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Bosnia & Hercegovina



On Monday I had my last guitar lesson at the Pavarotti Centre in East Mostar. I usually rode my bike to guitar lessons, but this day I walked.

On my way home I passed four young men sitting on a rock wall by a park. They asked me for a cigarette. "Don't have any," I replied. "I don't smoke."

I continued on, but they had immediately noticed my accent. "Hey, hold up a second!" one of them shouted. "Come back here!" Part of me thought I should just continue, but he just sounded curious. People here are often curious when they hear a foreigner speaking their language well. So I went back. "What?"

"Those are nice sunglasses. Can I see them?" asked a dirty blond of about 20 years. I handed them to him with some trepidation. He put them on. "Wow, they're great. How much did they cost?"

They were Lacoste sunglasses with polarized lenses. I had bought them for about $250 two years ago in Italy. "I don't remember," I replied. "I bought them a couple years ago."

The blond gave them to a stocky fellow who looked like the ringleader. He put them on, walked 40 feet away and inspected himself in the mirror of a car. "I like them," he announced. "They're mine. Get outta here," he told me.

It looked to me like this was going to take awhile to play their game, and I didn't feel like it. "Come on," I said, "give me my sunglasses."

"Call the police," he mocked.

I reached for them, but he pulled back. So I reached for them very quickly and snatched them off his face.

Then I felt this warm fuzzy feeling all over my head, and I was falling down. I landed with a thud. I was a little confused, because I hadn't seen anything coming. Was I hit by a car? As I slowly picked myself up, I realized I had been punched somehow. I was a little dazed. There were only two guys now, the blond and the ringleader. The blond picked my sunglasses off the ground and handed them to me.

I looked around. Old people were hurrying by; shopkeepers were looking out their windows. A longhaired, rough-looking 40-year-old was now chumming with the perpetrators. "Come on over here and rest up a bit," he offered. He beckoned toward the park. A young storekeeper across the street was motioning for me to come to his store.

I was confused. I didn't know who was safe or who was dangerous, and my whole head was pounding. I turned and started running.

I heard them laughing as I took off. I ran and ran, and started crying, and ran, and ran some more. My head was really hurting now. Should I go to the police? Was I seriously injured? I spotted a police officer supervising some street work. I started toward him, and then saw him reach behind a fence, pull out a beer and take a swig. I passed him up and continued toward home.

When Gina arrived home 15 minutes after me, she found me bleeding lightly and sobbing uncontrollably on the couch. She phoned a friend who drove me to emergency. They got me to close my eyes and touch my nose, walk in a straight line, and vomit into a little bowl. It was my vomiting that made them decide to send me for an x-ray.

I guess there's only one x-ray machine in Mostar, so we had to drive a mile or so to this other place. The staff there was only interested in one thing: Did this happen on that side or this side (the Muslim or the Catholic side)? When I said it happened on that side, they wanted to know why I expected to get treatment on this side. When I explained that I lived on this side, they wanted to know what I was doing on that side. They seemed dissatisfied with my answer about the Pavarotti Music School. The attending nurse made sure to tell the doctor, the radiologist and the cleaning ladies that I was attacked on that side, and they each in turn gave me a disapproving look.

So the x-rays turned out negative. They called the police on this side, and I had to explain to the officer that despite his enthusiasm about nabbing the perpetrators on that side, I really just wanted to go home and sleep.

I vomited a few more times on the way home, and then flopped on the couch and slept two hours.

So now it's Friday. Tuesday my face swelled up like a grapefruit and my eye turned dark purple. Wednesday it stayed like a grapefruit. Yesterday the swelling started back down, and I went out of the house for the first time. Today my face is almost back to normal, but my eye is turning new shades of blues and yellows.

I've had a lot of time to think about what I did right or wrong, and what was going through the minds of the guys who did this. Here are some of my thoughts:

  • I'm glad I never got angry at any time. I'm happy to know that I'm virtually incapable of rage, even when provoked.
  • I shouldn't have snatched for the glasses. That was too aggressive. I probably could have talked my way through it if I had been more patient.
  • Why would anyone just smoke me in the side of the head with no warning? I mean, isn't there some sort of Geneva Convention for street fights? Aren't they supposed to give me a stiff shove or something to start out?
  • Wow, getting punched as a grown-up is much different then getting punched by 10-year-old Vernon Nault in the fifth grade (that was the last time this happened). I'll take 10-year-old punches any day.
  • Why didn't they take my sunglasses? And I had money and credit cards, too. Maybe they didn't plan this very well? Maybe they scared themselves?

You know, although the guys who attacked me will never be punished for this specific crime, they've already been punished in so many ways. They lived through a terrible war, they have no money, no jobs, no prospects, no future. They're trapped in a divided country in a dying world. It's no wonder they feel like knocking a few heads now and again.

All about Orebic, Croatia

Orebic, on the peninsula Peljesac, suits me perfectly. It's tiny, with a population of around 1500. It's uncrowded, with most tourists just passing through to get to Korcula. It has great little beaches everywhere, with great swimming. There's a great big Mt. Ilija in the background, which is a great dayhike with superb views. And for some interesting shopping and architecture, Korcula is a 15-minute ferry ride away.

Most accommodation is private. Just walk from house to house and ask for rooms or apartment to rent. The going rate is around 10 euros a night per person in May, June and September, and 15 in July and August. Expect to pay slightly more than they quote you, as they seem to always ask for payment in whatever currency you don't have, and then they rip you off with a terrible exchange rate. If you expect to get ripped off by 10 or 15%, you may be pleasantly surprised.

From our experience in southern Dalmatia, the most important things to look for in private accommodation are cleanliness and a comfortable bed. If you want a double bed, check to make sure it's a true double bed and not just two singles pushed together.

Where to Stay in Orebic

  • Where we stayed this year: You get the great view above, it's meticulously clean, and the bed is huge and comfy--but you have to stay in the corner room. The other 4 rooms aren't as special. Also, the landlady is grumpy, but her daughter is very nice and you'll deal mostly with her. Call ++385-20-713-319.
  • Where we stayed two years ago: It's close to the east beach and right on the water. There's three units, accommodating two to six people. The landlord is very friendly. Call Captain Ruvo Nedjeljko, ++385-20-713-207.
  • Find your own place. Just stroll along the water, and yell "Allo?" at the front door of any place you like. It can take an hour or two to find the right place, so be patient.
Great Beaches   More than anything else, the beaches keep us coming back to Orebic. There's a big long sand beach in the east part of town, with a little reef that makes for great swimming. And then there's dozens of small pebble beaches like the one above stretching all along the coastline.     

Great Beaches

More than anything else, the beaches keep us coming back to Orebic. There's a big long sand beach in the east part of town, with a little reef that makes for great swimming. And then there's dozens of small pebble beaches like the one above stretching all along the coastline.



Great Swimming

The water in southern Dalmatia is nice and warm in the summer months--it can get up to 29 degrees C! In June and September the water is very pleasant, and in May and October the water is a little cool, but very swimmable--especially for a Canadian.

The water is very clear because there's so little algae, so underwater visibility is excellent. Unfortunately, though, there's very little marine life to look at. The Mediterranean has been overfished for centuries, and industrial pollution killed everything else.


Great Weather

The weather in Orebic always seems to be perfect. Our last trip there was last Sunday to Wednesday, and the forecast for nearby Dubrovnik and Split was rain, lightning, and thunderstorms. But the weather in Orebic was very warm and mostly sunny. The difference may be that weather systems build up on the mountain that lies behind Orebic, and release on the other side.

In June, which is my favourite month to visit, you can expect daytime highs of 25 to 30 C, and a water temperature of 21 to 24.

Where to Eat
Food in Dalmatia is always troublesome for us. There's very little variety, and we've never had anything that tasted better than we could make at home. So we usually buy food at the supermarkets, and cook in our apartment. It's cheaper and it tastes better.

Where to Eat in Orebic

  • Eat at your rented apartment.
  • Buy groceries at the supermarket, 300 metres up from the post office and Splitska Bank
  • Buy bread at the bakery across from the supermarket. Go early for the best selection.
  • Buy fruit and veggies from the open market near the supermarket. Go early for the best selection.
  • If you really want to eat out, pizza is okay. Pasta is very inconsistent. Try Marco Polo restaurant, which is on the water, halfway between the harbour and the east beach.

How to Get There

The best way to end a day in Orebic is on a full stomach, sitting on one of the beaches in the western part of the town, watching the sunlight fade away over the mountains. The temperature in the evening is perfect. The sea looks even more gorgeous in the evening light, and for a few fleeting moments, there's no place I'd rather be.

How to get to Orebic from Mostar
Orebic is on the Peljesac peninsula. Unless you're travelling from Dubrovnik, the best way to get there is on the ferry from Ploce.

  • Take the train to Ploce (2 hours, $8 USD return ticket)
  • Take the ferry from Ploce to Trpanj (1 hour, $3 USD)
  • Take the bus from Trpanj to Orebic (30 minutes, $2 USD)

Graffiti in Bosnia & Hercegovina

Graffiti in Bosnia & Hercegovina

Graffiti scribbles on souls
Most smooth surfaces in Bosnia and Hercegovina are covered with pen, felt marker and spray paint. It's dirty, unsightly and often obscene. It makes people frustrated, depressed, and later apathetic. Does the 14-year-old scribbling on the wall with his snickering friends looking on understand the cumulative psychological effect of his actions? I doubt it. But the effect is real.

 The Tipping Point


It's the Broken Windows symptom I read about in Malcolm Gladwell's book "The Tipping Point". Essentially, humans sink to the standard of their surroundings. If we're in a meticulously-kept garden, we would never think to drop a candy-wrapper on the ground. But in a trashed neighbourhood strewn with litter, car parts and broken windows, what difference is another candy-wrapper going to make?



Some parts of Bosnia and Hercegovina are that trashed neighbourhood, trapped in a downward spiral. And it frustrates and depresses a lot of people. I feel for them.

Bosnia Blog Week Three

Day 15: Money is different here

Money in Canada or the States is a very private, hush-hush kind of thing. Not here. Last time we lived here we kept our money in the bank. I go to the teller, who knows me by name, and ask to withdraw a thousand dollars. "A thousand dollars??" she asks loudly with incredulity. To people here, 50 dollars is a large sum of money. All the other customers in the bank turn and look. "But Chris, didn't you just take out a thousand last week??" Well yes, I did, I explain, but I needed to purchase a large item. "Well you sure know how to spend money, Chris!" Yes, I admit, we have been forced to spend some money. And could I please get a balance on my account, too. "Good grief!" She shouts, as always. "Well, I guess you're not afraid of running out of money, are you Chris?" Well, no, I say, not
exactly, but could you write the balance down for me? "No need to write it--you've got $4500--why, is that U.S.?" Everybody in the bank is staring at me, customers and staff alike. I wonder which one is going to follow me out and drag me into an alley. Yes, that's U.S., and thank you very much for your help, I reply. Then I leave, nervously glancing over my shoulder every few seconds.

TODAY'S WEIGHT: 167 lbs. 4 pm. A new record!
FOOD HIGHLIGHTS: 2 espressos, 2 calzones, 2 oranges, 1 banana, 476 corn flakes. It's only 4pm, but I promise to be good the rest of the day. Thank you for your concern.
EXERCISE: 9 km walking
SUMMARY: Thumbs up

Day 16: Workin' the Web

My mother and father-in-law are starting a bed and breakfast in Nelson, BC. So I made them a logo and put together a web site. Check it out: Chatham Street Bed & Breakfast

TODAY'S WEIGHT: 168 lbs. 9:45pm on a full belly.
FOOD HIGHLIGHTS: Corn flakes, espresso, cabbage pasta, mocha, homemade bread, chili burrito
EXERCISE: 3 km walking. Not much, but I'm sick. I have a cold.
SUMMARY: Thumbs up

Day 17: Bosnians love to touch

Bosnians are hot-blooded, fun-loving, emotional people. When they feel something, they feel it strongly. That's probably why they touch so much.

Bosnians love to touch. Not just touch, but kiss and hug and hold hands. On our trip to Sarajevo two weeks ago, Gina probably kissed a hundred women, once on each cheek. Men are big kissers too. I got kissed, I got huge bear hugs, I had my hair stroked, my arm grabbed, my head held and my cheek squeezed. And you know what? I love it. I wish I could import some of that lovin' back to Canada. Sometimes people here seem so much more real.

The downside to all this touching is germs. I have a cold, and of the 438 people that touched me last week, I don't know who gave it to me.

TODAY'S WEIGHT: 167lbs @ 9:30pm
FOOD HIGHLIGHTS: Corn flakes, espresso, chili burrito, orange, chili burrito, orange
EXERCISE: Pilates workout
SUMMARY: Thumbs up

Day 18: International baby names

Choosing names for your progeny is a difficult task. A new consideration for an increasing mobile society is this: how will this name work in other countries? In other languages?

For our little girl, we went with a short, classic name that works in most languages. And for a twist, we spell it the Slavic way, with one 'n': Ana.

The name 'Chris', however, is plagued with problems. I'm sure when my parents decided to name me Christopher, they didn't consider the potential ramifications in the Serbo-Croatian language:

  • There is no English 'r' in Serbo-Croatian. Just a trilled 'r' with a flick of the tongue against the roof of the mouth, kind of like you do with the letter 'd'. So 'Chris' sounds like 'K-dis'.
  • There is no short 'I' in Serbo-Croatian. Instead, 'I' is the English sound 'ee'. So everybody here calls me 'K-dees'.
  • Chris isn't a name here, but they're familiar with 'Christ'. So lots of people call me Christ, which is pronounced 'K-deest'.

If I ever decide to change my name, I think I'll go with Lee. Hard to go wrong there. Works in English, Serbo-Croatian, and even Chinese.

Chris's Brief List of Bad International Baby Names

  • Matthew (the 'th' sound is a killer)
  • Chris (avoid 'r' and short 'i')
  • Heather (the 'th' and the 'er' will cause problems)
  • Troy (the 'r' and the 'oy' are problematic)
  • Cathy (avoid 'th')

Chris's Brief List of Good International Baby Names

  • Ana
  • Lee
  • Mike
  • Gina

TODAY'S WEIGHT: 166lbs @ 9:30pm
FOOD HIGHLIGHTS: Corn flakes, espresso, veggie samosas, chocolate (not too much!), samosa filling with rice, 2 oranges
EXERCISE: Walked 3km. Not much, I know.
SUMMARY: Thumbs up

Day 19: Things I do in Bosnia

Things I do more often in Bosnia:

  • Play my guitar
  • Play Scrabble with Gina
  • Walk
  • Drink coffee
  • Watch dubbed TV
  • Play with Ana

Things I do less often in Bosnia:

  • Go to Starbucks
  • Talk on the phone
  • Drive
  • Work
  • Talk English

TODAY'S WEIGHT: 162lbs @ 7:30pm. In my birthday suit. Apparently makes a big difference.
FOOD HIGHLIGHTS: Corn flakes, espresso, calzones, cabbage salad, mocha, spaghetti
EXERCISE: Walked 5km
SUMMARY: Thumbs up

Day 20: Watch out for Canadians

Thursday, March 20 - Apparently there's some mysterious deadly pneumonia floating around the globe. They carried a big story on the news here, warning Bosnians to avoid contact with Chinese, Vietnamese and Canadians. So this is a big joke with all our friends—they stand far away or won't shake our hand. Be careful--we may be contagious. 

TODAY'S WEIGHT: 164lbs @ 8:00pm.
FOOD HIGHLIGHTS: Yogourt, espresso, spaghetti, small mocha, spaghetti, stewed cherries
EXERCISE: Walked 4km, rode bike 3km
SUMMARY: Thumbs up

Day 21: I'm done blogging


Saturday, March 22 - I've decided to renege on my commitment to blog for 90 days. In fact, I think I'm done today. Sorry to everyone who's been following, but here's why I'm quitting:

  • It takes a lot of time, time that should be spent writing individual emails or working on the language
  • I'm running out of things to write about
  • My audience is extremely diverse and therefore hard to write for: family, friends, colleagues, Bosnians, Canadians, complete strangers
  • Some have misinterpreted my stories (not everyone appreciates my particular sense of humour)
  • The effort-reward ratio is low

Really, the reason I have a web site is because I'm a web developer. This site should showcase my skills. To that end, I'm thinking of doing a redesign, archiving this personal site, and making more of a static portfolio.

Survivor: Dieting in Bosnia

The fat-fight is being won. I'm down to 163, a loss of 9 pounds. That was quick and easy. I'm eating everything but eating less of it, and I think I can do this permanently. So I should be back down to my optimal fighting weight of 150 or 155 before too long. The Pilates is going well, too--if I keep it up, I might actually change my smooth, pale, dome-shaped stomach into one of those bumpy ones with the six lumps. Wow, wouldn't that be cool.

Thanks for reading my blog. Drop me a line sometime.


Bosnia Blog Week Two

Day 8: Our apartment in Mostar

Above is a picture of our apartment in Mostar. It's comfortably furnished with hardwood floors, large windows, two bedrooms and a decent bathroom. We're the first tenants since it was completely renovated.

But it hasn't been without problems. The first time I had a bath, when I pulled the plug water started to flow up out of the drain in the floor. When we first ran the washer, water gushed out of the wall during the rinse cycle. When we did the dishes, water leaked out from under the kitchen cabinets. Mold is forming on the walls, and the bed is practically a petri dish. 

The landlord cleared the bathroom drain to some degree, but then it started to stink, because the plumber had hooked up the floor drain to the septic system. The washer now drains into our tub. And as for the kitchen problems, the plumber advised us to keep the door open when we cook and to reduce the heat (obviously never cooked in his life).

Our heater broke too, and the electrician has been promising to come for two weeks now, but fortunately the weather has warmed up. It was about 15 degrees today.

The worst is that we pay more for this apartment than we paid for our place in Vancouver. But we're foreigners, and it's tough for foreigners to find cheap rent--the locals see us as dollar signs. Despite the problems with our place, it's bright, clean and spacious. We could have done a lot worse.

TODAY'S WEIGHT: 166lbs. At noon, before stuffing myself (see below)
FOOD HIGHLIGHTS: Had guests, so I overate. 6 pieces of pizza, a big mocha, two cookies, coke. Not good. And I'm a-flyin' on the sugar. Woohoo!
EXERCISE: 15 minutes pilates, 6km walking

Day 9: Learning a New Language

Most people who speak multiple languages learned those languages as a child. Very few people learn new languages as an adult, and most who do learn out of necessity--e.g. they immigrated to Canada. This is with good reason.

Unless you've learned a new language as an adult, you are unable to comprehend what a massive task it is. I know, because I couldn't. Gina said to me in June 1997, "Let's learn how to speak Bosnian so we can talk to all our new neighbours." Like a complete moron, I replied, "Duh, okay." I did not realize at that instant that I was committing to years of agony and tears, thousands of hours of study, and two years of life in Bosnia. I did not realize that I would be spending all my retirement money to live in Sarajevo, or that I would make three visits to Europe without seeing France or Germany or England.

I now speak "superior" Bosnian (or Croatian, or Serbian, or Serbo-Croatian--whatever you wanna call it, it's all the same language). At the end of '97, I could introduce myself. At the end of '98, I could introduce myself, ask you how you are, and understand the reply. At the end of '99, I could construct simple sentences. In the summer of 2000, we moved to Bosnia. By the end of 2000, my vocabulary had expanded to a few thousand words and I could communicate on many subjects. By the end of 2001, I could discuss complex subjects with ease. During 2002 I forgot lots, but now, in March 2003, I'm pretty much where I was at the end of 2001, minus some vocabulary.

The key to learning a language is total immersion. Despite hundreds of hours of study and a trip to Bosnia, I made little progress the first three years. But in the 15 months of our first stay in Bosnia, I became a fluent and capable speaker.

That's not to say it's over. I still study every day, I still use my dictionary every day, and I still struggle every day. I still can't understand the evening news. I still can't understand slang. I still make a fool of myself. 

So what I really wanted to say is this: Don't say to yourself, "I should really learn Spanish someday." No, you shouldn't. Not unless you married a Mexican, or you're lost in Mexico, or you're a real sucker for punishment. It takes years and years to learn a language, no matter how smart you are. If I had had any concept of how large a learning task this language was going to be, I never would have started. But I'm in too deep to stop now.

TODAY'S WEIGHT: 168 lbs. 4pm.
FOOD HIGHLIGHTS: 4 pieces of pizza, 3 baked potatoes, 2 cookies, 3 homemade doughnuts. I'm gonna start giving you my overall impression of whether I progressed or regressed. Today is a MINUS day (regressed). Too many doughnuts.
EXERCISE: Pilates workout, 4 km walk.

Day 10: Fat: The Before & After Shot

Holy smokes, what a difference 20 pounds makes.

Holy smokes, what a difference 20 pounds makes.

In response to requests (okay, one request) I am posting my "before" and "after" shot. The picture at left is me today at 170 pounds. The picture at right is what I hope to look like at the end of my 90 days. That's me at 150 pounds, about two years ago.

So I'm 11 days into my fat fight. The picture is keeping me motivated. And so are you--the thought of having to write about it at the end of the day keeps me from stuffing my face and makes me do my Pilates workouts.

My fat-fighting ideas have changed somewhat now that I'm trying to put them into practise. Here's what I said I would do, followed by a comment on what I'm actually doing:

  • Do an 8-day lemon juice fast starting next week. Nah. Too tough. And it would probably just give me temporary results while throwing off my metabolism.
  • Cut out all desserts except a small home-made mocha. Um, I've been having a cookie or maybe two a day.
  • Use skim milk instead of whole. I've made the switch to 0.5%, and it's not so bad at all.
  • Never take a second helping. I've been really good here, but I make sure that my initial helping is nice and big.
  • Pack nutritious snacks so I don't stop in at the bakery. I haven't been packing snacks, and it's cost me a few trips to the bakery (bakeries are absolutely everywhere here--there's always one within 500 feet).
  • Do a Pilates workout every day. Not quite every day, but every other day for sure.
  • Walk everywhere (this should be easy 'coz we got no car) I have definitely been walking a lot.
  • Run 25-35km a week as soon as my ankle recovers. My ankle is severely screwed up--I twisted it while running a month ago--and I don't think I'll be running anytime soon. I really need some physical therapy.

So this is the recap: I gotta cut out the cookie a day. And I gotta get my ankle better so I can run.

TODAY'S WEIGHT: 168 lbs. 9am.
FOOD HIGHLIGHTS: Small mocha. One cookie. Spinach pasta. Twix. Curried mushrooms.
EXERCISE: Short pilates workout, 6 km walking, 4 km bike.
SUMMARY: Thumbs up

Day 11: Two beautiful web sites by yours truly

I worked last week. NetEffects, the St. Louis consulting firm I used to work for, had me add a database-driven job listings section to their web site. I also updated the look slightly.

Check it out:

And here's a link to the last project I worked on before I took parental leave: Playground Homes

TODAY'S WEIGHT: 167 lbs. 9pm.
FOOD HIGHLIGHTS: Small mocha. Scoop of ice cream (couldn't avoid it without being rude). Pasta. Baked potatoes.
EXERCISE: Pilates workout, 8 km walking.
SUMMARY: Thumbs up

Day 12: Toilet paper in Bosnia

Toilet paper in Bosnia is not like toilet paper in Canada. It's much thicker, and it's pink. It's really thick--like paper towel. You don't have to fold it in half or in quarters or anything like that. This stuff's built to wipe. When you go to the store to buy toilet paper, there's only one option: pink, paper-towel-type toilet paper. It comes in bags of 10 rolls, and costs $2.50. It's a deep pink, not a light pink. The texture is really coarse. It's usually perfumed--you might want perfumed toilet paper too if you had to use a john like this. After using it for a total of 16 months, I still prefer Canadian toilet paper. I mostly like the color better, but Canadian TP is a lot softer, too.

TODAY'S WEIGHT: 169 lbs. 1pm. I really gotta start doing this at a consistent time.
FOOD HIGHLIGHTS: Some chocolate. Very bad. Decandent mocha at the Italian bakery. Also very bad. Brocolli pasta, cheerios, bread, tomato & cheese.
EXERCISE: 10 km walking
SUMMARY: Thumbs up, 'coz I walked off all the bad stuff

Day 13: Food in Bosnia


So I'm thinking a lot about food these days, now that I only eat half as much.

The fruit and vegetables in Bosnia are like nothing you've ever tasted in North America. Before I lived here, I had no idea what worthless produce we have back home. It must be so genetically-altered and nutrient poor... Fruit here has a rich, deep taste. Oranges are more juicy, lemons are more sour, grapes are sweeter and apples are fruitier. Peppers make you pucker and tomatoes make you tingle. Most of the produce we buy here is grown by moms & pops in their gardens, just trying to make a bit of extra money. They grow it, pick it and bring it to the market. This means that you can't buy oranges in July or apples in March or grapes in December, but that's not normal anyway. Everything you have to buy in its season. (I didn't even know that produce had seasons before living here--it was always at the supermarket. Everything except mandarins.)

So food you make yourself is great. However, I really don't care for other people's food. Everything is full of oil and too bland for my taste buds. Their specialties are usually a mixture of peppers, potatoes, onions, flour and ground beef. The most popular food, a Bosnian specialty that the entire nation craves, is pita. Pita is a flat, thin dough that's filled with chopped onions and potatoes, lots of vegetable oil, salt, and then rolled up and cooked in an oil-soaked pan. Most people eat this several times a week. The other specialty is cevapi. Cevapi is little ground beef meatballs, thrown onto a pita shell with chopped onions. I don't really care for either, but if you're hungry and away from home, it's cheap and available on almost every street corner--pita for $1 a piece and cevapi for $3.

TODAY'S WEIGHT: 168 lbs. 8am. I think my scale is broken.
FOOD HIGHLIGHTS: In chronological order: Cheerios, broccolli pasta, tomatoe spaghetti, Corn Flakes.
EXERCISE: 6 km walking, 4 km bike to guitar lesson
SUMMARY: Thumbs up

Day 14: Hay Fever Medication


Some Claritin rip-off I bought in Vienna. It kills you as bad as the real thing.


I'm allergic to anything that's alive, to some extent or another. Humans to a lesser exent. Cats to a greater extent. Mold isn't so bad. Pollen kills me.

It's hay fever season in Mostar. My nose is running, I sneeze a lot, and my entire body is itchy. The worst itch is the one that's deep inside my head. It makes me want to remove my head, turn it inside out, scratch it with a steel brush, then put it back on again. But my head, like yours, is permanently affixed. So I have to consider other alternatives. The most obvious solution is take some meds.

Pills work great on the hayfever. Claritin, Benadryl, Allegra, they all wipe out my itchiness and stop the runny nose. But the problem is with the side effects. Here's how I react to the three major hay fever drugs:

Benadryl: I had just landed my big job in Corporate America at the EvilMegaBank. We relocated to St. Louis, where hay fever season lasts from March to October. So I took Benadryl. The first week on the job, I fell asleep on my keyboard three times. I finally read the package, and "drowsiness" was a listed side effect. "Getting fired for sleeping on the job" was not on the list.

Claritin: Claritin sucks every last bit of moisture out of your cranium. My throat gets dry, my eyeballs get dry, my nose gets dry. But the kicker is that it gives me nose bleeds. If I take a Claritin more than once in seven days, guaranteed I'm hanging my head over the sink for a half hour. That just ain't healthy.

Allegra: Allegra is proud to advertise that their drug has absolutely no side effects. That's because half the people in their clinical trial jumped off a bridge before they could fill out the follow-up survey. When I take this stuff I get so depressed I cry. Literally. In the last three years, I have broken down into hysterical sobbing three times. All three times, I was on Allegra (which, ironically, means "happy" in Latin).

So I'm forced to do a personal boycott of allergy medication, and stick with home remedies like sticking my head in a sink of ice water.

TODAY'S WEIGHT: 168 lbs. 10:45pm.
FOOD HIGHLIGHTS: Cheerios, spaghetti, calzones, cinammon bread
EXERCISE: Pilates workout, 3 km walking
SUMMARY: Thumbs up

Bosnia Blog, Week One

March 1st, Day 1: Don't travel to Bosnia by bus

It's a nice day today in Mostar--the northern winds (bura) have finally stopped, and we'll reach a high of 15 or so. The skies are perfectly clear, as they have been since we arrived three weeks ago.

The trip here was arduous, worse because we're travelling with a 9-month-old. We got to Vancouver airport at 6:30pm on Monday the 3rd, and didn't arrive here until noon on Thursday. The worst part was 18 hours on the bus from Vienna. What possessed us to take a 1000 kilometer bus ride? Ana got really sick in Vienna and was coughing and throwing up on the bus. She had quite a temperature. And she pooped 5 times, to the chagrin of our fellow passengers. Next time, we'll really have to charter our own jet.

We're leaving for Sarajevo in a few hours; we'll spend the weekend there. We haven't been there for a year and a half.

March 2nd, Day 2: I got fat somewhere along the way

Just got some film back. What happened to me? I was tanned and lean, and now I'm white and flabby. Tipping the scales at 172lbs, it's time for some evasive action. My goal: 155 by day 90. Is that possible? Is that legal?

It all started during Gina's pregnancy. She was putting on weight like crazy, so I put on some sympathy weight. I felt pretty good about myself when she was 206lbs and I was 167. But now she's back to 145 and I'm up over 170, and she's asking me whether I'm pregnant. I told Gina that it's not fair because she lactates. She told that if I keep eating like this, I might start lactating myself.

So how do I lose a pound every 5 days for the next 90? Here's my plan:

  • Do an 8-day lemon juice fast starting next week
  • Cut out all desserts except a small home-made mocha
  • Use skim milk instead of whole
  • Never take a second helping
  • Pack nutritious snacks so I don't stop in at the bakery
  • Do a Pilates workout every day
  • Walk everywhere (this should be easy 'coz we got no car)
  • Run 25-35km a week as soon as my ankle recovers (more about this some other day)

And I'll create some positive peer pressure for myself by sharing with you my progress.

TODAY'S WEIGHT....Um, haven't bought a scale yet
FOOD HIGHLIGHTS...A cappuccino, way too much pizza at lunch,
and some vegetable soup.

March 3rd, Day 3: Muslim-Catholic tensions rising in Mostar

On Thursday, a Muslim man was moving back into his apartment on the Catholic side of the river when he was blown up. The apartment had been occupied by Catholic refugees since during the war, but now it was returning to its rightful owner. The man and his son were unpacking, when the son pointed out a piece of baggage that wasn't theirs. The man opened it up. It exploded and he was killed instantly; his son was seriously injured.

Another apartment bombing happened in a similar manner a couple of months ago; it was intended to kill the returning Muslim family but instead it detonated sideways and killed a young Catholic boy in the hallway. Another Catholic was killed recently in the nearby city of Siroki Brijeg; a Muslim amulet was left at the scene. (Police now believe it was mafia-related and had nothing to do with nationalism.) And last Christmas a Muslim man opened fire on a Catholic familymoving back into their apartment in Konjic, about 70km from here. Three were killed, and a 31-year-old man was left with a blind eye and a useless arm.

Some people say that this is exactly what it was like before the war. Tensions were running high, marked by unprovoked acts of nationalist violence. We were at a buregdzinica (pita restaurant) for lunch last week on the Muslim side, and the owner said that when the international forces leave, there'll be a war within 48 hours.

But they're not about to leave, and that's why we feel it's safe to be here.

TODAY'S WEIGHT: 172lbs on my new $11 scale!
FOOD HIGHLIGHTS: Vegetable stew, cabbage pasta, stewed cherries. I was a good boy. And boy, would I like a chocolate bar right about now.

March 4th, Day 4: Simple Toys

Mommy and Ana play with plastic bowls
Ana's got all these kids' toys that I'm sure engineers spent years developing. But all she wants is the grown-up stuff. Among her favorites:

  • Plastic mixing bowls
  • The remote control
  • Big metal spoons
  • Scrabble tilers
  • Lint & fuzz
  • My bible
  • Our CD cases
  • The big pasta pot
  • My watch
  • Gina's watch
  • All pens, pencils and markers

So I don't even know why we bother with baby stuff. One thing of hers she does like, though, is her books. They're short, bright, and made out of durable cardboard. Here, I'll even share her best ones with you:

Favorite book in English: "Kitty's Tail", by Richard Powell
Kitty wants to play. But Butterfly flies away. And Tortoise hides in his shell. Frog is too quick. And Horse is too big. It's a good thing kitty has a long tail! It's just perfect for playing!

Favorite book in Serbo-Croatian: Zaba
Ja sam zaba mala i bara je moj dom. "Kupanje je pravo uzivanje, zar ne, patkice?" Ja volim roniti. U vodi susrecem kornjacu. "A tko si ti?", upita pticica. "Ja sam vodozemac," kaze on. "Kako si ti velika!" divi se zaba. "Tek cu narasti!" odgovara vidra.

Both books kinda leave you hanging, but Ana loves them.

TODAY'S WEIGHT: 171lbs. Wow, if this keeps up, I'm done in two weeks!
FOOD HIGHLIGHTS: Espresso, corn flakes, curried mushrooms with rice, curried mushrooms with pasta, low-fat apple crisp.
EXERCISE: Walked around 5km

March 5th, Day 5: Diaper Rash

Sorry to all you non-parents out there for writing twice in a row about baby stuff, but diaper rash is on my mind. Ana's got her first real case of it. Red little lumps all up the butt that drive her crazy. Poor kid. She lays on the bed kicking and kicking, trying to knock the little bumps off. Or she shuffles on her back up the floor, struggling to get away from her own ars. She hasn't been happy at all in the sitting position, and incessant nursing is about the only pacifier. Poor Gina.

We're not sure why she's got diaper rash, but here's some ideas:

  • Too many wet wipes. We got lazy with the soapy cloth thing.
  • Bosnian wet wipes. Perfumed, alcoholed, and extra-allergic.
  • Maybe she's teething. She's got all the other signs--a cold, a temperature, drooling... or maybe she's just sick?
  • Constipation. I'm not sure if I'm allowed to be telling you this, but she had a rough go of it for the past week. (You know, it's amazing how much I think about, talk about, and deal with poop these days. I've seen more shapes, colors, sizes and textures of poop in the last 9 months than in the first 29 years of my life combined.

So we're not sure if it's, like, regular diaper rash, or yeast, or hemorrhoids, or what. So we've tried applying panacean (sp?) cream, yogourt with accidophilus, and anti-yeast cream stuff. Anyway, hopefully it gets better soon, because Ana had a rotten sleep last night. And that means so did I.

TODAY'S WEIGHT: 171lbs. Shoot. This is gonna take longer than I thought. I should have weighed myself naked.
FOOD HIGHLIGHTS: Espresso, corn flakes, soup, soup, soup, cabbage salad, oranges, stewed cherries
EXERCISE: Rode the funny bike 5 or 6 km.

March 6th, Day 6: Shopkeeping Beggars

Interesting thing today while souveneir shopping. We were in the old city, which dates back to the 1400s. They sell copper works, war souveneirs, paintings of Mostar, and so on.

An older fellow approached and asked, "Parlez-vous francais?" He saw Ana's funky baby jogger and pegged us as foreigners. "Ne," I replied. "Samo Engleski i Bosanski." He complimented me on my Bosnian, coochie-cooed Ana, and made small talk. Then he asked us, "Can you spare a couple of dollars for a cup of coffee?"

He took me by surprise. How could we say no when he had built up this friendly rapport with us? So Gina gave him one mark, reminding him that that's how much a cup of coffee costs here. He thanked us.

Then we walked into this store with nice prints and postcards of Mostar. He followed us, and then told me, "Pick out a postcard for yourself. Any one." I looked at him. "This is your shop?" I asked. "Yes," he replied, "but business is slow. There's just no customers."

So we picked out a postcard for ourselves--they were one mark apiece--and continued on. 

So think about that! This guy owned a print shop, and as a sideline, he sat outside and begged. Funny. And sad. At the same time.

TODAY'S WEIGHT: 166lbs. Woohoo! Big progress! But this was naked in the morning. Yesterday was clothed at night.
FOOD HIGHLIGHTS: Potatoes, ruki, soup, tiny but decadent mocha, fruit
EXERCISE: Rode to my guitar lesson (3 km); walked 4 km


Day 7: Workin' the Web

I worked on my web site today. I found out that my search engine hasn't re-indexed my site for over a year! So it wasn't turning up any results for searches on things like "Ana" or "baby" or "grooming eyebrows". But I fixed it now. I also password-protected my archives directory, which has links to past portfolio items. I received a complaint from former employer EvilMegaBank that the site I built for Illinois Funds 4 years ago (username mcgrath, password archives) was ranked higher in the search engines than the real site. It's not my fault they don't know how to get their real site listed in the search engines, but I don't want their lawyers to contact me either.

Speaking of grooming eyebrows, I've got a ton of comments on this page. I received the following email:

I have a question. I have uneven eyebrows and was wondering if I should completely shave both eyebrows. My concern is, will the eyebrows grow back faster and bushier. And, should I even consider doing this?

To which I replied:

Dear Uneven,

Definitely shave off both eyebrows completely. Then I recommend Lancome
Eyebrow Pencil #621 for a neat chestnut brown replacement.

If the eyebrows return within a week, you might consider waxing.

Chris McGrath

Ha! I crack myself up. Anyway, that's it for today. Check out the picture of Ana and I on my updated bio page.

TODAY'S WEIGHT: 170 lbs. Shoot, and I even tried to dehydrate myself.
FOOD HIGHLIGHTS: Corn flakes, espresso, chocolate croissant, and nothing else yet... it's only 3pm.
EXERCISE: Walked about 4 km


Returning to Bosnia February 3rd

I'm taking 5-1/2 months leave starting January 16th, and we're heading back to Mostar, Bosnia & Hercegovina. Our flight leaves to Vienna February 3rd, and then we bus to Sarajevo. We come back June 25th, and I get my same job back July 2nd. Jedva cekamo!

Travelling by taxi in Bosnia

Moral of the story: Walk or take a bus

Gina and I had a school to attend in Tuzla. We were to be there at 5 o'clock, and it was already 10:45. So we decided we better take a taxi to the bus station so we could at least make the 11 o'clock. When we finally found a taxi at 10:55, I was in too much of a hurry to ask him how much. I knew it was a 5 deutschemark ride, and he might charge us more as foreigners, but I'd just let him so we could get to the station quickly. After the one kilometer ride, it was 10:59 and our bus would be pulling out, so I just handed the guy 10 deutschemarks. As we were getting out, he said, "Ten more." I said, "Are you serious?" He said, "20 marks!" Keep in mind that a day's wage here is 10-20 marks. I surveyed the situation. We had taken the cab from the Croat to the Muslim side of town. There were dozens of Muslims around the car. I got out and said loudly enough for all of the Muslims to hear, "I'm not going to pay you 20 marks for a one kilometer ride!" Everybody looked, and the Croat driver, making a good evaluation of his situation, peeled away. Problem solved.

At the bus stand, a man approached us and asked if we wanted a ride to Sarajevo. I said we're going to Tuzla, so he offered to drive us there-for the price of the bus tickets! For 60 marks, he would take us 250 kilometers to Tuzla. I asked what kind of car it was, and he assured me it was a luxury automobile.

Five minutes later, we were chugging along in his 1985 Opel Cadett--about the equivalent of an aging Ford Escort. We had to give him half up front so he could buy gas, but then we continued on our way. He was a decent guy, just trying to eke out a living for his family by stealing customers from the bus lines. All went fine until we stopped for lunch about an hour outside of Tuzla. We had lamb, and I don't know if it had mad cow or something, but he drove like a man possessed for the final 60 minutes. We screeched around every corner, barely hanging on. One corner we slid off the road onto a gravel sidebar and caused some villagers selling their wares to dive into the bushes. He continued on, undaunted. About 7 kilometers outside of Tuzla, he saw two women hitchhiking towards Sarajevo. He honked and waved and shouted, then swerved off the road and told us this was as far as he would go. He dumped us off and did a u-turn towards the women. Fortunately, Gina and I caught a city bus for a mark a piece and still arrived at the school an hour early.

Interestingly, Tuzla has the best taxi system in Bosnia. There's hundreds of cabs, and you can travel anywhere within the city for one mark apiece.

Queue-jumping in Southern Europe

How I learned to budge


The Lonely Planet Guide to Europe says, "In some southern European countries, aggressive queue-jumping is a way of life." Bosnia has to be included in this list. On my first trip to the bank, more than a year ago, I couldn't get served because people continually budged in front of me. When I glared, they ignored it. After several episodes of waiting over an hour to get served, I started adapting. My western buffer zone of 36 inches gradually shrunk to 24 inches, to 18, to 12, to 6. You should see me in the bank these days. I confidently stride in and up to the person being helped at the teller. I press my body against theirs and watch them count out their money, sign forms, etc., all the while breathing heavily on their neck. Other customers come in after and look to budge to the front, but they soon see that there's no chance in the world with me. You couldn't fit a sheet of paper between me and the next guy, let alone a queue-jumper. When it seems the customer is nearing, but not at, the end of their transaction, I loudly start telling the teller what I need. This is not rude here. This is life. This is how you get things done. I get served, and leave. Four minutes.

Getting ice cream is even better. Ice cream is usually served out a little window, with a glass-front freezer displaying all the flavors and a couple of staff scooping it out. In summer evenings, there might be thirty or forty people crowded around one of these little windows. Actually, crowded doesn't really capture it... More like stuffed, or pressed, or squeezed around the window. There is no order, no queue. It's every man for himself. I walk up, and press against the back of the crowd. I turn sideways, push one leg forward, wedge a little space, then move up. Then move up again. With a little more jostling, I get within ear-shot of a server. You can't wait for eye contact with a server--it'll never happen. Instead, you have to grab their attention. I shout, "2 scoops of chocolate, 2 scoops of yogurt, 2 scoops of hazelnut!" The server has no choice but to comply. My exact change prepared, I pay the server, take my 3 cones and hold them high above my head, victory on my face, as I wedge my way back out.

I'm now back in North America, but I don't know how I'm ever going to respect body space again...

Cars in the Former Yugoslavia

1982 Volkswagen Golf

The coolest car by a long shot is our navel-orange colored golf. Also known as the 'seamobile', it gets us to and from the Adriatic in comfort and style. Just 3 gallons of gas and a quart of oil each way.

Really small car

The smallest car award goes to this one. I believe it's a Zastava, manufactured in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, with a 650cc engine. It's so small i couldn't even get all of Mike in the photo.


1970s Citroen ambulance

How would you like a ride to the hospital in this puppy? Just no one try and stand up. I don't even think there's enough headroom for an IV. But you'll get to the ER in half the time!

Armored car

This thing gets the most dangerous vehicle award. I don't like seeing one of these in the rear-view mirror, but unfortunately it happens quite often. They rome the countryside, putting fear into the hearts of any would-be usurpers of the throne with their roof-mounted machine guns.

Slightly damaged 1976 Zastava

We found this thing on a hike to a castle, but Mike couldn't get it started. It had some sort of ignition problem. But it's a beaut.


Images of War

Dead car

This picture is from the field right across the street from our apartment, where the front lines were during the war.

Remains of a house

Also from the front lines near our apartment. Boy, I hope nobody was living here when this happened. Notice the spray-painted "OK" on each wall, indicating that the house has been de-mined.

Shell of a hockey rink

This used to be a hockey rink. It was built for the '84 Olympics, and sits just north of our apartment.

House damage close-up

A close-up of an ex-house.

Watch out for mines

Gina and I with some Italian friends, posing by a friendly reminder: "Access Strictly Prohibited. Mines!"


Slideshow: Italy

Italy: Crowded, expensive and old

So what do I think of Italy? Crowded, expensive, and old. On the plus side, the pasta's good, the ice cream is incredible, the language is easy, and the geography is diverse.

The best part of the trip was the four days in Positano with Rob and Mike (pictured above). But let's start from the beginning...

Milan: Closed up for the summer

Gina and I spent four days attending a conference in Milan. We stayed with Italian hosts, and had a ball trying to communicate things. "Mangere? Mangere? Buono! Buono!" "Letto? Si! Si!" "L'acqua? No frizzante. Naturale!" 

After struggling with the Serbo-Croatian language for four years, it was a pleasure to pick up Italian vocabulary so quickly and easily. The words and phrases can easily be associated with something familiar in English, French or Spanish.

Milan is absolutely dead in August. Everything's shuttered up while business owners go on their summer vacation. Although it was at times inconvenient, it's refreshing to see a nation that puts relaxation ahead of productivity. While Americans are lucky to get two weeks of vacation a year, Europeans enjoy four or five. Sure, America's got the world's highest GDP per capita, but what good is it when you don't have the time to enjoy it? 

We spent one evening down by the Duomo, a monstrous cathedral covered with dozens of spires and over 3000 statues and gargoyles. Construction started in 1385 and took over five centuries to complete. Unfortunately, I took only one picture of it, and it was so out of focus I couldn't show it here. So here's the Milano Centralo train station, with its massive arched roof and our host Giovanni looking on, just before we board the train to Rome.

Rome: A bunch of old stuff

Maybe we were in the wrong mood or something, but Gina and I were absolutely not interested in old architecture. We walked around, looked at these big buildings and chunks of marble everywhere and said, "Yep, that's old. So when do we go to the beach?"

We met up with Rob and Mike in Rome. They had already been there three days and had seen all the attractions. This picture of the Coliseum is Mike's--I was never there. I saw it from about two blocks away, and thought about walking over to it, but then decided I would rather get some ice cream.

Rome: Ice cream by some fountain

Somebody told me this is a pretty famous fountain. I ate my ice cream by it. Now Italian ice cream is something I can get excited about. It is so good! Hazelnut: like eating cold hazelnut peanut butter, without the peanuts. Coconut: It's like a fresh coconut stuffed with ice cream. Raspberry: It's like an ice cream truck had an accident in your garden, and then you went out to save the raspberries, and were wading in knee-high vanilla ice cream, and then you were reaching down through the ice cream to pick the raspberries off the bush... All right, that one's getting out of hand. It's just thick, rich ice cream absolutely stuffed with fresh flavor of your choice. 

Okay, I've dug out the Encarta CD-ROM and figured out that this is the Trevi Fountain, designed by Nicola Salvi and completed in the 18th century. Tradition says that if you toss a coin into the fountain, you're sure to return to Rome. Although I didn't toss a coin in, I may have dripped some ice cream. It's soft and creamy, and it melts really fast.

Positano: Beautiful but expensive

So after 16 hours in Rome, we jumped on a train headed to Salerno. At Salerno, my trusty guidebook said to take the SITA bus to Positano. Did the Lonely Planet editor even visit this place? Two-and-a-half nauseating hours later, we completed the 35km (22mi) trip. (Four days later, we returned by means of a 40-minute ferry ride, avoiding the nasty, narrow, snake-like coastal road.)

Positano is wedged onto the side of a 1400-meter massif that plunges steeply into the sea. The city looks like it was poured onto the mountain like chocolate sauce at Dairy Queen--it wraps around every hump, heave, and contour of the hillside. The warm Tyrrhenean Sea pulses at the foot of the city. Boutiques, restaurants and cafes line the winding streets, and hundreds of hotel balconies offer picture-perfect views.

We had sticker shock for the first day. Coming from Bosnia, I was accustomed to paying $8/person for accommodations and $4/person for meals. Positano was 5 times that. $80 for our hotel room, $40 for dinner. Maybe that seems okay to you, but after three days I had spent more than my monthly living expenses in Mostar. Ouch!

Positano: Beautiful but crowded

This, more than anything, is what will prevent me from returning to the beaches of Italy. The sea is warm, the water is clear, the coastline is beautiful... but too many stinking people! The boats clutter the harbor, leaking oil and spewing fumes and making a noisy racket. There's cars everywhere; the beaches are packed like sardines; you have to body-check your way into restaurants.

If I wasn't aware of any alternatives, I might not mind so much. But I couldn't help thinking about the beaches of Croatia: No boats. No crowds. No pollution. And a fifth the price.

Positano: Rob with Mike's bongos

Visiting with Rob was one of the best parts of Positano. He and I were neighbors in Fruitvale, BC, when I was in junior high and high school. With Gina and I moving to St. Louis and then Bosnia, and him living in London, we hadn't seen each other for a long time. So we got to catch up on everything and laugh about old memories--skiing, biking, my old Volvo...

Rob's a guitar god, and he's pretty good with the bongos, too. So when Mike bought this little drum as a souvenir, Rob quickly put it to use.

Positano: Great food

Food was the other best part of Positano. Once I got used to the idea that I was going to blow a lot of money in the next few days, we started living it up. Salad, pasta, wine, tiramisu... twice a day every day. The sauces were excellent, the ingredients fresh, and the cheeses where the best I've ever tasted. This self-portrait is at a restaurant right on the sea in downtown Positano. We're getting warmed up for the real meal with iced coffees and fresh fruit frappes.


Positano: Arrivederci

After four days in Positano, we parted ways with Rob and left by ferry to Salerno. We enjoyed an overpriced lunch, then went to the station and found out that, contrary to my web research, there was no train to Matera, our destination. This was unfortunate, because I had an Italian friend scheduled to meet us at the other end in six hours. The person at information told me to take a train to some city I hadn't heard of, then find a bus to Matera. This didn't sound good to me, because I had no map and no bus schedule. The only other option was to take a train that left in 5 minutes to Potenza, one of the cities that I knew was along the way, and then figure it out from there. With 3 minutes left we decided on that option, bought the tickets and dashed onto the train just before it pulled out.

In Potenza we were dropped off at this abandoned looking train station. We searched in vain for a schedule, a map or an information counter. We must have looked out-of-place, because some over-friendly guy approached us and asked what we were looking for. I told him we were trying to go to Matera. He shook his head, and with a combination of English, Italian and body language he explained that we couldn't get to Matera from this station. Then he motioned for me to go with him, and made it clear that only I should go with him.

So I guess this is where my radar is supposed to go off. As I'm being led away, around the corner, up some stairs, down the street and towards a run-down building, I'm thinking to myself, "Bad decision! Bad decision!" And that's when I felt a huge whack on the back of my head.

I woke up on a cold concrete floor with a taste of blood in my mouth, a bad headache, and no more pack. I felt for my money belt, and it was gone too. And if you're believing any of this, I totally fished you in. Hook, line and sinker!

He brought me to another railway line about 100 meters away that ran narrow-gauge, diesel-powered trains. He asked somebody about the schedule, and we determined that a train leaving in 10 minutes could get us to Matera. Then Mike and Gina walked up (they had followed me after playing the mugging scenario through their heads), the friendly Italian man shook our hands and left, the train came up, and we left for Matera.


Southern Italy: Friendly people

The whole way to Matera, everybody was super-friendly. At a break at a train station along the way, we ate cream pastries with the train conductors. When we changed trains in Altamura, the conductors personally escorted us to the correct train so we could get to Matera. People generally seemed helpful, happy and relaxed.

We didn't find out until after our six hour train ride that Matera is only a two-hour drive from Salerno, our point of departure. My Italian friend, Danilo, could have picked us up there, but because I sent him our plans by email at the last minute, he didn't have a chance to recommend a better route.

But one benefit of our round-about-journey to Matera was that we got to see the countryside of southern Italy. There's more open space than I would have expected in a small country of some 58 million. We saw lots of rolling farmland like you see in the picture above, which reminded me of south-east Washington and Idaho

Matera: City of Cavemen

Danilo showed us around Matera, and we also got to enjoy the sea for a day on the arch of Italy's boot, the Gulf of Taranto. Although Danilo doesn't live in a cave, many people in Matera used to, in the old part of the city called the Sassi. It was originally settled thousands of years ago by nomadic shepherds, who found the natural cavities convenient places to take shelter. Next thing you know, they were putting posters on the walls and putting out welcome mats.

Italy: I can take it or leave it

Danilo drove us to Bari, where we took the ferry to Dubrovnik, and then the bus back to Mostar. I'm happy to have seen Italy, even if it was only a cursory glance. Here's how I'd sum it up:

1) Although it's obviously a western country, the pace of life is more relaxed than in other industrialized lands. Bravo for having your priorities straight(er).

2) It's priced like Canada or the States. Perhaps even cheaper in some places. Just don't spend a year in Bosnia before you visit.

3) The geography is impressive and diverse. But too many people mess it all up. Don't come in August if you can help it.

4) There's lots of old, impressive architecture, if you're into that kind of thing. If not, there's good ice cream.

5) The language is great. It sounds good and it's easy to learn. And if you're going to Italy, you better learn it, because almost nobody speaks English.

I think English-speaking people have over-romanticized Italy, perhaps to the point that it can't hope to live up to its reputation. So I'm being the antidote. It's good, but it's not that good. For my money, I choose Croatia.

Hot days in Mostar

River drive

On hot days, sometimes I like to go for a drive down by the river.

A monument to the war

The Oslobodenje Building

At the beginning of the war, Sarajevo's biggest newspaper, Oslobodenje (Freedom), declared that they would not miss a single day of publication no matter what happened. Their commitment to their readership was certainly tested--this is their headquarters. In April 1992, the large complex with 14-story triple towers was completely decimated by a focussed onslaught of tanks, machine guns and grenade launchers. It remains unrepaired to this day as a reminder and a monument to the thousands that died in Sarajevo during the war.

And they kept their promise--they didn't miss a single issue.

No Left Turn

I'm turning left whether you like it or not!   

Photographed on the outskirts of Sarajevo, near the Serb Republic, on June 16th.

Gina survives riots

Gina survives riots

Mostar is an accident waiting to happen

Last month SFOR shut down Hercegovacka Bank, which was suspected of funding the radical separatist party HDZ. The HDZ wants the 'Hercegovina' part of 'Bosnia-Hercegovina' to be its own country. People on the west side of Mostar went crazy.

Gina was walking home from a morning out with a friend when the riot broke out. Led by twenty-something males with too much testosterone, they started throwing eggs at SFOR workers, and then quickly escalated to rocks. Gina changed her route to bypass the riot, and encountered an even bigger riot on the main street through town. Thousands of people were gathered, hurling eggs and rocks at everything SFOR or UN. Three SFOR Land Rovers were overturned, all the glass smashed out and the bodies crunched and dented to shreds. As SFOR personnel gathered in full riot gear, piloting their armored cars, Gina walked down the street in a skirt, wishing she looked less Western. An old man running in front of her, whom Gina thought was attempting to escape the rioting, was actually just gathering stones. When he found some, he started throwing too. Rocks were rolling around at Gina's feet when she decided to try a side street. Life was continuing as usual back there; kids were playing soccer, people were going to the market.

Gina got home and told me what was going on, and I thought this would make some good material for the web site. I bet this is my mom's worst nightmare--curious Chris goes out to snap some pictures of a war. Sorry, mom, I won't do it again. Anyway, I went out to survey the damage, and there was a couple of destroyed vehicles, a pile of SFOR soldiers in riot gear, and a few hundred Bosnian Croats mulling around. I started to take a picture of some tanks, but then about six police officers accosted me and took my
film. It was kind of fun, having film confiscated--just like the movies!

So they sent me home, and it looks like I've got to settle for this archive photo of me in front of an SFOR compact car. Sorry everybody, I tried as best as I could.

Ever since, Mostar's been crawling with SFOR soldiers. Mostly a bunch of 20-year-olds doing mandatory military service for Spain or France, all packing automatic rifles and full riot gear and stationed on every street corner. They drive around town in these massive army-green vehicles with huge guns mounted on top. It's a grim reminder that we don't live in Canada anymore.

Playing with Electricity

Playing with Electricity

How NOT to use power lines

You gotta love the Bosnian mentality towards safety. "Coupla powerlines? Bah!! A little zap ain't gonna hurt nobody. Leave 'em be."

It's not just powerlines--there's open man-holes with no sign, cliffs with no fence, men at work with no flag man, missing bridges with no blockade. I guess they figure, if you're dumb enough to walk off this platform and fall into the river, they'll let you go ahead and strenghten the gene pool.

Introduction to Mostar

The Most Divided City in the World

Mostar was described by the U.N. as the most divided city in the world. If it's not, it must be pretty close. There's the East, or Muslim, side, and the West, or Croatian side. They're separated by a river, and during the war, it was impossible to travel between sides. Even as recently as 1997, police operated checkpoints on all the bridges, checking the documents and searching the vehicles of all non-Croatians attempting to cross to the Western side.

The division doesn't stop there. The East side flies the Bosnia-Hercegovina flag; the West side flies a Croatian flag (even though officially they are in Bosnia and not Croatia). The East side calls coffee 'kava' and the West says 'kafa'; if I get mixed up when crossing sides I risk incurring their wrath. And the real zinger is that each side operates their own postal system and their own telephone system. And it's the same city!

My Interview on National TV

This is me standing in front of one of the nicest hotels in the city. Used to be, anyway. Not far from here, I was caught off-guard by a reporter and a cameraman, who approached me suddenly and asked, in the local language, if I thought Mostar was a united city. I said, "Well, I don't know, I just arrived 3 weeks ago. But I suppose it seems to me that it isn't. I phoned information looking for a number in the Old City (the East side), and they said they didn't have it--I have to phone the OTHER information. It's one city, but it's got two 411s." I walked on, and then 3 days later I showed up on "Politics Today". In a news report on the state of Mostar, the reporter introduced my 15-second interview by saying "this foreigner just arrived in Mostar, but he's been there long enough to see what kind of city it is". So far it's been on TV twice, and my friends say that they'll use it 20 times because they can hardly ever get people to interview. Because there's only two stations here, and this was national TV, almost everyone in Bosnia has already seen about it--friends from here and from Sarajevo have been calling non-stop. I hope nobody takes it as some sort of political statement--I was just stating the obvious. Anyway, I think I'll avoid television crews from here on in.

A Description of Life During the War

"During the war, we lived from day to day. Our only concern was staying alive; trying to find enough food and water so we didn't starve; keeping warm; trying not to get killed. Corpses were everywhere. People were dying all around us, people with limbs blown off, screaming, crying for help. There wasn't anything we could do for them. Do you know what it's like to slip on blood or brains? I do. There was blood and brains and body parts lying everywhere, legs and arms, sometimes still moving. There were so many times I was sure I was dead. One time four masked soldiers burst into our apartment, pointing machine guns and yelling for my dad. I just started crying. My dad wasn't there, and they left--but if he had been, we'd all have been killed." -- As related to us by a friend who was 10 years old when the war began.

The picture above is Gina along the front line of the war--the demarcation between the Catholic and Muslim sides.

Garages in Bosnia vs. Garages in California

How's this for a park job? This picture reminds me of a news item I ready recently about the power outages in California:

"The power outage in Sun City Lincoln Hills, a retirement community near Sacramento, prompted John Davidson, 62, and his wife, Shirley, 59, to take their two grandsons to a community playground. The 2-year-old twins, Alex and Eric, had been watching Barney on television when the power went out.

"'We saw a lot of our neighbors lifting our garages up manually, which of course isn't too good for seniors,' Davidson said."

Boy, these people are really hurting. Being forced to take your grandkids to a park, because they can't watch Barney. And then the horrors of opening a garage door manually. I would like to point out that this implies that "John" and "Shirley" actually have a garage, which means that they probably even have a car, and I assume that this garage is attached to a house. This guy thinks he's hard done-by because he's manually lifting his garage door????? 

We visit retirees here in Mostar and in Sarajevo all the time. They all have to live on the same flat-rate pension of 117DM/month (that's $56 U.S.). They typically live in bachelor suites--a single room about 12 feet by 12 feet with a bathroom. They heat with wood. They sometimes have a phone. They don't turn on the hot water heater because the electricity will eat up half their pension. They live on potatoes, cabbage, onions and bread. They worked 40 years at the same state-run company before they were given their own apartment, but it was destroyed during the war. And they probably have kids and grandkids, but not as many as they had before the war started. Every time I see an 80-year-old sprinting after a city bus that's about to pull away, I think of John Davidson in Sun City Lincoln Hills, California.

This all reminds my of the mantra of one of my favorite former co-workers, Troy Dearmitt: "Whenever you think your life sucks, somewhere it's sucking worse for someone else."



Playing in the Wind in Sarajevo

The wind gusts
And you take to flight
You spread wide
And you soar
Higher, higher, higher
You circle high
And then you dive down
You are playing
in the wind
There are two of you now
No, three
The wind gusts
and you soar
You flap, you flip, you fly
You are playing
in the wind

The children laugh
and try to chase you
But you laugh back
They run and run
and pounce
But you are gone
climbing, gliding, soaring
You are playing
in the wind

You are so fragile
Yet so strong
You are so simple
Yet you fly so well
You are white
You have spots
The spots look like letters
The letters say
United Colors of Benetton
You are a plastic bag
You are playing
in the wind
in Sarajevo.

We're Moving to Mostar

Mostar as it was in 1991

Gina and I are moving to Mostar at the beginning of February. It's 80 miles south-west of here, or about two and a half hours by bus. As you can see by the picture, a beautiful green-blue river runs through the middle, and the old city dates back to the 1400s.

Gina took this picture in 1991, when she was a 14-year-old girl travelling Europe with her cousin. When I was 14, I was wearing braces, getting beat up after school, and saving up for a new bicycle. How did I ever wind up with this woman? Anyway, the bridge in the background, designed by Turkish architect Mimar Hairedin in 1566, was blown up in 1993 by some Croats who thought the Bosniacs should stay on the east side of town.

War in Mostar


Lots of people died during those years. Like Selim Demirovic, pictured here. 20 years old. Poor kid. He was a Muslim--that's why he's got the green grave marker. The war started in Mostar in the spring of 1992, with Bosnian Serbs fighting the Bosnian Croats and Muslims. In July 1992, the Serbs were defeated and the Croats declared their own state in the area, intending to hand the region over to Croatia. The Muslims didn't like this idea, so war broke out between the two factions in spring 1993.

Eventually they stopped killing each other and forged an agreement in March 1994. Before the war, the city was pretty much evenly divided among Serbs, Muslims and Croats. Now there's no Serbs, and the Muslims all live on the east side of the river, and the Croats on the less-damaged west side. Each ethnic group is technically free to travel between the sides, but a mental wall exists that is much more of an obstacle than the geographical one.

War is Crazy

This kid was only 16. Sucks to live in Bosnia in 1992.

A German friend of ours who's lived in ex-Yugoslavia for more than a decade and visited Mostar several times during the war told us that it was common knowledge that snipers from both sides got together for coffee during ceasefires. Can you believe it? "Hey Ivan!" comes
the shout from the Muslim side. "Meet for coffee at Sidewinder's?" Rat-a-tat-tat. Pow! "Sounds good, Muhammad," comes the reply from the Croat. Rat-a-tat-tat. "How's 8 o'clock?"

Blow up a bridge, then put it back together

Here's Gina with the west tower of the old bridge in the background. They're actually working on rebuilding the old bridge. Apparently it's a fascinating architectural challenge, and students from around Europe are working on dredging up the pieces from the bottom of the river and putting them back together. War is pretty stupid. Blow it up. 10 years later, put it back together. Then blow something else up. Sounds alot like some of those make-work projects I used to get when I worked at Firstar.

A gorgeous city, besides the whole ethnicity thing

This is the east side of the old city as it looks today. Gina and I have an apartment right on the river on the west side, about a half-hour walk upriver from here. The balcony is great--I can sit and throw rocks into the river and watch the sun set behind the towering mountains. I'll post some pictures once we're moved in and get it all set up.

We're pretty excited about living in Mostar. Racial tensions aside, it's a beautifully architectured city in a gorgeous geographical setting. It's a desert climate--there's even palm trees--and it almost never rains. A steady breeze keeps the air crystal clear, and the proximity to the Adriatic Sea means the temperature is always about 15 degrees (Fahrenheit) warmer than Sarajevo. Rugged, barren mountains line each side of the wide valley, and the swiftly-moving river cuts a jagged gorge through the city. I think we'll like it here.

For further reading on Mostar, try:
City of Mostar - Official Site
Some dude's interesting description of Mostar and the bridge thing
Berzerkistan: Travel Guide to the Balkans
Pavarotti pulls out of War Child