Christmas far from home

This is my second Christmas outside the United States, far from friends and family.

And honestly, it’s a little rough. I never meant to spend two consecutive Christmases from my youngest brothers (they’re not even teenagers yet and I miss them terribly).

Being far from home has definitely made me more appreciative of carols and anything remotely familiar about Christmas. I’ve always loved Christmas carols, but now I play them constantly–and before Thanksgiving. I’m not in the US, I reason, so I don’t have to abide by that silly rule anyway. 🙂 I’ve written in the past about how much carols mean to me, but they’re extra special this season, for the same reason as this man’s blog post.

A couple of weeks ago, when we first arrived in Serbia, I was admiring everything Christmas I could see–the obnoxious advertisements, the skinny teenage boys dressed up in Santa gear, the blatantly commercialized shop displays with outrageous ornaments and gaudy decoration. I think it may have concerned Jordan a bit (I usually complain about the commercialization of Christmas), so he found an English-speaking Anglican church in Belgrade and surprised me with it.

“They’re having a special Advent service,” he told me.

Music to my ears. It was the best Christmas gift he could’ve given me.

Even with its loneliness, being away for Christmas is its own gift. Being far from my familiar, comforting traditions, I have to search for a deeper meaning, something new that I can’t fall back on like a cozy sweater or blanket. I’m reminded once more how lonely Mary and Joseph must’ve felt, going all the way to Bethlehem themselves, finding every door shut in their face, worried about the coming child and what to do.

Jordan and I have shown up in cities with our backpacks, no map, no reservation, and struggled to find a place for the night. But we’ve never done it while in labor, or done it because the ruling government forced us into a census.

Volunteering with these refugees has shown me, again, how much I have to be thankful for. I’m reminded, as I look at these lined faces, these tired eyes, that Jesus was a refugee.

When the Holy Family fled to Egypt, they traveled a well-worn route, Joseph seeking employment and all three fleeing the massacre of the innocents. They weren’t the only family trying to get to safety. In fact, they probably came across other families and groups along the way, just like the refugees today.

Today as I was looking at the five or six boys under age 10 waiting in line for soup, I saw young Jesus. I looked at the teenagers with their ill-fitting sweatshirts and wispy mustaches, and saw Jesus traveling to Jerusalem with his family and even later, during his ministry as a homeless rabbi. I looked at the young men, often letting the little boys cut in front of them in line, and thought of Joseph, doing his best to keep his young family safe, even if it meant leaving their homeland, family, and language behind.

I miss my home, my friends and family, and my language, too–but I’m privileged because I chose to be away. I’ve never felt connected to Joseph before, but suddenly I saw him in all the faces passing by me.

Jesus was a refugee as a child and homeless as an adult. That thought keeps echoing through my mind on Christmas Day. Hopefully it is a truth that will stick with me through the rest of the year.

Categories: Serbia, Spiritual Life | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Hats, scarves, gloves, oh my!

A friend of mine donated 50 USD to buy winter gear for some of the refugees. What makes this truly remarkable is that we’ve never met in person–we met as a part of an online writers’ critique group!

She sent me money via PayPal (and I held back very inappropriate jokes about needing her mother’s maiden name). The next day, I went shopping!

Serbia is a relatively inexpensive country, and I stopped by a couple of second-hand places to gauge prices. After about an hour of looking for deals, I spent about half of her donation on:

  • one thick, fluffy scarf
  • three hats
  • three pairs of heavy-duty gloves
  • Three pairs of socks

I proudly took a photo, and two days ago I wore the hat and gloves down to the abandoned warehouse where they “live” and we distribute lunch every day.

20161221_153014.jpgThe hat was smaller than I originally thought, so I had to find a kid to give it to.

Right outside the Center I saw a little girl, probably 8, following her dad somewhere (perhaps to find a camp). I’ve seen her around the Center a few times in the past couple of days. I think her family just showed up, maybe 3 days ago, and they’re doing the paperwork to get into a state-run camp

I paused and handed her the hat. She stopped and kinda stared at me, like, what are you doing?

“Here! It’s for you. Do you want it?”

In heavily accented English she replied, “thank you.”

So I walked away. When I was a little further I turned around to watch her. She looked it over, put it on, and ran to catch up with her dad.

At 12:30 I went to help distribute soup for lunch down at the barracks. A few teenagers approached me saying, “I need shoes, I need a jacket, can you help me find a blanket?”
I had to tell them that there are no jackets, that I don’t know where to find shoes, and maybe maybe I could find them a blanket after the food finished.
The weather was quite cold today, probably 28 degrees F, and they shivered in line while I shivered watching the line. Smoke filled the air from the piles of trash and old railroad ties they burn to keep warm. One of the refugees taught me the best way to swing my legs to keep the blood pumping. Another tried to teach me some Pashtu.
A few minutes later I noticed one guy, he looked 30, so he was probably 19, without socks. So I kinda sneaked up to him and patted him on the shoulder and offered him the socks. I think at first he thought I was trying to kick him out of line (because I do that to cutters). But the 14-year old next to him knew what I was doing and gave me a thumb’s up.

The guy took the socks, still rather confused, and I went back to watching the line. I could hear the younger guy talking to him, pointing to his feet, saying something like, “Dude, they’re socks. Put them on your feet” in Farsi.

Another guy (maybe 20?) approached me asking for jackets and shoes. I told him I didn’t have those, but asked if he had any gloves (his hands were shoved in his jean pockets). He shook his head, so I pulled off the gloves and tried to hand it to him. He looked embarrassed and refused to take them. I tried to tell him that I had more at home, that these were for him, but his English wasn’t good enough to understand

So I waited until I saw a kid, maybe 12 or 13. He had jeans, a sweater and scarf. But no coat or hat or gloves. So I beckoned him over. He thought I was telling him he could cut in line, so there was a little confusion there. But I handed him the gloves and he took them, dazed, like, “wow, gloves, really?” They’re a little big for his hands, but boys that age grow so fast I think it’ll be fine.

And then another preteen tried to cut in line and I kicked him out. He gave me this pitiful look, coughing. “Please, I’m sick, I need to cut, can you help me?” I had to tell him that everyone has a sore throat and cold, and he still needed to move to the back of the line. But I gave him my pocket kleenexes and he was grinned. “Okay, move back to the end of the line,” I told him. He laughed and walked to the rear.

Tomorrow, once Jordan’s over his stomach flu (it’s going around–all the refugees and volunteers are getting it), we’ll both wear more winter gear and discreetly hand it out to those we see who need it the most.

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How you can help

After a few of my Facebook posts, several friends and family have reached out and asked how they can help out. If you’re interested in donating money, I have the info!

If you’re interested in helping out where we are (Belgrade, Serbia):

  • Hot Food Idomeni is the only group handing out hot food to the homeless refugees. They show up in a big white truck with two vats of soup and loaves upon loaves of bread. While they blare music over the truck radio, about five volunteers hand out soup and food to the hundreds of refugees in line. The rest of the volunteers (like Jordan and myself) fan out and make sure no one cuts in line.
  • Refugee Aid Serbia is the only group I know of that still distributes winter clothing and blankets (sometimes). Volunteers often wander down to the barracks at lunchtime. When a few refugees approach them about gloves, shoes, or socks, each volunteer will pick three or four and bring them to a park, where they distribute the clothing. There isn’t enough manpower or donations to give things to everyone–they can only distribute to those that need it the most. On their donations page is an email address to request a list of the most-needed non-food items if you want to send material goods rather than money.
  • Info Park hosts foreign language lessons, supports families by helping them find hostels to live in, and coordinating travel and information.
  • Donate money directly to Jordan and I. It’s completely unofficial (thereby getting around the nonprofit distribution issue with the law). We are buying gloves, hats, and socks, and wearing them when we walk down to work with the refugees. To keep things orderly and calm, we only hand out two pairs of things a day, discreetly, to those we see that need it the most. We’re buying winter clothing from the local market and clothing stores in the area (a much-needed boost to the Serbian economy! A double win!) and taking photos to show you what we’ve purchased. You can do PayPal, though if we have enough interest from people we might ope na YouCaring page.

If you’re interested in the wider crisis/conflict, then here’s a list of organizations that do a lot of good work.

If you want to help the refugees relocating to the United States, you can donate to the nine domestic nonprofit organizations that help resettle refugees alongside the US government:

Many of these organizations also take volunteers to help “host” a refugee family as they’re being settled by showing them around town, teaching English, and anything else you’d do as a friendly neighbor.

If you want to learn more about refugees in the USA, go here.

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FAQ about our volunteer work

  • Who are you working with?

Refugee Aid Miksaliste

  • What’s that exactly?

A mixture of things, really. Refugee Aid Miksaliste is a local NGO started a couple of years ago to help the refugees passing through the city. Now fourteen other NGOs are involved, either by sending staffers (like Save Our Children) or money, like Oxfam and UN Women.

  • Who are the people you’re helping?

About 1,000 refugees live in an abandoned warehouse by the Belgrade train station or in the nearby park. Roughly 70% of them are Afghan right now. A few are Iraqi, even Pakistani, and only a small minority (right now) are Syrian. 30-40% of those refugees are family groups. While family groups make up the vast majority of the refugees in Europe, in Serbia they are typically housed in state-run camps. Because of overcrowding, teen boys (and a few other families) are left to find their own shelter at the train station or nearby parks.

  • How many are there exactly?

Currently there are roughly 6,000 refugees in Serbia right now. They stay in Serbia until their refugee status papers are issued, which takes several months. Many refugees have been waiting for 4 months.

  • And so what’s their plan?

Ideally, they want to make it to Germany, France, Sweden, or Norway. However, the Balkan route takes them out of Serbia and through Hungary, and Hungary closed it’s borders, putting up razor wire fencing. They have two transit points and only let 3o people through a day. There’s also talk of them deporting 18,000 refugees back into Serbia.

  • So now what’s their plan?

At this point, their best bet it so travel to Bulgaria, which is a part of the EU, and work their way to a more accommodating country.

  • Why don’t they just stay in Serbia? Isn’t that an option?

Yes, it’s an option, but one that few take. Serbia has a long history of political strife (Yugoslav war in the 90s), and while it’s calmed down now, Serbia (and most of the Balkan countries) are still deep in an economic recession that doesn’t show any signs of letting up. While the refugees could claim asylum in Serbia (as it isn’t a war torn country), most would rather save their chances to claim asylum once in western Europe or be resettled by the UNHCR elsewhere, like North America or even Asia.

  • What are conditions like?

Honestly, not that great. The center used to be in a nicer building closer to where the refugees “live,” but the government bulldozed the building earlier this year to make way for a new shopping center, Beograd Waterfront. The nonprofit moved to a smaller, less-organized building and resumed work. Recently, per new government regulations, volunteers are no longer allowed to distribute clothing or food at the center. One other organization (Refugee Aid Serbia, I think) distributes food in a nearby park.

As for the refugees themselves, they are homeless. In good weather, some sleep in parks. Now that it’s winter, they huddle in an abandoned warehouse. Many of them are sick, and many spend all the time they can in the center where there’s electricity and heat. They only have what they brought with them from their home countries or what has been given to them here.

  • So what exactly are you doing?

We are filling in wherever needed. Usually that means impromptu English lessons with whoever’s interested. Sometimes we also help in handing out lunches at the park. Because the population is ever-changing, both refugees and volunteers, and Serbian regulations can change suddenly, there’s not a lot of organization. So we’re just being flexible and teaching the English present continuous tense to whomever wants it!

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Volunteering with refugees

Our first day we walked into the aid house, sidling past people smoking on the steps. Inside five or six families and about another thirty teenage boys milled around. Signs, labeled in English, designated “Youth Corner” and “Women’s Corner” and “Charging Center.” Other directions were pasted on the walls in Arabic and/or Serbian. A few staffers with either name tags or vests weaved between the crowd.

After a moment of looking around, I snagged an official-looking nurse and asked where volunteers were supposed to go.

“Upstairs, maybe,” she said in a French accent, pointing out the back door. She turned back to a refugee woman setting her backpack down in the middle of the hallway. “You can’t do that here,” she said, but the woman smiled an I-have-no-idea-what-you’re-saying-smile (I’ve used that smile on numerous occasions) and continued unpacking her bag.

So Jordan and I went out the back door, up some more stairs, and into a small warehouse. Boxes of clothing were piled high behind a counter. A crib covered in dust sat in a corner beside a car seat. We saw a small office with a woman inside. We knocked and entered.

She looked up and smiled.

“Hello,” I said uncertainly. “We’re volunteers. This is our first day.”

“Okay, then sign this volunteer contract and write down your contact information here.” She handed up as couple of pieces of paper. “There are about a thousand refugees in Belgrade, and most of them come here during the day. You can leave your bags here—the door is always locked or someone is here. It’s very safe, the refugees are good, but everyone once and a while someone will steal something. They’re interested in our bags—they don’t have backpacks to hold their things, so one of them might try to steal your bag.” She rattled off more information. “They don’t normally like their pictures taken. If you do, just ask first. It’s polite. But they love taking selfies with volunteers, so they might ask you to do that. The refugees live in the barracks down that way—“ she waved vaguely somewhere “—in very inhumane conditions. No showers, so we provide them here. A lot of the refugees have body lice and scabies. I’m not trying to scare you—you won’t get it. Just don’t hug them for very long or wear their clothes and you’ll be fine.”

“Is this the distribution center?” Jordan pointed to the counter with the boxes.

“Yes, but volunteers can’t distribute clothing anymore. A few weeks ago the government said we couldn’t do that anymore.” She led us back down into the first building, filled with people. “So we have fifteen different organizations all working here. The medical clinic’s in the back, we have a children’s room and a women’s corner hosted by UN Women.” She looked at us. “We have crafts and projects and workshops every day to keep people busy, and you can work there.”

“Oh, uh, okay.”

“We have French lessons, German lessons, English lessons, sometimes Spanish lessons—really whatever the volunteers want to do a workshop on.” She gestured around the main room, filled with people. “Adrianne, you can go to the women’s corner and come up with a craft activity. Jordan, you can go to the activity corner and just talk to the refugees.”

So I entered the corner, walled off by cardboard partitions. A blond Serbian girl, about my age, with multi-colored fingernails greeted me. “I think we’ll do collages today, cutting out pictures from magazines.” She showed me around the room. “We have a mirror, fingernail polish, hairbrush, lotions, just whatever for the women to rest with each other. Over there on that shelf are pads and tampons that they can ask for at any time, since they can’t get them anywhere else.”

There was a rather long, awkward silence until two girls entered. Both greeted the staffer then sat on a futon and pulled out their smartphones. One turned on some music, the other texted friends back in her home country.

Their English level was pretty low, but they communicated interest in knitting.

“Wow, you knit?” I asked, breaking the silence.

They smiled and nodded.

“I can’t. I tried when I was little. It ended up like a huge knot.” I gestured broadly, and they laughed.

Eventually the knitting needles and yarn came out, and after about thirty minutes of me not knowing what to do, I grabbed the needles and sat next to the older girl. “Teach me to knit.”

She laughed, like, oh, I’m over my head here, but proceeded to demonstrated how to hook one needle through the thread and bring it through. Eventually she handed it over to me and picked up the second pair of needles. We knitted together while I asked a few questions. The younger girl, who was 15, was content to play music off youtube and watch me fight with my yarn.

The staffer sat next to me as she organized the craft box, and I peppered her with questions.

“So how long do they stay here?”

She shrugged. “Months.”

“And they’re waiting on…papers?”

She nodded.

“And after they get their papers, where do they go?”

“They used to go to Hungary, but they closed their borders, so some go to Bulgaria or back down to Macedonia.”

I thought on that. “Do any settle here in Serbia?”

“A couple. Three or four work here now as interpreters, but that’s it.”

“So these papers aren’t work visas.”


“Where do they want to go? Germany?”

“Germany, Sweden, Norway, those places.”

“Where do they get food?”

“We used to serve lunch here every day. We had everything. Well, not everything, but enough. But we had to shut it down because of the government. Now there’s lunch set up in the park near the barracks that they go to.”

“And that’s all the food they get?”

“Pretty much.”

I frowned. “There are a lot of boys here—more than I thought.”

She shrugged. “Not too many. The people come and go. This morning there’s boys. Most travel in families. I met a woman traveling alone once.”

My stomach rumbled, and I inquired about lunch protocol. She told me as a volunteer I could come and go as I pleased, so I stepped out to find Jordan. He sat nearby, in the middle of a chess game with one of the young men, and we agreed to go to lunch when he finished his game.

After lunch, when we returned, the place was even more crowded. Toddlers ran between peoples’ legs, chasing one another and hiding from their parents. Women joined their husbands at the center, seeking respite from the barracks.

I slipped back to the women’s corner and found it filled to the brim with teenage girls in the middle of an English lesson.

“A, B, C, D,” an Australian woman intoned, sitting cross-legged on the floor. She pointed to a makeshift poster she’d scribbled on probably a few minutes ago.

Girls from the ages of eight to thirty-three repeated after her, giggling and bright-eyed. The teenagers hung on the teacher’s every word, eager to challenge themselves with something.

I slipped in the back to sit next to the staffer. A girl, probably seven, picked at beads in a tin box, and I offered to help her make a bracelet. She grinned and nodded, pulling the sparkly beads out of the box.

“Shall we go on to jobs?” the Australian asked.


“I want to be an engineer!” one girl blurted.

We laughed at her enthusiasm.

“And I want to be a dentist!” a teenager declared.

“You have beautiful teeth,” the Australian said. “What does everyone else want to be?”

Most picked doctor, while one girl said she wanted to be a swimmer, another a photographer.

“I have to finish the lesson now,” the Australian said. “I have to go.”

“Oh, no! Don’t stop!” the girls begged. “More English.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t.”

“Tomorrow?” they asked, looking between the Australian volunteer and the Serbian staffer.

“Not tomorrow. The women’s center will be closed for cleaning.” She shook her head.

“And I’m going to Bosnia for a week.” The Australian looked as disappointed as her eager students. She glanced at me. “Can you teach?”

“I’d love to.” I grinned. So she introduced me as I supplied my name and when we could gather again (Tuesday).

The girls gasped in delight. “Tuesday! More English.” The center was closing for the day, so they waved goodbye and slipped out into the main room.

The Australian and I properly met, and she explained that she was a social worker and had never taught English before two days ago.

“Any materials or curriculum I should follow?” I asked.

She shook her head. “I’m making it up as I go. You saw me draw that stick figure for body parts vocabulary in the middle of my lesson.”

I laughed. “Okay, I’ll just come up with something.”

“Yeah, I learned you just have to go for it. Come up with an idea and make it happen. The refugees are always willing to learn or be entertained or just listened to, and the staff is busy keeping the place running. We volunteers just have to do something and run with it, really.”

“Thank you, I’ll definitely do that then.”

By that time, it was 3 pm, when the volunteer shifts end. Most of the activity corners were being shut down, though people still crowded the center of the room. Staffers wiped down tables.

Jordan and I found one another and glanced uncertainly around the room. We weren’t exactly sure if we should go, if we should offer to clean, or what was expected of us. Staffers told us we didn’t have to clean and suggested we come back in the morning and ask what needed to be done.

So we went back upstairs, grabbed our bags and coats and walked back to our apartment. First day accomplished!


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Budapest, pt. 3

For our last day in Budapest we went to a couple of museums and ended with the cheery House of Terror.


The old palace now houses the National Gallery and the old Castle Museum.


In 1247 King Bela built a fortress on Castle Hill, and though most of that is buried under the building in place today, parts of the castle over the centuries were restored to show us visitors what it looked like. Buda wasn’t the historical capital of Hungary, and it only came into political power during some inheritance arguments during the early 14th century. Over the years Buda’s historical significance grew, and it became the capital in the early 15th century.


In 1541, however, Buda (and the rest of medieval Hungary) fell under Ottoman Turk control. They didn’t gain independence for 150 years, and soon after fell under the Austrian Hapsburg control.


A statue of the Magyar/Hungarian ancestors that conquered the region around 900.

Empress Maria Theresa wanted the castle renovated and modernized in the mid 1700s (she’s the mother of Marie Antoinette), which is why the castle is more of a palace with distinct Austrian influence.


One of the Hapsburg princes loved to hunt, so a statue was built in his honor with his dogs. One of the dogs exploded in a WWII bomb, and was rebuilt after the war ended.

We moved on to the Hungarian National Museum, on the Pest side of the river, to learn a bit about Hungary threw the medieval period. It’s star exhibit is the coronation robe of King St. Stephen, circe 1000.


I particularly enjoyed the stroll through Ottoman and post-Turk Hungary, as they reclaimed their national identity only to be engulfed by the Hapsburg dynasty (until that fell because of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination and WWI).


We also got to see the crown of King Bela IV, who barely kept Hungary out of the hands of the Mongols and Tatars in 1241-43. Frankly, the Magyars/Hungarians only won because Chenggis Khan died back in Mongolia and the Mongols retreated to go tend to their own country. The Tatars, presumably, decided they couldn’t handle all of Eastern Europe without their ally’s support, and withdrew as well.


But my personal favorite?

The piano of Ferenc Lizt.


While I never played Liszt (that I can remember) in high school, I did enjoy listening to his colorful, exciting pieces. I even met a music teacher who had been taught by one of Liszt’s former pupils.

The museum had a corner where we could sit and listen to recordings of Liszt’s more famous pieces and admire the piano. Liszt himself viewed the piano as something of an antique, because it originally belonged to Beethoven. After Beethoven died and his belongings were put up at auction, a music and art dealer bought it and presented it to Liszt as a gift. I can only imagine how overjoyed the Hungarian composer must’ve felt to receive such a present!


Our last stop of the day (before getting on an overnight train to Serbia) was to the House of Terror.

During WWII the house was the headquarters for the Hungarian Arrow Cross party, known as the “House of Loyalty.” Then, during the Soviet Occupation, it was uses by the AVO and its successor, the AVH, both communist organizations that helped prop up the communist government in Hungary from 1945 to 1956.

In the cellar of this house were dozen of small cells where the Arrow Cross interrogated and tortured anyone suspected of being disloyal to the Arrow Cross regime or their Nazi allies. Teenage boys were drafted to serve at the frontlines as the axis powers gave a last, desperate attempt to fight off the allies. Jews were shot and dumped into the Duna river, and any opposition without international protection could be taken in for “questioning.”

After the Soviets took over Hungary, people began to return home. A few survivors of concentration camps walked back across the border to find any fellow survivors and rebuild their lives. Unfortunately, the Soviets weren’t interested in preserving the lives of the Jews or other ethnic minorities in Hungary (beyond the initial get-them-out-f-the ghettos and bury-the-dead-bodies reaction), and cracked down hard, spreading communism across the country.

The House of Terror became the headquarters for the State Security Office, and later the State Security Authority. Gabor Peter was the head of these organizations. He was barely educated at all and had trained to be a tailor’s apprentice, but instead became the most feared man in the country.

The Soviets instituted gulags across Hungary, interning thousands of Hungarians they perceived as dangerous to communism, even deporting some to Russian gulags in Siberia. Many Hungarians had just gotten out of Nazi camps, and a considerable amount, faced with the horror of going through it all over again, killed themselves.

The House of Terror wasn’t an execution site, though prisoners were measured for hanging and sometimes died from beatings. Throughout the museum was witness accounts, often old women who never found out when or how their husbands died after being taken away by the Soviets. Others survived the interrogations in the House of Terror and spoke of the inhumane conditions, the brutal labor they were forced to do in winter without food or heavy clothing.

There was even a video of a “confrontation” roughly 40 years later. In a room full of metal bunk beds ten grandmothers sat, rigid and angry, their voices tight as they demanded another grandmother apologize. The ten were former prisoners, accused of being disloyal to the state, and the last woman was their prison warden. She kept trying to laugh off what she did, saying, “surely, we had a good time. I always made sure I looked you in the eye.”

“We were terrified of you!” One grandmother shouted back, clasping her purse tight. “How many times did you get us up in the middle of the night to go stand in the courtyard for hours? How many times?”

“Are you serious? I don’t know, once twice?”

“More than that!” another scoffed.

“Girls, girls,” the former guard cajoled. “It wasn’t me doing it. I had orders. I didn’t want to.”

The women laughed bitterly, glancing at one another in solidarity. “Collaborator,” once hissed.

At the end of the museum, as we walked back up from the cellar to the ground floor, we passed by a wall of photos. “These were collaborators, Hungarians who turned on their fellow countrymen,” a sign announced. Some photos were old, taken in the ’40s, others looked more recent. Names and birth/death dates appeared below the photos.

“No wonder the 1956 Uprising happened,” Jordan muttered as we left the building. “Please tell me we’re done with the human rights stuff.”

“There is a Holocaust Memorial museum we haven’t visited,” I mused. “But honestly? After the synagogue and this? I don’t think I can handle it. I’ve studied WWII a lot and I kind of already know what happened. I don’t think we need to do any more today.”

And so that was that for us. We looked around Budapest, at the half-renovated 19th century buildings in Pest, the bustling political center of Buda, and the young people who never knew communism or the Iron Curtain outside their parents’ and grandparents’ stories, and departed. Budapest was pretty much everything we thought it would be–full of culture, history, and a flagship for Central/Eastern Europe.


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Budapest, pt 2

So we strolled down to the banks of the Duna river to see the iron shoe memorial.


In 1944, members of the Hungarian Arrow Cross political party (basically Hungarian Nazis) and militia rounded up 60 Jews, brought them here, ordered them to take off their shoes, and shot them. The river carried away their bodies.

In 1941 Hungary had a population of roughly 825,000 Jews, though 100,000 were Christian. Because Hungary saw Judaism as a race as well as a religion, those Christians were still umped in with the rest. A far-right wing government after WWI restricted the freedoms of many Jews, even Hungarian Jews (Jews with Hungarian citizenship), but resisted deporting them until the middle of the war. To keep Nazi Germany happy, Hungary joined the axis powers and restricted Jewish freedoms even more. They forced young Jewish men to work in horrible conditions for war-related construction work. Many died. The government deported over 20,000 Jews north, where Nazis killed them. The government picked off their Jewish population little by little, usually going for those without Hungarian citizenship. (A good case can be made that this was intentionally slow-footed by the government leader Hrothy, who defied Hitler several times by slowing the deportation trains to Auschwitz). They also killed over 28,000 Hungarian Romani, something that decimated the European Romani but often gets lost in the bigger numbers and broad brushstrokes of WWII.

In 1944, however, Nazi Germany invaded, with help from the fascist, far-right-wing Arrow Cross political party. Under Nazi supervision, the new Hungarian government deported around 440,000 Jews to death camps. By 1945, the only Jewish population left relatively untouched was the 150,000-200,000 in Budapest. Of course, they had suffered losses along the way, as the iron shoes memorialize. The Arrow Cross killed over 3,000 people in Budapest, 800 of those were Jews.

Inside the iron shoes today are candles, dried flowers, and pebbles. In Jewish tradition when someone dies, loved ones leave a pebble on the gravestone to mark their love. The pebbles in the shoes are the nearest these people got to funerals.

We backtracked across Pest, heading for the Dohany Street Synagogue.

The second largest synagogue in the world (after the synagogue in NYC), Dohany is nestled in the Jewish quarter of the city. I was a bit surprised to round the corner and see a massive Moorish design, shaped like a church.

We paid to enter and arrived just in time for the English tour. It was quite short, and we stayed sitting in the pews because it was far too cold to be wandering around the gardens listening to a guide. The worship center of the synagogue wasn’t heated, but at least it was still warmer than being outside in the wind.


Built in 1854-59, the architects had never designed a synagogue before. Because of that, the alcoves and balconies and even the lecterns on the side are designed for a catholic cathedral. Well, the Jews just took it in stride. Today they use the lecterns for camera crews if they’re doing a big event.

Of the 825,000 Jews in Hungary prior to WWII and the Holocaust, and by the end only a quarter remained, mostly in Budapest.

By 1945 Budapest had walled off the Jewish quarter, making it into a ghetto. Precious little got in or out, including food or dead bodies. The synagogue had a small courtyard built, and in the ’30s, they had talked about making it into a garden with a fountain and flowers and benches, but the Holocaust destroyed those plans.


Almost 3,000 bodies are buried in mass graves in the courtyard today. Those that could be identified were later given headstones.

Around the corner is the Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park. Raoul Wallenberg was a Swede who, with the help of the Red Cross and a few other volunteers (like Carl Lutz), saved over 35,000 Hungarian Jews, sometimes even pulling them off trains headed for the concentration camps. Giorgio Perlasca posed as a Spanish diplomat and saved over 5,000 in just 45 days. Gennaro Verolino, a catholic bishop, saved over 30,000 by issuing false Vatican passports. Angelo Rotta was outspoken against Nazism and anti-Semeticism from the beginning and saved many Jews in Bulgaria, also. He saved around 15,000 Budapest Jews by issuing false papers of baptism and Vatican passports as well as sheltered Jews in safe houses. According to a Holocaust scholar, “of the hundred and fifty thousand Jews who had been in Budapest when the Germans arrived in March 1944, almost 120,000 survived to liberation – 69,000 from the Big Ghetto, 25,000 in the International Ghetto and a further 25,000 hiding out in Christian homes and religious institutes across the city.”


Behind the metal tree are four red marble pillars with the names of the “Righteous Among Nations” inscribed on them. Further back are more memorials to Jews that died. All the pebbles moved me to tears.


And I thought, “if I had lived then, would I have hidden Jews in my home?” It’s a little game I play with myself, imagining my reactions to historical events.

Obviously, the correct answer is “yes, gladly.” But then I imagined hiding them in closets, lying to soldiers, living every day with a death sentence over my head, and fear shot through me.

So I leaned in. The best way to play this game, I’ve learned, is to set it in a modern context. I’ve faced a lot of my hidden prejudices and biases this way. And I thought, what group in the United States is hard working, relatively integrated, but blamed for economic problems and ostracized as “the other” despite having a similar religious outlook? And the answer, at least for the first part of the 21st century, is Muslims, and perhaps Latinx.

And I asked myself, in the case that the government (or an occupying force) systematically rounds up Muslims or Latinx from my city and promises they’re just being sent to labor camps to keep us safe until the trouble is over, would I open my closet, my basement, my money to them?

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On our first full day in Budapest we went on a free walking tour to get a feel for everything.


We enjoyed the architecture and we walked from Pest across the chain bridge to Buda.


The Hungarians call the river Duna in their language, Magyar.


Overlooking the famous chain bridge and the river is hilly Buda. Atop Buda Castle Hill is the castle, St. Matthias church, and more. Perching at the forefront is the turul, a mythical Magyar/Hungarian bird of pray.

_mg_3405Modern-day Hungary was populated by Germanic and/or Celtic peoples. The Romans conquered and invaded, leaving behind ruins of bath houses. Attila the Hun swept through, all the way from Mongolia. Various Germanic and Slavic tribes conquered and intermingled afterward, and it wasn’t until the Magyars showed up from the Ural mountains around 830 that the land had is present-day dwellers. The Hungarians (called Magyar in their own language) are possibly Finno-Ugric, possibly Kazakh, possibly Turkic in origin. Whatever they are, it wasn’t Slav, Germanic, or Bulgar. That much we know.

Anyway, the Magyar traditional story is that the turul once swooped down and picked up their tribal leader’s sword and flew away with it. The Hungarians gave chase, all the way from Asia into Europe. The turul dropped the sword on the Hungarian plains, and that is why the Magyars decided to stay there.


This church, named after St. Matthias, was originally founded by St. King Stephen sometime around 1030. Destroyed by the Mongol/Tatar invasion of 1241, it was rebuilt several times over the next few hundred years. It was only named after King Matthias in the 19th century. Matthias was one of the last great Hungarian kings, ruling in the 14th century.


Near the church is a famous statue of King Stephen. Just behind the statue and the church is the Fishermen’s Bastion, so named because the fisherman guild probably defended this part of the city wall.


Almost directly opposite the Duna (or Danube) is the Hungarian parliament building. It is exactly the same height as St. Stephen’s Basilica, to show that neither church nor state controls the other, but that they live in harmony together. During the Soviet occupation they built a 4-meter star and put it atop the parliament spire, just to prove a point. It’s gone now, as soon as the Iron Curtain fell, it was taken off their building forever.



Our last stop of the day was Hospital in the Rock. We weren’t allowed to take photos, but we enjoyed the museum. Cave systems abound underneath the hills of Buda, and there’s an extensive system beneath Castle Hill. Although caves had been used in prehistoric and even medieval times, by modern times no one knew much about it. The caves were mapped in the 1930s, and an emergency hospital was prepared in the caves for WWII. Designed for civilians with a 60-person occupancy, by the Siege of Budapest  in December 1944 the hospital was grossly over-taxed with Hungarian and Nazi soldiers as well as civilians. The Arrow Cross, Hungary’s fascist, Nazi-collaborating government, continued to support the hospital until the Soviets took the city. The Soviets kept the hospital running, more or less, classifying it as Top Secret and adding a nuclear bunker (which probably wouldn’t have worked–they only stored enough supplies for 3 weeks of a nuclear fallout). On October 31, 1956, when student protests erupted into a full-blown Uprising. The hospital reopened, taking wounded revolutionaries and civilians alike. The USSR brought a hammer down on the revolution, killing as many as 30,000 people, even dragging dead bodies behind tanks in the streets to make a point.

It was a really interesting way to learn about Hungary’s modern history, and even though I hate mannequins (and the place was full of them), I had a good time tromping through the tunnels and looking at WWII medical equipment and Cold War-era machinery and communications. By then, the sun had set (Even though it was just 4 pm) so we bundled up in our coats and hats and decided to see the rest of Budapest the following day.

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Pearl of the Danube

We arrived in Budapest, Hungary in the afternoon and made it to our hostel on the Pest side of the city with little trouble. Although people have lived here for probably two thousand years, the modern city of Budapest has only been around since Obuda, Pest, and Buda were joined together to make one city in 1873 as the capital of Hungary.


Later that evening we strolled down to St. Stephen’s Basilica to see the Christmas Market. Wooden stalls and cabin clustered around the square, a small ice skating rink in the middle for children. Vendors sold everything from Hungarian sausage to scarves to trinkets for tourists. Everyone wore hats and scarves, sipping on glugg or apple cider. Christmas music played in the background, and we admired a nativity set on display on the steps of the church.


St. Stephen’s is named after the first king who united Hungary into one country. Although King Stephen (975ish-1038) was a good king, the first to embrace Christianity and spur Hungarians/Magyars toward a European culture (rather than Asian or Middle Eastern), he didn’t do anything miraculous. After his death, however, his right arm naturally mummified. Well, that was enough for the Catholic leadership, so they declared it a miracle and canonized him. Today the church has his hand. The rest of the arm was cut up and gifted/forcibly taken to other parts of the world.




After enjoying the Christmas spirit and a delicious cup of cider, we went on to Szechenyi Thermal Baths. Someone had told us that there’s nothing more Hungarian than sitting outside in a hot thermal both watching snow fall around you. Well, there wasn’t any snow, but we decided to check it out anyway. Szechenyi is one of the grandest, most beautiful baths in the city. Because of that, tourists flock, and therefore locals don’t visit. But all the locals recommend tourists visit, saying it’s worth the experience.


In the past, traditional baths had women and men segregated and people would bathe naked, like in most other bathing places. However, mixed is becoming more popular, especially for tourists, so swimsuits are required. The Lonely Planet guide calls it “like bathing in a wedding cake.”


It was dark and below freezing when I visited, and the steam from the hot water misted around everyone, making it difficult to see the person next to you at times. After a few days of hard travel (we walked 40 miles in 4 days in Russia–I kid you not), I just relaxed in the thermal waters.


Budapest sits on several thermal springs, and even the ancient Romans enjoyed the spot for the rejuvenating mineral waters. Finally, when I had enough, I showered and joined Jordan to return back to our hostel for the night.

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Long layover: Old Town, Riga

Our flight from Moscow to Budapest had a long-layover: Latvia!

We arrived in Riga, the capital of the small Baltic country at about 10 at night, and had a plane at noon the next day. We knew we wouldn’t really be able to explore the city or culture much at all, so we settled for a hotel room in the Old Town of Riga.

Riga sits along the Daugava River. Old Town is small, easily walk-able, and sits just on the banks of the river. Riga was originally German, founded in 1201. Bishop Albert von Buxhoeveden built the city as a buttress for keeping Christendom safe from the heathens (these were the Balts, Slavs, and Finno-Ugric people). It thrived on the trade between the east and the west, and then Sweden took the city in 1621. Not long after, Russia grasped control and the city grew more. When Latvia became an independent nation after WWI (1918), the city developed it’s Latvian flavor. Of course, that didn’t last long, as the Soviets occupied the country in 1940 and WWII raged. After WWII Riga was bombed-out with two sizeable populations gone: Germans, back to Germany, and Jews, all murdered in the Holocaust.

Today, however, although the marks of the Soviet era can still be found (like apartment buildings in the suburbs), Riga is working hard to shed the remnants of the Iron Curtain and the bad connotations “Eastern Europe” can bring to mind. Part of the Eurozone, we paid for everything with Euros and had no trouble communicating with everyone in English.

At 10:45 that night Jordan and I lugged our bags from the airport to the edge of Old Town.

“Oh, look, Jordan! A Christmas tree!” I stopped in a cobblestoned square, dropping my bag into the snow.


Jordan glanced around. “Wow, that’s a real tree! I’ve never seen one so tall.”

We took stock, surveying the town.

“It’s like a fairy tale with the clock tower rising up over the roofs.” I admired the picturesque scene around us.


“That’s the Blackheads House you wanted to see.” Jordan pointed to an ornate, pink Gothic structure filling one side of the square. Built in 1344 as something of a fraternity house for the Blackheads guild of unmarried German merchants, it is everything wonderful you could imagine of the Baltics. Destroyed in 1941 and then bulldozed by the Soviets a few years later, the Blackheads House was rebuilt in 2001 for Riga’s 800th birthday. Catty-cornered to the Blackheads was the Museum of Occupations, obviously closed to late at night. I was disappointed to miss it.


We strolled down winding cobblestone alleyways until we found out hostel. After dropping into bed, we awoke to the sun rising at about 8 am over Dom Laukums (Laukums Square) and the wooden shacks decorated in garlands and mistletoe for the Christmas Markets.


Opposite us towered Riga Cathedral. Currently a Lutheran church, the building dates from 1211 as the Catholic diocese in the Baltic. It is the only landmark building to survive all of Riga’s disasters over the centuries, including WWII.



Next, we walked past Riga Castle. Residence of the Latvian president, it was built in 1330. Obviously, it doesn’t look very castle-y nowadays, but we still thought it was cool.


Old Town is a mish-mash of Gothic, Renaissance, Art Nouveau, and everything in between. This famous stretch of buildings is called “Three Brothers.” One is over 600 years old, the oldest home in town. Our guide book mentioned how small the upstairs windows were—in medieval times, Riga’s property taxes were based on window size.


After meandering down a few alleys, watching the bakeries open and foot traffic begin to grow, we stopped by our next touristy-spot: the Swedish Gate. It was built in the city’s medieval walls in 1698 while Sweden ruled modern-day Latvia.


By this point we were getting hungry, so we cut through the middle of Old Town and caught sight of Freedom Monument, just as the interior edge of the district. It was erected in 1935 and takes the space a statue of Russian Peter the Great used to occupy. It wasn’t torn down during Soviet times, but Latvians weren’t allowed to approach the monument.


We found a quiet café behind the Blackheads house and picked a window to look out and see St. Peter’s Church. We couldn’t help ourselves—we splurged. We got an apple cider and two hot chocolates with our omelet and crepes.



St. Peter’s Church’s steeple is even more iconic than Riga Cathedral’s. Built in a distinct Gothic style, people think it’s about 800 years old, one of the oldest religious buildings in the Baltic countries. In 1721 a fire destroyed the spire, although Russian Peter the Great personally rushed to help put out the blaze with locals. The spire was again destroyed in WWII and rebuilt again. Today it stands proudly, rising above the Old Town, an elegant monument to Riga’s history and fortitude.


“I just love the Christmas trees. They’re real,” Jordan exclaimed. “I’ve never seen Christmas trees that big.”


“I liked the Christmas Market, even though it was closed. Did you see the quaint wooden carousel?” It had mythical Latvian animals instead of painted horses.

We soaked in the atmosphere, reveling in a real European breakfast.


By that time, we had to head to the airport. We passed by Ratslaukums and the Blackheads house again to take a better look at the statue of Roland. Although the statue’s only been around since the 1990s to replace the 1897 granite statue destroyed in WWII, he was the nephew of Charlemagne the Great and lived in the 8th century. An epic poem, The Song of Roland commemorates his battle against (and death) against the Basques, then got a taxi (only 10 euros!) and headed toward Budapest.


As short as our time in Riga was, I felt like I got to appreciate the feel and architecture of the ancient city. And now I’m very interested in properly visiting all three Baltic countries.



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