Tag Archives: the Balkans

Were the Gods telling me something? Or, “All’s well that ends well”

I had been planning this trip for months—shocking myself with a degree of organisation I rarely exhibit.  Near the end it nearly all came unstuck—now I am on the train to Zagreb.  Here is what happened:

  • My mother-in-law became ill just before I was to leave and then died at the end of June. We made a quick trip to New York for the memorial.
  • A week or so later my closest uncle passed away after a long illness. This time I did not go to New York, guilt notwithstanding.
  • Two days before I left, when I called Direct Line to put my car insurance policy into force, they told me that they do not cover four of the countries I will travel to. When I explained that weeks ago I had called and listed each verbally—I did so twice, to be sure—all they said was, “I am terribly sorry but we cannot (I just love that term ‘cannot’, as if such a thing were beyond the realm of philosophical or practical possibility) insure cars in those countries”.  When I explained that I had planned an entire trip on that basis—and spent hundreds of pounds getting my car into shape, they offered further apologies.
  • A frantic search for other insurers came to nothing. My son came up with an ingenious idea—“why not travel by car to Croatia (which is covered) and then rent?”
  • I phoned American Express, my travel agent, to organise a car. A helpful woman swung into action.  One by one she informed me that no rental car company would allow me to travel through the Balkans.
  • I explained my problem and she said, “Well, American Express Insurance is terrific. I used them myself and they were excellent for travel, cover the dodgiest countries—they are brilliant.”
  • Uplifted by her assurances I phone them—not a chance.
  • As panic set in my colleague and I ring round. Surely someone must rent cars or drive cars in this region.  How can they rebuild their economies without this most basic economic ‘engine’?
  • Thirty minutes later my colleague calls elated. “It’s all sorted, Rod, you will be a consultant to XXX and they are fully covered across the region—you will come in under their policy”.
  • I confirm this with their CAO and shout with joy. He puts me in touch with their broker who lists the many benefits of this fantastic policy.  “And what about my car?”  “Oh, we do not handle car insurance”.
  • My heart sinking, I realise I cannot drive there—and I do not want to fly. The train is the only answer.  I call Amex again.  “All the trains are booked—you have left this really late, you know!  I suggest you phone the train company directly.”
  • I call the company. “You have left this really late, you know!”  I know.  “Let me see………..we only have a few seats left………and they are in………..First Class.”  I never would have chosen First Class for this trip……..but………well, they are the only seats.  “I will take them”.
  • Now I sit on a train, the sky is crystal clear as I twist and turn through the Austrian Alps. I have six seats to myself, and am feeling embarrassingly good.  Yesterday I met two fantastic people—more on that in another blog post.
  • This was indeed all for the best—my family is also pleased I will not be driving. The train is safer, greener and less stressful.

But before I sign off feeling obnoxiously smug and self-satisfied, a few reflections:

  1. We in the UK take a lot for granted. What if I could not travel from London to Wales or even Cornwall in a rented car?  Or my insurance policy would be void as I crossed the borders?
  2. When I meet the successful Balkan social entrepreneurs, will I be able to bear in mind the obstacles they have faced? Those I encountered in setting up Catalyst pale into insignificance.
  3. I am very sad to lose two close relatives—I will miss them both, and I leave for this journey with a heavier heart. But can I even begin to compare this with the suffering of many of those I will meet who lost parents, siblings, children, friends and neighbours in a decade of anxiety, armed conflict, bombing and worse?


My First Meeting—and Several Lessons (Including Geography)

Today was my first meeting with someone from the Balkans—or not really, as it turned out.  I met Marta Cerovecki.  She is not a social entrepreneur, but certainly could be a very successful one.  Put simply, she is the daughter of the ex-boyfriend of the neighbour (living in Oxford) of a student I met while teaching a class at Oxford on social enterprise—got it?  Or let me make it a bit easier, she was the ex-girlfriend of the student’s brother.  Not there yet, how about the stand-in for the neighbour (originally from Croatia) who could not meet me.  All these things are true and I will leave it to the master-puzzler amongst you to solve this unintended, riddle-like introduction.

Marta (pictured below) taught me many things.  I learned that Croatia is most definitely not in the Balkans (unless you want it to be).  I was aware from another email that by lumping these 9 countries together I could cause offence—but by then the damage was done, and to reverse things could have caused more.  I try now to use the term South-eastern Europe, but it lacks zing.  Marta did confess she uses the term when it suits her (“Oh, I’m just from the Balkans, you know”).  I do that too.  Whenever I make remarks that in ignorance cause offence, I blame it on my being a myopic American.

Thanks to Marta I have also learned how to use this blasted camera.  It took me two hours to change the date on the photo, but I feel a visual image will help this blog along, so I needed this lesson anyway.  As we go on I hope to add live interviews and video-clips.  Please bear with me—I am technically challenged.

Most importantly, Marta taught me a lesson about national pride.  This is not ugly nationalism, but pride in the best sense.  Marta is an exceptionally talented individual with an enormous amount going for her and a broad range of skills and interests.  She came to live in Oxford for six years, had great prospects, but came back to Croatia last November to be part of the rebuilding.  She loves Zagreb, feels at the centre of things in this bustling capital city and is proud of Croatia’s beaches and its 1800 islands (a figure supplied by Marta).  Marta now has a job with US based Grey Advertising—in fact she was working on a project over the weekend and only her “Balkan” (or Croatian) hospitality compelled her to meet me for coffee (sorry, Grey!).  If the social entrepreneurs I meet are like her (and we spoke of some of those we both knew of like SMS and EKO Mavrovic) this will be a very exciting trip!

Why are you going to the Balkans?

This is the question nearly everyone asks me.  The problem is that I am only just beginning to understand some of why I have decided to go there.  This decision was made between Christmas and New Year of 2006/7.  Like most things in my life, the decision was instinctive rather than the result of any careful deliberation.  So that I might spare future questioners my lengthy, drawn-out and inadequate attempts at a verbal response, I will list them carefully below.  Most of these have emerged only as the trip draws near—I depart on 10 July, 2007.

  1. In pondering the year just ended and the year ahead, I realized that 2007 brought a preponderance of anniversaries.  My wife and I would be married for 25 years, I would turn 50, lived in the UK for 20 years, and Catalyst turns 10 this autumn.  With so many important dates I felt compelled to do something unusual or special.
  2. I keep a long list of destinations I wish one day to see and so many of these were in the Balkan region; Zagreb, Belgrade, Thessaloniki, etc.  If I lived to 100 there was still no way that I was going to be able to see all these places.  I had to see to them all in one trip!
  3. Turning 50 forces you to become a bit reflective.  I could not help but wonder, why am I here, what am I doing, what have I done and what am I still here to do (to the extent that I live long enough to do anything else).  I had an overpowering need to do something more than have a “piss-up”—not that I mind a good “piss-up” (booze-up for US readers).
  4. Catalyst, our business, is focused on social businesses.  It seemed appropriate and worthwhile to conduct some market research and analysis of best practice in a market outside of the UK.  Given the obvious added difficulties in establishing such an enterprise in the Balkans, I can certainly learn a great deal from those which have overcome the obstacles to be successful in this region.
  5. I must confess, I have a natural predisposition to avoid what everyone is talking about or doing, and then to explore it only after it has faded from the public eye.  For example, I was probably the last child in America to wear “bell-bottoms” and did so long after my friend Chuck, who was actually cool, donned them much to my shock, horror, and secret admiration.  When the Balkans occupied centre stage, as they did for much of the 1990s, I was like most living outside the region—utterly perplexed by the complex issues of ethnicity, religion and statehood, which influenced the conflict.  After the late 90s when the conflict ended, my interest began.  Thanks to a wonderful colleague at work called Peter my understanding of the situation steadily increased.
  6. This was enhanced substantially when I had the pleasure and privilege to visit Paddy Ashdown in Bosnia, while he was still High Commissioner.  That visit, accompanied by my good friend David Gold of Prospect-Us, left an indelible mark on me.  Last year, I continued my Balkan explorations with a 10 day trip to Romania, followed by a much briefer, but thoroughly pleasant journey to Slovenia.
  7. Something about being Jewish has also drawn me into the region.  Perhaps it is that tragedy struck both Jews and residents of South-eastern Europe in the eventful 20th-century?  Possibly I feel empathetic with the Balkan people, as one of recent history’s perennial underdogs.  Having known very little of the Jewish history of the region, I was surprised and embarrassed to learn that from 1500 until World War II, Jews in massive numbers settled from Spain after the Inquisition, and made up a substantial minority.  The city of Thessaloniki was at one time 60% Jewish.  Sarajevo was home to one of the most treasured Jewish documents—the 500+ year old Sarajevo Haggadah (Passover meal prayer book).  This was protected by a Moslem cleric, at great personal risk, during the Second World War.  I have also read that the only two European countries in which no Jews perished during the Holocaust were Bulgaria and (Moslem) Albania.
  8. It turns out that some of my family comes from what was once Yugoslavia.  I was certainly never conscious of this until I mentioned the trip to my mother and she informed me of this matter-of-factly.
  9. The region also seems geopolitically vital to me.  For my thinking on this, I am heavily indebted to Lord Ashdown.  When I asked him why he felt the Balkans were so important, he replied something to the effect of, “we have to get it right here!”  He explained that this is where Christian Europe meets Muslim Asia, and if we cannot figure out how to get on here, we will be in a lot of trouble.  I see the region, as one where three tectonic plates, ethnically and religiously speaking, rub together—sometimes to problematic effect.  It is in this region that Christian Europe meets not only the Muslim East, but also the Slavic North.  Catholics, Muslims and various Orthodox faiths, co-exist with Jews and Roma to either live peacefully side by side, or not.  In the 21st century we can either figure out how to live multi-ethnically or not—the Balkans is a good place to start.
  10. The Balkans are right here in Europe—not halfway across the globe.  There may be more exotic locations, or those which offer greater creature comforts.  But these places hold little resonance for me.  I’m the sort of person that understands by being connected.  Both by ancestry and citizenship I am a European—and the Balkans are in Europe.
  11. I am depressed and bored hearing about all the bad things that happen in the region and around the world.  I felt that a trip which focuses on the best in human endeavour was one worth making.
  12.  Lastly, I have a profound and deep interest in social business.  Some of this is commercially motivated as I believe this form of company will become much more prevalent in years to come.  Some of this is also “political”.  I believe that in many of our modern nation-states, governments have been less than benign actors.  In few places has this been truer than in southern Europe, where the empires of Greece, Rome, the Ottomans, Venice, Austria-Hungary, France, Russia and more recently, the US, UK and NATO have meddled in the region with little success.  What I like about social business or social enterprise, is that it starts from the grassroots.  It is not imposed by outsiders, but develops organically from within.  I think that a search for the best social enterprises and businesses in South-eastern Europe is important to undertake at this time.  In this region, I have a high likelihood of learning, perhaps better than anywhere else, what the potential for social business can be on a greater scale.

I do not know if that answers the question, but it is as much of the answer as I am aware of at this time.  This is also more efficient than struggling for an answer when asked—I will just refer questioners to this blog page!  Over the course of my travels, I will hopefully develop a much better answer.  Please stay tuned.

Balkan Log Begun

The last few weeks I’ve been toying with the idea of keeping some sort of diary about preparations for my trip to the Balkans and my feelings and impressions as I prepare for the trip.  In fact, somebody urged me to do this a few weeks ago, and, although I thought it was a good idea, I didn’t actually take any action.  I kept feeling as if I’d missed so much time for which I hadn’t been capturing these thoughts that it made no sense to start.  This reminds me of long time ago, when I wanted to save matchbooks from different hotels, given how many hotels I had already been to, only to talk myself out of it because I had already been to so many hotels for which I hadn’t had matchbooks.  Nevertheless, I also knew that the longer I put this off, because of the matchbooks I hadn’t saved, the less inclined I would be to ever start the collection.

Here I sit, or stand (I am dictating this) in the loft of my house on the 28th of April 2007 at 6:46 p.m.–and I have resolved to begin this blog today because there’s still so much I could capture.  I had an interesting thing that happened to me on Friday when I had a conversation on the telephone with someone from USAID.  I had been introduced to by a friend, after sending them my update on the Balkan trip.

I should’ve known right from the start that the USAID worker was a particular type of American.  He seemed to begin every e-mail with a similar phrase like, “greetings from warm Warsaw”, or “hello from sunny Ljubljana”.  After the third or fourth e-mail like this I should have been somewhat suspicious.  I was finally able to arrange a telephone conversation for yesterday in the morning.  I mentioned briefly, what I was up to, and there followed a long pause on the phone.  “Look Rod, let me be direct with you,” he said, “what precisely is the purpose of the trip?” or words to that effect.  I then reassured him that I was trying to be helpful, that I was open to learning something.  I would try to do whatever I could for the region and for companies and people in the region.  “My main purpose”, I tried to assure him, “was to learn, to help them and in the words of Paddy Ashdown to have a bit of an adventure.”  He paused and then said something like, “Look Rod, and forgive me for being so frank, but I’m not gonna waste my time or the time of people down there on what is basically a bit of a fact-finding mission.”  He then went on at great length to tell me how difficult it was to work with “the people down there” how challenging it was to get anything done, how useless they were in following up or taking action and how he therefore could not possibly take the time on something that quote was not going to lead to “something concrete”.  He then carried on for a few more minutes to tell me how busy he was, how small his team was, how much he is trying to get done and how much they have done.  I found this curious for somebody who told me how busy he was.  He then gave me a few names from a couple of research institutes, and I thanked him for his time.

The simple truth is that somebody like this particular USAID worker is just a bit of an asshole, and that in life one has no choice but to come across, self-important “know-it-alls” like this.  I shudder to think what it’s like for people who have to work with him.  On the one hand, they need the skills, resources, expertise and contacts that guys like this can muster.  On the other hand, dealing with him and his condescending ways must be an unbearable burden for the people of the region– especially after all they’ve been through.

Nevertheless, it is a useful case when illustrating one of the great problems I’ve had since I can see this trip at the end of 2006 or beginning of 2007.  That is, it is very difficult to pitch things correctly.  It’s hard to describe something that is a bit of a self-indulgence, also a fact-finding mission of sorts, as well as a genuinely well-intentioned (at least believe so) effort to help the people in a battered region and to highlight some of the positive endeavours which they themselves are undertaking. Perhaps it will come across as somewhat condescending?  Nevertheless it seems well-nigh impossible to get it right.  Sometimes you get the impression that people genuinely want you to lie about the nature of the trip—to create an expectation which I will then inevitably disappoint–as if I represent a huge investment fund was something like that.  Sometimes people want to assure themselves (and they never really fully assured) that this obnoxious Northern capitalist is just trying to make a big pile of money—as they all are.  But sometimes, just sometimes, it’s clear that somebody really gets what you’re trying to do–wonderful people like Jeremy Condor and the people he is introduced me to; Alma Masic or Valentin Mitev and others.  When you are introduced to come across people like this it makes the preparations I have undertaken really exciting.  And yes, it reassures me that the best of the human spirit still exists.  Even in, and in particular in a region that has had more than its fair share of difficulty.

I have to leave soon as I reviewed this first draft it looks like this is going to take some effort.  On the other hand, I also think it looks like it might be worth the effort.  What is clear is that this is turning out to be a marvellous experience.  What is also clear is that it’s an enormous amount of work.  But perhaps that’s as it should be?