Balkan Stone Soup

A Rough Guide to Doing Research in the Balkans

Plan to be Flexible

“Americans are great planners,” someone once told me. It’s true, we are a nation of planners. In English, we have several different ways of talking about the future, with each tense expressing different grades of certainty about it: for example, we use the present simple for train schedules, because they are about 99% certain (the train to Belgrade leaves at 9AM), and future simple for a resolution, because it is less certain (I will quit smoking next year!) We even have ways of talking about the future as if we were already in it, looking back on the past. For example: “by this time next month, I will have been in the Balkans for 3 weeks” (future perfect). So we think about the future a lot, and this anecdotal cultural linguistics demonstrates that obsession.

In the Balkans, however, it is good to have plans, but is also good to be flexible about them. Two weeks before my trip, I had hardly any contacts in the region, and virtually no appointments or meetings set up. I was nervous, and wondered if I was going on a wild goose chase. I brought extra books with me, thinking that I would be spending a lot of down time in my hotel rooms, killing time before my next trip. Oh, how wrong I was. 

Balkan Stone Soup

We are all familiar with the story of Stone Soup. A villager wants to make a pot of soup, but doesn’t have any ingredients. So she starts a cauldron boiling, and brings a stone to cook. The other villagers are confused – what kind of soup is this? Little by little they bring vegetables, spices and other more appealing ingredients, and by the end of the day, there is a pot of soup for everyone.

In the Balkans, I was the stone. I was the lonely, isolated little stone that couldn’t really make a pot of soup without the help of the villagers. Having done research in Eastern Europe for several years, I had a tried and true method: start with the Centers for Contemporary Art (the former Soros Foundations up across Eastern Europe that were set up after the fall of communism, to help boost the development of contemporary art and culture in the region, which had officially been under the yoke of Socialist Realism for decades), then contact the museums, key art historians, etc., get the contacts of artists, set up meetings, make appointments to come to archives, etc. While this method worked brilliantly in Central Europe, it had no effect in the Balkans. I wrote to several museums and centers for contemporary art and got no response. Finally, I resorted to the Internet. I started Googling “performance art in Albania/Kosovo/etc.” I found some names, and hesitantly wrote to these random strangers, hoping they wouldn’t think I was some weirdo:

“Dear So-and-So, I am a researcher from the UK writing a book on performance art in Eastern Europe…” all of my emails began. Surprisingly, people started to respond. Some immediately, some after a while, but absolutely all of them were more than willing to bring the vegetables and meats to add to my pot of soup. Soon I had not only a delicious pot of soup awaiting for me in each city I was about to visit, but I had a veritable feast.

“There are no books, the best way is to meet people”

The other challenge with doing research in the region is that there really are no books. Sometimes, there are catalogues. Sometimes, they are in English, but there really is very little written material available. This is why the personal connection is so important. Throughout my 2.5 weeks in the Balkans, I filled an entire notebook with pages of information about artists, art works, and the art scenes in general. I devoured every bit of the soup available to me. And I think this is why the personal connections and networks are so important here, because everyone knows how scarce written information is, and everyone is eager to share it, in the hopes that someone will write it down. And that is also the reason I decided to start this site, to offer one place where people might be able to go for this type of information,

“Call me when you get here”

As I said, Americans are planners. Personally, I like to have at least some of my meetings set up in advance, to have some sense of security that I will actually meet the people that I need to. I also worry that they will forget about me, and jet off to the beach or some other place – after all, it is summer. Indeed, people in the art world in this region travel a lot, and there are plenty of people I missed because they were elsewhere. But I did find that most people didn’t like to set up meetings too far in advance. Everyone told me, “call me when you get to [insert name of city here.]” That is all well and good, but why can’t we just set up a meeting in advance? You said that you would give me some names of artists and people to contact. Why can’t you give me those names before I arrive? In most cases, this worked out ok in the end; I got the contacts and made appointments while I was in situ. So, I learned to take a more relaxed approach. But in some cases, advance planning would have helped. For example, when I was in Skopje I found out, on the day that I was leaving, that there were some archives at the Center for Contemporary Art, and also at the Museum of Modern Art, but it was already too late to visit them. I was also given some contacts of artists when I was on my way out the door. I don’t think that anyone was withholding information intentionally. I just think it was a cultural difference. I was well aware of the short amount of time I had in each place and the necessity of having a plan in advance. In the Balkans, there is a much more casual attitude toward making plans. Most of the time, their system worked for me, but sometimes, a little advance planning, and using of the future tenses, would have helped.

The Place Where Everybody Knows Your Name

It is quite fitting that there is a café in downtown Podgorica called Cheers. Everyone’s favourite Boston bar from the 1980s, where everybody knows your name (“Norm!”) has been transformed to a coffee bar, but the principle is still the same. Because in Podgorica, and in the Balkans, everyone does know everyone else’s name.

Cheers Cafe in Podgorica

Cheers Cafe in Podgorica

I read a story online about an American guy who broke his arm in Podgorica, and soon the whole town knew who he was, and asked him how his arm was as he walked around town. When I first read this, I thought it might have been a bit of blogger’s hyperbole, but after having spent a week in Podgorica and nearly three weeks in the region, I’m pretty sure that the story is true. In the Balkans, everyone knows everyone, and once you know one person, you then know everyone, too.

The place where everybody knows your name

The place where everybody knows your name

And the connections are amazing. In looking for some Montenegran performance artists, I came across one who was then living in Savannah, Georgia – Blazo Kovacevic. My boyfriend’s family lives in Savannah, and I go there once a year to visit. I thought the coincidence was too interesting (as was his art), so I contacted him, and asked him if we might be able to meet in Savannah someday. “By the way,” I told him, “I’m in Podgorica right now.” He wrote back immediately: “you are in Podgorica and I am not! I’m jealous!” He told me that he was soon leaving Savannah, but invited me to visit his studio in Podgorica. He said that there wasn’t much of his work there anymore, but it was a kind of “performative space,” as his father was an artist, and he grew up surrounded by art. He gave me the address, and it turned out it was just a five-minute walk from my hotel! How amazing that we were both so close to each others’ families, on opposite sides of the globe. I took him up on his offer to visit his studio, and it was an absolutely amazing place. Full of modernist sculptures, and the house itself had been designed and built by his father. Another thing I discovered in the Balkans – most artists had parents who were artists too. The art runs through the blood.

Unexpected Surprizes

On virtually every leg of my trip, there was a glitch. My flight out of Edinburgh was delayed, which resulted in me having to take a different flight to London and change airports along the way; my flight from Tirana to Prishtina was canceled, making me a day late to Kosovo; my bus from Prishtina to Skopje was not delayed – it was late, but that is usual. It was also horribly hot. Finally, my flight from Skopje to Podgorica was changed from 7:30PM to the uncivilized hour of 7:30AM, and when I left Podgorica, the driver for the car service I had booked overslept, and I nearly missed my flight. But it all worked out in the end.

Cooking up a pot of Balkan Stone Soup with members of the Montenegrin Alternative Culture NGO

Cooking up a pot of Balkan Stone Soup with members of the Montenegrin Alternative Culture NGO

And while I was there, little by little, my calendar started to fill up, and the books that I brought to keep me occupied were left untouched, bindings uncracked, never to be opened. So the lesson learned, for this hyper-planning American, is to plan to be flexible in the Balkans. When you do, you never know what is going to happen next, and quite often, you will be pleasantly surprised with the delicious soup that you can make out of a simple stone.

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Amy Bryzgel

Amy Bryzgel is a lecturer in History of Art at the University of Aberdeen. She is currently conducting research on performance art in Central and Eastern Europe for a forthcoming book monograph.