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.