Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Dabbling in the Dinaric Alps

Since our European trip has come to a close, we're starting to think back on all of the incredible experiences we've had over the past two and a half months. We've been too busy to blog much on the trip. Vacation is hard work!

Don't tell anybody (especially our friends and family back in Colorado, who love their Rockies, or our Transylvanian buddies who can't get enough of their Carpați), but we discovered the most beautiful and awe inspiring mountains we have ever seen - the Dinaric Alps. The mountain range stretches along the Adriatic coast: from Slovenia in the north-west, through Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, into Serbia, and then covers the entire country of Montenegro until it drops into the sea.

We spent a month in these five countries, much of it in these beautiful mountains. Three particular days of driving stand out as highlights of our whole trip.

Perucac, Serbia

The first of these days was in Tara National Park, Serbia. Sarah wrote a little about our trip in a previous post, when we were looking for that medieval village.

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We camped in a pear orchard in the middle of nowhere near Kremna, Serbia but as we drove towards the Tara National Park and the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, we really started to feel the wilderness enveloping us. We saw fewer and fewer cars and the road became narrower and narrower until we weren't even sure if we were supposed to be there. The fact that the roads were perfectly paved and maintained gave us the confidence to push on.

We drove around aimlessly for a couple of hours, argued lovingly with Rupert (our faithful Peugeot 308 GPS), and finally found a lonely woman at the official National Park entrance a million miles from nowhere. It was the perfect place to sell overpriced maps, because we had no idea where we were, or how we had gotten there. Now with an old school backup for Rupert, we made our way through the beautiful park and back to camp. In the end it was a lovely day of driving, but not surprisingly, most of the roads we traveled that day don't exist on Google Maps.

Little did we know at the time that this was just the warmup for the next big mountain adventure: the road from Sarajavo, Bosnia and Herzegovina to Žabljak, Montenegro.

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The drive through Bosnia and Herzegovina was lovely, but as soon as we crossed the border into Montenegro we knew that we were in another world. The embankments became cliffs and the valleys became gorges. It felt and looked like a wilderness that I'd never seen or experienced before. The mountains are mostly made of limestone which lead to amazing karst formations and gives a ruggedness that is completely unique. One of the coolest things about this day was that it was all a complete surprise - we didn't have any idea that we were going to be driving through mountains, much less the most amazing we'd ever seen.

Mountains Near Zabljak, Montenegro

After about twenty minutes of driving through these beautiful vistas with views of the incredibly blue (from the dissolved limestone) Piva river on our right hand side, Sarah saw an incredible bridge over the river. It seemed to be suspended only by the air underneath. To make it even more dramatic, we couldn't see where it started or where it stopped; it seemed as though it came from the mountain itself on one side and went straight into a mountain on the other. Sarah's heart jumped into her chest when she saw that there was a car stopped in the middle.

Piva River Bridge

I calmly and naively said, "Don't worry, honey. It doesn't look like we have to cross it." Ha! Just at this moment Rupert tells me "In 200 yards, turn left." What? There is no left. To the right is a cliff with the river below us, and to the left is the sheer rock face of the mountain. But Rupert was insistent, and as we approached the bridge, the road suddenly turned left into a tunnel. Sarah's stress level started to increase as we slowly realized that the bridge does in fact come straight from the mountainside and we were curving back towards the river. On cue Rupert said "If possible, make a U-turn." You've got to be kidding! There's no place to even think of turning around. We're in a tunnel and about to drive across a narrow bridge over this chasm! I quickly promised that we didn't have to stop on the bridge, but just as quickly reneged when I saw how incredible the view was. This was also why the other car had stopped. Our compromise was that Sarah didn't have to get out of the car. I couldn't help myself, though & had to get out for a closer view.

Through the Pass

The rest of the trip to Žabljak was one incredible view and experience after another. Every tunnel we entered was like a lottery ticket that paid off with dramatic vistas on the other side. And a word about the tunnels. These are not your ordinary American tunnels that are nicely finished with concrete. I am pretty sure that these tunnels were hand carved by dwarves from Middle Earth. It was like driving into a cave. They never had lights, and often we were engulfed in pitch dark, with no visibility in front or behind us except trusty Rupert's headlights.

Tunnel in Montenegro

Once we settled into Žabljak, we went to see the world's second longest canyon, the Tara River Canyon. It is second only to the Grand Canyon. Most people here raft through it, but we thought it would be more fun to see it from the rim instead. It felt like we had the entire world to ourselves that morning, as we didn't see any other signs of humanity until we got back to our car at the end of the hike.
Tara Canyon, Montenegro


Lonely Bench, Tara Canyon, Montenegro

Our last big day of driving was in Slovenia's Triglav National Park. Triglav is a huge three-peaked mountain in the west of the country, and our day was basically spent driving around it with amazing views the whole time. The national park is famous for its 50 switchbacks. Each switchback has cobblestones for added traction.

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Aside from the beauty of the park, it is also an important historical area. It was the site of many months of warfare during WWI. For two years the town of Kobarid and the mountains there were the front between Italy and Austria-Hungary. It nearly destroyed the town, and there were incredible casualties on both sides (totaling about half a million). Eventually the Italian forces were driven from Kobarid and retreated, but the region was given to Italy after the war. I'm not sure how I would have dealt with this if I were a Slovenian in this region. You win a two year battle against invaders to your homeland, only to lose the war and lose your homeland in the end anyway. Thankfully everybody's friends now, and there's an excellent museum on the subject in Kobarid with great exhibits in English, Slovenian and Italian. This was probably one of our longest days in the car, due to plenty of stops along the way to enjoy the view and the history of the area. But it was definitely worth it.

Triglav National Park, Slovenia

Switchback Number 50!

In the end, these days in the mountains just made us all the more homesick. Even though we had to pick our jaws up off of the ground a few times here in Europe, there's nothing like those Colorado Rockies. Thankfully we'll be back home before we can blink - tomorrow in fact!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Reposted by Serbia's Ambassador to the World

Our previous post about our time in Serbia was reposted by Serbia's Ambassador to the World and we've had almost 100 hits from Serbia since. I'm glad that we had an opportunity to let people know how wonderful Serbia and its people are.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Adventures in Serbia

The Serbs are incredibly friendly and hospitable. We experienced this particularly when we camped in the stunning mountains of Western Serbia. We stayed in the pear orchards of an older man who makes his own booze from the pears. He didn’t speak English but still he greeted us with a smile and shots of rakia. We were lucky enough to be there at the same time as his children and grandchildren who all spoke English. We spent our evenings chatting with them about life in our two countries. We talked about the Yugoslavian war in which more than 130,000 people were killed. The ethnic cleansing of Bosnians by Serbs that occurred is considered genocide. Later, during the Kosovo War, America, as a part of NATO, was involved in bombing Serbia even though NATO did not have UN approval. Our hosts were very open with us about the religious and political conflicts that still exist among the former Yugoslavian countries. At the same time, they talked about treating people as individuals despite their religion. They were curious about how Americans manage (or don’t) to live in peace despite our diversity.

The view from our campsite

Theron in Tara National Park

While we were in the mountains, we drove through the winding, poorly marked roads of Tara National Park. Theron’s knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet from his high school Russian classes came in incredibly useful. The lakes in this area were beautiful and we went for a swim. We also tried to find a medieval village down a remote road but we were unsuccessful. “Medieval village” has become a code word for any place with think might be non-existent (or hard to find). It’s a frequently used word lately.

The only well marked sign in Tara National Park

While we were in Serbia, we visited the cities of Novi Sad and Niš. Novi Sad has a great vibe in its beautiful town center with countless outdoor cafes. They also have a beautiful park along the Danube. Niš has some incredible historical sites. There are 4th century Roman ruins with mosaics comparable to those in Rome. There is a tower built of the skulls of Serbian soldiers by the Turks to celebrate a victory in 1809. Many of the skulls disappeared when family members recognized their fathers, brothers, and sons.

Evening in Novi Sad

In Niš, we also visited a World War II concentration camp run by Nazis during the Axis occupation of Serbia. In this camp, 12,000 Serbians were murdered over four years. The Germans instituted a policy in which one hundred Serbs were killed for every German who died, and fifty were killed for every wounded soldier. It was the site of the first successful escape from a concentration camp, involving over 100 prisoners. The guide told us that the tall concrete walls surrounding the camp were built after the escape. One of the strangest aspects of this camp is that there is a school built right next to it, since it is in the heart of a living city. I can’t really imagine what it must be like to be a student there, with the reminder of these horrors outside of the classroom window every day.

Crveni Krst Concentration Camp

This week in Serbia has made me spend a lot of time thinking about war and brutality, particularly after just serving two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I really believe that international peace is built by individual relationships. It is about having conversations with strangers, just like we did with our Serbian hosts. Only with these experiences will we breakdown stereotypes, learn to value our differences and, more importantly, recognize our similarities.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Church of Bones

Our post-Peace Corps European adventure has been amazing so far.  We're on Day 19 of 75. We've been to Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Serbia. Highlights include hiking in the Swiss Alps, discovering random castles along the way, strolling through charming towns like Lucerne and Regensburg, and spending time with fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteers Stephen, Megan and Kevin.

Perhaps the most unique thing we've seen is the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic. It is a Catholic chapel decorated with the skeletons of 40,000 people. The graveyard had been sprinkled with dirt from the Holy Land in 1200s so it was a very popular place to be buried. The current church is from the 1400s. In 1511, a half-blind monk was tasked with exhuming skeletons and stacking the old bones to make room for new burials. This is a fairly common practice in Europe. Then in 1870, a local woodcarver, Frantesek Rindt, was asked by the Shwartzenberg family to arrange the bones. This is what he produced.

Bone pyramid

Bone chandelier using at least one of every bone in the human body

Six foot tall chalice

Schwarzenberg Coat of Arms made of bones Schwarzenberg Coat of Arms

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Romania, We Meet Again! (aka That Didn't Take Long)

Sarah and I arrived in Zurich, Switzerland on the 4th of July from Romania for a double purpose. We were renting a car from nearby France (as it was the most cost effective way to rent for our trip) and I scored an interview with Google. Zurich was the closest office that gives interviews.

Things started off poorly for us with a massive culture shock. We strolled into the five star hotel that Google had booked for me. The receptionist looked at me, looked at Sarah, looked back at me, and said "This is for a single, correct?" I said, "Yeah, but don't worry. We'll pay the difference in the room rate." She said, "I'm sorry sir, you don't understand. We are completely booked. There are no more beds." In Romania, we would have worked as a team to solve this problem, hotel staff and guests all working with a common understanding that it is in everyone's best interest that a bed would magically appear. In Switzerland, they have fire codes.

After I sold a kidney so that we could afford another hotel close by, I decided to walk to the Google office. I didn't want to stress about finding it the next morning. I got out my little map, which I had printed and starred with the office's location. I strolled past a lovely park; watched the Audis, Porsches, and BMWs cruise past me; and gaped at a ten year old Hasidic Jew go past on his push scooter while fully dressed in his suit and hat. All the while I was noticing a lovely palace on top of a hill on the other side of the park. As I followed my map and climbed that very hill, it slowly dawned on me that the palace was the star on my map. It couldn't be the Google office, could it? I had heard that the office was amazing, but a palace?

And.... I was in the wrong place. I hit the dead end at the top of the hill and found out that the palace was a business school. I wasn't lost, but I was officially out of ideas. I could walk back to the hotel, but it was getting dark, and besides I didn't want to give them the chance at that other kidney. Thankfully three joggers were relaxing and stretching after their hill climb. If the Peace Corps taught me anything, it is to swallow my pride and ask for help when I need it. I am officially immune to receiving the you-are-an-idiot face. But the joggers were extremely pleasant, spoke English, and pointed me right to the office.

After finding the building, entering into a fit of stress induced panic at the thought of the upcoming interview, and wandering in circles for about 10 minutes like a dazed bird after flying into a window, I started back to the hotel. Who did I see, but my newest friends in Zurich, the joggers! By this point my heart rate had returned to a normal level, and I noticed one of the women was wearing a Google Engineering jacket. So I asked the question with the obvious answer, but it wasn't her, but her husband/boyfriend who worked there. I mentioned the interview to put the pieces in place for him, and he wondered why I would be all the way in Zurich for an interview.

I said that I had been in Romania for two years, and this was the closest office, and his eyes popped out of his head and he blurted "Ești Român?!" (Which means "You're Romanian?!") I was just as surprised as he was to hear Romanian here and immediately switched to speaking Romanian to tell him our story. We had a wonderful chat, and I hope that I made his day better by speaking to him in his own language. Hearing your native tongue while living abroad is thrilling (even if it is as widely spoken as English).

I'm pretty happy to say that my first Swiss friend just happens to be a Romanian.

P.S. The Google interview seemed to go well, but I will find out in a week or two how I did. Țineți pumnii! (Keep your fingers crossed!)

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Until We See You Again, Romania

Today is our official last day as Peace Corps volunteers in Romania and also the 4th of July! We had an amazing two years here that went by incredibly fast. We made lifelong friends, and I think we touched a lot of peoples' lives. I know that many people touched ours, if that's any indication. As teachers it is often hard to measure success, but based on the love we felt and the tears shed at our leaving, I think we should be proud. We still have blog posts to write about our experiences and about 15,000 more photos to edit.

In the short term, we have decided to go on a dream vacation by driving around Europe for a few months. We're focusing on the Balkans and will end the trip in Portugal to visit some good friends who live there. We plan to be better about blog posting and facebook updating! If you'd like to join us for part of our trip, you're more than welcome.

Our next step is unknown. Romania has taught us to be flexible and live in the moment. We're excited to see what happens. Wish us luck!

For your viewing pleasure, here is a short video that our good friend Mihaela made for us about our time here.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Too late.

Text message to Grant: Take the elevator to the 8th floor. The door on the 9th floor doesn't open.
Text message from Grant: Too late. Now I'm stuck at 9 and it won't move at all.

Poor Grant had the dubious honor of being stuck in our elevator tonight. I'm not surprised. Even Grant wasn't surprised. If you've ever seen our elevator, I'm sure you're not surprised.

A few fast facts about our elevator:
  • You have to wait for the second "clunk" when the elevator stops or you'll be stuck between two floors. If this happens, you have to go back to the first floor and then back up to the ninth.
  • As a "safety" feature, you must hold the inner doors closed or the elevator will stop immediately.
  • We have ten floors in our building, but the elevator only goes to the 9th floor.
  • For a full month, the elevator was shut off because no one had paid. We have a double amputee who lives on the 7th floor.
  • Sometimes you push the button and the elevator starts. Sometimes you have to push the button and hold it. There doesn't seem to be a pattern. If you have to hold the button, you can't let go on the way up or you'll stop immediately.
  • If one of the outer doors is left open on any random floor, the elevator will not work from any floor.
  • Written on the elevator wall in permanent marker are two phone numbers in case the elevator is broken. No one answered one of them when I called today. The other is no longer in service.
  • We learned tonight that there is a secret emergency handle that Grant could have used to open the door. Our neighbor was shocked that we had used the elevator for two years without knowing about this.
  • Despite all this, people are still confused when we decide to climb the stairs if the elevator is actually running.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Two Years Made

I can't believe today marks our two year anniversary in Romania! It has been an intense ride that has pushed us beyond what we thought was possible. We've made new friends, learned a new language, lived on $600 a month, and hopefully brought a little more peace and understanding to the world. We never could have accomplished this without the support of our beloved Peace Corps Romania Group 28. We did it!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Vlădeni Pulls Out All the Stops

This all started months ago when I had the idea that I would like to try to dye Easter eggs in the Moldovan style. I knew a fellow volunteer, Grant, had friends who were experts at this, and I hoped that they would enjoy sharing their heritage and tradition. It turns out that his village, Vlădeni, Botoșani, wanted to share much more than just egg painting with eight Americans.

An army of Americans invade Vlădeni!

As we walked through the door, each of us broke off a piece of traditional bread, called a colac. It was beautifully made, braided with care into a circle, symbolizing the infinity of God or the shape of the sun. We were warmly welcomed guests in this place. As I looked around, I could immediately see that they had pulled out all the stops for us.

Welcomed with Colac

In the center of the room I saw a table piled high with fresh fruit, cakes, bread and pitchers of wine and țuică (homemade brandy). Under this bounty was a hand stitched and embroidered tablecloth. The more I looked around, the more I saw small items that had been brought in especially for us to see, including beautiful pottery, traditional wall hangings, and an antique telephone.

Prepared Just for Us

We were given traditional, colorful bags, which contained a program in both Romanian and English that described our plan for the day and the tradition of dying Easter eggs. Then we were ushered to sit down and relax for a few minutes. There was a round of introductions and speeches, and we realized that our hosts included the mayor, vice mayor, school director, a priest, and even guests from Ukraine. There is an old saying here in Romania that the Americans would come and rescue them from the Soviet influence. The joke was that on this particular day both the Soviets and the Americans had invaded Vlădeni. Thankfully we both came in peace.

As I looked around the room more carefully, I started to discover the full extent of our options for the day. Over the past weeks, the town of Vlădeni had put together five different traditional activities for us to enjoy for the day. Set up in stations, we could choose from egg painting, opinci (shoe) making, weaving a traditional covor (rug) on an ancient stativă (loom), baking mucenici (a special type of bread), and last but definitely not least tasting the plăcinte (cakes) and băuturi (drinks) available on the main table.

When we were given the word, we all scattered. I went straight to the baking station and was immediately put to work cracking eggs. There were two women from Vlădeni who began to relate the story of the 40 Martyrs (sometimes called the 40 Saints). The holiday occurs every year on this day, March 9, and we were baking a special bread called mucenici (which means martyrs) to celebrate their life and sacrifice. The bread is rolled into long thin cylinders, braided, and made into an eight (some say infinity). Mine turned out quite plump and one of the women joked with me. She said “Oh! We’ve got a fat American, but it will work.”

After some time baking, I went to see what was happening at the egg painting station. I would have to be careful not to crack eggs here! I found here that Grant’s knowledgeable friends were four 5th grade girls, and they were dying up a storm. They had even prepared a cheat sheet of patterns for us. The secret to dying eggs in the Moldovan style is that you paint wax onto an emptied eggshell. The wax acts as a barrier to the dye, so you paint the wax over the color you want to keep. In other words, the first layer of wax will stay eggshell white. You can repeat this process as many times as you like, for incredibly detailed and colorful patterns. The girls, who have been practicing for more than half their
lives, have hands as steady as a surgeon’s. We Americans have years to go before we can make anything close to their amazing creations, but we gave it our best.

Egg Painting

Once I put my egg in for its first round of yellow dye, I went over to the loom. As I sat down, a wonderfully animated woman rapidly described all of the parts and their purpose. After all of it, I was able to remember one word – stativă, the word for loom in Romanian. I had previously learned the word război for a loom, but she assured me that a război was something else entirely. I’m sure she knows what she’s talking about! The loom was made of wood and held together with twine, and seemed about ready to fall apart. But when we got working, my guide insisted that I put my back into it. Thankfully the apparatus held up with no problem. I shouldn’t have been surprised, since most of the women present were stronger than me from a life of incredibly hard work on their farms. I never did figured out how the loom fit together; there were just too many moving parts, pedals, and threads. With her help, I did a few rows and headed back to check on my egg.

Jennifer Spins Yarn

Anthony Weaves a Rug

After another round of painting, I dropped my egg in the red dye and went to see what was happening at the opinci making station. Opinci are traditional leather shoes, and I found Jenn showing off her completed pair. With the pointed toes on her shoes, she looked a little elfin to my eyes, but beaming with pride all the same. I did not have time to make my own shoes, but I watched for a while as holes were made in the leather with a hammer and a large nail, and then they were sewn together with a coarse leather thread.

Finally, I made my way back to dye my egg one last shade of blue, causing the exposed red to turn purple! And then it was time to relax and sample the various foods and drinks available to me. Many of the cakes and drinks are very commonly found here in Romania, such as sarmale (cabbage rolls), plăcinta (a traditional cake), colivă (a wheat dish with the consistency of oatmeal), and homemade wine. Țuică is a brandy normally made from plums, but I tried two new kinds: one made from beets that smelled and tasted very much like its source, and another made from the leftovers of the winemaking process that was much more neutral.

Theron's Egg

Of all the amazing things that I was privileged to learn in Vlădeni, what I will remember forever is the pride the community has in the traditions which they have passed from generation to generation. As our world becomes ever more modern and fast paced, we are tempted to forget the importance of culture and tradition. How easy it would be to replace hand painted eggs with paste-on decals. It is such a beautiful thing to see a place that not only keeps their traditions alive but thrills at the chance to share them. I am confident to say that we would be welcome back to Vlădeni as soon as we can return. They are waiting for us.