Did we like it?
Michael Palin’s great skill is segueing from the benignly engaging beauty of the geographical and social landscape to the disturbing and harrowing history of the places he visits; and few places in the world are so suited to this description than Eastern Europe in this excellent new entry in global Palin’s itinerary.
What was good about it?
• The idyllic Croatian island which has been stripped bare of much of its populace who have emigrated to the mainland or further a-field to seek work, which was exemplified by a vista of abandoned, rocky fields that no longer yield a profitable crop.
• How the former repressed states of Yugoslavia are cottoning on to Western ideals of capitalism. And while this may not be a good thing in itself, it is enabling them to become more prosperous through tourism, and even religion as observed in a Bosnian town where a group of teenagers claimed to see the Virgin Mary 26 years ago. In the intervening period, it has become the third largest Catholic site in the world attracting thousands of pilgrims a year.
• The strength of this first episode came in the reflections from all across the ex-Yugoslavia about the Balkan conflicts. One typically superb observation was: “In Sarajevo most of the inhabitants don’t want to talk about the war; but sooner or later everybody does.”
• And from this we learned about the senseless destruction Mostar’s fabled bridge (now thankfully rebuilt), how the Turkish district of Sarajevo was closed down because it was in sight of the surrounding hills from where rained down sniper and artillery fire and the strange sense of guilt in Belgrade of how the Serbian government was the main antagonist in the wars yet they escaped scot-free.
• The most enlightening part of this episode was when Michael accompanied an official whose job it was to clear away the mines that still surround large parts of Sarajevo. “Do you feel bitter towards the people who laid these mines?” asked Michael. “It’s difficult to say,” replied the official. “Because I was part of it. At the time you had to think ‘I’m going to survive no matter what’.” And this more than anything illustrated the stark difference between war and peace.
• Michael also explored the lasting effect of the minefields on Sarajevo’s current inhabitants – children are educated through puppet shows not to wander in the verdant mine-infested fields that fringe the city, while many families move away as they are unable to earn a living cutting wood or foraging for mushrooms as they had done before the war.
• The troubles of Albania as it struggles to haul itself out of the mire of communism and a collapsed pyramid saving scheme, epitomised by its chaotic capital Tirana where the ebullient mayor uses his artistic skills to brighten up the grey skyline with rainbow-coloured buildings as the traffic hurtles blindly around the pot-holed roads like a herd of spooked sheep.
• It was amusing that in Albania, a fallen brothel is used as a roundabout.
What was bad about it?
• Perhaps it was an effort to gently introduce an audience of whom some would have spent the evening cowering beneath the dining table at the very mention of the word ‘communism’, but some of his early statements were bafflingly ignorant.
• “I’ve never really travelled through it,” he began. “But now the Iron Curtain has lifted I’m going to make up for lost time.” The Iron Curtain was lifted about a decade-and-a-half ago so why Michael feels the need to concoct some illusory barrier that once impeded his progress is bewildering.
• “As we meander through the tranquil countryside, it’s difficult to believe this was the country whose walk out of a communist conference in 1990 began the break up of Yugoslavia.” What is the connection between geographical pulchritude and political action? Every single nation in the world (with the exception of the old East Germany whose marching forests still feel like a grimy black leather gloved hand closing around your neck) is blessed with geographical beauty regardless of any devastating conflicts.
• Everybody speaks English. This is depressing as occasionally, through no fault of Michael’s, it feels like reportage from the front lines as the English language continues its inexorable stampede across the world ingraining its idiom and culture into the rest of the globe whether they like it or not.
• And while this allows Michael to talk with those who he meets, speaking in a second language often inhibits their verbosity and expression such as Albanian courier Illya, who spoke admirable English but looked blank whenever Michael used slightly less common words and phrasing. There’s something reassuring foreign when people speak in their own lyrical tongue as if you are really being transported to another place like those 80s football commentaries from Dukla Prague v Aston Villa when Barry Davies’ voice would often be drowned out by a blizzard of radio static and excitable Czechoslovakians.
• Though Palin did try and integrate with the people, the edits never satisfied for feeling a wave of reticence showed: the beginning of this new series didn’t have as much depth compared to previous series.
• The sacrifice of an animal so that a young man could pray for his family’s success in Europe in obtaining documents and employment did generate incredulity and show the people involved were being backwards and medieval.