Dearest Neice,

OH OH - I'm Bad! I meant to tell you about Croatia and I didn't - and now in a few hours time I'm off to Dubai for Christmas and New Year and I didn't tell you about that either!

I'll get myself a mug of tea and try and make up for lost time. :)

It all seems a long time ago, but I arrived in Zagreb with my case packed for 3 weeks and my pilot bag with my instruments. Tom & Maria's house has a large garage, balloon store and balloon repair room that has a polished wooden floor and is fitted with a small kitchen, toilet, shower and clothes store. It is large and airy, very clean and my little bed was waiting in one corner by a large rug in the middle of the floor. It has an ethernet socket and they gave me a laptop so I could keep up with the news and weather. It is a self-contained studio apartment, really!

Most days I ate my breakfast on the verandah at the front of the house and also we had our lunch and dinner there while the weather was hot. Tom's father's health was causing him some concern, so he was away oftem. (Tom's father lives in Trieste, which is in Slovenia (so Tom is Slovenian)).

After a day resting, Tom & Maria whizzed me of to a meet in Hungary, where their friend was directing. I knew him from the meets in Croatia, but hadn't realised that he was a retired Army Colonel! We had some nice flights in Maria's favourite competition balloon, "Heinekin", with Tom doing the retrieving. Hungarian food is, shall we say, solid. They go in for large portions of meat, sausage and potato - no wonder that most of their pilots and crew are "chunky". And the amount of alcohol they can put away is frightening.... Anyway, I did get to go to Budapest, the capital city of Hungary. The old city is quite wonderful and the view from the Buda, or fort, over the Danube is not to be forgotten. Maria, who is well known as a competition pilot there, won a prize, a large silver(plated) Cup and flowers. Quite a start to the holiday, I'd say!

I was there to help, so I did. There were some publicity flights to arrange, the Club was running a Team-Building course based on ballooning for the City and there were some local tethers to do for the Police Academy (!) and others. There is a Club pavillion in the puiblic park at Jarun around which most of this activity was based. Jarun is next to the river and contains the rowing lakes: it is where people from Zagreb go in the evening to walk, run, skateboard, cycle and roller blade. One day we inflated an old balloon (Stinky-Scoop was what my crew chief, Davor, called it) an old UK de-registered T&C 77 that we used to let children from the two orphanages come and play inside! The young Director of these villages told me that the war in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia had left many orphaned children and these villages were built by the State to help them crecreate their lives. It was very moving to see them so excited and playful as they chased a football round inside!. This Director had been very well paid in a high-pressure job, but took this job at much less money because he wanted to give back a little of his good fortune to a worthy cause. I have heard several tales like this in that part of the world.

I did a flight out of the park with Igor (T&M's son, who has just qualified top of his class in Psychology) and two local journalists. This was in my favourite Club balloon "Zagreb", which is light blue with the City of Zagreb arms on the sides. Maria is an arts graduate and does all their artwork. It flies nicely and I've always admired it.

Tom, Slatko (means Golden in Croatian) and I went to another meet near Milan for a few days. Nello Charbonnier organises it each year. We didn't fly - I said that it was too windy and too wet in the fields to risk Maria's balloon. I don't think we were very popular with Nello as others did fly. I don't care: I saw some frightening displays of poor judgement and airmanship. The food was excellent, though!.

Got back to Zagreb. Tom's father was worse, so he set off for Trieste again, his third trip while I was there. We had a phone call from the hospital saying that his father had just died......just awful, as Tom did not know.... Lots of tears that evening. They were talking of cancelling their flight bookings, but I wouldn't hear of it. Some of the other club members are part of Heart of Gold Team when she flies in Croatia, and I called them in to help, not that they needed telling from me! Most of them regard Tom and Maria as second parents.

My balloon hasn't a name, but is a big red Kubikek 105 that Maria find hard to land because of the small parachute opening and the hard pull needed to open it. I was quite happy flying with 4 passengers, although my first set were all from my home county of Essex in the UK!. Romford is just down the road from where I was brought up.

The next evening was still blowing briskly nearing decision time and as the direction would mean only a 30 minute flight I offered the passengers a choice of a better one if they could make the morning, which they accepted. The next morning was no wind and patchy mist in the Zagaria valleys! Very wet underfoot (Slatco wears bright yellow wellington boots which everyone laughs at, but he is the only one with dry feet!) and off we go: a Frenchman, his Belorus girlfriend and two delightfil girls of about your age who were having a Birthday Treat from their parents. I did wonder how I was going to make it interesting as we were still more or less over the launch vehicles 5 minutes after lift-off.....but the scene was magical with the treetops poking out of the mist, followed a few minutes later by the huge red ball of the morning sun coming up behind everything and lighting all with "..dawn's rosy-hued finger" (that's a bit of English Litt, by the way!). Anyway, it impressed the hell out of the passengers, being 1000 foot up and seing this all laid out for their enjoyment. Played around trying to find some wind and eventually got a v e r y s l o w level which allowed us to see a deer, some cornfields and hedges at low level and finally(at 55 minutes) a perfect field next to the road with "Land Here" written over it....we had a wonderful time packing up, holding the envelope off the grass to keep it dry, followed by baptisms (the Club always do this for first-time flyers: it's part of the Experience). We liked this crowd so much (the girl's parents were professionals, doctors, layers etc.) that we all went to the nearby restaurant and bought them coffee and ended up firm friends: a perfect start to the day!

That evening, on the way to the same launch site with fresh passengers, the trailer punctured and shredded a tyre. Naturally, being a Zagreb Balloon Club trailer, there was no spare, tools, jack, time...... I sat on the Arnco barrier with my crew and our broken trailer while the passengers were taken back to their cars in Jarun and a spare wheel was fetched.

Apart from helping Tom (mainly talking to him: he doesn't get on with his half-brother whome his father always said was "better" than him (although he wouldn't help with the looking after and visiting bits) there wasn't a lot more that I could do as the weather had turned windy and dull.

So that, dear Ploy, was my holiday, written specially for you. I hope that you enjoyed it! I might put it on my website, I'll see.

Have I made up for my sins? I do hope so!

Now I think that I need something from you in return. Usual stuff, what you're doing, how EVRYONE in the family is, that sort of thing. Quite interested to hear about Uncle Nigs - no-one seems to have heard of him for some time and we do worry about him as I'm sure you realise.

Right. It's Late and I have to pack. Tomorrow Pauline and I are flying out to Dubai (United Arab Emirates) to take part in the first Dubai International Balloon Festival. We have No Idea what awaits us. Uncle Dennis, Jackie & Ginger are joining us, as is Tom, Maria and Davor.

Wish us Luck?

Love to you all.

Your Distant Uncle