Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Sunday, July 19, 2009
Today, after sleeping late and missing breakfast, Michael and I met with the scholar, Milena Mileva Blazic, Professor of Children’s Literature at Ljubljana University. Milena, it turns out, is also a City Councilor and so our first meeting took place in City Hall. Entering City Hall in Ljubljana is like entering an old castle. Marble columns. Red carpets. Brass railings.
Generous does not begin to describe the reception and the information that Milena gave us throughout the day. She had, in preparation, translated something like sixty nonsensical count-out rhymes from Slovene folklore. She also gave us books with English translations of Slovene children’s literature and an anthology of Butalci tales, a type of absurd and sometimes surreal fools tale typical of Slovenia. And then there were the items she had requested from her friend, the folklorist, xxx, who prepared for us fifty or so pages of Slovenian folk tales and other texts. The list goes on and on. We were overwhelmed. If you’d like to hear Milena reading us some nonsensical Slovene count out rhymes, just click here:
Click here, and then click again to download.
While we were unprepared for the lavish resources handed to us today we were yet even more unprepared to encounter--as we had in Bulgaria--an entirely type of nonsense (new to us, that is). This might sound strange, but it is true. In Slovenia it was traditional in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to decorate beehive huts with a certain type of decorative board. Each beehive could be opened like a drawer, and each drawer was about the size of a license plate. On the outside of this piece of wood/drawer end, it was traditional to paint scenes from Slovenian folktales or religious scenes. If a beehive hut had twenty drawers, then there would be twenty tiny scenes depicted, one on each drawer. Often enough the scenes depicted on these drawers were of the above-mentioned absurd fool’s tales--and several of these tales are important in the history of nonsense traditions. One such classic tale, known throughout medieval Europe, is the tale of the World Turned Upside Down, where all order is reversed in the human and animal world, a story that was told and retold in a hundred ways and in a hundred different folk songs. One consistent aspect of the World Turned Upside Down tales is that animals that are usually hunted in real life, such as rabbits, turn the tables on the hunters and it is the rabbits that hunt the men, etc. Slovene beehive artwork has preserved images of several variants of this tale. Below is an example of one such piece of folk art. We purchased this beehive board in the marketplace in the city square in Ljubljana:
Milena’s generosity did not cease with her translations and research. She took us out to a traditional Slovene restaurant where the waiters were dressed in traditional costume. I ate venison and drank a Union. Mike had a large platter of traditional favorites including black sausage and buckwheat-mash. Later in the day Milena energetically led us up the hill to the castle that overlooks the city. From here the view of the city and the Julian Alps at sunset was excellent.
Milena insisted that the party continue from there and she took us to a favorite pub, and would not let us pay for anything. We tried.
Conversation eventually moved from children’s literature and nonsense to politics and history. Milena discussed the ins and outs of communism, and described the time the Yugoslavian army bombed the radio and TV tower behind the castle. She was not nostalgic about communism, but she said that she did miss the free health care and education that came with the socialist system. The move to democracy and capitalism has been natural, and successful, in Slovenia, (Slovenia’s democratic traditions date back about 1300 years) but these changes do not come completely without regrets. A slice of graffiti spoke volumes in this regard. Note below that while the message is sincere, the voice is gently humorous:
One image I will never forget from this night was the genius invention of an open-air concert, performed by a string quartet, playing in the hold of a small boat, as it gently floated down the Ljubljana River in the center of town. The sound of these musicians was amplified majestically by the white stone walls that line the river. Ljubljanians and tourists alike gathered at the stone railings along the river to watch, and kept shifting their locations in order to follow the boat as it drifted aimlessly down river. Thankfully Michael was able to film a short clip of this inspired performance. Click below to have a look:
Late that night, as we said goodnight to Milena, we tried to tell her how overwhelmed we were by her hospitality and generosity. She waved it all away with a parting smile. “It is a Slav tradition,” she said simply. And then she was gone.
We were left with a warm feeling and a pile of nonsense texts that will take us months to catalog and absorb.
Saturday, July 18, 2009
Belgrade Serbia, Croatia and Ljubljana Slovenia (Part II)
Greetings. Kevin here.
Mike has already described some of the more colorful and challenging aspects to our epic train journey this day. No one could, however, fully describe the intense heat of our morning train ride out of Belgrade.
While it is true that I eventually made a movie of my eye today, Michael has yet omitted one rather important episode. As Michael described, throughout the early part of our train ride one of the main puzzles we had to solve was which compartment was REALLY first class. After dozens of seats, oceans of sweat, and miles of track at the speed of a butterfly, we finally got it right and found ourselves in a relatively relaxing, breezy compartment, all to ourselves. Having suffered so much in the achieving of this exalted position we espoused pity, but inside regaled, at the worn-out sad faces that would come by and ask if our extra seats were free. With sombre expressions we would explain that the seats were free, but they were “First Class.” We were actually saving these people some hassle as the conductors were regularly expelling people with second-class tickets from first class compartments. We sent away about a dozen large-ish gentlemen this way over several hours. Then suddenly, two maidens appeared, youthful and exuberant--yet pathetic in their searching eyes. They asked us if our extra seats were free and we naturally waved them right in. No sooner had these two attractive young ladies seated themselves across from us, but Michael fell sound asleep. His head tilted back, and after a few minutes, he started snoring, confidently. The maidens were very entertained by this. The scene grew yet more entertaining, however. After snoring for a while Michael’s jaw dropped open a little and he started babbling in his sleep. It sounded a bit like a Hindu prayer: “abah-bah-dida-a-bahbah-diddah-babbah-bah.”
This went on for some great stretch of landscape. Anyway, you still might find it funnier that I eventually made a movie of my eye, but I prefer to think of the eye-film as more like an artistic statement, a cutting edge, avant-garde self examination, not wholly unlike the art films of Andy Warhol (or something).
As we traveled today the landscape and economic-scape, changed, subtly at first as we moved across Croatia (which has become a very hip vacation spot for Hollywood types), and then more dramatically, as we crossed the border from Croatia into Slovenia. In very real ways Michael and I basically crossed a line today that, since Roman times, has divided east and west. Cyrillic gave way to Latin letters, and Greek Orthodox churches gave way to Catholic. As would be no surprise we crossed at this same moment the Serbian/Croatian border, where the struggle between east and west has for so long now been articulated in tensions.
At the end of a very long day--and a total of twenty-four hours traveling--we arrived in Slovenia. It came upon us in the windows of the train in the dying light of day, like a spectacular postcard. The grass turned emerald green, flowerpots overflowed in the cottage windows; the hills drew up around us. And as the train found the Ljubljana River, we snaked along an increasingly enchanted landscape. Mist floated out of high, wooded, steep valleys in such a way that it seemed as if a dragon must lay in wait beneath the trees.
That’s when I filmed my eye.
10:30 on a Saturday night found us gawking at the town square (a circle really) in downtown Ljubljana. Nothing had prepared us for this scene. Sorry to bring up Disney again but the situation was so picture-perfect it felt totally unreal. Two to four-hundred year old, perfectly preserved, colorful buildings from the Austro-Hungarian Empire circled us. And leading into the square were the “Three Bridges,” with their white marble sidewalks and elaborate baroque carved railings. These graceful bridges spanned the lovely, little, Ljubljana River. The river itself was lit from below with green lights. The effect was spectacular, unreal, spellbinding.
This beautiful scene took on a spectral quality when Michael and I realized we were nearly alone. It was 10:30 on a Saturday night and there was no one around and most of the pubs were closed tight. It was a bit like that village in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang where children are against the law. Empty. Silent. A stage set.
This mysterious emptiness would be explained the following day. We were told on Sunday night that most Ljubljanians leave town for the weekend and drive up to the nearby Julian Alps. They were all back cavorting by the river on Sunday night.
One of the local beers in Ljubljana is Union. Exhausted from our journey, and gleeful to be in such an interesting and beautiful place, we stubbornly tracked down an open pub, clinked a few mugs of Union, and then headed off for about a ten-hour sleep.
PS. Below is a Picture of the bridges over the Ljubljana River in the city square. It doesn’t come close to doing it justice.
One bright day in the middle of the night, the train into Serbia stopped at one of the border crossing stations, where several backpackers were pulled from the train, taken to the border office and locked in. The train seemed to wait a while, but eventually, with the girls’ faces pressed to the locked glass doors of the office, the train pulled away into Serbia. Around this same time, we were periodically confronted by a hodge-podge parade of customs officers, literally lining up to grill us. One would enter, smile, and ask us what we were carrying—perhaps a little good-time material from Istanbul??—and check our passports, calling in the numbers on radios, and finally moving on, only to be replaced instantly by another officer, asking the same nudge-nudge wink-wink questions, perhaps glancing in one pocket of a backpack, then moving on, to be replaced by a third officer, who would continue in a like manner. These officers were apparently doing this to us out of courtesy for our Nonsense heritage, as anyone who knows about Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, knows the wisdom of the Bellman, that “What I tell you three times is true.” We appreciate such cross-cultural nonsense understanding, although when that above process was then itself repeated three times (or perhaps what seemed to be three more times), we thought they might be taking such graciousness a little too far.
As a result of these delays, we arrived in Belgrade an hour and fifteen minutes late, at around 5:15am—meaning we missed our connecting train to Ljubljana by about fifteen minutes, giving us about a five-hour layover. Blearily, then, we headed into Belgrade, going towards the citadel that rests high atop a bluff, overlooking the confluence of the Danube and the Sava. The moat around it now sports sports courts: tennis and basketball players cavort where the Dreaded Serbian Moat-Alligators once swam. Kevin thought this a symbol of sorts, declaring war no more, although I thought it also might be a way of thumbing their noses at the American Olympic basketball team. My theory has some backing, as in the park’s Military Museum, they proudly display the wreckage of a US stealth bomber shot down in the recent conflict. At the top, we sit on a hill, overlooking the rivers, lounging in what will soon be oppressive heat, listening to the dulcet tones of two loud drunk guys speaking broken English about the crimes of Croatians against Serbians. The Russian guy weaves and stumbles his way over to us, asks for a cigarette, and tells us about his morning’s drinking exploits with his new Serbian friend. As he speaks, he stumbles, wobbles, stumbles, trips, and almost lurches over the edge of the cliff, but instead crumbles to the ground and makes several shuttering, sputtering, splattering attempts to rise, like a giraffe straight out of the birth canal. The Serbian lumbers over to us and starts to tell us the history of the city, the battles of the citadel, the glory of the Serbs, their bravery in battle, their fortitude in the face of overwhelming odds—except when they were retreating “pussies.” Lest you think this was just some drunken babbling, the Serb fellow, as he was about to part with us, told us with as steady an eye as he was able, that when we went back home, we had to spread the word that the Serbians were a good and brave people. They then invited us to join them for a quick 9am round, but we politely declined. We shook hands, and our friends stumbled away, as we also soon did. As we left the park, passing by a trail of blood that led from a broken glass-fronted sign into the bushes, we heard their voices lifted in song.
We walked back down the hill, looking for a bookstore in order to find a Serbian nonsense writer whom Anca Dumitrescu had mentioned. I admit, in my state of fatigue, not having slept the night before, and in the oppressive heat, I was not in a hopeful mood, and I thought our search would not prove fruitful, but the Nonsense Force was strong with Kevin that morning, and he zeroed in on the book by Vladimir Andrich, a volume of poems all written in Serbian, but with whimsical illustrations in the style of Calef Brown. This must be the one. Four hours in Belgrade and we scored a volume of what is most likely Serbian literary nonsense.
Nonsense in hand, we arrived back at the train station, where we began the adventure of finding a compartment. Like being stuck in the shell game, but never finding the nut; or being the nut and never being found in the shell. Or like being the spaces over which shells hover, but never the nutless space under the shell; or like the hovering nut in a spaceless shell…we sought a space. And a nut. The first compartment we entered was first class, so, dragging thousand-pound bags (okay, just mine), we went down to the last car, but this didn’t look like a car in a class to which we are accustomed, so into the next, which was packed with people and bags and smoke. We found a spot and sat for a moment, soaked with sweat by this point in the incredible heat of the morning compounded by people packed into the closed and unventilated spaces of the train. I then looked at our tickets. Our first class tickets. So I went out, asked the trainman and he pointed to the first car that we had initially been in. We schlepped our gear down and up to the first car, where we found a space with some younger traveling-type folk, who helped this old man (meaning myself) with his bag (for my bag contains three drowsing dragons and the complete bound set of Dumas). After a brief discussion, and more sweatful brotherhoodly bonding, we realized that, somehow, even though we were indeed in the car pointed out by the offical, we were still in second class, and that the little numbers on the outside of the compartments were both compartment number, but also little class numbers. So… again, huck down the bags, drag down the hall, to the one compartment that had been locked earlier but now had happy first classers, happily sweating away. We slid ourselves in, but soon the railway fellows came and promptly booted us out—it was the staff compartment, of course, and even though it was the “1” compartment, it lacked the tiny “1” sticker for class designation. Likewise, even though it was in the half of the train car that had all the first class compartments (all three of them, that is), it was not first class. Nonsense trainery? And so… the bag avalanche again and we shift to the next compartment over, which is now full… Everyone was thoroughly sweat-soaked and grumpy, so Kevin and I stood in the passageway, hanging out the window as the train moved out… Back in the sweltering compartment, two men sat next to the window, getting steadily stickier in chocolate cakes, chatting, reading the paper. One of them seemed somewhat perturbed that the wind ruffled his newspaper, so he closed the window halfway, the one meager means of relief in the still-oppressive heat. Dagger-looks shoot around the room, but he happily read away. Apparently, however, the train gods were then satisfied with our train-imposed flagellation, and the family in the next compartment down departed. For some reason, the door was locked, but Kevin bravely asked the fellows if we could move, and they come to unlock it… One last time into the compartment, dear friends, one last time… and so we moved yet again, to this our own compartment, our fifth compartment, where we stretched ourselves out to dry.
The last bit that I should mention, if you will bear with me just a little longer in this very long day (for it was indeed a Very Long Day), was Kevin’s attempt at artful documentary footage. As we moved into the lush mountains near Ljubljana, Kevin was overwhelmed with beauty and seemed to want to film the wisps of dragon-breath that puffed out of the hillside trees. I gave him my iPhone with the camera ready, and, at the precise moment of the most transcendent beauty, a moment that would make Grizzly Adams and Marlin Perkins shake hands firmly and weep a collective tear of joy, Kevin held, not the viewscreen, but the camera lens up to his eye. The film, in full Technicolor and Dolby Sound, thus shows a striking view of his eye. At the last moment, I informed him of his artistic license, and as he flipped the phone this way and that, you’ll be able to see a slight snippet of the actual hills. Click below for this footage—two thumbs up, no doubt.
PS. The photo at the head of this entry is of a fellow we met in the center of Belgrade.
Kevin has most admirably described our nonsense encounter this fine day. With hearts and parts full of nonsense we tootled off to retrieve the lost glasses, back to the pub with the infamous Toilet Contraption, about which you, our dear audience, have had little to say. We walked to the back patio, a few sheltered tables surrounded by shrubs, falling plaster, and broken bricks. As we sat, our favorite waitress of the gratis oblong meatball fame sailed in holding out Kevin’s glasses. This, not unlike quite a few other momentous incidents on our travels, was an occasion worthy of raising a glass, and so, surrounded by stray kittens and cozy ruin, we drank goodbye to Sofia.
We walked back to the hotel and then the train station, where we hung about, getting meat from the train station meat vendor, an institution Kevin had scorned when we arrived. What “railway meat” is, I won’t say, but even Kevin will now admit it to be railly good.
Friday, July 17, 2009
Greetings. Kevin here.
Today we had our second meeting with a scholar. We met Lilia Ratcheva, a native Bulgarian who is a professor at the Institut für Jugendliteratur in Vienna. Lilia came prepared with an armload of possible texts for us to chose from. She had material from folk traditions as well as examples from modern Bulgarian authors. Much to our pleasure Lilia defines “nonsense literature” in a fairly strict manner, and thus her selections were all pretty fascinating and on target. Among the folk material that she presented us with were several nonsensical count out rhymes, similar in style to the “eenie meenie miney moe” variety known in English. With permission we asked her if we could record her reciting a few pieces in Bulgarian. The mic could have been a little closer, but if you’d like to hear a few Bulgarian count-out rhymes, just listen by clicking below. You will perhaps also hear the Bulgarian music that was playing in the background of the café we were in:
Lilia reading: Click here and then click on "download."
Among the modern literary nonsense Lilia presented us with were some of the works of the Bulgarian children’s poet, Janalu Petrov, whose poems were originally published in the 1920s and 1930s. As she showed us the material Michael and I realized that we were seeing something entirely new to us. Petrov occasionaly wrote nonsense in prose paragraphs, but the sentences within the paragraphs were rhymed couplets. We’ve simply never seen this before.
In the afternoon we slogged our way beneath the searing sun to the bookstores and library located at Sofia University. While we came up empty at the bookstores, we did make one curious ‘discovery’ in the library. We came unannounced, and thus we did not simply barge in and demand they bring forth their nonsense. Instead we stealthily asked the research librarian if they had any books on Bulgarian folklore printed in English. This question led this person to ask another, and that person asked another, until we were finally shuffled off to an office where three librarians discussed our request together in Bulgarian, then brought us back to the main reading room, where several more people helped us. They were all most gracious and tried very hard to find what we were looking for. In the end it became clear that Bulgaria—probably for historical and political reasons—does not have many books translated into English. But with no little effort on their part two books were eventually delivered to us. While we didn’t find nonsense, per se, we did locate a discussion of a most curious oral tradition. It seems that in various villages in Bulgaria there is a tradition referred to in the book we were reading as “Unorganized Polyphonic Lamentations.” Unorganized polyphonic lamentations are made by a group of people who all sing the same song, but not in the same key, and not “together” in any way. The quote in the book suggests that while the ‘singers’ are performing the same song they disregard the idea of performing pitch, harmony or melody together in an organized manner. The result would be a kind of collective babble. As the word “lamentations” suggests, this babble is engaged upon in sad situations, most often when someone has died, but Bulgarian soldiers also perform unorganized polyphonic lamentations when they are marching off to war.
While “unorganized polyphonic lamentations” are not literary nonsense, they share a relationships to certain traditions in English and French custom that also involve babbling, and nonsense verses. The English custom, popular in the middle ages and in the Early Modern period, is sometimes referred to as “rough music” (or in French, “charivari”). In these traditions a large group of people (perhaps better described as a mob) would get together and drive someone “evil” out of the village. Usually this evil-doer was a wife-beater, or had committed some other such crime. When this bad person was identified the villagers would gather and march through town babbling, reciting nonsense verses, and clanging pots and pans. They would march up to the house of the accused and keep babbling and singing nonsense and clanging pots and pans until this person gave up and left the village. Apparently it was pretty effective. Would you stay?
The use of nonsense here is interesting. In the English and French customs it seems like nonsense (or babbling) is thought to be imbued with a kind of magical power that can help expel evil, while in the Bulgarian variant the babbling seems similarly intended to purge bad feelings or at least to get the problem out in the open, where it can be dealt with publicly.
In the evening, as the library closed, we entered back into the searing heat of Sofia and made our way toward my lost reading glasses, and then the train station.
One of the last photos I took in Sofia was of this mystical, dark figure who resides high on a soaring pedestal over one of the main squares. I do not know who she is, or what she represents, but it was difficult not to regard this eerie statue with some reverence. The only association I could make with her was of an evil queen from a Disney film.
No doubt, this eminent personality was perched scanning the city of Sofia long before Disney animators brought such caricatures to life via animation.
Next stop: Belgrade Serbia via overnight train.