Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A Bosnian Christmas Carol

To the right is Svemirnka (Minka) Mijatovic, my wife's sister (actually her cousin but they don't make such petty distinctions in the Balkans). Behind her is the tiny log cabin church that is the goal of the story below. It is called A Bosnian Christmas Carol, two sections of which have been encoded into Windows Media Format for your viewing pleasure. I hope you enjoy the story below and Merry Christmas!

On January the 6th 2003 or Orthodox Christmas Eve, I took part in a few Christmas rituals with my wife and her family near the little village of Susnjari, just outside of Banja Luka, the capital of the Bosnian Serb Republic.

My wife Dragana, her father, uncles, her English-speaking cousin Minka and I made our way through Susnjari towards the mountain. It was dark, it was cold and it was starting to snow.
As we walked through the village, we stopped at every house. The brothers Mijatovic would start shouting and out would come the men. Hidden stashes of slivovitz were revealed, all drank one shot and we moved onto the next house where this would be repeated.

We did this maybe ten times before we got to the foot of the mountain. Now it was colder, the snow was falling harder and I was drunk. I asked Minka: How long will it take to get to the top? A half an hour, she slurred. And I just knew she was lying.

So we’re fighting our way up this mountain in what has become ankle deep snow. To my astonishment, more people were joining us at every new path. We must’ve been about 50 at one point. And now we’re getting hot and sweaty from the work. And people are laughing and joking and I’m starting to have fun when… of in the distance… I heard baddah baddah baddah pow!!!

“Jesus Minka”, I whispered. “What’s that? It sounds like gunfire.” “Oh it is.” she replied, “Somebody is celebrating Christmas.” “Will they have guns at the top of the mountain?” “Oh no, they’re not allowed to bring them. Well not anymore!”

An hour and half later we reached the top. I thought I heard more gunshots, but it turned out to be kids lighting firecrackers. And there were hundreds of people huddling around a tiny log cabin that could hold maybe 10 people…tops. It seemed that almost everyone had made this arduous, cold difficult journey, up the side of a mountain, in a snowstorm, in the dark, to get to a church so tiny, you simply can’t get in. When the service and auction had ended, some of us moved to the cabin next door. There was many a hearty pat on the back and the greetings of people who only get to see each other once a year, surrounded by alcohol laden halos of breath. And then, magically, my father in law started to sing.

You can click here to see the singing in wmv.

After about an hour, the singing stopped, more out of exhaustion and intoxication, I think. Everyone shook hands and we headed back down the mountain where the whole thing happened in reverse.

Click here to see Minka explain the end of the ritual in wmv.

One party would break off from the rest to head down a different path. We would all stop and sing a song with me pretending to know the words. We all had one shot of brandy, and, in a spirit of genuine brotherhood, go our own way.

When we reached the edge of the village, we were all drunk, wet, cold, hungry and…frankly…exhausted. We hurried home anticipating the gigantic Christmas meal we not only knew was awaiting us, but that we had earned. But then the brothers Mijatovic suddenly stopped in front of a white house and started discussing something in hushed tones I couldn’t understand.

They stopped talking and counted down: three, two, one. And they started singing a soft, kind of sad carol in perfect two-part harmony. And then, a chubby, middle-aged lady with badly dyed blonde hair peered out of the houses front window. She saw the men singing and squeezed her hands to her cheeks. She listened for a minute and then went away.

When she reappeared, she was plowing her way through the knee-deep snow, nearly knocking over the slivovitz bottle and little cups she had placed on a serving tray, laughing and calling to us and panting and, and…she was crying. Minka leaned over to me and whispered, “This woman is a refugee. She lost her whole family when the Croats chased the Serbs out of Krajina. Her husband and son are dead and she’s all alone.” The Mijatovic’s held out their arms and shouted to her. Ho, Ho.They hugged her and she kissed them. She poured us all a glass and we made a toast, “Zivjeli” - To life. And as the brandy burned my throat thought, I thought “Wow, now this is Christmas.”


At 4:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Am I the only one that cannot see the video?

Jonathan, I love the little vignettes about your family. Funny how the music in this one sorta sounds like ska...

Edmonton, Alberta Canada

At 3:11 PM, Blogger Jonathan Groubert said...

Checked the video and it works on several computers. Sorry you're having trouble Janet.
Glad you like my family though. Here are the details about the music: Title DISKO - DZUMBUS Performer MARKOVIC ORCHESTRA, BOBAN Composers FELIX, LAJKO / MARKOVIC, BOBAN Manufacturer Name ROUGH GUIDE Manufacturer Code RGNET 1127 CD

At 3:11 AM, Anonymous chole said...

wow! i recently moved back to the states after 4 years in romania and this was such a familiar story to me. i've been trying to think of how to put into words what i was missing about the christmas season there. as soon as i heard you agree to go out at 4 a.m. on christmas morning, i not only laughed - knowing how much "trouble" you were in - but i knew what i would send as my christmas message to friends this year. everyone is getting a link to this story! it reminds me of the traditions, the comraderie, the insanity and the genuine warmth of holidays i spent with my romanian friends and family.

thanks for sharing your wonderful story! thanks also for the smiles, laughter and a few tears. i really enjoyed this story!

At 6:32 AM, Blogger Borscht said...

Welcome back J in the house!

Borscht here in Prague. Closer now than ever before.

Haven't watched to video yet -- late over here, and we're just, er, accommodating ourselves.

More comments to come soon.

At 10:16 AM, Blogger Jonathan Groubert said...

Wecome back Borscht.

Chole, glad you liked the story. Did the video work for you?

At 3:10 PM, Anonymous chole said...

jonathan - no video. i opened both clips and the sound is there, no problem. but no video. hmmmm...

At 9:13 PM, Blogger Adam Daniel Mezei said...

Okay, so we finally had a chance to look at these links here.

Slightly offtune things were, and regrettably we didn't have a chance to see you. We've seen your pic, and heard your voice on the show, baby, but pity we can't see you in action.

I think I speak for all of the divas of the world (including all of the ladyfolk, Hana, and Janet Anonymous, and Chole) when I say that we'd like to see the main man behind all of the moving and shaking.

Okay, some thoughts that coursed through the old grey matter when watching the clips:

1) Several fields of potatoes will need to be planted to slake the thirsts of these many hearty imbibers. Either that, or more plum trees need to be planted.

2) The snowy vastness of the moutaintop seems like my kind of place to hang my hat and do some serious writing -- I'm in Prague, baby, and Kafka even didn't have it as good atop the mountain!!!

3) The Bosniaks are so cute! I wish I could wrap them in a neat little bundle and have them with me whenever things are down and lonely, like a nice parcel of provisions. Do I have your permission?

Nice going, J.

Keep delivering the moving images. They're soopa-fly!

They call me...

They call me...

What do they call me?!

Oh yeah...


At 9:26 PM, Blogger Hana said...

Nice clips Jonathan! Reminds me of the Czech pub hearty drinkin' and signin' as well ;) I always like to watch how families get together and sing and have a great time!

I love the snowy look of the mountains - it looks like from a fairy tale!

At 8:50 PM, Blogger Jonathan Groubert said...

It was a bit like a fairy tale.

At 11:07 PM, Blogger Adam Daniel Mezei said...

Reminds us of our recent trip to Kosice, in Slovakia.

Silently monumental, is how we call it.

Especially the descent into the city from the clouds, and what that was like.

Yet, somehow, it's nothing compared to what I've read and seen here.

Thanks for that, J. It keeps the creative spirits alive.

At 6:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, finally saw the videos. :) Didn't do anything different. Perhaps it was just the traffic at the time I was viewing.

You guys really look cold and very very happy in an inebriated way.

What I'd like is the audio clip or even the full video clip of the little band that plays the interlude music where Thijs Westerbeek (?) says something about do you love our show? You know the one where it's an oom paa paa band and someone scream Yuri at the beginning and Soi! at the end. Now that would be kewl!

Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

At 4:17 PM, Blogger Jonathan Groubert said...

Hi Janet,

You like that? It's this guy:
Check him out. He's amazing!


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