Monday, January 30, 2006

Bathing Beauties in Budapest

I had a great time exploring Budapest while Dan was in meetings. We were there for the regional ELF conference, and I was the only spouse, so I had all sorts of time for myself. I walked all over the city and poked into different shops, enjoying the sights and sounds of a new place.

My favorite thing from this trip was going to the Szechenyi thermal baths located in the city park. Beautiful 19th century buildings surrounding us, warm thermal pools in the crisp winter air - the best. One downside: the mad dash back into the main building when we were dripping wet in sub-zero (Celcius) weather. Eeeeeeegah!

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Baby it's cold outside

We're getting the tail end of the recent Russian cold snap (it was -50 C there) and temps here are hovering around 0 F, dipping below at night. Not nearly so bad, but still quite chilly.

I was on my way downtown this morning and, as I turned a corner, I saw two guys standing in front of a beat up old Yugo with the hood up. They were holding this big black box thing under the hood, balancing it precariously on the front of the car. I couldn't imagine what it might be; it looked maybe like the back of a TV. As I walked by, I turned my head to see what it was, and it was an electric heater. They were literally warming up the engine to combat the cold.

Pictures from Sarajevo and Bjelasnica

Lunchtime! Beef stew, stuffed grape leaves, roasted potatoes, pickled cabbage, and Fanta!

Inside the mosque.


The view from the slopes.

This guy cruised over us while we were on the chairlift.

Monday, January 23, 2006


We have a three day turnaround between our vacation in Sarajevo and Dan's conference in Budapest, and I wanted to let you know about Sarajevo before we dash off again.

We took the bus out last Tuesday, and it was a magnificent ride through the mountains of western Serbia / eastern Bosnia. The vistas were stunning, but it was best not to look over the side of the road; it's a loooong way down to the valley floor, with only a flimsy guard rail between the bus and the drop off the winding two-lane roads.

We spent the first two days in and around Bascarsija, the old Turkish part of town. It's a beautiful city, with plenty to tempt the tourist - shop windows full of copper Turkish coffee sets, leather goods, jewelry, and all sorts of shiny and tasty things. We saw a big poster for TANGO on Wednesday night, so of course we went even though we only had our sneakers. It turned out to be a beginner class, not a milonga. It was fantastic to be there and do some dancing at long last. Be on alert, tangueros - the Sarajevo tango scene is just beginning!

We visited the medieval Serbian Orthodox church, the medieval synagogue, and the medieval mosque. They were all lovely in their own ways, and I think we both felt serene from having been in so many places of worship. The mosque was the most interesting because we weren't sure how to go about visiting. I carried around a large shawl (thanks, Hannah) because I knew I would need to cover my head, but we didn't know when we could go or what door to use. Fortunately, Dan's Serbian / Bosnian is progressing quite nicely, and he found a caretaker who told us when to come and led us in the door to the woman's prayer area. He did take us into the main hall as well, which made me slightly uncomfortable, but he said it was OK for tourists. It was beautiful inside, especially the Persian carpets covering the floor and the delicate, intricate designs on the ceiling.

Our other big tourist venture was not so serene. Zlatan, the co-owner of the hotel we stayed in (with his brother, Allen) drove us to the outskirts of town to visit the famous tunnel. During the Siege of Sarajevo from 1992 - 1996, the Bosnians were entirely cut off by the Serbian forces surrounding the city. In fact, if you stand in the city looking up to the mountains, you can see the weird artificial tree lines - the hills are bare up to the top (the front lines of the war) and then there's a small copse of trees. The Bosnians chopped down all they could for heating in the cold winters.

At some point the UN took over the airport to deliver humanitarian aid, and the Bosnians tunneled under the runway to reach the Bosnian territory on the other side. This way they could get supplies and move troops, and they even ran electricity, phone, and oil lines through the tunnel. A piece of the tunnel still exists and is maintained, along with a small museum, by the father and son who owned the house when it was commissioned by the military. It was fascinating to walk through the remaining 25 meters, then look across the airport to see where it used to connect. It was FREEZING outside, though, so we didn't stay long.

The other sight of historical importance we saw was the bridge where Gavrilo Princip shot Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, jump-starting WWI. If you're not familiar with the strange, slapstick-like story of the assassination, definitely check out Wikipedia.

We saved snowboarding for Friday, and it was perfect weather. Blue skies, no wind, and, once we actually got to the mountain, mild temperatures. Of course, we had imprecise information about when the bus left, so we stood in the early morning cold for an hour before it came, but we made it! We passed the Olympic ski-jump on the way (Sarajevo winter Olympics 1984). Many of the buildings and even the lifts were destroyed during the seige, but the hotels are being rebuilt and they've fixed the main lift almost to the summit. If you look around from the lift you can see poles where other lifts used to run. The snow and the riding were fantastic, and at one point a parachuter / glider passed overhead.

We took the bus home on Saturday so we could get ourselves together for our next trip. I'll report back sometime next week!

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Lively Librarians of Lapovo

Just before we went home for the holidays, I did the first of a series of training sessions with local librarians. Verica, my contact from ACDI-VOCA, and I traveled to the village of Lapovo to talk to the librarians about promoting literacy in the community, the importance of reading aloud, and the nuts and bolts of how to give a good reading.

The workshop was attended by the librarians and by two teachers from the local kindergarten. They all seem interested and excited about having storytimes, and they seemed to understand my English even though they would only speak to me through the translator. Over the course of the three days, they became braver and would say short sentences or ask me questions directly.

The most interesting/surprising question came from one of the kindergarten teachers. She questioned showing the pictures during a reading, saying she was taught that it would inhibit children's creativity. (If you show a picture of a witch with black hair, the children will assume all witches have black hair.) I paused before responding. I understand how someone could come to that conclusion, I said, but I don't think it's appropriate for today's media-driven world. We are bombarded by images on tv, the internet, as we walk around town; children see these images whether we want them to or not, whether they're appropriate or not. When we have a chance to select or influence what children are seeing, it's up to us to show quality and variety. And of course pictures help tell the story, making it interesting and easier to understand.

After the initial discussion, the librarians chose books to read aloud and we left so they could practice. Or rather, we tried to leave but the car wouldn't start. Verica called one of her counterparts from ACDI and he drove out (about a half hour), and of course the car started right away when he got there. Verica was embarassed, but it gave us a chance to have a coffee and chat while we were waiting. The next day the librarians practiced reading to us and we talked more about the different techniques. Finally, on the third day, we visited a kindergarten and the librarians read to the children.

The school was fantastically decorated with Christmas trees and images of Santa Claus, although these things are associated with New Year's in Serbia, not Christmas. The school director is very aggressive in getting things for the children and running innovative programs. They have a special sewing room to create costumes and sets for their plays. They also publish their own monthly magazine for children, made by the teachers, with pictures, activities, and original stories. It's done quite nicely, and the activities are just about the right level for Dan's Serbian (far too advanced for me).

They read to two different classes, and the children were excellent and seemed to enjoy the reading. Marijana, one of the librarians, was very nervous before her reading, but she did a wonderful job and the kids laughed and responded positively to the story. Afterwards the children drew pictures of their favorite moments/characters, and it was clear they really understood what had been read to them.

Marijana was totally pumped up by the experience, and is talking about hosting regular events at the library and the school. This is exactly what I was hoping for - the training is only valuable if the librarians take to the idea and decide to initiate programs on their own. Like Marijana, I'm energized and motivated by our meeting and am looking forward to visiting more towns to repeat the training.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

A Tango New Year

Dan and I went to our second annual New Year's tango in Providence (although this time we didn't get there until New Year's Day) and our photo is up on the website. Check it out! We were out of tango shape in a big way - we hadn't really danced since September - but we had a fantastic time and got to meet up with our tango friends.

A Christmas Miracle

We returned to Serbia last Wednesday after an action-packed ten days stateside. The flight back was uneventful until we arrived in Belgrade and my bag wasn't there. This was upsetting because (a) it had some of my favorite stuff in it and (b) the bag itself is a fancy backpack and would have been pricey to replace. I gave about a 50-50 chance of seeing my things again and was delightfully surprised when our Orthodox Christmas dinner was interrupted by the bag delivery man. I was especially surprised that it would get delivered on Christmas because everything is closed.

Serbians celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7th (so we just had Christmas 2006) and it's a much more religious affair without the commercial maddness that exists in the States (it's not considered a time for gift giving). Our hosts invited us to celebrate the holiday with them so we got to see the different traditions first hand.

Before we started the meal, we broke a special bread that has a coin baked into it. Everyone put a hand on the loaf and we turned it three times, then everyone pulled out a piece. Whoever gets the coin will have good fortune in the coming year. There are other things baked in, cloves and spices, each with a different meaning. Dan got health and I got fertility (uh-oh).

This posting on a Serbian news site details more of the Christmas traditions. We had a wonderful time and ate loads of food. It's marathon eating - you have to pace yourself or you won't make it to the end. Before the meal we snacked on nuts and dried figs. After we broke the bread, we started with salads, then soup, then sarma (stuffed cabbage), then huge trays of pork and lamb, finishing up with dessert. Now that I've experienced my second big Serbian meal, I've come to the conclusion that while hosts are required to put out dizzying amounts of food, guests aren't actually required to eat it all. This was a relief for me, because I know I can't eat my equal share of the food that is served (even though it's all delicious).

Now that we've been back a few days and are settled in (finally did my laundry this afternoon) we're looking ahead to January, which will definitely include another trip to Budapest for a conference and will hopefully include some snowboarding and, at long last, tango.