One thing led to another, and in 2007 Yuri found himself in Slovenia, the country of his maternal grandfather’s birth and an all around swell place to live, especially for English-speaking foreigners. In 2009, he became a writer and editor for In Your Pocket travel guides, and is now the global editor-in-chief. He spends most of his free time and resources travelling to new countries in order to win a $50 bet that was made in secondary school.
How would you describe yourself in 5 words or less?Jack of a few trades.
You are a man that wears many hats and your CV is truly impressive. Could you tell us what you do?If we're speaking objectively, my CV isn't that impressive. It also may have one or two exaggerations and/or potentially not entirely true statements on it. What do I do? In general terms, I try not to worry about the future or plan ahead too much. I also try to only take on projects that I'm both interested in and feel capable of doing. I definitely wouldn't call myself a 'writer'. I did that once at a party in Washington DC, and my girlfriend at the time wouldn't let me hear the end of it. Although I always suspected that she was more upset that I was talking to an incredibly attractive South African when I said it. Anyway, I'm one of those people who can't write unless I'm in the mood to do so, which only seems to come quite sporadically. For my work as editor-in-chief of In Your Pocket, it's mostly about managing people and content, so not quite the sexy image that people have in mind when they think of the travel writing industry.
How did you start writing and what is your biggest inspiration for writing?I guess I've always been fairly good at writing, but mainly did it out of necessity - for school assignments and things like that. The short story of how I started writing for In Your Pocket was that I happened to be in front of my computer when a mass email got forwarded to me and I was the first to reply. So a bit serendipitous in hindsight more than a decade later. As for inspiration? I don't really know. For me it can come from anywhere, but usually involves travelling or at least moving - ie walking, driving, sitting on a plane, train, bus, etc.
How does one find their own voice for writing?As I mentioned earlier, I don't really consider myself a writer, so best to take whatever advice I have on the subject with a generous helping of salt (even better with some fleur de sel, or solni cvet, from Piranske Soline!). But I think the easiest way to have your own voice is to just be honest and put as much of your own personality into your writing as possible. I'm happiest with my own work when it sounds like something that I could have said to someone verbatim over beers (or domača žganje). Is this the best approach? Probably not, but I'm really not the person to talk to when it comes to writing as a craft that needs to be honed, since my whole approach has been just going with the flow so to speak, for better or worse. Speaking of which, I hope someone edits this interview. I've been known to make a typo or two (per paragraph).
What qualities does a writer need to have?That depends on what their goal is. If you want to be successful as a writer, then the talent you need first and foremost is self-promotion. I think this is true for most things that could be considered arts or creative pursuits. On the other hand if you just want to write to the best of your ability and be happy with your own work and the rest be damned, then there's something to be said for the cliché answers of being honest, writing what you know, finding your own voice, actually being passionate about your subject, etc.
Could you tell us a bit about your job? How does one become editor-in-chief for all the kids out there who dream about becoming an editor?As I mentioned, being an editor is more or less the same as being any kind of manager, which means meetings, managing people, projects and those dreaded deadlines. So the first thing anyone who wants to be an editor should do is have a realistic picture of what they're getting into. Then you can either get lucky like I did without trying, or, if luck isn't your thing, then just put in the hard work, build that CV and climb your way up the proverbial ladder. Nowadays you can also just set up your own travel blog like millions of other folks and give yourself whatever title you want.
You have been working for In Your Pocket for a long time. Could you describe In Your Pocket to us? What is the aim of In Your Pocket?In my personal opinion, the main aim of In Your Pocket should be providing accurate, honest information to readers in an informal style about destinations you know well enough to consider yourself a local. So it all kind of goes back to the "beer with friends" philosophy that I've got with my own writing, which might explain why I've stuck with In Your Pocket all these years. When our guides and content have been at their best over the past three decades this is what they've achieved, and the brand as a whole has been duly rewarded with page after page of glowing reviews and recommendations to this effect in some of the leading media in Europe, the US and elsewhere around the world.
Which article or project are you most proud of?Hmmm, there are at least a dozen projects I'm working on that are at various stages of completion that would rank above anything I've actually produced thus far in terms of pride. Of course the caveat is that they're not actually done, and when I said "working on" a few seconds ago I really just meant that I've got some ideas written down somewhere. Like most people I suffer from recency bias, so over the past few months I've found myself sending links to people exclaiming that whatever I'm sending might just be the best thing I've ever written. Then of course a few days go by and self-congratulatory praise seems excessive, or even embarrassing. Is there a chance that the same thing happens with this interview? Could very well be. So to answer your question more directly, let's just go with the Slovenia Wine book that we finished a couple of years ago.
We heard you love to read books. Which ones are your favourite?That's one of those impossible questions - like asking about favourite songs, paintings, films or countries - since they really depend on your mood and the time and place you were in when you first experienced them. There have been a lot of books that I remember loving when I first read them, but probably couldn't tell you much about today. Dance Dance Dance was the first Murakami I read. It's supposed to be one of his worst books, but I loved it and never liked another of his more acclaimed ones as much. Someone loaned it to me in a guesthouse in Tirana over Christmas 2007, and I read it in a few days. And now I've got zero recollection of what it's about, which is why I actually just bought a copy last week to reread. The God of Small Things is another that I hadn't thought of in a while, but then got reminded about a few days ago and has a good story behind the actual book itself.
You are originally from the US, can you walk us through the biggest differences between America and Slovenia?Talking in broad strokes, people in the US have collectively lost their minds over the past decade or two, so it's hard for me to compare that burgeoning Idiocracy to any other country, let alone Slovenia. When it comes to specifics, Slovenes are lucky to not have to worry about student loans, healthcare, not having any rights when it comes to being an employee or consumer, and these types of things. Although it's quite obvious that Slovenia and Europe in general is sadly following the US (and UK) into their perverted version of race-to-the-bottom capitalism that's currently destroying the planet and human civilisation as we know it. But back to your question. I only visit the US once every few years, and the most palpable differences that I'm always aware of but still get a bit shocked by when I see them in with my own eyes is how fat the people are, how big the cars are, how cheaply everything is built and how the infrastructure is noticeably falling apart. And the ubiquitousness of a handful of brands and especially fast food chains. Although judging by the lines of cars when McDonald's recently reopened in Ljubljana, Slovenes are McLovin' this aspect of American culture as well.
Speaking of food, which cuisine is better, Slovenian or American?Unless you want to count fast food, the US doesn't really have a cuisine per se. But neither does Slovenia, so in that regard they're similar. When it comes to the food you eat in those geographic locations on the globe currently known as Slovenia and the US though, the main difference is affordable quality. You can eat well and healthy in Slovenia for almost nothing, while in the US if you've got a fridge full of things labelled as "organic" or can afford to eat at quality restaurants you've really got to be in the top whatever percent of society. So in that sense you can say Slovene cuisine is better and it's not even close.
What's your favourite cuisine? Is it Slovenian or any other?Other than just walking around and talking to people, my favourite thing about travelling is eating food. I was in Minsk the end of last summer and loved eating at the buffet-style Sovietesque cantinas in shopping malls. The potato pancakes covered in sour cream were excellent, as were all kinds of mystery meats, especially if you were drinking vodka all day. So my point is that I'm generally not too picky, and like the food most places I go. But if I had to pick a favourite cuisine I'd say Vietnamese, especially pho soup or bun thit nuong (vermicelli noodles with pork and spring rolls and vegetables). Even their banh mi sandwiches are amazing. In fact, now I've made myself hungry and I think that's what I'm going to have for dinner tonight.
Which ingredient is always in your kitchen?I lived in Lebanon for quite a while and still travel a lot in the Middle East and Arab world, so I've usually got plenty of chickpeas, fava beans, sumac and cumin. And za'atar (mixed thyme seasoning), but I never use that because I can't get labneh (a kind of thick Lebansese yoghurt) most places. The Japanese spice furikake is another favourite. While the one thing I used to always bring back from the US was a few bottles of a local seasoning from Seattle salt called Johnny's. But then they stopped using MSG, so I was depressed for a while until I discovered that the Spar Budget chicken seasoning is almost the exact same thing, and still includes that magical monosodium glutamate.
You are a wine lover, if I am not mistaken. Which is your favourite bottle of Slovenian wine?Although I'm a regular at Ljubljana's annual wine events and have personally visited dozens of vineyards, and even written a book about Slovenian wine, I'm really more about the experience that comes with it, rather than the wine itself. So in this regard you really can't go wrong anywhere in Slovenia when it comes to wine. My favourite wine district is Vipava, but locals are usually surprised to hear that the one wine destination that's always on the itinerary when I have friends visiting from abroad is Bizeljsko. As for the actual wine, if something has spent a few years in a wooden barrel it's really hard to go wrong. Sveti Martin's sweet Klarnica was a long-time favourite of mine, and I always buy a few bottles from Ferjančič when I see him - he's easily got the best moustache in Slovenian wine, which counts for a lot in my book. The only varieties I'm not a huge fan of are young white wines, which ironically seem to collect the most Decanters for Slovenian producers. But they're just too acidic for my tastes.
What's your favourite spot in Slovenia?It's not an exaggeration to say that there's really almost nowhere in Slovenia that's not beautiful. Even much maligned places like Jesenice, Trbovlje and the valley of abandoned factories near Maribor are all located in gorgeous spots. But my go to answer for this question is almost always Solčava. And not just the most famous valley, Logarska dolina, but really the whole area. It's even more impressive when you drive there the back way from Ljubljana on these tiny country roads.
Since you love to travel I have a feeling you are not in Slovenia at the moment. Where are you currently located?I'm currently sitting on one of those famous Ikea chairs that everyone has, including my friend Maxime, who also has a condo on the 30th floor of a nice building in Kuala Lumpur (the capital of Malaysia), and who was nice enough to let me move into his guest room. I was actually on the last scheduled passenger flight out of Slovenia back in March (technically the second to last, but ours got delayed and took off just a few minutes before that Air Serbia flight to Niš, so I've just been telling everyone it was the last flight because it sounds cooler). It was a very last minute decision, and the trip here included an emergency landing in Istanbul after a mechanical failure, then finally arriving about three hours before the country went into lockdown and they prohibited foreigners from entering. I had a return flight on 19 April, but that was obviously cancelled on account of the whole world grinding to a halt, and now it looks like I might just spend the rest of the year over here. Since it looks like long haul travel will become a much rarer and more expensive thing, I might as well make the most of getting stuck here, right?
Yuri you are a traveller by heart, which is your favourite country to travel to?I've been to something like 96 or 97 countries (depending on if you count Vatican City, which probably you shouldn't, but I still do), and it's the very rare case that I don't really like a place, to the point that I'm already nostalgic when it's time to leave, or even check out real estate prices and look into actually moving there. For years my default answer for this question was Lebanon (and Syria prior to 2010), since I lived there, and still try to get back to visit friends at least once or twice a year. I loved visiting Uzbekistan and Oman, but they were only one-off trips. Over the past year I've spent a lot of time in Morocco, and also fell in love with Sudan earlier this year. So it's hard to say. However, living in Slovenia you're really spoiled for possibilities when it comes to travel, and I always love visiting Belgrade, Budapest, anywhere in Italy, Berlin and London. All of which I try to make it to at least once a year.
You like to live on the edge if I can say that. Did you have any dangerous experiences while travelling abroad?I try to always do some responsible level of research and planning, especially if I'm visiting somewhere like Afghanistan, Somalia, the worst part of DR Congo, Iraq or more recently Kurdistan or Sudan. But even with the proper planning you still might end up getting chased by wild dogs through a minefield in Kabul or getting kidnapped and having to jump out of a moving car in Baghdad. The incident that really stands out though, was the time I almost got shot in a town called Jacmel in Haiti, after arguing with a motorcycle taxi driver over a 30 cent discrepancy in the agreed fare, which is why my still unfinished memoirs are tentatively titled 30 Cent Life.
I also got a hint that you dated a Slavic girl once. Could you tell our readers a tip for dating a Slavic girl?The fact that that question is in the past tense should tell your readers all they need to know about any advice I might give. But Slavic or otherwise I'd always just say to be yourself and be happy with who you are first, unless you're just a terrible person. In that case you should probably worry less about trying to date someone and more about being a better, happier person.
This interview was conducted by The Slovenia, and can be found in its original form here.
In Your Pocket in no way endorses or is responsible for the views and opinions expressed herein, which are solely those of In Your Pocket’s former editor-in-chief and current editor-at-large Yuri Barron. These days he can be found on the 30th floor of a condominium in Kuala Lumpur, where he was planning to ride out the global quarantine by finishing his memoirs, Thirty-Cent Life: A Decade of Moderately Irresponsible Travel in Dodgy Countries, but hasn’t managed to get round to starting yet. More of his somewhat travel-related work can be found here.