Tuesday, December 11, 2012

It's beginning to look a lot like...

This weekend we were surrounded by snow.  The first snowfall of the season quickly evolved to the second, third, and fourth. It snowed all day Saturday and Sunday and then again today.  I do enjoy snow, but here, they don't do a good job of shoveling or clearing up the streets.  People just go about their business as if nothing had happened.  Contrary to President Obama, who made fun of DC for "overeacting" to snow, I am appalled at how Serbs under-react.  Snow, in my PR-weather-filled brain, should mean an automatic day off, under the covers or on the couch, with some soup.  Here, women still rock their high heels, buses are still full, and cabs are still speeding.  No issues, no closures.  Nevertheless, we did as they do and ventured out a couple of times on Saturday for a Christmas concert, a Hanukkah party, and good-bye party for some friends who are going back to Australia for good.  We also decorated our tree and put up all our ornaments.   Phil and I are not religious people by any means, but for some reason, we are really into Nativity sets.  We are lucky that our place offers a nice little ledge which proved perfect for displaying all four of them.

From Mexico circa 1985 stolen from my parents two years ago

From Portugal, gotten on our anniversary trip

German wood carved - Xmas Market find

Inca/Alien Set -  from Peru


Produce is already dwindling, but three weeks ago I was able to get another awesome sample for my "Giant Produce of Serbia" column.



Carrots!


Two weekends ago we went to a Cranberries concert.  I used to be a really huge fan, back in high school, in my EMO days.  I was looking forward to a good, show, since I had seen them once before in Baltimore and thoroughly enjoyed it.  Well, the concert did not disappoint.  Dolores, despite her "old" age, can still rock it, and is definitely cute in dorky sort of way.  She played a lot of new songs, and those were not the greatest, but she still sung their best stuff, like Dreams (our wedding entrance song!), Zombie, Ridiculous thoughts, Linger, and Salvation.  Some of the songs, literally took me back to my bedroom growing up.  It's weird how music can do that. The true 'highlight' of the Cranberries concert is how the venue was changed without us learning about it; and how, after we finally knew, assigned seating became a free for all at the door.   No joke.  The whole 5 months that I had been holding the tickets, I thought they were at the venue PRINTED ON THE TICKET.  But no, somehow, sometime, somewhere, it was changed to another arena and since we clearly don't watch local TV, we missed the memo of the change.  Luckily, a friend happened to mention it to me and we were able to go to the right place.  Once we got there, late of course, our friend K. had elbowed her way into some decent seats, so we weren't completely out of luck.  Except there was a crazy cloud of smoke that was so thick I had to keep blinking to see the concert.  When we got home, we had to strip by the door and run to the shower to scrub ourselves, the smell was so bad.  Maybe I am getting as old as Dolores.  

Monday, November 26, 2012

Fall

Fall is my favorite season by far.  I love when leaves change colors, wearing 2-3 layers and feeling the cool, crisp breeze.  There is something about Fall that just smells of possibility; and  along with my favorite season came our annual Marine Corps Ball  - also known as DiploProm.  This year, I had brought my dress WAY in advance, when I was in home in July.  Unfortunately, the me in July was definitely smaller than the me 5-days-before prom.  Luckily, a no-carb week did the trick and I was able to wear my "toga" or "Greek Goddess" attire.  The only thing is that I never got around to getting shoes for it, and had to settle between silver sandals and my trusty TOMS.  The TOMS won.

Getting ready to party!

Later in November, Phil and I celebrated our 5 year wedding anniversary with a trip to Southern Spain and Lisbon, Portugal.   I have to say that I used to be a Spain hater, mostly because people in PR LOVE Spain and I have always been the type to rebel against what the masses acclaim. After Madrid, I became a groupie, and now,I am officially the president of the "Spain is the best country in Europe" fan club.   We had a fabulous time.  We went to Seville and Granada and I just loved them both; the food, the drinks, the people, the stores and the artisy-ness.  Granted that I am a sucker for all things UNESCO, we went to the Alhambra, mostly because of the old saying by  "he who has not seen the Alhambra, has not lived."   The Alhambra was very nice and I recommend it, but the best part about Spain is just finding small holes in the wall to have some beers and tapas.  The beers are pretty small and for one Euro and you can just have one and move to the next place or indulge and have a couple.  Fun times guaranteed.  

I have lived!

The walls
Lisbon was cool, not as fun as Spain, but still very artsy and cute.  We had crappy weather, but we still enjoyed their wine and walking around the city.  Our friend V had recommended a short day trip to a little town called Sintra, and that was really quaint and fairy-tale like.  We spent the rest of the time shopping and sipping Porto Wine in little curbside kiosks.

Salud!


We came back to Belgrade right on time to celebrate Thanksgiving. Not once, not twice, but three times.  I must have had at least a pound of turkey and stuffing all by myself.   There were a couple of Serbs at one of the dinners, and they were really interested and curious to learn about the Holiday.  It was pathetic and funny to piece together random parts of the story, beginning with the Mayflower, Columbus, and Plymouth rock and ending with 'you HAVE to have marshmallows on the sweet potatoes!" Luckily, the Embassy's commissary really came through and imported true American staples like the French Onion toppings for the green bean casserole and some sweet potatoes and marshmallows, so Thanksgiving was complete.  When I asked one of the Serbian ladies, which dish was her favorite, she said 'the pumpkin'.  ???? How is beyond me, since the pumpkin was literally olive oil and salt and some rosemary, but I guess you have to grow up with the rest of the stuff to appreciate it.  Gooble, Gooble!


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Serbian Style Halloween

I have always been a big Halloween fan.  Between the candy and the costumes, how can you not love it?  Every year that I lived in DC, I either went to a party or just paraded the streets of Adams Morgan looking for the funniest/most original costumes. In Belgrade, the North American expats have made sure to bring Halloween and its spirit to whoever chooses to join in the festivities.  Last year, since we were newly arrived, we ventured to both the Marine House party and the Canadian Club parties costume-less and unaccompanied.  Both parties were pretty fun, considering we didn't know anyone there and they actually proved to be the catalyst in making what would later be our best friends in BEG.   This year, we were ready to rock the house with our well-planned out, 5 Euro a pop, home made with Chinese Market materials group costumes.  Our great friend K. (also known as 'Martha') was the brain behind the 'Fun and Inappropriate Costumes' Operation.   Since we had two events back to back, we decided to each have two costumes.   For the Canadian Club, we opted for the more generic one: Angry Birds.  Using trash and recyclig bags, some huge pieces of paper fabric and shower curtains, we each got to be a different color bird.  Except me.  I go to be the pig.  King pig to be exact.  I had the most bootleg, but funniest costume of the six.  K. made me a crown to wear, along with my green pig ears.  All pics courtesy of C.  who should really consider joining some sort of Serbian paparazzi group.


The birds stomping on the pig

For the second costume, we had first come up with the idea of being scrabble boards for the facebook game 'words with friends'. Later, we thought, "what if we are just words...and then, all together, 'with friends'?"  So we picked some good word combinations for ourselves; appropriate and professional alone, not so much when together.  We had a lot of fun posing for pics and arranging/re-arranging our positions to come up with some other good phrases. Again, Martha went all out and made us the most beautiful, perfectly lined up tiles for our words.  Literally. Just four days earlier, we all went to her house to find that she had already pre-cut the poster board in perfect equal squares, rounded the corners, printed out the individual letters, cut them to perfection, and glued them to the board.   In order to finish all the costumes in time, she re-arranged the living room as her own personal sweatshop and divided us into two groups.  As Martha has never been a teacher, she didn't realize that grouping by ability is perhaps not the best idea; so she set 'us', the least capable ones, working on the menial tasks of marking places to make holes, hole punch, tape and assemble tiles and 'them', the smart ones, to work on the finishing touches for Angry Birds.  Needless to say, Phil became the model, 4.0 student all over again and half hour later he was allowed to work alone on his own bird.  Me? I was still struggling on figuring out if the ruler was upside down as I marked where the holes would go.


Front
Back

Combos

So overall, costumes were a huge success, and the parties were really fun.  But the real highlight of the night was that I met a reader who is not already one of my friends!  I was walking around as the 'king pig' and someone dressed as a Mexican came up to me and straight out asked if I had a blog and if it was Flippin' Serbia.  It made my night!   So, if you are reading still, let's get together and hang out! 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes

Incredibly slow, yet remarkably fast, we have now officially celebrated one year in Belgrade.  The best way I can describe it is the way people describe having kids; the days are long but the years are short.  We are now halfway done with our adventure and I can hardly believe it.  There is so much still that I haven't done (starting with becoming fluent in Serbian), places I need to visit, restaurants to try, people to meet, and questions to get answered.  I thought it'd be fun to make a quick list of the things I miss most about America and a list of my favorite things in Serbia.  Obviously, family and friends aside.

Top 5 things I miss most about America:

1. Mexican food/Chipotle/Asian food/good sushi - even though I have been to a couple of decent places, nothing compares to the diversity and authenticity of ethnic foods in the States.

2. Unlimited re-fills and ice- no explanation needed

3. Metro - the bus system in Belgrade is great, but when it's cold, raining or just plain miserable outside, it's nice to be underground instead of at a bus stop.

4.  Happy Hour - go out straight after work, get home by 11, go to sleep.  No need to stay up till  midnight to  go out.

5. The fast pace - all my life, growing up in PR, people said I was too wound up, that I should "chill-out", take it easy, etc.  Then I moved to DC and I fit right in.  Now, I am back in the land of no rushing, no sense of urgency.  Except on the buses-I find that Serbs in general are very laid- back and take their time to do things ; but when it comes to getting off the bus, all the built up impatience comes out.  Riders literally get a microsecond to jump out or you'll be stuck inside.  Not to mention that the stops are WAY farther apart than they are in the US.  If you miss your stop, you might end up walking a good 2-3 blocks.

Top 5 things I will miss about Belgrade:

1. Amazing produce - Serbia has hands down the best eggs, tomatoes, peppers, and salads I have ever had in my life.  It's crazy how well-dressed cabbage can fill the spot.

2. Taxis -  they are everywhere, very reliable and you can text your location to have one come get you!

3.  Convenience - how could it be?? Belgrade more convenient than DC??  In my particular case, in many ways yes.  We live a block from an awesome bakery, Mini Maxi (711 type convenience store), and a taxi stand.  No more weekends wasted at Costco or at Target.  In Belgrade, we have a ton of storage space, so I go 'shopping' in the guest room, where I have all the toiletries I will need until we go.

4.  Parks - there are so many nice parks and green spaces that are easily accessible, clean and full of ice cream vendors.  Part of me wishes we would have come here later, when we had kids, because the playgrounds look great!

5.  Location, location, location - in the US, I would visit a new country once a year at the max.  Here, it's amazing, ALL flights are international flights.  There are more than 15 countries that you can get to in about 2 hours and for less than $ 300 for a round trip.  Unbeatable.

No shopping update - If you have been a follower for most of the year, you might remember that I promised not to buy any new clothes the whole time we were here.  Well, I am sad to report that I caved in and did get a couple of things, most of them online and when I went back to the US in July.  I have bought 6 dresses, a skirt, and 2 shirts.  I will definitely try harder this year.



Sunday, October 14, 2012

Oktoberfest


Last weekend we flew to Munich to fulfill one of the big-ticket items on our travel bucket list - Attend Oktoberfest-which did not disappoint whatsoever.  The best way to describe it is, as I said at one point during the trip [and this is a direct quote], "Oktoberfest is the definition of 'my scene'" or like one of our friends said, "imagine that your favorite team just won the Superbow, and all of you are on the same team".  That is the essence and vibe of Oktoberfest.  There is no sulking, negativity, pushing or shoving.  Zillions of people occupy the same space but camaraderie reigns.  Besides drinking liters of beer and kilos of sausages, we managed to visit most of the big tents and gardens and go on the rides. Contrary to most people's suggestions, we didn't make reservations in any of the tents because there were only four of us and you had to prepay for at least 8 in order to have a guaranteed seat.  Instead, we scouted around looking for tables with empty seats.  Overall, we were pretty lucky; we got to seat at 3 different beer gardens and one day we had 'breakfast' inside a tent.  The whole experience was phenomenal. Like all things German, Oktoberfest was incredibly well planned, efficient, and executed seamlessly.  Take a seat, order, pay up, clink, sing, repeat.  Everywhere you looked were heaps of good food and monstrous beers, people wearing the traditional dress of dirndl and lederhosen no matter their age.  Little kids and grandparents sat at the table and cheered and clinked mugs with the rest of them.   If there is a way to promote world peace, this seems like a great way to start.

The highlights include:


Beer: Probst!

Fashion: Going Native in our Drndls

Flying: I still cannot believe  I agreed to this

Bratwurst, Viking, and Beer

Team Spirit: Massive tents with tables of newly made friends

The Devil's Wheel: seeing people get ejected by centrifugal force is actually really funny.


Gran Finale: "I've had the time of my life" sung my 5000 drunk people holding sparklers.

We are soo going back next year.  Friends welcome to join!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Adventures on the Overnight Train

 Ever since we moved to Belgrade, I had really wanted to try one of the overnight trains.  In my head, the 'real' European experience needs to include some sort of train travel.  So finally, almost a year after moving here, I was able to convince 4 very brave friends to join Phil and I on the overnight train to Bar, Montenegro.  Initially, the idea was to get the 6-bed compartment and have a fun, dorm-like experience, but when Phil and I went to the station to get our tickets, they didn't  have any compartments completely empty for us to be all together; so we settled for 3 'rooms' of two beds each.  We had a rental car waiting for us to then  drive around the country to the National Parks, spend the night in Budva, drive up to Sveti Stefan and Kotor Bay and fly back from Tivat on Monday morning.  The train was supposed to leave at 8:10 PM and get to Bar at 7 in the morning, so  we met at the train station at about 7:45 and made our way to our seats.  Our rooms were side by side and the best part is that some of them were connected by an inside door that could be folded in, to create a large suite.  You could also put up the top bunks to allow people to sit on the bottom ones without hitting their head; curiously, the bottom of that bunk was made up to look like a nice picture, so that when the whole set-up was ready, it looked like a legitimate living room.


K and R's living room



Phil hanging out in the mid-section

We brought some mojito pre-made mix for the ride and some really unhealthy snacks.  Sadly, we ate 90% of the snacks while we sat at the station until 10 PM.  We kept joking that we should just get off and let those two hours sitting and waiting for departure to be the actual OT adventure.  Finally, at like 10:15, we left Belgrade.  The ride was smooth and pretty fast, not bumpy, but screechy. We went to bed at like midnight, but I didn't really sleep very much at all because of the noise and the movement. But overall, it was a really comfortable way to travel.  The beds were not bad and it felt clean enough.  The sheets and pillows had definitely been washed before and there was nothing terribly disturbing. Except for the bathroom.

We got 'waken up' twice at the border to get our passports checked and stamped, and 12 hours hours later we arrived in Podgorica, still wearing the same clothes as the night before. We picked up our car, which fit all 5 of us in the front and back and had a mini-semi-seat in what I would call tier 3 of the car.  It was the best and worst seat in the house.

We drove for about 3 hours, stopping at a really small town/village for a traditional lunch of grilled meat, french fries, salads and beers.  All six of us ate a lot for 21 Euros.  Amazing!  A quick stopover to a hanging bridge and we arrived at the Black Lake, a UNESCO site within Durmitor National Park. 

Crazy Foreigners

Driving back, we kept looking at the guidebook to find fun things to see and do, and we selected Ostrog Monastery, not a UNESCO site, but a "Montenegro Top 10",  unfortunately, three thousand other people seemed to have the same idea, so we wound up in the top of a very steep mountain, on a one way road, behind about 11 coach buses.  We got out of the car and tried to walk it, and then noticed, that in the distance, it was about 5 miles away-and all uphill.  We quickly aborted the mission and decided to instead drive down to the coast to Sveti Stefan, this glorious hotel-resort-island to watch the sunset and have some drinks.  Two hours later and we made it right on time. The sun had maybe another 20 minutes before setting.  We ran to the coast and were able to take really good pictures.  Then our friend, C. tried to get us into the resort for drinks, but unfortunately, we were turned away because of our too-casual clothes (and probably our too loud voices).  Luckily there was a cute little place nearby, where we sat down and saw the sunset before checking into our apartments.

Needless to say, we were super tired when we finally drove to Budva, where we were planning to have dinner and spend the night.  When we got to the town, we realized that no one had printed the exact address of the place and we didn't have a way of knowing where we were staying.  At least C. had looked at the map beforehand and had some recolection of where the street was located, but we still had no clue exactly where it was, so we ended up knocking on random doors and asking.  No one had heard of the place or knew where it was.  Finally, a kindred spirit allowed us to connect our ipad to his Wi-Fi to look up the phone number.  The miracle of modern technology!  C. talked to the guy, told him where we were, and he was able to give us directions on how to get there.  The whole thing took over an hour, but we finally made it and it was a really nice place with a great location.

The rest of the trip was more relaxing, we walked around the Budva old town, which was nice; same, same but different and the next day we went to Kotor Bay, back to the scene of the scooter accident (see earlier post).  Now, I still have to make it to Macedonia to complete my tour of the ex-republics and brave the overnight trains to Bucharest and/or Sofia!


Friday, September 14, 2012

Croatian Coast Weekend

For Labor Day weekend, we took the seasonal Jat flight into Dubrovnik to meet up with 2 other couple-friends for a fabulous little break on the coast.  Our flight was at 7 in the morning and we were super tired and groggy when we got to the airport.  In a real turn of rotten luck, our flight kept getting delayed in half hour increments and we didn't end up leaving till 12:30 PM. We were pissed.  I had heard really great things about Dubrovnik (DV) and was anxious to start exploring.  Not to mention, that in our typical go-go-don't-stop-fashion, we only had Friday and Saturday in DV to then take the bus up to Split and fly out of Split on Monday.  Unfortunately, the flight was at 2 PM.  Leaving us with very little time to actually see/do a lot.  I figured it was still better to take at least a glimpse, and if we loved it, we could always try to go back.

Like the grilled octopus in Greece, DV was all about mussels.  I don't really ever eat seafood in Serbia, one because we don't have a coast and two because the meat is really good.  We had a big mussels lunch for about 12 Euro (double the Montenegrin prices!) and went on our way to the main attractions.  It really is an awesomely pretty place.  I have always liked the walled city idea and architecture.  Cities like Venice, and Toledo (Spain, not Ohio), where it's just narrow alleyways going in all different directions, no cars, just people on foot and the odd bike.  The city is all built in this white marble, even the floor, which makes it really slippery, because it has been worn down with the thousands of cruise and bus tours arriving daily.
Actually, that was my only turn-off, the amount of tourists around.  As much as we have traveled since moving here, we have been really great about missing the peak seasons, so having to wait in crazy lines or not being able to take pictures because there are other 50 people looking at the same panorama is not something I have been dealing with much.  But the views WERE worth the wait, and we got some good pics going around the wall.  Then we went to a bar that advertised the "best views in town" and they really did.  This little place was right along the rocks and had a ladder down to the coast.  DV doesn't have a beach per se.  It's on the ocean, but on the really deep part, so it's more like a big pier/marina.  Our friends C and J, who are much more adventurous than us wanted to dive off one of the cliffs.  The prime spot was roped off with a sign that said "VIP Area" and there were some random dudes in there, so there was not a lot of space for us to hang out.  But Phil, K, R and I got some beers while our Hawaiian diver extraordinaire buddies dived about 10 meters into the bluest waters I have seen.   Everyone at the bar cheered them on, I actually had sweaty palms just thinking about it, but it was definitely safe, and both of them are pretty much pros.  I would be super that girl who doesn't jump far enough and hits her head on a protruding rock 1 meter below and falls lying down flat and unconscious, while probably losing her bathing suit in the process.  So no diving for me.  Additionally, I have also been suffering from a bad shoulder for about ...a year now, so no thanks.


Post dive pic

The best thing of this trip was C's crazy tripod contraption for her camera.  She bought this little 3 flexible tube mount that can be attached to anything.  Just bend the legs to the shape of the post, chair, tree, or
railing and voila! an instant group picture can be taken.  Actually, it was the same one that our friend B. had brought to Amsterdam.  Same, same but different.  Anyway, the theme of the trip was to take as many group pics as possible.  It was really funny though, when people unsuspectingly passed in front of the camera and we all went "ahhhhh" or "no!, no!, no!, STOP! Most of them just kept going and stared at us while we stood there, completely still, with cheesy smiles on our faces, staring at the camera that should not be there.

After the diving, the VIP area was completely empty, but still roped off.  C. and I were like, "were taking over this joint!" so we walked past the sign and pulled out the chairs that had been all stacked neatly on top of the table and became the new VIP-ers.  It's so weird how you can just do that.  No bar employee came down to complain or say anything, and at the same time no other patrons dared to cross it. We were like super fake celebrities.

VIP!

After the diving, we went to our house, that C had booked online, which was cool cause it was a REAL house for the 6 of us. We had a full kitchen,3 bedrooms, and 2 baths;  but like everything that sounds like a too awesome deal, it had it's downfall.  For this house it was that it was literally over 300 steep steps up a hill; going into the walled city from the house was a good 20 minute-sweating-profusely-while-panting hike.  No joke; the kind of hike that if you forgot your camera and you were already down the hill, you would rather make Dubrovnik a mere memory rather than climb that evil thing again.

Nevertheless, we climbed, and that night, we had Chef J prepare us a super yummy home cooked meal.  Earlier that day, while we had been waiting tirelessly at the airport for our flight, they had gone to the market and picked up some fish and vegetables.  We prepped some rice, salad, and other good stuff and ate in the balcony, overlooking the ocean.  Really nice stuff.

The next day, we had booked a sort of tour around three local islands.  The tour promised an hour on the first two and three hours on the last one, along with lunch and unlimited soft drinks and wine.  Well, there was a reason while that 'awesome deal' was only 30 Euros.  The wine was terrible, the soft drinks were like Rock Creek Soda (you need to be a DC person to know what that is) and the fish at lunch was terribly overcooked.  We only spent half an hour on the first two islands, and that was half an hour too long.  There was nothing to see or do on them.  Get off, look at 2-3 restaurants and some crazy hills for 'views' and wait in the shade to get back on the boat.  At least the boat was pretty nice and not too crowded.

The last island was much better though and we had time to swim and get some drinks on the shore. Even though we were there for a very short time, I have to say it might be one of the best beaches I have ever been to.  Caribbean beaches might be the most beautiful, but I like it better when the water is a little bit cold and the ocean is a bit rough.  This had the perfect amount of waves for playing around and it was the perfect temperature.  Plus, like in Belgrade, we paid some money to sit on some chairs, under an umbrella and got some drinks brought to us.  So easy, so great.

best.beach.ever
That night, after getting all primped up, we went out to dinner and then to get drinks.  I had a large plate of mussels all to my self!   We were going around trying to find a nice mojito place, like the one we loved in Sarajevo (a post I might write 3 months too late) but instead ended up to the closest thing I have seen to a frat party in this part of the world:  the bar with the bucket drinks.  Now, who deep down inside doesn't wish they were 19 and still could party like that?  But the truth is we're old now, one round of buckets later we were done.  But we found the 'grown-up' alternative to the slushee buckets: the mojito karafes.  I forgot to mention that in between dinner and drinks, Phil got a present from the group...

That guy

The mojito karafes, too sweet, but fun

I just really wanted to post a pic of our official photographer, C.
The next day, we all went our separate ways, C. and J. wanted to see more views through the funicular.  K. and R. went to a monastery, and of course, Phil and I, being super Puerto Rican, went shopping.  Not that there were a ton of good places, but enough.  We got two really cool wood pictures from a local artist and I got a necklace.  At like 2 PM, our friends dropped us off at the bus stop, where we took the never-ending torturous bus to Split.  After 5 long hours, we made it right at sunset, so at least we got to see some nice views.  Split wasn't all that great, but I had more mussels, and some grilled calamari, and just a nice, relaxing night.  According to our friends, the place to go is Hvar island, which if we'd had more time, I would have totally tried to go to.  But next year, when some friends visit, definitely.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Going bananas in Belgrade

Literally.  I have always loved bananas, and even more banana flavored things.  In DC, it mostly meant strawberry-banana yogurt or the Tropicana juice or my beloved Chunky Monkey Ben and Jerry's ice cream. This summer has brought me three new banana flavored items that have become regulars in my weekly shopping.

Notice the name in English, "Milkshake"

Chocolate-Banana Milk?  SIGN ME Up!  This will be my breakfast staple for awhile.  If there is one thing I love more than banana flavor, it is chocolate!  Maybe I will add some peanut butter to it and make a REAL milkshake.  Yum.

Too good to be true?  Nope. 100% real


I first noticed these pops at the typical ice-cream freezers all over town and then realized they sell it in "bulk" at the Maxi.  It's basically a gummy banana flavored "peel" that you literally peel off and then you are left with a banana creamsicle.

Someone PLEASE start exporting these

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Belgrade Beer Fest and more giant produce

Two weekends ago it was Belgrade Beer Fest and even though a couple of friends told us not to get too excited, that it was nothing to write home about, we still made plans to check it out thinking of it as sort of a dress rehearsal for Oktoberfest.  Well, we liked it so much on Friday night that we decided to go back again on Saturday AND then again on Sunday.

The food stations, just two choices: Pljeskavica or Sausages

Beer Fest consisted of about 25 beer tents, including a Mexican themed one selling dos equis, corona and the like, 5 giant food stalls, a stage with local bands with the TV screen, all set-up in a ginormous field where people could walk around and visit the tents along the confluence of the two rivers (Usce).
The great surprise element - and what became the main source of fun and entertainment- was the unadvertised carnival inside the fest.  State Fair-like rides were all set up in one side of the field bringing together families, college kids and the occasional tourist.   Given, I'm pretty sure most of them were decommissioned in the US back in the early nineties and then re-sold to various second/third world countries before making it into Serbia..but nevertheless, we still rode in them.  Because really?  What are the odds that you pick the exact ride, exact seat, date and time when it's going to fall apart?  I figured that if it was my time to die, then there was nothing I could do about it.

Really fast but close to the ground, it seemed like the safest alternative



I nicknamed this one "the spaceship"  it seemed harmless, until it lifted up to the sky and started rotating like crazy

Me and Phil cheering to our survival

The 4-in-1 picture is courtesy of my new friend M. who is new to Belgrade and is clearly a more talented photographer than I am.  You might think I'm pretty fearless, but the truth is that I am a total scared-y cat when it comes to getting on those rides.  It took a lot of pleading from Phil and many hesitant looks and "waiting moments" to get me on that Speedy.  Phil and our Saturday group were way more enthusiastic; especially K. who happily rode with Phil on the spaceship and some other evil-looking ones.  We all put our foot down when it came to the whole circle-upside-down pirate ship.  It was really funny, though, that some of the rides had typical American propaganda like a cartoon of Uncle Sam and a bald eagle. 

The second highlight after the rides, was the BLUEBERRY beer.  Most of the people in our group thought it was too sweet, but we really liked it.  For me it was the perfect combination between a beer and a cocktail, not too bitter, not too sweet; not too filling but not too strong.  We spent most of our time in that tent, the Black Turtle, and then walking around a little bit through the other carnival -like games.  On Friday, my friend V proved to be really good at darts; she was able to get a pin in the bulls eye and two others on the circle right outside of it, which I was sure it would get her a semi-decent prize (except, really, there weren't any, except one ALF doll that we lobbied for to no avail), but the man just gave her a super pathetic mini-doll, the kind that you would get from a 25cent vending machine.  Then I guess he felt really bad for me, because I tried to play another game, throwing tennis balls to some tins and literally made a complete ass of myself, missing every tin.  He still gave me a consolation prize of another awful looking thing that I gave away immediately. 

V squared and our fabulous prizes


Last but not least, we are still enjoy some great produce with the last months of summer.  Here I am with a giant stack of green onions.


Greeeeen Giant!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Beyond Belgrade: Mokra Gora

When my friends K and R invited me to join them on a road trip to Mokra Gora, I had no idea what they were talking about.  I asked around at work and got very conflicting messages from, "It is definitely a must-see, you need at least 3 days" to "so not worth it, if you are going to drive 3 and a half hours, go to Budapest again".  Since they were going to go regardless, I decided to check it out for myself and come back with a full report.

The main attraction at Mokra Gora, besides the mountain scenery, is this train called the Ĺ argan Eight, which used to be part of a "Romantic Road" route back in the pre-war days.  Now, they have reconstructed the most scenic parts and changed the original train cars to more touristy ones for a sightseeing ride through the mountain side.  The name Sargan Eight comes from the fact that if you went on a helicopter or on a plane over the tracks you would see a figure eight.  Also, according to Wikipedia, Mokra Gora are the words in Serbian for Wet Mountain.

Landscape as seen from a lookout point

Before getting on the train, we went to the other must-do nearby, a so called  "Ethnic Village", which is a nostalgic replica of what a Serbian village would have looked like back in the old days.  It was a cute little arrangement of wooden cottages that are now restaurants, shops, and tourist traps.  We had heard rumors that Johnny Depp had once filmed a movie in the area and that they had made a statue of him.  I asked one of the ladies that worked there, and it seems that the legend is true, but that they moved the statue to an unknown location because of "the construction."  I am not sure what construction she was referring to since 1.  There was whatsoever NO new construction anywhere around where we were and 2.  If anything is going to bring crazy American tourists to the middle of the Serbian countryside, it will certainly be a life-sized replica of Johnny Depp.  Oh, well.

As I was writing this, I did a quick online search and it is certainly true!

Courtesy of USA TODAY.  Full Article here


Me in front of one of the authentic houses


The Ethnic Village, old cars and everything


The train ride itself took about 2 hours, first you get on the train (we had to go standing room only, because they were all booked for seats) to the top of the mountain.  We were lucky to have gorgeous weather, and since it was the 4:20 train, the sun was pretty much gone and the scenery was beautiful.  I really enjoy train travel and I love having the wind in my face and hair while going really fast, so I was really hogging my window and had my head out for the entire ride.  Once we reached the top (in about 45 minutes), they gave us 10 minutes to get off, take pictures, and look around before boarding to go back down.  Then we kept stopping and re-boarding on the way down.  On the second stop, I think EVERY single person got an ice cream from those classic European freezers with the cardboard index.  Later, we stopped at a lookout point and finally at a cafe, where people get coffee, soft drinks or beer.  On the way back, I met a Spanish guy that is married to a Bosnian, who were spending the weekend there with their kids and her family.  He told me that they rented a house right by the tracks for 13 people for two days for only 60 Euro!

The long and winding road

Hanging out.  Literally.


So, the 36,000 dollar question:  Worth it?  I definitely enjoyed it and I am very glad I went.  If you already live in Serbia, and really like trains I'd say go for it, even if it's a long day trip.  If you have young kids and a big group, it could be fun to make it into a weekend of relaxation and nature bonding.  The drive is kind of a pain.  We left here at 9:15 and didn't get there till 1:45.  Good thing I had packed some snacks for the road.  Also, like most other attractions here in Serbia, there were NO clear road signs advertising the way, and the GPS proved to be not very trustworthy.  Getting to the main road was easy enough, but since it's nestled in the mountain ranges right by the Bosnian border, it was all curves and we kept getting stuck behind heavy trucks carrying everything from timber to live sheep.  There were times when were were doing 35 km/hr; which is less than 20 miles!   Kudos to R for his patience and excellent, one-lane-giant truck-passing skills.  If I had been the one driving, we probably would still be there.


Thursday, August 2, 2012

Find me at Ada!


In my humble opinion the best, most awesome thing about Belgrade is its little beach island, Ada Ciganlija.  Neither a real lake or a real beach, Ada is this urban inlet in the middle of the city that was dug out and built as a small resort type strip in the banks of the Sava River.  Each summer, thousands of Serbian and European (and now American) tourists, sun bathe along the shores of Ada until they turn six degrees darker.  Having grown  up in a "real" island, Puerto Rico, I was a bit skeptical at first, but whoever is behind the urban planning in Ada is sheer genius.  First of all, unlike the beaches in PR, Ada's shores are chock-full of stuff to do.  There are regular bars, clubs, and restaurants; FLOATING bars, clubs and restaurants; bike paths, running tracks, paddle boats, canoes, real rowing boats (like crew), a water ski area, AND a bungee jump.  For the less adventurous/athletic types, you can just grab a beach chair or even a bed and just lounge around; you can rent a towel and an umbrella and order drinks or food.  And of course, in true Serbia fashion, you can buy just ONE drink and stay ALL day.  This is both good and bad.  It's nice if you are the one doing it, but it sucks when the best places are full and you want to grab a seat.  The "lake" is pretty clean, the water is clear and warm.  The only thing is that it's super rocky (pebbles rather) and kind of muddy.  But since it's fresh water, you don't get that gross salty feeling or the stinging in your eyes.  I am a big fan.



The Ada beach 

For the sun phobes like me

Hanging out in the water

Also, in the true European spirit, 99% of the men wear speedos. Unfortunately, you can't see that in the picture.  The one guy standing up, is in fact Canadian; hence his trunks.  All women wear bikinis, given most Serbian women are pretty hot and thin, but I have definitely seen a couple who should probably cover up.  I am the only person in the entire beach with a tankini.  I don't think tankinis exist here, but I will not wear a real bikini cause I don't think the Serbs are ready for my jelly.  Anyway, the plan is to hang out here as often as possible before the harsh winter weather comes back.


Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Opa!

My friend E, who used to work at the DC Jail with me, came to visit last week and we were able do a quick getaway to Greece. In my typical fashion of maximizing time away from work, we flew out Thursday night and came back at the crack of dawn on Tuesday, giving us four full glorious days of vacation.

Athens exceeded my expectations in every way. I had heard from friends who've visitied before that it could be sort of intense. Like Naples in Italy; hot, loud, chaotic, smelly, and a bit scary. I didn't feel like it was that way at all, except for the heat. The sun was definitely beating down, but everything else was great. We went to some museums, which were really nice and modern (and also provided a nice break from the heat), climbed up the actual Acropolis, wondered around the Plaka neighborhood, did the double decker bus tour and ate awesome food. E has a good Greek-American friend who hooked us up with all the "insider" tips for us, like ordering the grilled octopus at every meal and staying at the hostel, Backpackers, which ended up probably being the main source of comic relief and crazy late night laughs.

E. and I at the Acropolis.  

Since our flight came in sort of late, we didn't get into the hostel till like 11 PM.  We checked into our 3 person suite, with a private bathroom to find it sweltering hot, and with a guy in his underwear sleeping in one of the beds.  I told E "I can live with this guy   if we crank up the A/C, but if the A/C is broken, we need to get the hell out of here".  So like typical Americans, we stormed to the front desk and complained.  They told us they only had one universal remote for the A/C and that it was "somewhere in the rooms".  So we went to dinner and hoped that it would be returned by the time we were back. After dinner, still no remote and by then, Mr. Tighty-whities had woken up and was all chatty about his Greek Islands adventures the week before.  He kept rambling on about nights where he and his friends took a 100 shots, and how he was giving out "shots for all".  E. is completely silent and in my head I'm like, I am way too old for this crap.  So E and I got back downstairs and pulled the "this is unacceptable, we are not putting up with this false advertising that you have A/C, we need to talk to a manager"... and it worked!  The one nice one guy at the front desk (not to be confused with the mean one that hated us) told us to get our things and moved us to another building.  So we re-packed our bags and E. walked out to the street in the middle of the night in her pajamas.  Right away, the place looked nicer, so we had high expectations, but then when we opened the door (by then it was like 1 AM) there were 5 bunk beds in the room and everyone was sleeping.  The A/C was on, but it was still hot and stuffy.  Of course, by then I was all worked up from the trip, the moving, and the anger, so I am wide awake and sweating profusely. We stumbled around, shushing and gigling and had to split up and take two top bunks.  Then we realize we don't have towels. I just decide to shower and put on my pajamas on top of my soaking wet body, thinking that that would help me cool down.  This whole time we are bumping into things and trying really hard to whisper and not wake everyone else up.  Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I laid down and tried to go to sleep.  Then I woke up two hours later with this couple who came in at 3 AM,  TURNED THE LIGHTS ON,  and proceeded to take their sweet time getting their stuff ready.  I was livid and ready to scream, but held out.  Good thing I did, because by the next morning, word had spread abut our little adventure and complaints, so when we checked out of that room, they hooked us up with a private apartment, just for the two of us.  So after the first night from hell, we were livin' it up in our condo.  Of course, after they were super nice to us, we somehow proceeded to become "those girls" and had to bother the front desk one thousand times with issues that were legitimately not our fault like "we can't turn the light on, we didn't get towels, the key doesn't work".  I think they were really relieved to see us go.

Getting up there in the heat was a major accomplishment

It also definitely didn't help that we kept bumping into our "friends", the light turners everywhere we went.  At one point one of them (they were from New Jersey) comes up to us and says "see you in the room later" and E was like sure...little did they know that we had been upgraded to first class living.

The next day in Athens was a combination of awe and sweltering heat.  I had not been that hot since India.  My feet were swollen and every step took a huge amount of effort.  We tried to wait till the sun was down for the actual climbing up to the Acropolis, but they closed at 7, so at 5 PM, we took the leap and walked all the way up there.  The views were really amazing and we were able to take some good pictures of the back, as the front was being blocked by a giant crane.

When we had planned the trip, E and I agreed that you can't say you've done Greece unless you've gone to an island.  I let her pick the island and so at noon the next day, we were on our way to Agistri on board the flying dolphin, which I was super excited about.  Turns out the dolphin was sold out for the way back and we had to settle on the ferry which took an extra hour.  I had high expectations for the dolphin, and I was terribly disappointed.  First of all, it didn't have an outdoor deck, so you were stuck inside, where it was really stuffy and gross, and then it took forever anyway.  But at last we made it to Agistri, the unknown island that is not in any map and was clearly not our hostel's manager's favorite;  his exact words were "If I was going to be in Greece for only a week and could only choose one island, I would never choose Agistri".  Maybe he just wants to keep it a secret?

Totally over-hyped--the Flying Dolphin

Agistri was perfect. It was small, not crowded, with awesome, crystal colored waters, the typical white and blue greek island architecture, plenty of places to eat and drink and just overall felt authentic and not super touristy.  Obvioulsy, everyone there were tourists, but we were definitely the only Americans, which was cool.  We had the best meal of the trip there, more grilled octopus and some saganaki, which I'd never had; but it's basically really good fried cheese.  We spent time in the sun and the sand, but we were literally getting roasted, so then we just spent like 6 hours in the water, which was wonderfully refreshing and clean, but really salty.  I think that salt dried up my knee wound and now its almost cured! 

The beach at Agistri
You know they built this church just so that tourists could take pics

Going native

At night we went to this club that promised "sexy dancers and shots for all" mostly because we were curious to see how wild and crazy were the Greeks when partying.  Total disappointment.  WE were the sexy ladies and there were definitely no shots for all.  The "VIP Party" was more like your typical DC Lounge on any given weeknight.  No dancing, no craziness; this actually worked to our favor, as we got a seat at the bar and proceeded to recount every funny story from our jail.  We were even undercharged for our drinks!  The next morning we took the ferry back to Athens and it was soo much better than the dolphin.  It makes me wonder why people take the dolphin at all!  It's more expensive and way uglier and more uncomfortable.  The cool thing about the ferry, besides the outdoor deck, was that you can take your car, scooter or dog on it. No questions asked.  Then, when you dock, they open the giant, spaceship-like door and it becomes sheer madness.  Cars, scooters and people run to the front in a mass exodus kind of frenzy.  I couldnt' help but notice this really cute fat pug with no leash that was frantically trying to catch up with this lady, who I assume was his owner.  She was paying exactly zero attention to him, and she was manuvering the crowd like a pro, cutting in line in front of others, making her way to the front.  Poor fatty was jumping over suitcases and tripping over people trying to keep up.. It was really funny.

Fatty--i wanted to take him home with me so bad.

Finally, we made it back to our hostel from heaven/hell and we were so worn out and tired that we didn't feel like finding a real Greek resturant. Next to our hostel, this fish head grill promised the "best burgers in Europe" so I talked Ellen into getting one.  After all, I hadn't had a real authentic American-style burger since we left DC and was really craving it.  It definitely did not disappoint. I got the Texas style one, complete with cheddar cheese, bbq sauce and an onion ring!  I was in heaven.

We spent our last day riding the double decker bus and exploring the archeological museum, where, weirdly enough, they don't allow people to "pose" with the artifacts.  They actually have a rule that says that you may not immitate the statues or sculptures or make faces or gestures while taking a picture with their artifacts.  E and I were able to sneak in a funny one when they weren't looking, but we did see several people get scolded for disobeying. Why would they do that? It just makes people want to fool around even more.  Our last night, we ended up taking a long walk around the Acropolis and finding a good place to have our last grilled octopus and buying some souvenirs along the strip.  I think we did our share to stimulate the Greek economy.

The famous grilled octopus