Belgrade Bike Ferry

This morning I took the kids on a bike ride around the Sava River. We started on the New Belgrade side of the river and rode across on the new Ada Bridge. After playing in several playgrounds on the island of Ada Ciganlija, we took the famous blue bike ferry from the island back to New Belgrade. There are two boat companies (blue and yellow) that taxi people from New Belgrade to Ada. It is great for kids and they love being on the water. The boat operators say on a hot summer day they will transport between 600-800 people to and from the island. Today we were the only ones on and it cost us 1.50 Euros to make the crossing.

The air was so fresh, cool, with the scents of flowers all around, it really felt like spring. I had a wonderful day with the family!

Reflections of Valencia, Spain

The View from the Micalet Tower – Valencia Cathedral

 

I just completed five days in Valencia, Spain. I have been to Spain many times, but only the island of Mallorca, where I did my Master’s degree and a family holiday two years ago. This was the first time on mainland Spain and in a large city. I was very impressed with Valencia, it reminded me somewhat of California. It has the same climate, located on the coast, with palms and orange trees everywhere. I didn’t know that Valencia was such a large city (the third biggest in Spain after Madrid and  Barcelona) and that it was part of the Catalan region. This makes sense geographically, because it is located directly due west of Mallorca.

The best thing about the city besides the obvious Mediterranean Sea and sunshine, is what city officials did with the Turia River. It used to flow through the city and in 1957, a major flood made city officials reconsider it. They decided to re-route the river, bypassing the city to the south. They then took the river bed which meandered through the city and converted into a long green belt of parks and sports facilities. There are soccer fields, a gorgeous baseball field, athletics stadium, and hundreds of playgrounds and picnic areas. There are bike and running paths running its length on both sides. Yesterday, I rented  a bicycle from Passion Bike (highly recommended) and took the kids from the historic city center, all the way to the beaches and back. It was a glorious, cool, grey day of exercise! Having lived in Venezuela and visited city named, Valencia there, they also have a narrow park in the city, but it is much smaller and smells of sewage. I have to commend the Valencia city officials for this idea. They are also maintaining the park very well and the landscaping and condition of the playgrounds and paths were excellent. Between the beach and Turia park is an industrial area that is really run down. I noticed some of the Formula One race track used to be here. I guess they ran out of money after developing the City of Arts and Sciences, but it is area which could be made nicer.

Bike Ride on Malvarrosa Beach

Near the former mouth of the river is a complex of museums and civic attractions called The City of Arts and Sciences. The futuristic architecture makes it look like the set of a science fiction movie, and it brought back memories of the 1970’s movie, Logan’s Run. We took the kids to the aquarium, the largest in Europe. It costs 27 Euros to enter and featured a dolphin show (lame in my opinion) and large and small tanks of sea life from a range of habitats and oceans. As with all zoos and aquariums, they give me mixed feelings. It is fascinating to see the wonders of nature, but I feel for the large, higher intelligent animals that live in such small spaces. I also prefer to see specimens in the wild to zoos, but it does give access to elderly and the less adventurous.

As with most cities in the Mediterranean, the architecture reflects the long history of different civilization that have called the place home. The old city is quite compact and well-preserved, with a good mix of the old and modern. The Valencianos enjoy socializing and it showed with the numerous cafes, restaurants, bars, located outdoors in the narrow streets. There were many gorgeous plazas and we walked through them daily. There were many tourists, but not an overwhelming number due to it being off season. The beach was very quiet and on the two days we visited, it was overcast. I did manage to get in the water, despite the cool breeze. There is something soothing and invigorating about swimming in the sea.

Soccer is the big sport here and the sports pages and televisions were full of highlights from the Spanish and Champions Leagues. I still don’t understand the appeal of the league without salary caps for teams. Year after year, it is dominated by the big two, Barcelona and Madrid, with only a handful of teams having a realistic shot of breaking through. Valencia is one of those teams, but they are down in the standings this year. (Look up why the theme of the bat). I also heard and saw less Catalan than in Mallorca. I was complemented on my Spanish several times and it is always nice to understand the locals in their native tongue. It made me enthusiastic for keeping my Spanish sharp. I need to look for an advanced Spanish book with tips and pointers to polish my level. I will be spending a couple of weeks in Bolivia and it will be a good opportunity to practice this June.

Ayuntamiento of Valencia

Overall, I had an enjoyable visit to Valencia and I would definitely come back with my family. The Turia River Green Belt, great weather, beaches, and old city, makes Valencia a premier tourist attraction. I would like to thank my co-chaperone on the trip, Milica Rkulovic, our school’s Spanish teacher, for inviting me to go with the class. She was delightful and I had fun with her and the students.

 

 

My Visit to the island of Malta

 

The Grand Harbor of Valletta

I had five pleasant days on the island of Malta this week. Our school participated in a  theatre festival and I was one of the chaperones.

I didn’t realize how small the island of Malta is. It is one of the smallest countries in the world by area, and with 400,000 Maltese, it is the third most densely populated nation in the world. As with most places in the Mediterranean, it has stunning scenery and a long history. Malta particularly has such a strategic position historically, that many different people fought over the island for thousands of years. The Mediterranean is very narrow south of Sicily and north of Tunis (formerly Carthage) and Malta lies in the center of this strait. It was fought over by the Phoenicians, Arabs, Ottomans, English Knights, Napoleon, etc. all the way up to World War II. Malta received more bombs than most cities in World War II except for London and Berlin. All of these different people had an influence on the Maltese and it can be seen in their faces and their language and architecture.

Marsaxlokk Village – Malta

We got to meet a lot of Maltese because we were hosted by the Verdala International School. The language is strange in that it is Semitic (Sicilian Arabic) but mixed with a bit of Italian and they use a Latin alphabet, with a few extra letters. It is really hard to understand and sounds very Arabic. I learned that Sa-ha means “to health” and it is the “cheers” greeting. Some Maltese look Italian and some look Arabic. They take pride in eating excellent food and having a hearty appetite and it showed with many having stocky or portly builds. The architecture was similar to Bahrain and the Gulf Region, and there were also many beautiful, old, palaces and buildings. There are no wilderness areas as the entire island is pretty much either urban or farmland. There are many walled cities and fortresses, and this reflects the many sieges that took place here. The most recent outsiders to rule the island, the British, left in 1964, but their influence is still seen. It reminded me of Cyprus in that respect.

Walking the Streets of Mdina, Malta

It was the perfect time to be there for the spring wildflowers. In a few weeks, they will wither away and the hot, intense, summer sun will turn the island from green to brown. Everywhere one went, thousands of bushes, trees, and plants were in bloom. I did get a chance to do some sight seeing. The festival organizers took us to the “silent city” of Mdina, a walled fortress in the middle of the island. The narrow streets, high walls, and views to the Mediterranean were an impressive site. Malta, like, Poland, is very Catholic. 500 years ago, the Crusader Knights were sent to the island to defend it from the Ottomans. There were churches everywhere, and the tourist brochures say there are 365 of them on the island. We also saw a site of ruins that looked like a bigger Stone Henge. They were built 3,500 years ago and were located on the cliffs on the north side of the island. We went for a hike through the wildflower-filled cliffs and stopped for delicious fish lunch. On our final day we toured a small picturesque fishing village and walked around the magnificent harbor of Valletta. Absolutely breath-taking is the only way I can describe it. You can see for yourself with the photos.

We stayed the Marina Hotel, in the posh suburb of St. Julian’s. The school’s campus is close by and is an old British fort from the late 19th century. An unique setting for a school, with a large moat surrounding the school and gun turrets in the corners. Probably the coolest part of the old fort are the long tunnels under the fort. The British built 5 forts on the island during this time, and this particular fort, Pembrooke, was never used as a fort because military experts thought it was too exposed. It served as a barracks and supply storage for them. With the advent of modern warfare and the airplane, the fort was made quickly obsolete. The tunnels did come in handy in World War II, where British soldiers and others there took refuge in them. You can still see the names of the families painted on the walls to assign spaces for them. There were still some metal frames of the bunk beds attached to the walls and even graffiti of Hitler.

It is a really nice place to visit. The harbor in the capital city of Valletta is absolutely breathtaking. The narrow streets, limestone walls, the turquoise blue waters, and that Mediterranean sunshine combine for spectacular setting. I would like to thank Daphne and the other faculty members of the Verdala International School for being such fine hosts and showing us the best of Malta.

 

Spring Weather and Serbian Elections

Last weekend we enjoyed the fresh spring weather and went for a picnic and hike in the Fruška Gora (Frankish Hill) National Park. The park is the hilly area in the northern part of Serbia in the center of the Panonian Plain. We first had a nice picnic on the grounds of the Stari Hopovo Monastery. After lunch, we went for a walk up into the forest. The boys brought their nerf guns and played hide and seek with Ocean. There are no leaves on the trees yet, so one could see a long way. A few spring wildflowers were out.

Serbian National Elections were on Sunday and as expected the Serbian Progressive Party won an absolute majority (48%) and do not have to form a coalition with any other party. They will name Aleksandar Vučić as the Prime Minister on May 1. This is the first single-party majority this century since the fall of Slobodan Milosević. He is from New Belgrade (Blok 45) and when a young man, he was a vocal member of the Serbian Radical Party, a far right, ultranationalist party. He called for the killing of muslims and protecting war criminal Ratko Mladić. He is now pro-Europe and much calmer as an older man. He is quite popular because of his anti-corruption stance and fighting organized crime. I am not sure how much is rhetoric and how much he is really doing because I don’t follow politics and the news enough. He is shown below saving the lives of school children trapped in a bus during a bad snow storm this winter in Vojvodina. The Serbs have a sarcastic sense of humor and they saw a political photo opportunity. Very funny!

Father and Sons

It is such a privilege to be a father! I can’t put adequately into words how I feel about the truly awesome responsibility of fatherhood. I am a very lucky man to have two sons. As they are getting older, our relationship is getting more interesting as they are developing their own opinions and personalities. I wish I had more time and patience for them! As my mother says, we do the best we can.

Last week we noticed that we were wearing the same outfits. The dark blue, long-sleeved shirt and black sweat pants are “my uniform” according to Nadia. They are comfortable and on weekends I am usually playing sport, so I wear them often. The boys love wearing their black sweat pants and were fighting over them last week. It dawned on me it is probably because they see me wearing them all the time. It made me realize they are always watching me, and taking cues on how to be a man. That is a big responsibility.

We wanted to give mom a hard time, so we took the photo above. :)

Below is a photo from last week’s basketball game. It is one of the best parts of my week- the practices and games I have with the Junior Dragon basketball team. I love coaching Owen, Oliver and their friends. What an honor it is to coach them!

Visit To Skopje, Macedonia

This is my second visit to Skopje, as I was here in September 2012, about 1 and 1/2 years ago, which I blogged about here. I am here this week for a basketball tourney so haven’t had much time to see the city.

We did a walking tour of downtown last night, and you can see above the Palace of Justice behind one of the many statues along the Vardar River. That is one thing I will miss about living in Europe is being able to see so many different countries in such a short time. The drive from Belgrade to Skopje is about 5 hours. Skopje was once part of Yugoslavia and one can still see the distinctive Socialist architecture here and there. The Macedonians are trying to re-do the city in their own image with many new buildings. There is also a Turkish/Albanian influence, as the country is about 25% ethnic Albanian. Our host Aleksandar said that the fortress is closed to the public due to a dispute between the muslim community and the Macedonian Orthodox community. City officials were to build or open an Orthodox Church there and the Albanian community opposed it.

Macedonia was a smaller part of the ex-Yugoslavia, with only about 2 million inhabitants. Beside Tito’s Partisans wanting the area, the Macedonians have also been sought after by the Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbians, Ottomans, etc. I am happy they have their independence, but feel if they wanted a larger country, they would best fit with the Bulgarians.

Boris Trajkovski Sports Center – Skopje, Macedonia

I am here for a basketball tournament with our High School Boys’ team. We are playing games at the Boris Trajkovski Sports Center, which is named after the former President of Macedonia. He died in an airplane crash while visiting Bosnia 10 years ago. He was a Methodist Minister and was known as a moderate who promoted inclusion of all ethnic groups in Macedonia. This is a quality still much needed today in the Balkans. He is regarded as a hero by the Macedonians and the government has built a beautiful center with a hockey rink, pool, arena, gymnasium, etc.

Reflections of Turkey

Nadia and Owen share a dunja on our bike ride

We really had a nice holiday this week in Istanbul. I had wanted to visit the city for a long time because of the Ottoman Empire’s long domination of Belgrade. It was interesting to see what the Serbs took from the Turks that can still be seen today. There are many Turkish words that were adopted by the Serbs and customs as well. Istanbul is also one of the world cities that everyone should visit and the Turks are the classic, East meets West regarding its history and culture. I am fascinated with contrasting the liberal, European-type aspects of the city with the conservative, Islamic side of the society. The contrast could be seen in the dress of the people in the streets, with head scarves on some women and tight mini-skirts and flowing hair on others. There also seemed to be a lot of tourism from both European countries and Middle Eastern nations. For example, we met three people from Saudi Arabia on the ferry and there were lots of “ninjas” as the expats call them in the Arabian Gulf region, or women wearing full, black covering seen in the city.

Seagulls chase the ferry with Maiden’s Tower in the background

We saw the secular side of the city in talking with the manager of the Asitane Restaurant. He was complaining about the high taxes the conservative Islamic government puts on wine, making it very expensive and hard for vineyards to make a living. I highly recommend the restaurant, by the way! It specializes in old Ottoman recipes. His team was testing wines to put on the menu. We also met our former colleague Alison, who teaches at Robert College, for lunch, and she told us some stories that illustrated both sides of Turkey. The Turkish faculty working at the school are very secular, with few going to mosque on Fridays. Robert College is one of the oldest and largest American International schools in the world. However, she also said that Islam was put on her children’s birth certificates automatically. Another example is the many beer advertisements, bars, and transvestites in Taksim, the neighborhood where we stayed, while hearing the call to prayer several times per day. The call to prayer is a reminder to all muslims of the main tenets of Islam. It sounds so foreign and exotic to me, and you really get the sense of being someplace different. I don’t know about the 5:44 AM call to prayer that we heard in the mornings. I am sure a mosque in a Christian country would not do this as they would receive complaints from the neighbors. 

Ollie contributes to Istanbul’s daily tea total – Kabatas

I wanted to reflect on the final few days here. On Thursday the weather cooperated and we took advantage of the blue skies and took the ferry to the nearby Andalar (Prince’s Islands) in the Sea of Marmara. The kids were thrilled to feed the seagulls that followed the boat the entire journey. We rented bikes and rode around and stopped at a beautiful park. The beaches off season were not maintained, but we also collected some shells. There are no cars on the island, but plenty of horse-drawn carriages, which were fascinating to the kids. It was a lovely day and I see why the islands are a popular day trip from the city.

Meeting With Friends at the Spice Bazaar

There is so much history to the city! We visited the Basilica Cisterns, which the Byzantines constructed 1,500 years ago. Oliver and Ocean turned temporarily to stone after seeing Medusa’s head, which was used as a base of one of the pillars to hold up a column. We also enjoyed the Spice Bazaar and learned all about Iranian saffron. I was joking with the shop attendants about the Turks’ obsession with tea. One said 99% of Turks drink tea and probably about a billion cups are drank on a daily basis. I would estimate it would be more like 50 million per day, if one assumes 3 cups per day for most inhabitants.

Columns supporting the Basilica Cistern

We finished our shopping with another carpet. Nadia loves Turkish carpets and I like the stories behind them. They will look great in our apartment. The shop owner said the Prime Minister urged Turkish women to have 3-5 children and I was faithful to his wishes. The shop was owned by Kurds, and we got to know them quite well. One brother married a Bosnian from Mostar and the other a French woman who was shopping for carpets at one of their stores. The younger brother is moving to Houston later this month, because their father died a couple of months ago and he wanted his son to continue their business in the US. They have great sales of Turkish carpets there. I can see why people get into carpets, it is a lot like art collecting.

We head back to Belgrade today.  As I write this, I am sitting in Starbucks…Thanks Istanbul for a relaxing and fascinating visit!