Happy Easter – Srećan Uskrs – Шрећан ускрс

This afternoon we made traditional Serbian Eastern eggs. It was a special occasion today as the Western Christian Easter and the Orthodox Easter fall on the same day. This happens every so often, the next two occasions will be in 2017 and 2025. We went “old school” and got onion skins from the market and boiled the eggs to get the nice red color. If you look closely, I drew a cross and X.B. on the front egg in wax before putting them in the onion dye. X.B. in Cyrillic means “Hristos Vaskrse” (Christ Has Risen). Serbs say this on Easter and one must reply, Vaistinu Vaskrse! (Of course He has Risen!).

Nadia is boiling the eggs with the onion skins.

We next put on some plastic designs from the company, jaje.rs. They copy designs from Serbian monasteries in the various styles and are very easy to put on the eggs. As you can see below, they are very beautiful. We will do some egg tapping later today and tomorrow, we will complete the Easter celebrations with a chocolate egg hunt.

We are all a bit sad that this will be our last Easter in Serbia, but will definitely pack some more of the jaje.rs monastery designs with us to Japan.

 

 

 

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.