Sarajevo Cycle

Two Poems and a Ljubljana-Sarajevo Connection

More than three years have passed since I visited Sarajevo; rare is the day that goes by without a memory or sensation taking me back, even if just fleetingly, to that four-day visit.

That’s why I was delighted to agree when an editor of Text Box, the online anthology of works published over the years by the Missouri Review, asked to use some of my photos to accompany two works by poet Andrea O’Rourke.

Above is a shot from Ljubljana for her poem “Sarajevo Cycle: 1992 to 1996“. Below is a photo from Sarajevo used with “Would It Surprise You I Don’t Like Mornings?” The former is a fragmented visual feast of life during wartime. The latter is about the secrets families keep.

Would it surprise you I dont like mornings

A native of Croatia, O’Rourke lives in Atlanta where she teaches composition at Georgia State University, translates and paints. The Missouri Review has also published an insightful interview with O’Rourke, conducted earlier this month, here.

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Previously from Sarajevo:

- Poppies and Shrapnel / Sarajevo Siege Tour
- Sarajevo Siege + 20
- Beggars
- Sarajevo Tunnel Museum (Sarajevo Notebook III)
- Things you’ll find in the basement of Sarajevo’s Academy of Fine Arts
- Michael Jackson meets Christopher Reeve?
- Sarajevo pics, Part deux
- Trebević Mountain Polka (Sarajevo notebook II)
- Sarajevo notebook I – time lapses
- more pics from Sarajevo on my flickr stream

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Still Life with Swiss chocolate, Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, Zurich, 28-Aug-2012

Still Life with Swiss chocolate, Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith

Still Life with Swiss chocolate, Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, Zurich, 28-Aug-2012

Still Life with Swiss chocolate, Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, Zurich, 28-Aug-2012

‘Sweets’ is this week’s twitter travel theme for #FriFotos; this was the only image to immediately come to mind. All things considered, nothing was as sweet this year as the few days I spent with Patti Smith‘s memoir, Just Kids. (But yes, the chocolate was pretty good, too.)

Indeed, if I were to put together a list of the best books I read in 2012, Just Kids, published nearly three years ago, would find itself very much alone at the top of that list. It’s a spellbinding account of how Smith and her best friend, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, ultimately became what they were truly meant to become, beautifully written and recounted with an eloquent innocence of a young poet who didn’t quite realize the history she was living and experiencing when she was just a kid.

To aspiring artists and writers who don’t know much or anything about the genius of Smith and Mapplethorpe or the legend of the Chelsea Hotel or the late 1960s art and music scene in New York City, please read this book and get acquainted. It might be the only ‘How-To’ guide you’ll need.

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Nanning, China, 14-Oct-2010

On Capturing the ‘Spirit of Place’

Nanning, China, 14-Oct-2010

Last night I began reading “The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers“, by Robert S. Boynton – the subject matter is self-explanatory from the title. I’m hooked. I’ve only gotten past the intro, preface and first chapter and have already lost count of all the notes scribbled into the margins.

The first chapter is a conversation with Ted Conover, who’s probably best known for riding the rails with hoboes in his 1984 book Rolling Nowhere and his 2000 work Newjack which chronicles the daily lives of prison guards at New York’s Sing Sing. The latter required full immersion: he applied for and got a job as a guard.

I found this exchange, on immersing oneself into a new place, of particular interest:

Q: Do you have any reporting routines you follow when you arrive in a new town?

A: I pay a lot of attention to place in my writing, so when I arrive in a new town I try to do what Lawrence Durrell recommended in his essay, “Spirit of Place”, which is to get still as a needle, as he puts it.

Boynton then thankfully adds the Durrell reference:

“It is a pity indeed to travel and not get this essential sense of landscape values. You do not need a sixth sense for it. It is there if you just close your eyes and breathe softly through your nose; you will hear the whispered message, for all landscapes ask the same question in the same whisper. ‘I am watching you — are you watching yourself in me?’

Most travelers hurry too much… the great thing is to try and travel with the eyes of the spirit wide open, and not too much factual information. To tune in, without reverence, idly — but with real inward attention. It is to be had for the feeling… you can extract the essence of a place once you know how. If you just get as still as a needle, you’ll be there.”

The stack of immediate essential reading just got a bit higher. It’s time to seriously consider a kindle.

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Piran, facing west

The Devil’s Sonata – A Piran Portrait in 19 Pics, Part I

Oddly enough, in the five-plus years that Piran Café has been plugging along, I don’t think I’ve published more than a handful of photos here from the city whose name the blog bears and honors. I’ll make up for that absence today. And then some.

I hope choking you with nearly 20 photos isn’t too big an indulgence – Piran is one of the nicest spots on the planet, and not only because I was born there. It just is.

These were all taken yesterday during a quick visit to check out the newly renovated Mestna Galerija, or Municipal Gallery, which reopened last Friday (more on that in the next few days). I had enough time left over to scamper about the 15th Century city walls, stroll around the 13th Century cobblestone streets and collect some notes for a few upcoming stories. To help with your bearings: the photo above, taken from the city walls, faces west. Venice is at roughly 10 o’clock.

May 1 Square, formerly Piazza Portadomo

May 1 Square, formerly Piazza Portadomo

I’ll be writing elsewhere about Piran over the next several weeks, so rather than going into more detail here about Slovenia’s Adriatic diamond in the rough, I’ll instead recycle some ruminations on Piran that I pieced together a few years ago for a 24-hour Memoir Challenge. I’ve decided to reprint the chapter in its entirety below (slightly edited, you’ll be happy to know), including the few opening paragraphs that don’t have much to do with Piran. That was a very fun project by the way, one I think everyone should set aside a day for every now and then.

The Devil’s Sonata? It’s the most famous piece composed by Guiseppe Tartini, Piran’s most famous son (for now). More about the piece is below.



Chapter II. The Devil’s Sonata

Piran 017The final prep work for this day-long exercise came last night after a long walk through Ljubljana’s old town center and its fringes when I decided to reread Kurt Vonnegut’s final book, A Man Without a Country. With its publication in 2004, my favorite author, at 83, was inspired enough to break his promise to never write another book and admit in 146 breezy pages that he, like Mark Twain and Albert Einstein before him, had finally given up on the human race. The man had patience, no?

Vonnegut’s novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine, was published in 1965. It’s a story about Eliot Rosewater, a slovenly millionaire who controls a large family foundation, one of the richest in the country. When his overwhelming love for humanity forces him to begin giving money away to anyone in need, his family, hoping to save their fortune, hires a lawyer to prove he’s insane. It’s probably Vonnegut’s most upbeat book.

Piran 023Forty years later in A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut concludes –and reminds us that Mark Twain did as well in his short story, The Mysterious Stranger, published 106 years earlier– that it was Satan, not God, who created the planet earth and its human race.

In February of 1965, a few months before Vonnegut gave us Mr. Rosewater and just ten days before Malcolm X was assassinated in Manhattan, I was born in Piran, a quiet and charming little northern Adriatic seaside town.

Piran sits at the end of a tiny peninsula that you won’t find on most maps, just south of Trieste, with a history going back at least thirteen centuries. Countless European empires laid claim at one time or another, but it wasn’t until the Venetians moved in during the latter years of the 13th Century that Piran began to take on the look of a quaint medieval town, Black Death and all. Five centuries later came the Austrians and during Napoleon’s relatively brief incursion –one of the little Emperor’s favorite concubines was Slovenian– Piran played host to the only naval battle in the history of Slovenian waters.

Mid 15th C. Benečanka, or 'Venetian' house, the oldest on the central Tartini Square

Mid 15th C. Benečanka, or ‘Venetian’ house, the oldest on the central Tartini Square

In February of 1812, a six-hour scuffle ensued when two British warships –one was named Weasel– attacked the French vessel Rivoli on its maiden voyage, eventually blowing to bits one of its three accompanying ships. The French surrendered (imagine!), and the remainder of the fleet was towed to the Dalmatian island of Vis, these days a popular destination for French nudists. Today it’s difficult to imagine six naval ships fitting into Slovenian waters.

Between the world wars of the 20th Century, Piran was under Italian tutelage, and from 1947 to 1954, administered by the Yugoslav Army as part of Zone B of the Trieste Free Zone. By the time I came into the picture, it was already Slovenia’s Adriatic pearl as part of Tito’s Yugoslav federation.

Piran 033Piran’s favorite son –for now– is the early 18th Century violin master, composer and teacher, Guiseppe Tartini, who came of age and into prominence during the town’s Venetian enlightenment. He was barely into his twenties when he became the first known owner of a Stradivarius, those insanely beautiful and acoustically perfect violins created by the gentleman of Cremona, Antonio Stradivari. I’ve seen two over the years –the first time, at the Music Museum at the Royal Palace in Madrid, its sublime beauty nearly inspired enough to try my hand as a professional thief. The violin is after all known as the devil’s instrument, and Tartini is best known for his haunting and notoriously difficult composition, The Devil’s Sonata, or Trill. According to legend the piece came to him in a dream in which Satan stood at the foot of his bed strumming his own fiddle. (You didn’t honestly believe that the Charlie Daniels Band’s biggest hit was based on an original concept, did you?) I’ve heard lots of versions –my favorite interpretation is by Andrew Manze on Harmoniamundi. Do check it out.

Guiseppe Tartini standing tall in his eponymous square

Guiseppe Tartini standing tall in his eponymous square

Piran 024Those sorts of dreams were likely not uncommon during Tartini’s tortured formative years. His father, a successful local businessman, wanted his son to join the priesthood, but the closest young Guiseppe would come to fulfilling his father’s wishes went something like this: When he was eighteen and studying law in Padua, Tartini eloped with a woman who was also a favorite niece of the powerful local Cardinal who, after receiving the news of the newlyweds, promptly put a bounty on Tartini’s head. Upon discovery, the young woman was sent to a convent while Tartini escaped to a monastery where he tempered his loss with a new love for the violin.

I don’t recall the devil ever appearing to me in a dream, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t. Because like jokes, dreams are another thing I can’t seem to remember. But like Tartini, I’m convinced that music is mankind’s greatest invention, whether the inspiration behind it is diabolical or divine. Or somewhere in between. Especially in Piran where so many flashes of memory are associated with and ignited by music.

Piran 018Even the burja winds –bora to Italians and bura to Croats– that pound the town each fall and early winter with gusts of up to a hundred-and-ten kilometers per hour and have been known to send stray cats airborne have their own mildly diabolical melody.

Which reminds me: When I returned to Piran for about six months in 1997, I tried to follow then-Czech president Vaclav Havel into a bar when he was in town for a meeting of Central European presidents. I was told that morning that beer was his breakfast beverage of choice, and wanted to buy him his first afternoon brew. Maybe even discuss a book or two. But one of the largest bodyguards I’ve ever seen blocked my way in. It was just as well, since I’d never actually read anything by Havel up to that point. I spent that late afternoon and evening with an extended Roma family from Hungary on the rocky beach below the cliff face that is home to the towering St. George church. They were strumming on cheap violins and banging on ratty old drums. We drank lots of wine. Tartini would have approved.

Piran 030Which also reminds me: My first real taste of individual freedom came in Piran in the summer of 1980, when portraits of Tito, who had died just a few months earlier, were more plentiful than Coke ads are today. I was fifteen and my parents sent me off into the world by myself for the first time. They may still regret it. I remember being able to walk into a corner store, buy a pack of cigarettes and a porn magazine, and sit down at a pub next door and drink large glasses of beer and chain smoke while looking at pictures of nude Macedonian women as cheesy Balkan pop blared through scratchy speakers. For a fifteen-year-old suburban white boy, life couldn’t get much more free.

And by the way, Vonnegut again: He visited Slovenia several times during the Yugoslav days when the international writer’s organization, PEN, held meetings in the famous Alpine city of Bled. He often wrote that Bled was one of his favorite places on this planet that mankind is so bent on destroying.

But back to 1965. Like Tartini, I didn’t stay in Piran very long. He went to Padua via Venice; I moved to Cleveland via Paris.


Piran 036

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Piran 037

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From the city walls, facing north and the Bay of Trieste

From the city walls, facing north and the Bay of Trieste

Piran 021

Piran 022

St. George’s Church. Dates back to late 11th C., current likeness from 1637.

Looking down from St. George's Church. A long drop. And yes, people have jumped.

Looking down from St. George’s Church. A long drop. And yes, people have jumped.


These snaps are this week’s contribution for Travel Photo Thursday (#TPThursday on twitter) hosted by Nancie on her website, Budget Travelers Sandbox. When you have few minutes to browse, check out Nancie’s photos and those of others who take part. You’ll see some great photos and visit some wonderful places. The direct link is here.

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Eastern Europe Envy

I just came across this interesting piece –Six Enviable Traits From Eastern Europe– in Big Think by Francis Tapon who spent the past three years traveling in 25 Eastern European countries. Just six?  ;)

Two stand out:

1. There’s one characteristic that all Eastern Europeans share, from Finland to Macedonia, from Slovenia to Ukraine—it’s toughness. Eastern Europeans are a gritty, intense, and supernaturally sturdy people. Communism, wars, and winters have sculpted their tradition of getting by with little. They may whine and complain, but they’ll endure any hardship and overcome any challenge with a stoic and grim determination.


3. Eastern European cities have outstanding pedestrian zones.

He also describes Slovenians as workaholics. Like the ego-trippin’ dude at top whose boots are certainly the envy of everyone he crosses paths with. He’s working over-time today –on a holiday no less– moonlighting as the subject for today’s LJ Pic of the Day.

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Coming in May: Launch of Piran Café Newsletter, plus Monthly Giveaways!

I’ll be rolling out quite a few major changes on Piran Café over the next several months, all of which I’m really excited about. I can’t divulge too much at the moment, but they’re pretty big. :) And I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

One of the first will be a new monthly newsletter which I’ll be launching in the next few weeks. People who haven’t even seen a draft are already talking about how absolutely mind-blowingly cool it’s going to be. (And they’re right on!) And best of all, as a newsletter subscriber, you’ll be automatically entered in Piran Café’s monthly giveaways. And I mean real prizes. The first?

A FREE destination travel guide: Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Frommer’s, Fodor’s, Let’s Go, or anything else. The choice will be yours! I’ve already got June and July’s prizes picked, but you’ll have to wait on those. A hint: long summer reading material.

Everyone who stops by is of course encouraged to subscribe and enter, but I’m directing this note in particular to the many of you (thanks, btw!) who have begun following Piran Café in recent weeks through the WordPress follow features, either the email or reader versions. Be sure to subscribe to the monthly update as well and you’ll be automatically entered – each and every month, win or lose.

The first drawing will be on May 1, so don’t delay! Subscribe now! And thanks for reading. :)

PS – OK, one last time – the subscription link is here.

G is for Good ‘ole Fashioned Live Blogging (or, last minute research into France’s Cotentin Peninsula)

I’ll be spending about four days on the Contentin Peninsula in Normandy next week. Besides booking a room in Cherbourg, I’ve done no research into the area whatsoever.

So tonight I’m going back to the roots of why I decided to take on the A-Z blogging challenge this month with a brief exercise into something that I might undertake if I were to become a more serious contributor to the blogosphere: live blogging.

What I’ll be doing here for the next few hours won’t be nearly as interesting as live blogging in the traditional sense –keeping up with a breaking news story or live-blogging from an event, for instance. I’ll just be posting links and bits of info here as I come across it, and eventually organize it into something that might be of use to others who stumble across this post in the future. If not, at least it’ll be useful to me next week.

That’s it. Cheers!


Last post 23:51 CET – Concluded that I’d rather go elsewhere, St. Malo in Brittany. May be too late to shift plans; have to check with travel companion in the morning.

First post 21:32 CET -

~ Contentin Peninsula (general info) ~

From Contentin Peninsula wiki:

- Due to its comparative isolation, the peninsula is one of the remaining strongholds of the Norman language, and the local dialect is known as Cotentinais.
- Until the construction of modern roads, the peninsula was almost inaccessible in winter due to the band of marshland cutting off the higher ground of the promontory itself. This explains occasional historical references to the Cotentin as an island.

- Parc Naturel Regional des Marais du Cotentin et du Bessin (The Regional Nature park of the Cotentin and Bessin Marshlands) – 27,000 hectare park, wetland and marsh.


~ Cherbourg-Octeville ~

- Official tourism office (French)
- Wiki

- Cherbourg was The Titanic’s first stop on 10 April 1912 (four hours after leaving Southampton), where 274 passengers were brought on board.

~ To the Channel Islands ~

- Manch Iles Express: Destinations – Jersey, Sark Guernsey, Alderney
Appears that early April will have very limited options. There are departures from Dielette, Carteret and Granville south of Cherbourg but most variety is available from Saint Malo further south.

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If you haven’t guessed,
G is for Good ‘ole Fashioned Live Blogging
in the Blogging From A to Z Challenge 2012.
Check out more participants here.

My explanation for this is here.

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It was just as I decided against buying some pens made from large bullet shell casings that I felt a slight tug on my shirt. It came from a gaunt woman with very long straight jet black hair and rotting front teeth. She was holding a young girl by the hand whose complexion was just a shade lighter than her own pale kidney bean brown. I pretended not to understand her first plea, and then ignored the next four.

“Please, please,” she said, “we want to have some of your money.”

Her limited command of English was too direct. Which was likely why she tried Croat, Albanian, Macedonian, Italian and German first.

“I have young daughter. She very sick and we very, very hungry.”

The girl was clean, nicely dressed, appeared healthy and aloof. She was also very quiet.

I politely told her no and continued walking. She followed for a few more steps before turning her attention to a couple who were strolling the opposite way.

I saw them again about 20 minutes later, just as I was waiting for the grounds to settle in what would be my last Turkish coffee of the day. The girl wasn’t quiet this time. Her pestering ruined the calming call to prayer that was pleasantly wailing from one of the nearby minarets.

“I want to go home,” she said in Croat, gently tugging at the women’s loose fitting blouse. The woman tugged back hard and smacked the girl on the back with a plastic bag full of fruit.

“Silence!” she yelled, her raging eyes bulging, commanding respect. “Your mother said she didn’t want you home until 10!”

The girl was quiet again when the woman stopped another couple. It was getting late. This time she muttered in English first.

This was in Sarajevo’s Baščaršija, or Turkish Quarter, last summer. You can check out some more Sarajevo-related posts here, or browse through some photos on my flickr stream here. Oh, and I really think you should invest 150 seconds of your day and check out this 17-scene timelapse I shot. Thanks!

If you haven’t guessed,
B is for Beggars
in the Blogging From A to Z Challenge 2012.
Check out more participants here.

My explanation for this is here.

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Piran Café will be inaugurating a free monthly newsletter in May. It’ll be loaded with travel tips and wine reviews, musings on my obsessions of the day, updates on CC licensed free-to-use photos, plus an exclusive FREE giveaway EACH month available to subscribers ONLY. Giveaway No. 1:  Sign up now and you’ll be automatically entered to win a FREE major publishing house travel guide of your choice. Drawing is on 1 May, so do it now!

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A to Z Blogging Challenge: Why Piran Café? A Brief Explanation

As I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, I’ll be taking part in an A to Z Blogging Challenge this month, which begins tomorrow. I wrote then that I came across this exercise at an opportune time, just as I was thinking about how to refocus and define a bit more clearly the direction of Piran Café, which as of this posting, is just shy of quarter of a million views all-time.

Since then, I’ve outlined and jotted down some notes on my A to Z entries, and even put together a few posts in advance – but not nearly as many as I was planning to. They’ll all be variations on the theme of travel, a term whose interpretations are as numerous as there are travel writers.

More than 20 years have passed since I first began dabbling in travel writing and much has obviously changed. While my professional writing and editing work is far removed from the topic, I regularly keep up with several travel-related blogs, and in recent months have read and studied dozens, of not hundreds. So I think I’ve learned a little bit about what’s out there, what attracts readers and what doesn’t. (A critique of the travel blogosphere could fill several volumes so I’ll save that for another post or two.)

My general strategy will be to use the Challenge to sketch out my vision of what a typical month as a travel blogger might look like if I were to hit the road for an indefinite period of time. (Hypothetically speaking, of course, and with a full-time job to deal with.) It’ll be helpful that I’ll be the road from the 10th through the 17th to give my posts a bit of real world charm. Demands on time will ensure that at least one of the rules –KISS, or Keep It Short and Sweet—will be obeyed.

I’ll try lots of different things – mixing up short narratives, brief vignettes and simple notebook entries with photos and video and maybe even some live blogging and tweeting – hopefully some of it’ll work. I’m looking forward to evaluating the journey and process at the end of the month. I hope you’ll make the time to drop by and join me.

As of now, 1,550 bloggers have signed up. Check them here.

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