A Lingering Loathing – Bitterness in the Balkans

Loathing still lingers, unfortunately, in former Yugoslavia (nation of the Southern Slavs). I spent last week in three different fragments of that ‘impossible’ country (forged and held together, despite historical enmities, largely by the iron will of Marshal Tito). I was on holiday in Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina, catching the last of the summer sun and the last warmth of the Mediterranean (already a slightly chilly 22C).

Bosnia & Herzegovina is itself a fragmented state, with three separate presidents, each representing the three major ethnic groups, who still don’t live entirely separately. We travelled by car through each of these fragments within a fragment. I suspect there isn’t complete consensus on the justice of the current compromise. Crossing the border from Montenegro we were welcomed to Republika Srpska, I saw, rather than to Bosnia & Herzegovina.

road sign

Croatia, now an EU member is conspicuously more prosperous than the other two. Croatian GDP per capita (adjusted for purchasing power parity) stands at around 21,000 USD, in Montenegro at around 15,000 USD, and in Bosnia & Herzegovina at around 10,000 USD. To put these numbers into perspective, EU average GDP per capita is around 32,500 USD. Lower GDP translates superficially into poorer roads and a general scruffiness around the edges of everything. Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina is still visibly war-damaged. It reminded me of Beirut, similarly beaten up by civil war.

If there are currents of hatred still seething beneath the surface of these societies they’re not obvious to the tourist. An enormous reconstruction effort has built new roads, and restored towns such as Mostar, where inter-communal killing raged in the 1990s. Except in Sarajevo you would find it hard to imagine the events that occurred just twenty years ago.

The only tension that’s visible to the naive and naked eye lies in the systematic defacing of road signs.

I am often teased by a British friend when I mention multilingual road signs as one of the tangible benefits of EU membership.

‘If that’s all the EU has achieved, a few paltry road signs in more than one language, then I hardly see the point of it,’ he is inclined to say.

But I mention them in all seriousness as, albeit superficial, evidence of the way in which the EU has preserved both the larger peace between nations since the Second World War and the smaller peace between culturally distinct minorities.

‘The EU has developed best practice in the recognition of linguistic minorities,’ I sententiously pronounce, ‘and stipulates that when a linguistic minority exceeds a certain percentage of the population then road signs must be in more than one language.’

Actually, I don’t know if this is true, and I can’t find any evidence for this on the internet, but I suspect it’s at least convention and certainly best practice, if not actually law.

But ardent die-hard nationalists in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans still tend to assert the absolute and necessary dominance of the majority, whatever it happens to be. The culture of the majority must prevail, and where boundaries make that unachievable, a majority must be established through force of arms.

‘Why should we have road signs in Hungarian,’ they might say in southern Slovakia. ‘The Hungarians must learn our language.’

To which I counter, again on the basis of hearsay rather than knowledge, since I hardly ever go there, ‘Well, in Wales we have dual language road signs and we’ve had them for years. Doesn’t matter at all.’

welcome to wales

I suspect that it’s a determination to assert the multi-ethnic nature of Bosnia & Herzegovina that dictates that road signs must show place names using both Latin and Cyrillic characters. Near the Dalmatian coast, where the population is overwhelmingly Croat, this clearly won’t wash, and west of Mostar, and on the short coastal road, Cyrillic place names are ritually obliterated.

Childish, foolish, intolerant, incendiary, destructive, and dangerous, of course, and I wonder, do these Croat nationalist still want the map of former Yugoslavia to be redrawn? Haven’t they endured enough conflict?

Oddly, a ‘Yugoslav’ identity asserts itself outside the homeland. You can find communities of former ‘Yugoslavs’ all over the world, and when they’re not sitting tight in their own territories they seem to be the best of friends. They may be divided by religion and alphabet but they share far more, a group of closely related languages, and a liking for strong alcohol and heaped up plates of meat.

Teetotal Tedium

I went to an after-work drinks event yesterday at the offices of an international law firm. It was organised by the International Business Forum, which brings together foreign and local business people from all walks of life. It’s a worthy cause. You never know when you might make a useful business contact, and the company is usually stimulating, intelligent and friendly.

business drinks

But I’d forgotten that I’m off the booze, and that you can’t do events like this without a glass of wine in your hand.

I’m actually off all sorts of things, on the orders of my doctor, Dr Babkova, in an attempt to reduce the acid, cholesterol and sugar in my blood, and the intersection of what I’m permitted to eat for all of these conditions contains just a few things such as radish, tomato and fish.

I’m an early arrival and find myself in a room that’s largely empty. I launch myself at a Peruvian man and suddenly I find myself talking about Chile, somewhere I’ve never been, know nothing about, and have no intention of visiting. It’s ‘the Switzerland of South America’, he tells me (mountains? chocolate? clocks? money?), a country that apparently embraced market economics under Pinochet and thereby raised the standard of living of nearly everyone in the country. I squirrel this away for later use, though I dimly remember having exactly the same conversation with the same man at a previous event some weeks ago.

I gate-crash a cluster of people I’ve known for years and we talk about the glacial pace of the legal profession.

‘Effectively a cartel,’ someone says.

‘The last unreformed profession,’ I say, as I always do.

We’re in the company of lawyers, but they don’t seem to demur.

Then I chatter with a man who runs a music bookshop. We talk about the Associated Board Grade Five Theory exam, and about whether an algorithmic approach could be useful for the Grade Seven Theory melody exercise (though how you carry an algorithm into a music theory exam I’m not quite sure). I tell him that my brother Jonathan wrote a Fortran program to generate harmonic progressions, and then, riffing away, I tell him that when we were at school together he also arranged Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for just oboe and flute.

‘They didn’t ask for an encore,’ I quip.

This isn’t true, and I don’t actually know why I’m saying it. What he actually did was to arrange Stravinsky’s Ragtime for just three instruments, but such is my desperation that I feel the need to stab at something bigger.

My drinking a glass of still water instead of alcohol provides for a few minutes’ conversation as I meander around the room, but I begin to fear I may be repeating myself. In any case, it’s not a topic that catches fire.

An elderly acquaintance stands guard over a bottle of claret at the drinks table. ‘It’s a bottle of quite exceptional quality for an event like this,’ he tells me. He seems to have drunk most of it. I try a tiny splash and agree with him, but this, of course, just makes matters worse.

There’s an explanation for the excellence of the wine. The event, it seems, is sponsored by a French company who have provided champagne, wine and a few plates of fabulous cheese and salami (forbidden to me, of course, but I nibble them nevertheless).

There’s also a quiz – two sides of questions about the Eiffel Tower – and I come joint second with the owner of a university. My prize is a box of macaroons, but of course I’m not allowed to eat them. I hand them round and offer the last one, an enticing white one, to a man whose hair is exactly the colour of the macaroon.

‘I’m offering you this macaroon,’ I tell him, ‘because it’s exactly the colour of your hair.’

He doesn’t seem to mind my saying this, indeed chuckles almost gratefully.

Our hostess tells us she lunched at the British Embassy with a minister called Francis Maude.

‘It was a small lunch,’ she says. ‘Only twelve. The minister asked each of us to name the most annoying impediment to business development in the Czech Republic.’

‘I would have said “More trains”,’ I say.

My friend and former neighbour, an elegant elderly American lady, invites me to a business conference in Lvov.

‘Formerly Poland, and largely Roman Catholic,’ I trot out, as I always do whenever Lvov is mentioned. ‘My friend Tony visited it and found it empty and dull.’

I should really be promoting my business, though, so I chunter around the room muttering ‘MPs’ expenses,’ but to no avail. I long for the fire alarm to go off, or a stripper to have arrived at the wrong address, or even a small murder.

NEVER go to events like this unless you can drink a glass of wine or two. I wonder, in despair, how events like these can possibly work in places like Iran, where alcohol is entirely forbidden. You just can’t do business chit-chat on orange juice or water.

Just Another Form of Sitting

People often suggest I should be exhausted by travel. I travel a lot, I suppose, but mostly over short distances in Europe, and I always carry my own bag (as, I note, the Pope does nowadays). There are many people my age, older, and younger, who travel much more than I do. David Cameron, for example, and he looks well enough on it, and Angela.

I’ve taken 44 flights so far this year, flown around 90,000 km (just more than twice around the world) visited about twenty countries and still have the appetite for more. I’m off to Sofia today, and thence by bus to Plovdiv. But don’t think for a moment that I travel in great luxury or style. Only 10 of these flights were not economy – most of them were on low-cost airlines, on planes where the seats don’t recline and conditions are cramped. Wizzair, easyJet, and the like (though I avoid Ryanair if I can  because I can’t bear their pizzazz).

No, I don’t have patience with the view that travel is tiring. Of course, jet lag is unpleasant, and getting up early, or arriving somewhere late at night, but that’s not the point. That’s not the travelling part. To my mind, travelling is just another way of sitting. Sitting on trains, sitting in taxis, sitting on buses, sitting in other people’s cars, sitting on a plane, in a departure lounge, in a hotel room. It’s all just sitting. Sitting, and generally working. Sitting is not tiring at all. After all, what else do we do at home, or in the office? Sitting, doing emails, that’s actually the whole of life, with a little lying down thrown in at night.


Standing, of course, is tiring, a lot more tiring than walking (think of how exhausting it is to stand in front of paintings and glass cabinets in museums), and I will never buy a standing ticket for an aeroplane if they ever become an option. Ryanair once mooted the idea of ‘standing seats’ and came up with a design, but surely for no other reason than publicity. Perhaps they were inspired by those discreet ledges that medieval monks perched on to relieve their legs after hours and hours of standing and praying.

Ryanair’s proposed ‘standing seats’…

standing seats

Salisbury Cathedral economy class

monks standing

No, I don’t find travel tiring. I still find it stimulating.

What’s important, is to follow some basic rules:

  • Don’t fly early in the morning. Get up at the usual time.
  • Don’t arrive late at night. Arrive in time for dinner.
  • Don’t drink alcohol at all whilst on the road, or in the air, but eat everything they put in front of you.
  • Don’t be anxious about departure times. Arrive at the airport an hour before a flight is due to leave. It’s always plenty of time, whatever they tell you. After all, there’s always another flight, or an airport hotel, and in all my years of travel I’ve only ever missed one flight. (Note that if your flight is about to close, there’s always an official who will shout out your destination and call you to the front of the queue.)
  • Treat the queues at security and passport control with a Buddhist nonchalance.
  • Treat delays with a Buddhist nonchalance.
  • Always have some work to do. I do my best work at 10,000 metres, blissfully uninterrupted.
  • Don’t talk to the person sitting next to you until the plane starts to descend.
  • Don’t join queues until you have to. I’ve never understood why passengers queue just in front of the gate as soon as the flight starts boarding. You have an allocated seat, so what’s the point? They won’t go without you. Just sit and watch and wait, with a Buddhist nonchalance, if possible.
  • Sit near the luggage carousel and wait for your luggage to appear before rushing forward to pick it up.
  • Take your own tea bags.
  • Don’t be anxious about turbulence. The wings never fall off.