Archive for the ‘Bosnia’ Tag

The stick-passing game

This is a great game. I first learned it from my friend and colleague (and all-round inspiring human being) Eugene Skeef. It was during the year I worked in Bosnia with War Child. A group of us had driven out to a town called Ljubinje, in Republika Srpska. This town was extremely isolated – situated near two inter-entity borders, so people there didn’t have a lot of freedom of movement. There was a very motivated and energetic drama teacher there, so our team went out to work with him and his students and give them some support in building a creative and peaceful life.

Eugene led the workshop. He asked all in the group to go outside and find a stone. It needed to be a stone that was small enough (and large enough) to fit comfortably in a hand. Smooth stones were preferable, but not essential; ideally the stones would have a certain robustness too, and not fall apart on impact.

Everyone went out and found a stone to their liking, and came back into the workshop room. Eugene got us all to sit or kneel on the floor in a circle, with our hands on our stones in front of us.

He then explained how the game works:

On a given count, everyone passes their stone to the right. They have to place it on the floor in front of the person on their right. They then pick up the stone that is now in front of them (placed there by the person on their left). Continue reading


Here are some quick highlights and noteworthy moments:

  • Paris brunch (with Caroline) at La Salle a Manger, at the bottom of Rue Mouffetarde. Also the hot chocolate I had there when CP took me, my first day in Paris.
  • All my afternoon hot chocolates in Paris. What a nice way to insert a marker into a day!
  • Les Salons du Palais Royal Shiseido. Exquisite space, beautiful setting, and heavenly scents. Treat yourself… how often are any of us in Paris?
  • The garret flat. Regular readers of this blog will know how charmed I was by that place.
  • Geghard Monastery, in Armenia. A cave church, carved into the rock face, and the palpable sense of the ancient, and the sacred, that I felt there. Anna’s singing, which made me hold my breath in its beauty.
  • My first sight of the Old Bridge in Mostar, now restored to its graceful arching limestone glory. Crossing Tito Bridge ( in my day a rickety wooden death trap) and catching a glimpse of the house I used to live in and the view of the Neretva river I had known so well, brought me to tears.
  • Returning to Blagaj (near Mostar), to sit in the peaceful, nurturing ambience of the Sufi House and drink pomegranate juice.
  • The soundtrack of the holiday – particularly the last part, with SB. Video killed the Radio Star is the first to come to mind. We heard it on the car radio the day went to Montenegro. It stayed as our ‘cleanser’ song for the rest of the holiday. But who can forget Oriental Man, the song that won my heart? Or the myriad of ditties we composed, such as Disfunctional Man? A fine soundtrack indeed, a complement to my laboratory of language recordings. On a more serious note, the soundtrack started right at the beginning, with the music CP and I prepared for our concert in Armenia. Khachaturian. Spohr. Komitas. And Komitas went on to stay in my head and heart forever after. Then in Bosnia, the sevdah. When I heard Teo perform on the Friday night, my last night in Mostar, singing songs I had been part of just a few days earlier with K and his family in Sarajevo, my heart swelled.
  • Speaking ‘Armenian’ with CP, periodically collapsing into giggle; continuing the ridiculousness with K and K in Bosnia, where they took great delight in filling their excellent English with overuse of continuous verbs and a complete lack of definite articles, hoping others around them would take them for Russians with beginners’ English. Continuing the game even further with SB, where it became our lingua franca.
  • Constant vigilance in Naples, where SB and I played the righteous tourists to perfection. A kind of ‘gonzo tourism’, suggested SB, where, rather than trying to integrate into the local culture, we imposed our own onto the locals most blatantly. When I regaled friends with these stories back at home, they were acutely ashamed of us, and embarrassed to know us. However, in the context of where we were, and who we were encountering, and the entertainment we provided, I think everybody won, really.
  • There were many memorable meals, both for the food that was eaten and the company that was kept. Meals that we ate in Morgy’s home, with her mother and sister, in Yerevan. The meal CP and I ate in the Georgian restaurant in Yerevan, where we ordered too much and they wrapped the remaining hadjipurri up for us in tin foil to take home and eat for breakfast in the morning. Our last night in Yerevan, where the four of us went out for traditional Armenian BBQ, drank wine, laughed, told stories, and felt as if ten years had disappeared on us. The afore-mentioned Sunday brunch with Caroline in Paris. The dinner SB and I ate our second night in Dubrovnik, where the waiter cut our fish up for us most expertly, and made elaborate, impressive show of making sure we did not miss the delicacy of the cheek. Also the excellent 1-litre bottle of Hercegovinan wine that we had with that meal, and the general fine ambiance. And meals made by K’s mother in Sarajevo, because they were made with such love.
  • Most bright and blessed days: our weekend in Armenia when we made our excursions to Garni, Geghard and Echmiadzin. “It’s for you,” Morgy told us in all seriousness. And the sunny day SB and I traveled into Bosnia and Montenegro by car over newly-opened borders and crazy mountain roads. And Christmas Day in Sarajevo when it started to snow, and everything sparkled and the landscape was transformed into high-relief black and white.
  • Most hair-raising moment: definitely that horrid narrow road I drove to get to the Kotor ferry, in darkness, when I was tired and feeling uncertain about how much room I really had on that side of the car. I was feeling the burden of being Designated Driver at that time and would have gladly swapped the reins!

There will be more highlights that are not coming to mind right now. SB, KB and CP, my dear fellow travellers and conspirators, please do add your comments, adjustments, and own personal highlights! G x

Happy New Year!

New Year’s Day in Dubrovnik. SB and I saw in the New Year in the town centre of Dubrovnik where there was live music, fireworks, and crowds of people singing raucously and waltzing joyously. The walls and major monuments of the old town were draped with festoon lighting, which we weren’t too wild about, but in fact it looked fabulous when it was all lit up last night. The place we are staying is just off the Stradun (main street of Dubrovnik Old Town)  so we were prepared for not much sleep due to high volumes. But in fact it was fine. The fact that we drank a bottle of Armenian cognac to see in the New Year probably helped matters.



Yesterday was a great day. We hired a car – a snazzy little Opel. I did all the driving due to SB leaving driver’s license in the UK. To a soundtrack provided by Croatian radio (ABBA, Michael Jackson, John Paul Young – all our favourites and more) we headed out of town to the border with Bosnia-Hercegovina. We  only drove around the city centre twice as we tried to find the exit to the main highway – I thought that was a pretty good effort.

Views from the highway are simply spectacular. Boy oh boy oh boy. So beautiful. Not that I could really look, it was one of those roads that you need to keep your eyes on at all times. But SB told me it was spectacular.

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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!

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.