Cold War

Richard Ashworth

Feng Shui Diary

for the month of the Fire Dog

Friday October 8th  2010 18.05


Hour Day   Month         Year
Fire          Metal Fire Metal
ding tsun bing gung
yuw muw sute yan
Rooster Rabbit Dog Tiger


Month:                 bing sute the Fire Dog
Solar Fortnight:   hohn low            Cold Dew       

 Cold War.

Zagreb, Eastern Croatia

Hohn low; the first frost hits Godalming on the night of 20th. That’s about a week later than normal. It’s a fierce one, 4 degrees below. Is this global warming? It’s a different weather pattern for sure. The banana plant in the front garden wilts overnight. When I was a small boy in Cornwall, I recall no frosts. Regions vary, times vary and the memory plays tricks but there’s something going on here, isn’t there Mr Jones?

When I was in Central China in 2005 I remember a feng shui Master explaining that the further North we went, the colder the winters were and the more the cuisine tended to be noodle rather than rice based. Later on he showed me the rice employed as a hardener in the bricks of Jingzhou city wall. Anyone whose kids have left half-eaten bowls of Coco Pops out unrinsed will be familiar with the principle. I asked if they used noodles in the bricks further North. Fortunately he was a tolerant man.    

Sheila and I are flying to Zagreb, capital of Croatia. Croatia borders Italy, you know. On the maps in the glossy Go Croat magazine on the plane, as it happens, Italy is the only neighbour shown by name. Historically and especially recently, relations with their other neighbours have not been that cordial of course. Now that that unpleasantness is over, Croatia is once again a tourist destination but it remains a cheap one because memories are long and there’s nothing like flying bullets to deter the traveller. 

Before take off and landing I always text the kids. This time Jaime, my eldest son, texts back triumphantly that he has at last drafted the final chapter of his PhD. He is 33. It has been a long time coming. Not that he has been any sort of drain on me; whether by locating obscure trusts to finance him or working three jobs at once, he has been self-sufficient since he was a teenager regardless of whether he has been in Poland, Tennessee, Israel or Southampton. Hurrah. At the same time however, we learn from Ksenija, our hostess, that her ex-husband has just driven his Mercedes into a bus at 80mph. I am concerned but I also have a job to do.

«Every action is a communication,» I remind her. Suicide is a tricky one to respond to however and Ksenija’s life has not been a bundle of laughs. Well before the runway lights welcome us, the darkness of the Balkans is beckoning.

We land and we are picked up by our hosts. Ksenija is so distraught she walks past her own parked car. Josip drives. He is tall, dark, handsome and less obviously expressive. On the other hand it’s not his ex.

Ksenija is recovering from a variety of addictions and has the twitchiness of the substance dependant. One reason I am here is to help her through this. This shows both courage and commitment on her part.

It is likely I will find something wrong to the North West of her home. The North West is the realm of the Father, of authority, of precision, of competition, of warfare. If every action is a communication, who else would such a woman be attempting to contact? Who else is there for a powerful woman to defy? God is the only other serious contender and frankly on the level of symbolism there’s not that much difference.

Croatia is shaped like a boomerang or perhaps a gun, I learn. It is composed of two major geographical regions joined by a plain fenced in with mountains. One region is a coastal strip running along the Adriatic opposite the Venetian coast. The other urban industrial chunk backs onto the Alps and includes Zagreb, the capital. The big streets of Zagreb are wide, the minor ones narrow and banked with shops, many of them Western chains like Accessorize. It reminds me a little of Northern Paris in the 1970’s, striving to be chic but aware of strong competition not far away. In the light of recent history it’s understandable that many Croats prefer to think of themselves as easygoing Mediterraneans.

In the main square opposite our hotel, Josip drives us past Zagreb’s own honey market: rows of stalls of set honey, liquid honey, antibiotic honey, honeycomb and propolis are laid out in the market square. Later we will spend some of our rest day sampling mead hot as pepper and with a kick like Eric Cantona and the traders will each offer us more, amused by the English couple reeling from stall to stall buying honey products whose existence they had not previously suspected. A street beyond is the twin-spired cathedral where the hero-priest Stepanic lies awaiting canonisation. He baptised Jewish children to save them from the concentration camps but even this did not keep him out of Tito’s jails. In Southern Europe of all places, everything has to be seen in the context of changing times.

“Are you writing a technical manual?” I ask Josip. He looks as if he has seen a ghost in the windscreen. Perhaps he has.

“Yes actually. What made you ask?” His English is excellent if hesitant.

“Something I saw in your ba zi. I have learned to share these things even if I can’t explain quite where they came from.” And even if they’re not frankly that profound.

He shuffles in the driver’s seat.

“My daughter was the first on the scene,” says Ksenija, her face crumpled. «He said he was going to do it. He said he would kill himself.» Her English is precise and idiomatic. It turns out she worked during the Civil War of the 1990’s as an interpreter for Sky News. She is not blameful; perhaps she should be. She was in and out of war zones. Her ex was in a concentration camp where he was beaten daily. Drugs are centrally a way to avoid feelings. Ksenija wants to feel.

“Breathe,” I say and take her hand. Hell of a thing to breathe into. It wasn’t my ex either. She breathes, she feels and her eyes cloud with pain.

Tomorrow is both the day of the funeral and the survey. Ksenija recovers sufficiently to ask me a series of technical questions. She has studied just enough to be confused by the feng shui of her home. She is upset she will not be able to shadow me.

“In your ba zi,” I tell her, “Was an image of you being dragged across a street. You were laid flat.”

We stop at a car park. Once it was a synagogue which was blown up and after that a supermarket which was also blown up, Josip informs us. He is neither philosophical nor cynical.

“One time,” Ksenija says, dancing between tightly bunched shoppers on a pedestrian precinct made narrow by tables packed with people drinking coffee, “We spent a day under a car in crossfire. I thought we would all die. We could not move, speak, eat, drink, even pee.”

Her children by my calculations were toddlers then. Why would the mother of small children volunteer to put her life at risk? It’s a very Croatian question.

We sit for a coffee. Mine’s decaffeinated: «Caffee bes caffina,» Josip asks the waiter.

“Coffee without coffee,” says the waiter back.

“By the end of the day, my mouth was full of grit,” Ksenija says.

In the foyer the bell hop offers to carry our bags but we refuse because we have as yet no Croat kune and he seems so hopeful, standing there with his hands behind his back. He must be in his early 20’s and something about him reminds me a little of Ron Howard in Happy Days. He tells me he is a student of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

“If your forces are fast,” he says, “Make your opponent think you are slow.”

“Doesn’t do to think of your customer as your enemy,” I suggest.

“I know that,”  he says. It turns out that he has a passion for reconditioning handguns but his Mother won’t let him pursue a career in munitions.

As I said, everything has to be seen in context. 

“I know kung fu,” he says and he shows me some moves.

“I could kill you with my thumb, you know,” I say, adding rapidly “Only kidding,” as he – understandably -fails to recognise the quote from Friends.

“If you want to understand Chinese metaphysics, you need to know the Book of Changes. The whole of The Art of War is an exposition of Hexagram Seven, Shi, The Army.”

“Is it?” he says, interested. “I don’t think the Book of Changes is published in Croat.”

Balkan at Nothing

Croatia is largely Catholic and the script is Western. Serbia is largely Orthodox and the script is Cyrillic. Bosnia is Moslem, Montenegro and Macedonia another story. In terms of dna, they’re pretty much the same peoples. Just as the Israelis and the Arabs are. And just like the Israelis and Arabs, these nations have been at each other’s throats for centuries.  

Josip talks about the Civil War. The Serbs, he says with satisfaction, started it and ended up losing territory.

“The Croatian border did not move a metre.”

He is dismissive of the idea of several cultures sharing a nation. He’d be baffled by the Goldhawk Road. I would have argued with him before 07.07. I know his assumptions are self-defeating but I don’t know that I have better answers other than that violence never works and that love always does but just as the body was not of my ex, this is not my back yard. Are the Croats moral victors because they were peacefully minding their own business or because they hit back harder? The first is at least a higher level of irresponsibility.

And this is no knee-jerk response. Josip is a smart deep-thinking man. I am aware that I am fortunate to live in Britain where ethnic cleansing was mostly undertaken in the 13th and 14th centuries with Edward I hammering the Scots and annexing Wales. What was the pale around Dublin other than an early stop and search area?

Josip is awaiting the outcome of a police investigation. It is his job to control Ksenija’s supply of methadone while she withdraws from heroin. One evening he was stopped by the Police who claim the supplies he was carrying were recently and therefore illegally purchased. These things do not happen unless you’re being watched.

More confrontation with authority; this is North West stuff. It’s all so chaotic. We are a very long way from home.

Ksenija has a copy of the Book of Changes in Croat and she gives me the isbn.

Next morning Ksenija picks me up from the hotel and we take the tram to Tudjman Square, named for the President who claimed the credit for defeating the Serbs.

The apartment building sits North-South and to the North West of their flat is an empty lift shaft, hollow and useless like the cavity left in a body after an operation. It’s dark; the sun never shines here. Technically this is called Heaven Chop and it’s generally nasty. The best-known example must be the Twin Towers, the space between them insufficient in proportion to their elevation.

Here’s your Father stuff, here is scar tissue cut into brick. Here are the bruised veins of the junkie.

Ksenija has been dressing for the funeral.

“Also,” Ksenija tells me, “My Father was psychotic. He would beat me all the time if I did not get my grades. How does the hat look?”

“Fine, very respectful.”

It’s a homburg, I think.

The building went up in 1995 which puts it into the 7 Fate. This is another way of saying the energy is a bit tired. It’s also a way of saying that the most important pockets of chi, what are known as the Mountain and Water Stars, are right there in the lift shaft. The Water Star rules wealth and the Mountain health. I’d expect chronic ill-health here of the kind that drains financial and other resources. And the chi is coming in from the South East which puts that front door at mo yuk palace. The Palaces define the freshness of energy and mo yuk means scandal: sex, drugs, perhaps even rock’n’roll. The Chinese ideograph is literally the washing of dirty linen in public.

Josip, as it happens is a rock’n’roller. He loves early 80’s New Wave music and he owns a Pretenders album I have never seen.

The feng shui solution is simple. First we have to get the energy into the 21st century. For this three procedures are called for: repair to the floor and to the ceiling and a loud party that uses all the space in the apartment. Then we have to locate the new Water and Mountain Stars and get them to do their job and finally we repair the Heaven Chop.

As it happens, in the 8 Fate (which started in 1996) the Water and Mountain Stars both fall in front of the house. This configuration is called Double Face.

The threshold or ming tang outside the main front door is blocked by a building that is far too close. This is generally a flaw; energy needs space to gather. But the trick to tapping a Double Face building is to block the front while also introducing moving water. This turns the intrusive neighbour into an asset. As ever everything’s a metaphor.

Bergaz found in Zagreb

The spires of the cathedral are undergoing cleaning and renovation. One is virgin white, the other a grimy grey. In front of the cathedral is a thirty foot column from the top of which the Virgin Mary is watching over the flock. There is not a Moslem nor even a Greek Orthodox for miles. I wonder what she would have made of these differences. I have absolutely no interest in beliefs. What do they matter ? Not one of them is going to affect the truth.

Through the prism of the tao an idea being useful is of a higher order than whether it is true or provable. To subscribe for instance to evolution and to scientific thought is to endorse a body of consistent ideas from the Big Bang to the electric lightbulb. This may be a more useful approach than to assert that the world was created in a flash 4,000 years ago in the teeth of the support system. It’s not so much that creationism is false as limited in scope. 

Next morning I walk from the tram to meet Ksenija to debrief and to interpret her ba zi. I nearly get lost because the stop at Tudjman Square is announced as «The Place of the Republic of Austria» as no one wants to give Tudjman air time any more. After defeating Serbia singlehanded but for the massed peacekeeping forces of NATO, he went on to privatise everything left in public ownership. Drawing inspiration from some combination of Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Vladimir Putin and local celebrity the Visigoth Roman Emperor Odoacer, his proposal was to share the assets between an elite of privileged families. To a great extent he got away with it.

“Like feudalism,” said Josip.

“Like British Gas,” Don’t start me talking.

I make it to the apartment. Today is very cold. The wind blowing through me from the North East recalls when I was on the high unsheltered platform at Tarnow Railway station in South Eastern Poland the day Jaime was divorced; fourteen below and Christ knows what chill factor. He was twenty-seven which seemed very young. She was even younger. Both just kids; I didn’t know which to reassure, which to hug. She looked so little and fragile. As it was she blanked us both with her chin in the air so the decision was taken from me. From that very platform the first transports went to Auschwitz. Nothing could keep that wind out. 

Here in Zagreb the wind has an alien spice on it reminding me again how far I am from home.

Ksenija has a puzzle: all this anger, all this pain, is it karmic?

“If by karmic you mean is your pain a hint to behave well, I’d say yes. If you mean that you’re suffering because in some unidentifiable past life you were bad and still need punishing, I’d say it wasn’t that useful an idea.”

Her Big Fate – the point in a ba zi where a child arrives – is around six. She tells me of an incident at that age. I almost gag, it is so horrific. You poor child. She is so angry. I am so angry. I put my feelings to one side. They aren’t going to help. I hold her hand. She doesn’t weep. She tells me the story and inwardly I cringe but the fact is that nobody died.

“No action is good or bad of itself,” I say. “It’s a question of what we think it means. The insertion of one piece of flesh into another is of itself neutral. What hurts is our interpretation.”

It’s a long dialogue. She has every right to her anger. So has every one in Croatia, everyone who has been bombed or forcibly evicted or raped or held at gunpoint or tortured like her ex who could never forget and could never let it go. This was the thought in his head as he drove at that bus.

“My poor children, my little boy,” she says.

As it happens he lives on the next floor up. His room is chaotic but it’ll repay attention for sure. I re-orient his bed and suggest a temporary wall is moved. A little bit of mumbo-jumbo, some suggestions about decor.

On Saturday we find Richie Cunningham a copy of the Book of Changes in Croat and ourselves a macrobiotic dinner including a pint of organic Suffolk ale. We explore the main food market which reeks of raw meat. We buy chestnuts from a small pointy-faced trader just off the market square. He is in his 40’s I guess but exposure has aged his skin. Even in October, chestnuts make me think of Christmas but he’s not sentimental and refuses my 200 kune note until I buy enough to make it worth changing.

The next morning Ksenija is distracted again. She has broken a chair against a wall and on Monday she tells her kids she is going to kill herself. I tell her that this is a stupid and cruel thing to do.

“Will they forgive me?” she asks.

“Sooner or later. But that just makes it their problem. They will certainly love you and what you need to do right now is to get your attention off yourself and give to them. A hug, a cup of tea, some  assistance even a smile.”

I know this sounds hard.

“Those men on the building site when you were six and those Serbs who were firing at you when you were under the car and those sadists who beat your ex to pulp aren’t ever going to answer for it. That’s the way it is. You just have to concentrate on what matters now. Every time you hurt, consider who needs your attention and give it. Your children are the most likely contenders. You have every right to it but you can not help them by lingering in your own hurt. And the fact is that every pang you feel is the voice of someone crying for help.”

“Everything is a communication?”


As we check out I give Richie Cunningham his Book of Changes and he performs a little paramilitary feint for us. He offers more but we decline because we have got to get home before the honey goes off.

 ©Richard Ashworth 2010

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