Are Common Serbian Woodpeckers Frightened of Bulgarian Scarecrows? (The 19th Letter)

29 May 1958

Beograd, Yugoslavia

Between the green leaved oaks lining the boulevard to the rear of the cathedral, to the left of the fourth shadow of the second grandest leaf, ninety two meters from the national library, where Dimitri Shostakovich is playing in my head.

Dear Comrade Milos, Twice Recipient of the Order of Marxist-Leninist Nature and Recent Guest Speaker at the All Republic Gathering of Socialist Ornithologists:

The seconds became minutes and then compile themselves into hours. I am afraid, like the time I encountered the darkness of my house without electricity, that eternity is unable to be contained by my words alone. Do you also fear time and the dark? Dear friend, does this mean we are getting old? In the hours since breakfast, I now feel even more alone and compelled again to write both questions and answers; as I am the only one who knows what I seek.

The juice, made from the Montenegrin apples was so fresh, do you not agree? The Kosovar woman who waited on our table reminded of both my second wife and mother. Perhaps it was because they were both kindly in the early morning way and provided me juices without asking?

Summer has arrived early this year. Don’t you think so? To be this warm in late May leads me to forecasts a warm summer. Tourists from as far east as Moscow and as north as Warsaw will come to beautiful Belgrade. Must everyone holiday in Dalmatia? Our work, dear friend, does not stop because every machinist in Prague needs a week’s leave.

I know you are busy for I can hear you at work. Might I propose both a question and idea? As our streets grow crowded and summer falls upon our beautiful land, shall we head east? It has yet to be proved that the Picus Virdius* migrates beyond the mountain passes. Could this not be the time, even the reason, to travel to Bulgaria? The lush Bulgarian cornfields, rolling for miles, are guard by hundreds of плашило. We call them scare crows. Bulgarian birds are frightened of these stick figures made to resemble Ottoman sultans and Nestorian heretics, and Russian generals. It is known, however, that images Ottomans, heretics, nor Russians frighten the common Serbian woodpecker. What say ye? Shall I call the station and purchase two tickets to Sofia? Perhaps Shostakovich will perform?

I do think this could be our opportunity to capture the elusive Serbian woodpecker. Unlike like the time we were in the place with the man who told us about the road that went to the other town that was near the city where the trees were that might have contained a single bird, I feel much better about this new plan.

If this is to reach you before tomorrow’s post, I must find make haste for the evening post.  I humbly await your reply.  And the arrival of my stamps.

Your friend,

Slava

*Picus Viridus-Common European Woodpecker

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Food for Thought-Heisenberg Says We’ve Already Been to Zagreb (The 18th Letter)

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1 January 1958

Belgrade

Between the hallway photograph of the River Nišava and the champagne flute left on the floor by Vjekoslav Kaleb during the New Year’s festivities

Dear Comrade, Esteemed Hero of Ornithological Quests, and Master of Socialist Alchemy:

Happy New Year!

Josef Stalin is still dead and the Josip Broz Tito Lives! Does this mean there is a God? What kind of God kills one and leaves the other?

I write to you this morning as a rejoinder to our conversation of last evening. I admit it was difficult to follow our discussion of New Year’s resolutions amidst the revelries. Heisenberg’s insistence on performing Bach concertos for two pianos, with you, while we spoke, was quite distracting. Somewhere around the eighth measure, I’m certain you stopped paying attention. Now, without the benefit of Heisenberg’s rambling arpeggios, I would like to finish my list of resolutions. They are as follows.

To locate the *Picus Viridius.

To discover the Unseen Foolishness I Cannot Understand

Visit the *village in Albania where the dehydrated towels and sheets that are packaged and served for my post culinary convenience.

Find the ticket stubs for our next trip to Zagreb. After speaking with *Heisenberg last night, I’m certain we’ve already returned. Though I can’t recall what we found. Do you have them?

Loose one toe as my final concession to what I perceive as a case of gout or frostbite which has yet to arrive. Did we catch frostbite in Zagreb? Is this why my toe feels dead? Why do I have no memory of going to Zagreb?

Purchase a *cover for the hole the street adjacent to the flat. I fell 17 times last year. If I must, I will write to the Marshal directly.

Your friend,
M

*Picus Virdius – The Common European Woodpecker
*Dehydrated towels – Legends speak of a labor camp run by Enver Hoxha which forced Albanian political prisoners to manually dehydrate napkins and towels with their mouths.
*Yes, that Heisenberg.
*Manhole cover theft was a problem in Belgrade in the late 1950’s. Hipster coffee shops decorated their walls with the heavy, iron pieces. They were once considered the ultimate in socialist realism.

Food for Thought-I Met Santa Claus in Belgrade (The Santa Chronicles Part 2)

Belgrade Fortress with ReadyClickAndGo

I remember when I realized Santa Claus was more than a man selling his likeness for photographs at the mall, waving from a float in the Christmas parade, or a plastic figure standing by my bed. It was many years later, while traveling in the Serbian capital of Belgrade. The legends of a saint called Nicholas were vaguely familiar to me. He came from the regions of Anatolia (modern day Turkey) known as Cappadocia. Over time, stories of his charity and miracles merged with certain northern European legends. Like the unknown debris of a forgotten shipwreck, these ideas were floating along the uninhabited shores of my mind. I knew an image of the Santa from my youth. I had read stories of a saint from the ancient Christian east. Neither the likeness of a jolly old elf or the legend of a saint seemed to connect; until now.

The Ružica Church (The Church of the Holy Mother of God) is small by any standard. Tucked within an isolated corner of the Kalamegdan Fortress overlooking the Danube River on the western edge of Belgrade, it has been a place of Christian worship since the 1520’s. The current building dates from 1867. The church is an organic, living work of God which grows from the dead walls of the disused fortress. Visitors, regardless of their faith tradition, feel drawn to this tiny corner of Belgrade to see an ancient Christian tradition at work. The church was no more or less ornate than many of the other Serbian Orthodox churches I had already seen.

While some years have passed, I remember one icon standing apart from the elaborate iconostasis and others painted on the church ceiling. It was probably on a stand somewhere near the entrance. The large icon depicted one man, an older white-bearded cleric. Surrounding this bishop’s portrait, around the edge of the icon, were scenes from the man’s life. He was a bishop. The Old Church Slavonic script beneath his portrait identified him as “Saint Nikolai of Myra”. I had come face to face with Santa Claus.

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I once sat on Santa’s lap to be photographed while visiting a local shopping mall. While the photograph wasn’t bad, the man in the picture was not Santa Claus. Now thousands of miles from home, this was the closest I’d ever been to the real person known as Santa Claus. What was the age of this icon? My best guess was at least 500 years old. It may have been Russian in origin or more likely, it came out one of the monasteries in south of Serbia. The image was probably created by a Russian artisan in the 1500’s and emulated around the Orthodox world. This picture and the brief life stories which surrounded it told the journey of the real man, whose tangible actions inspired the legends we’ve made into a definitive Christmas tradition. This is what’s unique about an Orthodox icon; it is not like gazing upon a Picasso, Monet, or Van Gogh. Icons are hand painted photographs, written works of painted scripture, connecting the stories of living people across multiple generations. I was looking at who Saint Nicholas was not who Victorian Britain, Charles Dickens, or Madison Avenue thought he should be.

Eastern Orthodox iconography will often depict incidents in the life of the saint around the perimeter of the icon. By coming closer, I could see how these early Orthodox Christians viewed Nicholas, well before our own age of commercial distortion. Without a doubt, he is a miracle worker. He is seen raising the dead; much like Jesus and the early apostles. There are also scenes which depict him preventing martyrdom, preaching the gospel, and interceding on behalf of children. Saint Nicholas is a fourth century bishop in the best sense of the word. From even the most cursory glance, the viewer can feel the uncertainty with which he lived. His world was not a Christian world. Christianity was not the dominant culture. Christianity wasn’t the least offensive non-secular alternative to worshiping other gods. His faith was barely legal. He appears to be perpetually at risk. Whether he is saving drowning merchants or navigating Byzantine court politics during the Council of Nicaea, he seems fearless. As I moved from frame to frame (like a comic strip), I could feel my heart begin to race. I did not want him to die or face harm. I knew the outcome people like Nicholas usually met.

There are many images and ideas absent from this important icon. There are no reindeer, bags of gifts, sleighs, or visits to the Arctic. Santa is confined to his home in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). Apart from his white beard and overall sense of benevolence, he bore little resemblance to the man the west insisted on calling Santa Claus. Despite this incongruity, I had no doubt I was looking at the real Santa Claus, the one and only Saint Nicholas. I liked him and what he’d done.  His was a life of light.  I couldn’t help but notice how he was always entering caves and opening tombs.  Light was his one great gift.  Saint Nicholas reminded me of someone else I knew; a 1st century rabbi who couldn’t stay out of the way of death, politicians, or needy people.  Nicholas had much to offer.  It was there, in Serbia, I realized the true story of Saint Nicholas needed to be told.

Food for Thought-Mr. Jung Goes Looking for Woodpecker in Prague (The Seventeenth Letter)

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1 June 1957
Prague, Czechoslovak Socialist Republic
Prague Industrialization of the Masses Leading to Revolutionary Peace Workers’ Guest House

Dear Friend, Comrade, and Esteemed Follower of Birds,

The days have faded into a hazy oblivion. Prague is not Belgrade and I fear that Belgrade is not Prague. People seem different here. What is it about their socialism that seems so “Russian”? The streets, language, and food are not as they are in our beloved Belgrade. The manager at the hotel knew nothing of the insurance official or the mysterious number we were given. Could you believe his atrocious accent? He seemed to illiterate of Serbo-Croatian. Was he not warned of our impending arrival? What good does it do to pay a drunken gypsy in the Belgrade station to send a telegram?

Most assuredly, the beasts lurking between the buildings do not fully grasp the meaning or purpose of our quest. It was in a dream, only last night, as we pursued the disembodied pecks through an abandoned city center, I realized that we were climbing an ancient Babylonian Ziggurat. This holy mound, a shrine to the god Marduk, led to a darkness of unbearable lightness. Inside the temple, Marduk handed me a letter, from the angel Gabriel, which I unable to read. Were I able to read Marduk’s Babylonian message for Gabriel, I believe we would now know the whereabouts of the woodpecker.

As I cannot read Babylonian dream writing, I will wait here. The Czech Party has a fine reputation of offering night time adult education seminars in both dream interpretation and Babylonian cultural history. Perhaps we may find one near our hotel that offers better than adequate translation into Serbo-Croatian.

I suggest, tonight, we meet for soup and bread. Are you certain the goat we consumed was well done? I am not. I must post this before the bell strikes four.
With warmest regards,

V

*Marduk Babylonian Deity
*Ziggurat a type of Babylonian pyramid

Food for Thought-Worst Jobs I’ve Ever Had

Mike-Rowe

1. Editor in Chief of a Satirical Cartoon Magazine in Yemen
2. Cage Fighting with shovels for a Serbian warlord’s entertainment against my cousin Wayne
3. Mowing Kim Jong-un’s lawn in my underwear
4. Predicting the weather on Mars from Earth with a telescope purchased from Wal-Mart
5. Serving as guinea pig for a new anti-Malarial medicine while a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo