Serbian Orthodox Easter 2012

This is a late post, but I figured it's April, so an Easter post is still appropriate. Easter in Serbia fell on April 15th, and just like Christmas, Chris and I enjoyed celebrating the holiday twice in the same year. On April 8th (Catholic Easter - celebrated in America), we attended an Italian mass at St. Mark's in Venice, Italy and the following Sunday, Darko's mother invited us into their home to celebrate with a traditional Orthodox Easter breakfast.

Easter is a special holiday in Serbia because the country found a way to hold onto the Easter traditions and celebrations even through the era of communism. While communism changed a lot of Christmas symbolism, it could not erase the Easter egg. The egg is a symbol of new life and a reminder of Christ's Resurrection from the grave. While in America, superstores are inundated with chocolate or plastic eggs, fluffy bunnies and millions of pink and yellow peeps, in Serbia, the Easter egg is still (for the most part) a real-good-ol-chicken egg. 

Darko and the Easter eggs!
Like in America, Easter eggs are colored in Serbia, but they're usually dyed naturally (so they can be eaten) and the most common color is red because it symbolized joy, happiness, rebirth and the blood of Christ. Families exchange eggs and say, Hristos Voskrese (Christ is risen). The response is Voistinu Voskrese (Indeed He is Risen). This is the same Easter greeting I grew up reciting in my Russian/Ukrainian family, so I was prepared to wow Darko's family with my vast Serbian vocabulary! I got a kick out of ‘tucanje," or the Easter-egg-fight-game where everyone takes an egg and hits everyone else's to see who has the strongest egg in the bunch.

Traditionally the exchange of red eggs and the Easter greeting must happen before the meal can begin. 

This is traditional breakfast/starter Easter food. This meal eventually leads into a spread of meats and heavier food, but we enjoyed the lighter Easter fare. Darko's lovely mother served a spread of pork prepared in various ways, sausage, cheeses, radish, tomatoes, eggs, horseradish, bread and red wine. I was a little homesick for my family, so it was wonderful to celebrate Easter with Darko's family. 

On our way out the door, Darko handed us a red hardboiled egg, "Lana and Chris, this is your housekeeper." Huh?! Last time I checked, I was the McCoy's housekeeper. "What - do you mean to tell me that this egg is going to clean the house for me?" Darko smiled and shared one last Easter tradition with us, "Hahah - no that egg will never clean your home, but it must stay IN your home for the entire year. In Serbia, the first dyed egg is kept until next Easter, guaranteeing family security and health."

My little red egg has a proud place on top of our fridge - she is housed inside a tupperware container - just in case the "housekeeper" accidentally falls to her death and breaks. That would stink! Literally!


You Said WHAT?!

"Tolerance, inter-cultural dialogue and respect for diversity are more essential than ever in a world where peoples are becoming more and more closely interconnected."
—Kofi Annan, Former Secretary-General of the United Nations

Nine months. Nine whole months. In three more, we will have been expats for an entire year! The time has flown, but then on the other hand, I feel like we have succeeded in making Serbia "home" and that took a good amount of time and energy. In nine months, Chris and I have made lifelong friends, mastered driving in a foreign country, figured out the art of hasty border crossings, learned how to avoid speeding tickets, found hole-in-the-wall stores that sell tasty energy bars, zip lock bags, spray paint, Eco friendly detergent, scentless toilet paper, and specialty light bulbs, and we can communicate in basic Serbian. Things don't seem so foreign after nine whole months here. 

We're not just "surviving" in Serbia, on the contrary, we're really enjoying life here. Of course it helps that summer is just around the corner and all of a sudden the city of Subotica has exploded with new life and energy. Old friends come out of the woodwork, and new friendships are easily formed over iced coffee and fresh strawberries at outdoor cafes. 

While I have been warmly welcomed into the Serbian culture, I will never BE Serbian. I am American, and while I am doing my very best to be tolerant and culturally aware, inevitably there will be (and have been) hic-ups along the way. I still stumble over my words, offend people with my clothing choices, startle old women when I wear open toed shoes in April, and shock my friends when I casually place my purse on the ground rather than in the chair next to me. 

One of the funniest things happened the first week that Chris and I arrived in Serbia, although I did not realize what I had actually SAID until much much later. 

About a month ago, I was drinking coffee at Stara Pizzeria with a group of eight or so friends. We were casually talking and they asked me how I was liking Serbia eight months in. I told them that I really felt comfortable here but that there was one interaction I had had when we first moved that still just seemed strange. A man in a local grocery store had been very angry with me and I could not figure out why. It was the one and only angry reaction I can remember getting in Serbia. Chris and I had driven to Roda Megamart together to try to make sense of the new grocery stores. We rolled our cart around trying to find basic food necessities in a foreign land. We managed to find most things that we needed, and as we were about to check out I realized that we did not have any meat. 

"Chris, we need to get some chicken. I know they eat a lot of pork in Serbia, but I am sure they have chicken. They have to have chicken, right?!"

So we rolled up to the meat counter and spotted what we thought was chicken. I just had to ask the butcher for two pieces of boneless chicken. 

"Chris, I don't know the word for chicken in Serbian - do you?"

"No I don't know that word either, but don't you know the word in Russian? Maybe it's the same word? you should try that."

I did know the word for chicken in Russian! I felt so clever that on my first grocery store run I would be able to communicate with the butcher. 

The butcher was a big, burly Serbian man and he seemed very serious. He sauntered over to us and asked how he could help. 

Without skipping a beat, I smiled and proudly announced (in Russian) that I needed two pieces of chicken: 

"Ya hocu dva kuritsa!"

All of a sudden my eight Serbian friends interrupted my story; "YOU SAID WHAT?!" They were all laughing so loud and hard that the entire restaurant was glaring at us. 

"What did I say wrong? I wanted chicken. . . and I now know that the Serbian word is different, but did I say something wrong?"

Sanela smiled at me through her laughter-tears, "Tell us what he said to you next."

"Ummm . . . well, he was really angry. I mean, really angry. He glared at me and raised his voice and AGAIN asked what I needed. I looked at Chris, I looked at the butcher and then I started flapping my arms like a chicken and making balking noises. Chris just walked away embarrassed by my charades, but in the end I got what I wanted. . . two pieces of chicken. What did I say to him?!"

They could not stop laughing and by this point people were getting up and moving away from our noisy table. Almost in unison, all eight of them explained the error I had made. 

Apparently the word for chicken in Russian is slang for (I will put this in polite terms) "a very small man-part" in Serbian. Yup. I had asked the big, burly butcher if he had "a very small man-part." For eight months, I had NO IDEA how offensive I had been to that Serbian butcher. All I could do was laugh to the point of tears. 

Ohhh, and I guess that now I have a great party story. 

I am sure that is just one of the many language blunders we have made along the way. 


Trieste, Italy

After Venice, we stopped for one evening in the port city of Trieste, Italy. Since it was Easter Sunday, not too much was open so we really only got a brief view of the city. It is a very pretty part of Italy with a lot of history. It was super windy and cold on Easter Sunday, so that's why we look like we are freezing in most of these pictures!

Fratelli La Bufala Trieste, Italy
We stopped at Fratelli la bufala, the first restaurant we saw that was open on Easter Sunday. It was a cutely decorated Italian eatery that served a lot of dishes with . . . buffalo. Sort of random, but the food was awesome - and then again, maybe we were just starving!

Out of the pier in Trieste, Italy. Historically, Trieste was a very prosperous Mediterranean port, and under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, she became the fourth largest city after Vienna, Budapest and Prague. Today, the region encompassing Trieste is the wealthiest in all of Italy.

Cold and windy!

Main square in Trieste, Italy

In Trieste, we rode one of the only remaining European trolleys. 

A view of Trieste, Italy after a trolley ride up the steep mountain. 
Reece got some great shots of Trieste. Cannot wait to see them. 
I hope to get back to Trieste in the summer months. Since nothing was open on Easter, we did not really get to experience the vibe of the city. Apparently, some of the best Italian shopping is in Trieste. If nothing else, I can justify a trip back just for that!

Cao Italy!


Venice Doesn't Have to Break the Bank

Breathtaking and romantic canal scenes everywhere you look in Venice, Italy. 
"White swan of cities slumbering in thy nest . . . White phantom city, whose untrodden streets Are rivers, and whose pavements are the shifting Shadows of the palaces and strips of sky." --Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "Venice"

My best friend and her husband are planning a trip to Italy this summer, and I told her that they should plan Venice into their itinerary. I did extensive research before our trip, so I am going to write this blog as a way of wrapping up all of my prior research and personal experience of "one of Europe's most romantic cities." - New York Times Online

Venice, Italy - so often the setting of romantic and mysterious films; a city where famous writers, painters, and musicians flourished and found inspiration. She is a unique tapestry made up of 117 little islands connected by 409 bridges; where winding alleys suddenly dead end into the canal and every bridge is overrun with tourists fighting for that perfect picture. Once you step foot in Venice, you cannot help but try to capture every little detail in the lens of your own camera.

Every time we passed this canal, a new artist was capturing its beauty. 
What to expect in each Venetian season:

High season in Venice is spring and late summer, and Easter weekend is no exception as tourists flood the city to take in the holiday celebrations. Carnival takes place in late February or early March, and that is an exciting and busy season! We spent April 8th - 10th, 2012 in Venice, and the weather was absolutely perfect - neither cold nor hot! We packed jeans, comfy shoes, umbrellas (just in case), and light jackets. If you're planning a trip during high season, plan ahead to get a good deal on a hotel and perhaps pre-book your excursions and museum visits to avoid huge lines.

It is very hot in July and August, so if you plan on visiting then, pack accordingly. Of course there will still be a lot of tourism during these months, but not the same influx experienced during high season. The summer festival Festa Del Redentore occurs on the the third weekend in July so expect the city to be a little more booked on that weekend.

In late November through February the city occasionally floods (check out these pictures!), so pack your own waders if you plan on visiting during these months. I read that when the city floods, shop owners are notorious for selling waders and rain boots for upwards of 100 Euros to desperate tourists.

A gondola driver soaking up the afternoon rays - Venice 
Is this gondola-follow-the-leader-business romantic? 

To Gondola or Not to Gondola?

I have to say, there is something romantic and elitist about gliding down the waterways of Venice. If what they say is true, Venice may not exist in the future, and if it does indeed sink, how cool to be one of the people who actually paid the high price to enjoy the gondola experience. 

I love haggling, so I was certain that I could get a good rate on a gondola ride if I really wanted to - that is, until I started researching. I found that prices for gondola rides are standard and set officially. The city states that each 40-minute gondola ride must start at 80 Euros ($100ish), but of course each gondola operator can raise that base price as much as he likes. You can ride with up to six people and split the price evenly if you are a budget traveler with your heart set on a gondola ride.

Once we walked through the canal lined city and realized that none of the gondola operators actually sang and that all of the gondolas sort of just followed each other in a line, we decided it was not all that romantic. It seemed like more of a unique tourist trap that surely traps a lot of people. Another factor was that I was traveling with two guys, and that would just be more funny and awkward than romantic. 

Since gondolas are so very "Venice," I looked into a company that teaches you to be the gondola operator. Unfortunately Row Venice was completely booked on the weekend we visited, but it looks like an adventurous alternative to sitting in an expensive black boat for 40 minutes. 

If you want to get the Venice experience without the huge gondola price, consider taking a Traghetto across the Grand Canal for less than 3 Euros.

It's difficult not to snap a photo of every little canal!

Since there are 409 bridges in Venice, it is easy to get lost and turned around. A lot of the little streets dead end into water, but that is part of the charm of the city. We had an ipad and iphone with GPS capability, but we still got lost. Cruise ships daily dump thousands of tourists into the city and it is easy to spot them because they are frantically running around trying to see as much as possible in the allotted time. Spend a couple days in Venice so that getting lost seems more like an adventure than a point of stress. 

 Getting lost in Venice is part of Her charm. 
A great little hole-in-the-wall pizza place - Antico Forno. 
Eating in Venice

Food is very expensive in Venice, but if you plan and research, you don't have to break the bank on a $50 pizza for one. Of course the restaurant with the best view will cost you the most. Read every menu (especially the back page) before you sit down and commit your time and money. Avoid places where employees beg you to come in and enjoy "the only Italian food in Venice." If a place is really good, they won't have to employ someone to incentivize you to dine there. Most places in Venice do charge a 1-2 Euro service charge, and that's just hard to get around, but you can avoid such things as napkin charges, glassware charges, or double charge for sitting outside by thoroughly reading menus, asking lots of questions and researching. 

Note that it is normal to pay 6-12 Euros to sit outside and enjoy a cappuccino in St. Mark's Square. You will pay less if you take your coffee to go rather than SIT to enjoy it. If you want to watch the crazy tourists feeding flocks of dirty pigeons, then perhaps 12 Euros is worth it for an Italian coffee. Check out Trip Advisor reviews before choosing a fancy restaurant simply for the view. 

These tourists are probably paying a pretty penny to sit by the Grand Canal - Venice
Where we ate in Venice:

(We found great and reasonably places around the San Polo Quarter and Dorsoduro district.) 

Antico Forno (Sestiere San Polo, 970, 30125) - Go here for the best reviewed pizza on Trip Advisor. This was the first place we stopped for food, and as you can see from the pictures, it is nothing more than a hole-in-the-wall with standing room only. The pizza-maker-man described the pizzas and we each ordered a thick slice for less than 3 Euros. When we were about done with our slices, the pizza-maker-man offered us four free slices of fresh peperoni pizza he had just pulled out of the oven. Needless to say, we had a great first impression of Venice. Don't expect anything fancy, but do expect a great slice of pizza and a warm Venetian welcome. 

Chris and Reece ready for a slice of pizza at Antico Forno - Venice
Lebanese food at Frary's - Venice
Charming local Da Mamo restaurant - Venice
Da Mamo (Calle dei Stagner 5251, 30124) - A great local restaurant in a central location but hidden along a mysterious alley. This place is always hopping and you absolutely need a reservation (info@damamo.it) to get in as there are only 10-12 tables. The seafood pizza is well priced and it is huge. I ordered the seafood pasta and it was fairly small, but it tasted wonderful. The house wine (pictured above) is very nice and at 16 Euros a bottle you can justify buying a few bottles for dinner. We did not notice any surprise charges on our bill at Da Mamo. I would suggest this place if you're a money conscious traveler or just hate the idea of paying 50 -100 Euro per person for an Italian meal. 

You have to fight the crowd to get a good view of the Grand Canal from Rialto Bridge. 
Looks like Reece is kicking Chris out of the picture! 
One day we will put all of our jumping shots in a memory album - Venice. 
Chris and Reece at the awesome wine "bar" called Bacareto De Lele in Venice
One of the highlights of our Venice trip was stumbling upon this small, local wine bar called Bacareto De Lele (Campo Dei Tolentini, Santa Croce 183). Bacareto De Lela is a fabulous bar that is unassuming enough to be in an amazing location but still retain its local flair. I put this small bar on my "must try" list, but we sort of just stumbled upon it while exploring the winding streets of Venice. From the outside, it looks like a "dive-bar" and maybe it is Venice's version of one, but you cannot deny that this is a local gathering spot. We heard nothing but Italian being spoken, so for a moment I forget that I was in one of the most touristy cities in Italy. 

Walk into this small bar, order shadows (small glasses) of wine and enjoy sipping by the quiet canal outside. The best part is that the wine is poured out of ancient glass bottles that suggest the wine is made close by, and each small glass costs half a Euro! 

On my way inside to order round two, I was approached by a 70+ year old Italian man. He waved his hands at me, smiled and loudly said something in Italian. Of course I had no idea what he tried to tell me, but a young girl translated: "he asked how old you are." "Well, I am 28," I awkwardly answered. She translated his answer to me, "Ohhh, he thought you looked about 17, and he wants to buy you a drink." I just had to laugh and accept his kind gesture. I look young, and I used to hate it when people pointed it out; now I am sort of proud of the fact. He handed me my .50 cent glass of wine, we clinked glasses, I said thank you and returned to the boys with four small glasses rather than three. 

There is so much to love about Italy and I was so happy to find this little place. I will absolutely go back next time I visit Venice!

Italy is known for wine, so when you're in Venice, stick to local wines. You won't be disappointed!

Famous carnival masks can be found just about everywhere in Venice. 
Santa Maria Della Salute - Venice
You cannot miss the lovely domed cathedral Santa Maria Della Salute. It is free to enter, but beware of the beggar woman who tries to demand money for entrance. We saw several tourists, who did not see the "free entrance" sign, blindly pay whatever the old woman demanded.

It is as good as it looks!
Lido Island about 15 minutes south of Venice. 
On Saturday afternoon, we took a 15 minute Vaporetto ride to the Island of Lido. This place gets supper busy in the hot months of July and August, but while we were there we felt strangely isolated on an island so close to Venice. It is a lot more reasonable to book a hotel on Lido and take a Vaporetto back and forth to Venice. We chose to stay in the middle of Venice, but Lido would be a quieter and cheaper way to see the city.

The view of Venice from the Island of Lido
I tried the famous Venetian spritzer drink, and I hated it. 
Venice at night - it will mystify and mesmerize you!
A great wine bar called Un Mondo Di Vino - Venice
Easter Mass at St. Mark's - go to Mass to avoid the miserably long lines of tourists - Venice
I hope you enjoyed our pictures and suggestions! Venice is so unique that no other city can compare to Her beauty and mystery. If you get a chance, you really should make a trip to see Venice!


Ljubljana, Slovenia

My husband always has the best ideas!

For the Easter weekend, Chris, Reece (Chris' friend who's currently an expat living in Germany) and I planned a trip to Venice, Italy, and Chris suggested that we make a stop in Slovenia on our way. The capitol city, Ljubljana, is a little more than half way, but Chris assured me that it was a city worth checking out. It also seemed a reasonable place to meet up with Reece, ditch one of the cars, and travel on towards Venice together. I had never heard too much about Ljubljana or the country of Slovenia, for that matter, but I said I would book a hotel and start researching the city a bit. 

I knew that Slovenia had been part of Yugoslavia, but I hadn't realized that in 1991, they were the first country to gain independence from the Socialist state. The area that is now Slovenia had always been economically strong so the split was a huge loss for Yugoslavia. I discovered that after the split occurred, Slovenia was invaded by the Yugoslav Army. Luckily for Slovenia, the battle was short lived and the Yugoslav Army retreated and left Slovenia to develop Her own identity. 

Given the fraction of history knowledge I had gained in my "research," I really didn't expect Slovenia to look and feel much different than Serbia. Chris promised me that Ljubljana was uniquely beautiful, so I booked a room at AHotel, and got excited about exploring a new city. 

(Note - if you're driving to Ljubljana, Slovenia, AHotel offers free parking. The hotel allowed us to leave one car in their secure lot for three days while we traveled to Venice, and didn't charge us for that either. Parking is so expensive in most touristy European cities, so finding free parking is always a pleasant surprise!)

Our hotel was a couple miles outside of the city, but we got a good price (and free parking!) and figured we could always use the exercise. The walk into town was a little overcast and drizzly, but the rain clouds lifted as we entered town square in the old city of Ljubljana. 

The town square in Ljubljana, Slovenia. 
It felt as though the sun suddenly appeared and illuminated the city as we stepped foot in the square. I was instantly mystified and in love with this little gem of a city. The architecture is similar to what we see in Subotica, Serbia, but unlike Serbia, all of the buildings are meticulously maintained. The language in similar to Serbian so we were able to read menus and road signs, but other than that, the city holds little resemblance to the Serbia that I have experienced. In all honesty, Ljubljana looks more like an Austrian city than a city that was once contained within the same borders as Subotica, Serbia. 

A city this beautiful just begs to be photographed! Enjoy some of the pictures that we snapped. I think these images might make you want to plan your own trip to Ljubljana!

See the Ljubljana Castle?

Preseren Square and the salmon colored building is The Franciscan Church.
This alley way leads you up to the Ljubljana Castle. 

A great little hostel/cafe on the river where we tried a local beer. 
"Marley & Me"  Restaurant Ljubljana. 
I have to rave about this little restaurant for a second!

I have made a new best friend and his name is Trip Advisor. Mr. Trip Advisor typically points us in the direction of a great beer or local meal. After we were ripped off in Prague at a touristy restaurant on the river, I figured it was time to rely on other traveler reviews. To date, Trip Advisor's recommendations have not disappointed, and Marley & Me was an absolute delight! 

Trust me, if you're in Ljubljana, you MUST have lunch or dinner here!

Chris and I walked in around 5:00pm to make a dinner reservation. The rustic and cozy restaurant only holds nine tables and there are a few extra patio tables when the weather is agreeable. The place seemed fairly empty, but Mr. Trip Advisor claimed reservations were absolutely necessary. I spoke with a charming man behind the bar who assured us that we would have the best table in the house for dinner that evening. That charming man turned out to be the owner/server/bartender/manager. It's his place and he runs the show; the only other person working that evening was the chef. 

True to his word, we had the best seat in the house, and he spent a long time suggesting particular dishes and wine pairings. The atmosphere is warm and inviting. 

I had grilled salmon with a sweet mustard, peppercorns, and fresh roasted vegetables. It was one of the best meals I have had in Europe, and it was very moderately priced. 

Chris ordered the steak with peppercorns and the same fresh, roasted vegetables. His steak was a little undercooked for his taste, but he still really enjoyed it. 

We finished off the meal with the owner's suggestion of a chocolate and pear pie. It was divine!

On our way out of the restaurant, I stopped to speak to an older couple who had sat down next to us. They walked into Marley & Me, and their full grown german shepherd accompanied them to their reserved table. Without skipping a beat, the owner produced a doggy bowl for the furry guest. She happily lapped up the water and then found a cozy spot in the middle of the cramped aisle. Europe allows dogs absolutely everywhere, and this has been an adjustment for us. In America, dogs are not allowed on most patios if food is being served and they would never be seen inside a restaurant. Anyway, I had stopped to say that I was so impressed at how well behaved the german shepherd was. Turns out that the couple was from Washington D.C. and the man was the U.S. ambassador to Austria. 

Small world - or perhaps I should say, great restaurant!

Chris and I are already planning another trip to Ljubljana and of course Marley & Me is the first place we're heading back to!

The Ljubljana Castle. 
There are a lot of restaurants and cafes inside the Castle.
On a clear day, the mountains surrounding Ljubljana are breathtaking!
The most awesome man and travel partner in the world!
Even the drive into and our of Ljubljana is stunning!
One evening in Ljubljana was not enough! I am ready to go back and spend a couple days exploring and eating my way through this lovely city! We really enjoyed the whole "feel" of the city, and we cannot wait to get back!

Chris had suggested a visit to Ljubljana, Slovenia, and I am so glad that we made the trip!
 Great idea, husband!

Next stop - Venice, Italy!