Belgrade 2014: A winter portrait

Pogled sa Terazija

I always disliked going back to Belgrade in winter: grayness of the weather usually only exacerbated the decrepit look of the facades around the city. Furthermore, the lack of summer terraces, would not only condemn us to trawling the streets to find anywhere decent to sit, but, a place, once found, would be enveloped in smoke and all conversation would have been drowned in the din. Thankfully, the smoke would not have been to big a difference from the smog and fog that would inevitably linger over the city center. Winters in Belgrade were never nice.

Sadly, this hasn’t changed much and yet another year of sluggish growth, high unemployment, general malaise and the coup in the city hall meant the city only stagnated (although the weather is unseasonably nice). Buildings, even the newly renovated ones are scrawled with graffiti, once again in vogue, especially amongst the annoyingly persistent football hooligans. Ceca, a convicted criminal and admittedly, the most popular Serbian cultural export, sang at the official New Years’ eve celebration, thereby showing us that no matter how much of a crook you are, the state will be happy to celebrate you.  Over the holidays, the respect of other people’s personal space (by say, not blowing off their legs with a firecracker) has become rare, especially amongst the god-fearing crowd that gathered to celebrate Christmas and launch pyrotechnics to shame a smaller army in front of the half-empty Sveti Sava church.Finally, and most tragically Trg Republike is now crowned with a very large and shockingly obvious strip club, while two major museums are still closed and nothing is done to change that despite the fact that someone is getting quite a bit of money from the scaffolding on the facade of the National Museum.

Of course, there have been some improvements (Crowne plaza opened and looks nice, and soon Radisson Blu will be finished), however, as always, not enough. There is a lot of hope about the new waterfront project, however given the amount of spin it generated; it is not inconceivable that it might come to nothing.

Have we seen worse? Of course we have. Do we deserve better? Stupid question – no such thing as “deserving” in politics, or in life, for that matter.  We need to do things(work? vote? Protest?) for it (as in: our individual lives – let’s park the national wellbeing, and other loftier ideas for the moment) to get better. That is done by some (shout out to cool kids in Savamala, or Przionica, or Square Nine, or Zaplet, or Beton Hala), but not enough by others: the intellectual “elite” that prefers giving quasi-intellectual statements (the crowd remained strangely silent about Ceca or the strip-club), most “investors” (e.g. the team behind Hotel Jugoslavia who left it to rot only to redevelop it as a shit hole) and, well, the good old political circles, which are more inbred and bizzare than ever. Serbia in general, and Belgrade, still lacks motors for growth on the top and no amount of posturing (or farce) will change that. What will change that is, sadly, not the change in the vox populi (that hardly ever changes on its own), but the rise of new, creative and shrewd thinkers  (politicians, artists, entrepreneurs) who would have money behind them. We simply need smart people (Serbian or otherwise) who will put their money on the line in Serbia. We have enough of brains without the brawn – “experts”, of varying skills, are at best used as bayleaf in our political concoctions and at worst become disgruntled “analysts”. Brawn without brains – we have far too much of that.

In terms of practical policies, what we need is a further improvement of the investment climate and breaking up of the lobbies (e.g. the import one) to attract capital. One good sign is that even those who made fortunes in looting the state silverware (or other generic crime) in the 90’s are now pro-investment (in agro for example), probably after having realised that there is not much more to steal. The other is that it seems that Serbia’s budding mittelstand is becoming more politically involved and independent (as evidenced by the proposed economic policies). Finally, the increased global connectivity makes it easier for those who are not yet ready to take a plunge and move (back) to Serbia to engage with the possibilities here. Alas, there is quite a way to go and many lobbies and vested interests to tackle. However, without making Serbia profitable for smart business (software! skilled services! tourism!) there is a slim chance that our policies will ever be smarter.

Despite being optimistic about Belgrade and Serbia because of the numbers of young people who decided to pursue their ambitions in innovative/available ways here (from working in call-centers to developing apps) it is always a let-down to see that big headways, the ones needed to free us from this stagnations, are not made. We are still at the stage where dramatics is considered politics.

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The Nutshell Guide to Ljubljana’s restaurants

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As trade winds are keeping me harboured in Ljubljana, and as the Eurobasket is already in full swing, I thought it would make sense to share some nuggets on where to eat, as Slovenia has so much to offer in terms of culinary pleasures, providing both Mitteleuropa’s greasy comforts and Mediterranean delicacies. Furthermore, the inclement economics is sadly keeping this small but glorious nation down, and Slovenes, courteous and wonderful as they are, should take pride in their lovely country and food. The following places are not the ones for a lash on Lasko and cutting into Kranjska (Sokol is great for that!), but more of a showcase of Slovenia’s great culinary tradition:

1. JB

Most ambitious of Ljubljana’s restaurants, lauds itself as being one of the Top 50 restaurants in the world, according to, a relatively obscure, San Pellegrino’s list. Despite pomposity, and the overlit interior, the food and wine are amazing and service impeccable. Two taster menus offer plenty to sample, but real stand outs are beetroot extravaganza with this humble root served in various ways and snails. Scallops are alos good, but I would avoid the bizzare combination of oilve oil and heavy creamy ice-cream.

2. Spajza

Although the staff can seem a bit too officious, and house proud, Spajza offeres a very warm atmosphere and is best enjoyed sitting in the graden on a warm summer’s day. Octopus is great and so is horse so there is plenty to choose from. Wine list again, is impeccable and recommendations apt. I wouldn’t miss anjoying some good fish with Movia’s Veliko Belo.

3. Vander

Vander urban resort is a well designed hotel in the very historic heart of Ljubljana and has an amazing restaurant which offers a limited, well priced, and beautifully executed fare. Charcuterie platter, with Slovenian prosciutto is great, while sea-bass is to die for, especially with Movia’s delectable Sauvignon.

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4. Gostilna XXI

Gostila XXI tries to bring a breath of fresh air into Ljubljana’s standard offer and the owner and chef admitted to being inspired by Belgrade’s Zaplet and Diagonala, which is always a good thing. There is no mistake in ordering here and the informal setting makes it the most appealing of the restaurants here for a relaxed dinner with friends.

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5. Fejstmeni

Great fresh sandwiches, quiches and salads await in this well designed deli. Cakes are amazing and do not miss the cheasecake.

6. Valvas’or

Valvas’or’s location and location makes it a perfect spot for a relaxed dinner. I would check out the foie gras and would focus on the fish. Prices are a bit high, but the service makes it worth it.

7. As

Although it does have traces of nineties sleaze (like, say, Knez in Belgrade) As offers a good, albeit overpriced fare…and great breadsticks which are best enjoyed with the local micro-brewed Kratochwill beer (more of an IPA).

 

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Best of the rest:

Kaffetino offers a barrista exeprience in the centre of Ljubljana.

Zvezda and Cacao have amazing gelatos that are not to be missed.Lolita’s not too bad either.

Paninoteka has a great breakfast menu, and you should try the truffled eggs.

Foculus and Osmica offer decent and huge pizzas.

Should you go to lovely Piran – check out Gostilna pri Mari.

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Century of Fakers: La Grande Bellezza/Frances Ha

 

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It is a truth universally acknowledged, especially among those of tender soul, born in Europe, young and educated at some of its finest universities,  that the world is going to the dogs and that we are all doomed. Those with longer hair and penchant for floral prints see the doom in the impeding food shortage, those who are more into pashmina shawls and ethnic prints see it in political corruption, inequality and wars, while the saddest ones, those in bright polo shirts see it, well, in themselves.

After having had numerous conversations with my ambitious friends about the tragedies of our lives, not being born at the right time, or place, or, at least to richer, more accomplished or better connected parents, and being of a brooding mind, I did come to see this tragedy myself. We, the Chekovian youths who, in the few precious hours after gruelling work in banks, consultancies etc. and drinks see our life as necessarily unfulfilling and our choices, which bring us to these thoughts, as inevitable. Alas, this summer, hopefully the last summer of crisis in Europe brings us two films that capture the malaise of the day (which in all honesty was felt by all people with enough time to brood since the dawn of civilisation).

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Frances Ha, tells the story of precisely the demographic described above, living in New York and being shell-shocked from entering the “real world”. Greta Gerwig is amazing as the protagonist and one can feel the awkwardness of the situations she gets herself into, while holding onto her twee persona. The film is a perfect, and beautifully filmed,  cautionary tale about growing up and the necessity of letting go of ones illusions, albeit the ones crafted at a liberal arts college. In the end it does give us hope that things can get better if one accepts the reality of things.  

This happy conclusion, that existential suffering is reserved for the young, is dashed in La Grande Bellezza, a behemoth of a film, which gives us, in full technicolor and stunning fetail, the lives of Rome’s wealthy and cultured, served with the side of their woes . Why suffer if you are all botoxed up, party hard at 65 and with access to some prime real estate with amazing vistas? Why, well, Sorrentino says, because not only the parties and drinks are vapid, but so are our heartfelf beliefs and identities. This is wonderfully demonstrated, but as Jep, the protagonist urges, we should be compassionate to one another in our fakeness. The best thing about the film is its amazing atmosphere, warm and inviting, which it achieves but taking itself lightly. All the references, e.g. to Proust and La Dolce Vita, could have made it a clunky, reheated Felliniesque update, if it weren’t for the spice of superb humor and genuine compassion to the characters. There are things to be wished for, though, and the film is not as tight as it could have been, but it was so magnetic that the whole theatre was sitting in silence through the whole credits, despite the run time of over take hours.

So the young suffer, the rich suffer, the old suffer…what to do? Well… take it in a stride..and all the stuff about great films not being made any more…not true. I think both Frances Ha and La Grande Bellezza are testaments that our age can add many more chapters to the collection of art on existential angst. 

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Work/Life: You’re on a project now

P1190511A vacation in a foreign land, the EM does the best he can:

You’re on a project now, oh-oo-oh you’re on a project now.

Now you remember what the staffer said: claim expenses and stay in bed,

You’re on a project now, oh-oo-oh you’re on a project now.

You’ll be the hero of your intake pool, nobody knows that it ain’t cool:

You’re on a project now, oh-oo-oh you’re on a project now.

Counting miles as you wait to land, but once you get there no-one gives a damn:

You’re on a project now, oh-oo-oh you’re on a project now.

Requests flying over your head,

E-mails flying over your head, if you want to survive stay out of bed:

You’re on a project now, oh-oo-oh you’re on a project now.

Pings ring out in the dead of night, the JM calls ‘That can’t be right!’.

You’re on a project now, oh-oo-oh you’re on a project now.

You’ve got your to-do’s better do’em right,

your eyes’ on the model but it don’t seem right:

You’re on a project now, oh-oo-oh you’re on a project now,

You’re on a project now, oh-oo-oh you’re on a project now.

Night is falling and you just can’t see, is this illusion or reality?

You’re on a project now, oh-oo-oh you’re on a project, on a project now,

You’re on a project now, oh-oo-oh you’re on a project now.

Oh-oo-oh you’re on a project, on a project now,

Oh-oo-oh you’re on a project, on a project now,

Oh-oo-oh you’re on a project, on a project now.

**********

If I were the least bit musical, I would have sung this on YouTube, however until I am born again with a musical gene, sing along to the original:

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TNT London Food guide: Spring 2013 edition

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London weather this year lived up to its bad reputation and it seems that springtime decided to start only now, giving us a brief glimpse in April. Is this important? In the city where people’s heads are hacked off on the street, not to speak about the greater global tragedies (tornadoes! falling bridges! massacres! poverty!), maybe not. But for the lucky few, whose wider anxieties (job security! loneliness! family! rent!)  allow for such trifling problems as weather to have a bit of concern, I bring a little guide to food places that I found especially note-worthy in my last 8 months living in London and which would make you feel a bit better (because food always does that, right?). After all, my wise father always tells me that the best way of making one’s life better is by making one’s day better, and these places will hopefully do just that.

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Notting Hill:

Electric Cinema donut shop (Portobello road; http://www.electricdonuts.com/) – best donuts in London, with old-style irregularity and tastiness. The menu changes often so you’re always up for a treat.

Ottolenghi (http://www.ottolenghi.co.uk/) the original deli/brunch shop of the chef extraordinaire that is Ottolenghi is on Ledbury road, which on weekends is the place for people watching. I suggest grabbing a large salad box (butternut squash salad is amazing), a pastry (he was a pastry chef first!) and sitting outside to enjoy the weather.

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Marylebone

Blandford cafe (Chiltern Street) – best cappucino and super charismatic service, great to while away your time in the Paddington grads while reading your latest purchase from Daunt books.

Monocle cafe (Chiltern Street) – overpriced (3 pounds for coffee!), but good this outlet conforms to Tyler Brulee’s aesthetic, and has great cinnamon and cardamom buns.  May be wise to get your issue of Monocle there as you get a free coffee with it.

Patty and Bun (James street) – a tad overhyped (why would anybody in their sane mind wait for an hour for a burger?) but great joint, whose USP are good brioches and sauces. I do still miss Tommi’s burgers whose meat was much better, but this is a worthy replacement.

Ginger Pig (Moxon street) – If P&B is not good enough to spoil your beach body, then GP will do the trick whith their amazing roast sandwiches which at 5 pounds give you all the calories you need to run a marathon…and feel good as they are organic and local.

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Soho and Holborn 

Gelupo (Archer street) – best ice cream in London (Oddono’s is second), however there will be tourists queuing to get their scoop of ricotta flavoured goodness.

Princi (Wardour street) – Well priced food and amazing cakes. The atmosphere is always buzzing which goes well with an aperol spritz to cool you down.

Lantana (Charlotte street) – Great aussie breakfast place, albeit with the signature hipster hype and attitude. Plenty to love (cakes, eggs and the buzz), but be there super early as there is a large queue.

Thai Dream (New North street) – tucked away this is a great inexpensive thai place that will bring the flavours, but not burn your mouth (like, say, the Heron), or you wallet.

Life Godess (Store street) – Greek deli/restaurant which is always full of Greeks and has good food. Salads are not what they should be (suffering from the Northern European deficit of good tomatoes), but pitas are amazing and they do the instant coffee frappes which would make all the snotty baristas roll their eyes in disgust. And that is a good thing.

Wild and wood (Holborn) – small coffee place with great coffee for takeaway. The cakes also look tempting.

Meat Market (Covent garden) – Above the market, this burger joint has all the good sides of Meat liquor (burgers and booze) and none of the disadvantages (queue). Dead hippy for the win, and I would avoid the Philly cheese-steak.

Frevd’s (Shaftesbury avenue) – Same atmosphere like in Jericho minus the church. Great cocktails, and cool crowd, although it does get crowded.

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Other

Aglio e Olio (Fulham road) – Cheap Italian eatery with great seafood pasta, minus the snobbery and a local feel.

La Creperie de Hampstead (Hampstead, duh) – great place to power up for a trek around  the heath. Again, it is popular (expect to wait for 15 mins min on weekends) but the crepes are worth it (real chocolate!), although they are on the greasy side. I also marvel at their technological improvements in packaging.

Three Kings Pub (Farringdon) – my favourite hangout – quirky decor, great music and a rhino on the wall. What more can you want?

Baker and Spice (Belgravia, Maida Vale, Chelsea, Selfridges) – Although it is too expensive for what it is, the Avocado salad is amazing and pastries (especially apricot danish and chocolate and vanilla danish) are to die for.

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TNT Review: Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Screen Shot 2013-05-05 at 1.54.55 PMIf “Vampire Weekend” and “Contra” sounded like the best final year party you’ve been to, then “Modern Vampires of the City” is a lot like the day after: slow, meditative and a bit melancholy. After all, what is there to look forward to after uni parties with Cape Cod prepsters, campus romances, and disputes with overly serious drama students,  but an inevitable down of a career and conventional life? Given the age of VW crew, we may well say it is a quarter-life crisis album - occasionally great, occasionally mediocre, quarter-life crisis album.

“Step”, by far my favourite, captures the feeling gorgeously, reminiscing about youth years in the beginning and delivering some of the best lines VW have ever sung. It continues in melancholy and very good  “Obvious Bicycle” and “Everlasting Arms”, which respectively delve on alienation and complicated relationship with religion.  Religion is omnipresent on MVotC , most obviously in “Ya Hey”, and the relationship with God is always troubled: he is seen as distant, unloved yet somewhat of a guide  and comfort in the overall chaos of the current world for the underemployed, almost “lost” generation of Millennials. The only songs that break from the slow mood, despite their preoccupations with mortality, are “Diane Young” and “Finger Back”, the former good, albeit a bit of an acquired taste, and the latter forgettable. There are no major flops, but I can’t see myself enjoying “Worship You”, “Hudson”, and “Hannah Hunt”.

All in all, VW have traded the jangle of the first two albums for more serious topics and more experimental sound (spoken word and voice manipulation feature prominently). The lyrical theme of the end of, well, innocence of early twenites, occasionally overwrought, does resonate , although there is no charm or exuberance of “Cape Cod…” and “M79″. An album definitely shows VW aging, but, as Ezra muses wittily, “age is an honour, but still not the truth”.   8/10 fangs

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Switzerland, the glorious

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It may be just a grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side thing, but a sunny weekend spent in Switzerland after a few gray (but nevertheless enjoyable) weeks in London, got me feeling that there is a heaven on earth and that it may well be close to the Zuricher See. Besides the stunning landscapes (and I am a sucker for mountains), the whole country just exudes a sense of well-being that is so at odds with the general European angst these days.

I am also struck by how well the Swiss keep their heritage and how much they are concerned with protection of the spirit of the land. I was stunned to see how many beautiful modernist features persist in Zurich (the tram stops, the “beach” complex on the lake), where they would be “modernised” beyond repair elsewhere for the sake of showing “progress”. But it is the fact that this urge for protecting the way of life and livability against pure financial pressure is what is remarkable, from decisions on the number of holidays to the brilliant plan of limiting the number of deserted non-dom second homes. Irritating for some, inefficient and maybe only possible for the few countries as prosperous as Switzerland, but still impressive – anyhow we can see equally rich communities (e.g. London) that accept to be be butchered (e.g. the Shard) or lose their sense of place (try walking around Kensington and counting how many lights are on in the gleaming apartment blocks – not many, but the proces are still up).  It would be great if the rest of the world could espouse the Swiss direct democracy and empower communities to decide on how they want to develop. Obviously that would be costly, even for relatively rich countries, but it would probably make the countries more live-able and creates communities  where people feel they are less controlled by powers beyond their reach. This is especially pressing  now, seeing how many moves are made in Europe towards centralisation and the frictions that the feeling of powerlessness creates in many countries.

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Of course, the Swiss have had it easy in many ways, for starters, by inhabiting a beautiful country which could not easily be conquered and that is located between prosperous, but constantly warring lands. However the fact that the Swiss have used their good fortune in making the system run more efficiently rather than wasting the money is impressive. I mean, this is a country that is actually seriously considering making underground tunnels with electric trains to reduce congestion on roads.

Hop Suisse!

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