Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Istanbul not Constantinople

During my first stop in the Balkans: Zagreb, Croatia, I met two young lads from Istanbul who, more than encouraged, almost demanded that I visit Turkey if for no other reason than to eat "real Burek." They were convinced that no one else could do it like that the Turks. After that I was (almost) sold. From the moment I heard someone mention Istanbul this song popped into my head. Why? I have no idea. 'Cause it's an awesome song? And so educational. What else can I say about Istanbul? I think it was the most fitting place to end my trip around the Balkans. Initially coming here was no more than a cheap flight to Kenya but it just makes sense after seeing the influence it had on the rest of the area. The Ottoman Empire was all over the Balkans:

The tension that arose in the Balkan region (specifically between Ethnically Serbian Orthodox Christians and Bosniak/Albanian Muslims) can be traced back to Ottoman Empire's jaunt around the area. Since Turkey = Islam and back in the day Muslims = Christ-killers because... well shoot. I'm going to let Michael Sells explain this because I'm not doing it justice. The following is an exert from The Bridge Betrayed:

"In 1389, the Serb Prince Lazar was defeated and killed in a battle against Ottoman Turkish Sultan Murad on the plain of Kosovo (My note: I drove by the sight where all this went down when I was in Kosovo). While historians dispute the significance of the battle, in Serbian mythology it entailed the loss of Serb independence, a loss that was represented in cosmic terms. Lazar is portrayed as a Christ figure. He has a Last Supper with his nobles, one of whom, Vuk Brankovic, is a traitor and gives the battle plans to the Turks. During the battle, the Christ-Prince Lazar is slain and with him dies the Serb nation, to rise again only with the resurrection of Lazar. Turks are thus equated with Christ-Killers and Vuk Brankovic, the “Turk within,” becomes a symbol (and ancestral curse) of all slavic Muslims.

The drama opens with Bishop Danilo, the play's protagonist, brooding on the evil of Islam, the tragedy of Kosovo, and the treason of Vuk Brankovic. Danilo's warriors suggest celebrating the holy day (Pentecost) by “cleansing” (cistimo) the land of non-Christians (v. 95). The chorus chants: “the high mountains reek with the stench of non-Christians [v. 284].” One of Danilo's men proclaims that struggle won’t come to an end until “we or the Turks [slavic Muslims] are exterminated.” The reference to the slavic Muslims as “Turks” crystallizes the view that by converting to Islam the Muslims have changed their racial identity and have become the Turks who killed the Christ-Prince Lazar."

Obviously there is more than that but I think Sells did a great job of summarizing. Istanbul was the perfect conclusion to my Balkan tour. 

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Food Blog

A while ago I had a request for a post about food. So here is my food blog:

Bosnia and Herzegovina (and Serbia and Croatia)
This isn't my pic unfortunately: Picture
Cevapi roughly translates to meat fingers. Sarajevo had the best Cevapi by far: sausages in pita with raw onion. It sounds basic but it was actually quite delicious. This dish is common all over the Balkans. What else is a famous Balkan dish you ask? Meat. Just straight up meat on a plate is about as Balkany as it gets. 

Tovce Grovce in Macedonia
Tovce Grovce: seasoned beans baked in a clay pot and even though I didn't have this dish until Macedonia, it was also quite common in many other Balkan countries.

Albania: Chicken!
Half chicken or whole chicken? Served on a plate. The end.

Tave Dheu-Liver
Tave Dheu: Ever had Pâté? It's a little like that, I suppose... I don't think I've ever had pâté but I was told that it's very similar. It's liver. It was rich and creamy and meaty. Delicious once but definitely not one of those things you can eat all the time. I think you would have a heart attack if you did.  

Tres Leches
I had it in Albania and it had an Albanian name but it was Tres Leches. Three different kinds of milk topped with caramel. Delicious nonetheless. 

Never eat blueberry ice cream in Albania
This started out as a very delicious Crepe in Albania (weird I know, but go with it for a moment). And then came the ice cream. It was a combination of blueberry, strawberry and some sort of chemical component that I just can't put my finger on. Long story short: Gross.

Greek Salad and Souvlaki
Greek salad: cucumber, tomoato, feta and souvlaki. Souvlaki is meat on a stick. I think I had pork there. Very typical Greek dinner. 
Mosaka, Musaka, same, same. Meaty cheesy deliciousness. I don't think I really need to say more than that. 

Okay, so I will admit that I am a bit confused about the food all over the region. From Croatia to Turkey there are so many overlapping dishes and everyone claims that it is an authentic dish to whatever country I am in at the time. Thus, for years, I have been lead to believe that Baklava (i.e. the greatest dessert ever) was Greek. Sigh, unfortunately, now that I'm in Istanbul it is fairly clear that it Turkish. There are so many Turkish dishes that are available all over the Balkan region that it's difficult to trace the origin of any of these dishes. I think the single greatest thing that the Ottoman Empire introduced to the areas it conquered was it's amazing cuisine. Bravo Ottomans. Any way, Baklava is pretty similar in Greece or Turkey; it's layers of filo pastry filled with nuts and honey (or syrup apparently). 

Baklava? I think not. FAIL.

"Greek" Coffee

Greek Wine

FETA and Tzatziki 
Tzatziki is the greatest thing. Yogurt with garlic and cucumbers: yes, please!

One things the Greeks do right, all the time: Salads.

Greek Salad

Pepper Salad

Turkey (well, Istanbul)

Fish Sandmich! Out of the water, onto a grill,
between two pieces of fresh bread. Delish.
Drum roll PLEASE! KABOB. Kabaps? Kobaps? Kebab? K-Bob.
proper K-Bob

Chef K-Bob

Turkish Pizza?

I can't remember the name: Lamb deconstructed K-bob with yogurt.

BAKLAVA: Turkish Baklava the original
 Turkish Coffee
Yes, I did just buy a Turkish Coffee pot and Turkish Coffee and a little Turkish coffee cup/saucer combo.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Greeking Out

"This is SPARTA!" (300 reference, anyone?). When I think of Greece I get this beautiful picture in my head of bare chested Olympians running to and fro between white houses towards the crystal clear blue Mediterranean sea. The reality is so disappointing. Somewhere in Belgrade I heard that Greece was, "as Balkan as it gets," or maybe I heard it was, a "Balkan place." Well shoot people, it's true. It is so Balkany up in here. They've tried to hide it with marble and the lack of communist architecture but I can see through the facade. You, dear Greece, are just as Balkany as the rest of 'em! Coffee bars everywhere, bad hair cuts (yes, there are mullets, too many mullets), the markets, the people, the fashion (acid wash jeans with tight shirts and gold chains), the stray dogs and cats roaming the streets, need I say more? I could but then I would bore you all to death and we wouldn't want that. 

In Athens I found myself wondering: "How the heck is Greece bankrupt?" Everything is so dern expensive. And then it hit me, again, like many of the Balkan countries, people are out drinking coffee all day long. What do they do for a living? Unemployment is just as big of an issue here as it is anywhere else in the world. And similar to the issues of those countries going through huge revolutions at the moment (Egypt specifically) Greece, too, has an entire generation of young people who are overeducated and unemployed. Fun fact: the city of Thessaloniki is in the running for "European Youth Capital 2014." 

I know Greece was never on the itinerary but here I am in Thessaloníki. Athens was almost exactly what I expected it to be: big ol' city, lots of cool history, and tour groups. I haven't heard that many American accents in one place since... the Portland Airport five-ish months ago. I visited the Parthenon (and didn't realize it), the Ancient Agora, the first Olympic Stadium, the museums, and ate some delicious Greek cuisine.

This place has so much history it was difficult to decide what to see for my brief stay. I couldn't go to any of the islands, I didn't get to see Meteroa or visit Mt. Olympus (or at least the peak that they named Mt. Olympus). I only had enough time to visit of Athens and Thessaloníki but it was certainly worth visiting even if it did rain the entire time. 


Olympic Stadium

National Library

Orange tree on the side of the street

Cute old men playing a tune!

I win!

Where? OH you mean that HUGE THING ON TOP OF THE HILL?


Athens = Big



Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Albania: Return to Tirane (Tirana?)

or How My Final Day in Berat Turned into My Final Days in Berat

It all started with a Raki. Have I not yet explained what Raki is? Alright well, Raki is a traditional Albanian drink, enjoyed morning, noon and night by everyone. Funny story about Raki from my bus ride between Albania and Athens but that'll come later. Anyway, the best Raki comes in reused plastic water, coke, fanta, whatever-the-heck-soft-drink bottles. It is made from plums (traditionally, but as I learned later they make it from pretty much whatever fruit they feel like) and goes through a similar process as say, moonshine. Yes, Raki (or Rakija or Rakia depending on where you are in the Balkans) is the socially acceptable, Albanian version, of moonshine. Typically it is had in the morning (or whenever you wake up) with coffee. That's how the locals do it. So when I was offered some Raki the morning of the 12th I thought, "When in ... Albania?" I womaned up and had 2 sips (really that's all I could justify at 9 in the morning... it's also all I could get down. It burns).

As we sat and sipped our Raki the conversation turned to the Manu Chao concert that was to take place that night in Tirana. I had expressed earlier in the week, when I was in Tirana, how great it would be to go to the concert but I didn't actually think I would still be in the country at the time, and certainly not Tirana. The conversation moved so quickly I can't quite remember how it happened but everyone, myself excluded, had decided to go back to Tirana that afternoon to see Manu Chao. I left the room for a moment and when I returned it was suddenly decided that I was going. I insisted that I shouldn't that going back to Tirana would be a ridiculous even though I really, really wanted to see Manu (who wouldn't want to see them perform live? I mean honestly). And then Ashley (random Seattle connection working at the hostel) said the one thing I dread hearing, "What's stopping you?" Gawd. Here I am, traveling the world (or a portion of it), I'm young(ish), no solid commitments, what is stopping me? I couldn't think of anything, or I didn't want to think of anything, to argue with that. So I said, "Fine. Let's do it. Let's just do it." Twenty minutes later I was on a bus back to Tirana. We arrived with enough time to check in to the hostel and grab something to eat.

I will admit I am not a spontaneous person usually. I like plans, outlines, lists, guides, etc. Spontaneously deciding to spontaneously take a spontaneous trip to Tirana to spontaneously see Manu Chao play was ... well it was Spontaneous. And totally outside my comfort zone. And totally AWESOME.

Don't know who Manu Chao is? What, have you been living under a rock? No, it's fine mis amigos Americanos that's what I'm here for.

Like it? This video is how I learned "Gustar" in Espanol:

Adding to the list of things I learned in Albania: Spontaneity can be enjoyable if it involves dancing. 

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Albania: Berat

Deciding to leave Tirana took far too much effort. Where to go next? Bulgaria? Greece? Back to Ohrid? Stay in Albania? My mind was made up by Malvina who told me Berat was quieter than Tirana but still beautiful. Plus it only takes 3 hours by bus whereas getting from Tirana to any other country is a hassle-and-a-half. So I was sold. When I arrived in Berat this is what I found: First I found a great hostel, then I found out that everyone staying there that night had one thing in common: they had all met me at some point during my 4 night stay in Tirana (yes I was there for quite a while trying to make up my mind). In fact, some of them had made it through 2 other cities before arriving in Berat.

View from the top

The Citadel and the town below

A trip through the Balkans just isn't complete without Albania and it isn't fair to base one's opinion of a country on one city. Especially the capital city. So here I am in Berat and it's been a busy few days. In the first two days here I climbed to the top of both hills (mini-mountains sounded like too much of an exaggeration), made it to a waterfall, and saw a different side to Albania than I had seen in Tirana.

The Citadel in Berat sits at the top of the hill and surrounds what remains of the castle. Have I mentioned how GORGEOUS it is here? Yeah? Well, in case I have some non-believers.

Cooooold water
On my second day in Berat I went on an adventure with two boys from England (Tom Sawyer and Justin Beiber) to a smaller town called Bogove. In Bogove there is a gorgeous, freezing cold, water fall. I'll give you an idea of how cold the water was: jump in, the shock of the cold paralyzes you for a moment, when you finally get out everything is numb and you turn bright red. The water is literally melting off of a mountain, literally. The ride up to Bogove was interesting. The first bus we boarded apparently didn't go all the way to Bogove so we were motioned to get off at a smaller town and ushered into a smaller mini-van whilst being introduced to the locals in the bus (yes the driver actually said this) as, "One American and two English." It made me feel important for 2.5 seconds. Then this cute old woman motioned for me to sit by her. And then she started asking me questions... in Albanian. So I answered her in English. Languages collide!

Jesus tattoo

Beiber and Tom Sawyer

You wanted a pony? Well, how about a donkey instead?

Things I've learned in Berat

1. Technically I knew this before coming here but it still confuses the heck out of me. Po means yes Yo means no, shaking one's head side to side means yes and shaking one's head up and down means no. Why? Just, why.

2. People, mostly older women, don't care that you don't speak Albanian, they will talk to you regardless of any language barrier. They will speak only in Albanian and expect you to know what the hell they are saying. So I've gotten really good at just pretending I know what the hell they are saying and replying in English. It's actually quite interesting. I'm sure they think we're talking about the same thing but I could literally be saying, "Today I saw pigs flying and I am going to the moon tomorrow morning." And they would shake their heads and keep saying whatever the heck they're saying. 

3. Hitch-hiking is completely normal and people do it all the time. The American in me keeps saying, "you will be robbed, or murdered if you get into a car with a complete stranger." I just can't bring myself to do it. 

4. There is this awesome thing called a Giro or Xhiro in Albanian. Basically at about 6pm every night (every night) the entire city walks from one end of the street to the other. The pros are usually old men, looking very dapper, crossing their hands behind their backs. They stay until about 9pm or so while women generally head back before 8pm.

5. Don't drink the Raki. Just don't do it. Unless you put in coffee like the locals.

6. You should never be bored. Nothing to do? Water the pavement. Everyone here waters the pavement.

7. If invited to a Manu Chao concert... GO. 

Number 7 brings me to my next post...
After I left Tirana the first time I was certain I would never see it again... at least not for a while. Two days later I found myself on a bus heading back to Tirana to see a Manu Chao concert. We arrived an hour before the concert began, just enough time to settle into the hostel, find tickets, eat and find the stadium.

To be continued...