Tag Archive: Europe

So my friend Ivo has some family members who live in Belgrade, Serbia and when they found out that I would be in the area they very graciously offered to host me while I was there. Not being one to pass up living with locals, home cooking and cultural immersion I accepted the offer. This proved to be a wonderful but very challenging experience for me. Ivo’s cousin Ilija is around my age and so it gave me a local to hang out with and chat with and show me around and we also hung out with his friends, which was great fun and led to some fairly hilarious experiences. It was challenging because my time was literally no longer my own and time to myself was at a minimum. For an introvert such as myself that wore me out as I need time alone to recharge my batteries and it also meant that my previously planned schedule for traveling around Serbia was thrown out the window.

Luckily, Ilija has a similar sleep schedule to myself. Stay up late, sleep in until 11. I imagine it would have been slightly nightmarish had he wanted to get up and do stuff at 6am every day. Ilija and friends were super amazing about showing me around and Ilija gave up something like a week of his time to chauffer me around to different sites and things to do in Belgrade from day one. They took me to Kalemegdan fortress, took me out for drinks, showed me the river walk, different sites and museum’s around town, including Tito’s mausoleum, and what will be the world’s largest Orthodox Cathedral, Sveti Sava, when finished and it will be a site to rival the Hagia Sofia in size. Don’t hold your breath though, they’ve been working on it, from planning to the current state of it for over 100 years and it’s still pretty much just a concrete shell. But that will all be for a different post.

It’s always interesting spending a lot of time around locals, especially youth, because it gives one insight into the culture, both traditional and more modern. It also gives a good insight into what they learn growing up. Most people never realise just how biased their education is growing up and will never see it for various reasons. Textbooks are often edited by either the government or interest groups who have a significant amount of sway in what is portrayed in the books and how texts are edited. One example can be seen by a few very radical Southern Christian fundamentalist groups who believe that history books should be changed to give their skewed perspective of American and World History or the many conservatives who believe that Creationism should be taught as a Science under the guise of “Intelligent Design”. Another example is the denial of Armenian genocide in Turkish history books or the very recent introduction of Aboriginal studies in school textbooks in Australia.

Once again, I digress. So the attitude and interesting historical perspective I heard from the Serbians I was hanging out with regarding the rest of the Balkans makes me want to get someone to translate Serbian history textbooks for me to read. It also made me very keen to speak with youth in other Balkan countries about their attitudes towards Serbians.

For anyone who has been living under a rock for the past 20 years, there is an ongoing conflict between Kosova and Serbia. Kosovan’s are of Albanian heritage and generally speaking ethnically Muslim while Serbs are Slavic and ethnically Serbian Orthodox Christian. Serbians claim that Kosova is their’s and have been trying to cleanse the area of Kosovan’s for over 100 years. Under Tito, Kosova was given pretty much free reign to do as they pleased under an autonomous government. When Tito died the government decided it was high time to stage another ethnic cleansing. While I was spending time in Serbia with Ivo’s family they did their best to try to keep me from going to Kosova by saying it was dangerous, the people there attack buses and people coming from Serbia, they hate Serbians, Women travelling alone are frequently attacked, etc.  Needless to say this made me even more keen to visit.

When we were on our way to Montenegro I was asking them why they don’t go to the Croatian coast on their holidays. The response I received was “They hate us there. If they see a car with Serbia plates they vandalise it and they won’t give us good service anywhere.” When I asked more about it they said it wasn’t all Croatians, just the really young nationalists who were generally under the age of 18-20. Speaking with Croatian youth it would seem that there is truth in this. My generation says it’s a stupid conflict, it’s done, it’s in the past and everyone should move on. Plus so many people are of mixed heritage (Ilija himself is half Croatian half Serbian and most of his friends are part something) that they feel it’s ridiculous. It’s apparently a younger generation who was born during the war that seems to have this grudge against Serbians and actually do vandalise the cars and refuse to serve them or provide them with decent service in restaurants, etc.

When I was asking about Montenegro there was more than a hint of Serbian bitterness at the independent little country. Under Tito, Montenegro had an autonomous government. The words in Montenegro tend to be slightly different from those in Serbia, though not as different as those in Croatia. When I asked about this they said that Montenegro wants to separate themselves from Serbia. They definitely weren’t happy about it. They said that Montenegro was ALWAYS a part of Serbia but suddenly they decided to break away and now they are in cahoots with Kosova. I found this interesting as Montenegro was never Slavic. The coast was actually originally settled by the Illyrians and the eastern mountain ranges have large pockets of Albanians. The Slavs didn’t move into the region until later. I found this a rather interesting viewpoint and this is why I’d be interested in reading their history books.

Needless to say, I didn’t ask anything about Bosnia. I decided to wait until I went there to see what their attitude is towards Serbians. If nothing else, it was a very interesting first look into the perspectives of those living in the aftermath of Yugoslavia and I was very interested to travel other Balkan countries to find out their perspectives as well.

What I’m reading now: Lonely Planet Guide to Morocco

What I’m listening to now: The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle by Missy Higgins

Please vote on my poll about where to go next!


*Disclaimer* There is a small paragraph in this post that is not intended for children so if you have kids looking over your shoulder or are reading it to them, I have indicated the non-child friendly section just before the paragraph comes up. Otherwise, the post is entirely family friendly.

So we all know I went drinking, partying and met lots of random people from Europe and America. But what did I intend on doing that never  eventuated for various reasons?

I am just going to put it out there that it was INSANELY hot, even for me. I live for days when the temperature is 30-35 degrees Celcius. Once it hits about 35 though, it’s a bit warm even for me. I can deal with it for a while until it hits about 40. It was well around and above the 40 mark during the day and the 35 mark at night. There was also not a breeze to be had. I had originally planned to go to Orheiul Vechi (still can’t pronounce it even after I was told how) and a small monastery near the area. If you are not familiar with the transport system in Moldova (which you very likely aren’t) it makes the Sydney train system look easy and uncomplicated. Finding a mashrutka to anywhere is a task that is not for the faint of heart. If you ask a local where the bus station is, not a single one of them can tell you.

I digress. So a guy staying at my hostel apparently went to Orheiul Vechi and it took ages to get there and ages to get back and was really just a wretch in general to visit in the heat. I could have taken a tour through my hostel but it was 45 euro, which is insanely expensive, even outside of Moldova. I read the same thing on a couple of blogs as well so made the executive decision not to go. Orheiul Vechi, for those of you who are interested is an ‘open air museum’ with a cave monastery that was occupied by monks for some 500 years I think until about the 1800’s when it was abandoned. About 20 years ago some monks moved in and began to restore the place. I would have loved to go if it hadn’t been SO RIDICULOUSLY HOT, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Next time I am in Moldova I will make the trip, though I will probably rent a car to do it to make things easier for myself.

I also fully intended on going to TransD. However, the first day we were going to go we couldn’t find the guy we were going with because I got us lost (how I got so lost in a city as small as Chişinau is beyond me). From what I hear about TransD I personally did not miss out on much as I have been to Belarus and it appears to be a more noticeably poor version of Belarus. I actually got this impression as the train was going through it, but it was confirmed by the people who went. On top of that, they have a currency that can be used and exchanged nowhere but TransD, to send mail you have to use TransD stamps and it is not uncommon for solo travellers who don’t speak Russian to be hassled by ‘border patrol’ to pay ridiculous and made up fines. No one in the world recognises TransD as anything other than a break away territory except for Russia who for some stupid reason recognises them as a country. I don’t get it, but whatever.

That night was when I met my new Romanian friends, Andrei, Clara and Adina. I am still unclear as to the reason they were in Moldova, but I gathered after chatting with them that they were going to a punk concert that evening with one of the employees from the hostel. We all decided to make it a group trip after a few rounds of drinking game Jenga, in which I refused to take shots, (see Mum and Dad, your daughter isn’t the partier that you think she is) so was told by Andrei that he was betting I would be the first one home. Turns out I was the last, but that’s beside the point. Their plan was to go to a winery the next day (the second largest in Moldova I think) so I was going to join them, but last minute they changed their mind and decided to go to TransD instead so the entire hostel decided to go as a group trip. I ended up missing out on this due to not waking up on time (I was out until 4-5 in the morning dancing after all). We never did make it to a winery.

So we go to this underground (literally) club that is apparently playing punk music and the band on stage was actually doing wonderful renditions of old 60’s music that I grew up on. After paying a whopping 40 lei cover charge (less than $4) and buying numerous drinks (I thought I’d spent a fortune that night, when I ended up working it out I’d spent a total of about $10) the main act came on and started playing Black Eyed Peas “Let’s Get It Started”. Bit of an odd choice for a punk band, but okay. I turned around to the other American who was with me to comment on it and that’s when I saw the confederate flag hanging from the ceiling. As I said in a previous post, really shouldn’t have surprised me. Eastern Europe is full of racism and in general most of the countries are extremely homogenous. Now that I’m in Spain I’ve had to get used to seeing a lot of diversity and anti-Nazi signs and stickers everywhere (including seeing same-sex couples open in public). In Australia or the US, seeing someone of a different race or a same sex couple holding hands doesn’t make you bat an eye, but after 4 months in Eastern Europe you think to yourself “Well, I’m definitely back in the west.”

This was confirmed by a girl I met in Barcelona who was learning Spanish at the same school I was going to. She’s a black American girl from Virginia and she said she was travelling around and she kept going East, but the further East she went the weirder it got because she kept getting hassled by people. She ended up going back to Western Europe after trying Romania. I told her it’s because she’s black and she just looked at me funny. Fact of the matter is that it’s true. The further East you go the more likely you are to be hassled if you don’t look like everyone else in their society. Issues with the gypsy’s, who are generally much darker than the rest of the population does not help matters any and it’s not uncommon for the police to hassle darker skinned foreigners which means they have to keep their documents on them at all times.

Anyway, at this bar we met 2 guys from Vienna who were visiting for the weekend (for no particular reason other than they hadn’t been to Moldova before I think) and just happened to end up at the same bar as ourselves. Eventually we decided to hit up a different club and after driving around the city in circles and discovering the club that they wanted to go to was either non-existent or defunct we ended up going to one of the more ‘upscale and popular’ clubs in Moldova. The entry fee, was a ridiculous 60 lei, which to you and I is about $5, but to a Moldovan is half their daily wage! That’s like going to a club in Sydney and paying $50-80 entry into a club! It was actually a really nice venue for a club with a large bar, lots of dance space, a stage and lots of dark corners for canoodling (or passing out if you’ve had too much to drink). I think the club was called “Time” but I can’t quite recall. Anyway, there is a marked difference between clubs in Moldova and clubs everywhere else. First of all, despite the exorbitant prices at this club (which my dance companion for the evening was kind enough to pay for cover and my drinks, such a gentleman J) the female toilets were squat toilets. SQUAT TOILETS! I hate squat toilets and I have decided that there should be a class in school teaching you how to use them correctly without worrying about losing your balance for people who want to travel. Lucky for me I was wearing flats, but squat toilets are disgusting and I find it difficult to balance while worrying about falling onto someone’s excrement at the best of times so I have no idea how these girls manage in the 4-5 inch heels they were wearing after drinking. Talk about impressive.

Squat Toilet in Moldova

*Following paragraph is parental guidance required, skip if you have children looking over your shoulder*

On top of all this, dancing on the stage were women (and the occasional man) who were nearly naked. I have been to strip clubs where the dancers wear more than what those girls were wearing. Granted, most of the women in the club weren’t wearing much more than the dancers and I felt extremely out of place in my boardies, singlet and flats, but dancing the night away you tend to forget about it at the time. All in all the night was great fun. I’d do it all over again.

*Back to family friendly writing*

So I mentioned wineries as something you can do in Moldova. Moldova has excellent wines. They have some of the largest wineries in Europe, if not the world and the wine is both cheap and delicious. I have no idea why they don’t export it more, but my first taste of Moldovan wine was in Belarus (shocking considering their ties to Russia) for a grand total of $2.50 for a bottle and it was actually a very delicious bottle of wine. Definitely better than most $15 bottles you can get in Australia.

Their most famous and largest winery is Milestii Mici. There are over 200 km worth of roads (complete with street names) in the underground cellars and at last report by lonely planet over 1.5 million bottles. I wouldn’t doubt that by now they have hit the 2 million mark. It is not uncommon for Eastern European leaders and diplomants to visit and celebrate milestones at Milestii Mici. You can pay (very expensive prices for Moldova) for varying levels of wine tours, some are just a basic cellar door, short tour and tasting, others are a longer tour complete with tasting and lunch in their underground cellar restaurant. Next time I’m in Romania (and a heat wave isn’t on and I have more money) I will definitely be back to Moldova and visiting the wineries. Preferably with someone who appreciates wineries as much as I do *cough* Ivo, Shaun, Mum, Dad *cough*. There are 2 other wineries that are not quite as famous (but still very large) and one of them is apparently only about 15 kilometres out of Chişinau. You can arrange tours directly with the wineries or you can also probably arrange them with the hostel or hotel you are staying at. Our hostel arranges tours with Cricova winery, including transportation (at a very hefty price) for guests which would have been very convenient had we ended up going on the wine tour.

A couple last notes about Moldova and the hostel. The staff at the hostel were great. They were wonderful and amazing and fun people and I thought the staff there was exceptional. The owner of the hostel while we were there was in America for some reason or other so her mother was managing the affairs while she was away and she was a horrible, horrible woman. Moldovans speak a dialect of Romanian (similar to the differences between American English and British English) so the Romanians could understand everything she was saying. Even though I don’t understand the language, I still got the gist of it. She was insulting to the staff, she was rude and she treated the employees like crap. While I would prefer not to support this woman and I don’t know what her daughter is like, I would stay at the hostel again in order to support the excellent staff that they keep on the books.

Moldova is a country that obviously has a lot of problems. It’s very poor, there are not natural resources and the people appear to be pretty defeated in general. However, it is a country that I would go back to in a heartbeat. It’s cheap, the food is excellent, the wine is excellent and I still want to go to those wineries. You really don’t need more than 4 or 5 days (if even) in Moldova to see the country but don’t be stingy with your money while you are there. You could go out for every meal and go out drinking every night and if you stay in a hostel you won’t pay more than $30 a day. Even a luxury 2 bedroom apartment will only set you back about $55. As I said in a previous post, if you feel like donating to a cause that doesn’t involve Africa or your home country, please consider donating to the charity mentioned in my previous post about Moldova, a charity to help orphaned or abandoned Moldovan children.

What I’m reading now: Baby Proof by Emily Giffin. This is an excellent book that I can very much relate to. I have no desire to have kids, never really have and that desire is unlikely to change at any point in my life. The main character also has no desire to have children and at many points in the book it gives many different reasons as to why. I don’t expect people who love their kids, or want kids to understand it, but I can relate to it so it’s a refreshing read for myself.

What I’m listening to now: No Angle and White Flag by Dido

Pictures of Moldova can be seen here.

I’m a little bit peeved about what I see when it comes to religion and travelling. I’m not going to bring up the topic of the riots going on across the world at the moment regarding that ridiculous and horrible video that apparently went up on youtube (which I have not seen and refuse to watch) because I’m not going to talk about tolerance and peace and blah blah blah in this post. I’m talking about visiting religious sites.

I like to consider myself a respectful traveller. I like to learn a bit about a place before I go. The history, the background the demographics, the culture to make sure that I don’t insult locals with my behaviour, dress or complete ignorance. I also am a big fan of visiting religious sites. I like to see the difference (or similarities) and what influence other cultures have had on what is considered some of the most important architecture and sites in religious countries. When you go into the Vatican, it is expected that your knees and shoulders will be covered. In many religions, women must cover their hair when entering a place of worship or shorts are not allowed. For this reason, when I know I will be visiting a church or cathedral or mosque I bring a long skirt and a pashmina.

A few examples for you:

In the Russian Orthodox church, women must wear skirts (foreign visitors can wear pants) and cover their heads. Many a Russian Orthodox church has numerous large signs posted on the door where you cannot miss them unless you are completely blind saying “no shorts, no tank tops, no pictures, women must wear skirts, men must wear pants” There are pictures to go with these words and they are pretty difficult to misinterpret. Despite all this, everyone is taking photos of the beauty and grandeur of these places. I have been into places of worship where pictures are allowed, which is awesome. I snap away in these places. But MANY of the places I have been on my travels prohibit photos. The Monastery I went to in Kiev had signs every 10 feet depicting “NO PHOTOS” and writing it in about 6 different languages. Despite this, pilgrims (the monastery is a pilgrimage site) were happy snapping all over the place, including in the churches and cathedral. Signs everywhere saying “this is a holy place of worship, please respect it through dressing appropriately, being silent and not taking photos”. I saw people right next to these signs taking photos.

When I was in Turkey last year they required women to be fully covered in the Blue Mosque. Understandable as it is a functioning mosque. Didn’t have something to cover your legs/arms/hair? They would provide scarves and what not for you. Despite this, I still saw girls in the mosque taking the scarves off their head the second they made it inside or sitting with the legs straight out, bottoms of the feet pointing to whomever walked by (a great insult in Islam as the bottom of the feet are considered dirty. I’m sure you all remember someone throwing a shoe at George Bush, Jr.). Talk about disrespectful. You are in a place of worship! You may not believe in a god or follow their religion, but if they came into your house and started disrespecting your stuff how would that make you feel? Do you want them to come into your home and start walking with their shoes on your table or jumping on your sofa?

More recently, I was visiting the Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain and I was absolutely horrified. Signs everywhere near the entrance saying no photos, no shorts, no singlets/tank tops. “It is a functioning place of worship so please be respectful.” The inside was absolutely spectacular. I could have taken hundreds of photos inside. Out of respect, however, I didn’t take my camera out once. I was very tempted to take it out and take a photo of a girl wearing a tiny leopard print tube dress. The dress was tight, scant and barely covered her bum. It was horrific to see something like that in a church. I saw people snapping away, people wearing shorts, tube tops, singlets. With the hundreds to thousands of people that go through the Mezquita every day security can’t keep everyone from taking photos, I understand that. But it just really ticks me off that these people can be SO DISRESPECTFUL. I am an atheist and have zero reason to be respectful in any of these places. I don’t believe in any of their notion or ideas on God, I heartily disagree with many of the more conservative ideas on ethics and morals, yet I am often the most respectful person in the place. People, who claim to be of the very religion of the place they are disrespecting are not behaving properly and they are not being respectful and this just drives me up the wall.

So what is my solution? Because since I am ranting and raving about it I need to offer up a solution. In a place where photos (and mobile phones for that matter) aren’t allowed, they should be required to turn them in at security. They can get them back when they leave. Not dressed appropriately? Give them a shroud to wear, male or female. If they need a head covering, give them a scarf to put over their head. If they take it off, kick them out AND fine them. Require they turn in a card or ID with their camera’s and phones as collateral. It absolutely disgusts me to see people being so insanely disrespectful in a place that matters so deeply to their religion or to other people in the area of that religion. Perhaps this is why they don’t allow non-Muslims into most mosques or holy places in Morocco.

Moral of the rant? If you are visiting a holy place, treat it with respect, respect the rules and respect the requests of the institution. You want pictures? Look them up online and photoshop yourself in. You don’t need photos as proof you have been someplace.