Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The long and winding road!

I had a long conversation about humanitarian aid with a co-worker today. It was about humanitarian aid but it touched on education, transport, housing, displacement, development...the list could go on. The seemingly endless list says less about our ability to stick to the point than it does about the complexities of helping people in difficult situations. When faced with so many variables, most of which you have little influence over – certainly none you control – it would be easy to admit defeat before even attempting anything. While neither of us seem predisposed to pre-emptive defeatism, as we look at where we go from here it’s fair to say we’re both grappling with the question: where do you start?

You have to start with what you can do. Yes, there needs to be a big picture, a grand scheme perhaps, but those are never achieved overnight. But the picture must be of individuals, of names not numbers. Help must help them. Self-serving projects may make for great project reports but for all their pretty pictures and slick sound bites they run the risk of missing the point completely. Of course, it’s too easy to type high-minded statements like that and then go out and commit the offences you so readily condemn in others. If nothing else it’s time to proceed with caution.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Location, Location, Location

The three L’s are the watchword for purchasing property but what about selecting a cinema? Those who follow all my digital output closely might have seen me talk recently about living six months in a city with no cinema. In the last week we were staying in Dubrovnik - one of Croatia’s leading coastal destinations. It’s a city steeped in history and, rain or shine, it never fails to be beautiful. The Old Town houses numerous museums and art galleries. However, these we overlooked upon the discovery of the cinema nestled as the end of the Stradun. Sure it wasn’t the size of those in London’s Leicester Square, perhaps it doesn’t impress like a night on Hollywood Boulevard – and, yes, the seats were hard, the screen small and the sound a little dodgy – but how many times can you say you’ve been to the cinema and walked out to be greeted by a view like this? We have – twice!

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

A thousand words!


My average entry runs to about two-hundred and fifty words, so according to the old adage this entry should be about four times more informative than the norm! I have a friend who tried their best to bully me into learning to touch type. Sadly, I still type with two and a half fingers – a sorry confession, I know. Telling all the stories we could tell is hard given typing-time constraints. On occasion I stretch to sending a friend or two a couple of picture’s worth of text but even that is woefully inadequate. So here is a view we see most days – slightly enhanced for your enjoyment – your thousand words start here...


Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Placing a strange smell!

They say the sense of smell is, of all the senses, the strongest evoker of memories. Today mine was jogged as I filed down the bridge of a guitar. Since Friday I’ve set up five guitars in as many days. To the uninitiated this might seem like unnecessary fiddling but, while the results may not always be visible to the untrained eye, it can be the difference between and playable and an unplayable instrument. So this morning as I was vigorously scraping the bridge of an acoustic guitar across my rasp, working towards a much comfortable playing action, I caught a whiff of something I knew I’d smelt before.

It was not a pleasant smell. The bridge is, or certainly was in this case, made of some sort of dense plastic. As I shaved away, little flakes were sticking all over more hands; static, and stubbornly refusing to be shifted. It was the rasping that was releasing the odour. Was it an industrial or biological connection? I called Ben over – was it a farm yard smell? He couldn’t place it. Then it came to me, along with a mental picture I will refrain from elaborating upon. It was the smell of significant quantities of duck poo in the rain!

Monday, 23 March 2009

Spring means...

Spring arrived, at least according to the calendar, at the weekend. The weather here has yet to really wake up to the fact however this morning we were thrown into an unplanned burst of spring cleaning. Our landlord called to say he wanted to collect money for rent and bills today – nothing unusual in that. Then he said people from his insurance company needed to take pictures. That, he assured me, is normal here. I’d never heard of it. We’ll have to trust him they’re not going to appear on some real estate website, advertising the apartment for sale or rent! (This is unlikely as such websites are not particularly common here.)

The apartment was in no state to be photographed, at least not by anyone other than a scenes of crime officer, or perhaps environmental health. OK, so I exaggerate but it’s funny the mess you’re happy to live in when you know no-one is looking. I’d been restoring a guitar over the weekend, which made some mess. Various rehearsals and song writing exercises meant music gear was strewn around the spare bedroom. As for the kitchen – no comment! Within an hour or so we had everything neatly stowed in appropriate places and the apartment suitably photogenic. Nothing like a good incentive to spur you into action on a lazy day off!

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Inconvenience or Adventure?

In a brief moment of down time on another busy Saturday I was idly surfing the internet when I stumbled across this: "An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered - an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered."

That is a slice of wisdom from GK Chesterton. I’ve had a mixed relationship with Chesterton. Father Brown annoyed me but I found A Man Called Thursday and, in particular, The Napoleon of Notting Hill fantastic reads. However I struggled to get into Orthodoxy, although when I finally finished it I think I understood.

Obviously it was ‘adventure’ that grabbed my attention but it’s left me pondering the nature of ‘inconvenience’. What is inconvenient about living in Bosnia Herzegovina? Rightly considered the answer is, on the things that matter, very little. But then U2 announce a tour and you rue not living an hour from Wembley and ponder if it’s worth trying to get tickets for Zagreb – and face ten times the travel time! Wrongly considered it’s quite the inconvenience. Chesterton, doubtless, would classify it adventure.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Coming soon...

Coming soon is part 2 of this video. The one in which we reveal to all our readers outside Mostar just what colour the Gimnazija is being painted. Residents will have observed colour creeping down the side of the building. In the next week it'll make it's way across the front leaving this as possibly one of only a few video references of what the unpainted version looked like.

If you haven't had a tip off and fancy a bit of fun why not guess at the colours and leave a comment below. My only clue is there are two of them - enjoy!

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Writing songs

Over the past few years I’ve spent hours – probably days or weeks, in reality – helping people write songs. I’ve worked with people well versed in classical music, people who can’t name the chord they’re strumming and pretty much everything in between. My musical adventures have included highlights like encouraging would-be vocalists whose abilities made lightening look consistent and those whose concept of a steady beat couldn’t be less steady if it where tumbling headlong down the stairs. I’ve written with people from different continents and heard my songs translated into different languages. But today I broke new ground. It was my first musical meeting with a local, up-and-coming, singer-songwriter. (Admittedly, a claim she might not yet make for herself!) So many things were familiar – the musical get-to-know-yous and feeling your way through the genesis of a song together. However, there was one obvious difference. Despite all my language lessons it’s very clear to me that I’m still a long way off offering constructive lyrical advice or critique in my second language!

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Abba Singstar

There was something strangely surreal watching young people born at the end of the Bosnian conflict singing their hearts out to Abba Singstar. Blame my wife – I would never have suggested it but she’s making converts very quickly with her latest toy. I know Abba are, or were, huge but the average twelve year-ago could be forgiven for not being overly familiar with their back catalogue. Nevertheless, it was surprising how well they coped with what must be some of the wordiest of Sweden’s pop exports. I would love to type a true reflection of their pronunciation, but I wouldn’t do it justice. And so the globalising influence of Sony’s ubiquitous technology marches on.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

A first time for everything...

It was an afternoon for firsts. I dropped my parents of at Dubrovnik Airport at the end of their first trip to Bosnia Herzegovina. As I drove up the coast road I realised I was following the first Albanian car I’d seen. (It was a Ford Mondeo – which somehow seemed appropriately global!) Suddenly it started slowing down and I realised I was about to see my first road accident since we’ve moved. (It was a Croatian one, as I hadn’t crossed the border, so maybe that doesn’t count?) Sadly a big white Mercedes had taken a serious side swipe from a small anonymous-looking car that had buried its tiny bonnet into the other’s door. Air bags had deployed but it didn’t look like anyone had been hurt.

For the first time I took a right turn in Neum and headed home up over the mountains. I had heard various reports about the road. I don’t know what I expected but what I got was a pay-attention drive that would have served well as a stage on Sega Rally. A Hyundai Matrix is not a rally car – nor do I claim to be a rally driver. I enjoyed myself without attempting anything crazy or stupid, which is just as well. On one of the downhill sections I rounded a corner to see two Police officers standing in the road, obviously waiting for a customer. That I subsequently found them to be very polite and not the least intimidating was a pleasant surprise. But I can’t add that to the list because it was the second time that’s happened.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Scaring my mother...again!

She added the ‘again’. I hadn’t realised the first time was quite so serious. It involved the short drive down to Kravice that we took last Sunday; one hairpin bend and a couple of hundred yards of tarmaced decent, albeit with gravelled edges and a steep drop on one side. Today we drove up to Rui┼íte, which is about twenty-five kilometres out of town; hardly an epic journey but long enough to give my mother sweaty palms, if not white knuckles. My driving was certainly not reckless. Admittedly the roads where littered with stones from recent rock falls and the higher we got the more snow and ice encroached on the road surface. The hair-pin count may have reached double figures but I didn’t see any reason for it to be hair-raising.

Once up in the strange silence of this snowy mountain village we resorted to walking. I know enough to know my father is not a fan of driving in unfamiliar conditions, much less a fan of being driven in them by me! And so, when the sun disappeared and the snow suddenly started to fall I agreed to beating a prudent retreat down to the valley, but not before treating them to an unexpected application of the handbrake on ice! Needless to say we made it back alive. If you know my parents, you will certainly get a retelling of this ‘adventure’ from their perspective...and it will probably sound a lot more exciting than this version!

Thursday, 12 March 2009

We have lift off!

Lifts. I’ve known people who won’t go in them. I’ve lived in an apartment that had an ancient example within a wire cage, giving a full view of just how precarious a mode of elevation it was. My wife never stepped inside it – but then we were only on the first floor. Today I was helping someone move into an apartment on the tenth floor of one of Mostar’s aging tower blocks. There was no serious option but to load up the lift and hope it’d make it to the top. The top, in this instance, was the ninth floor. Then it was stairs for the rest.

Knowing that a friend of a friend got stuck in a similar lift a week or two back didn’t help my confidence with the whole adventure. It turns out I wasn’t the only hesitant one. Still I won’t complain. I was only there for the morning, loading cooker and washing machine, clothes and crockery into this undesirable elevator. Pity those who in the afternoon carried the oversized object – like the bed- up ten floors. I’d happily take my chances of temporary incarceration over that!

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Stamp of approval?

I had a brief spell as a philatelist in my early teenage years. My small collection is now lost, although it is really no great loss. I am just not fanatical enough about small pieces of perforated paper. However, today twenty-six identical stamps (pictured) caught my attention. Perhaps it was something to do with the hilarious crib scene. I confess this is the first time I’ve seen baby Jesus in the manger with a koala and a kangaroo! It was also because they betrayed the origin of this seemingly unopened box, part of a consignment of humanitarian aid picked up this morning. Australia! I won’t pretend to understand how or why we ended up unpacking hand-knitted hats and gloves (amongst other things) sent from the Antipodes for Balkan babies.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

One of two?

We have a friend who here in Mostar who found us through this blog. They were looking for English language blogs about life in Mostar and stumbled across ours. I did a search the other day and realised just what a small niche this blog is part of. If you narrow the search the English people blogging in English about life in Bosnia Herzegovina then there’s even less choice. As far as I’m aware we’re one of two! There may be more, and I’d love to find them if there are, but it’s weird to think us and a fraught mummy in Tuzla may be the only English voices speaking about life in this country. And then you start wondering who’s actually listening!

Monday, 9 March 2009

Deprivation

For the last six months, or thereabouts, I have not driven a car. I have been driving at least every other day. But it has either been in a Volkswagen Transporter, which has a poor turning circle but a great engine, or a Toyota Hiace, with a fantastic turning circle but an increasingly dodgy engine. Neither is a car, much less a driver’s car. I can’t say I’ve felt deprived. For one, the speed limits here are so slow I imagine driving a car with any kind of performance capability must be intensely frustrating. (Something English readers have to look forward to if plans to lower the National Speed Limit go ahead!)

Our car before we left the UK was a Mini Cooper Clubman, our car of six years before that: a yellow Mini One! I like the go-kart motoring, corners-on-rail, fun motoring of Britain’s most ubiquitous quirky car. So imagine my surprise when this weekend I find myself quite enjoying being behind the wheel of a Hyundai Matrix. Sure this maroon monstrosity has a Pininfarina badge on the side but one look at it tells you it has to be there by mistake. Everything about the vehicle is atheistically wrong. A driver’s car it is not. And yet this driver has appreciated the comparatively smooth and silent driving experience. Signs that perhaps I am more deprived than I thought!

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Rocking towards Europe

We’ve just got in from a Saturday night out in Mostar. It’s been a night where we’ve been treated to the delights of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Rage Against The Machine served up by a local band performing their first gig. Our connection is our drumming band mate; the drummer in this band is a former student of his. The drummer and bass player had attended our first rehearsal. The venue was an internet cafe. Earplugs mean I can contemplate sleep without a seriously ringing head. Through the noise our drummer shouted something to us about this being a sign of moving towards Europe. Someone connected with the event wanted our opinion on the Irish flag they’d hung across the back of the stage. I don’t know if this was because they feared this might offend us and English people, or whether they thought it was in some way part of our heritage. Whichever I wasn’t offended – and Rowan thought it was Italian and faded!

Friday, 6 March 2009

Adventures in car hire

I have a bad habit of leaving some things to the last minute. Those things usually include filling in forms or making phone calls. And so, needing to pick up a hire car for the weekend tomorrow it was only today did I get around to trying to organise this. In the UK this, I suspect, what not present much of an issue – I say I suspect as I’ve never actually hired a car myself in the UK. However, based on observation and my one experience of car hire – in Las Vegas – I decided that a well know franchise had to be the way to go.

I’ve seen two names I recognised in Mostar: Budget and Sixt. Two things were not in Budget’s favour: the need for a bigger budget for the same class of rental and the fact they conspicuously decal their vehicles. The Sixt website came out with a better price but wasn’t clear on whether the car could be driven into Croatia. A local friend called to confirm it could and find the location of their office. It was not in Hotel Ero as they said. Nor was it in the office I stumbled into on the directions of Ero’s receptionist, although the building still bore their logo – admittedly in a slightly defaced state.

Their office was in a travel agent, one who when confronted with the phrase ‘car hire?’ said ‘I don’t understand what you are talking about!’ When I pointed to the brochure on the desk I was told they don’t actually keep cars in Mostar, they’re all in Sarajevo...but there’s another car hire company round the corner. Brand credibility destroyed in one fell swoop! I passed on their recommendation and headed for the station where we’ve seen the cars sitting outside the hire company. My conversation there was going really well until we started to talk about the hire period.

‘I want to pick up the car tomorrow at 9am and bring it back on Tuesday at 9am’.

‘So you want it to the 12th – five days’

‘No, til the 10th...’

‘Thursday’

‘No Tuesday’

‘The 12th?’

I think we both sensed we were circling. It was time to resort to pointing.

‘Look you want it to Thursday. [pointing along his week planner] Monday, Thursday, Wednesday, Tuesday’

‘Yes, til Thursday!’

Until then I'll be driving a Hyundai!

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Looking the part...

What a disaster! I had dug through my case of thing-packed-just-on-case and so was well prepared for tonight’s trip to an indoor football pitch. I pulled on my retro, red ‘Three Lions’ shirt. It’s not normally paired with black sock and shorts but nevertheless it wasn’t a bad look. Until play started that is. In many ways I did England proud, or at least continued a long tradition of overpromising and under-delivering. I can't report one good tackle or pass, let alone a decent shot on goal that I made. I could play the blame game but it wouldn’t help. After all tonight was just play for the sake of play, with a generous side order of theatrics for the benefit of those on the sidelines. But as a trip that was intended for fifteen had snowballed to nearer thirty the fact it passed off without accident or incident must be seen as something of a success!

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Late night conversation

Never underestimate the power of a late night conversation. There is the tale I would retell here – and a tale worth telling it is – but time does not permit me to delve into the details. However I cannot let an auspicious anniversary pass with drawing attention to one of the more defining dialogues of my life. It is three years to the day to when a few friends hijacked the small hours to ambush my comfortable consumerism. It was a battering. I was left under no illusions about my shallowness; with no excuses or adequate explanations for my seeming aversion for getting my hands dirty.

That was then. Now, almost six months into a new life, things are different. I have taken giant strides toward meeting the challenges laid down for me. I won’t claim to be there yet but I’m definitely moving in the right direction. And so to my, discretely, unnamed assailants I owe a huge debt of thanks. We’ve often joked about that evening but it truly had a profound and lasting effect. I know it was preparation for the broader horizon I now inhabit. My advice would be this. If friends you trust and respect gang up on you over your outlook on life don’t dismiss their demands out of hand. I didn’t and I think it changed my life!

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Not Cricket...

It might be a bad bit of British black humour but it’s tempting to look at the tragic news from Pakistan this morning and say: that’s just not cricket! Of course it is not a laughing matter. Sport is often held up to be an apolitical symbol of how we can all get along, although at times it seems hardly dissimilar to the colourful armies of old venturing into battle. And while occasionally a sports personality will use their position to make a political point you don’t expect them to have guns pointed and fired at them.

It was only last night that we were discussing sports in our language lessons, trying, I think unsuccessfully, to explain cricket. It’s not a sport easily described, especially when using limited vocabulary in a new language. There is, of course, a huge common ground of football in this part of the world, although that can be dangerously tribalistic in this town – but I guess that’s not unlike Liverpool or Glasgow. As for a local cricket equivalent, perhaps it’s rukomet – handball – inasmuch as it’s got a strong fan base but the uninitiated will not understand it. At some point we need to get ourselves an education!

Monday, 2 March 2009

Food For Thought

It’s been reported today that Bosnia and Herzegovina's (BiH) Food Safety Agency – based not so far from where I’m typing this – will be testing four thousand food products this year. Naturally this makes encouraging reading. Sort of. There are two sides to every story. The other side to this one contains words like Escherichia coli, staphylococcus and salmonella. But let sanity reign. There is little point in panicking. For one our food purchasing options are fairly limited and secondly those names seem all too familiar from the food scares British tabloids scream about.

The article said in 2008, ‘4.66% of food items were found noncompliant with safety standards.’ I guess that means one sausage in twenty will be a bad egg, or something like that! Apparently, that’s about average for the region. And so we’ll focus on the positives tonight. Another step towards aligning legislation with EU norms has to be good for the future of the country. After all, much of the food here tastes fantastic so any measures to further secure food safety can only lead to more satisfied customers.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

A cross cultural treat!

I think I had myself quite the cross cultural Sunday afternoon. It is my loosely-held belief Sunday afternoons were inventing for slumber. After all, if God rested on the seventh day shouldn’t we do likewise? After a pleasant outdoor lunch with friends, enjoying what seems like the onset of spring, we retreated to our apartment where I could enjoy today’s real treat: No Line On The Horizon.

I’d pre-ordered U2’s latest album from iTunes. I switched my laptop on this morning to find an email telling me it was ready to download. I knew what that meant for my afternoon. So it was I donned my favoured headphones, stretched myself out on our English sofa , in our Mostar apartment, clutching a box of American Skittles to listen to Ireland's finest export. Tragically, it seems I really did slumber. While the chocolate Skittles were no more, an hour later I was in no place to offer an informed opinion of what I’d been listening to!

I’ve done some revision while I’ve been attending to some correspondence. I’m pleased to report it’s well worth £7.99 and an hour of your time!