Archive for December, 2007|Monthly archive page

Hanging out in Dubrovnik

I caught the bus from Mostar to Dubrovnik. This city is as beautiful as ever… perhaps a little too beautiful, as I do love the grit of more flawed places. There’s not as much to do here at this time of year, when you can’t swim. I am here with SB, who I know through friends from Melbourne. We were planning to head directly to Montenegro today, but plans have been thwarted by British Airways, who managed to lose SB’s luggage, and were not able to return it until 5pm today. So we spent the day wandering, kind of killing time, really. It’s not that it is not lovely here – it is! But there is not a lot to do. Oh well. Nema veze, as they say here. No big deal. We are on holiday after all.

Tomorrow, we have decided to hire a car. We will drive into Bosnia, to Trebinje, and then to Montenegro, to Kotor, and its apparently stunning fjords  of the Mediterranean. Cool! We have been told we will be able to fit both places easily into a day, and driving ourselves will give us lots of flexibility to stop when and where we want. However, I have read some horror stories of corrupt, bribe-hungry Montenegren police stopping cars with foreign plates, claiming various unfounded misdemeanours, and demanding cash on-the-spot fines. I hope this doesn’t happen too often. We are thinking of keeping a few low Euro bank notes on hand, just in case. (Montengegro’s official currency is the Euro).

I have discoved SB shares my daggy love for constant singing – finding a song for every occasion. So today we played ‘Tags’, the game where one person sings a line from a song, and the next person needs to follow that with a line starting with the first letter of the last word of the line just sung. Bonus points if the next line starts with the last word of the previous line. Hours of hilarity and loud singing of dodgy pop songs of the eighties. We must apologise to the neighbours, I think.

SB is also vastly talented at ‘speaking Armenian’ (CP knows what I am talking about here). So we spend most of our conversations speaking in Armenian, and sometimes Russian, and sometimes even Irish. Our versions, of course.

Singing sevdah

Christmas in Sarajevo with K’s mother was particularly special and memorable. Firstly, she made a special cheese pie (sirnica) for our breakfast. Then, in the evening, I got my clarinet out and started playing some of the sevdah (traditional Bosnian songs) that I remembered. K’s mother and auntie were there, along with K and Kemo (his cousin) and it was an instant party. Everyone sang, and I mined my memory for different songs. K and his mother would also sing some to me, line by line, so that I could play them.

Then more relatives arrived. I assumed it was a planned gathering, but K told me later that his mother had got on the phone and called all her siblings, saying, “Come over, come over, Dzil is playing clarinet, we are singing sevdah.” Soon a crowd had gathered, and the songs and wine flowed fast.

 K also whispered to me that this is not something that they normally do, and it is very special for them to sing these old songs together, very positive. He said that it needed a catalyst, like me being there with my clarinet, to make it possible for everyone to relax together in this way. He also said they were very impressed by the way I could pick the songs up while they sang them! Good to know those years of solfege training prepare you so well for something like this!

Everyone sang, even Kemo who was only 11 years old when he left Bosnia for Norway. I asked him where he had learned the songs, wondering if his parents had sung them, if he remembered them from his childhood years in Bosnia, or if he had learned them later. (It is an ongoing curiousity for me, what happens to the musical culture of people who are displaced from their homelands). He said that he learned them mostly with his friends, other Bosnians living in Norway, during and after the war. When they got together at parties they would often sing the sevdah songs, so this is how he knows them.

There were frequent tears this night, as many of the songs are sad and very emotional. The first song that I played, right at the start  of the evening, was one that I had been told was partiuclarly special for people. However, later in the evening, K translated the words for me, and I was alarmed at how stark and unflinching the song is about the horrors of war and the possibility of young soldiers not returning. I had offered this as a song to play?? Such a responsibility I had assumed, so blithely!

Nine years later…

When I was in Mostar 9 years ago, it was 3 years after the time that the vicious fighting, shelling, destruction had ended. I remember at the time thinking that this was quite a long time after. Now it is twelve years on, and it seems to me that that is hardly any time at all. It is interesting to remember myself then and recognise how much I thought I understood, but how little I really did understand what had taken place for people.

I can see now that people had barely even begun processing what had taken place. Three years after is hardly any time at all. I think that I understood things in theory – I had read a lot about the war before I arrived here in ’98, and was well-informed in one sense – but actually had very little concept of what this meant, or felt like, or actually was

On my last night in Mostar a friend described the early days of the schools’ music program that we all worked on. He had gone straight from school into the Bosnian Army and when it ended he had no idea what he could do with himself. But he was then, and is now, a talented musician – a singer and guitarist. A group of young people formed an arts NGO and began to do music workshops in schools, supported by some visionary people from Edinburgh (Nigel Osborne in particular). He said, when I saw him two nights ago, that it was the most amazing lifeline. He didn’t know what he would have done if it hadn’t been thrown to him.

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In Mostar

And now I am in Mostar, the city in which I lived for ten months in 1998, just a few years after the war had ended. It is great to be back, wonderful to see old friends, fascinating to walk around the city and just remember things. Here was where I used to play backgammon, here was where we would play billiards. Here is the restaurant that a keen suitor brought me to for a romantic dinner. Here is the house I used to live in. This bridge was then a temporary one made of wood, that felt like it was about to fall apart whenever we drove on it. And the gaps between the planks were wide enough for the wheels of my bicycle to get stuck in. Now it is rebuilt and fully functional. And this other bridge, near Luka and the Pavarotti Centre, wasn’t even here. It had collapsed during the war, presumably after heavy shelling, and when I arrived it could be seen draping its way down the steep rocky banks of the Neretva, and was  covered in graffitti. An urban myth I heard not long after arrving here nine years ago, told of a car full of young guys from the other side of the city coming to hoon around East Mostar after the ceasefire, who hadn’t realised the bridge was no longer there. At that time there was no street lighting and they turned to cross the river on this bridge and drove straight into the river. Didn’t survive. I don’t know if it is a true story or not, but it is a grim one.

Mostar is thus named because of its Old Bridge (Stari Most – Most means bridge). This was destroyed under heavy fire during the war, but was rebuilt in 2004. Seeing that bridge, and its graceful span from all angles, and walking over it, is a truly joyous thing.

Lots of joy here for me. More later, as am about to run out of time at this internet cafe!

Getting to Sarajevo

I am writing this on Christmas Day, it is snowing big, fat snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes, and it is gorgeous, just gorgeous to be here.

But what a journey it was, from Paris to Sarajevo with Croatian Airlines. Firstly the plane took off late from Paris – a little anxious-making as I had a fast connection to make in Zagreb. But the surly air hostess onboard told me I wouldm’t miss my flight, because it was also with Croatian, so it would wait for me. Then, on arrival in Zagreb, all the Sarajevo passengers were taken aside and told our flight had been cancelled due to bad weather conditions in Sarajevo. No planes had been able to land for the last two days, we were told. We would take a bus to Sarajevo instead (5 to 6 hours apparently, as opposed to 55 minutes in a plane), it would leave in 45 minutes, so we should collect our luggage, go through Customs, and get the bus from out the front of the airport.

Then my luggage didn’t turn up. There were about 9 of us still waiting for our bags when a flight from Frankfurt landed. Their bags came out, but we were still waiting. Meanwhile, the time to go and get the bus was fast approaching. Oh, to cut this part of the story short, the bags eventually arrived, after all the Frankfurt bags. Maybe someone had gone off on a coffee break or something, and taken the trolley with our Paris bags on it with them. So I grabbed the darn thing, now twice the weight it was when I left Melbourne, due to souvenirs and Armenian cognac, and headed outside to find this bus.

I didn’t mind the idea of the bus- it sounded like it could be fun. We were just a small group coming in off the Paris flight…. I imagined us all chatting, sitting in a cosy minbus, being chauffured to Sarajevo. But it wasn’t quite like that. The bus was packed. At first there seemed doubt that they could even get me on it. I stood there in the frosty air, kind of exhilirated by the cold, I must say, and hopped from foot to foot while I waited for their heated debating to abate, and someone to tell me what was going on. Apparently, all the Sarajevo passengers from all the cancelled flights were on this plane.

So, they squeezed me and another guy on, I took a seat beside a sulky looking woman who had the physical energy of a VERY hungover teenager (and two teenage boys sitting in the seat behind her). A young Serbian woman from the Paris flight who spoke French translated bits of the driver’s comments for me. It took the bus a further 40 minutes to depart.

Within 15 minutes we had pulled over. First because of a child needing to vomit, then because a rowdy, lively crowd down the front of the bus wanted to buy more beer. This pattern of stopping for beer continued hourly throughout the trip, and, as another passenger wryly pointed out to me, “That only means MORE stops!” It really slowed us down, I thought.

We pulled into Sarajevo bus station at 11.45pm – 8 hours later! All that time I had been surrounded by people on mobile phones, calling their loved ones and friends to make plans to meet. But I had no number for Kenet, and worried about how he would know where I was, what I would do if he wasn’t there when I arrived…. so imagine my relief when I stepped off the bus and heard this Bosnian-Australian accent saying, ” Welcome to minus 10 degrees!”, then saw a guy in a peaked corduruy cap emerging from the crowd to lift me into a big bear hug! All was well… a big relief.

But the plot thickens too, about the cancelled flights. Apparently Croatian Airlines was the ONLY airline to cancel their flights into Sarajevo on Devember 22nd (and again on the 23rd). Every other airline flew in and out without any trouble. It looked a bit suspicious… as if it waved them money to not fly in at all, to stick us all in a bus. I have started to compose a sternly worded letter. Of course, if it is an issue of safety, and the right flying conditions, then the bus was the right solution. But if the flying conditions were fine…. it looks a bit dodgy from my point of view.

It feels amazing to be back here. The moment we crossed the border I realised my energy levels were right up. I was sitting up straight, staring out the window, all my nerves were primed. The ten months I spent here were a pivotal point in my life and I invested a lot of myself – my values and energy and spirit – here. I’m feeling incredibly alive and …. connected… somehow. Can’t wait to get to Mostar – we go there tomorrow.

Merry Christmas, all. I hope it is a joyous and peaceful time. Love and kisses.

Armenia, Armenia

The title of this post is especially for my sister (she’ll know why), but is a kind of summary of all the things that CP and I found to wonder at, to giggle about, and to ponder over during our seven days in this compelling country.

I described the layout of Yerevan as being somewhat Stalin-esque, and it is – lots of imposing, large buildings with quite overstated self-importance…. wide streets, many buildings seemingly blurring into a kind of overall grey. But look more closely, and there is much to enjoy. The older buildings, while in need of repair, often have many gracious decorative features, such as ornate arches around the windows, and jutting balconies of wrought iron, and fading facades in pastel colours. Some buildings reminded me of the architecture in the Ashrafiyeh part of Beirut (if it is still standing after last year’s bombardment…).

And there is nothing Stalinistic about the friendliness of the Armenians. We noticed it right from when we arrived at the airport – there were staff milling about waiting to help people with the visa process, and answer questions, they were keen to speak English, one complimented CP on his flawless, accent-free French (despite his American passport), and any smiles offered by us were returned warmly.

I noticed it too, the day we went to Echmiadzin, the Holy See of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Perhaps others too know the feeling of going to a Holy Site, and feeling concerned to not inadvertently cause offense to anyone by doing something inappropriate. I remember in a mosque in Syria, a woman coming up to me and making tutting noises as she rearranged my headscarf for me, all the while frowning at me. Not sure why, perhaps an unruly hair was escaping. Or in Italian churches, the surliness of Italian nuns. Anyway, past experiences have led me to feel that, if a local person approaches me in a church it is because I am doing something wrong.

Not so in Armenia. First a priest came up to me (I knew he was a priest because he wore a long robe with a pointed hood – a kind of Hobbit suit) and asked me a question in Armenia. I apologised in Russian that I didn’t understand, so he repeated his question in Russian – he was asking where CP and I were from, and welcoming us to the church. He was friendly and warm and smiley. Then, a few minutes later, one of the women in cleaning overalls approached me. Again I thought I must have done something wrong, but Margarit translated and told me she was asking if I’d like to drink some of the holy water. It turned out there was a natural spring in the church, and at certain times of the day, one of the priests would lower a bucket into the well and draw out water for people. She was letting me know this was about to happen (or maybe it was happening because we foreigners were there – I’m not sure).

So you see – friendly, warm, nice.

Of course, there were still a few Soviet hangovers. CP changed money in one of the banks, and came back from the experience with stories of a woman in a fur coat imperiously trying to push in front of him in the queue, of a little shielded window with a wall all around it, but the area behind completely accessible a little further along the counter, of security guards who looked completely unconfident and unclear of their role in the place…

“Armenians are CRAZY about technology”, Anna told us. This conversation came in response to CP’s and my amazement at some of the technologically complex things in our apartment. In the shower, on the wall about the taps, there was a kind of remote control console, with various buttons and an LCD display, that apparently could do all sorts of amazing things to enhance the showering experience. It looked like something you would find in the arm of your standard Boeing 777 plane. We only worked out two of them – turning a special shower light, and getting the fan going while you were showering. All very fancy.

We also had a remote control for the lift in the apartment building. It took us several days to figure this one out. We had a choice of two buttons – the first would take us up in the lift, the second would take us down. The only problem was that the lift wasn’t quite intuitive enough to register where our request was coming from.

The trouble was, we thought pressing the UP button was saying, “we want to go up”. But invariably the lift would go up without stopping to open the doors for us first. In the end, we worked out the rule:

  • When you are downstairs, wanting to go up, start by pressing the ‘down’ button, in order to say, “Come down to me, so that I can go up”. If it is already down, it will simply open its doors. Then you can get in, and press the ‘up’ button.
  • When you are upstairs and want to go down, starting by pressing the ‘up’ button. As above, it will open its doors to you if it is already up.

Confusing? We thought so. But then, it took us several days to figure out the exchange rate too.

Sometimes friendliness translated into a kind of close surveillance when we went into souvenir and handcraft shops. We were often outnumbered by staff, and would have 1:1 attention, with staff standing close by our sides, and helpfully pointing out, “This is – scarf. This is – doll. This – for salt. This one green, this – blue.” We would nod, in recognition of this crucial information. “You can go upstairs now,” one of them told CP, and he dutifully went to inspect the upper level.

We were given excellent attention by guides and attendants when our friends took us to different museums. As we marvelled appropriately at the treasures in the Echmiadzin Treasury, we were told, “And now, you make take a photograph. If you wish.” Of course we would start to snap away, though CP murmered to me in passing that he was happy to be working in digital.

More later, as I am struggling with this unusual Bosnian keyboard, that swaps its Zs for Ys and confuses the bejeezus out of me.

Mount Ararat

The Armenians are deeply connected to their land and history, and learning more about this has been fascinating. Mount Ararat can be seen from Yerevan, and it is a symbol for Armenians of their land and history.

Ararat is where Noah’s Ark landed, and from his family, all the people of the world can be traced. After our concert on Tuesday night, Anna’s friend Lilit, who generously gave up her Saturday to take us to Geghard Monastery and Garni, hugged me and said that, as all people of the world are connected back to Noah, then all people are also connected to Armenia. Therefore we are all a little bit Armenian.

Geghard Monastery, hidden and sheltered:


Here is CP’s beautiful photo of Ararat, seemingly floating in a sea of fluffy clouds.


And a view of the entrance dome of the church at Echmiadzinb, the Holy See of the Armenian Church:

Echmiadzin dome

Return of the Armenian Mafia

Our concert on Tuesday night in The Club was a great success, and a very emotional experience for us all. What a week this has been! We have seen so many beautiful things (I will write about these and add photos in the next few days, I hope) but it is the reconnection with old and dear friends that has been the most memorable and moving part of the trip.

We had a packed house at The Club. It is an atmospheric space, underground, with stone walls and a series of different rooms, separated by short stairways and curtains. During the days, and on non-concert evenings, it is a restaurant and cafe, but for concerts it is transformed into a performance venue, with rows of chairs, and bean bags on the floor at the front.

Anna introduced us to the audience as friends from the European Mozart Academy, where we were affectionately referred to as the ‘Armenian Mafia’ (there was also a Russian Mafia, Polish Mafia, French Mafia, American Mafia…) – so this was the name of our reunion concert. She is such a skilled and thoroughly engaging presenter, who charms the audience with great ease, and makes them laugh. Between pieces she told stories from our time at the Academy, including one of her own experiences of travelling with a small group to Budapest for a concert, and getting chucked off the train at the Slovakian border. She was new to the Academy and had no English at all. But on that night, she told the audience, she learned her first English word, ‘sh*t’, from the Academy Director who had got off the train with her. The audience roared.

Then she and Margarit performed songs and my! they are wonderful, beautiful performers! They are so good together! I am just in awe sometimes.

We performed European music in the first half of the programme – German Lieder, a Handel aria (Dignare) with violin solo, the Spohr songs with Clarinet and voice, two wonderful zarazuela songs, and we closed the first half with my arrangement of Piazzolla’s Oblivion, for the four of us.

The second half was Armenian music – a piano solo by Maragarit of Babajanyan’s Elegie, CP and Margarit performing Komitas, some traditional unaccompanied songs sung by Anna (joined by one of her students), and then the Khachaturian Trio. We offered an arrangement of Moon River, again for the four of us, as our ‘bis’ (encore), and while this music is light compared to much of the rest of the programme, it felt incredibly wistful and nostalgic as we performed it that night, and was a beautiful, poignant way to end the concert. Tears in our eyes, but smiling faces all round. Such a special thing to be able to do together and share with people.

The whole concert was filmed for broadcast on Armenian television, and the four of us were also interviewed separately. I was asked questions about how difficult it was (or wasn’t) to play Armenian music and make it sound Armenian, if I’d enjoyed my visit to Armenia, what did I like best, and what would I change. I’ll post links to this footage when it is available.

At the end of the concert I took a photo of the audience – how could I not?!


“This may be Air France, but…”

“… but it feels like Aeroflot”, CP muttered to me on board our flight from Paris to Yerevan, Armenia. The staff had an unnerving way of making announcements in French and then English, both of which were fairly indecipherable, as well as somewhat nonsensical.

“For reasons of safety, please ensure your seatbelt is unfastened for the duration of the flight,” we were told in dulcet tones as the plane eased its way up the runway.

“We are looking after your safety and comfort… [pause] … and your flight to Yerevan”, they informed us reassuringly. Good that the latter was part of the deal, we thought.

And as the seatbelt light was switched off upon arrival in Yerevan, and everyone bounded out of their seats to retrieve luggage from the lockers, we were asked to remain seated ‘until all passengers had left the plane’. No-one was paying any attention by that stage.

There were some equally baffling moments of bureaucracy at Yerevan’s airport where we had to fill out a visa application form. At the bottom of the page was a multiple choice section, where we had to (presumably) nominate the most appropriate response. The choices were:

  • The purpose of apple (to make)
  • To provide entry visa
  • To expansion of

I kid you not. We both left that section blank. Still puzzling over it yesterday, we employed our best lateral thinking, and decided that ‘apple’ really meant ‘apply’, and ‘expansion of’ was for a visa extension. We felt tremendously pleased with ourselves to have figured this out!

So here we are in Yerevan. Dear friends abound. Anna is a captivating, charming singer, well-known in Armenia for her performances of tradional and sacred music. She is often on television, performing, or commenting on local arts issues. She has organised our concert in The Club, and throughout yesterday afternoon was fielding phone calls from television producers interested in interviewing us on the local version of ‘Sunrise’ with Mel and Kochie. CP and I are secretly quite excited about this possibility and hope to be able to take home DVD footage of our Armenian television debuts. Margarit is a pianist of phenomenal ability and musicianship, eccentric in many ways but with the warmest smile in the world.

Anna and CP enjoying a cognac in the The Club, first day there…

In The Club

Yerevan is, like Paris, experiencing a mild winter so far. It is fairly grey and overcast here, but also quite foggy. Or is it smoggy? It is hard to tell. Around midday, when the sun is highest in the sky, we can sea the tips of the mountains that ring the city, that are snow-topped and imposing. At other times of the day, we can barely see the tops of the tallest buildings.

The architecture seems to be largely Stalinist, or modern with neo-traditional overtones. There is a phenomenal amount of construction taking place. I can imagine that in warmer months, the wide streets are filled with cafes, there would be an abundance of green in the various city squares and boulevards, and the grace and charm of the city would shine through. In winter, it is less immediately attractive, but there is a kind of dilapidated grandeur in the buildings that I like.

We have seen the posters for our concert. Yesterday we had lunch at the venue and Anna talked with the staff about projecting images from our concerts ten years ago behind us while we are performing. I think it could be very effective. My nearly-finished arrangement of Piazzolla’s Oblivion has worked pretty well, but most of all, it will be lovely to play our old repertoire – Khatchturian, Spohr, Komitas – together once again.

Here is the poster for our concert outside the front of the Opera House: 


CP in the snow at Kaputan:


Armenian concert

Here is the listing to our concert in Armenia:It is at a venue called The Club. “Ten years on…. friends from the European Mozart Academy”. My name is mis-spelled, but that may be an issue of transliteration from the Armenian alphabet.

Exciting to see it in print…C and I are practising hard!

CP practises