Slovenia, Italy, Home..

IMG_3224The drive from Split, Croatia to Bled, Slovenia was on the newest motorway in the EU, an engineering marvel which crossed through the dramatic countryside of  stark Dinaric Alps, rivers, and deep gorges, over amazing bridges and through lengthy tunnels.  It made the 6 hour drive almost effortless and was a welcome relief after weeks of dodging tour buses, and playing “chicken” with on-coming drivers on narrow, winding, mountain roads.


Welcome to Slovenia!

Crossing into Slovenia, it was immediately apparent that we were in a different country.  The language is different enough from those spoken in Serbia, BiH, and Croatia that I reverted to speaking English which, thankfully, everyone we encountered spoke.  By the architecture we could easily have been in Austria, and whereas the mountains of Croatia are hard-scrabble and craggy, those of Slovenia are lush green and quintessentially alpine. Cows grazed on hillsides and we could almost hear Julie Andrews break forth into song.

Slovenia was the most western of the six former Yugoslav republics, falling under the sphere of influence of the western part of the Roman empire, the Holy Roman empire, and eventually the Hapsburg empire.  Its departure from Yugoslavia in 1991 was almost bloodless; neither Milosevic nor Tudjman had a driving interest in expanding their “Lebensraum” into that territory.  In 2004 Slovenia became part of both NATO and the EU.  During the first World War Slovenia was the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting with 1.7 million soldiers dying in the hotly contested Soca valley/Isonzo front battles between Italians, Slovenes, and Austrians.

I had been to Slovenia before, many years ago during our second trip back to Yugoslavia. My mother’s older brother is buried there (both of my uncles were killed during WWII); we visited his grave as well as the famous caverns of Postojna back then.  We didn’t get to either this time, opting instead to leave Slovenia by a northwestern route which took us through a small corner of Austria en route to an afternoon visit to Venice.  That latter, “afternoon visit to Venice” = a very bad idea in August, particularly if your hotel reservations are in Ravenna some 3+ hours away…


Vila Bled

My main reason for wanting to visit Slovenia was to come to Bled, about which I had heard so much all my life but which, like Plitvice earlier in the trip, I hadn’t seen. Bled did not disappoint and ended up being IMG_3257a super high point of the trip. First:   the blessed relief of cooler, mountain weather and the luxury of sleeping with the windows open.  Next:  our hotel — Vila Bled — which was our “big splurge” of the trip. It had been one of Tito’s villas and before him the king of Yugoslavia would stay there.  The hotel maintained a “socialist-era luxe” vibe; the second IMG_3236floor ballroom even preserved an epic mural depicting the partisans’ struggles in WWII followed by the proletariat utopia that IMG_3427was supposed to be Yugoslavia. The food at Vila Bled was fantastic, served on the outdoor terrace with these views:


Bled Castle


Church of the Assumption, Bled Island

IMG_3353We also had those views from our room, which we reserved as a IMG_3332triple and it actually ended up being a large suite with a huge bathroom.  We visited the castle and were rowed on a “pletna” out to the church island.  The boatman had a relaxed sense ofIMG_3278 humor (which I’m told is a Slovene characteristic). He shared his humorous take on our current crop of presidential candidates, especially the one with the Slovenian wife… Motorboats are not allowed on the lake and the whole setting was one of quiet serenity.  So hard to leave.


Panorama of Lake Bled from the Castle


Faaker See

Our little cut through Austria to get to northeastern Italy was a sweet temptation whetting our appetite for a future trip.  We got off the autobahn long enough to drive around the Faaker See, park the car to take a photo or two, say a few words in German, and then move on.  “Gruess Gott!’

So on to that “afternoon stop off” in Venice…

Here’s how it could actually work in the middle of an unseasonably hot August if arriving to Venice by car:

a)  Park at Piazzale Roma and then take the vaporetto to St. Mark’s Square instead of walking.  (By the time we had walked to the square, of course getting lost the requisite number of times, we were hot, tired, and irritable, as well as being really anxious about the 3 hour drive still ahead)

b)  Stay in Padova instead of arriving in Ravenna near 1 a.m, or…

c)  Come back in October

IMG_3503But Venice is still Venice no matter what, and I do hope to return some day and stay more than an afternoon (“hope to return someday” became the theme of almost this entire trip).


Our main goal in Ravenna was to see the Byzantine IMG_3584mosaics.  Sadly we encountered this sign about the two major sites.  Yes, you guessed it, the one day we were in Ravenna was Wednesday, August 12… We did visit the basilica of San
IMG_3589Apollinare Nuovo as well as Dante’s tomb, and simply enjoyed the quiet elegance that is Ravenna (along with my first of many plates of prosciutto IMG_3627e IMG_3621melone). Italy is such a feast, there is hardly a city, town, or village that doesn’t overwhelm with history, food, atmosphere.  When Lonely Planet picks me up as one of their travel writers (a girl can dream, right…?) my advice will be:  go to the “secondary sites” in the summer and save Venice, Rome, and Florence for the off-season.  Because, in truth, there really is no such thing as a “secondary site” in Italy.


Breakfast on the rooftop of B&B Sei Stelle, Sulmona


“Faiella houses” hamlet near Prezza


A “confetti” shop built into the aqueduct. Sulmona is famous for these almond candy confections

That latter certainly proved true at our next stop, the Abruzzo region and specifically the town of Sulmona. Definitely not on the “usual” circuit, but definitely worth it.  Actually I hesitate to say too much because I don’t want it to be “discovered”!  The Abruzzo lies directly east of Rome and includes both mountains and coast.  We went there for C to do search for his roots as his father’s family came from a little town called Prezza  near Sulmona. Unfortunately the Commune (city hall) was about to close for the Ferragosto holiday, but he met the person in charge of records and will be in touch with him as soon as they re-open.  Our B&B was an incredible find — right on the main piazza with part of a medieval aqueduct running through it.  The owner was amazingly generous with his time in helping C track down resources and locations pertaining to his ancestry.

IMG_3789We spent our final three days of this amazing journey in the little town of Sacrofano outside Rome.  We went there to visit long-time friends G & P-L and we were fortunate to overlap for a day with their son, wife, and baby visiting from New York, as well as seeing their Rome-based daughter, her husband, and their baby.  We also ventured intoIMG_3809 the city on our last day, visiting the Palazzo IMG_3856Massimo museum which has a fine collection of Roman statuary as well as a fantastic collection of frescoes and mosaics from ancient villas.

We ended by visiting Piazza Navona and the Pantheon, and throwing our remaining Croatian Kuna coins into the Trevi fountain to ensure a return trip — to all of the countries of this incredible journey:  Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece, Slovenia, a little sliver of Austria, and Italy.

And now we’re home.  In that surrealistically liminal place of “a week ago today I was in Rome” and “tomorrow I go back to the office.”  It is way too early to fully grasp the full meaning of this trip, this sabbatical, this incredible opportunity given me by the Lily Foundation.  That will unfold in the days to come.  I am grateful as well to the people at St. Stephen’s who made this sabbath time possible for me:  my amazing staff, incredible volunteers, and awesome Senior Warden.  I am also so very grateful to the people I met in Serbia and Bosnia & Herzegovina who are who are working so hard to bring the hope of peace-making and reconciliation to those lands, despite some extremely daunting challenges.  You shine a light for the rest of us.   Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “Do your little bit of good where you are; its those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”   I believe this in the very soul of my being — I believe that is why God has put each of us on this earth — and I return from this amazing experience committed to doing whatever my little bit of good is that can help make our community a better place.

This journey ends as it began:  a cup of tea and the Sunday New York Times.  But in truth, the rest of this journey is only now beginning..

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More BiH, Croatia-Montenegro-Croatia






Do vidjenja, Sarajevo…

It was hard to leave Sarajevo — the city had really grown on all four of us — and we talked about “next time we’re here…”.


“Just 25 more Euros…”

Next on the itinerary was Mostar, which is worth seeing, but not in the middle of an unseasonably hot August. Very crowded, very tourist-y.  The young men who jump off the bridge have the whole thing down to a science — several of them work the crowd (and re-work the crowd, and re-work the crowd…) “we just need 25 more Euros for my friend toIMG_2593 jump!”  And then he  finally does, rather anti-climatically.  We joked about their tag line throughout the rest of the trip “for 100 Euros I’ll throw my sister off this wall!” was my son’s personal favorite. The souvenir stands in Mostar were for the most part quite tacky, but they did offer some interesting insights.  The top shirt says “Come back, Comrade Tito” to which he answers “I wouldn’t, you don’t have money.”  The red one says “Comrade Tito, come back to us.  You are loved by Muslims, Serbs, and Croats. You stole from us but also gave to us.  These now just steal.”  I did sense a certain nostalgia for the “good old days” — not just in these teeshirts, but in several conversations I had both in Serbia and BiH along the lines of “Yes, we were better off when it was Yugoslavia.”  Even my aunt/cousin B, who comes from a long line of Serbian royalists, said on several occasions “We were better off under the communists.”  Sigh…

The old bridge (“Stari Most”) dates back to — 2004.  It was rebuilt to replace the original, IMG_2617commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1557 and destroyed during the war in Bosnia/Herzegovina (Mostar is the unofficial capital of Herzegovina). In that area, initially Bosnian ethnic Croats were allied with Bosnjaks against the Serbs, then the Croats turned on the Bosnjaks.  Mostar was the scene of intensely mostar bridgeheavy fighting and a lengthy siege; most of the eastern (Bosnjak) side of the city was reduced to rubble.   This link offers a poignant reflection on what is lost when emblematic architecture is destroyed.  Stari Most, the symbol of the city, was destroyed by the Croatian forces in November, 1993.  To this day the city remains largely segregated on either side of the Neretva river.  It was more than a little unsettling, as we drove farther south in Herzegovina, to see Croatian flags everywhereCyrillic_scratched_out_on_a_road_sign_in_Bosnia, the (required) Cyrillic names for village and town names blacked out, and a bridge downriver of Mostar on the Neretva river, still in BiH, named for Franjo Tudjman, who was the Croatian leader during and after the wars.   Not sure what is more worrisome — losers (i.e. Serbs) playing the victim card or victors playing the triumphalist card.  As Adnan of CNA observed during my conversation with him a few weeks ago “history gets written by the winners.”


Sufi monastery, or Tekke, is on the left


Source of Buna river

Our next two stops were also still in BiH — Blagaj, the source of the Buna River and site of a Sufi monastery, and Medjugorje. We didn’t actually visit either the church or the site of the apparition in Medjugorje; the town was packed to the gills with participants in the annual international youth festival so we decided to have an early dinner and pack it in.  Earlier in the day, while visiting the monastery at Blagaj, we had to be dressed appropriately.  C was wearing long IMG_2641pants, but K, S, and I were given coverings.  All I could think about was how hot I was; I don’t know how Muslim women who are completely covered do it.  The Buna river comes out of a cave in the adjacent mountain and the crisp, cold water is a deep shade of turquoise.  Stunning!


Another day, another border. Or three…


View of the 24 km Bosnian riviera and its only sea town, Neum

The next day we crossed over into Croatia en route to Dubrovnik. Not an easy proposition, especially during the height of tourist season. There is a thin sliver of BiH which extends to the Adriatic so that means there are three — count ’em, three — border crossings with check points on each side. BiH into Croatia, Croatia back into BiH, then BiH into Croatia.  The reason for the sliver had to do with the realpolitik of medieval Dubrovnik (aka “Ragusa”) which maintained its independence from 1358 until 1808, in large part by playing off the rival Ottomans and Venetians.  Dubrovnik sold that slip of land to the Ottomans in return for their promise to defend Dubrovnik should the need arise.  All that didn’t matter in modern times when it was all one country, but after the break-up the original borders were restored and voila! — a lengthy process to get from Croatia to Croatia.  Talks between Croatia and BiH are on-going; meanwhile the border(s), especially in August, continue to back up.


Cavtaska ulica, our “street”


View from our airbnb apartment


Dubravka restaurant on right, with red roof


Pilgrimage to a GoT site…


No, the street is not wet. It really is that shiny

After surmounting a number of logistical challenges (the aforementioned borders, a dispute with our GPS about exactly how to enter Dubrovnik, getting all our luggage up the stairs of our street to the apartment, and finding a garage to store the car) we made it to our Dubrovnik airbnb apartment. My only caveat about traveling to Dubrovnik is twofold: don’t go in August and if you drive, pay the extra for accommodations with on-site parking (because you’ll end up paying that and more for the garage any way). Other than that, Dubrovnik was everything I remembered it to be and everything the others had hoped it would be.  It has always been, and continues to be, one of my favorite places in the whole world.  It was magical walking through the old town that first night, and when the street lights came on the whole main street, Stradun, began to sparkle. Centuries of people walking on the streets of Dubrovnik have polished them to a high gloss.

IMG_2875K and S visited Game of Thrones sites, we walked around the city walls at sunset, we attended a folklore evening of music and dance on top of one of the fortresses, we spent an afternoon on the island of Lokrum, we had some amazing dinners, and we enjoyed just sitting and gazing at the incredible view from the apartment.  More pictures to follow on the “Pages” part of the blog — and you can imagine I too a lot of pictures of this drop-dead gorgeous city.


Main square of Kotor with cousin A


Real walls of Kotor; fake shark

Our second day in Dubrovnik we drove to Montenegro, which used to be a 45 minute drive, but, you guessed it, another border crossing…  There we met up with my cousin A, a theologian and archaeologist who was working on a monastery site near Tivat.  I only knew A via facebook — we connected through a series of remarkable coincidences: turns out that the sister-in-law of my friend B here in Miami is A’s best friend since childhood.  I am so glad we connected — it was uncanny how much we had in common — and I look forward to staying in touch with her.  Together with A we visited the walled medieval town of Kotor — “Dubrovnik off steroids” — as I dubbed it. I wish we could have spent more time there as it is truly lovely.  Montenegro was the last country to break away — not until 2006. Relations with Serbia continue to be cordial; we spotted a lot of cars with Serbian plates there (not the case in Dubrovnik). Another casualty of the war: Serbia has no sea access, so Serbs used to flock to the Dalmatian coast in the summer (which is why Dubrovnik is so formative in my memory). No longer.


From the exhibit “Dubrovnik during the Homeland War, 1991-1995”

IMG_3029A few days later, K and I took the cable car to the top of Mt. Srdj above Dubrovnik.  The views were stunning.  At the very top of the mountain stands the Napoleonic “Empire Fortress,” which played a key role in the defense of Dubrovnik during the war.  It houses an exhibit about the battle for Dubrovnik and the battering it took at the hands of Serbian forces.  It was incredibly difficult to look at — it is still incomprehensible to me why the ethnic Serbian forces within Croatia, with the full backing of Milosevic, chose to attack this gem of a city.  The human cost was of course terrible and the destruction of a city internationally known and loved, a UNESCO world heritage site, was the epitome of madness.  Yes there were genuine reasons for the ethnic Serbs in the Krajina region of western Croatia to be afraid.  Yes Franjo Tudjman sanctioned ethnic cleansing there.  But all of that was negated in the eyes of the world by the wanton destruction of Dubrovnik.  The city has since been rebuilt and it is (almost…) impossible to tell what happened, but the animosity will take generations to heal.


Ancient Salona


Temple of Jupiter, by our hotel


Mestrovic’s St. Gregory of Nin


Rub his toe and make a wish

After spending five nights in Dubrovnik it was time to say goodbye to it and to K who had to get back to DC for work.  I drove him to the airport at 0-dark-30 and then C, S, and I continued on to Split where we spent one night in a great little boutique hotel built right into the walls of Diocletian’s palace. Actually, everything in Split’s old town is built right into the walls of that Roman emperor’s palace. There was a Roman town, Salona, above what was to become Split.  When it was sacked by invading Slavs and Avars in the 7th century, the people fled to the surrounding islands as well as into the palace below–which eventually morphed into Split.

Split was the only place we were genuinely worried about the Serbian license plates on our rental car.  Unlike Dubrovnik, there was no indoor garage and keeping the car near the hotel was not an option (the entire old town is a pedestrian zone).  We reached the gates of the old city, called the hotel, and they sent a young man to guide us to a public parking lot and help us with our luggage.  When he saw our plates he expressed genuine concern:  FullSizeRender (1)in the past Serbian guests at the hotel had had their cars vandalized.  We hit upon a scheme which involved plastering several “HR” stickers on the car and displaying a Croatian flag on the dashboard.  We were very fortunate; the next morning the car was unscathed other than the stickers having been removed. Go figure.

As we were walking to the hotel with him, the young man from the hotel told us his story. He was actually Serbian himself.  His parents had met in Sarajevo before the war and settled in Split (I wasn’t quite clear if only one or both of his parents were Serbs).  During the war they fled to Novi Sad in Serbia.  “Oh, you had to go back?” I said.  No — they had to go there, not go back.  Split had always been his home.  There are certainly thousands upon thousands of stories like his — people from all the ethnic groups and from throughout the whole area — uprooted and displaced by the wars, having to flee the only home they ever knew.

A glimmer of hope, though, struck me — he, at least, has come back and is once again living his life in his hometown of Split.

Next:  Slovenia, Italy, and home again.

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Belgrade, Part Two. Sarajevo, Part Three: Hope…?

IMG_2410From Athens we flew to Belgrade — back for S and me, for the first time for C and K.  We stayed in the same airbnb just off Knez Mihajlova where we had stayed before and it felt like a homecoming.  I thought about the question S had asked me earlier in the trip — did I feel like I was reconnecting? — and coming back to Belgrade this time I have to say that I did feel much more connected.  I do have roots here, this is my heritage, I still have family here (including a cousin I only knew through facebook before whom we met when we went to Montenegro).   After spending time in BiH where I was painfully conscious of my accent (though I never felt any animosity toward me because of it, that feeling was entirely on my own part), it was something of a relief, yes even a homecoming, to be able to speak the language without wondering if I was being judged (other than for my bad grammar).  Yes, Serbs committed atrocities in the 1990’s. Yes, there is still rampant, unrepentant, and IMG_2403potentially toxic nationalism afoot here (seeing teeshirts of Putin wearing a Chetnik hat and the like at various souvenir kiosks was particularly disturbing…).  Yes, all that, and I can still also claim what is positive.  Sharing Belgrade with the rest of the family and particularly having S help show it off was deeply moving.  As was coming across streets named for ancestors of mine along with historical markers explaining who they IMG_2456were and what they had done.   One of my ancestors, Prota Mateja Nenadevic, was a priest as well as a diplomat, statesman, and one of the leaders of the first uprising against the Ottoman occupation.  He participated in the 1815 Congress of Vienna and was one of the signers of the treaty that came out of it.   Seeing Nikola Tesla (who was a great scientist, inventor, and humanitarian) being intentionally and now internationally promoted was heartening.  I had never IMG_2463heard of him growing up, and now his face is on the 100 dinar note, the Belgrade airport is named after him, and we visited the Tesla museum while we were there.  Not to mention the car!  As with everything in life, one’s heritage is never a black/white/either/or/all-or-nothing (that, my friends is the definition of fundamentalism no matter what shape it takes or what tribe it affects) — instead it’s a both/and; as with everything in life, shades of grey.  It took my coming back (finally) to fully embrace that.  I in no way excuse what happened in the ’90’s or the Serbs’ role in it (see my previous post on Srebrenica…), yet this is part of who I am and what has shaped me.  And yes, I am proud of it.


Complete with fold-down tables in the backseat, 6 gears, and a stall-prevention function even on hills. I could go back to driving standard shift again!

We only spent two nights in Belgrade and then left for Sarajevo, this time with the rental car we were to keep through the rest of the trip, a very comfortable, diesel-powered (amazing on gas!) Renault “Scenic” model.  Another one I’d love to see in the US.  The drive to Sarajevo was made particularly unpleasant by the two-hour border crossing between Serbia and Croatia (through which we drove for all of about 20 minutes before crossing over into BiH). Yet another casualty of the wars:  borders between small countries that all used to be part of a whole.  Yes, it’s fun to have 15 new stamps in my passport, but what they represent is heartbreaking.

Our hotel in Sarajevo, Pansion Harmony, was one of the high points of the trip for all four of us.  The owner and his staff could not have been more hospitable — a trait for which the Bosnian people are known.  It mattered not that we drove up in a car with Belgrade license plates or what kind of accent I had, we felt cared for as honored guests.  I had another surprise the next day when we visited the Tunnel Museum.  We had to go to the little store next door to change money for the entrance fee.  When the owner heard me speaking “nas jezik” (“our language” — which was a way of getting around which language, exactly, was being spoken.  In truth the languages at least of Serbia, BiH, and Croatia are basically the same.  It’s only the variations in accent and a few different words which identify where one is from), he asked about my origins.  I said my mother was from Belgrade, and then apologized (given where we IMG_2501were…).  He told me not to apologize and then told me about Colonel Jovan Divjak who had been his commander many years earlier when he served his compulsory service in the Yugoslav National Army.  When the fighting broke out, Divjak, a Serb, left the JNA to fight on behalf of Bosnia.  His is a story of one man who had the courage to stand up against what he saw as a clear wrong and do something about it.  Like Schindler, like Carrie ten Boom, like others throughout history who have chosen the risky, yet right path.  Ratko Mladic had a price on Divjak’s head had he been captured.

About the Tunnel, also known as the Tunnel of Hope or Tunnel Spasa (which means “salvation”).  Follow the link to learn more about it.  Visiting it was, of course, deeply moving and deeply disturbing.  As with all things connected to wartime, there were of course those who used it for black-marketeering and other less than noble purposes, but as I said in my post about Srebrenica, had the war not been waged in the first place…  ThisIMG_2500 map shows the extent of the siege of Sarajevo; the city was almost completely surrounded by Serbian forces; the only way to get supplies in and people out was through the tunnel constructed under the UN-controlled airport runway.

When S and I were in Sarajevo before, I had missed connecting with a representative from the Post-Conflict Research Center.  The mission of the P-CRC  is to “…cultivate an environment for sustainable peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and the greater Balkans region using creative multimedia projects that foster tolerance, moral courage, mutual understanding, and positive change.”  I’m glad I persisted in trying to contact them because I had a very helpful — and hopeful — conversation with Tim Bidey, the P-CRC’s project developer.  Tim is a young Englishman who holds a graduate degree in post conflict studies with an emphasis on storytelling as a method of peace-building.  They use a variety of creative ways to facilitate dialogue among people of very different backgrounds, especially focusing on young people who will become “multipliers” when they return to their home communities, bringing what they’ve learned about building bridges back to their communities.

One of the tools the P-CRC uses to engage groups in discussions are a series of documentaries they have created about “Ordinary Heroes.”  Each documentary presents several stories of people who have reached beyond their own ethic group to help someone from a different group.  These are stories of “rescuers” and from them the participants can learn to formulate new narratives, and develop new understandings of what a “hero” is. Each documentary always includes stories from each of the different ethnic groups and how they reached across those boundaries to help someone else.  “The purpose,” Tim explained, “is to help young people look forward by looking back in a different way, and seeing the possibility of different narratives.” A final step in the process is for youth to go back to their own communities to find there stories of moral courage or a story about someone who has crossed ethnic lines.  They then submit the stories for a competition. When they find the stories, it changes them in profound ways.  This work is becoming well-known in the area; the P-CRC  just received a UN award for this work (first in the world!) and they were finalists in Council of Europe’s Diversity Award.

At the root of what the P-CRC does is the goal of trying to reduce the salience of ethnicity as the defining factor in order to help people identify what transcends ethnicity, recognize and embrace the bigger picture of what they have in common.

One thing did disappoint me in our conversation — I asked Tim if any NGO or other sort of organization might be working on inter-religious dialogue.  He could only think of one — The Center for Peacebuilding, or CIM, in Sanski Most.  I had contacted that organization before I left but unfortunately the director was to be out of town during my time in BiH.  Given the huge role religion played in the wars of the 1990’s, it saddens me that religious groups aren’t stepping forward to be part of the reconciliation process moving forward.  Reconciliation and peace-building are (or should be…) at the heart of each religion.

But the title of this post is “…Hope?…” and looking back on the conversations I had with people from the various groups I do see some.  The fact that former enemy combatants are willing to come together, the fact that there are young people passionate about being part of a different future, and the fact that there are dedicated people working in groups like the ones with which I met as well as those with whom I was unable to meet — this gives me hope that little by little, step by step a different future is possible.  And I hope to be able to be part of a different future in our own community where there is still so much left to do in the area of reconciliation and bringing about a new future.


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And to think we considered canceling this part of the Balkan Odyssey because of all the hype….  Cancelling was never really an option because so much of the Greek part of the journey had already been set in concrete (all our tickets to Athens and from there back to Belgrade had been prepaid as had 2 of the hotels and the rental car), but we did have long, serious pre-trip skypes about the advisability of going to Greece in the midst of a CRISIS.

Lesson learned:  take all media hype with a huge grain of salt.  And so sad to see that probably thousands did succumb to the fear generated by our 24/7 news cycle as there was evidence, particularly at some of the smaller sites, that tourism was way off this summer. Which of course compounds the Greek financial crisis as tourism forms a huge part of their economy.  So sad to see the huge carpark at Epidaurus almost completely empty, for example.


View from Hotel Herodian


On-going excavations under the Acropolis Museum


Statue of Zeus at the National Archaeological Museum, still also a “must see”

We began in Athens where C and K met us at the airport. They each flew in at different times and waited for us so we could all drive together to the hotel Herodian Athens — a great find, reasonably priced, with killer views of the Acropolis and a block away from the spectacular Acropolis museum. The museum was definitely the high point of the Athens visit for me — thank you Robin Lawrie and others for telling us it is the #1 “must see.”


Infamous grey tee and olive drab shorts in all their “glory”

A backdrop for this part of the trip was the saga of S’s and my luggage which was never loaded onto the Sarajevo-Balgrade flight on 7/22.  She finally received hers the day we left Athens and mine came a day after that.  Fortunately we had a car and were able to detour back to Athens to retrieve mine en route from the Peloponnese to Delphi. The dull grey tee shirt and olive drab pants  which necessity caused me to buy in Athens and then hand wash in hotel sinks thereafter, visible in numerous photos, reflect my attitude about that experience! Apparently this happens fairly frequently in the Balkans.  Lesson learned:  always keep medicines and a change of clothes in carry-on luggage!


Sunset over the harbor fortress, Nafplio

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Corinth Canal

In the Peloponnese we visited Mycenae, Nafplio (wish we had known what a beautiful seaside town that was before having locked in our hotel reservations outside Corinth!), and Epidaurus.  It was amazing how you-blink-you’ve-missed-it driving over the Corinth Canal on the expressway now is! Fortunately we hadn’t blinked so we followed the exit to the old road and bridge and I was once again (after over 30 years) blown away by that marvel of 19th century engineering.  Our one unfortunate experience in the Peloponnese was taking a hotel owner’s advice and going to Loutraki near Corinth for dinner.  Very crowded, Coney Island feel to it, but saddest part was almost no fresh seafood to be had.  That proved to become a common theme causing me to wonder if the Mediterranean has been fished out. Tragic to read this.  What kind of a world are we leaving to our children…


Lion gate entrance to Mycenae


Inside a “beehive” burial chamber, Mycenae

Mycenae was amazing.  How could people that long ago have engineered such a marvel? The “beehive” burial plot pre-dated the first dome by many centuries and stands to this day.  Also very interesting:  the clergy in that pre-classical Greek era civilization were both male and female.  Artists were given a very high place in society and the trade of the Mycenaeans ranged from current day Afghanistan to Spain, the English isles to North Africa.  Pretty amazing.


S center stage at Epidaurus


The theatre of Epidaurus. No need for mics — engineered for maximum sound amplification and the acoustics are amazing!


Epidaurus, in addition to being a spectacular theatre (still used today for performances during the summer) was also a center for healing.  The museum there had medical instruments dating back many centuries — amazing how recognizable they continue to be. There is evidence that this was a place of worship and healing extending back into pre-history,  which proved to be true of several of the holy sites we visited.  There really are “thin places” in this world.


Dinner at a taverna in Thebes

En route from  the Peloponnese to  Delphi we encoutered another sad learning when we stopped for dinner in Thebes.  Our waiter in a little taverna on the main square there told us about his situation:   he is a young man with 4 years of college behind him plus an MBA and he’s waiting tables for 20 Euros a day.  He told us his was by no means an isolated story; it’s pretty rampant among young people throughout Greece since the economic crisis began. I’m not an economist;  I see the world through a theological lens.  Christ tells us we should forgive — 70 x 70 times.  What use is there in continuing to tighten the noose around the Greeks?  Did Europe not learn a lesson from the way WWI vs WWII were concluded (heavy reparations vs the Marshall Plan)?  Noteworthy also is the fact that Greece was among the countries to forgive Germany’s debt post WWII and now it’s Germany leading the demand for even more austerity in Greece.  How much blood can be squeezed from a stone?  Again, I’m not an economist; I view the world through a theological lens. With the theme of this sabbatical being reconciliation I have to ask:  does that not also apply to the way countries treat each other?   We should also worry, overall throughout the world, what hopelessness and no visible prospects for the future might lead people to do.  As Bob Dylan once sang “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose…” (Like a Rolling Stone, 1965).  I also have to wonder:  what’s going through the minds of young people in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) where the unemployment rate is 60%.  Does ISIS have any appeal to them?


View from Hotel Varonos, Delphi


Ancient Delphi

Our next stop was Delphi.  We pulled into our hotel late at night after an “interesting” drive through the mountains (I more than met my match with those switchbacks on Mt. Parnassus…). Awoke the next morning to a spectacular view of the valley below — could see all the way to the Bay of Corinth.  Climbing up through the Temple of Apollo, between the heat and the high elevation, was a challenge.  K and S made it all the way to the theatre, their parents only got as far as the temple.  Delphi once attracted worshippers from all over Greece; each city state had a treasury there and the whole temple area was built up through the gifts of worshippers.  People came from far and wide to seek advice from the Oracle — a woman priest over the age of 50 who had opium induced visions.  One recorded vision in particular struck a note with me — “you must give 10% to the Temple of Apollo for your plans to succeed.”  St. Stephen’s folk, what do you think about this approach to stewardship?


Panoramic view of Meteora


Until stairs were carved into the rock formations in the 1920’s, this is how supplies (and monks!) were raised into the monasteries. Baskets on ropes with pulleys, and ladders!


Garden within the nunnery of St. Stephen

IMG_2294By far our favorite site in Greece was Meteora. Follow the link to read about the incredible history of this “thin” space where heaven and earth really do seem to touch.  The first monks to come here were ascetics who sought out the caves in the almost supernatural rock formations in which to live, pray, and seclude themselves from the world.  Monasteries were built (can we even begin to fathom how?) over many centuries on top of them, and six continue to be inhabited to this day. Of those six, the Holy Monastery of St. Stephen and Monastery Roussanou are inhabited by nuns (oh how it made my heart glad that Agios Stefanos is inhabited by women religious!).  The history of women on Meteora is interesting:  for centuries the monks followed the practice of “avaton” (still observed on the monastic peninsula of Mt. Athos in northeastern Greece), which forbids entry by any female anything onto the monastic grounds.  Avaton in Meteora was lifted in the 1940’s (our guide told us that there was a fire at the Varlaam monastery and the first responders were women.  Faced with the choice of defying the rule of avaton or letting their monastery be destroyed, the monks chose wisely). Interestingly also, two of the monasteries which had become abandoned, St. Stephen’s and St. Barbara’s or Roussanou, were rehabilitated by women and are now convents, or “nunneries” as all the signs say.  Both are vibrant and thriving and the population of nuns currently exceeds that of monks in the other 4 monasteries still in operation.


Great Meteoron

Meteora (which means “hanging in the air” — and being there, especially in winter as we were told when some of the peaks are above the clouds, it is easy to see why the name) was opened to tourists in the early 1960’s.  During our epic road trip in 1959 we visited the monastery of Great Meteoron (closed on Tuesdays so we didn’t see it this time); there were no tourists then.  What a special thing it was to be able to visit at that time I now realize — thanks to my father’s intrepidness with that Studebaker and my mother’s intellectual passion for all things Byzantine.


We were fortunate to also be able to visit the excavationsIMG_2379 at the nearby  Theopetra cave where IMG_2377evidence points to human habitation going back 130 millenia.  Our guide explained the rationale for the location:  nearby sources of fresh water, abundant vegetation and wildlife for food, situated high up for defense, and on the summer solstice the sun comes up over a natural stone obelisk situated between two of Meteora’s stone outcroppings in the distance.  Even millennia ago our Neanderthal forbearers had a sense of wonder and awe about the mysteries of the universe.  A thin space indeed.

Next stop:  back to Belgrade and then on to Sarajevo again.


Goodbye Greece! Photo by K. Faiella taken with extremely fast shutter speed

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Photo by S. Faiella


Excavations of prehistorical cave dwelling at Theopetra


Guesthouse Papastathis, Kalampaka/Meteora, Greece

Yesterday as I sat outside our little B&B in the peaceful town of Kalampaka (Greece) with the Meteora rock formations towering above, breathing the hot, dry smell of pine and cedar while cicadas ran riot with their midsummer song, I forgot for a moment how blood-soaked this continent truly is.  Even here in this “thin space” where heaven and earth seem to touch?  Yes, even here where  the 14th  century monastery Agios Stefanos  monastery (St. Stephen’s) was destroyed during World War II and the Greek civil war that followed. Yes, even here, where the discovery of the prehistoric cave dwelling Theopetra gives evidence of homo sapiens vanquishing the Neanderthals who came before them.

We had thought bloodshed  on a massive, genocidal, scale in “civilized Europe” had ended in 1945.  We thought that, in at least this part of the world, a lesson had been learned from the horrors of Auschwitz/Birkenau, Buchenwald, Dachau, Teresienstadt, and so many hundreds more — the lesson of “Never Again!”  We thought we had taken to heart the words of  Edmund Burke:  “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  Yet just 20 years ago — within the lifetime of both my children — over 8,000 men and boys were slaughtered in and near the town of Srebrenica, Bosnia.


Potocari Memorial and Cemetery

The cemetery at Potocari is no ordinary military cemetery.  It is not the first and final resting place of brave soldiers killed in battle, like the American cemetery in Normandy.  It is not the first and final resting place of veterans who lived to old age and died peacefully in their beds like so many who are buried in Arlington.  In fact, Potocari cannot even rightfully be called a “military” cemetery because the majority of those buried there were civilians — including old men and young boys.  They had one thing in common:  they were all IMG_1790 (2)Bosnjaks, all Bosnian Muslims who were slaughtered on or around July 11, 1995.  They were born in different years — I found dates as early as 1929 and as recent as 1980 — but they all died the same year and they all had Muslim names.  And they were all killed by Serbs.

Serbs.  My people.  People with whom I share history, language, culture, heritage.  “Serbia, that little land of ferocious heroes” was the quote under my high school yearbook picture.

Oh sure, fingers can be pointed in many different directions.  All sorts of “why’s” and “yes, but’s…”:   “…there were atrocities committed by all sides…”, “…there was black-marketeering within the Muslim community”,  “…why did the UN stand by watching but doing nothing?…” “…why were the people of Srebrenica told that was a ‘safe zone’ without the will to back up that promise?…” “…why did the Dutch UNPROFOR commander agree to remove all the males from the evacuation convoy, naively trusting Ratko Mladic‘s assurance that he only wanted to search for ‘war criminals’?…”, “…why did the command center in Sarajevo withhold sending reinforcements?…”.

Sure, fingers an be pointed in many different directions, but one overriding fact remains: had the Bosnian Serbs (with aid from the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic) not started the war in the first place the other “yes, buts…”  and “why’s” would be completely irrelevant.  Period.  End of sentence.

And for what?  So that a mountainous strip of land bordering Serbia could now be called “Republika Srpska”?  A strip of land in which people can drink SerbianIMG_1814 beer and Serbian mineral water and fly nationalistic flags and have Cyrillic get top billing on road signs? So that the ethnic Serbs can scrabble out a living in an “ethnically pure” area, while the economy is in the crapper, the politicians are corrupt, and the seeds of enmity with their former friends and neighbors have now been guaranteed for generations yet to come? For what?  Over 100,000 killed on all sides, hundreds of thousands of more lives traumatized — and for what?

I mentioned that Potocari cannot rightly be called a “military” cemetery because it contains the remains of thousands of civilians.  I also said something about “first and final” resting place.  Potocari cemetery is not the first resting place of the souls interred there.  After they were systematically killed, their bodies were dumped into mass graves. Then, to hide the crimes committed there, their bodies were dug up and reburied — often twice more — in further mass graves. Their IMG_1830 IMG_1794remains (mostly partial remains) and laboriously identified via DNA testing, and continue to be brought to the Potocari cemetery for proper burial each year on the anniversary of July 11, 1995.  We missed the observance of the 20th anniversary by a week, but the fresh graves bore testimony to the on-going work of paying tribute to the dead.

There is only one word for this kind of systematic killing followed by an attempt to cover it up, and that word is genocide. Ironically Ratko Mladic himself said as much as he rots in jail in the Hague while his war crimes trial continues to this day:  “People are not little stones, or keys in someone’s pocket, that can be moved from one place to another just like that…. Therefore, we cannot precisely arrange for only Serbs to stay in one part of the country while removing others painlessly. I do not know how Mr. Krajišnik and Mr. Karadžić will explain that to the world. That is genocide.”

So what happens now?

It’s very clear — there cannot be progress until full responsibility is claimed.  Only then can the process of reconciliation begin.   The groups with whom I have spoken so far get that and are doing remarkable work, but there is no official, governmental movement in that direction.  Granting amnesty to the perpetrators of apartheid  in South Africa without there first having been truth-telling, confession, acceptance of responsibility, would have amounted to cheap grace and would not have moved that country forward.  Paradoxically, when the confessions did come in South Africa, the victims were willing to forgive — what they needed to hear was those responsible actually claiming and accepting responsibility for the evil they had done.

Here’s one of the reasons that is so crucial.

On our way back to BiH from our wonderful visit to the Plitvice lakes and waterfalls and our afternoon spent in Zagreb, S and I drove by this:


“Stone Flower” memorial at site of Jasenovac concentration camp

This is a monument where the Jasenovac concentration camp stood during World War II in the Nazi puppet state of the “Independent State of Croatia.”  Thousands of Serbs, Jews, and Roma were systematically exterminated here or worked to death.  After that war and with the formation of the Socialist Federation of Yugoslavia, no one accepted responsibility for the atrocities committed there.  It was all swept under the carpet of “Brotherhood and Unity” we-all-get-along-now-because-Tito-says-we-do.  And they did — until they didn’t — and all hell broke loose.   And without acknowledgement of wrong-doing and acceptance of responsibility this time around, who knows what hell might break loose in the future.

No Future Without Forgiveness is both the title and the theme of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s book chronicling the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.  But a basic tenet of our Christian faith is that confession always precedes forgiveness.  And without that, how can there truly be a way forward?


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Sarajevo, Part Two


Plitvice Lakes and Waterfalls. Yes, the water really is that blue


St. Mark’s Church, “Gornji Grad,” Zagreb


Kilometers — and dust– on the Skoda

The past few days have been a whirlwind — we’re now in Athens so I’m trying to get caught up.  The original plans for after Sarajevo had been to go to Banja Luka to meet with Aleksandar Zholja of Network for Building Peace, but he ended up being in Sarajevo while we were there so I met with him there.  I had also planned to go to Osijek, Croatia to meet with the people at the Center for Peace, Nonviolence, and Human Rights but I never heard back from them. (Osijek and neighboring Vukovar had been the scenes of some of the heaviest fighting in 1991).   So we changed plans and spent a full day at the Plitvice Lakes national park in central Croatia and an afternoon in Zagreb.  When I was a kid I used to hear a lot about Plitvice and how beautiful it as, so going there fulfilled a long-standing bucket list dream; it was splendid.  More photos to follow.  We put a lot of mileage on the rental car, a “Skoda” hatchback.  Hope they get exported to the US soon as it was awesome.


Sarajevo City Center Mall and Business Complex


Sarajevo Holiday Inn hotel

Last Thursday (7/16) we met with representatives of two different peace-making/reconciliation groups: Adnan Hasanbegovic of Center for Nonviolent Action (CNA) in the morning,  and Goran Bubal and Aleksandar Zholja of the Sarajevo and Banja Luka offices respectively of Network for Building Peace in the afternoon.  In between the two meetings we had lunch at a Turkish chain restaurant in the amazing Sarajevo City Center — a new, upscale mall financed by the Al Shiddi Group of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, one of the many buildings reshaping the Sarajevo skyline.  It is very near the Holiday Inn Hotel which had a singular history leading up to the 1984 Winter Olympics, as well as during the 1992-95 war.


CNA was started in 1997 in Sarajevo (with an office in Belgrade opening a few years later), shortly after the end of the wars (though the conflict in Kosovo had not yet ended).  It was and still is comprised of people from all the different ethnic groups of former Yugoslavia. They came together bound by a common commitment to work for peace, understanding, dealing with the past, and reconciliation among the groups within the former Yugoslavia. As Adnan said “this is not just a job for me, this is something that comes from my very heart and soul.  That is how we all feel and that is why we all do what we have been doing for so many years.” CNA has produced numerous publications, conducts training sessions throughout the region, is involved in international forums (both hosting them and participating in other countries), and works with veterans bringing former combatants together.

It is this latter that particularly interested me:  without some outside motivating force driving people to deal their past and work toward reconciliation, how do they reach veterans and what draws these vets together?  In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission offered a tangible outcome (amnesty) which motivated former perpetrators to come forward and confess to what they had done.  But where is the “stick” here?  Where the “carrot” when there is no pressure from any of the governments (in fact, it seems to serve certain agendas to let the nationalism and hatred continue to fester…)?

Adnan described the process.  The CNA team begins by contacting veterans’ groups and explains to them what the purpose of their work is.  They are committed to complete transparency (apparently there is a high level of mistrust about NGO’s — Non Governmental Organizations — in the whole region “maybe you are actually CIA…”).  But in the region, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), 30-40% of men were combatants.  It is literally true that every day you can see your former enemy.  Both Adnan and another member of the Sarajevo CNA team are veterans themselves, so they have great credibility with the veterans’ groups.  A veteran talking about peace carries a powerful message.

They find a generally positive response among the veterans’ groups.  Paradoxically, as with the mothers Dj of Civic Initiatives in Belgrade spoke about, former enemy combatants have more common with each other than they do with non-combatants.  They are all wounded (whether physically, psychologically, or both), many have issues with families, they’ve all experienced violence and so there is shared experience.  They also have a need to talk as there has been no formal way to deal with their memories and trauma.”Are you ready,” the CNA team asks, “to sit with your ex-enemy and talk about peace, war, and reconciliation?

The CNA sessions with veterans begin by creating a safe space; it’s okay to speak completely openly and honestly here.  “What was my motivation to go to war? How did I feel?” —  in the workshops they are given safe space to delve into those feelings and memories. They are able to get beyond “competing narratives,” and in that space of trust, deep connections are made. Each former combatants’ training session ends with a combined action — visiting a cemetery together, or a battlefield.  The most recent was a visit to a small town in Serbia to pay respects to those killed by a NATO bombing.

Each veteran who has gone through the CNA process becomes an ambassador for this kind of peace-building work and is able to spread the work to a wider audience.  Vets still command a great deal of respect and are listened to.

The work CNA is doing is powerful, and yet also counter-cultural.  Sadly, the mainstream — both political and media — continues to be very nationalistic.  Politicians continue to manipulate nationalistic feelings.  What is hopeful, though, is that more and more people do want to talk about what happened, do want to deal with the past and move into a new future.  Adnan pointed to the example of Germany (particularly former West Germany) and how they dealt with their past.  CNA has learned a lot from their example.


This is a coalition of a number of peace-making and educational groups in BiH.  We met with the project coordinators of both the Sarajevo and Banja Luka offices (Goran and Aleksandar, mentioned above).  Banja Luka is the capital of “Republika Srpska” which comprises 49% of BiH; it is encouraging that the work of the Network covers both parts of the country.

Goran and Aleksandar needed to finish a conversation they had started before they met with S and me concerning how to respond to an incident earlier that week in which a group of men wearing masks attacked a Bosnijak (official term for Muslim Bosnians) near Banja Luka early in the morning while he was on his way to market and carved the initials “SSSS” (“CCCC” in Cyrillic) on his stomach.  It is part of the emblem of Serbia and appears on the Serbian flag, and means “Only unity saves the Serbs;” it also carries obviously inflammatory nationalistic connotations.  Goran and Aleksandar’s conversation about this incident was very illuminating:  as they said, it could have been an isolated (though horrendous…) incident or it could have some sort of wider official endorsement behind it.  There are rampant issues of unemployment throughout BiH.  There is vast corruption among governmental officials within all three entities (Bosnijak, Serbian, Croatian).  It therefore seems in the best interests of politicians to continue stoking the nationalistic fires to distract people from those wider issues, issues which could in fact unite them.  This for me had strong echoes of the way people in the US seem to be manipulated by both moneyed and political interest groups into focusing on (non…) issues like gay marriage and the like.  If the true issues of income disparity in our country, the weakening of the social safety network, underemployment and low minimum wage salaries, the enormous debt facing college students and the like were taken on full force it would unite a vast majority of our population and perhaps mobilize us into action.  And this would be an enormous threat to people in positions of extreme political and economic power. Something like this did get underway about a year ago in BiH in the Plenum movement.  It was short-lived but the slogan “We are hungry in three languages!” demonstrates that there is more to unity people here than to divide them.

Goran and Aleksandar gave us an insight into the political and economic lay of the land in present day BiH.  We mentioned that we had been at the very impressive Sarajevo City Center earlier that day, had seen people who seemed to be quite affluent driving expensive cars and shopping at the mall.  “Sarajevo is not the rest of BiH,” they told us, “much of the wealth you see here comes from the Diaspora — people who have left the country and send remittances back home.  The unemployment rate throughout the rest of the country is somewhere near 60%.  And the politicians of all three entities (Bosnijak, Croatian, and Republika Sprska) are extremely corrupt.”  The average salary is $500 per month (even the little grocery shopping we did while in Sarajevo showed us that was not nearly enough to live on).

Aleksandar, who is a professor of history and sociology and has been involved in NGO work for over 10 years, observed, “Bosnia is still in the 19th Century.  We are still in the mindset of being a colony, still ruled by ‘kings.’  Nationalism is still a power, once again there are new borders, new languages.  We’re back to a pre World War I mindset.”

So where is the hope, I asked?  “People are afraid of another war, so maybe they are ready to talk.  And there’s also the ‘carrot’ of EU membership.  That is the hope.”

There was a lot more to both of these conversations; I have tried to summarize them here. I am extremely grateful for the learnings and for the generosity of their time offered by Adnan, Goran, and Aleksandar, and am beginning to see what insights I can bring to contribute to the reconciliation work so badly needed in our own fractured society back in the US.

One further outcome from today:  after hearing about the attack on the man near Banja Luka, S wondered if we were safe here — especially with our planned visit to Srebrenica the next day.  Concurrently we heard about yet another mass shooting back in the US and I said, “ironically, we are much safer here where they had a brutal war just 20 years ago than we are in the US where gun violence can happen in malls, movie theatres, places of worship…

Next:  Srebrenica and the Potocari memorial and cemetery.



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Sarajevo, Part One

Where to begin?  It is now our last night here (though, as with Belgrade, fortunately we will be passing through again once C and K get here).  I have never actually been to Sarajevo before and truly didn’t know what to expect.  But what we initially found defied expectations and then continued to toss us back and forth, forth and back.

I was prepared to find a city pretty much still in shambles.  After all, much of the Berlin I had seen (especially in the East) when I lived there 30 years after WWII was still a mess.  I had seen footage of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war of the 1990’s — it had been under siege for 1,424 days, from April 1992 till February 1996 — the longest siege of a major European city in recent history; three times longer than the Battle of Stalingrad and more than a year longer than the Siege of Leningrad during WWII.  “Why do you want to go there?” a friend of mine in Miami asked me, “it will be so depressing.”

But our initial impressions were anything but depressing.  During the drive from the airport we saw many new buildings (wars have a way of speeding up urban renewal…), and when we arrived at our airbnb apartment (via extreme San Fransisco-eque streets, IMG_1757unbelievably narrow to boot — I now declare myself having moved from the novice to the intermediate category of foreigner-driving-in-Europe!), we were warmly greeted by the IMG_1738father of the apartment’s owner who not only carried my suitcase up the two flights of stairs, but also gave us fresh fruit (and there is no fresh fruit that can compare to that in this part of the world, bar none!) and showed us the semi-stocked refrigerator.  As a sign of respect, we removed our shoes on entering the apartment and have continued to be vigilant about not wearing them inside.  On our third morning, S (the owner’s dad) knocked on our door with a plate of amazing pastries, baklava and such, explaining that it was in celebration of Bajram (or Eid), the day after Ramadan ended.

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Minaret of the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, one of the tallest in the Ottoman Empire


Entrance to the Orthodox church of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel


Roman Catholic cathedral

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Entrance to the Synagogue

After we settled into the apartment, we ventured forth into the old part of town,  “Bascarsija,” (“Bash-char-sheeya”) which is a pedestrian zone teeming with life — restaurants, coffee shops, an indoor bazaar which reminded me of the sukh in the old part of Jerusalem — and so much more.  This part of town contains both the historic Gazi Husrev-begova džamija (mosque), the old Orthodox church of Archangels Michael and Gabriel , the Sarajevo Synagoge, and the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Jesus’ Sacred Heart — all within a few hundred meters of each other.  The city, and especially the old city (“Stari Grad”) still maintains some echoes of the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural microcosm it once was.  I had hoped to see the Sarajevo Haggadah, memorialized in Geraldine Brooks’ novel People of the Book, but sadly the National Museum in which it is housed has been closed since 2012 due to on-going disputes about funding.  Ironically, this museum remained open during the war, surviving without major damage.  Hopefully the issues will be resolved so that this historical treasure will once again be available to the world.

IMG_1840During our four days here we continue to be gob-smacked by the food — the single disappointment was succumbing to our hunger that first evening and settling for pasta.  “It tastes like they opened a can of Chef Boyardee,” S. observed.  Note to self: wait until we get to Italy at the end of this journey to order pasta again…!

Strolling through Bascarsija that first night (as we actually ended up doing every night thereafter) was a feast for all the senses — sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch (just had to touch many of the wares in the various stalls of the indoor bazaar).  As we topped off the evening with a rice pudding style dessert, washed down with tea and the local Bosnian mineral IMG_1839water we even got to witness a very lively alteration between an older man and several feisty adolescents.  As much as I could figure out it was something about the kids’ being on his roof and doing something untoward (drinking? smoking? throwing things?).  The police were ultimately summoned and finally some parents came and took the young offenders home.  Kids’ shenanigans are kids’ shenanigans pretty much all over the world.

On our second day we visited with representatives of two different peace-making/reconciliation groups and yesterday we went to Srebrenica and the Potocari cemetery and memorial.  I will write about those shortly, but first I wanted to share initial impressions of a city which seems to have risen from some pretty horrendous ashes.


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First Encounter


former yugo flages

On Monday (7/13) after lunch with my aunt B (correction:  first cousin-once-removed…) I had my first meeting with a human rights group:  the Center for Civic Initiatives (Grandjanske Inicijative), part of Human Rights House in Belgrade which houses four other peace-making, reconciliation, and related human rights organizations:  the Helsinki Center for Human Rights, the Committee of Lawyers for Human Rights, Belgrade Center for Human Rights, and the Policy Center — a think tank focused on improving the position of minorities in Serbia, particularly in the southern areas where there are large Muslim minorities.

S and I met with Ms. Dj who is the project coordinator for Civic Initiatives.  She was extremely helpful and generous with her time, especially since she and others from the organization were headed out for a three day conference the next day.  This group  focuses on providing schools with curricula that are civic but not nationalistic.  Currently the curricula in all the former countries of former Yugoslavia are heavily nationalistic and portray people in the other countries in negative, stereo-typical ways.  It is an uphill battle for her organization as the Ministry of Education in Serbia does not have the political will to acknowledge the issues that led to the wars of the ’90’s or the consequences that came from them.  This is part of the bigger picture of the Serbian government’s refusal to accept responsibility for their part in the wars and the atrocities that took place.  Yes, much of it was committed by Serbian Bosnians, but they were supported in large part by the then government of Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic, and Serbs from Serbia did go to fight there.  Ms Dj described the phenomenon of “weekend warriors” who would go from Serbia into the conflicted areas of Bosnia to steal, pillage, and worse.  A great deal of material goods from Bosnia ended up in Serbia as a result.  She described how “Arkan” (see link)  would set prisoners in Serbian jails free on the condition that they go fight (pillage, steal, rape, kill…) in Bosnia.

I asked her what would it take for reconciliation to become a reality, as it did in South Africa.  She told me about events which took place just last week, which to her serve as a sad metaphor for the current state of affairs.  Every year people from various progressive groups commemorate July 11 (the anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre) in a significant way.  The year, being the 20th anniversary, they submitted a permit request to gather peacefully in front of the Parliament building to place 7,000 squares of paper (representing the 7,000 known dead) in front of the Parliament building, light candles, and have a peaceful demonstration calling on the government to acknowledge and apologize for what happened.  When right wing groups got wind of this, they too petitioned for permits and then all permits were denied by the government for fear that violence might erupt.  The progressive groups instead gathered informally on the night of July 11th in front of the president’s house, lit candles, and laid out the 7,000 squares of paper.  They were disturbed and harassed by right wing groups, who also showed up. What Dj told me next was particularly alarming:  most of those from the opposing group were teens — 15, 16, 17 years old — who had not even been born during the actual wars.  Where did they learn this kind of reactionary nationalism?  How would it ever end?  Where could it possibly lead?  It made the work that Civic Initiatives has undertaken — to educate the upcoming generation to be tolerant, inclusive, and have a broader perspective on the rights of all human beings — that much more compelling.  I commented that one of the privileges I have being the rector of a church with a school is that we are able to educate children from the very youngest of ages to understand the meaning of compassion and an understanding that when we say God loves everyone we mean everyone.  To quote that song from South Pacific:  “they have to be carefully taught.”  Our choice as educators is what we carefully teach them from the youngest of ages, because it is from that basis that their characters and worldview are permanently shaped.

Ms. Dj also shared with us her understanding (which I share) that the issues which led to the ethnic wars of the 1990’s are directly traceable to World War II (and even farther back than that of course).  After that war, which also in Yugoslavia contained within it both a civil war as well as state-sponsored genocide (a brutal and bloody “trifecta” as it were…), the communists came to power with the slogan of “Bratsvo i Jedinstvo” (“Brotherhood and Unity”) and all the ethnic hatred, all the injustices perpetrated by one group against another other were meant simply to be swept under the carpet and forgotten about now that there was a “Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.”  None of the issues had been dealt with and so it was almost predictable that, under the “right” circumstances, all that pent-up, unresolved hatred, anger, and need for retribution would come rushing back with a vengeance.  It is comparable to the very different ways in which West Germany and East Germany dealt with their complicity with the horrors of WWII:  in the West there was a dedicated effort set forth by the government to confront what had been done and their role in it, to pay reparations, to be transparent, and to own their past.  Conversely, in the East under Soviet control the people were told “it was fascists who did all that,” and they never fully dealt with their past.  Not surprisingly, the right wing backlash now finding a voice in Germany comes predominantly from the what used to be East Germany.

And what now?

At this time there has still been no large-scale effort to deal with the past.  No large scale effort to deal with the trauma suffered by so many.  “Can you imagine, for example,” she said, “young men just doing their required military service, which, for so many years had just been sort of a lark, a right of passage — suddenly without any warning find themselves in the middle of a war, fighting other young men who until recently had been part of their same country?  There has been no large-scale, focused, attempt to deal with that kind of trauma.  Ironically, the people who do seem to be able to connect are mothers from different sides of the conflict.  After all, the loss of a son is the loss of a son, no matter which ‘side’ he was on.”

“Nobody wants to start in their own backyard,” she said.  “Nobody wants to come to grips with their own part of it, their own responsibility — no matter on which side they were. But if we don’t deal with what we did, we will never get anywhere.”

The words of George Santayana kept coming back to me over and over as our meeting with Ms. Dj ended:  “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it…”

And clearly, this is not just about Serbia or any of the other countries of former Yugoslavia. I look at my own country and where we are today and fear for our future…



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Panoramic photo by S. Faiella

Studenica.  Manasija.  Mileseva.  Sopocani.  Gracanica.  Decani…

These are words I grew up with, conveying as they did a sense of deep mystery and mysticism.  In addition to being a Serb, my mother was also a Byzantine scholar.  So these sites, and the over 100 more throughout the whole region, had particular significance for her.  It was the monks in these monasteries who — much as the Celtic monks of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales did during the Dark Ages — preserved Christian spirituality, writings, teachings, and art during the tumultuous centuries of Serbian history.  Never having seen any of them, I knew visiting at least a few would be an important part of this odyssey.

But which to choose from, with so many and such limited time?

I chose two:  Studenica and Mileseva for their historical significance, beauty, and location (click on the names for a link to more information about each).  Getting there and back was quite the experience!  Let’s just say my left foot quickly remembered what to do with a clutch after “a lot” of years, and, to quote Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, there “ain’t no mountain high enough (or road narrow enough…) to keep us from getting to you.”  IMG_1684 IMG_1679We did drive through absolutely spectacular scenery both coming and going: mountains, pastures, lakes, rushing streams; haystacks, goats, sheep, cows.  And of course the beautiful villages, or “selo,” of southwestern Serbia.


Fresco of the Crucifixion

IMG_1618Our first monastery was Studenica.  My friend Lj, whom I visited in DC, had given me a beautiful framed woodcut print of the fresco of the Crucifixion back in 1990, the 800th anniversary of the founding of Studenica.  It is one of the few frescoes not marred by pockmarks (a result of an attempted restoration of the original frescoes, not vandalism as I had initially thought). It is indeed glorious.

A young man (novice monk? not sure) heard us speaking English and approached us asking where we were from and why we were visiting.  When I explained he quite warmed to us, answering many questions and showing us around.  He told us about the holes in many of the frescoes and explained how frescoes are painted — the paint must be applied while the plaster is still wet in order for the paint to seal and become part of the plaster. So all that beautiful artistry had to be accomplished in extremely short bursts of time.

He took us into one of the side chapels — St. Stephen’s chapel.  I mentioned that was the name of “the church we attend” (not about to get into the whole I-am-a-priest-who-happens-to-be-a-woman thing…).  “What kind of church?” he asked to which I responded “Anglican/Episcopalian.”  “Oh yes, we have priests from England come here for retreats. Our church used to be closer to your church but you changed some basic understandings of doctrine” (yes, I know, the whole ordination of women thing as well as the full inclusion of LGBT folk..), “so we’re not as close any more.”  He also told us about how the Serbian Orthodox patriarch visited England between The Wars (WWI & II) and spoke in an English cathedral “during another time when we were the world’s bad guys because people blamed us for starting the First World War.”  He told us how in his sermon the patriarch turned off the lights for a moment and said “you have only had darkness for a short time. We had it for over 500 years under the Ottomans.”  It’s amazing how quickly people go back to 1389, how it seems like yesterday in the consciousness of so many.  It is difficult to comprehend on the one hand, and yet so much of this country’s subsequent history comes from their defeat on that battlefield in Kosovo on June 28, 1389.  Yet I can’t help but wonder — what would it take to stop living in the past and start living in the future…?


View from our guesthouse in Nova Varos

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This guy was probably swimming in that lake or a nearby stream earlier in the day. Soooo delicious!

We would have made it to Mileseva the same day had it not been for our GPS, whom we nicknamed “Teddy,” who, with his British accent, seemed to have a mind of his own — as well as navigating the unbelievably narrow, twisty-turny mountain roads.  So we tucked in for the night at a guesthouse on the shore of a small lake near Nova Varos after an amazing dinner of freshly caught grilled trout.

IMG_1640Driving to Mileseva the next day (Sunday) we were flipping through radio stations and caught the tail-end of the sermon from that monastery.  The priest was speaking about St. Peter and St. Paul because it was their combined feast day.  In the Episcopal calendar it is the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul (celebrated on June 29); this being the Orthodox calendar it is celebrated 13 days later (and referred to as “Petrovdan” — Peter Day).  We got to the monastery just as the Divine Liturgy was ending; it was good to see lots of families gathered there.

The big draw at Mileseva is the fresco of the “White Angel.”  It is beautifully preserved and white angelvisually stunning.  It also spoke to me in a deeply spiritual way:  the angel pointing the empty tomb saying to the women, who were clearly overcome with shock, “why do you seek the living among the dead?”  Such a powerful metaphor for resurrection of all kinds.  Seeing this fresco was definitely worth the trip.

Just before we left the church, a young nun came in, sprayed the glass covering all the icons with Windex and wiped them down (a sign of religious devotion in Orthodoxy is to kiss the icon, but it is good to know the lipstick, etc. left behind does not stay indefinitely) and then pulled out a Hoover and vacuumed the sanctuary.  I wonder if she ever might have dreams of celebrating the Eucharist and preaching the Word instead of always cleaning up after the others who do…


Actual peasant cottages preserved in the open air museum at Sirogonjo


More yummy food. Good thing all my trousers have elastic waistbands!

After, we headed toward Zlatibor (“Golden Pine”) through more spectacular scenery. WeIMG_1683 made it to the little town of Sirogonjo to see the open air museum of an old fashioned Serbian village, a la colonial Jamestown. During our lunch of gibanica, prebranac, and pecene paprike (again, way too much!), S asked me whether I was feeling a sense of connection with the people here so far.  I answered that it is complicated — so:  yes, and no.  Yes because this is the language and culture in which I was partially raised. No, because even when we visited here while I was a child I never really felt completely at home.  It’s the dilemma I guess most second generation types feel — not quite fish nor fowl in either country or culture.  All that is now compounded by the same sort of feeling I had while living in Germany some 30 years after WWII — always wondering “and what did you do in the war…?” — I find myself looking at men of a certain age here, particularly in these border areas, and wondering the same thing.  And then there’s the added layer of knowing that, for the first time in my lifetime, Americans are generally not popular here any more because of the NATO bombings 16 years ago.  And then there’s also the disturbing feeling I got as we drove through this southwestern part of Serbia when I saw graffiti that said things like “1389 — we will never forget” and “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia.”  I felt as if there is a tinderbox underfoot that could easily be reignited at the slightest provocation (breath held that that provocation won’t come from a reactionary response to the epitaphs and stones hurled at Serbian prime minister Vucic when he visited Srebrenica a few days ago on the anniversary of July 11, 1995…).

So, do I feel re-connected now that I’m back again?  it’s complicated.  Yes, and no.  Da, i ne…

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First set of photos now posted!

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