Bike Ride With Owen

Last night I took some time out from my hectic school schedule and packing, to go for a bike ride with my son Owen. We did a big loop through Topčider Park, to Rakovica, and up Dedinje Hill behind the Royal Palace. It was such a refreshing break and a good bonding experience with him. As I get older, I appreciate the simple things in life and a bike ride through the countryside with my son on a beautiful late spring evening, nothing better! We are in the process of closing our family’s time in Belgrade and these kinds of activities help this sense of saying goodbye. I will certainly miss the parklands of Topčider, Košutnjak, and Haid, all near our home in Senjak.

Old Trains in Rakovica

25th of May: A Special Day in Serbia

This is a special day for the ex-Yugoslavia because it was the Day of Youth and the celebration of former dictator, Tito’s birthday. It is also my birthday so I always try to do something with the family with a Yugoslavian theme. This year since we are leaving Serbia, I wanted to get a family photo with the traditional national costumes of Serbia.

Rural people actually wore these clothes into the 20th century, but like all traditional, locally made clothes, modernization has homogenized clothing for much of the western world. In some ways I see why people don’t wear these. The course woolen fabric of the pants is a bit uncomfortable and on this humid, early summer, day, it was difficult to get the kids to cooperate. The shirts had intricate embroidery, the red stitching symbolizing the blood lost in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. A distinctive feature for both men and women is the  jelek or waist coat, which looks good, even today.  You can’t see in the photo above, but I am wearing opanci, which are leather sandals with hooked toes that the peasants wore for climbing. They are similar to North American Indian moccasins.

My favorite part of the costume is of course, the national hat of Serbia, the Šajkača. The hats originated with Serbian soldiers, stationed on the Danube and Sava Rivers by the Austro-Hungarians to protect the empire against the Ottoman Turks. The hats are in the shape of an overturned Serbian boat, a šajka. The hat eventually became popular with the rest of the Serbian army and also with non-military farmers. The Bosnian Serb army during the wars of the breakup of Yugoslavia brought it back into popularity. Today it is only worn for special occasions, like Serbian national soccer matches or by folkloric dance troupes. I think they are very hip and would like to see them made popular again. They are very distinctive and instantly recognizable as Serbian.

Serbia Flood Update


Above is a video I took on Sunday. Owen and I were riding along the banks of the Sava River and watching the hundreds of volunteers putting up sand bags along the banks. I was totally impressed with the kindness of the Serbs and how disaster can bring people together. Below is a video from the news coverage, showing the extent of the flooding from the air in the towns along the Sava that were flooded. The first city featured is Obrenovac, where many of our school employees are from . Our relief efforts continue…



Flooding In Serbia

Sandbags line the banks of the Sava River in New Belgrade

Serbia experienced 4-5 days of heavy, steady rains this week, which caused major flooding of the Sava River. Several small cities along the river, including nearby Obrenovac, were completely flooded by over a meter of water. Several people died and thousands were evacuated. The damage must be enormous, and much livestock died. Flooding also occurred in in Bosnia, even more so than in Serbia. This is the worst flooding in the Balkans in recorded history.

Our good friends from Obrenovac were rescued by our head of security, and he told me a harrowing tale of getting through 1.20 meter deep water at night. The area was sealed off by authorities and people are being evacuated by boats now.

Owen inspects the sandbags for the expected river surge

I help organized a flood relief donations drive at our school. I was Administrator-in-Charge and earlier in the week I was dealing with possible closing of school Due to the heavy rains, all Serbian public schools closed by order of the government. We stayed open because almost all of our students live in areas that were away from the flooding and all take private transport. It felt good to help the people of nearby Obrenovac that needed to evacuate. They must be devastated to have that much water go into their homes. It will take a lot of cleaning, and drying out of things. 

Laying the base for the wall – Sava River May 18, 2014

The past couple of days I took the boys biking along the Sava. In Belgrade the water was high but not flooding. Today city officials were expecting a surge coming from down river as the flood waters recede and go back through to the river. Hundreds of volunteers were filling sandbags and lining them along the river to protect the areas adjacent to the river. I hope their work is sufficient to hold back the water. There are many homes and businesses near the river, and many of the famous splavs and restaurants on the river are flooded and may sustain some damages. As you can see by the pictures and video in this post, it was an anxious ride for Owen and I today. It was heartening to see the many good people helping out strangers and working together to protect areas from the flood.

Volunteers fill sandbags and deliver them to the banks of the Sava River

We have been watching the RTS and B 92 news. I’ll try to keep updated with the progress of the flood and recovery efforts. A lot of work will have to be done with cleaning, repairing, and purchasing of new carpet, appliances, etc. for the people of Obrenovac and other cities. I hope our family can lend a hand in the next few weeks before we leave Serbia.


The brown, swollen, Sava River – May 18, 2014


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, 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 monastery designs with us to Japan.




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!

Oliver Appears in Mali Zabavnik Magazine

Earlier this month we were surprised when a friend pointed out that my son Oliver appeared in the Serbian children’s magazine, Mali Zabavnik. The parent magazine, Zabavnik (translation – Party / Amusing) is very famous in Yugoslavia. It was one of the only western style magazines dating back to 1950s published in the former Yugoslavia. It featured Disney and domestic comics and articles with a broad appeal. Its tagline was “For Everyone from 7 to 77”. All of my Serbian friends grew up with the magazine and it is still published today. I also read that when former Yugoslavian leader Tito was asked permission to publish the magazine, he said, “Why not, I like Donald Duck.”

The Serbian government is publishing a version called “Little Zabavnik” for schools and that is where Oliver’s photo appeared. They must have got the photo from my account. I took the photo years ago and it shows Ollie holding the “žito” standing in front of a badnjak , two Serbian Christmas traditions. The photo is used on page 26, in an article about the upcoming Serbian Christmas. I don’t mind the photo was used without my permission, but people usually ask me to use the photos on my Flickr account. Through the years, my photos have been used for the Egyptian Airlines in flight magazine, a solar eclipse photo, or in a web site banner for a conference on the Great Lakes.

It is another nice souvenir of our time in Serbia and I am honored that my son got to be a part of Yugoslavian tradition. The cover of the January 1, 2014 issue where Oliver is on page 26 of the magazine is pictured below.




The Hungarian Empire in Serbia


On Saturday we walked up to the top of Gardoš Hill in Zemun to check out the tower of the same name and the view. As you can see in the photo above, in the foreground is the now Belgrade suburb of Zemun, with the Danube (Dunav in Serbian) flowing by with the city of Belgrade in the distance.

The tower was built in 1896 to celebrate 1000 years of Hungarians presence on the Pannonian Plain. This is the large, flat, grasslands in the north of Serbia stretching into Hungary, that geologically, used to be a sea. Zemun was the southernmost city in the Hungarian Empire and towers were built in the four corners. It is common for nations to celebrate their largest historical empire. Listening to the radio commentator and historian Dan Carlin however, has me thinking a bit differently about this. He argues that people should think about the consequences of empire, that some other people were conquered and there was probably much death and destruction to build that empire.

The Gardoš Tower – January 18, 2014

In this case, the Gardoš Tower, which is also named after the 15th century Hungarian general, Jonas Hunyadi, is celebrated by both the Hungarians and the Serbs. Hunyadi’s armies repelled the Ottoman Turks, a common enemy of both the Hungarians and the Serbs.

Today in Zemun, one can immediately see and feel the architectural difference left by the Austo-Hungarian builders. Zemun, once a separate city, has a much different look than Belgrade. It was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the attack on Belgrade by the Hapsburg armies in retaliation for the assassination of ArchDuke Ferdinand was launched from here to start WW I.

I can see why people have gravitated to this spot over time. The Danube provided transport and the hill a defense against invaders. I could see the hill of Kalamegdan and Avala in the distance and understand the importance of the high ground in pre-industrial warfare.

Zemun today is quite pleasant to visit with a nice promenade and bike trail along the river. There are also quite a few restaurants and cafes along the waterfront, and the old buildings, cobblestone streets, and winding alleys make for a quaint atmosphere. My children love running up and down the levees on the banks of the Danube. Another nice thing about Belgrade is that the rich have not taken over the waterfront as in other places. One does not see private residences, luxury apartments or yacht clubs. In fact, most of the boats in Belgrade are like the one below, simple and for the common man.

I have a lot of nice memories of Zemun and will definitely miss it when I leave Serbia.

Serbian Christmas

The Serbian Orthodox Church is one of several Eastern Orthodox Churches that celebrates Christmas and New Year on the Julian Calendar instead of the more common Gregorian Calendar. Some of the Orthodox Churches celebrate on December 25 (Greek, Cypriot, Romania), but most like Macedonia, Russia, etc. have the holiday on January 7th, 13 days after the 25th of December. We attended the service at the largest Orthodox Cathedral in the world on January 6th, Saint Sava’s Cathedral in Belgrade. This is our final year in Serbia and it is a tradition of our family to go to the service and toss the badnjak (Oak Tree Branch) into the fire. Ocean did it this year as you see above. This ritual dates back to the Slavic pagan yule log and the tradition of fire of the family hearth and the winter solstice should all resonate with us. I am very curious what Europe would look like today if Christianity never spread out of the Levant. Would we be burning the oak in honor of Perun? 

Orthodox mass (I was raised Catholic) is much different than the Catholic services I grew up with. Most of the service is sung in A capella and as usual, people came and went during the mass in the huge St. Sava Cathedral. The video I took below will give you a little taste of a Serbian Orthodox church service. Last year I attended the Serbian New Year services, and hope to do so this year on January 14.

As they say in Serbia on Christmas, Христо се роди!


Peter II of Yugoslavia

This week I took our students once again to the Serbian Royal Palace to take part in the Crown Princess Catherine’s “Children Helping Children” Christmas Gift Drive. The Serbian Royal Family, although they are not officially part of the Serbian government, do live at the palace and serve as goodwill ambassadors of Serbia to the world. They also do a lot of charity work. We were given a tour of the palace and got to meet both the Crown Prince Alexander II and their grandson. This was my second tour of the palace as I went and saw it last spring.

One of the interesting stories of the tour was this portrait of the last king of Yugoslavia, King Peter Karađorđević. The painting was from 1934, shortly after Peter took over from his father, Alexander I following his assassination in Marseille during a state visit. It must have been quite a shock for him to lose his father and become king. Because of being so young, he didn’t take over and his older cousin ran the country. He finally took over from his cousin in a coup de ‘etat in 1941, but fled when the Nazis occupied Belgrade. He ended up living in the USA for many years and died in 1970. He was finally repatriated to Serbia this year, with his remains being buried in Oplenac last May. The painting was found in a shop in Paris years after WWII, as it was part of the works of art that were looted by the Nazis from the palace during the occupation.

Below is a video of the opening of the Crown Prince Alexander’s II speech to us. He is the son of Peter II.

I am fundamentally opposed to monarchies and the idea that a family should be treated better than anyone else. It is ridiculous if you consider in today’s world, we still have kings and queens. It is a big waste of tax money! I guess if the monarchy brings in tourist dollars like England, or can somehow pay for itself, then I can tolerate them. Is the Serbian Royal Family worth it? Does the charity work they do and the good will they bring towards Serbia worth the upkeep of the palace? I don’t know enough about their finances.

The palace and grounds are beautiful and it does make a nice afternoon for tourists. There is a lot of history in the place and Serbians should be proud. I would feel better about royalty if instead of being hereditary, the king could be selected by a panel of experts of someone worthy of the position and who would do a good job of promoting Serbian and helping the disadvantaged of the nation. Usually in families it is hit or miss with each generation. I also wonder what the future holds for the Karadjordjevic family. What will they be like in 50-100 years?