Grape Picking Days. . .

Or Rather, Wine MAKING Season!

In preparation to make the big move to Serbia, I came up with a list of "Things I wanted to do while living overseas." One thing on the list: "Learn all about the wine making process." 

When I found out that it was grape-picking season at Dibonis Vineyard, I offered my hands for picking! I knew that it might be a struggle to speak with Lazslo (the wine maker), but there is nothing that a few hand-motions and smiles cannot communicate. Chris was on a business trip, so I was free all day to pick, and eat grapes, and make a fool of myself trying to be understood. 

I arrived at the winery in the morning, and Lazslo immediately handed me a fresh burek for breakfast. I tried to tell him that I had already eaten, but he insisted that I eat so that I have enough energy for the grapes (at least that is what I think he said). As I munched on the doughy, fried, cheese-filled, Eastern European pastry, we drove to his vineyard. 

 Lazslo owns a small "rest" home in the middle of the vineyard, but the best part of the property is this covered patio area that overlooks the vines. He explained that every weekend, he has friends out to drink wine and rest amidst the vines. When it snows, they light the fire, enjoy the setting. . . and drink wine, of course. 


This is the view that you get from the covered patio. Lazslo asked if I wanted a shot of palinka (homemade Hungarian brandy), before I started working. Seeing as it was 9 a.m., brandy really did not sound appealing, but I knew it was rude to reject an offer of palinka. I started the morning off with a shot of palinka, and then made my way into the vines. 

This is a view of Dibonis Vineyard. It was a lovely day for picking, and I enjoyed every single minute of it. 

I had a short tutorial on how to properly snip the grape clusters, and then I was on my own. It was a funny mixture of people out picking grapes that day. From what I could tell, about 5 people were employed by the winery, and then there were 20 or so students from a nearby wine making school. Part of their practicum was to come out and pick grapes for Dibonis. Pretty sweet deal for the vineyard, if you ask me. 

Since everyone working at the vineyard lived in Subotica, Serbia, I expected that they would speak Serbian, but most of the students were Hungarian and did not speak very much Serbian at all. I was actually quite shocked. I didn't expect them to know English (and only one of the students spoke English), but I did expect that they would know Serbian. I had to resort to hand gestures and facial expressions to communicate with almost everyone there. I probably looked like a fool, but I didn't care. 

We were picking Shiraz grapes, and we must have picked 5 times the amount shown in this picture. It is not hard work, but it is tiring because you are constantly bending down and then standing up and then bending down and standing up again. There were two babas (grandmas) in their 70's who were working, and I was shocked at how agile and active they both were. They didn't let the youngsters out pick them. 

This sweet baba totally looked out for me during the day. She spoke a little Russian and Serbian, so we communicated in whatever language both could understand. Sometimes I would say a word in English, then repeat it in Serbian, and if I had said the wrong thing, I would try to remember the word in Russian. I asked her to repeat about everything that she said, but in the end, I usually got the gist of what she was trying to say. At the lunch break, she shared her lunch with me too. So sweet. 

After we had picked the last Shiraz cluster, I was invited to watch the next step in the wine making process. The girl in the red explained some of the chemicals that were added to the wine; it totally went over my head, but I knew that Chris would have understood every single detail. I watched the grapes go into the sorter on one end, and out the other end all of the naked vines were discarded. 

The grapes ended up in these huge barrels. I think they have to ferment here for a while. . . 

I ended the day with a late lunch at Shiraz, and of course there was dessert. It seems that every restaurant in Serbia serves crepes for dessert. This one was filled with fresh apples, but apparently there are a lot of fillings to choose from. If you like cherries, I hear that is a good crepe to try.

I went on my way with a bottle of Cabernet and an invite to return the following week to pick Merlot. I will most definitely return. Thank you for inviting me to learn something new! I loved every single moment of it!


Birthday Blessings and Budapest.

I am 28!

I remember being 18. I was touring Europe with mom right after my birthday, thinking that I was old and so mature, that I already knew everything I needed to be successful in life, and that by 28 I would have accomplished all of my goals and dreams in life. How wrong my 18-year-old self was. Ten years later, I am just realizing how little I know. I think the only thing that lines up with my 18-year-old-way-of-seeing-into-the-future is that I married a really great guy and together we started out on a grand adventure. 

So, 28 - my first birthday in Serbia, but not my first birthday away from home. Not very many people knew that the day was anything special, but the people who knew, definitely made it a birthday that I will never forget.

The weekend started with an impromptu trip to Dibonis Winery on the evening before my birthday. Dibonis has quickly become one of my favorite Serbian spots, so when David asked if I wanted to meet him at the vineyard to pick up a few bottles for the weekend, I didn't hesitate to say yes. Silly me. I thought that I was just going to purchase a few bottles, pay, then get back in my car and drive home. 

Nope. Laszlo (the wine maker and owner) knows that I am super interested in the wine making process, so he let me mix the pinot noir grapes, and of course, let me drink some of the finished product. In fact, we spent about two full hours tasting and discussing wine before moving onto dinner at his restaurant, Shiraz.  

Dinner was amazing and for the first time in Serbia, I had fresh fish. We scraped our plates and sipped our chardonnay. I thought dinner was about over, but to my surprise and delight, the server appeared with an ice cream birthday cake for me! No one even knew that ice cream cake was my favorite. The traditional birthday song (sung in a mixture of Serbian, English and Hungarian) filled the air and a smile took over my face. The only missing piece was Chris. He was traveling for business and unfortunately had to miss the evening. I appreciate how hard he is working, but I missed having him there with me. 

I got home to an empty house, and was startled by the shrill chime of my door bell. Marko met me with this bouquet of flowers and a present wrapped in pink paper. As I struggled to hold all of my gifts, Marko read the note on the flowers to me. 

"To Lana, happy birthday. We love you - Mom and Dad."

I was so surprised that before I could ask how, my eyes started to water. Marko stood there with a huge grin and explained that mom had found Lela on Facebook and had arranged the whole thing. Ever since I was 13, mom and dad have found a way to send me flowers on my birthday. Serbia really tested their creativity because ProFlowers doesn't deliver, and they don't know our friends. Well, they still found a way to make it happen. I immediately skyped mom and dad!!

The next day I knew that I would see Chris and spend my actual birthday in Budapest with my best friend and travel partner. It was shaping up to be a fabulous first birthday in Serbia. 

It was the first time I had driven alone in Serbia, and also my first time driving on the freeway. I was a little nervous, but after about 2 hours, I got to the Budapest airport in one piece.

 I picked up my sexy 
business man and we headed into the city in search of our hotel. 

I would suggest the Opera Garden Apartments and Hotel to anyone! The hotel is located on the Pest side of the city and it is central to everything. They have an amazing roof top patio, fully functional kitchens in every room, free breakfast (with mimosas) and complementary sangria in the evenings. My kind of place!

My birthday started with a fabulous Mexican lunch at Iguana. The food was so spicy and so fabulous all at the same time. Chris knows that Mexican is one of my favorite foods, so he insisted that we go to this place before doing anything else. This is a great place to visit when you visit Budapest! We will be back again!

We were lucky to have amazing weather and since it was nearing the end of tourist season, the city was not over-crowded. We looked across the Danube River towards Buda Castle . . . 

 found our way across Chain Bridge, climbed a little mountain . . 

 and discovered Buda Castle and the picturesque Fisherman Bastion. 

And the jumping begins!
We will NEVER get sick of these pics! 

 As the sun set, we listed to a marching band in the city center, and wandered through cafe lined streets. 

 St. Stephen's Basilica in undeniably one of the most impressive sights in Budapest. 

Back to my Ukrainian roots??

After hours and hours of walking and exploring, we wrapped up my birthday with dinner at Liszt Ferenc Square. Chris researched where to eat (we learned our lesson after Prague), and he led us to the perfect spot. The Square had about 15 outdoor cafes and restaurants fully equipped with blankets and heaters just in case it got a little chilly. The twinkly lights cast a warm, romantic glow over the entire scene, and I thought that the evening could not be more perfect. Chris let me order a lovely bottle or red Hungarian wine, and we shared an asian-fusion-type meal. Over the course of the evening, we met the couple siting next to us. Mario was from Brazil, and his friend was from France. Mario spent much of his time in France as an artist, he spoke about 5 languages, and was returning to Brazil to open a boutique hotel in Sao Paolo. He invited us to visit Brazil, and we exchanged email addresses. 

Chris and I paid for dinner, but before we left, I was again surprised with a celebratory dessert and a wonderful arrangement of "happy birthday to you. . . ." This time, the song was delivered in English and French. I was all smiles, and so happy to share the moment with Chris and our new international friends. 

I hope that we meet again some day. Now that I am looking at this picture again, Mario looks a lot like George Clooney. It sounds pretty awesome to say that George Clooney bought me a birthday cake in Budapest! I will let you believe what you want. :)

Chris and I had an amazing weekend in Budapest. We are only 2 hours south of the city, so I am sure that Budapest will quickly become like a second home for us. 

I know I am not old at all, but the scary reality is that ten years passed so quickly, and I want to relish every moment of the next ten years. The main function of this blog is to document the moments so that they don't fade from my memory as time passes. 


New Friends and Lots of Food.

I am learning that the two go hand in hand in Serbia. 

Sandra, Zoran, me and Darko at dinner. 

I love this quote because it remind me that true community is not meant to be stagnant, but always changing and growing. In order to always be learning new things, even the most healthy relationships require a new perspective every now and then.

It is scary to make yourself vulnerable - to leave everything you know - to completely start over - to daily choose joy over sadness - and to search for new friends and new opportunities, but it is rewarding. I try to choose this attitude every day. 

Since our chance meeting over coffee at Plato books, Marko and Lela have completely integrated us into their community. Through them we have made loads of new friends. It is rare that I am ever alone at a cafe these days (unless I am bogging), but rather I am sitting with 8 new friends laughing and learning and simply being. Recently, Chris and I were invited to a traditional Serbian meal with Darko, Zoran, and Sandra. Darko is Lela's best friend (in the picture above, he is on the right), Zoran is one of Marko's coworkers at Plato Books, and Sandra is a sweet friend of theirs who now lives and works in Belgrade. Sandra is visiting Subotica for the week, and I was so glad that she wanted to spend time getting to know me and Chris over dinner. 

This is the lovely outdoor seating area of the restaurant; unfortunately it was too chilly to sit outside. 

The property was beautifully landscaped, and you can see the little door where firewood was added to keep the restaurant warm in the winter. Although they no longer heat this way, they have kept the restaurant as close to original as possible. 

Years ago, this dining area was reserved for the elite of Subotica. The peasants sat in the room where we dined. Of course you can sit anywhere these days, but I liked the cozy feel of the peasants room. 

If you have a truly traditional Serbian meal, you start it off with a shot of rakia. 

Wikipedia defines rakia as: "Rakia (also Rakija) an alcoholic beverage that is produced by distillation of fermented fruit; it is a popular beverage throughout the Balkans. Its alcohol content is normally 40% ABV, but home-produced rakia can be stronger (typically 50% to 60%)."

Once you receive your rakia, you raise your little shot glass, and individually toast every person at the table. It is  considered rude if you do not make eye contact with each person as well. I like that.

READY to eat - bibs and all!

Whenever you are served goulash (traditional Serbian soup that is served before salad and the main meal), the server will personally tie a bib around your neck. Just in case you get a little messy. 

 Here was the goulash of the evening. The broth is always fairly similar, but you never know what delights you will discover in your bowl. All sorts of veggies, carbs, and meats are added to different recipes. This goulash had carrots and (the best part) homemade dough dumplings. They call these "gomb-bots" or "fat little children." I ate so many of these doughy delights that I was stuffed when the HUGE main course made its way to our table.  

Look at all that food! I was thinking, that there was no way that five people would finish all of it! We got pretty close, but there were still some left overs. I have noticed that it is okay and almost expected that you leave some food on the table. I have never seen a Serbian scrape his plate; there is always more than enough to go around. 

Darko is admiring the meat display complete with bunny ears. Meat, meat and more meat! 

DIG IN! Everything was so good!

Dessert and coffee followed dinner. These are traditional little fried dough cakes covered in powdered sugar. I love anything that is made out of dough, so this meal spoke to my heart. . . errr, my tummy?

We finished the evening with another delightfully doughy dish. It looks like worms, but it's not. More noodles smothered in sugar and poppy seeds. I was in heaven. When I told my mom about this dessert, she was like, "Yeah, Lana, I used to make that for you when you were a kid." Maybe that is why I loved it so much. Serbian food is already in my blood. 

Thank you Darko, Zoran and Sandra for a great Serbian feast! We will definitely visit this place again! SOON! 


Just One More Paper!

I alluded to the police station in my last post, so now I’ll explain a little more about our adventures in po-po-land. Please remember that I never want my observations to be perceived as complaining or culturally insensitive. I am wading through the differences in Serbia and choosing to see them as “different, but not wrong.” Although, one has to admit - some times the differences are so vast that they are shocking and even a little humorous.

So Serbia recently changed the visa laws. Used to be that if you exited the country every three months, you could stay in Serbia “visa-free” as long as your heart desired. You could cross a border, turn your car around, get your passport stamped, and re-enter Serbia. That would have been considered “leaving” the country, and then your three-month window would again be extended. Needless to say, a lot of people were probably working in Serbia without a visa and without paying taxes.

Well, the visa laws have all changed. Now you can only stay in the country for a combined three months before you HAVE TO get a visa. And they don’t make it that easy to get a visa. Chris started the process at the beginning of August, and it must have taken a month before he had all of the “correct papers” necessary to submit his visa application. It is almost a joke in Serbia that every time you go to the police station for anything (drivers license, building permit, ID card, visa), you must stand in one line after another and once the lines have wound down, you’re always missing JUST one more paper. It didn’t matter if Chris’ company called ahead of time and verified that we had all the correct forms, without fail, we were always missing something. Makes me want to avoid the police station at all costs, and most Serbian people I have spoken to feel exactly the same way.

Every time we showed up at the station, we were working with a different officer who wanted something opposite of what we had been told the time before. Although there were photocopiers at the police station, they made you go to the little business adjacent to the station to pay for our copies. I think they have a deal with that little business that they will help keep him in business. Can’t say it really bothered me that much, it just seemed like a huge waste of time.

Once Chris received his visa, they allowed me to start the application process. Luckily we had been through it once before, so we thought we knew exactly which papers the police would ask for. Chris and I arrived at the station armed with a stack of papers and the assumption that we would not have to come back again. We should have expected that of course we were missing JUST one more paper. They told me that I needed to open a bank account and prove that I had access to a certain amount of money in case anything happened to Chris. We left the police station slightly discouraged and frustrated. We knew that we could not convince the bank to allow me to have my own account, and that is where Marko saved the day. My previous post details how I finally got that one last paper to appease the police.

The end of the story is that I should receive my own visa in about a week. Yeahhh!! Then I can actually start the job search. Ohhh, and we should not have to see the inside of that police station for at least another 5 months!


Whatever You Need.

“Chris and Lana, really, if you need anything at all, please let us help you. Anything at all.”

It is so easy to utter these words in passing, but an entirely different thing to put them into action, and everyone I meet in Serbia wants to help. Seems that I receive a similar offer every day, from every new acquaintance, always offered with a sincere smile.

To be completely honest, initially when we met our new friends, I almost disregarded their offers to help. I am so used to the American way of 10+ hour work days, hurried lunches, long commutes, slapping on makeup in the car, cramming in a workout, inadequate hours of sleep, grabbing a coffee on the run, take out dinners, never enough time in the day. While I was used to getting similar offers in America, I never seemed to take anyone up on them . . . why bother, they would just be too busy. I know the same could have been said about myself; I was so good at over scheduling myself that I hardly had time to breathe let alone help a friend out. I think there is so much that I can learn from the Serbian way of life.

The first week we arrived, I could not find clothing hangers anywhere, so Lela walked with me to the Chinese store and helped me check out with the appropriate amount of money. I kept thanking her over and over again, and her only response was “ohh, it was nothing, so please stop saying thank you!” To her it was “nothing,” but to me, it was everything.

After about three months and 20 trips to the police station, Chris received his Serbian visa. The police station here is a circus, but that can be saved for another post. The important thing to know is that Chris had received his visa and that meant that I could finally begin the long process of obtaining one for myself. I found myself stuck between a rock and a hard place. The police were telling me that I must have a Serbian bank account before they would give me a visa, and the banks were telling me that I could not open a bank account until I had a visa and had lived in Serbia for a year. Does that make any sense to you? Yeah, me either.

Last Wednesday, Chris came home early and we set off in search of a large local bank, hoping that they would bend the rules just a bit to appease the police. We found the bank, and then found that they closed at 3:00. It was 3:10. It would just have to be put off for one more day. We walked past Plato Books on our way home, and found Marko sitting down and enjoying a cup of coffee. He had just finished a 7-hour day at the café, changed his clothes, and was about to walk home. Marko asked where we had been, and Chris explained our visa/bank situation.

Without hesitation, Marko stood up and said that he would show us where there was another branch of the same bank in the city center. We all walked to the bank together and discovered that the central branch was open until 8:00pm! Marko opened the door and announced that he would stay with us and help us try to open an account. I did not want to inconvenience him, so I said we would try to open an account on our own. Nope, he was not going to let us go it alone. He quickly found the appropriate person and explained our visa/bank situation. There were a lot of phone calls, questioning looks, and hurried questions in Serbian. I tried to grab a few words here and there, and realized that even if I had gotten up on the table and danced a gig, or waved my hands all over the place, I would never have been able to communicate with the bank. No one at the bank spoke even broken English, but Marko was there, and he did what we could not do on our own.

After about an hour, I walked out of the bank with an account and all of the documents that the police had requested. We needed Marko. Without him, our trip to the bank would have resulted in a lot of frustration, tears and no bank account.

I kept thanking Marko over and over again. I thanked him so much that he stopped me and said, “Lana, PLEASE don’t thank me anymore. Please. It’s nothing really. Anyone would do that for you. I told you that we would help you with anything that you needed.”

And he meant it when he said it.

I know you hate to hear it, Marko, but thanks again! Thank you for reminding me of the importance of DOING what you say.


It's the Little Things . . .

. . . That Make All the Difference in the World.

We are so blessed to call Subotica, Serbia home. Of course there is a language barrier, and sure, we miss some of the comforts from home, but there is so much to be grateful for. And we have realized how LITTLE we need to be happy. Nothing is impossible when you truly invest and love where you have been placed.

I was reflecting on all of the big and little things that have impacted me since we've been in Serbia. I know that there are so many more, but here's a short list I put together:

- Waking up with Chris every morning, sharing breakfast, packing his lunch, and sending him on his way with a kiss and a wish to "have a beautiful day and get home to see me soon!"

- The first cappuccino of every day.

- Beginning to recognize familiar faces as they pass on the street.

- When waiters bring me a glass of water before I even ask.

- Being invited to a stranger's birthday dinner.
- Finding paining canvas at the overwhelming "China-man-store."

- Playing Settlers of Catan with Chris, Marko and Lela . . . and Lela wins!

- Free coffee just to say "welcome to Serbia."

- Skype dates with family and friends that make home feel a little closer.
- The enormous, outdoor fresh market that has become one of my favorite places!

- My elderly neighbor (who does not speak English)cheerfully saying hello to me every morning.

- Running into three American travelers who were researching their heritage in Serbia and Romania.
- Being invited to a dance rehearsal - simply to watch, enjoy and smile.

- Discovering P90X and Insanity on my hard-drive.

- Fresh popcorn for .30 cents on every street corner.

- Five sweet, retired men at the same cafe (with me) every morning.
- Gorgeous and cheap flowers to brighten up my home.

- Finding a park with running trails.

- A soccer game with Marko, Lela, Darko, Zoran and Slaga.

- The bakery (pekera in Serbian) that I visit every morning for a fresh loaf of bread and a shy smile.

- Finding a hotel nearby with a pool that we can use.
- Visiting with one of Chris' managers from the States over a traditional Serbian feast.

- Homemade - amazing, rich and creamy - ice cream on every corner. (Ned, this may make me gain 20 pounds before you see me again:)

- Warm weather, no allergies, no bugs, and patio seating.

- The grocery store in my apartment building.

- Not having a cell phone - I know it is about time, but the silence has been sort of peaceful.
- Laughing children in the park next to Plato Books.

- Overhearing conversations in Serbian and understanding a few words here and there.

- Ordering what I want at a restaurant - in Serbian.

- Meeting a retired English teacher and being invited to volunteer with her to teach other elderly women English. I love that they still are so eager to learn.

- Dessert for lunch with Aleksandra.

- Southland Christian Church podcasts.

- The way that Chris adores American football.

. . . . . Just to list a few of the little blessings, and there are so many more!

We have also experienced a few huge blessings, and times when we really sensed that we are in the right place at the right time. I will write about all that next week. We have a full weekend planned so I won't have time to write over the weekend! Yeah for plans!

See you next week!