Tuesday, July 24, 2007

"No one questioned ‘ who is a Serb, who is a Croat, who is a Muslim (Bosniak)’, we were all one people, that's how it was back then, and I still think it is that way today." – Josip Broz Tito

Phew, where do I start?

I never really intended for this blog to be a travelog, but since travelling forms the greater substance (and the sole substance of any interest) of what I’ve been doing since the end of May, it’s kind of inevitable right now. And after all, travelling at its best can be nourishment for the soul, even if, in my recent experience at least, rarely also for the body.

Things started out quietly enough with a stopover in Budapest, still recovering from the exertions of the Slovak mountains and also on the eve of the Exit festival I was hardly in party animal mode. Probably the most noteworthy occurrence for me here was that, having become accustomed to being approached at rail and bus stations and ferry ports at various locations in Eastern Europe by people (usually women) offering accommodation, in this case I was actually pitched on the train down there by an extraordinarily efficient team of touts. To be fair to them they were offering a decent enough deal in a hostel not far from the centre, with the considerable advantage for backpackers of free transport there by minibus, which swung it for me. The rooms were not exactly luxurious, student dorms vacated for the summer, but I had an entire dorm to myself, which was quite pleasing except for the moment when I looked up from my book to see the graffiti on the underside of the shelf above me, which read “A man died in the bed you are sleeping in”.

Suppose I could have changed beds, but didn’t wish to give in to superstition. Out of there sharpish the next morning for a cleansing soak in the magnificent Turkish baths before the train journey down to Novi Sad, more of which later.

When I first went to Croatia several years ago I fell completely in love with the place, and this has now extended to everywhere else I’ve been so far in former Yugoslavia. I hadn’t really had any particularly great expectations of Novi Sad, or even the Exit festival, since the main reason for my journey down there was to meet up and stay with the charismatic George Almosthole (George What?? – actually this is a literal translation of his real name) and his charming wife Sandra, which for me was still the unquestionable highlight of the trip. Novi Sad turned out to be a very attractive Habsburg town with fine architecture, which even without the festival manages to be both laid-back and lively at the same time.

A festival venue? Only in Serbia

Did I mention something in the last post about the Serbs knowing how to throw a good party? Nothing could have prepared me for Exit, one of Europe’s largest festivals, catering for a reported 150 000 people, held in the superb surroundings of the Petrovaradin fortress overlooking the Danube (where incidentally Tito was once imprisoned). There must have been at least 20 stages, and perhaps the most impressive thing is just how well organised it all seemed. It was probably inevitable that the main stage area was uncomfortably, maybe even frighteningly packed during the headline acts – I spoke to one girl who lost her shoes in the crush – but there was plenty of diversion for those willing to look. The only headliner I spent any real amount of time on and actually enjoyed whatsoever was the Prodigy, who are huge in Serbia due to the fact that they defied sanctions and played there during the 90s. Consummate showmen, they put on a fine performance, with the reservation that I was at the back of an enormous crowd, couldn’t see the band except on the screens, which I guess was the case for most of the people there, and from where I was standing it simply wasn’t loud enough. Whatever, they were clearly well adept at working the audience, producing banging versions of classics such as “Breathe”, “Firestarter”, “Their Law”, “Poison” etc., though we had to leave before the end in order to catch the mighty TONA.

Granted, I’m hardly going to be unbiased about TONA am I? I’m not alone on this one though, since Serbia’s top rock critic was having orgasms about their demo in the national press that very day. Tonight they faced not only the disadvantage of clashing with the end of the Prodigy’s set, but they also lost a large chunk of their regular fans to a Swedish metal band on another of the stages. On the other hand they had the advantage that the sound engineer was a friend of theirs and so the meagre 50 or so people who attended the gig were treated to a fine display of their abrasive, claustrophobic noise, topped with George’s guttural vocals. Of course it was a pleasure to hear their rollicking version of TWR’s “Down in the Desert”, but the real highlights for me were the Motorhead-esque “Red Cylinder”, and the menacing “Go Slow”, an irresistible, relentless steamroller of a tune, like being driven repeatedly through a brick wall. Pity the 149 950 people at the festival who didn’t see them that night, because TONA were blinding.

As for other headliners, we saw about fifteen minutes of the Beastie Boys before walking off in disgust – as well as the discomfort of having a bunch of drunken Macedonians shoving us all over the place from behind, the fact is that the Beasties were dire, the sound was rubbish and they were clearly not even trying, wasting half their time, or rather ours, on noodling, mindbendingly tedious prog-rock workouts which would have been out of place anywhere on this planet, let alone a festival. You can’t get art when your name’s the Beastie Boys, for fuck’s sake. Wise up! Headliner the next night was Snoop Dogg. Yeah, fuck that then. On the last night Wu Tang Clan headlined, and although I like them, we didn’t last long there – in my probably absurdly cobwebbed old mind (I’m in the second half of my 30s now, ok?) the age old question of whether hip hop can be done live successfully is still essentially unresolved.

Enough about the name bands though, of much more interest were any number of former Yugoslavian punk bands, some cracking DJs including Zinc on the main stage, and on the Happy Novi Sad stage the astonishing Russian DJ Proket amongst others (sorry I couldn’t manage to stay up for Voja, who was starting at 6 in the morning), plus the Elektrana stage, which in addition to some excellent techno featured the storming Croatian electro-trash-bubblegum-punks Lollobrigida, a smart, sexy, insolent almost-all-girl band who were perfect for the occasion. I wish I could remember Filip’s extremely accomplished translation of their lyrics, particularly given the insanely intoxicated state he was in, all I do remember in terms of lyrics or titles (maybe I wasn’t quite so sober myself) was their track “My Boyfriend is Gay”. A bit like an updated Fuzz Box (remember them?) before they lost the plot - very 80s sounding but with an edge, quite deliberately kitsch without being corny, seriously fun, perhaps the ultimate festival band. But all in all, George, who is after all the Wise Guy of the East, hit the nail on the head when he told me before the start of the festival that regardless of the line-up, the real star of the whole event is its glorious location, the fortress itself. At the risk of sounding like a hippy (ugh!), I’d say that and the overall vibe, man.

In any case, for me personally Novi Sad wasn’t so much about Exit but about the people, who were immensely friendly, hospitable and engaging. Given the festival demographics (again, more later) it was a genuine privilege to be amongst locals, and treated as one of their own. I can only say to all of the people I met down there, that you’re welcome up in Spleensville CZ any time, even if I couldn’t hope to compete with what Novi Sad’s got to offer. Whatever, please come, and for my part believe me, I’ll definitely be back.

For George and Sandra!

As is often the case in foreign countries, which I suppose still includes CZ although I have now made it my home and speak the language, I felt humbled by how civilised and cultured people were. As well as the lack of the British speciality of an ever-present undercurrent of recreational violence, as already mentioned a few months ago by the Impostume following a visit to Olomouc, I was also bowled over by people’s attempts to include me in conversations by speaking English (incredibly some of them even apologised for their mistakes – you ought to hear my embarrassing attempts at Serbo-Croat). In fact the standard of English in former Yugoslavia is way, way above the standard here, due to a very large extent to the fact that they have a great deal of English language TV with subtitles, whereas the Czechs prefer dubbing, bastardised horribly in Czech as “dabing”, pronounced even more horribly as “dabink”. (“Ah, but our dabink is very special, it is very celebrated, amongst the best in the world”. No, your beer is the best in the world, your dabink, I’m afraid, is fucking shit). Not that I’d ever wish to force people to speak English, but it is surely a valuable skill these days on which a great deal of financial resources are spent by state, corporations and parents alike, which could be vastly and above all cheaply enhanced by simply banishing the irksome concept of dabink and erasing this execrable word from the dictionary. I also learnt that all former Yugoslavians are big fans of British TV, in particular Only Fools and Horses, and if they get the chance to spend any time in London are often tempted, after (or maybe even before) getting the obligatory photos of Big Ben, Buckingham Palace etc., to hop on the first double decker down to Peckham.

No mere suckers for populism though, as well as that I was struck by how far advanced the former Yugoslavian music scene is compared to CZ, certainly in terms of rock. Although there were a few very interesting dissident bands holding illegal happenings in 1970s Czechoslovakia, in liberal, non-aligned Yugoslavia there was a burgeoning punk scene at that time, from which they are still reaping the benefits today. After 12 years I’ve still never met a Czech who’s ever heard of Thin White Rope and barely anyone who’s even heard of Hüsker Dü, which I noticed is sprayed on the walls of George’s house (I presume he didn’t do it himself). Whereas in former Yugoslavia these bands have considerable followings, plus the Yugoslavs are clued up about all kinds of stuff us dimwit Westerners are still completely unaware of.

Anyway, the Chinese have a saying that guests are like fish, after three days they begin to smell, and despite always feeling enormously welcome, after six days in Novi Sad in temperatures of approximately 35°C, the thought did occur to me that I must well and truly stink, not so much metaphorically as literally, so it was time to move on – although the ensuing, unbelievably unpleasant bus journey to Sarajevo, with the temperature now up to 40°C, the air conditioning woefully inadequate for the task and the driver instead having to drive with the bus door open all the way, made me a great deal sweatier and smellier still.

In retrospect the main disappointment about Exit for me was that it was so overrun by SODDING BRITISH! Having lived out of the UK for so long I had no idea that Exit had been so intensively flogged to my fellow countrymen, so when I arrived at the station in Budapest my jaw dropped at the locust-like swarms of them – evidently easyjet hasn’t got its tentacles into Serbia yet, so the train journey down to Novi Sad was rammed almost exclusively with British festival goers, sitting on rucksacks, standing like sardines all the way down the corridors, with hardly a single regular traveller on the train. Apparently the campsite, at which I thankfully was not present (God bless you George and Sandra – in those temperatures, with techno pumping day and night and most of the people there out of their minds on drugs it must have been hell) was about 90% British or more, and I’d reckon they made up at least a third of the attendance at the festival. Of course, as in tourist-swamped Prague, I’m in an entirely hypocritical position here since I’m clearly part of the problem myself, and again, feel enormously lucky to have been amongst Serbs the whole time, most of my festival conversations with my compatriots limited to “Know where I can score any pills mate?” “No” (ah, but who was asking, them or me? Now that would be telling!). However, although there was clearly a large element of ignorant spoilt brats at play (one bloke I spoke to didn’t even know which country he was in, even better was the story I heard about the posh girl in the jam-packed main stage area who turned round to exclaim, in caricature hoo-rah accent, “do you mind not bumping into me, I’ve got my heels on tonight”), most of the British people I did meet and speak to for any greater length of time turned out to be thoroughly decent, intelligent and interesting people, none more so than Max and Harvin, fellow Exit refugees who I met on the bus to Sarajevo, discovering that Max and I are not only from the same city but actually went to the same secondary school (amazing coincidence, or given the legions of Brits there, merely a manifestation of the law of averages?), and subsequently spent a very pleasant couple of days with.

We were actually treated to a curious approach to Sarajevo, taken on a tour all round the outskirts of the town, which at least provided us with a good look at the place, before being dropped off at a bus station about 10 km out of the centre. The penny dropped that, being a Serbian bus company, it terminated in the Serbian enclave of Sarajevo, where we should have had the foresight to try and change our Serbian dinars into Bosnian marks, since the next day on our grand tour of the city centre banks (at least it was a good way to see the main attractions) we were met everywhere with a firm “NE”, suggesting that there is still serious bad blood. Apart from this minor inconvenience Sarajevo was another storming success, an extremely attractive city with a buzzing atmosphere, as well as phenomenal value for money – the three of us, thanks to Harvin’s info, found a “hostel” smack in the centre of the Ottoman quarter, about a 30 second walk from Sarajevo’s main square, which was actually more of a luxury apartment with a living room as well as a bedroom, for 15 euro a night each. The hostel manager, our guru, sorted us out with all we needed, doing our laundry for an extra 5 euro each. Naturally we were far from the only tourists in this capital city, so we were all the more blown away by the overwhelmingly enthusiastic hospitality shown by virtually everyone we encountered in the hostel, restaurants, shops etc., and if this was not always the case in the banks, then that was down to our own political insensitivity. The ultimate high point must have been the meal on the last night there: we only went for a couple of very high quality beers outside a quite earthy looking pub, were getting ready to leave for a restaurant when the disarmingly genial beer waiter told us “we cook here too, you know”. He then recommended we partake of the Bosnian speciality platter – we didn’t argue – and placed us on the VIP terrace, for one table only, overlooking the town centre. The food was superlative, can’t remember the exact prices but it was peanuts. What a place.

Next day an early morning train ride through the mountains to Mostar, which must be the most picturesque train ride I’ve ever had the pleasure of taking, to one of the most picturesque towns I’ve ever seen. Of course there is still plenty of evidence of the war, but the bridge has been rebuilt admirably and otherwise the historical centre is mostly in very good shape. Having almost given up trying, on walking past a bank we decided to have one final, desperate stab at changing our Serbian dinars. “Of course” was the bewildering response, all the more confounding because not only did Mostar take a severe battering during the war, but as far as I’m aware there is no Serbian community there, only Bosniaks and Croats. Certainly not for me to question the wisdom of their buying dinars though – bonus. After briefly exploring the compact old town we spent most of the day trying to hide from the sun, the temperature reportedly now up to an unbearable 45°C – even the locals were complaining.

After somehow managing to eat two steaks (complete with fried egg on top) on the bounce, Max and Harvin decided to split for, er, Split, and then on to Hvar island to find the rest of their crew. I have to admit I was tempted to follow them, the sea having particular appeal in that kind of weather, but decided to stay the night in Mostar for various reasons: 1. that it was such an attractive place it seemed a shame to leave so soon, 2. I still had Bosnian marks to get rid of, 3. I knew Croatian prices for accommodation and food would be at least double Bosnian ones, probably more, 4. I’d already been to the Dalmatian coast on a number of occasions anyway, 5. I knew it would be mobbed with tourists, a large amount of whom would be Exit refugees, and 6. most depressingly, bells were tolling in my head, telling me to get back to the real world and at least do a couple of weeks’ honest work before I go back to the UK in August. So instead I took the bus to Split the next morning, which still gave me several hours for a good swim in the sea, which was almost like stepping into a warm bath, get copiously sunburned on the beach, do a nifty bit of Rakija shopping on the local market and get a slap-up seafood meal, before getting the night train back home from Split direct to CZ.

Conclusions to be drawn: as Max would say, an absolute beast of a holiday. Of course, a holiday is what it was, I haven’t experienced what it’s like to actually live down there, but I was frequently so enchanted with former Yugoslavia that naïve thoughts of moving down there did occur to me in dreamier moments. Highly unlikely to be honest, maybe for my retirement? I certainly had the impression that the people who do live there, despite wages being a fraction of those in Western Europe, know how to live, not just to party non-stop but to genuinely enjoy the pace of life, something that Britain, with its in many cases vastly inflated wages (and of course prices) and culture of frenetic, almost desperate binge drinking and drug taking (as opposed to relaxed, celebratory inebriation, which both the Czechs and former Yugoslavians seem very good at – it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it!), often seems unable to do. I’d also say that former Yugoslavian women are probably the most beautiful I have ever seen, in fact at Exit I can say without doubt that I have never seen so many stunning women concentrated into a single place, although to my consternation that even applied to some of the British girls – perhaps waves of immigration are finally paying off in terms of the contribution to our gene pool – I’ll review that theory next time I encounter the dispiritingly androgynous, tracky-botted chav females when I walk through Coventry city centre in a few weeks. In terms of the holiday’s physical consequences, after a diet of delicious but greasy burek and čevap I really need to get in shape. Concerning the weather, it feels positively cool returning to temperatures of only 30°C in CZ (hope you’re all good swimmers back in the UK right now!). Oh, and without this blog, through which I had the good fortune to meet George (with no small thanks to Thin White Rope), I wouldn’t have experienced any of this.

To finish off, I would be well out of my depth trying to comment on what went on in the Balkans during the 90s, but I can say that although Tito was tragically proven wrong with regard to the quote above, I have still yet to meet a single Serb, Croat or Bosniak who has a bad word to say about him.

Long live pan-Slavism!

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Taken in the back of a truck, after a hard week hiking. At 11 in the morning

Anti-fascist hiking anybody?

Yep, that’s what I’ve just spent a week doing, in a manner of speaking anyway, out in the Low Tatra mountains in central Slovakia. Every year in the first week of July, a hike is organised by the Slovak Tourist Club and Slovak Association of Anti-Fascist Fighters to commemorate the Slovak National Uprising of 1944. The hike spans approx. 130 km, including fairly demanding uphill and downhill sections, and well over 100 people, mostly Czechs and Slovaks, take part. Having just arrived back home a decimated shell of the man I was a week ago, my admiration for those brave men who took on the Nazis is currently at its all-time peak.

This was my third partisans’ hike in as many years and by far the most gruelling, due entirely to the weather conditions – after a couple of days of pleasant July weather it then turned to freezing cold rain, battering winds and zero visibility, basically hiking through a cloud at up to 2000 metres above sea level. After a couple of days of that I was righteously pissed off and ready to jack it in, and in fact our small group of Anglophone pussies did wimp out and get the train home a day early (in our defence so did at least half of the Czechs and Slovaks on the walk). All of which sounds like a pathetic bunch of self-pitying whining when you consider that the partisans were up there in the winter, presumably not sleeping in tents admittedly, but no doubt carrying heavy weaponry and without the benefits of the latest in Gore Tex technology.

On such occasions machismo is never far from the surface, frequently bubbling over in the form of excruciatingly heavy and competitive, if good-natured drinking. In many cases with a quite painfully manifest death wish. Although the Czechs are, according to the statistics, the heaviest drinkers in the EU, in my experience the Slovaks have them comprehensively whipped, and I suspect they are just too wild and uncontrollable to feature in any reliable statistics. Scenes of life-threatening excess are not merely tolerated, they are mandatory. Beer is freely available, generally not as good as in the Czech Republic although still several times better than the skull-pummelling, stomach-scorching, bowel-rupturing devils piss that passes for beer in Poland. However, like the Poles, many Slovaks scorn beer anyway in favour of terrifyingly large shots of spirits, distilled for example from potatoes, juniper berries, various blends of herbs, or bear shit*. More experienced hikers seemingly would not dream of breaking camp without at least half a litre of firewater in their backpack. Is this similarity of Slovaks to Poles in terms of their drinking habits only down to the inferior quality of their beer (though Slovak beer mostly isn’t at all bad), or rather due to the greater influence of the Roman Catholic church in these parts? Benedict, not for the first time, you have a lot to answer for.

On the other hand, who’s to say that’s not what kept the partisans going all those years ago? I meant the spirits, not the Catholicism - if they can be separated that is. Foolhardy and impetuous glutton for punishment that I may be, I’m now preparing for a trip down to Serbia, another country with fine anti-fascist traditions. Plus I hear they know how to throw a good party…

*spot the one I made up