I forgot to blog about my latest episode of health tourism.
In my last fortnight in the UK I managed to get a kidney infection. The doctor said it probably wasn't kidney stones. Even I had got as far as working out that it might be kidney stones, using NHS Direct, since I already had the gall bladder and stones out when I was living in Greece. His reasoning was that it went away after a course of antibiotics, so it probably was only an infection. I didn't find this very comforting, since it could easily come back, if he was wrong, and it could be very painful, if I was a long way from a decent hospital. So not wanting to wait for the NHS to decide when it would deign to see me, I organised to see a Bosnian doctor who came recommended by my American friend who has been there for years.
One phone call and I had an appointment next day. After a taxi ride to the new Avaz Business Centre, half an hour and a payment of 25 Euros later, I had a letter and pictures to prove I had a small kidney stone, nothing to worry about. The doctor said it could be washed out by drinking lots of tea. The letter is in Bosanski, but the pictures are in English. My kidneys are apparently in good shape for my age.
Of course the British treatment of saying that if I thought I was better, I was better, and there was nothing else to do, may be cheaper. But is it really reassuring? OK, not everybody has to worry about the risk of agonising pain when you are in a country where the health service is not so good. I suppose if you can get to a hospital in 20 minutes and get good treatment, then spending 25 Euros to be sure of the diagnosis is arguably an unnecessary extra expense. But they have the equipment anyway, and is it used to full capacity? I bet not.
But if ordinary GPs' surgeries in Bosnia and Lithuania can afford ultrasound scanners, why can't British ones? Isn't it better to diagnose if there is really is a problem, rather than just to hope it will not come back. Ultrasound is not so special these days.
and it's raining. I've got a week's work to do by the weekend so perhaps as well ...
Met Sloph for the weekend and left her to come back via Ljubljana. She's come to do two weeks' volunteering in a segregated school in Gornij Vakuf with some fellow students from Oxford and quite by coincidence we were there at the same time.
Bee's busy with an extra job packing organic dog food. Do you think the dogs care?
I am reliably informed by Vilhelm that Literatu svetaine is no more.
Well what a disaster! It's not just any old restaurant either, it's a special historical and cultural site. Its name means "Writers' Salon" and although perhaps it was the privilege of only approved writers during communist days, many other people enjoyed it. Since the end of communism, it was a favourite of many tourists and expats as well, with its excellent views, from inside and out for people watching in the Cathedral Square and the main Gedimino street. That's also not to mention the excellent food and friendly staff.
As Vilhelm says: The bureaucratic conundrum proved too difficult for the Swede, I guess. One of Vilnius's old "cultural institutions" is permanently put to rest.
It must be that new stupid mayor. I can’t imagine that Zuokas would have allowed the conversion of a prime restaurant site to go to a bank which can go anywhere really.
God knows what we can expect next. Vilnius capital of culture indeed!
It's a small, newly built friendly hotel near the old town in Sarajevo, so a good tourist base. It's not expensive, around 40 Euros for a single room, (80 a double) which comes with minibar, and a free computer with fast internet or wireless for your laptop. This is so essential these days for business customers and tourists that I can't understand why hotels can do business without it. Some of the rooms have airconditioning which might be nice in July and August but we are fine so far without.
It comes with local shops next door providing fruit, drinks and anything you might have forgotten. It's a 10 minute walk to the old town so you get some exercise but not too much. The breakfast got a bit boring but they accepted our suggestions and now there is more variety. Laundry is done same day in this hot weather. The bar is always available and they have good coffee.
There is a small conference room downstairs and we have used seating areas on the second floor for our team meetings. They have off street parking.
But what really makes the hotel stand out is that nothing is too much trouble for the staff. They have organised our transport to other towns for business meetings, found us drivers, given us restaurant recommendations and generally made our two visits here very enjoyable and problem free. We are working in our rooms without a proper office in Sarajevo and we have been able to do faxes and print materials without any trouble. They have managed to cope with our changes in dates and squeezed us in when they were overbooked. I was rewarded by a double room for the second visit, which was great because I was going to have to get a second room when Sloph came to visit this weekend.
Today they excelled themselves. It's a small hotel and so they don't really provide lunch and dinner, though we have seen people eating occasionally. Today we didn't have time to go out to lunch, so we went downstairs to see whether they could provide us with a quick sandwich. It seemed they had a conference and they had to provide lunch for the participants, so instead of a sandwich we got a full 3 course lunch of leftovers, which was great.
So no doubt where to recommend for your stay in Sarajevo! We only hope they don't get too popular so they don't have room for us in September when we come back.
On Wednesday I came straight off the plane to Sarajevo into a car to drive to BL with a spectacular thunderstorm and sever road flooding to help our progress. We went a quicker route than last time through the "ghost" Croatian shopping centre but diverging somewhere afterwards. The shopping centre is far from ghost, just a big out of town sprawl of warehouses and building materials, not out of place in France, but instead of "out of town" it is "without town", just in the middle of nowhere. After a 4am start to get to Gatwick I was not really with it, but noticed the usual Bosnian mountain roads, hills, trees, plus rain.
Banja Luka is the "capital" of Republika Srpska, one of the two entities which form the country Bosnia and Herzegovina. See Google maps here
We arrived in BL in bright evening sunshine and I was parked in Hotel Bosna for the night. For those of you who like to indulge in Soviet hotel nostalgia, I can offer you a new genre: the Yugoslav hotel nostalgia. Hotel Bosna was a real treat, a "modern" Yugoslav hotel. These photos are taken from the website. Please visit it to get the full "night and day" slide show complete with twinkling stars.
So instead of the standard highrise concrete block hotel in the Soviet style, we have the modern architectural curvaceous exterior with pleasant setting. Inside it is not so bad on the ground floor with a range of pleasant bars and shops, not really 21st century, but comfortable for a provincial town. A lift to the second floor took me to curving corridors with one side built with glass panels reminiscent of art deco 1920s and 30s. You could see what architectural magazines the Yugoslav architect had been reading. After misleading numbering and being confused by the curving shape which seemed to have 3 corridors not 2 as you expect from the photos, I saw more of the corridors than I would have liked. The thick glass was not so clean, and had been broken in many places, leaving lots of sharp edges for the next round of drunks to fall against, the carpet has seen many years of wear and the doors were painted matt black, giving a strange "modernist" and grunge impression at the same time.
This "effect" was continued into the rooms. Mine was quite spacious with twin beds, twin circular mirrors (1.5m dia and 0.5m dia) randomly placed. The room furniture was wooden in the basic demob style last seen in the 50s, before the advent of Habitat and IKEA, painted black or green, with occasional "architectural" light green lines. The carpet looked like a rare form of felt, (but made from plastic) in a specially obnoxious lime green/olive colour, (for some reason I associated the colour in my mind with the colour people go when seasick). I spare you the photograph, since I didn't take one. The carpet wasn't dirty except for the previous leakage under the radiator, but it wasn't so clean your bare feet wanted to linger.
After this, you can imagine the state of the plumbing in the bathroom, if you are used to the Soviet genre. No chrome, the original burn marks from the plumber's blow torch. The typical short bath, with tiny shower head and missing knob to switch from bath to shower. But what the hell, you could still shower, and who needs a shower curtain? You can always paddle from the bathroom onto the green carpet (yuck).
But, and here is the real difference in the Soviet and Yugoslav genre, they put me in a double room at no extra cost, (all of 40 Euros) so I was not disturbed by the loud graduation party going on that evening (more later about Serb graduation parties*). The receptionists were friendly and English-speaking. For dinner I was not so adventurous as to explore the town so I just went to the hotel restaurant Ambassador. This was decorated as if it was a country inn, with rural stone "walls", tinkling waterfalls, and plastic greenery but quite pleasant. There was a big choice on the menu. I ordered the air-dried ham (prsut/prosciutto) and pepper steak. Remembering that this was serious meat eating country, I asked about portion size for the steak, and the waitress offered a half portion, which was quite big enough for me. The air-dried ham came with extra air-drying on some edges of the ham, but was a full plate and quite tasty. So was the pepper steak, which was acceptably underdone as ordered. After two local beers, the total came to 26KM, 13 Euros, so quite cheap. So I think the Yugoslav hotel genre's motto is "we try harder".
A quick wander outside the hotel showed I was just opposite the orthodox church with the clock tower and an extremely smart classical style municipality. People were doing the usual evening promenade or sitting in cafes.
The next day I had three meetings which were more or less successful, and we had time to grab a pizza and an icecream in the best icecream parlour before setting off back to Sarajevo.
There are three mobile networks in BiH but the coverage is not universal (as you might expect with such complex politics). It seems that Federation phone cards are not sold in the RS and vice versa, so I had a small problem with phone credit in RS with a FBiH sim card, solved as usual by our fixer and interpreter Sanja who carries spares of both cards. But even with credit, and the ability to switch networks, there was no signal in a lot of the rural area on the way back. This allowed me to escape most of my callers and have a rest on the way back.
Altogether a very pleasant impression and I am sure I could spend a few weeks here quite comfortably. It seems so different from the impression of Bosnians Serbs created by the refusal of their politicians to hand over war criminals, and their (politicians') well known reputation for corruption and obstinacy. Talking to some of the officials (or politicians in disguise, since most ministry positions are filled with party loyalists) it seems they are one of the last remaining bastions of socialism in ex-Yugoslavia. But the rest of the people are clearly anxious to move on.
*A note about Serb graduation parties:
When we arrived, there were huge crowds milling round Hotel Bosna and the police were directing traffic away from the hotel. Our driver had to hassle to deliver me. Clearly this was a big event. Then I remembered trying to organise a big international conference in Belgrade in June in 2004. There were only two big enough hotels in Belgrade at the time, one modernised and one not. In fact the unmodernised one was reported in the Belgrade In Your Pocket (now defunct) as "still having Arkan's blood on the carpet, from where he was shot".
The big modernised one claimed it had no rooms free at all in June because of graduation parties. Eventually they made their best offer, one date with rooms at 250 Euros per night. This was only twice my budget, so I had to decline their offer and relocate the conference to Athens where prices were more reasonable. At the time I failed to understand how there could be 20 working days of graduation parties in June, with all beds full at 250 Euros a night. I know graduation is a big thing, but out of town grannies would be staying with family to see their grandson or daughter graduate, not living it up in a smart hotel. So clearly this hotel did not want to work. Or they had enough work from the mafia, who seemed to be busy with wedding parties, the only time I went there. I guess also the decor was in the style mafia-kitsch.
From Banja Luka and the noise from the Hotel Bosna disco, I guess that after the formal part, these graduation parties are not that different from May Balls in Oxford, where apart from the difference in expense and pretension, it is just an excuse to celebrate the end of the academic year and have some fun.
You can read all about it here. I have to say it's not very inspiring yet. Still with a mayor like Imbrasas, what can you expect? The only time I met him he was being strung along by some very dubious Americans who wanted to build a new school for us. He must have been 70 if a day then, (1998) didn't speak English and didn't know what was going on. Probably nothing has changed.
Shame, because Zuokas was doing a really good job on improving Vilnius.
Journalist: “So, President Yeltsin, how would you describe the state of the Russian economy in one word?”
Journalist: “Okay then Mr President, perhaps you would describe it in more than one word?”
Yeltsin: “Ah, in that case - not good.”
Once upon a time, the Prime minister of Republic of Srpska, Milorad Dodik said in an interview that he would root for Bosnian national football team only if it played against Turkey. (In all other cases, I guess, the prime minister of the Republic that IS a part of Bosnia, roots for Serbia.) more
Should you write about books you haven't enjoyed? Do they deserve the publicity? Well, perhaps as a warning to other readers, or because I may I have got it wrong, here are three books I haven't enjoyed.
1. Everything is illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foe
This is billed as "as funny as A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian". It certainly tries quite hard to be funny, with an American searching for his roots in Ukraine with an interpreter who has his own version of the English language. However, anyone who has spent time with interpreters (however bad) will realise that they simply do not make the sort of mistakes that this guy makes. And anyone who has spent any time trying to speak a foreign language will not enjoy laughing at other people's mistakes. His life wasn't funny anyway. I never got further than a few pages. Nor did Bee, who also bought a copy under the same misapprehension it would be like "Short History".
2. Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins
I thought it would be interesting to read some academic arguments debunking God, since I haven't believed in him since I was 13. But then it was more teenage rebellion and disillusionment with the state of the world. However, this book is more about why science can solve all problems, without the help of God, and still be poetic. I have no problem with the beauty of science, as an ex-mathematician. But I found the arguments long winded and tedious. It simply wasn't interesting enough, sorry. Again, I gave up early in the book.
3. Deep simplicity by John Gribbin
This promised: Chaos, Complexity and the Emergence of Life. I haven't read much on this lately so I was looking forward to an update. Not with my luck! First a tedious long section on thermodynamics, which I quickly began to skip. Then some chaos theory better done by James Gleick. Then a mishmash on earthquakes, extinctions and the emergence of life. The emergence part quotes from Kaufmann, who does a better book called At Home in the Universe. Extinctions are more fun in Extinctions: Evolution and the end of man by Michael Boulter. I've got as far as the chapter called Facts of Life so maybe I will get to the end of this book. But it hasn't been much fun so far.