Stari Most and more decisions from The Hague

Recently I was lucky enough to visit Mostar, Bosnia for the day. Mostar is famous for its old, 16th century Ottoman bridge (“stari most”) Here is the bridge now:

Coast 118And here is a picture of the bridge as it was destroyed while Mostar was under siege by Bosnian Croats in 1993:

imagesAnd a picture of a war memorial:

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Yesterday, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia handed down another important ruling for Bosnia and Croatia: they convicted 6 Bosnian Croats for persecution of Muslims during the war, the same conflict that destroyed stari most, an important and historical cultural symbol for Mostar (frankly, this was the most symbolic event from the siege, but certainly not the worst of the atrocities). Check out that link from the Washington Post for a more thorough explanation.

I was amazed by the friendliness and openness the people of Mostar exhibited toward strangers. The overarching experience I have had in this region reminds me that people have an amazing capacity to heal, to forgive, to seek justice but also to move forward. Kudos to the people of Mostar, and may they continue to find justice and peace.

Goodbye Prosek?

One of the reasons I was so interested in coming to Croatia this year was to observe as the country prepares to become the newest member state of the European Union on July 1st, 2013.

As with all economic and political transitions, there are and will continue to be winners and losers. For example, regulations requiring eggs to be refrigerated at open air markets are good improvements in terms of  health and sanitation, but the cost of buying refrigerators  might cause some sellers to fold. Some win, and some lose, but in general I think people agree that these kinds of new regulations are a good thing in the long run.

However, there are other regulations which are a part of the acquis communitaire (the body of EU law that countries must accept before they can become members) that are arguably a bad thing for the country. This Washington Post article describes the question over whether or not Croatia will be allowed to continue an ancient Dalmatian tradition of producing a wine called Prosek because it has such a similar name to the Italian wine, Prosecco.

Within the E.U., countries can trademark certain products as their own, effectively keeping other countries from producing the same product under the same or a similar name. For example, only sparkling wine from the region of Champagne in France can be called champagne.

The threat to this ancient tradition is extremely concerning to Croatians as they try to retain their cultural practices amidst rapid globalization. Click on the link above for more on this issue!

Wine Tasting

This is the second post on my blog that includes the word “wine” in the title. Sorry, I’m not sorry… it’s a part of the culture.

A couple of weekends ago, Lois, Andrea, Jenn and I went wine tasting on an excursion with our embassy (don’t worry, each individual paid their own way, in NO WAY did your tax dollars go toward this 😉 ).

Throughout the day, we visited three different wineries around the village of Jastrebarsko, which is situated between Zagreb and Karlovac. We learned a little about the history of each family-owned winery, and tasted whites and reds while snacking on homemade bread, cheese from local cows and sausage from local pigs. Not bad.

We were also lucky enough to have beautiful weather, and ever since it’s been sunny and warm! I’ll let these pictures do the rest of the talking:

The Old Hotel

Last weekend my friend Jenn and her husband Mike came to Karlovac for the day. As I do with all visitors, I gave them my critically acclaimed walking tour of my adopted hometown (I’m mostly kidding, although I have been complimented on my tour 😉 ).

Karlovac is the “city of rivers” and the finale of my walking tour has always been a sobering stop at the old Hotel Korana which sits on the beautiful Korana river.

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Hotel Korana before the war

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Hotel Korana after the war (just a few months ago)

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Looks safe, no?

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The hotel was destroyed during the 1990s when Karlovac was under siege. It has stood for twenty years as an ugly reminder of the war, a physical symbol of the violence and fear experienced by residents of Karlovac.

As Jenn, Mike, and I walked my route from the colony of fat swans at the bend in the river toward the hotel last weekend, I looked up and gasped. It’s gone. A developer has finally torn down the old structure and is going to build a new hotel in its place.

Now a construction site!

Now a construction site!

On the one hand, it was kind of jarring not to see the ugly, badly damaged, and frankly, dangerous building where it’s stood for so long (even for me, and I’ve only been here for five months!). However, I think the overwhelming sentiment amongst people here is relief and gladness that it’s gone. People here want to move forward.

Moreover, there definitely isn’t a shortage of other lasting physical evidence of the war here. From bullet holes in buildings, to monuments with the names of the dead, to graffiti supporting Ante Gotovina (the Croatian general recently acquitted of ethnic cleansing; generally seen by Croats as the reason they have independence), Karlovac has been especially marked by the experience of the 1990s.

I am happy for the people in this town. The new hotel will certainly improve the vista, and they deserve to walk along the river without having to gaze upon an ugly (and perhaps painful) concrete skeleton of a building full of broken glass. Hopefully, the hotel will also be a source of economic growth  for a town in a country that desperately needs exactly that.

As for me, I just need to find a new finale for my Karlovac walking tour.

What I Do Every Day

Okay, I tricked you. I actually don’t have a daily schedule, or even really a weekly one. But I figured that amidst all the posts about travel, visitors, and entertainment, some of you might be wondering about what I actually do for work.

(If you don’t want to hear about how unglamorous and challenging living abroad and “teaching” English can be, you should probably stop reading right now.)

For better or worse, I was placed in a town at a university that has never had a Fulbright ETA before. This has meant that there really isn’t a formal role that has been carved out for me. In contrast to the majority of my ETA colleagues across the region, I have not been assigned any particular classes to teach/assist with.  In other words, I have been assigned/given zero hours of work per week (I knew going into this that I would have to be pretty independent and self-starting, but didn’t quite realize the extent of it…).

For someone who thrives on schedules and overextending herself, this has been difficult to say the least. Pair this lack of structure with my bare minimum knowledge of Croatian and my sparse teacher training, and this has undoubtedly been the most challenging experience of my life, professionally and emotionally.

Obviously, I have had to work extra hard in order to find work to do and ways to keep busy. With lots of help, I’ve been making more and more connections around town and spending as much time as I can interacting with students (how much time? it varies, but in general it’s still not enough). I enjoy the time I am able to spend with students immensely, and I love contributing (in a small way) to their learning. I am also learning a lot, about Croatia but also about myself, and many of those lessons have been invaluable.

So here are some of the things I have done so far:

-privately tutor university students to help them improve their grammar

-schedule weekly opportunities for English conversation with university students (i.e. meeting up at cafes and chatting about whatever they are interested in… but using samo engleski, only English)

-deliver presentations on American culture/history to elementary through high school aged students

-create/run games and activities in high school classrooms designed to get students to use their English creatively and rapidly

-serve as an adviser for students who are interested in studying abroad in the U.S.

Delivering a presentation on Washington D.C. at a local elementary school

Delivering a presentation on Washington D.C. at a local elementary school

Here are a couple of the most important lessons I have learned (or already knew, but have been reinforced by this experience):

-be extra kind and welcoming to strangers in your community (I so cherish every small act of kindness or friendship that has been given to me. It can be so lonely to be an expat.)

-don’t expect to be able to come into a community as an outsider and be able to be super effective, especially without the language and a deep understanding of the particular community; you have to find ways to partner with the community itself in order to get anything done!

ICE WEEKEND

If you haven’t realized yet, I go to Zagreb kind of a lot. While there are good things about Karlovac and I LOVE my Croatian friends who live here, there are generally more opportunities for entertainment and excitement in the big, bad city. Plus, I can’t stay away from my friends Andrea and Jenn (Fulbright researchers working on their PhD dissertations) for too long because I seriously get withdrawals.

Anyway, last weekend was officially dubbed “ICE WEEKEND!” It was a blast.

On Friday evening, we went to a Medveščak (Med-vesh-chak; it means bears…) hockey game (thanks so much for the tickets, Katie!!). Admittedly, it is kind of shameful that I am just becoming a hockey fan now, given my upbringing in the star of the north, but I have sincerely enjoyed the games I’ve been too! (It probably helps that the team logo is a picture of a very ferocious bear.)

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Anyway, lately the games have been held at the newer and fancier Arena Zagreb, which normally serves as the handball arena. Yes, in Croatia, handball gets precedent over basketball and hockey. I really am in a foreign land!

Back at the team’s normal arena, Dom Sportova (“sport house”), the European Figure Skating Championships were being held!

Now, some of you may know that I am an absolute terrible skater. I’m lucky if the worst thing that happens to me while skating is falling on my butt; I’m thinking specifically of a certain figure skating experience when my friends Jon and Grace helped me stop some immense blood loss  in a freak hand-cut-on-the-boards incident… ANYWAY, moving on…

Despite my lack of skating talent, I have always loved and idolized figure skaters. I attended many a Stars on Ice performance with my grandma Norma back in the day and I love watching the winter Olympics. Thus, I was giddy like a seven-year-old child at the championships! We saw a range of performances, and I loved all seven hours of it (no joke). Here are some pictures:

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Gold medalist Javier Fernandez of Spain hugs his mom (photo credit to Jenn)

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Logo for the event, which includes the Zagreb heart!

The best picture I could get of the adorable little girls who collected all the teddy bears and flowers thrown onto the ice.

The best picture I could get of the adorable little girls who collected all the teddy bears and flowers thrown onto the ice.

Gold medal winner Carolina Kostner mid-air

Gold medal winner Carolina Kostner mid-air; she competed at the Beijing Olympics

The women take to the podium (photo credit to Jenn)

The women take to the podium (photo credit to Jenn)

P.S. Did you know that skaters’ costumes are even more sparkly in person?!

Christmas Vacation

Oops, it’s been awhile! I’m nursing a cold today so blogging and eating some chicken noodle soup seems like a good way to spend the evening.

My parents and brother came over the holidays (we got lucky because my break from work and my brother’s break lined up perfectly)! It was fantastic and we had so much fun together.

My mentor professor Vesna and her husband Darko had us over to their home for Christmas desserts, which I totally neglected to take any photos of. The rest of the trip consisted of sight-seeing, joking, eating, drinking, generally being merry, and lots of movie quotes… We did indeed watch Christmas Vacation, and even fit in a viewing of the Vikings/Packers game (some of us were more keen on watching the game than others).

Here are a handful of pictures from the trip:

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Croatian dinner — meat and potatoes

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WINE TENT

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Main square in Zagreb

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Riding to upper town in the funicular

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With my adorbs bro in front of the wine tent in the main square of Zagreb

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Under “the horse”

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A warm Christmas in Karlovac

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Korana River

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With my sweet mom

So although this is a month late, I hope you had a very happy holiday season, dear reader.

Next post: ICE WEEKEND!

Split i Hvar

While my friend Emily was in Croatia, we visited Split, the former capital of the Dalmatian region, and also took a day trip to the island of Hvar.

Split is the home to a really sweet UNESCO World Heritage Site, Diocletian’s Palace. Diocletian was a Roman emperor in the 4th century A.D. He built this palace as a retirement home for himself, thus becoming probably the first documented retiree of a long-lasting flood of elderly Croats and foreigners alike choosing to spend the last of their days on the Croatian coast.

Inside the palace

Inside the palace

Emily and I did the general touristy things around Split, we explored the palace, rubbed Gregory of Nin’s big toe for luck (a tenth century Croatian bishop who tried to get the Vatican to lighten up on those pesky mass in Latin and celibacy for priests rules; spoiler alert: he failed), and visited a gallery of the work of Ivan Mestrovic, a famous Croatian sculptor.

Gregory of Nin, notice his shiny big toe

Gregory of Nin, you can kind of see his shiny big toe sticking up

We were also approached by a delightful pair of old Croatian men who wanted to know if we knew who Toni Kukoc is and that he is from Split. In fact, when I was young, I got to stay up later and hang out with my dad longer when basketball was on, so I am quite familiar with Mr. Kukoc indeed.

The good ol' days; Toni Kukoc and his famous teammates

The good ole days; Toni Kukoc and his famous teammates. I must admit that Dennis Rodman has always been my fav.

BUT, probably the most noteworthy part of our time in Split was our daily breakfast of cappuccinos and bliss-inducing cherry strudel at a cafe along the waterfront.

Emily at one of our seaside breakfasts

Emily at one of our seaside breakfasts

We also took a ferry to Hvar for a day, an island you may have heard mention of recently if you are a connoisseur of celebrity knowledge like I am. Let me explain: it is rumored that Beyonce and Jay-Z were inspired to name their baby girl Blue Ivy Carter when they allegedly saw a tree covered in blue ivy while vacationing in Hvar. In fact, their daughter now has honorary citizenship there.

While Emily and I were unable to find the tree in question, there was plenty of other beautiful landscape to explore and vistas to be admired. I intend to visit Hvar again in the spring, when I can swim!

A view of Hvar from the fortress above the town

A view of Hvar from the fortress above the town

Oh, lest I forget, on our way back home, we took one of the most precarious bus rides of my life. I’m afraid it won’t be the last if I want to do any more traveling in this country/region before the snow melts. Picture yourself on the cliff side of the bus in the window seat while the bus drives around the bend of a windy, icy mountain road. At one point, other passengers literally shrieked. All part of the cultural experience, I guess?

The Wine Tent

I wanted to write some prose dedicated to my favorite spot in Zagreb, the wine tent. Every time I have gone to Zagreb in the past couple of months, a trip (or multiple) to the wine tent has been on the agenda. Let’s get over the obvious: yes, of course, I love to drink the mulled wine served there. But my adoration of the place stems from more than just that delicious, warm, Christmas-y beverage.

So here are the important details: the object of my affection is a large white tent on trg bana Jelacica (the main square) nicknamed “vino grad” (wine city). White and red mulled wine, rakija (Croatian brandy, in various flavors), beer, pop, sausages, and these little Croatian Christmas pastries called fritule are all served there (no fritule for me, as it oftentimes has walnuts in it). I believe the tent went up in November, and in my dreams they never take it down.

The decorated square; you can see the wine tent in the right corner of this pic (which I stole from Jenn). I haven't taken any pictures of the outside of my favorite place, I've been too busy enjoying the inside.

The decorated square; you can see the wine tent in the right corner of this pic (which I stole from Jenn). I haven’t taken any pictures of the outside of my favorite place; I’ve been too busy enjoying the inside.

The wine tent also features a stage, and almost every night there is live music. In fact, when Kelly visited, we stumbled upon a performance by BOA, a Croatian rock band that was hugely popular in the 1980s in Yugoslavia. The crowd was so into them, which made the concert extra enjoyable, even though I understood .1% of the lyrics.

Here’s one of their songs:

Jer Ljubav Je by BOA

Kelly and me in sitting by the stage in the wine tent

Kelly and me in sitting by the stage in the wine tent

But in all honesty, what I appreciate most about the wine tent is that it is fundamentally a communal space, enjoyed by everyone in Zagreb. When I go, I see the elderly, I see children, and I see everyone in between. There are families, groups of friends, couples, and I have a feeling, some people who are just plain lonely and want to be around others. As far as I can tell, it’s perfectly okay to go and not buy anything, so it really is a space that everyone can access.

Some of the crowd

Some of the crowd; the wine tent is routinely packed

One of the things I think is so cool about European cities is that historically, public life has always centered on the city or town squares. These are physical spaces where community members come together to meet, to buy and sell, to discuss, to interact. To me, this idea is exhilarating. When so much of our interaction with each other today happens through the internet, it makes me happy that there are still places dedicated to face-to-face community interaction and enjoyment.

The wine tent in trg bana Jelacica is an example of this, a warm spot on the square in which people can gather during the winter months, plus eat food, drink mulled wine and listen to some music. And I think that is pretty awesome.

A String of Most Welcome Visitors

I’m getting spoiled. For the last three weekends in a row, I’ve had visitors!

I feel beyond lucky that my boyfriend Mike was able to come over Thanksgiving. He has been amazingly supportive of me throughout this experience, but frankly, it sucks to be apart, and I was ecstatic to be able to see him! The cherry on top of his visit was that his twin sister/my friend Liz (who serves as a Fulbright ETA in Nis, Serbia) came to Croatia as well! One awesome thing we did during their visit was to rent a car (an adventure in its own right) and drive to Plitvice Lakes, a national park that’s been named ‘one of the top ten sites in the world to see before you die’ (accompanying us was my fellow Croatia ETA Edward!). Plitvice is gorgeous, even despite the fact that in late November the scenery is pretty brown. I can’t wait to get back there in the spring!

My favorite twins exploring Plitvice

My favorite twins exploring Plitvice

Saying goodbye again was hard, but I had a terrific reason to keep my chin up, because the next weekend one of my oldest and dearest friends, Kelly, came to Croatia (she has been studying in London). We spent time in Karlovac and Zagreb. My town is not really a tourist destination (in fact, the Croatian dude Kelly sat next to on the plane ride laughed when she told him she was visiting here…), but I was so glad to be able to show her where I live. We had lots of catching up to do, and spent most of our time together laughing (as per usual).

some bff heart-to-heart/tea time

Some BFF heart-to-heart/tea time

Again, I didn’t have too long to be sad, because the next week my friend Emily arrived in Croatia! We have been friends since we met in choir during the first week of college, and we are quite similar: she is a fellow travel enthusiast/political junkie/alto two. ;] We were able to travel to the coast while she was here, and visited Split and the island of Hvar (more details on that trip to come). It was so great to catch up and go on an adventure together!

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Surrounded by cool vegetation in Hvar (don’t worry, Dad, we didn’t encounter any snakes)

And now I am preparing to receive three special visitors for Christmas—my mom, dad, and brother!! AHHHHHHHHH! I literally cannot wait.

I am so lucky that so many of my loved ones have had the time and the funds to come see me, and I’m grateful for the new friends I have here in Croatia (special shout out to Andrea for being such a generous host all. the. time.).

This Fulbright experience is challenging, and being so far away can be rough. These visits, and your Skype calls, emails, letters, Facebook messages, etc. mean so much to me. Thank you!