The House of Flowers

Tito’s Tomb in the House of Flowers

Jugonostalgija – the nostalgia for the lost Yugoslavia is a strange social phenomenon. It can be the harmless obsession of younger people who have never experienced what they dream of, except through the stories of their parents or grandparents. It can be the quirky eccentrics of a collector or someone slightly mad who likes to run around swathed in old paraphernalia. It’s neither threatening nor very political and it has experienced a renaissance in Serbia and in Belgrade as well. Nowhere is Jugonostalgija more apparent than in the Yugoslavian Museum, the halfhearted new nickname of Tito’s final resting place.

You can find the museum on a leafy hill in a well-off residential district of the city. The museum itself, a pompous and not particularly trustworthy looking post-war construction, is closed for the foreseeable future. It’s official name used to be the “Museum of May 25th”. It was given to Tito so he could have space for all the lavish gifts that were thrown at him by his own people as well as foreign heads of state. Among those gifts we can, of course, also find the eponymous batons that were used in the festivities of May 25th – but let’s talk about them later. The museum is being renovated and questions reveal that renovation is a highly flexible state. When will it be re-opened? Well, when we open it.

Notwithstanding that, there are tickets for the museum. You can buy them in a small, not very obvious hut and an improvised path leads you behind the museum into a garden inhabited by statues. At the top of a small set of stairs you are personally being welcomed by your host. A black bronze statue of Josip Broz wearing his favourite coat waits in an imperious posture for all visitors, well-wishers and distant relations.

Here you can find a few visitors, scattered in the abandoned-looking gardens. Nothing here is pompous. It feels relaxed and only slightly kitschy. There’s a strong smell of pine needles. Occasionally a group of tourist-pilgrims rushes past. They are young people who all have been given a felt hat with one red star. Neo-soviet sheep shepherded by a brisk guide. They laugh and seem joyful, perhaps a bit intoxicated and – as all themed tour groups do – slightly out of this world.

The groups are being led towards the House of Flowers. It is a pavilion from the 1970s. Inside, surrounded by marble and exotic plants and flowers, you line up for your selfie with the tomb of Tito. It used to be a winter garden, built right next to Tito’s residence. Following his own wish, he was entombed here, inside of thick white marble. A smaller tomb is next to his. This is where his wife Jovanka Broz lies. She was the victim of intrigues that first estranged her from her husband in 1975 and then caused her to lose all her possessions a few years later. Tito’s presumptive heirs wanted to remove her from the scene as quickly as possible. She spent the rest of her life in poverty and it took until 2013 for her to be reunited with her husband in death.

Next to the tombs is a smaller room. Tito used it to work and today it houses and exhibition of the Blue Train, that he used to travel around the country. Here you can find old maps, photographs and parts of the original chairs and tables used inside the train. I was there before half the world fell in love with a new kind of autocracy, but even then the fascination seemed very uneasy to me. At the same time I could not help but wonder how to make sense of this mass of events, political as well as personal – even at a remove of many decades it is difficult; to make sense of events as they unfold seems, at least from the perspective of a historian, impossible.

The opposite side of the room is dominated by many batons, celebrating the Titova stafeta – the “Relay Race of the Youth in Honour of Tito”, which happened every year on May 25th. This was the Day of the Youth and Tito decided it was also his birthday (his real birthday was May 7th but who is counting?). On this day Tito stood in the Belgrade stadium to receive the baton as well as a book of signatures from the hands of the last relay runners. Altogether those gifts had traveled a distance of more than 9,000 kilometres, traversing the entirety of Yugoslavia. The runners were young and athletic men who had – according to legend – spontaneously started those races in order to honour their wonderful and magnificent ruler. They continued until 1987 – 7 years after Tito’s death. The House of Flowers used to be filled to the brim with pilgrims then. But the collapse of Yugoslavia put an end to all that – the races, the pilgrims, everything disappeared and the House of Flowers closed its doors.

But the most recent of those batons are not from 1987 but from 2012 … no 2013. How come? In 2008 the relay races began anew, as a festival for those thousands of people that still celebrated Tito’s birthday. The initiators were political actors – the New Communist Party, led by one of Tito’s grandsons. For them these festivals are a means to an end, a way to tap into the nostalgia and use it for their own purposes and support.

The people, however, want their nostalgia to be just that and nothing more. Not a political but a personal event. A chance to get drunk and reminisce, taste some sweet sadness of bygone days or remember tiny personal glories. A memory of childhood or power (this nostalgia is most deeply rooted in those who only experienced the end and downfall of Yugoslavia or those that had careers in the military). Sometimes nostalgia means nothing more than a place where Tito impersonators, wearing sunglasses and the famous coat, can pose for pictures. Where you can open restaurants with Tito decor and dress the waiters as Young Pioneers. Nostalgia rarely wants reality. It wants mood and fashion.

The main part of the museum is in another house – Tito’s former residence. Here you can find piles upon piles of those gifts that Tito recieved from abroad. It’s called the Old Museum and it is quite disorderly. You walk around between guns and very similar looking uniforms of the Great Marshall and slowly but surely you feel lost. Lost in time as well as in the personality of Tito. Only occasionally the curators try to speak up, in the form of newspaper clippings, notebooks from schools or paintings. It is an intentional looseness, they say. They want to create an undogmatic space where you can encounter the complicated past eye to eye.

Sometimes you imagine to glimpse the lack of budget behind the idea of an open and undogmatic museum, but it certainly is not a waste of time. There are no self-important interpretations that give you meaning and so you are forced to create your own image of Tito and his time. Surprisingly enough this image, even amidst all the relics and pomp, might turn out less negative than one would initially suspect. Any form of hero worship quickly collapses under the sheer weight and repetition of lavish gifts that heads of states or sycophants sent him. But behind that you can find an educated man, self aware and interested in art, science and psychology. Sensitive, perhaps most sensitive to his image. The military appearance, that silly coat, was calculation, not an expression of his personality the way it was with Mussolini, who had to hide behind it. It was the role he thought was best suited to keep Yugoslavia together. Of course he was mad – only a madman even wants to be in such a position …

Local Bus Only, Sir

A Journey Into the Indian Himalaya

If you prefer to listen to the text, you can click play on the recording. Feel free to read along.

The gods, so it is said, would not journey by bus in India. They would also not journey by train, plane or hired jeep. Their being able to traverse the country with a step or two, while leaving footprints, seas and rivers everywhere, means that such modes of transport are for the mere mortals. I wanted to go from MacLeod Ganj to Reckong Peo. The man at the counter explained to me that the only way to get there was by local bus. For this bus I would have to get my own ticket which did not make him happy because he could not commission me for it. So he tried the second-best thing: he attempted to gently discourage me.

Tourist office owner (doubtful): So you want to go Reckong Peo, sir?

Me: Yes.

Owner (cautious): This is a long drive, sir. Twenty-seven hours.

Me: Yes.

Owner (triumphant): It is local bus only, sir.

Me: Yes.

Owner (incredulous): Twenty-seven hours.

Me: Yes.

Owner (resigned): You want to go?

Me: Yes.

Owner: You have to get ticket downside, Lower Dharamsala.

This suited me well. It meant I could go down to Lower Dharamsala one hour before the bus left and get a ticket. It made the whole thing very spontaneous, which was good. Most of the people I had befriended were ending their journeys at that time and I was ready to leave, too.

Indian busses are strange breeds. They come in many shapes, sizes and versions, different stages of decay the connoisseur might call it – tourist office employees and owners will always try to get you on a super deluxe version, which occasionally means that it is rundown, about to fall apart but has a freezing cold air conditioning that cannot be turned off because the switches are all broken. Absolute luxury. The deluxe version cannot really be distinguished from the regular version, except by the price of its ticket. Some busses even offer the supreme comfort of your own private sleeping quarters. They consist of a curtained off box which is indeed large enough to sleep two people. Pure bliss, the travel-stained India traveler will say, until the bus reaches a bumpier stretch of the road and one notices the lack of hand-holds in the compartment box. Tumble drier or perhaps Deluxe Tumble Drier would be a more fitting moniker in such situations. Their bones thoroughly rattled the overnight traveler arrives as if they had chosen to travel by torture chamber.

A local bus is, by comparison, actually quite comfortable. You strap you bags to the roof or squeeze them underneath your seat. There are no luggage wallahs hassling you for fifty rupees for the privilege of having your luggage travel with you. Sitting next to the door you might be required to slam it shut after every stop, signaling the driver by the metal slam that it is safe to proceed. Being a local bus it will get very full, of course, but the windows can be opened or closed at your own discretion and there is no freezing air conditioning and the driver is usually considerate enough (or too poor) to not have installed bass-thumping subwoofers.

The best thing, though, instead of being sardine-stuffed into a bus filled with tourist who are just as bewildered as you, you get to meet interesting or at least odd people. Regular people. A shepherd lady in colourful clothes I would later learn to associate with Kinnaur greeted me in a delightfully throaty voice and asked where I was going. Reckong Peo. My home, she said. She was one of the many shepherds who spent most of the winter in warmer climes, shepherding on the hills of Western Himachal Pradesh. At least that was how she had started out. Now she spent almost all year near Dharamsala, only returning for festivals and family occasions. Farewell, brother. Her goodbye still rings in my ears. It had dignity and simplicity.

But before anything at all happened the bus broke down ten meters outside of the bus stop. Turns out it was a good place to break down, because the driver somehow got it to the garage and it was swiftly repaired. Indians are actually exceedingly good at impromptu repairs. Because things always break down, the cynic might say, and yes that is part of the reason, but they also love to tinker with everything, trying to improve it or making it at least more Indian in the process. You can find small repairmen’s huts in almost every village and dotted along the roads. Sometimes they have the required parts and sometimes they improvise – jugaad is the colloquial word for this – an improvisation bypassing limitations of law, logistics and money.

We drove along small roads and I could watch houses with small gardens pass by. People were working on small vegetable patches or tending flowers. Quiet suburban areas, very green, that seemed almost Mediterranean – an odd sight on the foothills of the Himalayas. When we left the villages I was reminded that India’s nature can be, despite all the pollution of the plains, absolutely stunning. We climbed up hills covered by pine forests, overlooked cliffs and ravines of some schist-y, fragile rock, dipped down into pleasantly cool forested valleys. Then it was back to the frenzy of typical Indian ant-hill busy villages. Shops and narrow streets that spilled people and vehicles. Faded colours and rusty signs proclaiming the world best something. Paan chewing, paunchy men and young boys and fragile ladies carrying trays with roasted nuts, sliced fruit, packaged juice. Cacophonous melodies of horns and voices.

Along the way I encountered a young girl worshipping Marie Curie as a heroine of female scientists, a trio of backpackers stranded on a bus station surrounded by a spasmodically curious group of young Indian men, ate dinner late at night in a dhaba with cement walls perched on a hill and found out that when night falls, on a local bus full to the brim, people huddle close to sleep, with strange heads resting on my shoulders and even my shoes.

At some point I entered the realm of sleep myself – only to wake up a few short hours later, back and legs cramped in pain, face pressed against the windshield. With bleary eyes I stared down a sheer abyss starting two inches from the wheels of the bus…I had arrived in the Himalayas proper.

Voice of the Fire – Episode 2: Mehdi El Ghaly

Saturday brings the first interview episode of Voice of the Fire: Our guest is Mehdi EL Ghaly – a prolific storyteller from Morocco who has appeared at TEDxMarrakesh and is working with Confluence Upland in an international collaboration.

The first part deals with Moroccan storytelling in general – we talk about Al-Halqa and the state of Moroccan storytelling. The interview follows, giving us a view into Mehdi’s life as a storyteller. To finish up – a story from Richard Hamilton’s book The Last Storytellers.

Enjoy and please share if you like what you hear.


Voice of the Fire – Episode 1

The first episode of Voice of the Fire – a podcast about storytelling – is online. It’s a celebration of and a farewell to one of the best writers of our time, Ursula K. LeGuin, who passed away last week.


We will return with another episode next week – an interview with an emerging young storyteller from Morocco: Mehdi El Ghaly

Voice of the Fire

I would like to welcome all visitors to Voice of the Fire. It’s a podcast about storytelling. We will share stories, interviews with storytellers, as well as observations and thoughts concerning the written and spoken word.

The first season is mostly interviews with storytellers from around the globe. I am looking forward to all listeners. You can find episodes here, on Soundcloud, iTunes and Youtube.