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.