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The Wagon Hall Series: Interview with Azeri Photographer Nihad Gulamzada

Nihad Gulamzada is a photographer that we’ve been fond of for a long time at No-Yolo. He’s a Baku native that has been working in photography since 2012. He is a student at Bakı Jurnalistika Məktəbi (Bau School of Journalism) where he is majoring in multimedia. In 2014, he won first prize in Take a true, a photography competition hosted by the organization Art for Democracy. He is also an actor and studied violin for a couple of years but was no good at it. He kindly agreed to answer some questions that we had for him about his work, Baku and its railways:

Since the independence of Azerbaijan, Baku has been awash with money from the oil revenue generated by SOCAR. There has been a tremendous amount of investment spent on infrastructure and construction that has transformed the city from a typical post-Soviet city into the Dubai of the Caucasus. How do you feel about this transformation?

This is too controversial of a topic. It is good if Azerbaijan, especially Baku, is compared to Dubai. However, the question is, “Are people happy in this beautiful ‘Dubai’?” Nope, I don’t think so. The money that is coming from the oil belongs to the people. It should be spent only for people but unfortunately it is not like that. Poverty is growing day by day. It is okay that glorious buildings are being built and some of us admire them from afar but can people enter those palaces? No they can’t. The reason why Baku looks beautiful is because it’s new facade is geared towards glamorous people. So, Baku looks happy but the population isn’t.

I first took notice of your photography because I thought they made Baku appear almost charmingly dark. They conflicted with the attempts by the Azeri state to advertise the city as this bastion of high fashion and fine dining. Despite the amazing economic growth of the city, the identity of Baku as a city has not been solidified in the public imagination in Western Europe/North America, unlike cities such as Moscow and Kiev. What makes Baku unique as a city? What is that distinctive cocktail of flaws and beauty that makes Baku what it is?

My photos indicate Baku’s real face but it isn’t always beautiful. What can I do if I see the ugliness of Baku every day? I must shoot what I see. Baku was a beautiful city in the past. For me, Baku now looks tired and miserable. It had sincerity in the Soviet period. It was poor but it was kind and had a good landscape. Today, Baku just looks like a girl with too much make up.

The government presents Azerbaijan’s national food all around the world but a normal Azerbaijani can only eat those meals during holidays. Azerbaijan was known for its rich culture but today it is declining. The arts are not supported and artists get no help from the government. The are only two independent theatres in Azerbaijan and they cannot pay their rent. Even governmental organizations try to ignore them. Look, that’s why today’s Baku is not old Baku. A city ignoring arts can only face a collapse. The young try hard to prevent it but they’re not supported.

It was interesting that you set this photo series at the railroad station because it offers a very symbolic contrast with the new image of Baku. The railroad system was infrastructure implemented by the Soviet Union whereas other modes of transportation, like the refurbished Heydar Aliyev International Airport, are utilized to present the new image of Baku. What aspect of the train station appealed to you?

Heydar Aliyev International Airport is really beautiful. It was supposed to be beautiful because it was named in memory of our current president’s father who also was the president before he died. That’s not true of our railroads. That infrastructure is a leftover from the Soviet times. I believe that it will be repaired right after it is named in honor of Heydar Aliyev. It will be number one in the world!

I live near to the station everyone knows as Old Station. I used to walk along its long platform. It was a calm and quiet area. Trains there carried mostly the poor passengers. I wanted to take many photos there but after three or four hours I could only manage to take seven pictures because it is forbidden to take photos while in the station. The police were preventing me, as you know. I was curious to take people’s photos while they were crossing very fast in front of me without stopping. It was a good landscape. It was peaceful for me. The train stopped and people were crossing. I could only take those photos in the series. Who knows how many millions of people had crossed there since the Soviet Union? How many people those trains had seen?

Lastly, you surely know from our communication No-Yolo firmly believes if you want to understand anything about a city then you must get drunk there. Where would you suggestion people get drunk in Baku?

Baku has got a lot of pubs and cafes, but I’d advise guys who would like to drink in a civil and quiet place to go to TRASH Art Cafe. This cafe is located inside a theatre. People would enjoy themselves quite a lot there. Actually, this cafe is specifically for people who value politeness and want to have fun in an enjoyable way. If you would like to just get drunk, you could go to the pubs near the Baku Train Station!

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There Is No “Oui” Without You And I: Defending Long Distance Relationships

I was scurrying out of the Airbnb that I had rented right next to the main square in Belgrade. It was mid November, so it felt bitterly cold, particularly since I had just arrived from the Middle East. What you don’t realize while living in the desert is that every temperature is going to be uncomfortable for the rest of your life: you’re going to sweat like a pregnant nun while in the desert and freeze your willy off once you enter any ecosystem below 20 C. Thus, I looked like a man readying himself for some polar exploration. I was indeed going north, however I was off to Budapest. Equally glamorous in my mind but admittedly less ambitious than the North Pole.

At that moment, I was feeling remarkably daring and ambitious. The day before I had tried to get a direct daytime ticket to Budapest but they were sold out. Instead, I was going to have to catch a bus to the northern Serbian city of Subotica then pray that tickets from there would be available to Budapest. Sure, this doesn’t seem overly complex but despite the amazing amount of traveling I’m always convinced something horrible will always happen. Due to some sort of obsession with having to have everything organized, this appeared rather daring in my mind.

Luckily for my overzealous need to be timely, I got down to the bus station way too prematurely and was an hour early for the bus. I needed to eat so I stepped into the café and managed to get some vegetarian food through using my broken Russian, which is a sort of linguistic cousin to Serbian. I quickly placed on my headphones and put on the newest Jeremih record. The entire album is a rather debauched listen with a lot of soft falsetto whispers telling women the amazing pleasure that he’ll bring them. A man of my modest charisma and looks would never try such shit. The man has to be a pervert or horribly desperate to try those lines out, unless he happens to have millions of social media subscribers. The ladies working at the counter, who had decorated it with Orthodox icons of Christ, would have had some choice words if they knew the perversion I was enjoying in their midst.

Throughout this bombast of sensual pleasure, there was one track that entirely broke from that pattern. The track Oui had that sort of lyrical genius that only a very daft man or poetic genius could manage: “There is no “Oui” without you and I.” It was so elementary and basic in its character. Life ceases to hold that unlimited possibility once that other is gone. All else feels void when apart from that person. What amounts to nothing more than an English grammar pun expresses that emotion that drives us to be our best and worst person. I am a sucker for culture that’s not exactly high minded and it might not be exactly William Blake class but I don’t think you’re going to find wiser words about love in this decade of excess.

I was feeling weirdly amorous but also bittersweet while listening to this song. I had been spending my entire time in Belgrade with a beautiful accountant who was fond of jazz but I knew that it would go nowhere in the long run. I also knew that I’d certainly end up hooking up with a girl in Budapest, as was my habit whenever I traveled alone.

Feeling amiss, I listened to this track over and over while reflecting upon travel and romance. Never at any point in time is it easier to meet people, hook up, and constantly find that boost to your ego. For a while, it is cool and you feel like you’re that person. What the majority learns sooner than later though is that although it’s fun for a short time, it is ultimately empty. The basic foundations that we all assumed from the start were true. Only expressing a mélange of care and honesty to that person/s while committing to being your best person is the only chance for real happiness. This certainly doesn’t apply for all, but a good majority of us will find this to be true.

The natural reaction to all these emotions is a change in lifestyle, to find someone, and give them a chance. But like all simple answers, circumstance manages to problematize that. I am like many others, in that my professional and lifestyle choices mean that I’m rarely in the same place for a sustained period of time. Cultivating any sort of relationship is amazingly difficult when the only commitment that you’ll positively be able to keep up is not losing your passport while on a night out in Ethiopia. That doesn’t imply inherently that you must sleep around and have aimless relationships. If you’re feeling in love and brave then, just maybe, a long distance relationship might be for you.

Placing the words “long distance relationships” in that particular order rarely garners a pleasant reaction. Relationships of the long distance variety are viewed as emotionally taxing, highly prone to collapse, and a horrible investment of the prime years of our lives. Any list of The Ten Solutions To Making A Long Distance Relationship Work are void of any substance and just serve to remind you of the complete absurdity of it all. There is little denying that long distance relationships deserve much more than that. With all these considerations, I’m still not one to discount cuddling the absurd.

The dreadfully wonderful aspect of life is that while traveling there is a probable chance that you’ll meet someone that will change your life. In many ways, love and travel are logical partners. They are both one of the few areas that allow us to feel idealistic about ourselves. The joy that we gather from the places we travel to and the people we fall for deserve our best, and in keeping with that promise we push ourselves to a higher station. More functionally, travel enables us to break from the confinements of life and find people that we don’t simply live close to, but have a substantial connection with. You don’t meet someone traveling that you ‘settle’ with. You meet people you actually adore.

The moment you meet that special person will be nothing less than an abrupt and sudden break from the past, because you made the decision to love. Prior concerns will be reduced to white noise that acted to mask what was the real priority: that one whose ability to make love is disrupted by fits of laughter when revealing how awkward it is to listen to Meu Glorioso São Cristóvão while naked; that one with whom you share a notepad of countries that must be visited by year’s end just to make excuses to see each other; and the one that just smiles when you return to the hotel loaded after watching Spurs lose, saying “it is okay to take advantage of me”, just before drunkenly passing out on the bed because she knows that you’ll sleep more still thus being able to hold you throughout the night.

The calculus that rendered all the monotonous details of your life as just had an extra variable added. Sadly, while traveling, that means there is a very good chance that person is going to be far, far away and you’re going to know that without them the entire logic of life will be warped and unfulfilling. You’ll be in love, and you’ll be fucked.

Once the realization becomes apparent that no emotional wealth is worth going without that person’s presence then you’ll make the painfully discomforting decision to plunge yourself into a long distance relationship. It would be cheap at this point to suggest a long line of tips and ideas to make it easier. It will be nothing less than dreadful. It never gets easy but there are comforts to take. If we understand love to be not just an emotion but a process, then we can see it as an ongoing series of complex interactions involving people who care for one another. Barthes articulates this idea more eloquently in his frequently quoted statement from A Lover’s Discourse,

“Am I in love? –yes, since I am waiting. The other one never waits. Sometimes I want to play the part of the one who doesn’t wait; I try to busy myself elsewhere, to arrive late; but I always lose at this game. Whatever I do, I find myself there, with nothing to do, punctual, even ahead of time. The lover’s fatal identity is precisely this: I am the one who waits.”

That waiting which Barthes speaks about is the anxiety that comes from the lack of any affirmation. In relation to distance, it would seem to just exasperate that anxiety: Is that person with someone else? Will it ever come to an end? However, if we think of waiting in a slightly different way then a certain comfort can come about.

I believe a certain bittersweet joy can come out of a long distance relationship that is distinctively beautiful in a way that a normal relationship is incapable of. You will wait. You will wait for a response for a Whatsapp message. You will wait in airports. You will wait for people to feel like themselves again so that they can make this relationship work. With that waiting, you will certainly pause not to focus on the micro details of a relationship that diminishes the luster of it. You will have the space and ability to focus on the broader issue that this isn’t just someone that lucked their way into your life. You will speak for hours through every medium of conversation that will allow you to appreciate the depths of their personality.

You will have that space to be idealistic about this person and not allow silly shit like who used the last bit of the toothpaste to drag down a relationship. You’ll be reminded periodically that this person doesn’t present a massive crescendo in your life but the one whose existence makes those small moments of life bearable.

Despite the distance and all that pain, you know life becomes far more possible with them. I don’t doubt that eventually you’ll want to live closer together but there is something almost refreshing and compelling about having this space apart with someone you really feel like you have something special with. Take a twisted pleasure in missing that person, knowing that your love hasn’t been made dull by monotony. You will be with them because they’re not just someone who is a convenience but a person that you adore, love, and want to create something special with. So please, don’t just see the negativity of long distance relationships but see them as a chance.

Don’t believe what you’ve heard
‘Faithful’s’ not a bad word
Oh, won’t you save these bachelor kisses now
They’re for your brow
Oh, won’t you save these bachelor kisses now
They’re for your brow

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Should we call them “C-type citizens” or simply “Hyper-pigmented”?

We all celebrated your accession to the European Union in 2004 by cheerfully singing along to the Ode of Joy, aka Symphony No.9 by Beethoven. Actually, in these countries the lyrics should have been customized from “All people become brothers” to “All people become brothers but Romanis…”

The 8th of April has been dedicated to International Romani Day and most of us have spent it showing fake respect to all the Romani heroes and artists who miraculously managed to break through the Roma Walls and state-supported segregation.

When Westerners hear anything about gypsies in Europe, probably their first association is the overly romanticized idyll created by the movies of Emir Kusturica, the music of Goran Bregović and Boban Markovi: Some exotic community ‘livin’ la vida loca’; always dancing and playing the violin while smelling like shit.

In reality they are the most hated, marginalized and stigmatized community on the European continent. Despite all the badly implemented, and therefore failed, integration attempts (I mean in those countries who actually even tried to), the problem persists and is very far from being solved or improved in any way. What makes it even more tragic is the long history since they arrived in Europe in the 14th century and the sustaining racism. In the 15th and 16th centuries they were expelled from most European countries, while Switzerland managed to top this craziness with a law ordering that any Romani found in the country had to get killed.

Amongst all the fuckedup-ness and social intolerance towards Romanis, one of the sickest things is that in many cases it is damn fucking difficult to pinpoint who is actually a gypsy. They speak the same language as anyone else in the given country, their names are not always typical and there are even blond Romani tribes with light-coloured eyes and freckles. Luckily, us Europeans can just differ based on stereotypes such as:

  • Uneducated, almost illiterate
  • Always eating sunflower seeds and spitting the shells everywhere
  • Heavy involvement into criminal activities, especially stealing and drug usage
  • Prostitution
  • Incest and inbreeding
  • High amount of teen moms
  • Lack of personal hygiene
  • Being very tasteless in clothing and furnishing
  • Not working, just taking advantage of social welfare

Looking at this list of stereotypes, some questions need to be asked of us in Central and Eastern Europe, where our bigotry is only matched by our fondness for drink.

Can’t it be, Dear CEE EU Members, that Romanis have been expelled from normal life, isolated and are hardly ever given a decent chance to show what they could achieve?

Don’t we think, that being poor, not finishing studies and doing criminal activities are much more society’s than the individual’s fault?

Don’t we think, that being mistreated, judged and prejudiced, looked down upon, makes you bitter and not even willing to stand up for yourself?

Our refusal in Europe to ask and seriously address these questions has dire consequences. Romanis were killed in an industrialized fashion during the Second World War, similar to the Jewish Holocaust. The Romani Holocaust’s is called Porajmos in the Romani language. The death toll is still unclear but it is estimated that up to 1.2 million people were systematically murdered. The Romani population currently living in our region consists of Holocaust survivors (the only ones whose situation did not get much better since then). Yet they are the eternal scapegoats of modern times, getting blamed for everything.

Even though the communist regimes of the mid to late-20th century was supposed to be about equality and equal work, gypsies were still considered as the dirty scum of the Earth. Gypsy camps were cruelly eliminated, its inhabitants were forcibly shaved and got lousicide treatment, then were forced to work in factories and mines under miserable circumstances.

Remarkably, each individual in Central and Eastern Europe has and continues to treat these people like absolute shit. Here is a little break down of their racism.

Dear Romania,

You are a rock star in this horror story, scoring very high due to the fact that you had official Romani Slavery till 1856! Of course the situation of the ethnicity has still not become much better. In fact, most of this minority is still unpaid.

Before the country joined the EU, its capital, Bucharest, had many hundreds of homeless children – mostly Romani – living in the canal system under the city, close to the steam pipes. The state somehow managed to decrease this number, but even in 2014, 50.000 Romani people had been evicted and made homeless by the state.

In the last few years the new trend for Romani people is to travel to Scandinavia and illegally work there as street beggars. In some cities in Sweden there is a Romani beggar at each store entrance. They work in proper shifts, you can spot them changing and passing over to the next person.

Imagine their living standards at home if they’ve moved so far to do one of the most humiliating “jobs” in the blistering cold of the Swedish winter.

Dear Hungary,

You also did wonderfully last year, when the leaders of your third biggest city, Miskolc, made the wise decision to liquidate and evacuate lots of Romani inhabitants from the most disadvantaged neighborhood of town, so that they could start the construction of a new stadium nearby. Yeah, we all need fancy stadiums, football hooligans and more homeless people. In the end, this genius plan fell through because it got a lot of attention and both foreign and local media were whipping the municipality for its inhuman decision.

A few years ago there were long political discussions about banning our own n-word, the word „cigány” (=gypsy) due to its offensive nature and for all the bad connotations attached to it. This appeared to be a very kind and thoughtful move until you heard the contra-proposal: the degrading gypsy (cigány) word should be replaced by two newly introduced terms: 1. For administrative and official usage the description “C-type citizen” and 2. In media the term “hyper-pigmented” should be used.

Much less offensive, isn’t it?!

It is impossible to decide if these politicians are seriously brain damaged or they think that you are so retarded that you would fall for this hypocrisy and think that only pure goodwill and thoughtfulness led them to come up with this disgrace, they just could not find the appropriate words.

In Hungary you can meet racism everywhere, even in business life, especially in the real estate business. When trying to rent or buy an apartment, one of coolest sales pitch you can hear from the owner or the real estate agent is very often that there are no Romanis in the building or in the neighborhood. So this promotional speech really happens in a well built up way; “at the end of the hall you find the kitchen, the whole place has recently been fully renovated, new windows, excellent transport connection, etc… and last but not least: No gypsies living in the building! Not even in the next one!”

Dear citizens of former Czechoslovakia,

Are you aware of the fact that, during the communist era in Czechoslovakia Romanis were stigmatized as a socially degraded layer and the genius system implemented a policy to sterilize Romani females in an industrialized way in order to reduce their population?

Something that went pretty viral online was when Romani people were protesting against accepting refugees to the Czech Republic with a banner saying the following: “The Czech Republic belongs to us and to our white brothers”. This action tells quite a lot about the feeling of “being treated differently”.

The most notorious and largest ghetto in Slovakia, the Luník IX project in Kosice offers you all the thrills of a proper post-apocalyptic landscape. The blocks of flats were planned for 2500 inhabitants, but in reality this number is 3 times higher today and a few years ago the city did not even provide them with basic common services. Since most inhabitants didn’t pay for utilities, electricity, gas and water services were cut off.

Walls of Shame

So what should be the solution for integration problems and racism?
Incredibly, some countries, namely the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania seemed to have come up with the ultimate solution:
They built walls around Romani populated areas, thus turning them into proper ghettos!

In the Czech Republic a concrete wall was surrounding the Romani part of town in Ústí nad Labem. The authorities tried to protect themselves with the argument that the wall was not meant for segregation but was merely a “noise barrier” with the added benefit of keeping Romani kids away from the main road.

In Baia Mare, Romania, the municipality also urged the construction of a wall separating Romani from non-Romani people in 2011. The author of this despicable action was the mayor at the time, who was also later re-elected.

In 2013, Slovakia had 14 Roma walls but the most famous was the one in Košice. Even with such a wall, Košice had the title of European Capital of Culture in 2013. Might it be, that these kind of walls are the cultural monuments of our time?

Dear all of the above mentioned countries (whose great social values are highly incontestable),
Isn’t the most tragic aspect of all of it that in order to be able to join the EU, you only need to meet a handful of the basic requirements such as:

  • stable institutions guaranteeing democracy,
  • the rule of law,
  • human rights
  • respect for and protection of minorities ?

Could it be that meeting only two out of the four is equal to a “pass” grade?
Might it be the freedom in the interpretation of the notion of democracy and “All people become brothers”?
Might it mean that none of our great countries have met all the prerequisites?
…or might it mean that this time we are not the ones fenced off by the Wall?

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Bye Bye, American Pie: Travelling with an Eating Disorder

There, I’ve said it, but it was not easy to create this article. To me writing equals therapy, but sharing such a personal story with the rest of the world is a massive step. Not being the kind of person who vents every detail of her life to the next passer-by, it makes me feel vulnerable and nervous.

However, this is something that has been destructing my life and body for a while now, and slowly built up to the erupting volcano I experienced not that long ago. This article could be part of the recovery process.

If anybody asks me about my dream job, I always refer to Anthony Bourdain. He travels, he eats, he writes: three of my favourite things fused into one. It has always been clear that writing and travelling are important elements of my life, my relationship with eating however is a little more complex. Undeniably I love food. I can vividly talk about it for hours. When people tell me about their next travel destination, nine out of ten times my first comment will be about the local cuisine. I sincerely get excited by it and always look forward to my next meal. Still, I impose heavy restrictions on myself and my diet.

My relationship with my body also has a long, complicated history. Having felt insecure about my weight for most of my life, I cannot really remember one time where I did not feel guilty about eating anything besides fruit or vegetables.

I hate clichés and predictability. When I faced the fact that I have an eating disorder a couple of weeks ago, my first thought was: Jesus, how original. I used to work in an industry which disproportionately focuses on appearance and beauty, and now I realize that this might as well have been the final push. Already having a sensitive, perhaps distorted, body image, and constantly being exposed to the completely unrealistic standards of beauty: it’s not exactly a healthy combination.

It started out innocently with trying to eat a little healthier, even though there wasn’t really anything wrong with what I ate. Whereas I used to say I could never do a low-carb diet, these days I get anxious when I eat bread more than once or twice a month. The results of this shifting mindset were quite dramatic. Part of having such a disorder is about being in control, which in my case turned into an obsession. I would for example decline dinner invitations, afraid of losing the power over the ingredients in my meals, rather meeting friends for drinks afterwards instead.

Not only did it take its toll on my social life, my health went down significantly as well. Probably losing too much weight too fast, my body went into Bear Grills survival mode and started shutting down the vital functions a normally operating body should have. Just a few of the complaints included weakness, always feeling cold, dizziness, a useless immune system, lack of physical and social energy, depression, brain fog, messed-up hormones, and… right, memory loss. Add a complete inability of my body to absorb alcohol and your party’s complete. Ironically, my body was eating me away from the inside. It felt like I wasn’t really alive for most of the past year, but trying to survive instead.

Friends and family had noticed my weight loss and started saying I looked too skinny. I could not believe it. Most of my life I perceived myself as fat, and Fatlana still lives in my head, so how could I be ‘too’ skinny? Then, after posting some photos of a trip to the Dead Sea where I was hanging out in swimwear, I got several comments. My mum, for example, told me she simply could not look at those pictures because they shocked her, and asked if I really was okay. I disqualified her worries, saying everything was under control.

Later I realized, it wasn’t under control. The disorder controlled me. Already admitting this made things a lot clearer to me. I started changing my diet a bit, took the medication as prescribed by my doctor, and immediately felt a lot better. It was actually astonishing how it influenced my mood and energy levels in such short time. It made me see how badly I had been treating myself, and that I should take better care.

And then she lived happily ever after, you would think. But remember how I hate clichés? Even though the physical proof is here, in my face, and cannot be denied, it is still hard for me to balance my body’s needs with my (sick?) mental demands. Whenever I eat something that is off-limits in my self-prescribed diet, I feel guilty and the need to compensate arises. The necessity to control is still there, yet thankfully my lust for life is reappearing on the stage of my existence.

And this existence is enriched by travel, but travelling can be hard when you are picky about what you eat. There often is a language barrier, and unless you rent an apartment and prepare your own food (which to me undermines the whole point of travelling, unless you are in expensive countries), it is hard to control your meals. Dishes drenched in oil, greasy undefinable pieces of meat, piles of bread served with every meal: this is the stuff my nightmares would be made of.

Being uptight and anxious about food has influenced my way of travelling. I noticed I started to turn into one of those annoying people that are very specific and picky about what they eat, and are asking stupid questions about the ingredients. That was painfully confronting. Apart from that, denying my body access to some foods it needs and the medical consequences of that have really affected my lust for travel, my stamina, and my social energy. Not to mention all those wonderful dishes I missed out on!

Having said that, there is still an adventurous Indiana Jones present in me, and when abroad, I usually cut myself some slack. I want to try everything, that for me is one of the best motivations to travel. When I was in Morocco earlier this year, I was so happy about the delicious fruit juices and olives that were available everywhere, but regardless of how healthy I ate, upon return I ‘punished’ myself by just having soups or salads. I am not sure I actually realize how insane this must sound to somebody with a healthy approach to nutrition and body image, but I’ve decided this needs to stop.

My skinniest pair of pants, which I got in the heyday of my disorder, still fit me. Which is puzzling, because after adapting my diet, I feel like my body has grown. Still, I am positive things will turn out to be okay. This was just one of those less pleasant chapters you need to struggle through to get to the better parts of the book. Hence, my plan de campagne is as follows:

1. Hunt Fatlana down.

2. Kick her ass.

3. Understand that the body is not just some piece of decoration, but a functioning machine in need of a complex cocktail of nutrients.

4. Finally, to celebrate, sit down and enjoy a massive guilt-free feast without feeling the need to survive on carrots the next week. Preferably together with Anthony Bourdain.

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Raging Bulls Wigs and Glorious Mullets: Bulgaria at the 1994 World Cup

In the modern technological age, it’s quite easy to take for granted the vast amounts of information available to us about people and cultures from across the globe. But for those of us who grew up in the late 80s and early 90s- a generation now glibly labelled ‘millenials’– vast swathes of the world’s populations, despite experiencing unprecedented levels of social and political change at the time, still seemed so mysterious.

As a sports-mad child who was also fascinated by the newly-independent nations emerging from behind the Iron Curtain, the only real opportunities I could get to see what people from these places actually looked like – in a non-civil war setting at least – was via terrestrial TV coverage of international tournaments such as the Olympics, the European Championships or the World Cup.

I was nine years old back in the summer of 1994 when the USA hosted the football, or “sawker” World Cup, and I became entranced by one ‘dark horse’ team who hailed from an exotic and mysterious corner of the world. As the birth of the world wide web was still a year or so away, the only glimpses that I got of these men in the lead-up to the tournament were via my Panini sticker books, 30 second highlights on Trans-World Sport or the 2-D brilliance of Sensible Soccer on the Commodore Amiga. And, despite now being part of a freer Europe, and only one very famous player aside, I knew next to nothing about Bulgaria.

Once the tournament kicked off however, I was enthralled by this team that looked like no other. The antithesis of the Budweiser-sponsored razzmatazz bullshit of the hosts, they represented with pride a country struggling in the post-Communist political and economic shit storm, coming from nowhere to reach the last four in the world. A well-drilled team of outsiders and outlaws, who had either too much or too little hair, they managed to produce some beautiful and lethal counter-attacking football and, but for Italy’s ‘divine ponytail’, could have gone all the way.

The 1994 squad were unique in that they were the first generation of Bulgarian players permitted to play club football abroad following the collapse of communist rule in 1989. Previously players could only leave Bulgaria once they’d reached the age of 28, but once these restrictions were lifted in 1990, an exodus ensued.

Broody and temperamental, but forgiven his frequent moments of madness due to his immense talent, Hristo Stoichkov was Bulgaria’s brightest star and moved from CSKA Sofia to John Cruyff’s Barcelona as soon as communism ended, where he would form a lethal partnership with the Brazilian Romario. He would make proclamations prior to USA ’94 like “There are only two Christs- one plays for Barcelona, and the other is in heaven.” At the age of 19 he was given a lifelong ban for his involvement in a fight during the 1985 Bulgarian Cup Final and in his first season at Barcelona he was suspended for 2 months for stamping on a referee’s foot. He reminded me of De Niro in Raging Bull. He was the daddy.

Other player archetypes whose stock improved after moving from the East included the mulleted “Industrious Winger” Kostadinov, who ended up at FC Porto and scored the crucial goal against France in Paris to get Bulgaria to the World Cup, and “The Lanky Centre Forward” Penev of Valencia, who also sported a mullet but would be forced to miss the tournament to undergo cancer treatment. Mullets, it seemed, were still fashionable in Bulgaria circa 1994.

Standing out like a sore thumb among the Hair Bear Bunch however was Hamburg’s Yordan Letchkov, aka “The blg2Magician”. Letchkov was completely bald, save for a tiny tuft of hair at the top of his forehead, and blamed his premature hair loss on the 1986 Chernobyl disaster: “Sliven (his home town) is only 300 kilometers (180 miles) from Chernobyl and two to three months after the accident many young men in Sliven lost their hair,” he was quoted as saying. Without a smartphone to hand, his interviewer would have had to go to the local library to confirm the fact that Sliven is in fact more like 500 miles from Chernobyl. Letchkov was, however, ambidextrous.

With his patchy beard, bushy monobrow and red sunken eyes, the team’s central defender Trifan Ivanov, resembled a binman who had just done a 40-hour shift. To the annoyance of his teammates and fans, he had a penchant for booting the ball at the goal from 50 yards, just because he wanted to. He more than likely brought his boots to the game in a plastic Morrisonsshopping bag. Yet here he was, the man labelled the best central defender of the early 90s by Auxerre’s legendary manager Guy Roux, neatly placing the elegant Argentinian Gabriel Batistuta, the very antithesis of Ivanov, in his proverbial back pocket.

Completing this exotic bunch of misfits was follically-challenged goalkeeper Borislav Mikhailov, who wore a wig, even while playing, and Ilian Kiriakov, a 5’5 ginger haired right-back who ended up being a regular in the clubs and casinos of Aberdeen.

Going into the 1994 tournament, Bulgaria had never won a World Cup finals match, despite qualifying five times previously, and they found themselves drawn in a tough group with a coked-up-Maradona-inspired Argentina, African new boys Nigeria and a typically solid Greek side.

It looked as though their retched record at the World Cup would continue as they were trashed 3-0 by Nigeria in their opening game in Dallas. Reflecting the low expectations that the Bulgarians had of progressing in the tournament, following the defeat, coach Penev allowed the players to bring their wives and girlfriends back to the squad’s hotel with them. A night of drinking, smoking and pool parties ensued – unprecedented, even then, for a World Cup squad in the middle of a tournament!

Perhaps reinvigorated by the pool parties and the sexy time, the Bulgarians faced Greece in their second game, and things improved substantially as Stoichkov scored two penalties, Letchkov added a third and substitute Borimirov completed the impressive 4-0 rout. Bulgaria had finally won a game at the World Cup.

Their final game of the group, against an Argentinian side minus Maradona, marked the real turning point for the team however. Stoichkov scored following a sublime through-ball from Kostadinov and Nasko Sirakov put the icing on the cake in the last minute with a header, easing Bulgaria in to the last sixteen where they would face Mexico.

Notable mainly for the moment when one of the Mexican defenders snapped the crossbar after sliding into it, along with the mental breakdown of the Syrian referee, who dished out 8 yellow cards and 2 red, Bulgaria prevailed on penalties following a 1-1 draw with the heavily-supported Mexicans in New Jersey. Delirious following his heroics in the penalty shootout, Mikhailov declared “I want to kiss my entire nation!” They probably would have obliged him as well.

Next up were holders Germany, who went ahead after Letchkov conceded a penalty early in the second half. Once again however, Stoichkov scored, equalising with a stunning 40-yard free kick. Just a few minutes later it was The Magician, Letchkov, who with his dome shimmering in the summer sun, made the difference with an unstoppable and unforgettable diving header to make it an incredible 2-1.

Bulgaria had just completed one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history. Penev would call it “the finest day in Bulgarian football history”, while Stoichkov, in typical fashion, later remarked ‘To be honest, it was an easy win’. Once the game had finished, I took my ball out to the local playground and spent hours trying to emulate Stoichkov’s freekick technique.

Bulgaria eventually lost out to Italy and the pony-tailed Roberto Baggio in the semis at The Giants Stadium in New York and were subsequently beaten 4-0 by Sweden in the dreaded third-place play-off. The fairytale was over.

22 years on, finding myself in the cynical world of adulthood, where corporatism smothers creativity and imagination, I doubt that I’ll ever see another team so full of character that would create so many memorable moments like the Bulgarian team of 1994. The world has changed too much, for better or worse.

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The Joys of Nothingness in Tirana and Bucharest

There is a lot of cliched shit you can say about the major cities of the world. In Paris, you fall in love. In Rome, you eat pizza. In Rio, you go to the beach and get mugged. In Bangkok, you get an STD that will eventually wipe out the human race. In London, you get ripped off while buying a drink. The question I’m left with is ‘what the fuck do you do in Tirana and Bucharest?’

These countries in a sort of way have little in common other than the fact that their people are regularly depicted in films stealing cars with Russian accents by American actors that probably couldn’t locate them on a map. They’re only separated by one country but there is really an ocean of difference between them. Culturally, religiously, and politically they have pretty loose links. I suppose they could conceivably be considered Balkan but no one is really sure what ‘the Balkans’ is other than Wikipedia. Honestly, the only time anyone seems to call themselves Balkan is when they hit that genocidal degree of anger or smother you with food. It is all a bit too fucking vague.

Both Tirana and Bucharest are capitals of countries that are anomalies within their respective regions. Despite the constant confusion, neither are Slavic, like their neighbors. Romanian as a language is from the Latin family, while Albanian is a completely distinctive language altogether. Both are distinct except for the fact that they have little brothers – in Kosovo and Moldova – that have had far more beleaguered recent histories in contrast to their relatively straightforward paths post-communism. I stress “relatively” because there have been a couple of fuck ups here and there. What can certainly be said of them is that they really don’t fit any mold.

Despite both being capitals, neither city is viewed in a particularly positive light compared to other cities in their countries. You’ll hear far more about the beauty of Cluj or Shkoder than you will hear about these poor devils. Weirdly, both are assumed to be pretty violent places regardless of the fact that they have pretty low crime rates compared to their neighbors. I guess that’s a hangover from the post-Communist years when people first visited these places with absolute horror at the poverty and the shit supermarkets. What really binds these two unlikely pals is the joy of nothingness that can be found within these cities. They’re beautiful because they’re blank.

If you ever read The General of the Dead Army, you’ll notice that even Albania’s most acclaimed author, Ismail Kadare, can’t really muster up anything to say about the city. The two main characters do little more than try to avoid the cold streets of Tirana and the trauma of digging up their dead compatriots. The General drinks too much there. The Priest just moans. Maybe because there was nothing else to do! I read in one Complete History of Albania that Tirana was nothing more than an over-sized village before the fall of Communism. I believe the exact word the author used was “eye-sore” but a co-worker stole the book so I can’t confirm that. Overall, the city gets a horrible rep.

Currently, Tirana lacks any of the fashionable features that even the most backward cities of Europe have. There are no hipster bars for travelers to feel like they’re not in a tourist trap and there are no vegetarian restaurants that I know of, and I can always find them! There is nothing cool in that ‘artisanal fixed-gear biker’ sort of way about Tirana.

There is a great quote from a German commander speaking about Bucharest as a city. Field Marshal August von Mackensen said, “I came to Bucharest two years ago with a legion of conquering heroes. I leave with a troupe of gigolos and racketeers.” Remarkably, the image of the city vaguely lingers. Perhaps the most enduring post-Communist image of Bucharest is the much-acclaimed documentary about its street children called Children Underground. Surely, you can see how that wouldn’t be the most uplifting shit to watch. Overall, the city has been said to be dirty, lacking charisma, and has been described as “like techno music and McDonald’s, is best enjoyed on drugs.”

Mind you, Bucharest is both far more cosmopolitan and richer than Tirana in that it has quasi-hipster joints where you might overhear someone referencing something about intersectionality, as they do. It is quite conceivable that Bucharest could one day emerge as some sort of ‘ruin-porn’ alternative to Berlin. It hasn’t happened yet though. Tirana has potential to be Istanbul’s poor cousin. The sort of way you describe a guy that went without air for 20 minutes as having the potential to live a normal life despite being brain dead.

The binding quality of these two cities is their general lack of picturesque quality and the pervading nothingness that surrounds them. I should note that there are a number of really beautiful streets, parks, and shit like that but there isn’t that specific activity or identity that you need to assume when in these cities. There really isn’t a set imagine imprinted upon the public imagination of what one ought to expect from these places or how they would enjoy it. They as an experience remain an open space to be contested. It is fucking brilliant the more you think about it.

Conceptually, it can be said that neither city has a refined ‘gaze’. As an experience, cities exist as a discourse made to be experienced in a particular fashion. What John Urry calls the “Tourist Gaze” is the manner by which a space or act distinguishes normal life from a tourist experience. A set of unique discourses is constructed that involves a complex set of performative acts and narratives, myths, and images that define the tourist quality within that act or space. Urry relates the construct of these discourses to the rise of mass tourism and the commodification of those spaces. I don’t think the tourist industry has really invested much interest in either places.

The beauty of these two cities is that unlike cities such as Sarajevo, Budapest, or Istanbul, they do not have a set gaze. They are opened up to be experienced in myriad of fashions that are surprising, challenging, and most importantly, exciting. There are no set rituals that define the experience of the city. Your fat aunt won’t ask you if you drank a certain tea in one of the cities. She wouldn’t have a fucking clue about this. Instead, you’ll be more likely to find yourself randomly stumbling into your hostel room shitfaced from drinking on the steps of the University of Tirana, or hearing some hilarious anecdotes about Romanian just being hybrid of Italian and Turkish (so double fucked). They are infectious in that they keep you thinking and smiling. This isn’t the sort of shit that one can set out to enjoy. It just happens. Although any notion of authenticity is inherently problematic, isn’t something unknown and surprising slightly more original?

I could never suggest a place to eat in either one of these places nor could I propose what you ought to be doing. Likewise, I am not entirely sure if you’ll enjoy either place. What I am certain about both cities is that they hold the amazing capacity to excite and make you fall in love. So much so that you’ll be left wondering why you didn’t visit sooner; to embrace the joy of nothingness.

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For me Balaton is the Riviera!

Summer is here again. The long awaited, lovely summer with all the goodies of the season, such as watermelon, apricots, peaches, slush-ice (preferably the artificial Polish strawberry flavoured one), poppy seed or Túró Rudi flavoured ice cream, yummie. Yeah..the godforsaken continental summer has arrived in Hungary, which will give you nothing else but sweat stains, headaches and hangovers from hell, thanks to your ice cold Wine Spritzer (aka Fröccs) from highly questionable qualities of wine from equally questionable places.

This is the season when everyone who moves goes to the Balaton lake to survive the sweltering heat. Balaton is not an ordinary lake, it is a time capsule. Time has stopped ticking there in the mid/late 80’s when the lake was still used as a legal meeting point where East and West Germans could re-unite, or at least gather. If you remember the movie, Goodbye Lenin, you might be able to recall a dialogue between the mother who spent the time of German re-unification in a coma and her son pretending that nothing has changed in the DDR:

Comrade Ganske watches West-TV?
Comrade Ganske fell in love. During a vacation in Hungary. With a pensioner from… Munich. Since then his love for the party has suffered.
Oh

Hell yeah, of course it was at Balaton where Comrade Ganske allegedly fell in love with a decadent lady from the rotten West since this was the only place they could see a German from the West.

Germans overwhelming the lake became such a habit that they still kept coming in the 90’s and the place is still very popular nowadays among them. Maybe they just cannot resist spending a few weeks reminiscing about sweet past when they were secretly listening to the forbidden Kraftwerk on smuggled cassette tapes from West Germany.

This popularity ended up in the huge greed in the early 90’s transition economy, when everyone could steal and loot as much as they could due to privatization and loopholes in the system since there was no time to upgrade the laws to a democratic state. That was the time when people could get filthy rich within a split second and this is why new rich still means something very trashy in the region. The greed of local businessmen pushed up the prices to a level where local Hungarians could eventually save money on going to Greece for holidays instead of Balaton.

Suddenly a whole industry was built up on fucking over German tourists. And yet to this very day you can still hear the beautiful German language spoken loud on the beaches of Balaton.

There will be no point to this piece at all, so please don’t expect any cheesy moral lesson, all I want is simply to share some retro feelings about a place that managed to conserve itself in the past.

„For me, Balaton is the Riviera” – sounds the emblematic song from the Goulash Communism when the residents of „the most cheerful barrack” went to spend their holidays at the so called #Hungarian sea. About the background of the term the most cheerful barrack:

It was during the late 1960’s and the 1970’s that Hungary earned the appellation of „the most cheerful barrack” in the socialist camp. By Soviet bloc standards dissidents were not harshly punished.

Back then, your state owned company usually made it possible for you and your family to spend a cheap holiday at the communistic accommodations of the National Council of Trade Unions.

The following video – with the title song! – reflects perfectly that indescribable nostalgic and bitter-sweet atmosphere Balaton offers:

This so called time capsule is captured most beautifully by Michal Solarski, Polish photographer who used to spend holidays at Balaton as a kid and decided to return as an adult photographer to re-recreate the real 80’s feeling in modern times on his photos.

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Cinderella Goes to the Ball: Albania and its national football team

When Polish referee Szymon Marciniak blew the final whistle in the Republican Stadium in Yerevan on Sunday the 11th of October 2015, the fireworks pointed towards the skies over 6000 km away could finally be lit. A 3-0 win over Armenia ensured that the Kuq e Zintje – the Albanian national team – had qualified for Euro 2016 in France; their first ever international football tournament. Europe’s Cinderella – the pretty girl in rags – would finally be going to the ball.

For a people accustomed to decades of poverty, a hermetic communist regime for most of the 20th century, along with the civil strife and political unrest that followed, the mass outpouring of joy on the streets of the capital Tirana and throughout the nation of 3 million was completely understandable and justified.

Thanks to 40 years of life under Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, lasting from 1945 to 1985, Albania was long considered the poorest, most isolated and backward country in Europe and its national football team, although one of the founding members of Uefa, reflected its lowly international stature. The team dropped as low as 127th in the FIFA world rankings back in 1994 and was forced to play their home games in Switzerland in 1997 when the pyramid schemes in Albania collapsed, leading to social chaos on the streets and over 2,000 deaths.

Although a few victories were garnered down through the years on the bumpy pitch of the Qemal Stafa Stadium in Tirana, Albania would regularly be on the end of some hidings and rarely threatened to qualify. Indeed, by the time qualification for the 2014 World Cup had come to a conclusion, Albania sat in fifth place in a six team group.

Hired in 2011 to change the team’s fortunes, Italian coach Gianni De Biasi had been put in charge of the Albanian team for that 2014 qualification campaign. In spite of their expected lowly finish, signs of improvement had been hinted at, with impressive victories recorded over Norway, Slovenia and Cyprus. With a limited player base, De Biasi sought to pool together the talents of players from the million-strong Albanian diaspora that were spread throughout Europe. Migjen Basha was persuaded away from Switzerland and promising players such as Mergim Mavraj and Edgar Ceni, who had grown disillusioned with the Albanian Football Association, were brought back into the fold. With a strong team spirit, mixed with young talent and experienced pros who were playing with clubs around Europe, things were looking up for the side by the time the draw for Euro 2016 qualifying was made.

The 2016 campaign, containing Portugal, Denmark, Armenia and arch rivals Serbia, started with an incredible 1-0 win in Lisbon, followed by a hard-fought draw at home to a strong Danish side. Albania’s next game, against Serbia in Belgrade, drew international attention however, when the match was abandoned after violence erupted on the pitch and in the stands when a drone bearing a pro-Albanian political flag was flown into the stadium. Ruling that the violent reaction from the Serbs was the reason for the abandonment, the Court of Arbitration for Sport awarded a 3-0 victory to Albania. That ruling would prove decisive as Albania would lose the corresponding fixture at home to Serbia 2-0 and despite only winning one of their remaining four games in the group, sheer determination and teamwork pushed them over the line.

Of course, the Albanians will care not a bit about how they reached Euro 2016. Hundreds of fans welcomed the team home from Yerevan at Tirana’s Mother Teresa Airport and thousands more lined the streets of the capital, singing and dancing. Prime Minister Edi Rama gave the players a red carpet reception, promising to push ahead with construction of a new national stadium (Albania’s traditional home stadium in Tirana isn’t up to Uefa safety standards), which would have a golden plaque engraved with the names of the squad. Addressing the squad, Rama said “Like never before, you made Albania and Albanians everywhere feel the dream of going to the finals of a European Championship.”

Now that the elation of qualification has died down somewhat, Albania can spend the next 8 months looking forward to their summer in France. The social and economic significance of qualifying for a major football tournament can not be understated either. As the most popular sport on the planet, football is powerful enough to affect social change.

When the Irish team qualified for the 1990 World Cup and went on to reach the last eight, the feelgood factor and self-confidence garnered from that success helped to kick start an economic boom in the country. The great impression that the team and its fans made in front of the world’s cameras that summer encouraged both foreign investment and tourism in the country, as well as a sense among the population that they were, essentially, good enough.

It is easy to draw similarities between Ireland pre-1990 and Albania today: a small nation of 3 million or so, a troubled past, economic hardship and mass emigration that has lead to a considerable worldwide diaspora. With a stunningly beautiful landscape, remarkable levels of hospitality, and the fact that nearby tourist hot-spots like Crete and Dubrovnik growing ever more expensive, it seems a matter of time until Albania eventually encounters a tourism boom akin to Ireland’s in the late 80’s. For the few who have been fortunate enough to have visited Albania this would not come as a surprise.

The unity exemplified by the Albanian football team mirrors that of the society it represents: as the only predominantly Muslim country in Europe, Albania is unique. It is also unique in that it destroys the negative stereotype of an intolerant Islamic society: in Tirana you will rarely see a headscarf let alone a burqa. Regularly, you will see local men quickly leave the mosque on Friday and head down to a restaurant for baked lamb and some raki. A Muslim city in purely numerical terms, it is a hard-line Muslim’s nightmare in most other senses. Women wear what they want and go and do as they please. This isn’t a place where organized religion sets the tone for the population and that is evident in Albanians’ non-judgmental and laid-back nature.

Speaking to diplomats at the Vatican in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris earlier this year, Pope Francis heaped praise on the country he had visited a few months previous, where he encountered Catholic and Orthodox Christian minority communities, plus a tiny congregation of Jews, co-existing peacefully within a largely Muslim society. Life in Albania, the Pontiff observed, was “marked by the peaceful coexistence and collaboration that exists among the followers of different religions in an atmosphere of respect and mutual trust”. I recently had the experience of stepping into a hostel in Tirana to see the owner reading a copy of the Qur’an, despite having a crucifix around his neck. Intrigued, I asked him whether he was Muslim, to which he replied, “No, I’m Orthodox but my wife is, so I best read a little about it!”. Brilliant.

The only thing matching the mystery of this country is its amazing warmth, beauty, and charm.

With such a wonderful view on life, I sincerely hope that Albania’s success and international exposure on the pitch will lead to similar economic and political strides for its people, particularly if EU membership can be realised in the near future. The only thing matching the mystery of this country to most Europeans is its amazing warmth, beauty, and charm.

With the eyes of the world watching them in June, the Albanian people, scattered throughout the world, can now rightfully stand with pride and confidence among the elite of Europe and as their national anthem rings out in France, their pride for the Black Eagles will soar and soar.

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“Ah, poor things”: The mistake you must never make with refugees

The first time I ever saw a concrete and barbed wire border was this summer. I was trying to make my way into Greece from Albania by land and being a citizen of an EU country didn’t save me an hour and a half of strict migratory control, which included the temporary disappearance of my passport in the hands of the authorities and the inspection of my backpack. I couldn’t take my eyes off those blades, wondering what that process would be like for someone whose homeland was located in the Middle East, as the ramshackle bus I was travelling in entered the country which thousands of people try to reach every day, running away from horror.

I spent two weeks in City Plaza – a hotel in Athens that went bankrupt and was abandoned during the crisis, and which a group of activists brought back to life last April by cleaning, squatting and reopening it to give shelter to 400 refugees. I lived in this building during that time, sharing every day with people from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Kurdistan, Iraq, Palestine and Pakistan.
I could never have guessed that, despite all the information I had on the refugee crisis and all the awareness I had worked on raising, I still fell into some clichés and small racist acts during my coexistence with these people. In fact, I think some of my slip-ups were caused, partially, by the way the western world articulates the topic of helping refugees. We mustn’t forget that two of the main pillars on which our countries were historically built are religion and imperialism, key factors that lead to charity – a very, very different concept from solidarity.

The first time I stumbled upon my own condescending racism was a few days after my arrival at City Plaza. I met a 24-year-old girl named Noor, from Syria. She was wearing a hijab and her eyes had a shy, smiling look. I sat down to speak with her and asked her what she wanted to do before she arrived here, to which she replied that she had just finished her degree in Mechanical Engineering. Her answer struck me.

It was me who had come to help her! Mechanical Engineering? A Syrian girl? Of my age?? I suddenly realised then the enormous condescension and ignorance I had held as I approached her. I already knew that many of the people who flee to Europe have prestigious studies and jobs (among other reasons, because they are the ones who can afford the boat passage from Turkey), but by taking the role of the helper, I had unconsciously put myself “over” them (which is also a pretty classist thought, because education is still no indication as to the worth of a person). As much of an activist as I was, I had fallen into the trap of acting in a charitable way, as opposed to embracing solidarity. This lesson was enough to eliminate the rest of my predispositions from my head and start observing the volunteers’ behaviours from a different perspective.

activities program for the kids living in the hotel, who didn’t have anything to do apart from running across the corridors and fighting over toys. We thought of ways to help them learn through drawing, playing and exercising, and we even started a film program every evening for them. Many people joined this initiative, but soon I started noticing that not everyone did it for the same reasons. While some treated the kids with pedagogical and respectful sympathy, I witnessed how many volunteers just came to hug them, kiss them, take pictures with them and then leave with a clean conscience – “Poor kids”, they’d say, as they would go back home without having made any contribution at all.

This paternalistic attitude turned kids, for a few minutes, into zoo animals, and it took all individuality away from them, as they became just a copy-paste concept taken out of that picture we’ve all seen in NGO campaigns, the helpless third-world child with tears in his eyes. And it makes sense, to some extent. It’s the prototype we all have in our minds, and these kids have obviously gone through unthinkable horrors at a very young age. However, when we turn them into contemplative objects, treating them with charity and not with solidarity, we situate them below us and identify them with their tragedy, instead of helping them overcome it. And we build, once again, a wall between us and them, the heroes and the poor things.

One of the most enlightening experiences I had as regards to humanizing refugees, which made me see them as individuals and not as a collective concept, was finding out that I didn’t like some of them. In the breakfast line there was a woman who would always try to cut the line and touch every piece of toast when she thought I wasn’t looking.

I really didn’t like her and I considered her to be very selfish. And when I discovered this feeling I felt somewhat guilty. How could I not like a refugee? She was a victim – I couldn’t just not like her. And yes, of course she was. They all are. But we are talking about two different things here. If tomorrow someone decides to bomb my neighbourhood, the guy who lives next door to me will be a victim too, and I will grieve in solidarity with him and we will help each other in that tragedy – but, as a person, I will still not like him. And that’s ok, because humanity and solidarity are above personal sympathies or antipathies.

Nasim, one of the coordinators at City Plaza, used to say that he is an activist, not a volunteer. To him, an activist is more than someone who just works for free, because she or he acts according to certain values of equality to build a better world. The first time I heard him say this I thought that maybe it didn’t make a big difference.

But it did. His message taught the same lesson I learned in my conversation with Noor: When we help a group of people struck by tragedy, it is very easy to let this experience boost our ego and come back home with the same racist concepts, only with a more paternalistic touch. Racism, just as sexism or homophobia, is deeply rooted in the collective thinking – and while aggressions and hate represent their biggest threats, condescension feeds and perpetuates these patterns. “That little black boy has such cute puffy hair!”, “I love gays, they are so funny”, “Ladies first” – these are still damaging concepts and are not helping anyone.

When society tells someone that they are worth less because of something they didn’t choose, the best thing we can do for them is to give them power on themselves – help them rise, show them that we are the same, that we have the same strength. We must stand by their side as companions, not over them as saviours. Because there is nothing as disempowering as “Ah, poor things”.

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2016 Resolutions for Eastern Europe’s Leaders

Welcome to 2016. Let’s not waste too much time and energy looking back at 2015 because some pretty sad stuff happened. For example, there was this raccoon found dead somewhere in Canada all of the sudden. But luckily we’ve all moved on to the new year and a new start means new opportunities. If you believe in these kinds of cycles, that is. For all we know it could also be a case of ‘same shit, different year’, and in the same way we are aware of the fact that some people might be following a different calendar such as the ISO 8601 ordinal date system, but let’s pretend we are all on the same page here.

Okay, you as a No-Yolo reader probably already wholeheartedly agree, but if you haven’t already broadened your European outlook by looking east, then this year will be the perfect time to start doing so. The East is the new West. The East is the new black. The new new Star Wars movie. Dare we even say the new avocado?

As the people of the United States are getting ready for the bound-to-be-mental presidential elections later this year, Eastern Europe is preparing to continue dealing with streams of refugees, as well as safeguarding its position at the top of the world’s cabbage producers and nailing the Eurovision song contest. Being the kid in the classroom suffering from an exceptionally short attention span and compulsive kleptomania, No-Yolo got bored of conventional, sensible, predictable new year’s resolutions that show a complete lack of imagination. Therefore, we present to you: Probable New Year’s Resolutions of Eastern European Leaders for making this year a success. Or a failure, possibly in disguise, because the beauty of this part of the world is: you never know. Let’s talk more next year.

Hungary: “Pissing off the Romanians by proceeding to build a border fence.”
Hungarian-anti-anti-immigration-campaignBuilding a wall to separate your territory from that of your neighbours, especially within an EU context which is supposed to have freedom of movement and all, is quite an aggressive statement. But of course Viktor Orbán is not exactly known for his sense of grace and subtlety.

And as he is not very fond of refugees from the Middle East entering ‘his’ green Hungarian pastures, or whatever landscape it is they have over there, through neighbouring countries, and since building a fence apparently is his answer to everything, he decided to erect a barb-wired barrier along the Romanian border. After all, the one separating Hungary from Serbia has already been completed and the wall on the Croatian side is in progress. Sounds like Iron Curtain 2.0? Yep. But Orbán is also Iron Man 2.0, Hungarian style. On your next visit to Budapest, make sure to bring your sunglasses to shield your eyes from the ever so bright ignorance and intolerance which is radiating from the Prime Ministerial office.

Estonia: “Having a kick-ass gay-themed honeymoon with my new wife.”
Hey Estonia, congratulation on the facts that, as from this year, same-sex couples living together will be recognized nofficially and get -almost- the same legal protection as heterosexual couples! We also find your president Toomas Hendrik Ilves quite fascinating.

The bow tie wearing former journalist/psychologist/diplomat and noted Twitter enthusiast got married for the third time on the 2nd of January, just one day after the new law for gay couples went into effect. Not that he marryied a dude, as same-sex marriage is still non-existent in Estonia, but to be the husband of the head of the cybersecurity division of the Latvian Defense Ministry is also pretty pretty cool. Even though the ceremony itself was said to be low-key and family-only, we imagine that during their honeymoon, they will dance to bad Dutch techno with the coolest of Baltic gay couples and celebrate Estonia’s status of being the most diversity-tolerant state of the former USSR.

Poland: “Getting rid of democracy and installing an authoritarian regime.”
Since president Andrzej Duda signed a law just before the new year which is meant to basically curb the whole idea of the rule of law, a substantial part of the country and indeed the whole of Europe is worried shitless about the future of democracy in Poland. Not only did the government install one-third of the judges serving the highest legislative court, now they proceed to interfere with the way rulings are made as well. Imagine all the fun prospects for this year! Orbánisation (see above) is also happening in Poland and before you know it, we will all be spitting on liberal democracy and becoming fiercely nationalistic and those kinds of situations have never made anyone’s life any better, y’all.

Russia: “Creating another perfume with my name on it. Or a range of beach towels. Maybe both, why not. Either way: expand my personality cult emporium.”

Did you know Vladimir Putin has a perfume inspired by him available in Moscow’s most luxurious department vladimir-putinstore? Neither did we, but, probably like you, we are not surprised. A shirtless Putin action doll riding a bear? Of course it exists. Vlad-tryoshka dolls, knitting patterns featuring Vladimir’s face, submarine toys featuring him as steersman to replace your rubber duck whilst taking a bath: yes.

As a free service to Putin (and perhaps also a subtle attempt to make obtaining a Russian visa slightly easier for us), we would like to suggest the following merchandise for Mr President this year: the Putin home antibiotics kit, as a strong, healthy nation is in everybody’s interest; the Putin ‘Learn German At Home’ app where he showcases his fluent German and teaches you every phrase you need to know to be able to defeat Angela Merkel during a martial arts class in Berlin; and last but not least the Putin canine cuddly toy, because even strong masculine leaders have a soft spot for cute dogs.

Belarus: “Improving Gérard Depardieu’s scything skills because last time he was rubbish.”

gotta love Gérard Depardieu. The human incarnation of Obelix knows how to ruffle some feathers. By accepting Russian citizenship and starting a bromance with the world’s most popular bare-chested bear wrestler; by bragging he drinks 14 bottles of wine a day (what do you expect from a Russian Frenchman?); by insulting his birth soil, threatening to hand back his French passport whilst taking up residence in the Siberian Republic of Mordovia, and subsequently being offered the seat of Minister of Culture there. But, mind you, Mr Depardieu also has a very down-to-earth, simple, rural side to him: during his surprise visit to the Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko last year, the two amigos obviously had a gay old time during their hours of planned outdoor activities.

Aleksandr and Gérard were drinking homemade vodka together, hand-scything grass together and discussed organic farm produce together. However, judging from the lovely images the world saw following the informal meeting, Gérard could do with some extra practice scything the tough Belarusian grass. Luckily his close friend Aleksandr has a lot of time on his hands this year, after securing his fifth term in office last October and not having to worry about a thing until 2020.

What we are trying to tell you is that you shouldn’t beat yourself up over gaining weight, turning into an alcoholic, or becoming even lazier this year. Do not bother sorting yourself out, taking up a torturous type of yoga or pretending to enjoy integrating foodstuffs into your cooking routine no sensible being has ever even heard of, but hey, you saw them on Instagram so they must exist. As long as you are kind to your inner Slav, 2016 will turn out all right.