Thursday, May 31, 2012

The pretty one, the badass one, and the one with the accident

One of my new(er) quests is to visit all former Yugoslav Republics while we are here.  Except I guess for Kosovo, mostly because we are not allowed, and also because a lot of Serbs consider Kosovo to still be a part of Serbia.  This political stance is something that I know very little about and stay away from discussing.  For those in need of a quick refresher course, the countries that used to form the Republic of Yugoslavia were Serbia (check), Montenegro (check), Slovenia (check), Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia and Kosovo (depends on who you ask).

I went to Montenegro three weeks ago via a really short flight to Tivat and then an easy cab ride to Kotor Bay.  The old town of Kotor is designated a UNESCO heritage site and I am a sucker for all things UNESCO.  It definitely did not disappoint.  Even though I was there for barely 48 hours, it was plenty.  My friend L and I climbed up the citadel to see the church and the amazing views of the bay.  We hung out by the shore and had really good and cheap mussles (6 Euro for a big bowl of them!--Amazing!).  The next day we rented a scooter and went riding around the bay into another little town called Perast.  It was soo fun, the breeze in our hair, the sun shining, the beautiful bay next to us, all peaceful and quiet with almost no other tourists.  We parked the bikes and took a little boat to an island, then we had another awesome mussles lunch.

L and I in Kotor Bay

The mussles

Then of course, when everything is too perfect, lightning strikes, and I took a bad curve and we fell off the bike.  It's really weird how people react to things, my first instinct was to immediately get up and act like nothing happened.  "I'm fine, it's fine, let's go" and my friend was more in the "over my dead body will I ever get back on that bike", plus she took one look at my poor knee, which basically had a hole in it the size of a melon baller/small ice cream scoop and said "you need a hospital".  So we flagged down a nice man who took us to the most rural, trusting, hospital I've ever been in; no receptionist, no gloves, 23 Euro for an X-ray and the patching up was pure alcohol being poured inside the wound for cleaning and disinfecting. About 45 minutes later, we are out and when we walked out to the parking lot, of course! our good samaritan was still there, waiting for us!!  So I was adamant that we had to go get the bike to return it and my friend was just as determined not to get on it ever again, so we decided I would drive the bike back to Kotor while she rode in the car with the nice man.  We got back to the place, where they charged me 100 Euro for the damage (and they never realized that there was a small part missing that fell down and then my friend abandoned in the car).  When I come out from the rental place to the parking lot, I find out that the guy was totally hitting on my friend, "have coffee with me, let's go to dinner".  She was like, no thanks, HERE IS SOME MONEY.  He didn't want to take the money, but he did ask us to tell everyone how nice people from Montenegro are.  So here it is.  The story of the accident and the testament that thinking of both the doctor and the good samaritan, my experience with Montenegrians has been excellent.  Also, my knee is doing much better now, thank you.

The bay

Last weekend, my mom was visiting, so we went to Slovenia, also known as "the pretty one" of the former republics.  It really was, at least naturally, one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to.  We spent one day in Ljubljana, the capital, one day in Bled, which is right out of a fairy tale with an unnaturaly blue lake and a small island on the lake, and the last day we did a day trip/tour to the Prodjama Castle and the Postonja Caves.  Definitely recommend it and definitely can be done in 3 days.  The caves were so cool that the pictures don't really do them justice.  They are enormous and it's really really cold in there.  Plus, you get to ride this little train in for more than 2 kilometers, and unlike the US where you would need a seat belt and there would be a waiver to sign, etc. Here, it was like ride at your own risk. So the train flew by these rocks and you could really lose a limb or worse, your head, if you stood up or put your arm out..but there were no signs or rules, just a wild ride into a wild cave.  Also, even though there was a fake tour, you could basically just go at your own pace and if we had wanted to chill in the cave all day, we totally could have done so.  No questions asked, no pushing, no rush. 

The church and the lake--Bled

The Prodjama castle

The Prodjama castle was a large castle built on a hill, upon a cave, and the cave was used to store food and water in case of an attack, so it had a secret entrance on the top for people to climb in and out and then it was also connected to the castle.  Really neat stuff.  I booked the tour through a company I found on the Lonely Planet website and it worked out great, except we were the only ones on the tour and our guide sort of smelled and had no concept of personal space.  He spoke so close to me at one point that I was afraid he was going to try to kiss me.  Or maybe I'm just too American, but I need at least a foot to be comfortable. He picked us up on a BMW and drove us through the back roads of Slovenia, which are unbelievably cute and just pristine.  Not a speck of dirt, dust or trash. Just pine trees, blue skies, windy roads, houses with the old school roof tops and the ocassional car or tractor. 

Then it was back to Serbia, which I nicknamed "the badass one" by the definition I found on Urban 

Badass:  Infinitely cool, ├╝ber awesome, hardcore to the extreme.

Say what you will about Bruce Lee or Chuck Noris, Tsutomu Yamaguchi is, hands down, the most badass example of a badass ever to walk the earth: Tsutomu Yamaguchi was the only known survivor of BOTH atomic blasts. He died at age 93 on January 6, 2010.

This to me is the epitomy of Belgrade, after all that the country has been through, they are still going strong and the peoples' spirit is very much alive.  Seldom have I seen  a place where its citizens are so patriotic and love their country with such passion.  Well, maybe in Puerto Rico.  Now that the weather is warm people have started to party and be outside at all times of the day into the night. You can feel the energy in the streets.  Also, the strawberries are out by the crates.  First they would sell you a tiny little basket for 300 dinars, then, a week later, the same basket for 250, then 200, and now they just give you a whole kilo for 200.  My mom just loves strawberries so every day she's been going to the market to buy us a kilo.  Last night, I made homemade strawberry ice cream, but I got greedy and I guess I put way too many strawberries so the whole thing started spilling out of the machine and created a big mess.  But it was wonderful.  I want to make ice cream sandwiches for dessert and I'll probably use the Plazmas for it. I think it'll be a great combination and could potentially become a new Serbian tradition.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Vote for us!

It would mean so much to Phil and I if all you readers/followers out there voted for us in this contest.  As you know, we love travelling and have a ton of fun exploring new places and trying new things.  The contest asks to submit a travel related picture and a caption of why are you intrepid.  Here is our entry and a link to it.

Vote here!

This picture was taken in July 2010, when Phil and I went to Macchu Pichu with our friends Sarah and Chris from NM.  Christ took this pic and it has been one of my faves ever since.  I think it's a good one for the contest and if we won, we could go to Africa or Australia, two of the continents we are missing in our map!

I will have a good post about life in Serbia soon.  Cherries and Strawberries are out, so I am a very happy camper...

Sunday, May 13, 2012

7 months

Tuesday will mark our seven months in Belgrade!  It's weird, because on one hand, I feel like it's been a lot longer than that, and in other ways, I feel like we just got here.  Some quick thoughts.

1. I am sooo NOT fluent in Serbian
When we first learned about the pending move, I had the chance of taking Serbian lessons and/or AT LEAST practice with Phil at home while he studied for this Serbian language exam.  Then, when we moved, I definitely had plenty of time to either take lessons with the Serbian instructor at the Embassy, or to pay a private tutor.  But arrogantly enough, I figured I would just pick it up on my own.  After all, don't teenagers go abroad on these "immersion" programs all the time and come home fluent in German or whatever else?  Well, let me just say, I am clearly NOT a teenager, and I could not be farther from fluent or even beginner in Serbian if I wanted to.  A couple of weeks ago, I went to the market with my good friend, K, and she noticed that when people told me how much I owed them, I didn't really pay attention, I just gave them some money and accepted whatever change came back.  She said, exasperatedly, "you still don;t know your numbers?"  oops.  I was embarrassed to admit, that NO, unfortunately, I STILL DON'T KNOW MY NUMBERS!  Why?  Because somehow, I have not made it a priority.  Every time I go to the market I make a mental note of  next time I am at home with nothing to do, I should learn the numbers.  And what happens is that, the next time I am at home with nothing to do, I go online and find out who Ashley Simpson is dating or which is the slowest, crappiest airline in the world.  My priorities are NOT in the right place.  Plus, after seven months, my stupid arrogant self, still thinks I can become fluent without a single class or textbook.  I still have 17 months to make this happen.

2.  Never underestimate the power and importance of body language
I might not be fluent in Serbian, but I AM fluent in  knowing what people want from the expression on their faces.  I can't tell you how many "conversations" I have had with complete strangers in pure body language.  I don't need words.  Just a couple of nods, points, shrugs, and frowns will do the trick.  Just yesterday, I was literally driving IN a man's backyard, lost like a stray dog, and was finally able to my destination using just the street name and my fingers.  If this is not a story of triumph and success, I don't know what is. Now, this situation of me stranded in the middle of nowhere in the "burbs" of Belgrade would have never happened if it wasn't for #3.

3.  You can't trust the GPS in Belgrade
When we moved, we paid over 100 dollars, which is almost the price of the actual GPS, to buy the maps for Eastern Europe and the Balkans.  Well, to my great discontent, these maps are kind of old and are missing a ton of new construction including bridges, bypasses and exits.  Not to mention that one way streets are sometimes marked as two ways and vice versa.  Then, when we see if there were any updated versions, Garmin wants to charge us another now, the GPS is more for a general idea of the vicinity of the actual place, but you can't be alarmed if you end up in a cul-de-sac in the middle of nowhere while the robot voice of the lady with the British accent is still repeating "in 500 feet, turn left".

4.  The discovery of the butcher-to-go place
This has been my favorite discovery in Belgrade in the past few months.  I had noticed a bright pink place not far from my house that looked like a butcher shop.  I am always looking for new places to buy meat, because my old favorites, near the green produce market, close way before I get out of work. Also, since we moved, I stopped eating frozen/defrosted meat, so I needed a place that was close to my house and was open late. Pink house palace seemed to be the answer.  The first time I walked in there, they had the usual spread of meats at the counter, so I ordered my chicken breasts using the sign language method and the lady weighs them like usual, but instead of wrapping them, she takes them away to the back.  I immediately realize that they have a grill in there, actually multiple grills.  Apparently, you buy the meat at this place and then take it home already cooked!  They don't have any seating or offer any side dishes, so it's not a restaurant, but they don't sell the meat raw either,so it's a hybrid of the butcher shop and your typical take away cevapi place.  I don't think they have any other methods of cooking other than grilling, but the meat selection is pretty decent and the prices are the same as at the butcher.  Never again will I be cooking meat, unless it is in the slow cooker.  This place has changed my life and lengthened my evenings in ways I could have never imagined.

5.  Puerto Rico and Serbia are remarkably similar
From clapping when the plane lands, to telling people to their face when they've gained weight.  From older women dying their hair platinum blond and wearing high heels and nice clothes to go grocery shopping, to drinking coffee right before going to bed;  let it be "promaja" or "el sereno", the same cold draft that grandmas warn young people about even on hot summer nights, I have had a pretty easy time adjusting, mostly because I have seen/lived it all before.  This one might require a whole other post, though.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Moose and the Jubilee

Before I start talking about the trip, I have to say that the Serbian Government is absolutely brilliant when it comes to official holidays.  Serbs celebrate most of their holidays for 2 days instead of one.  So for New Year's, State Day, May Day and Orthodox Easter we get two days off.  Genius!  This April was the best month ever with 2 long weekends almost back to back.  The first one, Orthdox Easter, went from Friday to Monday, and the one that just passed, May Day, went Tuesday-Wednesday, so Phil and I took Monday off and had a really nice 5 days off to go to Amsterdam.

My friend L, from high school, was planning to visit us in Serbia when we first planned this trip.  I thought that coming all the way from Puerto Rico, she had to see more than just Belgrade, so I suggested that we meet up during this awesome long holiday in a fun place in Western Europe,so we got our tickets without a second thought.  Fast forward three weeks before departure, and I am trying to find a place to stay and there was NOTHING.  Booked solid, outrageous prices, and I'm like WTF! So, I went online to figure out if there was a concert or a conference, or something, and there it was, plain as day, Queen Beatrix's Jubilee, also known as Queen's Day, also known as the biggest party of the year since the Love Parade stopped happening in Berlin circa 2004.

Phil channeling his inner moose
Now, I don't know anything about monarchies, but if you had seen us this weekend, you would think we were big fans.  Also, this trip went from a fun, mellow, me-and-L-bicycling-around-town-catching-up-good -time to a full blown, 5-people-in-one-room-partying-on-the-street-wearing-crazy-costumes extravaganza.   Phil, our mutual friend A, and L's friend from Paris (Van Gogh impersonator extraordinaire, B) decided to join us last minute, and the hotel was all sold out, there was no other way out than to pay for an extra cot to be wheeled into the room and to share twin beds.

I had been to Amsterdam once before, about 10 years ago, for about 1.5 days, so all I remembered was really wanting to go back, how pretty everything was, and how hard it was to get oriented.  10 years later,  it all still holds true.  After four days, I still didn't know my way around, not even to our hotel.  To me it all looked exactly the same; picture-perfect houses in narrow, cobblestone streets along the canals. I absolutely loved it.  Loved the bikes, loved the street food, loved the row houses and loved the people.  After this weekend, the Dutch have trumped the Australians in my book for friendliest, funnest people.  I don't know if it was the festivities or what, but everyone was incredibly cool and nice, their English was phenomenal and they just have everything you could want/need a short bike ride away.  Not to mention how liberal their politics are and how well they take care of the environment.  During the Queen's Day celebrations, they applied the reusable mug at the Christmas Market concept to beer glasses. So everywhere you went, if you got a beer, you paid a 1 Euro deposit on your cup and then you would return it after you used it and get your Euro back.  Amazing!

We did a good job of doing all sorts of activities.  Cultural: Van Gogh museum, Anne Frank House and the Rijksmuseum; Touristy: Canal tour, walking tour, churches; Fun: Queen's Day stages and beer stands; Nature: bike ride along the tulip farms; Immature; Phil scaring children with his moose hat at the park, walking around the Red Light District with french fries dipped in mayo in one hand and a beer in the other, probably only 30 minutes after having dinner.

The Queen's Day celebration surpassed my expectations.  The streets were packed to the max, and so were the canals.  Party boats full of people dressed in orange, blasting music and drinking beers passed by left and right, and on the streets, everyone was out of their front door, either chilling at the doorstep or on the street.  Restaurants and shops were either closed or were serving special Queen's Day fare.  Beer kiosks were set up at every park and every square.  There were stages with live music and folky bands and people were dancing, all wearing orange lays, t-shirts, hats, glasses, etc.  too cool.  We also got some orange goods so that we could fit in with the locals.  This is definitely a city I would move to in a heartbeat.

Going native

So beautiful even I can't believe I was actually there