Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Bit About Chennai


Formerly known as Madras, Chennai is the 4th largest city in India, with a population of around 6 million. Nicknamed “The Gateway to the South,” Chennai is the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Located on the Bay of Bengal, the sprawling city includes two major ports and the 2nd longest beach in the world.

History/Economics
Established by the British in the 1600’s, Chennai has recently undergone tremendous growth and change. Much of India’s automotive industry is in Chennai, including Hyundai, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Renault, Ford, and BMW (hence the large number of Koreans at the school). It is also the country’s second largest exporter of information technology. Electronics companies such as Dell, Samsung, Nokia, Sony Ericsson now manufacture here. Pfizer, and Dow Chemical company also have their presence here. This influx of companies is a major reason for the school’s recent growth.

Culture
More interesting to me is the culture of the area, due largely to the variety of regional ethnic groups. Rich in arts and literature, Chennai is famous for its various cultural events, including a renowned 5-week long music festival in December. Its thriving movie industry, known as Kollywood, is internationally known. I look forward to seeing the classical dance form Bharatanatyam, as well as attend concerts incorporating traditional instruments such as the sitar and tabala. Shopping opportunities abound, from the few large shopping malls to the market stalls. Famous for its magnificent silk saris, Chennai also is a place to buy cast bronze, traditional jewelry, and stone sculptures.

Climate
Located on the thermal equator, Chennai is largely tropical throughout the year, with some cooling in the winter. Temperatures range from around 67° F (19°C) in January, all the way up to 104°F (40°C) in May/June. It gets most of its rain (annual = 51 inches, or 1,300 mm) from the monsoon winds, which occur from September to mid-December. I guess I will be packing away my wool Sirogojno sweaters and snow boots!

Language/Religion
Tamil is the dominant language, but English is widely spoken as well (to varying degrees of “understandability”), particularly in the business sector. Most natives are Hindu, but there are also some that practice Islam and Christianity.

Education/Health Care
Chennai is home to an extensive array of schools and universities, a testament to its emphasis on education. Literacy rate is at 81%, well above the national average. With its renowned medical colleges, access to quality health care is easy – and at very affordable rates. Because it is tropical, precautions need to be taken against malaria, as well as water-borne diseases such as dysentery. My experience in Mali should prove useful here.

Transportation
I’ve been told that the traffic in Chennai can best be described as “chaotic.” A mixture of busses, autos, motorbikes, and auto rickshaws all vie for dominance. Some teachers have a car and driver, a few brave folks drive themselves, and others take the auto rickshaws to school.

More to come…in August….
With New Teacher Orientation starting on July 31, look for postings of my new international journey of India to begin in August. I’m sure I’ll be taking lots of photos…

Image Sources: http://india-outside-my-window.blogspot.com, http://www.wordtravels.com/images/map/India_map.jpg, http://www.indianetzone.com/1/india_temples.htm

Accepted Job as Tech Facilitator at the American International School of Chennai

On Friday I accepted the position of Elementary Technology Integration Facilitator at the American International School of Chennai.

This is a new position, initiated with the goal of helping teachers to become more comfortable/competent in technology and integrate it within the curriculum. According to those I spoke with (Director and the IT coordinator, via Skype), the teachers see the importance of technology, but need guidance and support in using technology. This is particularly true of the Indian teachers who don’t often get computer training in their education. I had the opportunity to speak with the IT coordinator via Skype, which helped me get a better idea of the school’s technology initiatives, setup, etc. I look forward to working with him.

Since I have already paid for the recruitment fair and flight, I will go to New York, meet the school Director, and then hit some museums, some sightseeing, and shopping – just enjoy myself!

Some information about the school:
  • Student enrollment: 579 PK-12 (a 49% increase since 2006)
  • Student makeup: 28 nationalities. Major groups: 37% Korean, 23% N. American. Many others are from France, UK, Japan, Malaysia, Denmark, and Sweden.
  • Founded: 1995
  • Curriculum: American, International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program
  • Campus: 10 acres, purpose-built facility
  • Faculty: 83 (50/50 foreign/local hire
  • Technology: 400 computers, including 3 laptop carts, mounted projectors in an increasing number of rooms
AISC also employs a full-time "India Studies" teacher, who arranges a variety of cultural experiences for the school, including guest performers and field experiences ranging from a few hours to several day trips. This will help expose the school community to the richness that this culturally rich and geographically diverse country has to offer.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Roma- Belgrade's Recyclers

In Belgrade, city recycling is sparse. Money is a big factor, as it takes quite a bit to start up recycling facilities and recycling trucks. I hate throwing cans, glass bottles, plastic, etc. in the garbage.

Instead, the biggest recyclers in Belgrade are the Roma. You will see them around town with their push carts, bicycle carts, and even motorized carts. During the cold of winter, up steep the hills of Belgrade, in neighborhoods, in busy streets - all places where you see these carts. The main contents of these carts is cardboard, gathered from dumpsters. Boxes are carefully flattened and neatly stacked, so as to fit the maximum amount in a cart. Some likely is used for their ramshackle homes and the rest they get money from the government. It's a win-win situation for all.

In addition to collecting cardboard, the Roma are great dumpster divers. Pieces deemed as potentially useful/wanted are often placed next to the dumpsters or attached in a bag. Items tossed and unwanted become treasures for the Roma. Items, particularly discarded furniture, are welcome additions to their homes. Some items are sold along the street next to the main flea market. I even hear that there is a Roma flea market.

I do hope that Belgrade starts a true recycling program soon. Until then, it's the Roma that perform much of this service....

Friday, January 04, 2008

Bratislava

Leaving Belgrade
My friend Olja knew that I had been wanting to visit Prague, so when a local tour agency offered a trip during our Christmas break to the Czech capital and a brief stop in Bratislava, we took advantage of the trip and its excellent price. We would have to contend with a long bus ride and I understood that the tour guide explanations would be in Serbian, but I didn’t mind.

Bratislava
After a night bus ride, we arrived in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava around 7 am. A bit too early for the hotel, we were driven past an area containing several embassies, modern glassy homes next to more modest ones, and a former munitions manufacturing area. We stopped at the new Parliament building, next to which was a “stunning view” of the Danube. However, that view was obscured by a thick fog, which was “highly unusual” according to our local guide.

Due to its strategic location on the Danube, Bratislava has been an important center for trading since early times. For over 250 years, it was the capital of old Hungary. In 1809 Napoleon bombed Bratislava from the right bank of the Danube, not respecting the very treaty he signed with the Austrian emperor just four years earlier. When the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993, Bratislava became the seat of the Presidency, and the most important cultural, industrial, and scientific institutions. The largest city of Slovakia, it only has a population of 450,000.

Our local tour guide, a stocky older man wearing a thick, Russian-style fur hat, gave us a morning tour of the old city. We went past St. Martin’s Church, a Gothic structure built in 1452 and place where eleven Hungarian kings and eight royal wives were crowned. Near here was a monument to the Jews from WWII. Walking further into the old city, the tall white St. Michael’s Gate could be seen, the only preserved gate of the medieval city fortifications. After a short break to get something hot to drink and warm up (it was below freezing outside), we continued our tour. We saw the fancy yellow national theatre, walked through the passages old city hall with its decorative green roof, and the pink Primate’s Palace. Along one street, the guide pointed out the Paparazzi bronze figure, ready to take a photo from around the corner. Nearby was The Watcher, a bronze statue of a man inconspicuously peeping from a street manhole. Kids were seen playing on and around it, rubbing his already polished golden head. A special traffic sign alerts drivers of its location, so as to not drive over the sculpture.

After dropping off our luggage at the hotel, we went back into the city via tram. The city now was livelier, with more people in the streets and around the booths in the main square. Olja and I headed up to the Jewish Quarter, with its narrow streets and old buildings. We made a short stop in Clock Museum, located in the House of the Good Shepherd, a beautiful narrow yellow building from 1760-65. On each side of the cobblestone streets were colorful buildings, each connected to the other in a long row. In the balconies of apartments, I noticed Christmas trees wrapped tightly in plastic. Perhaps they wait until Christmas Eve to set them up. Nearing Castle Hill was the modest Chapel of St. Catherine with a small wooden tower, the oldest church in Bratislava but in derelict condition. The Bratislava Castle overlooking the Danube River, dominated over the city on its high hill. Like the Kalemegdan fortress in Belgrade, it was built and rebuilt many times over its long history starting around 907 AD. Features include 7-meter thick fortification walls built in 1437, a baroque-style castle building, and numerous smaller buildings. The castle, currently housing the Slovak Parliament and National Museum, is due to be renovated.

Back again at the main square, we wandered through the aisles of booths selling souvenirs, crafts, food, and drinks. The smell of grilled meat as it sizzled permeated the air. When looking at a local-looking craft item made out of straw, we were shocked to see that it too was made in China. So much for local handicrafts! To warm up, we bought a cup of hot wine and then proceeded to wander though the streets until supper. We found a restaurant that served Bryndzové haluisky, the Slovakian national dish of potato dumplings in sheep cheese sprinkled with bacon. It wasn’t as good as the ones we had in the Tatras, but it would have to suffice. Warmed up a bit again, we proceeded to do a bit more wandering through the streets, took some photos of the lit Christmas tree in the main square, observed some Peruvian-sounding flute music played by people dressed in Plains Indian costumes, and then took a tram back to the hotel.

Christmas Eve in Prague



Prague
Already dark, our first destination was the Old Town Square. Red light emanated from the tall Christmas tree dominating the Eastern side. In front of the tree was a life-size Nativity scene carved from wood. Once a site for public executions of 27 Protestants in 1621 after losing the Battle of the White Mountain, the historical square was now filled with a sense of festivity. Vendors in the red-roofed stands sold crafts, local hot dogs/sausages, grilled meats, roasted chestnuts, and hot drinks.

Right around the corner was the Old Town Tower, whose unusual clock is the most famous in Prague. Within the series of circles, one will find a calendar, astronomical clock, and representation of daylight hours. On each side of the astronomical and calendar clocks are two wooden figures, each representing something (such as Greed or Vanity). On the hour, Death (a rather cute looking skeleton) pulls a rope and the angel appears to pull it at the other end. Near the top, two window open up and the 11 Apostles + St. Paul slowly move around. At the end of the show, sound coming from a window above the Apostles reveals a cock. You could always tell when the hour was about to happen, as large amounts of people began amassing in front of the 15th century clock.

We then headed towards Prague Castle, crossing the famous Charles Bridge. Built in 1357, the bridge was the only crossing over the Vltava River from the Old Town to the Little Quarter until the 1700’s. Now crowded with pedestrians, it used to carry 4 carriages side-by-side. Lining the entire span of the bridge are a multitude of sculptures of saints, added at various times about 400 years after the bridge’s completion. Quite a number of the sculptures (actually copies, as the originals are in the National Museum) were very dark, making it difficult to photograph with natural light. A few brave souls set up tripods to take photos of the bridge and the Prague Castle region, illuminated at night.

After a brief walk around the Little Quarter Square, my fingers were so cold that I was feeling very clumsy using the camera – was I pressing the shutter release or not? Noticing that the St. Nicholas Church was still closed due to filming, we decided to find a restaurant to eat – and to warm up. We chose a cozy, well-establish restaurant, where I ordered a meal of pork au gratin with bacon and mushroom sauce. For desert, we split a dish of sweet dumplings with yogurt sauce and drizzled chocolate. Good, but not something I would need to try again. Beer lovers would be happy in Prague, as a glass was about half the price of coke or tea.

Temporarily warmed up, we headed back to the Old Town Square. Crowds were noticeably thinner. At the stage next to the tall Christmas tree, a group was performing Renaissance-style Christmas music. I was quick to point out to Olja when they played the rauspheife instrument, as that is the Renaissance instrument that I also play. Although we enjoyed the concert, I pitied the performers whose fingers were likely very cold. Once finished, we took the efficient metro back to the hotel.

Christmas Traditions in Prague
With its Protestant/Catholic roots, Christmas is still an important celebration for Prague residents. On Christmas Eve and Day, everything is closed for this national holiday. Even during Socialism, no one worked. On these days, it is customary to visit the cemetery. Taking your dog out for a walk was the main thing you saw residents do. I couldn't get over how many small/toy dogs residents had!

The house would be thoroughly cleaned in preparation for the festivities. Fried carp, a delicacy, was prepared along with soup and special cakes. According to our local guide, Christmas now is less focused on remembering Christ’s birth and more about commercialism and eating. Even the pets get presents!

Prague Castle, Hradcany

Tour of Prague
With the exception of those walking dogs, most others seemed to be in tour groups, struggling to hear their guide or follow the umbrella/silly pole held up by the leader. Our guide pointed out that much of the city was flooded 5 years ago. Most of the administrative buildings were built just after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Prague Castle
Our tour started up by the Castle. This was quite fitting, since origins of Prague started on this hill in the 9th century. The original walls (part of which remained) enclosed a palace, three churches, and a monastery. The castle has been rebuilt many times, with its Renaissance style achieved in 1541. At the castle entrance, two guards stood in uniform. Shortly thereafter, a small parade of guards marched out and performed the hourly Changing of the Guard. In the first courtyard were some large wooden flagpoles, gently tapered to a point higher than the Late Baroque buildings. Walking through the second larger courtyard, our first destination was the St. Vitus Cathedral.

St. Vitus Cathedral
Within the castle walls is St. Vitas Cathedral, a Gothic structure towering over the city as one of its most distinctive landmarks. Construction began in 1344, but the finishing touches were made almost 600 years later – in 1929. Although the main part of the church actually was fairly wide, the soaring height of the walls gave it the illusion of being narrow. Facing to the front, three stained-glass windows curved gently at the top to echo the intricate webbed Gothic tracery on the ceiling. On the opposite end is a Rose Window designed from 1925-7, depicting the Creation. Due to the large numbers of people and trying to stay with our tour group, it was difficult to dwell at any place for very long.
To the left of the main entrance were some beautiful stained glass windows, including some by Czech Secessionist painter, Alfons Mucha. Lining the periphery of the church were small chapels containing relics, centuries of paintings, and statues. Some of the tombs were extremely elaborate, including the tomb of St. John Nepomuk, which was made of solid silver. Located on the site of the former St. Wenceslas Rotunda, the St. Wenceslas Chapel walls are filled with Gothic frescoes of scenes from the Bible and life of Wenceslas. In once corner was a tall, elaborate golden structure that held Communal wafers and wine. An altar is decorated with semi-precious stones. Another chapel held a Nativity scene, something found in every church.

The outside of the cathedral is a feast for the eye as well. Gargoyles of both human and beast forms are scattered throughout, each one unique. The main tower near the original entrance was finished with a Baroque green-colored bell tower. Although the West half was completed in the 20th century, it incorporates Neo-Gothic elements and designs, making it blend in with the rest of the cathedral. Delicate flying buttresses surround the exterior of the nave and chancel (East end). The Golden Portal, originally the entrance, has a 14th century mosaic of the Last Judgment above the three doors.

Other Parts of Prague Castle and Hradčany
Moving onward, we went past St. George’s Basilica, the best-preserved Romanesque church in Prague. Its bright red façade – a Baroque addition – was attractive to me, but I didn’t know at the time it was a church. Closeby is the picturesque Golden Lane, a short narrow 17th century street. A recent change, admission is now charged to walk through. Once out of the Castle area, we stopped to take a look at the view below of the Little Quarter and distant Old Town. Unfortunately, fog/haze prevented us from seeing much.

The area right outside the Castle is known as Hradčany, a town founded in about 1320. One of its notable buildings is the Strahov Monastery. Rebuilt after a fire in 1258, its famous attraction is its 800-yr old library. Although there were books in several rooms, the most impressive one was Philosophical Hall, which had books neatly shelved in warm wooden bookcases up to the ceiling along each wall, and a baroque spacious ceiling fresco. Sadly visitors are no longer able enter this hall – just view it from behind the plexiglass-blocked entrance. Strahov, once again a functioning monastery after the fall of the Socialist regime, also has a brewery.

The Loreto has been a place of pilgrimage ever since it was opened in 1626. The decorative white Baroque façade and its large bell tower must look stunning against a blue sky – which never happened while we were there. After paying the entrance fee,
we walked past a few chapels some of which were closed to view and others gated. In the courtyard was the Santa Casa, a copy of the house believed to be the Virgin Mary’s. Its outer surface is filled with reliefs of the life of Mary and some Biblical prophets. While outside, the 30 small bells (dating back to 1694) tolled – a sweet sound. Inside of the Church of the Nativity, the supposedly gruesome fully-clothed skeletons with death masks were less than impressive. Finally at the treasure room, we had the chance to see the valuable liturgical items of the Loreto. Many of the items were so encrusted with semi-precious gems or fancy shapes that I found them rather hideous looking. Not being Catholics, it took us a bit to figure out what a “monstrance” is – for displaying the host. The only one I liked was a gold-plated, diamond-encrusted monstrance that had rays radiating from the place where the wafer would be displayed. A bit of a disappointment (particularly after visiting St. Agnes Convent’s excellent collection), we moved onward. Too bad we didn’t visit the Sternberg Palace instead, with its collection including an El Greco, Rubens, Rembrandt, and other Old World Masters.

While walking down towards the Little Quarter, we passed by the Schwartzenberg Palace. Built in 1576, the sgrafitto patterned surface caught my attention. The interior sounds equally decorative.

Jewish Quarter and St. Nicholas Cathedral


Jewish Quarter
With all the sights closed, this was a great opportunity to enjoy the architecture. One of our first stops after the tour ended was the Jewish Quarter. Located near the Old Town, the area had a concentrated number of synagogues and an old cemetery. Looking through the closed gate, I could see the cemetery crammed with simple grey gravestones jutting out of the ground at various angles. I read that there are over 12,000 gravestones, but an estimated 100,000 people buried there – due to the fact that for over 300 years, it was the only place where Prague Jews could be buried. The Jewish Town Hall, built in 1570 but remodeled in 1763 with a Baroque look, stood out amongst the more somber buildings. Once on the hitlist for demolition in a campaign to raze the entire Jewish Quarter (health hazard due to complete lack of sanitation), the distinctive building is now the seat of the Czech Jewish communities. The walls of one synagogue are a memorial to the Czech Jews killed in the Holocaust. The persecution of Jews is longstanding, including oppressive laws such as a 16th century law in which they had to wear a yellow circle as a mark of shame. Within the Jewish Quarter are some beautiful Art Nouveau buildings and a few churches.

Dusk at around 3:45, our architecture viewing was essentially over. In the Old Town Square, the stands were all closed, but there still was quite a large amount of people. Shops, except for some souvenir stores, were closed. We were warned that many of the restaurants would be by reservation only, but we did find a small one, where I had local apple strudel and hot chocolate.

Dec. 26- Museum Tour Day
On our last day in Prague, Olja and I did the museum “tour”. After being dropped off by our bus (part of the group was going to a sight outside of Prague), we headed towards Prague Castle. On the way, we walked through the New Town. In Wenceslas Square, was one of the buildings I had wanted to see – the Wiehl House. Completed in 1896, this 5-storey building is in the Neo-Renaissance style, with colorful sgraffito and some Art Nouveau sculpture. We also passed by the Powder Gate, one of 13 entrances into the Old Town and begun in 1475. It was modeled after the Old Town bridge tower, complete with rich sculptural decoration. It received its present name in the 17th century when it was used to store gunpowder. Next to the Powder Gate is the Municipal House, one of Prague’s most prominent Art Nouveau buildings. Built in 1905-11, the cream-colored building’s exterior has allegorical sculptures around the entrance, corners, and in front of the glass dome. Above the decorative entrance is a large semi-circular mosaic entitled Homage to Prague. It would have been fun to go inside this building and see the decorative works of Mucha and various Art Nouveau artists, or to enjoy a concert in the main hall with its superb acoustics.

Already in the vicinity of the St. Agnes of Bohemia Convent, we decided to go there next. Started in 1234 by a sister of King Wenceslas I (she wasn’t canonized until 1989), the convent was one of the first Gothic buildings in Bohemia. Recent painstaking restoration has now brought the convent back to much of its original appearance. It is now used to display a collection of medieval art from Bohemia and Central Europe. The pieces, some dating back to the 1300’s, were carefully arranged and included explanations in both Czech and English. It was interesting to follow the evolution in its depictions of Mary and Jesus, from a more stiff arrangement, others more human, and still others more flowing. Many of the pieces were in excellent condition, particularly remarkable since they were sculpted of or painted on wood. Several altarpieces were in the collection, including one that is completely intact – a rarity. I appreciated being able to go around and see the “back” side of the altar, the part that you would see if the piece was closed. After touring this exhibition, the others of the day, particularly The Loreto, were disappointing.

Wandering up the narrow streets of the Little Quarter, we made our way up to St. Vitas Cathedral, where I took close-up photos of gargoyles, and then on to the Loreto and Strahov Monastery. The Church of St. Nicholas was our next destination. The most distinctive landmark of the Little Quarter, construction of this High Baroque church occurred from 1703-1761. Altars were highly ornate and one had carved golden cherubs over most of it. Above the main entrance was the baroque organ, once played by Mozart. The ceiling is full of frescoes, including a large lofty one in the main section. In the 230 ft (70 m) high dome was a fresco entitled The Celebration of the Holy Trinity. With my zoom lens, I was able to capture detail not otherwise possible from the ground floor. In front, the High Altar contains a copper statue of St. Nicholas. Around the side of the pinkish marble columns and interior are well-crafted statues of the Church Fathers, including St. Cyril, who Christianized the Slavs.

Later, we did our shopping, buying handmade gifts (not those made in China) at special Czech handmade stores and I bought a marionette. No Czech glass for us!
That evening, we boarded the bus for the long trip back to Belgrade.

Reflection
I found Prague to be one of the most picturesque cities I've visited. Although full in varied architecture, I found its Baroque, Gothic, and Art Nouveau/Secessionism architecture to be particularly noteworthy. I would love to come back and revisit spots, arriving early in the morning before the crowds obscure the view. Perhaps in spring/summer, when the gardens are in their glory and one can sit in an outdoor café in the town square....

Karlovy Vary



On Christmas Day, we went to Karlovy Vary, located about 85 miles (140 km) and a 1 ½ hour drive from Prague. As we went through rural Czech Republic, I admired the frosty trees. With our group, we took a tour of the town, famous for its hot springs. We walked past several fancy spa resort hotels. A river, also kept warm with thermal waters, flows through the center of much of the town. A fair number of mallard ducks were enjoying themselves in the warm water, including a few female mallards that began having a squabble. Following the river, we entered the utilitarian (but not pretty) Russian building, which contains the Thermal Spring, the largest of the mineral springs. It can spurt up to 40 feet high (12 meters) and is also the hottest, at 161°F (72°C). Olja bought of the traditional “porcelain” cups, so we each had a drink of the highly-concentrated and hot mineral water. Drinking the water is supposed to be good for digestive disorders.

Back outside in the winter air, our group walked past the Mill Colonnade, a highly controversial building with 124 Corinth-style columns completed in 1881. Many of the residents, when the cover was finally withdrawn from the building construction, were aghast, particularly at how the building looked horribly out of place with the rather harmonious look of the town. I would have to agree. Interestingly enough, the building was used in a James Bond movie that was supposed to take place in the mafia-filled country of Montenegro. Karlovy Vary also has some increasing problems with mafia, particularly by Russians who are also buying up a lot of property and exerting undue influence. I did see a surprising number of Russian Cyrillic signs and Olja noted that there were quite a few Russians entering the fancy shops.

Next to the Mill Colonnade is the Market Colonnade, a wooden structure inspired by Swiss architecture and built in 1883. It was meant to cover the mineral springs for a couple of years only, but local authorities decided to keep it and reconstructed the white lacy wood work building. Crossing one of the pedestrian bridges, the St. Mary Magdalene Church, built in the Baroque style in 1737 was prominent.

After lunch, we traversed the streets, peeking into the shop windows and admiring the colorful architecture. Due to a devastating fire in 1604 that destroyed everything except 3 houses, there was nothing that was significantly old. Art Nouveau/Secessionist architectural styles were noted in a number of buildings. Most were very well preserved and freshly painted. For the wealthy, Moser glassware and Thun porcelain were local specialties to be purchased. For the average person, buying the Becherovka herbal liqueur, Mattoni mineral water, or spa wafers were much more affordable. Olja and I tried the thin, but large cookie wafers filled with a selection of flavors, but we didn’t find them all that flavorful. After a pleasant walk through the town, we boarded the local transport bus (very crowded) that took us back to the parking lot and headed back to Prague.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

New Year's in Belgrade

New Year's Eve
My trip to Prague over, I was back in Belgrade for New Year's. Although I was perfectly content to stay at home (New Year's is not a big deal for me), a friend invited me to her apartment for a small celebration with a few others. Stemming back to Communist times when religious holidays were downplayed, New Year's remains a larger event for Belgrade residents than Christmas.

When I arrived to her apartment, I was served hot rakija. This drink, made from plum brandy (the national drink of Serbia), is common for New Year's. On the table was more food than those gathered could possibly ever eat - very typical for Serbian hosts.

Although it was a few hours to midnight, the TV was turned on. Conversations still occurred over the sound of the TV, mostly in Serbian. When the station began its live New Year's show, conversations quieted down when the music started. Soon the apartment was filled with the joyous sound of people singing along with the traditional national songs. Various singer "greats" performed the songs that made them famous. One of the singers was a parent of two of the children at our school. Even though these songs were quite old, all generations in the apartment enjoyed them equally. Most of the songs were accompanied by accordions and various instruments such as the clarinet, violin, percussion, and saxophone. Soon the apartment members got up and performed kolo dance moves to the lively songs. They even made me join in and learn some of the basic footwork.

At countdown time, fireworks began to fill the sky, most of which were set off by locals. A few gunshots could also be heard. Although the sound of fireworks could be heard for weeks, it definitely was much larger.

Well past midnight, the group was still eating, drinking, and enjoying each other's company. We were given some rakija made from walnuts - it was quite good, but strong. On the TV, the show still continued. Flipping through the channels, we watched for a few minutes a folk singer who lives in my apartment building. Not used to staying up so late, I thanked my gracious host and friends for a fun evening and headed home.

New Year's Day
The next morning, I went for a walk in newly fallen snow. Except for a solitary set of footprints, no one must have traveled on this "main" road yet this morning. All businesses and kiosks looked closed, except for one small grocery store. A national holiday, everyone had off. Gosh, it was quiet. Back in my cozy apartment, I watched the snow continue to fall and gently swirl around on my apartment rooftop. No movement below. No horses at the hippodrome either.

January 2
Needing to go to the post office to pick up a package, I bundled up and headed out. I was very careful to stay within the narrow tire track, as the snow around it was nearly as high as my boots. On the side streets where I normally traveled to get down to the Senjak "business" area, no tire tracks were found, so I had to blaze my own path. No sidewalks were shoveled and these small streets just don't get plowed. Back on a main street, I and the few other pedestrians walked further onto the road, as that area was at least plowed. With few cars on the road, it was much easier walking than on the sidewalks (which were full of parked cars anyway). The snow was quite light, but not the "snowman" type. Everything from potted plants to cars seemed to have heads of mushrooms, having "grown" at least six fluffy inches in height. Even the peaks of picket fences had accumulated some snow. Too bad I didn't have my camera.

With the post office in sight, I was dismayed to see the security gate pulled over its doors. Although no sign was posted for holiday hours, it was definitely closed. Not only do Serbians have off on New Year's, they also have off the next day as well....
Drat! I would have to make the trip all over tomorrow. This time I'll bring my camera.