Tuesday, 25 November 2008

John Nettles. Yum

So one of the librarians here had a confession to make regarding her level of English. After the usual profuse apologies for such a “poor” standard of English - a standard, I might add, that many native speakers on both sides of the Atlantic often fail to meet - a story regarding her particular didactic incentive was revealed. Throughout the 1980s (and even now at lunchtime in the first decade of the 21st C) Croatian television was saturated with American television shows. Magnum P.I., Dallas, the ‘A’ team and the Bold and the Beautiful were some of the staples as well as exposure to the early days of MTV and other such ambassadors of American popular culture. Our lovely librarian however, was not impressed. She refused outright to learn a tongue whose vibrancy, phenomenal literary heritage and beauty had been so readily corrupted by half-hour sessions relaying the tedious goings on of wealthy Texans and / or Tom Selleck in a pair of khaki shorts.

Even when her teenage daughters were capable of American English conversation far beyond the wit of, say, a certain wealthy president of the USA hailing from Texas, our librarian was still resolute in her determination not to succumb to the perceived nasal qualities of this particular manifestation of American cultural imperialism.

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


Oh for crying out loud. I saw about 5 middle-aged men sporting mullets yesterday. It is 2008. Will somebody please outlaw the mullet? I think I know what happened to those teenage boys in the 1980s who did not cut their hair. Let this be a warning to the current generation...

Winter (ish)

Huzzah! At last the temperatures have dropped. I think the good people of Zadar have recovered from the shock of the floral and are now ready for the unleashing of the bobble hats...

Sunday, 9 November 2008

All Saints' and All Souls'

As you may have guessed, Croatia is a rather Catholic country. Therefore there is a distinct absence of feral children dressed up as witches and ghouls harassing neighbours for toxic confectionery on the 31st October. Instead the 1st and 2nd November are a national holiday set aside for remembering departed family members and visiting graveyards. In order to honour those lost, flowers are an appropriate gesture so cemeteries and houses are strewn with blooms. But not just any blooms, oh no. The wonderful chrysanthemum has been bestowed with the dubious honour of a flower of remembrance, to the extent that in the village of St Philip and Jacob just outside Zadar, the name in their dialect for chrysanthemum roughly translates as “dead man’s bloom”. And the markets are chock full of them in anticipation for the start of November.

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.

Rude boys who spend Saturday night cruising around a peninsula only approx. 750m long and 200m wide in souped up VW Polos with Turbo Folk blaring.


St Simeon

Today’s contribution to my cyber ramblings is terribly late but I wish you all a Happy St Simeon’s day (for the 8th October. Note that date down for next year). This particular feast is rather significant in Zadar. The city has Simeon’s body. Not just a finger, femur, scrap of fabric or instrument of torture but the entire body. And not just one of your bog-standard early Christian martyrs, although Zadar has lashings of those in the guise of Saints Chrysogonus and Anastasia, but someone who not only gets a mention in the New Testament but actually held the Babe Jesus when presented at the Temple (Luke 2:22-35). Cue Song of Simeon or the Nunc dimittis of the Latin liturgy.

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

Staring into the Abyss

Crap, crap, crap, crap and fivefold crap. So life potters on in the archives and library. You are master of your own destiny, making hefty decisions such as whether to read a busta of documents from 1403-09 or maybe 1410-1418 or perchance wander about town photographing buildings that are no longer there or possibly even (controversially) doing a spot of writing. There is no one to crack the whip except yourself, no one to make sure you are at the archives spot on at 8.30am. In short life is your call. Thus you potter on contentedly, thinking everything is fine and dandy and harvesting info, articles and photocopies like an urbanite at a “Pick your Own” strawberry farm. Sometimes on a dark autumn afternoon you may have an X files moment, “is there anybody out there?”, which is swiftly followed by a reassuring Michael Jackson crooning “You are not alone” when you meet with other scholarly types but then with equal swiftness degenerates into doubt and severe misgivings for which I cannot immediately think of a 1990s pop culture comparison.

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.