Friday, 29 April 2011

Best of British?

Sometimes it's hard to understand something you've never experienced. Up until two weeks ago my only clear recollection of an earthquake was on a simulator in London's Science Museum. That didn't prepare me for what flashes through your mind when your house actually starts shaking, like it did as we were watching Man City dump Man Utd out of the FA Cup. Last night as I lay in bed, trying to drift off to sleep, the house shook again. These quakes, while big enough to show up on the websites that monitor these things, were nothing compared to the quakes we've seen destroy communities around the world in recent months. I know that my little experience cannot really help me understand the tragedy, and terror, of those situations.

This morning we woke to a day where around the world people have joined in celebrating one of the best things about the British: their ability to do pageantry. Rowan and I watched the Royal Wedding thanks to the streaming on YouTube, although by all accounts local television was full of it too. This afternoon I was looking at some of the reporting on the BBC website. Over a helicopter image of Westminster Abbey the voiceover declared: “The seat of Kings for a thousand years.” We shouldn't overlook the fact at least a couple of Queens have been crowned there in that time, but oversimplifications aside, Britain has experienced an incredible stretch of continuity when compared to many other countries.

Since just before moving to Mostar, a book called Bosnia: A Short History has sat on our shelves. Despite its optimistic title it's a daunting brick of a book that remains unfinished. Nevertheless, I'm all too aware few countries in the Balkans can come close to claiming that kind of continuity over the last hundred years, let alone over a millennia. I often wonder what it feels like to be born in a country that no longer exists, like so many of our friends here were; their parents were quite possibly born into a different country still. (I know I'm probably guilty of a little oversimplification myself.) We live in a city steeped in history. Yugoslavia was born here and it lives on in the memories of many, but it is a past that will only slip ever further away. Listen long enough and you hear more nostalgia than pride in the present, or hope for the future.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have no desire to experience a tremor that really rattles the Richter Scale to better understand what it feels like. Neither would I want to live through the break-up of my homeland. Both must bring with them an unwelcome insecurity. Even though I wouldn't say life here is dangerous I think do about things I never considered back in Britain. I know the UK is not without its issues but it still has a lot going for it. Days like today help highlight this heritage. When it comes to why we shouldn't take British history for granted I think Christine Amanpour summed it up well in this tweet: “Amazing to see Will & Kate tie the knot. Not empty pomp but richness of history & continuity. Uplifting sense of security in troubled times.”

Sometimes I'm tempted to think this security, or stability, that forms part of my background is an unfair advantage, but none of us decide when or where we are born. We are, however, responsible with how we share the good things life have given us with those who haven't had the same opportunities. A day like today serves as a timely reminder that those of us who were born British shouldn't take the benefits that has brought us for granted.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Not one swallow...

One swallow does not make a summer but could two be the sign of sunshine to come? The online weather forecasts don't agree at the moment but we live in hope. Whatever the weather it was quite a surprise to see these guys outside the window as I was getting breakfast. Perhaps it is evidence of ageing or a sign of the power of parenting that such things catch my attention. As if to prove either point, this morning's bike ride around the lake was a head turning affair. I am pleased to say I didn't run over three of the largest snails I can remember seeing. Spotting the first, bang in the middle of the trail I was riding, had me stopping to gauge just how big he was: head to tail easily as wide as my fist. Maybe that doesn't sound so impressive to you but it was to me!

The wisdom of Wikipedia indicates the bird swimming on the lake could be a sign of summer. The margin for error comes from the vagaries of their distribution map and the accuracy of my identification. Nevertheless, I'm going to make it 2-0 to summertime with my sighting of a Great Crested Grebe. (Real ornithologists feel free to shout me down on this!) Least this all get terribly optimistic I have to redress the balance with what Wikipedia says about my weirdest wandering wildlife encounter yet: “These salamanders are secretive and will only exit their underground home on warm rainy nights in Spring, to breed and hunt.” Yes, I spotted a Spotted Salamander, obviously late getting home from a hard night out in yesterday's rain. Shiny black with bright orange spots he was always going to be hard to miss but nevertheless proved a little camera shy. Here's the proof it's probably still spring.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

The first rehearsal

Back in January I wrote a post about the behind the scenes preparations for the music courses we are now teaching in Jajce. In the video I said I hoped that at some point we'd be able to post a video showing the result of this teaching. This is that point. After a couple of months of teaching individual music lessons we decided it was time to get all our students into a rehearsal to put together what they have been learning. There were nerves, and there were some mistakes, but there were a lot of very encouraging performances too. Judging by the cell phone videos that appeared on Facebook on Thursday night they are proud of their progress; we are too and this is our video record of their first rehearsal.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Not inevitable

This afternoon I was told a simple story that illustrates why the hatred and division, fuelled by nationalism, that's all too common in this part of the world need not be an inevitability. We were visiting the parents of some brothers who are attending the youth work we're running in Jajce. Over generous helpings of coffee and cake the conversation ranged around various subjects. Then it turned to the one that can prove so explosive. The father leans forward. “It was ninety-three” he begins, explaining that this was the height of the war between the Croats and the Muslims, at least where he was at the time. “We got married then.” He is Catholic, his wife Muslim. His point was clear, so clear I think it needs no further expounding.

Monday, 11 April 2011

An Empire State of Sarajevo.

We'd watched it grow but we'd never been up. Yesterday, we visited the Avaz Twist Tower in Sarajevo for the first time. The decision was made by its proximity to the place we were spending the night but mostly by the gloriously clear blue skies stretched over Sarajevo. Although they had postcards pushing a parallel with the Empire State Building the two are very different experiences. For one thing there are no snow-topped mountains to be viewed from Manhattan. Without a double the Avaz Twist Tower does offer the best panorama of Sarajevo. If there was one disappointment it was that the open-air section of the 36th floor viewing gallery was closed, meaning the 35th floor cafe bar provided the better views. But as it would be wrong to gain that much elevation without stopping for coffee we did have time to savour them.

Friday, 8 April 2011

International Roma Day

You have to be careful what you read in the news. It can give you a very unbalanced perspective on things. Today as I sat in a multi-agency round table meeting to discuss Roma issues in a village school near Jajce I caught myself thinking: I can't imagine this happening in France. I'm aware this is probably very unfair to all the un-xenophobic French whose views are not presented in the British media. However I was struck with the contrast between reading recent stories of deportations and sitting in a room with representatives from the local social services, local government, OSCE, EUFOR and others discussing issues around education with a group of Roma parents. Here were people trying to make life better. That, at least, is the optimistic view. Listening to the realities of the struggles this community faces it's easy to wonder if life will ever change. This evening I read a less than hopeful article about the future of the whole country. With such big problems in need of fixing it begs the question why worry about the little ones. But as a friend said this morning: you have to start somewhere. Where people have started they have made a difference, and when people stop to think about it they recognise that and are thankful. That's the encouragement. There may still be a long road ahead but, one step at a time, life can get better.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

A winning day

Saturday was a very satisfying day. Sometimes in youth work it can be hard to see progress, or any kind of positives, from all your efforts; it was not one of those days. Instead it was day when I could choose which of many encouraging outcomes to reflect on.

The uni hockey match in Mostar brought together young people from a mixture of ethnic and social backgrounds, although the teams were not defined by these factors. The teams, from Mostar and Jajce, were both mixed. It was exciting to see that after a hard fought game, that lacked nothing in passion and intensity, the teams were happy to hang out and mix together. Perhaps this was because the players are unified by an involvement in a sport almost unknown in this part of the world. I'd like to think the accepting atmosphere the coaches from both teams have created had something to do with it too.

For my part it was nice to know I haven't been forgotten by the young people from Klub Novi Most in Mostar, and it was fun to show the young people from Jajce around the sights of Mostar's Stari Grad. Six and a half hours on the mountain roads between here and there took its toll, but it was a very satisfied exhaustion that left me struggling to wake up on Sunday morning.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Jajce fights back!

It's like Jajce read yesterday's post about Mostar and thought anything it can do...and turned up the heat.

When I left the house at nine this morning is was a grey, overcast day. By noon we were sitting outside a coffee bar in the centre of town, burning up under the midday sun. This season's tan is officially started!

At five I had a meeting with a local band out by the lakes. Had I sat the other side of the table I would have spent an hour staring at this view. As it was I concentrated on what was being said instead!

Truth be told, Mostar was warmer yesterday but having given friends there a cautious appraisal of Jajce's move towards summer weather I am happy to be proved wrong so quickly.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Mostar looking lovely.

Mostar was looking lovely today. I was down for the day as our uni hockey team from Jajce were playing against the team from Klub Novi Most in Mostar. I'll save any comment on the game until I can post the highlights video.

Instead, enjoy the view from the Stari Most. It was ideal weather for taking in the delights of the Stari Grad, which we did before hitting the road back to Jajce. Warm, t-shirt weather in the low twenties is much more suited for strolling around in the sunshine than the mid-fourties heat of high summer.

What you won't see is all the photo opportunities I passed up on the way there and back in the interests of driving responsibly. Blue skies, sunshine and snow-topped mountains still take a lot of beating in my book. In fact my concern to drive safely almost backfired when I slowed dramatically on a mountain road to let a cat with no sense of urgency saunter out of my path; I was being tail-gated by an impatient local at the time. In retrospect, full speed ahead would have been safer for human life. Future dazed and confused felines be warned!

Friday, 1 April 2011

What Europe has lost.

It's a sad fact that most news stories about Bosnia and Herzegovina that make English language news sites tend not to be happy ones. The article from this week's Economist that landed in my Facebook inbox this week would be a good example. While I don't believe you, me or the international community at large should ignore the issues this kind of journalism highlights it is important to offer proof of the positives of this place. As an example of this I present this quote from an article a friend posted on my Facebook wall last night.

The country described sometimes as the heart between the mouths of two lions, hosts one of the two greatest tracks of primeval forests in Europe, unmatched biodiversity, daunting mountain faces yet to be climbed, deep gorges yet to be traversed, wild rivers with water so pure you can cup your hand to drink, some of the highest concentrations of wildlife, and perhaps the last highland tribes of semi-nomadic peoples on the continent. In many ways, Bosnia today has what the rest of Europe has lost.”

It was a brief travelogue piece: perhaps not the finest piece of writing in the world but the reaction of someone who'd clearly been taken by surprise by their Bosnia and Herzegovina experience. It wasn't an April fool; I checked the date and it was written in September 2009. Whatever might have happened politically or economically since then it is safe to say that the mountains and gorges, rivers and forests still present the same, largely unspoilt, opportunities for would be adventurers. Anyone hungry for an off-the-beaten-track holiday in Europe could do worse than investigating what Bosnia and Herzegovina has to offer. Don't say you haven't been told!

(After Wednesday's post it would be wrong to ignore that fact today FIFA and UEFA have suspended the Football Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina – something that only goes to prove my opening sentence!)