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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Off skiing

We are leaving for our ski holiday today. Will be back in a week with lots of pics and stories to tell :)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Capa coming back home

A piece of news that made my day last week: the National Museum bought more than 1,000 photographs taken by Robert Capa, one of my favorite photographers.

Capa was born in Budapest as Endre Friedmann and left the country at the age of 18 because he was involved in some leftist student activities and his parents thought it would be better if he left for a while (he actually never lived in Hungary again and he probably wouldn't have survived the WWII if he did--the Jewish population in Hungary was almost completely exterminated).

He went on to become a famous photojournalist, covering almost all the important wars of the 20th century: the Spanish civil war, WWII, Israeli War of Independence, the French Indochina War (to look at his portfolio is to realise how much senseless destruction and suffering there was in our supposedly civilised times).

One of his most famous images is that of the death of a Spanish Loyalist militiaman as he is falling on his back, struck by a bullet. It's incredibly powerful but I prefer his pictures of civilians--normal people trying to survive in abnormal times.

He also has many non-war pictures that are incredibly good, even though he remains celebrated mostly as a war photographer. He was one of the founders of the photographic agency Magnum and you can find a selection of his photos on their website.

Capa was the one who famously said that "If your photographs aren't good enough, you're not close enough." And this was said of him by Henri Cartier-Bresson, another great photographer of the previous century:
For me, Capa wore the dazzling matador's costume but he never went in for a kill; a great player, he fought generously for himself and for others in a whirwind. Destiny was determined that he should be struck down at the height of his glory.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Leslie's Smile

To my huge regret and consternation on Friday, while still in Sarajevo, I learned that my colleague and friend Leslie (Laszlo Leitold) passed away in Almaty, Kazakhstan in unclear circumstances.

Leslie was always kind and gentle with me, exceptionally helpful, good-humored and caring. I liked to talk to him and see him, share weekend and holiday plans with him, discuss a bit about REC and the exchange rate of the Hungarian forint.

For me, there were several people in REC who had not succumbed to the vices of vanity, envy and self-conceitedness, who had personal and professional integrity and who kept a cool, critical, non-opportunist and non-conformist view at developments at REC. Metaphorically speaking, these people including Leslie were small, flickering lights in a big dark field. With Leslie's disappearance one more light is gone and REC becomes an even darker place.

Dear Leslie, my friend, I will remember your beautiful smile forever.

Smoke over Cevapdzinici*

The Dzezve Street (photo: Christelle Kapoen)

Gigantic Copper Kettle (photo: Christelle Kapoen)

Mosque at Dusk (photo: Cristelle Kapoen)

The second half of last week I had a wonderful trip to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. I had always liked spending a couple of days there but this time it was more than special for several reasons. First, I was in the great company of Ellen, Peter, Christelle and Andras Kis and second, it was snowing from the moment we landed to the moment we took off. (Sorry, Ellen and Peter, I know that you neither landed nor took off but instead had to drive for many hours through snow and hail).

I have this theory, not very original, that places feel entirely different depending on the people you are with. It has happened to me that my perception of one and the same city has varied from boring to splendid depending on the company and circumstances. For me, cities are not a mass of streets, buildings and shop windows but the interaction of all these with my state of mind. So Sarajevo felt great because of the endless jokes and great humour that were somehow generated by all us. I shouldn't forget my friend Sunita who joined us to Dveri the second night and later took us to a cool place (Zlatna Ribitsa - Golden Fish) where, to my big surprise, we listened to French music from the 60s and the 70s.

And......Sarajevo is absolutely magic under the snow, at least for me. I wouldn't say this is some kind of objective aesthetic fact as our taxi driver commented in the following way: 'If this is beautiful, then what is ugly?'. Yes, sure, if one concentrates one's gaze on the slush on the streets one might say that the slush is ugly and wet.

However, one might choose to lift one's gaze a bit higher up instead and pay attention to the elegant facades of the Austro-Hungarian times; the beautiful heavy, snowy branches of the trees; the endless play between the street lamps and the falling snowflakes; the reflection of the same street lamps into the hundreds of dzezve (copper vessel for brewing Turkish coffee); the icicles around the water fountain resembling a bird cage; the peace of the mosque yard under the heavy snow and the amazing ceiling carvings in this same mosque yard; the silent figures of men and women after prayer; the constant interplay between the minaret of the mosque and the campanile of the Catholic church; come back to the title of this post - the smoke over the Cevapdzinici.

Cevapdzinici are an exotic culinary venues. They surely date centuries ago and it seems to me that they haven't changed much ever since. I don't know about cevapdzinici in other places but those in Sarajevo follow some kind of absolute loyalty to the magic of cevapi or said in another way their owners are cevapi purists. The Cevapdzinici do not serve anything else but cevapi (+bread+onions+kajmak) and the furthest away they ever dare deviate from the cevapi canon is a simple tomato salad. I actually like that - no extras, no useless culinary temptations, no vane attempts to lure the visitors with a 20 page menu, no nothing. And don't even dare think of a coffee after the cevapi. Coffee is to be found in cafes while cevapdzinica is for cevapi. I was even surprised when I found out that restaurants are not only for rest and hotels are not necessarily hot.

Once again thanks to Ellen, Peter, Christelle, Andras and Sunita for the great time.

* Cevapdzinici is a specialised place where one can eat cevapi (1/2 finger long of grilled minced meat served with bread, onion and kajmak - kind of sour cream).
** The title is a play with Deep Purple's song 'Smoke over Water'.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Budapest and snow

Tuesday afternoon it started snowing. It seemed like it will be the same as usual--snows some, then melts--but this time there was enough snow to cover the ground and rooftops at least.

Wednesday morning we woke up to a beautiful, sunny day and realized that there's plenty of snow on the ground. OK, objectively it wasn't much, but this is more than we have seen in years. This is our garden in the picture--the first time we ever saw it covered in snow.

I took this picture from our balcony, looking to the left of our house. This is the area between Felvinci ut and Bimbo ut--all residential, and mostly old family houses, except a socialist-type matchbox here and there (you can see one right here in the picture).

From the balcony and to the right you can see the back of the Castle Hill district, the offices in the Millenaris park and a little bit of Szena ter. If I turned a bit more to the right I would have been able to catch the Matyas templom (Matthias Church) but our neighbor's balcony unfortunately interfers with the view.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

MUDddling through or How I learned to live with an addict

Sifting through my old articles, I found this piece that I wrote for a journalism course back in 1999. I had a good laugh reading it again so figured I might share it with you.

When the school year ended in May this year and I was to spend the entire summer in Blagoevgrad, my friend Alex's decision to join me here came as a relief. Alex is a dear, sympathetic soul, I thought, he would help me muddle through tough times (my country was being bombed at the time), be my reliable crying shoulder and a source of fun.

At the time, I had already known that Alex plays MUD (Multiple User Dungeon), a cyber role-playing game whose purpose I still fail to grasp. Everything in MUD is happening once upon a time in the mysterious, ancient city of Garathorm where warriors, knights, healers and other such picturesque characters co-exist peacefully and sometimes not so peacefully or otherwise there would be no game. The player chooses which class he/she wants to join and create their character accordingly. You can have as many characters as you want but you can only "act" them one at a time. Perhaps MUD is a camouflage abbreviation for multiple personality disorder?

I never realized the depth of Alex's obsession with MUD before we moved in together. In the beginning, when he still had some conscience and did not want to leave me alone and bored for too long, he restricted "mudding" (popular expression for “playing MUD”) to only 4 hours per day (sic!). I began worrying when he turned into part of the furniture in the big students' computer lab, at the last computer in the fifth row, and when his proverbial "you know where you can find me" became more reliable than Newton's gravity law. He moved from his bed to computer and back with an amazing regularity. I would sooner believe that the New Year will fail to come than that Alex would miss his ever increasing dose of MUD. If he could have banished sleep, he would have lived ever after in a happy symbiosis with the computer.

Alex displayed all the classic symptoms of addiction. When the servers would crush and thus deprive him of MUD, he was a sorry sight. He would try to read, watch TV, or listen to music, but all in vain. In the meantime he would drop by the university every 15 minutes just to check if the servers were up again. When MUD was unavailable for more than one day, Alex would curl on his couch, whining in genuine pain. He was ready to sell his soul for a few more hours of MUD. "It's the abstinence crisis, you know!" he would cry in a tear-strewn voice full of self-pity.

Living with a MUD addict had its good sides. He was never there, to begin with and he was all the time so immersed in the game that he never nagged about anything--a perfect roommate. On the other hand, he was lost to the world so much that I had to use force even to drag him to lunch. "Just five minutes, please, I am in the middle of a quest!" Alex would say in response to my desperate appeals to his lowest motives in Maslow's hierarchy, his voice trembling with zeal.

Other times he would not be so gentle. "Oh, not now for God's sake! Can't you see I am retrieving a friend's corpse?!" he would say, outraged by my lack of understanding.

After a while I had to pick up the basics of the game, although I never played it myself, to be able to understand semantically what Alex was talking about. He would storm into the apartment late at night, interrupting my chat with a friend with an exuberant exclamation, "I leveled 39 today!" Then he would submit his daily report of MUD achievements--how he was leading a quest and earned four quest-points because he managed to kill a dangerous mob; or he would brag about what a fine piece of equipment he acquired that day. "I bought a cool shield today at the auction," he once said. I congratulated him heartily and then proceeded to translate his double Dutch to our perplexed third roommate.

Living with Alex I learned that MUD addicts are harmless, lost souls who need attention and preferably a MUD-playing mate to be able to survive in this cruel world which does not understand them. As for myself, I learned to appreciate men who can talk for hours about whether Owen was in offside in the 36th minute of England vs. Argentina football game and in which minute France scored the golden goal against Paraguay on the latest championship. I can at least understand them.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Ohrid or the Butterfly Effect

View from Hotel Goritsa.

Sveti Joan Kaneo at night.

Last week I spent two days in Ohrid, Macedonia. I love this place very much because of its natural beauty, the cosy atmosphere in its small streets and the secret views of the lake. Everyone can compose an own view and it would be unique.

However, this time I was thinking that my affection comes from the strange mixed feeling that it stirs in me: being a Bulgarian, Ohrid (and Macedonia as a whole, of course) feels at the same time home but also a little bit 'altered' (maybe the French word 'decale' is a bit better). This shouldn't be viewed as a kind of romantic nationalism, it's just a comment on the small distance between us (Macedonians and Bulgarians).

In this connection I remembered the 'Butterfly Effect' explained so well in Ray Bradbury's 'A Sound of Thunder'. For those who don't know about the 'Butterfly Effect' it says that small causes (like the flappings of the wings of a butterfly) could lead to big effects somewhere in the future. In 'A Sound of Thunder' a guy travels to the past and accidentally crashes a butterfly. When he comes back to the present the English alphabet has been altered, another candidate wins the presidential elections, etc. (If this is true, imagine the burden each of us carries when killing a fly or let alone smiling inadvertently at a stranger)

Of course, to me Macedonia seems like an altered Bulgaria but I fully realise that the opposite is also true. We can both smile at some strange version of a familiar word. We both think that ours is the original and the other - altered.....Most probably we are both wrong and the original is in another time and space dimension.

In general, it seems as if some kind of strange political butterflies were crashed everywhere in the Balkans altering the pace of history.

However, on a more serious note, I think Gellner's theory of nationalism in 'Nations and Nationalism' is more applicable here. We can go back in time, see when and how the borders were drawn, how the nationalistic feelings mixed with the political agenda of the day, how languages interfered with this political agenda and how they were codified, etc.

Coming back to Ohrid, my favourite place there is definately the church Sveti Joan Kaneo (St. John Kaneo), the rock beneath it (resembling an crocodile) and the little chapel and beach beneath it. I don't have pictures now but later I will upload some of Ellen's beautiful pictures from October (if she gives me the copyright).

Monday, February 16, 2009

Longing for Turkish coffee

Today, I could do with a cup of strong Turkish coffee--it's the only thing that could give me some energy after a night of patchy sleep.

But I stopped drinking it years ago because it gave me stomach cramps--I switched to milder sorts of coffee but eventually had to give them up, too (and de-caf is completely awful for my taste).

One of the best things about Turkish coffee is its rich, intensive smell. Of all the types of coffee I think it comes closest to that most divine flavour, which is the smell of freshly ground coffee. I can never get enough of that (I should probably open a coffee shop :) But I found a way to indulge my longing without having to be sick for days: by getting Ruslan hooked and preparing a cup for him almost every day.

We used to haul packs of coffee from Serbia because only there you can still buy the type which is suitable for Turkish coffee (the method of roasting is different compared to the stuff you would use in espresso or filter machines). But once you open a pack of coffee that has been ground already that beautiful flavor evaporates quickly. So I decided to put to use an electric grinder that we got as a wedding present. Twice a week I grind a small quantity of coffee--just enough for a few cups--so that the coffee I make for Ruslan is always as fresh and possible, and I get to indulge in the smell.

Finding the right beans, though, proved more difficult than I thought. I clearly remember the times when you could buy them in every supermarket in Serbia but it's no longer the case--now it's only ground stuff. Is it because we have become more lazy? Luckily, my Dad managed to get us great coffee from Greenet (an excellent coffeeshop in Belgrade that also sells coffee beans--they have a pretty cool website) and for a while we also used the Kenyan beans we got from Ruslan's friend Elisa. I stumbled upon some in our local Spar but I got the wrong type--for espresso--so Ruslan's coffee now is really bitter and very dark.

The search continues, so if you know where I can get medium-roasted coffee beans in Budapest, please share.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Emergency Landing on Friday 13th or How I’ll Never Mock Cecile About Her Fear of Flying

Here it is turning and it doesn't feel good when it stops.

Two weeks ago our lunches touched upon the topic of flying. My colleague and friend Cecile shared that she would have to fly often in February and that this makes her anxious because of her fear of flying. She also said she feared flying back from Tirana on Friday 13th. I can be bad in such circumstances and as I have never suffered from travel anxiety or from a ‘Friday 13th’ syndrome I didn’t miss the opportunity to tell some stories of air accidents. I only mentioned those ones with a happy end but still….

Well, I totally forgot that it was Friday 13th yesterday. I started the day with a nice snowy view of the Albanian mountains over the Ohrid Lake, I had a nice breakfast with my colleagues and friends Ana, Elisa and John and a good two hours of an interesting meeting with a clear possibility of a new meaningful regional project. Then we took a nice car ride from Ohrid to Skopje along the Shar Mountain with my colleague Viktor from Banja Luka.

I just calculated that last year I had 40 accident-free individual plane flights. This simply made me quite oblivious of the forces of gravity and thoughts about our fragility did not cross my mind while on a plane. I have mostly been pre-occupied with the aesthetic aspects of flying, the contours of the clouds and the view of the landscapes from high altitude.

Everything started just fine yesterday, we boarded the propeller Bombardier Q400 plane and we took off without any problems. We quickly gained altitude and I took out my laptop even before the security lights went off. However, just a minute later someone on the right side of the plane said that the engine stopped. An unmoving propeller engine is quite frightening in the air as it is designed to turn in the air and not stay motionless. The stewardess rushed to the cockpit and then immediately announced ‘Tajekosztatjuk hogy….’ – ‘We are informing you that….’. This simply prolonged the anxiety of all the passengers 90% of whom did not understand Hungarian, of course. The lady, quite pale and worried, announced that the right engine failed and that we were returning to Skopje for an emergency landing. Later she told us that nothing like this has happened to her before.

I have to admit that the next 10 minutes were not very pleasant for anybody. I folded my laptop as I decided that writing a project proposal is not very relevant at this point. Of course, I got a bit scared as everyone else as the plane, slightly tilted to the right as no engine supported it on this side, started descending a bit too quickly for my taste. Some reassuring voices said that these planes can land with only one engine (hope dies last). The British man next to me had his eyes closed, the history of the late Roman Empire in hands. The woman on the right started worrying about her connection flight to Milan and everybody was looking at her with unbelieving eyes. I was surrounded by Dutch who kept their spirit and who gently told this woman that security is our first priority and that we’d better land first before worrying about our Friday night plans.

The rest is not very interesting – we landed, of course they didn’t know what to do with us and kept us waiting in a strange space, of course no one spoke good English, of course the Malev representative spoke bad English in a quiet voice….

I must admit that there is a feeling of exhilaration and a big relief when everything finishes. It must be similar, in a lesser degree, to what soldiers feel after coming back from battle and it must have something to do with adrenaline.

As there were few Macedonians I was interviewed by some TV…..Aren’t journalists like vultures sometimes? I didn’t believe they would broadcast it but an hour later I received text messages from two Macedonian friends who watched me and said you should never fly on Friday 13th and that I ought to celebrate.

I will never mock Cecile about her fear of flying....

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Girls just wanna have fun

Yesterday was the second gathering of our impromptu "Sex and the City'" club over dinner at ours (featuring: Tsvete, Christelle, Venelina and yours truly). A token male presence was provided by Boris who kept jumping and running around and generally making fool of himself in order to attract attention (as they do).

Given the current composition a more accurate description would be "the wives of absent husbands" but, hey, that's not nearly as glamourous, not to mention that it's kind of pathetic, too.

Last time we met at Tsvete's over an improvised lunch, with everyone bringing a little something to contribute. Christelle must have cooked about 3 litres of tomato soup which she divided equitably between us and her husband. We liked it--he seemed like he had a plate too many :).

Yesterday, the menu consisted of a creamy vegetable soup (courtesy of Tsvete), honey-mustard chicken, cous-cous with spicy sausages and garlic bread (contributed by me) and enough cakes, pies and baklava to feed us until the end of the month (thank you, Christelle and Venelina!).

So we chattered and chatted and gossiped, like girls do--and I can't wait for the next time. Yum!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

EU, Turkish Toilets, Politics, Kitsch and Kundera

A month ago, the Czech Presidency of the EU started with the unveiling of a slightly provocative art installation Entropa. The Czech artist Cerny depicted the countries in a playful manner picking on some cliches and stereotypes. For example, Germany is a web of motorways in the form of swastika. The Netherlands is under water with only the minarets of mosques sticking out of it. Slovakia is a Hungarian salami, etc. I read that the artist claimed that the art work should be understood in the light of Borat and Monty Python - a bit of cliches, a bit of absurdism.

Bulgaria was probably portrayed in the most controversial manner as a Turkish squat toilet. I must admit that I was a bit irritated in the beginning and was thinking that there aren't many such toilets in Bulgaria any more. However, to my big surprise, the scandal acquired a political dimension when the Bulgarian politicians protested in all possible ways and in the end managed to have this part of the installation veiled again.

I think the Bulgarian authorities failed to understand that, after all, this is only a work of art and not a picture and as any work of art freedom of expression and interpretation is inherent. They also kind of did not get it that by having the toilets covered they committed an act of censorship typical of another era. And, worst of all, they failed to take the whole thing with a dose of self irony. Yes, indeed, the artist got it right: Bulgaria is indeed between the Orient and the Occident.

The whole thing immediately reminded me of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being and his theory on kitsch (Part Six, the Grand March). And what a coincidence that the artist is Czech.... I browsed through it and remembered that one way to define kitsch is the absolute denial of shit in both the literal and figurative senses of the word. It is also 'the mask of beauty one tries to wear'. And....wasn't the Bulgarian reaction exactly this???? If, by any chance, the authorities would have been asked what they would like to feature in Brussels as a symbol of Bulgaria, no doubt they would have chosen a smiling child or a rose or a snowy mountain or.....

But Kundera's analysis makes me think of a more important aspect of kitsch and this is in us and not out of us. It is the claim for perfection, the denial of complexity of motives, the rejection of doubt and the lack of irony....

Saturday mornings on the Szena ter market

Saturday morning is a time for pancakes. I used to make them at home but it would eat a big chunk of our morning that we would prefer to dedicate to something more active. Then we discovered the palacsinta place on the first floor of the Szena ter market and became regulars. Their pancakes are fantastic, with a generous amount of filling, and also cheap.

In the middle of the ground floor is where you can buy fruit and veg from the producers. They do not necessarily have a bio or organic certificate but they are at least seasonal and local.

We buy our meat from the butchers' on the first floor of the market, although we never tried magyar szürke marha (pictured above) or Hungarian grey cattle--a breed of cattle that is specific to Hungarian lowlands.

Lots of potatoes, some scallions and pulses, as seen from the upper floor.

While our visit to the market gets off to a prosaic start (i.e. eating pancakes) it always ends with an aesthetic touch: buying a bouquet of flowers for our house.

Saturday, February 7, 2009


This will be mainly a picture post. This is Solishta, a village in Rhodopi Mountain. My friend Zlatka's family has a house there and I have visited this village for almost 20 years. This time we returned there in winter time to celebrate the New Year.

Turlata (photo: Mariana Zhechkova)

Rosehip (photo: Mariana Zhechkova)

Zlatka's house (photo: Mariana Zhechkova)

The whole group without Richard and Desi. (photo: Richard Coupland)

View of Solishta (photo: Mariana Zhechkova)

(photo: Mariana Zhechkova)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Apocalypse, now (or pretty soon anyway)

What if the world as we know it is coming to an end and the apocalypse lurks around the corner--do you have what it takes to survive?

If this is something you haven't really spared a thought on lately, you must be reading the wrong papers. Apocalypse seems to be the new black, at least in the left-leaning British press that I like to read. The other day I stumbled upon a hillarious article by Guardian journalist Tanya Gold who went into the wild forests of Devon to learn how to prepare for the morning after the big (and I mean BIG) collapse.

"I am an urban girl. I have no skills except whingeing and bingeing. I can barely open a packet of Hobnobs without an explosive device. But, unlike you, doomed and dying reader, I have decided to prepare for The End, and I am prepared to share the life-saving knowledge I will accrue. This is your cut-out-and-keep guide to the apocalypse. Put it in a drawer. One day you may need it."

In her scenario, you wake up one day --post plague, say--and almost everyone is dead, so there's no one to provide your running water or electricity. Or food, for that matter.

I know what you will say--what's the likelihood of something like that happening? All right, perhaps it is not very likely that an avian flu or nuclear war will wipe out a good portion of humanity, but we seem to be on the verge of (or in the middle, or on the first ladder of a very long descent into) a major global economic crisis. That in itself is pretty scary, too.

So even before all these survive-the-apocalypse-guides started appearing in the media I caught myself thinking, well what if the crisis gets really bad and our world changes dramatically? I'm not talking apocalypse here, just a very bad economic crisis with almost no jobs and very little money in circulation--something like we had in Serbia in the 1990s.

What can I do that is practical? Almost nothing, really. I can cook, but can't grow my own food. I can write, edit, translate and write communications strategies but how much would that be in demand? In times like those it's good to be able to do something with your hands: grow food, repair plumbing, fix teeth, make clothes, take out an appendix (ideally, all of the above).

So, should I get worried? Are you?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Travels with Kapuscinski

One of the really nice things about our regular winter pilgrimage to Lazarevats (Serbia) and Sliven (Bulgaria) this year was Jelica reading to me ‘Travels with Herodotus’ by Richard Kapuscinski while I was driving. Sometimes these long drives can be just a bit boring (10h. from Lazarevats to Sliven) but we found the cure this time – reading. Well, it is easy to listen and not that easy to read but Jelica did it so well. Dziekuje (thanks in Polish). To whoever doesn’t know Richard Kapuscinski is a famous Polish journalist writing mostly about his travels. This is only the second book I (we) were reading after the Shadow of the Sun which Nathalie happily possesses now.

There is a funny story about all that. I found out about Kapucsinski thanks to a Spanish friend of mine – Mar Roman – whom I met in Kenya. Mar is happily married to an Indian now but the Shadow of the Sun is about Africa. Actually ‘Travels with Herodotus’ is partly about India. My copy of the Shadow of the Sun is with Nathalie whom I met in Budapest but Nathalie is currently in Kenya where I first discovered about Kapuscinski. It’s a crazy world.

But let me mention just a couple of words about Kapuscinski. I really recommend him to anybody who likes travelling and to anybody who finds it hard to travel to poor, run down countries like most of the African countries he depicts in the Shadow of the Sun. He simply shows how it is possible to find beauty, friendship and love even in the most wretched and dictatorial places. He proves how it is possible to turn on the ‘good filters’, of course properly analyzing all that the ‘bad filters’ filter out.

View of the seafront in Lamu, Kenya

Local girl in Lamu