Travels


The first event I can remember actually following on the news was the war over the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early to mid-90s. I think, for many Americans of my age, the name of “Bosnia” or “Croatia” conjures up images of bleakness, of war and death and pain.

Visiting these countries with my fellow Fulbright friend, Sarah, today, however, shows a place teeming with life. Yes, there are still remnants of the destruction that raged there. But as I walked down a Sarajevo street around 11 p.m., the idea of “siege” and “sniper” and all those other fearful words which I associate with that city’s names faded as I wove through the packed, cobblestone streets. Like the Italians, the Bosnians like an evening passagiata, a walk simply to see and be seen. Whole familys wandered the main squares, calling out to friends. Music spilled out of bars. People downed Sarajevo Pivo. In the span of one block, lights threw a Catholic church, a mosque, an Orthodox church and a synagogue into beautiful illumination. Far from just being a “war survivor”, the city, to me, seemed to thrive.

Sarajevo

Sarajevo

Of course, I was a one-day visitor there (and elsewhere in my travels in the region), and I know my little taste of such places cannot begin to show all the pain of healing that such places must go through. I know, equally, that the great “cheap” prices an American traveler encounters there means the real residents are struggling economically. But I also want to change the minds that still see the Balkans as a land of crisis only. Part of me wants to tell everyone know to go there, right away. The other (selfish) part of me wants to keep it a secret, to keep everything as perfect as it was for our trip.

And again, coming back from a ten-day onslaught of un-understandable Croatian and Bosnian, arriving back in Ferihegy, where I knew what jo estet meant from passport control, where I knew exactly how to get back from the airport (a route I know better, I must admit, than the road to the airport back in D.C.) Ahh, good to be home, I thought, before the sinking realization that this “home” is only mine until 7 a.m. Tuesday morning.

So for now, I’m off to enjoy one bit more of this home — and I’ll just leave you with the images I know think about when I hear “Balkans”.

Dubrovnik by night

Dubrovnik by night

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… but you should go to İstanbul, at your earliest availability.

(Why yes, I do recognize the shamelessly cheesy They Might Be Giants reference.  But you know you think the same thing when you hear İstanbul. Don’t hide it!).

Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque

To end the Spring Break touring, Carolyn and I hopped an overnight bus to İstanbul. And it was amazing from the first second. I mean that quite literally: we stepped off of the bus, stiff legged and sleepy, at 5:30 a.m., to be surrounded by the call to prayer — beautiful, echoing strains of Arabic —  coming from mosques all around us.

Good morning, İstanbul!

[NOTE:  Bulgaria is not yet on the Euro. Turkey is not even in the EU. However, should you be an American, on a bus to Turkey from Bulgaria, have 15 Euro with you. Why? Because you have to buy a visa, and pay in Euro. Why? I have no clue. Yet, I assure you, it is better than nearly being stranded on the Turkish-Bulgarian border whilst your friend finagles a border guard into selling you some Euro for some Bulgaria leva. Trust me. You don’t want to be stranded on the Turkish-Bulgarian border]

From the towering minarets to the men selling little round loaves of bread from tall stacks on their heads to the sparkly, turquoise Bosphorus to the huge billboards advertising fashionable versions of the traditional Muslim head scarves, İstanbul made me feel like I wished I had more eyes, as if my own two were insufficient to take in all the beauty around me.

Inside the Harem

Inside the Harem

We walked into mosques, such as the famous Blue Mosque, which were covered with the most intricate tilework, shining with deep, rich colors and swirls of Arabic lettering in gold. We stared in awe at the cavernous Hagia Sophia, where the sun streaming through the windows onto the ancient tile was enough to make you forget what year it was. We took boats across the Bosphorus, watching the blue water stream by the steep shores where sun-bleached houses seemed to sprout out of one another. We ate fresh fish, flash-grilled along the shoreline. We pondered whether it really would have been that bad to be a courtesan when we saw the harem at the Topkapı Palace. We smoked too much nargileh, or flavored tobacco in a water pipe,  for two girls who do not smoke at all.  We emptied our pockets on the wide array of glittery goodness at the Grand Bazaar, even managing a hand at bargaining while sipping apple tea, and bought our weight in Turkish Delight (that stuff they sell in most US stores and call Turkish Delight? Not even close!) at the Spice Bazaar.  We drank numerous cups of the dark, sludgy, delicious Turkish coffee.

Beyoğlu at Sunset

Beyoğlu at Sunset

But I think the aspect I loved about  İstanbul most was not a view or a dish or a museum, but an attitude, how it seemed to literally teem with life. Like walking into Times Square on a warm spring evening, going to the neighborhood called Beyoğlu (a steeper-than-steeply hilly ‘hood, directly across the Bosphorus from all the “big” tourist sites) meant walking into a crowd.  Sometimes, I hate crowds — like August in Washington, when the number of belt-pack-wearing Midwestern tourists (who always refuse to stand on the right side of the Metro escalator, so those of us D.C.-ians in a rush can pass on the left!) is enough to make me want to strangle them with their recently purchased “You Don’t Know Me: FBI Witness Protection Program” (why, oh why, do those keep selling?!?) or “God Bless America” T-shirts.  But at other times, when you find a city just hitting its evening, work’s-done-fun-get-together time stride, the crowd can be electric and energizing. It pulses; it makes you want to get out and join it. It makes you want to be part of the action. İstanbul’s got that kind of vibe. The streets are so crowded around 7 p.m. that you almost feel pushed by the swell of people behind you — and yet, it seems to be exactly the kind of push you want, to start your own fun night.  (more…)

The Hotel de Russo — also known as my 32 sq. m. studio — has been very busy lately, hence a long interruption in updates. But before spring totally fades, I want to add in my last bits of reminiscence about a spring break now far gone.

After tackling the joys of Sofia, my dear friend and guide to all things Bulgarian — the incomparable Carolyn — agreed to one of my main requests for the journey, which was to see some “real” Bulgaria. And by “real” Bulgaria, I mean all those things the average American, Lonley-Planet-clutching/Rick-Steve’s-Reading folk can’t find.

And Carolyn didn’t disappoint: we headed for an overnight in Kazanlak, (in Bulgarian- Казанлък, thank YOU Wikipedia!), a small town in the central region of Bulgaria.  The town lies in the famous “Valley of the Roses” — that’s where all those pieces of tourist kitsch, the wooden dolls filled with Rose Perfume, hail from this region.

Carolyn LOVES history!

Carolyn LOVES history!

But the big draw here is the Thracian Tomb, which was built in the 4th century BC, near the ancient Thracian capital of Seuthopolis. The tomb — which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 — is best summed up by Carolyn’s comment: I can’t believe we are standing somewhere so ancient, and just looking at it. Indeed. I can’t post pictures because you cannot take them inside, obviously, as it would destroy the fine paintings, but it is amazing. The tomb itself is small — Carolyn and I filled the space pretty well together — but the paintings preserved inside are amazing, depicting an ancient wedding feast. To stand there, my international cell phone in my pocket, in my mass-produced jeans and T-shirt did certainly invoke that feeling of insignificance — but in a good way. We are but blips on the radar; our time here is small compared to the great spector of history.

And, it is just freakin’ cool, period. Even without the philosophical blather.

And, crazier still: the tomb was found accidentally, by soldiers during the second World War. Could you imagine? Whoops, what is that hard surface? Egads, it happens to be a FREAKING FOURTH CENTURY TOMB! No, I have to say, of all the interesting things I have dug up helping my dad with his garden, 4th century tombs, unfortunately, do not make the list.

Overlooking Shipka

Overlooking Shipka

We followed the trip into the ancient world with a stopover in nearby Shipka, a tiny town about a 20 minute bus ride aways you can see from the picture, Shipka, as viewed from the hills around it, is postcard-perfect: small, red-roofed houses, teeny-tiny twisting lanes, even donkey carts roaming the streets.

We then scaled the hill to what was my favorite sight in Bulgaria: the Shipka Monastery. This Monastery sits high above the town, so that as you approach it, the huge, gold onion-shaped domes leap out at you from the moutainside. It is impressive from a distance, but even more so close up, where you can see the gorgeous colors and rich, warm gold accents. (more…)

One thing which caught my attention as an immediate difference between Hungary and Bulgaria was how each approached their Communist past. Of course, I know I am speaking about this as an outsider, and as someone who is not trained, schooled or otherwise an expert in any way about this history. But, when Carolyn took me to the main city park in Sofia, we were greeted with this:

Socialist Realist Statue

Socialist Realist Statue

close-up

close-up

It was strange, for me, to see these Socialist-Realist pieces right in the “regular” city.  In Hungary, the statues were all pulled down, and now most of them reside at Memento Park, an outdoor museum located outside the city center. We also have the Terrorhaza, or House of Terror, museum in Budapest. Located at the former headquarters of the secret police, this museum is an excellent walk through the two oppressive regimes in Hungary, the Arrow Cross (Hungarian Nazis) and the Communist party. With extensive descriptions of each time, the museum is as informative as it is moving (I particularly like the room dedicated to propaganda, where one is literally surrounded by the ideology, as the whole room is papered in advertisements. A clever curatorial decision, to make literal the feeling many must have had).

For American visitors to post-Soviet countries, there is a whole market of “Commie Kitsch” — tours in Traubis, the ability to buy giant Lenin-shaped candles, and oodles and oodles of stands at the flea markets offering vintage pins from the Socialist era. (Berlin, for instance, really capitalizes on this in certain places). And I suppose I can understand why, from a certain angle, people might “sell” this idea: it does indeed sell, because for a certain age group (of which yours truly belongs) in American/Western society, the Communist countries are that recent past for which we have such big blinders – that time too “new” to make the canon of compulsory history lessons like the Revolution or the Civil War, but still having occurred so young in our youth that we remember only blurred news photos, if we remember it at all. Yet, that kind of thumbing-your-nose at the idea still leaves me feeling a bit creepy, a bit put-off, as if we who didn’t suffer are getting our giggles of those who did. It is kind of like how I felt about that certain set of Serious Graduate Student who would self-proclaim themselves “Marxist” because it was seen as a super-hip, anti-establishment stance.  (more…)

Coming back from 10 days of Spring Break-ing, which came on the heels of a short jaunt to London, means the old blog has been pretty thin on the ground, particularly as I have tried to catch up in terms of my “homework” and other responsibilities. But I have returned, with some lovely stories from Bulgaria, and from Istanbul.

To start with, Sofia, Bulgaria — where I met up with, Carolyn, another Fulbright ETA (and the main reason I have my Fulbright, as she was our fellowships advisor at Georgetown. img_1666 Before I came to visit, Carolyn had blogged about wanting to “sell” Sofia to me, worried that the city — and indeed the whole country — were viewed negatively in the imagination of Westerns (and particularly us hard-to-please Americans).  Well, after looking at some of the material published on Bulgaria, I have to say Carolyn’s worry is valid: it doesn’t seem those who are supposed to be promoting Bulgaria do all that good a job of it. Her Lonely Planet guidebook is full of negative comments and asides about the country, claiming you can see Sofia in a day. The only English-language magazine, Vagabond, which I perused while sitting in Carolyn’s apartment, was liberally sprinkled with cutting jokes and Debbie-Downer-style language about the country.Now, I know I have been prone to pointing out my beloved Magyar people’s seeming inability to say anything nice about their own country, but the things written about Bulgaria make the Hungarians look cheerful in comparison.

And, what is more, the claim isn’t true: Sofia definitely deserves more than a day!

Carolyn and I started, after she picked me up at the strangely-bare airport (it was actually nice not to have so many stores calling for your attention, but it was kind of eerie to walk through such open halls — not like at Ferihegy in Budapest, where you HAVE to walk through the giant Duty-Free store to even get to your gate!), by heading back out for some shopping around Carolyn’s  neighborhood. Sofia, it turns out, has an abundance of great stores — in the picture above, yours truly is wearing a scarf (bought for us 4 Bulgarian lev…or something like $2.50).

Alexander Nevskiy Cathedral

Alexander Nevskiy Cathedral

The scarf, however, is not the true story — that is the Scarf Lady, who sells them. A thin, willowly older woman, topped with a beret, and, of course, a jaunty scarf, this woman greeted Carolyn and I as if we were visiting dignitaries, clasping both of my hands in her wrinkled ones while Carolyn introduced me. We bantered a bit in French — she speaks only Bulgarian and French — and then she began to display her wares. Carolyn, through her previous talks with scarf lady, had discovered she was once a ballerina, and she moved with all the grace of one. While her scarves are in expensive polyester (Dolce and Gabbana this is not), she treated each as if it was a precious piece, walking outside to fling the scarves we chose over her shoulder and show flashy ways of tying them. I’d defy anyone to not be charmed by her!

Following scarf lady, we enjoyed some more shopping, particularly Paradise Garage, a store which displays the work of young Bulgarian designers, where we each picked up some hip, urban-chic gear and had a lovely chat with the fashionable owner (check out Carolyn’s review here)

Relieved of some lev, we began doing the more “touristy” things, including checking out the town’s main cathedral. Since Bulgarians tend to be Orthodox, I found peeking in churches here particularly interesting — the Orthodox style, all covered in gold. In the plazas nearby, vendors sold scores of gold-painted icons, and the last of the martenitsas, a Bulgarian tradition for spring. These are little pins and bracelets made of red and white string, which one picks up on the first day of March and wears until one sees the first blossoming tree. Then, you hang your martenitsa up on the flowering tree, bringing in good luck for the new season.

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I’ve just returned from my first ever trip to Germany that wasn’t solely based in an airport (I always seem to come through Frankfurt…): a five-day jaunt to Berlin for an conference organized for all the Fulbrighters in Europe. In short, I’m very glad I finally was able to leave the terminal. Berlin is a very cool city — and an extremely large one, after being used to the rather small, centralized city Budapest is. I got to see the gorgeous Rococo gildedness of the Charlottenburg Castle, climb to the top of the Parliament (Reichstag) to gaze at the illuminated city at night, and  see the remains of the Berlin Wall, the fall of which is my first memory of seeing something on the news (my father pulling me out of playing dress-up or whatever I was doing at the age of 7 to plunk me down in front of the T.V. and say “You need to see this. It is important”).

Obligatory Tourist Shot in front of Brandenburg Gate

Obligatory Tourist Shot in front of Brandenburg Gate

Remains of The Wall, near Checkpoint Charlie

Remains of The Wall, near Checkpoint Charlie

But more so that just the city itself, the people we met made the weekend. The conference programming was mostly centered on Fulbrighters to Germany — the German Fulbright program is huge, about 300 people, and they host — but for those of us outside of Germany, especially those of us in less-than-common destinations, the evening receptions and such were really the point: we got to talk about an experience few people can understand. Like the second night, at dinner, when Natalie, Sarah and I met a group of Fulbright English Teaching Assistants to Slovakia. Immediately, Natalie made a joke about the tense Hungarian-Slovakian relationship (no joking matter, really, with both the historical issue over Hungary’s division following WWII, and the recent bitterness by Hungarians over Slovakia moving to the Euro, whilst Hungary remains on the continually-depreciating forint, but I digress…), which led to a very amusing discussion over dinner of all the “joys” of living in Eastern Europe (i.e. misspeaks in the difficult new languages; the Budapest Kontroll vs. the Slovakian “foreign police”; the never-ending process which is getting a residency permit; etc.) — which, in many ways, only made me happier to be here.

See, while the large mass of students from Germany (and many of the Western European countries) were all very nice and interesting, they still kind of seemed like college kids on study-abroad. Germany has a different culture than the US, no doubt — but it is harder to distinguish that difference after living somewhere in the East. As Margaret, one of the visiting professors to Hungary put it in her presentation, “I know there is a financial crisis here in Germany too, but compared to Hungary, I can’t believe it.”  These places in the East — while still part of the EU, part of globalization, part of all that sphere of cultural melding together — still require a little more work, a little more flexibility, a little more openness to see the frustrations and challenges as something lovable.

One of the Slovakian ETAs, for instance,  in his presentation, referred to his command of Slovak as “I tell my students I am like a dog. I can kind of understand everything you say, I just can’t speak.” Funny, and terribly fitting for my feelings about struggling with my own new language (only I would say I am more like a very slow dog…I need large hand gestures, too).

One of the other bonuses to travel when living somewhere strange? How much more your adopted home becomes home-like when you return. One of the other Slovakian ETAs, Claire, landed on our flight home, and we rode the metro together back into town. My Hungarian is good enough that I could buy her a ticket, and then, on the metro, I suddenly realized I could understand some of the conversations I could overhear. “Oh, that woman said ‘we only had to wait three minutes!’ That one just said ‘I don’t have time today!'” I babbled, surprised that even little things made some sense after a week in German, a language I do not know at all.

Berlin was beautiful; the more-developed West has its advantages. But even though I’m feeling that bit of post-travel let-down, missing new friends and not looking forward to piles of work, I am still feeling happier to have settled in my sometimes-challenging Eastern Europe “home.”  A beauty found in imperfections, I think, is somehow stronger than the clean-and-easy sparkle.

(more Berlin in pictures below)

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Wow, I just signed on to my main blog dashboard today — to begin making blogs for two of my courses at Pázmány Péter in the spring — and realized I haven’t posted in almost a month!

Mostly, my holiday abscence can be blamed upon an American invasion of sorts: I’ve been either playing hostess or traveling since the 19th of December, so this is my first week without a house filled with excited (if jet-lagged) American friends.

While having visitors can certainly be stressful, I’m glad so many of my friends made it over here (and I have three more coming next week! Hostel de Russo, indeed!) because I find it hard to accurately describe Budapest to people who have not been here. I know, it is a shameful admission for a once-professional writer and a current writing teacher to admit an inability to use her adjectives well enough to conjure up a city in the minds of far-flung friends. But Budapest is, simply put, one stunning whirlwind of contradiction. Travel guides, travel writers, the best and brightest of foreign correspondents … and yours truly … never get it fully right. It has to be seen to be known.  Having people from my “old life” visit me during my adventure makes me feel that I can more fully share a new place I have grown to love.

I also feel really lucky that so many were (and are) willing to trek to Eastern Europe in the dead of winter. Despite growing up in the most solid, stable, born-and-raised-in -the-same-house lifestyle, my adult life has been one giant streak of transience. (the move here was the 14th move in 9 years; the move back to D.C. area in July or August will make 15).  When there is no set “home” in the physical sense, friends become home in the metaphorical.

So, to make up for the writing abscence over the past three weeks, a little pictoral evidence of holidays and a new year in Budapest and beyond.

 

Christmas Lights in Vienna

Christmas Lights in Vienna

Maria Theresa holds court over Vienna's Christmas Market

Maria Theresa holds court over Vienna's Christmas Market

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