Thursday, November 14, 2013

On Blog Negligence and Travel Days

I've been home in Minnesota for over two months now and have no worthy excuse for leaving this blog hanging.  Life snuck up on me, I guess.  At any rate, I have started a sporadic home blog for my, admittedly, less exciting musings about day-to-day living.  Check it out, if you're so inclined!

On the morning of August 27, H drove me to the Brnik International airport which is less than 10 minutes away from Kranj and has a whopping total of two terminals.  I boarded the flight immediately and found myself in Zürich, Switzerland less than two hours later.  (Note: I had booked this Adria Airways flight five months in advance for $37 as the first component of my route to Iceland).  I now had eight hours to kill before I boarded my flight to Berlin, so I bought some free internet and downloaded as many episodes of Breaking Bad as would load to my laptop before my paid-for wifi hour expired. 
Airlines that give me chocolate?  Yes, please!
I used my ample time at the airport to change my clothes in the restroom and enjoy a pretzel from the airport cafe before my laptop informed me it was on "reserve power mode" and would shut off in a few minutes if not connected to a power source.  I wasn't about to abandon the exploits of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, so I searched high and low for an outlet.  I finally found one... in the smoker's lounge.  But desperate time calls for desperate measures, so I parked myself and my luggage in the corner and decided that smelling like a Swiss ashtray was a small price to pay for top-notch (albeit bootlegged...shh!) entertainment.

After more time than I care to admit inhaling second-hand smoke, I opted to go through security find my terminal (Air Berlin this time) in order to check my luggage.  I checked my backpack but kept my smaller suitcase, as I'd sent a package home from Romania to ensure the bag's status as a carry-on, thus saving me $$$.  I explored the airport and bought an illustrated book for myself and some Swiss chocolate for my Couchsurfing hosts in Iceland.  (More on that coming soon).  Before long, I found myself landing in the Tegel International Airport.

Unlike Zürich, where I had been content to loaf in the airport, I decided to travel into Berlin during my six-hour layover.  All things considered (and I had done my research, mind you), I decided to give myself about three hours in the city itself.  I stowed my suitcase at the checked luggage station, found myself a map of the city, changed my remaining Romanian lei and American dollars into euro, and bought a shuttle ticket to Alexanderplatz.
The Fernsehturm
It was a thrill to experience a taste of Berlin, however short a time.  My last year in school ignited my interest in Berlin when I took a seminar on the Holocaust and supplemented that experience the following semester by auditing a class on Europe's history from 1945 to the present.  I didn't see nearly as much as I would have liked (alas, the zoo simply wasn't feasible in the time available to me) but I did manage to acquire a few souvenirs and photographs.  I definitely want to go back. 
At the Soviet War Memorial.  A Woman in Berlin, the diary of a German woman during the Soviet siege of Berlin at the end of WWII, is one of my favorite books and I recommend it to anyone interested in that part of history.
Liberation Reenactors.  (If you read the book I mentioned in the caption above, you'll understand why I felt vaguely uncomfortable seeing teenage girls pose for pictures by hugging or kissing the soldiers).    
Street Mercantile
Brandenburg Gate
I returned to Tegel Airport in time to pick up my suitcase and buy an illustrated children's book of Berlin.  Meanwhile, I connected via internet with my host in Iceland who had provided me with information about the Fly Bus into Reyjavík and the surrounding area and other details, including his phone number.  The flight was delayed about an hour, so I wouldn't be in Iceland until after midnight.  (Keep in mind, I was still on Central European Time which made midnight about 3am for me).

When the plane finally touched down in–unexpectedly dark–Iceland (what happened to "land of the midnight sun?"), it was even later than I had expected, and it was well after 1am when the Fly Bus finally left the airport and brought me to my stop on the outskirts of Reykjavík.

As the bus pulled away, leaving me on an eerily empty stretch of sidewalk, I was immediately struck with how clean and fresh everything smelled.  I was also struck with how chilly the air was here.  It was even drizzling, a little.  According to my body, it was 5am and I needed to get to my host's couch, stat.  Furthermore, I didn't want to keep the people who had agreed to host me free of charge and at the last minute waiting, so I set off following the vague directions my host had sent me online.  Unfortunately and unbeknownst to my jet-lagged, adrenaline-surging brain, I misunderstood the directions and started walking–all of my luggage in tow–in the wrong direction.

After a long, long, time of rolling my suitcase on the side of the highway, a car, one of the few I had seen that night, stopped and the driver asked me in English if I needed help.  (Note: Aside from brief encounters at the airport, this was the first time my ears were graced with hearing an Icelandic accent, and it was lovely.  It's a hard accent to explain.  It doesn't resemble Swedish at all; it has a lilt that's a little Irish sounding, but it's less thick and much easier to understand).  I asked him to use his phone and he obliged; I called my host and tried to explain where I was, and he seemed to think I was almost there.  I returned the phone to the nice stranger and continued on my way... Again, I walked in the wrong direction.  (At this point I was vocally motivating myself: "You can do this, Rosa, keep walking, S-I-W!")  It was another long stretch of time before I came across a girl on a bike who apologized that she was "a bit drunk" but proceeded to let me use her phone.  This time, she talked to my host in Icelandic and assured me that he would be on his way within minutes.  I thanked her, she rode away, and I took off my heavy backpack while I waited for my host to pick me up.  He was there very soon and I found my way to the couch immediately upon arrival, thankful that I'd had the foresight to "borrow" the blanket from my flight.  (I wasn't sure about Air Berlin's policy for blankets, and I didn't ask... Whoops).

At any rate, I later looked up the distance I had walked from where the bus dropped me off.  I had walked two. miles.  In the wrong direction.  Ugh.  On the brightside, I made it to my destination and thoroughly enjoyed my week there.  But I'll save the details on that and why I resorted to Couchsuring next for my next post.  Until then, here's a teaser picture of Iceland:
Esjan Mountain Range

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Slovenia, Revisited

I left Rijeka on an early bus to Ljubljana and arrived a few hours later to the city I'd fallen in love with a just a few months earlier.  At the bus station, I was greeted by three members of my extended family I had not yet met: my cousin H and her teenage daughters, J and A, with whom I would spend the next several days.  They all speak excellent English, which allowed us a conversation over coffee (which grew to include Masa and Sebastian) that wasn't stunted by my lukewarm foreign language skills.
H, her husband J, and their daughters live north of Ljubljana in Kranj.  At the house, the girls showed me to my temporary room (A slept on the couch so I could have her bed; people here are so generous) I took a lengthy nap.  I was awoken some time later by A, who informed me that some people wanted to meet me...  To my delighted surprise, Vesna, Darko, Tadej, Sandra, and Baby L (who was still cooking in June) had all come over for dinner!  It's hard for me to describe the happiness I exuded over this reunion but, in a word, it was joyful.  (And the dinner was delicious). 
Tadej, me, Sandra, and baby L
A and me
I would have liked to spend at least a week with family, but I spent more time in Romania than I had originally factored into my trip, so I only had a few days in Slovenia.  We made the most of that time, though; I bonded with my new-found family over food, sightseeing, and (in typical ex-Yugoslav fashion) loud and lengthy conversation.  Time went by too fast.  The morning of Tuesday, August 27, I left Slovenia for the last leg of my trip, which I will relate in the next post.  Until then, enjoy the pictures!
Veliki Otok
Predjama Castle

Friday, September 6, 2013

On Rijeka, Mrzle Vodica, and Family Roots

After exiting the ferry in the crisp early morning, I stepped out to get a taste of Rijeka.  I bought some fresh strawberries from the market but my luggage didn't allow me to do much else so I returned to the ferry port for a taxi.
The harbor at Rijeka
The taxi drove me to the home of my great-grandmother's 95-year-old brother Josip and his wife Anka, who were already out on their porch when I arrived.  It was a beautiful, cheek-kissing meeting of long lost family.  Josip and Anka don't speak English, but we were able to get by with a mix of Croatian, Italian, and copious hand-gesturing.  I had only informed them that I would be visiting the day before,when I asked a woman in Split to help me call their home and tell them that "Victor's granddaughter" was coming to Rijeka the next morning.

Josip is the kindest, gentlest old man imaginable,and he still works for a few hours every day.  Anka is the more exuberant of the two and shows her generosity through the Eastern European art of "feeding the guest."  (I had hardly eaten in Split, so I was ready for a home-cooked meal!)  They had already prepared a room for me to sleep in, and were surprised to learn that I was only staying for one night.  Before lunch, Josip cracked out the rakija, and I finally tasted the "firewater" I had heard so much about... it's strong stuff.  (For some reason I always drink the hardest liquor with my nonagenarian relatives).  I napped shortly after we finished eating, and I blame as much on the rakija as I do on the uncomfortable overnight ferry.
Anka, me, Josip
Rijeka from Josip's balcony
(Like his sister Marija, Josip also aided the partisans during the second world war.  Tito's memory is very respected in this house).
That afternoon, my cousin Andrea brought Anka and me to Mrzle Vodica, the place that once was my great-grandmother's village and is now entirely immersed underwater.  The lake is quite beautiful, but it's strange and sad to think about the village; not all of the memories below those waters are happy ones.  The Nazis occupying Croatia during World War II demanded that Josip's father (my great-great-grandfather) give up his land; he turned his back on them and was shot.  He died in front of the house, in front of his children.  (And this happened after the family was incarcerated by fascist Italians in Gonars concentration camp).  At any rate, it was a weighty experience for me to visit the site of the stories I heard from my grandfather during my childhood.

I stayed the night in Riejka but had to catch an early taxi to the bus station the following morning, to meet and reunite with other family members in Ljubljana.  More on that will come soon.
In Croatian, "Mrzle Vodica" literally means "frozen water." The village where my great-grandmother, Josip, Marija, and their other siblings were born and raised no longer exists, having been converted into a man-made lake after World War II.
At Mrzle Vodica: my ancestral shores

Thursday, September 5, 2013

On Split

I've been up since 4am Minnesota time; such is jetlag.  It's so strange to be home, but I am ecstatic to see my family.  My 15-year-old sister is the only one of my five siblings to be home currently, and our reunion was absolutely joyful.  So it's good to be back.

I will try to backtrack on my trip as much as possible now, though it will likely take a few posts to accomplish.  After Sarajevo, my next destination was Split, Croatia.  I had originally planned to see Dubrovnik before Split, but since I spent more time in Romania than I originally intended, some cities had to be skipped.  Such is travel.  The bus ride to Split was exhausting and when I finally got to my hostel I just wanted to sleep.  After the taxi dropped me off at the hostel, I was greeted by the owner's mother, who informed me (in Croatian) that her son would give me a key in a few minutes and asked me about myself and my trip.  I held up better than expected, conversing in Croatian, but our conversation was cut short when her son came down and checked me into my room.

Roman ruins

The weather was incredibly hot in the sunshine but the evening was considerably cooler.  I went out that evening and discovered Diocletian's Palace, among other lovely sights.  The unfortunate thing about Split was that it felt pervasively touristy and party-ish.  That isn't really my scene and I was even less enthusiastic towards that atmosphere since I was traveling alone.  I avoided the bars and stayed out for a couple of hours around the city center, but eventually travel exhaustion set in and I went back to the hostel.

The next morning I returned to Diocletian's Palace and joined a free walking tour around the ruin.  I learned quite a bit about Diocletian who, according to my tour guide, was the first Roman emperor to retire from office, and he lived out the rest of his life in Split.  The palace was abandoned with the fall of the Empire.  Later, Croatians fled inside its walls to escape attacks by advancing Barbarians in the 5th century and never really left.  For this reason, Diocletian's Palace is the best preserved Roman ruin in the world.
According to my tour guide, Diocletian's Palace will be a filming location for the upcoming season of HBO's Game of Thrones.
Adriatic coastline
I spent some time on the beach before I had to pack up and head to the ferry port.  I had booked my deck ticket in advance for the overnight ferry from Split to Rijeka.  $30 was definitely my cheapest option for transportation, and I saved myself from paying for a room since I'd be spending the night on the deck.


That trip was certainly an experience, to say the least.  Prior to departure, I hadn't realized just how cold the deck of a ship could become at night.  I didn't have a blanket with me, but I did have a beach towel I'd bought for my brother... (towels aren't very warm, for the record).  I wrapped both of my scarves around my ears and my put hood on, but I finally had to wrap my up whole face to keep out the cold.  My feet were freezing so I resorted to zipping myself (as best I could) inside my duffel bag, which is easier said than done.  Despite the obvious discomfort, I managed to get a few solid hours of sleep before we ported in Rijeka at 7:00am. 

In retrospect, I would highly recommend anyone who plans to spend the night on deck of a ferry to bring a sleeping bag or, at the very least, a real blanket.   I'll certainly be more prepared next time!
My ride (I may or may not have been thinking of Titanic for the entirety of the ferry trip...)
Dalmatian sunset

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sarajevo, My Love

I left my heart in Sarajevo.

I don’t know how to verbalize my love for this heartbreakingly beautiful city, but I will try.  Sarajevo is full of color, of aromas, of music.  The central fountain is a place for pigeons to gather and people to gossip and laugh, old men play chess in the square, vendors sell trinkets along every street.  Yet, bullet holes scar the faces of too many buildings, red resin fills shell craters in the street, marking where civilians were killed by shells.
The Eternal Flame Monument:
"With Courage and the Jointly Spilled Blood of the Fighters of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian Brigades of the Glorious Yugoslav National Army; with the Joint Efforts and Sacrifices of Sarajevan Patriots Serbs, Muslims and Croats on the 6th of April 1945 Sarajevo, the Capital City of the People's Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina was liberated. Eternal Glory and Gratitude to the Fallen Heroes of the liberation of Sarajevo and our Homeland, On the First Anniversary of its Liberation– a Grateful Sarajevo."

In light of the solidarity preached by Tito and the Yugoslav partisans at the time this monument was built, the civil war of the 1990s was as ironic as it was violent.
The recent war is impossible to erase; you can feel that something happened here.  But, I think, knowing about Sarajevo's suffering makes me love it even more.
Fountain at the Mosque
In the United States, the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s aren't widely discussed.  I think this is a terrible injustice, both to those who suffered during the wars, and to those of us who are ignorant to what happened in the Balkans.  From 1992-1996, Sarajevo endured four years of hell.  No electricity, gas, or plumbing, sniper bullets, mortar shells, bombs, rape used as a weapon of war, ethnic cleansing, neighbors and friends turning against each other... these elements were constantly present during the siege.
Ceiling of the Serb Orthodox Cathedral
Historically, Sarajevo was a jewel of diversity and culture: a Muslim mosque, a Jewish synogogue, and Orthodox and Catholic cathedrals are all a short walk from one another.   Sadly, most Sarajevan Jews were killed during the second world war.  However, Muslim Bosniaks, Catholic Croats, and Orthodox Serbs coexisted peacefully in secular Yugoslavia throughout the country’s existence from 1943 until the beginning of the 1990s.  From what I understand, Marshal Tito’s death was the beginning of the end; nationalists came into power, stirred up ethnic tensions and religious differences (despite the fact that for most Yugoslavs religion was either ignored completely or practiced privately) and the bloodiest conflict since World War II broke out in the Balkans.
According to my tour guide (who lived in Sarajevo during the siege when he was a child), this window in the Catholic Cathedral was almost completely destroyed by shelling; miraculously, Christ on the cross was not damaged.
When I got to Sarajevo, I knew some information about the siege and overall war, as my own heritage and my curiosity regarding history and literature prompted me to read as much as I could about the war; experiencing the city itself, though, taught me more than any book or documentary could.  I had a nice shared room in a hostel within walking distance of the city center so I went out on my own for a little while after I unpacked.  The next morning, I joined a free walking tour and learned a great deal from my tour guide, Neno, who had experienced the siege.  Neno emphasized to all of us on the tour that it is vital to forgive, but never to forget the war.  He shared that his own background is mixed: his father is an Orthodox Serb while his mother is a Bosniak Muslim.  (For the record, ancestral adherence to religion is the only difference between Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks.  Ethnically, they are the same, despite wartime propaganda insisting otherwise).
Bazaar Trinkets
Pigeon Square
On the tour, I met S, an American expat who works as a au pair in Munich.  We went shopping and had lunch after the tour, and even went back to the mosque (after donning the appropriate clothing) to see inside.  We agreed to meet again in the evening, so after unwinding at the hostel I went back out to see Sarajevo by night.
At the mosque
It was a great time, and I was very thankful to have a traveling companion.  The next morning I checked out of the hostel and caught an early bus to Mostar, and there caught a bus to Split.  The scenery of the Balkans is absolutely breathtaking, as is the Dalmatian coast.  I'll write about Split in my next post, but I'm already far enough behind on this blog that I need to publish this now.

Before I end this, though, I strongly encourage everyone to read up on the Siege of Sarajevo and the Yugoslav wars.  I can recommend a number of books, documentaries, and feature films that are worth watching; let me know if you want suggestions.
Gazi Husrev-bey Bezistan covered markets
The National Library of Bosnia & Herzegovina was completely destroyed in 1992.  Irreplaceable texts and manuscripts were lost, and civilians who tried to save books from the burning library were fired upon; at least one person was killed.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Goodbye, România

(I have good intentions to write more regularly, to offer interesting insights, to stay connected but... life interferes.  I would like to write a long a detailed post reflecting on my overall experience in Transylvania as a teacher, but it is not yet finished.  For now, here's an update). 

I left Romania with Buttercup and her family on Friday for Budapest.  Traveling in the car was so much more comfortable than the 15 hour train I took from Budapest back in June, although we had our adventures on the way.  At one point, the "road" was no more than tire tracks on hilly terrain... and it wasn't just us driving on it: we were behind an English coach bus.  Yep!  Only in Romania.
I love this picture of Buttercup and me.
Buttercup's uncle, aunt, and cousin live in an apartment in the city, but it was a little too small for me to stay with everyone there.  So, relatives of my host family–a friendly family of four–put me up at their place for two nights.  Coincidentally, the two boys, though 100% Hungarian, attend a Croatian language immersion school in Budapest.  This made for an interesting trade of linguistic knowledge, as I know *some* Croatian and now, from my experience as a teacher, a little Hungarian as well.  Admittedly, their father speaks English so communication wasn't much of a problem.
Fresh produce
I spent a good portion of Saturday re-exploring the city with T, my surrogate host family's niece.  T is my age and speaks excellent English and it was pleasant to roam Budapest without the urgency of a first visit.  I was able to see two points of interest I had missed the first time: the Shoes on the Danube Promenade, and the Great Synogogue.  Since it was Saturday, we couldn't see inside the Synogogue, but the exterior architecture was well worth admiring.
Shoes at the Danube
Dohány Street Synogogue, the largest synogoge in Europe and fifth largest in the world
Later that evening, my temporary host family took Buttercup's family and I out to see Budapest by night.  The weather was warm but not oppressive like it had been earlier in the day, and the city was not at all crowded because, apparently, many residents had left the city during the national four-day weekend.  (Hungary's national day is August 20).
City of bridges at night
Buttercup and her dad
The next day was an emotional one as I had to say goodbye to Buttercup and my host parents, as well as my new Budapestian family at the train station.  My ticket was for Zagreb, because the direct line from Budapest to Sarajevo no longer exists.  To make a long story short, the train was anything but short or punctual and I arrived in Zagreb thoroughly exhausted.  It was quite late when I arrived so unfortunately didn't get a chance to see the city at all.  However, my hostel was comfortable and easy to find.  This morning, I bought my ticket to Sarajevo and spent another day en route but I made it!  I went out for about an hour, ate ćevapčić, and attempted to take pictures without a memory card.  I did manage to get one from my hostel window, though.  
Beautiful Sarajevo
I can't believe that I'm here in Sarajevo... It's difficult for me to verbalize my fascination for this city, but perhaps my experiences tomorrow will give me answers.  Until then. laku noć!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Hellos and Goodbyes

(Since Tuesday, I have been staying with a friend and her family in a small village three hours west of Udvarhely.  Tomorrow, Buttercup and her parents will pick me up on their way to Budapest where we will part ways as they embark on holiday and I travel to Sarajevo.  Just so you know).

During my time in Europe, I have accumulated a significant amount of extra luggage, mainly in the form of books and souvenirs.  This extra weight would necessitate extra baggage fees, as my upcoming flights only allow one checked bag.  To save myself the cost of checking two bags, I decided to send all my extraneous baggage home through the Romanian postal service.... Let me tell you: this is much easier said than done.  To make a long story short, the process of mailing took more than a thoroughly nerve-wracking hour of negotiating, packing, taping, listing, and after paying over 250 lei (not with my card, but in cash that I was compelled to take out from the ATM across the street) for shipping, I was informed that my 10 kilo package should arrive in Minnesota two months from now.  I should also mention that I would not have been able to mail the box at all, had it not been for E and K, who were with me during the ordeal and translated for me.  (K, my host sister from Madaras, had taken a bus into the city in order to say goodbye to me... I wish our time together would have been spent in a more enjoyable way, but it was wonderful to see her in spite of my post office stress disorder–ha).

At any rate, my last day in Székelyudvarhely began with the post office and my goodbyes to E and K, both of whom I already miss. 

Now, to explain why I am now with my friend... Seven years ago, my aunt hosted Ch, a German exchange student of Romanian-Saxon origin for one year.  Ch is less than a year older than me and we’ve stayed in touch in the years that followed her exchange.  Although she was born and raised in Germany, her family returns to Romania–to a village three hours west of Udvarhely– for a few weeks in the summer. As it turns out, their holiday this year lined up with mine, which is why they were able to pick me up.

With Ch in the Carpathians
When Ch and her family arrived, the entire house transformed into an international language zone as English, German, Romanian, and Hungarian were simultaneously spoken.  It was a surreal and overwhelming experience.  Moreover, although I’ll see Buttercup and her parents tomorrow, it was difficult to say goodbye to Mama and Tata, who will not be joining the family in Budapest.  I suppose that I knew sad goodbyes were inevitable when I signed on with LE, but still... it’s hard.

Nonetheless, it’s always a joy to see an old friend again, and I’m thrilled to have time with Ch and her family.  Unlike Madaras and Szekelyudvarhely, Ch’s village is not Hungarian.  It is historically Saxon (German), but most of the Saxons were forced out of their homes during Ceaucescu’s dictatorship or opted to leave to avoid economic and social persecution.  Because of this, the permanent residents are mainly Romanian or Roma, although a number of Saxons (like Ch and her family) return there in the summer.  Admittedly, the house are in need of repair but the aura is overwhelmingly charming, and I’m happy to be here.