to sort out my tickets for Italy. I hoped to travel there the next morning and go to Montepulciano near the Sienna region and then work my way up to Florence, finishing in Verona, before moving on to Paris as my final destination where I would be meeting Mumma.
This, however, was clearly not meant to be.
I looked at the Interrail timetable repeatedly.
Reservation only. Reservation only. Reservation only.
I tried to book a reservation only ticket. They all required a seven day in advance booking so that they could ship your ticket to your home address.
My home address.
Back in Britain.
I scoured the timetable desperately looking for a solution. Trying to find one train that didn’t require a reservation.
Nina came in with a tub of freshly baked muffins, “How’s it going?”
“Badly.” She handed me the tub.
I poured over the search results relentlessly. Frustrated. Angry. I felt defeated.
I should be enjoying this. This is part of the journey. This is part of the adventure. Just fucking get a grip. Smile. How has this happened? Have I screwed this up? Should I have preempted this? Did I miss some information on the website?
I was battling with trying to enjoy the experience of problem solving, embracing it as part of the journey, but also being too tired to do so.
I felt trapped and pathetic. I wanted to have a room of my own to breathe in and not talk to anyone. I wanted solitude, just for one night at the very least. I hadn’t had a room to myself for three weeks.
I had reached a limit that couldn’t be broken through or confronted. I was just tired. Burnt out.
An hour went by and I still hadn’t found a solution on the Interrail website.
I had given up on the idea of Montepulciano and Florence, they were too far south. I wouldn’t have time using public transport to make it back up to Paris in time.
My destination needed to be somewhere in the North of Italy. I decided to stick with Verona.
But there was only one Interrail train that I could take from Ljubljana to Verona that didn’t require a reservation. A fifteen hour journey with four changes, not bad, all apart from the six hour stop over in Bolzano Bozen from 11:00pm to 5:00am. It would take up two days of travel on my ticket, and I wouldn’t realistically even be able to sleep for the duration of the journey because of the changes, and the stopover wasn’t long enough to book into a hostel for.
If I hadn’t been so tired, I would have embraced this journey. I would have committed. Caught the train and ridden out the fatigue as experience. A new adventure. But I was at burnout, and I just wanted to get to my next destination so I could rest and be alone.
I bit the bullet and opened up GoEuro on my browser.
Why didn’t you just look at this sooner?
I typed in Ljubljana to Verona. A FlixBus ticket for £20 came up. It left at 1:00am and would get in at 6:00am. I could sleep for the journey. It was near perfect.
I’d been so adamant that I wasn’t going to be beaten by the Interrail website, that I was going to find the journey that I wanted, that I needlessly upset and exhausted myself. My tiredness narrowing my ability to look outside of the box I’d put myself in. I was hooked on the notion that I had to use my Interrail ticket despite the clear and sensible pathway out of the situation.
You learn from your mistakes. Take a deep breath and move on.
I was aware that if I’d been at home, Sion would have dealt with the situation. He’d have seen my distress and fatigue, and taken over.
When something starts to take up more time than I feel it’s worth, I’m happy to quit, move on, and do something else. Life is short, after all.
But I had to carry on in this situation. I had to sort it out. I couldn’t just stay in Ljubljana.
I booked the ticket. No. I booked the wrong ticket. Then I accidentally whacked my head on the ceiling. I laughed. I cancelled my ticket. I rebooked the right one. I booked an Airbnb. A spare room in someone’s apartment five minutes from the train station.
I was going to Italy.
I would have my own room.
I had eaten twenty muffins.