Welcome

I write from time to time. I also take pictures from time to time, but find it difficult enough to organize my stories here, so there will be no more photographs on this site. You can find some on my Instagram account if you are inclined to do so.

As for what is here, I am making a small selection of the stories I like to tell. So far, the stories have been exclusively based on my life, but I started venturing into writing fiction, too. Let’s see how that goes.

Feel free to comment or to contact me.

The Last Project

The person on the train kept saying, “I believe,” over and over and over. The train, a Railjet Express 165, left Vienna for Innsbruck punctually at 9:30 on this first Sunday of April and there was only one other person in the third compartment behind the dining car, an elderly lady in a green tweed suit, her purse and a manila envelope the only pieces of luggage either one of them had. The two didn’t know each other and never spoke. As the train eased into Linz central station, the old lady stood up, picked up her purse, looked at her travel companion, and said “Good luck”. Then she was gone and all that was left in the compartment was silence, a pounding heart, an unwavering belief against all odds, and a manila envelope.

* * *

Jašar reached for the knob on his car stereo and soon the melancholic gypsy sounds filled the automobile. Of course, his name wasn’t Jašar anymore, for Jašar was killed by a landmine just outside of Sarajevo 14 years ago. There was nothing in his new life tying him to the person he was before, not a name, not his documents, not a single possession, not anybody he knew back then, save for one man. He was various people, right now a German entrepreneur on a business trip to Austria, yet in none of his many lives was there room for nostalgia. It was in the rare moments like this one, when nearing the end of one of his projects, that he would allow himself a little treat and would dive into the sounds of his childhood.

The man Jašar was waiting for was still in the house and if everything was as expected, it would be another few hours before he came out, making it likely that the deal would be closed tonight. Jašar spent months preparing for this meeting, both in Vienna and here, in the outskirts of Klagenfurt. He met the politician just once, at the party thrown by the British Embassy in Vienna to celebrate the Queen’s birthday, but he has never been far away from him since. He knew where he lived, his favorite restaurants and meals, which car he drove, and when he drove it by himself, what time he woke up, where his lover lived, what roads he took for every of his trips. He was visiting his lover right now, a young man who sang in a church choir, volunteered in the local fire brigade and lived in a small house with thickly nested red geraniums hanging over the dark oak balcony slabs, the one he inherited from his grandmother. In stark contrast to the modest abode stood the black government issued Volkswagen Phaeton parked in front of it, with its 12-cylinder and 6-liter motor announcing not only its own power wherever it went, but also of the man in it, the man who many believed would be the next Austrian Chancellor.

 

Continue reading The Last Project

The Traitor Dog

“Plav”, he said.

“What?”, I said back.

“Plav. That’s where you’re going to”

“No, no. There’s been some kind of mistake. I’m supposed to join the Sports Brigade in Pula”

“Plav”, he said tiredly, “It’s Plav, son. You are to report to the barracks on Saturday, September 1st. Here’s your travel money”

I got 420 Yugoslav Dinars. The kid in front of me got 35. The one behind me got 50. I had no idea where or what Plav was, but I was pretty sure I was fucked.

* * *

I liked dogs as a kid, but these were no dogs. They were bred from equal parts German Shepherd, Rotweiler, and centuries of uncontrolled anger. I was afraid of even the slobber coming out of their ever-foaming mouths, convinced it was so full of evil it would turn me to stone if it ended up touching me.

As it turned out, Plav was a village in the Accursed Mountains, the place where I was to spend the next 12 months protecting the Brotherhood and Unity of Yugoslav People against Albanian elements, who for some reason were determined to cross the border and harm The Greatest Socialist Country That Ever Existed. I was given a gun to deal with them once I find them. And I was to be given one of these dogs to find them in the first place.

* * *

It started snowing in October. We had to do our morning gymnastics shirtless for as long the temperature was above freezing. Once below, we were allowed to keep the sleeveless undershirt on.

“I’m feeling warm. I’m feeling the warmth spread through my body”, the Serbian kid next to me kept repeating out loud during the before-the-sunrise squats. His mother taught Yoga.

“You are stupid”, the Macedonian kid replied. He wasn’t recruited for this unit because he was a good athlete, but because he bribed recruitment officials in his village. It cost him one goat and in his mind increased his chances of getting married one day, preferably to Samantha Fox.

* * *

Continue reading The Traitor Dog

Not tonight, Son

As he strode to the plate, his bat leisurely resting on his shoulder, Karl knew this was it. This was the moment to settle it, once and for all. While there would perhaps be another chance, this was the first time, that one encounter that will remain etched in the collective memory the longest. And, frankly, he knew this was also his best shot, as time was not necessarily on his side.

He felt good. He got a clean single in the second, put up a good at bat in the fourth before lining out sharply to right field and then walked in the seventh. He was not the same menacing presence in the box he was ten, or even five years ago, but he was still someone you’d rather not face in the bottom of the ninth, with the tying run on first base.

They had a new kid on the mound, a young and cocky fireballer, like so many others sprouting around the league these days. He was just like so many Karl has faced over the years, and yet he was like no one before. For this tall and broad-shouldered lefty was his son.

* * *

Continue reading Not tonight, Son

Of growing up to be a child again

I was still a teenager when the men in uniform first came to kill me, and when I search for the moment in my life when I ceased to be a child, this is the one I keep returning to.

I had already been away from my home and my family for two years then, but both of those years — as different from each other as they could possibly be — had structure, had people taking care of me, of my daily schedule, of my duties and my free space. They were the years of the almost unquestioning belief in the system and my place within it. They were the years of doing the same I did my whole childhood – playing games, albeit ever changing ones.

Going to the Land of the Free for a one-year respite from life as a 17-year old is as much fun and games as it sounds. But even the year after that, spent in the secluded corner of the Accursed Mountains, sharing the uninhabited patches of nature with the wolf packs and being taught by those same men in uniform how to kill most efficiently, was but a game back then. The enemy was imaginary, and every repeated fired shot, knife stab, granate throw or neck-breaking grip was as far from its murderous reality as long jumps and hurdles were in the years prior. It was a new game, with new set of rules and new opponents to compete against. It was a strange, exhilarating way to spend a part of my childhood and, when we parted ways a year later, I still, very naively, thought that was the last times our paths would cross.

I was still a teenager when the men in uniform first came to kill me, but although I ceased to be a child on that day, there would still be a long time until I would start growing up, for there is more to being a grown-up than not being a child anymore.

One cannot grow while shackled to the ponderous ball of self-pity and I didn’t start for many more years until when, on this day twenty years ago, I would finally walk through the doors of a small student dormitory in southern Germany, in an old blue navy coat, wire rim glasses and uncombed hair and say, “Hi. I’m the new guy here”.

It was just a greeting back then, but with time it almost became a mission statement. What was supposed to last six months never ended, and with each passing day and year on the other side there was a little distance gained, a little more clay available to actively shape my life. A little more perspective to acknowledge and appreciate what so many people have done for me over the years. A little sadness that the new, somewhat wiser and more eloquent me will not have the chance to say thank you to all the departed ones. A little strength to look back and remember, both good and bad.

I started my quest for adulthood on that day twenty years ago, and the gods of my voyage have been very kind to me, granting me a good job, a nice place to live and a wonderful partner. But most of all, I was granted the ability to live my life here and now, and not in the yearnings for some time and place that will never come back. I was given so much more life, so many more days than I thought possible for the longest time.

I was still a teenager when the men in uniform first came to kill me, and while they never succeeded, I didn’t quite survive, either.

But for a long time now, I have been reconstructing the pieces of my former life, gluing them together with memories of love. And perhaps the best thing that my adulthood has brought me is that I have some of my childhood back. That the smell of the fresh bread my father used to bake found its way back to me over the one of burnt flesh; that my mother’s soothing voice again echoes in my memory louder than the terrifying roar of the approaching tanks; that when I close my eyes I see and feel my fig trees and blackberry fields and not the exploding entrails being washed into the cold and dark river of death.

On this day twenty years ago I walked not only into a student dormitory, but into the beginning of my adulthood, too. It was a great ride so far, a gift I never thought I would be given. Today, I am drinking to it, literally and quite heavily, but also to my childhood, the one I have again.

A baseball player’s day at the golf club

It was supposed to be a Sunday spent accompanying our friends and their kids to a Jurassic fossil excavation pit. I know. But, the friends are nice and one of their kids is actually our Godchild, so you do those things from time to time. And it was indeed a Sunday spent accompanying our friends and their kids to a Jurassic fossil excavation pit until the moment where a tennis ball came flying from Heaven.

It turned out that the pit shares a fence with a golf club where they had some sort of an Open Door Sunday. To show his gratitude, the guy whom we retrieved the ball for invited us over, thus mercifully ending our paleontological endeavors. To be fair, he actually invited the *kids* over to play kids golf with said tennis balls, but you know how much crime goes on these days, you can’t be careful enough and should never leave the children unattended.

So, about thirty seconds later, I had filled some sort of score card expressing my interest in joining the club and was assigned an instructor who took me to the driving range. Sunday was saved.

I was given a club and then shown a series of hand grips, slides, finger interlocks, crossovers and whatnots in an elaborate scheme that would put an average NBA handshake to shame. These were (I think) designed to help me understand how to place my hands on the club properly. After two minutes I interrupted the guy, “I know how to grip a bat, mate”, and was finally allowed to take some cuts:

SWINGING STRIKE, 0-1

Continue reading A baseball player’s day at the golf club

Don’t send the bread tomorrow

The last time I saw my elementary school is already a few years back. I remember thinking how everything seemed smaller than it did three and a half decades ago, when I walked into it for the first time, carrying a healthy dose of pride, a heavy backpack filled with future knowledge, and brand new pants and blazer, white and smart, courtesy of my mother’s nightly sewing. Yet, apart from the apparent size, the time hadn’t changed it much. It was still gray and brown, like most of the surrounding buildings, and it was still in a need of a little repair here and there. There were still kids running around that same playground where both my arm and my heart were broken, running with the energy and the ease you only have when you are completely unburdened with the pursuit of any greatness in life. The building transpired what it always did, that all who entered it were equal, not because anybody could achieve anything they wanted, but because nobody could. The only thing that changed was the name.

Streets, schools, institutions – where I come from, the names don’t last very long. As old men waving from the balconies give way to new men waving from the balconies, so do their visions, their narratives and their truths, their inscriptions on history and on the little plaques on the street corners. Back when I was little, our truth was knitted out of the fine threads of the virtues of communism and out of even finer ones in which brave men and women fought for those virtues and for our country. It was a colorful fabric of heroism and martyrdom, a guiding light of values to shape our lives after. A clear blueprint of not necessarily what is good, but who is and who isn’t.

The man whose bust looked down upon me every time I entered that edifice of primary education was a hero. And a martyr. His bravery was not the one of action, but the one of the strength of conviction which he would, and did, pay for with his own life. He was a school director, I was told, who taught his biggest lesson during the war, on a day when soldiers came to his town and to his school, looking for retaliation. Soldiers had been killed and there were to be 100 civilians executed for every loss of life, 50 for every wound. Staring at the firing squad, surrounded by his pupils, he was offered a pardon. He would have none of it. He chose death, uttering the ultimate words of bravery: “Shoot! Now, too, I am holding a class.”

Seventy years have passed since the man whose name used to grace my elementary school was killed, and seventy years is enough time for a lot of things to change, not only for the names of schools, streets and institutions. It is enough time for the narratives to lose steam and purpose, enough time for the facts to slowly just be. Heroes, too, have expiry dates. With time, a different picture emerged, no less tragic and none easier to fathom. The school director was indeed apprehended and jailed and he was indeed awaiting his execution. During those horrifying hours and days, every single connection anyone in his town had was pulled, every favor one was owed was played on. It was a frantic game in which lives were saved only to be replaced with other lives to be lost, it was humanity that was executed over and over again. The school director’s name found its way to one of the lists with a promise of freedom. The man who was in charge of exchanging the prisoners on such lists for the ones yet to be apprehended held a personal grudge against him and refused to free him. He was executed shortly thereafter, with no final stand, no final words and no class held.

His death was tragic, as were those of thousands who died along his side in those days. He wasn’t greater than life and there was nothing heroic about his death. There usually never is. He was scared, he was imprisoned and he didn’t want to die. He had dreams and fears, friends and enemies, lusts and convictions. He was a real man, not a caricature superhero that someone made him be. We make heroes all the time, be it to spread the narrative of our nation, our ideology or our religion. And when we do, we deny them the decency of empathy with their real struggle. A man tragically lost his life 70 years ago. He was human, not a bust waiting to be toppled or a shrine for someone to preach their tale.

When I look at my elementary school, I see a place where I learned to read and write and a place where I learned to handle numbers well. I also see a place that taught me all the wrong lessons about life, just like scores of elementary schools around the world do every day. A place that taught me that we have the heroes and that they have the villains, and that the only thing I can expect to change in life are the definitions of we and they. I wasn’t taught that when the school director was awaiting his bullet, he and many others found a way to send little messages to their families. I wish I had learned more about them, about the despair of their forlornness. About those who apologized to their families, for they would no longer be there for them. About those who lamented every lost moment they never took advantage of. About those who begged for help, or at least a little food.

It was only years later that I learned about one of those messages. It was short and simple and at first glance impersonal. It was sent just before the execution and it only said: “Don’t send the bread tomorrow”. The family should have it, it would do a dead man no good. I wish I were taught about that, I wish we all were. With no names, no nationalities and no religion attached. Only a story about a person who had to die because we as a society are prone to having people die for no reason, a story about a person who didn’t defend his ideals or make a great speech. About someone who found it in him to help and provide one last time, fully knowing that the world had failed him miserably. I wish we were taught that it was not heroism we ought to pursue, but humanity.

 

Chasing a dream

A few days after winning the 1994 Amateur Baseball World Series, Jimmy Summers entered the house in Eastern Ohio alone. He was about to negotiate his first baseball contract and all he brought to the meeting was a six-pack of beer, a burning desire to play ball and an open mind.

As he reached the cellar, he saw that Kruno and Damir Karin, the representatives of Baseball Klub Olimpija Karlovac, were already there. The brothers K were standing between the bar and the Ping-Pong table, flashing broad smiles and holding a bottle of vodka.

Jimmy looked at his beer and realized that he had brought a knife to a gun fight.

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Another one bites the dust

I’ll be honest with you.

Had I known from the beginning that the idea of designing a model to estimate the difficulty of blocking every major league pitch is not a new one—let alone a groundbreaking one—I might have spent significant portions of my free time doing stuff that involves sun and physical activity instead. But, I didn’t. And, anyway, as Jovanotti already sang: “Se tutti i grandi libri qualcuno li ha già scritti, mi chiedo ragazzi voi che cosa fate?”

And, yes, I am aware you have no idea who Jovanotti is. Your loss, really.
Continue reading Another one bites the dust