Food, fun and faith for funds

Climbing hills, dressing up as Celts, weaving trendy accessories… Over recent weeks, my family and I have learned a few new skills – all for the sake of the Irish Red Cross ‘Balkans Floods Appeal’. Internationally, the extreme flooding witnessed in May in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia is no longer deemed ‘newsworthy’. But for the many thousands of people now struggling with its aftermath, the consequences of the disaster are very real.

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The world’s cameras have zoomed out. They’ve taken their shots of the torrents and their aerial pictures of settlements submerged in muddy water. There are horrors breaking elsewhere or popular distractions like sports and show-biz to be filmed. As reports wane, assistance often follows a similar pattern – any immediate surge of interest tends to fall off fast. In our case, though, we simply couldn’t forget. My husband’s uncle and aunt live in Bijeljina and they were personally affected by the floods. This brought the crisis home to us. We had to try to help in whatever way we could… hence our series of events for the Balkans Floods Appeal.

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Our efforts were small-scale. They began with our daughters’ bracelet-making scheme around our neighbourhood and our trek over a windswept Irish mountain (see previous post). The success of these early endeavours, which raised almost €600, inspired us to do more. Phone calls and email enquiries ensued. Plans were hatched in between late night World Cup matches. Football became addictive viewing but, far from being a diversion, it strengthened our commitment to our fundraising campaign. Supporting Bosnia can’t just be about yelling at a screen beaming 90 minutes of excitement from South America. Nevertheless, like millions in the worldwide Bosnian fan club, we celebrated the team and lamented their premature exit from the tournament.

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Bosnia’s sojourn in Brazil may have been brief but, in our house, it was memorable. The children took huge pride in their father’s country, especially as their mother’s hadn’t qualified.  And they loved the pre-match parties featuring blue and yellow ice-cream sodas, Irish attempts at ćevapi, and Fox’s biscuits on which I’d inscribed best wishes to the ‘Dragons’. Few of the neighbours could’ve missed the giant flag fluttering from one of our upstairs windows as we put Bosnia and Herzegovina on the local radar. Through football banter, we also talked about current issues in the Balkans and let people know about our fundraising.

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We continued on 26 June – the day after Bosnia’s victory against Iran – with a coffee morning at my husband’s workplace in Dublin. His employer, the Irish Medicines Board (IMB), has a welcoming attitude towards charities and many of his colleagues offered to bake for us. This was just as well because domestic science lies beyond my comfort zone. As a person who only willingly cooks for ‘cultural occasions’, such as the World Cup and major feast days, I must admit that the prospect of producing fare fit for public consumption was pretty daunting.

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I opted for my tried and tested ‘hurmašice light’ – a reduced-sugar version of the traditional Bosnian recipe. Luckily, my limited repertoire also extends to shortbread cookies. So I rustled up three dozen of these and decorated them with the flags of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia. (Chef’s tip: ready-to-roll icing, dyed with tinted food gel, works a dream.) My ‘Balkan’ treats looked cute but the staff of the IMB proved true culinary geniuses. Their scrumptious chocolate cakes, lemon drizzle slices, profiteroles, caramel squares and other delicious goodies formed a mouth-watering array. In addition, they were unbelievably generous – donations received at the coffee morning amounted to €820.

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Two days later, we were fundraising again. Though, this time, it was much closer to home. I’d spoken to one of the priests of the small, rural parish in which we live – Blackrock and Haggardstown, Co. Louth – about our ideas to help flood victims in the Balkans. He gave us great encouragement and suggested we hold a church-gate collection in aid of the Irish Red Cross appeal. Having obtained the required Garda permit, we were able to proceed with this on the last weekend in June. We started at the evening mass on Saturday 28 – a date of particular historical significance, exactly one hundred years after the heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was killed in Sarajevo. Due to this anniversary, Bosnia got a quick mention in the media (including a few moments of TV news in Ireland) as the centennial commemorations of World War I began. But while academics and journalists debated the region’s past, our focus was on its present problems.

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By coincidence, June 28 was also the first day of Ramadan. My husband – probably the only Bosnian Muslim to have manned a charity bucket outside an Irish Catholic church – was hungry as sunset approached. Both of us were heartened, though, by the response to our collection… and ever-so-slightly nervous about its next stage. Prayers were said that the fine weather we’d been blessed with would last. Fortunately, it appeared that someone ‘up above’ was listening because Sunday dawned with divine radiance. This was a relief since we had four services to cover in the two churches of the parish. At each, people showed incredible goodwill and altogether we collected €610. The inter-faith dimension of the event was also important. It touched on what should be at the core of all religions – concern for humankind and generosity of spirit. These are values rarely emphasised in a world that seems to thrive on division.

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Our final event took place in the Marshes Shopping Centre in the nearby town of Dundalk on Saturday 5 July. The administrator of the centre kindly provided us with this opportunity to collect on the premises. And I became ‘well-known to the Gardaí’ – not for involvement in serious crime but for seeking police permission for a second collection in rapid succession. We made an attractive display with information about the floods and their impact on the Balkans. But to really grab the attention of passing shoppers our daughters wove more ‘loom’ bracelets. This kept them occupied (and out of trouble) through the first week of their summer holidays. Industrial quantities of tiny bright hoops were turned into awesome wrist-bands. Glitter, glow-in-the-dark and metallic designs were available. Colour combinations to represent Ireland, countries of the Balkans and surviving World Cup nations, catered to the tastes of both boys and girls.

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The shopping centre was rather quiet on Saturday morning and, yes, that freaked me out a bit. However, I needn’t have worried as it got much busier in the afternoon and our stall, which was in a prime location, drew many visitors. Children coaxed their parents to stop by and were thrilled at our range of bracelets. We gave these as ‘thank you’ gifts for donations. Teenagers made their own contributions and adults took considerable interest too – from our local senator, Mary Moran, who was very supportive, to a young couple from Croatia who’d recently come to live in Dundalk. It was lovely to talk to people, not just about the Balkans but about their experience of fundraising for various causes. By the end of the day we’d collected another €340 for the Irish Red Cross. Our daughters were especially pleased that they, and their handiwork, had played a crucial role in this achievement.

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This collection brought the total raised from our action for the Balkans Floods Appeal to €2,360. It multiplied by almost forty times the €60 we’d already donated online. In five weeks, with a little effort and a lot of enjoyment, we’d increased far beyond our expectations the help we could offer as a family. We’re extremely grateful to all who contributed. They’ve demonstrated that Ireland’s capacity for altruism hasn’t been crushed, that humanity remains a powerful force. From a practical standpoint, we’ve also seen that by organising simple, replicable activities it’s possible to maximise the response to any appeal.

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Regarding the floods in the Balkans, we can only hope that external aid will flow to the affected areas and that this will target those who are most vulnerable. Meanwhile, we’re preparing to go to Bosnia next week. We’re not sure if we’ll be able to travel to the flood-hit regions – logistics, children and time constraints will determine this – but we’ll try. Even if we can’t, we’ll bring with us a positive message from Ireland. We’re glad to say that some people here are aware of current challenges in Bosnia. Better still, they’ve shown that they care.

Please continue to support the Irish Red Cross Balkans Floods Appeal: http://www.redcross.ie/news/appeals/balkan-floods-appeal/

Here’s a summary of our fundraising:

31 May – children’s sale of bracelets, Blackrock, Co. Louth: €125

7-8 June – Táin March, Dundalk and Carlingford, Co. Louth: €465

26 June – coffee morning in the Irish Medicines Board, Dublin: €820

28-29 June – church-gate collection in Blackrock and Haggardstown, Co. Louth: €610

5 July – display stand in the Marshes Shopping Centre, Dundalk: €340

TOTAL  raised for Irish Red Cross Balkans Floods Appeal: €2,360

Thank you/hvala to everyone who helped!

Read more about our fundraising in my previous post: 
 
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Let them eat well-mixed cake!

A chilly afternoon, we’d be coming home from school raw-cheeked with the cold. Pushing the back door open, into our tiny kitchen… and the smell of Christmas cooking! My mother, in a flitter, would hoosh us out of the way. She’d look flushed, exhausted from vigorous stirring – you must ‘get plenty of air in, keeps it from sinking’. Better again if the mixture hadn’t already gone into the oven. We could lick the wooden spoon before the wash-up. Or scrape leftovers from the bowl. My mother would write a note on a tab torn off a cornflakes box: a list of times from start to expected finish, with reminders of regular checks in between. She’d tape this across the cooker switch, lest my father turn it off in a fit of safety consciousness. If it was windy, she’d worry a power-cut might sabotage her baking. She needn’t have fretted, her cakes were always perfect. They still are.

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I’m not a fan of tradition. It’s often laden with nostalgia, heavy as lardy pudding. A whiff of conservatism hangs around it, coated in an oversweet ideal of the past. Much as I love my mother’s Christmas cake, I couldn’t imagine myself as an heiress to her recipe. Apart from the fact that the culinary arts aren’t my strongest suit, the concept of perpetuating a ‘typical Irish Christmas’ has never appealed to me. Especially since I entered into an intercultural relationship, not long after leaving the nest. My husband and I would’ve felt awkward, foisting ourselves annually on my parents for the big event. Plus my mother had enough hassle, trying to put up with my younger siblings. So, although the drift towards the homestead (in the hope of decent food and freebie lodgings) has become quite a phenomenon in Ireland, I couldn’t act the ‘kidult’. Instead, I knew I’d have to create my own version of Christmas. And that meant learning how to cook.

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Fortunately, I discovered that while it sounds – and tastes – impressive, the making of a Christmas cake is well within the capability of domestic dummies. The skills it involves are fairly basic. All you do is weigh out copious quantities of dried fruit, throw in chopped almonds and glacé cherries, then steep these ingredients overnight in brandy. The next day add butter, sugar, flour etc., whisk a couple of eggs and apply brute force in the mixing. Be generous with the booze and you can’t go wrong. The tipsier the cake, the happier the guests – though it mightn’t be advisable to drive immediately after a slice of mine! Top with marzipan, white icing and some cute decorations, et voilà…

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Novelty can also whet the appetite. My seasonal cuisine has gone down a treat as far away as Bosnia and Japan. Changes of location can lead to improvisation. Dates, now a trendy addition recommended by TV chefs, served as a substitute for sultanas in Sarajevo. My notion of nutmeg was confined to the ground contents of a spice jar until I had to buy a ‘real’ one in Baščaršija. Milling it myself, using a contraption borrowed from my mother-in-law, its piquancy was memorable.

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As were many other aspects of Christmas in Bosnia. Going to midnight mass with my Muslim brother-in-law in the hush of feathery snowfall was soul-searing. Less mainstream than in Ireland, Sarajevo’s Yuletide was stripped of commercial glitz. Perhaps that allowed its pure magic to seep through. Trees draped in fairy lights can transcend divisions based on ethnicity and creed. Whether for Christmas or New Year, or both, a jelka brightens the bleakness of winter. And Deda Mraz / Santa Claus is a cross-cultural kind of bloke. Our kids are among the luckiest in the world because he calls twice to our house! Not only does the sleigh stop here on Christmas Eve but, following a garbled rendition of Auld Lang Syne, ‘Grandfather Frost’ drops back from Bosnia with more gifts.

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Celebrations bring out the best in cultures. They capture the joy that unites human beings. But such harmony isn’t easy to sustain. Differences don’t vanish, nor does the need for negotiation. Thoughts of the holiday season are soon obscured by clouds of everyday problems. Yet I wish the spirit of our Irish-Bosnian Christmas could somehow last. After the turkey-and-no-ham dinner (with vegetarian options) has been devoured. When the chocolates at the bottom of the tin have disappeared and there’s not a crumb of cake left…

In a few short weeks our jelka will lie discarded, shedding needles, on the porch. How to hold on to its zest? Maybe that’s a personal challenge for 2014. Until then, as my daughters are writing in cards to their friends:

Sretan Božić / Merry Christmas!

And, as this is probably my final blog of 2013:

Sretna Nova Godina / Happy New Year!

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The rocky road to Rio, via Sarajevo

Sport has never been my forte. Swimming I can manage, but only in the serenity of the Adriatic Sea. My ten-year-old outclasses me at tennis and I can hardly run to save my life. Nor am I a great spectator. I lack the patience. Or is it passion? In football terms, anyhow, I wouldn’t be what Bosnians call a ‘fantico’. Although I’ll scream at TV screens when national pride is at stake. And, to my shame, Ireland versus England brings out the raving bigot in me… Sorry!

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Yes, sometimes nerds can share the adrenalin high of dedicated sports fans. Often it’s found in the buzz of rooting for the underdog… particularly if that lowly side comes from somewhere special. So count me among the supporters of the soccer team from Bosnia and Herzegovina! As reported by the global media, their qualification for World Cup 2014 made history. More importantly, on the domestic front, it brought huge joy to our house. Perfect timing too – hours after Ireland had been hit by yet another austere budget.

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Ostrich-like, our heads were stuck in sand dunes of avoidance at any mention of economic news. However, even before the match started, there were plenty of welcome distractions. As well as football D-Day, it happened to be Bajram, as the Muslim festival of Eid is known in Bosnia. True to my tradition of cooking for cultural occasions (and not much else) I was preparing a typical Bosnian spread. Well… a slightly lower-cal version of it – to reduce the risk of fatal cholesterol overdose. Burek and sirnica had just gone into the oven when we heard it was 1:0 in Lithuania. Or so the tweets suggested as, scrolling down my phone with greasy fingers, I noticed word-long messages simply declaring: ‘GOOOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLL!’ Fear not, this isn’t as ghastly as it may sound in English. Au contraire, when followed by a string of blue and yellow emoji, it’s profoundly positive. Things got better still – my husband burst into the kitchen to tell me the guy who’d scored was one of his friend’s (approximately seven billion) cousins. Seems we have an eternal claim to fame!

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Tense minutes dragged – for the person glued to the internet. As I was having a culinary melt-down… Bosnian food is delicious but very labour-intensive. Finally, though, our Bajram meal was ready to be served. However, at about the same moment, a whistle blew in a distant Baltic city. Victory! Fortunately, my precious pita wasn’t incinerated amid the subsequent exultation. Bosnia and Herzegovina were heading to Brazil! The kids immediately asked if we could go too. Sadly, the latest round of Irish fiscal adjustment has quashed all hope of Rio, unless we get lucky in the EuroMillions lotto. But, at least, we’ve got one of the family’s teams to cheer. While Ireland might’ve salvaged credibility with a win over Kazakhstan, its Brazilian quest had already proven vain. Yet Irish disappointment was suddenly irrelevant. The night belonged to Bosnia. Through every form of social media, photos, songs and fireworks whizzed across the diaspora. Sarajevo erupted into jubilance. Celebration went viral. Bosnia was trending with a rare shimmer of success.

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Maybe that’s the beauty of the game – its power to generate euphoria, no matter how ephemeral. A football match can’t heal post-war divisions. It won’t make life, for most Bosnians, any less of a struggle. But, for one evening in October, past scars and future uncertainty were forgotten. It felt like Ireland’s trail to Italia ’90. That virginal delight of qualifying for our first World Cup… especially as it came when horizons still seemed bleak. Then, Ireland’s reputation was defined by violence in the North, economic stagnation, corruption and emigration. As a nation, we were minnows – a poor, peripheral member of Europe’s clan. Perhaps our status now isn’t that different. Though surely, in the late 1980s, our FIFA rankings were higher.

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Soccer gave us a boost. Long reviled as a ‘foreign’ rival to native Gaelic (all-limbs-allowed) football, it helped us to restore faith in ourselves. Everything stemmed from Stuttgart… The European Championships in 1988 saw the epic defeat of our former colonial masters by a team that couldn’t be described as quintessentially ‘Irish’. Lads from mixed backgrounds joined the squad. Red hair and a thick brogue weren’t exclusive criteria for selection. Once a chap could trace his granny’s roots to somewhere between Dingle and Donegal, all he needed was the skill and the will to win. And the country got behind this motley bunch. Singing tributes to our English manager, we became ‘part of Jackie’s army’. Houses were re-painted in the Irish colours. Babies were taught how to chant ‘olé!’ Flags were draped from windows until their edges frayed. Years were spent paying off that pilgrimage to Italy.

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But, as the expression goes, ‘the craic was ninety’. Even if – in retrospect – it was quite over-the-top. Sport is no panacea for the trials of reality. The diversion it provides is akin to bread and circuses. Or beer and football, in many Irish cases…  And soccer itself is tarnished. Racism on the field and in the stands, fans with neo-Nazi links, and hooliganism are some of its corollaries. Allegations of match-fixing, bribes and seedy deals, the exploitation of workers building stadia for major tournaments further undermine its ethos of ‘fair play’. Exorbitant salaries paid to players who are seized by a celebrity culture that turns them into idols, then ogles their fall from grace, also attract bad press. Nor is football the automatic leveller of fraught pitches. Ireland, for instance, is home to two ‘international’ teams, both of which have their own distinct fan-bases. In its northern counties, the Scottish Premier League gets harnessed for sectarian purposes. Identities are gauged from Glaswegian club preferences – are you for Celtic or Rangers? Bosnian soccer is plagued with similar problems. More complicated, as the potential split is threefold. Still, nothing can detract from the achievement of a team that, whatever cynics and propagandists say, is multi-ethnic. So, in our hearts, we’re with the Zmajevi

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All the way to Brazil! An amazing country – I had the sheer good fortune to visit it in 1990. On a holiday I’d won, at the age of sixteen, as first prize in a national competition for poetry. Back when I’d the guts to enter contests… The week I spent there, accompanied by my rather overwhelmed dad, was unforgettable. It’s a place that rightly revels in its diversity. Yet, although I had no previous travel experience, I was struck by the starkness of its inequality. Dual faced Rio de Janeiro – a city of hills, where favela-covered slopes plunged down upon the opulent Copacabana coast.

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On our last day in the city, we took a tour by taxi around its centre. In a battered VW Beetle which, fuelled with ‘alcool’ (a cheaper, ethanol substitute for petrol) reeked of booze. We passed the famous Maracanã stadium and another striking example of modern architecture, the cone-shaped cathedral. Naturally, my devout father wanted to drop in to say a prayer. Possibly to beg God to grant us safe passage home, after our numerous adventures. The driver, however, advised against any such show of piety. His unequivocal Portuguese – ‘drogas!’ – as he mimed a point-blank shot to the head, was enough to convince us to stay inside the car.

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Brazil has made substantial progress in the decades since. Today, with its economy at a ‘newly advanced’ stage of development, it’s added its initial to the BRICS. But it’s been the scene of popular unrest. And many of the issues prompting recent protests relate to the extravagant hosting of next year’s Mundial and the 2016 Olympics, when poverty remains rampant. Sporting glory, it appears, can’t eradicate suffering in a country of two halves.

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A glimpse of Brazil… it’ll always brighten my mind with vivid snapshots, such as those from our brief trip to Amazonia. There, among other escapades, I got my heel clamped between the jaws of a jaguar (it may have been crippled, but its teeth were sharp as sabres). We also journeyed by boat through a confluence called the ‘Meeting of the Waters’. Where, due to a temperature difference, the dark Rio Negro and the silt-rich Rio Solimões flow in separate shades for several kilometres. Until, mingling, they become the largest river in the world. And so, perhaps, with football…

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My dreams of returning to Brazil aren’t likely to get much further than a café of that name in Sarajevo. Hopefully, I’ll have a chance again to sample its chocolate-oozing palačinke (scrumptious crêpes). As for soccer, thanks to a testosterone deficiency, I’ll never understand the offside rule. But when it comes to shouting at the TV, you’ll hear my roars – and those of my ‘dragons’ in Ireland – right to the very top of the Corcovado.

‘Hajmo Bosno! Hajmo Hercegovino!’

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Of war and waves

Shortly after our wedding in 1998, my Bosnian husband and I decided we’d had enough of Europe for a while. I’d been offered a job as an English teacher in Japan and – knowing that, on our budget, we’d never have such a travel opportunity again – we seized the chance. So, instead of settling down, we embarked on an odyssey. We spent two years in what we affectionately called our ‘safe third country’. Where, unlike in either Ireland or Bosnia, both of us enjoyed equal status as aliens. From the furthest galaxies, it seemed.

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Telling people I was from Ireland was often met with an enthusiastic response: ‘Ah… Iceland!’ Initially I was miffed that much less populous outcrop could be mistaken for the Emerald Isle. However, I soon discovered that whenever Japan’s TV channels had any ‘global’ focus it tended towards themes of national relevance – a shared geographical phenomenon, for instance. Hence numerous re-runs of documentaries about plate tectonics in the vicinity of Reykjavik. Lacking active volcanoes, my homeland barely featured on the Japanese world-map. Ireland was an unknown entity to all but a handful of music buffs who’d heard of U2 and, weirdly, the Nolan Sisters. And as for Bosnia… ‘Boston?’ was the typical reaction. A whole country, with a poignant recent past, relegated in the fame stakes to below the rank of a provincial city!

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We put the misunderstanding down to American influence. From baseball to fast-food, we saw how this permeates Japan. From its conurbations right into rural regions like Aomori, the prefecture in which we lived. On the cusp of the new millennium, foreigners were still a rarity in this northernmost district of the main island, Honshu. Off the tourist trail, Aomori was a pastoral place, renowned for gigantic apples and harsh winters. Its most prominent non-natives belonged to the US military base in the town of Misawa – one of the largest of those established after Japan’s surrender in World War II. Civilians of other backgrounds were frequently presumed to be GI Joes or Janes. ‘Amerikajin ja nai,’ became our catchphrase as we clarified our European origins. Coming from such mysterious parts of our quaint patchwork of a continent, we proved intriguing. And, perhaps due to this strangeness, we made many Japanese friends.

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The welcome extended to us was genuine and warm-hearted. Our friends clearly relished their ambassadorial role as they explained their culture to us in diverse ways. Hospitality appeared to be a matter of immense pride and the stories they told brimmed with resolute spirit. Among older people, this could often be traced back to memories of wartime. We listened to recollections of those who’d survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the lethal incendiary raids on Tokyo. These were tales of bare existence, near-starvation, long-term consequences. But they were generally crowned with a patriotic ending – reminding us of Japan’s post-war success. Despite the fact that its economy was floundering by the 1990s, determination to achieve prevailed as a motto. Even my high-school students vowed: ‘ganbarimasu’ – ‘we’ll do our best’.

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However, some elders worried that the youth had grown pampered. Too westernised… in a country which had built its modern image on technology and material wealth, emulating its Euro-Atlantic rivals. ‘A nation of imitation’ my boss used to call it. Yet Japan was also a place of contradiction. Its Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples blended into an environment full of pachinko gambling parlours and ‘love hotels’ for privacy-seeking paramours. Tradition spanned the donning of ceremonial kimono and skinny dipping in sulphuric onsens (risqué for a former convent-schoolgirl but the ultimate in relaxation bliss). Trains ran fast and strictly to their schedules, life around hectic business hours had to be ‘convenient’… though the making of tea remained a timeless ritual. This land of Nikkei stock-brokers and paddy field farmers enchanted us. And gave us our first child.

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Meanwhile, back in the Balkans, conflict was breaking out again. The Japanese broadcasting networks, whose interests, we’d noted, were predominantly insular, began to report on atrocities occurring there. Things were bad when Kosovo was, news-wise, ‘big in Japan’. We watched with a terrible sense of déjà vu. This was just a couple of years after the Bosnian war. From the eastern edge of Asia we wondered what we could do – surely we could participate in the relief effort. But, being foreign and ignorant of the system, it was difficult to get started. Our city was somewhat less than cosmopolitan and public awareness of world affairs seemed limited. Also, the concept of fundraising for NGOs – especially those dealing with international disasters – wasn’t widespread. Japan’s contribution in overseas aid, drawn from its tax-payers, was regarded as sufficient. In Bosnia, we later saw evidence of this state-level support – it helped to restock Sarajevo’s bus fleet. Nonetheless, we managed to find two agencies which were running appeals for Kosovo – the Japanese Red Cross and the Association for Aid and Relief, Japan. Following a few phone-calls, we realised we could take action. Along with some dedicated friends, we launched into our campaign in Aomori.

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In spring 1999, we sold lapel badges that we’d made from silk cherry blossom. Attached to each flower was a paper leaf on which we printed the word Kosobo (the Japanese language has no phoneme ‘v’) in katakana script: コソボ. Next, we organised a ‘Balkan dinner’ in Aomori city’s cultural centre. This was indeed a gastronomic novelty. Nerve-wrecking too, as I had to instruct a group of far more proficient cooks on how to make burek from specially ordered filo pastry. It was all a bit surreal… though, according to our guests, very tasty. The historic town of Hirosaki then hosted our monster jumble sale. We weren’t sure if this idea would wash in a country where the sparkling new seemed so highly prized, but we were amazed at the positive response. Bargain hunting must be an innate human trait. For soon our stalls were empty and our collection boxes full. We talked at length about Balkan issues throughout this time, in particular, with my students at their school festival that summer. From their reactions, it was obvious that we’d taught them something of the world beyond the curriculum, something they might remember in future years. Finally, in December, we held a children’s Christmas party, with gifts from a beanpole Santa Claus who spoke with a suspiciously Bosnian lilt. Fortunately, he didn’t scare the kids!

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Altogether, we raised the equivalent of several thousand Irish pounds, or euro, guessing at the current exchange rate. The figure in yen – almost a million – was even more impressive. But the purpose of the venture couldn’t be measured in money. We were motivated simply by a responsibility to act, irrespective of distance, in relation to events that had personal significance. For us, the most valuable outcome was that so many people became aware of a situation about which they’d have otherwise known little.

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No-one involved in our Kosovo campaign could’ve envisaged that, twelve years later, Japan would be on the receiving end of international aid. On 11 March, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake shook the country – its epicentre at sea, only 130 km from the city of Sendai. Worse, it generated a devastating tsunami which inundated an extensive stretch of populated coastline. Aomori was badly hit. Although our city was sheltered by a peninsula, other parts of the prefecture were less lucky. Along its Pacific fringe, a wall of water slammed down upon towns like Hachinohe. Boats were tossed onto land, cars swept away. Homes vanished and their occupants were drowned. All this destruction near the sandy beach where our baby daughter had once splashed her feet in the ocean…

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Over the years, we’d lost contact with Aomori – moving and the demands of work and kids meant our links went neglected. But after hearing news of this catastrophe, we had to get in touch. Trying old-email addresses, most no longer valid, I got a reply from one of the teachers from my school. Then we found another friend on Facebook. While the enormity of the disaster, exacerbated by damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant, continued to emerge. Though better equipped for a crisis of this scale than the majority of nations and with a proud record of self-reliance, Japan requested outside assistance. The Ireland Japan Association (IJA) issued an appeal on behalf of the victims. From our village on the shores of the Irish Sea, where spring-tides are a warning of the savage force of water, we knew we had to respond.

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Our Aomori-born daughter turned eleven that April, so we used the occasion to make a contribution. She invited her schoolmates to a Japanese-themed birthday party held in the local community centre and, in lieu of presents, asked for donations to the IJA appeal. With karaoke, origami and an Irish attempt at sushi, the kids had lots of fun. There were games like a ’round Japan treasure hunt’ and a ‘chopsticks challenge’ – which required great dexterity to progress from picking up crisps and marshmallows to much trickier small sweets. For the adults, we also organised a pub-quiz which surprised competing teams with its Japanese twist! But the mental exertion was worthwhile, given the fine range of prizes we’d received from shops and businesses in the area. Their support was particularly generous as it came when trade was suffering as a result of the recession. Between these two events, we raised over €1800 – in cash donated to the Ireland Japan Association and a sterling draft made payable to the UK branch of the Red Cross. Again, it was just a tiny gesture – the only sign of solidarity we could offer the Japanese people from far-off Ireland. An arigatō for the concern they’d shown for refugees fleeing Kosovo.

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Two and a half years on, the legacy of the Tōhoku Earthquake still haunts Japan. The thousands of lives lost can’t be reclaimed. The chunks of coast swallowed by the killer wave can’t be restored. The north-east littoral is forever scarred. To this day, the Fukushima reactors remain unstable, leaking toxins in a radioactive nightmare that will likely last for decades. Yet our Japanese friends, in messages they sent us after the tragedy, emphasised their refusal to ‘give up’. Maybe it was a knee-jerk means of coping with collective trauma. Some might say it was merely echoing an official narrative readily absorbed in a place where group-think often stifles the individual voice. Possibly, to an extent, although there have been protests at the state’s handling of the nuclear fiasco and citizens are prepared to express their dissatisfaction.

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We read our friends’ comments as those of pure resilience. That strength in the face of adversity which we’d heard repeatedly when we were in Japan. Their words spoke their desire to reconstruct a broken country. Of course, it’s too soon to determine whether the Japanese authorities will honour their wish. And, no doubt, many people already feel disillusioned. But that attitude of striving together for the common good is one we Europeans should consider. It may sound naïve to cynical ears, including my own, though perhaps we could adopt a similar philosophy – telling ourselves: ‘let’s do our best’ to make things better. Ganbarimashō!

‘Hurmašice light’ – celebrations without borders

Cross-cultural cooking… I didn’t think this blog would begin in the kitchen. Not exactly my environment, suffice to say I’m not a fan of MasterChef. But today, I’m rolling up the sleeves, checking out recipes and trying to remember to switch the oven ON. My brief culinary conversion must be due to divine intervention, for this miracle occurs four times a year and coincides with the festivals my family celebrate: two Muslim (Bajram, as Eid is called in Bosnia) and two Christian (Christmas and Easter). Today marks the end of Ramadan and we’ve just returned from Bosnia where, even amid the bustle of Sarajevo, the serenity of the month of fasting was tangible.

To be honest, my inter-faith family isn’t too much into self-denial. Be it Ramadan or Lent, we’re rather lax. Also, living in present-day Ireland, the cultural norms are different and attitudes towards religious observance have changed in recent years. Gone are the days of my childhood, when to eat a sweet between Ash Wednesday and Easter was to risk eternal damnation. Throat lozenges, being ‘medicinal’, escaped doctrinal bans and suddenly became delicious – though I’m not sure if fake coughing was a sin! But celebrations have always been important. And for my children, the chance to experience some of the common ground between their parents’ religions is something that might help them grow up more tolerant.

So back to the cooking. Assembling all the necessary ingredients, I know my attempts will be paltry compared to traditional Bajram spreads that run to many courses. I’ll keep it simple, though, with a little bit of fusion. And some cheating – shop-bought filo pastry! We’ll have burek (proper spirals) and sirnica (filled with a mix of cottage cheese and Philadelphia) along with improvised salads.

bajram dinner

Dessert poses the biggest challenge: my pièce de résistance – Bosnian cakes known as hurmašice. To be made from a recipe printed in Kuhar (Svjetlost 1965), a dubious gift from my mother-in-law shortly after my wedding. Unfortunately, I haven’t put this hallowed tome to a lot of use, but it comes out of the cupboard biannually for Bajram… with its measurements in dekagrams and vague tips for seasoned cooks who can judge correct amounts odoka. Still, it somehow works. I may never get them quite right, but my hurmašice go down well with the kids. Even hubbie, the connoisseur from Sarajevo, is impressed.

However, being Irish, I’ve slightly amended the instructions. When it comes to making the syrup, I’ve halved the sugar content. Hence, we’ve ‘hurmašice light’. Either gourmet heresy or how cultures blend and evolve… Anyhow, it’s a recipe I’ll pass on to my daughters. Taken from their grandmother’s cook-book, adapted with my pencilled-in suggestions. They can adjust it, as they like, to their own tastes.

hurmasice

Wishing all who celebrate today, in Bosnia and across the world, Bajram Šerif Mubarak Olsun!