samedi 8 mars 2008

Dubrovnik: Croatia’s Coastal Gem

February 18th, 2008

The coast of Croatia was absolutely breathtaking (pics are posted on facebook!). We were back in the countries where we had sort of figured out the language (Croatia and Bosnia speak same language as in Serbia but in Kosovo the Albanian is totally different). So we attempted to interact with locals, using our new-found foreign vocab, "Hvala" (Thank you), "Molim" (please), "Zdravo"(hello), and most importantly "Topla cocolada" (hot chocolate!!) which is really more like thick chocolate pudding served in a mug…sinfully delicious!!

The night before our arrival to Dubrovnik, we had taken a night bus paaaacked with people to Montenegro's capital, Podgorica. It seemed to be filled with construction workers headed outside of Kosovo to arrive on-site before dawn. Even with ZERO seats left on the bus and people crowding the isle, the bus continued stopping and picking up people off the streets in the middle of the night. We got dumped at 4 am at a bus stop in the middle of Podgorica and from there walked with a young cinematography team of two Serbians and an English girl to the bus station where we waited till 6am to take the next bus along the coast to Dubrovnik. The coast along Montenegro and Croatia is simply gorgeous and a must during the summer months of June, July, and August (apparently packed with mostly European tourists). There is one town in particular that I was able to keep my tired eyes open for that was simply amazing...a walled city from the medieval times on the Montenegro coast where a couple of islands with lighthouses reach out to it.
Dubrovnik itself was simply stunning and the food..."succulent"! People are very friendly and we stayed at a guest house on the top of a hill with a gorgeous view of the beach. Too bad it wasn't summer- however, il faut dire, it was nice and sunny the next two days we stayed. The day before we were to fly back to Paris, we took a morning bus to the city of Split and spent the afternoon in a beautiful port town, already flooded with tourists (It's a special city because the roman emperor Diocletian had his summer home there and parts of it are still in decent shape). The near to last stop was Paris, where we stayed at my friend Sheerin's place for the night (who lived with my Nantes host family two years previous to me), walked a bit around Paris and then headed to Nantes briefly during the morning-afternoon to spend some time with a dear French friend of ours who I hadn't seen in years, Julie Ouvrard (who was our French assistant at Hope) and I got to "chismear" (gossip) with the IES Nantes director who I have always been fond of. She was who was responsible for placing me with my Nantes host family, the Bruns and whom I will always be very grateful to.

Ok, got to go help out a Catholic group today...hope you've enjoyed the read!

In pictures

Kyle on the wall that surrounds the old city and me facing the walled city and the Adriatic sea

vendredi 7 mars 2008

“Urime Pavaresia” (Successful – Happy Independence)

(Kyle and I at Independence celebration the night before declaration)

I want to preface this section by saying that
if there's a section you should read on this blog its this one...Kosovo's independence and the experience being there was extraordinary and different than what was seen and portrayed by the eyes of the media. Thank you all for reading!!

The experience of being part of a new nation's independence celebration in their capital and living a new phase of history was simply amazing...words can't describe how inspiring the experience was. We were never in any danger and on the contrary, we were quite loved and thanked for being Americans!!! When we mentioned we were from "the states" people would shake our hands enthusiastically and say "Thank you, thank you." Even if Kyle and I had little to do with US intervention with NATO bombings in Belgrade, Serbia at the end of the 90's, we welcomed the friendliness and joined them for their celebrations, which were both joyful and culturally eye-opening for sure.

After the war in Bosnia and Croatia where hundreds of Muslims had been massacred and millions deported, the Serbian government marched into Kosovo in 1999 and started repeating the procedure (ethnic cleansing, if you will) which is when the US intervened with NATO to force Serbia out of Kosovo (thus the Kosovo love towards the US, which is rare anywhere else in the world...see the picture with banners thanking the U.S.). Having had the amazing opportunity to meet intellectually stimulating Kosovars, we were able to realize the inhumane circumstances in which these people lived during the Serbian occupation. War testimonies are never uplifting, but it certainly provoked a feeling in us to support the Kosovo independence entirely. The night before the Parliament was to declare "Kosove" as a new nation, there was so much excitement and (or course) hot rhetoric in the streets. People were out decorating their cars with flags (see pic on left) and putting them outside their homes or shops. The main boulevard, "Mother Theresa" was packed with people: men enveloped in Albanian (and US!!) flags, but also sporting the UK, European Union and French flags...banners written out in Albanian"Urime Pavaresia, Gezuar Kosove" (Successful Independence, Cheers Kosovo), older men wearing the traditional Albanian attire showing tears in their eyes, of course vendors selling T-shirts and more was all very moving. There were banners on the streets that thanked different nations and organizations, among some of them the US, UK, NATO, France, Germany and the EU (picture on the right). The day of the independence declaration we were able to celebrate in the home of a very modest Kosovar family (a mother who lost her job due to Kosovo's economical instability during the Serbian intrusion, yet her sons are hard-working and would never abandon her - they lost their father as well). We met them through a colleague of Kyle's former teacher, Janet. She has many colleagues that are locals, so we were able to discuss politics and national identity with them and of course that Sunday of independence, we danced and celebrated with them. On the left there is a picture of Janet, Erwin, Kyle and I with our delightful host on the far left.
We hit the streets in the late afternoon and got to see the big sculpture finally uncovered in the main square, spelling "NEWBORN" (pic on the left). All of the region of Kosovo was there celebrating, chanting nationalistic songs, embracing their loved ones, dancing, jumping and feeling happy. Many chanted "I am finally free," "Kosovo is stateless no more," "A new Republic is born," and of course they all shouted in unison, "I come from the great and newborn Republic of Kosove." Officers were there distributing pens for people to sign the "newborn" letters and Kyle and I were able to write a little something as well. Next we headed to the main boulevard to watch the fireworks (which were distributed in three main areas of the capital of Prishtina. The fireworks went off with the national song playing in the background and boy was it powerful and moving. The show was a complete success with no violence perpetrated whatsoever. People were just happy. Of course, in Serbia, the song was chanted in a less melodious manor...humm! But fortunately for us, we were nowhere near the border, and much less the capital of Serbia where the attack on embassies were conducted, regretfully. On our way back to Croatia to visit the coast we encountered a couple Serbian amateur cinematographers shooting a documentary about the Balkans. They were not mean to us and talked to us normally, evoking sincere disdain for the events occurred in Serbia, regretting that it was harming the international view of Serbians and of Serbia as a whole. They criticized their government and agreed with us that a rally of protest was in their right to do, but that violence was not the answer. All of it was a very educational and life-changing experience we did not expect.

In pictures left to right:

1.The little part that Kyle, Ereblir and I wrote on the "Newborn" letters...see if you can find it...
Banners indicating Kosovo's new independence status
3. The "newborn" sculpture uncovered the night before independence
4.Banner of "Urime Pavaresia" which means Successful independence, outside of janet's apartment, along with US, UK, NATO, EU, UN and German flags
5. Kosovars writing on the sculpture
6. Our friend Burim enveloped in his flag making history
7. Social Studies teacher for ASK, Erwin Selimos and I beside the "Newborn" sculpture before it was presented the next night for independence
8. The locals wearing US flags, was a very common sight
9.The mother Theresa boulevard, where the fireworks went off

jeudi 6 mars 2008

“Welcome to Great Republic of Kosovë!”

Feb 14th, 2008

Kyle's former high school teacher, Janet Tower who had been teaching at the American School of Kosovo for nearly two years invited us to visit her in the capital of Prishtina, and since we were in the Balkans area, we took a night bus headed straight from Sarajevo, through Serbia into the UNMIK (the UN mission in Kosovo) border between Kosovo and Serbia, and finally to Prishtina. As a consequence, we were there "accidentally" for the independence declaration of, what ethnic Kosovo Albanians call the "Great Republic of Kosova" (see the pic on the right of man preparing to celebrate with an Albanian flag). Upon arrival to Kosovo, we encountered not one soul that spoke English at the bus station who could tell us how to get downtown. We headed in the direction that best suited our hunch. As we left the bus station behind, we’d bump into banners praising former presidents Clinton! A few blocks down there was a “Europecar” rental with a sign in English…and it was the hunch again that told us maybe the folks obliged to deal with tourists daily would speak a word or two of English and point us in the right direction. The man was so nice we were almost considering renting a car from him for 25 euros a day... He told us to ask for “Mother Theresa street” and off we went. To our surprise the bus driver spoke very good English and told us exactly where to get off. Buildings were certainly run down but on the inside they were flush - perfectly clean and inviting…and modern! We sat down at a café to use the bathroom more than anything and were surprised that a big “kaffa sa mljeko” (as it would be in Croatian or Bosnian – means coffee with milk) and a tea would cost a single euro. It is definitely not the tag price for even a regular espresso at the fancy “brasseries” in Paris. We headed to the American School of Kosovo (pic on the right) where Janet Tower, Kyle’s former high school English teacher was now working at. As we headed to the school, I have to admit that I was surprised we were actually standing in the city center for there were absolutely no historical buildings in sight, no important churches or mosques or pretty streets, just filthy dirty roads, garbage wrappers and you name it dumped everywhere in a bustling metropolis with people selling one-euro cigarette packs on every other corner (With cigarettes this cheap, it is to no wonder why every single Kosovar smokes, plus there are no smoking bans in bars or restaurants... or anywhere in the Balkans actually…my lungs were able to breathe again only until we reached France…ironically enough). Sadly, the city seemed filthier than the most neglected and polluted streets of Mexico city. But it being dirty and there being no historical monuments in sight all had its explanation – we learned later on that Prishtina was not always the capital of Kosovo’s region. In 1918 when Kosovo ceased to be a part of Albania and instead became part of the Republic of Serbia, Kosovo along with the small city of Prishtina was just a province of the greater Republic of Yugoslavia. Only until 1946, under Tito’s rule, did Prishtina become the capital of the Socialist Autonomous Region of Kosovo, when Tito allowed the region to stand for itself. As for the garbage, it seems that after communism fell, nobody was in charge of picking it up, so no one volunteered to do it, plus they have to landfills in the they could gather it, but then where would they dump it? They're still trying to figure this one out.

Prishtina might not have been the "prettiest" tourist attraction, but for us it was more the history and culture contained therein that made it attractive and as the Serbian’s now claim, Kosovo is the cradle of a civilization. A lot of Yugoslavian history, suffering and war lessons are contained in this province. Ironically, this is one of its charms... not to mention the beauty of the Albanian culture and the people we encountered!

Kosovo Albanian Students

We got to meet the students of the American School of Kosovo (ASK) and from the very beginning we were amazed by the student’s apparent interest not only in international politics and identity, but in their own culture and in the betterment of their society. Ereblir Kadriu, a Kosovo Albanian guidance counselor who has facilitated TOELF and SAT test-taking at the ASK, initiated a Social Issues conference for his students. Basically, the students research, go out to libraries, conduct interviews, create graphs, and obtain information from governmental institutions about social issues enveloping them. They write up their research and findings and present it at a regional conference (this year international inviting different Balkan countries including Serbia).

The difference between these high school students and the ones I’ve encountered here in France, the US and even Guiana are interesting and almost a matter of concern. The former ones just seemed a lot more interested in the world, the international scene and overall politics of the world. In our western society, most students aren’t influenced by social issues in such a direct way, nor do they show so much interest and involvement until the later stages of their lives when they reach college perhaps. These high school kids in Kosovo seemed ready to change the world and could hold their own in political debates about the US candidates and US culture clashes with the East with your average college student. I was blown away. I must mention that these students all spoke fluent English. Why such a vast difference between Kosovo students and the ones in private schools in the US, Mexico, or France? Maybe it has a lot to do with being part of or a victim of war.

In pictures

1.Janet, Kyle and I at a Pizzeria in Prishtina

In text - Man decorating his car for Independence with the Albanian flag

3. In text:
Me in front of the American School of Kosovo during the independence celebration in Prishtina

4. In text - Banner of former Kosovo President Rugova, who would end his speeches with: "God bless Kosova, god bless the people of Kosova and god bless the friends of Kosova"

5. Albanian and American flags hanging side by side all over Prishtina

6. Banner of adored President Clinton above the boulevard named in his honor. Former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright is very much loved here as well

A Walk Through Sarajevo

February 13th, 2008

(lower right, one of the main streets in Sarajevo; upper right,
me posing next to Sarajevo river; upper left, a Minaret)

Despite the shadow of war looming over these beautiful cities, I’m quite certain they will become an attractive tourist destination within a few years because of the splendor of the city centers, the mosques, the river that runs through them, and other monuments are simply awe-inspiring. The main street in downtown Sarajevo is a beautiful white cobblestone road stretching out with bazaar-type shops on both sides, next to historical mosques, synagogues and churches or museums placed in ancient orthodox churches, or missions. Five times a day you can hear the calling to prayer chanted in Arabic from the several majestic minarets scattered around town. The people are also very friendly (we started chatting with an Iranian immigrant who wanted to have us over for coffee – we were too shy to accept), and an owner of a cafe interrupted her smoking and chatting with an old friend to greet us and attempt to communicate with us in French. People walk around downtown so peacefully and harmoniously, it’s hard to imagine sometimes that they have lived through devastating times. I have to admit I would sometimes look for signs of disturbance in people’s faces, but never found any traces of despair.

The cuisine is fantastic, although I do not, however, recommend the cevapi – pita bread filled with toooons of greasy cheap sausages and onion – almost made me sick! The bureks are delicious - fried breaded potatoes, veal, spinach, or cheese rolled up like a taco, and sold by the kilogram. I’d also recommend the tasting (because maybe once is enough) of the Turkish coffee made in these metal basins at coffee shops and virtually all over Sarajevo, and its pretty strong yet beware of the grains left on the bottom – not so tasty. The bakeries are cheap and delicious with lots of variety…their dessert stuff is incredibly sweet yet mouthwatering! The only factor that mildly surprised us was transportation being so pricey and we certainly did not expect it, especially with buses and trains being so run-down. Hotels and youth hostels also seemed a bit overpriced.

Visiting the Remnants of Bosnian War

February 12th and 13th, 2008

Sarajevo was overwhelmingly hit by war and catastrophe, and sadly remains in ruins on the outskirts of town. I must add that Bosnia and Herzegovina is mostly Muslim. The former Yugoslavia (which was formed by Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Bosnia) was under communist rule under a man named Tito after they had broken away from Russia and Stalin. Under Tito, everything seemed stable…there may have been oppression towards minority groups - mostly the Muslims, - but everything was kept under control. Then their great ruler Tito dies and suddenly little by little everything starts falling apart. It was a complex war because there were so many different groups fighting against each other… Croat Serbs against Orthodox or Muslim Croats, orthodox groups against nationalistic groups, the nationalistic Serbs against the Bosnian Serbs and then later in 1998, the nationalistic Serbs against the ethnic Albanian kosovars. Anyway, before I get ahead of myself...the point is the main government was and under Tito had always been based in Serbia and afterwards, under the rule of Milosevic who was a huge nationalist, he didn’t want Yugoslavia to fragment itself and didn’t want Serbia to loose its power grip, basically (with Croatia’s and other regions’s conspiracy of independence) and felt that the minority presence was damaging the positive view of Yugoslavia as a union and as a whole... So Serbia's government marches into Bosnia and parts of Croatia and massacres mostly Muslim homes and predominantly Muslim men. The UN finds out so they send troops but they do not have orders to intervene violently so they basically stand around and watch people get killed, and that mission remains one of the UN’s most notably tragic instances of utter failure on the international stage in history.

So while we visited Sarajevo and Mostar, we noticed that a lot of the downtown area and important historical mosques had been rebuilt by USAID and the EU intervention and finance, and the city center was absolutely stunning, with such an exciting blend of religious cultures even present in architecture and buildings (Muslim mosques, Jewish synagogues and orthodox churches all placed around each other, a lot like Paramaribo in Suriname actually). However, the poorer areas such as people’s homes on the outskirts of town are still in miserable shambles and have clearly been neglected by the government and USAID, since bullet holes on the walls are still certainly obvious. There are historical monuments that are still in ruins due to heavy artillery shelling and what not (the city hall remains one of the most affected and not yet rebuilt and at one point was used for a library before the war). Several Muslim graveyards are dotted all over the city and all the tombs indicate deaths occurring in ’93,’94, ‘95. There was definitely a constant reminder or aura of war still very much present in Mostar and Sarajevo. It was clearly a depressing scene, but educational nonetheless to see how politicians can stir such conflict and provoke such devastating wars, yet in the end, are not held accountable and seldom clean up after themselves. Of course then afterwards, the poor and neglected are left with the visible (physical) and mental scars of war, with little to help them get back on their feet. Truly disgusting.

In pictures

1. City hall in shambles after shelling

2. The old bridge in Mostar rebuilt by Europe

3. Bullet holes remaining on the wall of a modest home on the outskirts of town

4. One of the many Muslim cemeteries in Sarajevo

Random trip to Republika Hrvatska (Croatia)

February 10, 2008

As most of you might know, I am in France teaching and helping out with other things when people ask me to, learning to cook, trying to pick up Portuguese with close to little study (I need to work on that these next two months) and in the search for grants for my master’s degree and work. So far I have been accepted to George Washington in DC, UGA in Athens, GA and SIT in Vermont. Waiting to hear about the money ordeal and from Columbia University. Anyhow, having tourist status in the European Union (don’t ask…every time I have studied or worked in and for France I have had legal issues, but just like stubborn Hillary, it isn’t in my nature to give up just like that…although I think sometimes Hillary should but that’s besides the point) So, being a tourist I needed to get out of the European Union since my visa was expiring. So we found cheap tickets to Croatia and decided to take advantage of February vacation and head out to change the scenery a bit. We don’t have a train station deep in the province of Brittany in the town of Pontivy where we are living, so we headed to Auray to visit one of my friends from last year’s Guiana adventure since she’s been living in Brittany this year as well… her city has a train station. We had a pleasant evening with all her fun friends and headed the next day to the “gare” (train station) to head to Paris. In Paris all we got to see was boulevard Montparnasse before arriving to the metro station to the airport and from there to the capital of Croatia, Zagreb. Most of older downtown area Zagreb reminded me a bit of Prague. Tall, majestic buildings with lots of cooper-colored and orange roofs. There were lots of beautiful monuments, buildings and parks but mixed with modern construction too, sadly. People out and about since 6 am crowding the streets. The more modern part of Zagreb actually looks a lot look Santiago - tall modern skyscrapers (banks, pizzerias, expensive clothing shops, pharmacies) all conglomerated in one square with wide plazas and streets in between them. All very square and modern-looking.

After visiting Croatia's capital, Zagreb, we had an interesting discussion with the young owner of the hostel about politics and Croatia’s EU admission. He was disappointed overall, because Croatia’s admission into the EU was delayed from 2009 to 2011 due to the actual politics of the country and the switch of government parties. He felt that Croatia had huge assets to offer EU (great vacation destinations on its coastline, savory cuisine, numerous cultural events, alternative museum options, the constant hosting of several international festivals and successful sports participation worldwide) and regretted this delay, mostly because it doesn’t allow him to travel or study as easily in other countries such as the U.S. I recommend his hostel “Carpe Diem” for 15 euros a night, a bit pricey but not too far from downtown and they’re very friendly and helpful. I also recommend the wine (since they have good weather all year round in certain parts of the odd-shaped country, they are able to produce excellent wine). The dark beer isn’t too bad either. We took a night train to Bosnia and Herzegovina to visit the capital of Sarajevo (loved the run-down, old-school look of these trains - reminiscent of some Italian ones I’ve been on, - plus we had a cabin all to ourselves).