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


“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


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’
‘Ponedeljak...whole week’
‘What car?’

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!

Thursday, 4 June 2009


I was chastised tonight for my reticence to speak Bosnian, by a Bosnian in Bosnian. That I understood it was a telling off says something about the improvement in my language skills. But they have a point. It is the embarrassment of being wrong I need to get over. Perhaps I need someone to get in my face a scream: get over yourself!

Yesterday I was reading ‘It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be’ by Paul Arden*. He extols the freeing power of being wrong. And in this context he’s right. I know it. When it comes to working with ideas I constant encourage others not to fear being wrong, yet perhaps the same fear is stopping me from opening my mouth. I know I’m becoming too comfortable being silent – not needing to explain myself of have my say in a conversation!

When I do try it can all backfire. If nothing else, those moments give Rowan the chance to laugh at my deer-in-the-headlights facial expressions. She is enjoying watching me struggle at something, and I can’t blame her for that!

*And only yesterday did I discover Paul Arden died last year. A sad piece of news, not that I knew him, but his writing has been profoundly inspiring.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Nothing Without You (Original Song)

The second song from our first gig in Mostar. This is our as yet untitled band rocking at it's hardest and fastest...which is way the sound quality suffers a little at the end!

Filmed at Klub Novi Most in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The drummer and I teach music there and the performance was part of our work to inspire young people to get involved in learning to play an instrument. Early signs show we succeeded.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Climate change?

I don’t really want to write about the weather, it seems like such a cop out, but I will. What’s convinced me is the sorry situation I found myself in this afternoon. Ben’s family are visiting from Wales and as Ben doesn’t drive (it’s probably more accurate to say he doesn’t have a licence) I offered to play taxi for a spot of local sightseeing. So it was I ended up at Blagai in the pouring rain! Up at the source of the Buna water was gushing out of the cliff face at such a rate it was within an inch of overrunning the riverside cafes.

As we sat huddled around some hot drinks I noticed I could see my breath. Ben’s younger brother started shivering and it wasn’t long before he was wrapped up in his sister’s spare cardigan. For Ben and I a freak week of bad weather in June isn’t too much to grumble about, even if we have been told, repeatedly, that there’s no rain in Mostar in the summer months. However you have to feel for his family who’ve flown in expecting a summer break. Not only are they having to deal with Mostar’s waterlogged streets but also with texts about the freak weather back at home in Wales. It’s dry, sunny and 25degress there. Somehow it all seems terribly unjust!