The Tiger’s Wife
Téa Obreht

I’ve read this book in its original language, English even though it has been published in (in Tea’s own words) “the most important of all translations”, Serbian. Because I love reading work in its original language whenever I can. And it was strange experience because I did recognize my own folklore but in the same time was thinking how there’s no way that anyone unfamiliar of that folklore would recognize it and more importantly, understand it.

OK we know Tea is from Serbia (or if you wish ex Yugoslavia) and that is what I believe was the starting point for many foreign (!) reviewers to place its plot here in Balkan region. I being from the region could find connections with it even though she (Obrecht) clearly put an effort not to make it obvious: the only two places mentioned in the book that actually exists in reality are Vienna and Istanbul. All other names are fictional and majority of them sounds quite impossible. The pretty much the same goes with the names of characters (and I’m not sure why she decided to do that). There are only few names that are names in reality. Moreover some of the names (for example Gavran which means “raven” or Dure or Darisa) are words you cannot associate with the person. Maybe those sounds interesting, exotic, or … for English speaking world (which is of course legitimate reason). So I asked myself how would you (if at all) know the plot is in ex-Yugoslavia? Yes there are hints like “we” are celebrating Christmas in January (ok so it is settled in the region where Orthodox Christians live); Muslims don’t have it, Catholics don’t have it but “they” do (meaning tree religions live in the same region); after the war Nobel Prize writer became theirs and we named our airport after that crazy scientist (writer is Ivo Andric but we consider him as ours and scientist is Nikola Tesla, airport is in Belgrade); numerous words she used in their native form (vila, mora, hajduk, gusle, ajvar, … and about that it’s strange the English edition didn’t offer translations or explanation), some names, some last names… etc. So based on those things I would be able to conclude that the plot is settled in my region indeed BUT would I made the same conclusion without knowing these things? If I’m not from here? Well I doubt. But nevertheless it was interesting how everyone (I’m quite sure) without knowing those things, understanding the non-English words or recognizing the customs have placed the book here.

Saying all this I’m not sure can I give one objective review because there are so many things that I’m familiar with and this especially when she was describing air raids in an unnamed city. Of course it was all too obvious she’s speaking about NATO bombing of Serbia 1999 and yes those few pages where she describes those first days, weeks of bombing in real life were exactly how she described: disbelief at first and then people fled into shelters and they came out of the shelters deciding to be in the open, on the bridges, cafes, restaurants refusing to give up of those few scrapes of normal life they had. What a flashback that was! The story about the zoo during the bombing however was fiction.

The story is interesting enough. Really good actually if you consider it’s a debut novel so thumbs up. I did like drops of surrealism combined with a Slavic folklore but what I really loved is a painting of a mentality in a small isolated village and how they are facing fear of the unknown.
In the end it was fast and interesting read.


Rag and Bone
~ A Journey Among the World’s Holy Dead
by Peter Manseau

This book is one of my top 2009 reads; moreover before I sent it away I had to reread it 🙂

It is also probably most surprising reading experience I’ve had for a very long time. It’s a great travelog, it’s incredibly funny, equally educational, shocking (how surprising!), ticklingly blasphemous, and absolutely bizarre!

You really would not even imagine (if you’re unfamiliar with the world of relics like myself) what people are able to do with something (human origin) that consider sacred but even worse is to see what Church (!!!) is doing. I was really shocked so many times while reading this book.

First paragraph (I love it!):
”This is a book about dismembered toes, splinters of shinbone, stolen bits of hair, burned remnants of an anonymous rib cage, and other odds and ends of human remains, but it is not book about death. Around every one of the macabre artifacts that, for a variety of reasons, have come to be venerated as religious relics, circles an endless orbit of believers and skeptics, bureaucrats and clergy, con artists, and just plain curious souls. This is a book about life.”

Manseau has done fantastic research about the issue covering all major religions. There are very informative story about each relic while being part of precise human being and that’s very interesting. But the story of the body after soul continued its journey, is stunning! I found that my own religion as the most bizarre (probably because it’s mine). I was more than once reacted like “Oh gosh no! They didn’t! How could they?” and even “Oh hurry up and lets move to Buddhism!” (I‘m joking!) And then the most pathetic: “OK I’m Christian but at least I’m not Catholic”. There are many (I guess ) blasphemous moments; but then how not be blasphemous when you’re reading about Holy Prepuce (Jesus foreskin)!?!? I didn’t even know such thing even exists and is worshiped (by the way do you know the origin of the Saturn’s rings? Go figure! You wouldn’t believe; there is no way you would even guess!)! Or few churches that each enshrines a head of John the Baptist in the same time?!? I’ve seen in Spain part of The Cross (later I’ve found out there are so many pieces of that same cross that Romans must have deforest entire Middle East to made it) also I’ve seen the hand of some saint and then I thought it’s quite morbid (now I see that was actually light image).

What I liked is that Manseau is never offensive; I don’t think he’s hurting religious being in his readers. At least he didn’t hurt mine. He’s looking from a rational point of view on something which is in enormously large scale not rational whatsoever.
As I said he’s very witty and don’t expect from this book to be profoundly serious. Quite opposite; it looks like a coffee chat … OK I admit, the topic would be quite insane but still a coffee chat. And what I liked the most in this book is how people are 100% ready to believe in something so unlikely accurate and even to actually feel the sacred power of it; whether that is a shinbone or a pebble founded in the ash after cremation. It’s really amazing.

From the blurb:
”Manseau’s “Rag and Bone” reads like a novel, entertains like a TV docudrama, and educates like the best college professor you ever had. It is at once informative, quirky, and funny. Do people really think that the leathery tongue of 12th century saint can bless them with good fortune? They do. Why do people believe in such weird things as the holy relics of religion? Read this book to find out. WARNING: you may well discover that you also hold beliefs in holy relics and not even know it!”

Here I’d like to mention one vignette I found very interesting. It’s part of the relics in Buddhism, religion I know little about. The only Buddhist I know personally is my dear friend Shanna (whose BLOG is one of  virtual places I regularly visit; check why) who told me while visiting me in Belgrade something very interesting: That Buddhism is actually not religion but philosophy.  Reading this book helped me to fully realize her words.

There is a story in the book about the Temple of the Tooth in the city of Kandy, Sri Lanka. Of course it’s worshiped and moreover in Myanmar they made a replica equally worshiped as “the original”. As I said I knew little about Buddhism but I knew that much to see a mountain-sized contradiction. And here is an explanation:

There are two branches in Buddhism: one that is following Siddhartha’s words how we should disconnect ourselves from impermanent things in our life (which is basically everything) and the one that is doing completely opposite thing: that is worshiping something so undoubtedly impermanent such is human body (i.e. Siddhartha’s tooth) and even ready to die for. But what was incredibly surprising is that Siddhartha was fully aware that people would hear his sermons and understand what he had meant or they would hear them and understand the exact opposite. He never denied that he told people what they needed to hear to affect necessary change in their lives. He knew that his followers would take from his message parts they needed the most. For some that meant philosophy, for others that meant teeth.

So what about relics? And should they necessary be connected with religion? Are they mandatory sacred? What one relic could be?

“Relics seem to me to admit that, yes, while we do have spiritual dimension to our lives, we are also flesh under the looking glass of all those around us. Our lives and or deaths are witnessed by others, and what our lives might mean to them is mostly beyond our control. We are simultaneously people who need symbols to survive, and we are symbols ourselves. Our bodies – our toes and shins, our foreskins and ribs, our hands and whiskers, our teeth and hair – have the capacity to tell stories we can not imagine. And the facts of our lives can be as mysterious and in need of explanation as anything that lies beyond.”

This is without doubt one of the best nonfiction book I’ve read in years. I so didn’t expect this. I didn’t know what to expect at all. I was attracted with the bizarre topic it deals with and was hooked from the page 1.

From Tampere we continued our voyage further on the North, to our main destination: Lapland!
(just like in previous post in this one as well you can click on small photos to enlarge them. also you might need to refresh the page if you don’t see all of 27 clickable photos)

Our next stop was in Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland. I couldn’t believe but it supposed to be the biggest town in Europe (it lays on huge surface). I’d never thought so but it is what I’ve read somewhere. Anyhow many of Rovaniemi’s visitors come to cross the Arctic Circle, which lies 8km north of town. This has also become the “official” residence of Santa Claus, who lives in a tacky complex of tourist shops and ho-ho-hos most cheerfully as the euros roll in!

The town itself is quite uninteresting. After the complete destruction by the Germans in 1944, it was rebuilt from a plan by Alvar Aalto (the most famous Finnish architect) with the main streets radiating in the shape of reindeer antlers, something impossible to notice on the ground.

I had one interesting discussion with one guy in Rovaniemi’s church abut history of the town. Namely I knew that Germans lived there and they lived very happy lives with locals, namely Finns were German allies in the war against Russia. There are numerous objects in museum about that and I must say I was very surprised how lovely symbiosis between Nazis and Finns were in Rovaniemi. Eventually when Russians were unstoppable German (but also Finn!), residents on Rovaniemi decided to leave the town, and they set up the fire. Indeed almost entire town has been destroyed but that wasn’t result of combat or something similar, it was actually decision made by both Germans and Finns so that Russians find only ruins. But Russians never reached Rovaniemi (what a bummer). Therefore everything in the town is new.

The most interesting thing in Rovaniemi is one of the best themed museums I saw, Arktikum. Arktikum is absolutely breathtaking even from the first look: it has beautifully designed glass tunnel stretching out to the lake shore. It is one of the Finland’s best museums. Exhibition spaces include superb static and interactive displays focusing on Arctic flora and fauna, as well as on the peoples of Arctic Europe, Asia and North America. The level of information is very impressive; this is really a place to learn about the unique northern environments. There are also good displays of canoes, dwellings, fishing materials and costumes of various northern peoples, including very good exhibition on the Sami. There is also room devoted to the history of Rovaniemi itself. A scale mode shows the destruction wrought by the Axis retreat in 1944.

And Arktikum is pretty much all you have to see in Rovaniemi. Since it is so far north there were no nights and we were roaming through the streets in the center and we were the only ones. No locals, no open bars no anything. Only tourists equally confused by the empty streets, indeed it was close to midnight but it looked like it’s 5pm. So we basically waited to continue our journey and that time we used for some shopping.

Our next stop was Santa Claus village. As I said it is totally tourist trap but we were willingly jumping in it with smile on our face. I don’t believe in Santa Claus, I never did (I feel like a moron cause I’m writing this) but saying such thing there was worse than any blasphemy. Cynical I am I tried to spoil everything with asking about background of the village and I found out that everything there is private, it has an owner and will soon go on the stock market! However no one paid attention on those facts so I didn’t have too much choice and decided to pretend that Santa exists.

Gosh, nowhere else in Finland is there such an unadulterated shrine to commercialism. The Santa Claus Main Post Office is here, and it receives half a million letters each year from children all over the world. I must admit it looks absolutely lovely and in spite it was 1st August inside was everything Christmas-like. As tacky and trite as this may sound, it is all good fun and you can send a postcard home with an official Santa stamp (I really loved that!). Also for 7 euros you can arrange to receive a personal letter from Santa with a calendar which will be delivered at Christmas and I’ve done that. I told you that I couldn’t fight and decided willingly to jump in the trap).

In a nearby building is the home of Santa himself. To reach him you have to pass through the tempting shop and then enter in something like a cave with lava beneath your feet, enormous clock above your head, you can hear how the time is ticking out, the sound is actually more like from house of horror that from the Santa’s house; and as an icing on the cake comes that equally terrifying “Ho!Ho!Ho!” (no I didn’t have miserable childhood, actually it was quite opposite!). Therefore, you can meet Santa, shake his hand, he will ask you “Where are you from my friend” and then he’ll think how absolutely fabulous is that we are from Serbia (“no shit! What is so fantastic about it?”) and that he’ll come to visit us in December and until then we should behave good (“Hello!! I’m 30 years old, I can’t be good! And we aren’t celebrating Christmas in December!”). And then one dwarf will take a camera and make a memorabilia you’re suppose to worship; memorabilia that costs 30 euros! The price is however the same if five (or more) of us is on the photograph so of course we decided to fill the photo and pay 6 euros each. I guess there’s no need to mention that it is NOT allowed to take your own photograph. How very much in the spirit of Christmas!

The main thing here in Santa Village is actually the Arctic Circle, called Napapiiri in Suomi. The Arctic Circle  is the southernmost line at which the midnight sun can be seen, at a latitude of roughly 66.5° north. From here and up on the north sun never sets in midsummer and never rises in midwinter. Even though the Arctic Circle can be crossed by road at several points in Lapland, the official Arctic Circle marker is right here, conveniently painted on the roadside – and built right on top of it is above mentioned the “official” Santa Claus Village. My friends and I were having great fun crossing the line painted on the asphalt (supposedly marking the circle. Supposedly because the Circle can actually shift several meters daily) in order to be awarded with Arctic Circle certificates (which cost 4.50 euros and which I paid).

Before I leave Rovaniemi I must mention amazing buffet we had in nearby hotel. I shamelessly admit that we eaten that bloody breakfast as if it’s our last one. We looked like we just escaped hunger in our own country but hey who wouldn’t: several types of cheese, hams, all sorts of vegetables, several types of breads just baked, fried bacon, and sausages, meatballs, pancakes, all sorts of fruits, apples, grapes, oranges, watermelons, melons, mangoes, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, yogurts (fruit and regular), zillion sorts of jams, muffins… oh and I believe there was part with “healthy food” (with cereals etc) but I didn’t go there. OK I had intention to skip it but I figure out it will be stupid so yes there was beans as well *blush* I still can’t believe I eaten beans for breakfast!

And so we leave Rovaniemi with full stomach to continue our journey in deep Lapland. Our next stop was Inari, capital of Sami people. Inari is small town which lays on the banks on Lake Inari (I think second largest in Finland) and is pace of another beautiful museum; Siida. The exhibition brings to life Sami origins, culture, traditions, lifestyle and present-day struggles. There is a timeline introduction to the history of the area and a superb, detailed display on the Arctic environment, flora and fauna. Outside is an open-air museum featuring Sami buildings, handicrafts and artifacts, including several dastardly traps for bears, foxes and wolves. Sadly we didn’t have much time for museum because we had to catch a boat to Ukko Island, sacred place for Sami people.

The island of Ukko is 300m long, 100m wide and no less than 30m high. The name of the island is Ukonsaari which means “Ukko’s Island” or “Old Man’s Island”. In Inari Lappish the island is called “Aijjih”, which means “Old Man” but also “thunder”. Aijjih, “Thunder”, was the most important pagan god of the Lapps and Ukonsaari Island was one of his shrines.

One of the last traces of the cult of Aijjih may have been the custom of throwing a coin or two into the water near the island while wishing for a favourable wind. On the island is a cave which we couldn’t enter (while my friend and I were searching for it and trust me if we were successful we would enter and don’t know what would Old Man say (or even worse, do) on that especially cause my friend was female and the island was forbidden ground for women). Before shrine cavern has been discovered, semicircle of reindeer antlers has been found which was exact as on some woodprints. Woodprint portrayed a man worshiping a “seita” (Lappish stone idol) surrounded by a pile of reindeer antlers. Aijjih was probably worshiped with similar rites.

Small excavation in the shrine cavern has discovered, aside from animal bones, a small silver ring adorned with filigree, most likely a fragment of an earring or brow ring. Similar rings have been found in eastern Russia, where they probably date to the first century A.D. The use of Ukko Island as a shrine may thus date back as much as a thousand years.

Ukko Island is one of Finland’s most important ancient monuments and is protected by law so every activities beside visit are forbidden.

I’m fascinated with Sami culture (something I knew nothing about before this trip and sadly I can’t say I know much even now. Why I didn’t bought some books about them I’ll never understand. It was late reaction 😦 ) so I’ll write more about them.

According to stone carvings and archaeological evidence, this region was first settled soon after the last Ice Age around 10.000 years ago. The early inhabitants were nomadic people: hunters, fishers and food-gatherers, who migrated with the seasons. They hunted wild reindeer, fished and harvested berries in the summer months, and traded meat, clothing and handicrafts.  I bought shaman drum (I just had to) and two mugs (kuksa) made of birch.

Early Sami society was based on siida, small groups comprising a number of families who controlled particular hunting and fishing grounds. Families lived in a traditional dwelling resembling the tepee or wigwam of native North Americans. It could be easily set up as a temporary shelter while following the migrating reindeer herds.

The natural environment was essential to the Sami existence: they worshiped the sun (father), earth (mother) and wind and believed all things in nature had a soul. The starts and constellations provided mythology – North Star, the brightest in the sky was the pillar of the World. The Sami believed in many gods and their link with the gods was through the shaman, the most important member of community. By beating a drum, the shaman could go into a trance and communicate with the gods. The drums featured in drawings depicting life, nature and gods, usually with the sun as the central image.

Traditional legends, rules of society and fairytales were handed down through generations by storytelling. A unique form of storytelling was the yoik, a chant in which the singer would use words, or imitate the sounds of animals and nature to describe experiences. You can buy CD with yoik accompanied by instruments.

Many Sami legends remain, including those of miracle-working witches who could fly and transform themselves into strange creatures. Conspicuous lakes or rocks became holly sites and the island of Ukko is precisely being best known of these.

And Ukko is really magical. It was very windy and cold day (Inari Lake is frozen 7 months in a year and when it’s not it’s very cold!) but it was worth of all troubles. Indeed there’s nothing more than nature but nature is breathtaking! And of course there is a history hidden it that beauty. Near Ukko island is another one which served as a graveyard. Namely in ancient time people believed that dad should rest I peace, far away from settlements. The idea has been abandoned when wild animals started to dig graves searching for bones.

We were sleeping in Kaamanen, small village some 30 km north from Inari. And there’s nothing much I should write about it. It’s a place full of bungalows on the lake shore. Of course it has sauna sop it was possible to run away from it straight into the lake. The nights were fascinating indeed, I mean there were no nights. I spoke with our hosts and they reminded they also have 6 month without day. I would really like to see that!

Oh I shouldn’t skip Sami fashion which is fantastic but horribly expensive. You can see part of it on the pictures me modeling (click to enlarge).

And this is something I wanted so badly but 300 euros was price way too high for a souvenir :

Next morning we continue our journey more on north, on the shore of Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean! We were hoping to see herds of reindeers on the road but we saw occasionally few examples (and since I was up on the floor in the bus I mad horrible photos, however I’ll take some from my fellow travelers). Day was cloudy and rainy from time to time.

We reached Ocean in Grense Jakobselv, NATO’s eastern most mainland-based surveillance of Russia. It was very strange feeling. The ocean was dark-grey with big waves and only you can hear was wind and occasionally some sea bird. I was standing on the shore expecting to hear voice of Dejan Đurović (Serbian readers will understand). I couldn’t believe I was there. Of course I had to enter the ocean; in Serbian official name for Arctic Ocean is Northern Icy Ocean and he so justified its name. The feeling was as if some mad dog is biting my feet! And my dear friends made me to go back into the ocean because „photograph wasn’t good“. Of course they were good! *grrr*

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Later we visited Kirkenes, the biggest town in the area also famous for King Crabs safari. Suddenly the day was sunny but the wind was so strong and it was quite cold. However children were playing on the main square were was some entertainment park; and almost everyone wearing short sleeves! I couldn’t believe! It was some festival, they were celebrating something (i wouldn’t be surprised if the occasion was first sunny day of the year!). Some folks have found whale meat but as usual I was sightseeing and wasn’t interested in sitting in restaurants (or in this case under a tent). They said it’s lovely but when I heard the price I couldn’t believe. I mean I knew Norway ios horribly expensive country but I never expect it’s expensive that much! I went in a hotel in toilet and there I saw postcards and thought to send few so I asked do they have stamps and how much it is. The answer was 5 euros! I had to ask twice and the guy said in perfectly normal voice the same thing: 5 euros. For bloody postcard!!! Should I mention I didn’t send anything from there.

One group find out lamb roast and wanted to taste part from the ribs but the butcher didn’t want to give them that part so one of them sweared in Serbian. Butcher who was grizzly-sized man with grizzly-like face and with knife huge enough to kill grizzly said in cracked voice „What did you say?“ (in perfect Serbian!). He couldn’t believe his ears and of course he gave them discount and free drink. I don’t remember his name but I know he’s Muslim refugee from Bosnia and he couldn’t answer the question how on earth he ended there.

How strange this is; in Bosnia he would see enemy in us but there on far European North he almost didn’t burst in tears. And yes in some distant land, in foreign culture you forget all animosities and longing for someone who can understand you, who knows how you feel when people around you don’t catch the point of your joke. After such things you really wonder why all those suffering? Why war when you’ll find yourself hugging in tears your „enemy“?

We left Kirkenes and Norway and slowly start our way back home. We slept in Kaamanen and next morning continued journey to Oulu in the Gulf of Bothnia. We didn’t have too much time to spend there so we just walked for an hour or so. Oulu is lovely town with beautiful open marked which was full of people since it was sunny day. On the open marked there are many red wooden houses (like in Porvoo). Apartments are fantastic. Every two buildings have their own parks (closed by the fence) in between of the buildings. And if the building are on the bank of the channel, channel has been used by residents of that buildings. I saw water scooter „parked“ in a front of the building. How odd is that?

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After relaxing little bit in Oulu we started our journey to Russia and magic St Petersburg, but about that in part 3…

Thursday Thirteen

1. I’ve noticed that I quite rarely write about Serbian literature (so far I think I have only one post) which is quite strange. Truth is that I usually read foreign contemporary literature and in private correspondence with my foreign friends I’m recommending my favourites Serbian writers; what a paradox.

2. Recently I had “conversation” with one Finnish friend about Serbian folklore, namely about devil/vampire in it and have recommend her “Fear and its Servant”, novel written by Mirjana Novaković (as far as I know book is translated only in French: La peur et Son Valet). That was the novel who missed the most prestigious Serbian literary award, NIN Award by one vote. But (big BUT) I wasn’t talking about the novel but about magical theatre play based on this novel. Play was settled under the open sky, during the night on the Belgrade fort Kalemegdan (where the novel is set as well). I have the novel on my to-be-read pile and after that conversation I took it and lightly start to read. I made first pause after reading 100 pages!
This is probably my novel of the year!

Fear and its Servant (Страх и његов слуга)
by Mirjana Novaković (Мирјана Новаковић)

Fear and its Servant3. Fiction with vampires is usually not my cup of tea (I’m afraid my only positive experience was „Historian“ by Elisabeth Kostova); however I’m very interested in ethnology and folklore and being Serbian I surely can’t skip vampires (I’ll explain the reason later; you’ll be surprised), therefore folklore, myths etc. in nonfiction work is something I like very much indeed.
The novel is set in XVIII century in Belgrade under Austrian administration and the topic is one historical event: Investigation of vampires.

4. XVIII century is full of scientific achievements and historical events and Serbs gave their (quite odd but still) contribution as well: Vampires!

Namely for the first time in the western world Serbian (!) word “vampire” has been documented! In the year of 1725 in the Serbian village Kiseljevo peasant Petar Blagojević (or HERE) died and soon after him few peasants more. All of them in their dying moments were talking that late Petar is coming to them during the night and drank their blood. Then commission along with the priest exhumed Petar, stabbed his heart with hawthorn stake and burned the body. Peter has been proclaimed as “archvampire”, the report has been sent to Belgrade and from there to Vienna and after publication in The Wiennerisches Diarium it was the main theme in Vienna’s public circles.

5. So, theme for this novel is historical fact from 1725, arrival of the commission from Vienna that supposed to investigate article in Wiennerisches Diarium about vampires in Serbia. But that would be just too simple right? Therefore the main role plays Devil himself! (in strange way similar with “Sympathy for the Devil” by Rolling Stones). 6. So I guess by default this novel suppose to be horror and in some way it is: we have vampires, placed in the system of manipulations, money, politics … yes it is actually kind of political horror novel. Therefore there’s no problem to put in this sub-genre at the same place vampires, devil, princes, Maria Magdalene, Christ … Politics is the biggest horror because it is true horror. In politics, nothing is fiction!

7. As I said devil plays the main role and is one (of two, second is Princess Maria Augusta Turn and Taxis) narrators of the story. He is disguised in false count Otto von Hausburg (one of many historical allusions) and is coming with his servant Novak, Serb (amazing character, Christian who is willingly work for devil as a way of self punishment) to check if the rumors about vampires are true. He has his own reasons.

8. In one moment devil says “I don’t have enemies among people. Everyone loves me!” and in some way you can believe in that (remember Rolling Stones from above) because we are meeting men that are much worse than the devil. Here devil is anthropomorphous being, almost common man who doesn’t have any supernatural powers but has flaws common to majority of human beings. And that is the irony: Devil meets people much worse than he is and he’s afraid and wants to avoid them. It seems that devil is afraid of Serbia (and Serbs)!

9. So this is mixture of horror and fantasy with postmodernistic elements. This is the story where the history is turned upside down! Vision of Christianity through the eyes of the devil, from the night in the Gethsemane Garden through the centuries is so intelligent and with amazing humour! We see devil as a common man who drinks, smokes hashish, sleep, is running away from love and is afraid of vampires! And why’s that? Well, think! If dead people are arising Judgment Day is near, meaning farewell to the devil!

10. Images of Belgrade from the early XVIII century are magical! The city has been divided in two parts: “Austrian” (which means: European, Christian, white (Belgrade means Beli-White Grad-City)) part and the second “obscure other” part that is on the other side of the Wall, behind the Prince Eugene Line, where through the night and fog roam vampires, ghosts, road bandits and other Serbian and Turkish natives. I said that the history has been turned upside down but there are many historical facts, especially about the history of my Belgrade (episodes I didn’t know).

11. Through entire novel many pseudo-biblical stories are interweaving and are initiated with the constant devil’s self-reexamination, his desperate need to treat Christ with irony and author with many beautiful marginal allusions is canceling linearity of time. We are sailing from the New Testament to Ludwig Wittgenstein, from Dante to Rolling Stones and through the huge part of Serbian literature.

12. In the same time, Novaković is telling one apocryphal story about one Belgrade that is nothing but apocryphal place for any nowadays Belgradian because there is almost nothing left from those past times. That was de-oriental-ed place, with three circle of strong walls, full of cathedrals build by Austrians, and destroyed by the same Austrians when the Austrian regent sold Belgrade back to Turks. 13. And if there is a place where that town still exists, it must be in that other world where, even today many undead souls of the always obscure, dark Balkans are roaming; about which Mirjana Novaković is writing with cheerful, ironical tenderness, precisely in the way one should write about something that is dear as much as is crazy, about something where even devil himself in one moment is putting cross around his neck!

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Thursday Thirteen

1. I was absent for so long but OK I’m back now with another Serbian story for cold Thursday (actually Wednesday) evening. This time I’ll write about one exclusively Serbian custom: Slava.
2. Slava is a religious custom and it represents the day of the home/family’s Patron Saint. It’s unique in Christian world and represents one of the greatest characteristic of the religious life of the Serbs.
3. Slava is actually celebration of spiritual birthday of Serbian people. Namely our ancestors have had accepted Orthodox Christianity collectively by families and in commemoration of their baptisms, each family began to celebrate in a special way to honor the saint on whose day they received the sacrament of Holy Baptism.
4. St. Paul said that each Christian family is church by itself and just as churches are dedicated to one saint (who is protector of the church), Serbian families place themselves under the protection of the saint on whose holiday they became Christians. 5. To that protector of their homes, they pay special homage from generation to generation, from father to son, each and every year.

St Arhangel Michael

6. The celebration of Slava requires the Icon of the family Patron Saint (mine is St Archangel Michael, you can see the icon) and several items that symbolize Christ and the believer’s faith in his death and resurrection: a lighted candle, žito, bread, and red wine.
7. Candle reminds us that Christ is the Light of world. Without Him we would live in darkness.
8. Žito represents the death and resurrection of Christ . Žito is prepared as an offering to God and also is to honor the Patron Saint and to commemorate our ancestors.
9. Bread represents Christ as the Bread of Life and 10. the red wine, of course, represents Christ’s blood.
11. As I said Patron Saint of my family is St Archangel Michael and we are celebrating his day every 21st November (so that was last Wednesday) and it is occasion to whole family and friends gathered.
12. I could say I’m a religious person I guess but I don’t like to express my religion publicly and also there are many things I’m not familiar with. for example I had to check symbolism of certain custom (that’s probably normal since those are become common part of my life).
13. However, in Serbia there are many atheists but they are also respecting institution of Slava as a beautiful part of Serbian tradition. There is such a strong bond between Slava and being Serbian so that people often forgets it’s actually religious celebration.

Thursday Thirteen

13 things about paprika!

1. Pepper (paprika) is probably the most important vegetable in Serbia and is tightly connected with our folklore. Moreover in old Yugoslavia Serbia (and Macedonia) were almost synonyms for best paprika. I wouldn’t exaggerate if I say that we have some sort of cult of paprika.
2. The largest peppers-fields are on the north of the country but production is too commercialized with all that new technology and doesn’t represents tradition (or cult). More traditional way of growing pepper is on the south of Serbia. Moreover people from the south have nickname paprikari because of that. If you happen to be on the Serbian south at the end of the summer you’ll probably be invited by hosts to refresh yourself (I wrote about our aggressive hospitality) but also to hear eulogy about their paprika. 3. You’ll probably be totally confused by wreaths of paprika that are covering whole front/back yard; house and other objects around the house. 4. Don’t be confused, you’ve just met one very old custom in Serbia. Hand made wreaths of paprika will go in next processing into red pepper powder or chopped pepper etc. however some of those wreaths will be decoration of the house or kitchen (I have one in my ethno corner). It represents sort of mascot of this region. 5. During the winter when there is extra need for vitamin C those wreaths are perfect reservoirs. Naturally dried paprika can be bought in “intact” shape and used in preparing some dishes. Therefore it’s not strange that people from the south are using term red gold for their paprika. 6. What is typical for this region is also Paprikijada (sort of manifestation dedicated to paprika and the etymology of the term lies in the word ‘Olympics’ = in Serbian “Olimpijada”) and it’s also one lovely custom: moba. Moba is custom where all neighbors (and other villagers) are helping one another in doing some big work. And harvest of paprika is one of those. 7. Production is actually quite huge: one wreath is approximately 10-15 kilos and after drying and powdering it’s 1 kilo. After the season one household can produce 1000 kilos of powdered paprika!
8. I’ve mention that paprika has extremely significant place in Serbian folklore, so here are some recipes:

Dried Peppers Stuffed with Rice or with Beans
(this is very common dish during the Lents)
Wash paprika (10 pieces) and leave them in water for a while (30 min). drain off them, pull out seeds and stem pedicels. Half boil rice (250g); onion (3 bulbs) chop on thin pieces and fry on vegetable oil. Drain rice and mix with onion, add salt pepper, chopped leaves of parsley and celery, chopped olives (5 pieces) and red pepper powder. Mix all ingredients and stuff peppers with the mass and put it in greased dish. Bake 30 min.
(if you stuff peppers with beans; beans should be boiled previously, drain and instead of olives put walnuts and mint leaves)

9. Of course when I speak about pepper I cannot skip ajvar! In the early winter we have ajvar fewer: on the streets you can smell the dusky, smoky fragrance of roasting peppers mingled with the scent of fallen leaves. Stalls at neighborhood markets overflow with mounds of peppers, while village vendors lug giant sacks of the red beauties to street corners to tempt passers-by. What an image!
10. In Serbia, ajvar stars as a starter or as a colorful complement to grilled meats and kabobs. Ajvar also does well alongside sturdy grilled fish like salmon or swordfish. You could toss it with spaghetti, adding olives and parmesan for a quick meal. 11. Preparation of ajvar is somewhat difficult (I’m stealing this from wikipedia), as it involves plenty of manual labor, especially for peeling. Traditionally, it is prepared in early autumn, when the bell peppers are most abundant, conserved in glass jars, and consumed throughout the year (although in most households stocks don’t last up until spring, when fresh salads start to emerge anyway, so it’s usually enjoyed as winter food).
The peppers and eggplants are baked whole on a plate on open fire, plate of a wood stove, or in the oven. Baked peppers must briefly rest in a closed dish, so that they get cooler and the flesh sets apart from the skin. Then, the skin is carefully peeled off and seeds removed. So obtained pepper is ground in a mill or chopped in tiny pieces (this variant is often referred to as pinđur). Finally, the mush is stewed for a couple of hours in large pots, with added sunflower oil and garlic, in order to condense and reduce the water, as well as to enhance later conservation. Salt and optional vinegar are added at the end and the hot mush is poured directly into glass jars which are immediately sealed. 12. The name ajvar comes from Turkish havyar, which means salted roe.
13. And that’s it for this week. I hope it was interesting enough. And just for the record:
While I was typing this TT I realized that my mouse pad has lovely photograph of red peppers! LOL

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Thursday Thirteen

13 things about my beautiful Orthodox Christmas:

OK I just came back from my Christmas “vacation” (I’ve spent Christmas with my family) and thought to write about how we celebrate Christmas here.

1. First to explain why Orthodox Christians are celebrating Christmas 7th January? It’s simple: four Orthodox Churches (Russian Church, monasteries on Holly Mount Athos, Jerusalem Patriarchy and Serbian Church) are following Julian calendar (which is 13 days behind Gregorian calendar (which is official one) so actually we are celebrating Christmas on 25th December as well 🙂
The Gregorian reformation of the calendar came into force in 1582. It made corrections to the Julian calendar. Like everybody else, we fully accepted the new calendar, but all of our holidays are still celebrated according to the Julian calendar.

2. It’s stupid to say that Christmas is very religious holiday. But here, Christmas is probably the most religious holiday of all. It’s not about shopping but about feelings and tradition. It’s very spiritual and not material holiday. There is no shopping fever at all (except for Christmas traditional dinner)

3. Something that is typical and very important in Orthodox Christianity is Lent.
There are few important Lents during the year (also each Wednesday and Friday with few exceptions are Lent days) but Christmas (and Easter) Lents are the biggest ones.
Christmas Lent lasts 40 days and during that period people should purify their bodies as well as souls. In practice that means:
You should eat ONLY vegetables and fruits (and their products), fish and honey. Meat, milk (and dairy products), eggs, lard and other animal products are forbidden.
And unfortunately that is where is frontier for majority.
Equally (and probably more) important part of Lent is that spiritual. Lent is period of forgiveness and positive thoughts (and works) etc.
(of course, having sex is part of meaty and milky menu)

4. Very important thing during the Lents is confession.
If someone is preparing for confession s/he has to obey more strictly Lent: Food prepared ONLY on water without any vegetable that contains oil (olive, sunflower, walnut, fish too etc). The most common (or at least that’s what I’m doing) people are having strict Lent one week (usually first one) and at the end of that week they make confessions. After it they eat either usual food (meat) except Wednesday and Fridays and last Lent’s week, or eat food for normal Lent (not strict).

5. Day before Christmas (6th Jan) is Badnje Veče (Christmas Eve) and it’s very important and full of specific customs (even more than Christmas). The name for our Christmas Eve actually got its name from the badnjak tree (Yule log). Badnjak is branch of an oak.

Oak is holly tree for Serbs and roots of that custom is probably from the pagan times. Later that belief has been Christianized. Each village in Serbia has on its periphery one (or one on each four sides) huge oak as a protector.
It is a custom that the father and the oldest son of a household go out on the morning of January 6 in search of the right badnjak. (oak branches with leaves). When the right one is found, it is necessary to cut it and bring it to the door of the home and to leave it there.
In the villages, where one still can find homes with old-fashioned hearths, the custom is that the father and the oldest sun go out to pick up the badnjak and to nock on the door of their home. Mother opens the door. Entering, they should say to the mother: “Welcome to you Badnje Veče! (“Christmas Eve”)” and take the badnjak to the fireplace and place it on the fire to augur good fortune.

The burning of the badnjak is a ritual which is as I wrote most certainly of pagan origin and it is considered a sacrifice to God so that the coming year may bring plenty of food, happiness, love, luck and riches.

Today, as most Serbs live in cities, badnjak could be bought at a marketplace like Christmas tree, or is sometimes received in church after church service. Often just a little oak branch, badnjak is lit at home symbolically.

6. The custom is also to put straw around the fireplace (or somewhere in the living room), to simulate the connection with the earth. Usually, we put coins, walnuts, almonds, dry figs on the straw, all the gifts for the children. That’s very fun since the children suppose to chirp like chicken while they searching gifts in a straw.

This is my niece in the straw last Christmas (don’t have photos from this year)

7. Christmas Eve supper is very interesting. It is very rich even if it is always meatless meal. Symbolically the food is always related to the world of death – baked beans, fish, dried figs, dried plums and apples.

For example the most common dish is “Pijani Šaran” (Drunken Carp):
Carp (2kg weight) should be prepared for baking; put salt on/into the carp; make several cuts from head to the tail and in those cuts put sliced garlic. Carp in covered dish put in heated oven. Bake 40 min and every 5-10 min pour it over with “sauce” prepared from white wine, tiny sliced garlic, sliced leaves of parsley and celery and 7-8 spoons of vegetable oil. Serve with lemon and potato salad.

8. At the end of supper, all the rests of the food should be left on the table and covered with a tablecloth, until Christmas morning. The belief is that during the night the spirits of the dead come to eat the food left for them.

9. Also day before Christmas is the day for prepare so called ”pečenica which is piglet roasted over the fire of oak tree logs
Of course it will be eaten tomorrow on Christmas.

10. In the morning of January 7th, Christmas, the first person that enters the home is called “položajnik”. This person should stoke the fire in the fireplace and say the following:

“How many sparks, that much sheep. How many sparks, that much money. How many sparks, that much health!”

The Položajnik is then offered the “zito” (boiled wheat Christmas speciality) and red (black)wine. The guest makes the sign of the cross and eats a bit of the “zito” and drinks some wine.

11. For breakfast the habit is to prepare “cicvara” (a dish made of flour, eggs, butter and cheese). On the table are served also small dry cakes, dry figs and the famous plum brandy called “Sljivovica”. Usually the “Sljivovica” served is home made and at least ten years old! Another custom is to prepare a bowl in which young wheat is planted to grow during the forth coming year. The meaning is should be fertile and that the family will have luck.

All persons gather around the table, family and guests, while the father lights the candle. That moment marks the start of “mirbozenje” (peace and reconciliation). Participants than kiss one another at Christmas time while saying: “Mir Bozji” (peace of God). If there were any disagreement, all are forgotten.

During the entire Christmas day a custom is to replace a classic: “Hello” or: “Good day” with: “Hristos se rodi” (Christ is born!) and as greeting in reply: “Vaistinu se rodi” (“Really born!” or “He has been born indeed!”). Nowadays it’s a habit to call relatives or friends by phone and instead of saying a classic “good morning”, we say: “Hristos se rodi!”
It might sound silly to you but we are actually doing this.

12. On Christmas day, lunch gets underway earlier than usual and lasts longer. The menu is very rich. In contrast to Christmas Eve that relates to All Souls’ Day, Christmas relates to the cult of agriculture.
Nowadays, in the cities, before lunch the family throws the straw under the table (man’s relation to the earth).

Traditionally essential part of the Christmas dinner is a type of flat, round Christmas bread called “česnica”.

It is prepared using stalk of the last wheat harvest filling them with kernels of different grains. However in part where I live it’s more like some kind of pie with dry fig, raisins, honey and walnuts.
Anyhow a solid silver coin along with wood and a bean for health and good luck is placed into česnica. family members break the česnica and the one who finds the coin in it is considered to be most fortunate that year; however, the head of the family has to buy the coin so it stays in the house. Sometimes, there are other things put in česnica, like piece of badnjak (that’s what I found) ,– good luck , hazelnut – health, plum – traveling, etc

Families in the cities almost always order their Christmas pork roast from bakers who exclusively use oak for the roasting fire.

Symbolicly the Christmas day meal marks the end of the period of abstinence as well as a ritual in which the food and the pork is considered a sacrifice made to god. All the members of the family must taste the roast pork and cesnica.

13. In Serbia Christmas is celebrating three days and during those days we are saying traditional Christmas greeting “Hristos se rodi”; “Vaistinu se rodi”.
It’s also great custom which gathers whole family because tradition says that you should spend Christmas Holidays in your home with your family.

I hope this TT was interesting to you (in spite its length)