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Comments and their consequences

Dining out alone one evening lately, I got into conversation with a couple of Canadian tourists who were on a driving holiday through the region. They seemed very impressed with Budapest, so I didn’t feel the need to switch into ambassadorial gear and sing its praises. We agreed that Prague, while interesting, was simply too full of tourists to be enjoyable. And we shared similar impressions of Vienna as an aging dowager who had lost some of her joie de vivre.

They still had two weeks left of their tour and were in the process of planning their route to Zagreb. I’m a pathetic poker player. If a thought registers in my head, it’s clearly visible on my face. I have learned to immediately shift into self-correction mode, and I am getting faster at adjusting the image presented, but if you’re looking at me and paying attention, I’m like an open book. They were looking at me and they were paying attention; they registered and correctly interpreted my ‘Zagreb? Are you mad?’ look.

I had hoped to be let off lightly with a blasé ‘as a city, it just doesn’t do it for me’ but they were obviously looking forward to their visit and my careless reaction had thrown a big wet blanket on their enthusiasm. I had been introduced to them by the restaurant manager as someone who travels extensively and they wanted details.

IMG_1447 (800x600)Zagreb really doesn’t do it for me. I thought it tired, listless, and somewhat jaded. No matter how much I tried to conjure up some of the magic that must have been there back in the days of the Orient Express, I failed miserably. Even saying in the fantastic Esplanade Hotel wasn’t enough to fill the void. I tried to find some contemporary Croatian writers in translation to see what I was missing, but sadly, what I found was far from inspiring. We did walk about, we did explore, and apart from its wonderful cemetery, I can’t remember anything else of note. I’m glad I visited, but I’m in no hurry back.

My Canadian travellers decided that as they’d already booked and paid for their accommodation, they’d press on regardless of the fact that to my mind, a couple of days in Subotica and then on to Belgrade would have been far more interesting and rewarding.

Later that evening, I stopped to reflect on how easily I offer up my unsolicited opinion. Some might find this charming and even a little engaging. But not everyone really needs to know what I think. At least with blogging (and indeed, this column) people can choose whether or not to read what I have to write. But when we’re in conversation – short of telling me to shut up – there’s little you can do but listen or walk away.

I think I might need to revisit the carelessness with which I sometimes venture forth and perhaps take a second or two to give some thought to the consequences of my comments. So, Zagreb mightn’t be up there on my list of places to visit, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t enjoy it. And while Budapest has its drawbacks, if you caught me on a bad day when nothing was going right and life in Outer Mongolia was looking positively attractive in comparison to yet another day in this city, I’d hate to think that my opinion on a given Tuesday might put you off coming to see it for yourself.

This week, I’m left wondering what sort of menu my comments would make if, as Robert Louis Stevenson once said: ‘Everybody, sooner or later, sits down to a banquet of consequences.’

First published in the Budapest Times 26 September 2014

A grave difference

Some people are good at spotting celebrities; others are good at spotting bargains. Me? I can spot a cemetery from miles away. And in a city I’ve never been to, wandering through a local cemetery is high of my list of things to do. Walking alongside the Miljacka River, surrounded by the Dinaric Alps, I happened to glance up and spot the Alifakovac Cemetery high on the hillside, nestled amidst the houses of Stari Grad. When I tried to find out more about it, I discovered that the neighbouring houses, built long after the cemetery itself first opened its grounds,  were built in a way that wouldn’t block each other’s view and sunlight.  Those city planners should clone themselves and outsource their talent to the rest of the world.

This Moslem cemetery dates back to the 15th century and is known for its Ottoman Turbe (or dome-like tombstones posted on four pillars). Here, many respected citizens lie beside travellers.  The cemetery is also a  Musafirsko cemetery (from the Turkish word musafir or traveller) where visitors who die while visiting the city are buried. There’s no such thing as shipping bodies home. Because of the rules about a quick burial, it’s traditional to bury a Muslim where they die.

The stark white tombstones brought to mind a military graveyard, like the one at St Avold in France. The clean lines and lack of ornamentation that is so visible in Christian and Jewish cemeteries I’ve visited gave this cemetery a different feel. Cars drive through but yet as a pedestrian, I found it difficult to wander and I wondered briefly how much clambering would have to be done to get to a particular grave. And do people actually ever visit?

There was a marked absence of flowers and candles and the other accoutrements that adorn Christian burial sites. I found this strangely relaxing. Unlike the cemetery in Zagreb, where many of Croatia’s famous sculptors have their work still on show, Alifakovac Cemetery has few monuments of note. Simple inscriptions mark narrow white pillars. Bodies are interred on their right side, facing Mecca, preferably not inside a coffin. I was curious to know more, so I Googled and found this: There is some debate about whether women can visit the grave of a loved one to remember him. While some Muslims say that this is forbidden, others think it’s OK to occasionally visit the grave site to remember the deceased and meditate on mortality. There was no one at the cemetery the day I visited. No one but me.

Down in the old town, nestled between cafés and restaurants lies another cemetery. It seemed strange to sit and drink a coffee within reach of a headstone but I was the only one who appeared to be remotely bothered. I found this juxapositioning of life and death a little disturbing and couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Perhaps it was a lack of reverence for the dead. Or the complete, unquestioned acceptance of the role of death in life. Or simply the incongruity of the tombstones and the canopies.

In the grounds of the Vekil Harč Mustafa mosque are more tombstones. A few weeks ago, during a visit to Ráckeve in Hungary, I came across Prince Eugene of Savoy. And here, in Sarajevo, I found him again. Following his campaign in 1679, a great fire swept through Sarajevo and this mosque was damaged, but quickly repaired. The tombstones we see here are known as  nišan tombstones.

Sarajevo seems to be at home with death. Perhaps its tumultuous history has a lot to do with this acceptance. As for me – I’m torn between the Muslim simplicity and the monuments favoured by Christians and Jews.

I don’t spend nearly enough time on rooftops

Venetian pavement 2009

A man walks up Krúdy Gyula utca carrying a pair of chopsticks… No joke. I was stting outside Fictiv enjoying a Saturday evening constitutional, and had his progress in full view. Eyes down, he would stop very so often and use the chopsticks to prise coins from the pavement joints. What a way to make a living. Two memories came to mind: one of this footpath in Venice and another of the start of the old Mary Tyler Moore show.  In stark contrast, she always walked with her head held high. Her view of the world was slightly different to most.

(C) Steve Fareham

Back when I was living in London, S&P came to visit. We were wandering around Piccadilly as S wanted to see the Piccadilly divers. I was convinced she was raving. I have a thing about statues, and couldn’t believe I’d missed something that obvious. I was sure she had the wrong address. But there they were. My problem? I’d never taken the time to look up.

While in Zagreb last year, I spent an amazing afternoon at the cemetery and took lots of carefully chosen photographs. And yet, just last week, when looking for photos, I came across one I don’t remember. I remember taking it, but I don’t remember seeing it.  I don’t remember it being so deep.

Looking at another of Kerényi Zoltán’s photo albums, perspective comes to mind, yet again. Taken from the rooftops of Budapest, they give a completely different focus to the city. I though I knew the city well, but there are some vantage points that I cannot place. I’ve probably passed them a hundred times but have never seen them from this particular angle. I don’t spend nearly enough time on rooftops.

As Ani Difranco said When I look down, I miss all the good stuff. When I look up I just trip over things. It’s all a matter of perspective.

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.