Monday, December 05, 2005

The Last Yugoslavs

To the right is a picture of St. Sava. This, I'm told, is the largest Orthodox Church in the Balkans and is the subject of a little piece I made recently called "The Last Yugoslavs". The Public Radio Exchange made it this week's "Pick of the Week" and editorial board member Marjorie van Halteren said "Straight from the heart, nicely done."
Below is the entire text, which, I believe also makes nice reading.
Click here to listen to the radio version of the piece. It's only 5'43"
In April of 1996, I went to Belgrade. The war in Bosnia had just come to an end and my wife Dragana, who is from Banja Luka, Bosnia, went to see her family there for the first time in 4 years. As you could imagine, it was an emotional reunion.

The atmosphere in Belgrade was charged. Slobodan Milosevic was still in power, the old Yugoslavia was dead and war was in the air. And there I was, a tourist in the city on the edge of an abyss. Dragana’s two cousins, Svemirka and Goca, decided that I should see something of the city. So off we went to what they claimed was the largest Orthodox Church in the Balkans. The bus was sweltering. All of Belgrade smelled like sweat and exhaust. It had once been rich, but now it was poor, desperate, slightly beaten and resigned to more beatings. The people looked busy, going to work or to cafes. But they also looked, I don’t know, somehow lost.

And there it was, Saint Sava. It’s heaving domes not really elegant, just very big. A swollen white and grey carbuncle in the city center. And it looked closed. Could we go in? Should we? Should we say that I was an American? After all, the Americans had just bombed the Serb Army in Bosnia. I didn’t think I’d be, you know, popular.

We found an open gate and walked to the little vicary next to the church. A painfully thin young man of about 25 was sitting, reading a newspaper and perspiring in his gray polyester suit with a thin, black tie, his white shirt transparent from sweat. He said his name was Slobo. Goca and Sverminka told Slobo I was a visiting American of Serb decent and that we wanted a tour of the church. Slobo said he spoke English, nodded and, unsmilingly, led us inside for a big surprise. The largest church on the Balkans was nothing but an empty shell.

It seems that they’d been trying to finish the church for the last 80 or so years but, every time they were just about to start again, war would break out and they’d have to stop. Slobo robotically led us through the building, told us the statistics: how high, how big, what kind of stone it was made from and then he led us out. As we past the vicary he turned and, strangely, dropped his formality and asked us inside for a drink.

We sat at the table of a large room and were given tiny glasses of powerful plum brandy, slivovic. Slobo looked at me and asked, do you play piano? No, sorry. I do, he said, and he walked over to the upright piano next to the table. And then he started to play.

The music was both joyous and sad. My wife and cousins started singing along with Slobo, word for word. And then he said, do you know this song from the mountains of Macedonia? And they did, and they sang, and they drank and off came Slobo’s jacket. And then he said, do you know this song old Bosnian drinking song, and they did and they drank and they stood on their chairs with their arms in the air and off came Slobo’s tie. And they kept on singing and dancing and drinking and laughing. And then Slobo stopped playing.

And he said, “Do you know, we had the best country in the world? We had freedom and money and a hard currency, but we didn’t have to work hard like you in the west. We had good lives. We had the best from the east and the west and we destroyed it.” “Do you know, I am not from Belgrade. I am from Croatia. I was here when the war started and I got stuck.” “I am from Dalmatia.” “Do you know this old Dalmatian fisherman’s song?” And he started to play…

They knew the song. And they sang and they drank until they wept. They all wept for the country they had lost. The Croat, the Serb and Bosnians all wept, for they were no longer countrymen, and yet they were, at least for tonight, still bound by the memory of what was and what could have been, and by this music. They we’re singing as if they were the last Yugoslavs on earth.

Later that night, we went to dinner. Slobo got into a fight with a gypsy band that wouldn’t play an old Yugoslav song. Then he got drunk, passed out in his soup and ruined his suit.


At 1:03 AM, Blogger Adam Daniel Mezei said...

JG, I thought you had some musical talent -- don't we hear now and again your skills with the ol' voice? Didn't you do some singing in the past?

At 10:01 AM, Blogger Jonathan Groubert said...

Yes, but I don't play piano.

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

I loved the dovetailing there of the klezmer track in the background. It was precious.

I had a comment about the Armenians-raised-as-Turkish segment of the program. I think a site like Twenty Voices would appeal to your listeners. I don't know her personally, but apparently she gave a magnificent speech over here in town once that stunned the crowd. I suppose her strident efforts, like the granddaughter of your piece, are part of the staunch efforts to prove the German tyrant wrong when he stated: "Who shall remember the Armenian genocide...?"

I had a question about the little kerfuffle with the locals in Banja Luka -- I hope there were no compromising you think our Dalmatian friend may have been a little loose-lipped considering he was more than half into the bottle. A little 'spotty,' was he?

Also, may nothing happen to you, JG, we love you at our blog, and we also love your program.

Looking to bring more of the ladies over here...there's Hana, and there's Sandra, and there's also Dasa...I'm going to bring the whole bunch over.

At 11:12 AM, Blogger Adam Daniel Mezei said...

One more thing.

Triple word score, J, on the word carbuncle. Like we say over here, it was the shizz-nizz.

But it almost reminds me of what the St. Joseph's Oratory (Oratoire) looks like in the city of Montreal. I mean, what gives with houses or worship and all that -- are they all intended to be so foreboding?

Question that perhaps won't be answered: Aren't we all supposed to be getting a little more humble anyhow?

At 2:35 PM, Blogger Jonathan Groubert said...

Bring over all your women.
Shizznizzally yours.

At 10:51 PM, Blogger Hana said...

Jonathan, Hanka again :)

Your article reminds me of the relationship of the Czechs and the Slovaks. Of course we went through a peaceful separation. Quite another thing, really, but nowadays, you can hear how the people don't really know why the separation occured. Most of them think it was a work of the governments - of their negotiation and that the people weren't really involved or asked about it, which is true, actually.

There is still some kind of a tension between the two nations, still, but we are so tightly connected that, really, we do know each other tales, songs, language, food. You name it.

And we both drink slivovice the same way at that - at one gulp - and then we cruise the streets and sing the hymn when it still had both parts - Czech and Slovak.

At 12:16 AM, Blogger Jonathan Groubert said...

I was in Bratislava earlier this year visiting colleagues at Radio Slovakia. The country seemed, how shall I put it, comfortable with its independence.
I suspect the fondness is more a sign of nostalgia more than anything.
I'm on holiday for a week and a half as of tomorrow, so if I'm slow to respond to posts, don't think I'm ignoring anyone.

At 3:16 AM, Blogger Borscht said...

Bratislava should embrace its status as the EU's new capital.

I think for that reason, J, it embraces its independence so, principally. However, perhaps the desire to want to outform their erstwhile cousins and neighbourly Bohemians & Moravians stems more from spite, than from SK's desire to make it on their own? An idea. Discuss.

This might remain the way things are, at least until a couple of generations pass.

Note to self >>> check back in a couple of generations...even if it'll mondo be tough to fashion the words to the voice-recognition device with humanly-comprehensible sound, as a baboon. (I am being reincarnated as a gibbon, if I have my way).

Bringing more of the womenfolk!

-- Comrade Vegetable aka Borscht

At 9:21 PM, Blogger Hana said...

I think Jonathan is right. The Slovaks are perfectly fine with their independence, that's true. They are proud to have their own autonomous state for sure.

I was reffering more to the origin of the separation, cause when I have spoken with my friends from Slovakia, they can't recall who made the impulse for the separation as I don't. The only thing I know - the fact went on that we are being separated, but reasons? "Lasting disputes and diverse nations".. blurry for sure..

But we still share cultures - there is even a certain stress on the fact that the two countries are closer to each other then any other and should cooperate more. So despite the fact we are separated, we tend to try to get closer together.

I think it has something to do with free will. Have someone force you to do something and you don't want to do it. However, if it is YOUR choice, it's another thing.

At 9:35 PM, Blogger Borscht said...

To think about the cooperation this will now engender amongst the Slovaks and the Czechs -- perhaps in a way that never existed before!

I liken it to the after-effects of someone suffering a debilitating injury (life-threatening even, or the loss of a major faculty, like sight). It has caused them to favour a certain portion of their daily reality, making them more sensitive to it.

They appreciate what they may have lost...moreso than when they had it. See?

Kind of an ass-about-face way to arrive at cooperation at the end of the day...but perhaps this is what the handful of sage statesmen had in mind while beer-drinking under the 'Banyan tree.' In Bratislava during those fateful days during '89, the world appeared to be their oyster.

I think their plan seems to be working. A little healthy rivalry doesn't hurt anyone, does it?

At 9:42 PM, Blogger Hana said...

Exactly, that's what it seems to be the case here.

Despite I think the two countries will not connect in one state under one government again, I feel the bond there will grow stronger. The old disputes will be forgotten and the young generations will be cooperating more.

I mean, the fact is, Slovaks who ran to Czech Republic for work a great unemployment in Slovakia are already returning back to their homeland as they feel the situation improves.

It's like with arguments in one's family or among close friends. There , sometimes, needs to be storm to bring the clear air.

At 9:45 PM, Blogger Borscht said...

What you're essentially saying there, Hana, is that the Slovaks are opportunists, and the Czechs are conducting the pace and rate of progress, yes?

If Slovaks shift at the slightest incidence of greener pastures in Bohemia and Moravia, then what are you really saying about Slovakian youth?

If I were Slovakian, I'd take issue with that.

At 9:54 PM, Blogger Hana said...

Well, we all know that Slovakia has a little weaker economy then the Czech Republic, we're not in dispute here, are we?

And, the moving for work is normal to other states in Europe. Czechs take the opportunity of working in Germany cause it pays better - does this mean all Czechs are opportunists?

Nope, I understand it. If the people are willing to move and to work in another country, than that's perfectly fine. This was the entire EU should be about actually - let's hope soon.

What I am saying about Slovakian and Czech youth is that we are less burdened with the nationality disputes then the generation before us and - along what I was saying before - more open to cooperation when realizing the two nations are really closest together around and could make an allience instead of engage is stupid disputes over "differences".

At 10:02 PM, Blogger Borscht said...

Here's an interesting theory:

In actual fact, what's happened is that the accession of the two nations to the expanded EU is like another form of their 'reuniting' as Czechoslovakia.

Think about it...

Now they're part of the same supernational state -- the EU -- they're together again, even stronger than before...there are no differences between them like the ones artificially-imposed upon them between 1992-2004.

They needed the twelve years of separation from each other to realize that they were stronger together than they were apart...

Perhaps this is what I should have expressed at the outset, and focussed less on the 'opportunistic' slight which I overemphasized at the expense of the more noble underpinnings.

In fact, I think I just won the debate, because in this instance it makes the Slovaks seem abundantly wiser than I've depicted them.

Silly me...but we worked at this conclusion together.

Do we call the matter closed? Or does JG have something to say about this?

At 10:13 PM, Blogger Hana said...

I agree now - the Czechs and the Slovaks tend to be forgetting about their disputes when realizing it is good to have allience and have a close relationship when being a part of such a multi-cultural organization like EU is.

At 12:15 PM, Blogger Jonathan Groubert said...

Greetings from Egypt, my holiday destination.

The doctor is out. But I interviewed former Belgian PM de Haene about the future of Belgium: together or apart. He said one day it would be a moot point as Europe becomes more and more a group of regions rather than nations.
Nationalism seems to have once again reared its ugly head, but perhaps this will one day be true.

At 1:00 PM, Blogger Borscht said...

It's utterly sublime to have former PM de Haene opine on this subject, considering how contentious are the present bonds which hold the likes of the Belgian neo-monarchical state together. (Google it if people don't know what I'm on about...)

Point in fact: In a somewhat tongue-in-cheek reference, Sire, I hasten to admit we'd lose the likes of amazing people like Jean-Claude van Damme (my current Vancouver neighbour, I kid you not!, he's shooting THE HARD CORPS w/ Vivica as we speak), who can converse as fluidly in English, French, and in Flemish and look so shagaliciously good doing so (I mean this strictly as a third-party observer, for we all wish to be in possession of the 'Muscles from Bruxelles' copious and flexible talents -- at least I do...did I tell you I was an Olympic contender at one stage -- as me offline)...this is what we surely face the loss of with the disappearance of 'nationalism'

It has churned out the likes of some of the greatest actors, creatives, and the like -- supposing, as I do, that the tension in the air from one asserting their hallowed national status is what gives them their delightful colour. Blah, blah, blah, I wanted the meat, not the gravy. Ok, so here it is...

I love the 'regional analogy' since it reminds me of perhaps what the Balkans must have looked like in the past before they glommed into their relevant nation-states...peering at the maps from the era (there are some awesome books from the time, I used to look at these in the libraries in Prague), there was certainly a regionality to the area...have you seen some them?

Cultures spilled over the borders of many of these nations who now fly their flags so proudly and bombastically atop their buildings of Parliament (do I like Gotovina, you ask?).

A little joke: My perception of JG...even though he is a Dutch citizen, wed to a beautiful delightful European (never seen her, but her voice is the coolest!), J isn't much of an American expat since he wasn't much of a 'pat' in the first place, if you get what I mean...this is certainly how I think of myself, therefore I am projecting all of my years of scarring, resentment, and national doubt onto you, JG. ;-)

Sorry...but someone has to accept the brunt, yokester.

In any event, may you have a delightful time in the Land of the Pharoahs. Don't forget to tell those sentinel statuesque figures to let Our People go, Charlton.

We miss you, good Doc! We've been taking care of the bloggy in your absence.

We'll ask for our raise later. Who the hell wants to ruin a good holiday? ;-P

-- Comrade Produce

At 1:09 PM, Anonymous adam daniel mezei said...

Hana, I disagree w/ your last comment -- it's totally off-kilter, sorry, and I mean this with the most professional amount of courtesy I can conceivably muster...normally, I don't offer much...but you're a doll, and I have a soft spot for Czechs.

Here 'goes:

Ne, I am not saying the Slovaks and the Czechs (the Bohemians, Moravians, and grimy Silesians, only because there are coal mines there. not because there is anything fundamentally wrong with them) are forgetting about their differences...that's being too dismissive, jujeune, and pat.




Ne. Again.

I'm saying -- in the immortal words of Alanis Morisette -- how 'isn't it ironic, doncha think?' that the former Czechoslovak constituent nations are now acting more 'Czechoslovak' than ever before! it had to take a breakup, an EU accession in oh-four, and a healthy competitive rivalry played out by striving youngster like yourself, to get them to realize that they're acting more 'unifed' than thay actually were in name. Dig?

That's all I'm saying...okay? (Hang on...I've got to tell the nurse to up my voltage).

.:: waiting ::.

Back again...

If this is akin to a fencing match: I think I just parried away your thrust, and now am in riposte, with the foil tip precariously close to a senstive part of your goiter area.


At 2:02 PM, Blogger Hana said...

Adam, you are right, of course!

But isn't this what I said?

Ok, we have the Czechs and the Slovaks , right? Two countries. Separate. Yet similar. The Slovaks as JG said are fine with their own autonomy. The Czechs are as well. They had disputes in the past about this. Now, being in a mixture of the EU nations, they realize they, being closesly connected both, still compete together, but are aware of their similarities and support each other's cooperation more.

Right? No disputes here, or yes?

At 2:07 PM, Blogger Borscht said...

No disputes on that specific point -- but I am still looking for a debatable item.

Can we yet discover one?

At 9:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anyone have a listing of the music used in this show?

At 8:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a wonderful piece! Would anyone be able to tell me the name of the Dalmatian fisherman song used at the end?

At 10:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is called Vela Luka, and I think this is the Kapla group played in the story;

At 10:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It’s called Vela Luku, and I think this is the Klapa group played in the podcast;


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