Savouring idleness on holiday

Savouring idleness on holiday

This year I’ve unwillingly signed up for a nomadic lifestyle. It with itself brought a lot of challenges and ad hoc movements between places, blurring the line between working and non-working time, home and away, belonging and not belonging. Quite often I’ve been on the move and I’ve missed having my own physical dwelling and my small world around me. I’ve missed my usual rituals which make a great part of my everydayness and of who I am. Instead, I’ve been torn between the countries, the houses, the Airbnbs, here and elsewhere. All my belongings are temporarily boxed up while my vital stuff is packed in a single bag with which I move around. And while I am waiting for the stars to align and I can finally move into a flat in London, I am in Novi Sad, slowly sorting and packing my things before our family house is pulled down and we need to move towards the end of the year. So basically, when I am at home, I live surrounded by the construction site, and the construction site is not really the best place to wake up in or work at. When I think about it, I hadn’t asked for all this when I wrote to Santa last year! 2020 has been nothing I was expecting it to be; my known world has disintegrated and I’ve been all over the place, both physically and mentally. But then again, I am not alone in this. The whole world has been shaken and we all need to adapt and try to find new ways of being – even if it is moving around with a bindle stick, whistling the famous ‘Hakuna Matata’ song and hoping for the best.

An escapade

To keep peace of mind, I often dislocate from reality, which is currently full of dust, noise, uncertainties and tensions. I’ve always enjoyed solitude and being in liminal spaces, where I can do things my way and without having my thoughts interrupted. I would then pack my small backpack and leave for places in which I can focus and be physically active, and which fill me up with calm and joy. These places are normally away from the cities, where the absence of humans give way to the presence of wildlife, and where the colour green exists in abundances. This time, however, I made a slightly different choice. I didn’t feel like being physically active at all, I felt like I needed grounding in a place and literally doing nothing for extended periods of time. I thus sent myself to a spa town, a settlement in the border region where the River Drina separates Serbia from Bosnia, nestled between the foot of the wooded mountain Gučevo and the city of Loznica. This place, built around sulphuric thermal springs many moons ago, became my temporary sanctuary.

Banja Koviljača is not only the oldest spa town in Serbia but has been also known as the elite Royal Spa Resort with cutting-edge medical services. Its history dates far back into the past, however, the turning point in its development marked the year 1858 when the healing properties of its thermal springs and mineral peloid (mud) started to be used in the treatment of various diseases. Here, King Aleksandar I Karađorđević built Kur-salon for the entertainment purposes of the aristocratic elite. It contained the lavish ballrooms, the first gambling room in the Balkans, and an avant-garde congress centre. Banja Koviljača cemented its reputation as a spa town during the reign of King Petar I Karađorđević who built for himself the sulphuric bathtub near his residential palace. The spa consequently became a modern centre for prevention, healing and rehabilitation. In 1998, it was named the “Special hospital for rehabilitation Banja Koviljača” positioning itself among Europe’s state of the art rehabilitation centres. I simply thought this sounded like an ideal place to be, to heal my RA joints and exhausted mind.

Kur Salon

Slowing down

The first couple of days I was only pottering around the place in a blasé manner. The noise from the building site was gradually being replaced by the soothing shades of green, the cranes and bulldozers got the shape of trees and bushes, and the thick city dust turned into a crisp air of the Royal park. It was difficult to get used to the sounds of nature instead of relentless drilling noise and hundreds of decibels which were messing up my thoughts. Instead, the prolonged pealing of the bell coming from the Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, which I could hear every day around lunchtime, was incredibly calming and therapeutic. I would walk out to the park with my laptop, randomly choose a bench to rest on, and do some work. I was finding cosy spots in and around the park, and, although my mind was still focused on work, I soon started to feel the difference. The tension left my body, instead, the fresh air and oxygen cleared my head and lungs, and my heartbeat became slower. Not only the heartbeat, my body movements too. The laziness overwhelmed me and I couldn’t be bothered to change that. I tried to imagine what the life of a sloth is like – do they only move slowly or they also think slowly? Or they don’t think at all? Anyway, the first few days of my stay I spent in the easy working mode, however as the weekend kicked in, I pressed the “Idle” button and, like that sloth, let my arm hang down the tree for days.

The Royal park

Bodily grounding

I didn’t go far, nor did I do much. I embedded myself in the surrounding landscapes. I was aimlessly wandering about and exploring the wild coast of the river Drina watching its flow as the storm was closing in. I was sitting at the wooden bench sheltered by a straw umbrella and counting the seconds between the lightning and the thunder. I was picking berries in the forest, and chasing dragonflies and admiring their beauty. I was getting scratched whilst trying to reach out to the juicy wild fruits in the thick bushes. I positioned myself on top of the hill and observed the formation of the rainy clouds and the curtains made of rain connecting the surrounding hilltops and valleys. My hair was humid, my skin was scratched and muddy and my whole body was shaking in the sudden blast of chilly air. I wrapped myself in the beach towel and stood for hours in the summer breeze. When the sun shone through again, the tingling sensations overwhelmed me. Standing there, seemingly lost and alone, feeling the elements on the naked skin meant being part of the natural processes. As Tesla once said, when one feels the electricity in the body, then she knows she is part of the universe.

The Mount Gučevo

The mud bath

When one is in a royal spa, then why not behave like a king? I put on walrus moustache and got into King Peter’s shoes. I walked into the grandiose building adjacent to King Peter’s bath. I decided to purchase a “Royal day” as I was dying to learn how the king himself did it. The wellness centre is of a retro-futuristic interior; a mixed bag of old-fashioned design and new technologies which give away the modern era. It is certainly regal, very spacious with high ceilings and vaults and giant wooden doors with stylistic iron decor. I followed the therapist down the long corridor to the peloid room. The treatment started with the mud wrap. The bed was covered in cling foil over which the mud was spilt from the bucket and spread over by hand. It looked like the finest Belgium chocolate was melting all over the bed, although it was far from it for its smell of sulphur. I got wrapped up in peloid in which my body too became liquid. While I was laying motionless, my eyes were running across the room and the mellow music additionally relaxed me and nearly put to sleep. But, my mind was busy thinking of a long time the mud actually requires to ripe and become suitable for medicinal purposes. I spent a good twenty minutes wrapped in mud, smelling mud and thinking about mud. After a nice scrub and shower, I had a long thermo-mineral bubbly bath in the authentic bathtub. Then I dipped myself in the outdoor pool before the full-body anti-stress massage, and a fruit punch to finish off the programme. The mud was still occupying my mind.

Getting cosy and creative

I discovered nice eateries in the area, however without really searching for them. I flâneured in the rain along the main pedestrian street in Loznica, named after Jovan Cvijić, the founder of Serbian geography, who was born in this city. I was peeking into alleyways which very much reminded me of those in Novi Sad opening up into small squares full of cafes and restaurants and craft shops and people. One of these passages seemed particularly cosy. It was covered in lush greenery, the instrumental music was playing, the birds and parrots were chirping in the corner and it was empty of people. The air smelled of rain and leaves in the forest, combined with the smell of burned woods and pizza just getting crispy in the oven. I ordered fresh orange juice and some food and took the notebook out of my bag. It was just then when I started thinking about what free time actually means and what not doing much actually does to us. Having no plans or social commitments, having no direction of movement, doing things as they come, and as I please. It was also then when I remembered my conversations with a friend around concepts such as German Muße or Latin otium, or Serbian natenane. In essence, they all mean being idle – a qualitative and meaningful way of being. And this is exactly what I was doing, thus I wrote down: “Savouring idleness on holiday”. And this is how the writing unravelled around the idea of doing nothing as a creative, restorative and recuperative holiday activity. 

Restaurant ‘Cyrano’

Towards otium places

When you think about it, the frenetic digital era and capitalist society in which we live teach us to be relentlessly fast, networked and productive. At the same time, it makes us feel guilty if we are idle, slothful or unproductive. In such world, being bored is not considered a virtue, but rather as something that may get us into trouble or else, we could be excluded from certain social circles as no one wants useless time-wasters around. However, our fast and furious society keeps forgetting that idleness is, in fact, a noble activity. We forgot how to stop and rest, relax and recuperate by doing nothing. In the past, people of higher standing would often relocate to the countryside as it allowed space for boredom and idleness as part of quality leisure time. Doing nothing was considered beneficial not only for mental and physical health but also for boosting creativity and imagination. My short escapade into the spa town as an ideal otium place taught me how to stop to pause in the world where the construction site is the metaphor for constant busyness; how to appreciate stillness and idleness; and how to think of boredom and laziness in a totally different way.

The breadtime story

The breadtime story

We crossed the Danube, then meandered through the forest of the national park heading towards one of the four former capitals of the Roman empire, when I decided to make a phone call. A male voice picked up and said: Jeremija speaking. I explained I was just calling to check if the museum was open. “Yes, we are here, awaiting you”, Jeremija answered. At this point I could not imagine that a very small museum in a very small town could make such a huge impact on me. I pictured Jeremija as a simple villager who had a love of bread making and decided to tell a story about it and, perhaps, display a tool or two, or whatever else he could think of, and call it a museum. But there was something in Jeremija’s voice. It was not a voice of a weary villager that spends his days labouring out in the fields, rather, it was cheerful and full of life and it was difficult to imagine that it belonged to an aged man.

Instead of following the road to Sirmium, we took the turn to Pećinci. The road took us to its end, where it intersected with the fields. On our left, the bus stop appeared as if placed right at the end of the world, and on the right, a cage-like entrance to a long ground-level building, resembling nothing more and nothing less but silos for storing wheat, corn and other harvested crops. It was hard to believe that this was our final destination – the museum of bread. That we were at the right place confirmed the image of the museum owner Jeremija hand in hand with a Serbian Nobel prize winner, Ivo Andrić. This juxtaposition of the unconventional museum building, the image of a great figure of Serbian literature and agricultural setting in which all of this was placed was a truly mind-boggling introduction to the artistic interpretation of the meanings and significance of bread in the Serbian culture.

We rang the bell. The owner opened the door in the fashion of a good host and admitted us into a small conservatory. The cheerful voice now belonged to the body of a 70-year-old man with wild, snow white hair and a pair of piercing blue eyes. He sat us on chairs and wanted to know more about us, who we were, what we did, what we liked, where we’d met; just the very usual questions made part of a very unusual reception.

The chatter was interrupted by Jeremija’s wife who invited us for a walk through the collection. And this is where the story about Jeremija and bread unfolded…

Jeremija is an artist-ethnographer who often travels and paints. These are most often the motives of rural, rustic, traditional Serbia which is slowly fading away: the old farmhouses, the windmills, the old stoves, the sheds. Jeremija’s work captures the aesthetic, ethnographic and traditional vales of the people and place, the ones which have not been protected by the government, and through his artistic expression he aims to immortalise them. In his work, however, Jeremija is mostly interested in ritual and cult bread (pogača in Serbian). In its honour, he decided to open the museum, the designing of which he approached in a similar way as he approaches painting. The museum, Jeremija’s life work, is conceptualised in such way to present the life cycle of a wheat grain – “From soil, over bread to the heavens”.

From the soil…

The so called ‘bread street’ starts with the archaeological collection of the tillage tools from pre-history and the Roman period between 100 AD and 500 AD. For the proximity of Sirmium, some of the archaeological material from this period have been ploughed out in the fields nearby and have been conserved in the museum. In order to popularise science, the museum hosts a number of faithful copies of well-known artefacts, like that of the Goddess of fertility which is displayed in the Museum of Vojvodina. The section on the harvest displays Neolithic, Celtic or Roman wheat milling tools, the machines used in domestic households from the beginning of 20th century, the bread scales, as well as the old baking ovens (furune in Serbian) which Jeremija found in Serbian villages and in which he found inspiration for his paintings.

… over bread…

Bread is very important in all cultures. In Serbia in particular, it is the old traditional custom to make liturgical bread for big religious holidays such as Christmas, Easter and Slava, the family patron’s day. It used to be made for child’s birth and as a gift for newlyweds, an antecedent of today’s wedding cake. All the breads have a spiritual meaning. In Serbian culture there is a saying that the whole human life occurs between the bead for a newborn and the bread for the deceased.

…to the heavens

The path led us out of the museum to the small chapel in the garden. It was still work in progress; the ceiling was covered in frescoes, but the walls were still undone, as well as the floor. Jeremija explained that the floor was made of wooden logs of various trees that he had collected on his travels throughout Serbia. Walking on the floor, he explained, would be like walking through whole Serbia. The frescoes on the ceiling depict the pre-Christian and pagan divinity, the saints holding the bread, the Nemanjić dynasty and Christ converting the pagans into Christianity.

We finished our visit in a warm and cosy dining room where the family admit guests and celebrate their Slava. In the olden days, the kitchen was referred to as ‘the house’, as the hearth of home and the place where the members of the family would gather and prepare food, and from which the light and warmth of home would radiate. On one of the walls was displayed the document certifying that Serbian Slava had been put under the government protection as well as inscribed in the Unesco’s list of the world’s intangible cultural heritage. This is how we found out that Jeremija made his contributions to this achievement. He also brought to our attention the traditional Vojvodinian cipovka, ‘the bread that laughs at the moon,’ and the recent attempts to protect its 300-year-old recipe as an intangible cultural heritage.

The playful ginger cat (which never meows) waited for us after vacating the dining room. Having journeyed through the lifecycle of wheat, we were convinced that we stood at a spot of invaluable cultural importance. Jeremija’s museum of bread is not just a tiny pop-up bread exhibition (as I might have thought before my visit), rather, it is a cultural treasure embodied in material artefacts brought together through decades of dedicated collection and creation, and led by a vision of an artistic mind. No wonder that the European museum forum nominated it for the Museum of the Year and the International Council of museums took it under its auspices for the outstanding value it has within the Vojvodinian, Serbian and the world’s cultural spaces.

The artist, curator and above all a great host, Jeremija walked us out of the museum. In the space between the bus stop and the crops, he told us a story about his encounter with Ivo Andrić, his life in Belgrade and his decision to move to Pećinci. “Remember, the most important decisions you make when you are young”, he said and waved us goodbye.

Jeremija - The Serbian Museum of Bread

Link to the official website.