The day some nuns broke my heart

In the year 2000, I spent two months working on an archaeological dig in Cyprus.

I spent the Millennium (the real one) on a Cypriot hilltop with good friends and bad wine, watching the fireworks 30 km away in Nicosia.

I travelled throughout Spain and loved it. Barcelona to Andalucia, just magic.

I took an impromptu trip to London, then Paris. The weather was terrible but it didn’t matter.

I went to Italy and travelled south from Genoa on rattling old trains. I daytripped to Ravenna, just to see the Roman/Byzantine mosaics.

Then I arrived in Florence.

I’d been taking photos the whole way on my silver Minolta SLR. But this was the old days, and that meant taking photos on film. By the time I made it to Florence, after nearly four months on the road, I had accumulated dozens of rolls of exposed film which I kept in a waterproof bag in my pack.

In Florence I met up with my dad, who offered to subsidise a a diversion to Venice. I hadn’t originally planned on going there, but when there are a couple of hundred thousand lire being passed to me, I tend not to say no. It was going to be a lightning trip and I didn’t want to lug my pack all the way there. I packed two pairs of underwear and two t-shirts. I arranged to leave my main pack in the luggage storage room of the hostel I was staying at. The place was run by nuns. I should have been fine.

Venice was brilliant. Even better was the fact that I lived out of a day pack, a skill which I now embrace. My wardrobe was repetitive and I only had one book, but I didn’t care. I traipsed up and down bridges, got lost, found myself, bought expensive coffee, and wondered why the gondolas were only painted black.

When I got back to Florence, my pack was missing. Not just “I don’t know where it is” missing, but “I don’t know what you’re talking about” missing. Everyone claimed that I had never stored anything with them. It was like my pack had disappeared off the face of the earth… complete with all my exposed film. Shifty bloody nuns.

I went to the police station, but was met with the dumb insolence of the Italian tourist police. Granted, maybe I didn’t smell too good by then. But they were still no bloody help.

I scoured the back streets around the hostel. I scanned the banks of the Po. I cried. I wailed. I felt submerged in panic.

It wasn’t my stuff that I cared about. It’s just stuff, and not very good stuff at that. I was about to go home anyway, so I didn’t need to immediately replace anything. It was the photos. All those memories – gone.

There’s a reason that people rescue their photos from burning houses. You don’t need to see them all the time, it’s just nice to know they’re there. But when you do open up that album, the memories come flooding back. Is there any better way to spend a rainy afternoon than looking through old photos?

Our photos are ourselves – they’re what we found worth recording at the time. It doesn’t really matter whether they’re any good or not. We’re walking collections of memory, and photos are the material proof.

Nearly fifteen years later I’m still upset about those missing photos. I have the memories, but they’re fading over time. What I wouldn’t give to be able to find them again – to help me to remember who I was and what I felt.

Quiet

I recently spent a week in a small Victorian town. On my second day I went to the supermarket to get the week's groceries. As I climbed out of the car I fiddled with the Gordian knot of my earphones when I realised something – I didn't want to plug them in.

I normally wear earphones for a lot of the time that I'm out of the house. I listen to a lot of music, podcasts and audiobooks, and the time spent looking after the trivialities of life might be better used. I get through a lot of books this way.

The thing that stopped me was the quiet. There was some traffic noise, but birdsong was easily audible over it. People had loud conversations but they weren't obnoxious. A knackered old Datsun pulled up into the carpark, but it was an interesting spectacle rather than an annoyance. I looked around. No one else was wearing earphones either.

Without the constant drone of background noise I didn't feel compelled to armour myself against the world. And like an annoying ache, you often don't realise how much noise there is until it's gone. A less frantic place doesn't need insulation.

The US government maintains a list of places in America that are truly quiet – where no human-originated noise can be heard. They are rare, only a couple of dozen in the contiguous 48 states.

How much effort are we unconsciously putting into protecting ourselves from other people's activities? Living in a vast hive of people has its advantages, but we often can't see the down side.

Two short notes

I’m jotting down a few notes here about recent thought processes, mainly so that I can park said thought processes and think about something else.

Nineties music is back! 

In the aftermath of Chris Cornell’s death and the acquisition of a Apple Music account, I’ve been revisiting much of the music of my teenage years. I was a huge Smashing Pumpkins fan in high school and have barely listened to them since then, mainly because I so completely overdid it at the time. I never quite got into Grunge, seeing as my taste in music always tended towards the grandiose rather than self-abnegating. The Pumpkins were a great fit – angry but not nihilistic and with musical talent to spare.

So it is therefore my sad duty to report that what others have known for a long time: Billy Corgan is probably mental, and he hasn’t written a decent album since about 1995. There are good moments in his post-Mellon Collie work but they’re few and far between. Sometimes being enormously productive just means that you produce a lot of crap.

 

I’m not a Puppy but I feel like one!

I have an ongoing project to read all the winners of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, the premier award for science fiction and fantasy. In recent years the award has been controversial due to attempted hijackings and vote stacking by factions of fans called the Sad and Rabid Puppies. This lot object most strenuously to modern speculative writing and it’s inclusion of non-white, non-male people, and wish everyone would just go back to the good old days of Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein. They’re fringe lunatics, but they’ve come close to derailing the awards process a couple of times recently.

It’s on that background that N.K. Jemisin’s book The Fifth Season won in 2016. It’s a fantasy novel that’s full of genderqueer characters, most of whom aren’t white, strange earth magic and a world with some very angry tectonic plates. In other words, the kind of stuff that the Puppies hate the most.

I wish I didn’t hate it.

I really tried to like it. The race and gender politics stuff doesn’t really interest me to be honest, but try as I might I just didn’t think the book was very well done. The writing was pedestrian at best and deeply irritating at worst, or perhaps just needed a better editor. I have a long-standing complaint against overlong (“epic”) series, and The Fifth Season bothered me due to the lack of story progression over 400 pages. How hard is it to resolve something in that time? The world building was moderately interesting and a bit novel, but everything was signposted so obviously that I felt like I was in kindergarten.

I have a weird kind of guilt about this book. It makes no rational sense, but writing publically that I didn’t enjoy it seems to place me in the same camp as the feral bigots amongst the Puppies. I certainly don’t feel comfortable in that company – it’s a bit like finding out that you share a passion for Italian cooking with Hitler.

 

Fertility fraud; or How to have lots of great grandchildren

A (now deceased) Dutch IVF doctor is presently being accused of having substituted his clients’ sperm with his own a large number of times. This has allegedly resulted in 22 children being conceived in the 1980s via imposter sperm, and who were then brought up by men other than their families in the manner of a cuckoo (“brood parasitism”). DNA tests are currently being arranged in order to confirm this.

There are two main things which I find interesting about this. This first is that we’re now in the situation where some of the children are considering taking legal action against the estate of the doctor in question. Their main concern is of “wrongful birth”; which is to say that living humans are suing the estate of a dead man because they claim that they shouldn’t exist. It sounds like a language puzzle.

The second interesting thing is that from an evolutionary perspective, this doctor has been spectacularly successful. Few men father 22 children in any “natural” context, so already he’s doing better than most. Wrongfully born these children may be, but I rather doubt that it will stop them having children and living their lives like other people. IVF fraud may be one of the most successful evolutionary strategies currently available in our society.

This is shaping up to be a distinctly weird century.

Arabian Knight

Wilfred Thesiger was an Englishman who spent the late 1940s travelling through Arabia. He wrote a book about it, named Arabian Sands, which I have just finished reading, and which is something of a classic in the world of masochistic adventure literature. It’s a fine work, full of little spatterings of detail and interest about the environment he moved through, which help to keep the book moving through several hundred pages of relatively monotonous desert travel.

Thesiger’s travels were really quite remarkable. He traveled across the Empty Quarter desert in Arabia several times with only camels for transport, being one of the first (and only) Europeans to do so. These were journeys of no small hardship – he was hungry and thirsty most of the time, roasted by the sun in the day and frozen overnight, and under constant threat of being shot by Bedouin raiding parties for months on end. He was lonely, frequently frustrated by his improvident Bedouin companions and the need to provide hospitality to passers-by, and probably constantly malnourished.

The interesting thing is that he didn’t have to do any of it. He was under no compulsion whatsoever. He chose that life.

By modern standards Thesiger was quite deranged. He actively sought out this kind of hardship time and again, and spent a lot of effort trying to convince various arms of the British government to fund yet another mission to the desert. He found the settled environment of the coast to be unsatisfactory and Britain to be actively unpleasant, spending most of his life in arid parts of the world.

Why would you do that to yourself? What went into his mental makeup that seemingly compelled him to seek out suffering? I’m sure there’s an argument waiting to be made that Thesiger, like T.E. Lawrence, sought the desert out of sublimated homosexual desire, but I honestly don’t get that feeling from his book.  He reminds me a little bit of some Australians who I met in Papua New Guinea who had found the lifestyle of a wandering jackaroo in central Australia to be too restrictive. They’d gone to PNG because they simply didn’t like living in any strongly regulated environment and could only tolerate personally negotiated restrictions on their activities.

The admirable Alastair Humphreys (@al_humphreys), a modern-day British adventurer, recently followed a similar path across Arabia in tribute to Thesiger. In the splendid film that he and his travelling companion made about the journey he breaks down at one point, berating himself for feeling constantly compelled to make arduous and ultimately pointless journeys.

But I guess that’s the key question. Why do any of us travel anywhere, whether via camel or luxury coach? Why even do anything beyond the necessities of survival?

I guess because we’re human, and we have inherited genes that encourage us to explore. I suspect that everyone has a grain of Thesinger’s unusual personality within them. For some it itches worse than others, and others are driven mad by the constant scratching.

Doing music

The way I “do” music is very different now.

Back in the dim, dark days of the nineties I mainly consumed music via the radio, or by regular visits to the indie section of JB Hi Fi. Triple J was my radio station of choice, as it was for everyone who was a teenager then, so I heard a fairly wide variety of sounds. However it was still barely representative of the range of music that was out there.

Buying a CD cost around $20-25, which was a fairly significant sum at the time. Selection was careful, and buying a CD that I turned out not to like was agonising, since I would have to work several more hours to afford another one. I was conservative in my musical tastes and tended to pick albums that I felt I could listen to over and over again.

The introduction of electronic music storage in the 2000s expanded my horizons somewhat, but it was still limited by bandwidth and storage (1mb/min, 6gb HDD!). I still had to be careful about what I listened to, even with the apparently unlimited options of Napster and Kazaa.

The result was that the music I listened to in the 90s and early 2000s is burned into my brain. It’s also the bulk of the collection of music sitting on my hard drive.

I’ve heard it said that one’s musical tastes tend to fossilise at around age 25, and this happened to me… sort of. I increasingly found myself going back to the music of my youth for comfort and I was less inclined to seek out new music. A big reason for this was because the late 2000s coincided with an explosion in the amount and variety of new music available and I didn’t know where to start. I got quite intimidate by music for a while.

Enter the streaming services. Although I’ve always felt that Steve Jobs was on to something when he stated that people wanted to “own” their music, I tried out Spotify and Rdio in around 2012. I liked the options available but the apps were buggy and unreliable and didn’t interface with my existing library. I was still limited by storage issues too.

However I think that may have all changed. This week I got a new iPhone with a lot of storage space (256 GB) and loads of mobile data. I took the plunge and signed up for a trial of Apple Music, and by Jove I think I may finally have it. The price is cunningly low, so that for the cost of “buying” one album a month (or less) I can have effectively unlimited access to everything on iTunes.

This is liberating in a way I feel uncomfortable admitting. It turns out that there is a huge amount of music that I’d like to “try”, but that I don’t feel would be worth purchasing permanently. This morning alone I’ve tried half a dozen things that I’d ummed and aaahed over – turns out that some are great and some are crap. How like life.

This cornucopia of music has a possible cost though. I strongly suspect that some of the reason that 90s Smashing Pumpkins still resonate for me is that I listened to the albums hundreds, if not thousands of times. The music that I had back then got the chance to seep into my brain and I could really get to know it.

With an endless amount of music available to me from anywhere at any time, will I properly get to know it? Will I give it a chance to impress me? Or will it wash over me? I know that Top 40 music is designed to appeal on the first listen, but it’s rarely the most rewarding thing to listen to. Top 40 temporarily elevates moods, but it doesn’t change lives.

Food is fashion… sort of

If I asked you what “good food” is, I can guarantee that your answers would be different to those of people in other times and places. But human physiology doesn’t vary that much – why would good food for you be bad food for me? Clearly there are some people with allergies or other intolerances who have to avoid certain foods, but that’s a given.

Consider the humble cabbage. Not many people get excited about cabbage, despite it being highly nutritious and very cheap. If you’re an Anglo Australian, there are too many associations with boring old British food, and it smells sort of funny too. Definitely not a cool vegetable, like kale.

However if you ask my Korean friend, she’ll tell you that cabbage is a staple in her diet and is considered to be a foundation of Korean food. It’s important in her culture and highly valued. Her family eats several heads of cabbage per week.

What does she look down on? Potatoes and sweet potatoes! They’re cheap, easy to grow vegetables that fill you up – in other words, poor people’s food. Compare that with the paleo/crossfit crowd who can’t get enough of sweet potatoes in particular due to their relatively dilute carbohydrate component and high micronutrient content.

None of these foods changed from place to place – a Korean potato is much like an Australian potato, just as Korean people and Australian people are basically the same physiologically. The difference is fashion, or as we like to call it, culture. Rich people (us) don’t like to be seen eating “poor people’s food”, and connotations of certain foods vary drastically from culture to culture.

The ultimate irony: kale and cabbage are virtually the same plant and have very similar nutritional profiles having, along with brocolli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts been bred from an ancient ancestor.

But you can’t go down to Boost juice to get a cabbage smoothie.

 

The miraculous milpa

If you jumped in a time machine and materialised 4000 years ago in what is now modern Mexico, it is likely that you would see maize being cultivated in a field called a milpa. This would not have resembled the vast fields of monocultural grain which can currently be seen in the American Midwest. The ancient maize would be mixed in with avocado, squashes, chili, amaranth, and climbing beans which would be using the maize stalks as a trellis to get closer to the sunlight. This is a highly productive arrangement, capable of producing hundreds of tons of food per hectare.

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Purple beans climbing maize plants

The most impressive thing about this scene is that if you returned to your own time it is possible that you might see the same milpabeing cultivated in the same way, four thousand years later. This is an extraordinary achievement in our modern agricultural world where we maintain soil fertility by either the addition of fertiliser or by practicing crop rotation. Forty centuries of continuous cultivation is probably unique in the history of world agriculture.

 

 

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Soon I will eat you

Even better, throw in a couple of other crops and you have yourself a complete food source. Maize provides starch but an incomplete set of proteins. Beans provide fibre and the remaining proteins that the human body needs. Avocadoes provide fat. Squashes provide vitamins and trace nutrients. Chillies provide flavour. This near-perfect combination of nutrition and agricultural stability mean that the milpa may be the most perfect agricultural system yet devised. The only input is human labour.

I’m an experimentally-minded person so I thought I’d try to plant a milpa in my family’s garden allotment in Collingwood. We selected sweet corn as our maize of choice and allowed them to grow to about a foot tall. Then we planted purple climbing beans about three weeks ago and they have started to wend their way up the maize stalks. Underneath it all we’ve planted cucumbers as our squash, mainly because my daughters love them.

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The first harvest of cucumbers

 

As you can see, it’s working really well. I was worried that the maize would shade the others out, but it turned out that that was an excellent idea for a Melbourne summer. The cucumbers aren’t drying out too much, the maize (planted in a block for pollination reasons) is thriving, and the beans, boring though they are, don’t need to be staked to be productive.

So much of the modern agricultural system is built around minimising human labour (because it’s expensive) and making up for that with extensive chemical and mechanised input. That has been both highly productive but also highly damaging. We may be coming up to a time where growing food at home is again a good use of time and resources (as well as deeply satisfying). If that is the case, we could learn some lessons from ancient agricultural systems, in particularly the extraordinary milpa.

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Another satisfied customer

New year, new gym

I cancelled my membership at my gym this morning. It was kind of an inverse New Year resolution, and the fit young man behind the desk was briefly confused. But when I explained that I was buying myself a home gym, he immediately understood.

“Yeah mate. Throwing money away coming here.”

It’s not the money that’s the issue though. It’s that I’ve been remarkably shit at getting to the gym lately, not out of any laziness on my part. I love the gym. It’s my break from the rest of my life as well as being a generally virtuous thing to do. However getting there becomes a difficult proposition when I need around 90 minutes of child-free, work-free, responsibility-free time. I manage that around once a week.

I take that time of course, but let’s be honest – I’m not really achieving anything. At best I’m treating water, athletically. I can’t do that too long before I start to move backwards down Dave Tate’s continuum from suck towards shit.

So I have ordered the basic ingredients of a home gym. My current dwelling has a garage which is mostly used for storage, but which can also accommodate a barbell and some iron. It’s a very basic setup – just the bar and around 160kg of plates, mostly bumpers. I won’t be able to back squat, and most lifts will require me to power clean the bar first. I don’t mind – it’s a bit of extra training and the simplicity of it appeals. My friend Kyle from Athletic Club East has kindly written me a program entitled “the Lonely Barbell” to accommodate my limitations.

Travel time to my new gym is about thirty seconds. The return trip to the shower is about the same.

No more bros.

No more curling in the squat rack.

No more disinterested “trainers”.

No more TV and shitty music.
No more Prancercise.
Clothes optional.

Hangover Serendipity; or How to Drink Too Much But Still Have A Good Day While Travelling in the Balkans

I awoke in Zagreb with the kind of headache that makes the religious question their faith in God. Mild hangovers exist in the head only, in the form of a fuzziness or moderate ache. More severe hangovers progress south towards the belly, where the churning acid generated by the night’s revels threatens to strip the lining from your stomach while simultaneously making a break for the exit via your epiglottis. The most severe hangovers seem to permeate your entire body with pain and an indescribable sense of woe, deep foreboding, and profound confusion. I had one of the latter types of hangover.

I was surprised at how it had occurred. No doubt the fact that I’d only slept for about four hours hadn’t helped, but it didn’t seem like I’d had that much to drink. With surprising clarity I recalled that I’d spent the night in a bar in the old town with a few English-speaking backpackers drinking, perversely, Guinness. There was a young man about my age who was on some kind of journey of self-discovery in the Balkans, or perhaps self-repair. I recalled him telling some story of personal crisis involving the death of his sister in tragic circumstances, and parental funding of a trip around Europe meant to provide some perspective on his life. I’m not sure it worked though – as Paul Theroux observes, the act of travelling is rarely an escape from the self and is most likely to inspire deep introspection. The young man’s pain was so raw and obvious that I think the other backpackers and I were drinking in order to insulate ourselves from his suffering as much as we were trying to have a good time.

I recall making my excuses and wandering back to my accommodation with the plan that I was going to get up early in the morning and take the train to Vienna. Even then I realised that this was ambitious given my state of advanced impairment. So when I awoke the next morning with pain seeping from my eyeballs I was not surprised.

Breakfast was not an option, but coffee seemed wise, so I bought a small cup at the train station and took it on board. Trains in the Balkans have a knack of going just a little bit more slowly than seems necessary, but not slowly enough to make one reconsider the trip. The coffee improved my conscious state slightly and we wended our way through a surprising amount of forest. Given that this general area of the world had been a war zone only a few years earlier, and that the backpackers’ hostel reportedly still contained refugees until six months ago, it was idyllic.

Somewhere around Novo Mesto the gentle rocking back and forth of the train synchronised with the pulsations of my abdomen and a wave of horror swept over me.  Nausea, in my view, is far worse than an equivalent degree of outright pain. Pain can somehow be shut out of the consciousness, but nausea penetrates to every corner of one’s being and is the defining experience of sickness. Hangover nausea is somehow even worse, knowing that you did it to yourself. The train rocked. Acid coffee sloshed around in my stomach. I sweated.

The challenge with vomiting is knowing when to make your break for the toilet. Too late and the motion may trigger an uncontrollable expulsion of stomach contents. Too soon and you end up wrapped around the toilet bowl for hours waiting for the vomit that may or may not come. Due to general malaise and confusion I nearly left this one too late. I tasted metal at the back of my throat and stood up like I’d been electrocuted, then stumbled toward the end of the carriage and almost fell into the cubicle. The vomit, when it came a moment later, was like chemotherapy or ridding oneself of an incubus which had been hitching a ride on my soul. Every time I felt like I’d finished and that my belly was raw as sandpaper, another twist in the railway track would trigger a fresh bout of waterfall howling.

After what seemed like hours of purging I felt no better. I was in bad shape. I wiped sputum off my face while wondering how my teeth hadn’t been eroded to little nubs, then stumbled back to my seat. Staying on the train was clearly not an option. There were hours left to go until I got to Vienna and I had no expectation of surviving the trip.

Opening my guidebook I ascertained that the next stop would be Ljubljana, the capital of tiny Slovenia. By all reports it was a lovely place, a little green splinter of Yugoslavia which had been relatively untouched by the war in the Balkans. This seemed like an excellent place to nurse a hangover, and anyway, few things could be less pleasant than feeling like a dehydrated corpse on the move.

I jumped ship at Ljubljana’s main station. To be fair, there weren’t any other stations in contention.  Slovenia used to be the northern province of Yugoslavia, which had been assembled after the First World War out of the smoking shrapnel of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Kingdom of Serbia. It was intended to be a “pan-Slavic” state composed of all the slavic peoples of Southern Europe who had been separated by rival empires, a noble aspiration which turned out to be ineffective. After the Second World War ferocious repression by Marshal Tito in the name of Communism managed to maintain internal order, but at the price of an explosion of violence following the breakdown of the communist regimes in Europe.

Slovenia may have been the least representative successor state of the character of Yugoslavia. For one thing it is resolutely northern-looking culturally, having been part of the Austro-Hungarian and Holy Roman Empires for an awfully long time. For another thing it is peaceful, prosperous and safe.

As I stumbled out of the station into the town itself I wondered for a moment whether I had accidentally alighted in Austria. As my somewhat hazy vision corrected itself I pondered the possibility that I had suffered a seizure and woken up in northern Italy.  The buildings had red terracotta roofs and jaunty Austrian yellow paint and I found small parks and squares around every corner. Ljubljana seems to belong to a world of alpine hills and frivolous Italian architecture rather than grim Soviet-style concrete blocks found further south in Serbia. I was shocked.

I ambled the two hundred metres from the main train station into the centre of the old town. Like most ancient settlements in Europe it is built on a river, in this case the Ljubljanica. The banks of the river have been fortified with steep stoneworks. I imagine that this makes the river rather exciting when flooded, but it’s also reassuring – all the work seems to have gone into taming the river rather than using the stone to build walls repelling invaders. It all seemed so peacefully cosmopolitan.

After a few minutes wandering I found myself crossing a bridge festooned with dragon sculptures of various sizes. The bridge itself didn’t seem like anything special, but a quick dip into the my guidebook revealed that it was one of the earlier works of the Viennese Seccession, and being structurally iffy, had been built in one of the outer Hapsburg provinces rather than Vienna, where a collapsed bridge would not have been a good look.

There was a small riverside market on the far side. I stopped and bought a bag of cherries, figuring that they would be the most that my traumatised stomach could handle, and sat down by the river dangling my feet over the stoneworks. The cherries were magnificent, easily the best that I have ever eaten. I don’t know whether I was lucky to buy them in season or whether Slovenian cherries are the best in the world, but I gorged on them until the juice streamed down my face and I frightened small children.

Refreshed and very nearly enlightened, I wandered my way over to a ludicrous baroque church which resembled a cake made for a five year old girl. Formally named the Fransiscan Church of the Annunciation it caught my attention because it had clearly been moved here from Rome in the night and no-one was talking about it, but also because I think I’d seen it before in one of my father’s paintings. I couldn’t quite bring myself to go in (Church fatigue is a real thing), and instead seated myself in a vast outdoor cafe in the main square. They sold coffee and I like coffee.

As I sat in this square with the golden afternoon light filtering into my brain and cherries and coffee fermenting quietly in my abdomen, I was overcome with the great sense of ease and relief that I experience when I realise that a hangover has finally resolved. I also pondered the people of Slovenia – they all appeared so young, healthy and relaxed, quite unlike the undertone of menace in Zagreb and the semi-rural poverty of Romania. I felt very strongly that despite the chaos of the Yugoslavian wars these people at least were in with a chance.  A northern-looking, Catholic bias doesn’t guarantee success of course, but it seemed a much wiser choice to emulate success than to relapse into the horrors of the 1940s.

As the sun headed towards the horizon I swilled the last of my coffee and ambled back to the train station. I would still be in Vienna that evening, although somewhat later than I had planned. Ljubljana was a beautiful city that I would never otherwise have visited.

It was almost worth the hangover.