Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Internet and Cell Phone Use in Serbia

Cell Phones in Serbia
For the first seven months I was in Serbia, I resisted getting a cell phone. I didn't see it as a "must-have" and certainly did not base my self-worth or importance on having one. Finally I succumbed and bought one. Once the phone itself was paid for, I found that costs were quite low. There were no monthly fees and a $15 card lasted my text messaging (I had to learn how to do that on a phone) and calls for about 3 months. Try to do that in the US! The phone card minutes method also ensures that you cannot go over your purchased amount, hence no huge cost surprises from chatty teens’ phones. You can even send a text message to the parking service, taking money off your phone card instead of plugging a meter. The reasonable rates and ease of adding minutes, and capped spending amounts make owning a phone commonplace.
Everyone from gradeschoolers to grannies in villages seems to have one. In the congested busses where you barely have room to stand, people still manage to answer a call or send the ubiquitous text message. As soon as the plane lands, everyone whips out their phones and makes a call – as if it’s a mandatory thing. According to a recent newspaper article, Serbia has 5.2 million mobile phone users out of a population of 7.5 million.

Internet Usage
Contrast that to Internet usage. According to 2006 statistics, only 24% of Serbians use the Internet – or about 1.5 million people. This rate is below former Yugoslav republics such as Slovenia (55.6%), Croatia (32%), and Macedonia (27%). It is ahead of Bosnia (20%), Montenegro (16%), and Albania (3%). Compare that to Sweden and Portugal, where about 75% of citizens use the Internet. Connectivity in rural areas is rare (about 12%) and only 17% of women use the Internet. Of those connected, about 77% are still using a dial-up connection. Even here in Belgrade, there are areas of the city where dial-up is the only option. Thankfully I have a cable modem connection, although its speeds are nothing to brag about. Proposed solutions include liberalizing the telecommunications market, government reaching out to threatened social groups, and an improved legislative framework that will encourage Internet usage through various measures. A healthy dose of competition would certainly help – that and some training in western customer service standards/expectations.

I also found the types of Internet usage interesting. Top three types of sites accessed include: music, education, and science. Religion, pornography, and politics nearly tied for the lowest rank.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Slava - More than a Party

Here in Serbia, the season of Slavas is beginning. In the next month or so, most Serbs will attend some one else's Slava or their own, based on the birthday of their family's patron saint. This article was written by a friend of mine, Pat Andjelkovic, an American living in Serbia for many years.

CorD December Column
Pat Andjelkovic Notes from the Big Plum


A slava, (and I’ll add an “s” on occasion hereafter to make it plural) or celebration of a family's saint's day, is a major religious holiday for Orthodox Serbs. Slavas occur all year long, but many take place in the winter months. Although some families invite only guests whose slavas they themselves attend, someone may invite you, so it’s good to know a little something. First of all, how did they come to be?
Centuries ago every Serbian clan had its own household god. As Christianity spread, several attempts were made to convert the Serbs. It was only in the thirteenth century that Rastko Nemanjić, later canonized as Saint Sava, created the Serbian Orthodox Church. He sent out messengers to replace each family's household god with major Christian saints. In the fourteenth century the Turks conquered Serbia, taking complete control for 500 years. Many Serbs converted to Islam to save their lives or to ascend social or political ranks. Orthodox Serbs secretly carried on their Christian customs. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Serbs celebrated their slavas freely for a short while until communism again discouraged religion. As under the Turkish occupation, many continued to observe their personal slava. Nowadays there are no more restrictions.
But just how is a slava celebrated? Although there are differences from family to family, what follows is a traditional explanation.
Slavas are celebrated for three days and families must be ready to welcome guests on all three days, since during slava, an Orthodox home is considered a church, and no one should be turned away. In earlier times, everyone in a particular village knew whose slava fell on which day and automatically came for the celebration. Nowadays it is customary for a family member to extend verbal invitations usually only once and simply remind guests from year to year. If there has been a death in the family during the year, slava must still be observed, but usually only by family members. Because slavas are religious occasions, traditionally no music is played.
Customarily a slava takes place in the father's home or in the grandfather's if he is still alive. Nowadays if there is more than one grown son in a family having a separate household, each son may celebrate in his own home. Slavas are passed from father to son. When a woman marries, she adopts the slava of her husband. (Feminists may think that a woman shouldn't have to adopt her husband's slava, but most women here feel that they have two slavas to their husband's one!)
During the days before slava, housewives prepare great quantities of food, sparing no expense, whereas other families may choose to prepare lighter fare. Some slavas are “lean” slavas and no dairy products or meat are served. Two foods are traditional. The first is the slavski kolač or slava cake, a large, brioche-type bread decorated with salt and flour Orthodox crosses. The other is žito, a confection made of wheat berry, cinnamon, sugar, and nutmeg. But don't look for žito at every slava. There are certain saints' days where no žito is served, because some saints are still considered to be alive. In this instance, slatko, cooked, whole fruit like cherries or strawberries in thick syrup is served in place of žito to welcome guests.
On the first day of slava, family members greet each other with 'Srećna slava' or 'Happy Saint's Day'. No unnecessary work such as laundry, sewing, or ironing is done that day. The head of the family lights a tall beeswax candle, taking great care that the flame not be extinguished until they go to bed that evening. Beside the candle are the slavski kolač, žito or slatko, and a glass of red wine.
Then they wait for the priest to come to perform the slava ritual and bless the house. When the priest arrives, the family gathers in front of the candle for the priest to perform a small ceremony and cut the slavski kolač. (Families may take their slavski kolač to the church instead to be cut if they so wish.) Afterwards, he proceeds to bless the house by walking through its rooms swinging his brass censer of fragrant incense.
Guests usually arrive around seven in the evening, bringing flowers or wine, the only true slava gifts, and greet the family with "Srećna slava". Then the lady of the house or eldest daughter offers a tray of žito or slatko. Each guest must partake of the žito or slatko. Some families serve food buffet style while others choose to have a sit-down dinner. Guests may stay all evening or excuse themselves after an hour or so. If you choose the latter, make sure you tell your host you are going to another slava, otherwise it wouldn’t be polite to leave so soon. In former times on more popular saints' days, streets were filled with people traveling from one slava to another, especially on Sveti (Saint) Nikola, December 19th. People joke that half of Belgrade has a Sveti Nikola slava and the other half attends!
Remember: A slava is not just another party. In fact, it is not a party at all, but rather the observation of a religious tradition and it’s an honor to have been invited to someone’s slava. It shows that your host has accepted you and wishes to share with you the customs of this significant holiday.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Sirogojno - October 2006

For breakfast, we were treated with a large spread of traditional local cuisine. Homemade yogurt came in cute little ceramic round pots. Fresh bread, kajmak (spreadable slightly salty rich cream), local white cheese, and užika pršut (hard, smoked beef slices) were enough to satisfy all. We then went and began taking photos and touring the ethno museum grounds. Since I was the only one who had been there before, I became the tour guide.

Sweater shopping was the next item on the agenda. We started by going to the local ladies who had booths at the edge of the museum grounds. Pat commented that the quality seemed to have improved, but said she already had two sweaters. We then walked down to the Sirogojno sweater shop where they sell sweaters/jackets made locally but with Icelandic wool. The quality of the wool is much better and the knitting is more sophisticated as well – as is the price. I spotted the color and style I had eyed previously and decided it was time to buy. Nancy and Olja also found ones to suit their personalities. After buying a few accessories back at the local ladies booths (souvenir shajkaca hats, woven hats & mittens), we then put our purchases in the car trunk.

At the local church, a wedding celebration was in process. Outside, a brass band boldly played their upbeat tunes. A decorated horse-drawn carriage was waiting, presumably for the bride and groom. The carriage driver had a bottle of rakija, which he was sharing with some older men wearing shajkacas (traditional hats of the region). All seemed to be having a fun time. The wedding celebration continued late into the night at the local hall, playing live music. Pat explained that sometimes village weddings last several days.

For lunch we met up with Pat’s son and girlfriend who were vacationing in nearby Zlatibor. She also bought a sweater – what a good morning the shop had! Initially the place was quite crowded (some school groups who had toured the ethno museum were also eating) but we managed to set up two tables to accommodate all of us. I left a bit early in hopes of meeting Zorica so we could make plans for my upcoming exhibition at the ethno museum. At the church, a memorial service was being held. That’s quite a bit in one day for such a little church and village!

Walk in the Village
Later on, we went for a walk in the main village of Sirogojno. Since it’s very small, getting lost is not a problem. Spotting some apples on the grass next to the road, we picked up a few to eat – small and crunchy, and definitely natural. Shortly thereafter, the elderly woman who lived there came out, picking some off the tree and offering us some. Nancy was surprised at the woman’s generosity, presuming instead that the lady might have shooed us away for picking the apples that had fallen by the road. Another example of local kindness. We headed towards the home of the couple that I had met my first time in the area. In April I returned, giving the wife a printout of the painting I made of her. I hoped they would be around so I could say hi. The husband was outside and recognized me, welcoming us and insisting that we come in for a bit. He proudly showed Nancy how he made rakija, even though the plum crop this year was too poor to make any of the beloved drink. Back inside the house, the wife pulled out the print I had made for her and warmly welcomed me as if I was a relative. It was gratifying to see how such a small gift as the print was appreciated. She then proceeded to make the Turkish coffee and bring the honey, spoons, and water glasses. The husband brought some 7-yr old rakija for us to try. As none of us are real drinkers, we were a bit hesitant, but you really can’t refuse. To everyone’s surprise, the rakija was very smooth and not that strong. As soon as the tiny glass was finished, he proceeded to fill it up again. We then had the spoonful of honey, followed by a drink of water. Turkish coffee topped it off. Thanking them for their hospitality, we headed back to our cabin. I’m so glad that Nancy was able to experience local people and their genuineness.

Serious Card-Playing
With the ethno restaurant closed and the only store in town closed, we decided to head down to the town restaurant, buy a bottle of wine, and play some mean cards – UNO. We had a lot of laughs and turned a simple kid’s game into one of competition. I wonder what the waiter thought. When it was time for closing, we headed back to the cottage, at which time Nancy and Pat did their beauty treatment. It was fun watching them.

Sunday - Last Day :(
Early the next morning, Pat and I went for a walk and took some photos. The early morning light was beautiful – casting warm tones over the fall hued landscape. We also experimented with the placement of a goat skull we found for some still-life shots. After breakfast, we modeled our sweaters, first in front of the cabin and then by the museum buildings, much like they did in the Sirogojno sweater catalog. It was fun. Nancy and I met Zorica, who gave Nancy a copy of the book she wrote about the local church and gave her a list of some other sources of Serbian art and architecture. We then decided that my art exhibition would occur in June when my parents come, so we’ll have some planning and work to do on that. I’m glad my parents will be able to see the exhibition.

With the rental car due back in Belgrade, we reluctantly had to leave. Between the wonderful company, beautiful sights (natural and man-made), and gorgeous weather, it was a perfect 4-day weekend.

October Trip to Northern Serbia

As I begin writing this, I look outside the patio door of my apartment. It is a dismal, grey, day with intermittent rain. The temperature is a bit warmer than Friday (when it snowed for the school’s annual Halloween event), but cool enough to want to stay inside. What a huge difference a week made! During much of our journey to northern Serbia and down to the western mountain village of Sirogojno, we wore lighter layers – and sometimes no jacket at all!

Having secured a rental car, things would be much easier and faster to reach our destinations. This would also give us flexibility, spending as much time as we cared for a particular town. On the bright October morning of Thursday the 26th, we headed northward to the region known as Vojvodina. Driving was Pat, a retired teacher of ISB, an American who married a Serbian and has lived here for around 30 years. Olja, a Serbian teacher at school and a common traveling partner of mine, was eager to join us. Nancy Lamers, a former art education professor (and elementary art teacher) of mine came to visit me, and she was also eager to see areas of Serbia outside the city of Belgrade.

As we headed out of Belgrade, the land became flatter and predominantly rural. All the farmers seemed out in their fields, harvesting corn, tying up stalks, or plowing the dark earth. Small tractors hauled wooden wagons filled with field corn, glowing even more yellow in the bright fall sun. Along the banks and sometimes in the field, controlled fires were lit, burning brush and presumably unwanted remnants of cornstalks.

Krušedol Monastery
Our first stop was the monastery of Krušedol, located in the Fruška Gora region south of Sremsi Karlovci. Although originally built in 1509, the current Baroque style dates back to the early 18th century after Turks seriously damaged the structure in 1716. The large white church dominated the center of the rather small grounds. In one corner men were working on a construction project, with even the bearded monk in his black robes carrying 2x4’s to the site. Amongst the religious jewelry, icon reproductions, and candles, Nancy spotted some bottles of rakija produced by the monastery and decided to purchase a bottle of the “holy” alcohol as souvenir.

As we entered the church, I saw some older-looking frescoes in the arched entryway. A few frescoes remain from the 16th century, but most date back to the 18th century. Light from narrow windows streamed in, illuminating portions of the frescoes covering the walls and some of the iconostasis on wood paneling. A beautiful wooden carved casket-like box caught my eye, perhaps containing the remains of Branković founding family member. Much of the treasury of once in the church was plundered by the Croatian Nazis in WWII, with the remains now in Belgrade.

We then took a quick tour of the grounds. While taking photos of the outer part of the church and monastery buildings we could see the head of a nun pop her head out once in a while. In one open room we could see empty cobs of corn with a large woven basket outside the door. The bottom portion of a wooden wagon was also intriguing, its wooden wheels casting long shadows underneath the arches. Just as we got into the car, a large tour bus pulled up, a good signal that we should be on our way.

Sremski Karlovci
Just 11 km from our lunchtime destination, we decided to stop at Sremski Karlovci, an attractive town with an array of buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries with a 1770 marble fountain as its centerpiece. We peeked inside the baroque Orthodox cathedral, but its flooring was undergoing renovation and so we were unable to enter. In the center of the square, children and adults climbed up the stairs to get water pouring from the spouts of the four lions on the fountain. After taking some photos of the high school (1791) with its combination of traditional Serbian and Secessionist styles, we found some poppyseed pastry for a snack and headed onward.

Novi Sad
Our first stop in Novi Sad was the Petrovaradin Fortress. Little remains of the original fortress and much of what is seen dates back from the early 18th century. Walking towards the famous clocktower, we were greeted by tacky red stuffed heart pillows and shocking pink poodle stuffed animals. What an untapped market these places could have! Sadly, most of the buildings and galleries above the fortress were closed for renovation. Since it was nice out, we enjoyed a stroll around the outer perimeter overlooking the Danube River.

Finding a parking space in the main part of Novi Sad, Pat used her cell phone to fill up the “meter” – a very convenient, modern method. Already hungry, we didn’t spend too much time looking around. Pat pointed out a sign in front of a tattoo parlor she had seen a week earlier – “House of Pain”. I’m not sure if I would have named my business that phrase! With most of the cafes only serving drinks and/or full of customers, we settled on a small place and ordered pljeskavica, sort of like a hamburger made from a mixture of pork, beef and lamb, sprinkled with spices and grilled with onion.


Prior to reaching our final destination for the day, we made a short stop at Lake Palić. Pat explained that teachers and students from ISB would make an annual trip up to here as a way of bonding and relaxing. The area started as a spa in the mid 19th century and then developed into a popular health resort and vacation spot. As we walked along the park sidewalk, we saw people rollerblading, riding bikes, lazily strolling along, and of course – talking on their cell phones. Sports equipment and boats, including paddleboats could be rented. Set back from the lake one could see a series of small, but attractive hotels and restaurants – making it an attractive relaxation spot. The autumn sunset cast a warm glow over the still-beautiful flowers and changing leaves. After Nancy’s first Turkish coffee at a restaurant, the sun disappeared over the water, signaling it was time to leave for Subotica.

Now just a short distance from the Hungarian border, we were at our nighttime destination. We decided to stay at Hotel Patria, not so much for its accommodations (like many Serbian hotels, it had that “depressed in-need-of-rennovation-and-attention” look), but because it had parking and was centrally located. Following recommendations of the receptionist, we walked past the McDonalds and up some stairs to a cozy authentic restaurant. It was well after 7pm and still no one else was there. They gave us some menus that had English translations, some of which were quite amusing, such as horse d’ouvres. While eating, a pianist and violinist provided wonderful ambiance. After around 9pm more people began filling the tables. Taking advantage of the unseasonably warm evening, we strolled around the main city section before heading back to the hotel for the night.

I was looking forward to our next morning – taking a tour of all the beautiful Art Nouveau and Secessionist architecture. Once again, the weather was beautiful. Most signage was in both Serbian and Hungarian, a strong indication of its proximity to current Hungary and long domination by Hungarian rulers. Immediately apparent was the number of people – both young and old – riding bicycles. The extremely flatness of the city made it a perfect method of transportation, lazily meandering through the narrow streets. The pace here felt much slower than in Belgrade. What a beautiful place to stop and read the newspaper or plop down your sack of potatoes and gossip with the neighbors!

We headed towards the large Town Hall, a magnificent reddish building in the Hungarian Art Nouveau Style built between 1908-10. Every section – from top to bottom – was oozing with different details. One of the guidebooks described it as “an architectural mishmash of styles that could be said to verge on the tasteless”. Having liked it very much, I would have to disagree. Needless to say, a lot of photos were taken. I especially liked the corner gargoyle-like figures, with curls flowing from its head as in flames. Even the rain gutters and snow stoppers on the roof were decorative. At one corner was the McDonalds, tastefully adopting its window signage and interior decoration to the same style. Curious to see the inside of such a structure, the three photographers (Nancy, Pat, and I) went inside, hoping at least some area was open for viewing. In contrast to the deep red and yellows of the outside, the interior was dominated by cooler hues of green, turquoise and white. Everything looked freshly painted, with stenciled designs and patterns around each column and edge very crisp and colorful. I was glad to see that such a city treasure was receiving the monetary attention towards preservation. True to Art Nouveau tendencies, the stairway was a patterned symphony of curvy wavy metalwork instead of straight bars. In a higher floor I could even smell fresh paint, a sign that some work was really new. We got as far as the top floor, when Pat stopped us saying that there was a forbidden sign on the door, as it was some sort of military function.

Nearby was the central square – Trg Slobode. A large blue fountain constructed of famous Zsolnai ceramics from the Hungarian town of Pecs was a central figure. Pigeons enjoyed the waters, taking baths in the shallow waters. The designer even remembered a handy detail – slightly curved indentations along the edge, just the size for sitting!
Another building attracting our attention was the library, a yellow neo-baroque edifice with rich sculptural decorations, built in 1897. Framing the main entrance were two muscular, slightly monster-like males in white stone, with an eagle spreading its wings in between the figures. On the corner of the building, a sculpted figure folded its arms above its head, as if bracing to hold up the curved balcony above it.

As the morning wore on, the curious collection of large cubes (reminding me of igloo snow blocks) were beginning to be used. Some young teen girls dressed in tight jeans and midriff tops danced syncopated, gyrating moves. On one end a large fan blew leaves, with cameramen moving in and out to capture the commercial. Other blocks were being carried to another decorative building with a balcony. Earlier we had remarked that the young woman peering over the balcony reminded us of Rapunzel. Now a stack of wooden and Styrofoam blocks were erected in a stairway, leading from the concrete below almost up to the balcony. In the floor above the balcony was a gynecological center. A woman in a lab coat peered down, also curious about the happenings below. Video cameras soon arrived here, directing a man when to add another block to almost reach the “Rapunzel”. I hope the filming also captured the gynecology sign ☺

Hungry (of course), we had a snack - žito, a wheat porridge flavored with nuts and raisins and served wit real whipped cream. Enjoying the sunny day, it was the perfect spot to people-watch.

Although there were a lot more beautiful buildings we could have visited, it was time to move on to Sombor. Otherwise we would get to our nighttime destination of Sirogojno too late at night. Like its nearby city Subotica, Sombor was very flat and ideal for bicyclists. We parked the car near the outdoor market where one could buy lots of fresh produce and wooden do-dads. I especially liked the unusually tall straw brooms, circularly arranged around a large tree. The city was very laid back and was heavily shaded by the many trees in the parks. I enjoyed the architecture here as well, but not as much as Subotica’s. In a small hardware shop, Nancy spotted a mousetrap with four holes. The shopkeeper of the cramped shop demonstrated how to bait and set up the almost guillotine-like device. Other fun purchases included what we nicknamed a “Yak purse” and some wax for a beauty treatment (I promised not to reveal what they did with it). While at lunch (meat, of course), we spotted a cute small stray dog. It was very polite and would have made a great pet. Too bad we had a long journey to make. The dog did receive a healthy supply of leftover meat though.

Drive to Sirogojno
After our late lunch we headed towards our next destination – Sirogojno. We knew the narrow road would take longer, but we did not anticipate taking quite that long. Of course it would have helped if signage in NoviSad would have been existent, legible (one sign was so faded you couldn’t read any of the words), accurate arrows, and townsfolk who could provide accurate, helpful directions for visitors. Along this route we saw a lot of people burning in the fields. Others were still gathering harvest. The narrow two-lane highway was quite a challenge, testing one’s patience (as you got behind a slow truck) or one’s defensive driving as people tried to pass when a car was coming from the opposite direction. As we headed southward, the roads got curvier, indicating that we were entering more mountainous and hilly regions. Now dark, it was even more difficult to see the road hazards. In the middle of the road we saw a dog, obviously hit by a previous vehicle but still alive. Pat pulled over and attempted to go and find the dog to move it to the side of the road, but it was too late. Navigating through even more narrow forested roads from Užice to Sirogojno, we finally made it to our destination about 7 hours later. Because a filming for a Serbian sitcom (their equivalent to Mr. Bean) was occurring, the restaurant at the Ethno museum was still open. We didn’t stay up too late, because we had to prepare ourselves for our main task tomorrow – sweater shopping.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Weekend trip to Djavolja Varos (Devil's Town)

Prolom Banja
About 12:30AM, the bus left for the spa town in central Serbia, about 320 km from Belgrade. The bus was completely filled, with the four of us (Olja, Pat, Mima, and myself) receiving the last tickets. Thankfully the bus began to thin out as we headed towards our destination, giving us a bit more room. By the time we reached Prolom Banja around sunrise, it was just us and one other man. Things were still quiet at this time of the morning. Around breakfast time, more people began emerging – from the occupants of the spa hotel to the vendors of produce and household goods. Nearly everyone going up the many stairs was carrying empty plastic bottles, ready to fill with the special mineral water tap next to the hotel. Most of the people were elderly, likely taking advantage of the indoor therapeutical swimming pool for treatment of many conditions such as gastritis, gall stones, kidney, prostate glad and urinary tract inflammations, eczema. Not a very lively group, but we would be spending most of our time away from the hotel area anyway.

Djavolja Varoš
After breakfast (omelette with smoked ham and local cheese), we headed to Djavolja Varoš, which means “Devil’s Town”. While hiking through a wooded area across creaky foot bridges created by logs, we encountered streams and still pools with a distinctive rust color. The Djački potok stream was devoid of life, due to the high concentration of iron and sulfur. According to some literature I read, acidity levels range from 1.5 to 3.5 pH. The water is regarded by locals as having healing qualities (such as on the skin), and is collected and sold. Our driver (a resident from Prolom Banja) explained that the best water was found higher up, so he hauled his bags of plastic bottles up to our destination. While walking up, we passed the remains of an ancient temple, of which the foundation remained. Some religious artifacts and pictures of saints were placed inside, surrounded by a large collection of coins left by visitors. Emerging from the wooded area, the famous reddish stone columns began to appear above us. The unique natural phenomenon has similarities to the Garden of the Gods in Colorado. Climbing up more stairs, we reached the observation deck surrounded by the 202 stone columns, ranging in height from 2-20 meters (6.5-65 feet) and .5-3 meters (1.6-9.84 feet) in width. I had expected the columns to be much larger (like those in Colorado), but suspected that part of it was due to our relative position. Most columns were clustered together and lined up in rows. At the top of each finger-like column was a dark rock, serving as a protective cap, preventing the same level of erosion as occurred to the surrounding area.

A few trees twisted by winds dotted the reddish rocky landscape. As it was a sunny day with only a light breeze, I did not hear the ghostly wind sounds described by previous visitors. After enjoying the panoramic view of the rock formations and tree-covered mountains in another direction, we headed down a different direction towards the water source where our driver was busily filling bottles. After soaking our feet in the orange water and enjoying the warm sun, we headed back down the rocky terrain.

There are two mineral water wells in Djavolja Varoš. The “Devil’s Town” well is a cold and extremely acidic spring (pH 1.5) and high mineralization (15 g/lit of water). The “Red Well” has a pH of 3.5 but slightly lower levels of minerals.

Several legends have been created to explain the origin of “Devil’s Town”. In one, the figure-like columns represent wedding guests petrified by God in order to prevent them from encouraging their devil-urged encouraging of incestual marriage by a brother and sister. Another legend indicates that these are devils turned into stones by people who had been forced to carry them on their backs, suffered misfortunes, and tried to get rid of the devils while in the area.

Pat’s friend was expecting us to come some time this afternoon to her house near Djavolja Varoš, but we couldn’t reveal the exact time, as there was no cell phone reception up in the nature preserve. Flowers of various colors and sizes lined the path towards her village house. After being warmly greeted, we were served some walnut rakija, sweetened home-canned fruit, and mineral water. Between the discussions occurring in Serbian and the reduced sleep I had on the bus, I was getting quite sleepy. If we had more time (and energy), I’d have loved to have photographed some of the old buildings in her tiny village, consisting of weathered wooden slats and some with a straw-filled adobe-like surface. Once again we were on the narrow, winding roads back to Prolom Banja, comprised of pot-hole covered asphalt or dirt/gravel.

Lazarica Church
Fatigued by the long night bus ride, we all took a short nap. We then headed to Lazarica Church, a nice forest walk about 2.4 km away from the hotel. We spotted a sign saying Lazarica path, so we followed it. While this walk (presumably the path that Prince Lazar took) was picturesque, we were glad that we traveled through the narrow footpaths and rickety bridge while it was still light out. Although it seemed longer than 2.4 km, we finally reached the log church – the only one of its type in the Toplica region. According to legend, Prince Lazar’s soldiers (1389 AD) went around the church six times while praying for victory in Kosovo. While doing this, the trees intertwined and twisted in the direction of their movement. The original plum trees have died, but new ones grew and assumed the same look – always only six trees.

Lukovska Banja
The next morning we were once again greeted by the driver who planned to take us to Lukovska Banja, a spa about 36 km west of Kuršumlija. First he wanted to show us the rooms he had for rent at his house. With about 3 beds per room and one bathroom between 16 guests, the accommodations were very simple – but at a cheap price. Fine for the adventurous traveler, but too basic for those wanting more modern accommodations. After Turkish coffee, we climbed back into his car and were on the road to the high-altitude spa. After a short distance outside the town, the pot-hole filled asphalt road changed to gravel and then dirt. He stopped once to check the air filter, but there was nothing that could be done right then. He insisted that it was better if the windows were kept open – something we questioned, especially as the dust began clouding the inside of the car. Sitting in the back seat, I even noticed the dust spewing in from behind me. We could feel ourselves getting dirtier by the moment. At one point Mima asked to stop, so she could get a few breaths of fresh air. We stopped past an old wooden bridge that had planks of weathered boards on top, about wheel-axel length apart. In the creek, we found some cute tiny frogs and pollywogs.

Continuing on our way, we encountered road construction, in the beginning stages of straightening out some of the narrow windy roads and building a few bridges. These large construction vehicles really kicked up a lot of dust. We passed farmers driving tiny tractors which looked like they were simply a motor with a steering wheel. In the attached wagon, one could find people (smoking, of course), loads of wood, or hay. I even spotted a few oxen hauling large logs.

Finally we arrived at Lukovska Banja. Situated about 681m above sea level, it is the highest spa in Serbia. A geyser spouted out sulfur-smelling thermal water. Pat and I spotted some crocuses across the creek, so we headed over there. We were surprised to see them so late in the year. Their shape was different than the ones I saw in Zlatibor. Walking along another path (I didn’t want to take off my shoes again to cross the creek), I went past a pretty but small waterfall in the highly wooded area. Crossing a bridge, I met up with the rest. They were soaking their feet in a large pool of thermal water, about 65°C in temperature. Many local people (mostly elderly) joined us. One lady wearing a swimsuit sat in it – certainly tempting.

After a snack at the local hotel, we got back in the dusty car and headed back to Prolom Banja.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

National Geographic special on Mostar Bridge

I just finished watching the National Geographic channel special on the reconstruction of the bridge in Mostar, Bosnia. The show started with the horrible footage of the bridge collapsing after being bombed, its centuries-old huge stone blocks falling into the river below. The initial goal was to use the original blocks to reconstruct the bridge, but the ravages of war and the strong river current rendered the blocks unusable. The blocks did provide useful information in the construction of the bridge, type of limestone used, assembly (including iron rods), and type of mortar used.

The reconstruction process was not without controversy, as stone masons (and the construction company) from Turkey were used. You may recall that the Ottoman Empire had control of the Balkans for hundereds of years. In Mostar, the Turks conquered the Catholics living there. Prior to the war, it was not uncommon for intermarriages between religions to occur (such as Catholic Croats and Muslims, or Orthodox Serbs), but that all changed with the war. Such tensions were brought to the construction process as well.

It was fascinating to see how the combination of high-tech (such as making a computer 3-d model of the bridge) and centuries old traditional techniques were combined to recreate a bridge that looks much like the original one. Once again, the bridge of Mostar connects the town, both physically and emotionally.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Another visit to St. Sava Cathedral

St. Sava Cathedral (Belgrade)
Back in Belgrade, I decided to visit St. Sava Cathedral and check its progress. Although the outside of the massive structure was completed several years ago, the inside decoration was in its beginning stages the last time I had visited. (The structure was begun in 1926, but interrupted many times, particularly during Nazi bombing in 1941, post WWII, and during the breakup of Yugoslavia). I took the entrance on the Vracar Plateau side, walking through the path lined with fountains. Here the Turkish burning of St. Sava’s relics in 1594 (as a way to break the spirit and punish the Serbs) is commemorated. Inside were the sounds of construction. The large cupola domes were still unornamented, as was most of interior. Parts of walls were covered with large sheets of colored marble, cut in geometric designs. The Serbian Coat of Arms, with its double-headed eagle, was carved in white marble, contrasting with the colored background marble. Through the scaffolding I saw a large mosaic mural in progress. Sections of white carved marble were piled on the floor, with some already in place. Piles of marble slabs and other building materials filled a large portion of the front entrance. On each side were places where candles were lit, one for the dead and the other for the living.

After walking past the smaller St. Sava Church (1935), I turned around to take another picture of the magnificent larger structure, brightly gleaming against the blue sky. The bells began to toll, briefly but with strength. Already the pride of Serbia, St. Sava Cathedral will be a thing of beauty once it is completed.

To get back to my neighborhood of Senjak, I took the bus instead of my preferred tram route. I was glad to see that the rails of the tram line finally were being redone, but lament their present inoperability and accompanying inconvenience. In the early evening, I heard traditional brass music coming from the direction of the hippodrome, overlooked by my apartment. Comprised of subtle but beautiful colors, the sunset provided a wonderful end to the gorgeous day.

Mt. Avala

Mt. Avala

After an entire week of rain, Saturday finally brought good weather. Olja (a Serbian teacher at school) and I decided to go to Mt. Avala, located about 18 km south of Belgrade. Our meeting point was the Mc Donald’s in Slavija Circle. The juxtaposition of the Austro-Hungarian-style building with the ubiquitous chain restaurant logo always amuses me. Olja explained that we would have to take the local buses, as the special service bus to Avala only runs during the summer – which ended the day before. As the destination was outside the main Belgrade bus zone, we had to pay slightly more for the ticket – 61 cents. Once outside of the Belgrade city, high-rise apartment buildings were replaced with extended family homes, many of which were in various stages of completion. A few tractors hauling small wagonloads of grasses and weeds slowed the pace a bit.

Just a short distance away from Belgrade, it was easy to see why Mt. Avala (only 6 meters above the minimum requirements for a mountain) was a popular summer day trip for citizens of the capital city. Our bus stop was at the base of the mountain. Although a paved road for vehicles existed, everyone was hiking up the paved walk, shaded by the forest trees. Benches were regularly situated along the zigzag path, enabling people to relax and enjoy the deciduous and coniferous forest landscape.

At the top of the mountain was the Unknown Soldier Monument, sculpted of black marble by Ivan Mestrovic from 1934-38. Stairs, also of black marble, led majestically up to the enclosed monument. Inside on the floor were the dates relating to the First World War. From here, we had a great panoramic view of the lush agricultural region of Sumadija. At one time, Olja explained, the entire region was heavily forested. Guarding both entrances to the monument were eight massive caryatides (female-shaped supporting pillars like those found in classical Greek temples). Each represented a region of then-Yugoslavia, including Kosovo and Vojvodina.

Pesky wasps forced us to eat our picnic lunch rather quickly, at which time we began the easier descent. Partly because of our too-short stay at the summit, we stopped for a drink in the large outdoor café at the 1938 Avala hotel. I found the sphinxes lining the parking lot entrance rather amusing, contrasting with the other architectural styles of the building. On our way down, we took a slight detour to see where the state-owned RTS television station tower and once was, turned into rubble in the 1999 NATO air campaign. Just inside the forest was an old lady selling small bundles of thyme and other herbs. Feeling a bit sorry for the lady, Olja bought a bundle for 10 cents. Perfect timing, the bus arrived just as we got there.

Slightly in from the road, Olja pointed out a Memorial Garden that paid tribute to the 80,000 Yugoslavs executed by the Nazis during World War II. Romas and people supporting the Partizans were frequently targeted by the Germans and sent to concentration camps.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Mostar and Nevesinje photos

Mostar and Nevesinje

This past weekend I was invited to go to Bosnia-Herzegovina with Tanja, a native of the region now living in Belgrade. At around 11pm on Friday, we boarded the bus. Thankfully not all the seats were occupied, so most were able to stretch out a bit. I tried to sleep but it wasn’t easy, since the lights went on frequently (dropping off or picking up people, rest stops) and we had to show our passports at the border. At dawn, the beauty of the region was unveiled. Low white clouds shrouded parts of the mountains, giving a sense of tranquility. The emerging pinks and blues of the sunrise contrasted beautifully with the still-silhouetted mountains and valleys. Trees in various stages of foliage became quite dense at times. The bus moved slowly up the narrow winding mountain road which at some parts was simply a gravel road.

At around 8am, we arrived in the mountain valley town of Nevesinje. Tanja and her family had lived here for about a year during the war, fleeing from Mostar, site of intense fighting between Muslims and Croats. Tanja’s friend Anica and her sister Gordana were now living here and had invited us to stay with them for the weekend. They lived in the upper part of an old farmhouse out in the country. All the buildings in her small farm community were created out of rough stone. As soon as we arrived, the petite old woman who lived downstairs greeted us, introducing herself to me very loudly and excitedly. In no time the entire community knew that the visitors had arrived, including an American. After a breakfast of yogurt, local bacon, boiled eggs, bread, and the mandatory cup of strong Turkish coffee, it was suggested that a quick nap might be in order. Knowing that I didn’t have much time here, I declined.

While Anica went off to plant potatoes in the fields, Tanja and I went walking through the fields and area once quite familiar to her. She showed me the small house where her family had lived – now just a shell and rubble. An abandoned unfinished house belonged to a Muslim family who had yet to return. Wildflowers in yellow, purple and white colors dotted the grassy areas and meadows. In one direction was a mountain whose name means “worm mountain”, which keeps some snow all year round. In the fields one could see people hunched over, also planting potatoes by hand.

In the afternoon, we stopped at the nearby Nevesenje Lake, framed by trees and mountains. The frogs’ loud croaking broke the otherwise silent surroundings. In the shores of the cold lake, one could see scores of tadpoles just waiting for the chance to join the chorus. In the town of Nevesinje, we drove around the main parts and stopped for a few minutes in the old Serbian Orthodox Church. When we arrived back at the farm, I decided to take advantage of the lighting of the late afternoon sun and took some more photos of the local architecture. Most of the homes had a small connected structure called a summer kitchen. The barns all had a small wooden-shuttered window in the upper portion, providing beautiful textural contrast to the stone. Inside Anica’s barn was a solitary cow, mooing to be pastured outside. Some of the fencing was made from vine branches, interwoven like the sides of a basket. Sheep were now being herded back into their fenced-in areas for the night after grazing in more open areas during the day. Next to the sheep pen, Anica’s downstairs neighbor drew some water from the well for use in the home. After Anica finished the evening milking, we headed out in the star-filled sky to enjoy a drink (coffee) at a café in town.

Region of Mostar

The next morning we began our journey towards Mostar, stopping in Nevesinje to pick up Danka, a friend of Anica’s and in a tiny mountain village to visit Anica’s ailing grandmother. Her home had been destroyed in the conflict but had been rebuilt by the UN. We then stopped at Blagaj. Here we saw 200 meter cliff wall from which an underground karst river flows and single-handedly creates the Buna River. Right next it a tekija (Turkish monastery) was built for the Dervish cults in the 16th century. I was amazed at how quickly the river picked up in speed. Knowing we had a lot to see and do that day, we skipped entering the building (and all the tourists) and walked back to the car. Along the riverbank we could see a trout farm (didn’t look that active though) and a restaurant specializing in fish.

Moving onward, our next destination was Pocitelj, a UNESCO World Heritage site. High on a hill stood the fortress Sahat-kula, visible from a distance. Pocitelj is a picturesque Turkish village, built up the steep hill and overlooking the Neretva River. It was partially destroyed in August 1993 by Croat forces, followed by ethnic cleansing. Recent reconstruction has restored the village. As soon as we parked the car, children and adults descended upon us, offering their cherries, oranges, and dried fruits for sale. Entering through an arched gate, we began walking up the stone-covered walkways. Reaching the large mosque built in 1563, we turned right and continued up the path towards the fortress. The original fortress was built by the Hungarians in 1444 and was taken over by the Ottoman Empire in 1471. At that time the castle was fortified and the town was built in the valley below. I climbed up the tower, slowly ascending the short, steep steps in darkness. Once at the top, I was welcomed to a panoramic view of the city, river, and rugged mountains. It was easy to see why Pocitelj was of strategic importance to the Turks, who used the position to extract tolls on travelers using the Nereteva River as one of the few easy routes through the mountains.

On the way to Mostar, we stopped at a small church and monastery. Like other religious institutions, this one was destroyed to the ground during the bloody conflict in the area. A wedding had just occurred, with everyone socializing outside the church. A local band played its bright music, with brass instruments, an accordion, and bass string instrument dominating. Not wanting to disturb the celebration, we quickly slipped inside the church. Inside, you could still smell the incense. The walls were very bare and white. Did the original structure have frescoes? The altar had paintings that looked fairly old. Perhaps they were able to rescue it before the fire consumed the building. As we left the church, I stopped to admire the new doors, elaborately carved with crosses and floral designs.

We now arrived in Mostar, parking in a newer section of the city. It was starting to sprinkle, so I was glad that I brought along my umbrella. A short distance away was the Turkish quarter. Small shops in traditional buildings lined the cobblestone walkway, displaying Turkish-looking crafts and souvenirs for sale. The street was filled with tourists, a positive sign for this formerly besieged city. While we paused for Tanja to get some film for her camera, I looked more closely at the buildings. Even here, many bore the pockmarked signs of bullets and fighting. Up one street, I could see that one was just a shell, with weeds and vines overtaking most of it.

A bit further, we stopped to take some photos of the famous bridge up ahead. Built over 400 years ago, the Stari Most bridge, the longest single stone span in the world, connected the Old Town (mostly Muslim) and largely newer town on the west bank (mostly Catholic). The bridge had symbolized the bond that the multi-ethnic and religious connections (Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, Serbian Orthodox) that the citizens of Mostar had espoused for over 500 years. In 1995, Croats bombed the footbridge, with the citizens staring in disbelief and shock. A few years later, a multinational force began reconstructing the bridge, pulling up the stones out of the river and using building techniques as close as possible to that of the original Ottoman structure. (see http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/199805/hearts.and.stones.htm for a good article).

We now stopped for lunch at a restaurant just past the bridge. We all ordered cevapci, a mildly seasoned skinless beef sausage and specialty of the region. Served in a pocket of flat bread, the portion was enough for two people. Next to us was a fountain, with the water trickling out of old Turkish pots. A few cats wandered around the courtyard, hoping for handouts. Other tourists opened their guidebooks and discussed their next moves.

After lunch, we walked down some stairs near the restaurant to get a view of the bridge from the other side. A lot of people were now at the top of the bridge. At the peak of the bridge, a young man climbed over the rail and prepared to dive. Although gesturing as if to dive, he did not follow through with the dive. Tanja explained that he was waiting for more “dare money” before going through with the dive – something she had witnessed many times when living here. Realizing that it might take a few minutes before enough money was collected, we decided to head back and move onward. Before leaving Mostar, we drove through the western part of town. Here entire areas were destroyed, blocks of rubble, shells of buildings, or heavily pockmarked. Many of the business and homes in use also bore signs of attack. It would take a long time before all of this would be restored. Up a steep road outside of the city center, we drove to the home of Tanja’s father, which also was being rebuilt. Expecting us for lunch, she had prepared a large bowl of cevapcis for us as well, but we all were too full to eat any. After Tanja had some time with her family, we drove back to Nevesinje, about a 50-minute drive through the Velež Mountains.

Before we boarded the bus that night, we thanked our hosts for their generosity and hospitality. My new friends from Bosnia-Herzegovina wanted me to come back to visit them, and already had planned out some places we could visit. It is such experiences in being with the local people that makes living overseas so much richer than simply being a tourist.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Studenica and Žiča Monastery

Thursday, April 20 - Studenica
With the rain still persisting, we began the drive towards our next destination – Studenica. The road followed the Western Morava and Ibar Rivers. Both were very high. Plastic bags clung to trees in the swollen river. Along a 20 km long scenic gorge created by the Western Morava River are over 10 tiny monasteries. Constructed mainly in the 15th and 16th centuries, these monasteries were located in more secluded places away from main roads and far away from Turkish towns. We briefly visited Vavedenje Monastery, located closer to the town of Čačak. Like most of these small monasteries, Vavedenje was very simple. The existing church structure was built in 1874 after the original one had been destroyed. No frescoes remained from the original structure, but the carved wooden altar is older.

Traveling once again through the remote, mountainous region, we reached Studenica. Established at the end of the 12th century, this monastery is one of Serbia’s greatest monasteries and is highly regarded by Orthodox Serbs. We entered through the imposing Western Gate, constructed of stone with a wooden pyramid roof.

In the small church known as King’s Church (built in 1314), a special Maundy Thursday service was taking place. The priest was chanting and waving incense. Many of the frescoes in the church were quite well-preserved. As in the Mileševa church, the fresco portraits portray realism rather than simply stylizing figures. I did not feel comfortable looking around very long during the service and quietly went outside.

I took a tour around the exterior of the main church completed in 1191, known as the Church of Our Lady (or Church of the Holy Virgin). A prototype of the Raška School style, the architecture seamlessly blends Romanesque and Byzantine styles. The exterior is covered with polished white marble, unique in Serbian medieval architecture. The cupola is a red color, just like the King’s Church. My favorite architectural element is the 3-windowed apse. Framing the three narrow windows are carvings or elaborately sculptured leaves, figures, and mythological beasts. Carvings of a similar style could be found around one of the doors.

Most of the original frescoes inside the Holy Virgin church were completed in 1209 and repainted in 1569. The Crucifixion fresco is especially splendid. Recent earthquakes (compounding previous ones) have raised questions of stability. Many of Studenica’s remaining treasures (what was left after repeated lootings) are now in a small museum on-site, but it was closed for the day. The dining hall was open for view. In one end was a large fireplace; in the other, a long table for the king and important leaders. The yellow residential quarters looked much newer than the church buildings, dating back to the 18th century. Bedding was hung over the window ledges, airing out even in the rainy weather.
I hope to go back to Studenica and take more photos and enjoy the ambience – hopefully with blue skies that make this UNESCO World Heritage site so captivating.

Žiča Monastery
Heading towards Kraljevo, we stopped at the Žiča Monastery. Constructed in 1209 and finished in 1217, this church is painted in a distinctive rusty red color. Here, a church service was also in progress. In the arched entryway, I could see a few frescoes. Sadly, most of the original frescoes were destroyed by Bulgarians in 1290 or later by Turks seeking to obliterate any depiction of the human image. On both sides of this entryway were round windows intricately carved out of stone. On the grounds was a beautiful domed baptistery, reconstructed from some of the original fragments.

Back to Belgrade
It was time to head back to Belgrade. The bus trip from Kraljevo took about 3 hours, but the time went by quickly due to the fascinating company of a college student from Poland. She also was visiting Serbia and Montenegro on her spring break. From the windows of the bus, I could see flooded fields. Back in Belgrade, the road next to the bus and train station was still flooded; I opted to take a taxi home. Despite the inclement weather, I enjoyed my trip to western Serbia. I hope to revisit some of the places with family and/or friends.

Mileševa Monastery

Wednesday, April 19 - Mileševa Monastery
When I awoke, it was still raining. Today’s destination was the Mileševa Monastery, located near the town of Prijepolje in southwest Serbia. obscuring the likely beautiful views of the tree-covered mountains and snaking river. In some areas, the pine trees were particularly tall. The Lim River was moving quite fast andThick clouds hung below the tips of Mt. Zlatar, seemed rather high. The road to Prijepolje was winding and narrow. I saw several bridges being constructed, eliminating at least some of the curves. Construction workers busied themselves with their cell phones rather than attending to directing traffic. Others sat along the roadside and talked. We drove through the uninspiring town of Nova Varoš and proceeded 27 km farther to Prijepolje. I was surprised to see three mosque minarets in the town, but was told that this indeed was a more Muslim area.

About 6 km outside of Prijepolje was the famous Mileševa Monastery. In front of one of the buildings was a large Serbian Orthodox flag, seemingly making a political/religious statement. Around a portion of the perimeter were stone ruins of a wall and perhaps some Turkish small buildings. King Vladislav founded the monastery around 1234. Two years later, it received the body of St. Sava, elevating its position of importance to second amongst Serbian monasteries. In the 1500’s, the monastery operated a printing shop, spreading liturgical books throughout Serbia and neighboring areas. In retaliation for a Serbian uprising against the Turks in 1688, the monastery was burned and left in ruins. The present-day building dates back to 1863. We were not able to enter the monastery building. The church of the Holy Ascension was erected in 1234/5 in the style of the Raška School.

I was eager to enter the inside of the church and see its famous frescoes which represent one of the peaks of 13th century European painting. Inside, I met the Serbian/Swiss families with which I had shared a train car on the Šargan Eight train a day before. A nun lit candles on top of coffin over the gravesite of St. Sava. On the opposite wall was the coffin of a recently canonized individual. In the domes and around other places, frescoes had large pieces missing. The frescoes of King Vladislav and St. Sava were painted during their lifetimes and are seen as some of the best (and accurate) portraits of the 13th century. In addition to the emphasis on realism, the frescoes portray the psychological characterizations of the individuals. As in most frescoes, the founder (in this case Vladislav) is depicted holding a small model of the church. Many of the figures’ eyes had been gouged or obliterated by the Turks. I heard that these may be soon restored. Frescoes depicting the Last Judgment were heavily damaged during WWII when the church was used as a stable. Scenes of the Passion Week covered large portions of the walls. The church’s most famous fresco is the White Angel, now regarded as a symbol of Serbia and recently adopted as an emblem for the United Nations. Around the angel are other portions of the Easter story and Resurrection. Remnants of a fresco once covering the scene leads one to speculate that angel with its enigmatic smile might not be with us today if it were not for such preservation.

Outside once again, we headed through an archway and walked on top of a bridge reconstructed in the original Turkish style. I am glad to see such preservation and restoration beginning to occur. Surrounding the area were fields of fruit trees. Goats happily nibbled away on the tall grasses. After a drink at the local café, we headed back to Zlatibor. Rain followed us.

Sargan Train and Tara National Park

Tuesday, April 18 – Šargan Train and Tara National Park
Šargan Eight Train
When I woke up, it still was raining. I packed up my belongings, ate breakfast, and thanked Zoriča and her museum crew for their hospitality. Our first destination was the Šargan 8 train. This year I had the departure times of the train and was eager to this newly popular tourist attraction of the historic train route through the mountains. In fact, I heard that there are plans to extend the route into neighboring countries. At the ticket booth, I was told that I might have to stand, as there were so many people wanting to ride. Indeed, there were lots of children (young and teenagers) eager to board the train. I agreed and ended up in the front car. In this car (built in 1903) were a few families traveling together – some from Serbia, and others from Switzerland and the UK.

After an initial pause, the train began making its way along the figure 8 loop. The horizontal distance between the train stations Mokra Gora and Šargan-Vitasi is only 3.5 km, but the height difference is over 300 meters. We stopped at the Šargan and Jatare stations (reconstructed exactly as they had been in 1925 when the line was initially opened) for about 15 minutes each. At the top station, the engine was moved to the opposite end, so now our car was at the back of the train. The train moved along at a slow, but regular pace. In between the 22 tunnels (some longer and others quite brief), one could see beautiful views (although today it was rather hazy) of the countryside, steep cliffs, small waterfalls, and the film-set village constructed on a hill above Mokra Gora. It was rather strange to emerge from a tunnel and find the village on the opposite side, bearing witness to the turns made even in the tunnels! I wished the Serbian/Swiss families an enjoyable journey and joked that we might see each other again. (They also were going to visit some of the monasteries I had planned on visiting.) Within minutes of arriving back at the Mokra Gora train station, it began raining once again.

Tara National Park
Despite the rain, I proceeded towards the Tara National Park. Located in the panhandle of Serbia surrounded by Bosnia on two sides (with the Drina river on the border), the park covers an area of about 22,000 hectares ad a height of up to 1,500 m above sea level. I was looking forward to hiking through its lush forests and enjoying the spectacular views of the deep gorges – including photographing the rare endemic tree species known as the Pančić spruce. Perhaps I would even see some of the rare birds such as the golden eagle or a bear – at a distance. I unpacked my things in my room at the Hotel Omorika and went into the large dining room to eat, hoping that the rain would let up a bit after I had eaten. Unfortunately, it continued to rain. I headed back to my room, holed up in a depressed-looking building that had received few upgrades/remodeling since the 1970’s. This was the hotel Tito had stayed in during the 70’s and where many sports teams had practiced. It was explained to me that for a number of years in the 90’s (during Milosevic’s rule), the hotel had been abandoned.

After a few hours, the rain finally let up a bit. Although it was still lightly raining, I knew that this might be my only chance. I bought a park map from the hotel, but unfortunately it was in Cyrillic. In addition, there were no helpful signs in the area. Following (or trying to) the directions given by a street-side souvenir dealer, I then found some markings on the trees and began to follow those. The cobblestone road quickly gave way to a narrow dirt (actually muddy) path. Every once in a while the dense pine trees gave way to a clearing, revealing a bit of the park’s natural beauty. I also enjoyed the pink Erica flowers covering patches of the forest floor in its color. In the distance, I could see some farms and heard the faint clang of sheep/cow bells. As the rain began to increase once again, I relented and decided to head back to the hotel. I would have to come back another time.

Sirogojno and surrounding villages

Sunday, April 16 - Sirogojno
Although I now have visited several places in Serbia, the western section near Sirogojno and Zlatibor hold a special place in my heart. Its countryside is beautiful – the sloped wooden farm buildings and sheep dotting the steep green hills, meandering creeks and rivers, spring wildflowers providing an accented color, and of course the rural people.

Catching one of the earlier busses in the morning, I arrived in Zlatibor a bit after noon. Along the way, I could see people fishing in the swollen rivers. The rain and drizzle didn’t seem to bother them. What looked like algae actually turned out to be grass sticking out in flooded areas. The forested hills around the region were still quite brown, with the occasional white puff of blossoming trees dotting the scene. White smoke still meandered out of chimneys, utilizing the plentiful wood heating source of the region. A young man walked his horned cow down a narrow driveway. In the villages, one could see people carrying olive branches. Following the Julian calendar, Palm Sunday took place one week later than their western counterparts.

Mikica, a friendly taxi driver I had met last year, took me to a restaurant in Zlatibor that was tastefully decorated with Serbian handicrafts and antiques. The restaurant owner was a refugee from Bosnia and was working hard to make a new life for himself. I was served a large piece of round fresh flat bread layered with kajmak (sweet cream spread) and prosciutto (smoked meat). With a full stomach, we headed towards the Ethnographic Village in Sirogojno. The friendly staff at the village was awaiting my arrival and promptly escorted me to the converted traditional home that was my apartment. Space heaters on the main floor and upstairs sleeping area were already turned on, providing warmth against the damp drizzly weather. The apartment even had a fireplace in its tiny living room. Outside, the structure looked like the other small traditional Western-Serbia homes preserved in the ethno village.

With camera in hand, I toured the homes and farm buildings that comprised the open-air ethno village. Although nothing had really changed since last year, it was just as enjoyable a second time around, admiring the unique architectural details and interior artifacts that provided a glimpse into everyday living. The rooms were lit by an open door and perhaps one or two small windows. To avoid camera shake, I put my camera on a higher ISO and used my remote shutter release – flash would have destroyed the peaceful ambience.

Now that the rain had let up, I decided to go for a walk. I passed through the tiny village of modern Sirogojno and followed the curved narrow road up the hill; to where it went, I wasn’t sure. An occasional house or farm building dotted the landscape. Open fields contained the typical conical haystacks. Fruit trees (for making brandy) were still bare. I also saw a few vineyards. In the wooded areas, small white wildflowers peeked up from the brown leaf-covered forest floor. Plastic litter provided additional (but unwelcomed) splashes of color. Birds happily chirped away, singing their spring mating calls. It was very peaceful here.

Monday, April 17 – Sirogojno and Surrounding Villages
I woke up early and decided to take a short walk around the ethno village. At a nearby farm, the roosters crowed and calves bellowed for milk. Birds also announced the start of the day. Peeking between the clouds I could see some blue patches of sky – a welcome start to the day. A woman from the ethno village restaurant brought me my breakfast – corn grits, local cheese, kajmak, and more prosciutto. It was much more than I could eat.

That morning we would take a drive through some of the local villages. Along the way we saw an older man carrying a traditional hoe. Like many older men of the region, he wore the v-shaped shajkača cap. The photo I took of him revealed his heavily-wrinkled face. I later learned that this man was an important builder of the region. I took photos of a few other people as well, including a young man hauling a pile of twigs on a horse-pulled cart.

Near the village of Gostilje, we stopped by the local waterfall. It was stronger and larger than last year. We looked at the small water mill, used in the past for grinding corn. We passed by several trout farms and stopped at one. The owner greeted us and allowed us to take a look at his operation. One could see the spotted fish at various stages and sizes, swarming in the cold water. These fish were a good source of income, purchased for consumption in Serbia and several neighboring Balkan countries. The owner’s large hands reminded me of my grandfather’s, widened by years of hard manual work.

Along the narrow winding mountain roads one could see signs of life. Men were busy making wood, taking advantage of the good (for a change) weather. Another man shoveled manure onto the cart pulled by two cows. Others puttered along in their small tractors. Dogs lazily slept in the middle of the road, absorbing the warm sunshine. We weren’t able to progress all the way to Dobroselica, due to the impassibility of the road caused by winter. I would have to find the man whom I had drawn and give him the print another time.

Upon returning to the Sirogojno ethno village, I met a retired Serbian architect and his wife. They stayed here every fall and spring for a few weeks, enjoying the solitude and atmosphere for the last 10 years. Hearing that he was an architect, I asked him about a unique feature I had seen on the local buildings. He explained that the overhanging part of the roof peak had a more superstitious than purposeful function. The zigzag edge looked like teeth and was supposed to scare away evil spirits. The retired architect also explained that the carved antennae-like pole on top of the kapic vent (sort of like a chimney) visually indicated that the household would provide shelter to people while traveling or from against the Turks. The elderly man who looked a lot like Abraham Lincoln then showed me one of his experiments. Just yesterday he had placed some plastic water bottles on the ends of branches of a birch tree. Now they were between a 1/3 and half full of clear water-like liquid. I told him about the tapping of maple trees in Wisconsin to get maple syrup.

Now joined by his wife (a retired German teacher), the couple asked if I would join them to go into town and eat a late lunch at their favorite restaurant (actually it’s probably the only one in town). While walking there, I met a family from my school in Belgrade – they too were vacationing in Sirogojno. I told the family I was glad to see them experiencing a bit of their host country instead of racing off to other destinations for vacations. For dinner we had pear brandy, tender veal, mashed potatoes and gravy, and carrots cooked with lots of garlic. It was a satisfying, hearty meal. We then made our way back to the ethno village grounds, stopping for a moment at the St. Peter & Paul church. A funeral was being conducted in the tiny cemetery. A woman busily worked at piling up loaves of bread, food, and drinks – enough food for more than twice the number in attendance. Even if the family didn’t have much money, one would always make sure that guests were well-fed. The retired architect pointed out the small building next to the church. It was once used by priests who stayed there overnight before traveling onward to another one of their remote village churches. He also explained that the limestone marker I had photographed was actually a krajputaš, a monument typically placed near roads commemorating soldiers who had died. This area has seen a lot of suffering from wars, including both World Wars, the Balkan wars, the breakup of Yugoslavia, Turkish invasion, etc.

Back again at the ethno village, I finally caught up with Zoriča, the founder of the museum. I shared with her some prints of the paintings I had created while living overseas, including a few of the ethno village. She then proposed that I have an exhibition next year at the museum. Perhaps I will be able to coordinate the opening with the time my parents intend to come next April. Zoriča then gave me a copy of her new book, a detailed research about the history and art of the St. Peter & Paul church right next to the ethno village.

A short while later, Zoriča’s husband arrived. We walked over to the home of an elderly couple I had visited last year. When I presented the print of an oil pastel painting I had done of the wife, they were both tickled and honored. It immediately was placed on the fireplace mantle to be admired and for all to see. Hanging on the wall were framed embroidery pieces that the woman had done of famous artworks such as those by Renoir. Typical of Serbian hospitality, we were invited to stay and have something to drink. While the Turkish coffee was being prepared, the woman brought out a large container of honey and scooped some into a glass bowl. She brought out the honey, spoons, and water glasses on a silver tray. Each person took a heaping spoonful of honey, drank some of the water, and then placed the spoon in the glass. The husband then eagerly offered us some of his rakija. Just like last year, the home-brewed brandy was very strong – part of a glass was enough for me! After finishing the strong Turkish coffee, we thanked them for their hospitality and departed.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Spring Flooding in Belgrade

If you haven’t heard on the news, the Danube and other rivers in Eastern Europe have flooded their banks due to heavy rainfall and melted snow. Romania, northern and eastern Serbia, and Bulgaria are the current victims. The lower-lying areas of Belgrade have also been hit. Senjak, the area where I live and location of the school, is quite high and not directly affected.

This afternoon I decided to head down to Ada and see for myself the flooding situation that was occurring around that area. As I walked down the hill towards the Sajam road, I saw that traffic was backed up, just as it had been all week. At least this major road wasn’t closed like it was earlier in the week, causing major difficulties for people getting to school. Recalling the water bubbling up from the manholes last Sunday and spilling onto the roads, this section actually looked drier.

As I walked towards Ada, things were different. It was quite something to see areas I had walked on less than a week earlier now underwater. Poles for street signs and lights were partially submerged. A pile of sandbags bordered a side of a house. Restaurant and houseboats were marooned quite a distance away from the shore. Through the brackish waters, the yellow of dandelion heads could be seen. Bike paths, instead of circumnavigating around the man-made lakes of Ada, now led directly into the floodwaters.

Except for the truck with sandbags entering Ada park, activities were going on as normal. Teens were playing soccer on the grass. Young parents pushed babies in strollers along the higher paved paths. Like usual, young children were often dressed warmer than necessary. People of all ages ran, walked, or jogged along the paths, enjoying the spring sun. Popcorn and ice cream vendors tempted those who didn’t stop into the small cafés along the way. Fishing and boating also continued as normal. With the debris and perhaps chemicals brought by the floods, I’m not sure if I’d want to eat those fish, but it was a great day to fish.

I decided to head back to Senjak by another route. I walked around the circumference of the hippodrome, giving me a different view of the horse track than I normally see from my apartment. As I turned the bend, I once again saw cars lined up for quite some distance. It appeared that they had been waiting for a bit, as some had turned off the engines and were out of the cars talking to others. Not quite sure what the issue was, I continued heading towards Senjak. I saw a police car drive to the left of the long queue of cars. Was this holdup caused by floodwaters? Would I be able to get up to Senjak from this road? I then saw gates over the railroad tracks. After the train went through, a man cranked up the gate and vehicles once again made their way through, causing the normal congestion of a narrow road.

Before I headed home, I walked through the neighborhood, taking some photos of the blooming trees. The extra color, along with the leaves bursting forth on the trees, spring flowers and brilliant blue skies reminded me of why I enjoy spring so much.

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Day of Milsevic's Funeral

On Saturday, I decided to run some errands in downtown Belgrade. As I was leaving my apartment, my landlord warned that the traffic was bad – and it was. The bus, crowded as usual, inched along the road, despite taking an alternate route. There seemed to be a lot more busses coming from villages and towns as well. Along the route I saw a group of men, some carrying a photo of Milosevic and a few wearing the traditional shajkaca hats, heading towards downtown. I knew that Milosevic’s body had been on display at a small museum for the past several days (I had seen the queue of people standing in the rain the previous night), but that wasn’t in the downtown area. A large number of people left the bus at the next stop, which left those remaining with a seat – a pleasant surprise on most bus trips.

Two people sitting by me were having a discussion. Although I could not understand what they were saying, the inclusion of words such as Milosevic, Kosovo, UN, and Hague provided a good indication of what they were talking about. When the woman brought up words such as America and Milosevic + terrorist, I could tell that the two were exchanging opinions and observations. I wished I could have listened to their conversation and heard their ideas. The man across from me was reading a local newspaper. I could see pictures of Milosevic, his coffin, and well-wishers kissing the framed photo of the former president in front of the coffin. On the back page was another photo of Milosevic and a short article. Decoding each Cyrillic letter just as a young child, I figured out that it was his obituary. Sensing that the bus would not reach its normal destination by Trg Republic, I also got off the bus and walked.

On the main walking street Knez Mihailova, there were a fair number of people on the streets for a Saturday morning. Ice cream vendors were now selling from their wheeled carts. Popcorn vendors and newsstands were also busy. In most respects, it seemed like a normal Saturday. I noticed that many people coming towards me were wearing buttons with Milosevic’s picture, heading in the direction of the Parliament.

After running my errands, I decided to walk towards the Parliament. Here, a large crowd (estimates between 50,000 and 90,000) had gathered. Some were standing on concrete flowerpots or climbing up the wall to the elevated grassy area to get a better view. In front of the Parliament on an erected platform, speeches were being made. Large screens projected images of the former president. News vans were parked near some trees. In front of me, old woman wearing a kerchief and dark dress held up a large photo of Milosevic. To one side, a man was selling copies of the book written by Milosevic in the late 1990’s. Although the crowd was quite civilized, I decided to leave after a few minutes.

Meanwhile, across town at Republic Square, protesters of Milosevic gathered. Holding colorful balloons and blowing whistles, this crowd sought to remind others of the harm that Milosevic did – and that he is no hero. News reports such as B 92 and BBC reported that the participants of this rally were more positive and future oriented, hoping that the death would help move the country forward and close up a grim chapter on its past. As taken from the B92 (local) website: "Thank you for the deceit and theft, for every drop of blood shed by thousands, for the fear and uncertainty, for the failed lives and generations, the unfulfilled dreams, for the horrors and wars you waged in our name, without asking us, for all the burdens you've placed on our shoulders," they said. "We remember tanks on Belgrade streets and blood on the pavements. We remember Vukovar. We remember Dubrovnik. We remember Knin and Krajina. We remember Sarajevo. We remember Srebrenica. We remember the air strikes. We remember Kosovo. We'll be remembering that one for a while. And dreaming of it."

That evening, I attended a music recital. I asked one of the musicians if he had been downtown. Although this young man indicated that he was not a Milosevic supporter, he thought that both gatherings were “crazy”. Like so many people of Belgrade, he simply wanted to move on.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Death of Milosevic

Upon hearing of the death of former Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, I have followed the developments with interest. How would local people respond to his death and why? Would it vary by age, location, education, or financial status? What did the local newspapers say was the cause of his death? Would the government allow Milosevic to be buried in Serbia? If so, would the funeral be a quiet, private one, or would there be some fanfare involved?

Citizen Responses
Responses of people are definitely varied. Some couldn't care less about the whole situation - why he died, the trial and verdict, where he should be buried, etc. Some Serbians are just fed up with the whole thing and just want to move on with their lives. Younger adults I spoke to often had strong opinions. Many expressed regret that Milosevic's death and subsequent termination of the trial meant that he could never be held accountable for all the harm he had done. This includes the economic and emotional scarring of Serbia's citizens, even right here in Belgrade. Those such as the families of those who lost males through genocide had looked to the trial as a possibility of retribution and closure – now that will not happen. A few were saddened by Milosevic’s death, remembering him for the nationalistic efforts of a greater Serbia, especially his desire to hold on to Kosovo – seen as the historical and spiritual heartland of Serbia. Surprisingly, not all of these people were of the older generation.

Although I haven’t gone downtown, others have told me that there are not signs of mourners, protesters, etc. True, there were a few loyalists who gathered outside of the headquarters of the Socialist party, lighting candles and kissing his picture in memory. Even the Serbian flag above the Federal Parliament building remained at its normal position – and not at half-mast.

Press Reaction
Many of the newspaper (I depend on others to tell me this, since I can’t read Serbian) headlines proclaimed that Milosevic was murdered. Even amongst those who didn’t care for their former leader, there tended to be a distrust of anything involved with NATO and the UN War Crimes Tribunal. It is generally felt among the population that these organizations (and even Western media) are biased against Serbia. Where are the Croat and Bosnian leaders and military generals who committed atrocities against Serb citizens – are they being tried? Will families, including several teachers from my school, ever be able to return to Croatia and reclaim their land forcefully stolen from them just because they were Serbs?

Burial Location
Although people generally didn’t respond as passionately to this issue, they still often had opinions. Some would prefer that me would be buried in Russia or elsewhere. Such an arrangement would avoid the potential sticky issues of Mrs. Milosevic returning to Serbia (there is an arrest warrant out for her) and any governmental recognition of the funeral. If there was to be a funeral in Serbia, many felt that a state-sponsored one would be inappropriate. When I asked one teacher why he, as former president should not receive an honorary funeral and compared it to that of former US president Ronald Regan, she once again expressed anger at all the harm Milosevic did. The last thing she wanted to see happen was have him made into a hero.

One individual (originally from a small town in Bosnia) found it unfair that while Milosevic's wife may be allowed to return to Serbia without being arrested, there are so many young men who have been unable to return to the country, fleeing after they said or did something against Milosevic's regime while he was in power. I'm sure those families would love to have their sons return to their homeland - will their safety be guaranteed?

It now sounds like Milosevic will indeed be buried in his hometown of Pozarevac, about 50 km from Belgrade. The government has denied requests by Milosevic supporters to have his body on public view in the Federal Parliament building. Instead, the public display will happen in Pozarevac.

Possible Outcome
I hope that the citizens and country of Serbia will be able to move forward. Will the government and/or those who know of the whereabouts of prominent wanted fugitives be emboldened to hand over those war criminals? Will Serbia be able to begin its entry talks into the EU? Will Serbia emerge from political and economic isolationism? Time will tell.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Serbian A Capella concert

Invited by the music teacher of our school, I attended an a capella concert by twin Serbian brothers in downtown Belgrade. Many of the songs were performed by the two brothers, dressed in loose-fitting white traditional outfits. Some songs were accompanied by a man playing a penny flute and a longer wooden flute. A stout man, also wearing traditional clothing including a wide, colorful belt, played a traditional drum.

Nearly all the songs originated from the Kosovo and surrounding regions of Serbia - the cultural heartland of the country.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

In Memory of Anastasia Grace

Life is Never Worthless
By Michelle Klemp

This was written by my sister Michelle, who lost their baby Anastasia Grace Klemp to the devastating neural tube birth defect known as anencephaly.

Hearing our daughter’s prognosis was devastating. Many expected us to abort. Yet we knew that her life was as precious and meaningful as everyone else’s. God had created her, and had a deliberate purpose in mind. Jesus died for her also, to give her eternal live. And so she was named Anastasia Grace. Anastasia, for the resurrection that comes through Christ. Grace, that we acknowledge we deserve no favor from God because of our sin.

Annie’s kicks were initially a sorrowful reminder of what was to come. However, they quickly became very endearing. A little “Hello”, “Good morning”, or “Good night” for both of her parents, and occasionally a kick for her brothers as well. Our hearts were breaking knowing that she was facing death, but we had the confidence that she was completely in the care of the boundless love of Christ.

While holding Annie in my womb, our wonderful family and friends were holding us, both through their support and prayers. We were very humbled to be the subject of so many prayers and marveled at how awesome it was to see Christian love in action. God also allowed us to see that he was using Annie’s precious life as many people dear to us reported that they had shared her story, witnessing the truths of God’s Word to those around them.

Anastasia continued to be a powerful witness on her last day. Although specialists told us that she was incapable of having any senses, our little girl let every nurse know that she was aware of their efforts to track her. Every time they attempted to gauge her heartbeat, she kicked their instruments and gave them an earful. Every one of them also knew the meaning of her name, and our first priority upon birth. As soon as her Daddy cut her cord, she was whisked to the prepared basin to be baptized.

Though she continued to live outside the womb only an hour, God blessed us through Anastasia by giving us clearer vision to the importance of her life, the power of prayer, and the victory of baptism. We are grateful God gave her to us, and we await the day when we will see her again, at our Savior’s side.

What you sow does not come to life until it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body.

So it will be with the resurrection of the dead.
The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable;
it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory;
it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;
it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
I Corinthians 15:36-38, 42-44

In Memory of
Anastasia Grace Klemp
Date of Birth + Date of Baptism + Date of Death
February 3, 2006

Dear Anastasia,

Although you were alive outside the womb but only an hour, you have touched the lives of many. Despite the recommendation by doctors to have a “selective termination of pregnancy”, your parents chose to give you a chance at life – no matter how short it would be. Through baptism, you became a child of God. An hour later, you joined your Savior in heaven.

At your funeral, there still were tears shed. For me and likely for many others, it was the first funeral of a child I had attended. Seeing your tiny coffin was a reminder of how precious life really is, and how every birth really is a miracle. Some of the tears were shed out of sadness, as your presence would be missed. But they were also tears of joy, knowing that you were now safely in Jesus’ loving arms.

Although you were born with devastating birth defects such as anencephaly and died just an hour later, your life has a purpose. In our human understanding and insight, we don’t know fully what that will be. From the time of that fateful ultrasound up until the present, your story and your family’s faith has been strengthened and shared with others, both in person and through the Internet. Blood samples were taken after your birth and will hopefully contribute to medical understanding and prevention of anencephaly. Perhaps a stronger support system will be formed for expectant parents facing similar situations. As God said to the apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul then said, “That is why for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, ... in hardships, … in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) Trust in God’s grace and wisdom will carry us through even these most difficult of times.

Your eyes, grey and unseeing on Earth, now eagerly are on the lookout, anticipating the time when you and your family will be reunited in Heaven.
Your hands, unable to clench around the index finger of your parents, are now loudly clapping, praising God.
Your small frame, just over a foot long and curved by a birth defect, now stands erect, boldly proclaiming the wisdom and power of the almighty, omniscient God.
And your lips, once malformed with a cleft palette, now join the choruses above.

Looking forward to seeing you again.

Your loving aunt,

Melissa Enderle