Wednesday, 31 December 2008
Happy New Year everybody.
Tuesday, 25 November 2008
But soon after the war in this neck of the woods, a wonderful, nay, marvellous thing happened. Well, in fact it was the 1997 combination of two marvellous things that converted our librarian to the delights of the English language. The potent marriage of a certain John Nettles and a fictional county in England with what must be the highest murder rate in the entire world; glorious Midsomer. Particular emphasis, for our librarian, is upon the former rather than the latter although after five years of daily bombardment, men folk going off to war and civilians suffering such shocking privations, the politeness and understatement of Midsomer Murder’s adulterous dalliances in the compost heap, or murder at the village jumble sale through the medium of a poisoned digestive biscuit, was a refreshing change. And over seeing all this gentrified chaos was the dashing DCI Tom Barnaby, aka John Nettles; strong, handsome, softly-spoken and terribly, terribly charming. *sigh*.
Thus our librarian started learning English along with other female peers, equally enamoured of the DCI. And so it is all thanks to John Nettles, unwitting ambassador of the English language, that I am able to communicate my more complex bibliographic demands from our lovely librarian. John Nettles, the bookish ladies of Croatia salute you! You are truly the thinking, Balkan woman’s crumpet!
The question must be asked though; what if Det. Serg. Jim Bergerac had been available to 1980s Croatia? An even jammier John Nettles? Younger, sleeker and sporting a leather jacket? To be honest, I don’t think internecine conflict in the Balkans would even have been on the cards; the womenfolk would have demanded all military efforts be focused on the invasion of Jersey and the capture of John Nettles instead.
Friday, 14 November 2008
Sunday, 9 November 2008
Now, muppet me, visiting the market to buy some flowers for a hostess of a pending dinner party, was delighted by the flowers that were everywhere but in a moment where vigilance on my part was lacking, did not notice the common theme: chrysanthemums. I bought a particularly lovely bunch and that evening sallied on to the soiree and only half way to the social event in question did divine inspiration strike and the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. I was taking my kind hosts a bunch of blooms that in Croatia signify death or at least that the end of a terminal illness is looming. Not the most auspicious of starts to an event more associated with merriment. Bugger. Needless to say the “muppet foreigner from a secular / protestant country” card was played and much laughter ensued once a couple of bottles of wine had been imbibed.
On a lighter note I did learn that my particular choice of chrysanthemum is called a Bekerica as they look like tennis balls and the most famous tennis player of them all is apparently a certain Mr. B. Becker.
This then makes Simeon a bit of a trump card in the ongoing “my saint is better than yours” competition between urban centres of Medieval Europe, with the Adriatic cities of Venice and Zadar no exception to this hagiographic machismo. The Zadrani legend concerning the arrival of such an important relic is actually relatively late in their local pantheon of saints, 13th C rather than 6th, 7th or 9th C. The story goes that a nobleman from Northern Italy and the body of his “brother” were enroute home from the Holy Lands and the ship, as with most ships pottering about the Adriatic at this time did, stopped off in Zadar for a rest and refuel. Hostelries run by religious orders abounded in Zadar and the nobleman stayed in one of these establishments, having his decidedly moribund “brother” buried in the cemetery. Unfortunately the following night the nobleman himself came to a terminal end (apparently by natural causes). Before his death he told his monkish hosts to fossick through his personal effects and find something of great significance. This they did and they discovered a document that certified the veracity of the “brother’s” saintliness, in fact expressly stating that this was no “brother” but St Simeon himself!
Well, you can imagine the merriment amongst the monks. It’s a bit like the ecclesiastical equivalent of winning the Lotto or guaranteeing U2 and Queen at Live Aid. Superstar saints = pilgrims = money. “Huzzah!” though the monks, and bided their time until they could think up a plausible enough reason for the relic’s arrival.
Unfortunately for the monks, God moves in mysterious ways and the three secular representatives of the town, the rectors, happened to have a simultaneous dream that St Simeon’s body was in the cemetery of the hostelry. Cue much joyous surprise amongst the three when the next morning, whilst discussing issues of great fiscal import or somesuch, they discovered their shared dream and being sensible men of God, realised that something had to be done. Rushing to the graveyard, they caught the monks exhuming Simeon, and swiftly confiscated the body The image below is from the 14th C shrine of Simeon and depicts the discussion between the rectors and the monks starting to dig for the saint.
The body was then taken to the church of St Mary the Great situated on the east side of the city, next to the main gateway leading to the port. And what a jolly sensible choice of location, if I may say so. Pilgrims, sailors, merchants etc all stumble off their boats after stints at sea, wander into the city and low and behold! within spitting distance of the taverns and brothels where much of their time will be spent whilst in the city, there lies superstar St Simeon’s body. Guaranteed indulgences (or purgatory points) for the visitors before or after they indulge in the vice of their choice, guaranteed income for the college of priests running St Mary’s as well as the inevitable boost to the local economy and an official two fingers up at Venice.
You see, Venice ruled Zadar on and off for almost 800 years, with the occasional interruption in the guise of revolts and / or the Zadrani swearing fealty to the King of Hungary, be they Àrpàd or Angevin. Needless to say, relations between protector and protectorate were strained as a result. So, although Venice claims it has the body of St Simeon, appropriately enough housed in the church of San Simeone Grande, even today local atheist Zadrani will shout with vigour “No! Ours is the real one!” Add to this the fact that during a Hungarian stint (1358 -1409) Zadar gained the most ornate reliquary of the day for their saint (of which we have had a little taster) courtesy of Elizabeth Kotomarić, princess of Bosnia and wife of Louis of Anjou the king of Hungary. Between 1377 and 80 Francesco da Milano, a permanent resident of Zadar and rather talented goldsmith, fashioned this big, bling box for Simeon.
Its spectacular quality and beauty not only confirmed the veracity of the body (why bother spending so much money on it if you doubted the provenance of the relic?) but also was also a public relations coup for the House of Anjou over the Most Serene Republic, Venice.
After 1409 though, when Zadar returned to the Venetian fold, arguably it was the Republic who got the last laugh and lashings of income for all the efforts of the Angevins and Zadrani of the previous century. No wonder the cult in Venice stayed relatively low-key: why bother with its promotion when you can enjoy the fruits of a ready-made cult in one of you colonies?
But back to the 21st C, which, for reasons of rambling medieval context will be short(ish). Simeon’s body was moved to the church of St Stephen in the 1630s, and with a lick of paint and swift reconsecration of the church to its latest relic, the cult was revived. It had gone into decline somewhat with the destruction of most of St Mary the Great in 1570 to make way for fortifications (those blasted Turks) and Simeon’s body languished in what remained of the apse for another 60 years. Today it seems that in order to get past the Hitler-esque sacristan of the church to have a close look at the shrine, you either need a signed letter from the pope or to join the good burghers of the city on Simeon’s feast day. Hundred of people cram in to the church for the four masses that punctuate the day itself as well as file past the reliquary when mass is not on.
Now in the study of things older than the first photographs of the 19th C, ian over active imagination can be rather useful. So it is a special thing when your imagination is allowed a day off and contemporary humanity provides a show of medieval proportions and drama. Rather than try and describe St Simeon's day of 2008, I shall leave you with the words of Canon Pietro Casola, a Milanese pilgrim writing about his visit to Zadar in 1494.
I went with the other pilgrims according to arrangement to the Church of Saint Simeon, where after Vespers were sung the body of Saint Simeon was shown - a very remarkable relic - certainly the most beautiful I ever saw, either at Rome or elsewhere. The body is perfectly preserved, there is nothing in the world lacking, either in the face or in the hands or in the feet. The mouth is open and the in the upper jaw there are no teeth; I was not surprised at that, because he was very old when he died. ... I went several times to see the relic because there was a great crowd of pilgrims and also of people belonging to the city and country around who came there because it was a holiday. And the more I looked the more it seemed to me a stupendous thing, most of all when I remembered the time of his death which could not be less than one thousand four hundred and ninety-three years ago...
Pietro Casola, Canon Pietro Casola’s Pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the Year 1494, ed. by Margaret M. Newett, trans. by M. Margaret Newett (Manchester: University Press, 1907), pp. 166-67
The brilliance of other wannabe scholars out here is terrifying. Frankly, I am a fraud by comparison. Since undergraduates they have been living and breathing all things archival, can speak more languages than you can shake a stick at, and have lashings of cold, hard evidence on things such as reliquaries, patrons and Dalmatian fish names of the 7th C (don’t ask) from which reams of intelligent and insightful writing falls like apples from a tree in September. These people know exactly what they are doing, what they will achieve with the info at hand and are making tangible contributions to scholarship in the region. By comparison, my intercultural, periphery vs metropole, urban “lines of meaning”, “the city as source” topic is so bloomin’ abstract that on the off chance I even manage to articulate what I am attempting to do listeners have either nodded off with boredom or run away screaming. My topic is a bit like a saltwater croc made of jelly. Big, bad and anti-social with a tendency to slip through your fingers if you try to grapple but with the additional frisson that it will bite your arse off when you least expect it.
A wise PhD student told me recently that your PhD only really begins when you feel as if you are staring into the abyss, so big and unwieldy have the ideas and issues become. Ladies and gentlegerms, I am officially staring into the abyss. What the hell am I doing?
And condicionibus still looks like a significant component in a garibaldi biscuit. Crap.
Monday, 27 October 2008
Bar scene peopled with buxom wenches of an age where the phrase “mutton dressed as lamb” might just about be applicable. Rather down-at-heel men surround them and engage in what must be terribly humorous banter, judging by the lashings of canned laughter, between each other and the aforementioned bar wenches. Lager of some variety seems to be the social lubricant of the scenario. Occasionally and seemingly without warning, scene change occurs and we have a band appear in the bar led by a lady lip-synching songs of great passion, while a couple of girls in short skirts in the background gyrate and sway in an unconvincing manner. The band members also seem to be down-at-heel men. An audience (purveyors of fine canned laughter?) sways its arms in time to the music, in contrast to the girls in short skirts, and much merriment is had by all.
Scene change either back to witty banter of hospitality-providing wenches and clientele or to another down-at-heel man wielding a ladder and trying to interview in a mixture of Croatian, German and Italian, a dashing young man with no hair who may or may not be a football player of South American extraction. Then back to the dodgy band singing what I am sure is exactly the same tune as before but must be different as the lead singer has changed her frock. Dancing girls in short skirts are still as uncoordinated as a new-born pug but have added a twirl to their limited repertoire of motion, much to the whooping delight of the audience. And then back to the wenches and clientele...etc etc etc
I really think I may be missing something. Is this possibly like that Mr Bean episode with the New Year’s party, the one remaining twiglet, a pot of Marmite and a twig? Unless you have had the cultural exposure to know ...
a) What a Twiglet is (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twiglets)
b) What Marmite is (http://www.marmite.com/)
c) Who Mr Bean is (unfortunately one of the most worryingly pervasive British cultural exports of the late 20th C so I shall assume a hunter gatherer of the darkest Amazon has probably been exposed to and maybe even died of “Mr Bean”. A bit like small pox really.)
... there is not a hope in hell in understanding why a grown man is dipping a twig into what looks like an industrial lubricant of some form and then trying to offer it to his unwitting guest. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U24g88GNgMI The twiglet gag kicks off at about the 3rd minute.
Any thoughts on the Croatian TV programme would be greatly appreciated.
Sunday, 28 September 2008
Two important tips if you wish to keep a low sartorial profile in Zadar.
1) Do not do floral. Neither the Laura Ashley / Liberty stuff nor the mad Scandinavian sort a la H&M / Marimekko is acceptable.
2) Do not tuck your top into your high waist, no matter what the fashionista gods of Milan, New York and London have proclaimed e.g
The good people of Zadar all look very chic with a pared-down uniform of large sunglasses, low slung skinny jeans and lots of dark hues. But nonetheless, I, in my cultural ignorance of most things after 1815, decide to sport a full floral skirt of Scandinavian origin with a high waist and my jumper tucked in before popping out for a coffee and a spot of window-shopping.
Woah. Now, in London I am used to being on the conservative side of fashion, particularly in East London where the arty types can do wonderful things with winkle pickers, trilbies and old net curtains. I do not crave nor warrant attention for my personal style but I will grant that I take a general interest in developments. Hooray, I cry, for the return of the high waist! No longer shall my kidneys be cold during the winter. Huzzah, I shout, for cinched in waists like Marilyn Monroe! Not all of us are blessed with the lissom hips of a school boy so when fashion sides with those of us more akin to a pear than twig in our figure, Youpee! I bellow, before rushing out to embrace the trend whilst it lasts. Hence the floral, high-waisted full skirt inspired (albeit tenuously) by the New Look of Christian Dior c. 1952.
But back to the “Woah”. People really do look. Not stare, that would be too strong a word for the particular variety of scrutiny that one is subjected to. The throngs of Callelarga parted slightly as I rambled along, people’s head turning ever so slightly over their coffees to get a glance through their sunglasses, a quick up-and-down survey and assessment of the skirt in question and by default, me. All a bit disconcerting and makes my alternative career option as paparazzi-harassed Hollywood megastar slightly less appealing.
Upon bumping into a couple of Croatian acquaintances my suspicions about the skirt were confirmed. Apparently it wouldn’t be so bad if my top wasn’t tucked in. Who would have thought that such a simple change could deflect all the attention and whispers of the good denizens´ internal fashion policemen?
Clearly the phrase “Le geek, c’est chic” has not arrived here yet so until it does, my floral skirt and I shall go and lurk in the archives.
Maybe the teenage boys with long hair are on to something. They have safety in numbers thus do not warrant looks from people, aside from a rather grumpy wannabe scholar in a floral skirt. Is this perchance a case of “Pot, this is Kettle. You’re black” ?
I was told that this phrase is of major cultural significance to Croatians. It literally means, “it has not” but in essence conveys of a sense of “Nah. Off the menu / out of stock / in your dreams”. As with most things, until they are pointed out to one, one remains relatively oblivious to their existence. Like “street twigs”, an urban phenomenon that an Australian gentleman in Melbourne drew my attention to. These are essentially sturdy bits of plastic or metal that look like two flexible chopsticks attached at one end into a V shape and that sometimes gather in gutters. What are these things? Why, components of the sturdy brushes on the underside of those rather loud mechanical street cleaners of course.
Until I had this rather surreal conversation with the aforementioned gentleman, I had never noticed the “street twigs”. Now they seem to pop up all over the place.
And so it was the same with “nema”. Cue conversation in a cafe:
(Just imagine the following is happening in faultless Croatian. Please, try really hard to imagine that).
MM: Good evening kind denizen of Zadar. I feel the need for a refreshing class of local lager, for ‘twas a dusty day in the archives. Could you, forsooth, provide me with such a quantity of pure, liquid ambrosia sourced from the architecturally terribly interesting Central Croatian town of Karlovac?
Good Denizen or konobar (waitor): Nema.
MM: Ah. Well, perchance you have some other, equally delightful ale from this great nation of yours that will prove a suitable substitute?
GD or K: Nema.
Body language of good denizen suggests impending movement to somewhere else within the bar and a distinct lack of natural salesmanship.
MM foolishly persists.
MM: Ermm... have you got any beer? At all?
GD or K: (Sighs in a pained way, rolls eyes heavenwards and mutters...) Heineken or Budweiser.
MM: Horrified at choice of fermented cat’s urine but nonetheless doggedly persists in the face of hospitality’s nemesis... Errrmmm... Budweiser?
Cue conversation in bakery the next day at about 11am and the time when it’s chocolate or death for our plucky wanabee scholar:
MM: Oooh, any chance of a toxic chocolate confection this morning, molim vas?
Alright, I shall grant you that it’s probably no bad thing that I have been denied beer and chocolate in such a manner, but still, there is a certain elegance missing from this phrase, a lack of diplomacy that might make the experience somewhat more tolerable.
Neither of these really compare to when you actually need something, say an extra blanket in a hotel in Orebić when the weather is unseasonably cold, and are denied. The housekeeper to whom the (surely reasonable?) request was made was quite emphatic about how ridiculous, presumptuous and outrageous it was. Clearly, both I and the other foreigner at the conference who needed additional insulation were scoundrels of the highest order, the sort of thoughtless individuals who would sleep with the windows open and still demand another blanket. Oh the audacity, what have the youth of today come to?! So abrupt and contemptuous was her refusal to provide the aformentioned dekke and so surprising was this to the Anglo-Saxon sensibilities of me and my fellow foreigner, both used to the more molly-coddling face of the hospitality industry rather than the Yugoslav branch represented by this formidable matron, that we politely retreated sans blanket. Needless to say, a cold night ensued.
Gosh. With this monosyllabic utterance comes an impenetrable subtext of emotions and a chasm of primordial sensations not encountered for millennia (last time was probably when a far-flung ancestor was staring into the maw of a sabre-toothed wombat or some such). Panic, fear, horror, doubt, agitated twitching, frothing at the mouth, the beginnings of a migraine and so much more combined into one, simple utterance.
And I present to you the reason for this utterance of despairYes, ladies and gentlemen, it is the delights of palaeography, the 14th C Dalmatian variety that is soon to become a firm favourite of mine. For those of you mere mortals who cannot read this sort of thing straight off yet find your curiosity piqued into a frenzy, a transcription can be found in Giuseppe Praga, Documenti per la storia dell'arte a Zara dal medioevo al settecento, ed. by Maria Walcher, Studi e recerche d'arte veneta in Istria e Dalmazia (Trieste: Edizioni "Italo Svevo", 2005), p. 16, Document 2. I just hope your medieval Latin can cope.
But even those of you who can read this document at the same speed as a gifted twelve-year-old with the most recent edition of Harry Potter in their sticky fingers, can surely still remember their first few days of horror in the Archives. For those who cannot, just try and channel that primordial ancestor and their last few minutes upon this earth before they became wombat lunch. Apparently this sensation will subside with practice, hence the safety net of Praga’s transcription with which to compare, contrast and try to work out how on earth a squiggle that looks worryingly similar to something in a garibaldi biscuit could in fact be construed as the word “condicionibus”.
And now to reel myself back in from this tangent back to the Croatian History of Art Conference in Orebić. Wow. Three days of intense discussion about the role of the patron in Croatian art. Difficult to cope with in my own mother tongue but all the more mind-boggling in Croatian. I just want to thank God and his heavenly pantheon of saints, apostles, cherubim, seraphim and big band that there were pictures. Lots of pictures. This is one of the delights of art history, visual stimuli in the best academic sense. To be honest if anyone attempted a paper without images there would be a riot of epic proportions and if that had happened in Orebić, I would have been the first to throw a Molotov cocktail. Fortunately, this never eventuated so I quietly sat through paper upon paper of what I am sure was terribly interesting stuff, absorbing relevant vocab and images like a ‘flu-infested sponge (yes, dear reader, it was still lurking). At one point heated debate ensued between two scholars about the architect behind the main city gate of Trogir
whereupon I found myself trapped in the row between, similar to a ball boy with stage fright caught between Nadal and Federer amidst ace after ace at the Wimbledon final. In situations like these, the best thing is to make oneself as small as possible and exude a sense of intense diplomatic politeness. It is also a useful strategy in deflecting attention about one’s academic reason for being. “Why Dalmatia?” the Croatian art historians ask me. “Why not something in your own country? I hear Coventry was very nice before it got bombed to smithereens in WWII.” In response, I attach a photograph and a link. The photo is of the Franciscan church on Hvar and the link has a particularly lovely photo of Coventry city centre. Why Dalmatia, indeed...
So, I’ve been here for almost two weeks now and what a hectic time it has been! Certainly a baptism of fire on the language front, starting with an at first delighted then baffled taxi driver from the airport to the flat. Delighted that as a foreigner I was stumbling through my directions in Croatian, baffled as it swiftly became clear I have no obvious connection with this nation in any way, shape or form. You see there are about 8 million Croatian-speakers scattered about the world, half in the nation itself and the rest to be found in various far-flung corners of the globe. Not quite large enough an economic presence to warrant the subjugation of school children everywhere to the delights of imperfective and perfective verbs.
However, of these 8 million Croatian speakers, about 99.99999% have some sort of link to the place be it family, significant others or simply the good fortune to be born here. I fall into the 0.000001% of people who are trying to learn this language without the incentives of patriotism, familial love or outright lust for one of Croatia’s citizens. In short, I pose somewhat of a quandary to the locals. And most other people for that matter. And, if the truth be told, myself as well occasionally.
Nonetheless, international wannabe scholar of mystery that I am, I sallied onwards, got to the flat safely and emerged the following morning in a haze of ‘flu and bunged-up ears. Image you lived in a bottle that was at the bottom of a deep puddle and were trying to listen to the world from that perspective. Now imagine the world only spoke a Slavic language of which your grasp was tenuous at best, enthusiastic and ill-placed at most. Not the most fortuitous of situations but one that I am sure provided much comedy for the locals. The disease had also done something to my balance so I was staggering around town like a Geordie in Faliraki after a large one at “Stavros’ Den of Iniquity”. In my case though, it was straight to the suffering without the pleasurable preamble of lashings of grog. Oh joy.
Monday, 18 August 2008
Think of this initial post as a teaser, written in the depths of a rather soggy August afternoon in Northern Europe somewhere, before the real fun kicks off in September with much of the aforementioned miscellany of the medieval variety that just happens to be in Zadar on Croatia's Dalmatian coast. Recently (or so I have been informed by night owl-type chums), Zadar has been dubbed the new "Ayia Napa", a place of fun, frivolity and possibly a large dollop of other dubious goings on that involve lashings of sun, sand, sea and šljivovica (plum brandy). Mainly due to the fact it will be autumn when I am there so all the sun-burnt tourists will have been blown out by the winds of the Adriatic and I have a tendency to nod off at about 10.30pm these days, I shall be painting a somewhat different picture of this stunning town, hopefully a combination of day-to-day life with whatever gems I happen to find whilst rummaging in the archives of the city.
"Why?!" I hear you cry, "Why would any sane person choose to be dust-covered in an archive on one of the more beautiful coastlines in this hemisphere?". Jolly good question, and when I think of a decent answer I'll stick it up here but what immediately comes to mind is "can you think of another way to justify three months living on the Dalmatian coast?".
For now though should you or anyone you know happen to be interested in / capable of conceiving of a Europe prior to 1789, particularly a small corner of Europe nestled along the bottle-within- a-bottle that is the Adriatic, do come back at some point in September. I shall try my best to regale you of adventures with saints, kings, queens, confraternities, Venetian macchinations, lashings of art, architecture and a spot of the mundane that will probably cover things like paper cuts, broken boilers and gesticulating wildly in a slavic language whilst trying to order coffee. Oh, and please; no comments about spotty dogs.
Tootle pip for now.