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
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
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
Granted, I’m hardly going to be unbiased about TONA am I? I’m not alone on this one though, since
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
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
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
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!