Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Back from Serbia

Whenever I come back to the UK after a trip abroad I always hope that the, what are they now, border agency officers will be pleased to see me. 'Passport. Oh, alright John, how was your trip? You've lost weight, how's the kids?' that kind of stuff. To date though it's never happened. I canhope that it is does one day, I mean there's got to be an incentive to fly from big airports. Unfortunately in order to fly directly to Serbia I had little choice.

Belgrade airport was under construction and when it's finished it will be quite smart, it may take some time though. I was met by Marijana, the sister of a good friend who I met in Kourou, Mark (you know who you are). We drove to their house in New Belgrade, a residential area which lay between the airport and the city proper. They have two houses on the same plot of land, one of which is rented out the other a cosy and above all warm building. They made me very welcome with plenty rakia, food and beer. Their dog, Medo (teddy bear or similar), was a large badger shaped mutt who was very much the local Alpha male, we got on OK though. Not too late a night but I was tired so after sharing a few drinks with Marijana, Slobodan and Krinka (Marko and Marijana's sister who lived there also).

Krinka and Slobodan left for work reasonably early leaving Marijana to escort me to the bus station for the next stage, a bus to a town near my final destination. Srbobran was deserted when I arrived, nobody on the streets and a single taxi in the rank. After a helpful translation over the phone from Marijana I found myself in Turija seeking my contact, Mirodrag. I found him in a back room with a number of fellow organisers talking and, of course, drinking. They plied me with rakia, the spirit of choice in Serbia before inviting me to assist in judging this years entrants in the sausage competition.

After tasting many, many sausages, all cured paprika based pork types I was pretty much sausages out, but there was much more to come.

The judging crew were predominantly Hungarian but contained also a Slovenian, very cosmopolitan. The others offering fantastic hospitality were from Turija, one guy (the one with the fantastic grey tache at the front right) was a sausage machine and polished off a plate of juicy, peppery bangers with very little effort.

I was the whisked off to the house of my new translator, a quiet dark haired girl called Darijana. There I met her boyfriend and father who both spoke English. The Hungarians were staying there also and laid out an impressive spread of many pork products and peppers. Some very real advice if there are any reading this who aim to visit Serbia; the hospitality is second to none any empty glass or plate will not remain so for very long and always expect more offers from your hosts friends.

The Hungarians had organised a dancing party in Srbobran where a three course traditional Hungarian meal was accompanied by more drinks. I actually tried to stick to water, there's a first for everything. There was a lot of dancing and music, a two four piece band; two saxophones, keyboard and bass. At the end of the night two of the Hungarians took the initiative, took out an accordion and percussion to give a rendition of some very traditional Hungarian music.

I returned back to my incongruous hotel around midnight and quickly fell into a deep sleep.

The following morning I met the Hungarians and Darijana for breakfast before visiting the house of a famous writer, from the region, Gion Nandor. His house in Srbobran was to be visited by the Hungarian Ambassador and the Hungarian contingent had been invited and consequently so had I. This was a lot more interesting than I had first thought but pushed me for time as I was due to meet a representative from the Serbian national press around noon. The meeting went well and I made it to the central stage in time for the arrival of the 2028m long sausage, the central piece of the show. I really enjoyed the fiery whips that accompanied the procession.

The rest of the day was spent wandering around the festival taking in the sights, sounds and general experience. After a couple hours kip in the afternoon I ended up in the hotel bar with my Mac catching up with some writing when, The Hungarians turned up and hijacked me. Many beers later I had a late night and fell into an alcohol induced sleep.

The breakfast invitation missed I arose at ten thirty in time to say goodbye to Darijana and family and an unexpected lift to the bus station where I waited, hungover, for half an hour until my transport finally arrived.

The trip back to Belgrade was uncomfortable but thankfully swift. I was collected by Slobodan and Marijana and was taken on a whistle stop tour of Belgrade which included a fantastic Rakia bar.
The most fantastic Moscow hotel.

The newly constructed Orthodox temple.

Finally ending up, after two false starts, at a great traditional restaurant 'The Cherry Tree' where the food was good and plentiful.

There was an invitation to a birthday party but I gracefully declined in order to catch up with my notes and get some kip before the journey home.

The flight home was unremarkable and over quickly. The Serbian leg of The Sausage Trail is over and marks the first festival on my schedule. I loved every second of my time in Serbia and would recommend a visit to this fantastic central Balkan state to anyone. The hospitality is awesome and the landscape breathtaking.

So far, Shetland and Serbia have proved to be good choices for the book, I hope that this continues.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Sausage caravans

So far it's been a day of mixed fortunes, that's not strictly true as there have been far more positives than negatives. The only real negative is that, as expected, Emma has declined my offer to join me on the 'pig in a day' course at River Cottage HQ, something to do with they butchering elements of the schedule. The good news, in fact the best news, is that she has offered to help me with the editing of my writing so far on the sausage trail, that makes me feel a great deal more positive and confident about my approach to an agent after the Serbia trip. Thirty good pages and a rousing synopsis is all I need to generate the interest from a literary agent and with Emma casting her expert critical eye over my words I feel that I have every chance of achieving this.

Another positive, and a great positive at that, is that the Kobasicijade article in WIkipedia is very short and does no justice to this important village festival. In fact it seems that it was written, in passing, by someone who had a limited experience with the event. This presents a fantastic opportunity, and one which I will grasp with both grubby mitts. I shall update/edit the existing article when I get back, and maybe, one day add a reference to my book.

I still haven't updated the sausage calendar yet but aim to do so later today or early tomorrow. Time at case Gledson in Gosport is still unpredictable and sometimes chaotic, Dad is still safely ensconced in the front room due to lack of bedrooms on the ground floor but the caravan site opens in a little over a week and will open a great deal more possibilities and allow Dad a degree of greater freedom. The boys, the older boys that is, are spending little time in looking for vocational progression and are still approaching every day as a holiday. Beth had had her Waterloo with her cousin, Jessica but the said cousin still has a long way to go with regard to learning to consider the feelings of others and how to fit in with family life, just my opinion.

The writing has begun for the Serbian chapter and there I go now, writing the chapter not Serbia.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Changing sausages

It would appear that as 2012 progresses my blogging does the opposite. I have not been as prolific in the past few weeks and need to get back into the habit of writing on a regular basis especially as the itinerary for the sausage trail is filling up. The subject of actually writing the book has begun to plague me recently, when I say recently I mean this morning, with the question foremost in my mind of how to turn the twenty-thousand or more words into a meaningful and interesting chapter on the finest sausage traditions of the Shetland Islands. I am hoping that my missus will be able to help me out with this as she is turning into a very competent editor.

Next, a bit of an experiment to see if anyone actually reads my blog. The sausage calendar, for those not aware it sits at the bottom of the blog page, is experiencing a drastic revamp (I do hate that word) as the Shetland trip has proved that my initial approach was somewhat hopeful and flawed. I now understand that the key to the success (or failure) of the sausage trail completely relies on the people involved with the selected events, locations and activities so much so that anything that I did have planned where I do not a potential contact will be removed from the calendar. One of the potential new activities involves a visit to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Farm Cottage for a course on sausage-making, Emma doesn't know yet but I hope she'll be able to share the experience with me. The course colourfully termed, 'pig in a day' involves all activities from butchering a carcass to making the end product and should give an insight to the whole sausage experience and put my quest into context.

Sausages aside, dad is thankfully making a swift and strong recovery and will hopefully be fully able to move into the caravan when it opens in a couple of weeks. Emma has been tremendously supportive with all of my ridiculous ideas and deserves more credit. I hope that when the time comes and I do get a publisher for the sausage trail I will be able to credit her as she deserves.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Dad, Serbia and Shetlands

So far this year I have been somewhat remiss in my posting to the blog. In my defence I have been up to a fair bit. The Shetland Islands were an absolute revelation. Although we, as Brits, may consider ourselves an island race we really have no concept of the phrase. Those that live on the Islands on the periphery of mainland Britain breed a bunch or tough, uncompromising individuals. OK, when I say 'breed' that is not exactly correct as there are those that find their way to the likes of the Shetlands from all corners of the country. It's almost as though those that show, and feel, the quintessential elements of our proud island race find their way to the areas of our Islands that suit their hardy personality. I will return to the Shetlands soon.
Something serious always happens when you least expect it, or for that fact happen when you are in a situation to deal with it. It transpires that dad suffered a triple aneurism and was extremely lucky to be alive, the fact that he was picking up Eddy at the school definitely helped; having first aiders available right away was very fortunate. It looks as though that dad will be ready to leave hospital within a few days, as our lace is full of loud kids and a dog AND it's half-term I hope we can get dad up to Newcastle and the far more capable hands of my Auntie Susan, where life is quieter and better for his recovery.
The trip to Serbia is looming closer and I find myself looking forward to it more than i thought I would. Marko, my Serbian buddy, has put me in contact with his sister and she, in turn, has been a godsend and sorted out everything. I just hope I can return her confidence with a really good book.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Drought in the Niger Inner Delta

A few weeks ago I received an email from Bebe, or more correctly Mohammed Ag Mossa, an intelligent, enterprising Toaureg who operated within Timbuktu as a tourist guide. He had taken mercy on my brother and I when we had been stopped by the police for 'crashing' a road block and prevented an escalating misunderstanding. He gave us a whist stop tour of the city, the famous five Mosques and the houses of the explorers and even managed to negotiate and out of hours access to the museum. In his email he identified a growing disaster in the Sahel, in particular the Niger inner delta, the rains had failed and as a result the price of millet and rice has rocketed. This coupled with the reaction of the West to the perceived terrorist threat from both Al Qaeda in general and the AQIM, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb in particular has removed the potential to earn money from the tourist trade. I was somewhat surprised that the plight of Bebe and those in the region surrounding the Niger inner delta had not been promoted and a visible appeal started. Prevention is the best cure, right now a small degree of intervention and financial support from the west could stop this becoming more serious.

I would welcome any suggestions to raise awareness of this growing issue. I will of course look to find details of any organisation championing this potential humanitarian disaster. I have helped to Bebe and his village in the short term but the scale of this drought is growing. Having direct contact with those suffering in this region I have seen how much of an impact a small gesture can make.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Shetlands for the second time

When I visited the Shetland Islands last November I fully intended to return for the Viking fire festival of Up Helly Aa. I'm not sure if I really intended to see this through, well not until I met Barbara Lines, after this point I had no choice. She, in her own indeterminable way convinced me that when I came back I would be playing as a visitor in the Lerwick Brass Band. It was so far in the future that I didn't mind. Time passed and the reminders for my bookings began to resurface via email. I began to feel nervous.
Will, Beth and Emma accompanied me on the trip and, surprisingly, they enjoyed the convoluted journey to Lerwick. The flight to Aberdeen was standard, but, when we arrived at the ferry-port the realisation dawned; the ship was carrying sheep, fish and cattle and was definitely NOT a passenger ferry.

I enjoyed the journey. My bunk was a tab small, indeed we all felt somewhat split up so predictably, for us anyway, we all ended up in the same cabin. The food was great wholesome, simple and filling. Beth was ill in the morning, sea-sick, but the rest us managed to remain in a healthy travelling state. On the approach to Lerwick we passed our booked accommodation.

The route through Bressay Sound was swift and calm. It wasn't long before we were slowly approaching the ferry terminal in Lerwick.

We acclimatised tour new home very quickly. We met with Barbara Lines, the incredibly insistent lady who had invited us all up to Shetland for Up Helly Aa predominantly for me to play in the band and further prepared for our day with the Vikings. This arrived all too quickly but I feel I acquitted myself well enough.

All in all a great experience and probably one we will all come back to do again next year.