Monday, November 27, 2017

The sparrows of Kosovo

It's not often a beautiful woman invites me to Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, to try out the disco shower in her hotel room, so I was hardly going to refuse the offer of a lifetime. H had been working in Kosovo for a few weeks and I joined her for a long weekend. Whenever I go anywhere on my own, I get fleeced. €15 from airport to city centre, everyone told me. There was a sign at the airport saying €15. This is what I told and pointed at to the group of taxi drivers. €15! I exclaimed. No, they exclaimed back. €30! This went on for a while. I ended up getting in a cab with an old guy who I thought might be a soft touch. Nope. €30!

It was to be the biggest expense of the trip by a long way. Put it this way – for €5 I could get a coffee, a beer, a meal and a pack of cigarettes. Sandwiched between trips to Stockholm and Venice, Kosovo was welcome relief on the wallet, if not as high up on the tourist destination list as the aforementioned places.

They say time travel will never happen – if it had, people would have come back from the future to our time. But it happens every day. Remember those balmy summer holidays as a child that lasted forever? Or that day in the office that lasted a fortnight, whilst the week holiday in Spain went by in a couple of hours? Sleep feels like a form of time travel. As we get older we experience time differently – in general, time accelerates in our brain. Going through time zones always feels like time travel to me, and even travel in general. Pay some dosh, hop on a plane, and whizz bang, you're in a completely culture with different people, money, buildings, food.

Kosovo, part of the former Yugoslavia, is a tiny (population: about 2m), landlocked country in the Balkans. It's recognised as a country by the United States and most of the E.U. but not by Serbia or Russia. It remains a disputed territory and partially recognised state. The area is still far from stable; the country is very poor and there are no jobs. You know what, though? It felt like one of the safest and friendliest places I'd ever been to.

Pristina may lack the wow factor of a capital city but it has a great coffee culture and some really quirky architecture – I don't know, there's probably not much more I need from a city. I loved wondering around with H – who already knew the place like the back of her hand – stopping for coffee and taking pictures of bonkers buildings. There's an intriguing mix of architecture – some modern, some communist, some Ottoman mosques and hamans and lots of monuments, dedicated to either communism or war. All over Kosovo are reminders of war – not just the recent conflict, though there are plenty of those, from the black gravestones with photos of prominent soldiers planted in the actual spot where they died in battle (ie on a street corner), to a large statue of Bill Clinton on Bill Clinton boulevard in Pristina – but monuments to previous battles, from the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 to World War II. Many monuments to Tito's Yugoslavia remain, unprotected and often derelict. The Brotherhood and Unity monument, built in 1957, towers above the minaret of a nearby mosque. The Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries are beautiful, but many of these are also derelict or damaged; others have armed guards patrolling and 'No Guns' signs outside.

My favourite building of all though – sometimes unfairly dubbed the ugliest building in the world – was the National Library of Kosovo. A huge building consisting of cube-shaped rooms with some 99 domes on top of them, the whole structure is covered with what looks like chain mail. It all goes to create a bizarre and brutalist building which has divided opinion. Naturally, I loved it.

In the evening we hung out at the popular Soma book station, a cosy and ubercool cafe, bar and restaurant catering to foreign NGOs and cosmopolitan locals (ie it's expensive, for Kosovo). Books and records are for sale, and cool jazz wafts through the dim room, creating an intimate atmosphere. Standing outside in the garden having a smoke, I heard the delicate tones of Chet Baker singing from inside; outside was the Muslim call to prayer – a very pleasant musical mash up.

Cocktails are a speciality at Soma but we kept to coffee and juice. I really don't mind a country without pubs and bars. In the UK, coffee shops shut at 5:30pm then the only option is the pub, and alcohol. In Kosovo – a Muslim country, so not many pubs – there are no drunks littering the streets on a Saturday night, no drunken shouting and fighting. The coffee shops stay open till late, creating a pleasant environment of people chatting over their macchiatos.

In general, the service in Kosovo is amazing – not matter what you order in a cafe or a restaurant – it arrives in minutes. Liburnia restaurant was my favourite place to eat; a slightly ramshackle old building but cosy and romantic, all the food cooked in their traditional open oven. Upon entering, we walked through a sort of greenhouse filled with trees, plants and flowers before entering the main restaurant, decked out with old wooden furniture and decorated with antiques.

We spent two days exploring other parts of Kosovo – taking buses to Prizren in the south and Peja in the west of the country, passing casinos, unfinished and abandoned buildings and factories, then snow-capped mountains and lush forests along the way. Every once in a while an immaculate palace-type building will appear as if from nowhere, in a wasteland, seemingly modelled on the White House or an ancient Greek temple. Flocks of black birds (possibly blackbirds – which would be a nice allusion to the Field of Blackbirds, site of the 14th century battle and marked by a war monument, but they looked bigger, so I'm calling them black birds – ravens or crows, I guess) flew ahead and alongside the bus, as if showing the way and ensuring us safe passage.

Outside of Pristina, we were more of an oddity, and people sometimes gave us suspicious looks. Nevertheless, a sweet old man selling chestnuts by the river in Prizren, not only gave me his cushion to sit on the wall but refused any money for the chestnuts he gave us. In Peja (also known as Peć), we visited the beautiful Patriarchate of Peć, the monastery and Serbian Orthodox church located about 1km out of town. I had to present my passport to an armed guard. We'd asked several people in town where it was; no one had heard of it – or said they hadn't. I thought this bizarre – but there was no way a Kosovan would visit a Serbian church.


H was working on the Monday so I had a day to myself. I could make out that I simply hopped on a bus to a foreign country without map or currency or H – which is true – but I did a fair bit of online research beforehand and was a tad apprehensive. I needn't have worried; the bus from Pristina to Skopje, capital of Macedonia, takes two hours and costs €5.

Though Dana Rohrabacher, a congressman close to Donald Trump and frequent defender of Vladimir Putin, said earlier in the year that "Macedonia is not a country. I'm sorry, it's not a country," and suggested it should split up and divided between its neighbours, well, to me – and I'm sure, its residents – it certainly felt like a country. Its capital, Skopje, felt very unique and much different to Kosovo. Its uniqueness is striking and controversial. The whole city centre has been transformed in recent years with the 'Skopje 2014' renewal project, at a cost of hundreds of millions of euros. Detractors call it a kitsch mini-Las Vegas theme park and waste of money in a country with much poverty and unemployment. I see their point, but as a tourist there for a day, I loved it. Everywhere you look there are giant mock-classical Greek government buildings and museums, monuments, water fountains and warrior statues. That the city has 'borrowed' from Greek legends is no accident – the country has been locked in a 27-year-old feud with neighbour Greece, who objects to the country being called Macedonia (Greece wants it to be renamed the catchy Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). Athens has accused Skopje of 'cultural theft', and giant new monuments of Alexander the Great isn't helping the cause. The name feud has been the main reason Macedonia hasn't joined the EU or Nato.

Anyway, aside from being conned into buying a pair of fake Ray-Bans, I enjoyed the city tremendously. The sun was shining (I did actually need a pair of shades), and Skopje felt more cosmopolitan and relaxed than Pristina – women were out and about, for a start. Again, it's the bonkers mix of buildings which makes it such a fascinating place. Over the bridge from the sparkling white mega mock-classical buildings of the city centre is the charming old bazaar, Skopje's focal point of trade and commerce since the 12th century. With its labyrinth of alleyways, small shops, markets and cafes, mosques, hamans and a fortress, it has the feel of a North African medina. I was foolishly walking around in a pair of dirty shoes – and had a shoe shiner chase after me, and actually apply shoe polish to my shoe as I was running away from him.

I stumbled across by accident a concrete communist-era bonkers brutalist building I'd wanted to see – the central post office, looking like a cross between a spaceship and a giant insect. My other favourite building in the city was the Mother Teresa Memorial House (the famous nun was born in Skopje in 1910), a sort of fun, post-modern Hansel and Gretel mash up, rather than the austere place of worship you'd expect.

I only had a few hours to explore the city; yes I was worried about missing the last bus back. I arrived back in Pristina when it was dark and freezing cold, got a taxi back to the hotel with a crazy driver talking about kings of the road and guns (via Google translate on his phone); got fleeced.

Oh, and the disco shower? I found it a bit intimidating and complicated, but it was a disco shower. It had flashing lights, a radio and jets of water spurting out in all directions. And the sparrows? Lots of them would chirp around me in the morning when I had a cigarette in the courtyard of the hotel.

My flight back was at three in the morning. I got a taxi to the airport; with only €20 in my pocket, I was afraid I'd be charged €30 again. When he said €15, my heart leapt and I almost wept with joy; I gave him a large(ish) tip.

Flickr photos of Kosovo and Skopje.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

The pigeons of Venice

What do you call someone from Venice who can't see? A Venetian blind! I'm here all day, folks. Obviously, Venetian blinds didn't originate in Venice (actually Persia; Venetian traders in the 1700s bought them back to Venice and Paris – the French still refer to their country of origin by calling them les persienes), just as, say, Jerusalem artichokes aren't from Jerusalem (nor are they even artichokes). Anyway, I digress.

We arrived in the medina that is Venice at about two in the morning. Wondering aimlessly around the maze of alleyways trying to find our hotel, I naturally thought of Don't Look Now, and told H if she sees a little girl in a red raincoat, Don't Follow Her.

Is there anywhere else like Venice in the world? A city with no cars! With roads made of water! It's simultaneously antiquated and futuristic (cars – driverless or flying Blade Runner-style – do not figure in my vision of the future at all), though climate change doesn't make the future for Venice look great – it'll be like Atlantis in years to come.

Which, in a roundabout kind of way, is why we went. H and I had wanted to see Damien Hirst's (no, never been a fan of his before) Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable exhibition all year and finally got a cheap deal in November. The exhibition has received mixed reviews but there was no doubting the boldness of vision. Ten years in the making, costing millions of pounds, employing 250 craftsmen in 5 countries and housed in two galleries, this was art as blockbuster movie (I wasn't even going to mention this, but I will. Yes he employs people to execute his art! Like a film director does! Like Michelangelo did! Like Jeff Koons does! Enough!).

A year ago, almost to the day, we'd seen the British Museum's 'blockbuster' show, Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds, the tale of two 'lost' ancient Egyptian cities recently 'rediscovered'. I'd been underwhelmed by it all, but more than that – and I said as much to H at the time – I felt all the artefacts looked too new, and possibly, well, fake (we all mock modern art by saying it's only called art because it's in a gallery; very rarely do we question the veracity of a museum). Though Hirst's exhibition was planned years before the British Museum's, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable felt like a personal affront to Sunken Cities.

Before I went to the exhibition, I wasn't altogether clear on the story. Did Damien really find treasure off the coast of East Africa, and then doctor it – Chapman Brothers-style – with Mickey Mouse and Mowgli? Or was it all a hoax? The clue's in the exhibition title, the anagrammatically-named Cif Amotan II ('I am fiction', the wealthy freed slave from 100AD whose treasure this is) and, well, actually visiting the exhibition. Even though there is a strikingly similar and realistic documentary (or mockumentary, if you will) to the Sunken Cities one of divers finding the treasure haul in the depths of the ocean when you enter the exhibition, it very soon becomes apparent that it's all fake (though not fake art but fake news). Okay, it's a hoax but an amazing one.

There are one hundred artefacts, from drawings and sculptures to jewellery and weapons, some the size of a building, some the size of a fingernail. There are sculptures of serpents and beasts, of Kate Moss and Mickey Mouse, Rihanna an an Egyptian goddess, made from marble, stone, bronze, silver and gold, all encrusted with barnacles and coral. There is a mash up of cultures and religions – Egyptian, pre-Columbian, Buddhism. It has to be seen to be (un)believed.

We'd spent half a day at the two Hirst galleries, but there was other art everywhere in Venice. Not just the city itself – the churches and palaces, the beautifully crumbling buildings – but the Venice Biennale, the bi-annual arts festival which consumes the city. Everywhere we looked was free art – in abandoned buildings and churches (my advice to anyone visiting Venice: when you're in a building, any building, always look up – the ceiling will invariably be stunning) as well as the two main locations: the Central Pavilion and Arsenale. For these it was 25€ for a day pass, but worth every cent. We were there from 12 til 6 and had only seen probably half of the art on display. Some was crap, some was amazing (my own idea for an installation in the city was to have hundreds of balloons in the shape of a lion with wings – the symbol of Venice – floating around one of the churches). Just about every country in the world is represented in every kind of media – even painting! And hardly any female nudes, that fine tradition of the male gaze in western art for the last five hundred years, but lots of cocks.

As an aside from all the art and beauty (sigh; it gets so overwhelming, day after day), we did stumble across other stuff. Like a charity shop. I was hoping it to be full of cut price Tintorettos and designer wear – some Prada garb for 50 cents etc. Alas, no. The very persuasive old woman working there forced me to try on a horrible 1970s blue-patterned cardigan, which I did, before taking it off again immediately and walking out the shop. That didn't stop her from chasing after me down the street, waving the cardigan in the air and shouting Italian in my direction. (A note on the Venetian old ladies: they're stunning! And ballsy! Compared to shrivelling old English women, all beige, afraid and shuffling along, senior Italian ladies are stylish and loud.)

I thought there was no way we'd ever find the Libreria Acqua Alta bookshop I'd heard about, but H found it (she's on a par with my brother in map-reading skills but also has the female intuition thing going on) down a dark alleyway one evening (and even managed to find it again the following morning). Meaning 'bookshop of high water', the shop's solution to the constant flooding it receives every year from the nearby canal is to store its books in baths and a full-size gondola (no, we never went on one if you're asking; not for €80 for 35 minutes), as well as storing its books to the ceiling. With more people taking photos of the shop (including me) than buying books, it's a wonder they stay afloat at all.

We experienced all weather – sun when we arrived; then atmospheric mist and cold and finally rain (we'd prematurely high-fived each other when we overheard an American woman say it was to rain the next day – when we were leaving. We hadn't taken into account that the rain would start in the early hours of the morning, and we'd got soaked getting to the ferry).

Anyway. Venice, city of dreams. Pigeons and tourists, tacky souvenirs, pasta and pizza, ice cream, getting fleeced €6.50 for a coffee (well, I was glad in a way, it had to happen, and could have been a lot worse; still, it leaves a sour taste). The city's sinking, it's a theme park for tourists, a victim of its own success, begger's everywhere. Even so, it still feels like a city of dreams, no cars, water, beauty and art everywhere you look. And no sign of a girl in a red raincoat.

Venice in the movies
Don't Look Now
The Talented Mr Ripley (all set in Italy, with a few scenes in Venice)
Death in Venice
The Tourist (watched against my better judgement, but actually thoroughly enjoyed it.)

Venice in literature
The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, Geoff Dyer
Venice, Jan Morris 
Death in Venice, Thomas Mann

My Flickr photos of Venice are here.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Seven days of nothing

Here's the second video I've made for Naomi Bedford and Paul Simmonds, whose new album, Songs My Ruiner Gave To Me, was released last week. I went to the launch gig at the famous Troubadour cafe in London last Thursday, and had a jolly good time. The album is my favourite of Naomi's yet, and it's already high up in the Amazon folk music chart. 

Previously on Barnflakes:
Without Joy