June 27, 2013

Balkan Adventure: Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzogovina

I think it’s pretty safe to say that Sarajevo and much of the Balkans have a complicated relationship among themselves. I don’t understand very much but I’m interested enough to go home and learn some more. The city sounded dangerous and exciting to me last week. This week, I know it to be a city with friendly people and a rich history.

The Sarajevo open market bursts with colorful fruits and vegetables. We bought some cherries after one of the farmer’s gave us a taste. They were delicious. Kira loved them so much and was so cute eating them that she got an extra couple. Plus a strawberry. And then another stall on the way out gave her some cherries and a blueberry. The vendors loved that we have so many children. It’s not as common to have large families like it used to be.

Genocide:  A relatively small word packed with huge amounts of devastation.  It is estimated that around 8,000 people died in Srebrenica during the war with Serbia between 1992 and 1995.

There are modern day lessons to be learned from the massacres in Srebrenica almost 20 years ago. I imagine it would have turned out very differently had the UN not disarmed the people. The story is that the UN promised to protect the people so they didn’t need their guns and weapons. But when the going got rough, the peacekeepers didn’t protect them since they weren’t soldiers.

The map of Bosnia Herzegovina on the wall of the July 11, 1995 Gallery is littered with the dots marking each of the mass graves. Family members give blood for DNA testing, though not everyone has been positively identified. Some never will be. There are still about 3000 remains left.

Every year on July 11th, there is a funeral for all those who have been identified during the previous year. Next month, there will be around 600 honored. I like that families who lost loved ones have an opportunity for some closure. They’ve suffered so much and it’s healing to look grief in the face and move forward.

The basics of the war in Bosnia Herzegovina are this…Yugoslavia was composed of six countries. Slovenia left in 1991 after a 10-day war. There wasn’t much bloodshed and it was over quickly. Croatia left the union next. Milosevic, the president, wanted to keep the rest of the country together so they would have both political and economic advantages. Bosnia thought different and fought for their independence. Serbian and Montenegrin forces laid siege on the capital, Sarajevo, attempting to prevent them from seceding. I’m not sure where Macedonia was during all of this, but I’m sure their story is compelling in its own right.

During the 42 month siege of Sarajevo, the Bosnian army was able to build a tunnel to the free zone near the airport. The UN wouldn't allow anyone to leave Sarajevo and nearly 800 people died trying to get out of the city to get food and supplies for their families.

After 4 months of digging, a route from the home of some soldiers connected to the free zone going underneath the airport. A supply chain and basic communication was established. I cannot even imagine how people carried large loads into the city. The tunnel isn't very big. I had to duck to walk in it. And this was their only lifeline and connection to the outside.

I am so grateful that my family hasn't lived with a war raging in our front yards. I pray that we take the responsibility of our own defense seriously. We cannot fully rely on a government, full of opposing political alliances, to keep the people’s best interests at heart. Nor can we depend on them to be everywhere in times of war. When our armies are out-manned, we need to have the ability to send in reinforcements.

June 20, 2013

Pet Disaster

We've got some great friends living at our house while we're gone. What makes them even greater are their willingness to take care of our pets and especially for messages like this:

I'm sorry to say that we lost a baby gerbil sometime last night/this morning. =( One of the black and white ones. I think it was the smallest one. I don't know why it died. It didn't look to have been eaten or attempted to have been eaten. Just thought I would let you know. I will overnight some Kleenex for you during this time of loss. You may have to stay away longer for bereavement purposes. Just let us know, we'll understand.    

Last week after Tymon and the boys left, we didn't have internet access and didn't find out for three days that our friends had trouble getting into the house. This would have been fine except that Toby was locked in our house, trapped in his crate and probably suffering some horrible kind of death. How long can dogs go without drinking water? Or eating? No, scratch that last question. He was probably eating his feces.

Tymon arranged to give Toby away after he started eating the cushion on the living room couch. He's a good dog...but has some annoying habits. Like he goes outside to poo in the morning and does it well. Then he comes into the house and as soon as he can get a few minutes to himself he poops on the living room floor. I'm just wondering why he didn't finish his business 5 minutes earlier? We worked on training him at home but that was hard...too many "masters" and not enough consistency. And taking him to obedience school proved tricky as our schedule and those of various schools didn't line up well.

Tymon took Toby to his new home the day before he left but the lady said she was too tired to take him right then. That was inconvenient, but there aren't many options when he's getting on a plane soon. Tymon took Toby home and arranged with our friends to give him to her later.

So here I am on Sunday afternoon, the wee hours of Sunday morning for Toby, reading an email for the first time hat was sent on Thursday saying that our friends couldn't get into the house. Yikes! I was so upset the lady hadn't taken Toby when she had the chance.

We worried for a couple of days about Toby's demise before getting an email and Facebook message that Toby is indeed alive and never spent any time alone...they had gotten in the house a few hours after their message but hadn't emailed us to say that. Phew! Imaginations run wild, really wild, with limited information.

And the lady ended up taking Toby on Sunday, so he's now in his new home. Phew, another relief!

I'm not exactly sure why I cared so much about whether Toby lived or died when a gerbil dying doesn't phase me. And emails like the gerbil one I quoted above I find humorous. I even laughed. I wonder if gerbils have feelings. I'm pretty sure other animals that seem expendable don't.  And maybe that's what separates dogs from other lesser animals. Very few people cry when a spider is flushed down the toilet. Toby's a good dog. I'm happy he's got a new home that will hopefully be better for him.

Elliott is now wanting a cat. Or a turtle. I'm pretty happy with only having gerbils.

June 19, 2013

Balkan Adventure: Legacy of Courage

In the past several years, I've had the opportunity to read several Holocaust novels. Each one gives me added perspective to the various ways humans handle trials.Some are strong, some are smart, and unfortunately, some give up hope. I'd like to think that if war happened to me that I would be one of the happy people. The ones who keep their own spirits high as well as those of others around them. Even in the sad stories, I like the ones about people who kept their wits about them when under high stress and helped devise escape plans or relieved intense suffering. 

None of us know how we would handle a particular challenge until we are in the middle of it. I've been surprised at my own thoughts and actions during difficult experiences. Sometimes for the positive and sometimes not. I think most of us make lousy decisions if we're tired or hungry and especially if we're in pain. There are some who rise above the physical nature of spiritual and intellectual battles. I want to be one of those people.

We just visited the Red Cross concentration camp in Nis, Serbia. Many thousands died here and tens of thousands were here for just a short time before being transferred to other camps. The room in the photo was a holding place for about 150 prisoners. They slept on the floor with a bit of straw between them and the concrete. They were let out for 15 minutes in the morning to do their personal business. They also got a break in the afternoon but weren't allowed to relieve themselves. I can't even imagine the stank that must have been there. Or what it took to clean it up. Or how some survived such conditions.

What I like about the Nis camp is that about hundred and fifty Holocaust prisoners escaped. One third of them died in the process...but two thirds lived to help the resistance effort. I admire their courage and the strength it took to overcome their captors. 

While in Nis, we also visited the Skull Tower. Serbs were under Turkish rule (Ottoman Empire) for many centuries. Their first uprising in 1809 resulted in thousands dying. Out of those nearly 1000 of them were decapitated, their faces skinned and stuffed with cotton and sent back to Turkey as evidence of how well the occupiers were keeping resistance to a minimum. The Turks then took the skulls and made them into a tower and placed it along the road to Constantinople as a reminder of what would happen if the Serbs tried to rebel again.

I don't know about you, but if one of my family members was brutally killed and his head was sent to Turkey as a war prize and skull formed the basis of a tower, I certainly wouldn't take that sitting down. It turns out I'm like the Serbs of Nis, who also weren't intimidated like the Turks had thought when they built the tower.

The Serbs eventually freed themselves and have an amazing, if gruesome, reminder of the precious cost those who fought gave for that liberty. They built a monument around the tower to preserve it for later generations.

I'm grateful for my family members who fought in the American Revolution for my liberty. I pray to have the strength to face my own trials, whether personal or as a part of a family or larger group, with such courage. It wasn't always comfortable or pain-free. They have left me with a strong legacy to live up to. 

I leave you today with the words from one of the signs in the Skull Tower monument:
In 1833, on his way back from his travels to the East, a well known French poet, LaMartine, was passing through the city of Nis, and, shaken at the sight of the Skull Tower, he wrote these words:
I came into the plain near Nis. The sun was scorching. One mile before the city I saw a wide white tower rising in the midst of the plain, glittering as a parish marble. The path led me to it. I came closer, sat down in its shade to take a rest and have some sleep. As soon as I sat down, I looked up towards the monument and saw that its walls, which had seemed to me as if made of marble or a white stone, were made of human skulls and these human faces, skinned off and whitened with rain and sun, glued with a bit of sand and lime, formed an arc that protected me from sun. On some of them what little hair remained, was fluttering in the wind like a lichen or a moss.
Strong and fresh wind blowing from the mountain, penetrated the many cavities in the heads, faces and skulls, making a sad and pained whining sound, I was told that those were the skulls of the Serbs killed in the last uprising for the freedom of Serbia.
My eyes and my heart greeted the remains of those brave men, whose cut off heads made the corner stone of the independence of their homeland.
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June 18, 2013

Balkan Adventure: Macedonia

It's 7 o'clock in the morning in Ohrid, Macedonia. I'm sitting in our little 2 room apartment with intermittent internet hoping this story will post. I'm not complaining. I'm actually pretty happy that the 8 of us are staying here for about $35 per night.

I'm now typing on Tymon's laptop instead of the stupid Blogger app on my Galaxy Tab...I'm still frustrated and disappointed that my fat finger hit the home button instead of the space bar and I lost 90 minutes of my writing. The worst is that UNLIKE the computer application, Blogger on an Android device does not automatically save content. Boo! I just need to have some uninterrupted time to craft my story again.

Today, we head back to Serbia and leave the scenic country of Macedonia. One of the great advantages Macedonia has over other places to visit are the prices are super low. We started in the capital of Skopje and stayed in a huge 4 bedroom apartment a couple blocks away from the downtown pedestrian zone for about $75. That is such a sweet deal for a large family in a beautiful city.

It wasn't all rosy though. The Muslim midnight call to prayer and subsequent praying lasted about 45 minutes...and there was no way for a wearied traveler to shut it out. Unfortunately, it happened again at 4am, but this time it wasn't so long. Jovana's friend Filip, who's lived in Skopje (the capital) all his life told us that it's broadcast all over the city and no one escapes hearing its call to worship. I've got nothing against people worshiping however they choose, but it did give me insight into why there seem to be tensions between religious groups across the globe. Worship should not interrupt someone else's tranquility in the middle of the night.

Despite the interrupted sleep, I still really liked Skopje and its many monuments. It's most famous for being the hometown of Alexander the Great and birthplace of Mother Theresa. 

Near Skopje is the Matka Canyon, which sits a few kilometers off the highway nestled into the landscape. The roads are narrow but the views fantastic.

Lake Ohrid looks like the sea with mountains in the distance. It's about 1000 feet deep in the middle and averages 500 for the entire lake...basically, it's huge. We spent a couple of hours on the beach and thought we left before getting burnt. But burns have a way of showing up a bit later...maybe cutting our fun a half hour earlier would have been better for the boys and their red backs. 

The lake shares shoreline with Albania. We came just a kilometer from Albania when we went to the monastery (photos below) but aren't allowed to cross the border with our Serbian vehicle. Jovana explained to us that there are tensions between Serbia and Albania and the rental car company doesn't want anything to happen to their car so they don't allow us to go there. Apparently, Americans are well liked there...it's just Serbs are not.

We stopped by the museum on the water, which is a pile dwelling settlement in the Bay of Bones of Lake Ohrid. It was so cool exploring those little huts and imagining how life must have been for the inhabitants 3000 years ago. They have a diving center, which was closed, but there are ruins of the settlement below that would have been awesome to explore. For any divers out there interested in visiting, the water is clear and not too cold...though you'd probably want a wet suit to go that deep.

 The Naum Monastery had peacocks roaming all over it. Though I never saw more than 3 or 4 at a time, I'm sure there were a dozen on the grounds. They perched on roofs and behind bushes and were generally watching the place as if they were guards. Ha ha. There's even one we thought was a female since she didn't have the colorful plumage that the others had...and maybe peacocks are like mallard ducks that way?

Just next to the monastery on the trail between it and the parking lot, there is a fantastic restaurant on the water. The tables are on rafts and so, if you have a big celebration you can take a couple of waiters to serve and steer, detach from the main restaurant, and have a private floating meal. For about $35, our family had dinner and then got in a boat for an hour's ride to see a little chapel and the source of the spring that feeds the  smaller lake we ate at. There is another little lake that feeds into Lake Ohrid. The sand picture above shows the bubbles of the water in the sand as it feeds in. The water is so so so clear. I love it.

The fortress of Ohrid actually has city walls around it and people live inside. It's almost like Camelot in the show Merlin...except the actual fortress is mostly in ruins aside from the outer walls. Jett was barefoot here and most of the day since we didn't return to our apartment until about 8pm. We helped him if there was broken glass, but otherwise, we allowed him to feel the effects of getting into the car in the morning barefoot.  

And our favorite part of Ohrid is the ice cream. 8 double scoop cones for less than $7. The days are hot in Macedonia...in the 90s (35 celcius) but the nights are a dream. Warm with a breeze and fantastic for ice cream since we can eat it before it drips down our arm and elbow. Of course, that doesn't apply to Kira. Not because it's so warm but more like her aim isn't all that great and she seems to get ice cream everywhere.

I really like Macedonia. If you want an out of the ordinary vacation and low costs, come here. I'm not paid to say this. I'm just telling you how it is. And just so you know, the mosque in Ohrid is much better than the ones in Skopje. They do their prayer call and in a few minutes it's done with and never ever does it keep me up at midnight or wake me up at 4am.
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June 10, 2013

Birthday Boat Launch

Happy 6th Birthday Evan!!! 

We celebrated by making 6 paper boats this morning. The pink one was Jocelyn's. Of course. She did a great job of folding according to my friend Tina´s instructions. This afternoon, we sent them off down the Pivka River. 

I´m loving how Kira chants. She´s very excited about the boat release as well as just about anything else that is chant-able...like shoul-der ride, shoul-der ride. Or Piz-za, piz-za!

This Pivka River formed the awesome Postojna Caves we visited today.

We also visited Predjama Castle this afternoon. This place is seriously so cool. You can go in and explore pretty much everything. I love how it was built into the side of the mountain and at the mouth of the caves here. I can just imagine the tales and adventures that must have come out of here....especially since there were secret passageways and torture chambers. You just know that these people were on the cutting edge of excitement.

The only problem is that it's not stroller friendly...but if you leave your sleeping Kira at the front entrance with the photographer lady then that´s not a problem.

June 4, 2013

Our Serbian Family

As I write, Jocelyn is watching Thomas the Train in Serbian. We hear the bus engines roar to life as they leave with their many passengers on the way to work and school. Half a dozen stray dogs bark and chase cars right outside our apartment window. Our first loads of laundry hang on the balcony lines in the soft blowing wind. Kira says she pooped and hands me her diaper. She won't eat cereal this morning, but will load up on proschiutto and cheese. The overcast sky threatens rain. Again. A little voice interrupts me. Again.

The girls and I are in Belgrade, Serbia for Jovana's sister Maja's wedding (pronounced My-uh). The festivities were a few days ago, on Saturday.

Jovana's family welcomes us daily with open arms. It feels good. We share an instant connection. When greeting each other, we kiss on the cheeks. Three times. Always three times. And sometimes sneak in a hug.

Our first full day in Belgrade the sun shone. This is where we are staying.
Because of this blog and Jovana's shared experiences over the past five years, her family feels like they know us. The girls seemed a little confused when meeting them for the first time. Deep down I'm sure they must have known Jovana had parents and a sister. But meeting her cousins, aunt, uncle, both sets of grandparents and other close friends boggles the mind a bit. Jovana's family network is thick. And they all knew our names. They wanted to hug the girls, overwhelmed by their cuteness. We, too, are family. We just hadn't met yet.

On Sunday when we went to dinner at Maja's husband Luka Dimic's family home. Jovana, Maja and their father joked about being on their best behavior and to not embarrass the Paunovic family's reputation. We must do what we can to keep up the (accurate) illusion that the Dimic and Paunovic union is a good one.

Luka and Maja Dimic
Jocelyn fell asleep on the hour long drive to the Dimic home. I carried her in and right away made a positive impression laying her on the couch. She slept for three hours. Then I woke her up...no sense in making our jet-lagged sleeping troubles any worse.
Jocelyn konked out on the couch.
Kira spilled her juice or water three times. Once while I was busy moving Jovana's glass away from her, she grabbed mine and dumped it in my plate. It's a good thing she's so cute and easy to forgive. And it was better later when Jovana's dad spilled something. We haven't damaged the family reputation after all!

Singing their hearts out.
One of the most endearing Serbian cultural traits I've seen thus far is the connectedness between generations. Old and young all sit around the same table, eat, drink, laugh and sing folk songs together in a way I've never before experienced. Their faces shine as their voices unify. And the kolo. Oh the kolo. Holding hands we dance the kolo in circles. Round and round. I get tired just thinking about it and my hips feel phantom soreness.

Jovana singing and her father waving.
Our plan today includes driving to Jovana's parents apartment to pick up her mom. Jocelyn and Kira will ride their first bus as we travel to the Tesla museum in Belgrade's city center. We will meet up with Jovana when she finishes classes about 1 PM.

In front of the Saint Mark Church
Saint Sava Othadox Church
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