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.