Monday, 11 September 2017

War in the Balkans - My Take Part III

Yugoslavia 1989 showing ethnic distribution
Trust is destroyed. Fear abounds. The Yugoslav Federation gathers in Bucherest to discuss the situation. Croatian, Slovenian and Montenegan presidents propose a solution which would give them autonomy within the federation. Milosevic and the presidents he has secured the support of, notably Kosovo and Bosnia, reject this proposal.  There is a series of meetings seeking to resolve their differences but ultimately they break down. Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro walk out on the talks declaring that the Federated Communist Party of Yugoslavia is henceforth dissolved.Since 1989Yugoslavia has allowed a degree of democracy in that new political parties are permitted. Moderate and pro democracy parties emerge. Elections are held in Slovenia and Croatia and these moderate parties are elected. Croatia and Slovenia announce that they will declare independence. On the day of the announcement Yugoslav airforce jets attack Zagreb targeting the parliament building. The President narrowly escapes his intended fate and the declaration proceeds.

There is a short 10 day war in Slovenia which ends after Milosevic concludes that Slovenia is not of great interest having fewer Serbians in its population. In Croatia conflict breaks out initiated by local Serbian militia and Serbian members of the police force. They take control of the main highway between Zagreb and the south. Their action is immediately supported by Milosivic and the Serbian dominated Yugoslav armed forces. Croatia is hamstrung by a UN agreement which has been brokered, restraining them from accessing or importing military equipment. This is an attempt to allow time for a negotiated settlement but only results in Serbian troops gaining control of about one third of the country.

1991-1995. The war continues with the Croartians slowly gaining the upper hand. Tens of thousands of both Serb and Croats are displaced. Families of mixed heritage (Serb/Croat/Bosnian) who had embraced Tito's vision of an integrated multi ethnic society are riven with conflict, neighbours turn on each other believing the propaganda of their respective leaders.Towns are razed to the ground. Zagreb, Dubrovnic, Split and Zadar are shelled. The UN plays an ineffective role but by mid 1995 Croatia has regained control over all it former territory and hostilities cease.

This period also sees the fall of the Berlin wall (Novmber 1989) and the break-up of the Soviet Union.(December 1991).

And that's only part of the shit-fight. In Bosnia-Herzegovina a war rages (1992-1996) between Bosnian Serbs and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), backed by Serbia and Croatia respectively, each with aspirations to annex part of that state. The conflict becomes is three way with Croatian Serbian and Bosnian forces attacking each other until, with USA urging, Croatian and Bosnian forces unite to fight against Serbia..Massacres, ethnic cleansing, systematic rape as a strategy of both subjugation and social destruction take place. The most tragic element of the conflict is the siege of the capital, Sarajevo, where the city is totally destroyed and isolated for almost three years. 250,000 people die and two million are displaced. Milosovic maintains that he has not ordered any of this, merely spoken passionately of his vision for a Greater Serbia.

In 1995 a peace agreement is negotiated in Dayton Ohio USA and signed in Paris in December of 1995 by the Presidents of Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Dayton Accord signed 1995 - Paris
1998 ethnic distribution
Milosevic is humiliated. He becomes the President of the surviving Yugoslavia (1998-2000) and continues his mission to create an ethnically pure Serbian state. In 1998 and 1999 Serb nationals in Kosovo take action to secure Serbian dominated territory while Kosovo nationals declare independence and set up an alternative government. The Yugoslav Government, now only Serbia and Montenegro, directly intervenes to impose its control and to suppress Kosovo Albanian resistance. NATO intervenes and controversially takes direct military action against Serbian forces. the conflict ends in mid 1999. Milosovic is defeated in the elections of 2000 and steps down as president.

In 2002 Milosevic is extradited to The Hague to face charges of war crimes and genocide but dies in prison in 2006 of natural causes before his trial is completed. 

Today there is little evidence of the war. It's a topic not discussed openly. There is a small museum devoted to the attack on Zagreb in 1991, but it's in a building with no signage whereas the many other museums in Zagreb trumpet their presence proudly. Kristina tells us she has friends from all ethnic backgrounds but the one "off limits" topic is the war. It's too risky, too raw. It would risk the friendships. I am impressed by Kristina. She is one of the brave ones. She is  prepared to speak honestly about this tragic era.

Balkans 2015
So is this the truth or just another piece of propaganda? Is it too coloured by Kristina's loyalty to Croatia? Am I making presumptions by even committing these impressions to print? I am assuming there are others who have been confused by the complexity of this period and who have been affected by it. The war created a flood of refugees across the globe and sadly those families often took their troubled history with them to their new destination country. Things are pretty quiet in Croatia and the Dalmatian states nowadays. People are more concerned with issues of employment and survival. Croatia has joined the EU but remains the poor cousin and over 150,000 young people leave he country each year searching for a new life in the larger EU family.

I invite you to read a highly regarded book, "The Death of Yugoslavia" also available as a BBC five part documentary of the same name on youtube.

I apologize for any errors of fact and would welcome any feedback.

War in the Balkans - My Take Part II

Tito 1943

The Partisans are anti-facist and united by ideology rather than ethnicity and as a result attract both Croats and Serbs to their cause. In fact so successful and popular is the Partisan movement that it spreads across the length and breadth of Yugoslavia and by the end of WWII its composition has changed radically and is now 9% Croats and 70% Serb.They are a well drilled military force of 800,000.

To complicate matters further there had emerged a movement in Croatia which was composed of Croatian Serbs known as Chetniks, seeking to establish independent control over areas where Serbs are in the majority. They used similar tactics to the Ustace but in the opposite direction, targeting Croats and Bosnians within Croatia.

Still with me? Kristina talked to us for three hours explaining this. My apologies if it's a bit dense. Kristina gave us a couple of short breaks so feel free to make a cup of tea and come back (or not).

The war ends. The Germans leave and Tito and the Partisans (they deserve a capital "P"
by now) gain the upper hand. But remember, Tito was rather enamored of Stalin? Under his leadership the Partisans are just as ruthless as the Ustace. Tito initiates a policy of retaliation targeting members of the Ustace and any suspected collaborators. Up to 100,000 people are massacred, many being children and women fleeing towards Austria to seek safety in the hands of the Allied forces.

1945 - Marshall Tito (who is Croatian born) becomes the leader of the new Communist State of Yugoslavia.

1948 - Stalin attempts to bring this new federation under his wing. Tito rebuffs him and chooses what becomes known as "Soft Communism". He is intent on maintaining unity across the traditional ethnic lines. Each state is allowed a certain degree of automony; ethnic groups are encouraged to move between states, intermarry etc in the hope of breeding an integrated Yugoslav community. Still, he suppresses all opposition ruthlessly while managing to forge alliances with both Western and Eastern bloc countries. He is a genius at diplomacy. He also charms his way into the every Yugoslav's heart. Though Croatian born he rules from Bucharest, the capital of the Serbian state. Over time Croatia, which is relatively wealthy and earns a lot of foreigh revenue, begins to feel a bit hard done by. They contribute a lot to the Yugoslav coffers but perceive that the major beneficiary is Serbia.

1980 - Tito dies with no clear succession plan. The Central Yugoslav Parliament elects to offer each of the Yugoslav State Presidents a rotating role as President. This is intended as a way of maintaining unity but backfires badly. It is unclear who is leading the country, rivalries emerge and the most dangerous of these is the Serbian politician Slobodan Milosevic. He is ambitious and aggressively pro Serbian and manages to take control of Serbia, becoming President in 1989 on a promise to "Make Serbia Great Again". He uses Kosovo as his lever. The population of Kosovo is about 75% Albanian. The Serb minority have aspirations to take control deeming the Kosovo territory to be historically Serbian. The Kosovo Serbs foment rallies and when Milosevic visits they stage a violent rally with the specific intent of provoking the Kosovo police. A street battle ensues. The Serbs complain of being beaten and Milosevic promises them: "You will never be beaten again".

Slobodan Milosevic
He seeks permission from the Yugoslav central government to give him special powers to deal with the Kosovo situation. He encourages Serbs to rally in front of parliament in Belgrade. One million people attend chanting his name. He is their saviour. The parliament reluctantly agrees to his demands. It is based on a lie

1991 - Croatia and Slovenia have been observing these events with trepidation. Milosevic is on the rise. Serbian nationalism is rampant - inflammatory speeches are made by Milosevic, often misrepresenting the real situation, Croatian militia are accused of massacres of their Serbian/Croatian brothers and sisters; he reminds the Serbian public of the horrors of the Ustace era.

War in the Balkans - My Take Part I

The Balkans 1908 - Ottoman Empire and the Austro/Hungarian Empire most significant players
Went on a great walk yesterday. A young guide took us through the story of the Croatian place in the Balkan Wars, or "The Homeland Wars" as they refer to it. Cristina/Kristina/Krstina? was born in 1989, two years before the commencement of the conflict but she has a passion for her city and her country and for history. She was more than capable of guiding us through this complex period. This is my attempt to summarise the story as told by her. It's incomplete, probably not 100% reliable but I wanted to share what I know because a) it's so recent, b) so complicated, but perhaps most importantly c) this is an attempt to understand how bitter ethnic and political divisions can play out over time.
Austro Hungarian Empire 1900

Kristina began the story around WWI, saying that we needed to understand the early 20th century Balkan story to grasp the conflict of the 1990s.

Kingdom of Serbia 1918
The Balkans 1913
The end of WWI saw the transition of Croatia (and the region) from the Kingdom of Serbia (dissolved in 1918) to the 'Kingdom of Croatia, Serbia and the Slovenes' with each state having its own presidents and a degree of autonomy. It became known as Yugoslavia - literally the Kingdom of South Slavs. Prior to this the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dominant in the region and the new Kingdom retained an amicable relationship with the Austro-Hungarians.  

Throughout this period the borders of the sub-states were changing every time someone sneezed. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was huge. Maybe one third of the Balkan Peninsula - which is the land that is contained by Hungary and Romania in the north, the Black Sea in the east, the Adriatic in the west and Turkey in the south, and includes Greece (a non Slavic culture). There have been many historic tensions in play though this region for centuries.

Kingdom of Yugoslovia 1918
The Ottoman Empire had been and gone for instance, but a large number of Muslim families who had settled northern Bosnia, a sparsely populated area, remained and had lived there peacefully for hundreds of years. The Orthodox Churches (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and later a Serbian Orthodox branch) had broken from Rome while Slovenia and Croatia remained Catholic with links to Rome. In addition the Slavic descendant tribes made up most of "Eastern Europe" (Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Albania and a few more). Every country in that region in fact, bar Hungary and Greece. And further there had been those with dreams of a united Slavic Republic, including all those countries, for many years.

Back to WWI and a time when many young Croatians fled, got an education and began to agitate from abroad for change. A young man named Josip Broz was among them. He was handsome, charismatic, intelligent, astute, articulate and fascinated by socialism.

Josip Broz
WWII arrived. And this when it gets complicated. The Balkan States particularly Croatia and Serbia are invaded by Italy and Germany. Croatia does a deal with the axis powers to retain a degree of independence for a few favours including implementing some facist ideals. As part of that there emerges a hard right nationalist movement, the Ustace which holds power and embarks on a campaign of mass killings and imprisonment of Serbs, Romanies and the Muslim community. The Ustace are vicious, unrelenting and target Serbs in particular.They seek a pure Croatian state.

          "This country can only be a Croatian country, and there is no method we would hesitate      to use in order to make it truly Croatian and cleanse it of Serbs, who have for centuries endangered us and who will endanger us again if they are given the opportunity."

— Milovan Žanić, the minister of the NDH Legislative council, on 2 May 1941.

It's a form of the German SS. They create internment camps mirroring Germany, but without the gas chambers. Many prisoners of these camps die of starvation or disease, but most, estimated at 300,000, are murdered.

Meanwhile Josip Broz becomes a devotee of Communism and of Stalinism in particular.  He adopts the nickname Tito (no specific meaning - just sounds good), founds a Croation Communist Party and begins to forge a united resistance as leader of the Croatian Liberation Army (aka the partisans). The partisans/Communist party are local militia determined to fight a guerilla war of liberation against the occupying forces, the Ustace and what they see as the Croatian puppet government.

Friday, 8 September 2017

A Venetian apology

Venetian Republic 19th Century
Trst/Trieste                    Slovenia/Italy

First I must make an apology to the Croatians, Montenegrins, and others living along the Dalmation coast who may have been affected by six hundred years of Venetian dominance.

To set the record straight I will remind you that in a previous post I suggested that the Venetians were more traders than raiders and therefore made less of a negative impact on the communities which they ruled. I have put this to a few locals and while the response has been mixed the general consensus has been that, yes, they were traders but they weren't without fault. neglecting infrastructure beyond what met their own maritime needs, and harvesting every resource available for their profit. In short their legacy was to leave the Dalmation Coast impoverished.

To this I would say, as a loyal descendant of a Venetian family: don't be too harsh; don't be too quick to judge. It was only 600 years after all, and everything occurs in some order. It was clearly next on their "to do" list.

The Venetians were indeed a maritime superpower. They traded the Mediterranean and dominated in terms of  naval and economic power. They brought Catholicism. Croatia is 98% Catholic. Interestingly neighbouring Slovenia, which is closer to the modern Italy and Venice, is today only 60% Roman Catholic. So they built churches. In some cases it seems that was an obsession. In the tiny centre of Perast in Montenagro they built twenty. One for every family? On the other hand they did bring with them a cuisine. Pasta, cured meats, sauces. Croatian traditional food is grilled meat, grilled vegetables and bread. Not much on the menu for the vegetarian I'm afraid.

The rich and powerful were out and about in the area for more than two thousand years. The Romans, the Ottoman Empire, Venetians, Austro-Hungarians. To an Australian that number is mind boggling.

Slovenia was under either Venitian or Austro-Hungarian (400 years) rule for 1000 years of that period. Luckily for them the Austrians valued Trieste as a port and were not much interested in the rest. The Triestians marvel that in all that time the Austrian royal family only visited once. It's not much fun being a minor state. Modern Slovenia has been left with just 43 kilometres of Adriatic coastline after Trieste was returned to Italian control in 1954. The poor Dalmatians, if it wasn't the Venetians or Austrians it was the Romans or the Ottomans making surfs of them.

But the Croatians have had the last laugh. For hundreds of years Italian, or to be more precise Venetian (remember there was no such state as Italy until the 1860s) was the lingua franca of the Dalmatian Coast particularly in Istria. Then along came Napoleon and vanquished the Venetians. Then the Austrians arrived for another 100 years, then WWI and the Italians again, then WWII and the formation of Yugoslavia and finally in 1991 Slavonia and Croatia became independent states. Croatian/Slavonian again became the official (well it had been since time immemorial actually) language, though Istria is officially bi-lingual (Italian and Croatian).

Italian is a strictly phonetic language with every letter sounded by way of pronunciation. So Trieste is pronounced tree-ess-tay (slightly differently in Venetian, which is still spoken in Veneto and Friulia Venezia Giulia - though different dialects in each region). The vowels are important and prounounced individually. So what have the Croatians done? They removed those precious vowels and left only the bare bones.


Take that you Venetians. You gave us vowels. We're throwing them back at you. We don't need them. They're a waste of space. Of course I exaggerate. Vowels are common in the Slavic languages its just that sometimes they disappear.

I can't fathom how that works but Andrea, who studied linguistics as part of her speech pathology training, says they sound the open vowel sounds within the consanent blends or something like that. But that's just a fascinating distraction.

In summary, the history of this region is replete with stories of invasion and ethnic rivalries. I'm beginning to get my head around recent events - the Balkan Wars etc but way too complex to summarise here. If you're interested there is a great BBC documentary on youtube titled "The Death of Yugoslavia."


It's raining here in Zagreb as I write this and the temperature has dropped from 30 to 18. How dare it do that on our last day. We board our flight home tomorrow (Friday) evening. Farewell to Montenegro, Croatia and Slovenia. It's been a fascinating four weeks.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Plitvick National Park and the Croatian War of Independence.

Plitvick National Park, Croatia. Breathtaking, beautiful, serene, unspoilt, magical. And then there was the war. The struggle to create an independent Croatia was resisted by Croatian Serbs and had its first military conflict in these mountains. Serbian/Croatian militia took control of the park headquarters, seeking to control the route between Zagreb and the south and established it as command HQ. The Croatian police responded (Croatia had no army at the time, still being part of Yugoslavia). The central Yuglosav Government intervened and put their own police force in control. Two men had died. Although the situation appeared to settle it marked the beginning of hostilities between Serbia and Croatia, dubbed "The Homeland War' which stretched from 1991 to 1995 and then extended to become part of the larger conflict involving multiple Slavic states and the break up of Yugoslavia. The number of conflicts between the various parties almost defies description. I get lost. Conflict in the region continued until 2001.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

The day Harry got stabbed by a Roman

Jo: I left the boys (Harry and Richard) at the Living Museum and was browsing in a gift shop in the square when I noticed a commotion. A Roman soldier was rushing a young boy towards the public fountain. There was blood.

Richard: We paid our money and went in. At first we were the only
ones in our group and the Roman (well, actually a volunteer dressed as a Roman) began his spiel about Roman weapons. By this time another kid, a German boy, had joined Harry and the Roman repeated his story and described how the Romans used to fight. I turned away for a few moments and next thing I hear this screaming

Harry: It wasn't my fault. He gave us each a Roman dagger.

Richard: A metal one.

Harry: Yeah. And a shield and said we could play at fighting if we wanted. So we did. It wasn't my fault.

Richard: No, of course it wasn't Harry. He shouldn't have said that.

Jo: Suddenly I recognised Harry's voice and rushed over. Blood was streamimg from his eye and this idiot kept saying - it's alright Harry it's only a cut. Harry was freaking out. So was I.

Richard: It wouldn't stop bleeding. They didn't even have a first aid kit. Can you believe it?

Jo: The young volunteer was distraught. Is there a hospital nearby? I asked. I could see it was going to need stitches. Luckily it was near the bridge of his nose between his eyes.

Richard: God! I thought it was his eye at first. And we'd only been in there a few minutes. What a way to start our beach week at Split.

Harry: The other boy was dressed in a kilt. He was a bit strange. I thought he was Scottish but he said he was a Viking. We were just playing. He didn't mean to hurt me.

Richard: The poor kid was really upset.

Jo: And his parents were mortified.

Richard: They were really lovely. Invited us to come and visit them in Germany. They couldn't have been sorrier. Maybe we should go?

Jo: Imagine that. A kid gets cut by a metal sword and they go snd rinse his eye out in the public fountain. It was crazy. Anyway the young volunteer who was doing his best offered to drive us to the hospital.

Richard: So there we were, Harry hysterical but beginning to calm down and us following along behind the Roman soldier through the cobbled lanes of old Split trying to find his friend's car. He had to borrow his friend's car!

Jo: Which turns out to be so small he suggested that one of us stay behind.

Richard: Of course we weren't about to do that.

Jo: And so we crammed in. No seat belts, no nothing. I'm still not sure if the car was registered. And he delivered us to the emergency department and stayed with us while we negotiated our way through the system

Richard: To cut a long story short, they took him (Harry) in. Wouldn't let us in with him, and put two stitches in.

Harry: And they said I can't go swimming for three days. Till 2:30 Friday. Boring!

Richard: The Roman boy stayed with us all that time.

Jo: From 10:30 until 5:00pm.

Richard: He did his best Jo.

Jo: I know, but how did they let that happen? Surely they can see how dangerous that is.

Harry: Can we go back there? They said I could get in free.

Richard: And do the archery?

Harry: I'll be careful.

Harry: Can we?

Harry: Can I have a special dessert tonight, mum?

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Slavic Style

Travelling between Montenegro and Croatia should be simple. It's no further than from Brisbane to Tweed Heads. The narrow roads between Kotor and the border can be slow but after the border I expected it to be plain sailing.

We took a short cut from Kotor and headed in the opposite direction to our arrival route, towards Tavir. We were taking the car ferry to cut off the drive around the shores of Boka Kotorsky Bay. Queues for the ferry can be a nightmare we were told. But it was Sunday morning after the "Boka Night" festivities in Kotor, so we caught the Montenegrins napping. No queue.

We used a bit of Slavic attitude and barged our way on to the ferry. The crossing is quick and all was good until we approached the Croatian border. Again we had two check points about one kilometre apart to negotiate, one Montenegrin, one Croatian. This time we were prepared. We were stocked up with water, fruit, books. We were  of little interest to the Montenegrins because a) it's clear we were not any threat and b) we weren't exporting large quantities of local cheeses or narcotics (hidden in cheese blocks) and c) we're leaving not arriving; so we sped through the first checkpoint. 

Not so at the Croatian border. There were guards and guns everywhere. I figured that unless they mistook us for refugees entering the country ilegally in a Thrifty Rental Car; or worse Serbian we should be okay. Now this is where the Croatian/Slavic style made an early appearance. The border guard who collected our passports was deeply involved on a mobile call. I can only guess it was to his girlfriend. He holds our passports in one hand, the mobile in the other and has an: "I'm a bit busy right now" look on his face. No wonder this lane is so slow. As luck would have it we've only taken 40 minutes to traverse these two gates as opposed to two hours on the way in. And then we're in.

Whoopee. Into Croatia. Hugging the coastIine. Granite ranges plunging into the sea. The Adriatic sparkling below. And then another queue of cars. Oh, God. What's going on?  We've already crossed the border! Perhaps it's the entrance to the motorway? The line splits into three. I choose the shortest and then find we're in the trucks and bus line! How did that happen?

Turns out, it's another border check.

Guess what - there is a stretch of land about five klm long where Bosnia jags a piece of coastline between Croatia and .............. Croatia???!!! Exit Croatia, enter Bosnia, exit Bosnia, enter Croatia. Thankfully the guards give us a cursory look and wave us through each time. Didn't notice we weren't a bus. Still, it involved a queue each time. And not a criminal in sight. Demonstrates that the policy must be working I guess.

And then ..... plain sailing. We by-passed Dubrovnic; looked down on it from the high coast road. It looked lovely. By now it was after lunch and we were starving. We'd been on the road for more than four hours and travelled about 120ks. I spied a bakery cut into the cliff-face and pulled in. Andrea was desperate for a toilet stop.

Do you have a toilet? Shrug of shoulders. Took that to mean yes. Could you point me to it? Wave of hand in a non discript direction. Translated as "could be out the back; or up the road; or in here somewhere." And there it was, behind Andrea, disguised as a storeroom. No sign, no help. 

Next, onto the motorway and 'here we come Split'. We have a coffee break at the half way point and are served (loose use of the term) by a grumpy young woman who refuses to look at coins and notes being proffered by the confused man before me. He's trying to convert Euros back to Kunas (local currency). She Just keeps repeating the price.

I don't often make generalisations about national character but in the Croation case I'll make an exception. One word - SURLY. Maybe they're sick of tourists by end of August but it seemed more pervasive than that. 

Of course there were exceptions - Davros, our host in Split, who lives with his mum at the age of 47 was delightful; Slobie our host in Kotor, who is Montenegrin born but lives in Manchester, UK, smiled all the time; Alex, the Serbian boatman who took us for a three hour ride from Kotor to the Adriatic was very funny; the man at Thrifty Car Rentals who apologised for having to charge me for the broken mirror on the car was matter of fact but not churlish; while others in shops in Split were pleasant if not effusive. But overwhelmingly the service has been abrupt, dismissive and unfriendly. 

Maybe that comes from many years (generations) of hardship and oppressive regimes - the Venetians (400 years), Tito and his Russian allies (though he is regarded much more affectionately than the Venetians); and most recently Milosovic and the Balkan War of the 1990s.

Pity. It's an area rich in culture and natural beauty. And tourists are flocking here.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

We got the Sea.

Ekscus mi. One euro, ples.
   What's in there?
   Ther are two rms. One wth precious objicts and the other wth church vestments. Hnd made and stitchd.
   I hand over my coins and she adds:
  Also you vil see the church which is began in 19th century, but run out of money and never complet. Vas meant to be fifty metre long but only one third finished.

I go in. The rooms are well presented - very simple and minimal. The precious objects are in a series of glass cases. Each is numbered but there are no notes or any sign of a panel to tell me what I'm looking at. Not that it takes much to get the gist. There are chalices, small plates, cups, those ornate holy things where the consecreted host (body of Christ) is stored and locked away in the tabernacle between shows.

   It's all very famiIiar from my childhood. Every object has a sacred purpose associated with the mass or other religious ritual - benediction. christening etc. My memories are of gold and rubies. Our local parish priest, Fr. Whelan (same as my grandmother's maiden name), was an Irishman with a taste for the exotic and expensive. He had a fearsome reputation as a fund raiser, turning up unannounced for breakfast at parishioners' homes and demanding to know why our weekly contribution to church coffers was so small. He was one of the first priests, to my knowledge, to develop a system which did away with the blind offerings which had been standard previously. He wanted to know exactly how much everyone was giving. Families signed up for set amounts and Fr Whelan personally kept track of progress. There were implied threats, withdrawal of privilidges. He stripped the church and the presbetary bare when he retired and took his loot, his ill-gotten gains, back to Ireland with him. He had a big hand in causing my mother to lose her faith. She became disillusioned with his greed and then the church dumped the Latin mass and changed the service so the priest faced the congregation. She much preferred his back.

   Anyway in Perast, Montenegro, on the shores of the Kotor Bay  where this story takes place, silver was the precious metal of the day. These pieces were remarkable. Ornate and superbly crafted. Every culture has its collection but I am still surprised when I come across such a collection in places so remote. This area would have been a remote appendage on the backside of the Serbian/Venetian/Ottoman/Roman empire. It's hard to imagine how trade and communication took place over the imposing mountains of what would have been an inaccessible area. The sea would have been critical for food, trade and communication.

   The vestments were equally impressive, as was the sunlit filled, but incomplete nave of the church. Religion inspires amazing creativity and has supported so many exquisite craftsmen over the millenium I am almost prepared to forgive the hell that they have imposed on people's lives. No, that's going too far.

   It felt familiar, Catholic, but I knew I was in an Orthodox country, Serbian and Montenegrin Orthodox. But t/here were too many images of the Virgin Mary in styles that lacked that ornate over the top Orthodox style.

   Is this Orthodox? I asked the young woman who had taken my money. No Catholic, she replied. There are twenty two churches built in Perast but twenty one of thm are Catholic. Only wun iss orthodox, she told me.

   She went on to explain that Kotor Bay (Boka Kotorsky) was Venetian for two hundred years and, particularly in the late 16th century when the town of Perast was destroyed by a massive earthquake, the Venetians rebuilt it and their Catholic faith became dominant. And it's true. From the water it's a replica of an Italian town from the baroque period. Red tiled roofs, symmetrical rectangulat houses and palaces in ordered lines. Distinctly different from the rest of the bay. The Catholic/Orthodox mix repeats itself through the coast of Montenegro, while inland is the reverse with the addition of a significant Muslim influence. The Ottoman Empire failed to establish an effective long yerm hold over this part of the world. Neither did the Germans in ww1 and ww2, nor Napoleon. Only the Venetians succeeded, largely because they were traders rather than invaders I suspect.

   So, what's the difference between Serbian and Montenegrin Orthodox? I asked. .She looked at me blankly. I rephrased my question. What makes Montenegro different from Serbia? They both speak the same language, same religion, same Slavic roots?

   She looled at me as if I was an imbecile. Simple, she seemed to say and shrugged.

   We got the sea.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Runaway Women

Strange how themes emerge when you travel. Often apparently unrelated conversations seem to have a resonance with new conversations over following days. Perhaps my subconscious is always seeking connections. The challenge is how to weave them together and make sense of them.

This one began in Singapore where a young French woman from Versaillaise told the story of her tearful farewell from her mother when she announced she was leaving France to go and work in Dubai. She had first left home at 17. She just had to. The world was calling. And she followed. That was to Barcelona, which was bad enough in her mother's eyes but Dubai was a step too far. Now at twenty seven she works for "Cartier" selling expensive and exclusive items to wealthy visitors from Saudi Arabia and other countries for which Dubai is shopping mecca. She not on the sales counter but behind the scenes. France is home but Dubai is where she wants to be.

On the Turkish Airline flight to Dubrovnic (and that dramatic series of events), Ibtis, from Morocco, talked about how strongly she felt about her mother in Casablanca who she visited regularly. But, despite that bond, she had chosen to relocate to Paris. For work? Yes. For excitement? Yes. And at twenty five, she was already a woman of the world but still essentially Moroccan. Her Arab heritage evident in her skin tones, her dark eyes, her constant reference to the marvels of Fez and Marrakech, Essaouira.

It is 1350 steps from Kotor old town to the highest point in the ancient fortifiations, the walls built precipitiously above the town to protect it from maurading tribes. The wall just climbs the seemingly vertical mountain behind Kotor. No wonder it took ten centuries (1000 years) to complete. At the 1000 steps mark (I was counting), there is a panoromic view over Kotor Inlet - an extensive fijord which has created a deep waterway that snakes inland twenty kilometres with Kotor at it's inland extremity. It's deep. Giant cruiseships, six decks above and six below, sail to Kotor and anchor metres from the shore for an overnight stay. When they are in town the place is crawling with tourists eager to experience everything in the eight hours allocated.

I was alone and wanted a photo of me and the fijord. That's where I met the three Russian girls. They offered to help me with my photo and we got into conversation. The eldest, aged twenty three, was the talker. The other two were sisters, one a sixteen year old. They love Putin (no other option), hate Gorbochov (he broke up the USSR), are sceptical about Russian interference in the US election, and love their country. And in keeping with the theme, the eldest talked about her mother. Has she travelled much? Yes, mainly in Eastern Europe but also a year in Germany (Bavaria) as part of her university studies. She lives east of the Ural Ranges. Chelyabinsk I think she said. I had no idea. Her mother was aghast at the thought of her daughter spending a year in Germany. And she was right to be afraid because she now has a taste for travel and sees a world in which she can play. Would she ever leave her beloved Russia and her mother? Maybe. Possibly America. Never Australia (too far). And her mother? (Avoid Moscow was their advice btw. Choose St Petersburg instead)

Finally there was Slobie, our host in Kotor. Kotor born but living in the UK, I suspect she is the one who has run from her mother and this small community. She is older, maybe late thirties. When she was introducing us to our apartment her accent swung wildly between Montenegran English, to Scot, Irish and then settled as a recognizable Manchester brogue. That's where she lives with her Manchester husband and three year old daughter. She returns every year in summer to help her mother with the business but has little affection for her country. She is, at best, accepting of its quirks, but is despairing of Montenegro ever becoming a truly modern and prosperous country. She is here on sufference. And her mother? I got the distinct impression that their relationship is functional rather than close. Slobie is loyal. She supports her mother but would much prefer to be away. In Manchester.

I don't recall having many conversations with men about their mothers, though I'm sure the relationships are every bit as complex. It just seems like men can do a runner and it's regarded as them making their way in the world while for women, there is a sense that they have somehow abandoned their mothers, their filial duty. Nevertheless the impulse to escape for women seems just as strong, but with more strings attached.

Perhaps I should strike up a couple of conversations with men on planes about their mothers?  Just to make some comparisions. But maybe not. Too risky.

AustraIian politician Mathias Corman might call me out as a "girly-man", as he has of opposition leader, Bill Shorten.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Border Crossing

On the ground, in the hire car, on the rightside/wrong side of the road heading for Montenegro and Kotor. Twelve kilometres out of Dubrovnic airport we find ourselves last car in a long queue of vehicles which stretches up and over the crest of the distant hill, curving  left then right like a snake basking in the sun. This must be the border crossing we've been told about.

Croatia in part of the EU but uses its own currency, while Montenago is not EU but uses the Euro. Go figure. Such a small country (and recent - separated from Serbia in 2006) it can't afford its own currency apparently. The line of cars is mostly stopped. We have the aircon blasting and move a couple of car lengths every five minutes. Harry's in the back, already frustrated. Are we there yet? It's too cramped in here? Can I get out and walk? No. Just get used to it Harry. And no you can't get out. It's difficult to argue and enforce that one as he can see others walking past us. Outstripping our snail pace. Where are they walking to?

After an hour we see the border post in the distance. The air con is struggling. Harry is still whinging. The border inches towards us. It's our first day of our holidays. We've already almost died; we've visited the Montenegran capital but never left the aircraft; Jess has been admitted to hospital with pneumonia and influenza A (we heard this as we sat in the departure lounge in Brisbane - so, add guilt to that coctail of events and emotions). We're buggered. We left Brisbane 30 hours ago, fatigue is setting in and I'm the driver - "remind me if I wander into the path of oncoming traffic". Travelling at 5kph makes that pretty unlikely. "STEVE!! Watch out!"

At last we're through the border post - paperwork all okay, and we're cruising to Kotor, mostly on the correct side of the road. I remember how much I enjoy driving manuals. I' m getting my confidence up. Moving through the gears on the hairpin turns and then suddenly ..... we're looking at another queue of cars lining the road as far as we can see. Harry's chorus begins again.

I'm tempted to abandon the car and suggest we walk; to call "Thrifty" and tell them to collect the bloody car. We'd prefer to do the rest of the trip on foot. Of course its only the jet lag talking. My passengers calm me down and we crawl towards what i realise is the Montenegran border - the last one was goodbye Croatia. This one is welcome to Montenegro.

What is it about borders? I thought Europe had decided to open them. Oh yes, I forgot. Montenegro is in Europe but not of Europe - despite its currency. Montenegro is so protective of its tiny landmass that you can't bring across the border more than one (1) kilo of food. That's less than lunch for our carload. Luckily we didn't plan ahead. The guards are pulling apart a kombi van ahead of us. Clearly importing contraband sandwiches and more than four pieces of fruit. We must look too exhausted to be smugglers, so they let us through.

The next hour is largely incident free as we track along fifty kilometres of beautiful waterways - Kotor inlet. It's the largest fjiord in southern Europe. It'magnificent. I have to concentrate so can only see the spectacles as they appear around bends in the road through my windscreen. That works perfectly until we are within sight of our destination and I am momentarily distracted by the overwhelming beauty of the scene we're passing through and veer, not left (bad) but right, towards the water.

"STEVE!! WATCH OUT!!" There's a loud bang. My external rear view mirror has kissed a parked car. It's loud, but I look, and we still have a mirror and there's no way I'm going to stop and inspect the damage. Or leave a note. It's been thirty three hours in the sky and in transit and on the road and I DON'T CARE! Is that bad? Have I done a bad thing?

Hello KOTOR.

Monday, 14 August 2017

KOTOR first impressions

Crumbling facades
Abandoned hotels
Gray granite pinnacles
A shortage of vowels
Traffic snarls
A cruise ship
Men in early morning bars
Ancient fortifications
A garish doll perched high on the city walls

Everything that makes old Europe special
And while men with money make some attempt to make things shiny and neat,
It is the smell of chaos and decay that I find intoxicating.

Mosul report

I was a little nervous when I saw on the flight path that we would be overflying Mosul and Bagdad on the way to Istanbul. The planet has a good stock of madmen in positions of power currently  - perhaps no more than in past eras, just more visible due to a world that never sleeps and insists that I know every terrifying thought that these nutters have.

So overflying Mosul would not be my preferred route to Europe. It's not on my bucket list. But I have lived to report that all is calm in the region particularly the space at and above 10,000feet.

I can also report that Turkish airlines has the most cramped seats I've ever experienced and food that does nothing to entice me to mosey through the back streets of Istanbul savouring the culinary delights. A pity given that I remember Istanbul as one of the delights of the trip Andrea and I made in 1977 (did I just admit to a 40 year gap between touchdowns?). My memories may be distorted since we had eaten pretty ordinary fare in Iran and Afghanistan immediatly prior to arriving in Turkey. The days we spent in Istanbul remain one of my favourite travel memories. Anyway I'm sure the food of Istabul is still magnificent, though the airport food looks very familiar. Call it International airport food and you have the picture.

Last time I flew to Europe was via Dubai, one of the more bizarre airports on the planet. Part theme park, part millionaires playground. I've never seen so much gold jewellery. Both Singapore and Istanbul by contrast feel much like home, Sydney even. A broad cross-section of faces and faiths and languages but with a strong sense of the secular. Comforting in a weird way. 

Oops, there's my call. Will be in Croatia in two hours all being well. And in Montenegro by the afternoon.

Montenagro - my near death experience

This might look like an everyday image of people exiting a flight? Wrong. It is in fact a shot of a planeload of frustrated passengers sitting in an A320 on the tarmac in the backblocks of Montenegro after trying unsuccessfully to land at Dubrovnic three times over a 45 minute period, each time aborting the approach at the last minute due to strong crosswinds. We'd get within a few hundred metres of the ground and things would start to buck and sway and the pilot wisely powerered us into yet another circuit.

The first hour was delightful. Ibtis, a young woman born in Morocco and resident of Paris was  our entertainment captain and authority on all things French and Moroccan in that refreshing way only optimistic young people can be. And then the pilot informed us we were gong round again, and we thought he said not to be concerned as we had fuel for an hour yet. At least that's the message we got.

So, of course that meant that on every circuit of Dubrovnic we were acutely aware of the minutes ticking by. That was of concern of course but, when, at the fifty minute mark he told us we were heading for Montenegro we flipped. The minutes slipped by while we seemed to be gliding over open ocean with our dwindling fuel supply and our eyes watching the second hand spin around our wrists.

 People's responses varied. Ibtis, who has deep olive skin, developed an English complexion, Andrea seemed to be meditating, though it could have been symptoms of a severe state of shock. The woman opposite us just started throwing up and her partner seemed to be sending an awful lot of texts. In front of me a woman continued to do an intricate traditional needlework piece depicting an airliner plunging into the sea. For my part I was, for once, completely unable to lighten the mood.

I was preoccupied with survival plans. The nearest exit door - check; location of floating device - check; read the emergency card - check. Then the scenarios. Land on water - minimal chance of survival; land on runway and flip, or over-run the strip - better chance; land in a paddock - not much better; run out of fuel and ....- not good survival prospects. It was then that I became really scared. I had this growing sense that perhaps the pilot had lost his nerve. I had an image of him in the cockpit curled into a little ball in the grip of a panic attack. Then my brain sent me a series of headlines - MH7 OR 17 whatever it was, all the disasters it could muster in a series of quick flashes.

And then I relaxed. I was surprised. I felt calm. Andrea said she felt the same. What would be would be.

Ibtis had the window seat but couldn't sight anything resembling an airstrip as we flew further south then inland until, suddenly there it was - what looked like a 100 metre bitumin strip with a few light aircraft pulled up alongside. It truly looked like a plasticine model airstrip it was so short. I've never experienced a plane pull up so quickly.

The cabin crew had no idea where we were and the pilot seemed to have no plan B. So here we sit, and sit. Maybe this will be our first night in Montenegro?

No wait! We've just been informed that we're going to have another go at Dubrovnic with a new tank of aviation fuel and if that fails we'll be heading back to Istanbul.

Jo and Rich and Harry are in Italy, in Bari, sitting on the tarmac awaiting their opportunity at immortality having been diverted there for  the same reason.

Quite a start to our Croatian holiday. We can't even get to land there.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Adriatic Sea

About to head off to Europe for four weeks.

A week in Montenegro - I know? Where is that? You mean Mongolia? Macadonia? No. Montenagro. It was part of the former Yugoslavia and is bordered by Crotia, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania and the Adriatic Sea. It's one quarter the size of Tasmania with a population of 600,000 (half the population of Brisbane). 117 beaches along a short coastline of 73km. Mountains, national parks and historic hill top villages.

Then a week in Split in Croatia followed by two weeks on the road between Split and Zagreb. following the Dalmation Coast and plunging into the mountains. Possibly a a short side trip to Slovenia and its capital Ljubljana. Last three days in Zagreb.

We'll be with nephew Harry, Andrea's sister Jo and husband Richard for the first two weeks and since Harry loves the water he'll be in his element.
I hope there'll be a few stories and photos to share.