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.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

On Dracula's castle and other delights.

Every day beauty
 In the time I've been in Transylvania, I've been fortunate to see a great deal of worthwhile sights.  While my weekdays have been filled with teaching, my weekends have been all about road trips.  My host parents have taken JJ a number of gorgeous destinations, including Castle Bran which is known to tourists as Dracula's castle.  I had expected Bran to resemble something out of a Poe story, but the reality is that Bran is beautiful, well-lit, and not at all gloomy.  (Roderick Usher would hardly feel at home).  The castle capitalizes on tourist visits because Vlad Tepes reputedly visited there.  Apart from the legends, Bran has a striking history with a mystique of its own, namely as the favorite residence of Queen Maria of Romania.
View of Bran from the inside
Queen Maria and her youngest daughter, the Princess Ileana, in the courtyard at Bran
Transylvania is also home to some of the most beautiful forests in the world.  The trees are untouched and I feel like I'm living in a fairy tale when I am immersed in the nature here.
Carpathian backdrop
Top of the mountain
My artistic shout-out to Ansel Adams
Little photographer
Hungarian Pottery
Pots in Korund
Castle Rasnov