Posts Tagged With: Europe

City of a hundred spires

We arrived in Prague after a 15-hour bus ride from Serbia, through Hungary, cutting through Slovakia, and finally up north through the Czech Republic. By the time we left the bus station it was midnight and the metro line had closed. So we took a cab. Usually this is highly discouraged in Prague (even though drivers use meters, they cheat). Thankfully, this time we weren’t cheated, and the driver took us quickly and directly to our hostel on Wenceslas Square.

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In the morning, we were up and at ’em at the wee hour of 11 am. We strolled toward the Old Town Square, stopping for a tredelnik, which was so delicious I wanted two. Then we stumbled down the cobblestone path and onto the square, right in front of the astronomical clock.

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Prague, nestled in the heart of Bohemian Czech Republic, is one of the oldest and most beautiful cities of Central Europe. About 1.3 million people live here now, and the city area was settled over two thousand years ago by Celts. Germans, then Slavs, roamed the area, making the land by the Vltava river. Modern Czechs, although now a distinct ethnic group, are descended from those western Slavs. The first fortress that would be eventually known as Prague Castle was already built around 800 AD. At the time, most of these people considered themselves Bohemes, hence the name Bohemia.

The city continued to grow, and by the 1300s had a prominent Jewish population, German population, several bridges, and churches. Unfortunately, the medieval dynasty pretty much died out. Only a princess, Elisabeth, was left. She married John of Luxembourg because he was very, very rich (and old and blind in one eye). They had a son in 1316 who became Charles IV. He became King of Bohemia and even the Holy Roman Emperor. Under him, Prague flourished. He founded the Carolina University, built the famous Charles Bridge, expanded St. Vitus Cathedral, and more.

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The famous Powder Tower was one of the original 13 city gates between Old Town and New Town, something Charles IV helped renovate. It was finished, however, until about 100 years after his death, when another king finished the decorations. It’s called the Powder Tower because in the 17th century they stored gunpowder there.

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Anyway, the Old Town Square used to be the marketplace in the 1400 and 1500s. Now a riotous clash of architecture with several spires towering over the cobblestones, the square is the iconic image of medieval Prague.

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The old city hall, as seen at night. It used to be a lot bigger, until Nazis accidentally blew up the right half of the church (thankfully, not where the clock is). It was also the site of Prague’s one-and-a-half defenestration in 1483 when rioters/protesters, fed up with the municipal government, threw seven aldermen and a portreeve out the window to their deaths. (Yes, I learned the word defenestration from this. Apparently when Czechs get really angry they throw people out of windows).

If you’re wondering where I’m getting all my information, it’s from a free walking tour and some of my own research.

And, finally, we came to the astronomical clock. The third oldest in the world and the only one still functioning, the Prague orloj was finished in 1410. Legend has it that the city councilors were so proud of the clock and so jealous that no one else create their own that they took the clockmaker out, got him drunk, and blinded him. In revenge, the clockmaker climbed the tower and jumped into the cogs, committing suicide and ensuring that they couldn’t have his precious invention. The clock didn’t work for another 100 years.

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The 26-second show is often rated the Second Most Disappointing Site in Europe (Mona Lisa being first), and according to 21st century expectations I suppose that’s true. But back in the 15th century, moving figures must’ve been amazing! The four figures on the bottom represent the four most respected trades during that period:  ruler, soldier, historian, or astronomer. Up above are the four things most despised in the 15th century: vanity (which, our guide pointed out, is ironic considering the number of selfies taken with this clock today), greed (helpfully depicted as a Jew), death as the skeleton, and lust/earthly pleasures (also helpfully depicted as a Turk). 15th century ain’t got nothing on stereotypes and cultural sensitivity.
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Across the square is Church of Our Lady before Tyn,with its uneven gothic towers. Although a church had stood there since the 11th century, this later Gothic style wasn’t built until the 14th century.

In the middle of the square is a statue to Jan Huss, commemorating the work he did in ushering in Protestantism and also the 25-year-long Hussite Wars, unfortunately. Huss was a pretty amazing guy, actually, a Catholic priest and a staunch critic of the hypocritical excesses of the church. I read some of his sermons in high school. His name, “Huss” means “goose,” and it’s where we get the phrase “his goose is cooked” because he was eventually burned at the stake in 1415, a martyr for the fledgling Protestant Reformation.
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Well, his death didn’t go over so well with the Czechs, who were loving this whole Bible-in-Bohemian and greedy-popes-profit-off-your-indulgences thing. There was the First Defenestration of Prague, which tossed several Catholic priests out a window in 1419, and then the wars.

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We strolled through what used to be the Jewish Quarter, or Josefov. For hundreds of years it was one of the worst parts of the city–poor, flooding in spring from the river, and cramped. But finally, when Jews were allowed to move outside the walls in the late 1800s, they did. Only the poorest stayed, and soon the criminal elements of the city moved in. The city government spent a lot of time and money cleaning up the area, building new stores and apartments around the turn of the 20th century, pushing the riffraff out. Now it’s the most expensive real estate in the country.

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Okay, so ignore the stupid grin on my face. This is the Rudolfinum, one of the countless concert halls in Prague and is home to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (since 1946). You may have noticed that a lot of these buildings are old. And hardly damaged. That’s because Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia first, in 1938 (even before Poland). There’s a long, bitter history there, but the upside is that because the government surrendered, very little fighting or bombing happened. Prague is one of the most beautiful cities in the world due to that.

Which is where this great little story comes in. The Nazis, of course, took over all the big, beautiful buildings as military headquarters, including the Rudolfinum. The third in command, right after Himmler, was Reinard Heydrich (the guy who finalized the Final Solution). When he moved into the Rudolfinum, though, there was a problem. The building is lined with the statues of famous composers. It’s great, especially for art-loving Nazis, except that Felix Mendelssohn is up there, who was ethnically Jewish.  Well, that just wouldn’t do, not on a Nazi building! So Heydrich ordered two soldiers to go up there and take down Mendelssohn.

That night, they dutifully climbed up there, when they realized a problem: they didn’t know what Mendelssohn looked like! But, being problem-solving Germans who paid attention in Nazi history class, they found a solution. They measured every single nose up on that roof, knowing that the biggest nose had to be the Jewish composer. They found him, knocked him off, and were so proud of themselves that they arrived early the next morning to show off their success.

Heydrich took one look at the broken statue on the ground and flew into a rage. “What have you done to Wagner?” he demanded.

Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer. He was a strong anti-Semite during his day, and plenty of musicians hate him because he designed the modern orchestra pit they all despise.

That evening we went to watch The Magic Flute in the Estates Theatre. Our guide mentioned that if possible, we needed to go to a classical music event because they happen every night. The government apparently subsidizes the cost of tickets, so it’s pretty cheap to attend. We had to choose between Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons playing at the Klementinum and Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the last surviving theater he actually performed in. It’s just crazy to me that there’s so much music and culture in this city that amazing events only happen for one night.
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We picked The Magic Flute, my favorite opera. The Estates Theatre was the world premiere of Don Giovanni, Mozart’s most famous opera, in 1787. So obviously we had to go. We bought tickets day-of, so had some of the worst seats in the theater.

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The theater is rather small (though the stage is incredibly deep), and there’s the orchestra, two balconies, and three galleries. We sat in the top gallery, and yes, we had to lean forward and rest our chins on the railing to see the stage. I got a crick in my neck.

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See Jordan all the way at the top, near the chandelier, in blue? Yep.
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BUT we got student pricing, so we watched the whole opera in Prague at a historic theater that Mozart himself enjoyed for a grand total of 250 Czech crowns, or $13.81 USD. For the two of us! I KNOW! So those smiles on our faces are genuine.

And the soprano as Queen of the Night was amazing, and the overture made me feel like my heart would burst, and we’re still humming the arias days afterward. It was perfect.

Categories: Czech Republic | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Sites of Belgrade

Although most of our time in Belgrade was spent volunteering, we did squeeze out a few hours to get to know the city. Here are our three favorites, with a bonus.

  • The Tesla museum

Nikola Tesla was born in 1856 in a little Serb village. His family had a long tradition of intellectual pursuits, and his father was the village priest. 20170103_165646

Although Tesla spent most of his adult life in the US (because they were more open to inventions and progress than Europe), he spent his childhood in Serbia and his university years in Hungary and France. Although Tesla only spent three days in Belgrade, this is where his ashes are today.

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We got to watch alternating current experiments that went over my head but Jordan loved (he wants a Tesla battery so badly). I thought the museum was a little pricey considering how small it was (half was experiments, the other half his personal belongings).

  • The Belgrade Fortress

The Belgrade castle and fortress is surrounded by Kalemegdan Park. It comes from the Turkish word for “Town Field.” By the middle of the 19th century the fortress lost most of its military purpose, and the field became a park.

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Most of the fortress in now a part of the park as well, always open to the public. Originally built in 535 by the Byzantine Justinian I, legend says it covers the burial site of Attila the Hun. The Celts, then later Germanic tribes, lived in Serbia first, until the Romans took control. When the Hungarians controlled Serbia (for most of the Dark Ages to 1400s), they reinforced the fortress and built several towers.

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The Turks conquered Serbia and used the fortress for their own until 1867, when they left Europe for good. Now it’s a park and a military museum.

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A few of the towers make up the iconic skyline of Belgrade.

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20170113_153655We visited the ethnographic museum in about an hour and a half. It was right by our apartment, conveniently located at Studentski Trj. It was pretty cheap, only about three dollars per person, and we strolled through the different ethnic costumes downstairs. Upstairs were daily life exhibits of city life and rural like of the lower middle class Serbs, as well as the architecture of the local villages. Jordan and I were both surprised at the diversity within the Balkan region.

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Finally, during the war with Yugoslavia, NATO bombed parts of Belgrade and the greater Serbia. These bombs were mostly from American fighter jets, and although things were precisely targeted in 1999, there were still mistakes made (like the Chinese embassy). A few of the bombed military buildings have been left standing. I think it’s mostly due to Serbia being mostly broke and not having extra cash to demolish bombed out buildings, but it is a great reminder of what happened only 18 years ago.

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We never felt unwelcome in Serbia as Americans (thankfully), but there were a few awkward moments when people told me their strong feelings about Pres. Bill Clinton or mentioned how sudden fireworks never bother them because they remember how machine guns sound echoing through the city streets.

There are many other interesting sites in Belgrade, particularly on the nightlife front, and Belgrade a great city often overlooked by backpackers. If you get a chance, spend a few days in town. You’ll enjoy it!

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

Novi Sad

Serbia’s capital may be Belgrade, but culture, nightlife, and more are happenin’ at Novi Sad. Situated on the banks of the Danube river, Novi Sad’s most famous icon is the Petrovaradin Fortress.

Although Romans built a fort on the river hundreds of years ago, this fortress is much more recent–the cornerstone was put in place by the Austrian (Hapsburg) dynasty while pushing the Ottoman Turks out of the region.

We focused most of our time around the Old Town.

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Although Serbia is a mostly Orthodox country, Novi Sad does have a prominent Catholic cathedral: The Name of Mary Catholic Church. We admired the roof as we stood in the Old Town Square._mg_3654

Just nearby, as you can see from the other steeple, is the Orthodox cathedral of Saint George. _mg_3661

We mostly strolled around the town, soaking in the atmosphere (it was Orthodox New Year’s Day, so a lot of things were closed). If we had more time in the city, we would’ve seen more of the fortress and bused to a small traditional village nearby. As it was, Novi Sad was a relaxing break on our trip toward Prague.

Categories: Serbia | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Orthodox Christmas Eve

Thanks to the Julian calendar, Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7. That means Christmas Eve, an even more important holiday to than to Protestants, falls on January 6.

Because Jordan and I were in Belgrade, Serbia we got to celebrate Christmas Orthodox-style! We were both so excited to experience Christmas in a way so different than our own.

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Belgrade has their own small Christmas market, which we strolled through ever day on the way to volunteering. I admired the candy stalls and mulled wine stands, wishing we had more money and time to enjoy them.

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And finally, Christmas Eve came at last.

Christmas has only been celebrated publicly since the fall of Communism, and so isn’t as commercialized or shown at large. They have Santa, of course, as well as Mariah Carey playing over the PA system in stores, but it’s not as big as what you’ll find further west, like North America. In some ways, I thought this was better.

Christmas is celebrated at home, sometimes at church, with a few gifts exchanged and a hearty breakfast with family. Christmas Eve can be spent with friends or extended family members.

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Around 11 pm on Christmas Eve Jordan and I went to St. Sava’s Temple, one of the oldest and most famous Orthodox churches in Belgrade. Attending midnight mass is a time-honored tradition among Serbians, as well as burning badnjak in a community bonfire.

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Traditionally, each family has an oak log or branch chosen for their holiday tradition. In Belgrade, where few families have forests to walk through, nor fireplaces or bonfires, families typically pick branches up at the supermarket and burn them at the bonfire at St. Sava’s. The badnjak is very similar to the yule log  of other European lore.

Jordan and I hadn’t bought a badnjak, so we enjoyed the heat of the bonfire while everyone else threw their branches in, laughing and singing and joking loudly.

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Firecrackers and little fireworks went off everywhere. The loud noises and pops so close to the ground alarmed me at first, especially when I saw one firework spraying sparks into the nearby hedge. But no one else seemed to care. I think it was a combination of holiday cheer, beer, and the nonchalance leftover from wartime.

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We wanted to attend Orthodox mass at midnight, but the line to get into the church was already long, and I was sick and probably shouldn’t have been out in the weather at all. So we instead looked up and enjoyed the fireworks.

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It was a lot of fun. Upon returning home we realized the music and firecrackers weren’t going to stop until late into the night. I think I finally fell asleep around three, when things quieted down. The next morning, Orthodox Christmas Day, everything was peaceful and sleepy as you could imagine.

Next time we celebrate Orthodox Christmas, I’m getting a badnjak for us.

Categories: Spiritual Life | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Jackets upon jackets

Dear family and friends donated money over the past couple of weeks.

After buying lots of winter accessories and stuffing them in our pockets, we noticed a lot of new arrivals showing up without coats. And the temperatures kept dropping (it’s been snowing nonstop for the last two days). We conferred with Refugee Aid Serbia and decided that since we had so much money and not a lot of time to dole out the items, buying jackets would be the best thing to do.

So yesterday we went and bought 17 jackets!

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We stopped by a second-hand store having a post-Christmas sale and just cleaned ’em out.

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The woman kept ringing it up, and we kept adding more jackets. They aren’t parkas, which would be ideal right now (it’s 11 degrees F currently), but half are wool, and the other half a moderately heavy jacket.

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We took the bags to the Refugee Aid Serbia warehouse and put them in two boxes, ready to be distributed whenever a new arrival appears, shivering in a cotton long-sleeve shirt (it happens a lot, unfortunately).

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I’m so excited to have purchased all of this, and I’m grateful for the donations of generous friends and family that made this possible.

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All in all, we purchased:

  • 17 Scarves
  • 25 Gloves
  • 17 Hats
  • 20 Socks (all accessories totaled $292.86)
  • 17 Jackets ($207.12)
Categories: Serbia | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Adrianne’s typical day with volunteering

On a typical day I leave my apartment at about 10:15 in the morning and walk through the shopping district of Belgrade to reach Refugee Aid Miksaliste’s Center.

I arrive at 10:30 and linger around the main, open area for a few minutes, saying hello to anyone I recognize. Then I go back to the women’s corner and prepare for my English lesson.

15369280_1803750116558271_5135586068171589508_oAt about 11 three or four girls join me for English. I take a less-organized approach, letting their questions dictate many of the things we talk about (they’re very curious girls). We learn for about an hour and a half, and then they return to the camp they live in.

I leave Miksaliste and head over to the barracks, where the homeless men/boys and a few families live.

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There, Hot Food Idomeni drives up in a white van to distribute hot soup. By the time I arrive, usually around 12:40, there’s already a line of refugees about 200-deep.

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I watch the line, making sure people don’t cut. It’s boring when there’s enough volunteers to watch the line and hectic when there’s not. I had someone once complain, telling me I was very bad at my job, that when I turned my back four people would cut. I could only agree and apologize–I try to do a good job, but when I put my arm around one guy to pull him out, others will hop in right behind me.

Overall, though, the mood is relaxed, and I enjoy chatting with some of the boys as they pass by. Very few of them can pronounce my name (and I have trouble with their names also). It took me an hour and a half to realize that one teenager wasn’t calling me “Angry,” it was just the best he could do with my name, “Adrianne.”

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A few days ago one of the volunteers bought some balls, and the younger boys have a lot of fun with it. At this time I pick out a few people in the line that need any items that I brought in my coat pockets. I typically carry down two paris of socks, gloves, scarf, and a hat and discreetly hand them off as the line progresses. This is all thanks to the friends and family that donated money!

20161231_130036The food usually runs out around 2 pm, and by that time the main distributor of Refugee Aid Serbia has stopped by to assess what clothing people need. I and any other volunteers follow the RAS director to a nearby park.

Because RAS has limited good and manpower, they usually focus on getting new arrivals blankets and whatever winter clothing they have (right now it’s just hats. We’re hoping for more gloves/scarves/coats donations soon). We usually take care of 10-15 people a day. If there’s lots of volunteers, we can hand out more–today we handed out 46 blankets and 9 jackets! That’s because there were lots of volunteers to carry things and a woman came down from London with two suitcases packed with jackets.

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After assessing the needs of the men/boys who show up to meet us in the park, we head to the RAS warehouse. In the photo it looks a little disorganized, but the next day Jordan and a few others went down and straightened and labelled the boxes.

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After we grab our allotted amount of stuff, we walk back out to the park together and distribute is quietly, quickly, and calmly. Too much noise will draw other refugees, and suddenly we’d have a sea of clamoring people all wanting the same jacket. It could also draw the police, who find groups of refugees suspicious and would probably crack down on them and us.

I finish distributing around 3 pm, say my goodbyes to other volunteers and refugees I know, and make the 15-minute hike home. Sometimes I help direct people to Miksaliste, the police station for official paperwork, or back to the barracks. But generally I start heading home after 3.

Then I spend the rest of the afternoon/evening shopping, cooking, resting in our studio apartment and preparing my next English lesson.

That’s about it!

 

Categories: Serbia | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

A few stories

Over the past couple of weeks, Jordan and I have gotten to hear several stories of the people stuck here in Serbia.

Jordan talked with one man who explained he was a lawyer in Afghanistan who fought child marriage. The Taliban saw him as a threat and tried to kill him, so he escaped with his family.

I’m teaching English to a 12-yr-old Afghan girl who used to be a refugee in Iran before the country kicked her family out. They were smuggled out of Iran and into Turkey, she said, with Iranian police shooting at their car. She hugged her little sisters close so a bullet wouldn’t hit them.

Jordan and I spoke to an interpreter who had worked for the American military. Someone in his village told the Taliban what he did, and sent him death threats. His parents urged him to leave, but he misses his little brothers every day.

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Jordan talked with a 25-year-old Afghan who lived in Pakistan. There weren’t any jobs, so he decided to travel to Europe because he already knew German, C++, Java, and several other programming languages as an IT developer. He crossed through Turkey legally, but then got caught up in the refugee crisis. Although he’s a migrant worker trying to get a work visa and immigrate properly, suddenly the wave of people are causing the governments to restrict immigration.

We helped hand out food at the barracks, where many of the refugees sleep, and I noticed many preteen boys with only flip-flops on their feet in 28 degree F weather. They coughed and shivered in line, waiting for a bowl of hot bean soup. I’m worried they’ll lose some toes to frostbite if nothing changes for them.

Recently, I met some Syrian refugees–the first for me, actually. Three teenage girls sat in the women’s corner sipping on tea, recovering from their 6-hour trek from the Macedonian border into Serbia overnight.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Damascus,” they told me in halting English. “We spent five months in Greece, and last week we walked out of Greece, through Macedonia, and here.”

Two of the girls were sisters, the third a family friend. They traveled with the friend’s mother and 8-year-old brother.

“My mother is in Greece still, on an island,” one of the sisters told me. They didn’t say anything about either father, and by the way they were avoiding it I think the fathers are either still in Syria, fighting and saving money to join their families, or dead.

I have a little English class where I teach three teenage girls about grammar and comprehensions every day. Today I had them write five sentences each about what they wanted to be when they grew up.

The 12-year-old told me she wants to be an OBGYN because that was her mother’s dream. Her mother was smart enough to pass the university entrance exam in Afghanistan, but too poor to attend college. “It will be hard and I will spend lots of time in school,” she told me. But I want it.”

The 16-year-old told me she wants to become a brain surgeon because “lots of people in Afghanistan get hurt and need doctor but don’t have enough money. So they die from the sickness.”

The other 16-year-old said she loves babies and helping people. She wants to become a pediatrician and one day work for an organization like Doctors Without Borders.

I was moved to tears by these bright, hopeful girls and their dreams. I couldn’t tell them that Germany, where their families all wanted to settle, is now denying asylum applications and deporting Afghans back to Afghanistan. They are some of the smartest girls I’ve ever met (they even ask me to assign homework!) and they’ve been out of school for over a year. The chances of them achieving their dreams are minimal.

And I look at their eager faces, their shining eyes, and think what a horrible, tragic waste. They deserve so much more than what the Taliban and obstinate EU countries have given them. If nothing changes, the world will miss out on three of the most caring, compassionate doctors that ever could’ve been.

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So far, in our volunteering, Jordan and I feel a bit useless, unable to give them what they really need. But I love talking with them, getting to know the people, becoming real friends and learning about their lives. It’s amazing how similar we are.

Categories: Serbia | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

So you want to volunteer

If you’re interested in volunteering, like Jordan and I, there are lots of options in many countries.

In my research to choose an area to volunteer in, I picked up a lot of information that might help anyone looking into the same work. This list is by no means exhaustive, and needs change quickly and often. But here’s a list of resources to get you started:

General

Balkans

  • Project Hope is a worldwide organization but has its focus in the Balkan states. They accept volunteers
  • Hot Food Idomeni is the only group delivering hot food to the homeless refugees in Belgrade, Serbia
  • Refugee Aid Miksaliste works mostly with the homeless refugees in Belgrade, Serbia by providing charging centers, activity corners, and language workshops run by volunteers
  • Refugee Aid Serbia facilitates information, distributes clothing, and works closely with the homeless refugees in Belgrade, Serbia.
  • Info Park is a hub of information for the refugees on the street and in the asylum centers. They pay for hostels for families, provide language classes, and more.
  • A great list for those interested in helping in Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and more.

Greece

  • Boat Rescue Foundation is a Dutch organization that not only helps pull life rafts to shore in the Greek islands but also helps work in the camps
  • Hot Food Idomeni also gives out hot food in northern Greece near the Macedonian border (hence the name “Idomeni”)
  • Northern Greece Volunteers is as exactly how the name descries – a coalition of volunteers in northern Greece. They are funded in part by Help Refugees.
  • A great list for those interested in helping in northern Greece.
  • Forgotten in Idomeni helps distribute food and more in Greece.
  • A site for coordinating volunteers and broadcasting needs in Greece.
  • EuroRelief works in camps and on the beach in Lesbos, Greece
  • Intervolve has international volunteers in Thessaloniki, Greece
  • Nurture Project International works with nurses, midwives, and lactation consultants to provide for women and babies in Greece.
  • Lighthouse Relief has volunteers in Lesbos and on mainland Greece.
  • Helping Hands works with families and unaccompanied minors in Athens, Greece.

Middle East

  • Relief and Reconciliation for Syria is a group in a village in Lebanon. They prefer volunteers that come in teams to create workshops or volunteers that can stay 3-6 months at a time.
  • Basmeh and Zeitooneh is a grassroots Lebanese organization, dedicated to serving Syrian refugees and vulnerable communities in Lebanon
  • Nurture Project International works with nurses, midwives, and lactation consultants to provide for women and babies in Iraq.
  • Information for volunteers to Turkey is excellent, though information hasn’t been updated in a few months.
  • Information Point for Turkey Volunteers often has calls for volunteers as well as good information to educate you before the trip.
  • Tarlabasi works with vulnerable ethnic minorities in Istanbul, Turkey. They take volunteers for longer period of time, but volunteer applications are on hold until Feb. 1, 2017.
  • A short list of small NGOs in Jordan that may accept volunteers

Central/Western Europe

  • A great list for those interested in helping in Calais, France (though recent changes in November 2016 may make some information here obsolete)
  • YWAM is taking volunteers in teams throughout Europe and requests that people commit to stay for at least three weeks.
  • Operation Mobalisation is a faith-based organization always taking teams of volunteers throughout Europe.
  • Care4Calais is a British/French organization working with refugees previously living in “the Jungle,” an unofficial refugee camp in Calais, France.
  • Secours Catholique, a branch of Caritas, works to distribute clothing to the refugees in Calais and Paris.
  • CalAid helps distribute clothing, give aid, and more to the refugees in France, UK, and Greece.
  • FranceAndBeyond has some good tips and suggestions if interested in volunteering at camps in France.

Other information

Interested in donating money instead? Go here for a great list. 

Categories: Lost in Translation, Practical Matters | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.”

“No.”

“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.

“Yes!”

“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!

 

Categories: Lost in Translation, Serbia | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Budapest, pt. 3

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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But my personal favorite?

The piano of Ferenc Lizt.

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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!

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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.

 

Categories: Hungary | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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Morgan S Hazelwood

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