Walking amongst the dead in Zagreb

Mirogoj cemetry, Zagreb

I have what some might call a morbid fascination with cemeteries. And prisons.  I often wonder if I somehow see the two related. While others wander through the art galleries and museums of this world, I spend my time in graveyards reading epitaphs wondering about the lives of those who’ve gone before me and those they’ve left behind. Dean Martin’s tombstone reads: Everybody loves somebody sometime. Bette Davis’s: She did it the hard way. But my favourite has to be Spike Milligan’s: Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite (I told you I was ill). Way back in the good old days of the Wild West, when death was completely random and a sense of humour prevailed to the last, some classic epitaphs can still be found. Lawyer John E. Goembel: The defense rests. Auctioneer Jedediah Goodwin : Going, going, gone.

Mirogoj cemetry, Zagreb

I’ve often wondered at a particular choice of gravestone and have given some consideration to what I’d like mine to be and what I’d like it to say – if I’m not cremated. I’m undecided.

It was in Macugnaga, in the Italian Alps, that  I first saw a photograph encased in glass on a gravestone. I thought it rather strange that someone would want their photo displayed, but as I walked around the small cemetery, the idea grew on me. It was like visiting a place where people, though dead, were still very much alive in spirit…you could put a face to the bones buried beneath.

Mirogoj cemetry, Zagreb

In Warsaw some years later, in the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street, I was struck by the notion of adding a person’s occupation the gravestone – but is this so strange? In life, some of us become our profession and lose sight of who we are as people, so why not carry this identity with us and go the grave proclaiming what we were.

In a Russian Orthodox graveyard in Eklutna, Alaska, each grave has a spirit house, built as a new home for the soul of the deceased. In Manchester, UK, some Irish traveller families have erected huge, gigantic marble monstrosities that seem be in some strange posthumous competition with each other – keeping up with the Joneses well after all the Joneses are dead.

Mirogoj cemetry, Zagreb

Until a recent visit to Zagreb, I’d never been to a non-denominational cemetery  – or at least, I am not aware of ever having been in one. The cemeteries with which I am familiar tend to be strictly segregated – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Russian Orthodox. The idea of mixing religions in death strikes me as ironic considering the trouble various religions have living side by side.  Mirogoj cemetry has been very much inclusive since it first opened its gates in 1876. The work of Hermann Bollé, it’s a beautiful spot, with a series of ivy-clad cupola’d arcades running along the inside walls. It’s home to Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, communist Partisans and the German dead from WW2. Crescent moons, Jewish stars, and RC crosses adorn the gravestones. Rows and rows of grave-lined paths diverge from the main gate. There’s a computer kiosk where you can key in the name of the person you are looking for and it’ll tell you where go to. Without this, it would be practically impossible, or, take days to find it for yourself.A couple of years go, on Achill Island off the west coast of Ireland, I visited a famine graveyard. Simple, overgrown, and wild, it was a stark reminder of an Ireland that is in danger of being forgotten.  A story book of life and death, a living testimonyof times gone by. In South Africa earlier this year, I stumbled across a cemetry from the Boer War. I’d never realised how many nations were involved in this particular fight. But it too, like the famine, seems so very long ago. Mirogoj cemetery is different. It is home to row after row of men my age who died in the Yugoslav wars. My age. My age. In another life they might have been my brother, my husband, my best friend. And while they were dying for the promise of a better tomorrow, I was living in Alaska, in my own little world, completely unaware of what was going on Europe. We speak of living in a global village but in truth, we are worlds apart. Einstein nailed it when he said: the more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know.

Seven islands in the Med

No. I couldn’t have heard him correctly. A history spanning 7000 years? Malta? It seems like just a couple of years ago that I first heard of the place. Could it be that old? So I checked. And the guide was right. Malta was first settled in 5200 BC. So then I checked Ireland. It was first settled in 8000 BC. Conclusion: I have no clue about history and even less about geography. How sad is that?

St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valetta

Some trivia for you: Malta is a group of seven islands in the Mediterranean Sea. Only the three largest are inhabited:  Malta, Gozo, and Comino. They stand on an underwater ridge that extends from North Africa to Sicily (which is about 100 km north – you can get there by hovercraft and it’s high on my list of things to do). The islands were once submerged and the bones of elephants and hippopotami have been found in caverns along the coast. Phoenicians, Cathaginians, Romans, Arabs, and Normans all came and stayed awhile before the King of Spain gave it to the Knights Hospitaller of St John in 1530. Verdi’s opera Sicilian Vespers immortalised the 1283 naval battle of the same name, a battle that ended French/Norman control of Sicily and the Maltese Islands. The Turks made a bid for the islands in 1565 but the Knights saw them off. In 1607, a young painter by the name of Michaelangelo Merisi was vested as official painter of the Knights of St John – you might know him as Caravaggio. Two of his greatest works – St Jerome writing and The beheading of John the Baptist still hang in the Co-Cathedral of St John in Valetta. There’s another new one for me: co-cathedral. The Bishop of Malta had his cathedral in Mdina; the Knights had theirs in Valetta. In 1820, the Knights allowed the Bishop (was chess invented in Malta???) to use their cathedral as an alternative see – hence the ‘co’ in co-cathedral.

Napoleon stopped by in 1798 on his way to Egypt but didn’t get a great reception. When he was refused water, he sent in the troops and the Grand Master capitulated. He stayed only a few days but spent his time pilfering anything worth taking. Before he left, he established an administration to run the place in his absence. During his tenure, he freed 2000 muslim slaves and established a liberal lay system to replace the existing feudal one.  The locals welcomed the French… for a while… but when they started closing convents and seizing church treasures, a line was drawn. They asked the British for help and Nelson arrived, blockaded the place, and in 1800 the French surrendered.

Malta then voluntarily became part of the British Empire. Under the terms of the 1802 Treaty of Amiens, Britain was supposed to evacuate the island, but sort of forgot to leave. Although small in size and not initially given much importance, Malta’s harbours soon became a jewel in the Empire’s crown, headquarters to the British Mediterranean fleet. While Home Rule effectively started in Ireland in 1870 (but it was a long and arduous process), the Maltese had to wait until 1921 (interestingly, the same year as Northern Ireland).  Malta got its independence in 1964 and joined the EU in 2004.

Before the British arrived, the Maltese spoke Italian and had done so since 1530. In 1934, English and Maltese were declared the official languages. On 21st September 1964 Maltese officially became the national language of Malta, although English and Italian are also spoken. Their accent is unique and a joy to listen to. Now that I have my head around the 7000 years, and have overcome my shame at being so ignorant, I’m looking forward to seeing a little more of these seven islands in the Med with Air Malta.

 

Light from a big sky

Late afternoon. April. South Africa. The sun starts to set and this particular part of the world is bathed in a godly light. Cecile B. de Mille comes to mind. The clouds move, slowly changing shape, as if an invisible choreographer is directing them across the sky. The same ingredients: sun, clouds, sky and yet no two afternoon skies are the same. As we travel back to camp, we meet our neighbours. Tired from a day foraging for food, they laze around in the evening sun. We pass a baboon, engrossed in picking fleas from his mate’s tail. Focused on the task at hand and paying no attention to our kombi. We may as well be invisible. The sunlight catches him just so and adds a reddish tinge to his coat and dresses him for an evening at home with the family.

We turn a corner and see a lioness, stretched out on the side of the road, enjoying what’s left of the heat of the day. She radiates pure gold and seems so placid, so tame. On guard, protecting the cubs I know are nearby, she appears so approachable. And yet I know that if I reach towards her, that will change. In a flash. All the godly light in the world won’t change the fact that she is wild – not wild in her world, wild in mine.

A zebra, black and white in the noon-day light, turns biscuit brown as he grazes beneath the lowering sun. Yet another trick of nature as all its forces work together to change the shape of things as we see them. To show us that nothing stays the same, not even for a little while. Things are constantly changing, however minutely. How we see things depends a lot on when we look. Nothing is certain.

The silhouettes of dead trees stand still against the sky, blacked out by the sun. As the French artist George Rouault so insightfully said: A tree against the sky possesses the same interest, the same character, the same expression as the figure of a human. It’s like being at a private screening of evolving art; a gallery open to the world but empty now, save for the four of us and nature.

It is at dawn and at dusk when the true magnificance of the bush comes to be. It is during these quiet transitions between time that I am most a peace, suspended in world where nothing matters but the now. And a tiny piece of me wishes I could stay.

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Putting the foot back into footpath

The word ‘footpath’ can be traced as far back as 1425. Unlike the term ‘babysitter’, footpath is pretty much self-explanatory. In essence, it’s a path for those going on foot, or as the Collins English Dictionary so eloquently puts it:  a narrow path for walkers only. Simple. Uncomplicated. Footpaths are not bicycle paths. Cycling is not walking. Cyclists, unless they’re pushing their bicycles, are not travelling on foot. Ergo, cycling cyclists do not belong on footpaths. Could it be any simpler?

The prologue

As cyclists across the city rise up on their pedals at my exclusionary language, let me offer two words: Margit hid. Currently under reconstruction and likely to be that way for the foreseeable future, pedestrian traffic across Margit hid is restricted to one footpath. Traffic is two-way. Four thin people can walk abreast but more often than not, pedestrian traffic is reduced to single file from both directions as people of various shapes and sizes navigate the narrow walkway. It’s like walking a gauntlet. Walkers adjust their pace to strollers. Runners stop running. With a couple of polite interjections and seizing up the flow of oncoming traffic, those on foot dodge their way across without doing any damage. But ignoring the large posted signs advising them to dismount and walk their charges across the water, a sizeable number of cyclists still insist on cycling. On my latest venture to the Island, I counted eight bikers biking and just one pushing. It’s inconsiderate, unnecessary, and downright dangerous. Tempers are fraying. Unrest is brewing. Pedestrians are pissed off.

Act I: Scene I

Last week on Margit hid: Cyclist, weaving his way in and out through the thread of people crossing the bridge, runs his handlebars into the ribs of a pedestrian. It hurts. Pedestrian says so. Cyclist shrugs, apparently not at all bothered, and makes to continue on his way. Pedestrian, a regular bridge user and victim of other near misses since reconstruction began, grabs cyclist by the wrist and asks him to dismount. Argument ensues. Cyclist dismounts. Pedestrian walks on. A woman coming from the opposite direction gesticulates wildly at pedestrian – something is happening behind him. He turns to see a kryptonite bicycle lock bearing down on him. Pedestrian grabs cyclist by the wrist. And on it goes, around in circles.  But it’s not just Margit hid. Szabadság hid staged similar scenes when it was under reconstruction, and can now be found on many of our city’s footpaths.

Act I: Scene II

In our carbon-challenged world, everything possible should be done to encourage people out of their cars and onto their bikes (or their feet). I’m all for cycling and the health benefits it entails, even if the health benefits of cycling in the shadow of exhaust plumes are a little dubious. Cyclists are in a Darwinian contest for survival with motorists. They’ve been hard done by. They take their lives in their hands every time they shove off.  Last week on Kiraly utca:  Inconsiderate driver opens his car door without checking his mirror and knocks cyclist off his bike. Driver gets out and checks on cyclist. Cyclist writhes in agony. Driver pulls out mobile and calls for help. Aggression is notably absent. Interesting hierarchy.

Budapest has 170 km of pathways for bicyclists, which includes cycling paths, cycling lanes, and side streets designated as suitable for cycling. This is targeted to increase to 300 km by 2015. And although I’m sure that it’s nowhere near enough, that’s what we have to work with. I can empathise with the frustration of having pedestrians walking along designated cycle paths. I’ve been blown out of it by cyclists on more than one occasion when I’ve failed to realise that I was walking between the painted red lines, and deservedly so. That’s their space. And as a pedestrian, I have no business being in it, unless it’s an emergency (a little like using the men’s loo).

The reviews

At various stages in my life, I’ve played all three roles: the motorist, the cyclist, and the pedestrian. I know that if you put all three actors in a room for an hour they’d have no trouble trading accusations and recriminations. And key to each diatribe would be the word ‘consideration’. Inconsiderate drivers pull out without looking and knock down cyclists; inconsiderate cyclists break red lights and knock down pedestrians; inconsiderate pedestrians stray into cycle paths, and force cyclists to ring their bells. Three actors each playing a part in what is becoming an increasingly aggressive street performance where one plot-line might read: cyclist, feeling victimised by motorist, turns on pedestrian.

Were I directing this particular play, the last line would be an impassioned plea to cyclists: get off your bikes and walk the bridge…and give me back my footpath.

First published in the Budapest Times 2 August 2010