When a minute makes a difference

There’s a saying in Italian  that loosely translates to ‘everything you leave is lost’ – ogni lasciata e persa. Determined to keep the number of regrets I have in life to a bearable minimum, I’m a big fan.

Walking through early-morning Birgu at the weekend, we decided to take the high road rather than stroll by the water. We came around a corner and while I was busy checking out the decal on the bonnet of a parked car, my friends had spotted another niche with part of a procession display sitting on the ground beside it. Two chaps walked up. We got chatting and they invited us in to see their workshop.

Back in August a couple of years ago, the island was beset by a freak storm. It was two days before 10 August, the Festa of St Lawrence, and all the church statues were out in place. The storm wreaked havoc and the statues were damaged. Noel, a printer by trade, is now voluntarily restoring them to their former glory and his work is quite something.

I never gave much thought to how they managed to capture folds in the clothing so accurately but now know that they use burlap. They use everything from paper maché to chalk to fibreglass to make their effigies, mixing the colours to remain as true as possible to the originals and then coating with linseed oil to reflect the natural light. The festivals are quite the spectacle and were this one not at the height of the summer, I might be tempted to drop by.

Noel learned his trade from a  local master and today spends his free time at the workshop. Once a church on the waterfront, the place still has a latent holiness going on. What a lovely place to work. And to think, had we been just a minute later, the boys would have passed through the gate and locked it. We’d wouldn’t have had the chance to chat and the invitation inside wouldn’t have been issued. What a difference a minute can make.

Redefining kitsch

I’m old enough to fess up to a number of obsessions, one of which is statues. They fascinate me on two levels: what they represent and what they’re supposed to represent. In this regard, spending a few days in Skopje was like spending a few days touring with Dara O’Briain – it was one jaw-dropping surprise after another.

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I was particularly amused by the statue of Prometheus that sits in a park across from the Parliament building. It’s part of a ‘statue complex‘ that has three parts representing the world of the living and a passage to the world of the gods. Prometheus, the god who brought us fire, stands in the middle of an agora representing heroic sacrifice. On top of the doorway to eternity stand four horses. And atop a marble pillar stands a winged goddess of victory.  Somewhere in there is what was intended to be an eternal flame, but it was doused when the park’s young visitors started to use it to barbeque their sausages. What amused me was the fact that Prometheus was first erected in all his glory but politicians caved to public indignation and had him clothed. Mind you, the story I heard was that the politicians themselves didn’t like looking out the windows of Parliament at a god in all his golden glory. Whether it was unidentified women’s organisations that lobbied for the loin cloth, or the politicians themselves that had the god clothed, the mind boggles at such inanity.
Next on my liIMG_1844 (600x800)st is a statue of someone whose name escapes me. It caught my attention because of the controversy the project has ignited. The public is a tad upset at the millions of euro  being spent on these statues and there are murmurs that not all the money might be going where it should have gone. This chap, putting away what might be a wallet, screamed corruption at me. Apparently, the night of the mayoral election in the Centar municipality, the incumbent was defeated. At 3am he got to work. By 8 am the next morning, the two boys had taken up their positions on either side of the Porta Macedonia, a triumphal arch that stands 21 meters tall and itself cost €4.4 million. Apparently, the defeated Mayor promptly sent the bill to his successor. Payback’s a bitch alright.

IMG_1985 (600x800) (2)IMG_1983 (800x600)Across the Stone Bridge sits Karpoš’s Rebellion Square. In one of three fountains sit four statues of four women in various stages of motherhood. Titled the Fountain of the Mothers of Macedonia, it depicts a pregnant woman, a woman breastfeeding,  a woman playing with her son, and another of what seems to be her protecting him. In the background stands the Warrior monument, generally believed to be a statue of Philip II of Macedon – Alexander the Great’s father. At this stage, the penny dropped. Macedonia is really hammering it home to Greece that its claim on the name Macedonia is greater – but subtly, of course. Not surprisingly, the mothers of Macedonia are thought by some to depict one mother – and represent the early stages of Alexander’s life.

IMG_1776 (800x600) Sitting in the centre of Macedonia Square is the statue of the Warrior on a Horse, generally believed to be that of Alexander the Great. The relatively unknown sculptor is said to have received €650 000 while the whole fountain cost about €9 million. It lights up at night and it plays music, too. Apparently the people cried with joy when it was raised… but the tears I heard were more of despair. It would seem that this statue frenzy has divided the city more so that the River Vardar already does.

IMG_1915 (600x800)IMG_1987 (600x800)While I was thinking of this despair, I happened across this sculpture which at first I took to be a lifesaving in motion. But then I realised it was a diving platform. I liked it. Clever I thought. And a break from the greatness of the other monuments with their innocuous titles and their subtle implications.

And then I found some light relief down by the National Theatre. Not unlike Budapest’s National Theatre, it too has a series of statues of great actors but even they seem to be enjoying a certain amount of self-deprecation. This one was my favourite. Sass and style and a dare-to-be-different attitude that might well sum up Skopje. The jury is out.

Is Macedonia’s capital being turned in to a theme park, as the CNN article ran? Or it is a ploy to distract the nation from its real problems: high unemployment, poverty and stalled progress towards EU and NATO membership.  New-York-based Macedonian architect Robert Dandarov reckons that Skopje has turned into ‘an encyclopedia of kitsch’. Me, I’m just glad I got to see it all and marvel.


212 times over

It’s been a while since I’ve been somewhere that has had such a lasting effect, where the memory of what I’ve seen replays itself time and time again in my mind.  I’m interested in museums, if they deal with the resistance or the holocaust. I like photography exhibitions, if they deal with people rather than places. And I have a minor obsession  with statues. I’ve been led to believe that while all statues are sculptures, not all sculptures are statues. Statues are, apparently, sculptures in the round. Whatever.

IMG_6554 (589x800)Frognerparken in Oslo is home to the Vigelandsanlegget – an arrangement of 212 bronze and granite sculptures (statues?) by Gustav Vigeland. [Note of caution: Do not refer to it as Vigeland Park or Sculpture Park – the exhibition is an entity within Frogner Park.] This amazing man worked from 1906 to 1947, sculpting these life-sized figures without the aid of models or students. It literally is a lifetime of work and apparently the largest exhibition in the world by one sculptor. If anywhere ever gave me food for thought … and then some … this place did. It must have been fascinating to see it back then, to see it evolve, as statue after statue was completed.

IMG_6561 (599x800)I’m not quite sure what it all represents. I’m light years away from being an expert in anything art related, but I know what I like. As I shuffled between despair and hope, between the inevitability of old age and the selfishness of youth,  I felt at once both happy and sad. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. And while this description has been known to fit me on occasion, it has been an age since any work (or works) of art have made me feel so much, and so deeply. Not since I visited Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama have I been so moved.

IMG_6562 (800x595)IMG_6555 (800x600)It was as if, deep inside every block of granite, was a soul. A soul with a message for all who stopped to stare, if only we took the time to listen, to hear whatever it had to say. The crowds milled around (it’s a popular spot). Kids climbed the towering structures, watched over by shutter-clicking adults who should have known better. Where’s the respect, I asked myself more than once.

The detail, the facial expressions, the forlorn smiles of acceptance, all added to that sense of mystery and I wondered how I’d never heard of this man – he who wielded the chisel and imbued the stone with life.

IMG_6567 (800x600)Everywhere I turned I was reminded of our inability to communicate. That wanting to say something but not knowing how. That fear of feeling lest it upset the clinical balance of our lives. And I recalled, not for the first time lately, the line from Rod McKuen:  However wretchedly I feel, I feel.

IMG_6548 (564x800) (564x800)There’s a 100 metre bridge, lined on either side with statues, 58 in all – a little reminiscent of the Charles Bridge in Prague, without the religion. Here, too, you can spot the ones that are supposed to be lucky to touch, where the patina has been rubbed away and that particular piece of the statue gleams, as if it were a badge of popularity. Like the Angry Boy (Sinnataggen). Then far in the distance is the monolith. Way back in 1929, three stone carvers started to carve Vigeland’s design in a block of granite. It took them 14 years to finish. At Christmas 1944, this 14.12 metre high sculpture composed of 121 human figures was unveiled.  Reaching up into the sky it is said to represent man’s desire to become closer with the spiritual and divine. It portrays a feeling of togetherness as the human figures embrace one another as they are carried toward salvation.

IMG_6566 (576x800)That’s not quite what it said to me but my interpretation could be more to do with my current state of mind and a tincture of resistance to prescribed artistic interpretation. As I looked at it, I didn’t see people striving upwards towards the great spirit. It seemed instead that they were holding each other back or hanging on for dear life.

IMG_6575 (800x600)I took my time wandering around, trying to decide what it was I felt, trying to focus in on what was bothering me. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t put my finger on it. For days afterwards, and even still, I see those faces, those figures, those statues, and wonder what was going on in Vigeland’s mind as he chipped away. Do they reflect his state of mind then? Did the forms just take shape of their own volition? Was I confusing hope with despair? Was I seeing the glass half-empty? Was I simply not getting it?

IMG_6571 (800x600) (800x600)But I keep coming back to it all being a reflection of communication. Human communication. Or the lack thereof. And I’m still wondering. And that’s what art is for…to make us wonder.

Stealing sins in the Czech Republic

IMG_4104Oh Lord, give me such signs in every foreign country I visit and I will be happier (if that’s possible), and more relaxed, and less intimidated. I came across this sign in a  church in the Czech Republic a couple of weeks ago . Oddly enough, it was posted on the confessional box. You’re on camera! Steal and the police will come and take you away… but steal what? My sins?

I was in Kralupy, on the Vitava River for the 2009 European Scout Academy. About 130 of us descended on the town of 18,000 for five days – Tuesday to Sunday. Some came and went over the course of the event, others were there for the duration. Hard work this scouting (I kid you not).  We had full days of workshops and meetings (both formal and informal). It’s reallly something to see people from so many different backgrounds and cultures being brought together by a shared interest. And their ability to flit from one language to the other is mindboggling. The highlight for me was the International night when each country represented has its own table of food and drink and flags and books and whatnots. Everyone (but me, as I don’t have one…I’m a civilian volunteer, of sorts) was in uniform and only too keen to tell you something about where they’d come from. (As an aside: Israel is in the European Scout Region…so it’s not just me who has difficulty with ye olde geography?!) And again, Slovenia (see an earlier post) was the winner for me, although it wasn’t a competition. Those lads are really proud of where they’re from.

Anyway, despite that fact that a rather charming young fellah from Denmark suggested I might be a little too old to go on the planned pub crawl on the night off (can you imagine?), it was a lovely few days. I pointed out that a 60-strong crawl would be more like a hop… and a little hop at that. And sure enough, they managed two stops. Am I glad I stayed home? You bet.

Although only 15 miles North of Prague, I simply arrived and departed from there. I never quite got around to visiting the city again. I’ve IMG_4145been before and having recently discovered that the world’s travellers either prefer Budapest or Prague, my preference is pretty obvious. I did come across this other sign on a post office on my journey between train stations (Prague has six, and I tried three before I found my train to BP!) Comforting to know you have to leave your gun outside! And also this very evocative statue that would, in fairness, rival many of my favourites in Budapest.


I delayed a little too long looking at this one and very nearly didn’t make my train. But it is something. To think that such heated emotion can be captured in such a cold material… maybe in my next life, I’ll give it a go.