The Tourist Pilgrim: A Mount Athos Travelogue, Part II

Originally published on July 15, 2012 on Open Salon.

Part I of my travelogue to Mount Athos concluded with a reference to its complexity. I became aware of the complicated nature of the organization and life on Mount Athos because I had to perpetually recalibrate my expectations. The quotidian services provided at Dafni and Karyes, and that the fifteen minute stroll to the monastery closest to Karyes made it appear to me that everything would be accessible on Mount Athos. I am glad to have made those misconception.

Travelling Athos

After heading back to Karyes, we hoped to take a cab to our destination, and our first monastic lodging, at Pantokratoros. This turned out to be difficult. We first stumbled through some conversations with waiting cabs, without success, just to ascertain that the cabs were going everywhere except where we wanted to go. The best and only option was to walk to our destination. In my estimation, our first hike was manageable because we could see Xeropotamoufrom the port of Dafni. This walk, however, necessitated us to follow complicated, road-side trail descriptions that should guide us to our destination. Such a guide includes instructions such as “turn left at the bronze cross” or “after the grand view of the monastery, avoid what looks like a path on the right—it’s not a path.”

On Mount Athos, moving from point A to point B is just as enjoyable as spending time at the monasteries. If the traveler does only one or the other, then the experience is far from complete. On the way to Pantokratoros we experienced our first incredible views of the actual Mount Athos in the distance, while also taking in and discussing the pop-up monastic communities that we would see in the distance.


Having the mobility to travel to a desired destination can also be the most trying thing about Mount Athos. On the second day on the peninsula, we attempted to take a speed boat from the port monastery Stavronikita to Esphigmenou, where we would make our way by foot to our second monastic lodging, the Serbian Orthodox monastery Hilandar. However, we realized that the waters on the more unpredictable northern side of the peninsula appeared particularly violent.


Because these monastic ports aren’t manned by anyone, we called the boat service, just to be informed that, due to weather, the boat never left port in the morning, and would not be make any of its stops on the peninsula. We then had to troubleshoot. We ended up having to take a taxi back to Karyes, only for the same cab to then take us to Dafni, where we caught a pleasant ferry on the southern side of the peninsula that moved us in our desired direction.

Mount Athos is relatively easy to access, but once there the pilgrim is left to his own devices in terms of mobility. Foot is the most rewarding method of travel on Mount Athos, but it is not always possible.


There are similarities and differences among the monasteries of Mount Athos. I only visited a few, but this, at the very least, was evident to me. What is universal (as far as I know) is that the church in every monastery holds service before dinner, a short service after dinner, and a long service in the morning before dinner. The first service we attended was, in my opinion, the best one. It was a short service between 45 minutes and an hour, and it mostly involved monks singing scripture in voices that ranged from majestic baritone to beautiful tenor. This was not my first experience at an Orthodox church service, so I wasn’t surprised at the voiceless priest whose job involved canvassing the interior of the church with the smell of incense and the sound of bells, making for an experience that appeals to all of the senses—akin to an opera. Dinner followed, and then there was a presentation of the monastery’s relics, which included bones of saints and a piece of the cross. This seemed to be the primary purpose of the service after dinner. Like the other pilgrims, I crossed myself in front of the relic; perhaps unlike most of the others there, I only pretended to kiss the five hundred year old skull relic surrounded by jewels.

While the evening services were a moving experience, the morning services were long and difficult. They demanded far more energy than the most difficult hike on the peninsula. Bells ring in the morning at four o’clock. This is the call to morning prayer. Srdjan and Les, the veteran pilgrims, assured us that we could sleep until five o’clock and join the service late. Our alarms went off then, and we then each took turns brushing our teeth and put on our three times a day, every day best. This service had more oration than singing, which made it far less enjoyable. This morning service on Mount Athos will—I am willing to wager—be the only time in my life when I can say “we didn’t get to church until five thirty, so we missed the first hour and a half; luckily we caught the last two hours.”

Gastronomic Athos

The monks provide the pilgrims with breakfast and dinner on Mount Athos. The nature, quality, and time allotted to the meals differ monastery by monastery. But, there are certain things that are universal. For one, all monks and pilgrims eat in the refractory at the same time  and for the same amount of time,. The meal begins, after a quick prayer, with the ringing of a bell. The abbot, or an ersatz head of the monks, performs this ritual. The first bell tells everyone to begin eating, and it tells one monk to start reading scripture. All monastic meals on Mount Athos are accompanied by scripture. It is always difficult to be in a place where you don’t speak the language. On Mount Athos, this was frustrating in the case of personal communication, but when it came to church liturgy and the biblical ambience of dinner, I was blessedly ignorant of anything being said. One can only drink when the abbot rings the second bell. Sometimes it comes right after the first bell, and sometimes after a few minutes. The drinks provided at the meals are water and wine. The self-produced wine is noticeably high in alcohol content, and is best consumed with one part water. Once the abbot determines that everyone has had enough time to eat, he makes his intention known through more bell ringing and wood knocking. The whole thing lasts between fifteen and twenty minutes; the frequent visitors are identifiable because they can finish everything in five to ten.

We only ate at the two monasteries where we were lodging Pantokratoros and Hilandar. The former was the clear winner when it came to cuisine. On our first evening, we were treated to perfectly spiced fish filets, vegetables, and salad. Breakfast was a delicious mixture of peas, potatoes, garlic and rosemary—a dish that I’ve since attempted to re-create at a dinner party. While the addition of garlic complemented the nicely spiced dish in Pantokratoros, loads of garlic was the only redeeming quality in the soups at Hilandar.

Shades of Monk

A monastery is not a monastery is not a monastery, and a monk is not a monk is not a monk. Three instances exemplify this. As we were leaving a seemingly uninhabited skete on our first day on Athos, I looked back behind us and, in characteristic fashion on this island of monks, I noticed a black garbed and bearded man standing about 150 meters behind us. We stopped and turned around, and I could almost sense his disappointment as we made our way to greet him. Of all the monks we met on our travels, this particular one truly embodied the Athonite ethos of quiet. He spoke barely above a whisper, which naturally caused us to mimic his mode of speech, even amongst ourselves. After showing us the chapel, he offered us water, coffee, and Turkish delights. We accepted his friendly offer, and were guided to what I think was their welcome center. After water and coffee, we were energized. This was a good thing, as the monk told us with blunt quiescence: “drink your water and coffee, and then please hit the road.” He left us there, and we heeded his request.

When we arrived at Pantokratoros, we were greeted by an older monk. Short, with a long grey beard, and a voice pitched somewhere in between a helium induced falsetto and the scratchy reveal of a former smoker. He was one of the friendlier monks we encountered. While we showed him our travel visas, he took a few more seconds on mine and said to me: “You’re not Orthodox?” “No, I’m not,” I replied. With joviality that I didn’t think was possible for a Mount Athos monk, he responded “Oh! That’s OK!” I knew it was, but it was sure nice to hear this affirmation, which put me more at ease as I stumbled my way through unfamiliar Orthodox rituals.

The counter to this meeting of acceptance came the next day. After we made our long journey to the Hilandar monastery, walked to the nearby monastery Esphigmenou. Up to this point, we had been at the very least warmly acknowledged at all places we visited. This monastery, however, was somewhat uninviting. As we walked through the front gates, a curmudgeonly old monk swept the passageway and asked us a one word question, which none of us understood because none of us speak Greek. It turned out he was only interested in whether or not we were there to sleep. We were able to communicate that we were not, but only interested in looking around. He then showed off an English phrase he knew: “No photos!”


Oddly enough, or perhaps not given the warmly unenthusiastic welcome we received in other places, we were not only greeted with water and coffee here, but also raki (plum brandy). Our next order of business was to try and get into the church. We found our way to the monastery’s key keeper, and he granted our request to see the church without question. After we entered and once more marveled at the beautiful interior—golden chandeliers, silver inlaid icons, and soaring byzantine frescoes—the monk did ask us a question: “Orthodox? All four?” “Absolutely!” we responded. Clearly, it was time to go. We gave some change to light a candle, thanked the monk, and hit the road, this time of our own volition. Our mistake was that we viewed this particular church too much like the presentation of priceless art, and not enough like holy embodiments. Once again I had to recalibrate. One of the best aspects of travel is the element of surprise. Perhaps the biggest surprise I experienced on Mount Athos occurred when I left: I already wanted to go back.

But just as a tourist pilgrim, not a monk.


The Tourist Pilgrim: A Mount Athos Travelogue, Part I

Originally published on July 7, 2012 on Open Salon.

If asked to provide a set of nouns that accurately embody who I am, “pilgrim” would be pretty far down on the list. I would say somewhere between “hot rod enthusiast” and “stamp collector.” However, I recently inhabited the role of the pilgrim, as I and three travel companions—my girlfriend’s brother Mike, her father Srdjan, and his good friend Les—wended our way to one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Orthodox Christians, Mount Athos.

Since the tenth century, Mount Athos (a rocky peninsula in northern Greece) has existed as a collective of Orthodox monasteries. There are currently twenty on the peninsula. One thing in particular makes Mount Athos a unique destination for pilgrims: first, the monks who reside on the mountain maintain a degree of political autonomy. Despite officially being a part of Greece, they are self-governed and own the land on which their monasteries reside, as well as the surrounding areas. This allows them to control the number of visitors to the peninsula. They can also control who visits and separate out who they won’t allow to come. For example, non-Christian men and women are not allowed on the Peninsula, and only 100 pilgrims per day are welcomed in.

For this reason, Mount Athos has an air of mystery surrounding it. One of the ways in which I prepared for my visit was to watch a recent 60 Minutes feature about Mount Athos that aired in April of 2011 (part 1 and part 2). The boon for 60 Minutes was that their story was the first time since 1981 that the monks allowed (professional) video equipment into their monasteries and even into their churches. While the 60 Minutes story is informative and revealing in its interviews with a handful of monks on Mt. Athos, it ultimately exaggerates its inaccessibility to the outside world. 60 Minutes provides a surface explanation of Mount Athos as isolated from civilization and “frozen in time.” It also, I suspect, draws most of its conclusions from the production crews’ experience in a handful of monasteries. Myself, I only visited a handful, but it was enough, as I’ll explain, to realize that there is diversity among the monasteries. This is something that is not acknowledged by 60 Minutes, and something that makes the peninsula and its monasteries even more compelling.

In another effort to prepare for my journey, I read one the only recent scholarly works about Mount Athos in English, geographer Veronica della Dora’s Imagining Mount Athos: Visions of a Holy Place from Homer to World War II. Little academic attention has been paid to Mount Athos, which I found surprising. Della Dora’s work is not about Mount Athos per se, and there is very little mention of the actual monks who reside there and their experience with maintenance or change over time. Nevertheless, she provides a compelling narrative of the various ways in which Mount Athos has been framed and reframed over time based on the intellectual environment and political trends in Western Europe. She proposes six different lenses through which Mount Athos has been understood over time—it has been mythic, utopian, iconic, erudite, geopolitical, and scientific. As a woman, della Dora was not even allowed on Mount Athos, which perhaps makes her the perfect scholar to write about how Mount Athos has been imagined over time. Still, the experience of the pilgrim is missing. I think that 60 Minutes provides one perspective about Mount Athos that is rooted in experience, but framed around the imagination of it as completely unchanged and with the intent of providing a journalistic service to their audience. In my travelogue, I want to describe what might be called the “Tourist Pilgrim Athos,” which is also rooted in experience, but also shaped by my perspective and expectations travelling there as a Catholic, non-Orthodox, pilgrim.

Accessing Mount Athos

In order to gain access to Mount Athos, one has to secure a special visa issued by the monks. This should be a relatively easy thing to do with enough advance planning, which is necessary because one must fax the monks all pertinent information. One hundred pilgrims are allowed to enter Athos each day, and of those one hundred only five are allowed to be non-Orthodox. It is easiest to travel to Mount Athos if you are an Orthodox pilgrim, but an alternative to being one is saying that you are one. I was lucky enough to get one of the five non-Orthodox spots; this may have been due to the fact that I was travelling with three Orthodox Christians. My visa indicated that I was a Catholic visitor (which required an additional 5 Euro added on to the Visa fee).

Mount Athos is inaccessible by land, so one has to take a boat from a town called Ouranoupoli in order to get there. In an attempt to cast Mount Athos as more difficult or unpleasant to travel to than it actually is, 60 Minutes calls it a “scruffy little town without an airport and dicey roads.” If I had to characterize Ouranoupoli, I would call it a pleasant resort town with fine Greek restaurants and what appeared to be nice beaches. Scruffiness might reside in the narrow streets that others might designate as charming, and the roads there are ‘dicey’ only insofar as they are a bit windy, but nothing unfamiliar to anyone who has driven on paved mountain roads. It is true that Ouranoupoli doesn’t have an airport, and 60 Minutes took this as an opportunity to embellish the difficult road to Athos by claiming that potential travelers have to make their way there from Athens. While one could fly to Athens and drive seven and a half hours to Ouranoupoli—which admittedly does sound very pilgrimmy—or one could do as my travel companions and I did and fly to Thessaloniki, which is a short hour and a half drive away. More pilgrim points might be collected in the first option, but that wouldn’t impress monks who have been living on a peninsula without women and a bunch of celibate men for dozens of years, so we just did what was most comfortable.


While the Peninsula is composed mostly of monasteries and monks, that is not all that is there. I was surprised at some of the things I initially found. We took a speed boat to the small port town of Dafni early in the morning. When we arrived, I was taken by the first things I saw on Mount Athos. While I expected my initial encounter to be with monks or a monastery, what I instead saw was a small restaurant (cafeteria style), several gift-shops selling postcards, stores selling dozens of different Orthodox icons, and general stores that sold walking sticks, wine, and beer—businesses manned by non-monks. Dafni is also a popular departure point from the speed boat or ferry because there is bus service to what is essentially the capital city of Mount Athos, Karyes. Because we took the speed boat, we arrived at Dafni a couple of hours before the bus departed for Karyes, which is coordinated with the arrival of the much larger ferry. Rather than waiting for the bus, we decided to start walking toward Karyes, which we determined would be a manageable two hour hike.

We asked for directions to Karyes, and were instructed to follow the dirt road until we saw a hiking trail. Ostensibly, one “couldn’t miss” the trail, which I suppose might be true if you already know where it is or if you’re an expert hiker with experience in finding overgrown walking paths. In any case, we eventually found the trail, which directed us toward our destination. One feels a lot more like a pilgrim walking on a marginally maintained trail than on a wide road, unpaved or not. We made our way up the trail, sweating through our clothes in the 90 degree weather and schlepping our minimally packed backpacks (which, by the way, did not include shorts, as they are discouraged on Mount Athos in general and especially in monasteries and churches). On the way to Karyes, we ran into the first monastery we would see, Xeropotamou, built in the tenth century. Here, I was immediately struck by how such a pristinely maintained and clean monastery could simply appear from dense mountain forest. I was struck by its beauty and grateful for the water fountain. One of the first things I noticed about the monastery other than its minimalistic grandeur (which, as I’ll explain, only exists on building exteriors) was that it appeared to be deserted. I imagined monasteries to be teeming with monks doing monk things—mostly praying, but also tending the abundant plants, fixing architectural imperfections, or healing injured birds. However, there was really nobody to be seen. We took advantage of our moments there to take some photos.


Srdjan and Les, the veteran pilgrims in our group, attempted to secure access to the monastery’s church. I would only later come to realize the necessity of making every effort to see the church at every monastery we came across, as I will soon explain. Unfortunately, the church was closed to visitors, so after taking in a bit more of the external atmosphere of the monastery, we decided to wait for the bus to take us to Karyes rather than walk the dirt road or take the chance of finding another “can’t miss it” hidden path. As we waited, I realized that up until that point, I hadn’t actually seen a monk yet, which I also found to be somewhat odd, given where we were.

Monks and monasteries on Mount Athos have a tendency to unsuspectingly materialize before your eyes. The most reliable method of travelling from one point to another is to walk, but this is not always possible. As one hikes through the mountains of Mount Athos, which contains twenty monasteries, twelve sketes (independent monastic communities affiliated with one of the monasteries), and numerous churches, it is easy to go hours without seeing any form of architectural habitat or human life. Over the course of several hours of hiking in two and a half days on Mount Athos, we didn’t come across a single other pilgrim on any of the trails. It is always striking, then, when you turn a corner or ascent a seemingly endless incline to be met with the domes, towers, and lush gardens that is an Athos monastic community. For the viewer, it didn’t exist the moment before, but once you see the monastery it seems as if it should be visible from space. Likewise, monks have a tendency to appear and disappear within the monastery walls, like pious ninjas. For example, prior to the evening church service, the monastery appears to be manned by exactly no monks. Once the bells ring calling to the service, there are suddenly a dozen monks making their way to the church. Once the service concludes a dozen monks then multiply to about forty prior to the evening meal, before they all dissipate once again. In the case of both monasteries and monks, the appearance is a surprise and the shared experience a privilege.

The first monk we saw nonchalantly joined us at the bus stop, waiting to get a ride to Karyes. As most monks on Mount Athos, this guy was quiet, only proffering a curt “hello” to us before standing as far away from us at the waiting station as he could. Monks are not the chattiest bunch. As we were waiting for the bus, we had a stroke of good luck, as another monk driving a van (another oddity that I didn’t necessarily expect) stopped to pick up the first monk on his way to Karyes. He waived us into the van, and we followed, happy that we would arrive a bit earlier and in an un-crowded van rather than a bus. What is it like to hitch a ride from a monk, you may ask? First of all, “hitching a ride” is not quite right, as we were charged for the service. I would also mention that the ride was bumpy on the mostly unpaved roads—small paved stretches of road appear and disappear like so many monks. Finally, I was struck by the utter lack of communication between the driver and passenger in the front seat. I have absolutely no idea whether or not they knew each other. There are two thousand monks on Mount Athos, and even if they are able to distinguish the black robed men with either black or grey beards better than I can, I can’t assume that they are all acquaintances. In any case, they had no real reason to speak to one another, as the radio in the van contained monks chanting what I assumed to be scripture or prayers. At one point, the driver changed the station, with striking banality, as if he were tired of hearing the new rendition of “The Sermon on the Mount” that all of the stations have been overplaying.


My next surprise came when we finally arrived in Karyes. As I said before, I didn’t expect to find a store on Mount Athos selling postcards, which made my urgency to purchase postcards in Ouranoupoli seem over-eager. In Karyes, I was greeted by a post office, which again made my initial thoughts that “at least I can write postcards on Mount Athos” appear completely wrong-headed. “I could purchase, write, and even send them all from here,” I thought. I also saw more general stores, where we secured much needed afternoon fruit and our mandatory daily bottle of Ouzo. Karyes has the feel of a small downtown strip. This feel is confirmed by the government building, flying the flags of Greece and Mount Athos, which is the seat of the monk chosen (from a vote by a representative of all monasteries) every year to represent the Peninsula as a political unit. Karyes also houses what is one of the more popular churches among the pilgrims on the peninsula. In the entire time there, this was the only time we had to wait in line to get into a church. As we were let in by a monk who appeared to be particularly annoyed at the crowd of pilgrims, we walked into and were awed by the beauty of the frescoes, chandeliers, and grandiose icons within the church. This was also my first experience with the crossing and kissing rituals that are second nature to any devout Orthodox Christian, but unfamiliar to someone raised Catholic who even crosses himself incorrectly according to Orthodox convention. After seeing the church, I started to realize the great effort made by my fellow pilgrims to access the church earlier in the day, and their disappointment in being denied.

Once we saw this church, we walked about ten or fifteen minutes to the closest monastery, Koutloumousiou. The stunning beauty within this church surpassed even the one we had just seen. Unfortunately, the monks generally do not allow photographs to be taken inside of the churches. It is unfortunate, because they are truly breathtaking. It was at this point that I knew that I was really on a unique excursion unlike anything I had experienced before. Yet, I was still bristled by the 60 Minutes cover story that presented Mount Athos as unforgivably difficult to access, that in their words is “not Mars or Venus, but it might as well be.” I still think this is an exaggeration, but the way my visit progressed showed that my initial perception of relatively easy access on the Peninsula was ill-conceived. Mount Athos is difficult to understand and absorb quickly, and it is because of its complexity, not its simplicity.

Alternative Museums in the Former Yugoslavia: Everyday Narratives of the Past, Present, and Future

This post was co-authored with Jovana Babovic

Museums are aimed at educating the general public about history; they are the everyday historian in society. But they also create narratives—national ones, colonial ones, cultural ones—that are too often the province of linear histories and retroactive significance. Scholars such as Benedict Anderson and Tony Bennett have long argued that museums are sites where state and institutional power manifests and is created dialectically with its audience. So while most museums can be criticized, we should also take care to notice alternative approaches to telling public history. Living and traveling through former Yugoslavia has revealed a particularly vibrant presence of museums with alternative narratives. It’s not accidental. Twenty years after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, competing narratives of the past and present run rampant as successor states struggle to define their identities in a world where their collective past no longer makes sense. More importantly, the aftermath of the 1990s wars has left a veritable historical vacuum, and most of the former Yugoslav states now face the challenge of coming to terms with the wars, as well as their social, economic, and cultural aftermath. Although more traditional museums remain conspicuously silent on the post-war decades, alternative museums have made great strides in prioritizing the topics that have remained marginalized. Belgrade’s Museum of Violence (MoV), Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships (MBR), and street art in the two cities embody the necessity, possibilities, and limitations of non-normative museums. Rather than creating narratives, they provide a platform for the public to contribute their voice as donors and curators; they point toward reconciliation with recent history and allow individuals to become agents of their own past and present.

In Belgrade, alternative museums are a necessity. Visitors and residents have not had the opportunity to experience Serbia’s state-funded museums in the last two decades; the National Museum has been closed for renovations so long that locals can hardly remember its permanent collection, and the Contemporary Art Museum operates several satellites throughout the city while its central location is closed and in disrepair. In their place, private galleries and pop-up museums funded by NGOs, foreign cultural organizations, and small state stipends have taken the lead in telling the stories of Serbian history. Better yet, they have given individuals a public platform to tell their own stories.

In early February 2013, The Museum of Violence opened in the Belgrade Cultural Center’s Podroom gallery. The museum exhibits medical reports, police reports, x-rays, and photographs as tangible documentation of physical violence that individuals have anonymously donated. At times, a first-person narrative details the circumstances of the attack(s), while most documents are fragments that hint at untold stories. The museum classifies violence into five broad categories: domestic violence, xenophobia, LGBT violence, peer violence (mostly bullying), and institutional violence. MoV is commendable for taking a bold step toward heightening awareness of violence in contemporary Serbia and drawing attention to the prevalence of violence in everyday life without relying on voyeuristic imagery. But there is room for improvement. First, while the medical reports are intended to speak for themselves, medical jargon and x-ray images are not contextualized and remain mostly illegible to non-specialists. For visitors who do not speak the local language, the illegibility of the exhibit extends to the medical and police reports that are presented only in Serbian. Second, the personal narratives are the key link between the physical manifestation of violence and its meaning to the victim—the difference between a broken arm and a hate crime. However, when no narrative is present, little explanation is given about the categorization of violent acts; that is, how does an x-ray suggest the injury was inflicted by xenophobia rather than peer violence? More importantly, these categories implicitly give agency to the aggressor without ascribing accountability. Although it is debatable to what degree the attacker should be present in a museum dedicated to victims, MoV overlooks that the underpinning goal of most acts of violence is to create fear. By reducing violence to medical imagery, the museum does not account for the emotional and psychological effects of physical violence.

Although unfortunately located cities apart, the exhibit at the MoV can be read in dialogue with Igor Grubić’s two-channel video “East Side Story” (2008) displayed at Zagreb’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Grubić pits two streams simultaneously against one another on perpendicular walls: one shows documentary footage of violence during Gay Pride parades in Belgrade in 2001 and Zagreb in 2002, while the other channel plays a modern dance re-interpretation of these events. The footage shows protestors, mobs, and—most pertinently—individual violence against parade participants, bystanders, and the police. At the same time, it is difficult to decipher who is attacking who, and why, leaving us to further question MoV’s typology; for example, how do we categorize the violence against the police or vandalism of the city? In the other projection, dancers are dressed in street clothes as they perform in the urban locations where the violence occurred—while in the background, urban life goes on without interruption. Although they are shown in a continuous sequence of individual performance for the majority of the film, they come together at the end to enact their movements together. This is the first time that the choreographed dance appears violent, not unlike the documentary footage—the solitary dances become volatile in a group setting.

How do these two exhibits function in the post-Yugoslav space? In “East Side Story,” we see the violence—the victims, the aggressors, the setting, and the act—in contrast to an emotional reinterpretation. Grubić’s project reminds us that the psychological effects of violence in the early 2000s linger on the city streets a decade later. However, “East Side Story” also elicits a visceral reaction, but may end up being more voyeuristic than educational (it is hard to look away). Additionally, the projection is nestled in a large art museum far from Zagreb’s center—its relative inaccessibility and lack of contextualization is disarming. Belgrade’s MoV, on the other hand, appears in a downtown location on the Republic Square, meters from the closed National Museum; it is accessible and free. The MoV prioritizes the theme of violence and lends individual victims a platform to share their experience. Yet, by reducing violence to its physical manifestation, the museum leaves the visitor with many unanswered questions. These two different approaches to coming to terms with violence are positive steps toward nurturing civil society in the former Yugoslavia, and they should be viewed side by side. Both hold that violence is foremost a violation of human rights; both aim to promote violence awareness and prevention; both are critical of local society. And both aim to make them better.

Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships contends with a similar agenda of individual voice in a cultural space where it has been generally devalued. This museum is built around objects contributed by donors who remain mostly anonymous. The exhibits are intended to tell the story of “failed relationships and their ruins” through everyday objects that mark their legacy—from clothing and letters, to gifts and seemingly mundane trinkets endowed with personal meaning. Loose categories like distance, death, and elusive foundations organize the collection thematically, while the objects are paired with the narratives of the donors, some short and some detailed, sometimes witty and at other times tragic vignettes about the relationship’s failure. Although the museum claims to offer its contributors “a chance to overcome an emotional collapse through creation,” many voices point rather to the persistence of cumbersome emotions, unresolved endings, and a distinct lack of closure. Broken relationships, after all, continue to shape individual action, for better or for worse, and likely also inaugurate future relationships. A second critique is that the museum accepts a simple definition of a relationship, one between two heterosexual people and based on either love or lust. MBR could certainly move beyond its novelty if it approached relationships as more diverse, as well as dynamic in their afterlife. Finally, for a museum that was developed in the former Yugoslavia and deals with failed relationships, it is noticeable that the exhibit makes little point to consider the weightier issues of inter-cultural, inter-national, or inter-religious relationships that remain the defining traits of Yugoslav history. The legacy of the broken state, likewise, haunts some of the donated objects, but Yugoslavia remains the elephant in the room.

Beyond the walls of museums and galleries, the streets of both Belgrade and Zagreb can be considered alternative platforms for critical individual voice. In Belgrade, the living gallery spans the city and the suburbs, while in Zagreb it is localized on the walls of the downtown train yard. The lively presence of street art like graffiti, murals, and stencils is emblematic of societies where the voice of the individual remains marginalized and where alternative expression is allowed little room. In both cities, the streets constitute the last resort for individuals and sometimes communities, and serve as a testament that traditional museums and galleries are not yet equipped to serve as a mouthpiece of diversity in post-war societies. It is on the streets of former Yugoslav cities that residents voice political discontent, point out social paradoxes, splash color on the otherwise gray-scape buildings, and effectively integrate themselves into the urban texture. Artists preserve the agency to curate their own work—they choose the location, the medium, the theme. More importantly, street art is visible, accessible, and active: it invites the passerby to look, to photograph, to engage, and to alter. Although it remains largely unsanctioned, the very presence of street art in Belgrade and Zagreb is a living alternative museum of societies-in-crisis, but also proof that they are becoming increasingly more integral, aware, and engaged communities.

In making the case for the powerful role of non-traditional museums, it is not our intent to undermine the place of traditional museums. Rather, we argue that alternative museums play a critical function in filling the post-war political power vacuum in the former Yugoslavia. Where traditional museums are struggling to re-retell the narrative of the state and nation, they continue to overlook the individual voice in societies that remain burdened by the dissolution and its effects. The Museum of Violence and the Museum of Broken Relationships, much like the streets of Belgrade and Zagreb, are important new spaces for coming to terms with the past—of the failed Yugoslav relationship, as much as the 1990s wars and their consequences—but also for building new civil societies and endowing citizens as agents of their own futures.

Beale Street: No Fun Zone

Originally posted on Open Salon on May 28, 2012, this post was co-authored by Eric Garcia and Jovana Babovic. 

Memphis’s Beale Street has a place in America’s popular history as ground zero of the blues, and later rock’n’roll.  In the latter half of the nineteenth century, travelling musicians began to perform in the neighborhood, and by the turn of the century, Beale Street began to flourish as an entertainment district. Many legends of blues crossed paths—and many stayed on Beale Street in the 1920s and 1930s—when the neighborhood’s heyday rang in the style dubbed the “Memphis blues.” However, by the 1960s, two of the densest blocks were sectioned off as a National Historic Landmark in an effort to halt the spread of urban decay that was afflicting the region. Beale Street was designated for investment and re-building, but the urban renewal was not successful until the 1980s. It is now billed as one of the central tourist attractions in Memphis; as visitors to the city in 2011, we were eager to see how Beale Street was integrated into the urban fabric. In an unexpected twist, we didn’t have fun on Beale Street.

In a recent article, Will Doig wrote about “blocks where no one has fun.” These portions of a city, he argues, are products of a single visionary (usually a billionaire) or a developer who attempts to impose a particular function onto urban space. They are “swath[es] of cityscape whose character has been pre-ordained by a city council vote and is now identified by brightly colored banners affixed to lampposts.” Using Dallas’Arts Districts the case par excellence of a block where no one has fun, he then contrasts it to places such as Water Street in Milwaukee. According to Doig, the latter developed with governmental assistance and represents an example in which art and culture might develop organically in urban spaces that already have (or had) a place in the city’s fabric. The “blocks were no one has fun” moniker does not fit Memphis’ Beale Street. Beale Street is neither hyper-planned, nor is it an organically developing center of culture; it’s in between. It is a place that is supposed to be fun because history attests to it having been fun. Yet, the joy feels manufactured, much like the history of Beale Street, and it is therefore no fun at all. Beale Street becomes more akin to a Disneyland of Blues, where you purchase your fun at an inflated price: cover charge at every bar, $12 pints, and garage parks by the hour. These costs are circularly justified—after all, it is Beale Street.

Unlike Dallas’ Arts District, the problem with Beale Street is not its inauthenticity, but its insistent authenticity. Its revitalization meant new venues and businesses that fit within a clearly demarcated idea of what Beale Street meant historically and ostensibly also what it should mean today. The “authentic” experience one now gets on Beale Street is something that had never existed before. It does not have the problem of unused spaces, which plagues Dallas’ Arts District, but contemporary Beale Street has a similar problem. Doig argues that Dallas’ empty spaces create a “vacuum [that] has made the district itself a museum of sorts, something impressive to observe but strangely inert.” Beale Street has also become a museum, but it is not because it is abandoned or empty. Instead, it is something akin to a reanimated historical relic and a lived museum of blues history. Beale Street is crowded, and it’s evident that the majority of its patrons are tourists: college kids, families, and older couples. People come to Beale Street because of its past. Yet, the street is inert precisely because of this: in the attempts to capture history—a zeitgeist—Beale Street only captures the tourist market.

The legacy of Beale Street, but also its contemporary reiteration, was one of the things that attracted us, too, to Memphis. And, indeed, you hear blues’ standards on Beale Street. However, it’s difficult to hear anything else; the commodification of Beale Street into the historical blues epicenter of the country has excluded all other genres from the area. The music remains good—whether a singer-songwriter in third-floor lounge or an energetic five-man band pumping out Sam & Dave covers—but it’s hardly possible to enjoy it on Beale Street. Crowds of inebriated tourists snake in and out of bars seemingly unaware of the different performers, families with unhappy toddlers sit down for dinner at B.B. King’s, and the flashes of cameras are frequent enough to induce blindness. Everywhere we looked, people were racing to “experience” Beale Street—to drink in the zoned off street (an additional novelty), to eat fries, and to document all the fun they had while the blues played in the background. But, just steps outside the marked Beale Street area, Memphis becomes a ghost town.

In order to take in more music, we tried off Beale Street venues. In Cooper Young, we were met with a local band rendering Radiohead-esque interpretations of the blues. But, unlike Beale Street, the audience at this show was so scant that the band delayed their set several times, apparently hoping that more patrons would arrive. Despite the fantastic performance, we were disheartened by the lack of an audience. On another evening, we walked on empty streets and under a highway overpass for the specific purpose of listening to a local performer who came highly recommended, only to be disappointed that the show—at another small and empty venue doubling as a pizza parlor—had been cancelled.

On and off Beale Street, music was hard to enjoy in Memphis. Part of the problem is the demand. Because Beale Street is essentially a tourist destination—a historical site of the blues—it’s trapped in commercialization. Other sites of music in Memphis, such as Graceland and Stax Studios (now theStax Museum of American Soul Music), have been transformed into museums where the experience is geared towards learning about the history of music, rather than participating in it. Yet, unlike Graceland and Stax, Beale Street professes to be a space where the blues can be experienced live, not where it is memorialized or historicized. This feeds into the other part of the problem—supply. Beal Street has an official website, a Facebook page, and daily tours. It is branded as “the home of the blues” and “the birthplace of rock’n’roll,” while an unselfconscious advertisement professes that “Beale Street was built on memories.”

But Beale Street was not built on memories. It was built by the energy of the Delta blues, the communities of musicians who jammed together, and the intersections of American history. It might be better said that Beale Street today is being built on commercial aspiration. Here is where Beale Street, like the Dallas Arts District, falls into a similar trap Doig outlines. Why didn’t we have fun on Beale Street? As a place of tourism, Beale Street comes at a high price. As a place of history, Beale Street capitalizes on an undisclosed, yet static, moment in blues history. And, as a place of entertainment, Beale Street hardly makes an effort to veil its mass-consumption fun. We didn’t have fun on Beale Street because fun entailed participation in commercial consumption, and hardly had anything to do with history, and much less music.

How could Memphis’s Beale Street be transformed into a music district that lives up to its promises of being “the home of the blues?” An obvious suggestion is to make the area more affordable, and thus more attractive as a lived neighborhood for local residents and local musicians. Another consequence of Beale Street’s commercialization is that it has excluded music incompatible with the “blues” label; the city would do well to open a more inclusive repertoire that might promote an organic development of a new Memphis sound. And, finally, instead of cordoning off music into several blocks, Memphis might benefit from supporting music outside the Beale Street limits—its visitors surely would.

What is This Place?

This post originally appeared on Open Salon on February 27, 2012

How much of a role does place—a physical, geographic location—play in the way we conceptualize history, others, and ourselves? Places do have importance, but it’s not intrinsic. The historical significance of a place, I think, has less to do with an effortless emission of ‘history,’ but with the ability of people to weave history and place together. Place might function as a short-hand to understanding history, but it is important to concede that the understanding is limited. Sometimes, this limitation is self-imposed; like an almost knee-jerk reaction to the way we relate to foreign places.

I am currently a history graduate student living in Berlin. In the time I’ve been here, I’ve had numerous conversations with people—Germans and non-Germans, but mostly other US citizens—where the question of my presence in Berlin came up (with fellow US citizens, this is a mutual question that always arises). After explaining that I am a graduate student in history, the response, almost without exception, is: “well, this is the perfect place to be to study history.” In a sense, they are right. This is the perfect place for me to be, and one of the central reasons for that is because the relevant archives are here, as well as large collections of materials at the State Library that are not very easy to secure elsewhere. But that’s not what they mean. What I think they mean is that place exudes history. That one can better understand because a lot of stuff happened here. Again, this is partly true. Berlin (for example, although I think similar sentiments would be expressed in other places in Germany, Europe, and elsewhere) has been described as a ‘city of ghosts,’ whose contested buildings, streets, and monuments contain layers of historical change that do in fact enable historical understanding. However, I think that this has less to do with Berlin as a place in which historical events took place than with the evolving nature of historical consciousness in Germany and the necessity of making German history a part of public discourse.

This vernacular perception of place is by no means limited to everyday conversation. In Ruth Kluger’s memoir, Still Alive (German edition published in 1994; English edition 2003), about growing up in Nazi occupied Europe, experiencing concentration camps and dealing with the shifting legacy of what we now call ‘the Holocaust’ ever since the end of World War II, she criticizes the importance that we invest in particular places in history and in everyday life. Her example is Auschwitz. Auschwitz as it exists today, she argues, is a museum that attempts to capture time in place, an impossibility with questionable goals (who wants to recreate a death camp?). At best, the rebuilt camps of Auschwitz and the visitors they attract function as an attempt to provide its visitors with a connection to those who died there and a semblance of the feelings that they might have felt; at worst, according to Kluger, they function as a site of fetishizing death by circuitously making the visitors feel better about themselves, their humanitarianism, and the ‘human spirit’ of survival. Place cannot capture time, and better understanding of history follows from making this concession.

Kluger contrasts her feelings of Auschwitz as a place to Claude Lanzmann’s extensive 1985 documentary Shoah. Lanzmann is obsessed with recreating the places of the Holocaust, as if knowing how many steps taken by a prisoner or a guard from one place to another will make it easier to understand precisely what happened. Lanzmann also employs aggressive interviewing tactics. He asks and re-asks questions of those he interviews—mostly former camp guards, officers, and inmates—pushing for more and more detail, as if he can finally access the subterranean experiences that will eventually make the places make sense. Lanzmann’s approach suggests that historical places can and should be reconstructed in order to facilitate understanding.

Of course, place can also be considered with a bit of levity: a 2000 headline from the satirical website The Onion reads: “Woman who ‘Loves Brazil’ Has Only Seen Four Square Miles of It.” The article then tells of a woman who spent her twentieth anniversary in a sheltered resort four miles south of Rio de Janeiro, well away from the urban center’s poverty and crime. The critique in the satire should be clear: tourists tend to extrapolate regional ‘authenticity’ from minimal and controlled experiences in a foreign place. Clearly, there’s no real understanding in that. However, the assumption of understanding and authenticity (the resort has four authentic Brazilian restaurants!) leads to the oft-uttered phrase of the tourist: “I love this place!” Beyond the realm of satire, Paul Thereoux recently wrote in the New York Times about Nogales, Mexico, a border town. He assures his readers that there is more to Nogales than dentistry (you just have to read the article), and he implores everyone to “stay longer, travel deeper, and overcome timidity” in the places they visit.

I’ve found myself making such declarations. In the first meeting with my German tandem partner (where we get together to practice our respective foreign languages, English and German; tandem bicycles are not involved), I was telling him about myself and how I ended up in Germany studying German history. Not the first time I had this conversation, I knew to discount the requisite question of German lineage before he could even ask. But, somewhere during my explanation, I said: “and I just love Germany!” I immediately felt like as if I were a middle aged tourist on a resort in Brazil; finding it ‘neat’ that although Carnival only comes around once a year, Brazilians at the resort lounge Vedas Secas (translation: Barren Lives; I’m not sure to whom the joke is directed) mask on stage for ‘mini-Carnival’ every Friday night. Surely he didn’t read this feeling through my facial expression, but he did ask me why I ‘love Germany.’  I think I rambled on for a bit about there being a lot of bakeries, which evidently is a quick way to my heart. He was satisfied with the answer, if perhaps a bit confused.

What I did not say, however, was anything about there being ‘a lot of history here.’