Wednesday, March 29, 2017

30 Hours (Or Less) in London

I was reminded, again, how lucky I am to be living and traveling abroad when I went to London this past weekend to visit a fellow Northeastern co-op student for a night. I booked the trip in January after finding out that a favorite band would be playing a Saturday night show and realizing I could attend without missing work or paying for a hotel; the trip also turned out to be the perfect introduction to the city I will be calling home this coming fall while participating in the Hansard Society Scholars Program at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Having never visited London, or anywhere in the UK for that matter, I wasn't sure what to expect in terms of cultural differences. I'm sure there are many more than I observed during my short time there, but after living in Serbia for several months being in London felt very much like being in a quieter, cleaner version of New York.

This is not to say that London doesn’t have its own unique personality to offer- it undeniably does, and I absolutely cannot wait to experience it come September. But due to the nature of the trip, filled with so much familiarity and the knowledge that I would be returning in a few short months, I focused on what I had come to London to do- visit a good friend and see my favorite band play- rather than embarking on a whirlwind tour of all things British.

After traveling to Austria, Hungary, and Romania these past few months, it was refreshing to arrive in a place where I spoke the language. However, much to my enjoyment, airport staff seemed to have trouble placing me and, even after I deplaned and entered Heathrow, was seldom addressed in English. While the Serbian makes sense (I did fly on Air Serbia from Belgrade after all), I was surprised to learn that I appear French- three different airport personnel addressed me in the language. Needless to say, this conundrum made for a highly entertaining welcome to the country.

Regardless, I felt very much like I was in the United States- which makes sense given that it was the first English speaking place I’ve visited in several months- and I was at home instantly, comforted by the knowledge that I was in a place that understood my language and would have things such as iced coffee or bagels, both commodities that don’t really exist in my current place of residence (fun fact: in Serbia and most other Balkan countries if you order an iced coffee you will receive a latte with vanilla ice cream in it which, while not an unpleasant surprise, is disheartening after a certain point).

After spending some time with my host for the weekend, a friend I met while on a dialogue of civilizations in Bosnia & Herzegovina last year, and attending a show for a band I’ve called myself a fan of for more than nine years, the feeling of belonging only grew.

The next morning was spent cherishing the return of iced coffee to my diet while trading life updates traipsing through the charming streets of soho.

I did manage to squeeze in a handful of tourist sights, though I kept my distance, not yet able to shake the feeling that normal tourist behavior would be disrespectful in the wake of last week's events and knowing I would have several months in the future to capture London's icons.

In all, my visit to London was exactly what I didn't know I needed- a quick, quiet getaway and some quality time with familiar faces. Having seen all that the city has to offer, I am now only more excited to be studying there in the fall!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

A Romanian Getaway

While it resembles Belgrade or Thessaloniki in terms of its rough-around-the-edges appearance, Bucharest certainly retains some of the charm that comes with the territory; as they say, the people make the place.

Romanians are spectacular- loud and open, but still reserved and not overbearing. It’s quite a feat to balance those things in this part of the world.
While in Bucharest I met people that rank among some of the most interesting humans I’ve ever come across: a young girl from Moldova, wandering somewhat aimlessly as she searched for work- and happy to finally have someone to speak to about something other than her employment status; an older man, from Timisoara, Romania who had traveled the world. He spoke like a professor, sharing perspectives and lessons from his travels. Before leaving he gifted me his prayer book, complete with a dedication to me out of appreciation for my love of learning. I spent my 20th birthday touring Transylvania with a young couple, engaged this past January, who left their corporate jobs to start a tour company; even with strangers in a strange place I felt like I was among friends. Romanians seem to have that effect on people.
There were countless others, but I will stop there for fear of failing to do justice to these people and their stories. For now, these are the thoughts I’ve been able to articulate:
1) like Bosnia & Herzegovina, Romania has branded itself as having 'too much history'
2) Romanians seem to have adopted the rhetoric that all humans are the same. It is hugely heartwarming.
3) people understand what makes them happy and are unafraid to avoid things that do not
4) the culture reminds me of Italy, though it retains distinct Eastern European influences. So it goes. 
5) I have never felt more welcome in a place in my entire life
While on this trip, I spent my 20th birthday wandering Transylvania with my best friend and two of the most interesting people I’ve met in a long time: Unveil Romania’s founders. Armed with a love for travel and a desire to share the beauty of their home country with visitors, Mihai and Olivia founded the company after becoming disillusioned with their jobs in corporate marketing. My friend and I were lucky enough to have them as our private tour guides for the day, though it often felt more like we were amongst old friends.
The day began at eight in the morning in central Bucharest, where we were introduced to our guides and then prepared to embark on a roughly two hour journey to Peles Castle in Sinaia. 

The castle, completed in 1914, was home to King Carol, a German man who served as Romania’s leader for over 30 years. Carol had a discerning eye for art, and thus furnished the castle with some of the finest works from central and eastern europe. Today, the palace serves as an art museum, complete with several state-themed rooms, and a monument to one of Romania’s most loved rulers.

Next, we ventured to Bran Castle, located within the Transylvania region. The castle was built as a fortress to guard the region from Ottoman invasion, and later served as a summer residence for Queen Maria, a relative of King Carol I, and her husband. Today it is open as a museum where guests can observe the Queen’s furnishings and learn about the legend of Dracula, for whom the castle is often named. Though there is no evidence that Bram Stoker, who authored the iconic novel, had any knowledge of the castle it does bear a striking resemblance to the castle used in the original 1931 film adaptation. It is believed that Dracula’s character may have been inspired by Vlad the Impaler, whose brutal methods (yes, it is what you think) protected the region from Ottoman invasion for decades.

Lastly, we made our way to Brasov, a typical Transylvanian city located between several mountain ranges (much like Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina) which made for a fantastic end to my Romanian excursion. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Very Serbian Evening

I wrote the following during one of my first weeks in Belgrade to share with friends and family back home. Two months later and the memory still brings a smile to my face. Enjoy! 

Two years ago in Boston a friend told me that the best advice she ever received from her mother is that she should spend her money on experiences instead of material things. It made sense to me immediately; material things simply cannot bring the same happiness as a shared memory.

It’s ridiculous to think that that conversation took place two full years ago- before I had even chosen a university, let alone considered spending six full months outside the country.

Now though, I think about those words all the time. Catching up with friends or getting to know someone new often happens over coffee or lunch, a usually well justified expense, but rarely an experience. However, I feel that a particular experience a few nights ago is the epitome of my friend’s intended meaning. On Friday evening we dined at one of Belgrade’s oldest and most famous restaurants; we had a wonderful meal and lots of laughs, but the evening was an adventure, to say the least.

I had been put in touch with a colleague’s nephew soon after committing to move to Belgrade and had spoken to him a few times via skype in the months leading up to my departure, but this Friday was the first time we had spoken in person. Roommates in tow, I headed for Republic Square, a common meeting place in Belgrade- akin to the clock in the main terminal of Grand Central, where I instructed him to look out for the four Americans by the horse statue. He found us in seconds.

After some introductions he led us to our destination which turned out to be a restaurant that I had heard of last time I was in Belgrade; a few friends had wanted to go but couldn’t seem to find it. I was confused at the time but let it slide without question. However, now I understand why they found it difficult; its location is marked not with a sign containing its name, but with a single light with a question mark imposed on it. 

We were greeted warmly by the wait staff and led to our table by a waiter we later learned was able to speak English, but with the caveat that most of the words he would say to us were ‘organic’ and ‘free’ each time he placed something on our table. I’m doubtful that my words could ever accurately convey the sheer force of his personality, but the descriptor I will offer is jovial.

Our Friday night adventure really began while awaiting our food: as we sit, four Americans and one Serb, talking animatedly in English, a man dressed in traditional priest’s garb enters the restaurant. Our resident Serb, a theology student, recognized him as one of his former teachers, explained in one breath and forgotten in the next.

We continued on as normal until another man, dressed in the same manner, entered the room. A hush fell over the room as he passed through the threshold and our guide for the evening startled, sitting up ram rod straight. Once the spectacle had passed beyond us to his own table, we sought an explanation and found our Serbian theology student caught halfway between standing up and sitting down, looking torn. Eventually we convinced him that if it was appropriate for him to greet the man who had just arrived then he should- we could manage to stay put.

When he returned, he explained that the man who had managed to shift the entire atmosphere just by walking into the room was the highest religious authority of Montenegro- think Pope Francis but about 1,000 times more accessible.

I had imagined something along those lines but it still surprised me- for several reasons. As more similarly respected men trailed in over the next few minutes I catalogued my thought processes: first, I knew that the restaurant was frequented by famous Serbs, but in my mind that meant something closer to well-liked politicians or television personalities (though I guess that’s America talking). Second, the other patrons, aside from the original pause and respectful silence as the corner table populated by various religious authorities shared a prayer before eating, seemed unfazed by the presence of such highly respected leaders. Perhaps what surprised me the most was how little privacy was afforded to them- it seemed as though they hadn’t even felt the need to ask for it.

Back home in the states it is rare that people who hold such clout in society exist so casually among regular civilians; imagine what would happen if the pope walked into a pub in Manhattan (a not entirely accurate or feasible comparison, but roll with it). Now picture how you would feel if he was seated just two tables away as you dined with friends on your second night (or in our case, third week) in the city.

That’s about how this felt, except we don’t even speak enough Serbian to understand what anyone around us was saying.

You’d think that the rollercoaster of an evening ended there, but alas-

Everyone loosened up a bit after the initial panic of learning that we were separated from some of Serbia’s most respected men by only a few chairs and we continued to enjoy our meal together. Shortly thereafter, our waiter returned with the musicians he’d been threatening us with all night: a violinist, and guitarist, and an accordion player.

They began to play music which, given the presence of the accordion, only served to heighten the cheerful, folky atmosphere of the dining room. After a few songs they seemed to realize that we were speaking English, and asked our Serbian friend where we were coming from. Upon learning we called the States home, they became excited, if somewhat bashful, and began to play Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Admittedly it’s not my favorite song- not by a long shot, but somehow in that moment I was ecstatic to hear it- it was so unexpected and they seemed so pleased that we enjoyed it. I’m still in awe that they thought to do that for us- to try and welcome us to Belgrade and also give us a little piece of home in the process.

Our evening ended soon after, with flushed, smiling faces and a rousing sense of disbelief, at least on my part, for how the evening had turned out.

I had started out nervous to meet someone that I had spoken to only a handful of times, only for my worry to be entirely unfounded: there was nothing awkward about it. And then our dinner experience unfurled like some kind of ridiculous short film.

I can’t pinpoint exactly what it was about this experience, or the rest of this weekend but I woke up this morning feeling like I could finally call Belgrade home. And then promptly remembered how ridiculous my current life situation is. I feel back asleep with a smile on my face.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Belgrade, I Love You

People often forget the difference between knowing about a place and actually being there. This is something I realized only after I began traveling to destinations that were 'off the beaten path', so to speak; before traveling to the Balkans last summer I never noticed quite how much people like to think they know about the world. This is not to say that everyone is ignorant or that the facts we learn about the world are objectively wrong, but instead to emphasize the importance of personal experience.

When I shared the news of my move to Belgrade with some of my extended family, they began to tell me everything they thought they knew about Serbia and the greater region. To my disappointment, almost nothing they said matched my own experience in the region. However, after being in Belgrade for two months now, I am beginning to notice that even my personal perspectives that were formed in the city last summer were skewed- there is a difference between visiting a place and living there.

I've loved appreciating the beauty in the ordinary since I've returned; when I was here last July I was focused on seeing all of the important monuments and museums more than getting to know the city as a whole. The photos below are some of my favorites. Enjoy!