Thursday, May 16, 2013

The men of Belgrade

I am definitely behind in my blogging, but will leave my two latest trips (the Baltics and Transylvania) for another time, in order to write about three VIPs in my life since moving to Serbia.

1. Ice Man
If I had an iPhone and could post pictures of text message conversations, this would be a priority. It's probably good that I don't, because it might raise wrongful suspicions that may lead to my arrest.  Truth is, ice Man is exactly that, a man whose business it is to deliver ice.  As you may know, from reading older posts or from travelling to Europe in general, ice is a very hot commodity here, and buying ice by the bag at a gas station is a non-existent practice.  I was lucky enough to get a hand-me down phone that had this number already programmed.  After a couple of conversations with the Marines (notorious for throwing American style parties) I finally got in touch with who would become my go to person at every party.  A quick text with the requested amount in bags, address, and time for delivery gets the job done. Like a drug deal, we do not know each other's names, we only exchange cash, and he comes to the curb, drops of the stash and leaves. No questions.  You can always rely on him.

2.  Watch Man
My colleague, Biljiana, recommended I go see the watch man (basically an old school watchmaker) when I was complaining that my watch's battery had died.  She gave me the specific instructions on where to go (past the Maxi on Sarajevska, on the right hand side, walk straight till you see it).  I actually had four watches in dire need of new batteries, so one day after work, I made the walk and found him.  Walking into his shop was like walking in a time machine and travelling 50 years back in time.  The shop was probably four feet wide and 20 feet deep.  The walls covered with old cuckoo clocks and the display had watches older than my grandfather's great-grandfather's pass me down watch.  Watch man didn't seem to speak English, but thanks to the specificity of his trade, what else could I possibly want?  I handed him the watches, and he diligently proceeded to get to work.  He used a tiny little eye socket to see better, popped out the battery, changed it, and pounded the back of my over priced watch making sure the warranty would be void forever.  But hey, it was working again!  He repeated the steps with the other three watches, and then charged me about $16 total.  A wonderful experience.  Except that by the next day, one of the watches was no longer working.

3.  Blood Man
Yes, that sounds disgusting, but blood man has a magic touch.  Unlike watch man and ice man, blood man gives receipts and has a name tag.  I believe his name is Bojan.  Blood man works at a number of local labs AND makes house calls to the Embassy, hence his popularity.  His magic is twofold, one he is everywhere, and two, he can draw blood painlessly, effortlessly and without leaving a bruise.  Many friends and I have discussed his gift and he has never come up short.  Chances are that if you are ever in Belgrade and need blood work, he will be the one to do it and you won't even notice it.

I have always been in favor of diversifying trades and rotating jobs, but judging by these three gentlemen, maybe variety is overrated.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Bacon Fest!

Last weekend we made a short road trip to Kacarevo to attend what is supposedly the biggest bacon festival in the world.  I love bacon more than any other meat, so it seemed almost sacrilegious not to attend.  Besides, the poster and website promised a really good you can see in the pic below, volcanoes, tornadoes and drones are nothing to worry about, as long as you've got a big slab of bacon on hand.

The official website also promised the crowning of Mr. and Ms. Bacon Fest, something that we were really looking forward to, but were unable to find if/when it actually happened.  Instead we settled on navigating the crowds, checking out the booths, eating some meat and buying souvenirs.

Not just bacon - sausages, ribs and all kinds of cured meat were available for sale.

Nostalgia is a big part of Balkan living

and the most valuable customer award goes to...

Roasted Lamb on a stick

I'm pretty sure the poster must have been modeled after this dude.

Our friend R. stirring some steaming pork fat

My meat platter and I

 In the end, I am not sure who had more of a cultural experience - us -or the local villagers who put together the whole thing.  We were definitely the talk of the festival with our big cameras, 'ne razumem' stares, giant strollers, and loud 'check this out' yelps at every single kiosk.  Overall, I think we put on a good show.  

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Mission completed: road to Macedonia

I have finally come out my hibernation.  Winter hasn't really give me much to write about, as nothing special has been going on.  My days and nights have been filled with too much eating, too much time on Facebook, and my newest obsession: Downton Abbey.  I won't post any spoilers; I have already been a victim of learning of climax events prematurely, but will still give this series huge props; if you get a chance, watch it from the beginning, it is truly fantastic.

Last weekend, we had a Serbian holiday fall on Friday and an American one on Monday, which gave us the wonderful opportunity of getting on the road with our two BFFs and complete "Mission Ex-Yugoslav Republics" by going to Macedonia.  When it comes to traveling, there seems to be three distinct schools of thought at our Embassy; those who want to get the heck out of the Balkans and only visit the "real Europe", those who go to more local, low-key, and outdoorsy places to ski, and/or relax, and those who just don't go anywhere, ever.  Phil and I are a mixture of the first two, and the opposite of the third. We want to go EVERYWHERE, we want to have our Starbucks and chicken fingers, but go to places other people don't even know exist.  That is how we ended up also visiting Albania.  "Why would you go to Albania?", "Because I would never go there if I didn't live here".  As good a reason as any.

A recurrent theme of my life here can be summarized in the Thai phrase made famous by crappy T-shirts sold in night markets to young backpackers- "same, same, but different".  "Do you have this dress in a size 8?" "No, I have this other dress in a size 10, same, same, but different".   The best way I can describe Macedonia is like that, SSBD.  The old town - a mini version of the Sarajevo old town.  The new town -  a smaller, less-graffittied version of Belgrade/Novi Sad/any pedestrian street in Serbia.  I am sure there are major differences to those who actually live here or there (heck- I get offended when people pass NOVA off as DC!), but these are not appreciated by a non-Balkan insider.  At least now I can tell when a cevapi is made with pork or not just by the color and taste.  Small steps.

Skopje, the capital of Macedonia could easily be nicknamed, Sculpture City.  If we lived there, I would probably just have a blog of all their statues, all very cool, some more impressive than others.
Here are some highlights.

The Diver

My buddy


The Diva


Mother Teresa

The non-Wall Street Bull

The shoe-shiner

The next morning headed out to Lake Ohrid, which is supposed to be the gem of Macedonia.  It certainly did not disappoint.

The view from our cabin, awesome; the hike back to our cabin, not so awesome

We got really lucky with the weather, and our day in Ohrid was gorgeous;; blue skies, warm winter sunshine and a crisp breeze to take it all in.
The best part of the trip: the Ohrid Boardwalk

The worst part of the trip was the meal that we had next.  We were super, super hungry and found a place that looked completely legit.  We all ordered something different; beef stew, cabbage rolls, moussaka, and a sausage plate.  Since we were starving, we asked for some bread and ayvar as an appetizer, which we devoured in 2.2 seconds.  Along with the ayvar, the waiter/owner brought out a garlic paste that was literally raw garlic and maybe a bit of butter or oil.  It was so raw it was almost spicy.  Phil started eating it right away, but it was so hard core, that we had to make a pact that we would all eat it or else, we were not going to be able to stand each other afterwards.  Then the beef stew came and it was just a broth with chunks of beef.  Not too shabby, but definitely NOT a stew; then he brought out my moussaka.  My poor, sad moussaka was completely cold and was basically a hunk of ground beef with a layer of quiche or some kind of egg thing on top.  Inedible.  My friend K. was all eyeing that "stew" when her cabbage rolls came, so I decided to forgo the super sad moussaka and take her cabbage rolls as she ordered the stew/soup for herself.  In the meantime, Phil is still eating the raw garlic now by the spoonful, and he and I are feeding the beef chunks of the moussaka to a hungry street kitty.   That's when we realized that Phil never got his sausage plate.  We ask and they were like, "yes, we give you sos plate, garlic".  So I guess they thought he said sauce, and not sausage, so he wasn't getting a meal at all.  By this time, we have been there over an hour, the cabbage rolls have disappeared and the man has shoo-ed the poor kitty away.  Phil orders another beef/stew soup and when the man is not looking, I take the egg part of the moussaka and throw it at the cat like a boomerang.  Our friends are mortified, and Phil can't stop laughing and the cat is looking at me like "bitch, please, you think I'm gonna eat that?"  He refuses to eat it, and we are all cracking up and the egg is sitting there, super obvious, and untouched.  I for one, don't feel bad, because wasting food is a terrible thing, but I get peer pressured into going back and rescuing it to put back on our plate.  So when the man comes for the last time with the stew, he doesn't know that the dish he wants to pass off as moussaka, has been torn apart and refused by a starving street animal.  If this was at home, I would have refused to pay for it, but there was really no point, anymore. Plus we all smelled like garlic and were ready to get out of there, pronto.

The next day we drove into Albania, which is NOT an old Yugoslav Republic, but nevertheless, we were so close, we felt like it wouldn't make sense not to go.  Phil and I think they have the most bad ass flag in the world, so this was also a great photo op.

Right away after crossing the border, things changed.  The roads were instantly full of pot holes, chaos and massive traffic took over the roads and our GPS decided that we were floating in space and not on an actual road.  We decided to go as far as we could, until we were too tired, too scared, or too lost.  One of the distinctive Albanian "attractions" are their bunkers.  During the cold war era, they were built to ensure control of the country in case of enemy attack and apparently there is one for every four Albanians.  According to someone we know who used to live nearby, they are now used as impromptu bathrooms on the road or for the random teenage couple in dire need of some privacy.

One of the bigger bunkers, out of the zillons we saw.
According to Google Maps, their capital, Tirana, was only 2 hours away from Ohrid.  We drove for over two hours and we were not even close to getting there, mostly due to the bad roads and the random goats on the road.  We settled on having lunch in a nearby city, Elbasan, buying a magnet for our fridge collection and heading back to Skopje.  We had a fast and tasty meal and used the squat toilets, took some pictures and headed out.  I think we can count it as checked.

"For Sale" in Albanian.  Classic.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

R & R

For every post that we do abroad, Phil's job will fly us back "home" for a bit for some rest and recuperation from our "so stressful and over-hardship-ed" lives.  Our turn was up and we signed up for three weeks in the US during Christmas break.  As with everything, many lessons were learned during our first trying-to-fit-everything-and-everyone-in triumphant return to the homeland.   First of all, our itinerary was overly ambitious.  In three weeks we went to DC, NY, Puerto Rico, Orlando, FL and Cincinnati, OH.  Second, some of the flights were at ungodly hours of the day/night and included getting up at 3 AM.  Needless to say, we were exhausted for about 90% of the time. We also over packed and under estimated the amount of things we would buy, resulting in over sized, overweight, baggage and the two of us looking like two beasts of burden everywhere we went.  But overall, it was an amazing trip.

Here's a countdown of the highlights:

5. Food, food, food
From Ben and Jerry's two scoop waffle cone sundaes to tostones and mofongo in PR; Phil and I indulged ourselves non-stop.  I think Phil averaged 3 Starbucks a day and I was able to score Chipotle at least three times.  Bottomless fries at Red Robin were a close contender.

4. Weddings!
We love weddings, and a good friend from college invited us to her right-on-the-beach ceremony and after party at probably the fanciest resort I have ever been in PR.  We got to see a ton of great college friends and re-connect with people we hadn't seen in 10 years!  There was great food and dancing and a great time.

3. Harry Potter World
Lucky for me, one of Phil's sisters lives in Orlando, which meant we could kill another bird with that stone and visit this magical land that I have been yearning to go to since its opening.   What a fun place, complete with a Hogsmead villlage, Hogwarts Castle and many little gimmicks from the books.   We were able to get some butterbeer and ride the signature ride (where you are basically flying through the air escaping dementors and playing Quiditch and going through the castle at top speeds) twice.

2. Six hour Target and TJ Max run
My shopaholic self came back alive and with a vengeance in Cincinnati, where stores are larger than life, aisles are wide, and the possibilities endless.  I could have easily stayed there from 9 AM till 9 PM just going through the enormous variety of products; from cereal bars, to lotions; 90% clearance Christmas decorations to school supplies that make you want to go back into teaching.  When it comes to mass consumption, the mid-west can't be beat.

1. Friends & Family
There is a reason people say "there's no place like home" and as much as I have an identity crisis on where home really is, nothing in the world holds a candle to spending quality time with people you love; especially those who love you just as much.  The best times of our trip were probably spent talking on the couch with parents and childhood friends during Christmas dinner (s), playing LIFE with nieces and nephews, watching a brand new baby roll over on a princess mat, heated discussions at dinner over the validity of teacher's unions, laughing hysterically over brunch, dying someone's hair in a hotel room, and the delivery of earth-rattling news in the middle of NYC traffic.  These are the moments that fill you with joy and happiness and these are the moments that make 14 hour flights over the Atlantic more than worth it.

Happy New Year to all, and may 2013 bring you many, many of these moments.