Postcard From Slovenia

30 September 2021

by Russell David

When I told a friend I was off to Slovenia he questioned why I’d go to a country that had only vaccinated around 64% of its population, compared to 95% in the U.K. I explained to him that the vaccination rates of a country would not have the slightest bearing on whether I would choose to go there, because these vaccines don’t appear to stop transmission or infection, they only (possibly) reduce the chance of serious illness in the person who has had them. And besides, I needed a break from this stifling little island. What I found, though, was a mixed picture. In some ways it’s better in Slovenia than in the U.K., but in other ways it’s much worse, making our regulations seem light and liberal. That’s not what I had expected.

Getting a flight can often be stressful; in Covid times multiply that by 10. I awoke (after bad dreams) two hours before my alarm on the day of my flight and was unable to get back to sleep, a million things going through my mind, a million things that could go wrong on the trip. It starts long before the actual day of the flight, as you take your test and send it off and hope it gets there in time… and that it’s negative… and that the result reaches you in time. I scored the hat-trick, so there was just the long drive to Gatwick on my mind, and then the hope that I’d remembered all my documents – the proof of double-jabbing, the To Whom It May Concern letter from my doctor saying I was medically exempt from wearing a mask (subsequently checked twice on the way out, not at all on the return), the Randox details I’d need to fill in a Passenger Locator Form (subsequently never checked), plus all the usual stuff.

Shortly before my easyJet flight to Ljubljana was airborne there was an announcement to the effect that there would be no peanut products served because one passenger had a nut allergy – which seemed like a neat summation of the rampant culture of safetyism we now live under, the culture that gave us the lockdowns. And in-flight announcements now have the Covid versions of airlines’ extreme paranoia (“In the event of landing on water…” etc), so you get warnings about not moving around the cabin unnecessarily and stressing the importance of us all always wearing our mask, though you can remove it for a “short period” while eating or drinking.

I was met at Ljubljana Airport by my taxi driver (no screens in cab); was my mask exemption okay, I asked. Sure, he shrugged. At the hotel I asked the receptionist the same question. “It’s okay with me, but…” and he indicated the rest of the city might not be so happy. Indeed it wouldn’t. But when abroad I respect local rules and customs – when in Rome and all that – so I did mask up when required, except for the hotel and airport and the airport transfers.

It really does astound me that masks are now all over our globe on billions of faces and yet the data from all over that same globe shows that there is literally no correlation anywhere at any time with a reduction in the spread of the virus and mask mandates. It really is quite extraordinary, as Sunetra Gupta observed. It does make you wonder.

Masks are as common as feet here. The hotel lobby generally resembled Emergency Ward 10. There was a sign by the breakfast buffet – at least they have a buffet – that says masks AND GLOVES must be worn while getting your food (but I didn’t see anyone using gloves).

You’re never more than six feet away from a mask in Ljubljana: everyone of every age wears them on buses and in shops and in museums and in offices and many wear them in the street and even those who are not actually wearing them have them beneath their chin or in their hand or on their arm, ready to be popped back into place when required, which is often. I didn’t see anyone with an exemption lanyard. It makes us Englanders look like wild young rebels. God alone knows how this will psychologically effect those who are now children in the future. But I don’t think in Slovenia they see masks in the same way that some of us Brits do; there simply isn’t the same attachment to liberty. 

At one point I witnessed two women in a cafe, sitting taking to each other with drinks in front of them, fully masked up (although I presume they lowered the mask to have a drink). The natives do appear to be a terribly obedient lot, though: I observed that by and large folk only cross the road when the green man is flashing, even if there is no traffic.

One of the many populations that have forgotten we have immune systems and we have faces, the Slovenian people will only take their masks off when they’re told it’s safe to do so at some point in the future (and many will still wear them anyway). And their masters are in no hurry to tell them to do so. Why would they be? Most people are good at heart but that means they are easily led, and those that are in power are in power because they like power and may be corrupt so will abuse the people’s good nature. If they present this in a manner that suggests they are only doing this to keep their citizens “safe”, they can prolong these measures for a very long time. Of course, it’s only 30 years since Slovenia gained its independence from the Soviet-friendly socialist bloc of Yugoslavia, so perhaps it’s no surprise that authoritarianism lingers in the air.

Most businesses in Ljubljana now display a requirement for “PCT” to enter their premises, which means you must have proof that you are either Tested, Vaccinated or Recovered. Among the places I visited were the Museum of Modern Art (mainly postmodern nonsense) and the National Museum of Slovenia (a bit dull), and they both asked for proof. I had taken photos on my phone of both my NHS Covid pass and my negative antigen test certificate I got on my first day there, and showed them the former; at the art gallery I could have been showing the receptionist a photo of a parking ticket for all she looked at it, but the museum lady peered at it for a couple of seconds longer.

Drinking or eating outside, which is what I did every time, is a little different though. Before ordering a beer from one bar I had to show the waitress a photo of my negative antigen test certificate. When ordering a cheese and spinach ‘barek’ to eat sitting at a nearby table the server asked me if I had my vaccine passport; I said yes and he said fine and he didn’t need to see it. “I just have to ask…” he said. 

I wonder if European countries show any correlation in the amount of resistance they put up to adopting the Euro a couple of decades back and the amount of resistance to anti-Covid measures in the last 18 months? Someone should plot that on a graph.

The only small inklings of resistance I noticed were stickers on walls stating “Your obedience is prolonging this nightmare” (in English) and the full-on, one-man anti-vaccine/anti-5G/anti-World Health Organization/anti-most stuff chap in Tivoli Park, who displayed various placards (“Zbudi se! Wake up! Dr Bill Gates – Mengele WANTED for crimes against humanity”).

On the whole I enjoyed my trip but then I always like travelling. I love the way every country is different – even just the small differences, like the fact that you can get ice cubes from a wall here and they put the duvet on the bed in a curious, folded-like-an-envelope fashion. But because of tests and masks this has also been a challenge, and that is in part why I did it: because one must challenge oneself. If I can do this, I can do anything! And I’ll always remember it – the Covid holiday – and it will be a memory of living through history, albeit one of our darkest times. What’s astonishing is that the holiday 13 months after my last trip abroad, to Latvia, has been the virus-saturated holiday. In Latvia in August 2020 you’d have barely known there was a pandemic – there was no testing, no masks and little form filling. 

Oh well. Ljubljana is a lovely city well worth visiting for a short break – it’s safe, friendly and happy, with a lively and youthful population. But it may be some time before it returns to how it was before March 2020.

TESTING, TESTING… VERY TESTING

A summary of my experience with tests

I was unsure whether I needed a pre-departure PCR test, but decided to do one anyway to be on the safe side. Most people I spoke to said I would need one, including friends who had recently been on holiday, but the U.K. Government website seemed to indicate that one was not required for Slovenia. I didn’t want to chance it, though, so I paid £86 for a Randox Green Travel Pack.

I took my first test at home two days before my flight and a negative result was emailed to me a day later, but this result was not checked anywhere in the U.K. or Slovenia.

The day after arriving in Slovenia on my three-night stay I knew I had to get an antigen test because I had checked with an air steward as I disembarked. On my arrival at the hotel I asked the receptionist where I could get one and he told me there was somewhere five minutes away. The following morning I asked another receptionist where the centre was. She wrote the address down for me. This turned out to be wrong, and I found myself walking around an industrial estate on the outskirts of the city. I eventually found a doctors’ surgery and asked if they were the Covid test centre and he told me no, it was about half a mile away and gave me the address. After another good walk I finally found it, only to find that it was shut until 3pm (it was now about midday). Checking the information on the door I filled in a form on my phone to get an appointment at 3.10pm, which was unnecessary: I realised later I could have just turned up. I then walked the mile or so back to my hotel, walked a little further to get some lunch, and then walked back up to the centre to be tested for 20 Euros. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. I then had a 15-minute wait until I got a negative result meaning that – hurrah! – I wouldn’t have to quarantine in Slovenia for 10 days. I then walked back to my hotel. I had by this point walked 8.4 miles that day, most of which had been Covid test related. The machinations had taken up more than half a day of what was just a two full-day break in the city. 

The day after my return home I took my day two PCR test, which very nearly had me vomiting as I scraped my tonsils with the swab. There was another tedious form to fill in and then it was another long-ish drive and walk to drop the test off. Tomorrow they will email me the result. The time and energy put in by so many, for the benefit of so few, is quite something.

The sheer weight of the bureaucracy is crushing – the forms, the tests, the authority figures to face… it’s like a free trial of what life under Communism might be like.

Find Russell David’s travel blog here.