Saturday, 17 September 2016

"The Amazing Race" Kind of Summer: Prague

You know that feeling when you see a stunningly beautiful woman right in front of you - and she takes your breath away. Regardless of her age. Or what gender you are. The undeniable beauty of such astronomical proportions that it leaves you weak at knees. How is it even possible to be  t h i s  perfect? Then you recover and start looking, searching for even a tiny flaw. But there is none. And you resolve: she's a goddess - a miracle. 
Karlův most - Charles Bridge
But then, you start feeling a tiny nudge, a mere hunch that something's not quite right with this picture but you don't know what it is. 
This is how Prague was for me. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself. 
If truth be told, how we picked destinations for our "Amazing Race" summer didn't have to do much with some grand mapping project, but rather more with the list of Star Alliance partners. All I knew was that I must summon my boy crew to Belgrade. Budapest was a short road trip away. Amsterdam and Prague were convenient Air Canada harbours where we could easily hop off the plane, roam around for a few days and hop back on to the next city. 

Signing at the dotted line! 
By then, our last stop of a four-city tour, the kids finally became restless. No wonder - we had dragged them with us by foot for 12 days, got them to try all sorts of authentic foods and to sleep in many different beds often way, way past their bed time. Clearly, this called for a bribe. But first, having the genius entrepreneurial husband that I have, they needed to sign a contract that listed expectations such as "Love thy brother" and "Listen to thy parents" just to make sure our first stop at the Praha's famous toy store didn't inadvertently end in a mega double tantrum. It worked: one Disney car track and one LEGO airport later, there was enough to look forward to in order to cooperate with the final ambitious city touring plan.

And then: BAM! The balmy summer afternoon, the cobblestone streets and wide vast city squares wowed us - first time Czech Republic visitors - and we instantly learned why Prague is actually called "Golden Prague". Not sure if it was the sunset glow or the manicured facades or the myriads of ornate details wherever we looked, but this city is impressive in all its glorious beauty. See for yourself. 

The rooftops of Prague

Prague Castle and St.Vitus Cathedral
Old City (Stare Mesto) 

Old Town Square

Astronomical Clock - it works since 1410!

National Theatre on the Vltava river
Bedrich Smetana Museum

Just like in Smetana's Vltava
The oh so Gothic Powder Tower
Wherever you are in Prague - Mala Strana, Staro Mesto, Vinohrady - wherever you look, you will be overwhelmed with sights that cramp, crowd and overlap both the view and the styles. "The City of a Thousand Spires" is an astonishing display of styles from Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque to Rococo, Art Nouveau, Cubist and ultra-modern. Cast iron fences with intricate ornaments, streetlights that looked like chandeliers, city buildings adorned in frescoes, churches on every corner with golden stars around Saints' heads; roof gargoyles that stare and scare and snarl if you dare lift your gaze in the presence of the god they honour. If Prague were a bride she would be a bridezilla. 
Jewish Quarter
But then the questions arose: how come Prague, unlike Belgrade or Budapest or Amsterdam, still has all these treasures preserved having lived through WWII? How is it possible that the old Jewish Cemetery and the Oldest Synagogue are still standing? The other cities don't even have Jewish quarters even though they call a part of the city in that way. New buildings and memorials have been built in the post war era to mark and honour, but there are no original monuments. Everything has been destroyed. 

The Old-New Synagogue clock

The chilling answer arrived the morning of our visit to Terezin - the Jewish Ghetto an hour away from Prague that served as a tool for the malicious Nazi propaganda, the smoke screen for the easy-to-fool International Red Cross, the brutal prison and transit camp for Czech Jews before they were sent to death camps of Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz. Hitler had a plan for Prague so he ordered that each synagogue, cemetery and remnant of Jewish life be fully preserved - even though all other European cities suffered complete destruction. Prague was supposed to remain the "museum of the exterminated nation", a sick proof that once there were people of the Jewish sort and now there are none.

Terezin gate: 130 000 Jews passed through
The brutal conditions included standing-only sleeping rooms
Prisoners were executed, died of illness' or sent to death camps
The crematorium
90 000 Jews were sent from Teresienstadt to death camps
33 000 Jews perished in Terezin
So this is why I had this awkward and uncomfortable feeling meeting Prague for the first time. Like a Stepford wife of world capitals it was almost too beautiful to be true. Only 70 years ago these same cobblestone streets and vast city squares were a place of terror, torture and despair. And for me that is still very difficult to comprehend and accept.

We ended our "Amazing Race" summer by starting a new family tradition. At the end of our last day, thoroughly exhausted, we sat in the café the boys chose (it was called McQueen like the favourite Disney car!) and started listing all the things we loved the most over the past 2 weeks of roaming around Europe. Only one rule applied: no material objects allowed (such as toys, shopping items and such): "Racing the LEGO cars in Hemley's! Meeting my aunt! Sleepover at Milan & Nataša! Eating ćevapčići in Belgrade! Boat cruise on the Danube! Going to mama's school! Air races under the Budapest's Chain Bridge! Visiting Anne Frank's house. Sitting on top of the double-decker! Goulash soup! No, waffles with Nutella! Meeting mama's friends! Zooming on the Prague subway! First time on Air Serbia!..."

And so it went, again way past their bedtime - one remarkable family moment after another. We hugged our family and friends. We crossed rivers: Amstel, Danube, Sava and Vltava. We climbed the hills. We toured the castles. Rode on boats and streetcars, trolleybuses, subways and tall double deckers. Observed languages. Did math with Euros, Forints, Dinars and Crowns. Tasted everything from the crazy space cake and Hungarian veal schnitzel the size of an elephant's ear to Serbian Šopska salad and the pretzels chased with Staropramen beer. We learned the flags, admired our passport stamps and heard flagship songs. The boys can recognize each city's skyline in a heartbeat. And that in and of itself is the best kind of early emotion-and-meaning-loaded education I could possibly wish for.  

Until we travel again!

Sunday, 11 September 2016

"The Amazing Race" Kind of Summer: Belgrade

When I was 10 years old we spent a summer in Loutraki, Greece with my aunt's family. Beautiful beaches, vibrant city life, hibiscus trees in bloom, spa water wells, the fascinating Corinth Canal and the rich history of the Peloponnese peninsula near by. For my two cousins (Milan 12 & Mihajlo 14) and I, summer meant telling jokes, playing cards and laughing all day without a care in the world. If we could only get our parents to shell out some drachmas we could either pick a deliciously cold over-sweetened lemonade from the machine or play one of those games of tossing small and treacherously bouncy rings onto sand-filled beer bottles for a lousy yet tempting little prize: Twenty Drachmas sixteen!
Belgrade skyline at dusk
As we debated where to invest the loose change one particular day, a couple that was sitting on the bench near by slowly got up and approached us.
    "Deco, odakle ste vi? Kids, where are you from?"
    "Iz Beograda! From Belgrade!" We replied in unison as there was no other place from which we could have possibly been.

Their faces lit up and they beamed at one another. The woman told us they had been living in the USA for over 30 years, never once returning home. She asked with a tremor in her voice:

    "Da li jos uvek postoji Cvetkova Mehana? Is Cvetko's Restaurant still there?"

None of us were the right age to know the answer, but the rarely used Turkish word mehana - meaning restaurant - made it sound beyond hilarious. At first dumbfounded we quickly recovered and then burst into laughter as we ran away. I heard the couple behind us call out a faint: "Wait... stop... please" but the boys kept running and so did I. These were the first emigrants I ever met and I still remember them as vividly as ever. They introduced the word NOSTALGIA to me.

Why am I telling you this? All of Belgrade, the third stop of our family's adventure is a "Cvetkova Mehana" of my emigrant's life. It holds the essence of nostalgia. The flavour of longing. The joy of hugging my dear ones after a really long time. The excitement of introducing my family. The jitters of discovering what has changed. And the relief of realizing - nothing ever changes. I belong here. This is home.

The drive from Budapest to Belgrade through harvest-wealthy Vojvodina - where Pannonian Sea once stood - felt surreal. With each kilometre getting closer my breathing became more and more shallow. I have five days. Five days to show, tell, feel, laugh, cry, introduce, eat, hug, cry, visit, experience, re-live, understand and then cry some more.

This was a summer of walking - our step-counters beeping as we clocked close to 300 000 steps. The five walks we took in Belgrade are essentially five most important walks one can take in life. I hope everyone gets to do it sometime - it is riveting and profound.

Walk One: The Family Album

My aunt (and second mom) @79!
"Friends are family we get to choose" goes the saying and I fully agree (see Walk Two), but how lucky am I to actually have family I would have happily chosen too? 

This most important walk confirms the old cliché 'blood ain't water'. Decades and distances only served to bring us closer. Belly-laughs, long tight hugs, tears of joy and tears of deep sadness, stories of present-day drama, memories of good old days - these all comprise the emotion-packed goodness I'm lucky to experience. 
Filip ❤️ Family ❤️ Filip

My kids meeting their uncles for the first time putting all Serbian words they've ever learned - funny slang and light obscenities - into use, just for attention: Шта је бре човече? Где си Шиптару? Џукело једна!

My husband quickly resolved to surrender to the abundance of delicious foods and affectionate people around him to feel just at home. Loud and loving, that's how we Serbians roll. 
My highlight: seeing my oldest son connect to our family and to his roots. It is a mixture of pride and relief to see him form a deep bond with his uncles (Mihajlo and Milan from the beginning of this story!) and grandma who made his early years safe and filled with love. The language he speaks, the culture he knows, the temperament he understands finally all coming together making the tapestry of his past that he had only heard about, became palpable and real. 
Our family album is precious - it's full of good memories, dense with love, understanding and respect for one another. A few photos are faded, one whole page is torn out and there are coffee and a few chocolate stains on it - just like our family life itself. And it has many pages yet to be filled. Hooray! 

Walk Two: Of Best Men and Besties
Oh the joy!

We sat in the same classroom and went on field trips together. Our parents were friends. Their parents were like my parents. We stood witness for each other in love and loss and lots in between. We went on sleepovers. Hitchhiked in the rain. Broke curfew. Wrote tests together. Monkeyed around, big time. This is what it looks like when the meaningful childhood never ends: no comparisons, no jealousy, no envy. To me, this is what it truly means to be wealthy. 

Walk Three: Back to School

Belgrade skyline - the Art class project

It's a scorching hot July day and I am standing in front of Smiljanićeva 11 with my family. The old house I grew up in is no longer there, but the feel and the smell somehow is. Next door to us #13 still stands - and I become aware of the foolishly superstitious exclusion of this number all over North America. I remember the names of the neighbours who lived on the ground floor and tell the anecdote of two young dogs that once wanted to "play with me" tugging on my knee-high socks with their teeth, making me dog-weary for an entire decade that followed! 
OOŠ "Vladislav Ribnikar" Elementary School
Then we start the walk - up to Njegoševa St. then left towards the tram-busy Beogradska and a traffic light my parents coached me to obey when I was 8 so that I could start walking to school and back all by myself - unthinkable to our back-to-school present-day routine even though we also have a third grader. One more block and a stroll up King Milutin Street under the thick shade of the chestnut trees and I am in front of the double glass doors. It's middle of the summer but my school is open. The familiar layout and smell of the lobby hi-jacks my senses and all of a sudden I can recall the ring of the recess bell, the stomp down the stairs, the commotion of changing the cabinets between classes.
With my Principal 
I ask if I could say hi to the principal - she knows who I am because of the blog I once wrote reminiscing about my favourite teacher - and the smiling Snežana Knežević storms out, arms wide open for the sincere, warm embrace. That's how we Serbs are. We become good friends in a heart beat even though it's cyber-space. What ensued is one of my favourite memories of our time in Belgrade: a full tour of my school, with my husband and boys - starting with the scariest dark hallway leading to the gym to my grade 1 classroom, library, then cabinets for biology - where my grandfather's student Ilija Ilić got to be my own teacher. Then chemistry - lab smell frozen in time under the unblinking watch of Lavoisier, Curie and other chem-celebrities. The physics room where I still feel the presence of the fiercest teacher ever and my all time favourite - geography
My kids kept asking why was I crying. I willingly signed up to be the sentimental fool in this lifetime is only part of the answer. Simply put, I enjoy feeling things. 

Walk Four: The White City

View from the Kalemegdan fortress
I will try to be objective when I recommend you must put Belgrade (translation: White City) on your travel itinerary: you will feel safe, you will feel welcome, you will be extremely well-fed and you won't want to go to sleep - the night life is one of the gems expert travellers keep raving about. Belgrade is Europe's feisty teenager, the relentless activist and the avant-garde artist all in one. Check out the history books and you will learn that centuries of attacks, attempts to defeat and conquer as well as bribe into submission never worked. This comes with a price - life could've been easier for Belgrade citizens if they had compromised their sovereignty during the world wars or their integrity if they had endorsed murky Merkel-like politics. There is something utterly proud and borderline stubborn in the attitude of this city - and I deeply love it for that, although I risk being perceived as the "Belgrade snob". Let me clarify: I am happy to be one. For me, this doesn't carry any notion of superiority, rather it is inferiority free. Knowing who you are, where you're from, proudly and loudly showcasing it whenever possible. 
Knez Mihajlova Street

New Belgrade

Kalemegdan - Game-of-Thrones-ready since 3rd Century B.C.

Clock Gate

Terazije Square

Tašmajdan park

Museum of Nikola Tesla

Walk Five: The Legacy

Ask my husband and he'll tell you I wept pretty much every day in Belgrade. But at least I now understand why:
Because I am grateful for the childhood I got to experience. 
For the pure friendships that are only getting stronger with time. 
For the superior education I received without getting into debt and which still serves me so well. 
For the blessing of a warm, affectionate and honest family. 
For deciding to embrace my nostalgia while creating as much of Belgrade as I can in Toronto.
For witnessing my eldest boy fall in love with his heritage, standing tall and standing proud, connecting with all the dear people who influenced him growing up.
Marina has sons - in Belgrade
Belgrade coordinates: 44° 48' N, 20° 27' E
For having my husband understand how come I actually got to be this way. 
And for hearing my little Canadian kids cheer while watching the recent Rio's Olympics: 
                                         "Srbija, Srbija, Srbija 🇷🇸🇷🇸🇷🇸! "

For me, Belgrade is not a place. 
@Nikola Tesla International Airport

It's an emotion. It feels like nostalgia and it looks a lot like longing. It thuds like a loud heartbeat in my ears. It smells like the time before I knew words such as war and divorce. It tastes like home-made pastries for breakfast and a late night pljeskavica on the go. It warms up like rakija
And it sounds just like this:

Sunday, 21 August 2016

"The Amazing Race" Kind of Summer: Budapest

Listen, I'm no TripAdvisor.
Chain Bridge closed for the Air Races (and iPhone photo opportunities)
Please don't expect me to wow here with my review of the veal cutlet served over corn polenta with spicy tomato and roasted red pepper spread, topped with a slice of calf liver done so deliciously to perfection it qualifies as one of the best five dishes my palate has ever experienced. Ever. Or expect me to choose for you the best goulash soup in town, review the intricate layers of the Esterházy torte, recommend the ambiance of Café Pierrot on the Buda side or insist you can't leave without Szeged's Hungarian hot paprika as a souvenir (what's weed for Amsterdam is paprika for Budapest). Nope.

And if I sound a little grumpy to you, there's a reason. Budapest and I - I discovered - have this complicated relationship. You see, this wasn't our first time. It only dawned on me late afternoon on our third day as I was impressing my husband and our boys by navigating like a pro through the city streets on both sides of river Danube, that is not really schönen let alone blauen  showing them the major landmarks, that the previous three visits to this magnificent city had nothing to do with sightseeing. They more resemble a young woman’s shaky journal entries and serve as monuments to my eventful personal history. 

The first visit was in 1990 with my boyfriend - a magical stay in this majestic city that was going through one of its hungry years, just fresh from shedding the communist era and - like a rebellious teenager - having no clue how it all would end. I remember being struck by witnessing old women selling family heirlooms for cash on the pedestrian-only Vaci Utca: art, china, silverware, intricate hand-made lace ornaments. Those forints were food money. We were young and with long-weekend pocket money of about 200 dollars we were beyond wealthy. Caviar for breakfast anyone?

Second visit - 1994 - same boy turned man and husband. My first husband. Atrium Hyatt hotel and a room with the mesmerizing view of the Chain Bridge. After a few days of empty small talk and group sightseeings with his entire family, captured on the photographs I recently happened to have found, there was one evening and a critical conversation with his mighty uncle from America during which we made our first emigration plans that both felt like a breakthrough and a more-than-solid lifeboat out of former Yugoslavia. What a relief! He would re-enrol in university and get a degree. I would license as a pharmacist in Texas. We wouldn’t be sharing a bathroom with all the smokers in his family nor be helplessly waiting in Belgrade for NATO to bomb!

The final visit in 1995 was far less glamorous. Now we were the poor ones, arriving at the TOEFL test with an overnight bus loaded with smugglers. Sausages, toothpaste, laundry detergent and diapers were hot items on Belgrade's black market. When the bus doors closed at midnight at the Central terminal, cigarettes lit, shoes came off and we marinated for 378 point 4 fucken kilometres in odours I can still recall, ears numb from the turbo-folk music that blasted all night through the crackle of worn-out speakers. We took the test at 10:00 a.m. Then we each savoured a Big Mac at the Vaci Street McDonald’s. By then, the city was all done up, facades renovated and posh world brands had moved into Budapest’s prime locations. Everybody had a cellphone. We hung around the river banks and the Chain Bridge for as long as we could then rushed back to board that same bus for the same many-hours-long ordeal back, the experience only enhanced by the mandatory 10 Deutschmarks per person bribe for the customs officer not to open the the trunk to check for possible imported goods.  
     “But we didn’t buy anything, we just went…” we tried to fight the injustice of it all. 
     “You are welcome to walk home" the toothless driver replied with a grin, cigarette dangling off the corner of his mouth. “In my bus we’re all equal: everyone pays the racket!” 

Nevertheless I passed my test of English as a Foreign Language with flying colours (the then-husband did not do as well but still adequately for the mediocre private university in Texas that had accepted his uncle’s tuition cheque) and we were cleared for emigration. 

The jolly never-ending tune playing in between the tourist sights information on channel 2 for English on Budapest’s double decker bus woke me up. Or was it my family alerting me to our final stop - the 5 star Boscolo Hotel. It was day 6 of us gumping* over Europe, I must have dozed off in exhaustion.

So if I sounded crabby - forgive me. It is from the stark contrast of this before and after for me. The life I willingly signed up for as a young, educated woman and this beautiful life I turned out to be living. The many different dead-ends and near-fatal turns that could have occurred has left me vulnerable in retrospect. I wish my happily-ever right now was more than just happenstance -  that I actually had had a say in it.

Somewhat ignorant or simply unaware, Budapest the beautiful has witnessed all of my personal drama that unfolded over the past quarter of a century, seemingly analyzing my life with equal emotion - oh well: here comes the rain, here comes the sun, take a walk, take a seat, sip a coffee, eat a cake, take a long soothing bath - you will most certainly feel better. This too shall pass. 
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" inspiration?

Dobos torte

I did manage to relax, unaware of the PTSD-like 3-day walk down the memory lane which was lodged somewhere in my subconscious, only to resurface during a short bus ride. Like most European cities there are scars and the monuments of real suffering all around Budapest, once home to a vibrant Jewish community. 
Names of Hungarian Jews killed in Holocaust inscribed on each leaf
But it is what we do with these scars that makes the whole difference. We expose them, we honour them. And we are certain they won’t happen ever again. Never again.
Never again
Just below the Buda Castle there is this 3m tall limestone sculpture called the Zero Kilometre Stone. Erected at the Adam Clark square this stone marks the reference point from which all road distances to Budapest are measured in the country. While kids were busy chasing one another around it and my husband waited in a long line-up for the tickets to the Budapest Castle Hill Funicular, I placed my forehead on the warm, rough stone. The symbolism of how far I've got to go from this true zero point in my life made me sigh in gratitude. There was never a need for a helping hand or a rescue boat. We are all capable of doing it all by ourselves.        
            "Hey guys!" I summoned my crew. "Forget the shortcut! Who's with me to climb the hill on foot?" And so we did.  
Here comes the Sun!
*gumping - the Hasson family trademark name and signature activity. While Forrest Gump was aimlessly running, we aimlessly walk.