Thursday, March 31, 2011

From Belgrade to London

NOTE: This was written on Sunday. Haven't had a chance to post until now!

I’m in the Atlanta airport, waiting for my next flight. The WiFi here doesn’t work, so I’m typing this up on my computer, hoping to be on a flight with free WiFi. Cross your fingers folks!

We had about a half day in Belgrade before making our way to the airport
and boarding a flight to London. We decided to go to the House of Flowers – the Museum of Yugoslavia and the complex where Josip Broz Tito is buried. When I’d visited before with my parents, we were basically the only people in there, save for a few Japanese tourists. This time, I was in for a surprise.

Our city bus pulled up right before a bus full of people on a tour of the complex. At least three buses full of pilgrims unloaded at the complex while we were there. While in the museum, I spotted one man wearing his Pioneer scarf and hat – basically declaring his allegiance to the former socialist regime. The Pioneers were kind of like socialist Boy Scouts. Many boys and girls joined the Pioneer associations all over the former Yugoslavia. I found it really interesting that he chose to wear his uniform to the House of Flowers. Old allegiances die hard, I guess.

The new museum, where previously they’d had an exhibit about Tito’s staterooms, was closed this time. The old museum and the House of Flowers were both open, although they were doing some renovation work on the latter. I still got a sense of how loved Tito was by Yugoslavs, but I think the effect was stronger when the new museum was open.

The way the complex is laid out, you walk past many statues of Tito or other statues in the style of “socialist realism.” Socialist realism is not the most imaginative of styles. It might be easiest to look it up on Wikipedia, rather than have me try to describe it. Think big, blocky people with large muscles in plain, simple clothes in poses venerating work and you’ve pretty much got the idea. Anyway, after walking past the statues, you go into this little house, and there’s the grave. It’s in a large, open room surrounded by smaller rooms full of stuff. Tito’s grave is marked by a large marble stone that reads “Josip Broz Tito” with his birth and death dates. It’s simple and tasteful.

In one of the rooms at the House of Flowers was a display of race batons. On Tito’s birthday, May 25th, a large relay race was run all over Yugoslavia. People made batons and gave them to Tito when they finished the race. Representatives of different social groups and nationalities all ran. The museum collected the batons and they are now on display. It was really interesting, seeing what people made to honor Tito.

After purchasing some swag for my now-famous Commie shelf, we made our way back into the city to catch our shuttle to the airport. I’d never flown through Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla airport before – and honestly, after this experience, I might never do so again. The security guards all had submachine guns out. Seriously. It was rather intimidating just to see serious-looking soldiers with large weapons casually walking around the airport.

We went through security not once, but twice – entering the airport and again at our gate. Smiley and I had made the decision to fly Wizz Air, lured by the promise of a $100 flight from Belgrade to London. Well, we learned that you get what you pay for. In a big way. They announced “priority boarding” while we were all crowded into one tiny gate. In order to separate those who paid for priority boarding from those who didn’t, they checked us in, sending some people to the left and others to the right to be held at the gate. We went to the left. This meant that we went downstairs and boarded a little bus. We thought that the bus would take us to our plane – like it did when we were in the Prague airport. Instead, we sat there. For a good fifteen minutes. When the driver got the signal, he drove us under the plane’s wing to the back of the plane. This was the same plane that was sitting at our gate.

We boarded from the back while other folks boarded from the front. Smiley and I found two seats together. I surmised that the flight wasn’t full, and asked him to move over and claim an aisle seat. Now, I’m about 5’11” with long legs. I usually fit in most planes, and have a bearable amount of legroom. My knees hit the back of the seat in front of me. That’s never happened before. They had crammed a ton of seats into the plane. I felt bad for the Serbs on the plane – Serbs are generally pretty tall, and I don’t know how guys who were 6’7” fit in that small space. It was worse than the SkyEurope flight my family and I took from Prague to Dubrovnik, where my hips touched the arm bars the entire time – and I should note here that my jean size is below that of the American average. I’m a tall person, but I wouldn’t call myself a large person. My hips shouldn’t touch the arm bars on a flight.

Making matters worse was the fact that the woman sitting directly in front of me didn’t have any deodorant on. And she slept with her arm raised during the whole flight. Honestly, every time she moved, I felt like I was going to throw up. Also, the seats didn’t recline.

I could go on and on. I’m never flying Wizz Air again! We did, eventually, make it to London. Three hours later, I was touching down at the Luton airport, getting ready to see a city I’d only flown through and never experienced for myself.
More on that later. We’re boarding in 15 minutes!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Belgrade, my old friend

Fair warning for blog fans -- this may be my last post for a bit. I brought a Netbook with me with which to blog, but do not have the right kind of cable, plug, or converter for Europe. If I have the opportunity, I will take it to the Samsung store in London to see if I can pick up a converter or adapter there. If it's prohibitively expensive, however, I won't buy a European adapter. We don't have free Internet at the hostel in London (although it is supposedly inexpensive).

We've been in Belgrade since Wednesday afternoon. Flew on the smallest plane I have ever been on between Prague and Belgrade. It was an ATR-42 -- a turbo-prop plane. And we sat right next to the engine. It felt fitting, flying between two formerly Communist countries on such a small plane.

There were another pair of Americans on the plane. I wanted to talk to them to ask them what they did, and I should have. As we got off the plane in Belgrade, we saw a man holding a sign for "Ambassador Stephen Rapp." Turns out the ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues was on our flight. It would have been really interesting for me to talk with him. Too bad. Next time.

Belgrade is as gritty as ever. It was amazing to me how familiar the city felt after three years. Our driver, Severim, picked us up at the airport. He explained that there has been a lot of renovation work over the past few years. They are doing much needed work on one of the bridges over the Sava. As a result, there was a lot of traffic coming into the city, with Serbian drivers making their own lanes on the shoulder. Some pretty crazy driving!

The big Partizan-Crvena Zvezda soccer match was on Wednesday night. We thought about getting tickets to the match, but then I remembered that anti-American violence can break out after these games. Smiley and I watched it on TV instead. When we were out walking, every cafe in Belgrade had it on. The whole city was watching.

Spent the first night wandering around a bit. I had decided I wanted to eat my way through Belgrade, so we found čevapi and burek. Yum! I had really missed real čevapi.

We spent most of our time in Belgrade just walking around. On the way to Trg Republike, I stopped at a trafika stand to purchase the mobile number I'd promised everyone I would get. While in line, a man asked me in English if I liked Tito and proceeded to explain that Tito was a fascist bastard who lost Kosovo for Serbia and that NATO is also full of fascists. Wow. I kept repeating "I'm sorry" in English, and eventually he gave up trying to get a rise out of me and moved on. The woman at the trafika stand and I exchanged a funny look, and I proceeded to get my mobile number.

Belgrade felt like a familiar old friend I had not seen for years. Some things have changed, but much of it is the same. There is definitely a lot of construction, particularly in the center and in the city parks. St. Mark's Church and the Federal Parliament building are both undergoing renovations. These are likely much-needed, as many of the buildings are covered in a layer of grime, likely from pollution. The facades of others are cracked and falling down. Restoration is needed.

After our encounter with the Tito-hater, we began walking around Belgrade in earnest. Our walk took us down Skadarska street. Somebody had put in a sign showing the distance between Belgrade and other destinations, including the moon. Ha!

Stopped at Trattoria Košava for lunch. The pizza was so tasty. But the waiter spoke Serbian so quickly that I had to keep asking him to repeat himself. I did okay when people spoke to me slowly, but had a tough time when people talked so fast. After the meal, I thanked him for speaking Serbian with me, as I am trying to learn the language. He told me he could tell that I speak some Serbian, and spoke it so I would learn. He said that many Japanese people can speak Serbian well after just 3 months here, but for Americans it is more difficult. Nice conversation.

We followed the walk listed in the guidebook to Kalmegdan. We walked out to the terrace and took pictures of the view. I ended up taking off my little cardigan because I was warm. Back inside the fortress, an older man asked me in Serbian where my jacket was because it was not super warm out. I showed him my sweater and asked him the word for it...and we got into a 30 minute conversation. He asked me how we were enjoying Belgrade, what we thought of Serbia, etc. We then started talking about the global economic crisis, the catastrophe in Japan, and how more American investment is needed in Serbia. He said that Serbia has so much opportunity for agriculture and I agreed. We kept switching between Serbian and English for Smiley's sake. He mentioned that he had had a conversation with Milošević about seeking help from the U.S. instead of from Israel. It sounded like he was in the know. He gave me his name and address and told me to write next time I come to Serbia. He said he'd show me some important cultural sites. I swear I'd read his name in one of my textbooks about Serbia. I think he may have been in the govt or something.

The chat with the guy in the park made Smiley's trip, I think. He got to experience some of that amazing Serbian friendliness I am always raving about. It was cool.

From there, we walked to the Tesla museum. They were about to close, but generously let us join the last tour to see the demonstrations. On the way, we mailed our postcards from the giant Pošta by the Parliament Building. The post office worker complimented my Serbian and was surprised when I said I was really enjoying Belgrade.

Ended our very full day with drinks at the Federal Association of World Travelers, a bar that kind of looks like a grandmother's basement. It's awesome. Between drinks there and eating my way through Belgrade (made sure to find palačinke and potato burek today), it's been a good, albeit short, trip. Looking forward to coming back sometime soon.

What has changed in Belgrade besides construction? Well, there are way more hostels now than there were in 2008. I knew of just a couple back then, and now they are everywhere. Also, many of the cafes have wifi now. That is new! And Tašmajdan Park is being restored with funds from the government of Azerbaijan. I never would have expected that!

Today, we figured out how to get from Luton airport to our hostel in London, and took the tram out to Tito's grave. There were some nice, new signs in English at the House of Flowers. The main museum was closed, but you could still see the room with all the batons and the grave itself. Neat stuff. I managed to pick up more buttons for my Commie shelf back home! Yay!

Ate more čevapi in town, and wandered back to our hostel. I would definitely stay here again. It's clean and reasonably quiet -- and small. I like small hostels better than large industrial ones. Unfortunately, I think we may be staying in a large hostel in London.

Hopefully I'll be back in Belgrade again within a couple of years. I miss this city when I'm not here!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Isn't there a rhyme about the rain in Spain?

Zdravo iz Beograda! Smiley and I made it here this afternoon and are chilling in the hostel tonight, trying to find the Chelsea champions league match against FC Copenhagen. We may have to stream this on my computer, so I'll likely only have enough time to write about our last day in Barcelona.

It poured yesterday morning. The rain was unlike anything I'd ever seen. We counted lightning every 5-10 seconds. Even Barca residents were taking shelter. We huddled under the big overhang of the Liceu to wait it out, along with about 50 other people. Residents were peering out from their balconies and taking pictures of the rain -- it was that wild. I thought for sure there was going to be a flash flood in the streets.

I'm from Seattle. I thought I knew rain. I'd never seen it rain that hard for so long. The streets were just covered in water. People kept walking by peddling black market umbrellas. We bought ours at a news stand for 6.50 euros. It was so worth it.

We stayed under the overhang for a good 45 minutes. The temp dropped at least 2-3 degrees while we were standing there. There was some crazy hail, too.

When it finally stopped raining, we got some amazing hot chocolate in the Barri Gothic and then walked around. The narrow, wet streets made for some neat pictures. We tried to go to La Seu, the big cathedral, but had just missed the free hours. So we wandered around a little more and tried to go to the Barca history museum. It was closing in an hour, so we decided to come back after the afternoon siesta. All the museums close between 2-5 during the winter months for siesta time.

The rain had stopped, so we went up to Parc Guell to see more Gaudi. It was really cool. The modernist architecture was just fantastic. We wandered inside a blue house that had beautiful lines of architecture. The houses were decorated with lovely ceramic tiles in imaginative colors and shapes. Thankfully the weather held long enough for us to wander around the park. I took a bunch of pictures of kids playing tag in the large entryway columns.

Back to the history museum once it reopened. The real draw here for us were the Roman ruins. They were incredibly well-preserved. There was a laundry room, wine pressing room, and fish sauce making room. There were sewage lines and drainage areas. Even some wheel ruts.

Afterwards, we walked through the Gothic cathedral at La Seu. It's got beautiful art inside. It's a pretty standard large Catholic cathedral, with many chapels and a rather large nave. Instead of candle votives, though, they had these little lights. I thought the lights were kinda lame.

Finished the day in a tea house, drinking choco chai, writing, and talking about where to get food. Our flight this morning was at 8 AM, so it was a rather early night for us. Woke up and wandered into a conversation that we thought sounded like a couple breaking up...whoops.

OK -- I gotta go stream the Chelsea game now. Low-key night tonight. More about coming "back home" to Belgrade later.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Las Ramblas, La Boqueria, Camp Nou, and other Barcelona Wanders

We began today's wanders with a walk down Las Ramblas. We stopped at La Boqueria market -- an awesome market that puts Pike Place to shame. Such color! Such variety! There were stalls everywhere just full of new and interesting fruit, sweets, and other wares. We picked up bread, cheese, and chorizo for lunch for about 5 euros. That's right -- 5 euros. One of my top travel tips for y'all is to find the local market and make use of it every time you travel. You can save yourself a load of money and sample great regional breads and cheeses, too. It was so cheap and tasty!

We then made our way out to Camp Nou, the home stadium of FC Barcelona. I covered that visit pretty well on my sports blog, Sportsology. You can find more information about our Camp Nou tour here ( Needless to say, it's hard for me not to root for Barca after that. Not only are they the best team in the world (winning 6 European cups in one season definitely qualifies this statement), but they also safeguard Catalan identity in a big way. I will wear my FC Barcelona scarf with pride, and scoff at all of you who call them the "Yankees" of soccer.

While at Camp Nou, it started raining pretty hard. The nice thing about Barcelona rain is that it's warm -- unlike rain in my Seattle hometown this time of year. Or any time of year. So we took the Metro over to Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's unfinished church. Wow. It's unlike anything I've ever seen. Really. I'll post pictures once I get back to the states to show you. It's almost modernist in its style. The interior is just awe-inspiring -- large vaulted ceilings with built-in lights. There are stained glass windows everywhere.

Gaudi took over the project in 1884. He used the church to explore his own spirituality. After his death in 1926, there was a debate over how to best finish the church. Some wanted to leave it unfinished, while others decided to keep going and try to stay true to Gaudi's spirit. The original plans were mostly destroyed during the Spanish Civil War -- a period of history I'd really like to find out more about. They've been working on the church for more than 100 years. Wow.

We spent the rest of the rainy day in the Maritime Museum. It was pretty cool. It had a neat exhibit about all the languages of the Mediterranean. A portion of it showcased the sounds of places such as markets and temples. The language geek in me found it awesome. There was also an exhibit about sharks and overfishing, and one about travel and seafaring. Cool stuff.

Dinner tonight consisted of tasty traditional Catalan food. Smiley and I split a tuna and potato pie. And I had chicken covered with emmentaler cheese. The chicken was perfectly grilled and wonderfully tasty. Yum!

A word about Barcelona residents -- they are some of the nicest people! I know that Spanish is not the main language here (as mentioned before, Catalan is a very different language), but most people speak a little Spanish. They are quite patient when I explain "hablo un pequito espanyol" (can't make a tilde with my keyboard...sorry Spanish speakers). I hit my head on a low-lying ceiling (Spaniards are also rather short), and the folks in the cafe were so nice about it. They asked me several times if I'm okay. I'm fine -- no concussion, just a rather large bump. Soy alta chica! What can I do?

Hopefully the weather will be nicer tomorrow for our planned wanders -- the Gothic quarter, Park Guell, and possibly a couple of museums! I may try to find a Spanish team World Cup scarf while I'm at it as well.

Adios for now!

Touchdown Barcelona!

First, it's really difficult to blog when Firefox automatically translates instructions on webpages into Catalan. I remember a little bit of my high school Spanish, but Catalan is completely different in some ways. I brought my little Netbook for blogging, and even though my language is set to English, Firefox still translates everything!

Anna and Smiley's Most Excellent European Adventure has officially begun! We are in Barcelona, Spain, after about 15 hours of traveling yesterday. My key to beating jet lag is to sleep as much as I can on the plane (thank you, Tylenol PM) and then to stay up as late as I can once I get to where I'm going. It worked pretty well, except I started fading around 5 PM local time.

We took a bus to our hostel, the Hostel Sant Jordi Arago. It's just a short walk from Las Ramblas, a major walking street in Barcelona. It's a nice place, and I would recommend it to others traveling here. The rooms are comfortable and quiet.

We grabbed a tapas lunch (yum), and started walking Las Ramblas. The buildings around here are pretty interesting -- they remind me quite a bit of Morocco. It's a neat mix between Spanish and Arabian architecture. On Las Ramblas, we saw a bunch of people dressed up as human statues -- butterflies, and even Gene Simmons from Kiss! Passing tourists give them coins to make them do things. I snapped a bunch of pictures.

After a nap, we went to a cafe down the street to watch the Barcelona-Sevilla match. Sports fans the world over make the same rooting noises. So I fit right in. One thing that I found really interesting happened when Barca scored a goal. Rather than preemptively celebrate, the fans in the cafe waited until the ref confirmed the goal before cheering. We all got really into it at the end of the game. Sevilla had some good looks, and at times Barca's defense really broke down. (Just like the Sounders!) Barca was pressing hard at the end, but the game ended in a 1-1 draw. It was fun.

Today, we plan on walking Las Ramblas, checking out La Boqueria market, and touring Camp Nou, the Barcelona soccer stadium. It's going to be an awesome day!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Gardening as an Act of Gratitude

A much-welcomed warm day provided me with a chance to get my hands in the ground. It has been rather chilly and wet in Seattle as of late. Two weeks ago, I was dodging snow squalls while on my way to class in Bothell. At this time last year, my first batch of peas was starting to sprout, and I'd planted a second batch in containers. Mother Nature is fickle, and my planting date will likely change from year to year.

I turned over the cover crop in the containers, as well as in half of my raised bed. I'll be planting things in shifts this year, depending on the month (and on the date of the Seattle Tilth plant sale). Using a too-small bucket, I shuttled back and forth between the compost pile and my garden, humming to myself while I put a layer of compost over the upturned winter cover. Using my favorite tool, the one that looks like a bent fork, I worked the compost and the cover crop leavings into the soil. My soil looks good this year. The cover crop kept it light, loose, and airy. It didn't seem as compacted as last year.

After this work was done, I planted sugar snap peas, sugar daddy peas (hee hee), Champion radishes and rhubarb chard. My spring crops are officially in the ground!

It took me a couple of hours to do the work, and I gave thanks for the lazy Saturday. I'd managed to write two of my four papers during the week, and wrote the third for an independent study in just two days. I decided I deserved a break. This morning, I went to a yoga class. And this afternoon, I gardened.

Gardening can be an act of gratitude. I kept saying thanks for things today. Thank you for my brain. Thank you for a dry, sunny afternoon. Thank you for good dirt. Thank you for the food I will grow. Thank you for the difficult lessons I learned in the past year. Thank you for being forgiving.

I can't wait until my little sproutlings come up again! I wonder how big my peas will get this year?