Sunday, December 8, 2013

Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, and Romania Super Post

So I originally planned to do an individual blog post on each of the places that I traveled to. However, I’ve gone so many places in such a short span of time that getting around to writing the posts about the countries I’ve already visited before jetting off to a new place has proven a challenge (Case in point: I’m actually writing this in the Venice airport—more on that later). Since I have such a backlog of countries I’ve yet to tell you about and so little time to do it (less than 20 days now!), I’m combining the places I’ve been into this one mega post. These brief reflections don’t even begin to capture my time in these countries, but hopefully you’ll at least get a peek inside my life these last few months.

Romania: I’ll be honest: I didn’t really want to go to Romania. The readings we did to prepare for the trip made it sound like the sewer of Eastern Europe. I was sick of traveling. And the fact that we were going to spend an entire day of the trip on team building activities (AKA the bane of my existence) didn’t exactly help matters. Yet Romania turned out to be exactly what I needed. I’ve always considered myself a city girl through and through, but before Budapest, I’d never actually lived in a “big city.” The experience has shown me that, while I am a city girl, I need a little bit of country in my life, too. Budapest has done lovely things with its bricks and mortar, but there isn’t much natural beauty to be seen in this city. And it definitely doesn’t smell natural. Instead, many parts of the city reek of smoke and sewage. I didn’t realize how much I needed a break from the smelly concrete jungle until I set foot in the Romanian mountains. The experience was so refreshing I even found myself enjoying some of the team-building activities. I felt more at peace in Romania than I had in weeks. And I think being out in nature again had something to do with it.
The Romanian mountains in the Fall. So beautiful!
Waterfalls sprinted toward deep, blue pools, spritzing the air with a cool mist. Vibrantly colored leaves waltzed across the Autumn air. The trees from which they came stood resolute and ancient against the clear blue sky in scenes reflected on glassy lakes of water so clean you could see through it to the floor of the lakes. Overgrown paths wound their way down hills and mountains. And I decided that if fairies and hobbits and unicorms existed, the Croatian National Park would be the place to find them. The kings and queens of these magical woods, I was sure, would reign from Dubrovnik, a city with a magic all its own. The medieval city perched along the Mediterranean coast was everything I imagined my castle fortress would be when I dreamed of becoming a princess as a child. White stone buildings lined winding streets connected by narrow alleyways, across which many locals strung clotheslines and hung their clothes. The famous city walls rose high over Dubrovnik, seemingly impervious to time. As I walked along the top of the walls, the crystalline ocean on one side and the white city on the other, I felt like I was that princess I once dreamed of becoming. Of course, it didn’t take me long to strip off the regality in favor of a bathing suit. Even though it was October, I swam in the ocean and lounged along the rocky beaches every single day in Dubrovnik. Once, when we visited a nearby island, a flock of peacocks joined me in my sunbathing. One of them even joined me in the shower! I couldn’t decide if the experience was whimsical, hilarious, or terrifying. I think that moment was a combination of all three. However, it is the first word, whimsical, that shows up the most in my memories of Croatia. If magic exists, that’s where you’ll find it.

Exploring the stunning Croatian national park

Serbia: Belgrade couldn’t have been more different than Croatia if it tried. Being there felt like being back in the communist era. The buildings were still dark, dirty, unkempt. We saw the structures of buildings bombed back in 1999. They seemed unchanged, as if, after the bombing, the city left them to rot. Belgrade wasn’t pretty. But I’m glad I went there. I felt much closer to understanding communism than before.

You can still see where this Belgrade building was bombed back in 1999

Bosnia: Of all the places we visited this semester, I knew the least about Bosnia. I was aware it existed, but to be honest, I couldn’t have placed it on a map. The only reason I knew it was in Europe was that I remembered it was where World War 1 started. I guess my history teachers didn’t think the war between the Bosnians and Serbians in the 1990s merited a mention. I was shocked by what I learned. The places we went in Bosnia, Sarajevo and Mostar, were both hit hard by the war. Sarajevo actually spent three years under siege! The remnants of the war have been, for the most part, patched up and hidden. So both cities are actually quite beautiful. But the war is still there, bubbling beneath the surface, in the minds of the people who lived through it. We visited the single tunnel beneath the airport that allowed people a way in and out of the city during the war. It was small and dank. I couldn’t imagine trekking through it much further than the 20 feet I did. But our guide did. As a young girl. She and her mother escaped Bosnia to New Jersey through it, only to come back when the siege ended. They couldn’t escape Sarajevo—it was who they were. Our guide for the walking tour of the city was born during the war, though his parents had escaped to Germany. Despite not being there, he, too, felt the war’s effects. When asked about how Bosnians feel about the United Nations, his response was vehement: “We hate them. We called them United for Nothing.” After learning about the way the United Nations handled the Bosnian war, I can’t blame the Bosnians for not being big fans of the UN. The UN was created to keep the peace, but the UN troops in Sarajevo sat and watched as Serbian soldiers slaughtered civilians. They did nothing to stop the Serbians. Instead, in the name of peace, they placed an embargo on weapons for Bosnians, preventing the Bosnians from being able to defend themselves. They told the rest of the world lies about what was happening, even claiming that the Bosnians were bombing themselves to make Serbians look bad. Why would they do that? They had to justify their lack of action to help the Bosnians. They claimed they sent the people of Sarajevo food while they were under siege. They actually gave them food packages left over from World War 2. They said they gave the people of Sarajevo medicine. What they neglected to mention was that it was malaria medication. During the three years Sarajevo was under siege, there wasn’t a single case of malaria. These are just a few examples of the UN’s blunders during the Bosnian War. Shockingly, I knew about none of them before I went to Bosnia. In fact, my history classes didn’t even mention the Bosnian War. I can see where it’s easier to leave this part of history out, but I think it is important. This war happened during my lifetime, and it happened in Europe. Some people like to think that something like the Holocaust, or World War 2 could never happen in Europe now. If it did, they assume, either the United States or the UN would stop it. The Bosnian War proves that these people are wrong. It’s an unsettling revelation, but I’m thankful that I realize that now. I wish more people did.

Our whole group in front of the famous Old Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia. The original medieval bridge was actually totally destroyed during the Bosnian War. This is a reproduction. 

I hope these little snippets gave you a peek into my life this semester! As I mentioned earlier in the post, I visited Venice this weekend as well! I hope to get a post up about that soon. For now, suffice to say it was incredible! I feel so blessed to have been able to visit and learn about all of these amazing places this semester. It has been a truly amazing few months!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Ride on the 47 Tram

(Note: For my course on Hungarian culture, I was tasked with taking a tram from one end of the line to the other, then reflecting on what I observed in a journal entry. I chose to ride the 47, a tram I take for a spin almost every day. This is an adaption of the journal I wrote about the ride. It's not your typical travel blog post, but I think it offers a window into my daily life in Budapest).

The 47 tram is almost completely empty, and I relish the rare opportunity to select my own seat. After a short deliberation, I settle on the second seat from the front on the left side. A fairly rotund, older couple follow me onto the tram. I watch them struggle to stuff themselves into the seats diagonal from me without spilling over into the aisle—until the woman catches me staring. I don’t dare look at them again after that. We sit there about five minutes, and I start to think we will be the only three passengers. But just before the door closes, a girl about my age hops on the train, bringing our number to four. Her eyes flit toward me for a second, but she quickly loses interest and shifts her attention back to her iPod.

Two older women with shopping bags board at the second stop and sit across from me. They chatter amiably—perhaps discussing what they plan to buy at the market, maybe talking about something funny one of their husbands had done the day before. One of the women wears a flowery skirt—the kind little girls are prone to twirling in until the world starts spinning with them. I wonder if the woman still likes twirling in front of her mirror every now and then. She’s much more made-up than most of the other Hungarian women her age and her snowy hair is carefully sculpted. She looks so feminine, so her voice—she has the dulcet rumble of a longtime smoker—comes as a surprise. She sounds much more like I expected her friend, who I’d dubbed “glam rock grandma,” to sound.

Her friend’s shirt is what earned her the name. Its meticulously ripped and torn sparkly gray fabric overlays a light black mesh, through which her flabby white rolls are clearly visible, as is her lacy white bra. It’s the sort of thing a teenage girl who wants to make her parents upset puts on—definitely not the kind of clothing I would expect or desire to see 70 year-old woman wearing in any circumstance. Still, now that I am seeing it, I’m kind of fascinated. It takes a certain amount of attitude and confidence to put on a shirt like that at this woman’s age, after all. I watch the women until they get off at the market.

I also try to get a taste of the neighborhood from my tram window. Save for a few run-down convenience stores drenched in spray paint, towering apartment buildings dominate the landscape along the first few stops of the 47 route. I guess that most of the passengers we accumulate at these stops are residents of these buildings heading into the city. And I wonder if there is anyone in those apartment buildings under the age of 60, because for a long time, the girl with the iPod and I are the only people who don’t qualify as senior citizens on the tram.

Because there are so few younger passengers, I pay more attention than I normally would when a man looking to be around my age boards a few stops before the dorm. He’s short—no more than five foot seven—with glasses and an earnest-looking face. He also happens to be staring at me. At first, I think he might be paying me attention for the same reason I noticed him. But he keeps staring. I count the stops. One, two, three stops since he boarded. And still staring. I fidget nervously and turn my head away from him. He moves closer. Now he’s leaning against the seat next to me. His arm reaches for the bar above the seat. I get a whiff of his desperately-in-need-of-deodorant underarm and struggle to stop myself from gagging. Mercifully, a woman sits down in the seat against which he’s leaning. She spreads out a newspaper, partially blocking his line of vision, and her strong perfume masks his rancid scent. Still, I can feel his stare and I struggle to pay attention to anyone else. When he finally gets off at the Móricz Zsigmond stop, I notice that, while I was worrying about him, the tram was filling up with people—many of them young. There are still older people seated along the sides of the tram, but they are officially the minority, I realize.

A whole crowd of people gathers to get on the tram at the stop just before we cross over into Pest. The last to squeeze into the now-very-full tram is a middle-aged woman carrying a bulging Spar bag in one hand and dragging a heavy-looking, large blue suitcase behind her with the other. A tall man in his twenties with tousled dark hair and feet at least as big as the Dutch boys’ at Calvin, who had been standing in front of me, rushes to her aid. I watch as he lifts the suitcase over the stairs and clears a path so that she can get into the tram. Something falls off the suitcase, and another young man picks it up and hands it to her. She says something to the young men in Hungarian, and they both smile and nod. As I watch the sweet little scene unfold, I find my lips curving upward, too.

Several groups of university students board the tram. All of them, I notice, are immaculately dressed. Based on clothing alone, they seem more well-off than other Hungarians the same age I encountered earlier in the trip. I find myself wishing I hadn’t worn flip flops. The students fill the tram with their continuous chatter. While I don’t know what they were saying, I don’t need a translator to know what they’re doing. I watch the boys puff out their chests and adopt a tone of bravado, and I see the girls lean in and look up at the boys with sparkling eyes and overenthusiastic giggles in response. Flirting, I decide, is a universal language. They get off at Astoria, as does the woman who has been sitting next to me.

The woman with the large blue suitcase takes her place. I’m studying the older man across from me and thinking he looks like he’s dressed for a fishing trip when the woman with the suitcase addresses me in Hungarian. I know she’s asking me something about Deák Ferenc tér, but I can’t tell what, so I say, “Nem beszélek magyarul.” Even though I can’t answer her question, I’m proud to have passed for a real Hungarian and managed to explain my inability to help her with a real sentence (usually I end up saying “Amerikai” over and over until they get the message). The woman gets off at Kálvin tér, as do many of my other fellow passengers. And when the train lets out a final scream and lurches to a halt at Deák Ferenc tér, the remaining passengers stream out of the tram, too.

Once again, the 47 tram is almost completely empty. I have the opportunity to move to whatever seat I want, but this time, I relish the chance to stay put—to be alone with my thoughts for a moment before the tram fills up with a new crowd and we travel the now-familiar path back to the dorms, back to home.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Hills Are Alive...

The hills were alive with the sound of shameless tourists, though none of them were quite as shameless as yours truly.


 (See? Shameless! )

That’s right. I finally made the pilgrimage to Salzburg, Austria. It was a trip I’d been dreaming about ever since I saw The Sound of Music for the first time as a five-year-old. I can still hardly believe it happened. After fifteen years of practicing my Do-Re-Mis and listing off my favorite things in my living room, I got my Von Trapp on in actual Salzburg.

Now, being a Dutch girl, I’m not usually one to shell out my precious cash to go on sightseeing tours, but when I discovered the Fraulein Maria Bicycle Tour on an internet travel site, I decided to make an exception. And I’m so glad I did.

For four hours, we pedaled around Salzburg’s winding streets, stopping at all The Sound of Music filming locations for photo ops and picking up plenty of fun facts about both the movie and the city itself along the way. Here are a few highlights:

I couldn’t resist a little Julie Andrews-style twirling in those gorgeous Salzburg hills.
Maria splashes in the fountain pictured here during the song “I Have Confidence.” I tried to splash my hand in it, too, but I was actually too short to reach the water. . .

This is the entrance to the Nonnberg Abbey. Maria walks through this gate when she first leaves the nunnery for the Von Trapp house.

Just hanging out in front of the Von Trapp house from the movie. See that gate I'm touching? Julie Andrews touched that gate in the movie! So I have actually touched the same metal as Julie Andrews!!! 

Von Trapp house #2. This one was used as the back of the house. This is also the lake where the children's boat tips over. Fun fact: the girl who played Gretyl couldn’t swim, and nearly drowned during the filming of that scene.

If you’ve ever seen the movie, I shouldn’t need to tell you what this is (it’s the famous gazebo where Leisl sings about being “Sixteen going on Seventeen”). This is also the backdrop for the captain’s proposal to Maria. 

The Von Trapp children run through this grove during Do-Re-Mi. In classic tourist fashion, I decided to follow in their footsteps.

This fountain is also featured in Do-Re-Mi. 
I wrapped up my day in Salzburg with a stop at this bridge, which makes an appearance in Do-Re-Mi as well.
Salzburg was just as wonderful as I always imagined it would be, but by the end of my day there, I was exhausted. Putting up my feet has never felt so good.