Friday, December 31, 2010

Bad day at the National Museum of Serbia on Republic Square in Belgrade

National Museum, Republic Square
Belgrade, Serbia

 Republic Square sits in the heart of Belgrade, and many say it is the heart of Belgrade. It features the famous statue of Prince Michael and is bordered by the National Theatre and the National Museum. In 1997 it was the site of the anti-Milosevic rallies.

A visit to the National Museum has been on my wish list ever since I arrived in Belgrade, and Draga kindly planned it into to our busy schedule. “It’s enormous,” she says excitedly, as I cast one more look upon the sizable scrotum of Prince Michael’s horse. “I visited this museum at least ten times in my youth. If you want to understand my people, you should see this museum.”

Caryatides by Ivan Mestrovic
at the National Museum of Serbia
 The entrance on the square is blocked by scaffolds but the one on Ulica Vase Carapica is open. We enter and ascend a wide staircase flanked by two imposing rows of Caryatides, created by Ivan Mestrovic, who also made Victor, the signature statue at Kalemegdan and symbol of Belgrade.

A tired man with glasses like jam jar bottoms and wild curly hair sits in the ticket booth. The photo on his ID proves that he was young once. He smiles wryly as Draga orders two tickets, and informs us that the National Museum is closed for tourists and has been closed for a decade, ever since the NATO bombing of 1999. The collection is in storage in the basement. “For students of history of art we keep a special program, with the highlights on display. Not many of those come here though,” says the man.

There are plans to reinstate the museum but the board needs 100 million Euro to accomplish that, the man insists. Somehow that seems a bit excessive to me, but I recognize the grim reality of a culture that does have money to build enormous shopping malls and a cathedral devoted to the national hero Saint Sava, but not to preserve the memories of a troubled past.

“A wounded man will try to become better first,” explains the man, “Only when he’s back on his feet, he might want to know what struck him down.”

He’s been here his whole adult life and has seen it all; the masses mourning after Tito’s death, Milosevic working the crowds when they still believed him, and their protests when they did no more. He held on to his ticket counter when the bombs destroyed the buildings around him and when the people outside began to celebrate peace. He sat there when men crated the relics that told it all and carried them down to the basement.

We say goodbye to the man, and sink to street level between the parades of Caryatides. They stand there as proud as they were when they were first installed and care not that they uphold an empty vault, or even supply the last refuge of a man who hold a nation’s history behind his tear filled eyes.

Empty pedestals at the  National Museum of Serbia

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Languages of Serbia; A Guide for English Speakers

The English Bookstore
on Kralja Petra, Belgrade
The English speaking traveler to Serbia will be pleasantly surprised to find pretty much everybody capable of conversing in English on a basic level. And the same traveler will be even more surprised to find many young Serbs fully fluent in English.

The national language of Serbia is Serbian, which is a Slavic language based on a Latin grammatical structure. That means the daily conversation covers three genders, eight tenses and seven declinations, which any foreigner will find virtually impossible to master. Wisdoms conveyed in Serbian supersede Boolean logic, as demonstrated by the double negation feature, which never ceases to flummox me. The perfectly proper sentence “Nista nemam” literally means “Nothing I not have,” which logically means “I have everything,” but which every Serb understands to denote a complete absence of possession.

Seen at Tesla Airport
Belgrade, Serbia
Slavic and Germanic languages (such as English) are so different that even the most seasoned late learner will never get the hang of either one. The afore mentioned declinations are the terror of the student who comes from a language area that does not deflect nouns. On the other hand, elements of the English language that we find utterly simple - such as the use of the (in)definite article - will remain a mystery to Slavic native speakers.
I’ve heard Serbian people say things like “all the night long,” or “wash car with the soap,” and then proceed to use words like “undulation,” “torpid” and “ostentatious.” I don’t know enough about the Serbian language to make a valid assessment but I’m guessing that the general Serb commands an incredible vocabulary and library of metaphoric images.

I was at an Internet café, nervously pacing between computer and printer, when the girl behind the counter said, “Don’t worry; I’ll fetch them for you.” Another time I met a fellow on a street corner holding a hand on his head, looking troubled, and I asked him what was up. He pointed at a piece of billboard that had come flying from a stand and said, “That struck me.”

A native from the Unites States would have said, “I‘ll get‘em for you,” and “I got hit.” A Brit would have invoked body parts at both occasions. An Aussie would probably have said something not relevant to either situation, and incomprehensible to anyone not an Aussie.

In the short period I’ve been here, I’ve only read a few books that were translated into English from Serbian. What I’ve noticed is that the Serbians like their texts as Baroque as Mozart, their style verbose and meandering as if every article is a play. It almost seems that the subordinate clause is the primary means of verbal expression in Serbia.

“People who grew up on a stone hill beneath such an exciting panorama cannot but be broad of gesture, stormy of temperament and changing of mood. These people, who stay in their city despite everything, even as history destroys and crumbles it, covering the land with layers of leaves and remnants of previous settlements and past civilizations, such people are capable of building their city anew, in a relaxed and unpretentious way; they are capable of building a city of human proportions.”
- Momo Kapor; A Guide to the Serbian Mentality.

Book sellers in Belgrade, Serbia
The Serbs are not only polyglots, capable of astounding precision in various languages, or so hooked on books that there are more bookseller than hot dog vendors on the streets of Belgrade, they also maintain two alphabets: the Latin one that I now use to talk to you albeit expanded with all kinds of dots and jingles to form 30 separate letters, and Cyrillic. Cyrillic was the original alphabet of the Serbian culture (standardized in 1814), and it’s still ubiquitous in Belgrade. It’s almost as if the heartwarming hospitality of the Serbs comes with a friendly warning that the heart of Serbia is quite private and guarded with a public key. I like that.

Plato Book Store
(Menu of the coffee corner)

In order to play a part on the global marketplace, the Latin alphabet was adopted by Serbia in 1830 (the same happened in many other countries, such as China and Japan). But because the original Cyrillic is far richer in sounds than, say, written English, the Latin alphabet had to be augmented with diacritics. This richness is consonants is so strong even that the Serbian language has words that are written without vowels. Utterly curious to a foreign observer are words like krnj (meaning defective) or krst (means cross).

Bil Brajson (Bill Bryson)
Made in America
Another curiosity is that some words that are incorporated from other language would be pronounced incorrectly when absorbed as-is. That leads to formations such as Academija (Academy) and kvota (quota). Even names befall this fate. In Serbia, Angelina Jolie is known as Andjelina Djoli, I am Ari Ajtenbogard, and I was amused and endeared to find books by my beloved author Bill Bryson offered under the name Bil Brajson.

The title of his book Made In America remained unchanged, and no Serb in the bookstore seemed to mind.

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Horse Statue on Republic Square Points Through a Sea of Trouble

To be, or not to be– that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them.
-Shakespeare, Hamlet

The Horse Statue at Republic Square in Belgrade, Serbia
  Quite literally at the heart of Belgrade stands the statue simply known as The Horse. It’s located on the central Trg Republike (Republic Square), but it’s also the prime reference point of the city. Before venturing into town, clubbers meet ‘at the horse,’ and every direction to any other sight-to-see starts with the horse. To get to Kalemegdan, walk from the horse to Knez Mihailova, and follow that street in the direction of the horse’s but. To get to theatre Atalje 212, follow the arm of the guy sitting on the horse.

But who is the guy sitting on the horse and where is he pointing at, other than theatre Atalje 212?

Horse Statue - Belgrade, Serbia
 Equestrian statues are common in our world. They usually depict military leaders who played crucial roles in the evolution of countries. Rearing horse statues are rare because balancing such a sculpture necessitates the horse to be almost vertical, and that will inadvertently push the rider into a pose that fails to convey an authoritative and astute composure. Subjects like to see their rulers to be in control of things. A horse that caries such a ruler has no business rearing. It should slowly but surely progress.

Hence, horses are commonly shown to daftly step, in subject to their rider, who usually sits there pointing at something. His pointing shows the ruler’s determinative aim for some kind of objective, which is a future state much rather than a physical destination. The horseman of Belgrade does so too. But he did that at some point in the 19th century, when his nation still had a very long trot coming.

Prince Michael - Horse Statue
 Prince Michael (Mihailo Obrenovic) ruled Serbia as a vassal subjected to the Ottoman Sultan. He strengthened the nation by supporting Serbian literature, and in the early 1880’s he reorganized the Serbian army into becoming the strongest army in the Balkan. To give his creation a try he revolted against the Turks, who withdrew into Kalemegdan and started bombing the town from within. Prince Michael felt forced to call off his armed revolt but continued his resistance on the diplomatic front. In 1867 the Turks pulled out of Belgrade, and some years later they surrendered all control of Serbia. That ended their 400 years occupation.

It also ended the brutalities with which the Turks would keep the Serbs subdued. One way of executing insurrectionaries was impaling them in front of the Stambol Gate. When the Turks left, that gate was razed to the ground, leaving an open space in the city that would become Trg Republike. (An ‘inner’ Stambol gate can still be found at Kalemegdan). In 1882 the square was adorned with a monument to Prince Michael seated on a stallion. Perhaps he points at a liberated Serbia, perhaps he’s showing the Turks or any other invasion force the door, and perhaps he’s pointing merely to show that the going is compulsory; countries must evolve just like rivers must flow.

Horse Statue on Republic Square - Belgrade, Serbia
 Belgrade was bombed in 1914 by the Austro-Hungarians, by the Luftwaffe in 1941, by the Allies in 1944 and by the NATO in 1999.

Prince Michael never experienced the independence of Serbia. He was assassinated in 1868. But on Republic Square, Prince Michael will never stop pointing, and the Belgradians will never stop meeting.

Driving in Boston, Netherlands, Poland and Belgrade

Branko Bridge at midnight - Belgrade, Serbia
 Looking at how people behave in their cars is an excellent way to estimate how people are when they’re not in their cars. I’ve driven all over the world but taking the car into any metropolis remains a daunting enterprise.

In Boston, for instance, driving means partaking in a collective panic attack. The flow of traffic is largely organic, meaning that drivers don’t typically stay in their lanes but go wherever the traffic pushes them to go. Honking the horn is ultimately ineffective in congested traffic but Bostonians lean in on that thing like there’s no tomorrow. Leaning out the window and diverting blame is also an integral part of Bostonian automotion. Meet a Bostonian out of his car and he’ll seem to apogee of chivalry. But beneath that composed exterior shudders the heart of a chicken.

In the Netherlands people drive with calculated precision. They also drive 120 kilometer per hour, stay at a safe distance from the next guy and rarely honk their horns. Once there was a fire in a tunnel. Folks that drove into the tunnel brought their cars slowly to a standstill, waited until the cars behind them were stopped too, put the car in reverse and slowly backed the whole herd out of the tunnel. No one was hurt. No car was damaged.

Driving in Poland is like driving in Boston during a Martian invasion. It’s not unusual to see five cars side by side going in three directions on a two-lane road full of holes. Poles will honk at each other for stopping, accelerating, overtaking or refraining from doing those things. Poles loath foreigners, loath Poles and loath themselves, and make that known by turning driving into a perpetual assassination-slash-suicide attempt. Speed limits mean nothing in Poland. Stripes on the road mean even less. Fans of demolition derbies should all move to Poland and let it rip.

Much to my surprise, driving in Belgrade is much more like driving in the Netherlands than driving in Poland. Even though Belgrade is fantastically congested, Belgradians are courteous, cautious and precise. They’ll let you in, give you right of way and only honk at you when you really deserve it. Drivers in Belgrade all seem to share the knowledge that cars are expensive and lives are easily destroyed. As in any big city, drivers in Belgrade will suffer an occasional ‘Flojd moment,’ but in general the going is slow and easy.

I have a theory about that.

When the iron curtain fell, only very few people in Poland owned a car. In the early nineties especially young people went abroad to earn money, and when they came back (if they came back) they would buy cars. That means that the collective driving tradition in Poland is very young and upheld largely by impetuous and discontented kids.

In Serbia, owning a car was very common during the Tito years. When the economy collapsed, salaries decimated but the cars that people had stayed those same cars. Somebody with a car that once set him back an annual salary suddenly owned a car that was worth ten years of labor. When the gas prices went up, people drove less and very careful when they did.

Nowadays salaries in Serbia are about 10% of what they are in the West, but the traffic seems quite equal to that of the West. There are very few shitty-olds and many well-maintained small sedans. Occasionally the stray Mercedes or BMW will zip by, but cars in Belgrade are mostly 10 year old hand downs from Germany and Italy. And they’re driven with the same grace and hospitality the Serbs will show when they’re not driving.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Ruzica Church at Kalemegdan, Belgrade, shows God’s blessing on a convalescing nation.

Ruzica Church - Kalemegdan, Belgrade, Serbia
 The quaint Ruzica Church, hugging the wall of Kalemegan fortress, should be high on the wish-list of every visitor to Belgrade, Serbia. In the summer it’s entirely covered in green ivy, making it one of the most appreciated churches in the world and a symbol of Belgrade’s recuperation.

Ruzica means Little Rose, or Rosie (the diminutive of Ruza), although its official name is Church of the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God. Belgradians started calling it Ruzica when a local legend began to take root.

The story goes that once, some six centuries ago, there were two ruling brothers Jaksici, who together had three daughters: Dragica (after draga meaning precious; darling), Ljubica (after ljubav, meaning to love; beloved) and Ruzica; little rose. The brothers built three churches; one for each daughter. The churches were originally named after saints but the people of Belgrade rendered them the names of the three Jaksici daughters.

Ruzica Church Interior - Belgrade, Serbia

Wars destroyed the churches of Dragica and Ljubica, and only the church of Ruzica remained, even when the Turks invaded and occupied Serbia. When the Austrians conquered Belgrade, they made Rose Church into a gun powder store. The Turks retaliated, drove out the Austrians but recognized the merits of Rose Church as an arsenal.

Late nineteenth century the Turks were kindly asked to leave Belgrade to the Belgradians, and after some inventive incentives they actually went. Rose Church was cleared from ammo and reinstated as a church.

Chandelier Ruzica Church - Belgrade, Serbia
 Since Rose Church is located at Kalemedgan, an ancient battle fortress, remnants of war abounded. To commemorate the persistence of the Serbs and their Rose Church, some of the spent bullets, swords and other weaponry that were unearthed during clean up were collected and made into striking chandeliers.

That the church is now entirely covered in green vegetation is unanimously recognized to be a sign from God: Rose lives and will forever.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The delightful little Church of Saint Petka at Kalemegdan, Belgrade

The Church of Saint Petka - Belgrade, Serbia

Visitors to the battle fortress of Kalemegdan in Belgrade will see a gold cross over the north wall. By all means, follow that cross, because below it sits one of the prettiest little chapels you’ll ever see: the church of Saint Petka.

Church of Saint Petka - Kalemegdan, Belgrade

Petka, or Parascheva (Greek for Friday; kind of cute in a Robinson Crusoe kind of way) was born in the 11th century, in Epibatos, a town in Turkey, just west of Constantinople. Like Saint Martin, she too gave her clothes away to beggars. She lived as an ascetic in Jerusalem for a few years but then went home. She died anonymously at age 27 and was interred in an unmarked grave.

Some years later a dead sailor washed ashore and he was buried next to Petka. But his corpse gave off such a pungent smell that saint Petka felt compelled to appear to a local monk, with the request to move her body away from the stinking sailor. When the villagers dug up the body of Petka, it was found to be in tact, and she was recognized as a saint. The body was transferred to a more worthy place.

The Woman at the Well
Church of Saint Petka - Kalemegdan, Belgrade, Serbia
 “But we have her finger,” says Ilija Jovicic, the friendly young priest. Taking pictures in the chapel is forbidden but I get special permission. He even shows us around.
“Try some of the water,” he says, pointing at the famous spring water that comes trickling down a pipe, into specially manufactured Petka bottles.

Although there have been chapels on this spot for centuries, the present church of Saint Petka was built in 1937. The stunning mosaics are from the early eighties.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Dragan Jovanovic; Genius Performer Extraordinaire

Dragan Jovanovic
in Nesvrstana Strana Muzike
Should you ever be in Belgrade with an evening to spare, do yourself a favor and go to any play that features Dragan Jovanovic. I’ve seen two now and although I understand about five Serbian words, I spent both evenings in stitches.

Dragan Jovanovic is Belgrade’s resident jester as much as political mirror. His plays invariably take the piss out of everybody and anything but always in the kind manner of a family friend. He never insults but eagerly shows how silly we really are.

Jovanovic & Company
More Boney M than Boney M
 His vocal range is enormous; he’ll squeal out in arrested amazement, howl like a banshee or cheer on an invisible football team in hoarse brays. Whenever there’s a need to, he dances like only he can.

No one is immune to his antics. Even his fellow actors jackknife on occasion, and the play is suspended, the fourth wall is shattered and Dragan Jovanovic prances about wallowing in standing ovations.

Jovanovic as Che (or Gay?) Guevara
If you haven’t seen Dragan, you haven’t been to Belgrade.

Ivan Mestrovic’ Victor in the battered fortress of Kalemegdan symbolizes confluences.

Kalemegdan - Belgrade, Serbia

 The castle’s been luring us since we arrived. We can see it from our window, through the concrete high rises; a park with lawns that are green even in the winter, surrounded by an ancient wall. On its highest point is the castle itself: Kalemedgan.

We walk side by side as if we’re representing a new Europe that looks back on its past; she is Serbian, I am Dutch. She’s orthodox, I am protestant. While I grew up in economical prosperity, she stood in line for bread. Now my world is overflowing hers. We follow the pedestrian shopping street Knez Mihajlova until we reach the entrance to the park. I’m pleased to see welcoming signs with clear explanations of what this building is all about.

For millennia people have drawn towards the confluence of the rivers Sava and Danube, and where these signature rivers kept washing the land clean, armies brought their conflicts and left their dead and weaponry, planted flags and claimed this magical spot for themselves.

Inner Stambol Gate - Kalemedgdan, Belgrade
 The confluence has been occupied by settlers since antiquity. In the third century BC, Celts proclaimed it a dwelling but were disposed by the Romans. By then there was already a fortress there. The Romans battled the Huns from it, and legend has it that Attila’s body was interred below its walls.

The Turks conquered the fortress in the 16th century and called it Kalemegdan, after the words for battlefield and fortress. At the conclusion of the four hundred years Turkish occupation (with intermitted visits from the Austrians), the city of Belgrade decided it needed a monument to commemorate Serbia’s brittle victories. The world famous Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic was commissioned to create it. He finished the statue to see its installation thwarted by the outbreak of the First World War. The conflict left much of Belgrade destroyed but not the statue.

Victor - Kalemegdan, Belgrade
 “His name is Winner,” says Draga, pointing at the huge, naked man on his pedestal. “He’s the symbol of Belgrade,” and explains that the Serbian word podobnik comes from the verb pobeda, meaning to win. In English this statue is known as Victor.

In 1918, the federation that would later be called Yugoslavia was pronounced in the Corfu Declaration, and the statue called Victor was erected on the edge of Kalemegdan’s grounds. It stood there silently overlooking the city in 1941 when Belgrade was bombed by the Luftwaffe, in 1944 when it was bombed by the Allies, and in 1989 when it was bombed by the NATO.

Victor - Kalemegdan, Belgrade
We stand looking up at the impressive sculpture. Victor offers the dove of peace on his outstretched left hand, but holds a sword in his right, hugged to his chest. The expression on his face is both defiant and entreating. Through his partly parted lips he seems to both expel a sigh of hope and a muffled provocation. His eyes, however, are decidedly passive, concerned even. Victor has the body of a war god but the face of an observant child.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Is the musical genius and story teller Novak Askovic of the Serbian band Evidence a procrastinating neophyte or a strategic genius?

My search for the heart of Serbia leads me to a studio in Belgrade, where I am to meet with one of Belgrade’s most promising young musicians; Novak Askovic, just 23 years old, who’s already managed to leave a mark on the local music scene, and is now putting Belgrade on the musical map of the world. But this world-mapping is going far too slow, according to some observers. What’s keeping Novak?

For a few moments I stand in front of a unmarked door. Then it opens.
     “Come in,” says the handsome young composer generously, “I was just working on a score for a movie.”
I had secretly expected to find empty booze bottles strewn about and the familiar scent of weed hanging like a mist over the mixing tables, but no, there aren’t even ash trays. Novak doesn’t do drugs, doesn’t drink, doesn’t even smoke.
     “I do music,” he says shortly.

     “What’s this called?” I ask as suspense, thrill, careful confidence and sensual tension slowly build up. Synthesized strings sway over a clean snare and a deep, almost ska-base. The frivolous melody is carried by a plucky piano riff.
     “It’s the score for a movie that doesn’t have a title yet, so my score doesn’t have a title yet either,” says Novak concentrating on his screen, searching from folder to folder through his master pieces.
     “Scoring movies, is that your main occupation?
     “For now I pay the bills with creating scores for movies and theatre productions. Soon we’ll be able to live off pure inspiration. A movie score augments visual images, but music in its purest form must be vivid enough to evoke images on its own.”

I’m mostly into classical music but even though Novak’s creations are a little out of my league, I do recognize quality when I hear it.
     “I love classical music too,” says Novak, now leaning back into his chair, holding his hands behind his head, “But classical music is old. It’s been done before. I make new stuff, just like the classical composers who you like did. People like Mozart, Bach and Shubert didn’t get big from doing what everybody else was doing.”
In a split second I inspect his experimental studio. The only synthesizer in the room is a old Yamaha that looks like it has seen the rise of House in the eighties. Over a slot it says, “Insert floppy here.” A yellow post-it note says “London called.” Who’s London, I wonder.
     “Do you ever make House?” I ask intelligently. Novak snickers. “It takes five minutes to make ten minutes of House,” he says, “Everything you need for House is a side-chain, sprinkle it with beeps and gimmicks and you got yourself a House hit. House is poverty. I’m Dubstep, drum-bass, all that. Everything is experimental.”

Novak Askovic
Musicians struggle with the issue of money everywhere, but musicians from a challenged economy, such as that of Serbia, must always have been at an unfair disadvantage. Instruments tend to cost an uneven fortune to folks who have no idea where their next meal might come from, and when they’ve finally saved up enough to buy an instrument, their economic disadvantage makes it difficult to seek out musicians from other cultures and study their work. Now that music in made mostly on computers, it doesn’t matter anymore how old the computer is (creating a piece on Windows 92 will sound the same as one made on Vista, it’ll just take a bit longer).
“We’re no longer bound to genre or even location, for that matter,“ says Novak cheerfully. “Through the Internet I can listen freely to music from all over the world, and adapt what I like and reject what I don’t.”
His phone rings. Novak mumbles short commands in English and disconnects.
“Vienna,” he says as if I’m supposed to know what that means.

     “Can you explain the title Hormon (Serbian for Hormone)?” I ask as Novak changes the track. “Listen,” he says. “If I have to talk about my music, my music would be inadequate. I’d have to become a writer, like you.”
     “There’s Prodigy here,” I note. Novak politely concurs but then explains that Bach is also not in every violin concerto, just because Bach wrote some.
Then I hear it. Where Prodigy sounds mostly intrusive, Novak stays harmonic. Prodigy expresses mostly discontent but Novak’s piece carries desire and passion. When the haunting vocals of Bojana Racic kick in, I’m sold and drift off into a lucid trance. I see caravans of camels towing Joseph off to oblivion; Cathy cry out for Heathcliff over the windy moors, and 47 Ronin weep in anguish over their dead Daimyo.
     “My music tells stories,” explains Novak helpfully. “Each one of my pieces has what I call a movie-moment; a harmonic climax that will absorb the listener and trigger visual images. In Hormon I use a Shamisen, a Japanese instrument - you can even hear the clash of swords - but the harmonies are still western.”

Chakra unfolds into something distinctively Arabian. “Do you think that Serbia’s 400 years of occupation by the Turks makes it easier for you to adopt Arabian sounds into your music?”
     “What? Which Turks?” he replies wildly. “No you’re wrong. I also don’t incorporate yodeling or the MacDonald’s theme song, unless of course I find them musically striking. I scrounge the global music scene for unusual sounds and musical oddities and incorporate them based on their musical merits.”

     “How come you’re not all over YouTube?” I ask. I tried to do some preliminary research but all I found were two songs that were uploaded years ago. “I made those when I was eighteen,” says Novak. “I’ve evolved since then. Now I tell stories and people should take their time to listen to them. They’re worth it, I can promise you that. I don’t want to create entertainment for bored people. Slow is better. Quick release gives you a quick but short career. I want my music to make a permanent mark. To stay there for years and years. I gave Chakra to one person and now it’s all over Belgrade, clubs and radio stations.”
     “But isn’t that the dream of every musician?”
     “There’s no money in publishing music. Money comes from live performances. The dream is to have people look for your music because they saw you perform live. We’re waiting for the right moment. We’re producing an album for Serbia release, but we‘re waiting until everything is just right. Launching a project such as this must be carefully planned. So that’s what we’re doing.”

     “Is the musical climate of Serbia receptive of your kind of music?”
Novak stares at the floor for a brief moment. I can see I hit a nerve. “The musical climate in Serbia is still maturing. We’re the only group in Serbia that performs this kind of music live. But we’ve done DJ performances in Croatia and all around Serbia, and live performances at festivals with LTJ Bukem and Roni Size, both phenomenal artists. Future performances are scheduled all over Europe. A record label from Belgrade named IndieRecords published a CD, named CCBit. Evidence contributed a number named Blato (Serbian for Dirt). But it’s real Dubstep,” he warns as he leans over and hits enter.

     “Aren’t you afraid that your right moment might never come?”
     “No-no,” laughs Novak. “The right moment is not something that comes falling from the sky. The right moment is something you create, just like a musical composition. I spend 60% of my day composing music and 40% communicating with publishers and festival boards. The right moment is when you’ve created a storm and then cut the ropes that tie you down.”

     “Who was that guy?” I mumble as I step out of the studio into the windy city. Ahead a grey Belgrade dons colors in the dawn. Behind me rises the basso drone of yet another Novak Askovic creation. I promise myself that before I’ll process my notes I’ll figure out exactly how I got this interview. Until I do, and probably after, I’ll live on in the realization that I’ve been moved like a pawn by a multifarious genius half my age.

Novak Askovic: composition, key boards, production, DJ
Srdjan Adamovic: production, DJ
Nenad Bradas: production , MC
Bojana Racic: vocals

Evidence on line:
My Space:

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Rakija; the Spirit of Serbia. Ziveli!

The spirit of Serbia is in no small part carried by a wholesome elixir called Rakija; a brandy-like distillate, home-produced from fruits like grapes, apricots or plums. As with all cooking, the secret ingredients are rarely revealed, and should a consumer’s taste buds survive a swig, they may discern a flavor that varies from house to house.

The quality of a man’s Rakija reveals his degree of devotion and artistry, which then becomes an indication of traits such as leadership and lovemaking. Since Raklija counts as ultimate proof, no other evidences are required.

But no unwitted visitor should mistake Rakija for mere booze to be imbibed. The testimonies of many experts have convinced me that Rakija takes care of a broad range of business. It works wonders on rheumatism, frees the chest and lifts the sediments. Rakija has been known to settle disputes, appease in-laws and raise the most downcast of spirits. It heals bones, cures flatulence and is even recognized as a most benevolent ointment or rubbing oil.

All gloom and misfortune vanishes with a nip and Rakija has even found a place in the religious experience of Serbia, in an adaptation of the Levitical ordinance of libation. At the conclusion of a Serbian funeral, bread and Rakija are served. Some of the Rakija is poured on the ground and the mourners say, “Bog da mu dusu prosti,” meaning ‘God forgive his soul.’

When Serbs make their glasses meet, they take care to look each other in the eye, and cheer ziveli! Ziveli comes from the verb ziveti, meaning to live. In that regard the Serbian drinking cheer is not unlike the Hebrew l’chaim, also derived from the verb to live.

Parking in Belgrade is an absolute nightmare.

It takes us half an hour to find the car and about five to drive from Ljubljana to Belgrade. The highways in Slovenia and Croatia are in excellent shape but as soon as we cross the border into Serbia the blacktop begins to show signs of wear and demise. We cheer as we pass the Beograd sign but as we come to a slow halt in the congested traffic on Branko Bridge I’m beginning to doubt he wisdom of bringing a car into Belgrade.

Parking is a problem in every European city - since none of them was built with cars in mind - but parking in Belgrade is a complete nightmare. The inner city is divided into three zones; each zone has its limit on how long you can park. In the red zone one may park 60 minutes tops; in the yellow zone 120 minutes, and in the green zone 180 minutes. Zones are indicated by a red, yellow or green sign that features an all-telling image of a tow truck. Dues are to be paid at kiosks or, very hip, by sending your license plate number per SMS to number 9111 (for the red zone), 9112 (yellow) or 9113 (green).

These rules apply between 0700 and 2100 on weekdays and until 1400 on Saturdays. During those hours, officers armed with palmtops patrol the streets in search of freeloaders, who get towed without ado. Any Belgradian will tell you that once your car gets towed off, it’ll take half your vacation to get it back.

Most tricky is the interface between inner city and surroundings, where the green zone somewhat jaggedly flows over into the free zone. There are no chipper smiley-signs or something like that to indicate that you’re in the free zone, but you can recognize it from the outrageous amount of cars that are parked virtually everywhere; on sidewalks and lawns, often side by side and often blocking each other, showing a candid confidence of the Belgradians that everybody leaves for work around the same time. But even during the day, parking spots are hard to find. It seems that Belgradians park their cars somewhere and leave them there for ever.

Draga guides me from alley to alley, from friend’s house to friend’s house. The phone rings continuously from even more friends telling her that someone they know saw a free spot somewhere, at the other end of town. It takes us over two hours to arrive at the conclusion that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a foreigner to find a parking place in Belgrade. Morose but grateful we slide into the gaping hole of a parking garage in the heart of town. A small uniformed man with a badge and a Maclite welcomes us and promises to guard our car with his life. That will set us back a mere 90 Eurocents per hour.

Outside I raise my arm to hail a cab. About a dozen of them respond by rolling away from the curb towards us. Before Draga and I get in, we experience a moment of spiritual awakening as we stare at the pockets of emptiness they leave behind.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The lollipop pink Franciscan Church of the Annunciation in Ljubljana, Slovenia; all that glitters is gold

Franciscan Church of the Annunciation - Ljubljana, Slovenia
The undisputed eye-catcher of Preseren Square in Ljubljana, Slovenia, is the lollipop pink Franciscan Church of the Annunciation. It was built halfway the 17th century, which makes it a good five decades older than the Church of Saint Nicholas. It’s not immediately clear how an order that venerates poverty could be served or even acknowledged in a Baroque basilica, but perhaps this paradox is assailed in the near absence of light in the church.

Interior of the big  pink church in Ljubljana, Slovenia
Darkness seems to be the going theme of the Franciscan Church in Ljubljana. Amidst a gloomy expanse - shadowy smears on the ceiling instill a vague reassurance that it’s probably covered with very beautiful but quite invisible scenes - are stellar islands of light. Up ahead over the main altar shimmers a depiction of Mary’s annunciation by the lily-bearing Gabriel.

INRI in Ljubljana's Church of the Annunciation 
But the first object one will notice when entering the church is the unusual INRI to the side and forward of the main altar. It’s unusual because the arms of Jesus are more vertical than horizontal, but more so because its opulent execution is again quite contrary to Franciscus’ leanings. Another noteworthy detail are the tools in the hands of the two chubby cherubim, a hammer and a thong, which may point at a connection to freemasonry.

Another hint towards freemasonry may be found in the emblem on the front door, which reads MARIA, but also reminds of the rule and compass.

The name Maria on the door of the Franciscan church in Ljubljana
resembles the rule and compass symbol of freemasonry

Muse over Preseren

Central in the Old Town of Ljubljana, Slovenia, is Preseren Square, named after France Preseren, who was a 19th century poet. In the early 20th century he became famous enough to have a square named him but during his life he wasn’t recognized much, neither by a literary audience, nor by miss Julija Primic, to whom his attentions inclined with a hungry favor.

France Preseren statue in Ljubljana, Slovenia

Desperate by her rejection France reverted to that single great power writers have, namely to turn whatever’s real into fiction, or at least adapt it to such an extent that it can be molded into something bearable.

Muse over Preseren

France Preseren’s efforts were so effective that not only the legacy of Julija Primic but the whole of Slavic literature was pushed onto a new course. Today it’s difficult to find Slavic literature that is not in some way or other inspired by the work of Preseren.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The exquisite Saint Nicholas Cathedral in Ljubljana

The Church of Saint Nicholas - Ljubljana, Slovenia
 Dashing off Castle hill to get as far away from Ljubljana Castle as fast as possible, in fierce need of something to marvel at, Draga and I slam into the banana yogurt yellow wall of an enormous cathedral. It’s the famous Church of Saint Nicholas. I’m comforted at once. Nicholas is after all the patron saint of fishermen and sailors, and I am one. A sailor I mean.

Nicholas Church, Ljubljana - Bronze door in southern facade
 The Church of Saint Nicholas was built in the early 18th century, although bits and pieces were added over the years. The dome, for instance, wasn’t put up until 1841, and the impressive bronze doors were installed as late as 1996 but that was because of the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ljubljana on May 18, 1996.

 That the church of Saint Nicholas has a distinct Italian feel to it is not so strange. The original design was made by Andrea Pozzo, an architect from Rome, who based it on existing churches in his home town.

Nicholas Church, Ljubljana - Western or Main door; detail
 The door in the South façade of the church was created by local artist Mirsad Begic. It portraits the deceased Christ from whose body rise six bishops of Ljubljana. A crowned Madonna with Child is depicted in the upper right corner.

The main door, in the western wall, was made by Tone Demsar. It shows the history of 12 centuries of Christianity in Slovenia.

The Annunciation of Mary by Giulo Quaglio
 The frescoes inside the church of Saint Nicholas were created by Giulio Quaglio and Matevz Langus. Giulio Quaglio also painted the fresco on the soutern wall, depicting the annunciation of Mary. On the east wall is another fresco, but it’s unclear who created it or what is shows. The only reference to this piece that I could find occurs in The Bradt Travel Guide, 2005, reprinted in 2008 by Robin and Jenny McKelvie.

The Angel's Proclamation of Zahriah Wolf by Janez Wolf (?)
 According to the McKelvies this fresco was done by Janez Wolf and is called The Angel’s Proclamation of Zahriah Wolf. That artist and model have the same last name may be a cute coincedence, but who Zahriah Wolf might be is a mystery. The Internet’s never heard of Zahriah Wolf, and is also very silent about a connection between the painter Janez Wolf and the Church of Saint Nicholas, or even Stolnica Svetega Nikolaja, as the building is known as in Slovenian.

Copy of a 15th century Pieta - Church of St. Nicholas, Ljubljana
  Also on the south wall is a beautiful copy of a 15th century pieta, a sculpture depicting Mary with the deceased Christ. Another, younger, pieta can be found inside the church.

Interior of the Church of Saint Nicholas - Ljubljana, Slovenia
 The Cathedral of St. Nicholas is located at Dolničarjeva 1

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The odd similarity between the national anthems of Yugoslavia and Poland

One of the most striking national anthems I know is Poland’s Mazurek Dąbrowskiego. Great therefore was my surprise just now when I thought I heard it somewhere but Draga told me it was the national anthem of Yugoslavia. Of course I posed a wager, which means that I’ll be doing the dishes for the rest of the month (I was already doing the dishes for the rest of the week for my foolish insisting that Total Eclipse Of The Heart was by Stevie Nicks).

It appears that the man who wrote the song Hej Sloveni (Hey Slavs) in 1834, the priest Samuel Tomášik, indeed based it on Mazurek Dąbrowskiego, which stems from 1797. Neither Poland nor Yugoslavia existed at the time but Poland adopted Mazurek Dąbrowskiego in 1926 as the national anthem and Yugoslavia did so with Hej Sloveni in 1943.

What a small world…

Mazurek Dąbrowskiego (Danbrowsky’s Mazurek; Polish national anthem)

Hej Sloveni (Hey Slavs; Yugoslavian national anthem)

Mazurek Dąbrowskiego Lyrics:

Poland has not perished yet
So long as we still live
That which alien force has seized
We at sabrepoint shall retrieve

March, march, Dąbrowski
From Italy to Poland
Under thy command
Let us now rejoin the nation

Cross the Vistula and Warta
And Poles we shall be
We've been shown by Bonaparte
Ways to victory

March, march...

Like Czarniecki to Poznań
After Swedish occupation,
To rescue our homeland
We shall return by sea

March, march...

Father, in tears
Says to his Basia
Just listen, it seems that our people
Are beating the drums

March, march...

Hej Sloveni Lyrics:

Hey, Slavs, it still lives
the word (spirit) of our grandfathers
As long as the heart of their sons
beats for our nation.

It lives, it lives the Slavic spirit,
It will live for centuries!
Vainly threatens the abyss of Hell
and the fire of the thunder.

Let everything above us now
be shattered by a storm wind (Bura).
The cliff cracks, the oak breaks,
Let the earth quake.

We stand firmly
like the mountains,
Damned be the traitor
of his homeland!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Ljubljana Castle in Ljubljana, Slovenia - Fallen, fallen she has!

Ljubljana Castle - Ljubljana, Slovenia
There are two things that Slovenia has a lot of and that is historic buildings and money. But woe the grounds on which the two meet. The castle of Ljubljana is a battle ground, but now for taste, misused funds and travesty.

The oldest written record of some kind of defense structure on Castle Hill in Ljubljana stems from 1144. The outer walls that are visible today were erected in the 15th century, in response to the Turkish threat. When that threat lifted (this after the Turks had destroyed much of southern Slovenia) the castle became obsolete as a defense post and went through a period of decay and misappropriation.

Inside Ljubljana Castle
From the 1960’s onward, the castle’s been revamped to serve as a center of merriment and cultural happenings. Nowadays people convene and marry there, or come to drink coffee in the café that covers half the compound. The new owners even put up a little cable car, so that visitors don’t even have to make the troublesome climb up. The lower station sits in town among dilapidated houses and looks entirely false, if not ridiculous. No signs anywhere indicate where the station might be, so tourists should look for a shitty neighborhood and take their chances.

It’s obvious that history is not a theme that the new owners are occupied with. There are no explanatory texts posted or dummies in traditional garb looking troubled through the loopholes. There are no artifacts on display, no galleries, no glass showcases over which to ponder.

Ljubljana castle is not really a castle. It’s the shed skin of a lost age that remains neither revived nor remembered, or even honored. In stead, Ljubljana castle is ruined more thoroughly than time could have ever achieved.

The awesome Church of St Mary (a.k.a. Church of Assumption) on the island in Lake Bled, Slovenia

Church of Saint Mary - Lake Bled, Slovenia
 Visiting the church of Saint Mary on the island in Lake Bled is well worth the 12 Euro 50 boat ride to get there, the 3 Euro admission fee or even the 50 cent the exited visitor is to hand over lavatorial services.

Church on the Island in Lake Bled, Slovenia

True to Bled’s inescapable air of mystery, the church can’t be properly dated. Above the door it says 1866 but some of the artifacts on display are much older. The stunning gilded wood statue of Madonna and Child stems from the 15th century, when the island had a Gothic church on it. Prior to that, the island was home to a Romanesque basilica and before that there were several sacred little buildings or shrines nestled on its bedrock.

Main altar of the church of Saint Mary
Lake Bled, Slovenia
 The Baroque main altar explodes in gold, with a beautiful God the Father figure perched on what seems a spherical representation of the universe up top. Now that’s daring in any age and certainly unusual. Central in the main altar piece is a statue of the Madonna with Child and that alone supplies an endearing solution to the problem of how the members of the Trinity relate when they’re all supposed to be the same one God of monotheistic Christianity.

With this unique piece the sculptor seems to say; Christ is at the heart of it all but the Father is above all. The Marian phenomenon - overestimated by Catholics, according to Protestants, and underestimated by Protestants according to Catholics - rightly seats under the Father, producing the Child in the heart of everything. Just like God created man and man created theology.

Madonna with Child - Bled, Slovenia

Mariology is of course a pivotal theme of every Catholic church, but this church is partly dedicated to the other famous Mary: the Magdalene. We don’t know anything about this Mary, except that Jesus cast seven demons out of her. She was also among the women who met the resurrected Christ at the tomb, and were sent to tell of this. And by this they became the world’s first evangelists.

From the ceiling hangs a rope. It’s tied to a bell and a sign entreats visitors to not ring the bell more than three times. It takes a while to get it going but when it finally does, it won’t stop. The bell is called the wishing bell, but our wish for it to stop tolling remains ungranted.

When the friendly boatman brings us back to shore, another boat comes towards us. It’s loaded with Japanese tourists, who wave at us and take our picture.
“Don’t forget to ring the bell,” I holler, “Go, tell it on the mountains!”

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