Thursday, 31 December 2009

Thanks for reading

I noticed my brother changed the banner on his blog the other day. The new image presents a list of places where his readers log in from, much like fashion stores have a fondness for putting London, Paris and Milan on their windows. The purpose of this blog is not to try and go one up on his impressive selection of cyber destinations but merely to say thank you to those of you who have been following our adventure throughout 2009. Thanks to all of you who have commented or let us know that you enjoy what you're reading. We know 2010 has some exciting things in store; we hope you'll be part of seeing them unfold with us.

But, tempted as I am to do my own little bit of 'place-dropping', I'll let you in on our New Year plans. In previous years we've taken in the delights that London, New York and Cape Town have to offer. Tonight we will be in Dubrovnik and I'm sure they'll be pictures or, more likely, video to follow!

Friday, 25 December 2009

Peas On Earth

As I took a break from cooking what will pass as Christmas dinner in our house, I was struck by the sudden urge to blog. I reasoned that on a day such as today my last post - Lettuce Give Thanks - had to be followed up with one entitled Peas On Earth. At this point you've probably looked at the picture and thought something like 'surely he knows that's not peas, that's sweetcorn?'

Fear not, I do know my vegetables, frozen or not. The switch was initially based on necessity. We're out of peas. Pity really, I was planning to cook some today. The choice was to go with corn or carrots. Carrots carry the 'or stick' connotation which could have worked well in a 'peace on earth' context. But sweetcorn has one endearing quality. It's durability. I don't wish to lower the tone to explain myself but let's just say very little else can get chewed up and yet come out looking completely unscathed by the experience.

Peas pale in comparison. Their claim to fame mostly involves being mushy, hardly a desirable quality. That is certainly true when it comes to peace. Mushy doesn't help anyone. You can make peace, but a mushy approach to passive peace keeping doesn't work.

As were look to ahead to 2010 I, for one, want to pursue peace with the durability of sweetcorn, not the bribes of a carrot or the mushiness of a pea. I hope that those working to secure lasting peace and stability in this region think likewise.

[Merry Christmas....if you want a bit of stark, somber Christmas reading I recommend this article.]

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Lettuce give thanks!


Tonight we made our first trip to a new, smallish, supermarket just around the corner from our apartment. Imagine my surprise when browsing the selection of good-looking fruit and vegetables I saw this. Pictured here is the first iceberg lettuce I have seen on sale since our arrival in Bosnia and Herzegovina almost sixteen months ago. Maybe I’ve been looking in the wrong places; now I know where to go. I’m not really a salad freak but I always a bit of extra iceberg crunch with a burger!

Such luxury comes at a price. Four marks fifty-two to be precise. That’s a lot for something that’s predominantly water. For my English readers, that’s well over two quid, more than twice what you’ll be paying in Tesco. There’s always a cost to progress and my taste buds count the reintroduction of iceberg into my diet as progress. Students of economics will remember that a decrease in price should lead to an increase in demand. Maybe it can work the other way too; my increasing demand helps everyone else benefit from lower prices in the long run. Well, it’s a nice thought anyway!

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Snowtastic!

Much like the part of the UK we came from, Mostar does not often get decent snow. It's comes, then, as no great surprise that on a day when the fall could genuinely be counted in inches I was out there with the camera to capture the evidence.





Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Smashing!

I've had chipped windscreens in the past, I definitely remember one of our MINIs needing the glass replaced, but I'd never smashed a window on a vehicle...until last Tuesday. As I type snow is falling outside but a week ago tonight the rain was pouring down. Heavy, heavy rain, even by Mostar's standards. I was driving our Volkswagen Transporter down towards the Stari Grad for another Gilgal gig. Reversing into a parking space I missed the overhanging tree - or rather I didn't miss it. It wasn't in my wing mirrors although I might have seen it had the rear window not been quite so steamed up. One of the passengers in the back screamed 'stop' but in that instance the whole window just exploded inwards. I'll save you the story of us picking up the pieces from this mess but I must mention that driving home later that night without a back window gave fantastic clear rear visibility!



The video gives a little more of the story and some very grainy gig footage - enjoy!

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Competitive?

It has been our observation that in the world of retail Bosnia and Herzegovina has yet to evolve in to the fiercely competitive market that we were used to in the UK. It's seems retail is not the only area this is the case. The World Economic Forum has presented its 2009-2010 global competitiveness report and Bosnia and Herzegovina comes 109th out of 133 major and emerging economies.


What caught my attention was that this position leaves the country sandwiched between Uganda, just above it, and Cambodia, just below it. Those countries share the distinctive that at some point in their history they have been the byword for atrocities in their region. Does that make them fitting neighbours?


From my limited perspective - I've visited neither Uganda or Cambodia - I would say no. I find it hard to reconcile the potential I see in this country with the stigma I've seen attached to the others. The sad reality this report highlights is that the mention of Bosnia and Herzegovina is likely to continue to draw the sharp-intake-of-breathe response in business circles.


The financial fiasco that has done much to undermine the credibility of western capitalism over the last year may make you ask if competitiveness is that important after all. It is. While the inexcusable excesses that have been exposed do the system no favours the alternative is stagnation and exploitation. Whether progress is inevitable or not is up for discussion. News articles can be depressing but we see encouraging signs on the ground.


You would have to wear blinkers to only see encouraging signs but here's an example of this morning's news of progress, albeit of the slow and steady type. After seventeen years the railway line has re-opened between Belgrade and Sarajevo. We plan to visit the Serbian capital one day; now we have another transport option!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Mr Writer responds

“Mr Writer, why don't you tell it like it is? Why don't you tell it like it really is? Before you go on home...” Yesterday afternoon, as the Stereophonics sung these words in my ear, I had one of those moments of conscience. Am I guilty of not telling it like it is? Come to think of it do I really know what it is like?

The ‘it’ is probably life in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the land of contradictions that is broadly the subject of this blog; our life and work in Mostar being the particular focus. I am aware, often painfully so, that our life here is nothing like that of a great many of the population. For one, I have a Passport that allows me to live and work around Europe. Bosnian Passport holders need an expensive visa just to visit the UK. Such restrictions affect how you see life’s possibilities.

My brother commented on the video I made of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s World Cup playoff defeat to Portugal that at times I could have been Alan Green. Sometimes I do feel more like a commentator than a player. I’m blogging more about what I’m seeing than what I’m experiencing. Would I want to share the hardships I witness others going through? No I wouldn’t. Does this make me feel selfish and, at times, pampered? Yes it does. And sometimes that bothers me.

Perhaps that’s why the Stereophonics struck a nerve. To tell it like it really is you have to have lived through something with people. The lyric prods at my detachment and places a huge, awkward question mark over it. In a country of many contradictions it seems I have plenty of my own I must resolve or learn to live with.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Better under Tito?


When it comes to remembering golden ages we tend to forget that even then the grass probably looked greener somewhere else. Nevertheless there’s nothing like a good bit of nostalgia to take the edge off today’s hardships and disappointment. Perhaps it should come as no surprise to you to learn that on more than one occasion we’ve heard people make comments to the effect that life was better under Tito. Sure, he still has his critics but in our experience they are few and far between. A great many people, regardless of their background, have very fond memories of Yugoslavia.

And so when we had the opportunity to visit Jajce, where the decision to create a Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was agreed, on the anniversary of the big event we couldn’t pass it up. The video gives a glimpse inside the Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia Museum, the picture shows that there are still Partisans out there.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Strike a light!


The eagle-eyed will have noticed that this picture is shot in almost exactly the same location as my post of a week ago today. It appears because yet again it is the location of a surprising sight. I draw your attention to the festive lights strung across the street. These are, in themselves, not much of a marvel. There are plenty of reasons – well at least two! – why there should be lights up at this time of year. It’s just that I heard Mostar was going to pass on having a New Year celebration in Spanish Square this year as a city without a budget finds it hard to finance such things. I had wondered if non-essential illuminations would find themselves plunged into darkness. It’s nice to see things are a little brighter than I imagined.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

A different part of Europe

Tuesday afternoon and I climb into the kombi. Our gear is loaded: guitars, amps, effects and Rowan’s bass. We need to get Budo and his drums and head for the old town. I turn the key and as the kombi coughs to life the radio begins cranking out a classic. The Final Countdown! I smile. It’s my view that everyone should be able to appreciate the excesses of the eighties. They don’t have to live off a diet of big hair and tight leather but they should at least be able to see the funny side of it. And the keyboards; let’s hear it for ‘hard rock’ band serving up cheesy-synth-solos. The funny side, see!

We park the kombi where we probably shouldn’t – a helpful local warns us we’ll likely have our tyres slashed! – but it’s as close to the venue as we can get. Valve amps get heavy when they’re carried over cobbles for any great distance. We grab a couple of armfuls of gear each and head for the bar. Through the heavy wooden door we are greeted by two things: the denim and leather clad owner sporting a vintage Iron Maiden T-shirt and a song blasting from the stereo. It’s The Final Countdown...da, da, dah, dah, da, da, dum, dum, dum!

We don’t play that kind of rock music, I never had a mullet and I’m not allowed leather trousers but I appreciate living in a country where such things are not beyond the pale.

(This video has a few other thoughts, and a few photos, from the gig.)

Thursday, 19 November 2009

BiH v Portugal - a fan's view.

I should probably be writing more here but getting and at 4am and still getting up at the normal time this morning have got the better of me. We were there last night. It was a good game, obviously the wrong result from our point of view, but as English people we've hasd some experience of losing to Portugal after having a player sent off! I'll leave the video to show the ups and downs of the day.

WARNING: The fans behind us swore throughout the match. I won't claim to have understood the half of what they said. To those of you who will understand, I apologise that some of their comments will undoubtedly have ended up being audible in this video.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

17...again?!

My next post was to be about the football but I saw this today I had a feeling this was important news not to be overlooked. Sure enough I got home and Rowan was reading about the civil servant strike in Mostar. The reason for this action is “the city council failed for the seventeenth time to elect a city mayor or to adopt a budget.”

It’d be nice to say this was unbelievable but even St Thomas – patron saint of doubters – would have to concede that when you’ve been there, seen it and snapped the photo you know they’re not making this stuff up. The ‘they’ in this instance is Balkan Insight, and if you’re interested in the political challenges facing this part of the world their article is well worth a read.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Gigging in Mostar

We just back in from our final gilgal rehearsal for tomorrow night's gig. We have seventeen songs on the set list, half-a-dozen of which will be getting their first public performance. While I don't often do excitement, much to my wife's annoyance at birthdays and Christmas, I have a feeling that the band is starting to hit its stride musically and I think tomorrow could be a lot of fun. It will also be cramped, smokey and very loud. If that doesn't put you off - and why should it?! - then this video will explain how to find the bar we're playing.

Pictures and video of the evening will doubtless follow, although the not-insignificant second leg of Bosnia and Herzegovina's World Cup playoff will undoubtedly be the next thing mentioned here!

Sunday, 15 November 2009

How high up?

Britain has high-rises. We used to see some of south London's when we took the train into Victoria;, but our town had nothing above about six floors. Mostar has plenty of big buildings; we have a friend who lives at the top of one of them, on the tenth floor. We live much closer to the ground. Sarajevo has bigger buildings, or apartment blocks. Last week we stayed a few days in one of them; at the top, almost. Nineteen floors ups. The apartment itself was great. It had heating, a very welcome change from Mostar's buildings. Inside you'd never really realise how high up you are until you walk onto the balcony, or need to go out somewhere. This video gives you glimpse into both of those scenarios.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Remembering in Sarajevo

I put this video together today. It’s represents some of the more meaningful thoughts that came out of our trip to the British Ambassador’s Residence in Sarajevo for fireworks on Saturday night. I did leave with other thoughts, like whether it would be wise to public school ones children so as to better prepare them for this kind of occasion. Over the years people have commented of my diplomatic skills in managing people and projects but one thing is clear: I am not part of the diplomatic in-crowd.

I might not have been hob-nobbing with the great and the good but I managed a good deed for the evening: offering a torch to a mother whose shoulder-mounted child had dislodged the back of her ear-ring. My mini-LED marvel managed to locate the all-important item amongst the damp grass. I could regale you with amusing snatches of conversation overheard over mulled wine but that would doubtless constitute some breach of state security, so my lips are sealed. However, I pulled out my camera long enough to capture the fireworks you can enjoy below.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Would you trust this tour guide?!

I've just got back in after a week away. The water park post came on the one day we had any internet access. Now I have many stories to tell, enough to keep me busy here for the next couple of days. There'll be 'new' video too - it will, of course, be slightly less of-the-moment after it's waited in line to be edited. So until then let me leave you with this short, unedited video.

Meet Budo, one of the Novi Most team, explaining the delights of Vrelo Bosne* and what we were getting up to on our team retreat...



*Vrelo Bosne is the source of the River Bosna.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Fun...

Fun: it's one of the Novi Most values. That's one reason why our team found itself at the Terme in Ilidža this afternoon. It's a great recreational swimming facility, that was almost empty but for our noisy bunch enjoying themselves and me making this video. I think you'll agree, it had to be done!

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Uni-Hockey or Floorball?

When I say 'uni-hockey' to people I am often met by blank looks. That's not surprising. Up until relatively recently I'd never heard of it either. Then it turns out it often, perhaps more often, goes by the name floorball.

Neverthless, it is still fair to say it's a small, if growing, sport thats main sphere of influence is Scandanavia. As with anything unknow, people find it easier to comprehand when they've actually seen it. And so we've started filming a promotional fim about the team uni-hockey Novi Most has started in Mostar.

It was during filming at a training session on Saturday that I shot this quick vlog...

Friday, 30 October 2009

Shops...and a cinema?

The rumours were not true; they always sounded more like wishful thinking anyway. Mostar’s new shopping centre – TC Piramida – does not have a cinema in it. The city remains without a permanent big screen venue, but gains at least eight escalators and some shops it didn’t have already. The shopping centre will boast late night (10pm) opening six nights of the week and a tentative attempt at Sunday trading, which most of Mostar’s other mall don’t do. I found some pictures posted online earlier today that show it off quite well.

I gave it the once over earlier one. It will definitely deserve a second look, maybe when the ‘coming soon’ units have finally been filled. If I was to make a criticism - which clearly I now am! - it would be that it felt cramped and dark, and of course the cafe bars are still smoky. Nevertheless, it is a more conducive shopping environment than either Old Mall or New Mall. My highlight was the Adidas Originals sections of the Sport Life store, although over here my favourite brand comes at a price I’m reluctant to pay. But being able to look longingly is better than nothing!

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Language Laundering

One of the things that can be a really stumbling point when learning a new language is turns of phrase: little collections of words that are used together to mean something other than what the words actually mean. When you start to listen closely to the way you talk you suddenly realise how many of these we use in English. Many, maybe most, do not translate. Bosnian has some too. Picking up on yesterday’s autumn themed post, I saw a cover of a local lifestyle magazine that declared ‘Jesen je zakon’ – literally ‘Autumn is the law’, but meaning something more like ‘Autumn rules’.

Then there are phrases that are the same by ever-so slightly different; like ‘money laundering’. Now we know this, not because we’re involved in any financial irregularities but because as part of the running of a foreign humanitarian organisation we’re aware of the financial restrictions in place to stop such undesirable activity going on. However, our local team members will talk about ‘washing money’ rather than laundering it.

Yesterday Rowan not only washed some money but tumble-dried it too! It is to the credit of Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina that her ten mark note emerged for her jeans pocket cleaner but otherwise unharmed. Given what usually happens to receipts that get forgotten in my pockets I think this is quite an impressive act of endurance. If the note proceeds to self destruct suddenly it will no longer be her problem as she spent it today, probably on the raw materials she needs for the creation of the cute little creatures you can see at Out Of The Frame.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Fall Photography Fail!

They say Fall in New England is something special. I’ve never seen it but I know in England it’s Autumn. The season of rain-soaked soggy leaves on the sidewalk, I mean, if a little less alliteratively, the pavement. Here in Bosnia and Herzegovina we have Jesen – pronounced ‘yes-en’ and a thing of rare beauty. I could go on, and on and on, about the quality of the light but I'll spare you that; although if you ever see me standing, staring at a mountain in the late afternoon that's your clue as to what's provoked the strange behaviour.

A quick trip to Sarajevo over the weekend was made all the more dangerous for the abundance of breath-taking views edging the twisty mountain roads. Yes, I kept my eyes on the road – mostly! – but driving back this afternoon I had to stop once or twice – ok, probably three times – to try and capture the view. It never works. Maybe thousands of pounds on photographic equipment and a generous helping of talent would do it justice it a way my snapshot never will. Even without a photography fail, however, you just can’t beat being there.

And to that end I’m glad to say this is where I was this afternoon...

Friday, 23 October 2009

Fun in the rain?

We spent five hours in the rain today, helping out a friend whose kombi didn't want to start. This short video is just a quick glimpse in to the madness. Enjoy!



We did make it to the Renault dealer and an hour later she was back on the road, without too much painful lightening of the wallet.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Smokin' hot pants!


“Liar, liar pants on fire” said one of our team, almost showing a great grasp of English playground phraseology. Clearly they betrayed the American influence on their impressive language skills. To confuse jeans, or any other pair of trousers, for pants, which should be worn underneath the aforementioned garments, is of course a school boy error!

The reason the pictured ‘pants’ appear to be starting to combust is, yes, something to do with their proximity to the electric heater, but also in large part the result of the vast quantities of rain that fell on Mostar today. Driving home tonight it was ‘slow down’ heavy, which is saying something given the speed limits here.

The plus side of the rain is it’s no longer particularly cold out. Sadly I apartment still is, but the electric blanket is on so our bed isn’t. Quite why we never got around to putting it on last winter I don’t know. Sleeping so much more pleasant when it’s not under a cold, damp duvet.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

One, not just in theory

It is a sad fact that when people talk about ethnic tolerance in reference to Mostar or Sarajevo these days they are most often using the past tense. To say both cities are devoid of tolerant people would be to make a gross generalisation. I’ve meet plenty in both who can see past someone’s name or background. However most things I’ve read give the impression these cities are not what they once were.

I spent the weekend in Tuzla, in north-east Bosnia. It is a place I’ve heard tolerance talked of in the present tense. As such it shouldn’t have surprised find myself there hearing someone quoting these words: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” They went on to add that in Christ there is neither Bosniak or Serb or Croat or Roma. In other words, someone like Christ would not create divisions along ethnic lines. These are fine words in theory but they were not talking theory. They were talking to people drawn from the four ethnic groups they name-checked, people who have found forgiveness and reconciliation through Christ, people serious about living this oneness, or unity, that the Bible speaks of.

Such moments are as encouraging as they are surprising. Bad news makes the news far more often than good news does; people getting along just fine doesn’t make for gripping headlines. But the good news is that there are people who have put the past behind them and are getting along just fine. They are hope for the future in the face of those who seem set on conflict.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Don't Panic: I Got Soul!

‘You will hear of wars and threats of wars, but don’t panic.’ I’ve read those words many times and now they’ve taken on a new meaning. Jesus said them, St Matthew recorded them, but I’m reading them for the first time against the backdrop of a seemingly growing media discussion about the possibility of civil war in the country we’re living in. We’re not panicking but it does make you think a bit.

‘Don’t Panic’ is perhaps more famous for adorning the cover of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. That comic masterpiece involved the destruction of the whole world, an event that, while treated as not funny in the book, is really not funny. We live on a street where I can still see the sandbags behind which people defended their patch fifteen years ago. The thought of this country plunging itself into another violent mess when it hasn’t cleared up the remains of the last one is far from a joke.

Into these sober thoughts burst an anthem that practically had me dancing around the living room this morning. ‘I Got Soul’ is a reworking of ‘All These Things That I Have Done’ by The Killers. (A strange name that I’ve always felt was slightly at odds with their often uplifting music.) It’s a collaborative effort for War Child under the name of ‘Young Soul Rebels’. They’ve taken a great rock song and turning it into a powerful pop rap proclamation. Around the refrain of “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier” they squeeze in bits of the original lyrics with sections of war-related rap. One of these says exactly what needs to be said here.

No kid should die for a war
Let’s fight for a cause
Pray for better days
Because when the going gets tough
There’s better way
Faith
And
only then there are better days

Monday, 19 October 2009

Some perspective

I imagine it must be easy to write a snarky blog about people you don’t know personally. I don’t know for sure; I’ve never tried it. Here I’ve tried to avoid unnecessary references to people we work with and I’m definitely not looking to score points. We work with people from a variety of social and ethnic backgrounds in a country that can be highly sensitive to such things. This is one reason for discretion; a strong belief that all people should be treated as an individual not as a label is another reason.

This weekend a couple of us from the Novi Most team took a group of young people we’ve been teaching uni-hockey to a tournament in Tuzla. It’s not really that far from Mostar if you measure the kilometres, but twisty, single-carriageway roads that weave their way up and down mountains make it an ambitious day trip. And so it was we came to stay over at the big house of some generous people. At the end of a long Saturday – I’d got up at 4am – I sent Rowan a text summarising the day’s events. Her reply included the innocent question: will you get a real bed tonight or be on the floor?

Six of us were on the floor is a large basement room; foam mattresses neatly laid out in a row. It was as we unpacked our blankets and sleeping bags that it suddenly hit me. Perhaps for some of the guys I was sharing a room with it was actually unusual to have four walls complete with doors and windows around them at night. I’m almost certain running water and electricity are not the norm for some of them. I was struck by my privileged position. What I was tempted to consider a night of 'roughing it' might have been some rare comfort for a few of my room-mates.

I have complained about Mostar’s general lack of heating in its housing but I have not suffered at all when it comes to measuring life’s hardships. So if I’m pointing the finger at anyone here I hope it is at myself. Saturday night was a glaring reminder that all too often my perspective is informed by my position of relative comfort, wealth and luxury.

Friday, 16 October 2009

The Beautiful Buna

The Dervish House at the source of the river Buna, at Blagaj, is one the classic tourist images from Bosnia and Herzegovina. The water streams clear and cold from a cave entrance at the bottom of a steep cliff face. It is a dramatic sight.

Today we were slightly farther downstream, using the Hotel Ada for one day workshop with our local team members. The sun was out and after lunch we took the (really) short stroll from the restaurant to the waterside, where I made this quick video.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

You Get The Story When You Go

Before we went back to the UK for a visit in September we made this video to explain a little of what we've been up to over the last year and why we're back in Mostar for more...enjoy!




(You Get The Story When You Go - we know we did, but what does it mean for you?)

Friday, 9 October 2009

War and peace

A friend spoke to me this morning in urgent tones: we have a problem, if there’s any violence they won’t let us in! We were just about to start a rehearsal, which although always loud has never ended in violence. It took me a minute to realise he was talking about football; specifically about Bosnia and Herzegovina’s World Cup qualifier against Estonia. A fatal shooting at a domestic fixture last weekend has clearly put the national team and its fans under special scrutiny. All this comes at a time when Bosnia and Herzegovina have a very real chance of making it to South Africa next year. For a nation whose Premier League is played by part-timers this is no small achievement. That it might be snatched away by some mindless crowd violence is a tragedy that it’s sadly all too easy to understand as an English football fan.

And so on the day President Obama has been controversially announced as the latest Nobel Peace Prize winner I would like to suggest that he sprinkle a little bit of the magic that charmed the Nobel committee in the Balkans!

Thursday, 8 October 2009

They came back

I aware I don’t write too much about the work we’re involved in and so today’s post will do something to redress that balance – or imbalance, if you prefer! We are team leaders for Novi Most International, a Christian charitable organisation providing youth work in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Rowan and I are only too aware that when you mention youth work many people can’t see past labelling you as a teenager who never grew up; someone who prefers playing and hanging out to growing up and taking on the real world. Everybody’s entitled to an opinion but there’s a lot to be said for informal education, which is what good youth work will provide.

Whether you take a snapshot of education in the UK or in BiH you won’t have to look hard to see that the formal education process only work for so many people. For others it just does do it for them. That’s why we hear of so many rules or coercions, threats or incentives deployed in the classroom. Some would tell you that part of the problem is that young people have to be in school – they don’t often choose to go. And that’s where youth work is different. They choose to opt in to the informal education process. If it doesn’t work for them they will stop turning up.

This week we re-opened Klub, our youth centre, after a post-summer break of a month. Our previous youth work experience in England has taught us that breaks can be interesting things; sometimes whole groups of young people ‘disappear’ during them! New courses, extra homework, different friends: all of these can have an effect on attendance. But this week we’ve seen many of our regulars from the summer choosing to come back for more. We aim to create a place they want to belong but no one can force them. Their walking through the door is a huge endorsement of what Novi Most is doing.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

As so to work

Yesterday my brother tweeted about the unpleasantness of cycling to work in the rain. I remember those days. However, yesterday I made a short video on my walk into work. I present it here by way of comparison. October in Mostar is treating us well!







(And, yes, I am fully aware our rain will arrive soon!)

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Gun shots

We were in Sarajevo at the weekend. It’s a city famous for a few things but possibly its most influential export was the gun shot that triggered the First World War. Today you’d be forgiven for not noticing where it happened; a discreet plaque on the wall of a small museum marks the fateful spot. I know where it is and it makes me think every time I drive past it.

But after this trip I was left with more than the usual food for thought. I drove back into Mostar with the city doing an impression of a ghost town because of the local football derby. We hardly saw any people, let alone any violence; most of the people loitering on the streets were police leaning on riot shields. However, up the road in Siroki Brijeg a football match didn’t happen because violence erupted beforehand and a FC Sarajevo fan was shot dead.

We got this news the same time as the report of another close-to-home incident. We’d been staying in Grbavica, a suburb of Sarajevo, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. On Monday morning that part of town was road-blocked following a police shoot-out with car thieves the previous night.

So I will chew over these incidents and if I end up thinking anything other than the blatantly obvious I’ll let you know.

Monday, 5 October 2009

A tall tale

I was checking out who follows our WeDoAdventure twitter account earlier today. It’s sad, I know, but it led to my stumbling upon an interesting web page bigging up the benefits of a visit to Bosnia. My interest was piqued by their reference to rain forests; I know we get a lot of hot weather and plenty of rain in Mostar but somehow the image of Macaws squawking through the tree tops seemed a little at odds with the countryside I’ve experiences around here.

Google took me to Wikipedia, the great arbitrator of truth in this internet age. Apparently, there is indeed one of Europe’s last remaining primeval forests not so far from here. It seems you can only visit it if accompanied by rangers but this is certainly something that warrants further investigation. At a time when deforestation is a global concern, not least for the future of breathable air, it is reassuring to know that the world’s tallest Norway Spruce is chucking out its contribution to the oxygen supply just down the road from me!

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Found!


We finally found it! Little Mexico. I blogged before about my reticence to deal in certainties when discussing life in Bosnia and Herzegovina but it could be Mostar’s only Mexican restaurant. We’ve lived here a year and we only heard about it last week. However, I now half suspect I’ll find and Indian around the corner or a Chinese take away just outside old town.

Perhaps annoyingly, the restaurant was tucked away on the far corner of a building we’ve walked past a hundred times. However, we’ll not let that taint our enjoyment of this most welcome discovery. Its menu - the physical booklet that is – are the most impressive we’ve seen out here, boasting appetising photos and a Mexican history lesson, and a breakdown of what actually goes into guacamole!

Without attempting a serious gastronomic review I’m going to say it’s well worth a visit. And in case you are in the area and want to check it out I’ve done you the favour of including a map. That way you may avoid walking quite as far as we did in our search for a little salsa!

Monday, 28 September 2009

Pearls of different kinds

Dubrovnik is known as The Pearl of the Adriatic, and for good reason. But we picked up some pearls of a different sort there earlier today. What follows is a bit of Aussie banter overheard on the city walls.

Bloke*: So what do you do for work back home.
Sheila: I work with Aboriginal communities
Bloke: That must take some patience.
Shelia: You’re an a**hole!

I think it serves to highlight the tensions that can be linked to working with marginalised people – or it might have just have been it made us chuckle at the time!

So if anyone has any more choice Australian wisdom, or serious thoughts about working with marginalised people, then do feel free the share...

(*Bloke and Sheila may not be their real names!)

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Driving on the right side

I’ve done a few name-and-shame posts in the past. This is the opposite. I’m going to kick off with a bit of credit-where-credit’s-due. Before our trip to the UK is asked some friends from my home town what local car rental companies they’d recommend. The response seemed to be that hiring from Gatwick Airport was the best option: it’s just down the road and we’d be flying in and out of there so it was convenient. Hertz were the cheapest for basic rental, although not necessarily for adding a second driver, so we made an online registration. When we came to pick up our Group B Fiesta or equivalent we discovered it had morphed into a Group C Focus, and at no extra costs. No complaints there!

So after two weeks of racking up the miles around southern England I was beginning to wonder how things would be when I got back to driver on the right (or should that be right-hand side?) of the road. This is question everyone asks. How easy is it switching? Well, thankfully I’ve had no problems so far. I have a few thoughts on why. Perhaps the familiarity of the roads plays a part, both those I was driving in the UK and those I’ve returned to in Mostar. Mostar is tiny compared to, say, driving the width of London, which we did two Sundays ago so being familiar with its roads is not too hard. Also driving a vehicle with the steering wheel on the appropriate side does helps. I’ll confess the first few days in England I caught myself reaching for a non-existent gear stick with my right hand a couple of times, but being on the right side of the vehicle kept me on the right (or left!) side of the road. With trips to Dubrovnik and Sarajevo coming up in the next few days it’s a good thing the switch isn’t difficult.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Viva Mexico!


Yesterday I promised a more Bosnian flavoured post. Today I break some sweet news, even if it is of an invasion. The picture has probably given it away already but this evening’s cause for joy (other than Spurs 5-0 win over Burnley) is this sight that greeted us at the end of the aisle near the cheese counter in Tus, our local supermarket. Yes, that really is a display of Tex Mex delights! This discovery came hot on the heels of the revelation that Mostar actually has a Mexican restaurant. We’ve not seen it yet but we now know where to look. Up until now we’d had no reason to assume anything other than that Mostar only had three types of restaurant: traditional national-cuisine ones, Italian-influenced ones and generic-grilled-meat ones. (Yes, we’re filing the plentiful pizza outlets under Italian!) We eaten in many of the above and several are very good but sometimes you find yourself yearning for a little variety.

Faced with such a tempting – dare we say God sent? – display, what else could we do but splash out on wraps and guacamole, nachos and Louisiana hot sauce? Here’s to the Mexican invasion; suddenly making this evening’s dinner is a much more attractive, hot and spicy, proposition!

Friday, 25 September 2009

Alphabetical English Adventure

It’s been almost a month; in that time we’ve finished the Novi Most summer programme, cleared up Klub and spent a couple of weeks in the UK. Visiting England was an interesting experience, seeing familiar things but from a different perspective. However, I’ll not ramble on and on. Instead I’ll leave you with this ‘Alphabetical English Adventure’ list* and the promise of a BiH-related post tomorrow!

Ben & Jerrys, Birmingham, Brighton, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, CBSO, CDs, Coldplay, Delirious, Double Deckers, family, fish and chips, FOPP, Ford Focus, food, football, friends, Gatwick Airport, Girls Aloud, Gunwharf Quays, Hertz, Hillsong, HMV, Hotel Chocolat, Jay-Z, Julie & Julia, Kettle Chips, KFC, London, M25, Mabel, Nandos, Novi Most, O2 arena, Oxford, pear cider, presents, punting, Sherbet fountains, Symphony Hall, tea, The Time-Travellers Wife, TK Maxx, trains, Vivid, WeDoAdventure, Wembley Stadium, You Get The Story When You Go.

(*the lines of which may be read between, at your discretion!)

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Surprisingly good news!

A copy of this week’s Economist is sitting on the sofa next to me. On the cover the headline declares: ‘Afghanistan’, adding, underneath the picture of an American coffin being loaded into a waiting vehicle, ‘The growing threat of failure’. I’ve not read the accompanying article yet but I can hazard a guess at the point it’s making. American, along with its allies, has invested heavily in Afghanistan. Time, money and human life have been poured into trying to create a stable democracy. Yet, years down the road, it could all go horribly to waste. Such are the perils of interventionism.

All too often I find myself reading articles about the Balkans in general, or Bosnia and Herzegovina more specifically, that suggest the same threat still hangs over this region. So imagine my surprise to discover this week’s lead article in the Europe section of the same magazine was title ‘Entering the Yugosphere: former Yugoslavia patches itself together’. What followed was probably the most positive piece of writing I’ve seen about the current situation.

It talks about a ‘huge shift in the daily life of the western Balkans [that] is happening without fanfare.’ The reason for this, in the opinion of The Economist, is the sad fact that ‘good news is no news’. As someone who often finds the reality of their day to day life at odds with the bleak press predictions about the future of this region I was encouraged to think that perhaps my optimism is not entirely misplaced. Time will tell but I, for one, will not give up hope.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Slovenian?!

Rowan was in Sarajevo yesterday. She was, amongst other things, trying to track down a poster of the Cellist of Sarajevo. This proved a little tougher than she anticipated. One shop after another said, no, they didn’t have any. One artist kindly offered to paint her one, for a price! Finally she stumbled upon a small store displaying a postcard of said poster in their window. Inside the owner was busy framing a picture. She asked about the poster and he flipped the frame over to reveal exactly what she was looking for. Unfortunately he wasn’t in the mood for haggling so Rowan had to settle for being knowingly ripped off. If that was a disappointment then there was also some encouragement. One shopkeeper asked if she was Slovenian! This is a testament to her impressive improvements in the local language.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

World Humanitarian Day

Today the United Nations held its first ‘World Humanitarian Day’ to honour international aid workers. Our work is not strictly aid work but Novi Most’s roots are in humanitarian aid. It came into existence at the height of the conflict in Mostar, bringing much needed relief to children and young people affected by the violence of the early nineties.

Today our UN connection is an old, battered Toyota Hiace kombi van that the Novi Most team refer to as ‘Uni’ because of its previous owners. This afternoon it transported us and our instruments to a hot and sticky rehearsal.

The United Nations’ day is designed to remind people of the sacrifice many aid workers have made to bring help to others. In light of the price too many have had to pay I’m aware that what we do day-in day-out doesn’t begin to qualify as heroic; we’re not working in a conflict situation and we do not have to live with a constant sense that our lives are in danger. But that is the heritage of the organisation we work with. My hope is that in our own way we live up to the sacrifice and commitment shown by those who went before us.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Crossing Borders

It’s probably an island thing but crossing borders always seemed like such a big deal. Before we moved to Mostar you only ever showed your passport when boarding a plane, catching a ferry, or, against your better judgement, taking the tunnel! Now a border crossing is a short drive down the road. Today’s little taxi run to Dubrovnik involved six border controls.

Each and every crossing is an interesting experience. Who knows if you’ll get discreetly waved through or will get another precious stamp in your passport. You might almost get a smile, but you could get a grilling.

But today we had a particularly funny one. I handed over three UK and one Croatian passport. The border guard asked a question. He probably said, “do you know everyone in the kombi?” but I wasn’t sure. I didn’t want to answer ‘yes’ if the question was actually “are you carrying anything illegal?” I said nothing. He asked for the papers for the kombi. I handed them over. I was then told to park up while he wandered off with our passports and papers.

After a few minutes he reappeared, handing all our documents back through the window with the words “good luck!” After a discreet pause, while he walked away, we had to laugh. There was a probable, and quite prosaic, explanation* for his choice of words but I preferred to see it as an ominous warning or some kind of challenge in an enjoy-your-next border kind of way. It's much more exciting that way. The next border was, of course, no problem at all.

*Anyone fancy guessing the prosaic explanation?
(The photo is another awesome sunset over the Adriatic - yes, I'm a big fan!)

Saturday, 15 August 2009

A long way from home

Fans of football will know the English Premier League kicked off this afternoon. I was following the action via the BBC website, although for me things don’t really start until Spurs take on Liverpool at White Hart Lane tomorrow at four. Being a Spurs fan here is a funny thing. Most local people expect you to support Man Utd or Chelsea, perhaps Liverpool or Arsenal. Say Spurs and you get a blank look. Say Tottenham Hotspur as you would in England and that look remains unchanged. Pronounce it TOT-EN-HAM and suddenly you get the appropriate look of pity!

With my mind still pondering the possibility of ‘Arry being able to produce a result tomorrow, I took some English visitors to Blagaj after lunch today. Imagine my surprise when I saw this sign of the back of an English registered blue Passat. What this vehicle is doing so far from home is anybody’s guess. Taxi-driver’s-holiday doesn’t quite have the same ring as the bus-man’s equivalent. But if it's not that then somebody has very deep pockets!

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Finding Elvis!

I was in my preferred DVD store today when I stumbled upon a copy of Iza Neprijateljskih Linija (or Behind Enemy Lines if you recognise its English title better!) in a bargain bin. I remember watching this film a few years back. It stars Owen Wilson is an unfamiliar serious role, which did make taking the film seriously a little difficult. Back then I was blissfully unaware I would end up living in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The film is mostly set in this country and tells the story of a US Navy pilot downed during a reconnaissance mission. My main memory of the film was questioning how realistic it was that Owen’s character made friends with a local lad called Elvis. Without re-watching the movie I cannot vouch for the accuracy of anything else in the film but I can say that I know two young people here called Elvis. How wrong I was to doubt!

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Today's Random Food Stories

A few months back I named and shamed the shop at the end of our street. It was an incident with some green, mouldy Gouda that prompted my outburst. Since then this particular Merkur has undergone a refit. In an act of grace I popped in to check if this has made any improvement to the standard of food on sale. I was pleasantly surprised. I almost bought some edible-looking cucumbers. I was pleased to see the shop now carries an extended range of line, with welcome new additions including Uncle Ben’s rice.

On the subject of familiar brands I had quite the surprise strolling through town today. Mostar has more than its fair share of scooters, perhaps not as many as Rome there’s always someone buzzing around on two wheels. On my way to coffee this afternoon my path was crossed by a machine of reasonable vintage, with a big metal briefcase bolted over the rear wheel. On the top of this was the sort of insulated delivery bag used by delivery riders in the UK. It bore an unmistakeable logo. Pizza Hut does not exist over here so quite what one of their bags is doing over here is anybody’s guess.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Good One!


Almost five months ago I wrote a post titled ‘Inconvenience or Adventure?’ Back then I was still debating whether Zagreb was too far from Mostar to consider getting tickets for the upcoming U2 show there. Last night as we soaked up the spectacle in the Maksimir Stadium it was obvious I was right to choose adventure over inconvenience.

I’ll get some video from our trip up tomorrow but for tonight I’ll leave you with one pretty picture (The Edge, featured on the screen, got birthday champagne before the encore – nice touch!) and this link to Bono introducing One. I could write loads about the amazing ability of U2’s songs to be reinvented with special poignancy or meaning in different situations but I’ll just say that last night this one pushed the button for me. ‘We’re one but we’re not the same, we get to carry each other, carry each other...’

Saturday, 8 August 2009

U2 are back

In less than an hour we’ll be on the road to Zagreb. Why? Because tomorrow night U2 will be playing their first Balkan concert since they played Sarajevo in 1997. U2 fans should know the history behind this but if 'Bill Carter', 'satellite link-ups' and 'Miss Sarajevo' mean nothing to you read on. You may be a little less well versed in the back story but I'd still recommend this article on U2.com. It’ll give you an insight into why we’re so excited to be going. That and it’ll be an awesome rock show!

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Pay Back

“Bosnia’s top international representative has imposed an interim resolution on squabbling Mostar political factions, establishing the basis for the temporary financing of public services and sanctioning city councillors.” So begins an article I saw tonight on BalkanInsight.com.

I think this is a good news story. I start like that because we’re talking about the dangerous and divided world of politics and I’m not out to play political point scoring but any move that means that municipal workers will receive a pay check again after four months is good in my book. I don’t suppose the squabbling politicians have been struggling to keep food on the table our save their electricity from being cut off. Sadly many whose interests they are supposed to be working to protect are not so fortunate.

But if the article is to be believed it seems the High Representative has taken the view that it is unfair that those who have been working haven’t been paid while those who haven’t been working have. City Councillors will now not be paid until they appoint a new administration. I doubt this will drive them into the soup kitchens but you have to hope that it does something to wake them up to the cruel cost their inaction has inflicted on others.

Monday, 27 July 2009

The weather here...













I saw this encouraging graphic this morning. I think it speaks for itself!

Sunday, 26 July 2009

443


443 is the number of friends I currently have on Facebook. It is also the number of diving festivals held at Mostar’s Stari Most. The latter is without doubt the far more impressive figure. Given that it’s an annual event that’s quite some heritage. Does anyone know of a longer sporting tradition?

We spent a gorgeous, hot sunny afternoon today watching some very brave people doing things I wouldn’t even like to dream of doing. Here’s a photo to prove it. If you’re not sure what’s special about the image just look a little closer at the sky under the bridge, just to the left of the tall tree!

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Mother said...

Actually my mother never said what I’m about to say. We never had a computer at home when I was growing up. Even if we had it wouldn’t have been online as that didn’t exist (at least not in the lives of normal people) back then. The maternal advice in question is, of course, don’t meet up with people you’ve meet online. It’s not bad advice. As a youth worker I’ve given it , in all seriousness, to several young people who were about to do the sort of stupid things lead to teenage girls making headlines for all the wrong reasons. However, as an online video maker I’ve broken it on several occasions. (Although the first time my parents were loitering nearby; could have been caution or curiosity!)

Today, on a brief visit to Sarajevo, Rowan and I met with someone who, until now, has only been an online contact - ‘the other British blogger in Bosnia’. (In truth, I’m probably ‘the other’ as they were here first!) At four o’clock Rowan and I were sitting on a park bench across the river from where Franz Ferdinand’s assassination triggered the First World War waiting for a call from a voice we’d not heard before, all amusingly John le Carré, or perhaps that’s just my overactive imagination! From blog comments to text messages to a phone call – and from other ends of the country - we had made it to Sarajevo’s Old Town for some real Bosnian coffee.

I’ve mentioned it before but together we may be the only people talking about life in Bosnia and Herzegovina from the perspective of the English ex-pat. To that end it’s perhaps a little sad that one of our shared experiences is, diplomatically put, disappointment in our dealings with the British Embassy in Sarajevo. Still, it was not all grumbles and it’s was great to compare notes on our experiences so far in what one of our recent visitors described as ‘a truly spectacular country’. It is spectacular, and fascinating, and all of us today would agree we’re glad for the chance to be here enjoying it.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Crisis talks

The High Representative was in Mostar today to bash some heads together (metaphorically one assumes) over the inexcusable stalemate local politicians seem happy to maintain. The OHR issued a press release on Tuesday. This extract will give you a flavour of the problems the city is engulfed in.

“Since the local elections more than nine months ago, the leaders of these parties have failed to hold any serious talks aimed at overcoming the situation in Mostar, despite the fact city council has yet to elect a mayor and adopt a city budget. Instead of pursuing political dialogue, the parties have sought to deflect blame from themselves and direct it towards each other and the OHR.”

We heard that if the meeting today did not produce any resolution then protestors would blockade the road to Sarajevo for the next couple of days. There is but one main north/south road so this would be a fairly crippling action. However, the situation should never have been allowed to get to this point. As I write this I haven’t heard if any decisions were made today but I guess the answer will be obvious in the morning.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Graphic stuff

For the past couple of days I’ve been introducing young people to the joys of vector graphics. That may mean nothing to you; it didn’t mean much to them at the beginning either. If you’re thinking of Paint or Photoshop then you’re metaphorically barking up the wrong tree – they are both bitmap packages, admittedly with a sizable capability gulf between them. Illustrator is a vector program, as is CorelDraw. I’m sure either could be purchased here for next to nothing. I haven’t check but I do know a young person with a copy of Photoshop CS on his memory stick that is doubtless of dubious origin.

Novi Most doesn’t have the budget to start equipping our computers with expensive (legitimate) design software so I opted to install Inkscape. It’s an open source equivalent of Illustrator. It more than does the job of introducing young people to a different way of using computers. Using eDCC, Rowan has been running courses in Words and Excel for a few months now. These have been really popular. But computer graphics presents an all new challenge. This week won’t make computer artists out of them but it will hopefully inspire a few. Next week we tackle GIMP, the open-source Photoshop equivalent. If these combine to be a nail in the coffin of computer clip-art culture then I’ll be all the happier!

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Hot and cold

Thoughts of winter seem a long way away. For the past couple of weeks the daytime temperature has been comfortably above 30 and it’ll climb to a lot nearer 40 by the end of this week. However over some late-night pancakes tonight we were telling tales of mouldy walls and three jumpers (sweaters!) indoors to a couple of visitors. As much as I find myself acclimatising to the increasing heat we now have to wonder if that will make the inevitable winter cold so much the colder. Last year we only had a dismal British summer to reference against. This year we have a poor Bosnian one; it’s come late, with rain lasting into July. However it’d still be a grind-to-a-standstill heat wave in the UK. And last week Mostar had its hottest night for about a century, with the temperature barely falling below 30 all night. Once used to such warmth I can start to see how temperatures in the teens will feel chilly.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Duty Calls

Tonight we were working it Klub. It was a relatively quiet night because many of the young people who would usually be there are at a camp this week. However, I doubt it was quiet across town as Zrinjski Mostar beat Slovan Bratislava one nil. Yes, Champions League Qualifying football happening just around the corner, with tickets less than a fiver, and we couldn’t go! It was Rowan’s birthday today. She is not adverse to a bit of football but I do think if we had been free tonight we wouldn’t have spent it in Bijeli Brieg Stadium. But maybe next time!

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

This Friday in Mostar...




























Gilgal - that's us. If you're anywhere near Mostar on Friday night to drop by and check this out; if you're not we hope to bring you the video footage to enjoy!

WARNING: The last gig we went to in this venue was ear-bleedingly loud so wear ear plugs - we will be!

Monday, 13 July 2009

Unbelievable light

I’m sure I’ve mentioned a few times before the exceptional quality of the early evening light in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I might not have mentioned the incredible starry night sky we witnessed a week or so back. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the night sky look so beautiful. It provoked a friend to ponder if perhaps there’s a correlation between the increase in light pollution and decrease in belief in God. But tonight a drive in the dark back from Sarajevo gives me two very different light-related tales.

There is but one main road that connects Mostar and Sarajevo. For almost the entiretiy of its length it is single carriageway, breaking into three lanes only on its steepest sections, for the benefit of those desperate to overtake a painfully slow lorry grinding uphill. They go painfully slow downhill too but for that you must supply your own patience! In the two and a bit hours it took to drive home I must have seen more than a dozen cyclists chancing their luck with no lights on their bikes. Given the state of the road, the general disregard for speed limits and the shocking overtaking habits of many drivers this strikes me as an act of inexcusable foolishness.

On the first big climb out of Sarajevo we were three vehicles back from a lorry, with trailer, loaded high with logs. It was steadily decreasing speed as the incline increased. The slower we got the closer we got to the vehicle in front. It was at this point I realised we where following a Serbian ambulance. Quite what it was doing in Bosnia I’m not sure, but one thing became clear it was not about to provide a case study in patient driving. Suddenly on go the blue flashing lights, down goes the accelerator and it’s hard on the tail of the car in front. In quick success they and the vehicle in front pulled right to allow them to pass leaving the ambulance on the bumper of the lorry. Eventually the road was straight enough for it to streak past the long vehicle. As it pulled back in front, with a open road ahead, off went the lights and it carried merrily on its way. Unbelievable!

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Not just the Brits!

It’s well known fact among British travellers communicating with those of another mother tongue that any English word can be understood if repeated often enough, with increasing volume. That was why our ears pricked up at lunchtime when from the table behind us came the refrain: WE ARE WAITING FOR SOME FRIENDS! As the gentleman in question was not using his native language one might imagine him showing some compassion for someone struggling with his accent accent; not a bit of it. Rowan was soon laughing, indiscreetly, at a poor waiter startled by an English language outburst from a Spaniard.

With their beer ordered they sat around waiting for their friends. Before long a line of X-Trails was neatly parked outside the restaurant, leading me to guess our entertainment came courtesy of EUFOR’s presence in Mostar. We know a few words of Spanish, thanks to a number of trips we made to the south of Spain in the late nineties; enough to make the assumption their noisy conversation later turned to jokes about Mexican pronunciation. Having conducted all our ordering in Bosnian we were able to leave encouraged that not only are the Brits not alone as language-insensitivity offenders perhaps sometimes they are not even offenders at all!

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Name?

You might remember me writing about our first concert. Well, our second one is on Friday night at a local internet cafe with a habit of staging rock gigs! We have twelve songs all ready to go but we have a problem. We have no name. We need one for the advertising by Monday. Perferably in Bosnian.

We're a three-piece alternative rock band, singing in English. If you think you have a name that might match our volume and energy then please let us know. (Comedy candidates need not apply!)

Friday, 10 July 2009

Random, like an owl!

This will doubtless end up like one of those ‘conversations’ you have on the street; the sort where neither of you actually stops walking but instead attempt to achieve a neck rotation worthy of a barn owl. To that end I think I’m just going to throw out a series of sentences. They may appear random but they’ll all have some untold story behind them. If you just have to know more then let me point you in the direction of the comments. So here goes...

Rowan was bemused that the band outside the rehearsal studio weren’t excited about the tortoise climbing the stairs.

Andy Gliddon helped me provide a fitting tip of the hat to this and that with some fine adlibbed vocals.

Swimming by Bosnia and Herzegovina’s answer to Niagara is good; seeing young people who used to spit and swear at each other getting along is better.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Time to ride?

I don’t often post on the political situation here in Bosnia and Herzegovina but when I saw this article today I had to make some kind of comment. It quotes Milorad Dodik, prime minister of Bosnia's Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska, from a column published on Monday in Austrian daily Der Standard as saying: “Some countries accept that the people of Bosnia must be allowed to self-manage. Others seem to fear that when the training wheels of this international experiment are removed, "the bicycle" might fall over together with the child. But Bosnia and Herzegovina is now 15 years old. Is it not the time to give it a try?”

He is explaining his argument for the closure of the Office of the High Representative (OHR). I can see how what could be seen as a babysitter for the international community could be seen as patronizing. However I’ve done a fair bit of mountain bike instruction over the years with young people aged 11-15. You learn that some riders can be surprisingly competent at this age but others are a danger to themselves. I remember picking a chubby kid up off the ground, blood pouring from his chin and a chunk missing from his helmet. “He’s unlucky with bikes” was his mother’s response. The truth was he didn’t listen to instructions.

Opinion is divided on how long the OHR should remain open. The ‘training wheels’ do need to come off at some point but when depends on when those with the power to say so decide that the rider really wants to ride and isn’t going to end up in a bloody and broken mess. The jury is still out on that one.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Test drive!

Last night I was talking to some of the young people we used to work with back in the UK. I had showed them some video of what we’re up to in Mostar, answered a whole bunch of their questions and finished off by talking about the big lesson I know I’ve learned since arriving in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I talked about what it feels like to cycle up onto the mountains around Mostar and ponder just how many deadly explosive devices still litter this landscape; how strange it is to have a conversation with a former Army bomb disposal expert about what hitting an anti-personnel mine might do to me and my mountain bike. Such a scenario is obviously best avoided.

This is just one, admittedly dramatic, example of the lesson that is “don’t let fear run (or ruin) your life”. It’s all too easily done. At the less life-threatening end of the scale is the fear of making a fool of yourself with a failed phrase in local language. The temptation: to keep your mouth shut. Back on the bike the temptation would be not to ride. When facing cross-cultural challenges the temptation can be not to go there. But that’s where fear is such a spoiler. We had so many positive experiences since moving that would never have happened if we’d let our fears get in the way.

You can’t say stuff like this without it being put to the test. This came sooner than expected. Early this afternoon I got off a plane a Dubrovnik airport and headed for the taxi rank to catch a quicker ride to the bus station, hoping this would mean an earlier arrival in Mostar. I got in the car and immediately noticed something strange. The driver hand a muscle twitch. Normally it would be rude to comment on such things but when you’re being driven along a twisty mountain road in a powerful Mercedes it could be seen as a matter of some concern that barely a minute passes where both the drivers hands don’t involuntarily leave the steering wheel at the same moment, or you feel the car gently kangarooing under the varying pressure being applied to the gas pedal.

I was surprised at how relaxed I remained. I made the bus station in time to catch an earlier bus. And it was the bus that was arguably driven more erratically!

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

The Wait Is Over


This is Adrian. He works with us at Novi Most. He's waited a couple of years for this moment. He may look like he's about to tee-off with some crazy oversized driver but don't be fooled: this is Uni-Hockey.
Uni-Hockey is not a sport I'd come across in England but it's big in Finland, apparently! It uses what Americans call a whiffle ball and plastic sticks. Teams have 3 players with sticks and a 'golman', wearing protective gear, on their knees. Tonight we launched what will turn into a Uni-Hockey team in Mostar. Seeing a project finally get off the ground is a great feeling, and so this post is dedicated to Adrian's dedication.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Recycling

“Don't hate me for this one - but you are tagged at mine...” So began the comment that lead me to discover June 22 - 28th is National Recycling week in the UK. In the blog post she was referencing, Tuzla’s Fraught Mummy asks me: “Can you do any better in the Bosnian context? I think I'll struggle with the free availability of kesa at every store. Is Mostar any better on the recycling front?”

It is true that most Bosnian shopkeepers would be genuinely offended, bemused, or both, if you tried to exit their store without your purchases safely wrapped in a generous selection of carrier bags. I could talk about how these bags end up blowing about the city, adorning trees and shrubs like some exotic form of flora. However, I’m going to lurch off in a slightly different direction.

I remember one occasion after a particularly windy day when I should have stopped and photographed a field full of this freakish foliage. It was a truly sobering site, all the more so because it bordered the rubbish dump where many of the young people we know live and work with their families. We put our rubbish in the large bin on our street. They come around and rummage through the bin rescuing anything useful, like bottles for recycling or metal for resale. They are the heroes of recycling in Mostar.

I’ve still not been to see where they live. It would seem like an insensitive intrusion unless I has a legitimate reason to visit, although I regularly drop young people to the car park just outside the dump after an evening at Klub. I’ve not asked but I can’t help but wondering if they prefer me not seeing where they live. Perhaps it allows them greater dignity and the freedom to be what so many others refuse to let them be – normal young people.

In a city too often divided by ethnic tensions these heroes are a unifying factor in that they are almost universally looked down upon. But as we’ve got to know more of these young people we’ve found them to be so different to the prejudice-driven stereotypes that exist. When these young people visit Klub they are polite and well behaved. I’ve always found them obviously appreciative and never seen them take advantage of what’s on offer to them; all very different to some other young people from more privileged backgrounds.

So my pledge is not to do something that reduces my waste or increases my recycling but to do something for those who are already out there working with Mostar’s waste. Novi Most’s summer programme starts tomorrow morning and I will be there to serve, amongst others, those who get no thanks for working with rubbish. And when I am shopping I will only take a plastic bag if I absolutely need to!

Friday, 19 June 2009

Purchasing Power Parity?

I think this post presents my recent ponderings on Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) – although I may have got that wrong! However, don’t be put off by the economic terminology; I’m going to talking about eating and shopping.

Last night we were in Split to pick up some friends. It was the first time we’d driven there from Mostar so we left extra time for the journey. We didn’t get lost some we did get to visit the Joker Centar – not a bad comedy club but a smart new shopping centre, with a McDonald’s. At this point I should come clean and say I don’t even like McDonald’s. In the UK, if it had to be fast food like that then I would pick Burger King or, preferably, KFC. Then, of course, there was also the, arguably, healthier option of Subway. But not having had any of the above in none months we thought we should take the opportunity to remind ourselves what we are ‘missing’.

As we sat munching some distinctly unimpressive fries I suddenly remembered we used to use the price of a McDonalds meal to make a rough comparison between currencies. For example: last night two meals cost 73Kuna. The exchange rate is approximately 8 Kuna to 1 GBP, meaning we paid a little over nine quid for two large ‘xtra value’ meals. That’s not unlike UK prices, as we remember them; certainly much better than McDonald’s we bought in Norway or Switzerland.

However, living overseas you start to see how this is a very shallow measure. Walking around a fancy shopping centre could give the impression Croatia is an affluent country on a par with any of Europe’s leading economies. But this is only half the picture. There are plenty of people who have money and can afford to pay, comparatively, more for the latest trends from Nike or Benetton or Topshop. But there are many who can’t. The same is true in Bosnia.

Add in the ice creams we had and last night dinner cost 93 Kuna, which is a little over 20KM. That we paid so much of a McDonald’s would be anathema to some of our Bosnian friends. (For that price we can get a decent meal in Mostar.) Going out for coffee is a big part of their culture but paying to eat out isn’t. And as firm believers in the supremacy of good ćevapi they would have been appalled by the quality of the soggy patty in last night’s burger!

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

A stolen story!

Tonight I’m shamelessly stealing an extract from a brilliant post on Brits in Bosnia. This particular aspect of the Bosnian fascination with paper work was new to me but it’s one of the best illustrations of their national fixation I’ve read. The subject is birth certificates...

"The problem is that in Bosnia your birth certificate is re-validated every 6 months. Yup, every 6 months every single Bosnian must go back to the relevant ministry and get a stamp, or whatever it is that they do to show that they are still, well, born. Because, you know, just maybe they have been born again and not in the religious sense."

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Francuski?

I’ve long said i speak two languages: English and foreign. ‘Foreign’ is my personal amalgam of words and phrase gleaned from my travels. On the surface it could seem a diverse and useful tool, however it is not. The one thing I can guarantee is whatever country I visit only the words and phrases from every other country jump up and down shouting ‘pick me’ in the back of my mind.

We are working hard to get to grips with the Bosnian. At the same time I am shocked by the amount of schoolboy French that has resurfaced from my subconscious. A French friend recently sent us an album they have produced but Rowan doesn’t really approve of me listening to it. She claims that it’ll just confuse us. She is probably right.

However, today I was at a kindergarten discussing a redecoration project. Of the four of us visiting two were local, one German and me, an Englishman. They were looking at large tubs of paint in a store room when I started to hear disgruntled noises and the word ‘Francuski’. Suddenly I’m being asked if I speak French. Before I know it I’m blagging my way through a translation of the side of a paint tub; an unexpected moment of triumph for my limited linguistic abilities!

Monday, 15 June 2009

Worst Store Ever!

Rowan would like to present the dubious award of “Worst Shop Ever” to the Merkur at the bottom of our street. Merkur may be Bosnia’s biggest domestic chain of mini- and super-markets but this example is truly a scourge on its name. I struggle to think of a redeeming feature of our local store. It rarely has what you’re looking for, and we would never think to shop there for anything other than life’s basics. The fruit and veg it displays were fresh once, long before they saw those shelves. At the other end of the scale the frozen produce looks like it actually experienced the ice age!

The trigger for this odious honour came tonight as we purchased some cheese. A block of pre-packaged Gouda, tightly wrapped in bright yellow plastic. I should have been suspicious but its slightly squidgy feel but we were in a hurry. We got home to discover it was emitting a powerful an odour – not normal. Then Rowan noticed it was about a quarter green, visible through the packaging. To prevent some kind of bio-hazardous incident it went in the bin without opening.

Don’t think this is in anyway reflective of the general state of supermarket shopping in Mostar. It’s not. Nor does it represent a wider problem with small stores. Less than fifty metres up the road from this Merkur is a fine little grocers that in less than a fifth of the floor space provides a far superior shopping experience, certainly when it comes to quality, fresh fruit and veg. Tonight we paid the price for not wanting to walk that little bit further. It was a high price but we won’t make the same mistake again!

Saturday, 13 June 2009

This Time...Two Videos!

While not want to play down the delights of Mostar, or indeed the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina, permit me to indulge in a little piece of promotion for the delights of the Croatian Coast...although naturally one tempered with a warning!





Thursday, 11 June 2009

Bosnia makes UK headlines!

Regular readers will probably have noticed my new sources of choice are timesonline.co.uk and bbc.co.uk. You might also have heard me talk about how little of what is happening in this part of the world ever gets reported through those sites. And so tonight I have to blog on this subject because something of a minor miracle has happened in regard to the British press.

“Fresh footage of Europe’s top war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic shown on Bosnian television has today caused a bitter row with neighbouring Serbia, which is tasked with bringing him to justice.” So begins the article linked of the front page of The Times site. The BBC is also carrying the story with similar prominence. While I’m pleased to see Bosnia and Herzegovina getting some needed exposure this is clearly a politically sensitive issue that could serve only to compound an already tense situation in this country. Nevertheless, international attention is important.

For those wanting an easy way of getting some background on this particular story perhaps Richard Gere’s movie ‘The Hunting Party’ would help. It’s not epic cinema, nor should it be taken as an accurate representation of events, but it does illustrate a widely held belief that the whereabouts of suspected war criminals are little more than open secrets, just ones conveniently ignored by intelligence agencies. Maybe this is true but, then again, Hollywood always loves a good conspiracy theory!

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Celebrity Sighting?

Rowan’s sister once saw Robbie Williams sitting on a park bench in London. That was back when he was the star and to suggest Take That could successfully reform (without him) and go on to pull off the largest stadium tour the UK has seen (ever) might have got one sectioned! I’ve visited London many times and can’t claim a single celebrity spot. Ok, so I once saw a woman who was the spitting image of Madonna on the corner of Leicester Square and Charing Cross Road. The huge dark glasses looked legit but as the blond hair wasn’t buried under a baseball cap the lipstick was too conspicuously red I'm convinced it wasa try-hard and not the real deal.

Last night we were enjoying a late-night dinner with the guy who drove us to Bosnia, outside a bar in the Old Town of Sarajevo. Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, would surely be the place for celebrity sightings. However in my case a complete ignorance of the names and faces of the local glitterati is always going to make that difficult. Nevertheless, at the table next-but-one I suddenly notice the distinctive features of the one local pop star I would recognise. Elvir Laković, aka Laka: the man who was behind Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Eurovision entry last year. (Buy the song if you don’t own it already!) I didn’t like to stare and I certainly wasn’t going to get up and ask if I had correctly identified a bloke having a quiet beer with a mate, but there it is, an unconfirmed celebrity sighting in Sarajevo.

(Feel free to burst the bubble on my claim in the comments below!)

Monday, 8 June 2009

A Tale of Two Piccies!



This is no Ansel Adams but to the naked eye this was a fantastic view. The town across the water is Gradac, on the Makarska Riviera in Croatia. I had to upload this one as a tribute to our trusty Canon Ixus 70, who got a wet bottom as I was taking it!











Once the day began to cool down the light was just amazing. I love sunsets at the best of times. Today we were treated to the sun slipping down behind the mountains as we strolled along the sea shore. Beautiful stuff!














Saturday, 6 June 2009

On Paper

If you were to go to www.hyundai.ba you could make an online reservation for a hire car. However, I’m not sure I’d recommend it. Not that I don’t recommend hiring from Hyundai; I am a satisfied repeat customer. Let me tell yesterday’s tale and perhaps you’ll understand why I’m reticent to recommend online reservations.

I walked into Hyundai’s rental car office at Mostar’s main station. The staff – in the singular – looked up from his desk and greeted me, in English.

‘I want to hire a car’
‘When?’
‘Ponedeljak...whole week’
‘What car?’
‘Getz’

Out came a classic Stabilo highlighter – fluorescent pink- to draw a neat line on the A4 schedule sitting on the desk. I spelt out my surname and and couple of little ‘8’s were scribbled at the beginning and end of the line – a record of our agreed pick-up and return times. And that was that.

It is obvious it is the A4 paper schedules, not the computer, which governs what goes on in (or out) of the office. To use their website not only would run the risk of information being lost in the manual transfer to the ‘master sheet’ but it would also be to miss out on some good old-fashioned customer service!