Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Healthy and safe or health and safety?

We’ve discussed many things tonight but one of them is Britain’s obsession with ‘health and safety’. These often futile directives have all the freeing powers of a hungry boa-constrictor. If there was a prize for stifling adventure is surely belongs to the stuffy bureaucrats whose fickle and fearful sensibilities get enshrined in law. The ‘health and safety’ adherent becomes a person planning for every negative eventuality, almost willing on disaster to enable the implementation of their contingency plan or to vouch for the veracity of their risk assessment.

Earlier today we’ve visited Počitelj, “one of few urban ensembles in Bosnia and Herzegovina preserved in their integrity to the present time developed through the several phases of the history, beginning with the medieval period.” Put simply, it’s old. It’s a small old village built on the side of a hill with a tower at the top and ramparts around its borders. Being boys, my sister-in-laws husband and I had to climb the tower. Steps in the dark with no lights or handrails, easily climb-into-able windows with no bars and not a warning sign in sight – surely not! It was deliciously dangerous. I actually have a healthy respect for heights, which means I feel sick when I look out over big drops, but you can’t let such bodily self-preservation instincts stand in the way of a good bit of exploration.

Up on the ramparts we suddenly discovered a hole in the ground. Perhaps it wasn’t quite big enough for us to fall through but it’d have easily swallowed a leg up to the thigh. Being boys we had to see what was in it so we talk a photo. The flash showed up water. It seemed close but dropping a stone in indicated it was easily a ten foot drop. I say all this to say we had fun while admiring everything in the golden light of the setting sun. There was no accident or injury because we took responsibility for our own actions. Too many regulations undoubtedly lead to the worst kind of passive abdication. Here’s to a world more healthy and safe but caring less for the blight that is ‘health and safety’.

Monday, 29 December 2008

For the love of a soggy sandwich!

I got hungry on the drive back from Dubrovnik last night. The chocolate rations I’d packed had suffered a softening process thanks to the hot air blowing on the windscreen. While not entirely in an inedible state they were, I deemed, now a slip hazard for the fingers of a driver. Help, however, was at hand. My sister-in-law had pocketed the British Airways in-flight sandwich which she deemed too disgusting for consumption. For an ex-pat living in a land that doesn’t understand the charm of a pre-packaged sandwich this was a nostalgic godsend. Yes, it too was a little too warm but to my taste buds the combination of one half cheese and chutney, the other coronation chicken was a little slice of home from home. I’ll never knock airline food again!

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Going fast - sort of!

In an email to a friend the other day I mentioned that in the last three months the fastest I’ve driven was 80kph. They’d done a fair amount of travelling with us in the UK and were well familiar with the way we used to enjoy our Minis. Needless to say they were surprised, possibly verging on disbelieving. However, I know I wasn’t lying. The Toyota Combi we drive here gives no impression of being able to travel any faster than the national speed limit for out-of-town single carriageway roads. I have taken to telling myself all speed sign are in fact in miles-per-hour to save myself from depression. That we spend most of our lives trundling around at thirty miles-per-hour or less requires some getting used to.

Today we travelled to Dubrovnik to pick up Rowan’s family from the airport. I made the welcome discovery that Croatia has a 90kph speed limit on out-of-town single carriageway roads. The two and a half hour journey contained two or three short sections of uphill dual carriageway along the Croatian coast but apart from that you must either exercise patience in single file or resort to life-threatening overtaking manoeuvres. So for much of the journey we trundled but for a few brief moments we actually felt like we were moving. On one section of downhill I actually caught the needle hovering around the magical three figures. I’ll choose to ignore the fact those three figures are the poor relative of their UK equivalent and enjoy the feeling of going fast again.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

From an atheist's perspective

Every now and then I read a column that really resonates. All too often I get the suspicion columnists are being contrary purely because balanced opinions are rarely exciting, or likely to generate buzz. This can lead to foolish over-statements that undermine good arguments. Today I stumbled upon something that seemed truly heartfelt, an against-my-better-judgement confession. The columnist was dragging out from under the carpet what we moderns, or post-moderns, or post-post-moderns, would prefer kept from sight.

Under the headline “As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God” Matthew Parris placed the subheading: “Missionaries, not aid money, are the solution to Africa's biggest problem - the crushing passivity of the people's mindset.” There was no way I was not going to read on. And if you are in any way interested in aid and true transformation of society and culture I recommend you don’t overlook it either. Sure it’s one man’s perspective but he is one man daring to say what many would rather ignore. He gives praise where all too often frowning faces question the strings attached. He mentions evangelism without a condescending tone. I am as surprised as I am inspired.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Christmas Day games


I forget where I read about the resurgence of the board game as a Christmas favourite. Maybe it’s true; maybe a tired hack needed to make up a few column inches before their festive frivolities. Nevertheless, if it is a trend we are almost up with it, with a twist. Boggle probably doesn’t constitute a true broad game in the classic Monopoly or Cluedo mould, but it is a tabletop game that engages the brain, particularly when playing in another language.





Our language teacher would have been so proud to see us and our Finnish friend battle our way through round after round of very foreign word play. While almost every word we saw had three or four letters Rowan and I both managed to hit six letters once. That wouldn’t be much in English but here it felt like a huge literary achievement. With dictionary on hand as adjudicator it was a vocabulary enhancing experience: probably my most educational hour of any Christmas Day ever!

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Charity

I once bought Christmas Tea from Whittards. This morning it seemed unlikely I’d be doing that again, at least according to an article I read. Things it seems really are bad for peddlers of non-essentials, which is, if we’re honest, what Whittards had become. Most of their stores I visited seemed to lurch from sale to sale, offloading oddly shaped teapots and novelty chocolates to those of aspirational taste and adequate means. Tonight I read that there is hope, but still all is not rosy.

Being out of the country I’ve no way of knowing if the British press are blowing the real mood on the high street way out of proportion. However, as voluntary workers funded solely by the voluntary donations of a fantastic bunch of individuals all this focus on financial crisis makes us all the more aware of how important it is to work wisely with what we are given.

I read Libby Purves column on charity. I had to agree with much she wrote. There is a danger of over professionalising, of too many layers, of donations diverted to fund bureaucracy. There is a danger that we cynical about giving. There is always need. And there is always someone shouting about it. Usually loudly! Compassion-fatigue is the new-fangled description for those bewildered into inaction by the competition for attention.

But having spent the last week watching hundreds of children and young people on the receiving end of the generosity of UK charitable giving I hope the current economic climate does not provoke self-preservation to get the better of the desire to help those who struggle for life’s essentials. To quote the King James Bible: And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Scrooge vs Santa

Up until now I had been quite excited to discover I wasn’t the only Scrooge in the country. Back in England, to be in church and not to be into Christmas was, certainly in my experience, something of an anathema. The two seemed indivisible. Over the years I found myself the centre of much seasonal bafflement – particularly when I married someone who enjoys all things Christmasy! My lack of emotional attachment to the celebrations finds me fitting well amongst a group of Christians from Muslim, Catholic and communist backgrounds. While none of us doubt the importance of Jesus’ birth we have our questions about what the celebration has turned into. I’m not going to try and persuade anyone to my point of view, but neither am I going to get excited about something I think at best unimportant, at worst misguided.

Sadly, such high-sounding principles lay dashed by an ignominious fall from the moral high ground. I had to make a tough decision in what was an interestingly organised trip distributing humanitarian aid. Our team was performing puppet shows to children and giving out hundreds of shoeboxes stuffed with toys, treats and essentials sent from the UK. In a couple of locations the local organisers had asked that a ‘Santa’ be on hand to help distribute the parcels. Our designated ‘Santa’ pulled out of the trip at the last minute. With only two blokes left in the team it became a me-or-him scenario. I was told I was to be Santa. They tried to soften the blow by telling me that since communist times Santa is a New Year figure here. I tried a typically subtle English response to indicate my disapproval, but that doesn’t translate cross-culturally.

I was eventually presented with the opportunity to flat out refuse but by now it was apparent I would be letting down the local organisers and, of course, the children – and aren’t they who it’s all about? So reluctantly I donned the stupid red outfit to become possibly the most un-ho-ho-ho-ing Santa in the world (an untimely blocked-up nose wasn’t helping matters). Yes, babies cried, small children looked the other way and some refused to have their picture taken with this grotty Santa. But for those who laughed and smiled – and took photos – and went home with something meaningful from the experience let’s hope it was worth it. Meanwhile I’m left to hope this sacrifice of principle isn’t the thin end of the wedge.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

That's my kind of card

Rowan came back from another dancing visit to a school yesterday with a story that put a smile on my face. The team had done their show when a boy came up to give them a card. Explaining that it was in English he said he hoped he’d spelled everything right. He’d done better than that. The card read: Merry Christmas and a Happy New York!

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Hallelujah

I’ve just bought Jeff Buckley’s version of the Leonard Cohen classic Hallelujah. It was an unashamedly bandwagon- jumping purchase, all thanks to the power of the internet. I was reading an article on the Times website about how loyal Buckley fan are hoping against hope that they can prevent X-factor’s Alexandra Burke from claiming Christmas number one with what they see as a sacrilegious version of their sacred song.

I’m not a Buckley fan; I’ve never owned, or even listened, to his music before. However there was something about this quest to show the world the real thing instead of the sanitised, homogenised, sensationalised version that really appealed to me. So in a couple of clicks iTunes was whirring away and I was listening to some new music. I don’t follow X-factor so I have no reason to put more money in Simon Cowell’s pockets. I liked Elton John’s comment. (Yes, I’m a fan and have an extensive collection of his music!) Despite the fact this season’s winner will sing with him he says he despises the show, although not the hopefuls involved. He’d prefer to see people playing their own stuff rather than singing his songs week after week.

Authenticity: it’s an attractive quality. If we are sick of people in entertainment producing shallow copies of other people’s masterpieces then the same is true when it comes to issues of faith. All too often we sense insincerity, or an unhealthy showmanship. Perhaps we feel someone isn’t really singing from their own song-sheet. They’re regurgitating someone else’s experience, not being honest about their own story. Therein lays the challenge. Faith gets a bad name because of its prepackaged proponents. It shouldn’t. Buckley’s fans are still routing for Hallelujah, but they want it presented properly. The same is true of faith. Confronted with the real thing, even critics have to admit its profoundly moving qualities.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Slippers - a tribute!

I’d love to write a rant here but I can’t. I‘d love to because it would be funny and amuse at least some of the English element of the audience. But there are two good reasons I can’t. One is it would be profoundly culturally insensitive. Secondly, it would be hugely hypocritical.

My would-be subject is slippers! Yes – fluffy footwear. I’ve visited several kindergartens over the last couple of days and seen a startling array of slip ons. I would love to claim this was a case of disturbing indoctrination but I too have joined their ranks.

In England I eschewed anything to do with slippers. How horribly old-man they are was my logic. However, in a town without central heating and where wall to wall carpets are unheard of they are, in my opinion, one of life’s essentials. Rowan would disagree but this is my post so let’s hear it for slippers and comfortably warm feet!

Monday, 15 December 2008

Making a connection

Tonight we were somewhere in the region of Međugorje. You’ll forgive me for not being specific but it was dark and raining and I was tired and not really paying attention. I wasn’t driving either! We were visiting an orphanage to perform and puppet show, a dance and some drama, and to give out Christmas shoeboxes. I don’t think I’ve been in an orphanage before and I certainly wasn’t expecting what I experienced. We walked in to a room full of children, from tots to teenagers, sitting on benches smiling and singing song after song unaccompanied.

We set up and did our show but what I’ll remember most happened after that. As the team set about distributing boxes to grateful recipients I felt a tug on my trousers. I looked down to see a small boy hugging my leg. He looked up, smiling but not saying anything. Realising I was in a poor position to initiate conversation I reach for my camera to show him the pictures I’d just taken of the dancers and the boxes. He made positive sounding noises and was then whisked away, presumably he should really have stayed seated.

As we drove home I thought about it. There was a challenge to his action. I had gone out to do what I had to do tonight: carry things, set them up, packed them down. He had done what I should have be looking to do, instead of hiding behind my responsibilities. He made a connection. He did something spontaneous that will be remembered. A random act of kindness, if you will. Suitably upstaged by a boy whose name I’ll probably never know I’ll grab a metaphoric red pen and scribble a big ‘must try harder’ over tonight’s experience.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Christmas is coming...slowly!

I have a reputation among some of my friends as being a bit of a Scrooge when it comes to Christmas. Back in England, where the festive season stretches over several months it’s harder to hide. Here, not only is the season significantly shorter but half the people I know have no emotional connection to the festivities. With less than two weeks to go decorations are just becoming more obvious in shops and there are lights up in the streets. There is a notable absence of the soundtrack usually underscoring the UK Christmas. We were in a shopping centre today which was playing the amusingly, pertinently titled U2 album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The excesses of the western, consumer Christmas are something I’m more than happy to walk away from.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Integration: this stuff really happens!

It was end-of-term karaoke night a Klub. It was also a farewell bash for Kate, who’s moving back to the UK after three years in Mostar. The place was packed and it was noisy. Again, it was a reminder that although sometimes people believe he who shouts loudest, there are often untold stories that defy the common wisdom. There are plenty who will tell you that in this part of the world you can’t witness what I saw tonight. So, as the chances are you weren’t there, let me fill you in on things the way I see them.

I saw a room full of young people enjoying themselves. The stereo was blasting as one after the other took the mic and belted out local tunes. As the evening warmed up it became first a group sing-a-long, finally and jumping, shouting, dancing party! I didn’t spot anyone who wasn’t having fun. All that is good, but not necessarily surprising; young people enjoy enjoying themselves. But when you realise these young people represent all the ethnic groups in Bosnia Herzegovina, including Roma, you get a picture of integration many say is not possible. That it clearly is should be a source of hope for everyone invested in the future of this region.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Success on what terms?

What does success look like? That was the question that kicked of the team meeting this morning. It provoked a couple of hours of healthy discussion. Perhaps you’ll forgive me for not divulging the specifics if I give you some of my subsequent musings.

You could be said to have had success if you achieve your aims while working in a specific area. Is it perhaps a greater success if, after your departure, that area continues to thrives? Let me find a ‘for example’. Imagine an entrepreneur starts a business and is soon employing others and turning a profit. Unlike current conditions, the market is stable and the future looks good. Then they get a new idea. Needing time to pursue this new interest they hand the first business over to their staff team and embark on the new venture. Within six months they have a thriving business developing while their previous project is losing its market share, laying off staff and giving the best impression of being yesterday’s news.

The entrepreneur could rightly be lauded as a success by one measure: they start things well. However, they are also a failure because their first company didn’t go the distance after their departure. They failed to invest in others, giving them the skills and insight to continue what others had started. It is easy, at least comparatively so, to be an individual success; much harder to shape successful successors. However, leaving a living legacy: that is the true test of greatness. And it’s all too rare in our world of short-term self-interest.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Moving boxes...again!

Today we were moving boxes again. The ‘we’ doesn’t include Rowan this time. The male contingent of the Novi Most Mostar team was sent over to the local warehouse of Mission Without Borders to pick up food packages that will be distributed among people we work with over the next couple of weeks. This provided another insight into the sharp end of humanitarian aid. It’s easy to feel detached standing in a warehouse piled high with identical-looking boxes. It’s much harder to remain so when you see locals collecting parcels that so obviously will make a massive difference in their live, albeit perhaps only for the lifespan of their contents.

I’m sure at some point down the road I’ll have the perspective to draw all the thoughts flying round my head into a logical form. For now, it’s too early for that – and I’m typing too late at night to risk anything too profound! And so with that fairly feeble get-out I’ll draw this post to a close. Doubtless this is a topic that will be revisited – probably just after the next time we start shifting boxes again.

Monday, 8 December 2008

A virtual return

Before we left England Rowan and I were both employed as youth workers at a church in southern England. Last night we made a virtual return to a youth service courtesy of Skype and a little bit of technical ingenuity at both ends. Our end was undoubtedly the easier. Nevertheless, Heath Robinson would have been proud of the laptop perched on a chair, itself on a coffee table; miscellaneous desk lights provided that all-important face-light. Employing two pairs of headphones Rowan and I were able to hear our interviewer, while ensuring the digital camera got sound too; all without creating a nasty feedback loop.

Back in England I do wonder what our webcam looked like projected about ten feet tall. Our interviewer will have stood on stage and stared up at a much-larger-than-life version of us. Not that we could see much on the webcam feed from England. Webcams are designed for offices or bedrooms, not for sending a crisp image of a hall that’d seat a thousand. I’ve done more sound checks than I care to remember in that building. I’ve been involved in plenty of creative feats of technical bodgery but it was strange to sound check from the other side of the continent.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Stamping and boxing!

Rowan has bruises on her legs and my right arm aches a little. Such are our scars from shifting shoeboxes. We got the call to join a large team of people to unload a truck full of Samaritan’s Purse goodies for distribution here over the next month. We shouldn’t complain because a language lesson meant we missed half the unloading and the rain was kind and held off by the time we arrived to help fill a second container. As with all repetitive manual tasks there is some fun to be found in it and so we passed a pleasant hour passing boxes.

Boxes where obviously a theme for today. Earlier we visited the post office to collect four parcels. This seemed to take an eternity as the lady behind the counter made sure all the paperwork matched up and got signatures in the appropriate places. It also got us wondering about why French is the international language of post. Am I mistaken in thinking that as Rowland Hill is widely credited as the inventor of the model postal service that English would be more appropriate? Perhaps someone would care to enlighten me!

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Throwing games

I’m a competitive person. At least, I am if I allow myself to be. I’m the sort of person who doesn’t really buy the ‘it’s the taking part that counts’ argument. I’m much more of the play-to-win persuasion. This creates a moral dilemma when working with young people. It wouldn’t be helpful to engage in a metaphoric fight to the death over Jenga, Playstation or table tennis. Unnecessarily demoralising for one thing; downright annoying would be another reason. At the same time, you can’t throw games really obviously because the opposition senses you’re not trying and gets upset by that. So there is a skill to be developed in throwing games convincingly.

Working in another country adds another twist to this scenario. Language. Some young people have a smattering of English, some don’t. Tonight I managed a couple of successful table tennis game. I lost both! I did so convincingly while keeping an agreed score count in Bosnian. I even manage to pronounce my opponent the winner in local language. He was always going to win. I quickly realised this as he counted it as his point if he was the last to hit the ball, regardless of where the ball ended up after it left his paddle. But, dodgy counting or not, it was worth throwing the games to see the look on his face once he’d decided he’d won!

Monday, 1 December 2008

Funny what Can Happen In A Year

One year ago today it was our first day back in England after a weekend in Sarajevo. That was our first trip to Bosnia Herzegovina. Rowan had been waiting half her life for it, my main association with Sarajevo was Miss Sarajevo – the Passengers (U2) song. It was a year ago this week Rowan first made contact with Novi Most, beginning a process that would see us making, what was to many, perhaps our most surprising decision yet.

As years go 2008 has been a pretty full one for us. That’s good. There’s no way we can look back and question just what happened to the last twelve months. We’ve started an adventure; another chapter of our lives. You can’t compare what was with what is now and it’d be wrong to say one or other is better. We had a good life in England; we now have a good life in Bosnia Herzegovina. 2009 is just around the corner and who knows what we’ll be writing this time next year!

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Bosnia 101: WHAT LIST?!

Browse any magazine, or magazine-style web-site, these days and you’re not going to get far without stumbling over a list. Lists are the authoritative way to dispense information in the modern age. Who hasn’t fallen for teasers such as ‘The Ten Things You Never Knew About...’ or ‘Five Ways To Better...’? Putting as few half-baked thoughts into bullet points seems a sure-fire way to imply infallibility. This being our one-hundred-and-first blog post it seems only right we jump on this band wagon and present ‘Bosnia 101: what list?!’ Who cares we’ve only been in the country five minutes; it’s a list, it must be good!

· WHAT COUNTRY?
Say ‘Bosnia Herzegovina’, or ‘BiH’ (bay-ha) for short; to just say ‘Bosnia’ when referring to the whole country is to Herzegovinans like saying ‘England’ to the Scots or the Welsh, when you really mean Great Britain.

· WHAT HISTORY?
Don’t expect to understand local history, and be wary of anyone who claims they do. The region’s rich tapestry, woven over millennia, will not be unravelled over a coffee or two, of an afternoon.

· WHAT RULES?
Traffic rules are, in practise, less like rules and more like guidelines (best read in the voice of Captain Barbossa!) – although have fun explaining that to the Police if you get pulled over!

· WHAT LIGHTS?
As a qualifier to the statement above it should be pointed out that it is compulsory to drive with headlights on at all time. Failure to do so will get you pulled over and fined – even if driving a car that’s technically not roadworthy won’t!

· WHAT QUEUE?
In line with the rest of continental Europe, the people of Bosnia Herzegovina do not give any indication of knowing the meaning of the word ‘queue’. It remains perhaps the only art in which the English still rule the world!

· WHAT COMPANY?
Bosnia Herzegovina is one of the few European destinations available to travellers desperate to escape the reaches of McDonalds and Starbucks-style globalisation; neither company has outlets here.

· WHAT LANGUAGE?
You’ll be hard pressed to find a Bosnian-English dictionary, but you will mostly get by with the more readily available Croatian-English ones – but, be warned, there are differences in the languages.

· WHAT SMOKE?
Bosnia Herzegovina could market itself as ‘heaven for the persecuted smoker’! ‘No-smoking’ is definitely a foreign concept, almost all cafes, bars and restaurants will leave your clothes smelling like a night in a British pub did before Brussels got involved! (A packet of 20 is about 80p!)

· WHAT COFFEE?
Bosnia Herzegovina is a coffee-drinking country. Cafes are everywhere and, unlike the chains that dominate the British high streets, you won’t need to mortgage your house to purchase a beverage. However, don’t expect to find a Caramel Macchiato! (Cups of coffee from 40p!)

· WHAT SONG?
Bosnia Herzegovina is a country that takes the Eurovison song contest seriously; not for them the tongue-in-cheek condescension of Mr Wogan. Their best result was coming 3rd in 2006. Apparent mutual appreciation with Croatia, Turkey and Slovenia probably helped!

(Do let us know you comments, corrections or suggestions for ‘the list’!)

Saturday, 29 November 2008

A matter of time, or two!

I made a couple of time related observations today that I thought were worth relating. The first being my encounter with possibly the world’s slowest petrol pump. The old Toyota combi needed fuel – or ‘oil’ as it is often translated – so before my usual home-time run after Klub I popped out to fill it up. The two inaccuracies in that last statement are very few petrol stations are self service, so someone else does the filling, and ‘popped’ implies it was quick. I was pleased that I got things in progress using my best local language but there was no way I was about to strike up casual conversation to while the hours away. Perhaps my silence translated as impatience, I did get an apologetic explanation on the state of the pump, the details of which were, sadly, lost on me.

I do quite a bit of driving around Mostar and I’ve crossed Spanish Square more times than I can remember but I’ve noticed what I saw tonight. I’ve been in London, New York, Paris, Rome, Madrid and never seen this particular pacifier in action. Maybe someone more travelled, or observant than I can let me know another city with a countdown display on its traffic lights. That’s right, nestled next to the red light, in a housing of identical dimensions is a two-digit display that, with perfect accuracy, predicts the number of seconds remaining until the lights chance. Quite why this is a necessary addition to the standard lighting arrangement I’ve yet to grasp, Perhaps it allows greater certainty in deciding whether you have time to send that text, remove your coat, or change that CD before the lights change. Not that we have CD players in any of our vehicles!

Friday, 28 November 2008

The journey needs a passport

It was strange to read headlines about events in India and on the same day read a blog post from a student at United World College in Mostar saying they had their classes cancelled yesterday because of a bomb scare. ‘Strange’ is, of course, a vague, perhaps euphemistic, term that could cover a range of emotions. Predominately, the juxtaposition of the two events left me thoughtful. I read about Andreas Liveras, who was shot, it seems, for carrying a British passport. Had he been carrying his Cypriot one he might be alive today. I don’t imagine I’ll end up in a scenario like that, for one I don’t frequent expensive hotels, but then I don’t imagine any of the victims in Bombay anticipated the events that unfolded. So life remains a journey of faith; a journey that in this life requires me to carry a British passport.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Shaken but not stirred!

Most nights we wake, albeit momentarily, at some unearthly hour as the garbage truck rumbles under our bedroom window. Last night we did not wake as Mostar experienced an earthquake! I am somewhat disappointed about this. We have a friend in another former communist country who was living seven or eight floors up a crumbling apartment block when a sizable earthquake struck the area she was in. She emailed me about people running down the stairs and out into the street as the building swayed sympathetically. I have no such stories to tell. I could talk about a friend who woke thinking it might be the end of the world but that is their story not mine.

Earthquakes are a lot more common here than they are in England, where noticeable ones are not common at all, or at least that’s my perception. There was one a month or so before we left England that dislodged a chimney pot or two in our town. I slept through that one too. Although the night after I had a very vivid dream about an earthquake in which I was sure I could feel the bed moving. So as I prepare to settle down to sleep tonight I wonder if my over-active imagination will kick in again to give me an action reply of last night’s entertainment. If it doesn’t I imagine I won’t have to wait that long to notice the real thing, unless of course I sleep through the next one too.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Bureaucracy comes with a price.

This is not a comment on Bosnia or the Bosnian systems of administration that owe much to its communist history. Today we came up against the sharp end of the British system. For reasons too dull and long-winded to explain here we needed to get photocopies of our driving licences authenticated at the British Embassy in Sarajevo. Rowan had phoned ahead to check when and where we needed to arrive, as the Embassy has two sites. We arrived on a crisp, snowy morning after a fairy-tale train ride through a winter-wonderland of Herzegovinan and Bosnian mountains. It was a fantastic start to a day, despite needing to be up early to get the train. If there was any chance that we’d not shaken of our slumbers Her Majesty’s Government was on hand to deliver a rude awakening.

It takes less than five minutes to check four photocopies against original documents and apply a stamp indicating their authenticity. For this privilege the Embassy extracted a sum of money in three figures, whether you measure it in Pounds, Dollars, Euros or the Konvertible Marks we had to hurry off a get from a nearby hole-in-the wall! If you multiple this up to create a speculative hourly rate someone, somewhere, could be raking in a cool four figures, which is not bad in any of the currencies I’ve already mentioned. So far tales of our lightened bank balance have met with disbelief. ‘Aren’t they supposed to help you?’ said one local, unable to grasp quite why there wasn’t a way around this bureaucratic balls-up. While not particularly in the mood to leap to the defence of the realm I should concede there was a price list for consular services nestled in a collage of other information on the wall, and the Embassy staff were polite, efficient and remembered to smile as we emptied our wallets. Rule Britannia!

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee?

Somewhere, buried in a file of photos from a trip to the States is a photo of Rowan and Jackie Chan. OK, I lie. However, I have a photo of Rowan standing by Jackie Chan’s star on the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard. She picked his star to be photographed next to because she’s a fan of his movies. Not the ones he’s famous for but the cheesy American ones like The Tuxedo or The Medallion, in which he smiles a lot and speaks English in a particularly appealing fashion. The appeal is not the action, so I was somewhat surprised when Rowan started talking about Bruce Lee the other day.

Bruce Lee it seems is, or was, something of a unifying force in post-conflict Mostar, not that to our knowledge he ever visited the region. Nevertheless, what he represented resonated so much with the different sides, she read on the internet, that a life-size statue of the man himself was erected in the park here. It stood there until, six months after its installation, someone stole his nunchucks! All of this sounded so far-fetched it had to be investigated. Surely this was more based in hyper-active internet-imagination than reality. So today we took a trip to the park in search of an empty plinth. Unbelievably, after a couple of false starts we found the empty platform bearing the inscription ‘Bruce Lee’. You really can’t make this stuff up!

Monday, 24 November 2008

Giving my synth some stick!

This post will be shamelessly devoted to the humble USB stick. The purchase that provoked this praise of data portability was not a particularly considered one. It was just an opportune, impulse buy, courtesy of a perfectly placed dump bin of discounted merchandise when we were shopping for storages boxes for our move. Today it was the brain for my synth, holding all the data for the tracks we were recording, and it was the uncomplaining go-between a Mac and a PC. It never once complained that it couldn’t work with one or the other, unlike a few humans I know!

I found myself telling someone, ‘funny that this is the most important bit of equipment here’, pointing to the little black thing sticking out from the back of the keyboard. And isn’t that always the way. The flashy-looking silver synth might get the attention because it’s new and shiny but without this quiet and unassuming accomplice it wouldn’t be able to deliver what was required. It’s too is to be attracted to the big, the bold and the brash but today let’s hear it for the little guy, be they male or female! These quiet, conscientious go-betweens are so often the ones who really keep the show on the road.

Still unconvinced? Today I packed my rucksack with all sorts of ‘bits’ – a techie collection of leads and connectors. Experience has taught that you can never have too many ‘bits’ floating around when going into an unknown audio situation. Invariably there is one connection that needs a special something to make it. Without the right ‘bit’ you’ll either have to invent and elaborate bodge or completely rethink you options. It’s unlikely people forgot big bits of equipment (unless they’re drummers!) but too many times they come unstuck with a lost little lead.

In conclusion, can I recommend you buy a USB stick because even if you never use it you might one day be the answer to some forgetful techie’s prayer. And next time you encounter someone displaying all the commendable characteristics of the aforementioned stick be sure to thank them for the good job they’re doing!

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Patience and puppetry

We took delivery of a small collection of flat-pack boxes on Thursday. Inside: the components to two bedside cabinets and a wardrobe. On Thursday I also bought a synth so I could produce music for a puppet show we'll be involved in. New toys often come with a steep learning curve, and while operating this one is not exactly rocket science when there are deadlines involved it makes getting it right first time a little more important. The obvious challenge here was how long Rowan could leave the boxes unopened while I was preoccupied in my make-shift home studio. We're talking minutes rather than hours.

Soon I was getting visits every five minutes or so to ask for my take on the rather vague assembly instructions. Then I was the 'muscle' to undo the things that had not been put in quite the right place. Finally, by Friday evening I was finishing the first of the bedside cabinets. Rowan's made a promising start to the second one this afternoon, and the wardrobe will have to wait until Tuesday because I'm out recording puppet voices for most of tomorrow.

IKEA seems to be the benchmark for flat-pack furniture these days. Our nearest IKEA is now a couple of countries away. What we bought is differs in that is both better and worst quality than the average IKEA product and it wasn't sitting on a giant shelf in a warehouse like store ready to be driven home that day. It arrived in a van a month after it was ordered - but then that was the agreed delivering time and delivery was free.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Childish excitement

In England I wore the same clothes all year round. Obviously not the same T-shirt with my jeans and zip top, I had an embarrassing large T-shirt collection, but you get the idea. I’ve quickly realised that while this is fine in a mild climate it will not do here. I worked late into the night the other day in a T-shirt and two jumpers, despite having a heater just a couple of feet away. A high-ceilinged apartment with no central heating is very different from the small two bedroom terrace we left in England. That’s why this morning I squeezed in a shopping trip to buy a few more long-sleeved tops.

I was crossing Spanish Square when I saw something that caused an involuntary smile. Just beyond the mountains surrounding Mostar I could see another peak white with snow. I don’t doubt this is a childish reaction but in that respect I had a deprived childhood. The south of England rarely sees snow of any kind, let alone the kind that settles. In thirty years I remember perhaps four or five occasions, if that, with snow good enough to play in. While it may not snow in Mostar itself the fact we can see snow from street is reason enough to be happy, at least today it is!

Friday, 21 November 2008

A rose by any other name

In English it is somewhat hypothetical to postulate about the naming of roses. They are roses. That’s the name they’ve been given. We talk about someone’s given name and it is indeed their unchanging identity unless they choose to shorten or misspell it, or allow others to do so. It seems teenage girl particularly enjoy experimenting with alternate spellings; perhaps in search of a unique identity, perhaps just to give some of the English language’s more underused letters a run out! I am Matt, and have been for years, although my mother will argue that ‘Matthew is such a nice name’. It is: it’s just not one I readily associate with myself. Here in Bosnia, however, names change not just on the whim of the individual but through the nature of the language. I’m still coming terms with this linguistic intrusion into what I’ve always perceived as the hallowed ground of nomenclature.

I read a Bosnian TV magazine with film stars name’s transliterated. Recognise Vinz Von anyone? I decided my name would probably be spelt Mat Helja. (I was going to type “that’s short and sweet” but it seemed slightly too self-descriptive!) But here’s the thing: name’s change here. If someone was going to attract my attention they’d shout ‘Mate’ – and not in an English ‘oi mate!’ kind of way. At the risk of misinforming you, I think I’m correct to say I could also end up as Matu, Matom and Mata depending on the context. The same happens to brand names. I imagine there’s more than one foreign marketing department that’s struggled to accommodate that. There is a great logic to it, and the language loses some little joining words and apostrophe ‘s’ as a result. Getting to grips with a, mostly, logical language does make you wonder how English ever got so popular. While I remain a big fan of its flexibility and durability I have a fresh respect of those who take up the challenge to learn it and all its foibles.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Back to the drawing board!

Ok, so there’s no drawing board and it’s not exactly a case of starting all over but I am jumping back into working on creative projects with both feet. The project is a puppet show to be performed in locals schools, and a few other select locations, towards the end of the year. My job, or my first job, as part of the team involved in producing it is to write and record all the music for the soundtrack. That’s tomorrow’s job, in fact – after getting my hands on the keyboard I’ll be working on. It’s not all resting on me. Others have played their part already. I have melodies and lyrics for eight short songs and a selection of other musical cues, but pulling this next bit off does rely on me getting my musical brain in gear.

I expect tomorrow to be a long day. We’re also taking delivery of a flat-packed wardrobe. This should see the final suitcases removed from our bedroom to be replaced by a genuine feeling of ‘we’ve arrived’. However, unless Rowan is feeling particularly adventurous there is every chance foe it staying in its wrapper until the beginning of next week. That would be a shame. We are so close to having a neat and tidy apartment. But then we’ve never been particularly good at maintaining that tidy house. Life just involves too many pieces of paper, although at least here we don’t get daily junk mail!

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Hang on a minute...

Never before have I seen hangman generate such enthusiastic participation. Given that the setting was a youth club running an evening for 11-14 year olds the response was staggering; hilarious at times too. It was a team-based head-to-head competition. Rowan and I were in a team although I don’t think we helped much. We know our Bosnian alphabet alright but were pretty sure that the letters you’d pick first in English were unlikely to win the game here. Our hesitance didn’t hinder our team, who emerged victorious after six or seven rounds.

There were screams and squeals, hugs and high-fives. I’m sure that if we were up on our local slang we’d heard the equivalent of ‘bring it on’ or ‘you think you’re all that’ as the banter flew between the opposing sides. There were prizes for the winning team. One young lad returned to a FIFA-two-thousand-and-something soccer match we’d paused during the competition brandishing a small, flat-packed, polystyrene airplane he was clearly happy with. Funny, because I think I had exactly the same plane when I was his sort of age. They were exciting back then too.

Monday, 17 November 2008

K.I.S.S.

You may be familiar with this business acronym but in case the remainder of this post be lost on anyone I’ll spell it out.

Keep It Simple Stupid!

That was, in essence, what I was told tonight. My little bit of writing about Sunday’s trip to HŠK Zrinjski’s last home game of the year was covered in red pen. The problem is my desire to construct complex sentences, much like I enjoy doing in English. I was given an on-the-spot challenge. Write two or three sentences. Simple ones: subject, verb then whatever else. And so it was that in scribbling away obediently I turned in my first complete sentences that needed do correction. They’re not poetry or even great prose but they are right.

Rowan je pričala sa Mirjom
Ja sam gledao utakmicu
Volim gledati nogomet

Yes, it’s a challenge to be content in this simplicity but it’s also a good incentive to study hard!

Sunday, 16 November 2008

What does reconcilation look like?

Today we witnessed what can only be described as a miracle. My only problem is how to do it justice in my description! Bosnia Herzegovina is a country divided in some many ways along ethnic divisions, kept apart by the lack of reconciliation, perhaps even the desire for revenge. But that is not the whole story nor is it a story exclusive to this part of the world. Many have been victims and perpetrators of crimes. Some have found the way to forgive and when you see this played out it is a powerful statement of hope that should not be ignored. I doubt I fully grasp the significance of what I was part of this morning but I felt in some way connected to the unfolding story.

The room was full of people from people, old and young. Some were from a Muslim background, some Croats, some were Roma. There were people from America, we’re from England, a friend from Finland was there. The girl in front of me was a refugee in Sudan for ten years. The meeting was lead by an Evangelical pastor and had addresses from a local Franciscan priest, a German Lutheran priest and a former soldier in Hitler’s Nazi army. The theme was reconciliation. The German’s had brought with them a simple cross fashioned from nails that once held the room of Coventry Cathedral together. Those familiar with English history will know the Cathedral was destroyed by German bombs in World War Two. What we heard of the story of how some of its remains found their way to Mostar, via Germany, was remarkable. In this melting pot of history past and present there was the unmistakable sense of hope for the future.

The elderly ex-soldier from Germany led the gathering in echoing some of Jesus last words – ‘Oprosti Oće’, Father forgive. A religious platitude it was not. It is the truth that brought this roomful of people together. It is the attitude that continues to shape their future and a better tomorrow for their communities. It wasn’t the presentation of a theory but a real-time, real-life demonstration that forgiveness really works. And that is good news, not just for Bosnia Herzegovina, but for a world that all too often would rather prefer to get revenge.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Going against the flow...in a contra-flow!

Mostar has a few quirks in its road system; certainly to a driver freshly arrive from the nanny state that is Great Britain for driving in the UK leaves nothing to the imagination. There is always a sign to tell you exactly what to do – or not as the case may be. There are sign to remind you to take a break and even signs that announce ‘fog’ when there clearly isn’t anything of the sort. Then there are road cones – millions on them. A motorway contra-flow system will utilise edge-to-edge cones for miles on end, guiding obedient vehicles through every twist and turn, while temporary speed cameras will ensure all of this happens at an appropriate average speed.

Tonight we were heading to a concert in a nearby town. I knew there were road works on the most direct route out of town, but didn’t want to make a fuss by picking my way across town to hit the main road by an alternative route. So it was that we encountered an un-signposted road-closure, negotiated a barely-signposted diversion and ended up reversing up a section of contra-flow after the few cones there were abruptly blocked the road, leaving us facing the oncoming traffic. I don’t know if Jeremy Clarkson has ever driven in Bosnia Herzegovina. Something tells me he’d revel in its quasi-anarchic roads but he’d be infuriated at the large sections tonight’s out-of-town journey that had 50kpm speed limits.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Turn up or turn down?

Some of our readers may be familiar with quote from the Bible that talks about lengthening tent cords and strengthening tent pegs. It comes in a section talking about new beginnings and expansion. In preparation of a new of our own I have been lengthening my guitar strap and adjusting the tuning pegs on Rowan’s bass. In truth, I’ve been adjusting the truss rod to compensate for the cold weather but that was harder to crow-bar into a biblical comparison! Our new beginning is joining the music group in the church we are attending. We’ve attended practises for a couple of weeks but this Sunday we play in our first service.

As an electric guitarist it is sometimes easy to feel self conscious in new church environment. Rock’n’roll guitar is not everyone’s cup of tea – real English or the fruit variety. I can’t remember the number of time I’ve been asked to turn down over the years. There are some funny stories best left untold, let me tell you. That said, I have also been asked to turn up on more than one occasion, and not just when playing pub gigs. Rowan hasn’t played in a band for a few years so she’s well up for some thundering bass lines. But we both know given the size of the building this is unlikely. The building here has roughly the same floor area as the stage has in the church we played in back in England!

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Facebook my wife!

Rowan came back from two hours of teaching on a rubbish dump this afternoon. She was cold. This is hardly surprising. Although we're still yet to see serious rain, or the fabled wind we've been promised, temperatures have dropped noticably over the last couple of days. Two hours outside and you're going to feel it. Even indoors you can feel the change. Our apartment doesn't have central heating, which is normal for Mostar. We have an air-conditioning unit that will blow hot air and a couple of small heaters. These do warm things up but this heat quickly disappears when you switch the heaters off. So it seems important to be wrapped up against the cold.

This presents a challenge for Rowan. She has never 'believed' in coats! It has taken some measure of arm-twisting on every occassion she's come close to buying sensible outer-ware. Today's incident can be excused to some degree; due to the dirty nature of working on rubbish dump she'd been told not to wear anything than wasn't easily washable. Neverthless, with winter upon us she'll need more than the multiple hoodies she's so fond of wearing. This is where those of you who know Rowan come in. I think she's convinced of the need to buy a 'dirty' coat but, just in case, I don't see any harm in a flurry of helpful reminders appearing on her Facebook wall!

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

21 again!

Golden birthdays have cropped up a couple of times recently in videos I was watching online. I don’t know how widely this concept is known. Everybody gets one per lifetime, although not everybody will remember it. It’s the birthday where your age corresponds with your birth date. So it may not mean much to those born in the first week of a month but people, like me, born in the last week of the month should get a birthday to remember. Sadly I don’t!

I’m thinking of numbers and birthdays because I received a belated birthday present today, twenty-one days after it was posted from the UK. Twenty-one is a significant birthday that I do remember. It is also more than twice as big nine, which is the number of days the parcel my wife received today took to arrive. I think five days is the fastest anything has arrived in. As for the longest time: I’m sure one of the two outstanding items of post I know that were sent for my birthday will get that prize. We’re told that locals will often opt to send their parcels by bus – but that’s another story!

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Oh Lord won't you buy me...

We need to be careful. For too long we’ve found strange pronunciations of English words amusing. Soon we will be providing similar entertainment to the people of Mostar, only in their language! Nevertheless, an incident we witnessed today means I can’t help thinking of a Swedish person we once heard talking repeatedly about a ‘catastrophe’ – only the pronunciation was consistently ‘cat-a-strof’! Well today we witnessed a minor mechanical cat-a-strof. Perhaps it was an incident of critical failure. We were strolling up the street, with Leah, discussing something, I forget the details, when an aging Mercedes driving towards us uttered the most alarming sound.

My first thought was its exhaust had fallen off but, as every by-stander who bent to check under the car could see, nothing was hanging off. The driver made a valiant attempt to keep driving – this clearly wasn’t engine seizure either – but did opt for the first available parking space when it became obvious the noise wasn’t going to disappear. Mostar is full of older German vehicles because there are, despite this story, durable and reliable, and parts and labour are plentiful and reasonably priced. Cars hold their value more than they do in the UK. But one wonders at some of the growing number of new cars. Like the brand new BMW X6 sat waiting for the old Mercedes to move aside. It’d be a head-turner in SW1, and not entirely out of place there, but here I can’t help feeling it represents conspicuous consumption at its most crass. Perhaps that’s unfair – maybe this latest twist on the Chelsea tractor would be crass anywhere!

Monday, 10 November 2008

Something encouraging!

We are grown-ups. We may not always look like it, perhaps not even act like it, but check the dates in our Passports and you’ll see both Rowan and I are the other side of thirty. We’ve both worked extensively in youth work and in schools work. Between us we’ve taken assemblies, taught in classrooms and run group workshops and one-on-one tuition one subjects including mountain-biking, music and computer skills. In the light of all this I don’t understand why I get so stressed about our language lessons. It’s not like the learning environment is a far-off, foreign place. But I feel it – not in my fingers! – in my shoulders and neck. It’s stressful. Perhaps it’s the thought of yet again having to watch a red pen make substantial adjustments to my homework.

Tonight, as my work book was surrendering up the results of this weekend’s blood, sweat and tears, an interesting thing happened. Our teacher began to flick back through the pages, searching for something. Eventually she found it: the date of our first lesson! 22 Rujan 2008. (Rujan is Croatian for September.) She started making positive sounding noises and muttering things we probably should have understood. I’m going take the drift of it to be that for six weeks of study we’re doing pretty well. This is encouraging because we still feel distinctly disadvantaged in so many daily situations. For all my complaining it is an exciting challenge. Knowing how embarrassingly, if understandably, lazy most English people are when it comes to learning another language it is rewarding to know we will shortly be joining what must be a minority of those who have a working knowledge of a second language. But only so long as we keep doing our homework!

Sunday, 9 November 2008

That's about 28p a goal!

We did a few spontaneous things before we left the UK. When you realise you might not be able to do something again for a while it tends to make you a bit more decisive and proactive. One thing I did was take a trip to White Hart Lane for a UEFA Cup tie between Tottenham Hotspur and PSV Eindhoven. It was a week or so after Juande’s finest hour (or two) and the night they presented the Carling Cup to the fans. The team then conspired to lose a disappointing tie, and dropped out of the competition after the away leg. Probably the first nail in coffin for Ramos. Anyway, the point of the story is not the result but the price. I paid about £50 for the ticket, and after adding train travel, match programme, scarf and food probably didn’t get much change out of a hundred pounds.

Today we attended a seven-goal thriller in Mostar. Local side HŠK Zrinjski are top of the Premier Liga BiH. Finish first and they could be playing Champions League football next season. Getting tickets was as easy as walking up to a hole in the wall and handing over 5KM. That’s two quid, or less than half the price of a McDonald’s meal in the UK. For that you get to pick your seat – we were four rows back, on the half-way line – or you can take the 2KM option and stand on the opposite side to the grandstand. Zrinjski were 2-0 up after twenty minutes and looked much the better side. Yet somehow they went in at half-time with the scores level. After the break Zvijezda were undoubtedly hungrier and by the hour mark were leading. Then things heated up. By the last ten minutes the ref was reaching for his pocket so regularly it was hardly worth putting his cards away. Then in the 89th minute Zrinjski struck; the stadium erupted. And as if to prove the old adage about lightening wrong, a second header two minutes later sealed a dramatic comeback in injury time. Top-notch entertainment – and well worth the money!

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Mad World vs Ordinary World

Two classic songs, but only one of them is on my iPod! I have the original and I have a collection for dance remixes, one of which is on my ‘Running’ playlist. Last night I went running. It was raining lightly as I left the apartment headed over the river and up onto the east side of town. It was dark and the street lights made the puddles glisten and gleam like black mirrors. I avoided them not just for the sake of dry feet; hidden beneath their reflective surface lay holes of indeterminable depth. The pavements were littered with cars, mostly parked although at one point one was driving along in front of me. Perhaps I’m paranoid but I swear that more than one group of girls stared and laughed as I ran by!

By the time I hit the ‘title track’ on my playlist I was heading for home. The rain was now falling heavily and I had misjudged enough puddles to have heavy trainers on my wet feet. My hair was flattened to my head, with the sticky taste of diluted hair product trickling into the corners of my mouth. As I crossed the bridge the river was hidden beneath a low-laying mist while the mountains were only discernable by the distant lights of a car picking its way down a switchback road. Traffic splashed by and I reached for my iPod to turn it up against the noise. As the guitar lick kicked in I picked up my pace for the final push but as much as I love the tune this is no ordinary world, nor do I want it to be.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Mines and Land Rovers

I’ve long been an admirer of Land Rovers. I’ve never owned one, or even driven one, I just like the concept of them. I know they have their detractors but they have their defenders – the pun was unavoidable! In Mostar there is at least one, maybe two, royal blue Defender 110s that are used by a mine clearing team. Bosnia Herzegovina is still littered with mines from the conflict and the work of clearing these often unmarked areas continues today. In Michael Palin’s recent New Europe series it was said that in parts of the country it will take a hundred years to finish the job.

Today I was walking into town when I spotted one of these Land Rovers parked on our street. There were people in matching blue overalls standing around. Then I noticed a plot of land where the remains of a ruin were being removed was taped off. I know they still find unexploded bombs from the Second World War in the UK. That there should still be unexploded ordnance a street away from the former frontline of a conflict zone should not be surprising. It is however a new experience for me. It brings the reality of recent history closer to home.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Remember, remember...

Tonight we are not having fireworks, although, as if on cue, the longest peel of thunder has just crashed about outside while I type this sentence! Obviously, this most English of occasions passes unnoticed here, perhaps wisely so given the large Catholic community in Mostar. Those who don't fully understand should Google 'Guy Fawkes' and 'gunpowder plot' for an insight into an important part of English history. Rowan is missing fireworks, as she particularly enjoys a good display. Hopefully we'll get something at New Year to make up for it.

So back to the thunder - it's rolling noisily around the mountains. Perhaps it signals the end of summer? Obviously summer ended a long time ago for locals but I was discussing this with Ben today: it's November, yet every day has still been better than this year's August in England. He's from Wales where the temperature bar is set much lower so it's even better for him. It's raining - the cars are sloshing past under the window. We keep being told 'wait for the wind', so we're waiting! Where we live now is more sheltered than the side of the hill we were on and we don't have to walk too far to work. These are positives when discussing bad weather. Tomorrow looks like it'll be wet. Maybe soon we'll get to experience cold and windy too!

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Cheap seats!

Just over a week ago I posted about our setting-up-home shopping trip. There was one funny incident I didn't mention. We were at an out of town furniture store hunting down an appropriately priced table and chairs. Having found what we wanted Rowan went ahead with approaching a shop assistant. She was passed onto a young women who was obviously the stores best English speaker. It was about this point Ben decided he too wanted a chair like the ones with our table. This threw the system - one table and five chairs!?

The upshot was three male staff members sitting out the front of the store puzzling how to assemble a flat packed chair in front of an audience trying to hide their no-honest-we-don't -find-this-amusing smiles. When they finished their construction the girl brought it over to our van, set in on the ground in front of us and demonstrated how it wobbled. 'It is cheap' she declared. She was right but it was still funny.

Yesterday I realised just how structurally unsound the chairs where, fortunately before a catastrophe occurred. I won't give you the detailed explanation I gave Ben but let's say a healthy dose of glue was in order. And so this morning I dismantled all four chairs, glued all the joints, packed out the loose bits and reassembled them, tightening the bolts properly in the process. They may be cheap seats - only plastic stools were cheaper! - but they're pretty and pretty comfortable too. Now they've had their inherent design flaws fixed they're probably also safe to sit on!

Monday, 3 November 2008

Song writing and running

Since Saturday I've been digging through lyrics from songs I've written over the past couple of years. The reason for this will doubtless be revealed at some point, though not in this post. I mention it only because one song I was making some adjustments to contains the line 'and I will run'. Taken out of context it is perhaps not the most profound collection of words every committed to paper yet it jabbed at my conscience. I was running three or four miles three or four times a week in England. Baring one morning in Croatia I haven't run since we arrived here...until now.

Tonight I put aside fears of looking like a crazy foreigner, plugged in my iPod and headed out the door to pound the pavements. Anyone who ever saw me running in England will be glad to know I refrained from donning my headband! My exercise was a short experience. The road I chose soon ran out of street lights and seeing a suspiciously parked park but with no way of getting an ID on its occupants before passing into the darkness I decided discretion is the better part of valour and turned back. It was hardly enough to put a dent on the effects of three months of undisciplined eating but it was a start. And I already have plans for my next route.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Familiar brands: absent and present

I am the friend of a fisherman, at least I am if you really are what you eat. No, I’ve not turned cannibal! Let me explain. Back in England I would occasionally partake in a steaming mug of Lemsip, a sort-of pre-emptive strike against a more serious affliction; that snotty feeling that leaves an alarmingly large pile of hankies in need of cleaning. With the weather sort of turning here I felt like it might be a good time to have a drink but alas we overlooked the Lemsip when packing. We haven’t carried out an extensive search but it seems the shops here don’t stock it, or any generic derivative. I managed to find some Strepsils in the cupboard and some Lemon Fisherman’s Friends in a local supermarket. They taste similarly as bad as Lemsip so perhaps they’re helping!

On the subject of familiar brands we’ve particularly enjoyed welcoming Uncle Ben to our new kitchen. Today he was joined by Mr Dolmio for a tasty Sunday lunch. The ‘minced meat’ that the sauce smothered seemed of no particular variety, but it took the spices well enough. I have Hellmans mayonnaise, in the over-sized equivalent of a toothpaste tube, although I’m told Thomy is better. I’ll do a comparison. Rowan’s happy with the quantities of Milka available. However we are often told appearances are deceptive. This couldn’t be truer of the fruit and veg. English aisles are packed with pre-cleaned, homogenised produce, the beautiful people of the plant kingdom. Here, instead, it’s a real, warts-and-all experience. It tastes so much better – and doesn’t carry a gia-organic price tag!

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Saturday morning and more homework!

No Saturday morning lay-in for us. we were up and out to a music practise. For Rowan this was a chance to dust off her bass playing skills, while I got the chance to give my new Sound City amp it's first run out. For those interested in the intricacies of valve amplifiers I would caution that this modestly sized, and competitively priced, package punches above its weight, making 'quiet' quite a challenge! Still, I've no regrets about the last-minute purchase and I'm sure it's going to get plenty of use in the months ahead.

So this afternoon has been spent going over out furiously scribbled notes to make sure we won't have forgotten anything by next week. It seems language lessons aren't the only thing to come with homework! And on that subject, I think I got plus points of a translation from the sports section this week. It wasn't so much the quality of my work or the commentary I'd written but that the article mentioned Luka Modrić and Vedran Ćorluka. Both Croatian internationals, both play for Tottenham Hotspur. Apparently out teacher's husband also follows Spurs. With the team experiencing the most dramatic turnaround that's no longer the embarrassment it was a couple of weeks ago!

Friday, 31 October 2008

Dinner in Dubrovnik

We’re back from a Novi Most team retreat in Slano, Croatia. Last night we went out for dinner in Dubrovnik. I visited Dubrovnik back in 1986, just a few days before my twelfth birthday. We flew in. I remember the decent over the mountains. The 737 got lower and lower as the bare, rocky slopes got closer and closer. I think I saw someone herding goats – I certainly remember seeing TITO spelled out large and clear in stones. I was sitting in a window seat on the left of the plane and there was still no sign of civilisation when we touched down. We climbed down the stairs onto the tarmac and headed for the solitary barn-like building that was airport terminal. It was a memorable introduction to Yugoslavia.

Down in the city last night I tried to see if I could remember anything. I know I’d been to the port before. Although it looked like the pictures it didn’t seem that familiar. On the main street I tried to work out which building was once a sparse shop where I bought a post card or two. Gone is the communist austerity. The street sports shops that would grace a swanky district in any cosmopolitan city. In an expensive bookstore I afforded myself the opportunity of buying an English-language magazine. Well almost, it was October’s American edition of Wired! (This isn’t the place to digress into a discussion about why it’s wrong for an American website to list English (UK) as a language option.) We ate and then headed back up the coast. But we’ll go back, although I’ll brush up on my history first to be fully prepared for Rowan’s barrage of questions!

Sumo u Slanom

There is nothing particularly profound about this video, or at least it's not intended to convey any deep, hidden message! It is however a record of something that happened at the Novi Most team retreat we attended this week and so has its place here...enjoy :)

Sunday, 26 October 2008

The same age as who?!

People have different ways of coping with getting old. In Lost In Translation, a young Scarlett Johansson asks an aging Bill Murray ‘have you bought a Porsche yet?’ Some people must dye their hair, some just live in denial. I’m not old but I am getting older. It’s more obvious when you work with young people. They’re always teenagers, while you are always aging! Although I’ve been mistaken for being eighteen a couple of times recently I know the truth. When I turned 33 I joked with a few people that I was now the same age as Jesus. In a strange way it was a reassuring coming of age until someone kindly pointed out that was the age that he died!

Well, barring any grave misfortune in the next couple of hours I will have moved on a year without being Christ-like in that respect. Well almost. My thirty-third year has seen my most dramatic life change certainly since getting married, probably since I made the decision to work for a church after leaving college. I know it’s nothing on Jesus’ obedience to go to the Cross so please don’t go scribbling “You‘re a heretic” in my birthday card. However, this isn’t the first time that I’ve pondered a death and resurrection analogy in an attempt to describe what this life change feels like. Again I don’t want to claim it has been difficult. I haven’t sweated blood; I’ve barely shed tears. Perhaps this is because it was the right time and I was prepared, even if I was unaware of it. It’s probably been harder for those watching on, although at times I’ve felt a little like a spectator myself. So what of the next year? Well, I won’t be making any rash comparisons!

Saturday, 25 October 2008

God doesn't want religion but restoration

I was walking back home with some freshly baked burek when a bit from the Bible drifted to mind. It was something about restoring streets with dwellings. Having pumped what I could remember into BibleGateway.com something very exciting is coming into focus. The words I was thinking of come from a book called Isaiah. He was an Old Testament prophet, someone who told people what God was saying. They come from a chapter which starts off contrasting the religious performances we can be tempted to put on with the true acts of faith God is looking for.

“loose the chains of injustice...set the oppressed free...share your food with the hungry...provide the poor wanderer with shelter...when you see the naked, clothe him...do not turn away from your own flesh and blood”

The street I was walking down, the one where we live, is an interesting place. Many of its buildings are just bombed-out concrete skeletons housing unplanned assortments of trees and shrubbery. There are the semi-restored properties that still bear the scars of war and there are fully-restored buildings. Our apartment block was a ruin but you never know to look at it today. And that’s why I was excited the words I remembered were God’s promise good things will happen for people who live his kind of faith.

“Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings”

We’re living in the benefits of restoration and we see it going on around us every day. We also see the need for justice and freedom; there are those who need food, shelter and clothing. These needs are universal but this is where we are now so we must turn away from them here. I’m sure I’m not alone in looking forward to the time when there are no ruins and every street has a thriving community living in it.

And here’s the clincher: I didn’t realise this chapter ended with a verse that has long been a favourite of mine. “Then you will find your joy in the LORD, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land.” The mountains here look so inviting and that has to be the clearest Biblical reference to mountain biking ever!

Friday, 24 October 2008

Not exactly a shopping spree!

We live in an environment that uses cash more than plastic, and one with an exchange rate of 2.5 of our new currency to our old one. That means on days like today you really notice how much you’re spending. I say ‘days’ but we haven’t had a day like today since we’ve arrived. We weren’t much in the habit of having them before we left and I don’t suppose we’ll have another like it in a long time. Today was the day when we spent the money we’d been putting aside to buy essential items for our new apartment. These purchases can be roughly summarised as a microwave – or ‘magnetron’ as a more exciting translation on the box declared! – a table and chairs, cleaning paraphernalia and food.

We visited six stores this afternoon, joined for most of it by Ben and Mirja. It was warm and we enjoyed clear blue skies as our trip took us south out of town. Mirja’s from the Arctic Circle and Ben’s from Wales; neither places famed for their good weather! They did some spending of their own, although not quite on the scale we did. We must have looked quite the picture: four obviously ‘foreign’ people in a battered Toyota combi van filled with an eclectic assortment of carrier bags. Carrier bags are not ‘evil’ here; you’d get very strange looks if you tried not to use one. So now are cupboards are stocked with food, particularly all those little things you never think to buy but it’s so hard to cook without. We have a fully functioning kitchen for the first time in almost three months. Rowan is making brownies in celebration!

Thursday, 23 October 2008

That's the way the cookie crumbles!

We welcomed our first visiting visitors to our new apartment tonight. The slightly awkward double ‘v’ is to distinguish them from our working visitors. Earlier in the day Budo, Ben and Claire helped us move our stuff down the hill. They deserve a big thank you for playing an invaluable part in what was a very smooth move. As far as I can tell nothing was lost or damaged! It was all over in a couple of hours. Perhaps it was the pent up desire of two months in boxes but we had everything we could unpack unpacked and installed in a new home before tea time. It was as we finished off our first home cooked meal in our new place that we heard someone calling our names!

Our visiting visitors, Mijra and Leah, burst through the door. Mijra ran from room to room making excited noises and say ‘oh my’ a lot. The apartment has high ceilings and is all painted white. The effect is to make an already spacious place seem even bigger. That said it is comfortably bigger than our house in England so it’s not all illusion. Mirja had decided that as we’re nearly neighbours down we could lend each other eggs and sugar. She’d tried to learn the Bosnian for egg before she went shopping but she forgot – it’s jaje – so we got a bag of sugar and the local equivalent of Kinder eggs. Leah had baked cookies. She’s American so she knows how to make cookies. We ate them, still slightly warm from the oven. And if that’s the way the cookie crumbles I for one am not complaining!

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Jack and Jill went up a hill...for the last time!

Ok, so the title should read 'Matt and Rowan' but 'Jack and Jill' are more famous for their hill Rowan is hugely relieved that as of tomorrow we will be living on a flat road in a flat part of town. She's said more than once that she thought that walking up the steps and slopes to the place we've been living should have got easier over time. In her opinion it hasn't. It is fair to say it's good for the legs. I've appreciated it, as I've yet to find anywhere that seems sociably acceptable or safe enough to run. The safety issue centres around the quality of the running service rather than the vibe of the neighbourhoods.

Tomorrow the two Novi Most combis in Mostar will share our stuff between them as we descend for the last time. (Obviously, not really for the last time!) I will miss the view. That's all the more reason to get my bike up and running. It's been fantastic to get up in the morning and look out over the city. The light here is amazing, particularly first thing in the morning or just as the sun's going down. There are mountains and the Neretva meanders, or surges, its way through the centre of town, depending on how much water they've released at the dam upstream. I like to stop and stare at the deep green-blue water, even if just for a moment, when we cross over the river. But I'm waffling now, but I think you can tell we like it here...even if there are hills to climb!

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Doing good and dying for it.

I remember sitting in Sunday school as a little boy, learning what Christians refer to as ‘the fruits of the spirit’. Imagine the giant, hand-drawn tree on the wall. From its branches hang carefully coloured apples and bananas and the like. They’re named: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This is what, we’re told, Christians should be like. The Bible says there is no law against these things! That bit always fascinated me. Here was something you could do and there was no way you could get into trouble for it.

Fast forward to yesterday’s news and I’m reading about Gayle Williams being gunned down in Kabul. She was about my age. Perhaps she looked at a similar tree in Sunday school and thought of living a life of helping others in a way that wasn’t against the law. She was certainly living that way when lawless people decided she had had to pay the ultimate price for ‘spreading Christianity’. Jesus went around doing good and healing the oppressed. That is an unquestionably positive example to follow. It is a sad and sobering thought that some deem such charity so offensive they’ll kill to eradicate it.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Blowing a fuse...or not!

We visited Mostar in March this year. It was our reconnaissance trip. A time to see things and meet people we'd being working with. We also took the time to assess the shopping situation, noting what we saw stacked on the shelves of supermarkets. However, it was a causal comment that really stuck with Rowan. A Novi Most member mentioned her washing was still damp after five days hanging out to dry. Suddenly 'tumble drier' was indelibly written at the top of Rowan's must-take list. As our drier was old (read dispensable) we figured there was nothing to lose by putting it on the van.

Now we find we've rented an apartment that has a drier. This is a rare but welcome circumstance. Our spare appliance quickly acquired an eager new owner. So before it spun its last spin for us I thought I should replace it's trusty three-pin plug with a local two pin version. Plugs here can go in the socket either way up. They have an earth connector on both sides. That's strange enough to my English electrical sensibilities. What's harder to comprehend is that there's no fuse. I just wish I'd listened harder at school so I could actually remember what the safety implications of this are!

Sunday, 19 October 2008

But I thought that we'd given that up?

We went for coffee with a couple of new friends from the United World College in Mostar today. I mention this for two reasons. First, because this only happened because one of them saw this blog and sent us an email. I thought I should mark that occasion as a tribute to this technology. The second reason is they passed on an interesting analogy they'd been told that I'll take the liberty of retelling here!

United World College draws students from around the world, 200 in all from about 35 nations. Many of these find life in Bosnia Herzegovina very different from the country they've come from. One of our new friends was told by a student in the year above her that Mostar was like a cigarette. You don't like it the first time, but the more you have you become addicted!

That made me smile, partly because the amount of smoking that goes on here is one of the noticeable things we've had to adjust to, and partly because it made me think about just how we feel about being here. I remember arriving in Mostar for the first time. It was by train from Sarajevo, late on a March Sunday evening. I don't really remember my reaction; I don't know if I really knew what to expect. That was just seven short months ago. Now we're here; this is where life happens for us. I guess it is early days to say if we're 'addicted', but if I find we are I'll be sure to let you know!

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Getting married over here!

Don't panic, this is not post announcing a Facebook-style change in our relationship status! It is a post that will attempt to create a picture that we've seen here a couple of time now; a cultural observation on local wedding celebrations.

Earlier today on the west side of town we emerged from a grilled chicken joint - a cheap and cheerful place with very good chicken - to see a convoy of cars careering around the corner. It was a wedding procession. Let me outline the tell-tale signs.

Horns are being honked not just repeatedly but unceasingly by all vehicles involved.

Many cars will be sporting streamers and bows, particularly on their wing mirrors.

At least one car will have an occupant waving a huge Croatian flag.

Today however this procession took it one stage further. The passengers in the first four cars all had their windows down and were sitting on the doors, shouting, drinking and generally having a good time of it. I've never tried travelling like that but I imagine it not exactly the easiest manoeuvre to execute, particularly not in wedding finery. Still, it put a smile on our faces so we wish them all the best!

Thursday, 16 October 2008

The one in which one admits one's pretence!

On the day that the Queen visited Google's London office I thought it appropriate to come clean about our use of the 'royal we'! Those who know us well will doubtless have deduced that it is the Matt part of Matt & Rowan that keeps bashing in entries to this blog. As almost everything we've done here we've done together I (Matt) feel comfortable speaking for us. However, today Rowan took a trip I didn't so I have persuaded her to say a few words that are genuinely her own about it.

"We went to play games with Roma kids who live behind a supermarket on a rubbish dump. They were very friendly and affectionate and wanted to ask me lots of questions. It was a bit frustrating cos I couldn't understand everything they were saying and even when I could understand I didn't always know how to reply.

They were very dirty - especially their hands and feet. One girl decided she was hot and wanted to swim in the river so she found a piece of glass on the ground and used it to cut her trousers into shorts - it didn't work too well and her shorts looked pretty crazy when she'd finished but she seemed pleased with the result.

There is a lot of rubbish everywhere and some of the people who live there sort through it as their job. There are a lot of bottles and old cars and washing machines and stuff. Some people live in concrete buildings and some in other home made looking buildings."

Welcome to our new neighbourhood!



This is just a quick glimpse at the area we'll be living in. It has plenty of trees, many of them inside the ruined buildings that are still an obvious part of the landscape.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

I wonder what they think of this?

I'm munching on what appears to be a plastic replica of a Jaffa cake but I'll resist the temptation to type another food related blog. Instead I should report the good news that we signed a contract on an apartment today. This has been some time coming. We don't move till next week but this is another step in the right direction. When they say 'let patience have its perfect work' it's all to easy to equate patience to hanging on an hour or two. We're learning that an hour or two is nothing. Again, they say 'it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive' and I can see that if you live only for the destination there might not be a lot of living going on.

I love the movie Elizabethtown. In it there's phone conversation where one the main characters asks the other 'I've always wondered this: who are they?' The same question could be posed in this post. In the first instance they is James, the no-nonsense letter-writer from the Bible. He goes on to say '...that ye may be perfect and entire, lacking in nothing.' Patience doesn't just bring us prize for being good but works good in us. The other they turns out to be Robert Louis Stevenson. 'Little do ye know your own blessedness; for to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.' I'll confess I'd not read this before and I like it more for the context. Somehow I think James would probably approve too!

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

On the roads

So I'm driving here now. Today was my first time going solo. It wasn't quite fully-fledged freedom of the roads as I was following Claire in one of the other Novi Most combis, but I was on my own in my vehicle. We drove about twenty minutes out of town to leave one combi at a garage for servicing. That was the VW I drove out. I drove the Toyota on the way back. It really has seen better days. However, I managed to navigate my way around the vagaries of its gearbox and drive in a way the accommodated its painful lack of power. It wasn’t quite as bad as I’d been lead to believe, but it was close!

Half the roads around Mostar appear to be being resurfaced, or should I say they have been prepared for resurfacing. The scraped surface leaves drain covers protruding as unpleasant wheel-deforming devices. No, I didn't hit any! Potholes and other severe surface undulations, however, are almost unavoidable so it's often the case of literally having to take the rough with the smooth. But do it all with your headlights on or you'll definitely been flagged down and fined. I spotted almost a dozen Police officers on our short round trip, but my lights were on! We're getting pretty orientated to tackling Mostar on foot; now my task is to be as confident navigationally from behind the wheel.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Beautiful Symmetry - starting where I left off!

Over the last couple of years I've played at a low-key event called Hub:live. All of those appearances were backing other singers as they meandered their way through stripped-back acoustic version of their songs, either behind a keyboard or on acoustic guitar. However, at my last Hub:live I was afforded the opportunity to play and sing a couple of my own songs. I closed the night with a song that is probably my trademark in the eyes of the artists I've played for. Beautiful Symmetry has one of the better choruses I've written - if I do say so myself!

Though the day is a mystery
At the tail end of history
Every bridge has been burned
At your promised return
No unfinished symphony
Just a beautiful symmetry
When I see who you are


I wasn't planning to jump up on stage so soon after arriving but in a bulk-out-the-numbers moment I ended up taking part in a talent show at the youth conference in Sarajevo this weekend. I didn't win - obviously, that wasn't going to happen! - but we all know it's about the taking part. It was great to see everyone who was involved and for me it was fun to start where I'd left off in England. And who knows where we go from here?

Sunday, 12 October 2008

The safest cup of coffee ever!



Just watch the video and imagine what might have happened!

Friday, 10 October 2008

A treat for the taste buds

The taste buds are wonderful things. Unless they’ve been seared by extra hot pizza, or ceased to function out of sympathy with a blocked nose, they are a surprisingly accurate at detecting even the slightest changes in familiar food or drink. Which is why the familiar is sometimes not so familiar. Ever had the privilege of eating a Cadbury’s Dairy Milk from South Africa? It got a gritty, floury texture not found in its UK counterpart! My taste buds are telling me the Pepsi here is not the same as it is in England. Without the ability to conductive a side-by-side text I’ve taken their word for it.

To my rescue rides Cockta! Now Cockta’s not a brand I was familiar with. The Wikipedia entry starts helpfully: ‘Cockta is a soft drink from Slovenia. Its main ingredient comes from the dog rose berry’ Sounds appetizing, doesn’t it? But, honestly, it is! I’ve drunk litres of the stuff and haven’t got sick of it yet. Translating the prominent sticker on the label today I discovered it doesn’t contain caffeine nor orthophosphoric acid; the latter's the one in domestic cleaning products amongst other uses! I’ll claim it means it’s healthy and assuage my conscience. Meanwhile, Rowan will continue to drink Fanta Shokata.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

About that extra mile you mentioned...

‘You’ve worked in media for too long, that was a proper slogan!’ screamed my correspondent in a recent email. I’d written about something I was hoping to see happen here and had obviously got a little carried away in the way I worded it. I like words, I enjoy playing with them. Used correctly words convey so much more than just the sentence they construct. One of the challenges of being here is not yet being fluent in the local language. I can construct simple sentences but they convey nothing more than the simple thought they contain.

But you can never escape the English language. Today I was walking past the Hotel Bristol when I suddenly noticed the writing across the top of the t-shirt on the bloke coming towards me: Go the extra mile, there’s always space ahead. Perhaps not the greatest phrasing but certainly a fantastic thought. If you’re prepared to go beyond the norm, beyond what most others are prepared to do, you are going to find the room to expand, space to express something new. There’s cost in that. Breaking new ground is rarely easy but nothing is more rewarding.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Oh why, oh why...?

We wandered into a cafe late tonight; probably the nicest place we've had a drink in Mostar. However what caught my attention was the tune being piped at a discrete volume into the refined atmosphere.

'Sun is in the sky, oh why oh why, would I wanna be anywhere else?'

So why did a Lily Allen catch my attention? Two reasons. First, it's only by being out of the country that you realise what it means to say pop music is one of Britain's biggest exports. Tunes by bands that used to be just down the road from us pop up in the weirdest of places and I don't know if I totally approve!

The second reason is it reminded me of lunch today when Rowan and I sat outside a restaurant in the Stari Grad. The sun was high is the sky. A bright blue sky with just the slightest hint of wispy white clouds at its edges. Legions of French tourists poured past taking in the sites, while a small group of Germans got to grips with some ćevapi on the tables next to us. It was warm - hot, if we're honest - and a very pleasant way to prepare for an afternoon of language study.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Bring the noize

Tonight Klub Novi Most re-opened for the autumn. It was out first night. This was the acid test. Would we feel completely out of our depth; would we struggle to connect? The answer is, of course, no! Young people are young people and despite not understanding the banter we could communicate enough to exchange names and play games. Ligretto is a favourite here. I'd never played it but was soon up to speed, although not winning enough as I'd have liked!

So why the title? Well, it was noisy; youth clubs always are. But during the entertainment section it got really noisy. The floor was covered in pieces of A4 paper with a letter of the alphabet on it. On the count 'tri, četiri, sada' the young people had to rush across the room pick up a piece of paper and be the first to reach the staff member on the far side, shouting a word starting with the letter on the paper. Their eagerness necessitated the cry 'uz za zid, ziiid...ziiiiiiiiid!' (The i's are pronounced like English e's.) There you have it: the noize, with lots of zeds! It waz lotz of fun.

Monday, 6 October 2008

The wonders, and shortfalls, of e-communication

It's hard to imagine what moving to another country would have been like in an age before mobile telecommunications and the internet. The distance, the time delays in messages and the chance that you might be somewhere so remote you were completely cut off from the outside world. (People pay good money for that kind of solitude these days.) We've found the adjustments of settling into a new environment much eased by being able to chat to parents and friends on Skype. In fact we've been in contact with friends and family around the world about our move. Then there's this: the blog. Who knows where you're reading it?

But for all the wonders of modern technology these electronic communications have a drawback. There's no e-equivalent of walking into a room and refusing to leave until you get what you came for! I have a situation where something borrowed from me before I left the UK was not returned. I've left an answer phone message: no reply. Text message: no reply. Email: no reply. Facebook: no reply. So now I blog. If I was in England I'd be hunting down the person in question and explaining this was no longer a joke but that, sadly, is not an option. Alas, I am all too easy to e-ignore!