Friday, December 19, 2014

How I Got Arrested In Serbia

Will and I spent the beginning of this week in Belgrade. I enjoyed the city. We stayed with a great family who work with USAID and have two adorable kids. We saw a fantastic jazz show at a place called Zgrada Bitefa. We ate well and had a great time.

But I'll get back to all that, because that's not the reason you clicked on this link. The salient and much more interesting story is: we got arrested yesterday and spent almost five hours with the Novi Sad police. This is how it happened.

We planned to spend our first day in Novi Sad, the capital of the autonomous northern region of Voivodina, wandering around sightseeing. We were strolling aimlessly through the old part of the town in the early afternoon when Will was stopped by a trio of goons in sneakers, jeans, and puffy jackets, who asked for his ID. They looked nothing like police, and very much like young dudes trying to harrass foreigners, so Will tried to shrug them off and keep walking. Things escalated very quickly; they began yelling and grabbed him, wrestling him to the ground. That was when I turned and threw myself into the fray, thinking he was being mugged.  I grabbed the biggest goon by his puffy jacket, which was when the smallest, a baby-faced goonlet who looked perhaps 16, yelled, "Police!" and flashed a badge. I stepped back at this point, and they let Will up, once again demanding our IDs.

We were both still suspicious-- since when do cops travel by triplet? I don't know what a real Serbian police badge looks like, and have seen mock ones for sale in tourist stalls; for all I knew, Babyface (who did not look old enough to have graduated high school, much less a police academy) bought his in a costume shop. Although I had my passport on me, I wasn't about to hand it over; instead, I gave them a paper copy from my bag. Will, similarly feeling that this was fishy, began groping in his pocket, trying to extract his driver's license without taking out his wallet.

The police apparently thought (or wanted to think; I suspect they were looking for an excuse) that Will was groping for a gun, and started grabbing his arms. He pulled away-- he was trying to do what they had asked, after all-- and, taking this as a sign of resistance, they tackled him all over again, the biggest one halfheartedly punching him in the ribs. One held me back, as I ineffectively mewled for them to let him go. The other two cuffed Will, mashing his face into the dirt. On the bright side, the handcuffs confirmed once and for all that they were actual police; on the other hand, I had the sinking feeling that we weren't going to be able to walk away from this one.

They stood Will up and leaned him against a car, kicking his legs apart and once again smashing his face, this time into the back windshield. One of the cops told me to empty my bag. He went through the contents, honing in on a folding pocketknife and a bottle of Tylenol with three tablets left in it. "I will take these as evidence," he announced, before, and I kid you not, calling for reinforcements.

Two more officers came and took Will, still handcuffed, off to the police station in a sedan. I was told to wait with Babyface and the other two for separate transportation. They began striking up small talk as we stood on the curb.

"American?" one said conversationally. "You know you guys bombed us 15 years ago? You wanted to bring democracy"-- the word was bitter, laden with sarcasm-- "like to Iraq and Afghanistan. You have no business doing this."

I told him I wholeheartedly agreed. It didn't matter how facile or oversimplified his grasp of global politics; whatever he said in that moment, I wholeheartedly agreed. I added that I hoped we would not militarily intervene in Syria or the Crimea, and he grinned, seeming to relax as he told me I was better than President Obama.

By the time the paddywagon (no, really, they sent for a paddywagon) arrived we had, if not made friends, at least reached a detente. I clambered into the back, Babyface accompanying me to the precinct. The driver turned on the siren; Babyface, looking abashed, turned it off after a block or two. No, leave it on, I thought. I want everyone to know what a dangerous criminal I am, with my pocket knife and my acetominaphen.

 When we got to the station, Will had been taked to a room for interrogation. Babyface, seeming increasingly aware of how ridiculous the situation was becoming, contented himself with taking me to the police locker room. I sat for the next half an hour as cops milled in and out, smoking, talking, and laughing. Some sat and cleaned their guns, conscientiously taking them apart; others used them as toys, pointing them at each other or playfully hitting each other with their nightsticks. One officer sat in the open window, leaning out between cigarettes to sing in an operatic baritone. It reminded me of nothing so much as, well, a locker room, if collegiate atheletes were all permitted to carry weapons.

After some time they escorted Will in. We sat there for the next two hours. Every now and then there was a form to sign: one acknowledging the seizure of my pocketknife, one consenting to chemical drug tests on my Tylenol, one confirming that we knew our rights. I asked about a lawyer before I passed that one back over. "Well, yes, in theory we provide you one," Babyface admitted. "But actually all of our lawyers have been on strike for three months." A little later, another officer came in with my bottle of aspirin, which he shoved across the table with a gruff, "This is yours." He walked away before I could sweetly ask how the drug test went. Having realized my only hope lay in making them see me as a normal person, and then making them like me, I struck up conversation with the cops wandering in and out; they were eager to advise us concerning Serbian beers, and bashful about their English. Even our arresting officers started chatting and joking with us-- once they had let the adrenaline-fueled power trip out of their systems, they seemed perfectly nice. Every now and then they would remember that we were under arrest, and abruptly stop laughing and tell us we were in big trouble, but by now the threats seemed deflated.

Around 6:00 pm the night shift of cops had a meeting. They filed into the locker room, taking seats around and behind us. I turned to ask if we should leave, or at least move to one side, but the policeman behind me only shushed me with a smile and a wink. So we sat there as though we were part of the team rather than a pair of perps, as the commanding officer read from a stack of reports and other officers chimed in or took instructions.

As 6:30 came and went, we decided we should ask for our one phone call. Fortunately, I still had the phone number for Maja, a lawyer working for USAID with whom we had stayed in Belgrade. I called her on one of the arresting officer's cells (a Bosnian, we had learned in the intervening time, who had come to Serbia as a refugee in '92). I briefed Maja on the situation, and she asked to talk to Bosnia. After a long conversation in Serbian, he handed the phone back. Will would be released without a charge, Maja assured us, although I would be charged for the pocketknife, which was being considered a weapon.

We were all congenial by the time the commanding officer came in to review our case. He told me I had a choice: two days in prison, or a 50 euro fine. My wallet was open before he finished his sentence. "Not here!" he laughed. "You'll go before a judge." He seemed to take a shine to us, and told us we should meet up with them in the pub when they were done with their shift. "We go to a place called Ducat," Babyface added helpfully. "Yeah, and we'll buy you a drink with the cash from your fine!" Bosnia cracked, slapping his knee.

The officer who drove me to the court was similarly sympathetic. He clapped a hand on my shoulder as we walked in. "Let's pay for your potato peeler and get you out of here," he advised. It was nearing 8:00; as it was after hours, we went to the judge's chambers. A pretty woman in a pink blazer and high heels, she handled the matter without a fuss. The paperwork took some time, but once I had signed everything in triplicate, I was released with a cheerful goodbye. "Oh, and watch your bag!" the judge called, as I was leaving the room. "A man was stabbed and robbed by a Gypsy just last week, right in front of the courthouse."

I refrained from dryly commenting that it sounded like they should get some more cops out on the streets.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Nis: or, You're Gonna Have To Roll Me Out Of Serbia

Our first stop in Serbia was Nis, the largest city in southern Serbia.  We were Couchsurfing there with a pair of brothers, Filip and Novak. The pair complement each other well. Filip is a straight-shooter, earnest and driven, with a good sense of humor and decided opinions. A medical intern, he is knowledgeable about all things health-related, and is studying German to improve his employment opportunities.  Novak, a physics student, is wry and cynical.  He is both acutely intelligent and acutely critical.  He has a full beard and a bony frame, with long, thin fingers that twist as he talks: about CERN and the Higgs Bosun, about Game of Thrones, about his dream of one day meeting a sassy black American.  Unexpectedly, he does the best imitation of a black girl I've ever seen-- and this from a man who's never met one in person. Globablization of culture, ladies and gentlemen. Both brothers were engaging and extraordinarily well-informed, and played off each other in conversation. I felt immediately comfortable and included, as though I were with my own brother and cousin, or among friends.  The first night at their house we stayed in, but ended up awake until 5:00 in the morning-- not partying, just drinking homemade rakija and talking until the break of day.

The next day Filip took us around the sights of Nis: the fortress, built by the Turks; Crveni Krst, or the Red Cross, a preserved Nazi concentration camp; the Nis synagogue, now a museum, where we saw an exhibit on the typhus epidemic; and the Cele Kula, the Skull Tower.  This last was a particularly grisly warning from the Ottomans following the first failed Serbian uprising in 1809.  The Turks built a tower, using as bricks the decapitated heads of the Serbian rebels killed in battle. It once contained 952 skulls; these days the tower is significantly truncated, most of the skulls having been removed.  Still, one gets a sense of what a horrific and disturbing sight it must have been.

When we got back from our tour, Filip's mother had prepared the most amazing meal I've yet eaten in the Balkans.  But before I get into gratuitous food porn, I should pause here and explain something about southern Serbian hospitality.

To be honest, I was a little apprehensive about travelling in Serbia as an American.  Remember Kosovo, where everyone blindly loved Americans and all things USA? Well, the Serbs were on the other side of that conflict. The bombings represented the first time NATO acted without the approval of the UN, and against a nation not actively posing a threat to a member state.  For better or for worse, the NATO bombings in 1999 gave Kosovo its independence-- but the price was hundreds of Serbian civilian casualites and widespread urban destruction.  You'll understand the temptation to introduce myself as being from somewhere innocuous, like maybe New Zealand. ("Great sheep you got here!")

It's true that there is no love lost between the average Serbian and the U.S. government. I've ended up in some awkward conversations: "You're an American? Ah, yes. The enemy." Or Bill Clinton trashing, which I didn't realize was a thing, now that everyone's moved on from Monica. People's war stories have been hard to hear and know how to respond to-- like the man in a cafe who told me his 9-year-old daughter died during the NATO airstrikes. I was also nine years old in 1999. It's a strange guilt to wrestle with.

And yet, when people are facing us as individuals-- even those who lived through the hell, even those who lost family members-- they have been consistently welcoming, open, astonishingly generous.  I experienced a culture of hospitality in Muslim northern Cameroon, but even that did not prepare me for the way we've been taken in here.

The man who called me the enemy followed that matter-of-fact label by offering me beer and a cigarette.  Filip and Novak remember being hustled to a bomb shelter in their father's arms while their city exploded around them-- but they were happy to pour us another rakija and talk about it, then ask us questions in turn.  Their mother (who deserves sainthood, or at least recognition as a master chef) demonstrated best of all the kind of hopitality I'm talking about.  Her English was limited, but she communicated in acts, primarily those of feeding us-- which brings me back to the food.  From the first time we arrived in the house, she spread a laden table before us: homemade sauerkraut, winter pickles, homemade ajvar (the red pepper and eggplant spread I've been eating by the jarful), cheese, bread, meats, and kajmak, a sort of cross between clotted cream and thick yogurt.

Getting back to that dinner, though: this amazing woman had devoted herself to the labor-intensive process of preparing sarma, Serbian stuffed cabbage rolls, and stuffed paprika peppers.  There was a tray of glistening, golden-brown sarma stuffed with meat, peppers, onions, rice, potatoes, spices-- and a second tray, equally full, without meat, because Filip had mentioned that I am a vegetarian.  I was sorry to have doubled her work, but not sorry about the results: I single-handedly demolished half the tray, longing to keep eating, but aware that my stomach was uncomfortably full of delicious, creamy cabbage and sweet pepper.  "Does your mother ever just tell you to order a pizza?" I asked, rocking back and forth in the vain hope that it would speed my digestion and allow me to continue gorging myself.  "No," the brothers responded, immediately and in unison.

We went out that night to a beergarden with a handful of Filip's friends. They were a fun and raucous group, and once again we stayed out late.  When we got home, Filip and Novak's mother had left out an entire homemade spinach and cheese pie, just in case we had late-night munchies. Between the four of us, we demolished the burek in about 37 seconds (conservative estimate).

Filip, Will and I at a kafana, a sort of traditional pub with live music
We enjoyed Nis, and particularly enjoyed getting to know Filip and Novak and their family.  Being welcomed into a home gave us an entirely different perspective on the city and the culture of southern Serbia, and we are enormously grateful.

Coming up next: Belgrade and Novi Sad!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Tito's Little Balls

After an auspicious introduction to Bosnia in Bihac and Banja Luka, we made our way to Jajce, a beautiful town perched on the edge of a thunderous waterfall. The old town is dominated by a hulking fortress crowned with black crows that broods over the steeply pointed gables of the houses clustered below it.  The whole ensemble, set against a craggy backdrop of gray rock and deep green pine, is striking.

We got in Monday afternoon, and met up in the evening with Elis, yet another acquaintance from Couchsurfing.  We had a few beers at a bar called Amadeus, then headed back to his grandmother’s house.  The house was poised on the steepest slope I’d ever had to climb outside the realm of mountaineering, although that was before discovering the hills of Sarajevo—but I chronologically digress.  Regretting every item in my backpack, I finally crawled to the top.  We spent the next few hours talking, playing guitar—Elis is a musician, among other more marketable skills—and drinking.

Elis could only host us for one night, and we packed out the next morning when he left for work at 7:00.  Yawning from our late night and shivering from the biting cold, we tracked down the Jajce Youth Hostel, which turned out to be unheated during the winter months.  We crashed into sleep under mounds of blankets, our breath showing in little puffy clouds above our faces.

When we awoke the second time, we went to explore the fortress and old city walls.  We fortified ourselves with warm, flaky spinach burek before clambering up the preserved keep and watchtowers.  Jajce also has a set of catacombs, built for the last duke’s family but never used; these we descended, snooping around for hidden passages or secretly buried skeletons like we were Bosnian National Treasure.

The next day we went to a museum about the founding of Yugoslavia, established in the building where the Antifacist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia hammered out the federation in November of 1943.  The hall where the resolutions were drawn up is still filled with chairs, the walls divided into six sections for the six constituent states.  Perhaps reflecting something about former Yugoslavia today, the English translations of these exhibits were erratic, clearly done independently for each of the six presentations.  Slovenia’s English was excellent.  Bosnia’s was worded oddly, but mostly readable.  Serbia’s was painful, with inconsistent grammar and words misspelled multiple ways in the same sentence.  Montenegro couldn’t even be bothered to provide a translation. After we puzzled our way through the texts, the docent led us back to his office, where he presented us with a table laden with tchotkies-- lighters, shot glasses, calendars, pencils, prints—all of them Tito themed, the face of Josip Broz gazing up at us from every direction. There is, it would seem, a certain amount of nostalgia for the halcyon days of employment in Tito’s Yugoslavia.

Thursday we finally made it to Sarajevo. 

The city has been cloaked in fog since we arrived, a constant low cloud hanging over the skyline and obscuring the view of distant skyscrapers and the urban sprawl that spills up the hills.  Sarajevo is in a natural bowl of mountains, which is what made the 3-year siege during the Bosnian War so deadly; of milder consequence, this topography encourages smog and cloud to settle during the colder months.  Apparently Sarajevo is known for the fog, which I find easy to believe.  It’s been pervasive.  In theory, a city in fog sounds romantic; in practice, it’s kind of like someone draped a wet blanket over everything.

We are staying in Haris Hostel, a lovely hostel unfortunately located at the top of the actual steepest (or at least longest) hill I’ve ever had to climb. On the bright side, there’s a great view of the fog, and our thighs are slowly transforming to steel.

My tenuous grasp of the history and politics of the region (pre-travel research in rural Africa was a difficult proposition) is getting a little better.  I have been learning quite a bit in the last week here, and have realized in so doing that I have been asking a lot of dumb questions (Igor and Maja, as the primary recipients, I apologize).  I’m hoping what I’m gathering through conversations and readings will help me at least better know what questions to ask.

We started our self-education by delving into First World War history.  We went to Latinska cuprija, the Latin Bridge, where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and the war declenched; obviously, at such an important site, we had no choice but to reenact the events.

I got to be Gavrilo Princip.
We followed this with a visit to the Muzej Sarajevo 1878-1918, a small museum with a surprisingly thorough set of presentations.  It mostly dealt with Bosnia in the Ottoman Empire, the brief transition to Austro-Hungarian hegemony, and, of course, the assassination.

We spent a few nights out with people we met at the hostel.  We quickly made friends with Hrvoje, a Croatian journalist and writer with the most Croatian name I’ve ever heard.  He’s impressively well-travelled, and has a thoughtful and nuanced grasp of history and politics.  Will and I found it a relief to talk about Cameroon with someone who’s spent significant time in Africa (albeit East Africa) and understood the culture and mindset we had been confronting.  It’s been difficult at times to know how deep to delve, particularly when most hostel conversations follow an unchanging script (“Are you going to Belgrade next? We were just there, stay at this place and definitely make sure you go out here”, etc).  It was nice to have meandering conversations about everything from international politics to poetry with such an interesting interlocutor.

Last night we met up with another Croatian we’ve gotten to know at Kino Bosna, an old cinema converted into a traditional music venue.  The screen has been removed, as well as about half the seats; the remaining theatre rows supplement tables and seating on the stage and floor.  A group of four musicians and singers circulated the space, setting up somewhere new every few songs and playing music the Bosnians in the crowd seemed to know.  The drunker they got, the more they evinced a proclivity to stand, throw arms around each other, and sing along.

This morning Will and I went on an abbreviated city tour with Haris, the hostel’s namesake and owner.  He’s young—26—but seems older, in the way of some people I’ve met here.  It may be overly facile, but I’m attributing it to being forced to grow up quickly in a time of war.  We drove to the escape and supply tunnel that burrowed from besieged Sarajevo under the UN-controlled airport into free, unoccupied Bosnia.  Haris rattled off his presentation (used for 3000 clandestine passages a day; 3 meters underground; 1 meter wide; 11,000 dead from the siege) in the manner of one who has long ago committed to memory, if not soul, the information he presents several times a week in the course of his job.  He got more personal when he spoke of his own experience crossing through the tunnel at the age of seven with his parents.  They trekked for three days to reach Croatia, where they bought supplies and walked back, laden with packs doubled front and back.  Once in the city, the deadly race to avoid grenades and snipers posted in the surrounding mountains began.

In the section of the tunnel that's been preserved.
Having lived one of Bosnia’s darkest and most harrowing moments, Haris understandably had bitter things to say both about the Serbian attack and about the UN—why did they wait so long to send airstrikes against the Serbs?  Why did they not let Bosnians cross the airfields to get to safety and supplies?  It seemed in his estimation that the UN in its inaction was all but complicit in the siege, sitting on its hands at the cost of thousands of lives.

We drove from the tunnel up one of the Olympic mountains—Sarajevo’s golden moment, before the siege, was hosting the Olympics in 1984—to the now disused bobsled run, repurposed during the war as a Serbian bunker and sniping vantage point.  It’s abandoned now, other than as a venue for graffiti; it cannot be put to use until the surrounding forest is cleared of surviving landmines. It began to snow lightly as we drove further up the mountain; Will and I, having been deprived of snow for nearly three years, were like Texan children on a snow day, giddily climbing into the bobsled track and exclaiming over the bare dusting of snow while Haris, accustomed to Bosnian winters, tried not to laugh at us.

I do want to end with a disclaimer: I wanted to educate myself about the war and the siege, so I made a point of spending my time at museums and sites related to the subject.  However, Sarajevo is more than the war.  It’s past that.  Yes, there are still buildings pockmarked with bullet holes, and occasionally a building that was destroyed, partially torn down, and left for lack of financing—but most of the city has been beautifully rebuilt.  There are nice cafes, great bars, a beautiful river, abundant cheap street food, active nightlife, and a bustling old town.   Lest I leave anyone with an outdated impression of Sarajevo as a wartorn and violent place, it’s not.  There is high unemployment, but surprisingly low crime.  People have been extremely friendly to us, here as elsewhere in the Balkans.  I’ve enjoyed spending a week here, and will be a little regretful to move on to Serbia tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Srpska; or, Can I Buy A Vowel?

After a day on the road getting out of Croatia, we finally reached the Bosnian border. We handed our passports to the border guard, who disappeared with them for an unusually long time.  When he finally came back, he looked apprehensive, and began a circuitous line of questioning about the trajectory that had led us to Bosnia.

"Your visas show that you have both traveled in some places in Africa," he finally admitted, his finger hovering over my Ethiopian stamps. "And you know, in some of these places, people are very sick, with illness..." We had finally arrived at the crux of the matter: Ebola.  We tried to assure him that Cameroon (and Ethiopia; for some reason he was fixated on that) was not part of the outbreak; that Will's visit to Senegal had been months before the crisis; that anyway we had been travelling outside of Africa for 26 days, a week longer than the 21-day incubation period, and we were still not bleeding out of our eyes, ipso ergo sum....

The guard seemed unconvinced, but finally, reluctantly, handed us back our passports.  I stifled a sigh of relief, having had terrible visions of being stuck at the border by night in the cold.  We got off at the next town, where we were to change buses to get to Bihac, our destination.  We were on the moving bus before we realized neither of us had Bosnian marks-- we had been in the country for barely 20 minutes, not long enough to go to a bank or change currency.  Again, I had frosty visions of being kicked off the bus and stranded on the side of the road somewhere; again, thankfully, this did not come to pass. Will held his wallet open and looked pathetic, and the driver, after considering the panoply of Balkan currencies available to him, plucked out Croatian kuna and waved us to our seats.

A church destroyed during the Second World War and left as a memorial.

Bihac, by the river
We spent two nights in Bihac with Maya Kosovic, a Couchsurfing host, and her brother. Our second night there was Thanksgiving.  Will and I attempted to make stuffing and pumpkin pie, not entirely successfully.  Maya, who doesn't often cook ("You want to make it out of here alive," she explained gravely), had unwisely sent us on our own to the grocery store.  After puzzling over the Serbian packaging we bought some kind of concentrated chicken salts instead of bouillon.  We seasoned with it liberally, and stuffing ended up quite salty.  The pie was not only lumpy-- my hand-mashing of the squash we found as a pumpkin substitute was, it would seem, inadequate-- but rather heavy.  There was no sweetened condensed milk, so I used mascarpone instead, which is most definitely not the same thing.

Maya and her boyfriend were very good-natured about trying what we presented, and pretending to like it more than I suspect they actually did (with good reason; it was not my finest work in the kitchen). Will and I ate even more to compensate, so we ended up stuffed after all-- so in that, it was like real Thanksgiving.  We settled in front of the TV to nurse our bloated bellies and watched the American sitcom channel, which again made it feel a little more like home-- or, at least, the America of Modern Family and Big Bang Theory.

Friday we decamped to Banja Luka, the biggest city in the Republic of Srpska, one of the two political entities within Bosnia.  We stayed in a hostel run by a fantastic young couple, Slobodan and Jovana.  They were both bright, funny, and interesting; Slobo is a banker, and Jovana teaches dance.

Friday night we left the hostel to get dinner.  Slobo had given us directions to a cevapi place-- cevapi, grilled meat logs in spongy grilled bread, is more or less the Bosnian national food.  The place didn't have anything not made with copious amounts of meat, so while Will waited for his order, I poked my head into the restaurant next door to explore my options.

Serendipity has been a generous mistress on this trip, and once again she did not fail us.  I was turning to leave the restaurant when I heard someone calling my name.  Confused-- the only two people we knew in the town were both quite definitely at the hostel-- I turned to see a tall young man with dark brows smiling eagerly.

"Igor," he said, extending a hand. "You requested to stay with me on Couchsurfing, but I told you I have friends visiting, so I have no room. I recognized your hair," he added.

And thus our evening went from a quiet night to a Silent Night, the name of the bar where Igor and three of his friends started drinking.  We spent a few hours putting back bottles of Nektar, the Banja Luka beer.  Igor and co were funny, engaging, and quite sassy; Will commented that it felt like we were hanging out with friends from home. We taught them an American drinking game, which they picked up immediately.  They have known each other since grade school, and bantered in the way of old friends.

Last call was rung around midnight, and we moved on to a bar hidden away in a basement, where we played darts and pool.  There was a decent amount of trash talking-- I told Igor I had a dart board in my basement at home, and he raised his eyebrows in mock surprise.  "Really? Then why are you so bad?" He laughed at the face I made, and proceeded to shoot the bullseye.

Around 3:00 we wound up in a club, where Igor and his friends met up with some other friends and we all danced until 5:00, when someone suggested a bakery run.  Will and I shoved our faces with bready things and staggered back to the hostel, where we passed out, groaning for probably the seventh time on this trip that we're too old for this.

Igor, our new friend! He took us a few days later to an Irish pub, which really are everywhere in the world, and all have that same font.
Saturday we slept until early afternoon then went for a hike.  Banja Luka is bisected by the Vrbas river; most of the town is scrunched along the water, with houses scattered up the slopes of low mountains.  Within 15 minutes we had crossed a metal bridge, walked past a large cemetery-- the headstones mostly marked with dates that indicated casualties of the recent war-- and were headed up into the hills.  We found a trail that wound up to a natural spring, and tramped through dense mist on a layer of undisturbed leaf mould.

Evening was falling as we walked back down, and we had a view of Banja Luka spread out below us, lights beginning to glimmer around the dark ribbon of the river. We came back to the hostel in time for Will to stream the South Carolina-Clemson game, which he watched in increasing agitation. Slobo and Jovana,by contrast, watched him watch the game with considerable amusement, as he yelled at his computer and clutched his hat. By the fourth quarter Slobodan went on a beer run-- "I think this is an essential part of American football," he laughed. "Especially if your team is losing,"

After the game we went out for consolation beers, then met up with Marko, another Couchsurfing acquaintance, at a club called Boom Boom Room.  This was a step up in discotheque seriousness from the place we had danced the night before; girls in perilous heels, perfectly landscaped makeup, and laboriously straightened hair were shivering outside.  Will and I, in jeans and boots, were most certainly underdressed, but entered with confidence.  The bouncer tried to stop us, and I responded in English,  "Where are you from?" he asked.  "New York City," I white-lied, and he stepped aside and let us pass.  "Right answer," muttered Will.

Marko and his friends were great, but Boom Boom Room was not really Will's or my style.  We gave up trying to converse with Marko, as the extraordinary volume of sound made even roaring into each others' ears insufficient.  Feeling like grumpy old men, we bowed out a little after 3:00 and went home.

Banja Luka is a beautiful, very green city-- the streets are wide and trees and parks generously distributed.  We've budgeted quite a bit of time for Bosnia, and it's nice to slow down our pace.  After a month of country-hopping and constant motion, it feels good to take more time in a place.

Next: we leave Banja Luke, in the Serbian Republic of Srpska, for Jajce, in the Bosniak Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. (And if you want a succinct explanation of that mouthful, might I direct you to Wikipedia? Because I'm not sure I can explain it...)

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Croatia, or: My kingdom for a stairwell

Once we finally forced ourselves to leave Montenegro-- oh, that yacht-- we made our way by thumb and bus to Croatia.

Dubrovnik was a beautiful, if exorbitantly expensive, city-- think King's Landing from Game of Thrones, or Cair Paravel from Narnia, you pick your nerd poison.  The city, a maze of high walls and cobbled alleys, is built from warm sand-colored stone; the whole thing is perched over crystal clear water that shades, even in winter, to deep marine blue.  Sadly my camera battery ran out as soon as we got there, so I Googled a picture instead, dear reader, which has the added benefit of a helicopter view, which is more comprehensive than anything I could have provided.

The one picture I got, of the port.

That's actually not Photoshopped, although it is presumably in the month of July.
The city felt oddly empty; the entire economy is seasonal, and we were definitely there in the off season.  The majority of shops and restaurants were simply closed, and while there were other tourists, there were nothing like the crowds I imagine must swamp the city in warmer months.  In a way, I preferred it, as this allowed my imagination to wander more freely; the city has a rich history, not to mention having been more recently (and quite aptly) used as a filming site for Game of Thrones.

On the other hand, prices were no better for us than they would be for less penniless summer tourists, so we wandered around for the day before heading to Split, where we had found a hostel, the Booze 'n' Snooze. Our plans changed slightly: there was no 7:00 bus-- the Internet led us astray-- only a 9:00 pm.  We got into Split a little later than intended, around 1:00 am.

Split is also a stone-walled old city, and it took us some time to find the hostel.  The city was eerily quiet; like Dubrovnik, it is a seasonal port.  For a city of its size, it was shocking that there was not an open bar or a late night burek shop to be found.  We were in front of the Booze 'n' Snooze by 1:30, and were surprised to find that it, too, was closed.  A sign on the door directed late check-ins to go to somewhere called Charlie's Bar, open until 2:00, to ask for a key.  We found Charlie's at 1:53.  It was also shut tight, the lights dark.

Will, always the planner, had the address of a second hostel.  We found it, too; like everywhere else in town, it was closed tight, and no one answered the bell. 

I was freezing cold, tired, hungry, and devolving at this point into the worst version of myself.  I tried to play a diva card and go to a full-priced hotel-- anathema to our travel philosophy-- but even here I was stymied.  The only hotel I found was, once again, closed.

We were out of options.  The second hostel had a decent stairwell, so we posted up for the night.  I slept for about an hour curled into a fetal position on the icy tiles before waking up stiff and colder than ever.  I will admit, I was rapidly becoming whiny and dramatic.  Will-- and I owe him much for this-- hid his equally bad mood and talked me back from the verge of a meltdown, keeping his tone light.  We remembered we had a 2-liter plastic bottle of beer (they sell them like that here, like it's soda pop) in Will's bag, and sat up drinking and talking idly of this and that.  Somehow, somehow, the night finally passed.

At 5:45 we left the stairwell and found a bakery that had just opened.  We waited impatiently as they loaded the trays from the oven, then ravenously devoured warm cheese pastries.  The amused baker directed us to a cafe-- the first, he told us, that opened-- where I drank cappucinos, and Will more beer, until 8:00.  The 60-year-old bartendress smiled understandingly at Will, which was when we realized the other patrons, elderly men all, were also drinking morning beers.  Three points for sleep-deprived integration.

When we got back to the Booze 'n' Snooze, it was finally open, and we checked in before taking them up on the second half of their promised services and sleeping until the afternoon.  We wandered around Split for the second time (this time by daylight, and without heavy backpacks) and spent the evening with several people from the hostel at Charlie,s Bar-- again, this time when it was open. 

The Croatian cities we saw were beautiful, but neither of us felt particularly attached to them, so we felt fine cutting our nights in Croatia down to two and moving on the next day to Bosnia.  We spent a day travelling and reached the town of Bihac by evening, where we met up with Maya Kosovic, our local Couchsurfing host.  

Next up: Thanksgiving in Bosnia!

A border village where we spent a few hours waiting with our thumbs out, trying to catch a ride into Bosnia

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Even little Montenegro

Will and I have been trying as much as possible during this trip to use Couchsurfing, a website that helps locate local hosts while travelling, rather than hostels.  We send out blast requests to anyone in a city (or, in the case of Montenegro, a country) whose profile looks close to normal.  The response rate has been low, but sometimes the system works, and when it does, it works remarkably well—as in the case of our stay in Montenegro.

Will and I stumbled across the profile of an Israeli captain, Ofir, who has been docked in Tivat for the last three months.  The owner of the 70-foot Princess luxury yacht he pilots is upgrading to a larger boat (naturally), and selling this one to an American.  Ofir is obliged to stay with her until the new owner picks her up, which has meant months of waiting in an off-season port town.

So what’s a sailor to do? Well, Ofir’s been relieving the boredom by bringing the party to him, via Couchsurfing.  Serene, a girl from Singapore, came to stay more than a month ago.  They started dating, and she hasn’t left. 

When Will and I finally arrived in Tivat, Ofir instructed us to go to Porto Montenegro, a port billing itself as a luxury yacht residence.  We had been travelling all day, via three different modes of transport.  We were lugging our large backpacks, and looked like exactly what we were: tired, grungy, peripatetic wanderers.

What we did not look like were people who belonged in Little Monaco, which is what we immediately nicknamed Porto Montenegro, a haven of affluence on the Adriatic.  The whole place sparkled with understated lighting, from upscale boutique windows to carefully maintained gardens and fountains on the promenade.  We passed an organic health-food store, and a place for helicopter rentals.  The four jetties for docking superyachts bobbed gently in the dark waters beyond a screen of palm trees.  Well-dressed men and high-heeled women strolled around, pushing prams or dragging silly little dogs on expensive leashes.

The view of the jetty by day.

After a confusing interaction with the customs police— like I said, there’s a type of person who frequents this place, and we ain’t it—we found the boat, at anchor in the last berth on the pier.  As we walked towards it, we heard music spilling down the dock.  Ofir, a smiling, burly man in his late twenties, met us on the gangplank with a hearty, “Come aboard!”

Ofir showed us to the crew cabin below deck, where we would be sleeping in the unoccupied bunks. Ofir and Serene had just started cooking, so Will and I padded around the thickly carpeted yacht in our sock feet, goggling at the high-definition, 3-D capable flatscreen television and gingerly perching on the edge of the master bedroom’s 8000 € mattress (my derriere’s not particularly discerning, but for the record, it felt like any old mattress to me).  We took hot showers and had a few beers on the deck, the couple popping in and out of the kitchen to join us.  At around 10:30 pm, their Montenegrin friend Jasna arrived from town, and we feasted. 

The crew cabin: not made for tall people, but surprisingly quite comfortable-- and free!
Me, Jasna, and Serene

It turns out that besides being a sailor and captain, Ofir in a master chef.  Our meal was incredible: French onion soup with homemade croutons followed by cannelloni, made with breaded eggplant “shells”, stuffed with ricotta and mushrooms, and baked in tomato sauce.  Will and I made salad as our contribution, like a pair of daughters-in-law at Thanksgiving, and we finished the meal with candied mandarin oranges the two had stolen from the ornamental trees at the port’s four-star hotel and cooked in syrup that morning.  

Will and I ate like orphans recently released from Fagin’s grasp, devouring soup and shoveling eggplant into our mouths.  Luckily, this amused our new friends, who obliged by putting more food in front of us.  Eventually, stomachs sufficiently ballooned, we retired to the upper deck for a postprandial rum—it  seemed appropriate—which we drank out of 60 € crystal glasses (or, as Will put it, “Laura. We can’t. Touch. ANYTHING.”)  True to stereotype, Ofir drinks like a sailor, and the five of us stayed up talking, laughing, and listening to Serbian pop music until 3:00 am.

The last few days—we intended to stay one night, and have as of going to print been on the boat for four; this is why we’re so far behind our initially proposed itinerary—have been like a vacation from our vacation.  We sleep in absurdly late. We go for early afternoon runs on the road that strings the length of the Montenegrin coastline, enjoying the sparkling water and sea breeze.  We eat late brunch, once Ofir and Serene are finally up; Ofir prepared real Israeli shakshuka yesterday, to remind me of my time in Tel Aviv.  We lounge around the boat, reading, drawing, or napping on the upper deck until sunset.  We enjoy the night life around the port; one night we ended up in a darts tournament at a local bar.  On another we went to neighboring Kotor—an old walled fort city—to go dancing at a bar whose music echoed down the steep, narrow cobbled alleys.   One evening we took the motor dinghy out to the opposite side of the bay, where we had dinner and watched the sun set before flying back over the quickly chilling waters.

Shakshuka, an Israeli egg and tomato breakfast dish

But all good things must come to an end—all dreams must end in waking—as our tightly budgeted bank accounts are screaming to us.  Today we (reluctantly) plan to leave, hitchhiking north to Croatia.  We'll go back to eating street food once or twice a day, instead of gourmet meals thrice daily; our lives will probably involve less lounging. This was a wonderful pause, and we're eternally grateful to Ofir for making it possible!

Tivat from the sea

Friday, November 21, 2014

No better time to Puke than once you Gheg

Will and I had planned to get up early on our last morning in Prizren, go for a run, and be on a bus for Albania by 10:00, 11:00 at the latest.

But the best-laid plans gang aft aglee.  The night before ended up lasting until 8:00 am—the infamous Mr. G also owns a bar, where the bartender, a curly-haired Albanian, plied us with free drinks all night. Needless to say, we weren’t going anywhere before noon.

We woke up at 2:30 pm and looked at each other, hair wild, eyes hung over, pillow creases in our cheeks. “I think we need to get out of Kosovo,” Will said. “Or we might just never leave.”

And so we forced ourselves into motion, packing up and finding a shared taxi that would go across the border and drop us in the town of Kukës.  From there, we planned to hitch to Peshkopi, where we would meet up with a PCV named Ansley and travel with her to her post of Pukë.

We asked the driver which direction for the road to Peshkopi, and he, busy roaring into his mobile in angry Shqip (the Albanian name for Albanian), waved us impatiently in the direction in question—or so we thought.  In fact he was merely waving us away, as 20 minutes of fruitless wandering later told us.

We were retracing our steps when a tall guy carrying a bag of groceries stopped us to ask, in American English, if we needed help.  Another passerby said something; our friend turned and responded in fluent Shqip before turning back to give us directions.  I smiled.  There is really only one kind of American who lives in random, out-of-the-way towns in places like northern Albania and speaks local languages, so I was fairly confident of the answer when I asked, “Are you by any chance a Peace Corps volunteer?”

He was. Marty, an English teacher, has been in Kukës for seven months.  We fell into PCV shop talk as he walked us towards the highway, which was when things started to get weird.

A car with half a pair of working headlights slowed as it passed us, and the driver called out to our group, offering us a ride to Peshkopi.

“Free?” Marty clarified. “No money?”

“Po, po,” the man agreed, hoisting our bags into the trunk.

I climbed in the back seat and the driver shut the door, leaning against it as he turned to Will, held out his hand, and demanded, “30 euro.”

Marty frowned and began arguing, and I reached for the handle to get out, sensing that this wouldn’t be resolved to anyone’s satisfaction.  The door didn’t open from the inside.  I rapped on the window, starting to feel panicked, and Will opened it; the driver turned to block my exit, demanding money the whole time.  Marty tried to soothe him and mitigate the situation as Will and I got our bags back out of the trunk and walked away quickly.

The driver latched onto Marty, who very calmly pulled himself away and walked after us.  The driver followed, shouting the whole way, for a good city block, abandoning his car with doors open and keys in the ignition.  Finally he ran back, got into the car, and began following alongside us at a slow crawl, alternately wheedling and berating out the window.

Marty frowned. “I don’t like this. Here, let’s turn.” We ducked down a side street, only to find when we reached the next intersection that the driver had anticipated us.  His car was blocking the exit to the road, his one headlight glaring.

This was starting to get out of persistent-taxi-driver territory, and into persistent-organ-harvester land. Seriously creeped out, we began a circuitous route back into the center of town, turning frequently down alleys and side lanes.  Every so often the one-eyed car would find us, and we’d turn back or between buildings. 

“I’m not sure you’re making it to Peshkopi tonight,” Marty said finally, as we reached the well-lit and populated main street.  “You’re welcome to stay in my apartment tonight, and I’ll put you on a minibus for Pukë tomorrow morning.”

Extremely grateful that Marty had gone to buy groceries when he did, we opted to spend the night.  We went out for dinner and beers with Marty and his postmate Erich, a community development volunteer from Philly.  They were funny, articulate, and interesting, and we swapped war stories and complained about the challenges of working as a PCV (specific cultural tics differ, but some things are the same all over).

The next morning, after a bracing run around the Kukës lake and towards the base of a mountain range (did I mention how beautiful of a volunteer post Kukës is? It’s beautiful), we visited Erich’s workplace.  We were both impressed by how organized and motivated his host institution and counterparts were (he may read and disagree, but as in all things Peace Corps, it’s relative. Also, every volunteer’s service is different, did you know that?)

As though we were unaccompanied minors travelling through Gatwick with tags around our necks, Marty packed us safely onto the 1:00 minibus, or faragon, with Pukë on the windshield (told you, the jokes never get old).  We thanked Marty for saving our kidneys from the black market and set off on a beautiful 3-hour trip.  The road snaked back and forth by way of wide lateral switchbacks that made forward progress through the mountains slow at best, but afforded gorgeous views of valleys, rivers, and tiny, distant waterfalls.

Ain't Albania beautiful?

Tuesday Ansley, our lovely and accommodating PCV host, headed to work at the hospital. Will and I unsuccessfully tried to do laundry (synopsis: we flooded Ansley’s hallway and ended up trying to manually induce spin cycle before taking our sopping wet clothes to wring out by hand on the balcony.  We’ve been in Africa too long) then headed out for a hike.  Pukë is higher in the mountains than we had yet been, and the morning was overcast and grey.  We bundled heavily; the weather made the Communist-era concrete block architecture seem particularly appropriate. 

Those Soviet blocks, one must admit, are much prettier when painted with a pastel palette.

We hiked for about an hour under a constant drizzle, mostly through a well-maintained pine forest, before the sky opened up and a relentless downpour began.  We headed back towards town, but were quickly drenched through. 

A bearded and kindly shopkeeper took pity on us and drove us to a rural hani, or traditional Albanian guesthouse, with a restaurant.  The large wooded room, lined with bottles of wine and hung with strings of peppers and garlic, was about half full.  The diners were mostly groups of older men gathered around raki, wine, and food: plates of salad, sheep’s-milk cheese, grilled meat, sausages, cakes soaked in honey syrup.  We took the table closest to the stone fireplace and stripped our outer layers off, shivering violently.

We successfully ordered a bottle of wine, and not-so-successfully a late lunch; our Shqip was just as non-existent as the sharp-nosed waiter’s English.  We thought we had asked for Greek salad (olives, feta), white bean stew, and grilled meat.  What we got, 30 minutes and half a bottle of wine later, was a plate of Romaine lettuce, chicken noodle soup, and a tureen of roasted chestnuts.  Zero points for cross-cultural communication.

As we were finishing our strange meal, fingers blackened from shelling the fire-roasted and ashy nuts, a thunderstorm settled over the hani.  The power flickered and then went decidedly out.  This turned out to be a good thing, as the waiter’s equally sharp-nosed brother loaded logs onto the fire, stoking it into the kind of roaring blaze appropriate to the circumstances.  Will and I took advantage of the dark to spread our wet clothes out on the hearth, where they steamed dramatically.  Figuring we weren’t going anywhere for the duration of the storm, we ordered another bottle of wine and settled in to watch the lightning, in what was feeling increasingly like the smoky mead-hall in Beowulf, before Grendal’s son attacks.

A man who must have been at least 102 years old came shuffling in out of the raging elements.  He was evidently well-known; the pointy-faced brothers leapt to seat him by the fire, and men got up from their tables to come over a greet him, some pulling up seats and listening attentively as he grumbled and growled.

“He’s probably telling war stories,” Will whispered. “From when he helped kick out the Ottomans.” I collapsed into giggles.  If there was anyone who was likely to remember the Great War over the much more recent conflict, it was this man, the Original Albanian.

Eventually the rain let up, and the younger of the sibling waiters offered to give us a ride back into town.  We made our way to Ansley’s apartment, where we draped our still-wet clothes by a space heater and made dinner.  Ansley was a wonderful host, and we had a great evening, before heading out the next day on a faragon for Montenegro.

Told you.

Saturday, November 15, 2014


Will and I arrived at City Hostel in Prizren Wednesday night, and had barely set down our bags before Mr. G, the genial owner of the place, filled our hands with the first of many free beers and glasses of rakia, a strong locally made fruit alcohol that will feature largely in the rest of our trip.  Mr. G, it appears, has made it his mission to prove that Prizren is the second-best party city in the world (he concedes first place to Ibiza), and if the rest of the city won't comply by stubbornly continuing to be Muslim, well then, Mr. G will make his hostel the second-biggest party spot in the world. Will and I greatly appreciated being included in his campaign, to say the least.

After that memorable first night, we spent a day exploring Prizren.  It's been interesting to experience Kosovo-- people here LOVE America in a way I have never seen, even in America.  Example: I got a little lost trying to find my way back to the hostel, and stopped in a sunny sidewalk cafe to get a cup of coffee and my bearings.  I started talking to the barista and his friend, and as soon as they heard my accent, it was all over.  "Americans don't pay here," the friend, a piano teacher, solemnly declared.  "From the people of Kosovo, this is our thank you."

I ended up spending over an hour with them.  Every time I emptied my coffee cup or juice glass, a new one was filled and put before me and another cigarette pressed into my hand, despite my protestations that I couldn't possibly keep smoking.  (Turns out I could. I would live to regret that on my next run.)

The piano teacher, it was revealed, was a militant during the war.  He crossed the mountains into Albania on foot to bring back weapons, carrying guns on his back for hundreds of kilometers.  He was almost careless in the way he spoke about it, joking that it was not such a bad nature hike, as long as you didn't run into the Serbian army.  This begged a follow-up question.  Yes, he said, he had been caught, once.  His tone grew more serious.  Someone had informed, there was no question-- the Serbs had known exactly where they would be. 110 people were killed.  He survived.

He shrugged.  It was all long ago, now, and he, like all Kosovars, has forged a new life.  Other than being banned from Serbia, things have moved on.

The next day Will and I briefly parted ways.  We had met an Australian civil engineer, Joe, who was going hiking in the Rugova Canyon, a gorge in a mountain range in the north of the country.  I was inclined to join him; Will, less avid about hiking, preferred to take a day trip in the south.  We established a day and a city in which to meet up again, and Joe and I took our packs and left for Peja.

We arrived a little before 11:30 and started wandering around looking for a cheap place to stay.  We found a seedy hotel called the Paris, where if we so desired we could have rented rooms by the hour. The owner, Naim, gave us a 5-euro discount, because he had lived in France for 26 years and I spoke such fluent French, it just brought him right back-- and, of course, because I was an American.  Naim added, as a lecherous afterthought, that I was very pretty; I'm not sure how much this had to do with the discount.

We dropped our packs in the room and headed by foot for the mountains, quickly passing our of the town.  At the edge of the gorge, we stumbled upon a beautiful and isolated Orthodox monastery, set back from the road in a tranquil orchard.  The path to the cloisters was lined with towering lindens and bushy spruce trees.  An oval-faced nun with surprisingly good English greeted us, plying us with slivovitz, the nuns' homemade plum brandy, as she told us about the monastery.  "They make you take a shot before you can go into the church?" muttered Joe, wiping his moustache.  "I think I grew up in the wrong religion."

The view from the monastery

After sufficiently admiring the frescoes, we headed back onto the road, passing a military checkpoint where the police, seeing my passport, started chanting, "USA! USA!" I'm not kidding about the love for America.  It's a strange sensation not to have to apologize for my country.

Joe waits for the passport check.  They were much less excited about Australia.
The road that snaked along the gorge was long and winding; to get to where we wanted to hike would have taken hours on foot.  Barely had we decided to hitchhike than a mud-spattered red pickup screeched to a halt as it passed us, the driver motioning for us to hop into the bed.  As soon as we were perched amid sacks of potatoes and rattling cases of Peja, a Kosovar beer, the pickup roared off.  Joe and I clung to the sides as we flew around hairpin turns and barreled through tunnels of rock, equal parts exhilarated and terrified.  Joe captured it all with his GoPro, as the wind whipped our hair into our faces and froze the circulation in our hands.

Our wild ride
Eventually we rapped on the back window of the cab and leapt out.  The hiking was unbelievably gorgeous.  We found our way to a river at the bottom of the gorge, walls of mountain knifing into the air on either side of us.  Every turn revealed yet another breathtaking view, trees decked in autumn fire cascading down the steep slopes, the razor tops of the mountains shrouded in dense drifts of cloud.  We hiked along, our hands becoming stiff and useless with cold.

There are about 800 more where these came from. Kosovo is stunningly beautiful.
Evening falls early at this time of year (still a surprise to me after two years living near the equator), and by 4:30 it was getting dusky.  We were discussing the merits of hiking versus hitching back into town when once again the decision was made for us; a van stopped several meters down the road, honking impatiently for us to get in.

Once back into town, we found a bar and thawed out over boxed wine while watching the Albania-France soccer match with, as Joe put it, "a roomful of blokes".

Kosovo has been fascinating, and I would love to spend more time here. Tomorrow, however, we'll be moving on to Albania. Next up, a town called Puke (the puns will never get old).

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


After bidding a fond farewell to Plovdiv, Will and I hitched a ride to Sofia to cross the border into Macedonia.  Once we made our way to the highway, it didn't take long to flag someone down; we were standing on the shoulder thumbing at cars for less than 15 minutes before one pulled over. The driver looked like a member of a 90's rock band; he had long, greasy hair, chainsmoked the whole way to Sofia, and played Metallica and System of a Down, much to Will's delight. I shared the back seat of the sedan with his cat, Max, who (I found out the hard way) was not declawed.

The Bulgarian countryside is beautiful.  The highway threaded through mountains that were aflame with changing leaves, the slopes a riot of yellow and red, striated with patches of evergreens.

Frolicking in the autumn leaves in Skopje
Skopje is an odd city.  Given Macedonia's contentious recent history, Skopje has become the site of a sort of reactionary, ultra-nationalist facelift, encouraged by the Macedonian government's 500 million euro investment project, "Skopje 2014".  It's as though Las Vegas and Walt Disney collaborated to create an urban space solely devoted to Macedonian national identity.  Buildings have been thrown up with plaster "neo-classical" facades, in an effort to lay claim to Greek architectural heritage; the effect is only slightly spoiled by the fact that the buildings are all so blatantly new, practically sparkling in their unspoiled whiteness. The project also funded the installation of hundreds and hundreds of statues. Bridges, buildings, rooftops, squares, street corners: no public space was safe.  Ancient heroes, modern revolutionaries, writers and poets even Macedonians haven't heard of: the government dredged the bottom of its own history to find figures to slap up everywhere (and I do mean everywhere).

Probably the boldest of these is the enormous statue of Alexander the Great that occupies Skopje's central city square.  A move of defiance vis-a-vis Greece (read more about that here), the statue definitively lays claim to Macedonia's link to ancient Macedon and the historical heritage that comes with this affiliation.

This sense of affronted national identity was reinforced by our visit to the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle, which was by far the weirdest and most propagandistic museum I have even been in.  A combination of wax museum and performance art, the museum leads the visitor on an hour-long guided tour through a one-sided version of history.  The rooms are walled with gigantic and meticulously detailed oil paintings showing the glorious and noble nature of Macedonian rebellions and uprisings over the last several hundred years, and the perfidy and unwonted violence perpetrated by pretty much everyone else: the Turks, the Serbs, the Albanians, the Great Powers, the Bulgarian Fascists, Tito's Yugoslavia.  One painting (to choose one example among dozens) showed a Macedonian Judas, labelled simply "traitor", presenting the head of a Comitadji freedom fighter, John the Baptist style, to a nefarious looking Greek Orthodox priest.  The Greek dangled a sack of blood money (presumably thirty pieces of silver).  The next room featured a display of life-size wax figurines: a Serbian torturing an old Macedonian peasant woman during the Ohrid Rebellion of 1913.  This went on and on, the guide endlessly reviewing the many ways in which Macedonia has continually received the short and brutal end of the stick.  Distractingly, he kept repeating a malapropism, saying "macerated" instead of "massacred", which gave the fleeting impression that Ottoman and Fascist victims had been soaked in alcohol and perhaps stuffed with cherries, rather than violently slaughtered.

One Greek man on our tour took issue with the (possibly revisionist) presentation of events, continually interrupting with pointed and sarcastic questions.  The guide drew himself up icily, smiling tightly and responding with steadfast refutations.  The Greek finally gave up trying to force nuance, instead contenting himself with rolling his eyes dramatically.

The takeaway of the museum was clear: Macedonia deserves full recognition, territorial integrity, and the right to call itself whatever it wants (our guide took particular exception to the "offensive" term Former Yugoslav Republic).  Although I ultimately agree, I'm not sure the museum takes the best approach to conveying this.  No conflict is ever black and white, and the entirely one-sided presentation inclined me to doubt everything the hundreds of wax figures urged me to believe.

Still, Skopje is a beautiful (if oddly fake-feeling) city, and I have enjoyed spending time with the Macedonians we have met, as well as our new friend and guide, Dan, a PCV serving his second year of service in Skopje.

Next up: Kosovo!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

In which Bulgaria exceeds expectations

Just a quick update: Plovdiv is an unexpected gem. The city is beautiful, the beer comes in enormous liter mugs for less than a dollar, the Old Town is well-preserved and architecturally diverse, they let you play on the Roman ruins, everything is unbelievably clean, and unlike Istanbul, it's a manageable size; everything we've done has been easily walkable.

It took us a while to figure out the self-timer.
Also unexpectedly, Plovdiv is a lot of fun. We got an impromptu introduction to the club scene last night, as I chatted up a sandwich man who knew a guy who knew a guy (who says you shouldn't talk to strangers?) It was a good time. We are consequently tired, and started our morning today around noon thirty.

But mostly, I want to talk about food. I'll be honest: I was bracing myself for two kind of unpleasant months of meat and potatoes (or, in my case, potatoes and sauerkraut, I guess). To my surprise and delight, however, I had the best meal yesterday that I've eaten in two years.  Will and I stumbled across a cafeteria-deli that was like walking into paradise: a spread of salty cheeses, a meat counter that included a whole roasting pig slowly turning on a spit, and an enormous selection of pickled vegetables-- picked everything, really-- salads, and olives. We wandered around with our mouths agape for a while, unable to make any decisions at all, much to the annoyance of the servers and other customers (zero points for America's reputation).  When we finally retreated to a table, laden with trays, we had made a picnic: blistered red peppers, grilled eggplant, olives stuffed with almonds, olives stuffed with garlic, feta, a sort of salsa of roasted peppers and tomatoes, some creamy cabbage dish that tasted deliciously (and confusingly) like risotto, sausage, other meat, yet other meat. We ate it all with soft pita-like lavash and washed it down with (you guessed it) beer. For our mealtime entertainment, we watched a bird-like little old lady at the next table over, her tiny face a map of wrinkles and liver spots, demolish the largest sausage I have ever seen, and this in a single sitting.  Do not underestimate the power of Bulgarian octogenarians to pack away sausage, apparently.

All this to say, we're alive and well and loving Bulgaria. Next stop, possibly tomorrow, although we'll see what state tonight leaves us in: Macedonia!

We've moved from Muslim territory to Orthodox land, where sensory overload is the default aesthetic. This church had a beautiful ikonostasis, the icons of saints and Marys laden with silver, gold, and pearls.

Thursday, November 6, 2014


Well, Will and I have spent the last two days in constant motion.  This was partially a protective measure to deal with this new, forgotten sensation of cold (kinetic energy! We only start shivering when we stop walking!) and partially a concession to the sheer size of Istanbul. We walked for days without reaching the end of the three neighborhoods we explored; I have the feeling we could have spent our whole two months in that city without getting tired of the street food, the cobblestones, the mosques and minarets, the super hip boutiques in the super hipster neighborhoods, the constant fashion show parading down Istiklal. A few pictures:

The inside of the Aya Sophia. 

One of, like, 17 mosques we saw in a row. Was this one the Aya Sophia? I don't think so, but I don't really remember and they kind of all looked identical.

Our host Fatih and Will in the attic apartment
Last night, after saying our goodbyes to Fatih, Will and I headed to the bus terminal to catch the 10:00 overnight to Bulgaria.  The bus was (to our Cameroonian-trained senses) astonishingly empty, with TVs on the backs of the seats and coffee service to soften the blow before we hit the border crossing.  Our TVs went unused; exhausted by three days of hiking up and down Istanbul, we fell asleep immediately, to wake at 1:00 am when we arrived at the Bulgarian border.  The crossing was cold; the temperature had fallen to 6 degrees Celsius, so we stamped and blew as we waited in line like carriage horses in Central Park.  The whole thing took about an hour, and we were off again, sprawled across our empty rows like KINGS, I tell you, KINGS!

The bus was headed to Sofia, although the ticket agent had assured us we could be dropped in Plovdiv, no problem.  Our bus driver, upon hearing our destination, had elucidated what this meant: we could be dropped on the side of the highway next to the Plovdiv exit, 3.5 kilometers from the city itself.  At the time, Will and I looked at each other and shrugged.  We were backpacking.  We could certainly start to hike into town, and if we could hitch a ride along the way, so much the better.

When we reached the turnoff for Plovdiv, it was 4:30 in the morning and the temperature had fallen to 1 degree Celsius. The highway was dense with fog, halogen lamps smearing orange patches into the mist.  Will and I scrambled out of the bus into the bitter cold, rapidly rethinking our strategy.  There was a single gas station on the side of the highway, and we made our way towards it. "If we buy something every 45 minutes to placate the shop guy, we can probably huddle inside until the sun rises," Will suggested doubtfully.

Our bus driver, however, had other plans.  He had quickly discerned that we were mere babes in arms, unable to speak a word in either Turkish or Bulgarian, and apparently felt somehow responsible for leaving such saps on the side of the road, given the conditions.  He had hurried out of the bus after us, and while explaining something neither of us understood, managed to summon, as if by magic, what must have been the single taxi trolling the outskirts of Plovdiv at 4:30 in the morning.

We had located a hostel in advance, and not only laboriously copied the address in Cyrillic, but pulled up a screenshot of the Google Maps page showing its location on Will's laptop (sometimes Will and I act like people who have smartphones, only without the convenience of the phones or the 3G internet). The taxi driver seemed determined to misunderstand where we wanted to go, repeatedly offering that he knew a very nice hotel, very cheap.  When we insisted on our original location, he went into a muttered tirade in Bulgarian, occasionally exploding with an affronted-sounding "Hostel!"

By 5:30 we had arrived at our hostel, Cribs. We dropped our backpacks and, feeling a surprising surge of energy, decided to kill the time before things opened and we could eat breakfast by going on a run.  As I go to press, we have both showered and coffee'd, and are about to begin our exploration of Plovdiv.