Staying silent for ten days and focusing on one single thing for 12-14 hours of each of those ten days would, one would think, not leave much time for thinking and meandering through the corners of one’s brain. Alas, the brain, at least mine, craves distraction and moving from thought to thought quickly enough to have forgotten what I was even writing about here.
I saw the chief something officer of a large company in Silicon Valley tweet advice to his younger self, and I liked the idea and had pondered on it while I should have been meditating. Instead of 140 characters, or 280 now, I wanted to expand just a bit and see what seemed important to me. I had plenty of overlap with him, but we diverged too. I think we all try and compensate for our own past mistakes, and that, in part, informs lists such as these. Reading one wouldn’t be enough. Reading many would tell you just how common so many of our insecurities and mistakes are.
Put others ahead of yourself, and make this the default behavior. This goes for family, friends, and further. Just like networking is about giving, so is every other relationship close or far. Need more?: Adam Grant’s Give and Take
Know when to fight, know when to walk away/quit
Read more, write more, and do both of those over most other choices in possible activities. These should have been prioritized over learning to work while young. Hard work will be needed throughout life but is hard to compound unless I’m cloned. Knowledge, gained through reading and instilled through writing, compounds through one’s life.
If a course requires public speaking, take it every time. There’s no way to get better than by doing. And I struggle, still.
Turn work and everyday life into play. You’ll learn exponentially more. To do this, failure is not evil – failure is one of the possible outcomes when experimenting and learning. If you take away the ability to make a mistake, you’ve taken away a life worth living. If you’re not allowed to have a wrong hypothesis, why make one at all?
Ask questions at every opportunity, this way you’ll be asking better questions through the years and not afraid to ask the simple ones either.
Memorizing is not learning, and effort matters. Learning and practice take toil and perseverance. If learning was easy, there would be more expert pianists in the world. Example: The best coders I know, learned the hard way – they removed the ability to cut and paste code and instead typed it out each time as they were learning new ideas and techniques.
Find meditation, CBT, or whatever your tool is in controlling the inner-voice, early in life. Believe in yourself, know who you are, don’t talk down to yourself. Be your own best ally in thought and practice.
Also, have that voice be honest. The above does not mean to sugar coat.
That’s what came out in ten minutes. If I sat longer, I’m sure something else would pop in and this would be refined some.
While everyone back home takes time out for Thanksgiving and shows gratitude towards one another, Shell and I are in Dharamsala, India doing much the same. We spent the morning meditating at Tushita Center, and later in the afternoon volunteered by speaking English with Tibetan refugees at Lha Charitable Trust. A humbling experience, fitting for Thanksgiving.
While we were in Nepal we thought it might be possible to arrange a trip to Tibet, somewhere I’ve always wanted to experience. The Chinese bureaucracy required some 18 days of lead time to do all the paperwork, making it not fit into our schedule. This ended up being a bit of a blessing in some way because the little research I had done in previous years wasn’t enough. When truly considering a flight to Lhasa I dug in more and was able to see and read accounts of just how much the Chinese have attempted to destroy the Tibetan culture there.
The number of self-immolations across Tibet is alarming, and not publicized. A very disturbing form of protest. Along with other forms of suppression such as arrest, lack of free speech and political thought, as well as removing as much of the Tibetan language as possible. Kill the language and religion, you can kill the culture and identity that both local Tibetans hold dear, as well as the diaspora. This bit of research, and finding most the well-regarded tour companies one is required to travel with happen to be largely staffed with Chinese and not Tibetans was a turn-off.
Enter Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile reside. If Tibetan culture was what I wanted to experience, what better place than here? Yesterday we explored the main temple, walked amongst the monks, experienced them debating, all while the 14th Dalai Lama was traveling in eastern India. I’m hoping we’ll be here when he returns.
When we finish here in Dharamsala we fly to Mumbai and then take a train to Igatpuri. In Igatpuri we’ll be taking a 10 day Vipassana course. This is a strict and silent course that I refuse to call a retreat. Everyone I’ve spoken with about these courses, and those I’ve read as well, all report one thing in common: it’s a lot of work. Thankfully, they also all seem to regard it as one of the best things they’ve ever done for themselves. We’re not expecting some transformation, but we are hoping for a boot camp like experience to help instill a daily practice moving forward. My on and off again practice in New York did not stick once we hit the road. It’s time to change that.
Our connectivity has been horrendous in Nepal and India. Enough so, I cannot seem to successfully upload many pictures to the blog. For that, I apologize and hope to catch up on this and other projects once we get to Kuala Lumpur after the meditation course come mid-December. We’ll be in Malaysia for Christmas, which we’re very excited about. It seems Malaysia goes all out for Christmas and we have a little room booked in some sort of complex that has a gym. I’m very ready for some physical activity that isn’t walking/trekking.
Until then check out Instagram for the latest, and I’ll leave you with a few things I’ve been reading and listening to. As the weather turns colder for most of you, you can curl up with a warm beverage, a blanket, and a crackling fire with some of these reads and listens. Feel free to tell me about it and make me jealous as we sweat out our existence in Malaysia. The trip has reminded me just how much I love autumn and a nice (not too harsh) winter. People always got confused when I told them summer in New York was my least favorite time of year. What I think I really meant was those few weeks when it’s above 85.
Leadership and Being Human
(Listen) Capital Allocator’s Podcast – Thomas DeLong: http://capitalallocatorspodcast.com/delong/
Ted’s guest on this episode is Thomas DeLong. He teaches Organizational Leadership at HBS and is a Purdue graduate. He worked for Morgan Stanley for many years and has thought deeply about human relationships, interactions, and success and happiness. He admits to his own failures and shows vulnerability in the episode. Something I think we all could use a bit more of to strengthen ourselves and our sense of community.
(Read) Morgan Housel – We’re All Out Of Touch: http://www.collaborativefund.com/blog/were-all-out-of-touch/
You can’t go wrong reading some of Morgan’s posts. Since he’s joined Collaborative Fund I think I’ve read every post of his on their blog along with many of his partners’ posts. As community ties have weakened and polarization has strengthened I can’t help but think about how these tides can be reversed. Self-awareness and respect for one another rank high for me, as well as walking in another’s shoes. Morgan brings a humbling perspective.
(Read) Melting Asphalt – Professional Growth: http://www.meltingasphalt.com/professional-growth/
Kevin Simler is a great thinker, another blog where if you explore you might lose days of your life but gain much more. Here he essays on professional growth. I’ll leave it there.
(Read) Meaningness – Purpose: https://meaningness.com/an-appetizer-purpose
Meaningness shows up twice on this list, and with good reason. Professor Wadhwa at CBS told us: “If you don’t know your purpose, your purpose is to find your purpose.” As Shell and I explore the world, we also explore questions like this. So I invite you to explore David Chapman’s writings.
(Read) Ben Thompson’s Stratechery – Defining Aggregators: https://stratechery.com/2017/defining-aggregators/
If you want to get an MBA (or whatever you want to call it) in the tech business, you might as well just sign up for Stratechery and start reading. Ben’s thinking is that good, in my opinion. If you want more, he has a great podcast, which is free, where he hashes out ideas. It’s call Exponent.
(Read) Meaningness – Geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths in subculture evolution: https://meaningness.com/geeks-mops-sociopaths
A fascinating examination of how businesses/ideas go from underground to mainstream and the types of players involved. It makes sense to me. While you’re there, you should spend some time exploring Meaningness.
(Listen) Invest Like The Best – Hashpower: http://investorfieldguide.com/hashpower/
This three-part series gets you from 0 to ~7 with blockchain and crypto assets. I cannot recommend this enough. Not only is is entertaining and listenable, you’ll learn a ton along the way. Check out every episode he’s produced for even more great material in multiple disciplines.
With our home base in Wiesbaden, a small distance west of Frankfurt, we toured the Rheingau region. This part of our trip, along with our stay in Bruges, was highlighted for me by being in spaces that were conducive to us doing big family dinners. We cooked our own dinners in both Bruges and Wiesbaden.
The Rhein is littered with castles and is also a wine growing region. We spent our time taking the train to other villages for exploring, hiking, and the occasional lunch out. We also took a small boat tour down the river, which I would recommend. We had some beautiful breaks in the clouds tossing light in some beautiful ways.
As mentioned in a previous post, when we left Wiesbaden, it was time for the group to go separate ways and Shell and me to be on our own for the first time. We would leave Wiesbaden and pause to tour Köln before stopping in a small town called Ibbenbüren. There, we would be having dinner with family of mine.
The Dom, or cathedral, is as foreboding as pictures make it seem. It’s tall, thick, and dark. The interior has more than one organ, both of which seem like masterpieces to the layman (me). The remains of the Three Kings or Three Wise Men are said to be in the cathedral. The building sustained damage in WWII but was largely spared as it served the allies well for navigation. There were pictures outside of what it was like after the war. A tank battle took place just outside near the end of the war as the Allies advanced. Spend a bit of time with Wikipedia for more. But, we needed to move on.
We made it to Mutterbahr http://www.mutterbahr.de/home for a two-night stay. The country side is beautiful and vibrantly green. Shell and I took a run the morning after we arrived along a nearby river. Driving in and out of the area we would share the road with farmers moving their equipment from field to field. In some ways, it reminded me of home, but prettier, dare I say. The roads curved around ever so slightly, some lined with tall bushy trees creating a tunnel feeling zipping through the pastures.
We took a day trip to Tecklenburg after some quick Googling told us should be a cute town to wander around. I plugged it into Waze and off we went. The only problem with not having a destination or a particular parking facility picked out, is putting only a town name in will take you to the city center. In this case, a pedestrian only zone.
At this point, I was still very fresh with my European road signs, part of the problem. The other part is the sign was off on some side wall of the building, trust me, I walked back to check how badly was it my fault. Anyway, as you can tell, I drove our little diesel Citroen just a tad too far. I felt it, the feeling of the town suddenly change, and I knew what was up. But it was too late, we got into a tight spot and reversing would have been a real test.
At this point, Shell is outside the car trying to scope things out ahead of us to try and understand what exactly we should do. Meanwhile, the tiny diesel is doing its diesel rumblings, the loudest thing around in the pedestrian only zone. About that time, a parking officer appears out of nowhere. She starts attacking me in German, and I’m trying to reply with what little I know to explain I don’t fully understand and I just want to back up. My broken German + her broken English = we drive very, very slowly through the entirety of the pedestrian only city center to the other side. We made it, and we learned several lessons. Despite this, it was a beautiful little town and we had some good currywurst, and the parking officer was very nice to me. I’m sure she could have done much worse.
That evening we had dinner at the hotel restaurant with Manfred, Kerstin, Sandra, and Christian. I loved being able to reconnect with family separated by continents and years. I was too young the last time we met in the States to really remember much, so this is something I’ll cherish for a lifetime. They were also much too generous to Shell and me. We’re not exactly the most giving travelers since we’re not able to carry much in the way of gifts in our little backpacks, but Shell and I are looking forward to finding a way of showing our thanks in return. Also, I loved learning some of the history of our family in Germany. It was just a priceless experience. Manfred isn’t too dissimilar from my own father. A tough and rocklike figure through much of life, but down deep a heartfelt family man.
The next morning we packed up and drove to Hamburg for two nights before moving to Berlin for a full week. Partly because we wanted to allot that time to Berlin, partly because Hamburg is expensive, partly because we needed to sit down and plan what was up with this trip.
Thanks for reading.
I’ve been diving backwards into some tunes lately, here’s one from Stereolab. Have a listen.
Hamilton Crew – Black Black Pink Pink
Germany shines when you can see the infrastructure at work. Boats, cars, trains, all clocking along smoothly and shining.
Riding the lift up
Walking trails include ski lifts
We ate lunch at a fun little spot, upstairs was set and ready for dinner in very traditional decor
Wiesbaden was largely spared from the ravages of WWII, leaving beauty like this intact
Köln Dom – Three Kings remains
A little sausage shack where we had some delicious currrywurst
I drove right through here, very near where the invisible sign is, just outside our sausage shack – notice the other car, please
Greetings from Morocco! Couscous the turtle says hi from our riad in Marrakech. He’s a bit peevish and likes to stick his head under the couch for naps. Needless to say, Couscous and I have gotten along well.
Before we took the flight from JFK to Milan on July 3rd, I wrote a draft post rebutting why this next year was not a year-long vacation. That’s how most people reacted when telling them what we planned to do. While it was not at all how I was looking at the time ahead. However, the tone came out wrong. The draft didn’t successfully convey the message and feeling I was going for. Besides, most people were happy about it being a year long vacation. It wasn’t something that needed defending.
With time comes clarity.
I knew there would be an internal struggle for me that would show up at some point. The first wave was while we were in Berlin, and I thought to myself “I could go back to work.” As crazy as that may seem to you.
For years, I have idolized those who would take a year off to travel or had a gap year before or after college. They may have traveled differently than us and/or traveled at a different age that made it a different experience than the one we’re living. Doesn’t matter. Getting out there and seeing things on a long-term track and covering a lot of ground was what mattered to me. Also, getting to at least a few places that are hard to reach when you only have a week to holiday. Thankfully, I married right and have an adventurous girl by my side while we’re living out one of our dreams. We’re also surrounded by incredible (and helpful) friends who’ve been on similar journeys, here, here, and here.
Now, at more than two months in, we continue to go back and forth on the balance we’re striking with the frequency of moving and checking off the checkboxes versus settling in and living a little. In fact, I don’t think we have a balance, and I’ve written such here before. We’re off kilter and moving a mile a minute. Our average, as of July 4 through September 25, is moving to a new location every 2.26 nights. Fueled, in part, by my love for checking boxes.
We cannot keep this pace up. Mostly for our own sanity. Also, moving a lot comes with a lot of costs. Our planning has sketched out our rough path from Morocco to Spain and Portugal, and then London for almost two weeks. We have a flight booked from London to Nepal, a rough three-week plan for Nepal, and a rough idea for India ending in mid-December after a retreat. I think we’ll see our pace slow down some in India, and certainly afterward. We’re making plans with friends for New Years celebrations in Indonesia, and considering signing up for a race in Chang Mai in mid/late January. All this to show a few anchors that we are now using to ponder a two or three week let somewhere versus the usual two or three nights.
With the slowing pace, I think we need a project. This writing has been one to an extent and so has the photography. I’m looking forward to one day decorating our imaginary house with a couple big prints of the photos either of us falls in love with. However, thinking long-term, working on something that could provide some value-add or return later on, or providing some sort of part-time help or consulting could go a long way. Giving something, while we trek along and begin a more ‘living abroad’ type pace.
Thinking of projects made me reexamine my long-term goals, which we did a lot of in business school. Moreover, that made me think about goal setting in general and some of the goals I created for this trip before leaving. I came to the realization that I think we’ve been doing it wrong. Most my goals for this trip are about trying to make permanent changes in myself, but through lofty and sometimes abstract statements.
Don’t discount the need for achievement via long-term goals. That remains. But in trying to instill growth and change in myself, I think setting big far away goals isn’t the way to go alone. I’m taking this from Brad Stulburg’s research, where many of the performers and athletes he interviews reveal them pushing just one more inch forward each time. Knowing where their performance line is, and setting their mark just barely out in front of it. This method accepts and expects failure. For example, if you want to learn to ski, you will need to fall down many times to keep learning and get better. You only want to make sure your learning and risks don’t take you over the cliff. Further, if you never fall down, you’re not learning to ski.
Your knees should shake. You should fall down. You should fail. You should feel uncomfortable. You should go where you haven’t yet been.
Therefore, I’ve created a daily checklist that I have to mark off on my phone. Red or green on a list that regenerates daily. The only long-term aspect of the interface is creating streaks and knowing that by creating massive and consistent streaks I become closer to creating a habit.
My thinking here is around creating good habits and rituals. Ones that create a healthier and more resilient me, one that is more capable of attacking the long-term goals that inevitably still hang high on my mind. This year was not just meant for us to see the world, but for us to become better humans. Better at our relationship, better parents (one day), better friends, better employees, managers, mentors, business partners, and so on.
For now, I’ve started with a list comprised of:
100 push-ups (I’m still at 75 and working up)
run/exercise (we’ve been location dependent on this one, lots of ups and downs)
Bruges is a beautiful town, many of you reading will likely already be familiar with it or have been. While I had been warned Bruges is touristy, it was not at all off-putting. I hear touristy and I think one or both of two directions: overcrowded and miserable, shops selling soulless and unnecessary knick-knacks. Bruges was in festival and holiday mode, so it certainly was busy but not suffocating. It did have a lot of shopping, but there were plenty of cute and original shops and restaurants to visit.
Besides venturing out for a fun night with the local revelers for the Belgian holiday and listening to funny cover bands and their dedicated and emotive fans, we also met a Hamilton family friend, Lilly. Lilly had lived in Hawaii for some time with her late husband. They spent a lifetime sailing the world together and were in Hawaii until her husband’s declining health forced them to move back to Belgium for affordable healthcare.
I cannot recall the question now, but I do remember one of Lilly’s answers. I thought it wonderfully encapsulated the change, daring, risk, safety, unknown, and more that love and marriage can do to us. Her answer was in reflecting upon her life, and how it all took place, and some specific events she shared with us that now make me look at her as if she is a daredevil. Lilly remarked, rather plainly, “that’s what you get when you marry an adventurer.” Then she smiled.
Lilly took the train in from Brussels and brought us some of her favorite chocolates and treated us all to a dinner at a place she likes in Bruges, Bistro ‘t Minnewater. It was a delicious meal, and the charcoal fired grill is quite literally amongst the tables.
Cycling to Damme and Blankenburg
From Bruges, we rented bicycles to take for a ride out of town. First, we hit Damme, which is quaint and beautiful. There were lots of swallows, some with nests easily visible from the street. One photographer had a very intense lens to reach right up to the nest for pictures of the lighting fast birds.
We biked through fields, beautiful farmhouses, lots of modern windmills, and some new drawbridge construction that was really impressive. Then we reached Blankenberg. Back in Damme we had stopped for an espresso and asked our server some questions about where to go. He gave us two towns we could bike to, but Blankenberg put a funny quiver on his face. He used the word suburban, but it was clear he didn’t have the word he wanted in English. Our friends in Ghent would later find it hilarious that we went to Blankenberg, and I’d laugh if I were them too. Despite all this, it was a fine stop for us. We avoided a rain storm, got to touch the North Sea, and fill up on a needed lunch before we rode back to Bruges.
If you’re in the region, take the time to get out there and cycle the friendly and quiet paths through the countryside.
Thanks for reading.
Our street in Bruges
Intermission in the main square
After dinner group shot with Lilly
Farmers market was busy and abundant
From produce to baked goods to meats
My favorite breakfast
Get me a coffee and a book, I’ll be here until further notice
Where the Holy Grail is…
Our neighbor laughed, and said everyone does this
A Damme good time…..
Found in Damme
Still a sucker for cars, especially the old romantic ones
The beach was cold and harsh, the sand here causes some consternation to my shins as the exfoliation happens.
After Belgrade and spending a lot of time in cities Shell was aching to get out into the countryside, and now we had a car to do it with. She was able to find a great spot for us at the Drina Tara Rafting facility in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They have a lot of little cabins available along with a lot of day excursions. We chose white water rafting on the Drina, which has brilliant aquamarine waters suitable for swimming and drinking. Then, a full day of hiking in Sutjeska National Park, which this site rightly called the Yosemite of the Balkans.
Our drive into the rafting place was our toughest yet. Road ways would give way to narrow mountain passes, then turn to dirt, and eventually would yield cows and sheep. All the while speed limits would rise and dip with little notice accompanied by police officers around random blind corners. As one other car and I negotiated a one lane pass I’m fairly certain one front wheel left the cliff edge. Thankfully, I still had enough traction to reverse a smidge in our front wheel drive. My nerves were a bit bent by the time we got to camp, but done once it’s quite easy to do again.
The camp is remarkably efficient for not having any sort of computers or point-of-sale solution. Guest itineraries and requests were all kept via paper records. Spread sheet like pages would track who was to be where and when. They would even group us up in our activities to best match people for a good time. For example, on our rafting day, they paired us with a pair of Brits – father and daughter, and a pair of Italian sisters with their husbands, one of which is from Portland, OR. Splendid group to go with and we all could communicate without issue.
The river was not as full as it had been in the past. The British father had been at this camp one other time and remarked that the rapids were Class 6. The same class of rapids I had done in Colorado, which could be harrowing at times. However, our white water excursion in Bosnia was rather tame and involved a lot of rowing. But the swims were refreshing if not bone piercingly cold. The scenery in the canyon is something else. The rock rises up with the colors and sheer rock faces of Yosemite, with what trees and greenery that can attach, and the waters are a purely clear and translucent aquamarine, something out of Alberta and Banff.
We negotiate all the rapids with ease guided by our guide, Dan, who also spins us around some and has some fun along the way. He didn’t speak much English, but our crew had a good time. Along the way, there are swimming stops and jumping points, you also break for a pit spot where there are cold beers available.
The camp fed us three square meals a day, usually too much food for the two of us on each meal. Mornings were a selection of fried or scrambled eggs with cured meats and a side of bread. Lunch depended on the day, but dinner was a big meal and varied each day. It clearly was pre-planned ahead of time as they take no orders just our reservation name. Food would be delivered shortly after. We would also order the house red which came out of a large, unlabeled jug maybe 5L large. Hey, it was good and what was available.
For our day of hiking, we met early and would be gone some 14 hours. Dragan, our guide, got us squared away and into the Land Rover Defenders for a ~2 hour drive into the park. Then I got to see how the locals negotiate these roads, albeit in a Defender. There’s some advantage to the machinery.
The park is enormous and both days we would cross back and forth across the untamed Bosnian and Montenegrin borders. Officially, this area of Bosnia and Herzegovina is Republika of Srpska, which in a previous post I go over what that means. This is before we take in everything Sarajevo gave to us, and the knowledge that was needed to really understand Bosnia. On the way, Dragan shows us where a mountain hospital was ambushed in WWI, where the Germans stationed their guns and artillery in WWII.
We start our hike not far from a lookout tower that was once used by the Montenegrins to watch for Austro-Hungarian invaders. The hike would take us down to a valley floor and back up again around a ridge that would open to Trnovačko Lake. The lake was pristine with clear, deep green waters surrounded by mountains, one of which, Maglić, is the tallest in Bosnia. These mountains are part of the Dinaric Alps. They’re big.
Dragan is also keen to show us wild native plants and their medicinal purposes during the hike. The area is one of the most biodiverse in Europe. In the Defender, we bond over hacking video games, and he shares his taste in music. Turns out, that is largely how he learned English. Learning the lyrics and translating them word by word. The type of studying clearly didn’t stop because it seems he has since studied books of puns. He has a whole library of them memorized. I played as if not understanding one, and he quickly explained. He gets both the language and logic in them. He was full of surprises.
After the main hike was done, we took in a small ridge with a view that my photographs do not capture. We hike 200m in on a small path to reach a ridge and vertigo inducing drop off, expanding out onto lush greens of mountain valleys. A persistent wind blows in and up right into your nose delivering a scent of pine, cedar, and rose. In the distance, a massive water fall sparkles. Our last stop before heading back to camp was the Tjentiste War Memorial. The pictures in that link are much better than anything I captured, along with some info about the memorial. It is stark, brutalist, and somehow beautiful.
Leaving the camp, we headed to the coast of southern Montenegro. The scenery after crossing the border into Montenegro was out of this world and the country would just keep surprising us. Makes sense why so many oligarchs hang here.
Thanks for reading.
Southern Serbia on our way to Bosnia
Tunnels ranged from modern LED lit and ventilated – to dark, rocky and calcium drip ceilinged tunnels of questionable safety
A rather tame road, but one commonly shared
Upon arrival to camp, were quick to commune with nature that surrounds us
Donning our wetsuits and safety gear
Shot on iPhone – Crystal waters of the Drina
Shot on iPhone – Beer here!
Sutjeska – Trailheads
Sutjeska – Pre-hike photo op
Sutjeska – Montenegrin lookout in the distance
Sutjeska – Near our trailhead
Sutjeska – Mountain pass
Sutjeska – Mountain homes
Sutjeska – Crossing into Montenegro – See the valley floor below, then we hike up thru the greenery into the bowl just past
Strap in, this one’s long, and I hope worth your while. The TL;DR is: go to Sarajevo, it’s a wonderful place to visit despite what I begin this post with.
“I realize that what happened in Bosnia could happen anywhere in the world, particularly in places that are diverse and have a history of conflict. It only takes bad leadership for a country to go up in flames, for people of different ethnicity, color, or religion to kill each other as if they had nothing in common whatsoever. Having a democratic constitution, laws that secure human rights, police that maintain order, a judicial system, and freedom of speech don’t ultimately guarantee long lasting peace. If greedy or bloodthirsty leaders come to power, it can all go down. It happened to us. It can happen to you.”
― Savo Heleta, Not My Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia
We listened to a story from a grown man, about my age now. He explained of a small obsession he had as a child with jam packets handed out by the French. He would go each time the transporter arrived, but because he was much smaller than all the other boys he could never get one no matter how much he fought.
Then one day, the same thing happened, as it would from time to time, but this time he didn’t push through the crowd. He didn’t even try to get a jam packet. Standing there, one was plopped into his hands. A French soldier found pity on him.
Overcome with joy he immediately started imagining what the jam would taste like, this dream come true. No sooner did he possess the jam than another boy brazenly snatch it up out of his hands. He began to sob. The other boy being much bigger than him, he stood no chance fighting for it. He ran back inside his building and cried all the way through the echoing halls up to the seventh floor.
His mother worried as she could hear her son sobbing on his way in, she worried he was wounded. She tried to console him, but only a jam packet would solve this one. Or some retribution against the other boy.
He began shouting and cursing from the window upon the boy who snatched his jam. His mother ran after him to quiet him down, knowing the neighbors and everyone could hear.
He doesn’t remember what ultimately ended it all, a mortar or some other devastating explosion. To this day he doesn’t buy any jam packets, no matter the small cost. They only serve to remind him of the war.
“It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.”
― Primo Levi, Auchwitz survivor
It might seem like some far off history lesson. The term concentration camp. Something only associated with Hitler, Nazis, and the Third Reich. It seems only fitting to remind ourselves of these atrocities now with an increase of Neo-Nazi activity back in the States. I’m reflecting a lot on it after Berlin and, now, having toured extensively behind the Iron Curtain, the lands of secret police and too much brutality. But here in Bosnia, in 1995, the massacre at Srebrenica was the most devastating mass killing in Europe since the Holocaust. Some 8,000 people, mostly Bosniak men and boys were murdered, and 20,000 people were removed from the area in ethnic cleansing. That said, modern North Korea and Chechnya show it continues to happen.
“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”
― Primo Levi
When I started writing on this blog in 2013, it was at a hidden subdomain meant for friends and family only. I forbid the search engines from indexing the information to make sure the content would not go too public. The furthest it went was Facebook. What came out of me in those twelve posts was unstoppable. It flowed, I loved the research, and I think it came together ok. I wrote all of the content upon return from the two-week adventure. Packing in as much as possible on my commutes and editing into the night.
I’ve since struggled with this new trip of ours and balancing how and when to write, what voice is it, and what purpose is it serving. Am I writing for myself, or for others? Am I aiming to help other travelers, or is it more educational for myself and anyone interested? Or, am I painting broadly and not concerned with any particular color or splatter? I know I’ll continue to struggle with this, especially if I move into subjects unrelated to our travels.
When we first arrived in Italy, it also came easy. I was fresh off a huge life change, in a country I’d never been, and on a new journey that was energizing. As most do, I reverted to the mean. Now, for example, I struggle with creating a post about Berlin. Not because we didn’t do much, not because I didn’t enjoy our time there, but the city didn’t move me. The location didn’t change who I am. Am I asking too much? I have some great pictures, and definitely some places you should check out. But the pen feels scratchy and dry, but I know I’ll get there.
However, I did, back in 2013, feel that Cambodia and Vietnam changed me. Seeing first-hand how Vietnam memorialized the “American War” taught me new vantage points, allowed me to experience a different path to empathy, and a different way to memorialize a war. Or, having someone share their first-hand story of the Khmer Rouge, then to find out that he is sending his son and daughters to university, down the very path that would have them victims in The Killing Fields.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Sarajevo has been one of those times. This city made me feel and understand the former Yugoslavia more than any of the other cities we’ve visited, but aided by all of them. I’ll give you that we skipped parts of the Balkans I really wanted to visit, and I’m not particularly happy about that. However, we’ve made up for it in finding some of the better tour guides to experience this area with and have heard different sides and stories that, when synthesized, yield more color than I think I would have received from reading alone. Where the West Ends was also instrumental in shaping some of this and laying down a base layer for us to feed on and ask better questions of our guides.
We opened with a free walking tour, which has been our go-to strategy since being suggested by a friend, Paul. We met Neno of Sarajevo Walking Tours at the National Theater, along with a rather large crowd. The largest we’ve experienced yet. (disclaimer: it was much worse in Prague, but they split the group into pieces). We saw notable sights and learned a bit of history and local perspective. Neno was seven or so when the 44 month Siege of Sarajevo took place. Neno also let us in on the local economy and the feelings of young people. Bosnia has dim economic prospects. Largely a resource economy that supplies other countries for finished goods. Meaning, much of the value-add is done somewhere else. This point, combined with +40% unemployment, and worse numbers concentrated in the youth.
This leads to a brain drain as well as a general youth drain. Many young people seek out avenues of moving to other countries, specifically west, for better jobs and prospects for building a life. To some, this may seem short sighted. If enough young people stayed (or returned) and started building up a creative economy and injecting a new lifeblood, Bosnia could be changed for the better. Yes, but after getting a lesson in the political system one might continue with the despair.
Before we dive into that, I’ll mention the paid tour we did with Ervin of Toorico Tours.
We met in Pigeon Square with two other couples. One from London, the other a pair of doctors traveling for six months from New Zealand. Lovely people to spend the day with, along with Ervin, who is affable, knowledgeable, humorous and well read. He took great care of us throughout the day and I would highly recommend spending time with him, we did the War Tour which includes many important sights which are photographed and captioned further below. We hopped into a van and got panoramic views of the city from the Yellow Fortress, visited the Jewish Cemetary, Olympic podium and ski jump, Olympic luge, the Tunnel of Hope, and Sniper Alley all while hearing Ervin’s first and second hand accounts.
The political situation is shaped by the Dayton Accords, which took place in Dayton, Ohio only a few hours away from where I grew up. At the Hope Hotel inside Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in November 1995, President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, President Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia signed the peace agreement. The agreement set forth a framework to end the violence and set up a functioning government in Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, this essentially froze the conflict with no clear winner or loser, icing the ethnic conflict that emerged when Yugoslavia began to fall into pieces. This part, the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the subsequent frothing of ethnic and nationalistic violence are worthy of another volume of information I am not qualified to give you. The sound bite is: as the country fractured, Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence. When Bosnia and Herzegovina did the same, the Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox) and Croats (Catholic) felt a debasing coming that would leave the Bosniaks (Muslim) in control. That’s the spark, distilled. Links and recommended reading are below.
Explaining the current structure of government is not possible without mentioning the Yugoslav breakup, subsequent violence, and the Dayton Accords. Because these separate entities and ethnic groups were all given slices of the pie of power in governing Bosnia and Herzegovina. I think is most strikingly exemplified by there being three separate presidents. Also, three post office systems, complete with their own stamps. Both these institutions and several others are split between the Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats, along religious and ethnic lines.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country, is broken into two main pieces: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Republika of Srpska. Each has quite a bit of autonomy, which seems to me like two nearly separate states complete with large signs denoting when entering or leaving the Federation or the Republic with road condition changes to match. You may be driving on one road, and cross this border over and over in only a few miles, and it will be clear you’re crossing due to the road quality changes. These lines might seem imaginary, but some clearly find it very important still.
Then, within the Federation, there are 10 cantons, not unlike the cantons in Switzerland. Each canton has its own administration and another good dose of autonomy. These layers and separate silos of government add up, toss in the fact that state officials often make much more than the average in Bosnia (which would not include other remunerations that cannot or are not counted) and you have a fat and ineffectual government. After each election, more time is spent fighting over who will sit in what seat and for how long than any actual governing. The perspectives we’ve been let in on here make the people running the government sound self-serving and are in a machine that self-perpetuates and profits only those within it.
As a young person, assessing one’s prospects, it’s easy to imagine needing out. It also helps to explain the strong prevalence of a cash economy here. Who wants to pay taxes when 60% of it goes to paying for administration, only 40% carries any action with it and from what I’ve read that action is often corrupt or poorly designed at best. This is a country of 3.5 million, a lot of cities in the U.S. have more people and smaller governments. You may feel like your own government isn’t effective, but trust me when I say western Europe and the United States are light years ahead in effective governing. Count your blessings and participate. One example, in Bosnia, there is an Office of the High Representative, held by a foreign representative, who can sack anyone in government they see as holding peace in contempt. A position, when held by the interested and benevolent, seems like a solid post-war idea in a nonintegrated integration. But, one bad apple while the international community isn’t looking and I fear what difficulties could emerge. The Federation. The Republic. The Office of the High Representative. It’s all sounding quite like Star Wars.
It leads one to ask how these tensions are today. Has there been enough healing and forgiveness to withstand a shift or evolution in government and structure? Do people think there could be violence in the near term future? In talking with Serbs in southern Bosnia and in Serbia, in talking with Bosniaks and agnostics in Sarajevo, and Croats in Croatia, the area seems well set for peace. They all seem to travel frequently throughout the former territory, they have family scattered throughout and across borders, and there are plenty of mixed marriages. But, the same could largely be said for before the war. I started looking for thoughtful reporting both on the fragility/strength of government in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as a deeper dive of the events that made the international community intervene.
I thoroughly recommend this Times piece as it covers the war crimes, aftermath years later, characters that illustrate the then and now, as well as the terrible confusion and finger pointing that persists. Walking around Mostar or Sarajevo you will still see messages of “Never Forget” or “All Gave Some, Some Gave All” and “Remember Srebrenica.” After that, you might wonder what has come of the sentencing of two war criminals. We listened to a video of Ratko Mladić citing the justification or motivation for the cleansing and violence against the Bosniaks on Ottoman oppression.
Pause on that for a moment, and think about when the last major Ottoman oppression against the Serbs might have taken place. The fall of the Ottoman Empire was in 1922, as a starting point. However, when we were in Belgrade being shown around The Church of Saint Sava, it didn’t take long for the gentleman to bring up the Serbs having protected Europe from hundreds of years of Ottoman aggression. All this does for me is embolden: violence begets more violence.
If you have other suggestions, please pass them along.
Besides the two tours mentioned above, we also spent a couple hours at Sarajevo’s City Hall which was reopened in 2014 after being firebombed by Serb forces during the Siege. Over two million books and magazines went up in flames, destroying some of Sarajevo’s written culture and history. Built during the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Sarajevo, it is a strikingly beautiful building worth walking around and then touring the museum in the basement. We did this upon getting to town, and the exhibits in the museum took us from the city’s founding to modern times.
We stayed in Sarajevo for an extended time, in part to plan further out and do research for Morocco and Portugal. This also allowed us to cook in and save some cash. That didn’t stop us from having the next best meal since that little pasta place in Modena. We’ve eaten at Dveri, which is hidden along one of the old town side streets, twice now. We’ve sampled four dishes and all were top notch and a great relief from the usual ćevapi. Beefsteak in Gorgonzola, Chicken Curry, Gulash, Pesto Ceasar Salad and a side of bread. We’re considering a third visit, but feel guilty we aren’t sampling other places. I also recommend getting a drink at Zlatna Ribica, or Goldfish. It is part hipster, part steampunk, and all funky cafe and bar. Other places that have been recommended that we will try to get to are Barhana, and To Be. Update, we ate at To Be, which was also wonderful. Dveri, however, keeps its podium finish.
We also had the pleasure of attending the Sarajevo Chamber of Music Festival where they annually host the Manhattan String Quartet. This year, a string quartet from Princeton University also played. This was the seventh or eighth year for the event, and it was great to see the locals and Americans mixing it up before and after the event.
To close, I’ll note that we are staying in the home of Ziyah Gafic, a Sarajevo native who has gone on to photograph areas of the world torn apart by war as his home was in his childhood. We have not had the pleasure of meeting Ziyah, but his father is super nice. Our apartment in their home has Ziyah’s work hanging on the walls and his books available to peruse. Stop by his website to see some of his work, and as a TED Fellow you can check out his TED Talk and writings for TED. Also, take the time to visit the Srebrenica Gallery and the War Child Museum, or pick up the book.
We loved Sarajevo. I can’t tell you enough how wonderful it was to come here. Don’t let the heavy history stop you, or make you think this is the only thing on offer here. Sarajevo has a wonderful old town full of shopping that is still frequented by locals. This means it isn’t a bunch of touristy trash, and the prices are not gouging you. The surrounding nature of Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot be beaten either. Go rafting, go hiking, and so much more. The post next week will cover much of the wilderness activities in southern Bosnia and Herzegovnia (otherwise Republika Srpska territory). Also, here is the Blagaj Tekke link from the photos you’ll see below.
Thanks for reading.
Photographs follow, mostly captioned to help tie to the above content, as well as a YouTube video that you really should not pass up watching.
On our way to Sarajevo, we stopped for a night in Mostar, the capital of Herzegovina. Stari Most, or Old Bridge, was reconstructed after Croats shelled the Ottoman bridge during the civil war – Notice the minarets and the large cross looking down from the hill
Mostar was full of ruins – while the city has strong tourism, and is very touristy, war and peace are both very visible
We left Mostar and visited Blagaj Tekke, an old Dervish house
Blagaj Tekke – Looking up on one prayer room
Blagaj Tekke – Shell was adorned for dress code purposes, I should have brought my longyi
Bosnian coffee reminds me of the Serbian coffee I had in Belgrade, and the Turkish coffee I had in London…
Sarajevo City Hall – Plaque as seen before entering the building – Remembering may be important, but words like these do not heal
Sarajevo City Hall – Main Atrium
Sarajevo City Hall – An Istanbul Exhibit was on display while we were there – Turkey continues to donate money to Bosnia for various rebuilding and goodwill purposes
Sarajevo City Hall – Windows casting their light
Sarajevo City Hall – pictures of the Siege, top: Sniper Alley – cars placed to help make for safer passage
Sarajevo has been full of surprises and feelings. Much like what these pigeons experienced one morning.
Inside the Tunnel of Hope that sustained the population of Sarajevo during the 44 month Siege of Sarajevo
Many shells exploded near or on streets and sidewalks, many of which now have the indentations painted red as reminders
Shell standing on the Olympic podium of the ’84 winter games
Olympic Bobsled – Graffiti
Olympic Bobsled – Shell thinking you luge uphill 😉
I don’t need to add to this message, except to say there were many messages of peace and hope scattered in the graffiti – that, and f*ck trump more than just once
Hotel Igman – formerly a five star hotel in the mountains for the 84 games was firebombed by Serbs and abandoned
Hotel Igman – elevator bank
Hotel Igman – five floors up looking down the empty elevator shaft
The street corner where Franz Ferdinand was shot
Walking home one night with twinkling lights of homes further up the mountain valley – shrapnel damage remains everywhere through the city
The War Child Museum – Each exhibit pulled for your tears and also pride in the human spirit. Notice the logo in the of the museum in the rear, Shell finds it extremely powerful
War Child Museum – Full of both warming and heartbreaking stories
War Child Museum – Full of both warming and heartbreaking stories
Local painter selling his creations in the old market
Manhattan String Quartet, Princeton University String Quartet, and students of the Sarajevo Music Academy performing Beethoven’s Grosse fuga at the Sarajevo Chamber of Music Festival
Restaurant Dveri, our runaway favorite, with a message of pluralism. The kitchen can be seen just behind, it’s tiny
Yesterday, September 1st, we arrived in Trogir, Croatia. Not far from Split. It has a small and beautifully walled old town, not unlike Dubrovnik or Kotor, but with a bit more elbow room from other humans. There is a large fortress at one end of the island that was built in 1420 by the Venetians who once ruled the area. The beaches are not as gorgeous as some others we’ve had in Croatia, but as storms roll in today it doesn’t seem like we’ll be getting much use of them anyway.
This morning, while still in bed, I read The Saturday Essay in the Wall Street Journal. Today’s is written by Paul Theroux entitled “The Romance of the American Road Trip”. Theroux’s travels have spanned the globe with some real red blooded adventure. You can hear him reflecting on all the want that took him to the far reaches of Africa more than once to fuel his writings. Only then to see so much adventure that can be had in America.
He opens with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda’s discussion that led them to hop in a car and head straight for the deep south in a secondhand 1918 Marmon Speedster in search of biscuits and peaches. Two novice drivers and a 1,200 mile journey that would eventually take them through many breakdowns and crashes long before quality roads could be counted upon, and certainly no interstate highway system.
Theroux successfully romanticizes the American road trip, while also reminiscing his own more worldly trips. But one great reason for staying back in the U.S.? You are then able to avoid the displeasures of TSA, encounters with which he equates to his dealings with security forces in the former U.S.S.R. In his mind, there is too much to offer:
“Nowhere else in the world (though Canada is a contender) is it possible to drive 3,000 miles—the distance from Boston to Los Angeles—and be certain that you will encounter no roadblocks or obstructions; that you will always find a place to stay and somewhere to eat; and that you will be privileged to observe a river the equal of the Ganges or the Yangtze, mountains as great as the Himalayas, a desert as dramatic as any in Africa or Asia, and fertile fields and pastures of grazing animals unmatched in the world.”
I completely agree and look forward to one day being able to make some trip like the Fitzgeralds’. I’d also say that you don’t have to be American to do any of that, fly on over, rent a vehicle, and go to it. America is huge, take your time and soak it in. That’s exactly what we’ve been trying to do with Europe. We’ve only taken two flights on this trip so far, which is often times more economical than trains, sadly.
The Balkans is also a prime road trip destination. Train infrastructure doesn’t exist or isn’t great, and unless you want to only go from city to city, I recommend renting a car. We’ll have had our black Opel Astra for 34 days when we return it in Ljubljana, only to move all our bags into another car some friends are renting for two more weeks of exploring and road tripping. Then we take a bus to Venice for a night before a flight to Morocco.
Note: WSJ has a paywall. Try Googling the full title of the article to circumvent.
Below are some of the few pictures I liked from our couple of hours in Dubrovnik. If traveling differently than we are now there are ways to cushion yourself from the hoards of people within the town walls. But, with Game of Thrones and now Star Wars making the city into some theme park attraction, it seems to Shell and me that they’ll need to start charging admission to control the headcount in any given hour. As you might imagine, we got in and got out. It is a stunningly beautiful place, deserving of the attention it has received. That said, a similar experience can be had in Kotor or Trogir. We stayed in a sleepy beach village called Zaton. We loved it, partly due to our lovely and warm Airbnb host who we felt like we really got to know. Also because the landscape was conducive to stress-free running paths and frequent dips in the ocean. A cheap and short bus ride away from Dubrovnik.
Thanks for reading
Dubrovnik’s old port
The city is littered with staircases – each with their own beauty. It was difficult to capture given only one lens choice
On our drive past Dubrovnik from Montenegro, we were headed to Zaton beach
It is a fairy tale type place. Visually, some mix of Disney, Hogwarts, and something one’s own imagination came up with during bed time stories. The reality of being in Prague on foot in August was to be competing in a sea of humanity. As one Czech put it to us, “No Czechs here other than those that work, everyone lives outside of the old town.” We only had two nights, so our experience was relegated to the old town during one of the busiest weeks.
Prague was our first stop on a quick week descending Eastern Europe from Berlin to Ljubljana. We were unsuccessful in arranging a rental car from Berlin due to restrictions on where we could take the car as I mentioned in a previous post. Despite working around these restrictions, we would still face more that would keep us from getting everywhere we wanted to see – Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, and Bulgaria.
If Prague is a spectacle for the eyes, there must be some reason. Given its location and proximity to the World Wars, other conflicts, and being behind the Iron Curtain, all of which should have deteriorated the beauty. But, Prague was spared a lot of damage in WWII, which also limits the amount of rebuilding in communist architecture.
Other qualities that made Prague feel magical were the amount of live music in the streets and what felt like a general levity. Maybe it was all the heavy history in Berlin, but Prague felt like more of a joy.
We took a free walking tour where an American named David Evans gave us the best free tour we’ve experienced so far. He was extremely knowledgeable and funny. I doubt he’ll be doing the tours forever, but if you find yourself in Prague definitely try and find him. Being with David is like drinking Slavic knowledge from a fire hose. This might be especially difficult if you’re not a native English speaker. But I loved him, and I hope he gets to buy his dream castle in the Czech country side one day. After the tour, David recommended we try an old communist style eating hall, Lokal. Solid food choices at good prices, where we shared a table with two women who also did the tour who are from Canada, but both have been living and working in London for some years now. Both were reaching the end of their time in the city.
Another place we loved and went to upon arriving in town was Atrium. While we just missed their kitchen closing that time, we went back for more partly due to the beautiful space. We left happy. On our last morning, we stopped for breakfast at Home Kitchen which was equally adorable and delicious. We spent a lot of time walking the streets at various times of the day. The lighting would change, making for new looks at different hours.
Spending some time at Prague Castle is definitely worth your time, we chose to watch the sunset from up there which was a great choice. There is a small security checkpoint to go through before entering the grounds. Prague Castle is the seat of the Czechia government where the President works. It isn’t just an empty tourist attraction. We approached security, and Shell had to have her bag checked. The first guard found our bottle of wine and called his colleague over and started asking questions. But the smiles broke out pretty quickly after we offered to open it and share a glass with the guards. They waved us on to have a good time. Fun fact, the Rolling Stones lighting director was the one who lit Prague Castle, all donated by the Rolling Stones as a personal favor and gift to the Czech people and to their friend and President at the time, Vaclav Havel.
My favorite shot from our time in Prague
St. Vitus Cathedral
Shot from Prague Castle, we watched the full moon rise and hang over the city
I think she wanted to move in…
Exploring the grounds of Prague Castle
Church of Our Lady before Týn – Hogwarts anyone?
There’s always room for ice cream in a fairy tale
I have an obsession with beautiful doors, don’t be surprised if this is expanded upon later
We spent Friday evening, August 11th, in Ljubljana with Anya, Jaka, and their 2.5-year-old son. Ljubljana has a Friday food festival where restaurants, breweries, and other vendors from across Slovenia converge to serve up their dishes to the city. A heat wave had struck recently, the same one we had in Budapest, but it had broken earlier that Friday. Which would make this Friday particularly busy as people were taking in the celebration and nice weather.
Before things really started picking up downtown Ljubljana, there was space for this kid to test out his moves. He got cheers from a load of people behind us.
Shell met Anya and Jaka when she summered in Europe five years ago when the three of them were in southern Italy. I had a great time meeting them, and learned Jaka had done a very similar drive to what Shell and I are doing, but 15 years ago. This gave me a needed confidence boost. That was not long after the breakup of Yugoslavia, and I’m certain infrastructure conditions were worse.
I had spent too much time online reading about which roads and paths to take, learning how driving would be in each country we were planning to cross. What the border crossings will be like, and so on. Enough that I was beginning to worry about being in the middle of nowhere Serbia or Bosnia after sun down on a one-lane, but two-way, mountainous road. My imagination was getting the best of me. One thing still stands though, it will be a harrowing experience in Montenegro. All reports online, from Jaka, and other first person accounts tell me we’ll be white knuckled by the end of it.
However, not one person said they wouldn’t do it again. Jaka put it this way. It is so beautiful, that you will want to stop at mile one, then you will travel one more mile and say we have to stop again, and then at the next mile … you get the picture, all the way from Montenegro up the Adriatic coast. I’ll play lost, maybe throw on my old wizard costume, and let the Montenegrins think I’m an old man tourist so they don’t play chicken with me on the sheer cliffs.
We left Ljubljana Saturday morning. Our agent at the car rental office was very thorough and supportive of our trip. Completely the opposite of everyone in Germany, who outright refused to let their cars travel where we are going. I’ll note, we rented a nearly new German car from a Germany company. One that refused us in Germany. Shrugs.
Anyway, the agent filled us in on border crossings, toll roads and payments, things that made us ready to go. We hit some spectacular thunderstorms after we left the mountains of Slovenia. Through Croatia we saw thick forests, some slashed, that would later give way to plains in Serbia. Through the plains, we could see the lightning strike from top to bottom, over and over. It was a magnificent drive.
Reminds me of Indiana. Corn and all.
Borders from Slovenia to Croatia were a breeze and did not delay us much. Moving from Croatia to Serbia was another matter. While it ended up being easy, there was much delay. Going the other way, looked like a four-hour wait. If it hadn’t been raining like a hurricane, people would have been getting their camping chairs out and smoke whatever packs they had left. I feel sorry for the border guards once those folks run out of smokes. There are still a lot of cigarettes on this continent.
We’ve been listening to Where the West Ends on the drive so far. The book’s author has provided a lot of color, history, and fun storytelling from his adventures in the Middle East and the Balkans. It has also helped remind me of the recent past in this region. I have a good friend who hung out the side of helicopters in this region just after high school. We spent so much time in Berlin thinking about how recent Germany’s history was, and now, nearly anyone on the street should be able to tell us a story.
We got to Belgrade, and spend three nights here. So far, everyone has been extraordinarily nice to us. Last night we went to the Church of Saint Sava and got a very private tour of the crypt. Calling it a tour isn’t really the best description. One of the renovators, or caretakers, of the church invited us down to the crypt which looked closed down for the night. Shell, me, and another family of three walk down the stairs and past the heavy green velvet curtain.
It’s been under construction on and off for more than a century. One of the largest church buildings in the world, at the site where the Ottoman Turks burned the Serbian Saint Sava. The inside is cavernous and covered in scaffolding as construction has once again started.
Inside of Saint Sava
Inside of Saint Sava – there is a guy riding an elevator down in the middle scaffolding tower
Once we pulled back that heavy curtain, it opened to a crypt full of ornate decoration. If the crypt is any clue to the finished church upstairs, it will be something else to see. The caretaker gave us the needed history lesson to understand and appreciate Saint Sava, and his importance to the Serbian people. This gentleman spent some time with us and is clearly devout. He then turned to us and asked us about the favorite saint in America. I had trouble coming up with a meaningful answer that I thought was fair. But I leaned on the story of my own name, and what it means to me and my family. I think he appreciated that, but he didn’t seem to know Saint Isidore. He pointed out each saint on the walls of the crypt that either spent time in America or died in America.
Today we got caught up on things like writing and planning, as well as some other responsibilities hanging over from our previous life. Later in the afternoon, we went on a walking tour of central Belgrade. We hit a lot of historical sights and took in some history. Contrasting some of Where the West Ends with our tour guide’s native Serbian perspective. He shared some of the national drink with us, Rakia, which is a plum brandy. Sometimes it maybe grape or something else, but a fellow tour guide’s grandfather makes it and we all had a shot. It’s one way to spawn audience participation. One man on the tour with us lives in Los Angeles and was on a ten country tour doing street art. He seems to do well for himself. I joked that we met Banksy.
We then ate at a Kafana, a distinct local bistro of the former Yugoslav countries. By the time we had finished there was a man playing old tunes on a violin and people were getting cheery. Our server was the nicest old man. Shell aptly commented, “I wish we could hear his story, there’s no way it’s simple.”
Seeing the end of the west, as we move into Cyrillic languages
Confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers
An older building, by Belgrade standards
From here we head to southern Bosnia for some camping and river rafting for a few days. We’ll be disconnected for that time, but I hope to catch up on all the missing pieces there, even if it doesn’t involve much story telling. Budapest, Berlin, Hamburg, Prague.
After camping in Bosnia we head to:
Dugi Otok Island, Croatia
And then we make our way back to Ljubljana to meet up with Minh and Paul for some more excursions in Slovenia and Croatia.
Thank you for reading
Stefan, our tour guide, in the Bohemian District where a Czech man started a brewery and a lot of artists squatted. Such as the man who is now a statue.
Grafitti has taken new shapes
See protest posters hung outside the national assembly of “Innocent Serbian Victims Murdered By Muslim War Criminals”
More propaganda about Bill and Hillary Clinton as it related to Kosovo, and NATO aggression.