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!