Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Playing Folk

As a songwriter I know something of what it takes to marry thoughts and melody, and then present the result to an audience. Every song is different. Some come easily, some are labours of love; some are easy to hold lightly, some are profoundly personal. When I got the chance to play with a Serbian folk songwriter last weekend I quickly realised this was no throw-away tune we were bashing out. I won't claim to have caught all the lyrics but it was enough to know the subject was a friend who had walked out of rehab and then died of an overdose. It was a song born of painful personal experience.

We were playing at a conference that had gathered ex-addicts from across the Balkans. The flags hung in the meeting room announced the countries represented. It's not an array you'd often see displayed together, and some would say the delegates were not a group you'd often find together. You could put it down to their shared past experiences, the struggle of overcoming addiction, that gave the group such an obvious sense of togetherness despite the labels people would so often use to divide them. It could be that they, like all the people of the former-Yugoslavia, have much more in common than the nationalistic rhetoric would have you believe. Or it could be that they had all found Jesus to be real; a life-transforming influence in their lives.

I didn't think to ask any of them their opinion so you'll have to listen to mine! I'm going to go with a cautious all-of-the-above, although one conversation definitely indicated being an ex-addict doesn't automatically mean you want to spend your time hanging out with other ex-addicts. These people were not blind to their nationalities but neither were they solely defined by them. The unifying factor was the Jesus thing. If this were just theory it would insensitive to suggest it. However, the weekend was a demonstration of a different reality than the one usually reported by the media. In a part of the world where religion is held responsible for so much that is, and has been, wrong between different groups, the power of a real relationship with Jesus to transcend ethic differences should not be ignored.

And the song? Well, the band was made up of others who, like me, owe more to the pop and rock greats than to folk legends for their musical influences. The playing may not have provided the most musically authentic folk experience but the emotion was spot on. You could tell how much it meant to the singer. I am grateful for the opportunity to have been part of the moment.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010


The Union Jack you see here is hanging from the front of the building that houses the British Consulate in Split, Croatia.

It was a stop-and-stare moment when we spotted it on Sunday. At once it seemed to capture something of the romance of an Imperial golden-age - not that this part of the world was ever part of a British Empire - but also highlight what so often seems to be the archaic nature of bureaucracy. Faded glory seems inappropriate in such glorious sunshine but this was definitely old-school establishment.

Still I doubt the pen-pushers employed here are complaining. Situated on the waterfront in the historic part of the city, their offices look down on a promenade packed with caffe bars and look out over the beautiful Adriatic. Location, location, location! There are worse places to be serving Her Majesty's Government.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Monday, 22 March 2010


It’s funny how some things can be so familiar to some yet so foreign to others. We were dropping a friend and co-worker home today after a morning of workshops when they started shouting and pointing: look at that weird German car! We looked, immediately realising someone was in need of a little education. Objectively, yes, it is a weird car but is not a weirdness that should be blamed on the Germans. That they can be blamed for all the Mercedes, Audis and BMWs that clutter Mostar’s streets says more about their ability to churn out desirable status symbols rather than weirdness on wheels.

The idiosyncrasy on show here was the proud preserve of the Black Cab, the taxi that is, or certainly used to be, ubiquitous in the frantic ferrying of busy people about Britain’s capital. Why this one came to be parked somewhere up a back street in Bosnia and Herzegovina is anybody’s guess. But running British licence plates and sporting a still-valid-for-another-month tax disc we have to assume that legendary piece of the London landscape is just visiting.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

There And Back Again

It was a strange day but not a bad one; another lesson in be ready for anything, or don't expect things to actually go to plan! We were to be taking Novi Most Mostar's uni hockey team to a tournament. The trip evolved into something slightly different. On the plus side we have the good time had by all and the sunny day with truly beautiful scenery. The downside would be some local navigational misinformation and the inability of a decent map to dig us out of the resulting hole.

The unexpected bonus was to feel victimised for looking different! Our group was walking the main street of a central Bosnian town - well some where putting on roller blades but still essentially minding their own business - when the local police decided they needed to quiz us on exactly what we were up to. I might be jumping to conclusions but I'm sure the young people's dress sense had a large part to play (lay off the Ed Hardy, real or otherwise, if you want to keep a low profile!) as did their ethnicity. It was not a huge incident, but nonetheless an interesting insight into head turning for the wrong reasons.

For a glimpse into some of the more amusing driving moments of our road trip fail click the video...

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

St Patrick on Twitter?!

It's all Twitter's fault; this post, that is. On a day when I was experiencing annoying work-related computer issues I found inspiration through keeping half an eye on the the world's most ubiquitous micro-blogging site. It all started with a Tweet saying: I DARE YOU TO MOVE. I know caps are the online equivalent of shouting but knowing who'd posted it that didn't surprise me. I know they've just moved. Having moved less than two years ago ourselves I shot back a reply: we did!

Then I noticed another Tweet from one of life's thinkers: Happy St. Patrick's Day to all. How this came to become a day of revelry is beyond me.

This was followed by a link to St Patrick's Wikipedia page. Not being one who's particularly well versed in patron saint biographies I thought I should give such an infallible source a minute or twos attention. As I was reading I got a reply to my reply: A little less conversation and a little more action really rocks the boat.

I was reading that St Patrick had fled Ireland when he saw a vision in which people he took to be Irish called out to him: We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.

Ignoring my brother's interjection that perhaps it was Elvis rocking the boat, I suddenly saw something. My thinking friend was challenging me to make more of St Patrick than an excuse for a Guinness and my shouting friend wanted less talk and more walk – which strangely is exactly what the Irish wanted from Paddy. Their cry may be over fifteen-hundred years old but it rings as true today as it ever did. Why do many already afford Mother Teresa near saint-like status? Not for her speeches. She went and walked amongst India's poor. She was a servant to those others wouldn't touch. It's a cliché, I know, but her actions spoke louder than her words. Sadly too many are prepared to talk about change, too few to demonstrate it.

So St Patrick returned to the country he had escaped from and made his mark. If I am to learn something from his legacy then today of all days I should remind myself that those I walk amongst are not looking for a lecture but something a bit more practical.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010


Today as we walked into our new local supermarket of choice my eye was caught by a poster on the window. It was a 5-a-day poster. I know I shouldn't have been but I was surprised, surprised perhaps because it reminded me I had been thinking about a regional take on the 5-a-day concept only a week or so back.

After months of unscientific observation I had found myself formulating this tongue-in-cheek assessment of Balkan life's essential ingredients.

  • Caffeine. A life without coffee is no life at all. It's not just about staying awake, I have had it explained to me that the highest form of existence is sitting in a caffe bar with no plans and no cares and a decent coffee.

  • Nicotine. No caffeine fix is complete without a fag or two. At about 50p for 10 it's definitely a cheaper habit than Mars Bars but should you be short of cash almost all caffe bars provide a perfect passive smoking environment.

  • Sucrose. Why have one sugar when you can have three, or seven? And if you tire of turning your coffee into syrup you could always get your hit from the ever present selection of cakes or a summer-time ice cream.

  • Sodium Chloride. Had enough sweet? Why not try savoury – or 'salty' as it is in translation. You'll never be short of an opportunity to have lots of salty meat and salty bread and, like with sugar, when sprinkling the key is not to be sparing.

  • Hydrogen. Okay, so we're actually referring here to H2O but you probably guessed that. The good news is that almost all of the above will be expected to be washed down with the ever present glass of water.

Need I point out the 5-a-day poster was promoting something altogether more balanced?

Monday, 15 March 2010

Saturday, 13 March 2010


Spring has least that was the conclusion I had to draw when we turned up at Novi Most's youth centre in Mostar after this morning's uni-hockey practise session in a nearby school. The sun was out and so, it seemed, where most of our regulars. The patch of green (or more often brown) space in front of the Klub building was covered in young people wielding rakes and picking up litter. This was outdoor spring-cleaning in action; even the pavements were getting a wash and sweep!

It's at this point I could pose the classic question: do you want the good news or the bad news? Naturally, it's a rhetorical question. So here's the bad news. Thanks to Mostar's strong winds and its inhabitants propensity to litter it will not be long before it looks like this morning never happened. But the good news is it did happen. I wasn't there but I'm certain the clean up was initiated by one of our local workers. Encouraging young people to all muck in with cleaning up rubbish and tidying up their environment cannot be anything but a positive experience for them. If we can help them make a connection between community, cleaning up and having fun then I think we can say we're making a positive contribution to the hope of a better, cleaner future for Bosnia and Herzegovina. We know it is but a small start, still rather that than ignore such challenges altogether.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Spoilt Natural Beauty

It is the preserve of travel writers to tell tales of the unspoilt natural beauty they have witnessed. I wish this post were one of those. Alas it is not. Last week we drove a section of the main road between Banja Luka and Sarajevo. Alongside the road runs the River Vrbas. It's not a huge mass of rushing water, although neither is it a trickle; about the width of the narrow two lane road next to it you might successfully navigate it in a canoe or small raft. Trees line both banks. Come spring it could be a beautiful sight, but it won't be. Instead mile upon mile of spoilt natural beauty with bear the scars of human wastefulness.

In our experience the retailers of Bosnian and Herzegovina have a strange obsession with the dispensing of plastic bags. If the trend in the UK is for a sales assistant to make you feel guilty for using a bag – or make you pay for the privilege – here you are more likely to cause offence, at very least bewilderment, if you try to exit a shop without one. This proliferation of plastic has to end up somewhere. Sadly it seems Central Bosnia's bags have recently taken the collective decision to make accessorising the banks of the Vrbas their final eco-defying act.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a land of often undiscovered, and frequently unspoilt, natural beauty. On more than one occasion it has presented us with vistas so breathtaking they've demanded likening to the mystical landscapes of Middle Earth. But this trip drew a Lord of the Rings connection of a different kind. I couldn't but help imagine this was the ghoulish Army of the Dead lining the river banks, their ranks unbroken for mile upon tortured mile. Rising at least three or four feet from the water's edge the shrouded shrubbery could not have been more seamless. I have neither the authority nor the expertise to declare what we witnessed an ecological disaster but it was a solemn reminder that true beauty is a fragile and, too often, fleeting thing. Once lost it is not easily regained.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Wild weather

It was sleet and strong winds as we went to bed. What will the morning bring?

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The place where...

I got home last night and picked up Martin Bell's book 'In Harm's Way'. Large parts of the book are his reflections of his time in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 90s. I read it before we moved here. Eighteen months later the place names are no longer historical abstractions but 'the place where so-and-so lives' or 'the place where we turn right to get to so-and-so'. This weekend three things made me remember his book; here are two of them.

A Bosnian friend told us how she'd been on a trip in Serbia a few years ago. She'd been put up by a very poor but very hospitable Serbian old lady. At one point the old lady pointed out the damage that still remains from the American bombing of her area. 'Was your town bombed?' she had asked her guest. 'I didn't have the heart to tell her the Serbs bombed our town' our friend told us.

As we sat at breakfast yesterday the TV played silently in the corner. Radovan Karadžić was making his opening statement at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Someone looked up as pictures of Sarajevo's Markale marketplace flashed onto the screen: 'My dad was there two hours before that happened'. Karadžić was arguing the massacre was a stage-managed set-up.

These two incidents made me think. I'll leave you to imagine the reasons why. I don't have a clever conclusion; far be it from me to state the lessons you should learn from stories like these. It is for others to discuss the attributing of guilt or blame, the determining of causes and contributing factors. I am aware, as much as ever, that the 'true' version of history will depend entirely on who is telling it. But whatever lessons we do learn, I hope we are not quick to forget them.