Monday, August 17, 2009

It's all over.

We returned home safely almost exactly a week ago and we've been vegging out as best as possible -neither of us has finished unpacking.

Today is the last day of my summer vacation - a tragic day understood by my fellow teachers and a completely unsympathetic whine to the rest of the world. I am currently posting the photos and a few videos (one with sound overdub) from our recent trip. They appear in the new Picasa gallery on the right side of the blog or you can click the link.

Friday, August 07, 2009


We have been here for a few days now - what a bustling and beautiful place. This is likely the hottest tourist spot we've visited on this trip (rivaled only by Munich). There are lots of crowds and buses - and with good reason - the city is filled with beautiful buildings, rich history and great food!

Many of the great buildings are complemented by the great views one can get of them - views of Pest from the heights of Buda and views of Buda lit up at night from the riverbank in Pest.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Sports day in Zagreb

Sure, we saw a museum and a few churches but the day was bookended by two of the premier sports franchises in Croatia.
First was a trip to the Drazen Petrovic Center, home to a museum (closed during basketball off season), a monument to Petrovic and the court of Cibona, the powerhouse of Croatia's league and successful in Euroleague as well. Although Petrovic died with many games yet to play, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame a few years ago and there is a touching memorial to him here.

In the late afternoon, we noticed a lot of blue Dinamo shirts moving around town (not on their own - people were wearing them). We asked around and found that the popular Dinamo squad had a UEFA Champions League match in a few hours. After very little debate we found out how to get to the game and went. Although the home side lost, we had a great time and learned a few cheers (and jeers).

Homeland Hrvatska

After we made our way around the breathtaking Cathedral of the Assumption, "Zlatko", a proud local caught us eyeing a guide to the place and appointed himself our tour guide. Zlatko found out we were from USA and gave us two great facts connecting our history to Croatia's. I think he could have done that with any nation and would love to hear how Croatia relates to Iceland or Korea or Namibia. If you remember the father character from "Big Fat Greek Wedding", it was kind of like that - an endearing nationalism.

Croatia's youth as an independent nation is so strange given the long history here (the same is true in Slovenia). In a wonderful bit of perspective picked up today, we learned that the provincial capital RETURNED to Zagreb in 1776 (it had originally been here for a few centuries, left, then returned) the year the USA declared independence.

We leave Croatia on August 5, the national holiday "Homeland Day", commemorating the end of their war for independence.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Can I get a Linguistics credit for this?

When I was a kid, I learned about the language of Yugoslavia: "Serbo-Croat" - noteworthy due to it's use of a Roman alphabet (by Croats) and a Cyrrillic one (by the Serbs). While a few universities outside the area still teach "Serbo-Croat", the locals refer to their mother tongue by a more nationalistic moniker - Bosnian, Serbian or Croatian, depending on locale.

Well, we learned "hello" and "thank you" on the train, because, as the saying goes "everybody there speaks English". We have found that to be almost as true here as anywhere else, but with a few twists. First, it is important to note that everyone also speaks German and Italian - actually, many older folks have a combination of those without English. The older woman who rented us a room a few nights ago gave a "pah!" at English and we began discussions in bad German until she frustratingly asked "Italiano?" and we offered back "Francais" and "Espanol". She loved that and spoke Italian to Lisa's Spanish and was very happy - it was only as effective as the German conversation but made our hostess happier.

The most surprising thing to see is that English ranks no better than third alternative. That is almost unprecedented in our prior experience. Many things appear in a second or third language, but you have to hit 4th or 5th language to get English. The more time we spend here, the better Lisa's Italian and my German become.

We suspect this is an indicator that the strong tourism industry here is extremely regional: Italians and Germans abound. Either group outnumbers all others combined and we feel like we might be the only Americans in the whole country.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Size Matters - revisited

Over the trips I have recorded on this blog, I think the entry "size matters" (Jue 2007) has prompted the most reaction. Basically, I commented about the smaller framed people and some funny moments caused by my size (both height and weight). In Guatrmala last winter, height differential was again very noticeable.

Here in Croatia, the tables have turned. I am probably a bit below average height among the men here - shorter than a lot of women too (their 3 inch heels notwithstanding).

Perhaps this size advantage helps explain how Croatia has excelled in sports for a relatively small nation - just 5 million (tall) people. Of course, basketball is big here (pun not intended) - Olympic medals and NBA titles for a number of players. Other tall people sports are popular too - notably volleyball and water polo. Andy Roddick once said that all the Croatian tennis players were 7 foot tall. While I can neither verify nor dispute Mr Roddick, I do have this tale....

In buying tee shirts in Laos, I had to pay extra for an XXL that fights me like a youth medium. In Guatemala, the sizing was a bit better, but inconsistent. I was tee shirt shopping here (okay, it was in Slovenia but the story still works) and Lisa asked the clerk for the next size up. The woman asked "vhor heem?" and shook her head while smiling. The shirt fits and I paid regular price.


Zadar is an overlooked coastal town with a rich history (Venetian, Hapsburg, Yugoslav, Croat - bombed by Allies in WWII and Serbs in 1994), hip nite life (powered, no kidding, by UB40 - club owners now) and two unique features: the Sun Salutation and the Sea Organ.

You should just look these up - Wikipedia I'm sure. I don't know if I have the words :)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Times they have a' changed

So the Plitvice Lakes area is a popular spot - perhaps as popular as ever - though it is evident that times have changed.

We stayed at one of 3 hotels - all with a definite 1970s look. Our hotel has massive conference rooms, a night club, a banquet hall, outdoor concrete ping pong tables, tennis courts, a bowling alley and a sauna. The hotel is very well kept, but the grounds have fallen into disrepair - many a loose or missing stone on the paths. The night club, conference rooms and banquet hall are empty and the ping pong tables are in need of paint and nets. Beyond the hotels, there are large abandoned buildings throughout the grounds - one had an elaborate outer staircase and what looks like a solarium (Or maybe an "atrium"-I don't know the difference).

It certainely appears that this may have been one of the premier resorts of the Yugoslav era - people may have saved all year (or years) to come for a few days - or maybe elites and party leaders came more easily. Several factors have contributed to change the park's situation. The war in Croatia actually began with a skirmish here in 1991 (can't be good for tourism) and this area was dominated by Croat Serbs until 1995's Peace Accords. Peace brought openness and closure - not many Bosnians can afford to come here and I'm not sure many Serbs would feel comfortable. The rest of Europe has steamed in - cars from half the EU were in the parking lot and we passed a lot of tour bus loads along the paths. It seems that the park has become a stop on the bus route or a day trip in from the coast. The park stays just as busy but the hotels are a shadow of their former selves.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

more photos on Flickr

Click the Flickr link for more photos

Photos from Plitvice Lakes

Plitvices Lakes National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site (read more HERE).

It is amazing.... here are just a few pics

Plitvice Lakes National Park

Everything we've read and everyone we asked put Plitvice as the top priority in Croatia. Accessible only on the slow bus routes that connect the capital with the 2 largest cities on the coast, it is a slow ride through the countryside. The 3 hotels on park grounds all look to have been built in the 1970s - and the room looks that way too.

None of this matters - the Park more than lives up to billing: water flowing from top to bottom, with boardwalks going around, over and on top of water falls.

Photos to come

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

to the Balkans we go?

The term "Balkans" has to me indicated the territories that comprised the Former Yugoslavia. In reading up
to prepare for this trip, I have found otherwise. It seems that no one ever called Slovenia "Balkan" - they have a Germanic society but their Slavic language and small size led them to throw their lot in with the Yugos.
Croatia considers it's deep Catholicism as the reason it is not really "Balkan" (or even "Western Balkan" as the Slovene press refers to them).
So I didn't really enter the Balkans last week after a 10 minute tunnel left Austria and the Croatian policeman who just stamped my passport would tell me that I have to head further south and or east.
maybe the next trip ...... :)

Monday, July 27, 2009

Getting no flies, just honey

Honey is a major gift shop item here in Slovenia. The product range looks remarkably similar to the maple syrup gifts you can buy in Vermont, Quebec and other places - bottles of various sizes, honey of various colors, with or without honeycomb, litle candies, dipping spoons and more. As a kid, we used a lot of honey and I like the stuff, but I'm not even tempted to lug a glass jar of sticky agricultural product in my bag or through 3 sets of customs in the next two weeks.
I presume that all this honey production just might relate to all of the buzzing around here. At home, I never see bees - never. I don't look for them, but they never are just buzzing around when I'm sitting outside. Bees are the dominant insect here - not to the point of annoyance (Lisa would disagree) but they are always around. They like to check out your beer, the dressing on your salad or, as we witnessed at the farmers market today, sliced melons wrapped in plastic - must be like bee torture. We walked by the farmers market after closing and there was a mini swarm on the melon stall's trash heap.
That's the buzz here in Ljubljana (ha ha) - we go to Zagreb tomorrow.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

I feel sLOVEnia

We are here in Ljubljana. While it has only been an official capital a relatively short time, "it has been preparing for centuries" - according to one of many brochures put out by the hard working tourist bureau. We would agree - this is a wonderful place to spend time. There is a tourism push - I think the bureau underwrites some cheap tours and bike rentals. Slovenia joined the EU in 2004, the Euro monetary union in 2007 and was the first former communist state to serve as EU president. They rank on the low end in a lot of EU categories but have a high overall standard of living (there is some tough competition there). The culture and architecture feels like a blend of Italy and Austria (shocker) but there is a dash of Communist bloc architecture mixed in - especially once you leave the Old Town. Any amount of Slovene you can speak seems to please folks - I've added "very much" to my "thank you" - need to learn "check please" (the checks are always a pleasant surprise after Austria and Germany).

Saturday, July 25, 2009

"Bled Days" - opening night

We only are in town for the first night of the festival - so we wanted to make the most of it. All through the day, temporary vendor tents and beer gardens were developing. As we came down the castle hill, the streets were filling up. After a short break back at the hotel, we joined the fray ("fray" implies disorder or chaos - there was none).

For dinner, we chose a mixed grill plate (I think "fijakanar", but I could be missing or adding letters). It is hard to be certain as to what we ate - little sausages, hambuger pounded flat, pork and I think veal. The same marinade was on all the meats so there was a blending of flavors. The primary side was boiled then slightly grilled potatoes. There was a generous slice of fresh bell pepper and fresh chopped onion, sour cream for the potato, mustard and a mild chili sauce for the meat. The bell pepper continued a color trend I'd noticed here - basically that there are a lot of available colors. I have seen green, yellow, red and orange at home. This was a lime green/ yellow (okay, maybe it just hadn't ripened). Yesterday I had one that was deep purple. The grilled meats were fantastic (when are they not?) and the garnishes complimented them well.

The big treat at dinner was the company. As we were seeking a spot, an older couple gestured to open seats next to them. They were sharing the same plate we'd chosen. As we both finished up, they offered wrapped toothpicks and said something in Slovene, pointing at our empty plate. Seeing what must have been a blank look from both of us, the man said something that I was able to glean some German words from so we were able to chat a bit. They seemed surprised that we were American - at least that's how we interpreted the awkward pause. If I understood him, they'd visited the US and South America extensively, as well as Iceland, Greenland, Siberia and the North Pole (this is where I really think I may have misunderstood). They have 9 grandchildren - but I'm not sure if that comes from their 2 daughters, their 3 kids or their 5 children - and the man is 73 years old -" I think. It was a nice little visit.

We eventually retired to our hotel balcony for the laser (pronounced with a short 'a' by the PA) and fireworks show. The lasers were projected onto the stone below the castle - it was a cute 10 minute show whose theme seemed to be "Slovenia welcomes Europe to Bled". The fireworks followed - again a nicely short show. There was a neat vertical phenoma going on for us - we were probably 100 feet above the lake (hillside plus building) so the fireworks were almost at eye level for us - like being in the middle of the show. Mother Nature complimented both displays with a cool lightning storm backlighting the castle (a rainy night may have sent revelers home early).

Friday, July 24, 2009

Jezero Bled (Lake Bled)

We had a jam packed day of fun today - rowing out to the Island and touring the church - there has been a site of worship there for at least 1200 years - but possibly more. We took a dip in the lake too - cold at first for a couple of Floridians, but one adjusts quickly. On the way back to shore, Lisa wanted to try out her rowing skills. How many summers in Michigan, with all of those lakes and I have to teach her to row?! In Slovenia! Did she just swim everywhere? (She picked it up pretty quickly)

We had a great pizza for lunch. Slovenia has historically had a lot of Italian influence and even has an Italian speaking minority near Trieste and a large Italian tourist influence so Italian cuisine is omnipresent.

In the late afternoon, we stormed the Castle Bled (and had fun). According to our book, there are 3 paths to take to the castle. The book describes them in the sort of general detail that makes one say "I'm sure we'll figure it out - there are probably a bunch of signs". There is one sign, with a vaguely upward pointing arrow that says "Grad 1" - it's on a rock 500 feet above the town, the up arrow is only helpful if placed near a stairwell. We found our way to the 3rd path - having dismissed what we later learned was the second as merely someone's driveway (it is both). If we'd missed 6 paths, the view at the top would have still been worth it.

The Castle is not content with just the view - there is a museum, a restaurant, a print shop (?) and a bar (of course). The museum is small, but chronicles the history of the area with artifacts from each age - spear points, arrow heads and Roman coins. There is a cool mix of old and new style exhibits - short videos on flat screens in the same room as an accurate model of an Ostrogoth female. There were several replicas of people - sometimes that is wierd but I really liked it here.

We came down the hill to enjoy The first night of the "Bled Days" festival.

View of Grad Bled

This is the castle (grad) from our hotel balcony.


The natural landscape here is indistinguishable from Austria - beautiful alpine scenery. The human landscape is fairly similar, but with the occasional big communist bloc apartment building, as we saw in Jesenice - our first stop. New construction is much more appropriate to the rising Euro star that is Slovenia. After an hour (at a pub) in Jesenice, we took a short train to our destination of Bled.

Bled names the town, the lake, the island in the lake, and the medieval castle. The train station deposits you on a hillside high above the east side of the lake. The town is on the opposite corner. About 1 minute into our walk (2 km) to town, we knew that 1 day would not be enough here - it is absolutely beautiful.

We managed a hotel room overlooking the lake (thank you economic slowdown) and will have a great view of Friday night's fireworks display. Our second night corresponds to "Bled Days" - the local festival (dumb luck)

So I'm enjoying a view of the castle light up at night and a Slovene band playing traditional music in a courtyard below. Pretty nice.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

OBB wishes you "Gute Reise"

I think it is unfair to any nation you visit before or after Austria - compared to the wealth, order and cleanliness there, nothing can match. When we changed from a German train to an Austrian - we noticed. Today we switched from an Austrian to a Slovene train - we noticed. Nothing wrong with the Slovene train - it is what I was expecting from my past experience in 2nd class train tickets - just not the same as the OBB (Osterreiches Bahn Bsomething- the Austrian train authority)

schones Klagenfurt

We arrived Wednesday in the Southern Austrian city of Klagenfurt. Klagenfurt is the city closest to the Wortersee - Austria's largest lake and a summer sports playground.

Klagenfurt is a beautiful place - like all the postcards I've ever seen of Austria (except for the temperature - it was hot). A nice bonus of leaving the beaten tourist path is that people are willing to let me speak my broken German - big city folk switch immediately to English.

re volt(age)ing part 2

The mighty iPhone went 72 full hours without charge

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


If I can't get my (previously) trusty adapter to work, there will not be many more posts.... This iPhone is runnin out of juice. For the nerdy techy types reading this, it has been over 42 hours since the last charge.

Anglischer Garten

Munich boasts a municipal park that dwarfs Central Park (a meaningless claim to me - I've never been there - but the tour guide acted like I should care)

It is a beautiful place with bikers, walkers, joggers and dogs off leashes sharing nicely. I think these would have made it my favorite part of Munich by themselves, of course......

There are 2 large beer gardens too. I guess that at one time, beer gardens had only beer but have now added food - roast chicken, pork knuckle (fantastic) and bratwurst. I doubt anyone complained, as beer still flows plentifully.

Our tour included a dinner stop at the Chinese tower garden. I had the pork knuckle because (a) pork is delicious and (b) I know somebody ate one on a travel show (just hope I was copying Bourdain, not Rick Steves). Our guide recommended the beauty of another establishment, so we went back the next night. I ordered the more stereotypical bratwurst, accompanied by an amount of sauerkraut I would previosly described as "the whole jar". It was not too much when you are drinking a liter of beer.

When the very kind lady


We took the commuter train out to Dachau today. "Dachau" once referred to a small village outside of Munich and indeed there is still quite a population there.
Shortly after taking power in 1933, the NSDAP (the Nazis) established their first concentration camp in Dachau - initially for political opponents (Social Democrats and Communists) but later to be reorganized and enlarged in 1938 to hold every group deemed "asocial". Eventually, members of the French Resistance and even Soviet POWs were kept here.

It is hard to enumerate all of the things that amazed me about this place - of course the horrors of Naziism that you know you will see - while most did not "surprise" me after years of Holocaust history, they are nonetheless always shocking to see or read again. 2 things did strike me
1. The heat - I've often read about or envisioned concentration camp prisoners enduring Northern European winters with a thin layer of clothing, nothing in their bellies and maybe no shoes. I'd never pondered summertime, but on an otherwise beautful day, the camp had heat lines rising from the ground. That is in spite of the beautful shade tree that have been planted in the past 60 years (aerial photos of 1945 didn't show them). I had never imagined this hardship too for the prisoners.
2. Life in town goes on - while that fact is painfully and awkwardly true of the townsfolk marched at gunpoint to the camp by the US Army in 1945, it is much more matter of fact today. There is a busy road that goes by the outer fence and homes whose second floor looks onto the camp yard. (We noticed this same phenomena in Cambodia - perhaps it is something innately human) The camp received enough coverage in 1930s German press (heavily misrepresented as "corrective") that it's name had a sort of boogyman connotation to regular Germans. Today the residents pack onto the same bus as the tourists streaming to the camp - 2 different lines head to that part of town and go beyond the camp's stop. Dachau the town seems to exist in symmetry with it's history without forgetting it.

Note - In a move that was not intentional but would surely make the Nazis cringe, we had a Turkish durum snack at a stand near the train station. There were only Germans eating there and the meat used was pork - very German, not very Turkish (Muslims not eating pork and all). Even without the warm and fuzzy "all getting along" sentiment, it was delicious.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Ich liebe Deutschland

We finally got our bags, figured out a transit pass, took the subway to the bus - found the right one in spite of ourselves (stopped somewhere in there for a pretzel).

Our short bus ride took us through Beethoven square and down Goethestrasse - yes we are in Germany.

Got into our room at 10:00 AM (thank you cleaning lady) and found not only the expected complimentary bottles of water, but, YES, complimentary beer as well.
Yes, we are in Germany


If there were only one guy unloading the (not even full) plane, and if he were a 90 year old arthritic man, this baggage claim would be faster. Like 2 bags a minute come out - we've been here 20 minutes.

Runnin' on Empty ??

Our flight from Atlanta to Munich took off on time and 2/3 full - several people have empty rows to stretch out on. We had chosen 2 oversized seats over the wing when we booked the flight.

I guess with an empty flight, we can go really fast.... We are set to land an hour early. We got very little sleep so it could be a long day in Munich

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Travel Bugs - and Bags

We are packed and ready to go - awaiting our ride to the airport. Lisa and I have been on several trips together, but this one keeps bringing back memories and lessons learned on our first and longest - to Southeast Asia. Our recent trips have been of shorter duration and we got very lazy in our packing - ending up with way too much stuff.

This week we found ourselves looking at another long duration trip and realized that we needed to be more calculated. Nonetheless, I think we both have one or two extra pieces of clothing - slaves to European fashion I guess - a pressure we didn't feel in Laos :)

Sunday, June 21, 2009


From my brief time in Philly, a certain level of automation has struck me. These were not, generally speaking, never before seen types of things - but it was striking how ubiquitous they were. I think I only entered one bathroom without automatic water faucets and automatic soap dispensers and many also added automatic paper towel reels. Even Independence Hall, arguably the birthplace of our nation, has automatically opening doors (not a Ben Franklin invention)

Now I was puzzled as to the origin of this automation, but I think it is part of a green movement in Philly. The new piece of technology for me was the solar trash compactor - seen here with recycle bin - on many a street corner. Here we see green technology keeping the city clean and probably saving some money.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

One Year

Today we celebrate our first anniversary - among the activities is a viewi g of our wedding video (thanks again Terry). We had a wonderful day and we are so happy that all of you joined us.

Lisa and Stephen

Friday, January 02, 2009

A good cause

Through our new friends in Guatemala, we learned about Camino Seguro, an NGO doing great work here. The organization lost its founder in a tragic car accident 2 years ago, but the hard work continues.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Feliz Neuvo Año

Lisa arranged private Spanish lessons with a local couple Ana and Dany. We have been working a few hours a day with them here in Antigua. Of course, Lisa being charming, by the end our our third day of lessons, Ana had invited us to their home to celebrate New Years.

We surveyed the local scene on the way there - Antigua is a popular Guatemalan destination for New Years and the streets were packed with celebrants. By 7:00, the street that hosted the city's festivities was filling up and we saw parts of two processions - a mix of Catholicism, traditional music and fireworks. There is a really cool wearable framework that essentially straps a whole lot of fireworks to someone's body - it doesn't seem the slightest bit like a good idea but it looked cool. The fact that we saw 2 of these go off at around 8:00 indicated the kind of party we were to see.

We made it to Dany and Ana's around 8:30 (having run into Dany on the street and followed him home) and enjoyed a snack of tamales. They were tasty, but not what i'd expected: I'm familiar with the tamale of Mexican (or American) cuisine, cooked in a corn husk. These were cooked in a plantain leaf and were a soupy mix of corn meal, tomato sauce and cheese, sopped up with a piece of bread - tasty nonetheless.

After the tamales, we visited and drank until the main meal at midnight. We had pollo con arroz (chicken with rice). They were cooked separately, the chicken roasted with chorizo, onions and wine - it was fall off the bone and fantastic. There was more wine and visting after dinner until we finally had to call it a night and head home.

While it was late for all of us, the festivities in Antigua were far from over. We drifted to sleep around 2:00 AM in spite of the myriad fireworks demonstrations still going on (they were still going on around noon the next day too).