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!