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Friday, December 30, 2011

If you had to describe 2011 in three pictures...

...what would those be?

That was the exercise with which I challenged myself last year here on the blog, and I thought it would be fun to repeat it now that 2011 is nearing the end. I carefully sifted through this year's photo collection for inspiration, and, like the last time around, picked the images that are not necessarily technically the best, but most illustrating.

From 1950s

2011 was a good year for me, the best in a while by far. What made it so great were friends, old and new. When I came to Geneva last summer I had one friend living here and one acquaintance who was about to move to another country. With a little bit of luck and quite a bit of enthusiasm, I managed to meet a whole bunch of smart and interesting people very quickly. With the passage of time and a little bit more of salt eaten together, as we would say back home, some of those new relationships evolved into really strong friendships, making this a wonderful year. I hope 2012 will be the year of friendships as much as or more than 2011 has been.

Lajoux, Jura

One of the best things about living in Geneva--if not the best--is its proximity to beautiful nature. You can just hop on the bike and in twenty minutes you are riding on country roads, through forests and picturesque villages, in a completely different world. 2011 was the year of many a great bike ride and beginning to explore the Jura with its amazing potential for walks, hikes and, of course, skiing.

Lisbon balcony
2011 was also, in many ways, the year of the esprit du sud. It all began with that long awaited visit to Lisbon, the city that forever mesmerized me and planted a seed of longing for the south. The stay in Portugal was brief, but the torch passed to fado, salsa and tango so that the sourthern sun could continue to shine, warming even the grayest winter days. "Te quiero, Sur"...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Vuelvo al Sur


Vuelvo al Sur,
como se vuelve siempre al amor,
vuelvo a vos,
con mi deseo, con mi temor.

Llevo el Sur,
como un destino del corazon,
soy del Sur,
como los aires del bandoneon.


Sueño el Sur,
inmensa luna, cielo al reves,
busco el Sur,
el tiempo abierto, y su despues.

Field in Solishta

Quiero al Sur,
su buena gente, su dignidad,
siento el Sur,
como tu cuerpo en la intimidad.

Te quiero Sur...

(Astor Piazzolla)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Always wanted to...

Inside the tram, Lisbon

1. Be a DJ.

2. Sing back vocals in a band.

3. Drive a tram.

4. Have a room with walls covered with bookshelves, crammed with books.

And you?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Fiat lux


That last Sunday of October has to be the saddest day of the year. We change back the clock and suddenly we are plunged into long, dark evenings. And it gets worse by the day. Who switched off the light?

Plus, there is November: fading colors, barren trees, gray skies, lots of rain.

Novembers should be abolished by decree. We should go from October straight into the season of Christmas fairs and mulled wine, without this nuisance in between.

On the bright side, there are still so many things one can do in November: heaps of books to be read, photo courses to be tried, pancake brunches to be had with friends. Who has time to succumb to melancholic thoughts when there is enough French homework to keep one busy for a year? And of course there is salsa--great at any season, absolutely necessary in this one.

So let's create some light with frantic activity.

And plenty of red.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The old age of nostalgia


"Those hours given over to basking in the glow of an imagined future, of being carried away in streams of promise by a love or a passion so strong that one felt altered forever and convinced that the smallest particle of the surrounding world was charged with a purpose of impossible grandeur; ah yes, and one would look up into the trees and be thrilled by the wind-loosened river of pale gold foliage cascading down and by the high melodious singing of countless birds; those moments, so many and so long ago, still come back, but briefly, the fireflies in the perfumed heat of a summer night"

Mark Strand

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

À la recherche des crepes perdus

Pancake in Lyon

It wasn't the pancakes that brought us to Lyon on a sunny October afternoon but, once there, we remembered excellent crepes we had in December, from street vendors somewhere in the old quarter of St. Jean. We thought it would be good to pay them a visit again, as it was just the right hour in the afternoon for some good mood substances. At a crucial junction, however, we chose right instead of left (never a good idea, if you ask me) and we ended up in a different part of the old town. Which, incidentally, had even better pancakes in store (if you believe in photographic evidence, take a look at the picture above this text).

Street musicians

After that mega dose of Nutella we continued the walk in high spirits, happy to amble without a plan or a goal (short on objectives, too). We ran into a brass band in the middle of a square.

Street musicians

Normally you pass by street musicians without stopping, barely registering their presence--even when that is Joshua Bell playing on a $3.5 million Stradivarius in a metro station. But these guys were hard to ignore as they were about a dozen, and played the loudest instruments that there are. Not only that, but they kept jumping, dancing and chasing unsuspecting spectators. They so obviously enjoyed themselves that you couldn't help wanting to share in on the joy.

The repertoire was ecclectic but one of the songs they performed particularly well was that old classic, "Quizas, quizas, quizas." I was so happy to be reminded of it as I like it very much. Of the countless versions that exist I chose the one by Nat King Cole because his performance is so mellow, and his accent very sweet. Here you go.

Mushroom picking


It is a peculiar trait of our mushroom expeditions that they rarely feature any mushrooms. Two deadly fungi and a modest edible specimen was our entire bounty, when we came armed with half a dozen baskets and some extra bags to boot. But while mushrooms were scarce, the apples were aplenty. In the village of Mourex, which was our starting point, there was a festival of apples and many a glass of freshly pressed apple juice was drunk.


A festival is always a good occassion for the local artisans to showcase their craft. In this particular case there was not much craftsmanship required to measure a kilogram of flour, but the scales were wonderfully old fashioned and the flour presumably bio.


Ah, that blessed age when happiness equals a basket of chestnuts! Just look at that proud face...

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Serbia, briefly

From Srbija 09

The next stop on our Balkan tour was Serbia. There was a time when my pulse would beat frantically and my hands would sweat every time I crossed the border back to the home country. That was not the excitement from being back on the native ground, but a deep-seated fear of entering a black hole with no exit. Because, there used to be a time when we were so completely isolated in every sense that we were really just a black hole on the map of Europe that no one cared about much nor knew how to deal with. It didn't feel that good to be inside. In fact, it felt like being stuck in a small elevator, for about a decade.
From Leto 2011

Those awful times are gone now, and returning no longer sets off a panic attack (although residual feeling of slight discomfort never lies too far from the surface). Serbia equals family (and a handful of friends), and now that I have children of my own I realize how lucky I was to have my grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins so near, all living in the same town while I was growing up. Boris and Andrej do not have that privilege, so making an effort to visit the grandparents is so important. It is also the only opportunity for them to hear their mother tongue in its natural environment, in all of its picturesque varieties.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Balkans under the summer sun

Jelsa, Hvar

This year our summer journey to the Balkans began in Croatia, on the island of Hvar. I had last been there in 1987 with my school. Back then we used to spend one week per school year having classes somewhere other than our hometown. There was an attempt to vary the landscape (a little bit of mountains, a little bit of the coast)so in the final year of lower primary school we were taken to Hvar. This was four years before the beginning of the war and little did I know that it would be many years before I will go to Croatia again; harder to imagine still that I would need a passport (even a visa at some point) to do that. But in 1987 it was still the age of innocence, soon to be rudely interrupted.


While we were watching the sea at the promenade outside of Split's old town, I tried to explain to Boris that this was once one country--my country--from there to granny's, that there were no borders from us to the sea. But of course Croatia means little to him and the Adriatic sea is just one of many, and not the measure of all things maritime. I noted with some sadness that Yugoslavia will be a completely abstract construct for him, a historical fact with no relevance. Will it be less real when there is no one around to remember it?

Jelsa, Hv
One interesting thing about Croatia is that it desperately does not want to be associated with the Balkans--in Croatia, the Balkans is others (primitive, backward, oriental). And yet if we take Kundera's homeland litmus test (obscenities are our strongest link with the homeland, to paraphrase) then I have to say I feel quite at home in Croatia. Swearing is rife, and curses identical (the great Croatian writer Miroslav Krleza was attributed as saying "God save me from Serbian bravery and Croatian culture," which sounds just about right to me). Maria Todorova`s fantastic book "Imagining the Balkans" would be a great read for anyone further interested in Balkan identities, both denied and acknowledged.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Why Jose Mourinho is a Serb

1. He is arrogant (but charming).

2. He makes enemies right, left and center.

3. He is a master of conspiracy theories.

4. It is always somebody else's fault.

5. He sincerely believes he is special.

Jose, Srbine!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Letters from Lisbon, part 1


I am still under the spell of Lisbon: its crisp sunshine, the promise of the ocean, Tejo in its monumental calm. A little further upstream Tejo (Tagus) is just your regular river with little to boast about, but as it approaches the ocean it suddenly expands. Andrej kept referring to it as "the sea" (When are we going to walk by the sea?)

Pasteis de nata

Pasteis de nata or, in this case, pasteis de Belem, bought in the famous bakery right next to the Jeronimous Monastery. When I say famous I mean that people come from all parts of Lisbon just to get these little custard tarts, and they don't mind standing in lines that extend well onto the street. I stirred a little bit of controversy among friends when I said, on Facebook, that I thought they were too greasy. People swear by these things! Bowing under popular pressure, I had to give them another try, and then a third, until I ended up eating them every day. They do grow on you.


The concept of privacy has to be very different when your entire neighborhood knows your favorite colors, where you buy your trousers, and what is the size and color of your underwear. Still, I loved the ubiquitous laundry and have about a hundred pictures to prove it. I would like to see some laundry in Geneva. If there is ever a radical Swiss group gathered around some progressive ideology, I suggest they hang laundry on their windows and balconies to protest whatever they must protest against--I can't imagine a bigger affront to Swiss middle-class sensibilities. It would probably also break 11 different rules, on the communal, cantonal and the federal level.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mixed loyalties

Boris, Skala Marion
Last night Boris was playing by himself, imagining he was at a football match and cheering for France against the Brazilians. We figured that's something he picked up from school, so we decided to ask him some questions.

R: Why do you support France?
B: Because they are so good!
J: But what if France played against Bulgaria, who would you support?
B: Bulgaria, of course! They are better.
J: And if Bulgaria played against Serbia?
B: I would be for Serbia.

So far, so good. He learned a few brownie points there, but I had one more question, out of curiosity.

J: But if France played against Serbia, who would you be for?
B: France!
J: France?! Are you sure???
B: Yes, definitely France! They are so good.

Now, that's typical Boris for you: no permanent loyalties, supporting the side he thinks is better and more likely to win. He is like that when we play games, too. He is always with the parent who is winning and, consequently, mercilessly abandoning the losing parent in the midst of the fight. Sometimes it backfires, and the moment he switches sides the luck changes, too. That can be very frustrating, but so far it hasn't taught him a lesson when it comes to loyalty.

But that whole funny exchange made me think about his identity as well, and how he might feel about it when he is a bit older to start grappling with these issues. He is naturally very adaptive, and I have little doubt that he will integrate seamlessly if we stay in France long enough. But will he feel French, or will France simply be "douce France, cher pays de mon enfance"? Will he feel, the way I do sometimes, that he does not belong anywhere; and will that be a liberating feeling or give him discomfort?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Discovering France: Lyon

Brioche aux pralines

I must have been very hungry while taking pictures in Lyon, because every other image is of a brioche, a cake, a tart, pralines or some aubergines thrown in for an attempt at a healthy balance. There must be something to the claim that my guidebook makes about Lyon being a gastronomic paradise. Half a day was not enough to test the claim against hard evidence, but what I managed to glimpse in the city's pattiseries was indicative in its mouth-wateriness.


This is a traditional Lyonnaise restaurant called bouchon, much like a bistro, serving simple but hearty food with an emphasis on meat. Bouchon literally means cork and there are various theories about the origin of the name.

My favorite is the one in which owners collect the corks, as the guests drain wine bottles, as a way of keeping tab. I prefer this one to the (more likely) other version which says the owners used to put a bit of straw next to the signs of their establishments, so that the travelers would know their horses could be fed (bouchonné) there. Like I said, I prefer the story with the corks even though circumstantial evidence (aka the straw, as seen on the picture) strongly suggests that theory number 2 is right and theory number 1 is wrong. Never let the facts stand in the way of a good story, as we used to say back at university, studying journalism.

Between Rhone and Saone

Despite having read about Lyon's old town with its traboule or intricate networks of hidden passages and small streets, I somehow expected a modern city with an ugly urban sprawl and not much to see (I must be prejudiced against French big cities). In reality Lyon is a beautiful place that has grown around two rivers, Rhone and Saone. That reminded me a bit of Belgrade, with the Sava and the Danube, although that confluence that you can see from the Kalemegdan fortress is unbeatable.

Red cakes

Another thing I noticed browsing through my Lyon pictures: there is a lot of bright red in them. Red is one of my favorite colors so I am naturally more attuned to it. It's also that the color palette of the outside world has been in the shades of gray and brown in the last months, so any splash of color feels like desert rain.