history


The Time of the Doves [Plaça del Diamant]
by Mercè Rodoreda

I must say that at the beginning I was a little bit baffled with this book. I mean when G.G. Márquez says how I’m holding “The most beautiful novel published in Spain since the Civil War.” I expected I’d be blown away from the page 1. I expected novel profound as an ocean and equally demanding to sail thru… so I was floating page after page after page waiting for a storm and in my expectations ignoring the landscape that has been enfolding before me… until I finally notice that because of the tree I don’t see the forest.

This one beautiful story about a simple girl during a horrible time; story about Natalia [Colometa], a girl who works in a pastry shop and loves her job; I dare to say not very bright girl; quite naïve; girl who doesn’t have ability to articulate her feelings in the that profound way I was expecting before opening this book. Even when she talks about unimaginable things; you have a feeling that behind each word is an entire abyss; you can sense its depth but never see it. You expect scream every second but don’t hear it; you feel the horrors but yet Colometa is playing her role of a cork perfectly:

“To me a cork was like a stopper…I was like a cork myself. Not because I was born that way but because I had to be. And to make my heart like stone. I had to be like a cork to keep going because if instead of being a cork with a heart of stone I’d been like before, made of flesh that hurts when you pinch it, I’d never have gotten across such a high, narrow, long bridge.”

On the backstage of the novel is Spanish Civil War and of course its horror can bee seen everywhere but this is not story about the war. It’s story about simple little things of ordinary people; about their everyday struggle to survive; about their sacrifices; about they ways to turn yourself into a cork to stay alive yes, but much more to stay sane.

When I started to read this novel I talked with my dear friend José Antonio (his BLOGS) from Barcelona and he said that “Rodoreda is considered by many as the best writer in Catalan ever and her “Plaça del Diamant” [the original title of the novel] is a symbol (also against Franco’s regime) with its Colometa and her fight to survive during such a horrible time” oh and he also reminded me that Plaça del Diamant actually exist in Barcelona (it’s in the barrio de Gracia de Barcelona).

Speaking about Franco and Spanish Civil War there is a great Translator’s (David Rosenthal) Note where he wrote small history about Rodoreda and her destiny as a writer who writes in Catalan during Franco’s regime. Of course I knew that then all other languages except Castellano (known as Spanish) were forbidden: Catalan, Gallego, Euskadi. What really stricken me is that Catalan, and probably books in other languages, were burned, newspapers suppressed and offices were hung with signs saying: NO LADRES, HABLA EL IDIOMA DEL IMPERIO ESPAÑOL which means: “Don’t bark, speak the language of the Spanish empire”Of course Rodoreda has left Spain and moved to France.

Another curious thing is that shortly after I finished reading this novel I meet two new friend from Barcelona and just like José Antonio, they were full of admiration toward Mrs. Rodoreda and her work But then in the same time I’ve met two more friends from Spain, but they were from Madrid. They never heard about Rodoreda nor about the book.

How strange (and sad) that something which means so much to so many in one part means nothing in the other part of the same country.

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.

Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf
David Madsen

This was fantastic historical novel indeed and certainly very unique. It is a story about Vatican during Pope Leo X, known as a patron of Michelangelo and Raphael (but the reason for his affection toward master Raphael wasn’t that much artistic or at least not only related with his artistic abilities if you know what I mean). It is about political situation in Vatican and rise of Martin Luther. Story is told by Peppe a Gnostic dwarf, an incredibly eloquent, witty and likable character.

Book is very carnal, decadent and is not for religiously sensitive, homophobic readers. I like very much that history interweaves with some less known, private things about the characters; later I checked on the net and in textbooks and find out indeed that this novel has incredible level of historic accuracy (including those private little things as well).

The Inquisition, Gnostic philosophy, political intrigues, freak show, poisoned drinks, screams of horror and the ones of carnal pleasure that are coming both from the dark street alleys and the papal chambers … this grotesque image has been paint with blood and semen and in the end you really don’t know if the bad ones were really bad and good guys really that good? Of course you really must dismiss [your own] morality otherwise you’ll be completely lost. I’ve found myself longing to understand and agree with some things but just couldn’t, some things on the other hand were so insane that I couldn’t even forced myself to comprehend. I mean their essence.

I really have no doubts that Mr. Madsen informed himself about the way the Gnostic liturgy has been performed [after all, everything else I was keen to check it turned out to be exactly as he wrote in the book] but then, there’s no way I could understand the meaning of certain rituals. And maybe that could be the “flaw”: Peppe didn’t explain the essence of the rituals while in the same time he’s sending a message directly to the reader (he’s fully aware that you’re holding this book) of a Gnostic ideology and its goals. But he left rituals naked and as such quite repulsive and even ridiculous. Oh and utterly grotesque for sure!

Then it gives one great and quite unique view on the Lutheran schism. I believe he was closer to Lutheranism than Catholicism in spite the fact that he was one of the closest friends with Pope Leo X and lived with him in Vatican. The story of selling (pardon, “preaching”) indulgences was hilarious and indeed he shares the same emotion as we (or should I say myself) about it. It’s so obviously corrupted and greedy and absurd (people purchased indulgences for sins they were about to commit and Church didn’t objected whatsoever!). Then they started to sell indulgences that can be applied to the dead! There’s even a verse about it:

“As soon as money in the coffer rings,
the soul from purgatory’s fire springs”

No wonder Martin Luther rebelled! Who wouldn’t? You know, sometimes I wonder if those high Church officials are believers at all?

And in the end I must mention the language. The novel is pure linguistic embroidery which is beautiful … if you’re native English speaker. However if you’re not [like myself] the novel will require an additional work: browsing thru your dictionary. But this story is more than worth of all “troubles”, you’ll be richly rewarded. This is one of those novels that certainly shouldn’t be missed. Highly recommending but as I said at the beginning this is not novel for everyone.

The Ruby in Her Navel
Barry Unsworth

Oh I love this book so much! I was so thirsty for one good historical novel and Unsworth never disappointed me so far.

This book is telling story about 12th century Sicily during the rule of Normans. Curiously I watched few days ago on History channel one series about this subject and it helped me to get wider perspective about what Unsworth wrote here.

12th Century Sicily was perfect place of harmony between Muslims (Saracens) and Christians (both Catholic and Byzantine) under the rule of King Roger II of Sicily. Roger drew round him distinguished men of various races, such as the famous Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi. The king welcomed the learned, and he practiced toleration towards the several creeds, races and languages of his realm. He organized a multiracial, multinational kingdom in which Arabic, Byzantine, Lombard, Jewish, and Norman cultures produced a brilliant cosmopolitan state. As such he was probably the most able ruler in 12th-century Europe.
This harmony is lovely metaphor of the present days views of multiculturalism and the reasons for its end 9 centuries ago are sadly the same ones why nowadays multiculturalism can’t find fertile soil.

We can see how some of the magnificent monuments that still exist have been built under the influence of all three religions which is undoubtedly the reason why are so beautiful. Also we can see glimpse of medieval politics: and there Serbs are entering on the stage (I was quite surprised). Indeed Unsworth is great historian, Serbs were preparing rebellion against Byzantines. The story goes that King Roger financially supported that rebellion to distract Manuel I Komnenos, Emperor of the Byzantine Empire to attack Sicily. Indeed Serbs haven’t been presented in such a perfect light but then, who could be completely positive in 12th century, age of bribes, lies, intrigues…?

Unsowrth beautifully paints emotion in Christian hearts after disaster of Second Crusade as well as perfectly clear picture how greedy, bloodthirsty crusaders were and how their reasons and actions were non-Christian. I’m glad they lost it (I know this must sound silly) and I am Christian. On the other hand I always had huge respect toward Arab culture and their contribution to the science. After this novel, even more.
You really have to ask yourself how on earth those men of church thought they are leading Christian life? All what they’ve done was lies, bribes and murders. There is one fantastic scene when man of Church, near Pope is convincing one of the character to do something very non-Christian under the fresco that is showing King Constantine how he kneels before the Pope offering him Eastern Kingdom. What Unsworth didn’t tell (and how could he considering that he would jump out of the entire book) and what I’ve saw at that series on History channel is that the same fresco have been used as a proof that Catholic Christianity and the Pope have legal right to take Eastern Empire and few centuries later it has been proved that the fresco is a fake. Knowing that, the scene of convincing that character to do something (I’m avoiding spoilers) under the same fresco has quite profound and obviously hidden meaning.

And of course there is personal story of love, loyalty, betrayal, dreams, lust … oh you name it! But all this (no matter how previous sentence sounds) couldn’t be more far from cliché.

Beautiful novel! I’m highly recommending it!

Free Image Hosting by FreeImageHosting.netOK after being absent for quite some time and have had some health issues, after having uncompleted text on my hard disc for months and with a little pushing from my friends it’s a high time to sit and finally finish part 3 (the last one) of my Northern Adventures.
(in this post there are 29 small photos and they are clickable for enlargement. If you don’t see (and want to) all 29, refresh the page)

I should say that St Petersburg is a place I was dreaming to visit for ages and to be honest I didn’t expect I’ll have a chance for this any time soon. Naturally when that chance appeared I just couldn’t miss it. Therefore St Petersburg supposed to be the pearl of this voyage.

Everyone who has read Dostoyevsky (and I presume that readers of this blog have read at least few of his books) have one image of St Petersburg and I was truly hope I’d have a chance to see the other ones. After having mostly fantastic weather in Finland (something that quite surprised Finns as well) my hopes were quite high that it will be the same case in Russia. However weathercast wasn’t promising whatsoever: first day – rain; second day – heavy rain; third day – heavy rain. I was on hot line with my friend in Belgrade who were informing me everyday of the trip if there’ll be some changes. The answer has been always the same. I do love rain indeed but you REALLY don’t wish rain in place you are dreaming about for so many years.
When we crossed Russian border and enter in Leningradska Oblast (!) it was early in the morning, morning where sun was struggling with clouds so I thought “OK, hope dies last” and while we were approaching to St Petersburg through kind of spooky Karelia the weather was moving from bad toward worse until finally it didn’t appear in all his beauty that Dostoyevsky wrote about. I couldn’t believe; I’m finally here and it’s raining and everything is gray. In the distance we could see church towers trying to break grayness with their bright domes (not very successful I’m afraid). In the end I decided I’m not allowing rain to spoil my dream!

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After arriving in hostel we had to make a plan very fast. Spend only 3 days in St Petersburg is a sin but it was take it or leave it. We selected as a main destinations of each day Pushkin, Peterhof and The Hermitage. So we decided to go first in Pushkin. It was mostly cloudy so we thought to leave day with heavy rain for museum. Majority of my fellow travelers have noticed how my friend and I are organized so they decided to do whatever we do. In one moment we noticed one huge group of familiar faces are expecting from us to show them direction. I must say I wasn’t too happy with that. I mean I do have one “rule” on the trips which is going alone or with someone who has the same interest as I do. After not too long we heard “Wait for us! Can you slow down?” grrr! But we finally filled some kind of small bus. I didn’t pay the ticket at all, actually I didn’t have a ticket. Chauffeur was selling the tickets on the entrance of the mini bus and since we were big group with members who just had to put their butts on the seat (as if 8000km of sitting is not enough) he took some amount of rubles (without giving any ticket I believe but I’m not sure), closed the door and start the engine. Those mini buses are actually kind of cool stuff cause it’s much easier for maneuvering through the big city. However, finding right stop is small adventure. It seems there is one area where the stops are and you just have to find right line. I did have a guide where I checked for the number of the lines but the situation on the ground was quite different. Namely there were much more busses we could use than what guide listed. Curious thing was that the ticket price varied while all buses looked almost the same *shrug*

Anyhow we didn’t have time to experiment so we entered in the first mini bus with the note Pushkin-Tsarskoe Selo.

First day: Pushkin-Tsarskoe Selo
The original estate at Tsarskoe Selo (Tsar’s Village) was a gift from Peter I to his wife Catherine in 1710, and from around 1725 she started to spend more time here. It was under Empress Elizabeth and Catharine the Great that the place began to take shape being expanded and aggrandized.
The centerpiece is the vast 1752 to 1756 baroque Yekaterininsky Dvorets (Catherine Palace), designed by her favourite architect Rastrelli. It gradually became the favourite country estate of the royal family. In 1837 Russia’s first railway line was built between St Petersburg and Tsarskoe Selo to shuttle the imperial family back and forth.
When you enter the complex you’re finding yourself in a magic park full of sculptures and lovely small buildings in which you can see exhibitions, concerts and that kind of events. The magnificent parks and gardens of Tsarskoe Selo were created out of dense forest by thousands of soldiers and labourers. The park’s outer section focuses on the Great Pond. During summer it is possible o take a ferry to the little island where is Chesma Column that commemorates the Russian victory over the Turks in the Aegean.
And then suddenly you’re finding yourself absolutely speechless before lavish imperial palace. I knew it’s beautiful and saw many photos but standing there was just as if I’m dreaming…

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Oh and awaking was quite abruptly: the line to enter was one of the biggest I’ve ever seen! Even thought to stand there and wait, quite possibly for hours was terrifying so *blush* I didn’t. I took my friend and just stand some 50m from the entrance (behind us there was a line of hundreds of meters). However after 15-20min we noticed that nothing was happening; no one was entering in the palace and no one is exiting. I still don’t understand what was happening but apparently organized groups were entering without problems while others were waiting for Godot. OK I tried to enter saying that I saw my friend from the groups enters the palace (which was not complete lie; she was going in exchange office) but a KGB-looking man asked me about my guide’s name. I’m an idiot! Why I didn’t say Elena? (there MUST be some Elena who works as a guide) I said “I don’t know her name” and got the answer “In the line!”. I tried to explain but all he was saying was “In the line!” (generally speaking I’m stunned how many people don’t speak any foreign language. Here even grannies know some (very rudimental but still) English) so I was in the line. At least scenery was breathtaking, that grayness has started to disappear so we all hoped that weathercast will be wrong!

Eventually line started to move and then inside it was absolute chaos with buying tickets, again standing in line, groups with guides have had priority (just like outside) etc. I don’t know, but there must be some better solution than “In the line!”. Anyway we managed to pass all barriers and entered into another world. The palace was indescribable. After third or fourth room you’re starting to feel dizziness with all that light, gold, luxury. Interesting thing is that rooms actually have been beautifully restored (!). Palace has been devastated by the Germans and there are photos showing rooms (and the exterior of the palace) prior and after the Germans. It was almost completely destroyed!. There are numerous (but really numerous) rooms with all sorts of themes and colours but The Amber Room was something really special. Room is completely covered with gilded woodcarvings, mirrors, agate and jasper mosaics. The exquisitely engraved amber panels were gifts from Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia to Peter the Great in 1716. But these treasures were plundered by the Nazis and went missing in Kaliningrad in 1945, becoming one of the art world’s great mysteries. In 2004 the strange hoax was revealed: the Amber Room was destroyed in a fire in Kaliningrad while under Red Army actions. Those responsible for the loss were so terrified of Stalin’s reaction that an elaborate myth was created of its disappearance. In 2004 president Putin and German Chancellor Schröder presided over the opening of a new Amber Room, restored largely with German funds.

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Oh the curious thing was that there were lack of organized groups which spoken English. Majority were in Russian and then there were several in Spanish (evil grin). Naturally I joined one and silently translating to my friend what guide were saying. Guide was so sweet, Of course she noticed I’m not from her group but she didn’t mind. I had some question as well and she was quite happy to answer them. Moreover when they were moving into other building she mimicked me “Are you going?”. And then one (big) lady from the group who, I can bet wasn’t that interested in the story guide was telling, approached me and told me how she can’t listen properly because I’m in between her and guide. I started to laugh “What, my presence is so deafening?” She wasn’t pleased with my answer. Of course I remained with her group and she started to pointing my presence to others in the group but they didn’t find that annoying whatsoever. I wonder how would she react if she knew I’m not even Spanish (because my Spanish professor (who is Spanish herself) said that I looked completely as her compatriots)?

Second day: Peterhof
This most stunning of the tsarist palaces around St. Petersburg was first built by peter the Great (and it is also known as Peter’s Palace). Over the years his successors continued to build and expand to create the astounding ensemble seen today. It all started after the victory over Swedes at Poltava in 1709 when Peter decided to build a palace “befitting to the very highest of monarchs”. After his visit to Versailles Peter expanded his ambitions and employed more than 5000 labourers, serfs and soldiers, supported by architects, water-engineers, landscape gardeners and sculptors. Work proceeded at a frenetic pace until Peterhof was officially opened in 1723.
Indeed Peterhof is the most popular day trip from St. Petersburg for visitors. And that has its price, sometimes quite huge and I’m not talking about money but about nerves! Namely again we faced with “In the line” (it seems that’s the most used phrase in English) so we were obedient (sheep) and after a while we noticed that there are two lines: one to buy a ticket (some 300m long) and equally long line for entering the palace after (!) you buy the ticket. It was unbelievable. So my friend and I decided to split roles: I’ll wait in line to buy ticket and she’ll be in line to enter the palace and after I buy the tickets I’ll join her. And so we were standing in unmovable lines for ages. Eventually when I reached the girl who sells the tickets she spoke with her lovely voice: “No ticket!”; “No ticket!!! What on earth that suppose to mean?” and she explained: “Now only Russian people”. “I’m Serbian! It’s the same! Serbs-Russians-Brothers!” It was pointless. Oh, she can’t be serious!!! But she was! She was painfully serious! Apparently we were late some 30 min to catch time that allows us, non-Russians to get inside and therefore we had to wait some 90 minutes. The catch is maybe there are some note about that but ALL bloody notes were in Russian!!! So what’s the point inform in Russian people who are not Russians and therefore probably don’t speak Russian that they have special term to enter the palace! Gosh I was furious! We lost almost an hour waiting in the line to find out that we have to come in about 2 hours!

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Oh well we used those 2 hours in best possible way. We were marveling Peterhof’s park and fountains. I’ve never been in Versailles so I can’t compare but Peterhof left me speechless. Of course the most impressive is magnificent Grand Cascade, a symphony of over 140 fountains engineered by Peter himself. The central statue of Samson tearing open a lion’s jaws celebrates (as so many things in St. Petersburg do) Peter’s victory over the Swedes at Poltava. Shooting up over 60m it was unveiled for the 25th anniversary of the battle. From the Grand Cascade goes a canal, Water Avenue crisscrossed by bridges and bedecked by smaller sprays, leading from the palace (Grand Cascade is in the front of the palace) to the ferry dock in the Baltic.
The grounds at Peterhof include Upper, Lower and Alexandria parks, covering vast area of more than 600 hectares. As well as the numerous palaces and fountains there are three-lined avenues, wooded paths and the Baltic shore. The grounds next to the Great palace have been designed to be laid out in the French style with geometrically arranged flower beds, sculptures, summerhouses and pergolas. As I said fountains are just amazing and countless, there are so many that you really have to think hard not to repeat a wish if you wanna make one with each fountain! Beside magical Grand Cascade there is an imaginative variety mostly concentrated in the Lower Park, includes triton and lion fountains, dragon fountains with checkerboard steps, and smaller fountains with fish-tailed boys blowing sprays through conches. Most playful are trick fountains such as the Umbrella which “rains” on those who come too close.
So those 2 hours of waiting weren’t that bad after all.

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Grand Palace is an imposing edifice, although with 30-something rooms it’s not nearly as large as a typical tsarist palace. It has been transformed during the reign of Tsarina Elisabeth when a third storey and wings with pavilions at either end have been added. I don’t know what more I should write about royal palaces. Basically the story is pretty much the same as the one about Catherine’s Palace in Tsarskoe Selo: luxurious and breathtaking…

Third day: The Hermitage
Free Image Hosting by FreeImageHosting.netThe Winter Palace which is located in the historic center of the city used to be the Imperial residence. Several rooms in the palace were used to house unique works of art, and these rooms came to be known as the Hermitage. Later more buildings were constructed for the growing collections – the Small Hermitage, the Great Hermitage, the Hermitage Theatre and the New Hermitage. All these buildings now make up the State Hermitage – an enormous museum of art, history and culture.
Someone told me years ago if someone wants to see all what is in the Hermitage (and spend reasonable amount of time for each object) one would have to spend two years in the museum. The museum is a monster! My friend asked me “How can you use such a word for something so magnificent?”; well I don’t mean in negative way. I mean it’s horribly demanding, you literally need to be physically prepared as if you’re going to compete in the Olympics but also you have to know what you wanna see; you must have prepared priorities because there’s no way you can see everything. I was in shock when I completely accidentally peeked into some secondary, even tertiary corridor far away from the main halls and in the moment I was turning away my head I froze: “Have I just saw Van Gogh there in the corner?” It was Van Gogh, and then Gauguin , etc they are placed somewhere where I never thought they would. Of course there is a special room for them as well but that part on the lower floor is so easy to be missed. Then the next thought raised “Gosh! What have I missed so far in those countless other hidden corridors?!” So you can imagine what’s in the main halls!

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I’m not going to write about how I felt; I don’t think I could. I mean just to write the names like Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rafael, Caravaggio, Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Cezanne, Monet, Picasso, El Greco, Van Gogh, Matisse, Rodin ….. should be breathtaking (and those are only painters and few sculptors and there are so much more!).
If you scroll down you’ll se an image of my computer and “The Dance” by Matisse. It’s one of my favourite paintings and I was so eager to finally see it. It’s was on third (last) floor… I knew it’s big but I couldn’t imagine how big until I finally enter in the hall where it hangs! It was on opposite wall of the huge hall and it occupies the entire wall. It looked like a mural. I really couldn’t believe I was standing there, even now while I’m writing this  (tomorrow will be) exactly 9 months later I’m shivering.

* * *

In between those main daily destinations I was cruising through the city hungry to see as much as possible. When I said cruising I meant literally: the best way to see St Petersburg in all its beauty is from the river (which mostly doesn’t look like a river but the sea). Neva is enormous and I can only imagine how the city looks when the river is frozen. St. Petersburg is built on 42 islands at the Neva delta where the river flows into the Gulf of Finland and it has it has over 300 of bridges! That’s why its most famous nick is “Venice of the North”.

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I’ve never been in Moscow but I saw St Petersburg as an example of Orthodox Christianity splendour! It is very different from what we have here in Serbia and I was little stroked, it reminded me on those cathedrals in Western (Catholic) Europe. Indeed we have the biggest Orthodox Temple in the world here in Belgrade but it’s not nearly like those churches in Russia. I’m not saying this in any negative way, I was just surprised. And when I saw how impressive churches are I was thinking “Oh God, please make they have candles inside instead of those machines where you put the coin and the small light turns on” (First time I saw those machines in Spain and I was shocked, even disgusted. At first my mind refused to believe they’re replacing candles. I mean even duration of time when the light bulb is on depends on the amount of money you put in. I found them utterly non-religious). Honestly I was deeply happy when I saw candlelight in those magnificent temples of St Petersburg. I was surprised that someone who is accustomed on different kind of religious beauty was so emotionally overwhelmed in those temples.

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There are countless number of churches in the city but the most important are the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ (The church is known as “The Saviour on the Blood” because on that place Alexander II of Russia was mortally wounded and the church is erected as a memorial to him), the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan (that was modeled after St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The church was dedicated to the victory over Napoleon in Patriotic War and General Kutuzov is buried in the cathedral), the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, St Isaac’s Cathedral (The largest cathedral in the city and the larges church in Russia when it has been built. During Soviet Union it served as a museum of atheism!!!).

Kazan Cathedral

Of course only three days for city like St Petersburg is not nearly enough to see all what is offered. But it was surely enough to say that this is the most beautiful place I ever visited. Hopefully I’ll be back one day…

* * *

From Russia we continued our journey and the next stop was Riga, capital of Latvia.
It’s really cute town, especially its old part with lots of cobbled streets and lovely architecture. Sadly we spent only few hours there before we continued journey to Krakow once again.
The roads were horrible and we arrived in Krakow few hours later than it was planned and therefore I was late to visit Auschwitz. I really wanted although my friends who were there advised me not to go because I would be so horribly moved that the feeling will gloom all positive emotion I’m having from past three weeks. Some of them still have that feeling in the stomach only when they heard I was aiming to go there and they visited the camp years ago. Anyway since we arrived late I had to modify my plan and go in “Wieliczka – Salt Mine”, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s absolutely incredible, it reaches 327 m depth and is over 300km long. Everything there is made of salt: passages, staircases, tunnels, statues of historic and mythic figures and the new ones (like Pope John Paul II) or scenes from the Bible like Journey to Egypt or replica of Leonardo’s “Last Supper”. We had great guide, she was fantastic and beside she gave us incredible amount of information she was enormously funny. I had to mention her here because she was really very nice memory from that visit. Oh and indeed everything is sculptured in the salt rock – I licked it *blush*.

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And that was almost everything I have to write about my fantastic Summer 2008 journey.
I hope you who were brave (or crazy) enough to read the entire story will find it interesting. I know I will keep coming back to these three posts to refresh my memories.

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!

P.S.
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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.

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