Christoph Baumgarten from Balkan Stories Dot Net

Balkan Stories

Balkan Stories.

As a Blogger/Vlogger it can sometimes be a bit lonely, trying to come up with topics and ideas for future content, either as Blog Posts or Vlogs for my youtube channel.

Over the past 2 years I have become increasingly more in contact with a Blogger, also keenly interested in the Balkans, but from Vienna in Austria.

His name is Christoph Baumgarten and he runs Balkan Stories, a blog in German.

We have struck up an “online” friendship and recently during a visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina we managed to catch up in Banja Luka.

I had intended to video the interview I wanted to produce for my Balkan Adventures Podcast BUT, the camera decided to stop at the 16 minute point. These things do happen, sadly.

However, the audio recorded to the end ūüôā

I managed to salvage some of the video, so if you like watching interviews as well as listening, here’s as much as I can offer you.

Christoph’s insights into the Balkans are extremely interesting and, I think, compliment my own.

Check out the Balkan Stories site as well as the FaceBook Page.

David: A Saturday in a coffee bar in Banja Luka. Being an Englishman in the Balkans, sometimes you feel that you’re the only foreigner that is in Banja Luka. Having said that, there are about five others, four of which are Brits. I’m not totally alone.

Today I’ve caught up with Christoph Baumgarten. Christoph is going to tell us anyway, but I think he comes from Beńć, which is Vienna. He is also a journalist and he runs this amazing blog called BalkanStories.net. We’re going to talk about that as well. Let’s do it properly and find out a little bit about why an Austrian has an obsession with the Balkans.

David: Why the Balkans for an Austrian?

Christoph B: I guess I’ve always had friends from down here. When I was in kindergarten, I had a playmate that was from what was back then Yugoslavia. In primary school and later on when I moved to Vienna, I’ve always lived in areas that are mainly proletarian, mainly migrant. To think that one out of every ten Viennese does have roots in former Yugoslavia, and we’re just talking first and second generation.

At some point in time in my life, I just decided to find out where all these friends of mine come from and what their background is, and why, too, the horrible things that happened 20 years ago, or 25 years ago now, could happen because that was also one thing when I grew up that my mother took care of a couple refugees from Bosnia and Croatia. So that also was something.

It slowly developed into a passion. Yeah, let’s call it a passion.

David: You’re a journalist but you blog, and you might say blogging is a natural extension for a journalist, but it seems, as things develop in the digital world, that bloggers are becoming their own genre, their own DNA within the internet and not conforming to the normal rules of accepted journalism. What would you say you are primarily? Are you still a journalist or do you see yourself, as time goes on, becoming more of a blogger?

Christoph B: I would say that I’m still mainly a journalist but I’m trying to cover long abandoned tradition of subjective yet neutral journalism. If you look at journalist works of Ernest Hemingway, for instance, who did that a lot, and have inspired me a lot. I would actually call him, if you will, the grandfather of journalistic blogging. Really to do stuff at your own time, at your own pace, and at your own length, which is what I love about my blog. I can do what I want. I still try to adhere to journalistic standards, and I think I do a better job than actually a lot of professional journalists do on their paid jobs. It enables me to give my individual perspective while still trying to be neutral, if you will.

David: How difficult has it been to set up a blog? People think it’s pretty easy. You hook onto WordPress and you start churning out content without any discipline, without any real care. How difficult has it been to establish Balkan Stories? It’s got a considerable readership, and a whole breadth of stories.

Christoph B: I thought it was easier than it turned out to be, like many people. Luckily, I’ve got a lot of routine in writing and disciplined writing also so that help a lot. One of the things that I underestimated was the need for images, for instance. One of the things that I’m still trying to get good at it … Let’s call it self marketing, because I think there would be a lot more people interested in reading my stories than are currently reading them.

David: When you get responses, for me in particular, people are more interested in the darker, the more unpleasant side of the former Yugoslavia, the Bosnia Herzegovina, the Serbia, the Croatia, the Montenegro of today, rather than the positive things. What’s your experience dealing with that?

Christoph B: Actually, I think I do get more response for positive stories actually. I do try to cover both ends, but both ends from an angle you wouldn’t normally have any place for in standard media. I would like to avoid the term “mainstream media,” because it sounds a bit hostile now and it’s being abused by a lot of people who want to spin their conspiracy theories.

Let’s say, for instance, I discover a Facebook video with a very, very nice Bosnian joke, and I’m so proud that I understood enough of the language to get the point of that video of that joke, and I posted it online and people were like, “Yeah, great you did that.” “Yeah, finally somebody did that.” Not withstanding the fact that, of course, you only need a fraction of people watching it on my blog compared to the Facebook page, which I think there the video was watched half a million times or even more than that.

That was just a simple thing to do. It took me ten minutes maybe. Asking the guy who posted it on his Facebook page if I could use it, and he was okay with it, and write the text around it. Just a few lines. As a video that is self explained to everybody who speaks the language, so you don’t waste the time about it.

That was very encouraging to see that I make people smile. I love to do that, of course, but also on more negative stories that I do, sometimes I do get response and that also is encouraging because most of the time I try to cover those angles that are frequently overlooked by western media. I try to cover the poverty. I want to see the open poverty, for instance, and that also does at least occasionally get some response. I have people tell me “Thank you for telling that story because it needed to be told. People should take a closer look here.”

David: You get lots of unique stories as well. One in particular that has always stuck in my mind was, I thought, “Where the heck did Christoph find the story about drinking for peace? About craft beer?” It’s such an amazing story. You can check it out on the blog. It was wonderful. Where do you get these really offbeat stories from?

Christoph B: That was pure luck actually. The guys who initiated the project emailed me if I didn’t want to write a story about them. That was really pure luck, and I do get that occasionally, too. Like authors writing to me, “Don’t you wan to do a review of my book?” Or “Don’t you want to cover that?”

There’s also a story I think I could be doing for you or should be doing actually for you. I need to have it translated. A friend of mine, a Bosnian Austrian, has published an all-comprehensive traveler’s guide to Bosnia and Herzegovina

Amel Salihbasic is totally unsatisfied with how Bosnia is represented internationally as a tourism destination, so he decided to write his own book with those nations that he went to. I think it’s the traveler’s guide with the most destinations in it, actually. He doesn’t write a lot about the history, perhaps, but just about the beauty of the country and what to do when you’re in a certain place. It has lots of images in it. It’s very comprehensive, and I think it’s been published in five languages so far. Bosnian, or the language formerly known as Serbo Croatian, or the language without name. Whatever you want to call it.

David: We always have that problem.

Christoph B: German, Turkish, English, and I think Italian.

David: That’s amazing.

Hey. You come here twice a year, and we were talking before we started this discussion about the problem that we perceive as being a problem for the country that everything gravitates to Sarajevo in the first instance, and then in the second instance it gravitates to Mostar. We’re sat in a coffee bar in Banja Luka¬†at the moment, which I have really, really seen on any tour itinerary, but yet there is a lot of history here. There’s a lot of culture that seems to get lost. I have this impression that there are black holes of information in the Balkans. What’s your view on that?

Christoph B: Well, definitely, and saying that like being somebody who has come to regard Sarajevo as a second home actually. Through friends here that I find out about stuff to do and to visit mainly. I’m lucky to have these friends. For us in the west, it’s mostly clich√©, and you’ve got a couple of traveler’s guides with outdated info. This doesn’t solely concern Bosnia, by the way. Then you’re stuck in a place and you’re wondering what to do. When you don’t have anybody who knows the place around here, you’re bored to death. And that is sad because it is very hard to find good info on what to do when, for instance, you want to travel to Bosnia and try to be off the beaten path, perhaps, a bit.

Mostar is a beautiful city, but if you’ve been there once, I think it’s enough. Unless you get good friends there, you don’t want to bump into all those tourists. Sarajevo is great if you know the corners of the town are usually not in the spotlights. Banja Luka¬†I don’t know enough about, but Banja Luka¬†has me fascinated with this mix of architectures, for instance. You never read about that, or at least I don’t recall ever reading about it. It just doesn’t exist. I think it would be a very good thing for Bosnia to understand itself as a united country and to promote tourism and to perhaps get some comprehensive traveler’s guides published. That would be a good story.

David: Let’s go back to Sarajevo for a second. When you go to Sarajevo, they say, “Oh, you can go in the city centre and you’ll see a mosque and you’ll see an Orthodox church and you’ll see a Christian church, and you can go and visit them all. Isn’t this a wonder?” How the heck did you find the synagogue?

Christoph B: That was in a traveler’s guide actually for once, but you really have to leave through this. There are two, actually. One of which is a museum, and that one is better described in the traveler’s guide. The other one I passed by actually looking for something else. I passed it by and I thought, “Didn’t I read something about this building in a traveler’s guide? It must be a synagogue.” Then I wander into there expecting heavy security checks as is custom in Austria because we do have neo-Nazi, anti-Semites. We do have a couple of Islamistic anti-Semites, so while there are some serious security issues for the synagogue in Vienna, nobody asks me for an ID. It’s just a friendly, young girl working there, asking me would I want a guided tour through the synagogue. Interested in a cafeteria I can go to openly with a couple of people just hanging out, just normally. Everybody happy I’m there. Very welcoming. After the tour, I get involved to the Shabbat prayer, which is a great experience, even for me not being a religious person.

The best thing of them all in the cafeteria, the cafeteria is the only place, I think, in Serajevo that calls Turkish coffee still Turkish coffee.

Christoph B: Right. It’s [“domestic coffee,” which Balkan Cafes¬†in Vienna also sell it as domestic coffee. There is nothing domestic about it in Vienna, but they still use the term.

David: What we should do in the future is reserve a weekend and the two of us should do the off-the-track Banja Luka. What do you actually look for though when you go to somewhere in the country that you’ve never been before? Is there a plan that you have? Do you start with architecture or do you start with religion or do you start with food? What is your plan?

Christoph B: I’m always trying to go to places to meet people, to talk with people. That is what interests me the most. Sometimes you are not as lucky as you hope you were. Of course sometimes when you go to specific places, you do have places in mind that you definitely want to see, but mainly for me … I came to Banja Luka for the first time to see the Night at the Museum.

David: Yeah. It’s just over there. The Night at the Museum. Yeah.

Christoph B.: And the Museum of Republika Srpska to take a look at the reconstruction, or, to some degree, rewriting of history because that is a topic that generally interests me. Then it was like, yeah, I do want to meet some friendly people here, too. I did on my first try and we’re still in contact.

David: As far as the Balkans are concerned, because you do write BalkanStories.net, we’re just going to ask you a bit about that in just a sec. But, this is always a difficult question to ask. I think it’s an amazingly hard question to answer, but you’re going to do it. I know.

One place in the Balkans, if you could say to a Northern European, “When you go to the Balkans, you must go here.” What would Christoph Baumgarten’s suggestion be?

Christoph B: I think it would depend on the person.

David: Oh, that’s trying to get out of it now.

Christoph B: But there are basically I think two places that really do it for me city-wise. If you want a more exotic experience, it would definitely be Sarajevo, otherwise it would be Belgrade. If you’re a nature person, try anything along the Neretva. Anything, and you’ll love it.

It really is a hard choice because I’m always having the person in mind I’m suggesting this to. I’ve been suggesting to a couple of people, rather unsuccessfully to go to Neum, who I know like to take vacations by the sea and are always looking for affordable places to go to. I told them go to Neum, I’ve never been.

David: Oh, yeah. That’s Bosnia’s 23 kilometres of coast.

Christoph B: Right. I always tell them give that a try. Otherwise, Montenegro. It’s a good bargain. Very friendly people. Great food. Great landscape. What more could you want? Unfortunately, people still have those cliches in your heads about the Balkans and are not that of interest, so they would rather go to Mallorca instead. And you’re trapped within thousands of French and¬† Germans, which is not the most pleasant experience that I can imagine.

David: Tell me about BalkanStories.net. This is your however many minutes you need of shameless self promotion. No, it’s a very good read, and it’s got an amazing variety of topics and stories. But you are Balkan Stories, so nobody finer to ask. So tell.

Christoph B: Like I was saying, I’m trying to cover unusual angles, stuff that nobody writes about. Right now, I’ve got a network of friends that do help me find stories. Some of them are stories that they are personal involved in, which does matter. Sometimes it’s just stuff that I run across because I listen to people.

Last year, a guide at the¬†Tito Memorial in Belgrade, told me, “Yeah, Tito still gets letters.” I decided to follow up that story this year because it would’ve been his 125th birthday.

First I write an email to the museum. No reply. That’s a negative side about the Balkans. Nobody ever replies to emails. Then I call them up from Vienna, and another curator tells me, “Yeah, this is true.” She found it totally amazing that anybody could find it interesting.

Or that whole complicated story about the National Library in Sarajevo that is really being mistreated horribly with the city government not letting it into the building that has been reconstructed three years ago to be the new old seat of the National Library. To my knowledge, I was the first one to cover that outside of Bosnia, or at least outside of ex-Yugoslavia.

Also initiated a solidarity reading for them, which was not so successful on the Vienna end. Although we had great authors, but it was raining, it was windy, and we’re doing it outside. Besides, it was cold, so we never had an audience of more than three combined. But it got the people in Sarajevo enormous coverage. A whole lot of TV station all of a sudden turned up because they learned that we had a reading in Vienna, which I still do not understand, but I like it. I like that I made a difference.

Or writing about Amel, that I mentioned before. Amel Salihbasic, who wrote the comprehensive traveler’s guide to Bosnia.

That’s the thing I love doing. Writing about the synagogue in Sarajevo. I hope that on my next trip to Belgrade I write about their synagogue, too. Now I’ve got tonnes of stories that I’ve packed up, like …

Oh, my gosh. I got into the building of Tanjug. It wasn’t that difficult. It was the night of the museum and everything, so it was free entry for everybody, but there I am in a building of the legendary news agency that still exists and nobody knows why because they were supposed to have been shut down for two years. I’m trying to follow up on that angle, too. Just to have been in there is an amazing thing, and I’ll convey that.

Hey, great photographs, by the way.

That is also something I’ll do, or sometimes just a nice photo story when I run across something like Mostar in rain, which I published actually I think just a week or ten days ago. In black and white. I’m not a photographer per se. Sometimes I’ll do lucky shots, and I’ve got a good, trustworthy camera that will do most of the work. I thought, let’s do that in black and white. Let’s do in rain because, first of all, black and white looks good in rain. Secondly, nobody ever does Mostar in rain. Let’s do it. Let’s see what it looks like.

David: When you go back through your archives, which you must do every now and again, what blog posts that you’ve posted on the site gives you that real special feeling and generates a massive smile on your face?

Christoph B: I think it’s about the Sculptor of Travnik. I was visiting the Ivo Andrińᬆbirthplace museum, and the curator, whom I had an interview with, tells me after the interview, and in two hours, I’m really hungry and I’m exhausted and thirsty and everything. But he tells me, “There is somebody I would like you to meet.” Closes up the museum. Takes me basically around the corner to a barbershop, and there is this guy, Louis, who doesn’t speak any English, who has made this amazing sculpture in front of the museum. It turns out the guy is a refugee from Basra in Iraq. He’s lived in Bosnia for almost 20 years.

And then I was doing an interview with him in my rudimentary Bosnian, and we were managing. He’s an artist who runs the barbershop to make a living. Also draws paintings and does a sculpture every couple of years that he donates to the people of Travnik. The last of which was Ivo Andric, that almost failed because he had a sponsor for the metal back then, and he paid for everything else, but he had a sponsor to pay for the metal and the night before they were supposed to deliver the metal, the guy calls him up and tells him, “No. Sorry. I can’t pay.” So he digs up every cent he’s got in the house. Literally slaughters his piggy banks, as he told me, so he could pay the metal. That’s the sculpture, and now it’s in front of the museum.

That’s such a great story. That’s heartwarming because it tells me what human beings can be like if you let them.

David: Certainly heartwarming. Finally, what’s the plans for BalkanStories.net?

Christoph B: Perhaps to grow to one point in time I could at least make a little money to cover for some parts of my travelling. And to find a readership that I think spreads the word a lot more and perhaps helps a lot of people reconsider their opinions on the Balkans, and particularly ex-Yugoslavia. The latter part is what this blog is here for, to try and avoid cliches, which is not entirely possible because we all have them, but at least when I’m out and I stop and think about it … And luckily, by now I do have some readers that point out some things to me.

Perhaps, at one point in time, it can make a contribution for people to see the Balkans with at least less cliches and perhaps to reconsider development politics by the western Balkans, and perhaps they’ll also reconsider how they themselves treat migrants from Balkans and the countries that they live in.

End of Interview:

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