Balkan is the new punk.

Edinburgh Expeditions

“You might want to change your shoes,” a friend said to me.
I looked down at my ballerina flat clad toes. “Combat boots then?”
She nodded. “Combat boots. Have you never been to Balkanarama before?” Seeing me shake my head, she continued, “The dancing is a bit like being in a mosh pit.”

Despite my (joking) claims that I was a punk in a former life (can’t help it, I have a soft spot for ’70s punk music) , pogoing and moshing have been two styles of dancing I’ve never been particularly keen to try. Needless to say, that’s exactly what I was going to attempt, I just didn’t know it at the time.

Balkanarama is a popular club night in Edinburgh. It features, surprise, Balkan music, both live and DJed. I hadn’t listened to Balkan music at all prior to Thursday night, when I ran into two-thirds of Bobok serenading my friends. When I got a text from another friend suggesting that we go on Saturday, I was completely on board.

What I found at Studio 24 (an independent club just off of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile) was not what I expected–in a good way. I had no idea what would be waiting for me, not only where the club was (we got ever so slightly lost, ending up on Calton Hill and looking down on the club rather than standing right by it), but what it would be like inside. Two floors, of which I only made to the first; reasonably priced beer (a can of Red Stripe for £3); some seats near the bar, and a pulsing pit of dancers in front of a live music stage.

I took a swig of my beer and looked to my friend. We both looked to the pit, to each other, and nodded. The loud, blistering sound of violin, accordion, trumpet and percussion greeted us, along with the undulating mass of bodies and reek of sweat. The pit was sweaty, smelly and alive.

Alive sums up Balkanarama. There’s something about bouncing up and down to energetic music, bumping into those around you, somehow ending up right by the stage, dancing like a madman and being knocked against the metal railing. Something wonderful, endorphin-inducing. I had a massive smile on my face even when we left, sometime after the band Smash Kafana left the stage.

As we wandered home, we said, ‘why on earth had we not gone there before?’

I’ll surely be at Balkanarama in coming months, still in my combat boots.

The Joy of the Small Things in Life

The Twirl and Swirl of Letters

On October 25, I attended a lecture given by Alexander McCall Smith at the Boston Public Library.

McCall Smith is my favorite living writer, so the opportunity to hear him speak was an amazing opportunity. Apparently he was supposed to speak at the BPL last Spring, but the Volcano Incident kept him in Europe. All the better for me, as I was in Italy and would have been unable to attend the lecture.

His lecture was a funny, touching one, like his books. His main point was one quite close to me, a person on the brink of great wide world: find the joy in the little things in life. It isn’t the great, massive things that ultimately matter. It isn’t the grand adventures that we set out on, not the jobs we hold or how much we make (but I’m sure this helps), rather, it’s those moments of laughter, of friendship, of joy that create our lives. When I look back on my life, while I have had bright, brilliant memories, its those little moments of elation: I don’t remember why we laughing, only that we were, that we were having fun. That we enjoyed ourselves.

It isn’t the drama. It isn’t the news that defines our world, though it certainly impacts us. It’s the people we know and how we spend time with them. It’s that kind hello, that sweet smile. The invitation for a walk, the hug from a friend. That’s what our life is.

These ideas, the idea of friendship, of warmth, of love, are throughout his serial works, from The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency series to 44 Scotland Street. That’s why I love them so much. You care for them, even the ones you didn’t like as much (Bertie’s mother the terrible Irene is one).

The highlights of the evening:

After the lecture, there was a brief question and answer session. I tentatively raised my hand, a thousand questions whirling about. I didn’t expect that I would be picked.

I blanked.

Somehow my mouth managed to say, “Do you laugh while writing your books?”

His response: “Yes. Sometimes my wife knocks on the door and asks me what’s so funny.”

He then recounted a scene in the forthcoming 44 Scotland Street book The Importance of Being Seven, where Bertie meets a boy who collects penknives.

That had me on cloud nine. Seeing my favorite author speak, his answering my question…and a book signing to follow.

Cue waiting in line. There, I chatted with those around me about Alexander McCall Smith’s books, travel and art.

Soon enough, it was my turn to speak briefly with Mr McCall Smith. We spoke no more than a minute or so, in which I thanked him for the speech and answering my question. I told him that his books made me happy and were an inspiration to me as a writer. He inquired about my work, and after I said I had written a novel that “wasn’t terribly good,” he said just to move on to the next one. Simple advice.

It was a pretty awesome night.

I’m still on cloud nine.