Thursday, July 31, 2014


"If adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad."  
Jane Austen

And so she sought adventure. Then, after five years abroad, this young lady moved back to her own village.  What happens next?  What happens when the adventure is over and the single young lady finds herself in the middle of suburban America?  She buys a car, a mattress, and (gulp) a home. She enjoys every single family celebration.  She embraces friendships that she had neglected for sixteen years.  She becomes involved with her local church.  She wallows in what she had and left behind...  

I have been home a year and yes, it has been a good full year.  However, the wallowing sneaks up in times of loneliness (I can't help missing the community that I was once a part of, both in Albania and Ukraine).  It also sneaks up as I'm scrolling through Pinterest and come across amazing travel adventures that are no longer affordable.  Must I accept that my life was once full and will never be so again?  No!  

As much truth that there is in this Jane Austen quote, I do not believe that it is absolute truth.  Maybe adventure doesn't just "befall."  The truth is, a young lady should seek it whether she is abroad or in her mundane little village.  Seek is a present-tense verb, which implies that one should live in the here and now.  This is my pledge for the upcoming school year:  I will seek adventure.  It may be as simple as discovering a new winery that speaks to my Pinot loving palate, or as complex as learning a new skill (paddle boarding, anyone?).  These stories may not have the charm and excitement that European Travels had.  I do hope that they will encourage others (whether they are single or married) to find adventure in their own hometown.  One day, perhaps, adventurers may go abroad again (or maybe dart over to a neighboring state) but for now, let's seek the adventure in our own villages.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Among the Dutch

 There was a magnet attached to my family's refrigerator that said: "Dutch House Rules: If you make a mess, clean it up. If you open it, close it.  If it's none of your concern, keep it that way."  Ah, the Dutch, that half of me that I don't quite understand but can relate to.  All my life, I've known one thing: Someday, I would step foot in the Netherlands.

After living in the edges of Europe going on five years, this vision was finally fulfilled.  I went to Amsterdam for a 3 day layover before heading back to Kyiv.  Everywhere I looked, I saw my dad, grandfather, grandmother, aunt and uncles.  They were in the sideways smile of a stranger, the bouncy purposeful walk, the ladies on the bikes with my grandmother's and aunt's nose (which is a rather cute nose!), the friendly shop keepers who were kind enough to engage in conversation, the families huddled in a cafe and the quick sense of humor.  It was like going to a family reunion for 3 days.  However!  There were some striking places that made me laugh imagining my family there: the pot coffee shops and the Red-Light District just to name a few.

My first impression of Amsterdam wasn't that flattering.  We found ourselves in the middle of a New Year celebration (it was the 2nd of January) on a street filled with Chinese restaurants.  The firecrackers were ear-ringingly loud, the streets were filthy and we were surprised to be suddenly walking through The Red Light District.  But then, we found a small restaurant and warmed up with a bowl of soup and a beer.  The following two days improved drastically.
 There were five of us on this trip, the Black family, my friend Jenny and me.  The Blacks had some Visa business to take care of in the Hague so Jenny and I ventured out by ourselves.  Our first order of business was to go to Anne Frank's house.  The line was two hours long (worth it!) and began in front of this church.  Anne would have heard the bells from her hideout.
 Here is the canal in front of her house and the picture below is the entrance.  The hideout was, of course, the back of her father's shop.  It was business like usual for those two years they were in hiding.  We were not allowed to take pictures (the Spaniards who did received a strict talking to.  Gosh, I'm glad I'm a rule follower.) but it was a moving experience.  The recorded testimonies were beautiful and truthful.  I was struck by how relational the Frank family was with the Dutch who tried to hide them and their Jewish community.  Of course, Anne's story is completely tragic, but it is also hopeful.  The hope of a child.  The museum didn't turn her into a martyr, but a living, breathing girl with hopes, fears, and issues.  Maybe that's the beauty of her diary.

 Above is Anne Frank's house.
 After walking for miles (and doing a bit of shopping and sampling cheese along the way), Jenny and I decided to go to the Tuschinski Theater.  It was a beautiful art deco, 1920s building, a perfect place to watch Anna Karinina and be swept away by the moving pictures. 
 The following day, the Blacks went to discover Amsterdam by foot and Jenny and I rented bikes to see the city like the Dutch.  Let me tell you!  It's scary out on the streets until you learn the orderly rules of bike riding.  We stopped in front of a cheese shop we had seen the day before and stocked up on cheese.  I didn't buy black licorice and I am now kicking myself.

 Our destination was Vondel Park.  It had beautiful bike friendly clean paths, a lake and a cozy cafe where we ate grilled cheese sandwiches and drank the best hot chocolate ever.

 We biked for three hours or so and then turned the bikes in.  We met the Blacks at the giant Christmas tree at the train station.

 We almost ate on this short street (pictured below because who doesn't love things with their name on it?) but turned a corner and found the best Italian food!  Amazing!  It was so well priced and delicious. 

 Jenny and I wanted to go ice skating and we all found a little outdoor frozen rink.  This has been another dream of mine for, well, forever.  Well, some dreams turn into nightmares.  I couldn't skate at all with my skates and the choppy ice.  After twice around, I fell hard onto my knees.  So, I was out.  Jenny, being far more graceful than I, managed to skate on.

Was this my last trip to the Netherlands?  I hope not.  I still imagine myself knocking on the door of my great-grandfather's cottage asking to explore the grounds or biking in through the tulip covered countryside.  Someday, with my father by my side, I will explore again.  Just because I'm leaving Europe after this year, doesn't mean that dreams die.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Back to the Balkans

Sometimes, setting is more important than characters and plot.  It can be enough to drive a story.  Up until now, I haven't blogged much about repeated settings of travel adventures.  This is a mistake that I hope to redeem in this Croatia post.   This setting does drive story, but it's the characters that make this story memorable. 

 Five of my traveling companions (two being children) and I arrived in Dubrovnik late Saturday afternoon.  We were prepared for the wet weather.  Sunday, we walked around old town Dubrovnik and walked back to our rented apartment, 20 minutes up hill, drenched.  By then, two more of my friends had arrived and we were ready to face the weather again.  Our spirits were not dampened!
 The next day brought sunnier skies and periods of rain...perfect for wine tasting!  Ken, Alyssa, Rachel and I rented a van (a godsend actually, it came with two car seats and the promise of two adventure filled days) and drove out to Ston to wine taste in the region I had visited with Tracey and Sarah (see post from June 2010).
The scenery was just as stunning as I remembered.  We ended up in a little town, and were the objects of curious looks by a curious little man.  He waved and laughed the final time we passed him.  It reminded me of how genuine the people of the Balkans region are. 
 One word about language: Before living in a Russian speaking country, I had no idea how VERY similar Slavic languages are.  It was quite humorous (refreshing actually) to read signs, similar to Russian, in plain old ordinary Latin letters.
 After a few wrong turns and another kindly gentleman, we drove through an olive grove on our way to our first tasting site.  Rachel jumped out of the van and picked a handful of olives.  We all tried them...I think they taste much better out of a jar!
 The first winery was a place I had been to, but didn't recognized because we took the back way.  I do remember buying a lovely rose there.  Alyssa bought one for her mom and Rachel bought a white.  I was saving my wine allotment for the Matuska winery.
 Farmer Rawly standing in a small vineyard!  He's too cute.
 Our second stop was a lovely surprise.  It was recently open and I had never been there.  The owners had a simple little house, running their tasting room from a hallway of the home.  The husband grew grapes and sold them to larger wineries.  Then, the family decided to open their own wine business.  The wife was a gracious hostess and her three children were good helpers too.  I did buy a bottle of their dessert wine, made from the dignac grape, because it was the best dessert wine I'd ever tasted.  I'm not a dessert wine kind of girl, but seriously, this is not too sweet and there is something that made my taste buds take notice.  They also made delicious schnapps and lemoncello.  I'm a little sad that I didn't buy the lemoncello because that, too, was the best I've ever tasted.
 And now back to Matusko winery!  It's become so much more commercialized since my last visit, but it's easy to taste why.  We tried to beat a tour bus inside, but that effort failed.  I told myself that I could get the wine from their wine bar in town, but my gut told me to buy from the tasting room.  Boy am I glad that I did.  The mark-up in town was outrageous.  It was at least quadrupole the price.
Alyssa and I were patiently waiting behind a group of Turkish tourists (from the previously mentioned bus) and our patience was rewarded.  There were three pourers and I instantly recognized the lady from three years ago.  I told her how much my family, friends and I enjoyed the wine.  Once the Turkish tourists left, she brought out the hidden reserve collection for Alyssa and me to try.  She eventually poured us samples from a $125 bottle of wine. 

Dusk began to fall as we drove back to Dubrovnik.  We still wanted to take pictures along the road home.

 What wine tasting adventure is complete without a dashboard laden with snacks?
 The next day is spelled ADVENTURE.  Actually, it's spelled Bosnia Herzegovina.  Yes!  I actually went to Bosnia!  We, along with Jenny and John, re-rented the van for the day and drove easily over the boarder.  Our destination was a heavily hit town, Mostar, which has slowly been rebuilt.  Slowly.
 The old town reminded me so much of Albania.  The Turkish influence was everywhere.  (I couldn't leave without eating a piece of Baklava).  The food overall was Albanian.  Or maybe Albanian food is Bosnian.  Either way, I really really really like Balkan food: the grilled meats, the bread soaked in oil and vinegar, the fresh salads.  Yum.

 Pretty isn't it?  We were standing on the rebuilt Old Bridge that was bombed in '93.

 Zoya had no trouble balancing and playing on the cobblestones.  This was near the point when some of our group went and explored the graveyard.  I didn't go, but they reported the tombstones were filled with 1993s.
 Happiness is lunch under blue skies along a river...
 Happiness is kittens who love a cuddle!
 Once upon a time, there were snipers in those hills.

 Bullet holes are still evident through the entire town of Mostar.
 We came upon another small town, now a World Heritage Site, and explored as the afternoon waned into evening.  This town (name forgotten) reminded me of Berat, Albania, home of the 1,000 floating windows.  It even had a fort at the top of a hill, just like in Berat.  Something tells me this was an Ottoman town!

 A lonely little Coke machine in the middle of the stairs up to the fort, don't ask me why.
 I get shivers just looking at that sunset.

 Inside the topmost tower of the fort, we had some pretty amazing views of the area!  Too bad it grew so dark, it wasn't entirely possible to capture in pictures. 

 This was a Mosque that was bombed in '93 and rebuilt in 2005. 
 A note about our van:  It didn't like to come to a complete stop and have the doors open for more than five minutes.  Luckily, the gas station attendant helped push start it with Ken and John.
 Our final full day in Croatia was spent walking around Dubrovnik's city walls.  At first, I wasn't all that excited about repeating this activity, but since then have discovered that no visit to Dubrovnik would be complete without this activity.  The day was beautiful, the company kept me laughing, and the Adriatic was at its calmest.

 Rawly loved playing behind the iron gates.  He would trap anyone in who willingly ventured into the lookout towers.

 After a great day on the wall, Rachel and I went shopping.  I'm still kicking myself for not taking pictures of our happy discovery.  We stumbled upon handmade hats and the hat maker herself, seated behind her sewing machine.  What followed was a good thirty minutes of hat trying and exclaiming, story telling of war-torn Dubrovnik and seafaring life, and the purchasing of two hats.  I decided to be sensible and buy one to wear in cold weather.  But my heart wanted the black straw hat shaped in a jaunty 1920s style.  Rats.  I should have bought that one.  Oh well, it might mean a third repeat trip to Dubrovnik.  More wine and straw hats!
Night falls on another adventure... Even if I repeat settings, this year, I will faithfully blog.  Each story is different and worth the telling.