Thursday, January 21, 2010

Life is Like a Box of Chocolates

...you never know what you're gonna get. I had a cup of tea with my English teacher the other day and told her that after living in the Balkans for two years, I may never be surprised again in my life, by anything! What I should have told her is that I've firmly come to believe the saying "never say never," because I had to eat my words less than an hour later.

Isabelle and I got home early and were sitting in a quiet house doing homework in our rooms. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door, and a Roma woman walked in asking us in local whether we wanted to buy some pajamas. Now, while this wouldn't have surprised me a bit on the street, we live on the top floor in the farthest corner of the house, so our room is about the least likely place for such an event to transpire! A little bewildered, we replied that no, thanks, we didn't need any pajamas, and the woman shrugged her shoulders and left Isa and I to stare at each other in stunned silence. We thought our encounter was over but a few minutes later, the woman was back speaking in German and then insisting, "Come here!" in local. We heard Hilary talking down the hall and then a couple of our Bosnian classmates explaining to the woman that this is a residence not a hostel and we don't all understand local language. Hilary had the biggest shock of anyone...she came home from school, walked into her room, and saw the Roma woman standing there tapping the shoulder of a friend who was taking a nap!

The woman soon left and no harm was done, but it is a bit of a mystery. All three of us had to open the front door with our keys when we came in, so how the woman entered in the first place is anyone's guess. It's an interesting story to tell...a reminder that the Balkans can seem like a land of anything goes, and good training in shock management for our first years.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Mostar Moves

A decidedly not-so-positive impact of lots of RAIN! The river turned an uncharacteristic brown and caused damaging flooding on either side of Mostar...at one point it was just below the terrace you see on the right.

As I look for excuses to avoid my ever-present mound of schoolwork, I've spent more time than usual this week catching up on world news and reacquainting myself with Mostar. For a town which constantly bears the brunt of criticism for its bureaucratic fiascoes and slow reconstruction efforts, some things in Mostar sure change fast. In just over 3 weeks time, it managed to see the flooding of the Neretva, the stripping of the Old Bank by scrap-metal seekers, the introduction of a new cafe, restaurant, supermarket complete with Mexican and Italian food imports, shopping center, and possibly other signs of modernization and westernization that I'm unaware of. Now whether such commercial changes have a positive impact is another question. With political frustrations also building and economic and ethnic issues always present, I hope that the next few weeks see changes more in the vein of a new mayor or less corruption. I'm encouraged and confident that some progress is being made...our dance instructor Ashely Fargnoli succeeded for the first time in conducting a joint workshop with Bosniak and Croat girls from Mostar and Sarajevo...that's a bigger deal than you might think! Even some of the ever-present ruins down the street are slowly being cleared out or rebuilt. For better and sometimes for worse, Mostar is moving...I hope and pray it's at least mostly in the right direction.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Europe

And here's a map just in case anyone wants to get a general picture of the route of this winter Eurotrip. :)

Monday, January 11, 2010

Prague

Early Christian temple in the oldest part of Prague.
Cafe by the river where the famous artists and writers are known to hang out.
Examples of Prague architecture...there are so many styles EVERYWHERE!

Guards to the castle complex on top of a hill above Prague. This is where the infamous president works, and it's also where Obama made his recent visit. These guards have to stand completely still while they're on duty no matter what the tourists do around them...I couldn't bring myself to taunt them with a ridiculous pose (although it was really tempting), but I did snap a quick pic while someone else was there.
Tribute to author Franz Kafka, in his former neighborhood.
video

Call me easily amused, but one of my favorite sites in Prague was the clocktower in the main square. It features a 24 hour clock, an astrological clock, and is actually so elaborate that it's hard to get a reading from it! The best part is, it's mechanized so that every hour the figures carved into the sides of the tower start to move!!! The skeleton rings a bell and other figures shake their heads as the images of various saints move past the opened windows...the whole thing is a bit macabre, really, but enchanting! (And I promise, it's a bit more impressive in person!)
The picture's not great, but it's worth visiting the National Museum just for the beauty of the interior!
Admission is free on Mondays, so we took a while to wander around and make some new friends.
Interior views of St. Vitus Cathedral, which was under construction from 1344 to 1929...almost 600 years! It's located inside the castle compound, it's completed mostly in the Gothic style, and it's one of the most beautiful churches I've ever seen.


A sad indicator of commercial influence...those red panels feature the names of the insurance company that funded the window.
Cathedral from another angle
Front facade of the cathedral
City in the morning, from the hill by the castle!

To bring in 2010, I made a longer stop with my friend Karolina in Prague. Actually, several of us from Mostar met up to celebrate the New Year (also my birthday and Czech Independence Day) with toasting, fireworks, and of course lots of food...pretty unforgetable, but cold! Then, I stayed around for a few days and had a relaxing time seeing the city with Karolina and even escaping the cold at an indoor water park! By then, I was getting exhausted by the European city speed-tour routine, so it was great to chill with a family (and spend my first afternoon in a tearoom!) in a large and peaceful city.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Saxony

A first view of Dresden's older quarter from afar
A mosaic remainder of socialist timesThe guard of the passage...an example of the ornate decorations on seemingly EVERY building in old town! ...He reminds me of the Muppets.

View from the Bridge...the domed building in the center is an art institute nicknamed, "The Lemon Squeezer"
One of my favorite sites in Dresden...a street with a mosaic depicting all the kings of Saxony, along with their sometimes humorous and curious nicknames (ie-"the one who was bitten")
Probably the most famous church in Dresden. It was destroyed during the war and rebuilt entirely with donations. The darker stones are the original ones which could be recovered.
View from the top of the church.
Old Town's "skyline" from across the river. This river is where the first steamboat's actually sailed...the one's from which the famous Mississippi steamboats of Mark Twain's day were designed.
Courtyard of the old palace, now a museum
The Milchmeyers, my lovely hosts!
A slightly newer block of buildings

It's official...I may be a bad traveler or traveling may just be risky, but either way I don't trust the German train system. Unlike their people, they have a reputation for being late, as my connection to Prague was. Still, I had a great time in Saxony, getting a glimpse of both more rural Hoyerswerda with my second-year Georg and of the more cosmopolitan Dresden with Laura and her family.

Of course, Dresden is famous both a city which was severely bombed during the Second World War but also as the sight of many demonstrations against a divided Germany in the 1980s, during which many protestors saught sanctuary in various churches. Laura's father went to university in Dresden, so it was interesting to hear how much has changed in the past few years! What I found most interesting there was the Church of the Holy Cross, which I unfortunately didn't get any decent pictures of since we visited in the dark. It was damaged during the war, and it's still very plain on the inside partly due to lack of funds and partly due to their belief that a church doesn't have to be ornately decorated to be effective...with which I agree. Instead, they've come up with some creative uses for the space, my favorite of which is a room where children from the congregation have made replicas of famous medeival religious paintings and their interpretations. (For example, a copy of a Madonna scene with the caption, "Joseph went shopping, so Mary and the baby Jesus are waiting for him on a gold chair.") The church also features a Cross of Nails, a tradition started after WWII when English churches took metal from the ruins of churches destroyed by German bombs, fashioned them into crosses, and sent them to German congregations as a sign of reconciliation and unity. Today, German and English churches have spread these crosses to countries around the world to foster the same sense of unity, and last year, one was even brought to the evangelical church in Mostar! I remember this occasion not only because there were Bosniak, Croat, Serb, and Roma ethnicities joined together for worship, but also because the Franciscian brotherhood and leaders of several other denominations in the city sent their representatives or blessings. It was so refreshing to see faith used as a force of unity rather than division, and to see the origins of these small but revolutionary actions in Dresden.

After a day of walking through the city and checking out some traditional German craft and sampling the ever-present Gl├╝hwein (mulled wine), I went headed to Hoyerswerda to visit my second-year Georg and his mother. Hoyerswerda is about twice the size of Centralia population-wise, but it has many similarities in its demographics and in that mining used to be a major industry. Despite the snow, we made it to a nearby convent where I saw a prayer service and had a nice view of Saxony's winter countryside. The next day at the supermarket in Hoyerswerda, Georg and I found a surprising reminder of our Balkans home. Apparently Mostar's not the only place increasing its culinary imports!