The kindness of strangers

SARA 4 BLOG

I VISITED YUGOSLAVIA frequently during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Often, I travelled between towns on public transport, often using the efficient networks, each of them operated independent bus companies, of inter-city buses. I travelled routes all over the country from Subotica in the north to Ohrid and Skopje in the south, and from Zadar in the west to Zaječar in the east. It was on these vehicles that my love of the varied forms of Balkan folk music was born. Every bus was fitted with loudspeakers and a radio. For hours on end the bus passengers were treated to an endless, and in my view delightful, stream of folk songs and folk music. On one of these bus trips, my first to Sarajevo, I met someone who was to become a good friend.

Dubrovnik was the point of departure for my first visit to Sarajevo. I bought a ticket at the bus station just outside the walls of the old city, entered the bus, and headed for the seat, whose number was printed on my ticket. In those days, and maybe this is still the case today, passengers were assigned specific numbered seats on long-distance buses. Whenever I knew that I would be travelling a day or two ahead, I used to buy my ticket in advance in order to get one of the seats numbered 1 or 2, which were at the front of the bus, and therefore with the best view, and, incidentally, also with the highest risk of injury in a head-on collision.

On this particular occasion in the bus station at Dubrovnik, I found a young French tourist was sitting next to his girlfriend in my seat. I started explaining, in my poor French, that he was occupying my reserved seat. As I was doing so, a middle-aged woman, sitting near the rear of the bus, explained the situation in fluent French. The French couple vacated the incorrect seats and settled into their assigned places. These happened to be close to the woman and her friend. I could hear them conversing in French as we wound our way up along the valley of the Neretva River and away from the Adriatic coast. I felt a little miffed that they had found someone to converse with, but I had not.

After a few hours we stopped in a village perched high on a hillside. The young French couple said goodbye to their new friends, and left the coach. Our bus, which should have arrived in Sarajevo well before nightfall, remained parked on a steep slope in the small mountain village for hours. The few passengers who were continuing on to Sarajevo sat on a bench under a tree in the sultry afternoon sun. Eventually, I asked the lady, who could speak French, what was happening. She explained that one of the tires of our bus had been punctured, and that it was taking a long while to repair it. She revealed that she was an inhabitant of Sarajevo and that her travelling companion, an old friend of hers, was a schoolteacher from France.

Finally, our bus was ready to depart. As it was now almost empty, I sat near to the two women and chatted to them. The sun was setting, and we were still only halfway to our destination. Soon after we began moving, the heavens opened. The mountainous region through which we were slowly making our way was filled with crashes of thunder and flashes of lightning. Torrents of rain made driving slow and difficult. I began despairing of ever reaching the city where the Hapsburg Archduke was shot in 1914. And, I was becoming concerned. I was heading for a city, which I did not know and where I had no accommodation arranged, and it was beginning to look as if would be almost midnight by the time we reached it.

I asked Marija, the French-speaking lady from Sarajevo, whether she could recommend a hotel for me. She shrugged her shoulders and said that as she lived there, she did not know about hotels. At this point, her companion said to her in French:

“Whenever I meet foreign students in my hometown in France, I invite them to stay in my home.”

Marija said nothing. It was my impression that she had not needed to hear this bit of information.

It was late at night when we eventually arrived in Sarajevo’s bus station. It was located far from the town centre on the main road that led to the spa at Ilidža. Miodrag was waiting for Marija, his mother-in law, and her French friend. I was told to get into his tiny car with them and all of our baggage, and we drove along ill-lit rain soaked streets through the darkness of the night until we reached the end of a short, steeply inclined cul-de-sac in central Sarajevo. We entered Marija’s second floor flat, and Liljana, Marija’s daughter, served us a huge, tasty supper. At the end of the meal, I still had no idea where I would be spending the night. Before I could ask where I would be staying, Liljana showed me her mother’s spare bedroom, and told me (in good English) that I should sleep there.

After breakfast the next morning, I set off to find a hotel in which I could stay for the rest of my visit. It did not take long to find one and to reserve a room. Next, I bought a bunch of flowers – they were stems of gladioli – for my kind hostess and returned to her flat. I entered, gave my bouquet to Marija, thanked her for looking after me, and told her that I had found accommodation. She told me not to be ridiculous; I was to cancel the hotel and to stay with her and her family.

Marija and her family lived in two flats in the small houses that lined a short street that led off one of the city’s main thoroughfares, Marshal Tito Street. It was within a few metres of the Baščaršija, the old bazaar area of the city. From my centrally located base, I was able to explore Sarajevo with ease. Set on both sides of the River Miljacka, the city stretches along a long narrow valley and spreads steeply up the hillsides flanking it.

The Baščaršija district looked just like a typical Turkish bazaar. When I showed pictures of it to Mehmet and Saadet, some Turkish friends in London, they said that it looked just like Bursa, their hometown in Turkish Anatolia. Like most oriental bazaars the one in Sarajevo was divided up into areas specialising in different trades. For example, there was a cluster of copper-beaters, another of silversmiths, and yet another of leatherworkers. I fell in love with the city.

I visited Sarajevo several times, always staying with my new friends. On several occasions, they visited me in London and once they stayed in our then family home in north London.

In the late 1980s, Miodrag and Liljana expressed their concerns about political changes that were happening in Bosnia. This was before the city became entangled in a fearful struggle for life during the complex and bloody civil war that occurred during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. They decided that they needed to leave Yugoslavia and start a new life elsewhere, which they did. Miodrag and Liljana and their daughter migrated to an island in the Indian Ocean, where life was calmer and prospects better than in Bosnia. Although we met them on one of their visits to London from their new home in the Indian Ocean, I have lost touch with them unfortunately. As for Marija, who remained in Sarajevo, I hope that she did not suffer during the attacks on her city.

For more of my experiences in the former Yugoslavia, please read my “Scrabble with Slivovitz”, available on Amazon, Bookdepository.com, Kindle, and lulu.com.

Stitched

PONDICHERRY IS RICH in wonderful attractions, many of them souvenirs of its French colonial past. One of the most delightful of these is the Cluny Embroidery Centre on Rue Romain Rolland, a street named after a French writer and Nobel Prize winner who met Gandhi and was sympathetic to India and its philosophies.The Embroidery Centre is housed in an 18th century French Colonial building (a former residence, which was built by 1774) that forms part of a religious centre under the aegis of the Order of Cluny. It is believed that one of the former owners of the house donated it to help poor women in need. This must have been before 1829, when the Embroidery Centre was established. Every day except Monday and Sunday, at least twenty women of various ages arrive at the centre and take their places at tables in a large room with tall windows that open out into a verandah supported by neoclassical pillars and decorated with elaborate stucco bas-reliefs. The verandah looks out onto a courtyard surrounded on three sides by other buildings, parts of the convent, and the outer wall with a decorative entrance gate.This ensemble of buildings forms only part of a much larger complex of buildings, some of which surround another courtyard filled with a garden.After singing what sounds like a hymn, the women begin working on their elaborate embroideries. They stitch according to patterns designed by artists who work at the centre. While they work away silently with needle and thread, a simple sound system provides background music at a low volume.Dressed in white habit, Sister Agatha, who runs the convent, watches over the ladies at work and organises the sales of their labours to visitors who step into this peaceful sanctuary a few feet away from the noisy outside world.The resulting products are exquisitely beautiful. They embroider everything from coasters to handkerchiefs to napkins to pillowcases to table cloths and bedcovers. Visitors to the centre can purchase these treasures of fine needlework. Or, customers can place orders for specific items they need. The women who embroider at the centre get paid on a piecework basis. Some of them have had a history of mistreatment before joining the centre. Visiting the Cluny Embroidery Centre is a moving experience. It provides a very good example of how a religious order can work for the benefit of the ‘common’ folk.

EUROPEAN HAUNTS ON THE HOOGHLY RIVER: Former European trading posts

PLEASE TAKE TIME TO READ INDIGO SEXY”, so announces a sweet female voice over the public address system in the passenger cabins of aeroplanes flown by Indigo Airlines. Actually, this voice is encouraging flyers to read Indigo’s in house magazine “Indigo 6E”. The November 2029 issue of this well produced monthly had an article about places that I have long wanted to visit: the places on the banks of the River Hooghly that were once occupied as trading posts by Europeans from various parts of that continent.
I knew that, apart from Britain, at various times the following nations had had tiny colonies on the banks of the River Hooghly (north of Calcutta): Holland, France and Denmark. Until I read an article in “Indigo 6E”, I was only barely aware that Portugal also claimed a parcel of land. That was at Bandel.
One day, we rented a car with driver to explore the former haunts of the nations listed above. We commenced at Bandel. To reach this place we drive pat endless numbers of heavy trucks north along the National Highway that links Calcutta with Delhi until we reached a road to Bandel.
To our grumpy driver’s indignation the road to the centre of Bandel was amazingly congested with cycles, tricycle rickshaws, autorickshaws, pedestrians, a variety of motorised three wheelers, dogs, trucks, buses, and so on.

Eventually, we reached the imposing church of the Miracle of Our Lady of Bandel that is separated from the Hooghly by a large garden. The church, which was built on a piece of land gifted to the Portuguese in exchange for military assistance given to a local ruler, was built at the very end of the 16th century.

The original church, one of the oldest in Bengal, still stands but has been heavily restored. It has been buried beneath shiny tiling, both outside and inside. The only original feature visible is an altar piece that looks as if it was created many centuries ago. The church was part of an Augustinian monastery, and is now part of a Salesian institution. The cloisters, like the church, are lined with tiling.

We drove south, following the Hooghly, to Chinsura, which the Dutch had occupied from 1656 to 1825. Apparently, there are several Dutch buildings in the town, but we did not find them. Instead, we managed to see the exterior of the town’s Armenian church, which is the second oldest church on Bengal. It is surrounded by a high wall surmounted by fierce looking spikes. A local informed us it wasonly opened up once a year, and we were not in Chinsura on that day! Later, we learnt that it is open for masses one Sunday in three.

Between Bandel and Chinsura, we came across an elegant house standing next to but high above the Hooghly. It was the place that Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-94) lived for several years. Some say it was the place where he composed the patriotic poem “Vande Mataram” in the 1870s. It was set to music by Rabindranath Tagore. The British imperialist authorities made it a punishable offence to sing in the esrly part of the 20th century.

We drove south along congested roads that more or less followed the Hooghly until we arrived at Chandernagore, which was a French enclave until 1947.

The Institut de Chandanagor, a fine colonial building that could do with a little restoration, was once Dupleix House the former residence of the French governor. It now houses a museum that has many exhibits that recall the history of European trading settlements along the Hooghly. It stands in gardens, where once stood a fortress built by the French. The museum faces a lovely riverside promenade that includes a late 19th century pavilion built with French funding. This edifice is adorned with sculptures depicting elephant heads. At the southern end of the promenade, there stands a house, which Rabindranath Tagore has mentioned several times in his writings. When the river rises, its lower storey fills with water, by design.

The church of Sacre Coeur stands about 100 metres back from the promenade. It was built in the late 19th century, but was first established in 1691. Its interior has recently been redecorated with garish colour paint.

It was a long drive to Serampore on the Hooghly. We drove there along through narrow winding lanes and a stretch of the Grand Trunk Road. The Grand Trunk runs from Chittagong, now in Bangladesh, to Kabul in Afghanistan, passing through Calcutta and Delhi. It has existed for at least 2500 years and is one of the longest roads in Asia (almost 3000 miles).

Between 1755 and 1845, Serampore was under Danish control. The Danes knew it as Frederiknagore. We visited the church of St Olave, whose design resembles that of St Martins in the Fields in London. The internal walls of it plain but elegant interior bear memorials to several Danes who worked either for the Danes or for the British, who inherited Serampore from the Danes, or fir both. Serampore is also the home of Serampore College, which was founded in 1818 by Joshua Marsham and William Carey (1761-1834). Carey was born in Paulerspury in Northamptonshire. This village is the home of friends of ours. It was following a visit to them that we were first alerted to the existence of the former Danish colony on the Hooghly.

Before returning to Calcutta, we had coffee at the recently restored Denmark Tavern that overlooks a lovely stretch of the Hooghly. The tavern was first opened in 1786 and appears in a painting by Peter Anker dated 1790. The original building has been beautifully restored and is still serving its original purpose.

Although we only saw a few of the haunts of the former non-British European settlements on the bank of the Hooghly, our visit has made us want to revisit them in the future.

A French artist in London

Cocteau

 

The entrance to the Roman Catholic church of Notre Dame de France (‘NDF’) is on Leicester Place, a very shiort walk from London’s Leicester Square. Consecrated in 1868, the church occupied a circular building. After WW”, it iwas rebuilt retaining its ciricular plan. Today, when there are not services, amny of the pews in this lovely building are occupied by sleeping homeless people and a few other folk seeking a peaceful refuge in this busy part of central London.

The Lady Chapel on the north ‘side’ of NDF is closed off by transparent thick glass panels. This is no doubt to protect the frescos lining its walls and the mosaic by the Russian-born Boris Anrep (1883-1969) on the altar. The frescos were created by the French writer/artist Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) in 1960. These beautiful pictures represent the Annunciation, Crucifixion, and Assumption. At the feet of one of the Roman centurions depicted in the central fresco, which illustrates the Crucifixion, there is a self-portrait of the artist. Cocteau drew this three years before his death.

Many people visit Leicester Square every day, but few of them visit NDF. For anyone interested in twentieth century art, seeing this church, which is open daily from 9 am to 9pm,  is a worthwhile thing to do.

 

Address: 5 Leicester Pl, London WC2H 7BX

Male and female

I saw a post in French on Facebook. It read: Bonne nuit à toutes et à tous…

The literal translation of this is: good night to all and all.

In English, one would write: good night all, because all includes all people both male and female.

Clearly, in the land of liberté, égalité, fraternité, all are not equal!

The Red Balloon

The first film (movie) that I remember seeing was “The Red Balloon”. Directed by Albert Lamorisse (1922-70), a French film-maker, it was released in France in 1956, and then worldwide a year later, by which time I was five years old. After seeing the film, I was given a book with the story, which was illustrated by stills from the production.

Thinking back on it, the plot (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Red_Balloon), written for children, is a little bit  too sad for young children. Nevertheless, the short film won awards all over the world.

 

BALLOON 1

 

My parents were not frequent cinema-goers. However, they took me to see the film at the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead. This cinema, which still exists, was first a drill hall, then a theatre, and in 1933 it became a cinema. I saw many more films there in my childhood and adolescence. Every year, there used to be a festival of Marx Brothers films. I loved these. In those days, the cinema’s auditorium had a strange smell that strongly resembled gas.  Indeed, there were gas lamps attached to the walls of the auditorium, but I am certain that I never saw them working. The Everyman is located in Holly Bush Lane, which is close to Hampstead Underground Station and is, I am told, now a very luxurious place. The seats are comfortable and have tables beside them, at which waiting staff serve food and drinks. This is a far cry from what I can remember of the rather basic cinema in the 1960s. Back in those days, the Everyman, like the now long-gone Academy cinemas in Oxford Street, favoured screenings of ‘arty’ films rather than the more popular films that most cinemas showed. My parents, who tended to avoid popular culture, probably selected the “Red Balloon”, an arty French film, because it was a little more recherché than the much more popular Disney films that appeared in the late 1950s.

BALLOON 3

The “Red Balloon” kindled my love of cinema. For a long while I preferred ‘off-the-beaten-track films’ of the sort that were shown at the Everyman and on the three screens of the Academy. I used to enjoy slow-moving films like Eric Rohmer’s “Claire’s Knee”, Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris”, and Wim Wender’s “Kings of the Road.” Now, my taste in film has changed dramatically.

The change began in mid-1993, shortly before marrying my wife, who is from India. She took me to meet an Indian couple, who lived in south London. After feeding us a great lunch, we watched the Bollywood film “Sholay”, which was released in 1975. After seeing this, I could not get enough of Bollywood films. Also, my love for slower-paced European and American films diminished.

BALLOON 2

What is it that attracts me to Bollywood films? First, they are colourful, lively, fast-paced, and filled with strong emotion, music and dancing: never a dull moment. They are also filled with meaning at various levels. There is the story, often complicated and ridiculously unlikely. Parts of the plot are often based on aspects of Hindu mythology. Then, the films often convey important moral or civic messages. For example, the 1977 film “Amar Akbar Anthony” is about inter-religious tolerance. More recently, the 2018 film “Padman” is about the importance of using disposable pads to promote women’s health.

I prefer to watch Bollywood films with subtitles, but great enjoyment can be gained without them. Many of the films have dialogue in Hindustani. However, many viewers in India have little or no understanding of this language. Therefore, the films are produced in such a way that much of the message of a film, maybe not the finer details, can be understood by people with no knowledge of Hindustani. In fact, Bollywood films are not only popular in India, but in many other countries of the world. Once some years ago, some Uzbek neighbours invited us for dinner. After serving us  a national dish, plov (like pilaff), they sat us in front of a television and played a DVD with a Bollywood film. They told us that this kind of film is very popular in Uzbekistan and, also, in most parts of the former Soviet Union.

Although I have come to love Bollywood films, I am not sure that they would have been to my parents’ taste. They never took me to see Disney films when I was too young to go alone. Had there been more ‘sophisticated’ children’s films like “The Red Balloon”, maybe I would have been taken to the cinema more often in my earliest years.

 

Image source: YouTube