Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Ohrid, Macedonia

During our Macedonia excursion we spent a day and a night in the most picturesque, lakeside town called Ohrid. This place was too beautiful to be thrown into the rest of the Macedonia mix so this is a separate post with a bit of info and a bunch of pictures of this majestic village.

Ohrid is notable for having 365 churches, one for each day of the year, which explains why our guide said some refer to it as Slavic Jerusalem. It, like southern Serbia, was under Ottoman rule from the 14th-20th century.

One of the more famous churches is that built for Saint Clement of Ohrid, the most prominent disciple of Saints Cyril and Methodius. Those names probably don't mean anything to you but the former is the eponym for Slavic languages' Cyrillic alphabet. Clement's teachers created the Glagolitic alphabet, the oldest known Slavic alphabet, and inspired Clement to script the Cyrillic alphabet for which he used a Greek foundation with certain sounds from the Glagolitic alphabet. Around the 12th Century (ten centuries after Clement's day) the Cyrillic alphabet began to dominate over the Glagolitic alphabet. Clement founded a school which popularized Christianity using this alphabet and he's celebrated as a patron saint of education and language.

Saint Clement Church

They are a building a university based on the one Saint Clement created in the same spot

We also explored Samuil's Fortress which was the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire in the middle ages. I really like all these European fortresses, they feel so fantastical to me like out of Robin Hood. But I mean in actuality they were built out of warmongering necessity so it's much more grim than its pretty, symmetrical exterior lets on.

View from the fortress

I keep forgetting culture in the States. Well not completely but I've become so accustomed to this array of starters and all other Serbian food that I forget how different it is than what I ate for the first 18 years of my life and I can't quite remember what's usual at American restaurants.

This goes for architecture as well. The red-roofed, single-story, brick houses are all you see in villages and towns around Serbia and even in the neighborhood I live in in Nis. And that's not typical for America, right? I guess one of the factors complicating my fuzzed memory is that people always say how typical America is an oxymoron since America is the 'melting pot.' In the past six months cultural differences have become norms for me so I sometimes forget that I'm living in Serbia and more often I forget about the culture shock waiting for me in the US.

Jill i ja

Team Serbia

It was the perfect time to go because spring had just arrived but the summer tourists had not


Three hours after our return from Skopje I was on the road again with my host family driving to Kopaonik, what Miki, my host father, referred to as the Yellowstone of Serbia. The week prior he'd asked me to name a couple of National Parks in the States so I told him about Yellowstone and Haleakala. Kopaonik is a National Park in Serbia but it's mainly viewed as a popular winter sports destination. And that's what it was for me!

For five days we skied from 9am to 4:30pm taking a break for palacinke (crepes) and topla cokolada (translated to hot chocolate but more like melted chocolate in a mug) around noon. Everything about skiing was exciting and foreign to me last Monday but in just a week I've taken such a liking to it and I wish I could go back right now! My host family was so generous to take me with them and I had such a blast on the slopes. My ski instructor, Crni, didn't speak any English so miscommunication was inevitable at times but he was super fun and encouraging and those sorts of characteristics transcend language barriers. Initially I played it safe on the slopes I wasn't familiar with but after a couple of times I became speed-happy which led to a few fumbles and a lot of fun. I'm not sure the level-corresponding colors in the States but here it went blue-red-black from easy-medium-hard. I only did one black course and I took that one extra careful but my favorite and most skied (18 times!) was a red slope called Pančićev vrh (a type of pine found on Kopaonik named after Josif Pančić, a Serb botanist who discovered it).

Monday and Tuesday were blizzard days so the snow, I was told, was good but vision not so much. Crni said those were good conditions for me to learn how to ski since I couldn't see the sides of the slopes or how steep they were so I had to follow right behind him and trust him. But on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday it was beautiful and even hot at times. On those days, from the highest point on Kopaonik we could see Montenegro and Kosovo--actually the border between Kosovo and Serbia was just 100 meters away--which was really neat because it framed part of the Balkans for me. I really had the best time with my host sister and dad and I can definitely see a lot of skiing in my future!

Some slike (pictures)

Prelepo (more than beautiful)

The buildings reminded me of the pictures of the Alpes from my French textbooks, I have no idea how accurate that is but I love how cute and quaint everything is

Princeton pride! Quite a coinkidink actually, I borrowed the ski gear from Ceca (our program director) and I was thrilled when I saw the color combination.

Also this is the highest point, Kosovo is behind me off to the left!

This was the first day and after that I kept my hair hidden away. I had taken my hair down around 3pm and this was taken just 90 minutes later! Proof of the blizzard

My absolute first time on skis, this was a couple hours before the blizzard waltzed in

Pančićev vrh is off to the left

Vranje, Serbia

Sorry I've been so inactive! I didn't have internet at Kopaonik and the Macedonia week prior was wonderfully busy and the days after have been a round of catch-up but I have much to tell and show in the coming days.

Vranje is a town in Southern Serbia with around 70,000 inhabitants. Like Nis and the rest of Central-Southern Serbian it was ruled by the Ottoman Empire from the 1300s to 1800s and as such it has Turkish influences in architecture, language, food, and culture.

This first picture doesn't do it justice but there were a lot a lot of people out and about last Saturday and Sunday when we visited. Most of these people were enjoying the cafe scene and drinking coffee or tea with pals, a part of the culture in all of Serbia but even more so in the south. When we were in Novi Sad (Northern Serbia) there would hardly be anyone in the city center on Saturday and especially Sunday. The other towns and villages I visited in the north were the same, people kept to themselves and their homes on weekends. In Southern Serbia, including in Nis, people are always out with friends during the weekend. Our guide was a native, born and raised, and we talked about the differences between Southern Serbia and Vojvodina autonomous province (Northern Serbia) which was ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and has a culture more akin to Western Europe. She said most people from Southern Serbia don't care for the Northern attitude. I'll admit people from Novi Sad and Northern Serbia had more of a rich, Western vibe and they tended to think that Vojvodina was pulled down by the rest of Serbia. In a sense it is because the industries and economy of Vojvodina are stronger than other parts of Serbia. But the Southerners have more of a laid back, humbled vibe and they don't like the more uptight nature of Vojvodina and the rest of Western Europe. Gordana, our guide, told us how people in Vranje are always in each other's business and no one keeps to themself like they do in the north which explains why everyone's eager to relax and enjoy each other on weekends and not simply stay at home. Gordana waved, joked, and gossiped with at least a dozen people during our walking tour of the town which helped illustrate this point.

The Belo most ili most ljubavi (white bridge or lovers bridge) dates back to the Turkish occupation in the mid-19th century and is a symbol for Vranje, featured on the Vranje coat of arms. The legend goes that a Muslim girl fell in forbidden love with a Serb and when the father found out he tried to kill the Serb but predictably killed his own daughter when she protected him (Serb lover). Then Serb boy killed himself. Romeo and Juliet roles reversed.

The Muslim father made the bridge in memory of his daughter and carved this message in Arabic but according to our guide no one knows what it says. When we suggested they try to take a picture of it and post it on the internet to try to get a translation she sort of just shrugged and sighed it off with a "Pa zasto?" (but why). After seven months I can confirm this is a very typical Serb response. It's not that she's lazy but she has no desire to figure it out and she's content with knowing it has something to do with legendary love.

We stayed in a hostel atop a mountain meant for skiers when there's natural snow. It took about 75 minutes to drive or rather safari our way up the mountain, half the time on rundown roads and the other half on a dirt path. Quite a fun trip in both directions.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The name game

Sorry, still no camera cable but some instead you'll learn about the dispute over the name Macedonia!

Macedonia, the country from which I'm reporting, is not officially Macedonia. Or not just Macedonia. The official name is the Republic of Macedonia. Its southern neighbor Greece will not let Macedonia be simply that because the official name for a region bordering (the Republic of) Macedonia in northern Greece IS Macedonia and has ties to that name since Alexander the Great ruled. (From now on when I say Macedonia I'm referring to the country I'm in). According to an ethnic Macedonian we talked to Greece claims Macedonia has political ambitions to take this northern part of Greece, which he admitted was crazy so maybe there's some Macedonian exaggeration attached.

Adding to this confusion is Macedonia's name when admitted to the UN. Thanks to this dispute Greece wouldn't allow Macedonia to enter as anything but "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia", sometimes abbreviated as FYROM. There are 131 countries (more than 2/3 of the United Nations) that recognize Macedonia as the Republic of Macedonia as of January 18th, 2011 but others still stick with this longer name.

Blue: Republic of, Red: FYROM, Green: official position unknown, Gray: no diplomatic relations

To me it seems like a de jure/de facto thing -- officially it's "the Republic of", actually it's simply "Macedonia" -- but it really is a political issue, one that has held up its EU accession (its poor production and growth and corruption also weigh in as well but I'll try to attack those in a later post).

In three weeks time there will be the 1st litigation in the International Court of Justice located in The Hague in Netherlands. In 2008 Macedonia sued Greece for "flagrant violation" of Greece's obligations from the 1995 Interim Accord. This 16-year-old Accord basically promised "continuing negotiations" between the countries and to avoid the awkwardness of naming the countries in the Accord, it referred to Greece as "the Party of the First Part having its capital at Athens" and Macedonia as "the Party of the Second Part having its capital at Skopje". Greece has fired back saying that Macedonia has been uncooperative and "is not interested in a solution" and also that Macedonia has "flagrantly violated a series of fundamental obligations expressly foreseen by the Accord, including the fundamental principle of good neighborly relations." Bam. They are on unfriendly terms.

This was one 2008 suggestion to end this name game which illustrates how nitpicky they all are about how the name must vary in different contexts and so on:
* The constitutional name, in Cyrillic ("Република Македонија") could be used for internal purposes.
* "Republic of Macedonia (Skopje)" would be used for international relations.
* For bilateral relations, "Republic of Macedonia (Skopje)" is suggested, and any countries using the state's constitutional name would be encouraged to use it, but not forced to change it.
* The terms "Macedonia" and "Macedonian", on their own, would be able to be used freely by both countries

Other names proposed have been "New Macedonia", "Upper Macedonia", "Slavo-Macedonia", "Nova (New) Makedonija", "Macedonia (Skopje)"...

There's probably a lot more that can be said about it but that's what I've picked up and am passing onto you!

In a couple hours were going to Matka Canyon and I'll post some pictures from there and everywhere else we've been as soon as I can.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Stigli smo~we arrived!

We've actually done a great deal more than that; we arrived, settled into our hostel, explored various areas of Skpje (the albanian-influenced old city across the bridge, the city center, the largest Roma settlement in the Balkans Šutka), were part of the studio audience for a round of "Macedonian Idol", spent a day and a night in Ohrid, a picturesque town in Southwest Macedonia, met with three NGOs in Skopje, and sampled many restaurants, bakeries, and slatkise (confectioneries of sorts). I do not have the cable to connect my camera to the computer but when I get my hands on it I promise many many pictures. And anecdotes.

Sorry to keep this so brief but we have a wonderfully full schedule. Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Nota bene

There are many things I want to write about and I will get to them, but for the next two weeks (March 13th-27th) I not be with my laptop which might stall the posting process. I believe I will be able to access the internet throughout in which case I will post thoughts and adventures as they come but in case it's more limited than I'm currently imagining, please know I have not left you in the dust, I will return with much to share from those two weeks!

Where will I be? For the first week, Macedonia. My group will be venturing around Skopje (the capital) and a beautiful lakeside town called Ohrid. More details to come of what we do and see and my take on it all. Serbs have told us we'll be able to understand most of the language, Macedonian, since it's very similar to Serbian. I'll let you know the truth of that when we return! We leave tomorrow morning for Macedonia and return next Sunday in the afternoon. It takes between four and five hours by bus to get to Skopje from Nis.

From the 20th to the 25th I will most likely be on Kopaonik, a mountain range in Central Serbia, or Uža Srbija (Serbia Proper) as referred to once by my host father. Upon inquiring I learned that it was deemed this in the 40s after the Axis occupation ended and Vojvodina (Northern Serbia) and Kosovo (what used to be/most Serbs still consider Southern Serbia) declared that they were "autonomous provinces" within Serbia. The part in between the two became known as Uža Srbija to illustrate it was the only truly Serbian precinct. My host father is the only person I've heard refer to it as such so I suspect it's an antiquated term. Back to Kopaonik, my host family has planned to take a zimovanje (winter break) since February and they are planning on going to Kopaonik to ski for a few days. It is one of the most popular arenas for winter sports and they are all seasoned skiers. I couldn't be less of that since I had never lived through snow let alone been on a ski slope before but I have wanted to ski since I was nine so this is really exciting for me and very generous of my host family.

And then from the 26th to the 27th my group has an overnight excursion to Vranje, a town in southern Serbia. I know little about this town but my supervisor at work said we'll have a better time understanding Macedonian than the Serbian spoke in this town because it's very close to the border so they have a different accent or dialect. I will let you know the truth to that claim as well.

My group is so pumped to go to Macedonia and then the following weekend be together again in a quaint Serbian country town. And we're also pumped because of my last post about wonderful spring arriving just in time for all this excitement!

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Ahh SPRING (prolece) has arrived, and I LOVE (volim) it. The sun is smiling, people are smiling, I am smiling, it's just so nice! Since Tuesday we've had spring-consistent weather according to everyone so this is my first first week of spring and I can already tell I take to it more than the previous season. Yesterday I went for a two-hour walk around Trosarina (my neighborhood) and the city center and along the river just because. Just because! I like walking and I expect to do a lot of it in this weather but when it was icy and uncomfortable to be outside I made it a habit not to stay outside a moment more than necessary. I'm sure all of you who are spring seasoned experts (pun intended) are bored by my commentary because it seems to be the accepted response to the rising temperature but as a first-time springer I am going to glow a bit more. I feel giddy and spirited; it takes no feat of layers to walk out the door; slow walkers are slightly more tolerable; I wore sunglasses, sunglasses that I hadn't pulled out since our aberrant week of warmth in Belgrade last November, sunglasses that I carried with me daily at home (I know home is Hawaii and this is expected but still!); I'm simply happier, and it's predivno, more than wonderful.

Evidence for the season change and a camera-happy Katherine: a slew of pictures from my neighborhood and around town from my walk

Who let the dogs out? Sorry I had to. There is a huge stray animal (primarily dog) population in Serbia; in every village, town, and city I've visited we saw if not attracted our own herd of dogs just while walking around. I'm through and through a dog person and animal lover which made it difficult to see all these helpless pups finding food and shelter especially through the winter. I still want to give them a home but at least it's warmer now so seeing them outside isn't as heart-wrenching.

There are no larks or lilac trees, nope it's just the street where I live! It always amazed me how the vocally untrained Rex Harrison could pull off that song so well.

Happy spring everyone!

Osmi Mart

The eighth of March is International Women's Day which began in 1909 as a socialist political event to recognize women and has become a mix of Mother's Day and Valentine's Day for most of Eastern Europe. In fact when I went to Novi Sad Mima asked me to help her make a Mother's Day card for Irena. Though she's only ten I took the soapbox opportunity and explained March eighth was a day to acknowledge all women and their rights, not simply mothers. As I was leaving on Sunday she handed me a card that instructed no peeking until Tuesday and when Tuesday came I received felicitations of sisterhood. Perhaps she didn't quite get the point, but I got the sweetest card to add to my gallery of Mima's artwork.

Flowers were sold everywhere on Tuesday because it's the customary gift for mothers and female teachers. It's not the recipients in this situation who irk me, quite the contrary I think teachers and mothers deserve to be honored every day, but on a day established to celebrate the rights of women those rights should be the focus in my opinion. However I haven't ever seen any sort of women's display in Hawaii on the previous eights so at least some women are being honored in Serbia even if it isn't for their rights so much as for their gender.

Nevertheless Jill's service placement Zenski Prostor (Women's Space) graciously invited our group to come with them to Belgrade and join in the annual Women's Day March. The boys decided not to take the offer but Asja, Jill, and I felt like marching. We left in a rented bus around 8am and because of an extended smoking break mid-way through our journey north, it took nearly 4 hours to get there. As soon as we arrived the women rushed us into a haze of smoke in a room reeking of cigarettes where flags, posters, banners, scarves, signs, hugs, and kisses were being distributed. The purported leader welcomed the gang and outlined the afternoon. The instructions' succinctness shed light on the level of planning gone into the day events. Though these women (and a few men) certainly had the vim and vigor to advocate women's rights around the entire continent, their plan of action was still in the developing phase which we've found to be very Serbian; the energy is there but the blueprint is usually less than thought through by Western standards. And yet things always turn out alright. Perhaps we should take a hint from the Serbs on this one.

We marched down and out in Belgrade for about 90 minutes, Jill and I clutching a large banner with the woman gender insignia and "Osmi Mart, Dan Zene" (March Eight, Women's Day), Asja and Ceca (who was already in Belgrade and would never miss an event like this) brandishing signs with "radnice niste same" (workers are not alone) and "radna prava zena" (women's working rights). Women's social and economic equality was the focal point of all the signs, speeches, and chants throughout the march and purple was the color of the hour. There were about five Roma women amongst the group of (I'm terrible at estimating) a few hundred women but they were not discriminated against as far as I could tell by the other women marching and they were holding their sign "Romkinje su deo zenskog pokreta" (Roma women are part of the women's movement). Roma women have it particularly rough because they are twice discriminated, from being Roma and women, and I was proud that at least a few were apart of the march. And alongside us there were a dozen or so armed police officers, helmets, batons, and all, which made us slightly apprehensive, but nary a violent instance occurred so all went well.


The most lucky aspect of the afternoon was that the sun shined brilliantly so even though it was a bit nippy the sunce was aglitter. The march came to a close at a small arena area with risers, a projection of footage and pictures from past Osmi Marts, and an array of food and drink for the marchers. After a bit of crowd-smoosing we took our seats and various individuals and groups took the floor with speech and verse. The songs were especially fun because they projected the lyrics on the wall and we or at least I went all out trying to guess the tune while trying not to butcher the language.

Soon after we packed up and bused back south to Nis, this time with only a fifteen minute smoking break for our bus-mates, so we made it back in about three hours. I'm very glad Jill's service placement invited us to participate in this annual action and all the girls of the BY Serbia group had fun representing our (superior) gender.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A tribute to the Damjanovics

On Friday my four group members and I bused north to spend the weekend nostalgically in Novi Sad, our first semester home. It's about a three and a half hour drive but buses have that annoying tendency to stop so it took roughly an hour longer, but once we arrived our trek to get there was forgotten and we were welcomed back into our families.

The weather on Saturday was wonderfully spring-like so my family and I took a long walk around Novi Sad. It didn't take me long to realize that I hadn't missed the city so much as this one truly spectacular family in apartment 14A on Narodnog Fronta so I spent the rest of the weekend talking to, playing with, and cooking with them. It's always nice to get away for a day or weekend, to change the pace of life, but this didn't just feel like a jaunt. As corny as it sounds it felt like coming home. Not Hawaii home, but a second home of memories fewer but more recent, with three human members, a dog, and a turtle who kept the best company imaginable for four months and provided me exactly what I needed for the start of this year.

Gosh I can say with absolute certainty there could not have been a better family for me. I didn’t realize it until about halfway through the first semester, but I really needed a family family, one that did a lot together and was family-oriented since that’s the kind of family I came from and that’s the family that I missed back home an indescribable amount. This family, the Damjanovic clan, was just that. It consisted of a 10 year-old daughter, Mima, Mama and Tata, Irena and Dejan, both in their thirties, and two pets, a toy poodle, Loli, and turtle, Luci. The pets were great because they helped me not miss my doggies at home as much, but it was the bipedal members who impacted me the most.

When I first arrived I expressed an interest in seeing as much of Serbia as possible and meeting as many people to hear their stories and they provided me with that and more: we took a number of day trips to Sombor, Apatin, Cerevic, Fruska Gora, and to their relatives and friends in and around Novi Sad. I also said I wanted to learn how to prepare some traditional meals and every time Irena or Dejan made something they explained what it was and let me help them. We also spent quality time playing cards, completing a 500 piece puzzle, playing a flag-country matching memory game, baking Serbian desserts and cooking Serbian foods, watching their favorite tv show “Friends”, and watching other Serbian and American movies. I mentioned I wanted to learn about the history and present state of Serbia and about twice a week we would discuss some problem of the past, present, or future and I loved it.

Now Mima. Mima Mima Mima. Moja andela, my angel Mima. Mima has become my sister, no question about it. We spent at least a couple hours a day together studying, reading, playing cards or other games, playing her mini xylophone, drum set, and piano, making paper airplanes, drawing, cutting out snowflakes, decorating the apartment for each holiday with our handmade crafts, baking, cooking, watching our favorite Disney channel show “Phineas and Ferb”, playing in the snow, going to CK for child-friendly events, going on walks, and really anything she wanted to do, I was there. Because I really love her and want to be a positive older influence, and fortunately I think I have been. I made her a part of each day and though at times I felt like she was too much and other usual big-little sibling complexes, I wouldn’t have let it be any other way. She helped me find and expand responsibility, discipline, fun, childlike wonder, love, and maturity which comes from realizing the wonders of childhood that come from being an older sibling and she is the undoubtedly the most important thing that I left in Novi Sad. She was the main reason I didn't want to leave and the person I had the most trouble leaving. But we’ve given each other so very much in love, friendship, and sisterhood as corny as it sounds and I’ll never forget any of it. She truly will always be my little sister.

Matching scarves!

Halloween at the American Corner

I never felt the need for 'closure' so often gushed about and I hadn't thought I needed it since leaving Novi Sad, but after having a few more precious hours with the Damjanovics I think I have it. Since arriving in Nis I skyped with Mima and sometimes the whole family half a dozen times and as indebted as I am to the genius of Skype for exploiting her this past year, it didn't provide the same feeling as being with them, mainly because they don't speak English perfectly and it was more difficult communicating with faulty internet connections and no room for gesticulation. However I'm determined to make myself apart of their and specifically her life in the coming years, and I hope one day she is able to visit me or at least study in America, she's really very bright. But for now I'm satisfied with the closure that I have and I am forever grateful to have been apart of their family.