Bosnia and Herzegovina (An Initial Dispatch from the Balkans)

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Being in Bosnia feels like being in the middle of a swirled ice cream cone. Turkey likes to think that it is the queen of mixing East and West, but Bosnia and the Balkans are where the real transition happens. This was my first trip there.
Ethnicity in the Balkans is complicated. It is violent and steeped in conflict- I went to this gallery and wept for victims of genocide- but it can also be resplendent and nuanced. In Sarajevo I visited a Serbian Orthodox Church, a mosque, and a synagogue in one morning. The call to prayer and the church bells layered over each other, bouncing gently between the hills that cradle Sarajevo in a long valley. It is beautiful.
After learning more about what happened and what is happening today in Bosnia and the region I sensed great determination. It’s a bit like Peter Pan with some countries- there’s a lot of people out there wishing for their success, hoping they can fly against the odds. Corruption and dishonest people are a cancer that infect political institutions. It’s horrifying to examine up close.
Sarajevo is immensely proud of the 1984 Winter Olympics. I didn’t visit any of the facilities, but would probably try and get in a ski run if I go back when there’s snow. I ended up with just one Bosnian souvenir, a faded magnet with Vučko, the Olympic mascot, jauntily skating along with a pair of skis over one shoulder. It makes me smile every time I open the fridge.
Food in Bosnia is meat heavy with extra meat, please. It’s delicious and piping hot and fresh in that way that only dinner that someone just made for you can be. There’s lots of raw onions and bread involved, and after a few days you start to wonder where anyone in that country gets vitamins from. One night I got dinner for $2- a full belly of Phyllo dough and cheese. Yum! I had a couple of delicious cakes and coffees, naturally- this place was particularly nice for sitting and people watching. A little black cat came and napped in the sun under my chair while I ate a slice of dark poppyseed cake.
This was the first time I traveled alone for a long time in a new place. I go between places by myself a lot, but to entertain myself by myself for a few days was harder than I expected. It’s fun when you’re traveling to share your observations with someone else. Cheap ice cream can only fill part of the friendship-shaped slot in your heart while you’re away from home.
You can see a lot of scars from the war around the city. The red paint splattered across the ground fills the spots where mortar shells hit the ground and killed someone. Tall apartment complexes with cheery laundry strung across balconies are peppered with bullet holes, a morbid sort of war spice. Pardon the language, but it takes real balls to survive in a besieged city.
Anyway, that’s the slice of Sarajevo I saw. Up next: A rainy day in Mostar with sopping wet sneakers and behind the scenes engineering documentaries.

Like a Freight Train


Hello, hello, hello. Spring, my friends! It is barreling by like a freight train! Goodbye March, goodbye April, hellogoodbye May. I leave on Tuesday night for Europe again and the steady drumbeat of travel is pulsing through my brain. This round: Sarajevo, Vienna, Munich, Berlin, Hamburg. Franz Ferdinand and the Wall; the green hills of the Allgäu and a stop at Dallmayr for a truffle; coffees for a euro and waiting on the train platform. This is what life is made of, and it is good.

Photos above are from walking in Allgäu in October. Isn’t the light wonderful? Aren’t the geraniums divine? I have come to appreciate the fall and its notes better than I did before. The slow descent into winter’s dormancy. There isn’t much that’s better than a walk on a sunny afternoon with some of my favorite people.

More soon. There’s much to tell.

Late Nights in Red Square

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By the end of our short trip to Moscow we felt emboldened by our relatively uneventful experience there. Nothing too scary happened (aside from our driver getting pulled over and… well, not exactly detained, but definitely sternly questioned about the legitimacy of his paperwork) so a few of us ventured out by night to gaze upon the Kremlin and to check out Red Square in the darkness.

Like many great sights, the beauty was enhanced under the cloak of darkness. Almost alone in the massive square, we gazed at the Kremlin, bright and shining behind its walls. We admired Saint Basil’s Cathedral, looking more like a strange, foreign cupcake than ever. We oohed and ahhed over GYM, lit up like a Christmas tree. It was one of those moments in which you appreciate the history of humanity and its many manifestations.

I’ve been absent from the blog lately, and for that I apologize. Much more coming- cherry blossoms for this year, a bit on Kiev, more shots from Washington lately. I hope you are well and that your weekend is a good one.

An Idyllic Afternoon in the Hauptstadt

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Last fall when work brought me to Berlin (let’s pause here- pinch me! How does work bring me to Berlin?! That is an amazing thing to be able to write) I was set loose to spend my free weekend in the city. We checked into our hotel and, this being Germany in all its blessed predictability, they had bikes for rent. Mere minutes later I was fixing the chain on a Fahrrad (hey, I never said the bikes for rent had to be serviceable) and was on my way.

If you’ve never ridden a bicycle in Germany then you are missing out on one of the greatest European pleasures of life. Much like buying fresh produce at a picturesque farmer’s market or drinking Italian wine while watching the sunset, riding a bike through a German city is disgustingly cliche and yet so much better than you could ever imagine. The lanes are smooth and wind gently through city centers and along wide and comfortable paths. You don’t feel like you’re in danger of hitting anyone most of the time and your bike will, without fail, have a cheerful bell for warning any errant pedestrians. You can take the experience up a notch by taking out a bike on a beautiful and sunny day, which will cause you to feel like the luckiest person on earth, as you should.

In October I rode from the Tiergarten to Tempelhofer Feld, meeting a friend along the way and admiring the foliage around the city that was at its peak, just for me. Berlin is a city so saturated in history it almost hurts. I criss-crossed the former path of the wall, now marked by dual rows of bricks neatly laid into sidewalks and streets. I saw the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie and Humboldt Universität and the sweeping, graffitti-covered streets of Kreuzberg. How funny it is to return to a place that was once home, but isn’t anymore. It feels a bit like trying on some old slippers before shoving them back into a closet.

I wasn’t completely unhappy living in Berlin, but I certainly wasn’t happy either. I didn’t have many friends and my time split between working and subsequently studying made a disjointed mess of my experience there. If I were to return now I would know more people and would be able to (hopefully) keep working on transatlantic topics, which I think would provide a better quality of life for me. The “eternal student” lifestyle of afternoons spent lounging at the park, cursing gentrification, isn’t one that appeals much for this high-strung Washingtonian (my time on the East Coast has definitely made me more impatient). Through rose-colored glasses it’s easy to see all of the wonderful aspects of the city, not least of all the sheer volume of AH-MA-ZING food and coffee options around town. It’s affordable, fun and easy to eat just about anything you could imagine, oftentimes in artistically decorated spaces or beautiful old Altbaus. I miss the creative part of Berlin terribly- in Washington you can tell that we live in a vacuum devoid of many creative people unless you go looking for them where they are neatly packaged away in a gallery or museum.

Charlotte and I spent the afternoon biking around town and went to Tempelhofer Feld, the old airport that is now a gigantic public park. I hadn’t visited it while I was living in Berlin, and boy was I missing out! There’s something wonderful about huge open spaces, and particularly surprising was how fun it is to have a whole runway to play with. We biked along and watched people around us rollerblading, running, and skating, sometimes even with kites! It was great fun to tour about the city in the brisk fall air.

This week in Washington: I’m wrapping up a snow day thanks to an ice storm, and everyone’s in a huff over the Supreme Court situation. Meanwhile, on a time machine back in Berlin- springtime, delightful coffee, and the depths of winter.

February Schmebruary.

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I am sitting at my desk on a Wednesday night listening to some ukulele tunes and giving contented sidelong glances to the bouquet I bought at Trader Joe’s last weekend. 2016 has lurched into gear, and here’s a few things that have been going on:

  1. Improv. My improv class has begun! It is the light of my life. It is the best thing ever to do something so absurdly not related to anything for a few hours every week. I would highly recommend taking one- to anyone!- and have been happy with the organization I’m working through in DC, Washington Improv Theatre (WIT for short). If you’re in the area and looking for improv, don’t buy that low-level street stuff- go for these guys.
  2. A Costco-sized container of chocolate-covered almonds. Yeah…. that happened. On the plus side, I also got a container of chicken salad for $12 that has provided me with lunch for the last 6 days.
  3. WINTAH. Today it got cold. Mind and finger-numbingly cold. Real winter, here at last, at around the same time as last year. Bring it.
  4. Outdoor planning. I’ve been faxing in permit applications for the John Muir Trail. What will I do if I get one? Who knows. What we do know is… 90% of applications are denied. The JMT: So hot right now. Shut up and watch this video and then you’ll be into this, too. Side note: Currently accepting applications for hiking buddies.
  5. Audiobooks. I just installed the DC Public Library audiobook app on my phone and my thirst for audio entertainment has been quenched! I’ve listened to Amy Poehler’s Yes Please again (it read differently in audio format, but definitely fueled my improv fire) and Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. The Appalachian Trail sounds boring as hell, but also awesome. I like that Bryson doesn’t over-think it- the book takes us where it (and he) was meant to go, even if it wasn’t as planned. #underlyinglifelessons
  6. You have amazing eyes: the right one’s suspicious and the left one wants my love. 
  7. Purging. On my book rampage I also got out The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up from the library and it was an inspiration. Half of my closet later, I’m feeling much better about my possessions and have the neatest sock drawer in the history of everything.

(I tried a thing. I tried a thing with a gif and it got weird, but next time I’ll make it better. And that’s a promise. *Shooting circular star emoji*)

Good night, ladies and gents. Make it a good one, wherever you are.

Back in the US, Back in the US, Back in the USSR

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Ahhh, Moscow. Surprise everyone! I went to Russia! Some of you already knew this, but in October last year I went on a whirlwind grand European tour for work. Good bread was eaten, borders were crossed, and I went the furthest east I’ve ever been- to Moscow! My office is working on a really interesting project about the future of Western policy towards Russia, and I got a front row seat to our researchers’ in-person meetings to discuss the topic. It was one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever done, not least of all because Russia is an enormously fascinating place.

I was apprehensive about the trip, mostly because I didn’t know what to expect from the most politically volatile place I’ve ever actually been to. (It is apparent from that statement that I haven’t been to very politically volatile places- I hope to change that someday.) Everything ended up being so interesting that I would love to go back and see more of the country. Nine time zones worth of geography and a complicated past and present means that there’s plenty more I’d like to check out in Russia.

One thing I love about the world is that everywhere you go is steeped in history if you have the wherewithal to pursue it, learn about it, and seek to understand it. In Moscow you don’t have to go very far to dive into Russia’s past; to find a place from which you can try and clear away the grime from the proverbial windows and attempt to make out what is in Russia’s future. I don’t think anyone has a very clear view these days.

The city is absolutely sprawling; it is truly enormous. The airport train I took functioned flawlessly and the metro (although I regret to say I didn’t visit it, since it is supposed to be incredible) is decadent. Traffic is horrific. Traces of the Soviet Union are everywhere- in the architecture, in the art, in the psyche of the place. I picked up my first bits of Cyrillic, an alphabet I haven’t had the chance to learn yet, and entertained myself immensely as we went from meeting to meeting trying to decipher signs around town. The food was okay- I made it through every meal just fine except for one plate of jellied meat that I shamefully had to skip out on because I am a relatively wimpy international eater.

Red Square and Saint Basil’s Cathedral in particular were stunning. Saint Basil’s- the cupcake-like building often photographed in association with Russia- looks like something out of Disneyland. It is a surprisingly whimsical building on an otherwise imposing square, where it is flanked by the Kremlin, Lenin’s tomb, and a fancy department store, the ГУМ. Lenin is embalmed inside the building bearing his name- unfortunately (or fortunately?) for me the building was closed when we went on our early morning walk around the city. The Kremlin is a giant historic palace complex (it’s the red walls and towers you see in these photos) that plays host to the Russian presidential offices. Also in the photos above, you can see a statue of a man on a horse trampling a Nazi eagle, swastikas and all. Perhaps a merited public symbol given that the USSR lost over 20 million people during World War II. The many churches that dot the city are stunning, but have a sinister side- deeply held conservative Orthodox beliefs in Russia contribute to strong and sometimes violent anti-LGBT sentiments in the country.

There aren’t many tourists going to Russia these days, and I was shocked to see on one recent search that a ticket from Washington to Moscow at an off time will only run you about $700 round-trip. The fall of Ruble made our travel there depressingly cheap- we stayed in a 4-star hotel for about $80/night. Aside from walking around the central part of the city, I unfortunately didn’t get to visit much in the way of museums, aside from a quick stop at the State Tretyakov Gallery, where I got a crash course in Russian art history (spoiler alert- like much of European art history, it’s full of lots of depressing periods with men gazing off into the distance in anguish).

Visas take some time and planning, so before you go, make sure you have your travel permissions in order and set entry and exit dates. We got our visas at the Russian Visa office in DC and they were quite helpful in getting us set up. More photos to come of Red Square by night- an immensely impressive experience on its own.

In case you’re interested- the TV show the Americans is a great watch about Russian spies in the United States in the 1980’s, Anthony Bourdain went to Russia as part of his awesome new(ish) show Parts Unknown, and Institute of Modern Russia is one of my favorite think tank sources for all things Russia here in DC.

Music Mondays: Fliegen by Matthias Schweighöfer

Apologies for the Youtube lyric video, but they won’t let me watch the real music video in the U.S. Drats! I have an enormous crush, one of international intrigue, on Matthias Schweighöfer. Just look at this guy. He’s freakin’ beautiful.

Taken from a google search, obvi.

I also feel like we could really relate because we both have freckles. Should I ever meet him, I will be sure to bring that up.

This is a delightfully-cheesy song he wrote for some equally delightfully-cheesy German Rom-Com that he had come out last year. You can watch the trailer here. He does more emotional staring off into the middle distance in this one than in past films I’ve seen from him, but I think it’ll still be great.

Und wenn ich für dich fliegen muss

kriegen wir das irgendwie hin…

Like a flock of parrots into the night!

How has your week been? I am holed up at home stocked up with a frozen pizza and brownie mix watching the snow pour down on Washington. Everyone is freaking out and the snow is twirling down merrily nonetheless. I expect it to be a wonderful precipitation-filled weekend.

This is a quilt that I finally, finally finished for our guest bed. About a year in the making (*bows head in shame*) it’s very exciting to finally see this quilt in its completed glory. The pattern is supposed to be a flock of birds taking off- in this case, perhaps a flock of parrots into the night? It’s a new idiom- “They took off like a flock of parrots into the night!” The colored fabrics are a Cotton and Steel basics line that, now that I look, is no longer available (probably because you started this project a year ago, HEIDI…).

The pattern called “Canyonlands” comes from a book called Beyond Neutral that has a lot of nice modern patterns. The backing is a basic goldenrod fabric that came from Fancy Tiger in Denver and the binding is from Fat Quarter Shop. I love the black that I used on the binding- if you look closely, you can see it is distinctly darker than the main portion of the quilt and really pops in person.

Happy weekend, and if you’re in the DC area- get out and ENJOY THE SNOW LIKE A NORMAL PERSON tomorrow instead of hunkering down in fear. We fully endorse whole-hearted snow enjoyment on this blog.