A May 9, 2007 post, wondering to telecommute or not.
I will be offline for a couple of days so I will not be able to post at my usual frantic pace. Instead, I decided to write something that will take you a couple of days to read through: a very long, meandering post, full of personal anecdotes. But there is a common theme throughout and I hope you see where I’m going with it and what conclusions I want you to draw from it.
Pigeons, crows, rats and cockroaches
I was born and grew up in a big, dirty city and I am not going back (my ex-Yugoslav readers have probably already recognized the reference to the good old song Back to the Big, Dirty City by my namesake Bora Djordjevic of the uber-popular Fish Soup band). I spent the first 25 years of my life in Belgrade, population 2 million. No, I did not feel uncomfortable there. I knew every nook and cranny of the city. I walked around town most of the time, even if that meant two hours at a brisk pace in the middle of the night from the northernmost part of Zemun all the way home south of center.
And I still think that it is a great city – a wild mosaic of architecture from Roman and Ottoman times, through the Austro-Hungarian time, the pre-WWII Serbian and early Yugoslav kingdom era and the Tito communist period, to the Milosevic decade and Wes Clark’s enriched uranium. Steeped in history, yet not trying to live in it. Some cities try to keep looking the same the way they did a century or two ago when they were at the hight of their influence. Stratford-upon-Avon keeps trying to look as if Shakespeare is still living there. Not Belgrade. Far too confident in its 11 centuries of history to care about anything but youth and future. It can be dizzying walking around – there may be an old mosque from the times of Turkish occupation embedded into the remains of the Roman fortress, looking down the street of houses built in Austro-Hungarian style in one direction, in soc-realist style in another direction and overlooked by a huge green-glass modern hotel. There is great art and the ugliest kitsch standing side-by-side, European hyper-intellectuals walking side-by-side with peasants, bookstores sinking under the weight of philosophy books and Gypsies collecting scrap metal – and all equally poor.
But it hurts one’s throat to arrive in Belgrade (at least it did in 1995, the last time I went to visit, when my father was still alive). Clean air is not the first priority when the retirees are waiting for months to get their pensions. That is why I escaped whenever I could – summers in our small weekend house at the base of the Mt.Avala just about 20 minutes south of Belgrade when I was a little kid, a couple of weeks at the Adriatic coast every summer when I was little before that became too expensive, teenage years spent on the Danube river in Eastern Serbia in the village my father grew up in, and many years, day after day, at the Belgrade racecourse and the surrounding woods.
Back in 1989 or so, the rats at the racecourse got really numerous and big. Ten-pounders, some of them, I bet. They were not afraid to walk around in the middle of the day. They chased, caught, killed and ate our barn cats. Our terriers were afraid to approach the feed-rooms. We forbade the kids from going to get horse feed. Even we adults banged on the doors before going in. But gradually, we moved all the grain into bins and barrels, plugged all holes, reinforced the walls, and kept the floors as clean as possible. There was just not enough food around any more to sustain such a huge population. As it always goes, after a boom, there is a bust. The rat population collapsed and disappeared as suddenly as it initially appeared.
I grew up in a small apartment on the 7th floor. My school (K-12) was a walking distance from home. I took a bus to school anyway, being an owl and a late riser, but I had plenty of time to walk home after classes and stop by various food establishments, or parks, or the Natural History Museum, or the library, or stealing cherries and apricots from trees along the route…
I lived across the street from the vet school. It took me eight minutes from the moment I woke up till the moment I was sitting in class in the main amphitheater. Some classes started as early as 7:15am. In later years, some of the field-trips (to the slaughterhouses or farms) required being there at 4 or 5am. No problem.
When I arrived in the States, I lived on the horse-farm I worked at. Later, I lived across the street from the NCSU campus. I needed only about 5 minutes from bed to lab.
I am spoiled – always going to school or work so close to the place I lived. I loved it – all the time that saved me, the gas I could have burned into the atmosphere, all the nerves I would have lost in traffic jams are still intact.
Living in such a small apartment meant I was never allowed to have pets. Sure, we had a little turtle we named Aeschylus for a little while, but no dog or cat or parrot or aquarium. Later I had horses, but I did not keep them at home.
I always loved animals and nature and wanted to be a naturalist, but there was nobody around to teach me how. My family belongs to art, theater and literature circles. They appreciate nature aesthetically, both directly and through the works of art. But not by digging in the mud and identifying species. Personal hygiene was of paramount importance and the nature was too dirty.
My father was a language expert and had a utilitarian view of animals. You catch fish for dinner, not pleasure. Cows and sheep and pigs are for milk and meat. Chickens for eggs. Cats for catching mice. Dogs, as much as he loved them (and all dogs loved him back), were meant to guard property, not to live in small apartments.
My great-uncle was the only scientist in the family. He got his degrees in chemistry and chemical engineering before the WWII in Prague. He emerged out of the war with a high rank in the military and spent most of his career applying his knowledge to building the military industry. He had definitely an appreciation for nature (and a green thumb!), but again, it was an utilitarian view (raising fruits and vegetables, or building tanks and submarines). I had no naturalist to guide me and I am still unhappy about it. That is why I did not participate in the Bioblitz – I had no idea how to go about it. As much as I tried to teach myself, I still feel like I walk blind through the woods and meadows. I need more of the naturalist intelligence (one of seven, according to Howard Gardner).
Sheep and catfish
I mentioned the village in Eastern Serbia above. Its name is Vinci. If your linguistic ear suggests to you that the name has something to do with wine, you are right. As the legend goes, the area was, centuries ago (I have never seen a vine there in my life!), a big wine country. One summer day, a big hailstorm came down and the hail beat up on the ripe grapes. Danube turned red from all the wine flowing down the hillsides. That is how the village got its name.
My father is from there (by some stroke of accident, he was not actually born there – his parents were on a trip far away on that day). His father was a tailor. His cousin is a professional Danube fisherman. When I was very little, we went there sometimes to visit (and stay with the cousin and his wife). There, I taught myself to ride a bike. I swam in the Danube. I caught my first fish. I learned to fire an air-rifle. But I spent most of the time in the neighbor’s barn, observing cows, sheep, goats and pigs, dogs, cats and rabbits, chickens, geese, turkeys and ducks for many hours at a time. A behavioral biologist from a very young age!
Later, my father bought a small piece of land with an ancient house at the end of the village, a 100-years old house made of mud. Everyone expected him to tear it down and build something more modern. Oh no, he just stripped the old mud and replaced it with some fresh mud, fixed the foundation and the roof and we filled it with old rustic furniture (some saved from pig-stys in the neighborhood) that my mother re-painted. It was a museum of rural life of the last century! And it was great fun to spend summers there (my mother later gave the property to a family of Serbian refugees from Kosovo). Houses with thick mud walls are warm in winter and cool in summer.
That was a very small and, at the time, quite a poor and backwards village (that changed during the sanctions with the gasoline-smuggling operations accross the Danube, from Romania). Perhaps a thousand people. Half are named Zivkovic.
The school was just one small room where several kids, grades 1 through 4, had classes all together. The only phone in the village was in the school building. Next to it, at the village square, there was a monument to the villagers who were killed in the two World Wars, a cafe/bar, and not one but two co-op grocery stores.
I always wandered why such a small place with practically nothing going for it had to have two stores. They were right next to each other. They had the identical work-hours. They sold exactly the same groceries (and tools and stuff). Even the shopkeepers looked the same – stocky, beer-bellied, red-faced guys nick-named Zika!
Later, I understood. In a community that small, where everyone was stuck there and had to meet everyone else every day, where one day is like another, there is not much else to do but gossip and get in fights with each other! Thus, there were always divisions of the village into clans that did not speak to each other. The alliances changed occasionally, and being close relatives did not automatically mean the two people would be on speaking terms with each other. So, each of the shopkeepers was speaking to half the village and not speaking to the other half – hey fully complemented each other.
But there were times of year when all the enmities had to get buried for a while. When the right time arrived, the whole village went from one field to the next until everyone’s corn was harvested. The same when tomatoes are ripe for picking. The same when watermelons are ready for market. The same when it is catfish season.
Danube is a mile wide at that point, and catfish often get to be this big:
It is impossible for a single person, in a single boat to pull out a net full of 20-30 of those guys at one time. They had to do it in teams of several boats and share the loot equally. Once the season is over in a few days, they all go back to solitary fishing (and fighting and backstabbing).
It was a poor village. Nobody could afford to have more than a few sheep. And nobody could afford to let a family member be relieved of all other duties in order to take the sheep out to graze. So, every household had its own few days of the year when they acted as shepherds for the entire village. They always started at the same spot and went around the village in the exact route. Every household would open the gate and let their sheep out to join the growing flock. After a day grazing somewhere far away from the village, the shepherds would bring the sheep back to the village where each sheep knew exactly where to go and which gate to enter. The lambs learned from their mothers. The route through the village, from one house to the next, remained unchanged for generations. The people may have hated each other, but they had to trust each other nonetheless. If my sheep come back home fine when you are taking care of them, then I’ll make sure that your sheep are safe when it is my term to do the shepherding duty. Sheep appeared to all like each other, though.
Later, as a teenager, I really liked spending summers there. The spot became popular for (domestic) tourists and hundreds (perhaps thousands) of tiny weekend houses sprouted up between Vinci and the neighboring village. That meant there was a lot of other kids of roughly my age there all summer long as well. We swam in the Danube, raced on our bycicles, and spent nights eating, drinking, flirting and singing (with me playing the guitar) until dawn.
You already know that I spent much of my youth riding horses. Back then, in the 1970s and 1980s, all the stables, riding schools and stud-farms were owned by some branch of the government: either agricultural complexes, or the military or the mounted police. One could, of course, own a horse and keep it at home or pay rent in another barn. But there were no private stables.
Riding in one of those state clubs was pretty frustrating at times. Who got to ride the best horses and who was on the team was decided by political connections (for the guys) or by willingness to sleep with the trainer (for the women). The best match between the horses’ temperaments and riders’ skills was never taken into consideration.
One summer (1988), a bunch of us got sick of it and decided to form our own club. A private club. We rented one of the stables at the racecourse and each one of us bought a horse or two. Some of us could afford better horses than others. Some of us were better riders than others. None of that mattered – the trainer decided who was going to ride which horse by making the best possible matches of skills and temperaments (I never showed my own horse, for instance, but did well riding some other people’s horses). And the results were fantastic from the very first show season next year. We surprised everyone by winning or getting placed high everywhere. And our horses looked the best, with bulging muscles and shiny hair. And not just in showjumping. We had a racing trotter who won the biggest race of the year, and a racehorse who won the biggest sprint of the season by several lengths (after two years away from the racetrack and a winter of pre-dawn interval training by me).
We arrived at the barn at 4am every day, seven days a week – all of us! It was a very cold winter with lows ranging between -13 and -20 Celsius (yes, in the minus, in Celsius!). The ground was frozen. All of our horses were young and frisky. We’d ride two or two sets of horses before dawn. Sometimes packs of stray dogs would come out of the dark and scare our horses. We hung on tight. Four or five of us better riders rode 4-5 horses per day. Others waited until after dawn to get a lesson/training on one or two. We all cleaned the stalls (we never hired a groom). We all prepared food, a healthy mix of grains, fruits and vegetables, by hand – no pellets for our animals! We used every trick in the book to get our horses to be as clean and shiny and healthy and happy as can be. We read the books. I translated two from English for the benefit of my friends. We discussed and planned our training strategies both long-term and every day. By 10am each one of us was at school or work or back in bed sleeping. Each one of us had one day a week to come and feed the horses the pre-prepared evening meal. My day was Thursday.
It was hard work. But we were all friends. We joked and laughed constantly. We pretty much all dated each other at one point or another. We went out drinking together, celebrated birthdays together, organized parties together. We were as tightly knit group as can be. Because we had a common goal – to show everyone that our model is better. That private ownership, good organization, pooling of communal knowledge and skills, and personal investment of money, time and hard work trumps politics, laziness and sexual favors.
That lasted about three years. It had to fall apart. Some people could not stand such a pace any longer. We invited more people in, people who have not participated in our initial effort. They brought good horses, good riding skills, money, and they were nice people – but they did not have a shared history of hardship and zealous enthusiasm. At the same time, private clubs were, following our lead, mushrooming all around the country. We were by then just one of many possibilities in the market. And our model did not fit everyone equally well.
So we changed – everyone trained and rode one’s own horse from then on, at any time of day one wished. The hazing period was over. We all remained friends and have fond memories, but nobody ever wanted to go back to that kind of harsh regimen. It was time to move on…and I did. I bought my second horse and kept it far away, in a small village north of Belgrade until I sold him (and the saddle) in order to buy the ticket to America.
Moving from Belgrade to Raleigh was the best thing that ever happened to me. And not just because I met my future wife on the first day I arrived. I also moved from a big, dirty city to a City of Oaks. Have you ever landed at the Raleigh airport in the daytime? If so, could you even see the city under the trees or did you think you were about to land in a forest?
Life in Raleigh was good for my soul. I did yard-work for the first time in my life. I walked to school/lab every day. I got, for the first time in my life, a dog and a cat and a parrot and some fish!
After eleven years in ever-growing Raleigh (and nine dreadful months in nearby Cary) we moved to Chapel Hill. The very next day, I felt that this was home. A place to put my roots. And it is not just Chapel Hill, but the great atmosphere of living in a modern urban village. I can walk my dog late at night – the streets are dark but I feel safe. Neighbors know each other, keep their eyes on each others’ children at the playground, do barbeques together and everyone says Hello to each other on the street. And I love my pets.
Horses once again?
I love visiting big cities. It does not matter if it is London, Paris, Stockholm or Bratislava, or Chicago, New York City, Boston or Washington DC. The moment I arrive, I get into my “big city mode”, I walk differently, behave differently, think differently. You can drop me in London without a map and I’ll walk to (or know which underground line to take to) Foyles and Dillons, then to the Natural History Museum, the London Dungeon Museum and the Zoo. But after a youth of really loving it, now that I am older, I am afraid of flying. And I don’t want to remain in the big city for more than a few days. I long to get back to my greenery, clean air, low prices, and slower pace of living.
So, my and my wife’s plan for the future is for me to get a job so we can afford to buy a little piece of land and a farm house in the woods surrounding Chapel Hill, or Carrboro, or Pittsboro, or Hillsborough. We can commune with nature and commune with our neighbors, both the strong local liberal community and the nice Southern Christian conservative neighbors (yes, if you live in NYC this may be a surprise, but many of those people are really nice neighbors).
We can walk or ride a bike or take a bus to work. I will most definitely not agree to extreme commuting (via)!
We can hop on the bus (the rides are free in Chapel Hill), or drive our new hybrid or electric car once we can afford one, and in 20 minutes be anywhere we want in the Triangle, in a theater or movie theater, watching a Hollywood blockbuster or a foreign arts film, an opera or a ballet, then go have some fantastic food and wine in a local restaurant, before going home to sleep in the silence interrupted with an occasional owl hoot.
Oh, and we can have some horses again. I dream of horses almost every night. Haven’t been on one in a decade.
Gone are the days of the Industrial Revolution when one had to leave the village in order to get a job in the city. The increased health and rising population, coupled with vagaries of nature and social norms (e.g., marriage and inheritance practices), forced many people to move from the country to the city.
This is a new world. The factories are closing (forcing some people into extreme commuting). Other factories are being built where the workers are. And many, many jobs do not require one to be at any particular place. One can choose a place to live, yet have the best job in the world with a company headquartered half a planet away.
But it is not easy to shed the old habits of thought. Even Ethan Zuckerman, a person who had plenty of time to think about the consequences of the revolution he helped usher in, had to stop and think for a minute when his own world changed (via):
This time around, my coworkers are all over the world. We had a meeting today over IRC, the medium we use for almost all our realtime professional interactions. My colleagues were in Hong Kong, Oakland, Port of Spain, the Hague and Montreal. One woke up to make the meeting, another went to bed as soon as we logged off. Weeks will go by where I don’t actually speak to any of the people I work with, but it’s rare that ten minutes pass without an IM, an email or blogpost.
Part of me – a big part – thinks that businesses can’t and shouldn’t work this way. If we’re going to trust each other, rely on each other’s judgment, read each other’s moods, we need to know each other. The reason Global Voices holds an annual meeting isn’t primarily to make decisions or plan strategy – it’s so we have an excuse to wander through strange cities together, share cab rides, ethnic food and rounds of drinks. We get to know each other at an express pace, squeezing in a year’s worth of water cooler conversations in an hour-long walk through a flea market or a cab ride to the airport.
But working this new way means that I get to work with some of the most remarkable people on the globe, and that none of them have to leave their homes, their families and their lives so we can work together. Remarkable people pass through the Berkshires every day, and some even settle down and stay a while, but it’s hard to imagine a physical space anywhere in the world where I could share my office with Tunisian human rights activists, Tanzanian linguists, Bahraini journalists and Trinidadian radio producers.
Ethan experienced in his past exactly the same thing I did with my friends and the riding club. And now he is ready to move on, just like I am. It is not a good idea to stick with the same small crowd all the time. You gotta get to know them in person. You gotta like them and trust them. And even if you don’t, every now and then you have to team up with them in person in order to haul up the catfish without capsizing your boat.
Of course, you have guessed by now, why I am writing this (and, forward looking pioneers as they are, they are quite receptive to my idea). Can I afford a tiny apartment in a big city? Or risk getting stuck on the other side of the bridge? Should I drive or take the train? How do I afford any of that? How do I mentally adjust to a move that is opposite to what I always longed for? And where do I keep my horses?