About the Blog

I recently accepted a position from Teach and Learn with Georgia, a Georgian Ministry of Education program designed to bring native speakers of English into classrooms around the country. I will be moving to Georgia in August of 2014 to begin my assignment.

Before this latest adventure, I studied at Bogazici University in Istanbul Turkey and at Azerbaijan University of Languages. I speak English German Spanish, Turkish Azerbaijani and Uzbek and am currently trying my hand at Georgian.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Balkans Part I

The Cathedral in Zagreb Croatia

Remains of Diocletian's Palace in Split Croatia
Serbia was the nation in which I spent the least time. We flew in and out of Belgrade, due to cheaper seats, presumably because no one goes to Belgrade. The Serbian capital of the three I visited was undoubtedly the one that most put me ill at ease. Its underbelly seemed to be much more poorly hidden than that in the other nations. It hasn’t attracted the tourism dollars that have been flowing into Croatia, which was recently accepted into the EU, nor does it have the exotic appeal of Bosnia, which is getting infusions of cash from its Muslim brothers, especially Turkey as it turns out. Serbia was Russia’s friend at the end of the Soviet period, and since Russia was as broke as Serbia was, the partnership didn’t work out too well. Evidence of the Ottoman period is practically nonexistent in the center of the old city, and only 1 mosque remains in the capital. Point blank Belgrade isn’t diverse. It’s undeniably Serbian. The infrastructure in Belgrade is tired. Its National Museum is undergoing renovations that started more than 15 years ago. It has a single room of sculptures open to the public and when we visited the museum we were urged by the curator to take our tickets to another museum where they would be accepted and check it out. It was almost as if he were saying “There is nothing worth seeing here. Move on”. And yet Belgrade felt defiant. Serbia is a young nation and the youth refuse to be brought down by their nation’s problems. They walk the pedestrian streets that preserve the last remaining Russian Imperial style architecture in the capital, the few buildings that got past the Communist Period unscathed. The new Cathedral, meant to be the largest Orthodox Church in the world remains unfinished, and yet the hope that it will at some point come to fruition remains strong. It reminds me of the stories I have heard about the Duomo in Florence that was left without a dome for decades, and yet people never lost hope that it would be completed. They trusted that a solution would come along, that economic domination would arrive and times would get better. This defiant optimism was what I felt in Belgrade. People take the status quo but don’t give in to the grimness that they easily could, because after twenty years of independence and the slow disintegration and
international humiliation that the state has been subjected to, they just keep going. They remain proud of their country and its achievements. No one will tell them what to believe or think or hope for. They will decide for themselves. They will enjoy their city, their country and their lives. It is theirs.
Harbor outside of Zadar Croatia
Croatia on the other hand, is flush with cash. Tourism has seriously taken off in this nation.  The capital Zagreb is picturesque, as is the rest of the nation. Its ancient heart remains untainted by communism and the Ottomans never quite made it. Instead the city is beautifully medieval, winding streets and stone buildings and the red tile roofs that I will never fail to associate with my family’s hometown in Germany. Its many Catholic churches ring out the hours, one of the sounds that I most miss while I live here in Turkey. Before I started traveling I never thought of missing sounds like you do smells and foods and people. The oldest part of Zagreb stands on a hill above the rest of the town, looking out over a plain and river. We walked outside of town to visit the old cemetery, beautiful in its serenity and peace, full of family graves, many Catholic but others were Jewish or Orthodox. All three nations had a huge cafĂ© culture and each capital had a central pedestrian zone chock full of beautiful little cafes. Zagreb was picturesque, if I had to choose a single word for it. Croatia struck me more than anything for its beauty.

Sunset on Korcula
 I spent several days working my ways down the Dalmatian coast, opposite Italy, in the towns of Zadar, Split, Dubrovnik as well as the island Korcula. I spent hours watching the sun go down over the harbor of these ancient walled cities, some Roman and some Medieval, or in the case of Dubrovnik, rebuilt since the shelling undergone in the early 1990s. Dubrovnik was perhaps the most striking of these towns. During the day it fills up with tourists and cruise ships and each nationality lives up to its stereotypes. Walking the walls was desperately hot but the views of the blue green sea, the tiny islands ringing the harbor and the fortifications all along the coast made up for the heat. That was not my favorite part of this Jewel of the Adriatic though. This city is truly a jewel but it is in the quiet places where you find it. On the way into town we passed a steep cliff down to the water covered in trees and flowers. However, I spied some people swimming down at the bottom. After discovering that Dubrovnik was chock full of tourists, and that nothing opened up until the height of tourist season, and finally that some of the young people on a tour failed to preserve any type of decorum in the cathedral, taking pictures and shouting despite obvious signs requesting that they didn’t and then pushing me over the edge by leaning onto the altar, we decided to escape the tourist ticky tacky of the old town. Passing back the way we came I decided to explore and we discovered by following a young Croatian man who seemed to know where he was going we discovered Club Boninovo, a set of stairs and a few concrete platforms on the water. We jumped into the water, which was colder than I expected and watched the sun go down yet again. 

Me on the walls of Dubrovnik
I think my favorite place in Croatia though was Plitvice Lakes National Parks, about halfway between Zagreb and Zadar. The parks are a series of snow fed lakes and waterfalls, green in color and rather fantastic flora. I walked on wooden boarding following winding trails that made me think I was walking through a set for Rivendale. Yet for all its beauty Croatia seemed like it was simply trying to deny its past. Nothing in Dubrovnik mentions the fact that the city was shelled, or that live mines still ring the town. At Plitvice Parks on the way out I saw a small structure and upon arriving it was a monument to young Special Forces who died liberating the area from Serbian nationalists, that the monuments called terrorists, but I suspect were paramilitary forces. Yet the monument was placed in such a way so that tourists would never see it. Croatia is trying to forget that the war happened, and convince its visitors that it didn’t either. I felt the whole time in Croatia like it was saying to me “Oh yes the war, yes that…oh look, beaches!”. I can’t blame Croatia for wanting to forget, I’ve tried to do the same myself, but in the course of my life I’ve discovered that there is a clear difference between moving on and forgetting. Trying to forget means that you simply bury the event and can never truly work through them. 
Plitvice Lakes National Park

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