Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Facing an impossible choice and doing the right thing

Today I am proud of Israel. And humbled by the right choice made in face of a devastatingly difficult reality. Because today Israel exchanged over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, many of them terrorists, in order to bring home 1 captured Israeli soldier who has been held for the past 5 years.

The criticisms of the deal I have heard from some in the Jewish, pro-Israel right, are chilling. As my mom said in response to those criticisms, “Even if you can't agree it's the right choice, it's an impossible choice. How do you criticize an impossible choice?”

I recommend that reading this piece from Haaretz (Israeli newspaper). I’m quoting a piece of it, but the whole thing is well worth the read:

The deal to bring Gilad Shalit back to his family is painful to Israelis bereaved by terror. It is, by any measure, chillingly dangerous.

And it was the right thing to do.


The deal for Gilad Shalit is a remnant of a promised land that – to those everyday people who donate their very youth, their very lives, in order to defend it – still believes it important to keep its promises.

The first of those promises is a simple one. When they draft you and process you and inoculate you and arm you and begin to use you, they spell it out, to you and your family both: If you are lost on the field of battle, we will get you back. Whatever it takes.

Whatever it takes. Even if it takes much too much.

The list of the terrorists being released is unendurable. The numbers are beyond understanding. Until you consider that this is how it's always been.


And this is what I too have said several times today. That no matter what you believe as to the wisdom of the deal, you should be able to rejoice that Gilad Shalit is back with his family. That it is not a new precedent (Israel has been making these kinds of impossible exchanges for decades). And that it was the right thing to do.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Wrapping up research

So, I’m finishing up the research part of my trip, and of my foreseeable travels. (It’s quite possible I’ll be back before the dissertation is done, but this trip ends the currently planned travel for work).

The Croatia trip was less productive than I hoped but more productive than I feared. I learned some interesting new pieces in putting together the puzzle of what is going on in the region, but not much progress on the Croatia case-study itself. That will take more digging and networking from home it seems.

I think in many ways, Bosnia was the most fulfilling part of my travels this year from a dissertation perspective. This is because it was a sort of turning point taking the dissertation topic from something with potential to something I can see developing. It was an aha moment. This thing might actually work. And might actually be important. That is in part because while it was my third stop, it is only the second of the case studies (Serbia was for regional context – the case studies are in Kosovo, BiH, and Croatia). And I learned enough to know that there are going to be some really interesting differences in outcomes here, for a good compare/contrast (rather than just hypothesizing that there might be). There’s still a long road to go, with a number of “bends in the road” as Anne Shirley would say, but I feel like it’s the right road to be on…

Friday, September 23, 2011

Croatian culinary adventures

I've had a few requests for more food posts. Apparently people are enjoying watching me eat my way through the Balkans. Of course, this is only partially true. The vast majority of the local cuisine, at least what would be considered main courses, are meat-based. And besides the fact that I'm not a big meat eater in general, my style of keeping kosher involves eating vegetarian during my travels. However, it turns out there are still plenty of interesting local foods to sample. It's just that most of them are pastry and/or dessert! See for example the ice cream (which is really superb), burek (described in previous posts), and palačinke (crepes), that are popular throughout the region.

And now, without further ado, let me introduce you to three Croatian pastries (complete with pictures!):

Fritule -- these little balls of fried dough remind me of a cross between doughnut holes and fry bread. They are dipped in sugar and cinnamon. They are traditionally a Christmas time treat in Croatia, but are also sold in little paper cones year round at open air markets.

Štrukli -- a traditional Croatian pastry filled with cottage cheese and baked or fried. My Lonely Planet guidebook describes them as "baked cheese dumplings" and the Bradt guidebook says štrukli "is something of a death by cream, doughy-pasta and cottage-cheese experience. It's somewhere between a giant cream-soaked ravioli and a cheese-stuffed dumpling." Personally, I found it to be akin to cheese blintzes, just served with real cream rather than sour cream.

Štrudla -- it's Strudle! This is one pastry influence in Croatia that clearly migrated from further north along with other Austo-Hungarian influences. You can actually find it throughout the Balkans, but in Croatia it's particularly popular.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sightseeing Zagreb – Arts and Architecture

Zagreb feels very European in a way that makes me think of Vienna and Prague, though I’ve never been to either. It does make me want to visit there as well. This totally makes sense if you look at the growth of the city and the influences on it’s architecture. Sarajevo has three distinct architectural phases – Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Yugoslav (think communist-era utilitarian), expanding outward from the city center. Only a few hours further north, in Zagreb, by way of contrast, there is little Ottoman influence to be seen. The Austro-Hungarian influence, however, is vast. What a difference geography makes.

The Cathedral in Zagreb is magnificent. (Most Croats are Catholic). It made me think of my thrill in visiting the National Cathedral in DC my senior year in high school, while I was studying art history. “Look, Ma – flying buttresses!! How cool!”. So back to Zagreb, the Cathedral is artistically and architecturally gorgeous, and very different in style to the few others I’ve visited -- e.g. the Cathedral in Mexico City which is Mexican baroque with a vengeance (this is not meant as a criticism, I have a very soft spot for the place), very different from the more subtle dynamic at play here. (I don't have pictures that could do any of the above mentioned Cathedral's justice, but do a quick google search if you're interested to get a sense.) One of the things I love about visiting cathedrals is experiencing another culture putting its best foot forward – this is the way it wants to see itself. The other thing I love about it is something that is both intentional and unintentional at the same time. From my perspective, a great Cathedral is truly awe-inspiring, as it was designed to be, but for me the awe has a more human than divine focus. Look what beautiful works mankind can do when energy and talent are put towards building something lofty!

Along the same lines, I have also visited several art museums while in Zagreb. It’s a great city for art galleries as there are many – private collections and public, including collected works from Europe and around the world and local artists. Today I visited Meštrović Atelier, the home and gallery of Croatia’s most famous native sculptor Ivan Meštrović, and it was very much worth while. I can appreciate Greco-Roman sculpture in theory -- it is designed to be aesthetically pleasing --, but it is not very interesting. The people often seem very reserved. Meštrović's sculptures are perhaps less perfectionist of the human form, but more emotional, and I found some of them to be quite compelling, and almost all of them to be interesting.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The long and winding road

On Sunday, I took the bus from Sarajevo to Split. This involved driving through the mountainous BiH countryside westward towards the coast, at which point we entered Croatia, and then up the coast towards Split. (A long narrow strip of Croatia dips down along the Coast most of the length of Bosnia and Hercegovina). All of the highways were at most 1 lane in each direction. Both the mountain roads and coastal roads were very curvy, and this combined with a slightly-to-warm bus on an 8 hour drive left me feeling slightly queasy. This is unfortunate because it was otherwise a lovely way to see beautiful pieces of both countries.

After spending Monday in Split, yesterday (Tuesday) I took a bus inland (north-eastward) across Croatia to Zagreb, the capital. I was worried about this ride after the previous one, especially since my guidebook said the trip would take 5-9 hours. Ultimately, it was smooth sailing, over much better (and wider! 2 lanes in each direction!) roads. And it took just about exactly 5 hours. Yay. Now to explore another Balkan capital city.

View Larger Map

Zoom out a bit on the map to get a better sense of the geography. I can't get google to show you the route itself because it doesn't have enough road data in the region. In fact there is no google maps data for Sarajevo! It's weird living in a pre-google world!

Monday, September 12, 2011

By the seashore: a visit to Split

Yesterday I took the bus from Sarajevo to Split, and tomorrow I take another bus on to Zagreb, but today is my vacation day to visit Split and chill. It’s lovely. I wish I had more than one day to spend exploring the Croatian coast, as it surely deserves. But has nonetheless been lovely to stroll along the water front, and explore the ancient ruins of Diocletian’s palace (the Roman emperor’s retirement home) which coexist and mingle with modern life in Split. This is not like visiting the Palatino in Rome. Inside the palace walls are restaurants, shops, homes, and small hotels, making use of the ancient structure, which is teeming with modern life. It’s pretty cool.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

10 years and a lifetime ago…

10 years and lifetime ago, I was a college student. A Californian spending the fall semester living in NYC and working at the UN. I and my classmates, all students of international relations, arrived in NY on September 1st, 2001. Less than the 2 weeks later, the world we studying and came to experience changed in front of our eyes. (Although granted, this is coming from the girl who wrote about the threat of international terrorism on a college admissions essay 3 years earlier). Even now I cannot say exactly how that experience has affected my life, but that it has done so, in ways both subtle and not-so-subtle, is indisputable. I don’t think I’m ready to go into that further in this space, at this time. Suffice it to say, I am remembering.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Wandering Through Sarajevo: An Itinerary

What would you do and see if you were tourist in Sarajevo? Here’s some of what I’ve done in my free time between meetings:
  • Old town – The Baščaršija (old Ottoman town center) and Ferhadija (city center from Austo-Hungarian times), sit next to each other, in the center of the town, full of pedestrian walkways. Great for people watching, getting a bite to eat, or a ubiquitous coffee, or shopping. Seriously, don't miss it.
  • River – The Miljacka river runs through the city of Sarajevo, which is connected to itself by a series of bridges – both foot bridges and ones for vehicular traffic. Lots of life near the river. Though I'll admit, getting up into the hills (Sarajevo is comprised of the river valley and is built up into the surrounding hillsides) is a great way for a view of the whole town.
  • Maršala Tita – The central street running through the newest part of the city complete with an eternal flame monument to WWII victims, and home of the national bank, UN offices, etc.
  • Art Museum – The national gallery. It was closed during my stay, but I’d have checked it out otherwise.
  • History Museum – This small museum gives a glimpse into the history of the 1990s conflict, and its affect on the city and its residents.
  • National Museum – Zemaljski Muzej Bosne-i-Hercegovine, is a large museum complex including an archeology museum, natural history museum, and ethnography museum, all focused on BiH.
  • Jewish History – You can see the old Ashkenazi synagogue (dating to the Austro-Hungarian era) and the Sefardi Synagogue (dating to the medieval / Ottoman era). The later now serves as Jewish museum.
  • Tunnel Tours – During the war a tunnel was dug under the city, connected besieged Sarajevo to free Bosnian territory. You can go see a small piece of the tunnels, along with a very small museum. Not sure if you can do so without a guide, but regardless a guided tour is worthwhile for this to get more out of it, and to easily get there and back from the city center.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Wandering Through Sarajevo: Random Observations

When I was 17, and headed off to travel without my family for the first time, on a trip to Israel, I invested my lifesavings in a fancy new camera. The photography advice my mother gave me then stands by me today. It also is good advice for just taking in and writing about a new place. She said, "Look around you, and figure out, what do you see that would let you know that you weren't in Los Angeles? That's what you should take a picture of."

Here, then, are a few observations from Sarajevo, in no particular order:
  • Cobblestone streets are quaint and charming, and a pain in the neck (or ankle). They are slippery (no traction) and uneven – not so great for paving a large pedestrian area. (This observation is not new per se… Try walking through the Palatino ruins in Rome in flip flops. Actually, don’t try it. Take my word.) This is something I’m daily reminded of in old town Sarajevo.
  • Bosnian Muslims seem to be more religiously observant than Kosovar Albanians, at least in their dress. This is not to say they’re super religious; they’re definitely not. It’s all relative. In Kosovo, where the population is now around 90% Muslim, I saw very few women in hijab. Fewer than I see randomly in Beantown. In Sarajevo, (the Muslim population of BiH is unknown as there’s been no full census since the war, but pre-war it was a little under 45%) the number wearing hijab is much larger. Clearly not as large as the Muslim population itself in the town, but quite prominent, in a colorful sort of way. I love seeing the coordination between headscarves and outfits.
  • I’ve also seen a few women wearing their headscarves in the manner I associate with Tichels worn by married Orthodox Jewish women (knotted in a bun in the back – covering the head but not neck & shoulders). The women here who do so are always wearing it with a turtle neck or equivalent to remain modest. This is clearly not the mainstream style, but is also not completely isolated. Totally fascinating.
  • Not un-relatedly, Sarajevo is great place to shop for scarves (to be used as headscarves or otherwise). There are shops selling beautiful colorful options all over the place.
  • If you have a sweet tooth, you’re in luck. Bosnians love their slatičarnice (approximately dessertaries). It seems like every third shop you’ll find one of these small cafes selling ice cream, pastries, and of course coffee.
  • Other specialty food shops are čevabdžinica (places specializing in ćevapi and other grilled meats), and buregdžinica (places specializing pitta – burek (meat), sirnica (cheese), krompiruša (potato), and zeljanica (spinach, with cheese).*
  • *In Serbia all these pitta dishes are called burek, and are specified more by naming the filling, whereas here they all have specialized names. Thus Bosnian sirnica is what Serbians call burek sa sirom. (Cheese burek). Etc. These filled savory filo-pastries are really not equivalent to what Americans call burekas. Similar concept, but very different. Among other things these are cooked as huge flat (think pizza pan size) circular dishes, and you are served a large slice. It’s a meal by itself.
  • As in Serbia, the preferred national coffee is what we would call Turkish Coffee. Though here I’ve often seen it called Bosnian Coffee. Go figure.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Sarajevo, I wish I knew you

On the road again. This time in Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia and Hercegovina. See the previous where I am blog post for general political geography of the region. BiH, of course, has it’s own much more complicated political geography that fell out of the split up of the former Yugoslavia, ethnic cleansing, and the Dayton Peace Accords which tried to put humpty-dumpty (BiH) together again. It is a country of contradictions -- the one former Yugoslav state which has a minority-majority population -- where the various ethnic communities have historically mixed and mingled – and where many divisions of the war remain apparent and divide the country making governance a tragic comedy.

If this is so, Sarajevo too is a city of contradictions in ways both parallel and divergent. Once a beautiful city of ethnic coexistence that brought the world the Sarajevo Hagadah, and the 1984 Winter Olympics. And yet such a fraught and terrible history – WWI (which began here with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand), WWII, and most recently a bitter war of ethnic cleansing that destroyed a country. The city of the Sarajevo Hagadah no longer exists – three wars in one century withered the Jewish community beyond recognition. The city of the 1984 Olympics no long exists either – it was destroyed by the war only a few years later. But it remains a fascinating and vibrant place. A place worth knowing. A place that makes you think twice and look deeply.

Sarajevo wears its scars from the war but continues on; it does not look like a city destroyed (ala Detroit, for lack of a better example), nor does it look like a city re-making itself in a new image (see Pristina). It is cosmopolitan in the best sense of the word, mixing people from various ethno-national backgrounds with ease. And yet I know it is far less so than in the past. It is charmingly modern and antique all at once. A big city with the trappings of a small town. It is impossible to describe. Impossible to ignore. Impossible to truly understand. Impossible to be here and not remember so much history.

Friday, June 24, 2011

When in Rome…

…eat Croissants for breakfast, and eat Gelato every day. Life will be good.

Also, carry a trustworthy guide book. It will be your friend. Seriously, I always have guidebooks when I travel, but I rarely carry them walking around. Rome is different. Not because it's harder to navigate (it's not), but because it's easier to get caught eating in tourist traps of dubitable quality, where a guidebook can help you find better options for local fare in the neighborhood you find yourself. You’re already going to pay a bunch -- Rome is très expensive -- so you might as well get quality. Seriously worthwhile. We did much better with the ever-helpful Lonely Planet than when we chose on our own.

Be prepared to cover your shoulders and knees to enter the Vatican museum. Same thing goes for St. Peter’s (if you brave the lines, which we didn’t).

If it’s summer, hydrate early and often. And keep in mind that public bathrooms may be scarce, and/or icky, but still better than dehydration.

Leave time for window shopping when walking anywhere.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Benvenuto a Roma!

I arrived in Rome, very tired from an over-night flight, this morning. After sleeping in, we stumbled upon the Piazza del Popoplo almost on our door step, and then went to the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel, which was indescribably cool. And then we had gelato. A good start to a vacation in Rome.

We’re located in the center of the city, in walking distance of so much history and culture – which is awesome. Much more exploring to be done, after getting some rest tonight.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Wrapping Up Belgrade

As I write this, I’m sitting on an airplane back to Boston. I left Belgrade a week earlier than planned due to the aforementioned family emergency. I was able to have the two interviews which were scheduled for the last week, and they were quite useful. Then, I spent a final shabbat in Belgrade before heading home. Having sorted out the plan to go home meant that I was able to enjoy the last time there without stressing much.

I spent almost all of shabbat with the Rabbi’s family. I went to the synagogue Friday night for services, and had already been invited to dinner at their home. There was one other guest, who spoke little English, and I of course do not speak Serbo-Croatian at all, so that made conversation a bit ackward, but it was lovely to have a real shabbat meal, especially after so many weeks traveling and eating packaged non-perishables (no fridge). The next morning I went to the synagogue again, and after that there was a small Kiddush (coffee and pastries), during which I actually talked with several people about my research (people reached out when they realized I’d been there more than once). After Kiddush I stayed for lunch and the rest of shabbat with the family. It was really a wonderful time. I had a lot of good conversation, with people who I very much enjoyed getting to know; I played with the kids; I had real home-cooked food. By the time I left after havdalah, I went back to the hotel to pack. So all in all, a very good way to end my time in Belgrade.

So, that’s all for Belgrade. Stay tuned for the one week trip to Rome still coming up after a one week hiatus. And of course, a future Balkan adventure in Bosnia and Croatia in the fall.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Shavuot in Belgrade

I spent Shavuot in Belgrade, and finally got to meet the Belgrade Jewish community. It’s a bit hard to separate out how it was, because I was so anxious for news of home, having had a family emergency immediately prior to the holiday starting.

There were services at the synagogue on Tuesday night. There were a surprising number of people, after how empty it was when I was last there. There were even a good number of women. In addition to the Rabbi’s return, this may be partially accounted for because davening was followed by a community dinner (250 dinar, which I paid when I inquired about service times on Monday), for which they converted the community kosher kitchen to dairy (making everyone very excited, because this is a highly unusual event). The Rabbi introduced me to a few young women in my age range, and I sat with them at dinner. The food was delicious and the company pleasant.

Wednesday morning I also went to davening, which was much smaller, but there was a minyan (quorum for communal prayer) and the Rabbi assures me there are more people on shabbat. The shul / community is predominately Sefardi, so there were some interesting differences, the most noteworthy of which was a special Ladino prayer for Shavuot – a Ketubah (marriage contract) between G-d and the people of Israel. After services I ended up having lunch with the Rabbi’s family. It was a quiet affair. They tell me they’ve normally had 20-ish guests for Shavuot, but they were tired this year. It was perfect for me, a home cooked meal, and some nice time to talk with new people without being overwhelmed was really perfect for the moment.

The rest of the holiday was pretty quiet. I read. A lot. And watched the clock. A lot. And ate. Not so much, but enough.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Back in Belgrade

I never thought I’d be so happy to be in Belgrade, but after the obstacle course that is walking down the street in Pristina, it feels amazing. By obstacle course I mean not know when there will be a sudden gigantic hole in the side walk, or unpaved sidewalk strewn with rocks and random giant pieces of concrete, or cars parked, or, my personal favorite, a car driving up onto the sidewalk and straight towards you at full speed in search of parking.

Other things I’m happy about:

  • More vegetarian options than in Pristina
  • Less reason to fear for my life while crossing the street
  • More street signs
  • More people who speak English
  • More sunshine / fewer thunder storms
  • More Jews (i.e. any form of Jewish community)
  • No worries going out after dark, because its well lit with lots of people around (actually it seems that Belgrade never sleeps!)

This week should fill up pretty quickly. I’ve got two interviews scheduled and Shavuot in between.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Not much to report

The last few days have been pretty quiet. I’ve just been hanging around Pristina, and tracking down some contacts. Meanwhile I think this place is making me addicted to coffee -- it is going to be hard going back to my only occasional coffee when I get home!

I had another interview the other day, which at least cuts my costs per interview in half, and which was a very good contact who I wouldn’t have had without being here. I also spoke with another potential contact recommended by the first interviewee, but unfortunately he’s not in town this week. We had arranged to talk tonight to see if we could meet tomorrow morning early before my bus back to Belgrade, but his wife called to say he hadn’t made it back yet and wouldn’t be here tomorrow. But it is still a contact to follow-up on later, so that’s something. Next report will be from Belgrade.

Monday, May 30, 2011

P is for Prizren

Today’s blog post was brought to you by the letter P. For Prizren, and Pristina, and Peja. Did you notice how I listed 3 of the top four cities in Kosovo, and they all begin with P?*

Today I visited Prizren. This day trip was postponed from yesterday because the weather report was more promising. However, it also turns out that most shops and such are closed on Sundays in Pristina, so I’m assuming that applies elsewhere and thus that today was actually a better day to visit. (Aside: I’m not sure why this is the case since most Kosovar Albanians are secular Muslims (i.e. Sunday is not in any sense a holy day)).

Observation of the day: Prizren is covered with little clothing shops. Its really astounding, how many. Also, both there and in Pristina there seem to be an extraordinary number of shops specializing in ball gowns / special occasion wear. People here must have significantly more reasons to dress black tie than I do, cause there really is quite a large market apparently.

Getting there and back given my non-existent Albanian and the bus drivers' and taxi drivers' non-existent English was a not so fun adventure. (Taxi to bus station. Bus from Pristina to Prizren. Etc. It's a story for another day). However, Prizren itself is a charming old city, with the area by the river covered in old cobblestone roads, an old stone bridge, a Serbian Orthodox cathedral, a Catholic cathedral, several mosques, and the remainers of an old castle from which you can see a panoramic overview of the whole city (if you climb all the way up to it). So, all in all, it was a nice day visit. But I will be ready for a quiet day in Pristina tomorrow.

*The fourth is Mitrovica.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Where in the World is Sunkist Miss?

Readers have been asking exactly where I am located / traveling, and seeing as I don’t have much to report today, I thought I’d provide a few answers.

I am currently in Pristina, capital of Kosovo. And was previously in Belgrade, capital of Serbia (where I will be returning later this journey). Back when Yugoslavia was a country, it was made up of 6 republics – Slovenia, Croatia, Bonsia and Hercegovina, Serbia, Monetnegro, and Macedonia. All of those are now successor countries. Serbia itself contained two autonomous regions, Kosovo and Vojvodina. Vojvodina is still part of Serbia; Kosovo is a separate entity, though its country status is disputed. Okay, so all of these countries which made up the former Yugoslavia are in South Eastern Europe, located on the Balkan peninsula, which has Greece at its bottom tip, and is surrounded by the Adriatic, Ionian, Agean and Black seas.

View Larger Map

It is in the UTC+1 time zone, the same as most of Western Europe (except the UK and Portugal which are UTC). So, that is +6 hours from EST or +9 from PST for those playing along at home.

Of course, the political status of the Yugoslav successor states has been a complex issue, and Kosovo is the extreme example. I’m not going to review the whole history here as it's much too long and complicated for the purposes of this blog post. Suffice it to say that when the UN and NATO took control, they separated it from Serbia but did not grant it full independence, leaving status to be decided later, and in 2008 Kosovo declared independence. While it is not currently a UN member-state due to the contentiousness of this claim (there are concerns that China and/or Russia would veto), it is a member country of the World Bank and IMF, and has been recognized by 75 UN Member States, including the US, almost all EU and OSCE members, and all of its neighbors except Serbia. (This makes for some interesting travel issues as Serbia considers the border an internal administrative boundary not a port-of-entry, so there can be visa issues if you enter Serbia from Kosovo as you will not have a Serbian entrance stamp. This is resolved if you entered Kosovo from Serbia and are going back to the same place – hence my taking the bus from Belgrade and back again.)

Of course, places with contentious political status often have contentious naming / linguistic issues as well. See for example the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which entered the UN with that full long name because Greece opposed it being called simply Macedonia. So, in Serbian, Kosovo is Kosovo (Latin scrip) or Косово (Cyrillic); in Albanian (the primary language here) it is Kososva (or in some circumstances Kosovë). Pristina, is Приштина or Priština in Serbian, Prishtinë or Prishtina in Albanian. As you will have noticed, I have stuck with Kosovo and Pristina, as they are the standard English language spellings and as such are used by international organizations, just like I have used “Belgrade” for the capital of Serbia rather than the more accurate “Beograd”.

Thursday, May 26, 2011


Today I conducted my first interview (over a macchiato, clearly), which went quite well. I succeeded at getting a few recommendations of others to interview, along with contact info for them. Now it’s time to see if I can get those to happen while I’m in town.

Meanwhile, big-picture progress in the region, just while I happen to be here:

"The president of Serbia announced at a news conference in Belgrade on Thursday that Ratko Mladic, the fugitive accused of masterminding the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995, had been captured."
-New York Times

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Cultural excursions

Sadly, my first interview which was supposed to be today (perfect, with one day to get oriented in Pristina before diving in) was postponed to Thursday, so I now have extra time. The result of that, however, I got to accompany my new American friend to the Dečani Monastery, which is about a 1 1/2 - 2 hour drive from Pristina. As an added bonus, it was beautiful, warm and sunny there, unlike Pristina which seems to have perpetual thunder storms.

The Dečani Monastery was constructed in 1327-35, with the frescos completed in 1350. While there were some additional icons added a couple centuries later, the original work is all still visible, remarkably well preserved, and has never been restored. It’s the real deal. The Monastery is part of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The stone building itself is built in a Western style – the monk there told us that it was actually commissioned from a Catholic architect. But the inside frescos (covering the walls floor to ceiling as well as the ceiling and cupola) and mainly in the Byzantine style, with artists imported from Constantinople to work on it, but also borrowing from Romanesque influences. Truly the meeting of Eastern and Western Christianity of the time. The guide book said that that this is the place to go in Kosovo if you only have one day in the country, and it was certainly well worth a visit once here. The extent and detail of the frescos and the way they are so well preserved in the original space is really amazing to see. It is also a UNESCO world heritage site considered endangered, along with 3 other UNESCO sites in Kosovo – which are all medieval Serbian churches. Despite the fact that it is protected by KFOR soldiers because of real threat (there have been past attacks on it), it was very peaceful, there were several other visitors, and the monks were very gracious and welcoming.

Tonight, after a bit of wind-down time, we met back up for dinner at a place recommended by both my guidebook (the only guidebook to Kosovo that exists, at least in English), and a friend who has spent time here previously. We explored in the afternoon to make sure we could find the place since Pristina can be difficult to navigate, what with curving streets and no signs. Good thing we did, because the place was super tricky to find. I would’ve given up if I were on my own, and still would’ve if it hadn’t been recommended by a friend. But it was worth hunting for, cause it was great. It serves Albanian food and attracts both an international and local crowd (a plus, cause you know its good, but they speak English and understand vegetarian). I was a little worried since they have no written menu, you just have to know, or ask, or have the waiter bring you stuff. But it seemed worth a try given the double recommendation. Anyways, it was lovely. They served a warm traditional bread (sort of like pita, but different) with cheese spreads, and a very nice salad to start. Then you get a main dish (the waiter picked for us, vegetarian one for me, and meat for companion). All the main dishes are baked in clay dishes. The veggie dish was simple -- a veggie medley cooked to perfection over a long time and topped with some goat cheese. And of course a macchiato for dessert – the favorite coffee in Kosovo. No room left for baklava with it, which is also traditional. All in all, a very good, but exhausting day.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Impulsive friendships

Yesterday I took the bus from Belgrade to Pristina (Kosovo), about a 7 hour journey. I managed to quickly make friends with the only other American (or foreigner for that matter) on the trip. Turns out he is a studying art history and here to visit the monasteries in the Serbian enclaves which are very significant within the history of Byzantine art. We initially bonded over being anxious about doing solo journey from Belgrade to Prisitina, finding the right bus, etc. However, we actually found we had lots to talk about. One can meet friends in the strangest places.

My hotel room in Pristina is quite lovely. They upgraded it due to my prolonged stay. Navigating Pristina is less lovely. Many streets don’t have sidewalks and the paving not so great. And street signs? Non-existent. Forget what I said about street signs in Belgrade, by comparison they were abundant! I literally haven’t seen one yet. This does mean that it's less relevant how up-to-date your map is, since you just need to go by the general direction of the roads. Well, that and hope to come across someone who speaks enough English, and happens to think the street names (which have changed several times in recent memory) are the same as your (choose your own adventure: map, guidebook, internet), who can help redirect you. Fun times. Nonetheless, I spent many hours this afternoon wandering around with said friend from yesterday’s bus ride, and now have a much better sense of how the main streets in center city fit together, which is at least enough to get me to my interview appointment.

I spent a moment contemplating the level of impulsiveness and outgoingness was required for me to (a) befriend a stranger, and (b) trust that impulse enough to later exchange contact info and hang out in a foreign city. My first thought was that this is totally unprecedented for me, but upon further reflection I realized that this is not really a first for me in a foreign country even though it is totally not my personality at home. (Where, let’s face it, I’m a planner, and it takes me a while to get to make friends.) I think part of it is knowing that I’m never going to be in this same place again, so if there’s a opportunity it's now or never. And part of it is that when traveling alone you crave someone to talk to and just share an experience of a new place with, even its just for a day of that longer travel adventure. So, here’s to new friends, and leaps of faith, which after all is what this whole trip is based on anyhow.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Lazy days

Not so much exciting to report. Friday I went to the Ethnographic Museum. Something like the Museo de Antropología in Mexico, though much smaller in scale as that one is tremendous. Basically, imagine the “peoples and cultures” part of a natural history museum, now expand it. So in the case of Serbia, this museum has lots of examples of traditional costume, housing, tools, textiles, etc as they evolved over the years. I also stopped by the shul for a truncated Kabbalat Shabbat (I don’t know if they get a minyan and/or do more when the Rabbi is in town, but he’s away). There were no Saturday services due to his absence. The shul itself is beautiful. The service was kind of sad, but I’ll reserve judgment until the Rabbi is back.

Saturday I had a quiet day. Stopped by a couple of free galleries. One had a random contemporary exhibit. The other is the “Gallery of Frescos”, which focused on local church art (very clear Byzantine influence) but also had replicas of several old (11-1200s) local church facades which I thought were cooler than the frescos. Other than that, I read and napped, and now (Sunday morning) am getting ready to catch the bus to Kosovo.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Everywhere around the world

Some things never change. Spray paint art of other worlds by a sidewalk artist. From Mexico City to Harvard Sq to Belgrade:

(Picture from last night).

Thursday, May 19, 2011

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone

The city is charming, especially when the sun comes out, which gives you a chance to really appreciate the sidewalk cafe culture. It feels much more European than I expected for a place that has historically been at the cross-roads of two continents. The buildings (at least in façade) are mostly old-school European, but visibly decaying, interspersed with some very utilitarian box-buildings. Cafes are very popular and places are open late. There is a huge shopping culture and presence of a wide range of shops from spacious high end shops (Burberry is next to Armani) to what you’d see in mid-town Manhattan (tiny shops, squeezed full to the brim with cheap stuff – soccer jerseys, shoes, you name it). Interestingly, these things are not in different neighborhoods but all in the same area. Most people dress pretty nicely (in a modern European style) and seem to stroll around and window shop quite a bit. Having done a bit of that myself, I’m seriously feeling inspired to do some actual shopping because there are all sorts of little boutiques with cute skirts and such.

Today’s primary event was visiting Kalemegdan fortress and park, which are at the heart of the old city of Belgrade. This large park is quiet, green, with rambling walks up the plateau, around and within the walls of fortress. It was first build as the site of an ancient fortress a few centuries BCE, and was subsequently rebuilt at least once by the Byzantines (500s), with upkeep and modernization in the interim, and once again mostly rebuilt by the Austrians (1700s). Pieces of the prior iterations remain visible. Anyhow, in addition to being an interesting historical cite, and housing the Military Museum at its highest point, it is also a functioning municipal park with tennis and soccer courts inset between fortress walls. This is a remarkable use of space. The Military Museum was interesting, though it would have been more so if more of it were translated (there are small captions for each display, in contrast to large paragraphs of Serbian text). They do really show a progression of the weapons and armor used in the area from ancient and medieval times through the modern day, including more biodegradable materials (uniforms, flags, etc) when reaching the more modern eras. Only after wandering the fortress for a couple hours did I happen upon the place where you can pick up audio guides in multiple languages. It wouldn’t have helped the museum, but would have explained more of the fortifications, but it was still quite interesting. If I have extra time at the end of this visit perhaps I’ll go back for the audio guide version.

Have I mentioned that I love the sunshine?!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A leisurely lunch

Today I had lunch. No really, that’s pretty much the only noteworthy thing I did. But it was lovely. Allow me to explain. I started out the day slowly because I hadn’t slept well and I had some stuff that needed doing (emailing contacts and such), so I didn’t head out until I wanted lunch at 1. I headed towards Skadarska. That is the “bohemian” section of the city – a short cobblestone pedestrian-only street with a fountain in the middle, and lined with mostly traditional Serbian restaurants and flowers everywhere. In yesterday’s wanderings, after going through a 5 street intersection in every possible direction, I’d managed to figure out how to get there, but didn’t actually go explore it. So I figured I’d check it out at lunch time today.

So today, not 3 minutes into my walk, I was stopped by two people who wanted to know if I spoke English and whether I could direct them. (They were Australian.) Apparently I am very good at not looking lost and out of place! As it turned out they were trying to get to Skadarska, and I did actually know how to get there. I explained directions and also that I was heading in that direction and offered to walk with them. Along the way they mentioned that they were looking for lunch, and would I care to join them if that’s what I was doing too? I agreed, feeling up for a bit of adventure and a bit of conversation in English. They asked my criteria, and I said, any place where I can get vegetarian food. Turned out they too were looking for vegetarian food in an authentic Serbian atmosphere and cuisine. We wandered around, picked a restaurant, and sat on the lovely porch (no rain!) for a leisurely 3 hour lunch. There was no lack of conversation. (I mean, I can talk! But it wasn’t awkward or anything). And the food was really good, and waiter super helpful. All in all, a good day.

Lunch (keep in mind that lunch here is the main meal of the day, I didn’t eat breakfast and expect a very small dinner if I ever get around to it):
  • Salata šopska (known colloquially as Serbian salad with cheese because that is its only difference from salata srpska – literally Serbian salad – which consists of tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, a few peppers, oil, lemon juice, and paprikia. This, in both forms, is a traditional dish throughout the region. Very simple, but very delicious and refreshing given good tomatoes, of which there are plenty).
  • Bread (all meals come with ridiculous amounts of yummy bread)
  • Stewed veggies with an egg (yay protein!)
  • A traditional potato side dish that we all shared
  • Serbian Coffee (see previous post - Orienteering Belgrade)
  • A lovely vanilla meringue (light and soft and fluffy) (And tastes of the others’ desserts.)

*By the way notsomachmir, all this menu-posting is for you! :)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Orienteering Belgrade

In which I find my way around by wandering in circles, despite my map and a good sense of direction.

  • Finding the Jewish community center (“Jewish Commune”).
  • Finding the Synagogue.
  • Finding the central bus & and train station, and buying a round-trip (open-ended) bus trip to Kosovo, leaving Sunday.
  • Successfully reading Cyrillic signs and matching with (Latin-alphabet map).
  • Ordering the correct breakfast food without an English menu.
Today I walked around a good part of central Belgrade. Its really not that large of a city, and quite walkable. (With lots of pedestrian walkways where streets are closed to cars, and busy streets having lit crosswalks - no need to press button - or underpasses). But walkable doesn't always make for tourist friendly. Take a city that was not built on a grid. Add in a large number of messy multi-street intersections that are not organized into Rotaries. Add to that a dearth of street signs. The signs that exist are sometimes written in Cyrillic, sometimes in Croatian-Latin, and sometimes both. This makes for a hard to navigate city.

Aside: Seriously, I originally thought there weren't any street signs since I noticed right away that the sign posts with arrow shaped signs attached were pointing in the direction of various points of interest. They are not street signs. Street signs are posted on the side of buildings near street corners. In theory. In practice there are more corners without such signs than with. In Mexico when there were missing street signs it was generally because someone had stolen them and they hadn't been replaced. The number of missing seems rather large-scale for that kind of excuse here. Anyhow, thankfully, it's safe to walk around, I was not in a rush, and between my map and sense of direction I managed not to walk in the same circle twice. And I did eventually find every place I was looking for (and probably got a better sense of how the various places connected and a better city tour than if I had succeeded at the more direct route).

Low points:
  • Figuring out the shower mechanism (the faucet is waist-high and then there is a shower head attached to a hose, so you have to hold that up to shower, with limited water pressure -- not so good for thick hair, but at least the water is warm).

Highlights (all culinary):
  • Delicious “moka orange” (local spelling) at a lovely little cafe that has indoor and sidewalk seating (as they all seem to). Although Turkish Coffee (often called Serbian Coffee so as not to give the Turks credit for anything) is the drink of choice in this country, this popular cafe is known for its mochas. It was a really lovely place except for all the second-hand smoke. But that’s par for the course. They also had amazing-looking desserts, but I was looking for something less sweet.
  • I got a burek sa sirom (giant slice of cheese-filled filo dough) from a to-go bakery. Bureks are a local specialty (throughout the region, not just Serbia) and come in several flavors (cheese, spinach, and meat being the primary three).
  • For dinner, a lovely eggplant gratin, and an amazing chocolate-y dessert which I couldn’t finish.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Welcome to Београд

I arrived in Belgrade today, exhausted but without hiccup in the travel. I will be in the region (Serbia and Kosovo) for a month for dissertation research. The flights were totally fine and my luggage made it through the connection in Rome without a hitch. Interestingly, the woman sitting next to me on the flight to Rome (after person originally sitting next to me was kicked off the plane for having a medical condition and no doctor's note), was a young woman (probably my age-ish), who works for USAID and was heading to the region for work. Not actually a useful contact, but one that made for a lovey chat with someone interested in international affairs.

I had read in the guide book that you should ask inside the arrival gate (baggage claim area) for help getting a cab, rather than going out to the curb where the drivers will way over charge you. This was definitely good advice not only because of the price (which was fixed before the trip at a reasonable rate), but because the guy from the inside official taxi stand escorts you through customs and the chaotic mobs when you emerge from there, straight to your waiting cab. Breathe sigh of relief. The taxi driver didn't speak much English but was super excited to be carrying an American tourist. It was kind of cute. The place I'm staying this first week is no shining star. The rooms are kind of dingy and small, but its my own and it seems to be clean, so that'll do. There isn't good wireless access in this place, which I knew, and which is not good given my need to be contacting people for work, but I expect it'll be better after this first week, and I'm making do.

After arriving, and going next door to exchange Euros for Serbian Dinars (100 DIN = 1 Euro), I took a nap but made sure to set an alarm because despite not having slept last night (over night flight), I was determined to stay up until a reasonable hour so that I can get myself onto local time quickly. So, after the nap I went exploring the immediate neighborhood where I'm in, and grabbed a quick bite (a slice of pizza verde for 90 DIN; I wasn't super hungry, mostly just tired). There is a big open air pedestrian mall the winds around nearby, and the plethora of sidewalk seating for cafes is really amazing (even McDonald's has a cute out-door seating area that matches the rest of the local style). They were all empty because its drizzly out, but I imagine that when the sun comes out it'll be quite the scene. I also discovered that these stairs leading underground were not a subway that the guidebook neglected to metion, but rather pedestrian under-passes under the busy street, that are lined inside with cheap shops (the shops on street level are trendy unlike these). Today I didn't bring the camera, but I'll have to take pictures even though it will surely make me stand out as a tourist.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Kids and guns

Let’s talk for a moment about guns in the home. Lots of people have them. Too many people don’t adequately protect the guns, and thus themselves, their kids, and their neighbors. Why does this happen? Two reasons. (1) Many gun owners are concerned that locking up their guns runs counter to their self-defense purposes – if it’s locked up they can’t get to it as quickly. (2) They think that “educating” their kids not to play with guns is enough. This is purely wrong. No matter what you tell them, kids do not have a clear enough understanding of causes and consequences. Yes, education is important. It is not sufficient.

There are of course two problems with unlocked guns at home -- kids who shoot them by mistake, and kids who shoot them intentionally. Both problems are resolved if the kids can't get the guns.

Here’s why it’s a problem (and why my news feed is incredibly depressing). And keep in mind these are only the stories about kids, in the past 2+ months. (And actually there are a few more that I can't link to any more cause they're no longer posted)...