Friday, 30 January 2009

If laughter is good medicine...

I’ve recently taken to tweeting – although distinctly less frequently than the average songbird. Tonight my tweet when: If laughter is good medicine I'm fully dosed up for tonight! I hit post and then felt the string urge to blog about it, even though the clock shows it’s well past my bedtime.

Laughter is good medicine – I have that from a reliable source. Tonight it was spreading like an infectious disease as our small party made a disproportionate amount of noise at a local restaurant. Fortunately we didn’t appear to be turning heads, certainly we were spared any embarrassing shh-ing!

Arguably, the lead laugher was the Novi Most Director, but it was a night that seemed more about family than hierarchy. The medicine was honest, fresh, and refreshing. It was sweet but not the sickly sweet of the cherry brandy that accompanied the after-dinner wind down. So if it’s been to long since you’ve had yourself a good, long hard belly laugh see this as your prescription.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Getting noticed...or not!

I have long held that there is little in life that cannot be fixed with gaffer tape. The state of your eternal soul and fluctuations in the exchange rate are two obvious exceptions but a cast array of woes can be conveniently patched up in no time. For a while I have been bothered by the eyesore of lose wires dangling from wires in Klub’s ceiling. I wasn’t the only one. Ben, our Welsh co-worker with a weakness of putting inappropriately rugby-theme desktops on the office computer, had also noticed. And so we hatched a plan – a DIY plan. When he typed up our hit-list of jobs, he named it the Nehemiah Project. Nehemiah, if you never went to Sunday School, rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem.

Our task list is slightly less dramatic than a city so in need of rebuilding it requires a round-the-clock work force, but nonetheless we want to get the building in shape. Work started this week with a few simple things like replacing broken light bulbs and discreetly applying white gaffer tape patches over the offending holes. While most people want their handiwork work admired we were excited that many people didn’t notice what we’d done. What they noticed was the result – a room that looked cleaner, tidier and distinctly more cared for. And so duly encouraged we will continue, gaffer tape in hand. The bonus for us is that one of the people who noticed was Gill, the Novi Most Director, who’s visiting from the UK this week.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Today's big news...

‘Yes, I love technology.’ Fans of Napoleon Dynamite will know the tune! Epic film; if a bit like Marmite, or should we say Vegemite as today is Australia Day? Not only that it’s Chinese New Year. And not only that it is the day we’ve become uncle and aunt for the second time. Our new nephew is almost directly due south of us, only just about as far south as you can be, unless you fancy an icy home with the penguins! It’ll be months before we meet the little fella but we’ve already seen him of Facebook. So while we’re thanks full for that, and the text message early this morning the following video serves to show negative side of technology. I can also broadcast to the world that I’ve got that embarrassing uncle thing pretty much down!

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Truth in Rainbows


Perhaps I should put a warning here. Danger: contains cheese! And by that I’m not during attention to the presence of dairy produce but the possibility that someone might think the following entry a little trite. But undeterred, I shall type on. Apologies if you can’t stomach the following.


We were driving a friend home earlier. They live south of town and they’d asked for the lift because it was raining. But the weather’s been changeable today so by the time we left it was sunny. Turning the Kombi around by their house to head back into Mostar we were greeted by an amazing full rainbow stretched over the city from the mountains on the east to the mountains on the west.

Rainbows may carry many connotations these days but I was immediately reminded of how Noah was told to see it: a sign of promise. A promise that, amongst other things, God would never again flood the earth. As Mostar is prone to flooding in heavy rain this is reassuring to remember. However there’s a more serious point. The rainbow was arched equally over a city so many have divided. God’s promise is not discriminatory. And that, like the rainbow, is a beautiful thing.


Friday, 23 January 2009

Read Blog + Watch Video = Thank You!

It's something that's easy to forget sometimes when I'm doing this bit - the sitting up way too late at night typing away thing. You are probably doing the causally surfing the internet to kill a minute or two thing, or perhaps your really organised and are subscribed, reading this amongst a bunch of other RSS feeds. The funny part about it I may not even know who you are. In fact, in many cases I'm pretty sure I don't.

For example, I know who some of our American readers are but I've never actually made contact with any of the good people of St Louis who drop by. I could go on but you get the point. I write this because I was surprised today when our language teacher mentioned our blog and started talking about the videos she'd watched. I don't know why I was surprised - it's not like we do this because we don't want people to read or watch. So to those of you who do read, or watch, or both: thank you. You make all the sleep-deprivation worthwhile!

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

The strangeness of a funny old night

Funny old night tonight; one of contrasts, as is so often the case with life here. After an evening spent hanging out with young people from a variety of backgrounds I was driving some of them home. We headed out of town in the dark and the rain. One stop was for those who live on a rubbish dump. I’ve dropped people home here several times before but tonight I was really struck by the strangeness of what I was doing.

Next stop was the gas station, to fill up the battered old Toyota van. The forecourt was bright and modern, not exactly like the ones in England but a lot like the fancy new ones you see on the Autoroutes in France. Except someone comes to pump your fuel. My friend jumped out to tell the attendant how much we wanted, all the while continuing a conversation on his mobile phone! Meanwhile the Scissor Sisters blasted over the forecourt speakers informing us that they ‘don't feel like dancing!’

It was at this point I decided I had to write about this. Not because I have a point I’m driving at. I just thought you might appreciate a glimpse into the experiences that shape the thoughts that float round my mind. I could wear blinkers but I don’t think that’s appropriate. However, seeing things leads to questions and some questions have a habit of nagging for answers.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

An Inauguration Impossibility!

I think I achieved the impossible today, or at least the highly improbable. I had a couple of conversations with an American and didn’t once mention the ‘I’ word or the big ‘O’! Am I the only person to achieve this feat? Probably not, but I suspect I’m in a very small minority.

Still, the events in Washington did not pass me by. My mother had sent a text before I left the house this morning expressing her hop all was well with me ‘on this auspicious day’. But it was our Welsh friend who seemed most excited about the Inauguration. He was positively gushing about Obama’s speech.

For my part I caught a little of the proceedings online, thanks to the BBC. That snap shot including watching a number of ex-presidents taking their seating, listening to the tail-end of Rick Warren’s prayer and hearing the first sister of soul, Aretha Franklin, do her thing. Oh, and I did get a minute or two of that Speech too!

Monday, 19 January 2009

In which I say very little!

I missed the chance to make a fantastic video today because I didn’t have the guts to ask a shop owners permission. A bit stupid really seeing as I was his only customer and he was busily engaged in producing something specifically for me. I walked home rueing the missed opportunity, thinking I’d make up for it with a witty blog post. But I can’t do that because it might spoil a surprise for some people. It’s hard to know if they read my blog but you can’t be too careful.

So this is an annoying non-post; a few lines of text telling you enough to know that really I’m not telling you anything! I know those of you who do read deserve better than that. Be assured for two things: I spent an odd, yet amusing half hour in a small shop somewhere in Mostar’s old town today, and that tomorrow I will return with something worth reading! Until then, if anyone has any travel tips or recommendations about Montenegro do let me know. It’s one of those places that’s been on my like-to-go-there list for a while. Now we’re so close I guess I have no excuse not to!

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Define custard!

Back in December we hosted the Novi Most team Christmas party here in Mostar. The food was an eclectic mix of local delicacies and traditional festive fare from England. Turkeys are not easily come by here so chicken sufficed but we did have a real Christmas pudding which was duly set alight and served with Bird’s custard!

This presented a challenge that, as yet, remains unresolved: how do you explain ‘custard’ to someone? It’s so much a part of our heritage yet no English person I heard could come up with a description that made it sound as appetising as we know it is. Consequently, there were few new converts. Not such a bad result, I guess, as it left generous servings for the initiated.

Today we were trying out a new cafe, one that came recommended for the quality of its cake. Indeed the cake was among the best that we’d sampled here, probably the best we’ve found in Mostar so far. But the curve ball was the ‘Čokolada Antika’ Rowan ordered to drink. She was expecting some kind of quality hot chocolate. Perhaps something was lost in translation but what she got, hidden below the generous whipped cream topping, was undoubtedly a mug of custard!

Friday, 16 January 2009

Our first TV appearance here!

This morning we walked into Klub and were greeted by the words ‘I saw you on TV last night!’ We did not make so much of a ‘walk on’ appearance as a ‘walk by’ one. Yesterday morning we visited OKC Abrašević, a youth cultural centre in Mostar. During part of our tour around we saw the director of their media centre standing in front of a camera. It seems that camera was rolling as we scurried across behind him.

And so we graced TV screens around the Mostar area, for it was part of a news broadcast on the local channel, for the first time. Who knows if and when we’ll make a return appearance. We could speculate on what circumstances but previous experience indicates it’s like to occur spontaneously and unexpectedly. But perhaps next time we will actually appear and not just be walking across the back of the shot!

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

A word, water and a dog or two!

Hydrant. It’s not a word you think of every day except, perhaps, you are a dog on a New York sidewalk. Tonight it helped me to deliver Scrabble 101. One hundred and one is probably my first ever three figure score from a single go and so, shamelessly, I felt I had to mention it. Not that today needed any more water references.

By this evening it was raining the proverbial cats and dogs as we walked to Klub. Somewhat fittingly our large umbrella sports a British Bulldog (catch one while you can) but at least it’s blue and yellow colour theme is culturally sensitive! Despite its generous proportions we still managed to get ridiculously wet trousers (pants to the Americans but not the British!) although I think that’s more about what comes up rather than what falls down. But at least it wasn’t freezing cold.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Lessons learned in local language learning

One of the perils of language learning is the inevitable mistakes. After lunch on Sunday the waiter seemed in no hurry to present us with a bill so Rowan tracked him down, only to inform him: I need to cry...before correcting herself!

Today I was explaining to some of the local people we work with how I might use ‘interesting’ somewhat euphemistically, when referring to something I didn’t particularly enjoy. Words have meanings and then there are the implied meanings.

We’ve found many an English turn of phrase cannot be translated, so we’re busy learning new ways of expressing things as well as a new language in which to communicate. The clock is ticking and I sense we need to be making better progress than we are but the key is not to panic.
I specialise in the deer-in-the-headlight moments, all too often falling into a panicked silence in which not even English comes to my rescue. And if something does float, nonchalantly, to mind it has every chance of being the dregs of my French GCSE or the odd bits of Spanish I picked up a decade ago on the Costa Del Sol.

So we soldier on, trusting that one day we will open our mouths and people will not laugh, look at us quizzically or just say ‘what?’ It is a matter of perseverance and confidence. There are positive signs and we should not belittle them. But hasten the day when we can claim a small measure of fluency.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

The best question!

We had lunch with an American friend, recently returned from the States. We were discussing the difficulties of accurately describing life in a different culture to those who never experienced the place you’re living in. Something’s are cannot easily be put into words, either they come out sounding overly dramatic, or they sound painfully obvious. And then there’s the issue of where do you start with so many different things to describe. You can try your best but you’re never going to do it justice on Skype or Facebook – or even through regular blogging or YouTube videos!

Then there are the questions people ask. We had plenty from our visitors over the holidays but none that compare to the one our friend got. ‘Do you live in huts?’ A fantastic question, and if the person responsible is reading this I hope you are not offended by being quoted! We are all aware we live in a country that is often overlooked by much of the outside world. In fact we could think of three things that might put it on peoples’ radar:

The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
The Winter Olympics in 1984 (Brits should remember Torvil and Dean!)
The conflict from 1991-1995


If you can think of any other reasons do let us know, and don’t be put off asking questions!

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Is he really writing about cycling?

I watched ‘The Flying Scotsman’ the other night. It’s the inspiring tale of Graeme Obree, the world champion cyclist from, yes you guessed it, Scotland. If the movie is to be believed he possessed such raw talent he could achieve the seemingly impossible on little more than determination and the most basic of improvised preparations. All of which sits in stark contrast to the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ that powered Team GB to so much cycling glory last summer. And this has got me thinking.

It seems Britain now has a system of producing winners on two wheels. If all goes well this should mean medals for years to come. A winning philosophy, along with knowledge and expertise, are being passed on. This may not make for a dramatic movie plot but it is building for greatness that is bigger and more lasting than one talented individual.

Every generation needs its heroes. One-man-against-the-world can be compelling but it is an unrealistic expectation for everyman. We must champion exceptional individuals but we must not overlook those who through careful coaching will exceed far beyond their wildest dreams. One person can change the world, but one winner could be a fluke, a freak of nature. However, a team of winners can change the outlook of a nation.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Not quite frozen out

I’ve heard of he-said-she-said arguments and I’ve heard of being frozen out of conversation. Now I’m living in a country where others will be freezing because of someone else’s argument. The argument I’m referring to is between Naftogaz and Gazprom, an argument that has resulted in the gas being turned off to most of Eastern Europe. I only say others will be freezing because Mostar doesn’t do central heating; neither does it get quite so cold as the rest of Bosnia Herzegovina. We use electrical heaters here, not that they are hugely effective. Nevertheless, today I heard of huge queues in Sarajevo to purchase them. Over coffee this afternoon we wondered if this could create a new, knock-on crisis. Does the electric grid here have the spare capacity to meet the inevitable rise in demand? Time will tell.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

The end of the line for Woolworths and other stories

So back in the UK the last Woolworths store closed its doors for the last time. I watched a video clip on the BBC website and suddenly remembered I bought my first album in Woolworths. I said it out loud. ‘What...your first CD?’ said Rowan. It was a tape, a tape of nursery rhymes actually. It was the seventies and I was young then.

I buy my music on iTunes now. I could buy it out of the boot of a car or from one of the shops that sells what a British person would regard as pirate copies. There is no law, as far as we’ve been told, against copying albums (or movies) here so in this country I guess it’s not technically a pirate. My sister-in-law bought a Laka album on the streets of Sarajevo. Her husband, who knows a thing or two about the music business, was intrigued to find CD carried the usual small print about unauthorised broadcast but not unauthorised copying.

But back to Woolworths. It is strange to read reports of the state of the high streets we left behind. We were never really the big spenders, except perhaps in TK Maxx, so we’d not have been much help in trying to spend the country out of financial ruin. I suppose the changing face of UK retail is just another lesson in how so many things we can put our trust in are really not that certain after all. Which could lead me neatly on to wondering why in the current climate any sane person would put up money for posters on buses postulating the non-existence of God, but as I’m sure that is enough to make my views clear I’ll leave it there.

Except, of course, I can’t actually finish there because this though crept into my mind: “Life is more than food, and your body more than clothing.” No prizes for guess who said that. But on a day when I read of a billionaire businessman committing suicide in the face of the global economic slowdown I think we’d all do well to recognise the wisdom in the statement that precedes the one about food and clothes. “A person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.” Our tragedy is that for too long we’ve thought we were too good for God. Perhaps the failing fortunes of the system we created for ourselves will cause us to re-evaluate.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Surprisingly correct!

After a break from language lessons for two weeks there was something reassuringly familiar about sitting down with our teacher again today. I think we both felt under-prepared, I certainly did. All our good intentions for the festive period had come to nothing and we were left scrawling last minute homework this morning. But despite this something almost miraculous happened.

We had both written lists of prepositions, ordered by case. That was part of the homework. What I’d forgotten is the expectation everything written in our books is etched on our memory. Suddenly I’m having to answer questions. What is ‘towards’, what is ‘under’? My perfect six in a row was greeted by a slightly raised eyebrow and a look of surprise. I didn’t quite get what was said but I’d have loved to be able to reply it was all the result of my hard work over the holidays. It wasn’t but it was an encouraging start to our first lesson of the New Year.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Our new local airport.

I’m sure I’ve written about Dubrovnik Airport before, but I’ll be honest and say I wasn’t going to wade back through over a hundred posts to check. I know I run the risk of telling the same story twice but here goes. A little over 22 years ago I was on what was probably even then an aging 737 making its decent to Dubrovnik Airport. I clearly remember staring out of the window wondering when I was going to see sign of civilisation. Beyond TITO written in rocks and a few goats there were none. The airplane touched down in this seeming wilderness and juddered to a noisy halt. We climbed down the old-fashioned steps onto the tarmac, or it might have been concrete, and head on foot to what, at least in my memory, was little more than a hut that served as an arrivals hall. This was my introduction to the Balkans.

Today, as we returned Rowan’s family to the same airport, after their introduction to the Balkans, the picture is very different. An extension to the terminal buildings is underway. Walking into the checking-in area was like being transported back to Western Europe without the need for the flight. The bright, shiny space looked every inch the modern airport, albeit a small one. But then we’ve done most of flying out or either Heathrow or Gatwick so when it comes to size the comparisons are hardly fair. Dubrovnik is now arguably our local airport, despite being in another country. With BA suspending flights from Sarajevo we can choose between Dubrovnik or Spilt for a direct flight to the UK. It’ll be much later in the year before we make that trip but somehow I don’t suppose it’ll be too long before we’re back in Dubrovnik.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

The place to stay in Sarajevo

This post is a hotel recommendation for visitors to Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia Herzegovina. What follows can be read as an honest endorsement or a shameless plug. Should you choose to think the latter know that we paid our bill in full and only the tiniest box of chocolates changed hands. My wife’s family have been visiting us is Mostar this week and wanting to take them to Sarajevo she was hunting online for a suitable hotel. Anyone who been will know parking in Sarajevo can be a real headache, and, anyway, most sights are easily reached on foot.

We once stayed in Guesthouse Halvat, which came well recommended. However, they were already fully booked on the dates of this trip. With a bit of hunting around online she turned up Hotel Konak – a competitively priced and conveniently placed establishment. I’ll gloss over the small incident that left the staff profusely apologetic and say instead it was a pleasure to encounter staff who seemed genuine in their desire to provide efficient service.

Hotel Konak, in its current form, opened in August 2008. We liked it’s clean, modern deco; lots of wood and white walls. There were stylish touches, where they could have gone for merely functional decor, showing a welcome attention to detail. In a country where it’s normal to live with dripping taps and wires protruding from holes in walls its worth noting everything worked. If there’s one thing against it that would be that as a small business I can see demand quickly outstripping supply. So book your room now!

Thursday, 1 January 2009

A new one's just begun...

We saw in the New Year with the celebrations in Mostar. The evening was opened up by Laka, who then went on to, undoubtedly, rock Sarajevo as the clock struck twelve. Laka, for those not up on their Balkan pop, are the act who represented Bosnia Herzegovina in the Eurovision song contest this year. (See our previous entry about that.) They were fantastic. Super quirky and original, a fine blend of comedy and melody with a tight backing band.

Today Rowan was on a local news website and spotted us in their report on last night. If you check out the photos be sure to admire the lead guitarist’s jacket – I won’t go so far to say I’m envious, but its close! Perhaps it gives an insight into what Tim Jupp is up to in his life after Delirious? There were other band playing besides Laka, but RT1 didn’t see fit to show them. However, I will say that Elemental have improved since we saw them in an over-crowded Sarajevo student bar. They got the privilege of playing over the New Year – pausing briefly for the statutory fireworks, which we’re not quite what we experienced last year in London.