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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Home, Bitterness Forgotten

Today, for the first time after 15 years, I met one of my best friends age 7-14. We had a great time together and for me it was a very positive reunion. One of the things he shared made me think quite hard. He said he liked my blog post about our town, its positive mood and the memories it awakens and it made him remember the past in a nice way. However he can't help being disgusted by many of the things that are happening here (I am still here) which spoil his memories.

As I don't want to be cheesy and present a distorted picture of my town I would like to list some of the things I don't like:

- the fact that a big number of the Amsterdam prostitutes and pimps come from Sliven;
- the fact that the current mayor (ex-football player) is known for conflict of interest and a quasi dictatorial way of managing the town thanks to his past glory;
- the painful fact that one of the rich business women (ex-MP) managed to get a permission to build an office building on one of the prettiest and symbolic squares in town;
- the fact that for some safety reasons (admittedly) they cut hundreds of beautiful poplars that lined the small river for kilometers on end. These poplars have been painted by local painters for hundreds of years and...yes, they fall easily when the strong local wind blows.

And I am sure there are many more things that I simply don't know of because I don't want to be immersed in the local press.

I am looking for some kind of forgiveness or at least an excuse for not mentioning (this is the least) and not thinking or trying to change any of these things. I feel my powers are so limited and I am not in a position to change any of the above. How can I make a local teenage girl read a book and not dream of a well-paid job in Amsterdam? It's impossible and it is so fundamental.

I also need this place in my thoughts as we all need our Ithacas. And I cannot hold it in my thoughts with its negative everyday problems. I need my happy memories, the lightness of my childhood, the enthusiasm of my father as a young local poet and doctor, the impeccable home of my mother, the small cottons of the poplars in May, the smell of the linden trees in June and as long as some local pimp does not force me to go to Amsterdam, I will chose to have a selective (and no-doubt one-sided approach to Sliven).

And for the rest, no doubt that every little effort in the right direction is praiseworthy. I learned some time ago that we are all like Sisyphus pushing our rocks uphill. It seems that this is the normal state of affairs and I will personally not dispair as long as I know that this is at least the right hill.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Home Sweet Home

After a cold and hectic stay in Lazarevatz and Belgrade, we continued further south first to Sofia and then - to Sliven. My notion of home is turned upside down as I have lived in several cities. However, Sliven is my home if I adopt a definition that home is where I spent my childhood and where parents live. That's also the place where my father's familiy belongs historically, where I have lived the longest (from age 3 to 19) and where I have been to school.

Sliven is also the place where every street speaks with layers of memories as I had written in an old post. Here the air is quite nice and sweet as it is constantly refreshed by the wind from the mountain (Stara Planina or also known as the Balkan Mountain). As I often joke it is difficult to find someone more Balkan than me having grown up with the sight of the Balkan in front of me and having roamed the mountain with friends.

So here is a short photo album of Sliven. Yesterday, when we arrived the sunset was quite beautiful as photographed from our terrace. After icy Belgrade (it reached as low as -19) todays' 15 degrees and sun feel like a premature spring. I associate such sunsets with the arrival of spring.


One of our usual and quite nice passe-temps in Sliven is walking (or rather dragging) along the main street and buying all king of stuff to the kids while meeting old friends and acquaintances. This is a portion of the main street with the old clock tower at the end. I have crossed this street thousands of times. It is usually packed with people and cafes which mushroom in summer of course. An usual evening in high school consisted of walking the street several times and meeting all your friends who, of course, were doing the same (and what else could one do at that time?).

Main Street (Largo)

That's a nice house built in 1910 that is now one of the galleries in town. Fortunately, many of the old houses were preserved and painted.

Gallery (1910)

That's the municipality with the old clock tower. The clock strikes at noon now (also 10 pm in the past) with the first chords from a 19 century revolutionary song (Rise, rise, Balkan hero, wake up from your deep slumber!). My father use to work for some years in the municipality as a health care coordinator for the region on top of his work as a doctor.

Sliven Municipality

This is a place friends used to meet and I have spent some time here waiting in the pre-mobile phone times. The place used to be known as the Russian bookstore as it used to sell Russian literature. Naturally, pre-1989, that was one of the ways for cultural transfer and ideological influence. It is a bookstore now as well. The poster features Dan Brown's Lost Symbol instead of Dostoyevski. I am not sure which cultural influence is better but this is a separate discussion.

ex-Russian Bookshop (now - the Penguin Bookshop)

This is a tree that is more than 1000 years old and is one of the symbols of the city. I can't remember the English word for this type of tree. I checked and it is an elm tree - ulmus campestris.

The Oldest Tree in Town

That's a monument of a cool guy - Hadji Dimitar - who was heading a group of rebels in the mid-19th century fighting the Turks. Expectedly, he died at the age of 28 killed in a fight. I like the place as this is a nice monument and because of the cypress trees behind. When we were kids we used to organise cypress cone fights there.

Hadji Dimitar

This is a church - Saint Dimitar - which is opposite the monument and you can also see the clock tower in the distance.

Saint Dimitar Church

This is my old school where both my father and I studied from 1st to 7th grade. I can see my old chemistry and biology classrooms. I have played hundreds of football and basketball matched in this yard and it is usually filled with kids. Memories of what has happened in this yard are so numerous.

My Old School

And this is a nice old clock tower which has been recently reconstructed.

Old Clock Tower

Saturday, December 19, 2009

White Whitecity (Belgrade)

If I have to choose between the moderate and the marginal and dramatic, my preference goes for the latter. This is the reason why I love dramatic weather in either directions - both hot and cold. That is also why heavy snow, thunders, heavy rain and heat waves attract me so much. I have a liking for the marginal behaviour as well provided it is in an intelligent direction and that it is an intellectual statement. While Arthur Rimbaud's life story - quitting poetry at 17 and dealing with trade in Africa - is to be respected in its marginality, Partizan fans marginal threats to a reporter who disclosed their criminal links is to be immediately repudiated.

These days were of metereological marginality. It snowed a heavy snow in Serbia and the temperatures were very low. On top of that Belgrade taxi drivers were on strike because (hear that) they were against the introduction of obligatory meters in the cars and because they wanted minimum tariffs. How funny that we all want to be European but when the European way is against our financial interests then the Europeanness is easily forgotten.

Anyway, I acted as my own taxi driver and I drove 200 km in snow and ice between different meetings. On Friday I took some time for a nice slow walk in Belgrade, a visit to some bookstores and have a nice lunch.

This is Vojvoda (Chieftain) Vuk in a small park. I don't know what he did but he died aged 35. I imagine he was a marginal personality and logically did not die in his bed. I took a picture of him as I liked how the snow looked like some strange creature is strangling him.

Vojvoda Vuk

Knjaz Mihailova is a beautiful street and here are its cute lanterns.

Lantern on Knjaz Mihailova street

Kalemegdan fortress was fantastic under the snow. There was hardly a soul in the cold and all I could hear was the sound of me walking on the snow.

The small and the big

Kalemegdan Fortress

There is a beautiful view from the fortress both to Sava and Danube rivers. In a cold and snowy weather water looks like mercury and so does the sky.

Frozen Sava River

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Santa Clause, Cherry Nose, Holy Night

I haven't written a blog post for weeks. I don't know what got me - it's been a bad period for me - too much stress at work, too many travels and things to do, too many sleepless nights and hectic days. And....inspiration is such an delicate thing. Sometimes you think it will stay forever, the next day - it is gone.

This period of the year time usually accelerates for me. It is probably because December is kind of short because of the Christmas and New Year holidays and I want to cram the same number of things in less days.

And there is the accumulated fatigue from the year. I haven't counted my days of travel this year but I have been away for at least 50 days and 20 of them were during the last two months. That's a lot, at least for me.

And there is also the end of projects and books I have worked on. Although, on one hand there is a sense of relief that something is over, there is also a sense of emptiness and the questions 'was it worth it?', 'was it good?'. Some new things are starting as well but I still can't get motivated enough about them.

I definitely need some slow time, some long mornings and evenings with friends therefore I am waiting for the Christmas break. I am really looking forward for around 10 days of no work thoughts and laptop use only for blog purposes. I just have to get rid of this terrible habit of answering e-mail at 3.30 am just because I have the instinct of checking my work e-mail any time. That's too bad, constant connectivity is terrible.

I guess I just need Santa Claus to come for me with some peace. Several days ago Santa came at my work place and my kids were quite happy to get to meet him.

Here is Boris reciting a poem to get a bag of chocolates. He had to overcome his initial fear from Santa though. The day before he shared with me that he doesn't like Santa as Santa who came to their kindergarten had a gun and wanted to beat him up. I hope this is not true. This reminds me though of an article I read recently on how in 1951 a group of French Catholics burned an effigy of Santa protesting against Santa's growing importance to families and commerce in a way 'stealing' some of Christmas original symbolics and passing it on to a pagan symbol.

Claude Levi-Strauss reacted to this and tried to explain the Santa Clause phenomenon as marking the border between childhood, adolescence and adult age. He calls it a 'myth of initiation', mysteries that adults know and kids - don't. I still remember my horror and disappointment when my mother told me that Santa doesn't exist. I also remember the wonderful December evenings when Santa came to my mother's dental clinic bringing me a nice toy (toys were fewer these days and their value was higher) or...New Year in Veliko Tarnovo when Santa left gifts in front of the door.

Levi-Strauss also explains Santa's existence by the need to limit the 'obligatory' gift-giving period to once per year (he must have forgotten the birthdays). It seems that the origin of Santa Claus is found in the Abboth Liess, Abbas Stultorum, Lord of Misrule. The good Santa Clause appeared as a symmetric personality to Roman Saturn who ate children. He has something to do with the Scandinavian Julbok - underground demon bringing gifts to the kids.

And.... there must be something about Santa Claus if Bob Dylan started singing carols.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On obscenities and homelands

"Obscenity: the root that attaches us most deeply to our homeland."
This is Milan Kundera going one step further from Czeslaw Milosz who famously wrote that language is the only homeland. I love Kundera's ability to get into the core of an issue with a pithy definition. I bumped into this one while browsing his "Art of the Novel" and I could not stop laughing.

What he describes is a familiar sentiment to all of us who have been uprooted out of our native linguistic context and into a second or a third language. Swearing in a foreign language? No problem! It carries almost no weight. You say the words just like any other words because you are detached. You don't feel them as bad, inappropriate, or harsh.

In my own language, on the other hand, I use them with utmost care. Don't ask me to teach you to swear in Serbian because I won't--first, because Serbian curses are really harsh and, second, because there is a proper context for swearing and that, for me, always involves being home (as in, home in Serbia). Out of that context, it doesn't feel right.

It is funny, when I am irritated or angry, I use a Bulgarian expression "po dyavolite" which means "to hell." Now, to Ruslan this is extremely rude and he reprimands me every time. My other Bulgarian friends say this is an old-fashioned curse which almost doesn't feel like one, it is kind of charmingly outdated. That's how I feel about it, too.

The Serbian equivalent "dodjavola" (it has identical meaning) is so light, I don't think anyone would consider it an obscenity. In fact, I bet people would just burst out laughing at it. But then it is true that we are a nation which curses a lot, and a general threshold of tolerance to using "bad language" is much higher than in other places I lived.

In Serbia, swearing is weaved seamlessly into conversations, whether it's a friendly banter or a serious discussion (as for arguments, that goes without saying). It completely cuts across class, geographical origin or education--you can't pigeonhole people based on swearing because everyone does swear a lot, from manual workers to university professors. It's one true democratic pursuit.

That's one thing that has been a cultural shock for Ruslan and I don't think he managed to get used to it even after all these years. Our cultures are otherwise incredibly similar, our languages very much alike, most of our idiomatic expressions are the same and, generally, we have very similar "mentality," except for this one difference that we curse a lot and, somehow, they don't. Why is that?

Monday, November 16, 2009

In the mail

I would like to dispel a notion some of you might have (especially if you are Ruslan) that all that ever arrives to our mailbox as a result of online shopping are shoes (and occasionally clothes). It would be so wrong to think that because I actually enjoy buying books (and occasionally music) much more.

After all, shoes are a necessity, so we are talking very low levels of the Maslow pyramid here. And finding the right ones--well, that's just hard work, as any woman would tell you. Really, no fun at all.

Books, on the other hand, are sheer pleasure. To say that I like to read would be an understatement; I also like to see our library grow, although the space is a limiting factor there. When I dream of my own place, the first thing I visualise is a library taking up an entire wall, from the floor to the ceiling.

So, today, three new additions to the library have just arrived:

The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera

I read this one back in high school but felt like re-visiting. I like Kundera a lot--he is not heavy artillery like Nabokov or Danilo Kis, but he is witty and somehow manages to stay on this side of (over) simplification. A perfect re-reading material.

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Jorge Amado

I don't know much about this author except that he is Brazilian. I discovered one of his books, "Gabriella, clove and cinnamon" in Ruslan's father's library, in Bulgarian, and I read it practically in one go. It was fantastic and I even re-read it last summer. I decided that I had to get something else from Amado and, voila. Let's see if Dona Flor rises up to expectations.

Langford's Basic Photography: The Guide for Serious Photographers

After just a tiny bit of browsing, I can say that this one is very promising and also very different from both Scott Kelby and Brian Petersen. It really is for people with a nerdy scientific slant, as there are a lot of technical details about how a camera works, the role of light, etc. Just what I have been looking for! An in-depth look will follow in the next installment of the analogue experiment series.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The analogue experiment, take 2

I finally developed the second roll of film that I shot with our Canon 2000, so it is time for a review.

For a start, it's far less disappointing than the first batch, although I am still making some beginner's mistakes, like, for instance, having subjects out of focus. I have a picture of Andrej standing by the pool with ducks in the zoo--I wanted his face to be in focus, but instead I focused on the ducks. How did that happen? I think I need to learn how to focus on subjects which are not in the center of the frame, but rather to the left or right of it.

I did learn something from that first film and that is not to go for big apertures when shooting on bright sunny days at noon. In fact, I also learned that it is probably a good idea not to shoot at all on a bright sunny day at noon, because the shadows are unforgiving, and everything looks very harsh, especially human faces. So I graduated from washed out to harsh, which is not ideal, but let's agree to call it a step in the right direction.

In the meantime my "Understanding Exposure" by Brian Petersen arrived, and I read it almost in one go. I liked his approach more than that of Scott Kelby (whose books I browsed in Julochka's Blue Room during Blog Camp 2.0) but the problem is I don't like his photos much--they look cliched. And while I like the way he describes exposure and the interplay between the light and aperture, shutter speed and ISO, I think by now I know enough of the basics and I want to go a bit further (if that makes sense).

Of course, what do I do then but reach for another book. This time I did my own snooping around Amazon and I came across something called "Langford's Basic Photography: The guide for serious photographers." The "serious" bit got me (such an easy marketing prey) and then one of the reviews mentioned something about having to have a "scientific slant" to appreciate the book and that sealed the deal.

Finally, last time I was moaning about analogue experiment number 1 Kristina asked me to at least post some images of my photos (since I can't post the originals, them being on paper). So here they are, snaps of the snaps:

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Gray vs. red

Drizzle, drizzle. Chilly wind. Oppressive gray skies.

In other words, November. Definitely the worst month of the year, with a narrow win over February, which has the advantage of spring being round the corner. With November, it's many months of sheer grayness ahead.

The only way to fight this overwhelming gray is to inject a mega-dose of red in your life.

Like this pair of wellies, fresh from the post and right in time. When I showed them to Ruslan he said, in slight disapproval: "But why do you need them when it rains so rarely here?" (clearly, he overslept the month of June, when it rained so much that the Danube flooded). Those were rash words as the very next day it started drizzling and hasn't stopped since.

If you don't have a pair of cool, red rainboots at hand (or, better yet, at leg)--well, you definitely should get one pronto. In the meantime, you can go for a little bit of red in a glass.

I'm not claiming it will make November any less gray, but a few of these and at least you're guaranteed not to bother. Or notice.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Twenty years after the Wall...another wall

Horgos border crossing between Serbia and Hungary

I don't remember much about the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I don't think it has anything to do with my age.

Although I was only twelve, I have clear recollections of the Romanian revolution just a month later and seeing the execution of Ceausescu on public television. It was shocking, it was closer to home, and it was the real end of socialism (bloody, controversial and a portent of things to come on our side of the border).

I don't remember any of the adults in my life being euphoric about bringing down the Wall, because the Wall has never really been about us. Yugoslavia was nested comfortably in some artificial middle ground, neither East nor West, complacent in its home-grown brand of socialism (or "socialism") fuelled by Western money. The generation of my parents had much more freedom than their peers in Hungary, East Germany or Bulgaria, at least when it came to travel. And people did travel, if only for shopping tours to places like Trieste and Munich--silly, maybe, but they could do it. They might have felt all kinds of things, but "walled-in" was hardly one of them.

Fast forward twenty years and Europe is a whole different place. In two hours you can drive from Budapest to Vienna, passing by the old border post which has no function anymore, except as a reminder of the old times. No one will stop you to ask for your passport, check your visa, count your money, rummage through your luggage, ask about where you are going and how long you plan to stay. If you catch a train from Budapest to Bratislava the only way you know you have changed countries is that the information voice coming from the speakers suddenly stops speaking Hungarian and switches to Slovak. It's only been two years that countries like Hungary and Slovakia joined the no-border zone but you get used to it so quickly.

It is easy to forget that things could be any different--until you reach Horgos, the border crossing between Hungary and Serbia, the end of the no-border zone and beginning of the twilight zone. Maybe you are not aware of it, but Berlin Wall has simply moved a little bit more east and nowadays it goes by the name of Schengen Agreement.

Horgos is where Europe without borders abruptly ends and a nightmare called "applying for a Schengen visa" begins. True, there is no barbed wire and grumpy East German soldiers around (just a bunch of grumpy Hungarians and ever-so-laid-back Serbians) but that's because the Wall now has a more subtle face--that of an embassy clerk processing your visa application, deciding if you merit being allowed in. If you happen to be Serbian, Albanian, Macedonian (not to mention hailing from further east) Europe without borders is something that happens to other (more deserving?) Europeans.

I am now living on the "right" side of the border and, boy, am I happy about that. But until my sister can come visit from Belgrade any time she damned well pleases, and just because she feels like it, without having to plan half a year in advance and collect a million papers to prove something to someone--until then, the Wall is not down yet. Not for all of us.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A language lost

My Grandmother and auntie

Recently I read an article in The Guardian about small languages dying out and what, if anything, could be done to prevent that. I am not a speaker of a language threatened by extinction (although my Serbian vocabulary has been depleted over years like depleted uranium) but there is a language that was once spoken in my family and is now lost--namely, German.

It was the native language of my ancestors on my Mother's side of the family but my Grandmother is the last speaker. At least she was, but now she can hardly put a few sentences together, although she probably understands more than she can speak. I didn't think it was possible to forget your mother tongue but knowing how much my Serbian has deteriorated over the past ten years I can see how it could happpen. After all, she has had no one to talk to in German for almost sixty years. And as she didn't pass it to her children--my mother, aunt and uncle--the knowledge will perish with her.

Now that I am trying to pass my own language to Boris and Andrej--their only tentative link with my homeland, which is not quite theirs--I am thinking more often about that lost link with my ancestors. It is as if a piece of the identity puzzle is missing; a small piece, maybe, but still a door to a completely different world that I never got to know.

Ironically, I have never felt any affinity towards German language or culture--a complete lack of curiosity on my part. Instead, I fell in love with English at the age of nine and I have been firmly entrenched in the Anglo-Saxon way of thinking ever since. But that missed opportunity for an insider glimpse into one of the most important European cultures is something that I now regret.

Although, if you ask my friends they will tell you I am German enough as it is, but that's only because punctuality and (self) discipline tend to be in short supply where I come from. Which tells us far more about the Balkans than it does about the Germans.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Documenting pain

Some time ago we went to see the World Press Photo exhibition, as we have done for the past six years or so. World Press Photo is a worldwide competition where professional press photographers can submit their images that cover not just the news but also nature, sports, science and everyday life.

Inevitably, in any given year, most of the images are those of war, terrorist attacks and natural disasters. It's not for the feeble-hearted, nor those with utopistic ideas of world peace. Those are the pictures I like least, and I try not to dwell on them too much; I prefer all other categories but the news.

This year there were two particular images that had me thinking long after we left the exhibition venue. One of them was of a wounded African soldier, blood spurting out of his mouth and the look of hysterical terror on his face; another one was of a man holding a dead friend or relative, screaming in desperation.

Both pictures were close-ups. Both had me thinking: was this really necessary? Not the mindless killing, which goes without saying, but sticking up a camera in someone's face when they are dying, or going mad with grief. Is this ethical? Don't people have the right to dignity when they are most vulnerable?

I wonder what was going on in the minds of those photographers as they were snapping--is it simply work for them and they switch off basic human compassion? I think there are many ways to document the atrocities, be it of war or disasters, without getting this close to personal pain.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Roads Not Taken

Usually, I take decisions easily and I trust my intuition. Sometimes, it has taken me a bit longer to take decisions for important things but once it was done I didn't reconsider and I didn't try to think too much of the alternative roads.

After all, each choice is made on the basis of a methodology. While very often the method is the intuition, the blink (Malcolm Gladwell), other times - it is a value. In third cases, the decision is taken by someone else or by chance.

Recently, I had a strange nostalgic sensation about what has not been. I was missing the un-happened and the almost-happened. It was not something concrete, just a cumulative longing for the untaken roads so to say. If only I had a second life like the cats, go back from the beginning and each time an important decision had to be made I would take the 'other' one.

Well, one more life would not be enough as most of the choices made lead to other choices which would not have been available otherwise, etc. Therefore, there is a multitude of lives out there which could never be checked against some criteria, for example happiness.

The only practical conclusion is that one should not regret that much the decisions taken. There certainly are choices that cannot be undone and that is a bit tough. However, other choices take us to yet more interesting places in life geography and we are actually at constant crossroads.

The crossroads are so numerous that basically there are no two lives that are identical as mathematically it wouldn't be possible that two people live in identical circumstances and take exactly the same decisions at every crossroad. That is, our lives are unique. Yet, I was missing a second uniqueness the other day....

Road at Chantilly, Paul Cezanne

The Road Not Taken

(Robert Frost)

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference

Thursday, October 22, 2009

So Near, So Far

A recent conversation with a friend made me think of some things around us that are at the same time very near to us but also far because of insurmountable barriers. See for example Mount Ararat for the Armenians. Those who have been to Yerevan know that the mountain and the peaks are a mere 30 km away from the city Turkey. And the relations between Armenia and Turkey are not exactly the point of closing the common border. So Armenians keep looking at those beautiful pyramidal peaks knowing that they cannot even come close to them.

Mount Ararat as seen from Yerevan (2005)
- Greater Ararat (5,137 m) and Lesser Ararat (3,896 m.)

Ararat is a holy mount for Armenians. It used to be a part of Big Armenia as indicated on the map below. Everything in Armenia is called Ararat - hotels, restaurants, dogs, people. Even Noah's Ark was docked there when the trip was over and the rains stopped.

I would call the Armenian disease 'longing for the sky'.

Old Armenian Map, 1729

There is a similar situation in Bolivia. Because of historical reasons Bolivia is now a landlocked country. Bolivia had a small chunk of land at the Pacific Ocean but it lost it to Chile in 1904. It seems the Bolivians cannot get over it and they still keep a fleet and ships at the Lake Titicaca. Apparently they also have a day of the sea each year that is more important than anything.

Bolivia nowadays

The Bolivian sickness is 'longing for the blue ocean'.

Territorial loss map of Bolivia

The Hungarian immune system is not that strong either. Everyone who lives in Hungary and who is not a Hungarian nationalist by nature is a bit (or a bit more) tired by seeing the pre-WWI map of Hungary on cars, motorists' leather jackets, T-shirts....It includes a good chunk of the Adriatic Sea in nowadays Croatia (the blue part on the map below). These must have been cool times for Hungarians but....

Map of pre-Trianon Hungary

I would call the Hungarian disease 'longing for the glorious past'. It comes together with a kind of swine flu called 'longing for the Southern Sea'. It is a dangerous condition.

I think we all (including the collective national psyche) need to long for something lost and something past. It must be a kind of piece in the psychological puzzle. I guess we especially need the psychological equivalent of a southern sea - warm and refreshing at the same time and opening to the wider world.

Unfortunately, this psychological need comes handy to cunning politicians who easily exploit it need and call for action. the better case - distract the collective attention from trivial robbery and mismanagement - here and now.

I think we'd better know that these things should remain where they are - so near, so far.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

He was bored and he was bored too

It got hold of me today at 3.45 in the main hall of the Central European University. It came suddenly and unexpectedly and I felt it like a punch in my diaphragm. L'Ennui came to pay me a visit while listening to how wonderfully corporately socially responsible Magyar Telecom is. Don't get me wrong: they are certainly doing a great job but I felt that I couldn't care less about that at that particular moment. I had to leave but before that, in a purely masochistic manner, I endured a coffee break. There is nothing worse than a coffee break when one doesn't feel like speaking.

I rushed home in the rainy streets feeling strangely weightless. I passed by a Thai Massage place which looked so boring, the castle hill view at the end of a rain-washed street was so banal, the metro - so commonplace. I knew what had happened to me as it had been there before. I came home with the firm intention to consult what some of the theorists of l'ennui familiar to me thought about that. I open 'Les Fleur du Mal' (Baudelaire) and I read in one of the poem 'Spleen' poems:

'J'ai plus de souvenir que si j'avais mille ans/I have as many memories as if I have lived 1000 years'

I think that this is one of the causes - being greedy of life experiences we end up hoarding too many and it becomes more difficult to get new, fundamentally different ones which leads to a lousy feeling of repetitiveness.

Then I continue : 'L'ennui, fruit de la morne incuriosite/l'ennui, fruit of the sad incuriosity'. I knew I would find this. It was exactly this today: I didn't care about MT and about several other things. One of the main things that makes us get up each day is the curiosity, isn't it? When I am curious I feel I wouldn't have a boredom problem if I lived a 1000 years but no: curiosity is not guaranteed at all, it seems.

By the way, I was thinking of writing about boredom since last weekend when I visited Robert Capa's exhibition and heard the following words from a Hungarian guide: ' Capa lived a good life. He stayed at expensive hotels and earned lots of money. But he wanted more, he was bored. Then he met John Steinbeck. Steinbeck was bored too. They decided to go together to the Soviet Union......' At first, I smiled at the simplistic way of describing Capa's urge to visit war zones and places like Soviet Union in the 1940s but then I thought that she was probably right.

I remembered an old theory of mine (well, it must be someone else's of course) that war is not caused by the arcane dealings of politicians but more so by the people who agree to get involved in it. And, it seems to me that war can be a desired escape from the tedium of everyday life. In fact, I think that people are perversely attracted by it as it saves them from the boredom of commonplace existence. This also reminds me of a thought of Boris Vian in this line of thinking that if each individual soldier disagreed to go to war there would be no war.

This was also confirmed by Richerd Holbrook who said about the Vietnamese war that 'the terrible truth that people do not like to admit is that the war was fun for young men, at least it was fun if they were civilians or journalists'.

L'Ennui, Sylvia Plath

Tea leaves thwart those who court catastrophe,
designing futures where nothing will occur:
cross the gypsy's palm where yawning she
will still predict no perils left to conquer.
Jeopardy is jejeune now: naive knight
finds ogres-out-of-date and dragons unheard
of, while blase princesses indict
tilts as terror as downright absurd.

The beast in Jamesian grove will never jump,
compelling hero's dull career to crisis;
and when insouciant angels play God's trump,
when bored arena crowds for once look eager,
hoping towards havoc, neither pleas nor prizes
shall coax from dooms blank door lady or tiger.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blog action day 2009: climate change

I signed up to participate in this year's Blog Action Day which means that, together with about 7000 other bloggers from around the globe, I am going to write about climate change today. You can check out the details here and, of course, if you feel like writing about climate change you can do that without registering as well. The idea is to create a big buzz in the blogosphere about the most important global topic of this year (ahead of the Copenhagen summit in December).

I think by now even the most die-hard conservatives have accepted that climate change is a fact and that we need to deal with this problem sooner rather than later, lest we risk the future of the entire planet. It is a complex problem, it doesn't have simple solutions, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless in the face of it.

It is also easy to forget, while we wait for the world leaders to take some serious measures, that there are many things we can do as individuals. It might seem that our individual impact is so tiny that it makes no difference at all in the bigger picture, but that is not true.

Remember how a group of people walking on a bridge in a synchronized step can create vibrations so powerful that they can bring the whole structure down? If each of us does whatever is in his or her power to do, the sum of billion small parts will add up to something big.We can start with simple things: recycling, saving paper, turning off tap when you brush your teeth, taking showers instead of bath, taking public transport/walking/cycling instead of driving, etc.

Check out this great resource on WWF's website where you can get lots of useful advice on how to green your living. And take a look at the video, as well--it's funny, but the ideas are good.

That much we can and must do--we have no choice.

Monday, October 12, 2009

You were walking smiling

On Sunday, summer suddenly bowed goodbye and retired behind the curtains. Autumn came to play a violin tune - there was no breakfast on the terrace, we didn't take the kids biking in the park either. I performed a ritual of anticlimax - removing the summer shirts from the hangers and packing them high up in the wardrobe. I did exactly the opposite so recently. Where is expectant March....

Driving back to town today I was thinking that my body and mind have to adapt to the new circumstances: the new gray light, the lack of regular biking in the morning, lunches in the kitchen instead of the sunny meadow. I even subconsciously played Leonard Cohen in the evening who is not exactly a merry influence.

Florence street in rain, 1888
Bernardo Strozzi

However, rain can be so beautiful when we adapt to it or....when we forget how wonderful the sun is. I thought of Jacque Prevert and his Barbara.

Rappelle-toi Barbara
Il pleuvait sans cesse sur Brest ce jour-là
Et tu marchais souriante
Épanouie ravie ruisselante
Sous la pluie...

...Cette pluie sage et heureuse
Sur ton visage heureux
Sur cette ville heureuse

It translates roughly:

Remember, Barbara
It rained on Brest that day
You were walking smiling
Relaxed, enchanted and dripping
Under the rain....

...this wise and happy rain
on your happy face
on this happy town....

Raindrops are beautiful on a loved face.

Autumn rain and bad weather make us turn inside to ourselves and suddenly a wall is built between us and the outside world. It reinforces the cosyness of inner spaces, it makes us fix the lights, adapt the music, take out the good books. It's good to listen to autumn rain from the bed, very early in the morning in the dark or late in the evening.

On the other hand, it is also good to venture in the rain. One gets a feeling of a mini-exploit. I remember once going to pick tomatoes almost naked under a very strong rain. Well, we had drunk things as well but I was also happy.

Rain also accelerated the rotting of fallen leaves and this gives a nice deep smell.

When it is raining outside and I am working it is also good because I don't have a feeling that I am missing something. Suddenly, work becomes so much more appealing which, most probably, is the fundamental reason for the economic success of Northern countries versus Southern countries.

But, let's not forget that spring is New Zealand.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The analogue experiment

(a gratuitous photo of a flower, taken with a P&S)

I can't share my first analogue pictures in years because I don't have a scanner so you will just have to rely on my judgment.

I wasn't too happy with what came out, primarily because a lot of the pictures look a little bit washed out. My camera is theoretically supposed to warn me if I am overexposing which it didn't do; in retrospect, I think I got carried away trying to achieve very shallow depth of field, totally ignoring the harsh light in which most of the pictures were taken (as in midday light on very sunny days). I was shooting on aperture-priority, like a good student of Spud's.

Then again, I got interesting colors on some of the images, even if they look like someone has been playing with Photoshop contrasts a bit much. Some have a problem with focus, so that's definitely an area for improvement. Well, frankly, there's lots of areas for improvement and I hope my "Understanding Exposure" is going to arrive soon because I don't quite know what I am doing (I canceled Scott Kelby because he wasn't in stock and I had already waited for more than a month).

I keep on shooting, though, and the second roll of film is almost finished so now I'm curious to see if I made any progress. I did make diligent notes all the way about what I shot, with what aperture and in which kind of light, which helped immensely when I sat to analyse what went wrong (or right, occasionally). Let's just say that, despite a little bit of disappointment, the experiment goes on...

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Five Whips Per Day

Some months ago I came upon a great game of imagination in the French magazine 'Philosophie'. A dozen philosophers were asked to let their imagination free and answer some crazy questions. What would happen if......: - there was eternal peace; - a feminist revolution happened in the Muslim world; - teleportation was possible; - sexuality was finally free etc.

Tonight I decided to ask myself a question. What if technological revolution happened in some lopsided and erratic way?

Sometimes I have dreamt that photography and moving pictures were invented some 2000 years ago as I wanted to see pictures or videos of my family through the centuries. Imagine opening some video files of your ancestors in the middle ages in some strange middle age video format recorded on potatoes for example. Well, potatoes is not such a good idea not because they would smell a little bit but because my potato reader just broke. Maybe it should be electronic chips or.....

Who knows, isn't it possible that technological revolution was much faster in the Balkans and somehow strangely isolated? And while Vikings were cutting the heads of the non-Vikings and of other Vikings as well, while Spanish were chasing Muslims away and Jews too, while all these strange things were happening, in a small town at the skirts of the Balkan mountain, people were calmly assembling their PCs while listening to their peach-pods.

Peach pods are devices made from the stones of peaches. They were invented by an Ottoman shepherd (MA in agriculture from the University of Izmir) while he was bored one day. The day was sunny, no wolves were attacking his sheep and he was reading the letter of his daughter -Angie - who left a year ago by rickshaw to Baghdad to study political studies in the local university. So this shepherd started playing his wooden flute and had the idea to record the music on the stone of the peach he had just eaten.

Later a decree was passed in the local parliament (shepherds had just won the elections against barbers by a narrow margin) that one has to put the peach stones in one's ears and the music starts playing - the link between politics and science was much closer then than now. In was not music. Maybe people just wanted to listen to the silence being emitted by the peach-pods.

Then there was this blacksmith who discovered that silence is different while it is caused by different lack of noises. He discovered that silence when he was not hitting his hammer was different from silence when dogs are not barking. This blacksmith took the scientific prize of the year which, to his surprise, was missing because he was the inventor of the lack of things. He really appreciated this and didn't say thank you at all and didn't say 'I owe everything to my family' either. He just said 'Amen'.

And, by the way, the daughter of the shepherd had just started dating a date-grower on the precise date of the end of Ramadan in 1333. They had really good time together listening to the Rolling Stones while kicking camel dung in the dusty streets of unconquered Baghdad. There was a local madman who discovered a device for downloading music from the future directly into the heads of those who believed strongly. The madman was offered a scholarship in the Madrasa of Isfahan at the amount of five whips per day. At that time, people really liked pain because after pain there is no pain and that's what they liked but to get to this point they had to go through some pain.

By the way, a dog is barking, I am really thirsty from the Chinese soup I ate by the opera at its 125 anniversary so maybe it is time to go and eat some grapes before reading Misha Gleny's McMafia.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

I'm going analogue

The truth is, I love my internal organs, after all, and I wouldn't want to part with any of them unless the doctor orders so. That means selling kidneys to buy a DSLR is not an option. But I still want to practice with the holy trinity of aperture, shutter speed and ISO and to learn to understand exposure and goof around with the depth of field and such. Which I can't do with my point and shoot, lovely as it is.

So just as you're thinking that it's, basically, a "no-win" situation, a little lamp lights up in her head and she gets this ingenious idea (as usual, i might add)... to go analogue.

The thing is, we have this beautiful Canon EOS 3000 which had the bad luck to be bought just a year before we got our first digital camera so it's been patiently collecting dust (loads of it) on our book shelves for at least five years. It's a total "video killed the radio star" situation, which is a shame, because it is a very capable camera that made nice photos--those three or four times that we actually used it.

This is just a temporary solution, obviously, because there are many downsides to working with film, as you might remember from the old days. Like, the fact that film actually costs something and so does developing it; it's not much but if you shoot a lot of pictures it adds up. Plus there is the carbon footprint issue: the film just adds to the amount of junk we're littering the planet with, and the chemicals used for developing it are toxic. And then you have to wait until you've shot the entire roll and developed it to see what came out of it. I guess that's the strangest part, once you got used to reviewing your work immediately and deleting what you don't like right there in the camera, before it even gets downloaded.

But maybe that's not a bad thing, to hold off that instant gratification urge and learn some patience, in addition to learning how to make better photos. I've also noticed that it's making me really think twice before I press the shutter: wheather the composition is right, and if it's a picture worth taking. As a consequence, I am not taking many photos but they should be better than average with all that thinking involved. Right? Or you simply need to shoot more to learn more?

(and where is Scott Kelby when you need him?, I am soo disappointed this time!)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Where friends meet

Our favorite square, about which I waxed lyrical just the other day, was voted as one of the seven most popular green getaways in Budapest in some kind of online poll that went on this summer.

This is how it was described:
Szabadsag ter is said by many to be Budapest's "most European square" with its well-tended lawn, historical buildings and old trees. This was the site of Pest's first pedestrian square, founded when the wife of great statesman István Széchenyi planted a tree there in 1846.
I'm not quite sure what they mean by it being "most European"--is this a synonym for clean and tidy? --but never mind, it gives me a perfect excuse to post some more pictures from the square, taken this Sunday.

The best thing about Szabadsag is that many of our friends love it, too, so it's a great place to meet and chat while kids run about doing their own thing...

or, less frequently, they sit in one place and share a rice cake...

occasionally harassed by smaller siblings wanting attention...

Age difference is no obstacle to this budding friendship between Lia (4.5) and Andrej (2.5)--kindred adventurous spirits that they are.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Thirty days hath September

...and they are running out really fast. Technically, it's still summer for two more days, but we know better.

At least this weekend we can "count" on good weather, if we are to believe the forecast heard on the radio. So far, so good--it's warm and sunny, with that beautiful soft light that only happens in September.

This morning we took the kids and their bikes to our favorite place--Szabadsag ter, or Liberty square, in the heart of downtown Pest. It's a beautiful spot, both peaceful and lively, where kids can bike and we can sip a lemonade, enjoy the architecture and daydream about what it would be like to have a flat there (it would be great, I can tell you that right away, but it's not going to happen).

The place definitely has an autumnal feel now, compared to only a few weeks ago when I was last there. The green is still the dominant color, but the first signs of aging cannot be missed (an apt description of yours truly, in fact, as she prepares to celebrate 32nd birthday).

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Sound of Silence

Some time ago I was listening to a programme on BBC about capturing unique sounds and I was thinking that sounds suffer from the dominance of images. Nowadays, it's all about cameras and capturing an unique individual angle to the visible world: people, nature, architecture....Our computers are full of thousands of images - raw images as the world actually is in a given place at a given time. And almost no raw sounds.... I am not talking about music, of course, which is organised sounds. Or at least most of it.

One walks along the Danube in Budapest and there are dozens of tourists making pictures of the parliament, the bridges, the castle. And there is no one sitting there and recording the noise of the traffic, the splashing of the river, the passing boats, a passing ambulance, a faraway laughter. Why is it like that? Are sounds simply less interesting? Is it because images stimulate instantaneously and easily our brains with colours and forms? Is it because mathematically there are more combinations of physical objects to be photographed? Our wonderful eyes maybe interact with the outside world in a richer variety of ways than our ears. Take for example a building: there are so many angles to see it and perceive it. the end, the good picture is exactly the original angle with the best possible light.

While, it seems to me, we can't do that with sounds. Take an ambulance siren. You can hear it weaker or stronger and the only variety comes through the strength of the sound through the manifestation of the Doppler effect. There are very little nuances to it.

However, recording interesting sounds is a fascinating idea to me. Thinking of it one may follow the development of city life through sound. Imagine that someone has recorded 10 minutes of sound at the crossroad of Andrassy and Terez boulevard (or any major crossroad in any city) at lunch on the 23rd of April every year since 1878 when sound recording became possible. Imagine the difference: horses-trams-cars and the interrelation between them. So some sounds are unique in a way.

And...other sounds are probably eternal. Has the splashing of the sea been the same over the past 5000 years? What about the sound of falling raindrops on the dust or the gust of wind in the leaves of a tree? Is the wind playing the same tunes with the branches of the same tree or are they endlessly varied?

In the early 90s I' had heard of a French ethnologists who hunted for disappearing sounds like National Geographic photographers take pictures of disappearing species.

But, anyway, sound reality is very rich. I am on our balcony now, 21.56 on a Wednesday night, 16 September, 2009 and I am hearing:
- the sound of gentle wind in the branches;
- the singing grasshoppers;
- the background noise of Moscva square;
- an occasional passing car;
- Nina Simone on our CD player;
- a closing door;
- a faraway kid's voice;
- a faraway clapping;
- the sound of the keyboard.

It's a rich sounscape if one thinks of it.

I am also thinking of some favouirite soundscapes of mine:

- the singing grasshoppers on a summer's night when the window is open and some soft music is playing in the other room;
- the absolutely silent sea early in the morning with an occasional splash of water;
- a faraway happy laughter.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Surprising trip down memory lane

Sometimes you hear a song where and when you don't expect it, and it teleports you straight into a different time and place before you even realize it. Like today, when I was trying to do some work in one of those Starbucks-lookalike cafes that have sprung up in Budapest like mushrooms in the last year.

There I was, happily immersed in web strategizing when I heard Freddy Mercury's voice in "Too much love will kill you" and, bang! off I go straight into early 1990s. That was the only time when I actively listened to Queen--it lasted for a year or two, not more--before I moved on to different stuff, but I always like to hear it again.

And it always brings the same memories: four people (my sister, my best friend, his younger brother and me) listening to Freddy Mercury ad nauseam, talking high school stuff, collectively adoring Michael Jordan, creating a makeshift campsite in the middle of their bedroom (no idea why), talking politics already, being silly but also very mature and serious.

It's a memory of an island of calm in the middle of madness--our country was disintegrating, the war was about to begin, we were sliding into poverty and hyperinflation and we knew what was ahead, we knew it would be years of despair but, at the same time, we just wanted to be teenagers and do what teenagers do. Queen always reminds me of that struggle to remain normal, against odds.

Plus "Too much love will kill you" is a wonderful song--check for yourself:

Friday, September 11, 2009

Just Copenhagen

A cool retro bike, looks like something straight out of Henri Cartier-Bressons' photos, except in color.

The Wheel of Copenhagen, reminded me of The London Eye.

At the entrance to Tivoli amusement park.

I like the way the sky contrasts against all the warm colors of the city.

When he's not on manhole covers, he is on boats. In fact, he is everywhere.

Every shop window is a little design exhibition in itself.