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.