Friday, 31 December 2010

Happy New Year!

For the first time in a long time we're staying in on New Year's Eve. Last year enjoyed a mild evening in Dubrovnik's old town, listening to bands of various qualities. The year before we were treated to Laka performing outdoors in a freezing cold Spanish Square in Mostar. The last New Year we spent in England saw us standing on the banks of the Thames for at least four hours to witness ten minutes of awe inspiring fireworks from directly opposite the London Eye. The previous year we braved Times Square, in New York, to watch the ball drop and the year before that we were in Cape Town, although we did stay in with family that night.

Having done trips to Zagreb and Mostar within the last ten days we felt no great urgency to get out and find some entertainment tonight. There was a good gig happening in Sarajevo but seeing as we'd had one of those in Mostar on Wednesday the seven-hour round trip to the capital seemed a little excessive. We'll probably clamber up onto the city wall near our house come midnight and hope that people still have some fireworks to let of by then.

This video is from the end of the concert in Mostar. Something happened that we'd never experienced before. We thought you'd like to see it!

Thursday, 30 December 2010

More driving fun

Today we drove from Mostar to Jajce in brilliant sunshine. Despite the fact mountains cast shadows on the roads leaving many a snowy or icy stretch of tarmac to be carefully negotiated it was a great day to be out driving. Driving north gave the dual advantages of not just being headed home but also mostly having our backs to the sun. It's easier, and safer, when your view doesn't alternate between dense shadow and dazzling sunlight. It's hard to pick a highlight from the drive although the intense double rainbow caused by one of Bosnia's hydro-electric dams gushing from all five of its gates probably takes the prize. Sadly there is no accompanying photo for that. You'll have to make do with this video where I show you one of my favourite views, from yesterday's outward journey.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

What have we been up to?!

It's been just over two weeks since our last post which means one of two things: either we've had nothing to talk about or there's been a little too much going on to find the time to talk about it. This video should help you make you mind up about which one it's been.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Feeling all Alpine!

Sunday afternoon is, traditionally, a good time for a stroll. And so yesterday afternoon, with the snow falling thick and fast, Rowan and I headed out to catch a glimpse of a different kind of Jajce. Such eagerness to run out and play in the snow is undoubtedly a result of our childhoods in England, where snow was a blink-and-you'll-miss-it phenomenon. All that has, of course, changed in the two years since we left. Last week my hometown had it's heaviest snow fall in fourty-three years, apparently.

The snow is Jajce is unlikely to go anywhere for at least a week, accept from the roads and pavements, where a very efficient cleaning operation had everything snow-free by the time we were back from a trip to Vitez today. That's one reason I'm happy to have grabbed Sunday's video, for the full alpine effect! The photo is from about half past eight this morning, somewhere approaching the town of Travnik and the Vlašić mountain. It was a great to be out driving this morning with everything looking so 'Winter Wonderland' - even if we did have to be up and out uncomfortably early for the privilege of seeing it before the tarmac was visible again.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Fairytales vs Platform Games

Rowan was reminded of ice daggers, the sort plunged through the hearts of unfortunate, and probably unsuspecting, victims in fairytales; shortly before some wholesome, heart-warming hero arrives on the scene to heal the hurts and ensure everyone – except, perhaps, the ice-wielding bad guy – lives happily ever after.

I had images of old-school platform games, or perhaps even a Nintendo original hand-held classic like Donkey Kong. The aim was to complete a successful dash through the Tunnel of Doom, while dodging the game-over inducing objects regularly falling from the ceiling.

Earlier this week we were telling friends in Mostar that our walk to work – or the supermarket – was a relatively easy one in all weathers as half of it was through the road tunnel under Jajce's castle. As if to prove that nothing in life is really that simple the weather threw us a curve ball this morning. This is not photoshop, a fairytale or Nintendo's finest; those really are icicles over three feet long, or measuring over a metre if you prefer metric.

However, fear not; in a country that often appears to have a laissez-faire attitude to all things health and safety these actually register as dangerous enough to require attention. As I was walking through the tunnel, photographing all the while, I spotted the guy with the very long stick working his way towards me on the other side of the road, smashing the seasonal hazards above his path. I was pleased to see that despite clearly forgetting to don his protective goggles he had remembered his wooly (safety?) hat!

Friday, 10 December 2010

An Inexcusably Short Drive

We haven't owned a car since we left the UK and, despite having access to vehicles through our work with Novi Most, I think we can say we've significantly cut back on our personal use of the combustion engine. The truth is, however, that this hasn't been driven by any strongly held environmental convictions but simply by the fact that both in Mostar and now in Jajce it is quicker and more convenient to walk, due to how close we've lived to where we are working. But as with every rule there are exceptions, here's evidence of us about to make an inexcusably short drive!

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Paper Trails

We were down in Mostar yesterday and today. This provided us with two paper-trail related tales to tell.

Yesterday: Novi Most owns a couple of Volkswagan Transporters, one of which we are using in Jajce. To make fuelling easier about a year ago we got fuel cards from a chain of gas stations that are well represented in Herzegovina. Moving to Jajce we realised they had no forecourts in the immediate area so it was suggested we get a card from a different, Bosnian-based company. Two weeks ago, somewhere in north-west Bosnia, I used this card for the first time. It took the two gentlemen behind the counter fully fifteen minutes of conferring with one another and consulting sheets of A4 paper on the wall be behind the till to finally get the appropriate machine to spit out a little slip of paper for me to sign. Yesterday, I was in the Novi Most office in Mostar when the envelope arrived containing the bill for the account for the last month. There, stapled to the top right corner of the A4 invoice, was the very same slip bearing my signature. I couldn't help thinking that for a company with a nation-wide network of forecourts which are being actively, and very nicely, modernised this system might lack a little in the efficiencies made possible by the digital age.

Today: Amongst other things we found the time to shop for some things we haven't been able to get in Jajce. One was phone/fax machine. Even in Mostar, finding one of these that didn't include the bulky addition of a printer and scanner required a bit of a search. We ended up in a shop called DigiTrends, in the Piramida shopping centre. While the purchase of an unremarkable piece of office equipment would not normally be afforded a blog post this story finds it way online because of the quaint picture of the young assistant hand-writing the receipt in a carbon-copy booklet. For a retailer showing off a fine selection of the latest consumer electronics, surely this is not the digital revolution the shop's name implies!

Monday, 6 December 2010

A Presidential Drive-By!

We were standing in the kitchen this morning when I heard a Police siren outside the window. In our experience here that can mean only one thing: dignitaries being ferried about the country in a high speed convoy. Rowan had seen on Facebook that Ivo Josipovic, the Croatian President was dropping in on Jajce today. Sure enough, half a dozen blacked-out people carriers, a few others vehicles whose description I can't remember, and a couple of ubiquitous white Volkswagen Golf Police cars were snaking their way down the valley from the direction of Banja Luka. I can't claim to have seen the President but if he was looking out of the window he may well have seen our house, if not us gawping out of the window!

I've just received an email from Balkan Insight that contained a link to an article explaining why he was in the area. As it was a promising piece politically I thought I'd couple some of the stand out sections here in the hope you'll click the link to read the rest. So here goes...

Croatia's Josipovic Is 'Man of the Year'

Nezavisne Novine daily said it was awarding the Croatian leader because he is “a statesman not burdened by the legacy of war... who promotes a policy of reconciliation and tolerance” in the former Yugoslavia.

For his part, Josipovic said that the award was a great privilege.

"It is time for cooperation that implies peace, good neighborly relations and understanding, common interest, and it is time for all to return to their homes, to boost trade, cultural exchange and cooperation," he told Nezavisne Novine.

Read the full article here.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Snow Falls

Yesterday I needed to cool my head down, literally, to stave off the tiredness and kick start some clear thinking. I could have gone and sat in the spare bedroom but it was much more inspiring to head out into a snowy Saturday night. When I saw the snow swirling around the floodlights I knew I needed to make a video.

The picture below is the view we woke to first thing this morning. Today ended up being all bright blue skies and mild weather, so while there's still some snow around it doesn't look exactly like this anymore. The next time it snows I need to make time to get some good photos or video of the castle and city walls as they certainly suit a bit of snijeg.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Of Villages and Boys Toys

After being involved in youth work for more than fifteen years you've heard lots of reasons, and occasionally excuses, as to why people didn't show up when you were expecting them too. Today I heard one I'd never heard before. Rowan and I used to do a lot of youth work out of a school youth centre in a rural part of Sussex. Even there this never cropped up. Jajce is more rural still, as this picture indicates. It was produced by one of the young people who did make it to our first Novi Most session in Jajce. He was one of almost twenty who responded to the invitation and came to see what opportunities could open up with Novi Most now working in the town. It was a very positive couple of hours. We'll run a similar introduction session next weekend for those unable to be there today. Some of them were at a school event happening in town, which is familiar territory; others, however, had to go to a village and slaughter some pigs, which is definitely a new one for me!

In have to add this picture of some black boxes for all of you who can identify with boys toys type excitement. What you may or may not be able to make out is a small KV2 Audio PA system. At the last big event I played at in the UK before moving to Bosnia and Herzegovina we rocked a significantly larger KV2 Audio system. Buried in the back of the wardrobe I still have a couple of KV2 Audio T-shirts, gifts from the nice people on their stand at Plasa, an annual sound and lights trade show held at Earl's Court, London. My snap was snapped in Artist, a music store in Banja Luka. It's a real rock'n'roll music store. One where they let you touch things without hovering like over-protective parents. Such shops used to exist in the UK, but the ones I used to frequent in the early days of my musical journey have long since evolved into don't-touch-without-permission generic supermarkets for sanitised musical equipment. More's the pity! The downside of the visit was the sudden urge to buy things I probably don't have the money for. The upside was the discovery of many useful things I haven't seen on sale in the music stores in Mostar or Sarajevo. I don't think it'll be too long before I find myself back in Banja Luka with a little bit more time to spend checking out the plentiful delights of this Aladdin's Cave.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Snow and Rainbows

While the town we came from in the UK is in the grips of some unseasonally large snow falls, Jajce has not yet plunged into the depths of winter. No doubt it will come. Today we had enough sunshine to add a rainbow to a now familiar view. Yes, a rainbow needs a little rain and we've had a bit but nothing like what's going on back in Mostar at the moment. Rowan was looking at some pictures on Facebook earlier and said she never saw the Neretva so high in the two years we were there. Apparently the border at Metković was closed due to flooding in the town. With so many of Bosnia and Herzegovina's main roads running alongside rivers I've often thought how vulnerable this network is to rising water levels.

Snow, however, it is well equipped to handle, at least in our experience. Gritters and snow ploughs operate around the clock keeping the main routes passable, if not entirely clear. The requirements to put winter tyres on every November and carry snow chains help too, although people only seem to resort to chains if absolutely necessary. Like the time one of my back wheels froze on the top of a mountain. Snow chains gave enough traction to drag it down to below the snow line where the bare tarmac provided enough resistance to work it free again. And so to all my UK readers struggling with the country's less-than-entirely resilient infrastructure, enjoy the snow-break...and if you see a set of snow chains they are a worthwhile investment!

Monday, 29 November 2010

Danas je Dan Republike

'Danas je Dan Republike'. So went the chorus of one of the songs we played on Saturday. Today it's actually true: today is the Day of the Republic. It was much like any other day in Jajce when we wandered to the supermarket in the early afternoon. Saturday, however, was a different prospect altogether. Hundreds of people had gathered from across the former-Yugoslav republics to remember Tito and Yugoslavia. As if they had arrived through some rift in time, proud communists and uniformed Partizans gathered in the areas close the the AVNOJ Museum. AVNOJ stands for Anti-Fascist Council of National Liberation of Yugoslavia and the Museum is housed in the building that played host to the meetings that led to the forming on Yugoslavia.

Like in much of post-communist Eastern Europe it is not hard to find people nostalgic for how things were. For these people Saturday's events are a reminder of the togetherness and sense of identity that gave them a place on the world stage. And a memorial for the man who orchestrated that. Tito clearly still has a profound influence.

I confess I felt a bit of an imposter, climbing on stage to play as part of the official programme outside the Museum. A friend who was singing with us had bought a 'Born in YU' T-shirt from Jajce's main tourist shop. It looked cool but was a reminder that we weren't...although I did visit Yugoslavia for maybe eight hours one October in the mid-eighties! So why did we agree to get involved? I think there are two main reasons.

The first is that in the sort of work we are doing I believe it's important to identify with the things that are important to the community you are in. For the people we are working with, and for many people in Jajce, this is an important event. The willingness to get involved helps our differences become less important. In all our conversations with those from the Museum responsible for the event we never picked up any sense that they were concerned we weren't local.

The second reason is while it is unlikely that this region will ever see something exactly like Yugoslavia again there are positives that remembering the past bring. The Balkans would certainly see a brighter future if it found more time for focusing on its similarities - like the old concept of brotherhood - and less for the divisiveness of nationalistic political posturing. There's also something to be said for anti-fascism. Europe is facing the rise of the right-wing, and, perhaps alarmingly, in some unexpected places. France hit the headlines with its stance on Romanian Roma but I was surprised by a recent article I read about the plight of Sweden's of immigrant communities. Whoever the victims, it's important that we remember the reason why Tito was bringing together anti-fascists in the first place. It would be nice to think Europe has learnt its lessons. I certainly don't want to be one who makes the same mistakes.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Professional Rockers!

It's wrong to blow your own trumpet, so to speak, but after viewing this particular incident perhaps you'll forgive us this once. We were playing at the AVNOJ event outside the museum in Jajce today when disaster struck in the form of a falling PA speaker. As reactions go we're pretty proud of our apparent unflappability!

(The whole events deserves a proper post which it will get some time in the next day or two.)

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Hard Rocking!

Before you ask, no, of course Jajce doesn't have a real Hard Rock Cafe. Unlike Mostar, it doesn't even have a place pretending to be one. As someone who has visited Hard Rock Cafes in London, New York and LA – yes, the original one is in London – I know it takes more than a few guitars and a Jimi Hendrix poster on the walls to qualify as rock'n'roll's finest eatery.

Nevertheless I share the photo because it makes me smile. Who wouldn't want a bright orange (fake) Hard Rock T-shirt was a birthday present! That not the real reason though. As we head into the week that should see our first public rock'n'roll performance in our new town I thought is was a great way to get back in the live music mood. Moving has meant we've gone a few months without practising altogether. We're either in for a pleasant surprise or a horrible shock when we crank it up for rehearsals over the next couple of days!

Friday, 19 November 2010

That's not quitting!

Only yesterday I was wondering what the latest was with Angelina Jolie's film project. So it was with a certain serendipity I noticed The Telegraph screaming 'Angelina Jolie quits Bosnia' before I logged off for the evening. I paused long enough to decide I should share my findings today.

What we learn from this article is a truth, probably universal, but eminently applicable to this part of the world: don't believe the big statement. Why? While it may not be a lie entirely such generalisations are generally misleading. In this case the details of the article are all but completely misrepresented by an emotive headline.

By most common definitions quit is to give up, leave or walk out on. I expected to hear that Jolie was no longer going to film at all in Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, and this is a direct quote, the article says: only three days of filming will now be done in Bosnia and Jolie will only visit the set briefly. The number of Bosnian locations used in the film has been cut from seventeen to five.

To clarify, far from quitting the country Jolie's film will still have scenes shot in Bosnia and she will still be visiting to be part of that process. Like Hollywood's movies these days, things are rarely black and white. I guess 'Angelina Jolie scales back filming in Bosnia' just isn't as compelling a headline. Unfortunately it's not just stories in the arts section that get treated this way.

Thursday, 18 November 2010


The end of next week will see the anniversary of the founding of Yugoslavia. We were in Jajce for it last year, as much by accident as by design. Our blog post back then, with its picture and video, give a sense of how we found things that day. This year we are Jajce residents so it only seemed right to do a little homework before the day rolled around.

Zabranjeno Pušenje, described on Wikipedia as a Yugoslavian garage rock band from Sarajevo, seemed a good place to start. Despite their name meaning 'No Smoking' - still quite an unpopular notion in this part of the world - their four albums recorded in the eighties have seen then remain popular in the Balkans to this day. It was for the song 'Dan Republike' that I turned, it being about the upcoming Day of the Republic (as was). This version has a nice historic slide show to enjoy while you listen!

Monday, 15 November 2010


This morning my Facebook status announced I was 'very tempted by the clear blue sky and sunshine outside.' Having worked all weekend today was a day off; it's never a bad thing when a day off coincides with good weather. Knowing we should really be in the grips of winter already I decided to give in to temptation, get my bike out and go hunting for the trails a tourist magazine I read promised run around the lakes. I probably found them. It's hard to be sure as the map in the magazine was not particularly detailed. Few maps for Bosnia and Herzegovina are. I have one good one but despite being sold as a drivers map it's basically too big to open inside a vehicle.

Today I navigated by Google Earth. Again, the satellite imagery for this country is not their best (drift into neighbouring Croatia and you'll notice an appreciable improvement) but it was good enough to guide me around the lake on the local equivalent of the Great British bridleway. The terrain was much more familiar than anything I encountered in Mostar. There was mud, for example, and it was green and smelt damp. It was also flat which made the twenty-five of thirty kilometre round trip a pleasant rather than a painful experience. The views over the lake towards the sunlit mountains on the far side were, at times, nothing short of spectacular. It won't be the last time I hit those trails.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Photographing People

I'm aware that over the past few weeks I've posted a number of photographs of the beautiful scenery here in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I'm also aware that we're here to work with people not to sit back and soak up the surroundings. And so today I offer this picture as some small way of redressing the balance.

This is Budo (the other Novi Most team member with Rowan and me in Jajce) on Banja Luka's main shopping street. He's pointing a camera at me, Dina (who runs the uni hockey team I help out with in Jajce) and eleven young people who we'd taken to play against a club in Banja Luka this morning. Our team lost: 21-16 was the final score. They have previously done well in competitions so are unused to being on the wrong end of what, while not exactly a hammering, was certainly one of life's learning experiences.

Other than the scoreline, though, it was a great day out.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Almost The View

This afternoon did not go quite as I'd planned it. As I say in this video I was supposed to be planning but I bumped into friends while on my thought-gathering wander around town. I ended up joining their sight-seeing trip and taking some nice photos, but having already shot (most of) this video I'm going to share with you instead!

Friday, 29 October 2010

We Owe Them

I began my journey as a songwriter and performer in the early nineties. At the time I was inspired by the music of Keith Green. His enthusiastic piano style was probably in part influenced by Elton John's; it's certainly been compared to it. In the early nineties Elton was riding high in the charts with Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me: the live at Wembley, duet with George Michael, version. As the decade headed to it's close he'd score the UK's all time biggest-selling single with the Diana tribute version of Candle In The Wind. Despite this he didn't register on my musical radar.

I owe it to two movies that I discovered the wonders of Elton's early work. Almost Famous introduced me to Tiny Dancer and Elizabethtown to My Father's Gun. The latter movie's Free Bird scene is my favourite cinematic rock-out moment. Obviously, I owe Cameron Crowe! Type 'Elton John' into my iTunes and the search returns 142 songs. This represents most of his early seventies output and almost everything from the late nineties onward. The latest addition is this week's release The Union, a collaboration with Leon Russell.

I have to confess before reading about this album I'd never heard of Russell. Several reviews and interviews later it's clear that Elton would not be musician we know him as without the influence of Russell. Listen to the album and it's hard to tell who's playing what. All I know is I'd be happy to play any of it. But beyond wanting to recommend it to all lovers of real music, The Union got me thinking. The picture of the star known for his excesses providing a platform for a now largely unknown inspiration is a powerful one.

Let me move from piano to guitar to explain. I only began exploring what Oasis have to offer since leaving the UK, and since breaking up they have nothing more to give but arguably the best back-catalogue in Brit Pop. They kicked off the new millennium releasing Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants. They'd never made any secret of their Beatles obsession but this was as blatant a confession as you could hope for. It's a universal truth: others have gone before. We owe them. I've still yet to make a connection with The Beatles although I can see myself downloading some early Leon Russell. Even that's not the end of the line. Someone paved the way for him too.

Last week we had the privilege of meeting people without whom we could not be where we are doing what we're doing. We are in Jajce to start a new youth work project for Novi Most International. There is something pioneering about that. However, it doesn't come out of nowhere. We owe connections and the context to others who have gone before. We've met a few of them, there are more we've heard stories of, probably some we'll never know about. We may never fully understand how all the strands of the story fit together. That doesn't matter. Our job now is to play our part and to always remember we are not the only ones playing.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

First Snow

This was the view out of the window when I wandered, bleary eyed, into the kitchen this morning. Yesterday we had been told there was snow up in the villages above Jajce. There was speculation as to whether we'd get the same weather in the town. We didn't, but,as you can see, the high ground got quite a good dusting overnight.

Today we were back in Banja Luka buying things we need to get Novi Most up and running in Jajce. Most of the way there was snow somewhere to be seen. The mix of fine fall (or autumn) colours and a dash of winter wonderland made for another very scenic drive. This time the overtaking entertainment was provided by a reckless coach driver who was powering down our side of a section of single-carriageway road as we rounded a corner. The benefit-of-the-doubt assessment would be he'd misjudged the speed of the double-length lumber truck he was struggling to pass. More likely, he was just to impatient for his own good. I halved my speed, deciding not to get unduly excited: no horn! As he squeezed back over to the right he flashed his lights in what I hope was an admission he had been in the wrong. Sadly, too many coach drivers we see appear to have a very cavalier attitude to their passengers' safety.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The Right Direction

What does Bosnia and Herzegovina have in common with Djibouti, Gambia, Guatemala, Kiribati, Sri Lanka and Swaziland? The answer: together they are joint-ninetyfirst on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index 2010, released today. In a survey of 178 nations, ninety-first might be generously interpreted as being comfortably mid-table. The country does sit a little below its geographic neighbours but the important thing on any chart-based scale is movement relative to the previous results. The good news is Transparency International's figures seem to indicate Bosnia and Herzegovina is moving in the right direction. The same can not be said of not-quite-so-near neighbours Greece or Italy. Both are sliding the wrong way down the table. Should this trend continue look forward to next year when Transparency International will declare Bosnia and Herzegovina less corrupt than the birthplace of democracy!

(Q: Had you even heard of Kiribati before?)

Sunday, 24 October 2010

War, History and Angelina Jolie.

“Listen, don't mention the war!” Basil Fawlty famously cautioned, “I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it all right.” He was mocking British attitudes to World War II and Germans but it seems Angelina Jolie could learn from his advice. In a week that's seen her permission to film in Bosnia revoked and restored again I found her grabbing headline space in this morning's Observer online: The star's debut as a director has sparked fierce controversy over who has the right to tell the story of Serbian rape camps. Fact and fiction make uncomfortable bedfellows where people still feel the pain of the recent past. Her crime, according to her accusers, is telling other people's war stories through the Hollywood lens.

Last week we were told stories of bullets flying through cars carrying humanitarian aid into the then war-torn, barely-born Bosnia and Herzegovina. The information was volunteered and by people who were actually there. It was their story to tell. In the two years since we've lived here we've picked up bits and pieces of people's past but we've been careful not to pry. We're not investigative journalists, nor are we trying to make a movie; we want to help young people here have hope for their future. The fighting officially finished fifteen years ago. Some people we've met have clearly moved on, others obviously haven't and with others the war is the elephant in the room.

I once mentioned to a friend here that as a teenager I had briefly toyed with the Army Cadets. We learned outdated drills and how to strip and clean a First World War rifle blindfolded. I've needed neither skill subsequently, although the ability to distinguish between a live round and a spent one did come in useful once in the twenty years since. As soon as I'd started telling my tale I realised at the same age, when I was playing war games, my friend was learning the grim realities of the real thing. You can't compare the two. It makes you think.

But back to Angelina and her movie. I see the arguments against it but I'm equally aware that there will be a point the tragic chapter of the early nineties has to become history. History happens when the chapter is closed, but no line has been drawn under some of the suffering she seeks to portray. People don't want her playing with their present reality.

If history is written by the winning side, from an English perspective, it's then rewritten by the Americans for a movie. Movies that win hearts and Oscars! Whether Jolie achieves this kind of success with her directorial debut remains to be seen. She has to finish it first. Painful though it is, I've a feeling the country can benefit from the attention the film is generating. In all the controversy surrounding the scripting and shooting my hope is that it's causing a few people to think seriously about ways to heal the hurts it has highlighted.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Stop and stare...or not!

If yesterday I pulled my van over to snap a view I was particularly enjoying today I was indulging in a bit of drive-by shooting! Okay, technically, this picture is actually the result of a ride-by: I was out cycling by the lakes in Jajce, soaking up the last of the autumn sun as sunk slowly behind the mountains.

I don't know what Ansel Adams would have thought of the digital revolution. Did he ever grab a photo one-handed whilst riding a bike? I doubt it. However, he did create art. Nevertheless, I'm not complaining about this image. Under the circumstances it does a great job of capturing the moment. Less than an hour later the moon was up, but those photos won't find their way online!

Thursday, 21 October 2010

An Eagle and an Ostrich Day!

Before today we had been to most of the major cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Now we've been to Banja Luka we can say we've seen them all. Obviously we know Mostar the best, after two years of living there. A few times we've surprised friends from Mostar with how well we know Sarajevo, but then we've been pretty regular visitors. Tuzla I've only visited a couple of times, and never spent long exploring the city; Zenica we saw but briefly before Bosnia and Herzegovina's disappointing defeat but Portugal in their World Cup playoff game.

Banja Luka is now our nearest major city so will be getting to know it better in the months ahead. The road from Jajce clings to the banks of the Vrbas, at times almost impossibly so; definitely calling for a cautious first drive. There were a couple of emergency stops courtesy of big trucks trying to negotiate the low rocky overhangs but the real danger was the distraction of new views to take in. The snap-shot show the 'stone bridge', or Kameni Most. Note the clear blue sky and golden sunshine. Note too that I pulled into a lay-by to grab this photo! As for the eagle and the ostrich: sadly I'm lying about the eagle, it was almost certainly a buzzard, possibly the Steppe Buzzard, but eagle sounds so much more emotive. The ostrich, however, was the real deal. It may even have been hanging out with an emu. Ornithologists with realise already this is not their naturally habitat. They were obviously on show to lend credibility to the 'eco-resort' sign we'd just driven by! We will have to return to investigate. The road is narrow, but aren't all the best ones?

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

"So this is a short 'Welcome to Jajce' video..."

Internet arrived in our apartment this morning, two weeks after we did! As the title says, we're now living in Jajce, in central Bosnia. Here we are promised a long winter, with snow, but at the moment it's autumn and the trees are looking seasonally appropriate. Over the next couple of months things will begin to take shape as we look at the best way to begin our work with Novi Most here. Obviously there are ideas but we wanted to relocate before making definite decisions on the way things would be. In a good way, we have a lot of unknowns.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

What a send off!

I should start by saying that we enjoyed living in Mostar for two years. Hopefully that's come through on this blog. But it was time to move on and we are now living in Jajce, in central Bosnia, preparing to start a new youth work project for Novi Most International there.

We finally moved just over a week ago. Over the past month we'd been gradually moving things to our new apartment. Last Monday we were preparing to pack our final kombi van full of stuff and head north. Then we discovered we needed a paper that I had safely stowed in Jajce to sign out with Mostar's police. It was also apparent we had more then one van full of things still needing to make the move. So Tuesday we drove to Jajce with most of what remained. We got up early to head back to Mostar, pick up the rest, sign out with the police and hand back our keys to our, now, ex-landlord.

If there is one downside to life in Mostar it is the extreme rain it gets. It rained on Tuesday night. Heavily. Very heavily. Pictured above are just two of the five drowned rats we discovered littering the street immediately outside our soon-to-be ex-apartment on Wednesday morning! I should add that in two years we had never seen one drowned rat, let alone a pack of them. We drove back to Jajce Wednesday afternoon.

Thursday saw as sending an hour trawling the streets of Travnik in search of the illusive office where we needed to register our presence in Jajce. A postman and a couple of local police were unable to point us in the right direction. We had directions but it wasn't until we found the building that they finally made sense with everything that we could see around us.

And so we're at the beginning of a new chapter of our Bosnia and Herzegovina adventures. This week's adventure has been our attempt to get the internet connected at home. Despite arranging everything with the HT Eronet office last Friday tomorrow will mark a week of tomorrows in which we have stayed in on the promise someone would turn up to install the necessary equipment. Maybe tomorrow!

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Head Turners

I've been thinking about writing this post since I snapped the photo on the left about a month back. I wanted to craft something thoughtful, perhaps even a little profound, to accompany this image. As I sit typing now I get no sense that I'm going to achieve my aim this evening. Nevertheless, like a fine impressionist painting, I hope these words go some way to conveying the picture in my mind.

I loved cars as a kid. Either my ninth or tenth birthday outing was to the Motor Fair at Earls Court, London. (Whichever it wasn't was a trip to London Zoo!) I can still remember the cars I got my photo taken with that day: the then new Toyota MR2, the MG Metro 6R4 and behind the wheel of a BMW 628 CSi – the 635 CSi was my favourite but there wasn't one of those on display. There were plenty of other super-cars roped off where you couldn't get your sticky little fingers on them. These where the days when the Lamborghini Countach was cool!

Yes, these were the Thatcher years and I was born in the Conservative stronghold of central southern England. While I was too young to be a yuppie I was old enough to appreciate the allure of their aspirational autos of choice: the Golf GTi or the Audi Quattro. Conspicuous consumption has taken a bit of a hit in some sectors over recent years but back then there were plenty of people who had it and were flaunting it. Those of us didn't have it wished we did...or hoped we would when we were old enough to drive!

Sadly by the time I passed my driving test they'd long since stopped producing the Quattro, Toyota were building safe cars for mums and you wouldn't want to be seen dead in a Metro. I never owned a Golf, although I was once given a Scirocco that was well passed its sell-by date, and the nearest I got to being a BMW driver was owning a couple of new MINIs.

When we moved to Bosnia and Herzegovina I expected to see the streets littered with some of Eastern Europe's finest: the Trabants, the Ladas, the old-school Skodas. I was surprised to find roads full of Volkswagens – every generation of Golf, plus plenty of Passats and Polos – with both the BMWs and Mercedes from the last twenty years putting in a strong showing too. Sure the average age of the vehicles was not a young as in the UK but it was younger than I'd imagined.

The shock came when I started seeing cars I knew where just out driving around Mostar. Seeing my first BMW X6 here springs to mind. Then I started spotting Mercs that had come out of the AMG and Brabus shops. The list now includes nice new Porsches, Ferraris, Bentleys and the very sexy Maserati pictured above. Yes, I'd take the Maserati over the Ferrari! But, living here, I don't honestly think I'd drive either. And not just because the state of some of the roads here could rip the undercarriage to shreds in a matter of minutes.

Perhaps I'm more sensitive now since my work brings me into contact with real poverty. It does weird things to you when your income halves and yet you find yourself in a situation where you are viewed as wealthy by some people. Perhaps it's that fact that my local friends who are not poor still have vastly different value system to my UK influenced one. We have more and we are used to paying more for things. Perhaps it's just that neither a Ferrari and a Maserati is much use if you need to transport guitars about!

So what should I think of these undeniably fine automobiles? I know what one section of local opinion is: you only get a vehicle like that if you're doing something that isn't strictly legit. That may be doing some people a disservice but I can see where the feeling comes from. Given their price tag, these cars represent the almost unimaginable gap between the haves and the have-nots here. The Thatcher-loving kids in my Economics class back in college would have told me to celebrating people's financial success and not begrudge them their profits. Besides, they would argue, ultimately everyone will benefit from their prosperity.

Maybe they would have been right. Perhaps, like seeing Jamie Oliver products arrive on supermarket shelves, this is all part of the country's progress westward toward the bright lights of the free markets and European integration. Can I give them the benefit of the doubt? I'd like to say I can. If I'm honest though, I struggle to shake the nagging thought that these cars, that, yes, I'd still love to own in another life, represent the rewards of crime or corruption. If that is the case it is neither progress or a price worth paying. A head-turning car can brighten your day, albeit in a superficial way. I'd just like to think my head was being turned for good reasons.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Ever the optimist?

It's been a bleak day in Mostar; rain non-stop for at least the last twelve hours. We're almost moved so today found us stuck in a half-empty apartment with little to do and even less motivation to do it. After watching a football match I had a passing interest in and falling sleep for the duration of the one I wanted to watch I found myself catching up with some other blogs. It was this that lead me to a Radio 4 documentary: The Rise and Fall of Yugoslavia by Martin Bell.

I like to think of myself as an optimistic person. I have been accused of such in the past, although sometimes when I listen to myself talking I have my doubts. For a foreigner living an adopted country I believe it's important to keep a positive outlook. I find it insulting when other internationals constantly talk about how life is safer, more civilised, or whatever, in their homeland. I'm sure the constant critique must grate on local people even more. The permanently vexed ex-pat has the option of going home but many people for whom this is home can't leave and they need all the help they can get to help this country be the best it can be. Criticism alone won't fix things. Yes, the problems are often obvious. What's needed is people prepared to engage with the issues and work to make a change.

After listening to Martin Bell this evening it was hard to lift myself back to such positivity as I headed out into the dark and the rain for some essential shopping. His conclusion wasn't as bleak as it could be but neither did it offer any hope for imminent improvement in the issues that hold back this countries development. In the interests of balance, and an exploration of issues this blog often cheerily glosses over, you might want to take a listen for yourself. Do it quickly as the link will expire and have something planned to lighten the mood afterwards!

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

What Isn't There

A couple of days ago we mentioned some demolition work had started not far from where we live. Today I shot this short bit of video as we strolled by. After making this video I spotted the sign that said the site is going to house some new government buildings in Mostar. If they go up as fast as these ones came down then they'll be practically finished by the end of next week!

Monday, 20 September 2010

Mapping Stereotypes

Today the Telegraph introduced me to the work of Yanko Tsvetkov. Yanko is a London-based Bulgarian who describes himself on his website as a 'graphic designer slash visual artist'. He has produced a series of maps of Europe that label countries by the perceived stereotypes of one of the member states. Being English I was naturally interested in 'Europe According to Britain'. I think the concept is great but either my stereotypes are not representative or he's a little off. For example, I've never been to Iceland, although I have long wanted to, but I have been to Vegas; I don't think I've ever confused the two. I also recently argued, during a trip to neighbouring Finland, for the strength of Sweden's pop output. (They are one of only three countries that exports more pop music than they import, the US and the UK being the other two.) What really surprised me, though, was to see the Western Balkans clumped together under 'uncharted'. Perhaps the countries ended up too small for Yanko to individually tag them. Perhaps, though, he has hit on something. Living in Bosnia and Herzegovina it is easy to feel like you fell off the edge of the map, at least as far as news coverage from British new sources is concerned. (The BBC covered the build up to Bosnia and Herzegovina's clash against a shaky looking French side in the Euro 2012 qualifiers but didn't follow through to report the news that they sadly lost the game 2-0.)

Still, for all the grumbling about lack of attention, it's nice to live in a beautiful part of the world that isn't over-run by 'Brits on tour'! I remember trips to southern Spain where it was unquestionably embarrassing to be English. Here much of the country is still unspoilt by tourism. Things are changing fast and how long it stays that way is anyone's guess but we'll certainly enjoy it while it lasts. The country could certainly use the income and investment an increase in tourism would bring.

'Europe According to USA' was, of course, brasher than all the other maps. (We are talking stereotypes here, right?!) It was probably the funniest too. That is, apart from its treatment of the Western Balkans. Take 'Smelly People' or 'Godfathers' and I can see where he's coming from but 'Resident Evil'? Then again, I'm not American...but neither is he!

Saturday, 18 September 2010


I took this photo on our first visit to Mostar, back in March 2008. A quick search through my photo albums has indentified it as the best photo I have of the building second from the right.

As we walked into town this morning we discovered this ruin had been reduced to a pile of rubble. (I didn't have my camera with me or you might be looking at picture of that too!)

This highlights a dilema I have often pondered. For us, who only arrived in this country two years ago, the derelict and ruined buildings are part of the character of the place. We never knew them when they were shops or houses. For people here they must serve as a constant reminder not just of the pain of conflict but of a past that is unlikely ever to return. Seeing them restored or replaced by new buildings must give some hope for the future. For us is a reminder to beware the dangers of misplaced sentimentality.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Faking it?

So today we read that Casey Affleck has confirmed what some of us suspected all along, namely that the 'documentary' following Joaquin Phoenix's lurch from an acting career to hip hop experimentation was staged. Fake is a word being bandied about. That seems a little strong given that the clip of him on Letterman that announced his apparent celebrity meltdown did actually happen. However when it comes to the integrity, or credibility, he was claiming it's true Phoenix is left in need of a resurrection. Still, this little Hollywood side show serves as an interesting parallel to the real news here in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

It's election time. You can tell because, as much as anything, something like a million political posters have been plastered over Mostar. Rowan and I are not here for any politically motivated reason, and we don't have voting rights for this country, but living here we've obviously interested in the effect of the political situation on everyday people. I'm clearly a bit of a cynic when it comes to celebrity shenanigans and it seems some people share a similarly cynical view when it comes to elected officials.

One person told me they didn't see anything changing because, basically, all politicians were a rotten bunch. I expressed some surprise. They went on to explain a jailbird relative had been in prison with a guy who became one of the first presidents of the country. They shared a cell. Somewhat cheekily, I asked if this meant the relative ended up with a government job. No, I was told. They were a straightforward thief, not like a hyena. Someone else told how one year they worked counting votes for an election. They were disillusioned by the people they saw altering ballot papers as they counted them. They say they won't be voting in this election.

Clearly such stories can not be taken to represent the whole of politics here. We could have stumbled on two very isolated cases; two lone voices of disillusionment. I would like that to be the case but then I look across the Adriatic at the soap opera that the media so frequently make out of Berlusconi's administration, or the British government that gave us the world's most famous duck house, and think perhaps, like Hollywood, the political world is one caught in an unending battle for integrity and credibility. Let's hope there are people here who aren't faking it.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

One is not amused.

"Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hinderance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary."

So reads the inside cover of the British Passport. Nestled under the Royal Coat of Arms, and written in some suitably cursive font, it is impressive stuff. It would be great to think these words actually meant what they say; that someone, somewhere, might actually offer assistance should it be required.

Not for the first time we've come to realise that the phrase 'afford the bearer such assistance' could more accurately be read 'if the bearer can afford such assistance.' Today my wife phoned some office in Germany with a question about a UK passport renewal. (Yes, that does say Germany.) This was the fourth number she called in one of those 'oh, the person you need to call is...' scenarios.

The phone was answered by someone who told her that the website had all the answers on it. Don't they always? No, of course, they don't. That's why you just need to ask a quick, simple question to an intelligent human being. Not so fast. First hand over your credit card details to pay for the call before they will listen to the question! 'But what if you don't know the answer to my question?' Quizzed my wife. Unbelievable. At a minimum of £3.50 this call cost well in excess of a pound a minute.

Now I know this post is going off like a Daily Mail leader but sometimes it is given for every man to rant for Middle England. I would have littered this with choice expletives for effect but that's not my style. My wife was similarly self-controlled on the phone while being completely disbelieving of the bureaucratic nightmare she was encountering. Her question was answered, but you'll be reassured to know that the renewal process remains a complicated and expensive process for someone living outside the UK. Still, at least she didn't have to call the number that said it charged $14 a minute to learn that!

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Two Years Today

Nine years ago yesterday Rowan and I sat on a beach in Crete talking about the future. It was one of those moments that changes the way you see things from then on. For me it was the first time I realised I wanted to move on and do something different (well, sort of the same-but-different) from what I'd been doing up to that point. We came back from the beach to a text telling us a plane had crashed in New York and walked into a hotel bar to join a crowd watching live TV coverage minutes before the second plane crashed into the Twin Towers. The world changed that day. But for all the things that were different in the post-911 world what we were doing wasn't much changed, at least not dramatically so. Until two years ago.

Two years ago today we arrived in Mostar, after an epic road trip across Europe, to start doing something the same-but-different in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was a life change unlike any I'd imagined, although Rowan had spent half her life wanting to do something here – somehow in ten years of marriage it'd never come up until ten months before we moved! I know there are people who still find it difficult to imagine me adjusting to life outside the UK – I had an email reminding me of this just this morning – but we've done more than just survive since we've arrived. If you're a regular reader you'll know something of our adventures over the past two years. We've had fun and we've achieved more than we imagined. As we stand on the brink of another change, and another two years in Bosnia and Herzegovina, we are excited about the possibilities of more of the same-but-different!

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Perfect prediction

Back when Lord of the Rings was wowing audiences on the big screen I was more than once referred to as a Hobbit. It had nothing to do with hairy feet, of which I am thankfully not the possessor, proud or otherwise, but more to do with being short of stature and with a tendency to slightly generous proportions around the waist. Tolkien aficionados will know 'The Hobbit' is the widely used abbreviation for 'The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.'

Today we drove there and back again through some of Bosnia and Herzegovina's fantastic countryside; mountains, rivers, valleys and forests that could easily be parts of Middle Earth. We were treated to sunshine and clear skies, heavy clouds and pouring rain and the most intense onslaught of thunder and lightening. The reason for our journey may have been relatively mundane but the weather provided everything required for an epic adventure!

About halfway between here and there is a small, mountain side gas station and cafe bar. It's yellow and it has a covered walkway that straddles the road, linking it to what could well be a mechanics. My memory lets me down on this because hanging from the outside of the walkway is red LED display that always grabs our attention. It tells the time and gives the temperature. This, being up in the mountains, is always lower than the temperature 'here'.

I wound down my window as we entered the bend before this staging post. 'I'm gonna give it eighteen!' I announced to the others in the van. Eyes forward as we exited turn, to see the numbers '1' and '8' boldly rubbing shoulders at the end of the display. I was, perhaps justifiably, proud of my perfect prediction. However, I failed to heed the sage who cautioned: never repeat a successful experiment. I was out an inexcusable five degrees* on the way back. Here's to a little humility!

(Lest anyone think I foolishly risked frostbite for this let me reassure readers all temperature are in degrees Celsius.)

Thursday, 2 September 2010

A nice reminder...

We were driving back from Jajce to Mostar earlier this week. It had been pretty miserable weather in Jajce which after the hot sun and soaring temperatures of the Mostar summer was an unwelcome shock to the system! The drive back started off rainy but as we drove up the mountain between Gornji Vakuf and Prozor the sky began to brighten. We got to the top and saw this. It was, as the title of this post says, a nice reminder.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

An Introduction to Rural Wife!

Cut and bruised we have returned from winter preparations at the apartment we'll be moving to sometime over the next month or so. I once learned to chop wood – and even got paid to do so – but that was more than two decades ago. Rowan had never wielded an ax in anger! Neither of us cut the wood pictured here. We bought it pre-chopped. However, as is the way here, it was all just dumped in the street outside the building and we had to stack it neatly in a dry place.

The wood is destined for the hot place pictured to the right of the ageing Electrolux cooker. That's our new stove. It'll serve as the main source of heat for us this winter. The fancy looking contraption that looks like a boy racer's exhaust should, we're told help it to chuck out a bit more heat. While I might know how to chop a log or two I have to confess my fire-starting skills are distinctly less developed. Okay, so I'm suddenly remembering a spot of petrol-assisted bonfire starting and if barbecues count then obviously I'm not entirely without experience. There is something enticing primal about the need to master the art of starting fire - watch out, I'll be inventing wheels next!

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Have your cake and leave it!

Just less than two years since we arrived in Mostar we have worked our last evening at Klub Novi Most. I don't think it's quite sunk in yet. The summer's been a busy time – perhaps evidence by the very sporadic blog posting! - so although we've known for a while that we'll be moving on to a new project with Novi Most in the autumn we've not had the down-time to let leaving really sink in. There were a few tears tonight as me, Rowan and Budo (all pictured on the leaving cake on the left!) were given a very fitting send off by the young people and our other team members in Klub.

Two years have flown by or at least it feels like that tonight. I might have said different if you'd asked me in the middle of Mostar's long, rainy winter! We've seen a lot and been part of a lot. Hopefully we've help a bit along the way. Time will tell. A couple of years from now perhaps we'll be able to look back with greater perspective and see how our positive contributions in Mostar have grown, and see the successful establishing of our new project taking shape. Despite the fact we will miss people in Mostar we know it's time to move onto the next thing. There are fresh challenges ahead and new opportunities waiting to be explored. I once wrote: you get the story when you go. We're off to get the next bit. WeDoAdventure!

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Here's to Angelina!

I caught some friends cheering 'Angie, Angie' at the television the other day. Their excitement was caused by the footage of Angelina Jolie at a Bosnian airport playing out on a local news programme. (You'll forgive me for not noting whether she was coming or going at the time!) I wasn't particularly paying attention so I didn't catch what the story was and I would have forgotten all about it had I not stumbled across this article in The Guardian online this morning.

It's great that the actress otherwise known as Mrs Pitt wants to film her first full directorial debut in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Good news too that it'll provide opportunities for local cast and crew. The attention of a Hollywood A-lister in a country that gets to export little of its culture to the Western world is undoubtedly a welcome thing. The film will tell the tale of a Bosnian woman falling for a Serbian military man. Jolie is quoted as saying, "The film is a love story, not a political statement." But perhaps a story of love that sees past ethnic prejudices is inescapably a statement in a country whose politics so often remains entrenched in them. Statement or not, let's hope it encourages all that is best about Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Not a good picture!

"That won't make a good picture" warned my wife as I reached for the camera. She may well be right. But I have soft spot of the venerable Lada Niva. Spotting two of them, identically coloured, alone in an otherwise empty car park somewhere in central Bosnia was too much temptation.

I have a friend who tells me horror stories about how their oil (or it could be fuel) consumption grows with age every time I say anything approaching complimentary about these stalwarts of Soviet design. He wants to ensure I never succumb to my irrational attraction and enter into any kind of long-term relationship with the vehicle.

And so, for better or for worse, I will continue my quiet admiration from a discreet distance.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Step up to the microphone!

This was the view that greeted me on Thursday night. A mic, some mountains and an audience gathered for an evening of music. Under the wooden beams of this barn-like building the tea-lights flickering on the tables created a beautiful, mellow atmosphere shattered only by the crashing drums, pounding bass and screaming guitar of our punk rock three piece.

Our set blended well known covers in equal numbers with original material. To my mind people jumped and cheered in all the right places, and for that I'm very grateful. I know singing English-language rock songs carries an element of risk in a situation where many in the audience know little of the language. In my defence, I'm still relatively new to the lead singing game and while I may yet learn to sing in another language I would be happier still to know I inspired someone here to step up the microphone. There's a huge satisfaction in helping others achieve their musical dreams: I saw it with plenty of young people in the UK, now it's time to see it in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Hopefully this gig will prove to be a big step right direction.

[We've just put the first Gilgal demo recordings online as free downloads!]

Thursday, 29 July 2010


We were in Dubrovnik at the weekend and, wandering around the old town, I spotted a sign for the Museum of Icons. We gave it a miss. I'm well aware that religious icons are a genuine point of faith for many people but, generally speaking, they don't do it for me on either an artist or spiritual level. But today my head was turned by this cultural icon that seemed somewhat out of place in a Mostar scrap yard.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

An ethical dilemma.

This morning a friend was saying how their mother had been taken ill with a serious problem requiring surgery. However, once in the hospital, they discovered the doctor wouldn't operate without receiving what could euphemistically be referred to as 'a little something for coffee'. That this salary-augmenting 'something' would comfortably keep him in three coffees a day for three months might be seen as a little in conflict with the Hippocratic oath. Apparently different doctors require different amounts to get them out of bed. This one wanted in excess of half the average monthly wage. I have my own complaints about the UK's National Health Service based on painful personal experiences but I never had to pay back-handers for the questionable care I received. Here it seems this is not a uncommon situation.

If your mother needed an operation which could be the difference between her living or dying and her health was being held ransom by a corrupt medic what would you do?

Monday, 26 July 2010

Cabin Fever?!

At the beginning of the month I wrote about our Novi Most 'camping' trip up Jahorina, one of the Olympic mountains outside Sarajevo. We had a great time as this short video shows...

Thursday, 22 July 2010


I was gearing up for a light-hearted, hopefully humorous, blog this evening when tragedy struck; tragedy of the genuinely numbing, incomprehensible kind. We'd turned up to prepare to an evening of youth work at Klub Novi Most to discover that one of our new regulars this summer had had an accident swimming in the Neretva in the afternoon. We were told he'd got an electric shock and was in hospital. He had been in Klub this morning, his usual energetic self; full of wide-eyed enthusiasm whether it was playing table tennis, pulling faces or practising his rock'n'roll poses with an unplugged guitar in front of the mirror.

About halfway through the evening a tearful girl burst through the door to deliver what in that split second had become painfully obvious news. He had died. Nobody wanted to believe it. In my mind all I could see was replays of him laughing and joking and making fun of me during this morning's session. 'Why?' and 'No!' fought to be my strongest reaction. I was hit by that instant hollow feeling that is loss and so many other things rolled together. It was only earlier today I found out he was actually too young to be attending Klub; I thought better than to flag this up to some of the stricter members of our team as he clearly got so much out of the activities. He was ten.

Friday, 16 July 2010

No Time To Say Goodbye

Almost a fortnight ago I blogged about a particularly poignant songwriting commission I'd received. Two weeks later that song – No Time To Say Goodbye - is written, recorded and, with the obligatory music video, now ready to tell its story wherever the world wide web may take it. Life is, as you're doubtless aware, not quite so simple as those last two sentences imply. That I have produced a recording and video featuring both of the young people it was written for is a testimony to the the shifting sands of bureaucratic time frames, the importance of sometimes just acting on impulse and of what can be achieved if you are prepared to sacrifice a little sleep.

Both Sting and Craig David have songs called 'Seven Days'; this song was turned around in four. It was early evening on a Monday when I picked up my freshly restrung Telecaster and started strumming out some chords. Suddenly I hit something that I knew would be the basis of this song. Very quickly the genesis of a melody and structure came together, then lyrics for the chorus. Then the phone rang! I'm not a big fan of being interrupted during the songwriting process but I knew this call was coming, and with it several hours of being out of the house. I got in late, went back to the guitar and within an hour or so had the lyrics down.

I was working Tuesday morning but managed to carve out a most of the afternoon and evening for getting a demo done. I knew there was a high chance this recording session would be the main one for the project so although speed was important so was the quality of what I was creating. By Wednesday morning I had something I was prepared to get feedback on. Suddenly I discovered that both the girls were still in the country – I had been told one was leaving the day before. Next thing I know there's a crazy suggestion we record vocals on the Thursday – the day before she would definitely leave town. We might just create the opportunity we thought we'd lost.

For a couple of hours on Thursday morning we recorded vocals in a hastily created 'studio room' in Klub Novi Most. English is not the first language of either of the girls; the song is in English because that's the only language I'm competent writing in! It really was a case of rehearsal and recording blurring into one. (In this situation Logic was worth every penny!) I knew the clock was ticking and having got this close I wasn't going to let the opportunity of creating what we all wanted slip away. With one family leaving the next morning, and their leaving party starting five hours after we finished laying down vocals, I had a seriously immoveable deadline.

Squeezed around a work-related meeting over lunch and an evening working at Klub I produced a final mix and some album art and burnt a couple of CDs. Rowan and I arrived at the party late – but as soon as we could. Have you got the CD? That was what everyone wanted to know. Friends and family gathered around the kombi as the stereo blasted out the first play. Moments like that make it all worthwhile.

Last night I was getting sign off on the video from the girl who's still in Mostar. The whole situation still hangs over her and her family. The video touches some very real, very raw emotions. As it finished she looked at me and said 'Thank have no idea.' And that's the painful truth. I have no idea. I can't begin to comprehend what life right now feels like for her and her family. But those are my issues to deal with. For now I still won't claim to have any idea but I will be very grateful that I was in the right place at the right time to do something that helped. Someday we hope we'll get the chance to record together again. Until then we have No Time To Say Goodbye.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Football and friendship

We've just spent a few days up a mountain running a summer camp for a group of young people who are involved in Novi Most's centres in Mostar and Capljina. The previous post mentioned how we'd been telling visitors about how Novi Most is successfully bringing together young people from across Bosnia and Herzegovina's different ethnic groups. The camp was proof again that this is neither propoganda or wishful thinking; it is a reality. I could pick on a number of encouraging incidents to illustrate this but perhaps the most humourous came this morning when a young lad pulled up his sleeve to show me some freshly penned inscriptions. Football fans will recognise that you would not normally expect to see "TM87", "Hajduk" and "Partizan" all 'tattooed' on the same forearm. I know one boy writing the name of big teams from Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia on his arm doesn't necessarily constitute a reconciliation revolution but it does demonstrate something of the atmosphere the camp created. Acceptance was definitely the order of the day. However, it being a camp for teenagers, it'd be slightly disingenuous not to add that nestled between these generous signs of sporting support I also spied the name of the girl he fancied!

[The following video gives a brief glimpse into our fun and games on the way home!]

Monday, 5 July 2010

Yesterday's News

Yesterday was a day for stirring the grey matter. It started with Rowan discovering The Guardian had a front page article about Mostar - online at least. It charted the story of War Child and mentioned the establishing of the Pavarotti Centar here in Mostar. Rowan visited the Centar a week or so back to see about getting help repairing a violin. The story she heard there was not a happy one; no money, few young people involved making music. You didn't get this side of the story from the article.

Coins have but two sides; stories, it seems, can be as multi-faceted as a well cut diamond. I don't know if this adds to their beauty. The longer we live in Bosnia Herzegovina the more we learn to see every new bit of information as just another aspect of a big picture we'll never fully understand. Anyone claiming to have a handle on exactly what went on and why probably has some agenda they're trying to push. From our perspective, parts of The Guardian's article were clearly wearing their angle on their sleeve. It's worth reading nonetheless.

The evening ending over dinner with an ex-soldier who was part of the UN observation force deployed in this country during the conflict in the early nineties. The conversation was sobering stuff. Firsthand accounts of death and destruction were to be expected. Tells of observation reports going missing and of a general disinterest higher up the line to acknowledge what was going on less so. Sure I have read about this happening so it wasn't news as such but it makes a difference to hear it from someone who clearly felt regret that they hadn't been able to do anything to stop the madness.

Sitting up in a rooftop cafe bar overlooking the, now rebuilt, Stari Most it was time to reflect how far life here has come since those dark days. We talked about the youth work we do with Novi Most, bringing together young people from across the different ethnic backgrounds in Mostar. This kind of relationship building is where the hope for the future can be found. Looking back can be discouraging; it doesn't necessarily help to dwell too long on how people can end up committing inhuman acts for reasons they cannot explain. Yesterday I was encouraged to look forward. What we are doing may be the smallest contribution to a better future. But it is a contribution and it is working.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Classic Rock

Upselling is every sales-assistant's dream. If the guy behind the counter had known I'd only come out with the intention of picking up a few plectrums he'd have been slapped himself proudly on the back for coaxing customer through the purchase of a nice new guitar amplifier. Instead he chose to comment on the irony of an English guy buying perhaps England's finest rock'n'roll export, a Marshall amp, in Bosnia.

It was a slightly impulsive purchase, although not an entirely unpremeditated one. The amp I brought with me from England has been playing up and experience says that it's the sort of playing up that is not easily rectified. I have been keeping an eye out for a small, all valve combo. When I saw the Class5 today I knew my search was over. It looks great, sounds fantastic (and will hook up to a 4x12 cab for sonic enormity!) and, best of all, was a wallet friendly price very comparable to its UK rrp. Given that I usually expect to pay half-as-much-again on music equipment this was like getting a generous discount.

A guy walked up to me as I was trying it out. He'd picked up I was English and started asking about what I played. I displayed the lack of depth of my local hard rock history with the blank look I gave when he told me the name of the band he plays in. Formula 4 have been around since 1970 – longer than I'be been alive! - and has seen 80 different musicians take the stage under their name in the intervening years. This I glean from their YouTube channel, where I found this video.

Do click play; you'll recognise the song. Fast-forward to six minutes in for the start of a guitar-solo extravaganza that does not disappoint. Rowan always says I'm bad and remembering faces but I'm sure it was the guitarist stage right, the one with the black Strat, that I was talking to. If is was him, and he happens to be reading this, then I apologise for mistake him for a sales-assistant!

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Learning the Blues

Regular readers know I'm a musician, some will have picked up I'm a song writer too. As such it pays not to be too blinkered in your musical outlook. I enjoy music from rap to rock, electronica to eclectica – if such a genre exists! However, in case you think I never draw the line, I'll confess I am not yet a fan of folk, I have an uneasy relationship with reggae and my association with jazz is limited to using the phrase 'close enough for jazz' to excuse mistakes.

As a young musician I remember spending hours in extended blues jams with my brother. I use blues in the loosest sense: twelve bar patterns and lots of pentatonic noodling. It was enthusiastic but our comfortable life in suburban Southern England was a million miles from the inspiration for this music. Rock'n'roll historians will know that the blues is rooted in the call and response chants of displaced people. It is the music of facing pain with perseverance; the sound that gives the downtrodden dignity.

Yesterday I received the most heart-breaking song writing commission I've ever had. It came from two young people Novi Most have worked with for many years. They are both aspiring song writers and I have been promising them the opportunity to write and record together. That was supposed to happen this coming month but this week we found out they and their respective families are being forced to leave the country within days. They are refugees and whoever is responsible for these things is calling time on their stay in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

If they'd been here a few month or perhaps a couple of years it would be easier to understand but these are teenagers trying to finish high school. Life is Mostar is the only life they really remember. For them this is where their friends and futures are. Now their families are heading to different neighbouring countries to try and rebuild another new life. One family has found accommodation they can go to, the other has nowhere to go. We were told that when the father explained this to the UNHCR they advised him to take a tent!

My song is to give words to this tale of tragedy and missed opportunity. I've never had to sing the blues before, even now it feels false for me to claim to understand anything of what this kind of upheaval feels like, but they wanted me to promise to write for them and so they have my word. It's all to easy to be dispassionate about large numbers and the collective nouns we use to describe people groups; it would be a hard-hearted person indeed who felt nothing faced with two teenage girls who have just had everything they know snatched away from them.

Two weeks ago I played guitar as these girls sang a song by Pink at a performance in Klub Novi Most. Today the lyrics seem more poignant then ever: “I don't believe you, when you say don't come around here no more.” The truth is, neither disbelief or unbelief are options. This is their reality. They're facing it with dignity. I don't know if it's an injustice or just the way things are. I do know some things are very hard to understand. As they told me, life is unfair.