Fulbright Follow-up

Featured

I’ve been home for about four months now. The transition from traveling untethered to strictly following stay at home orders due to the COVID-19 crisis has been jolting. It is a juxtaposition between flying and being grounded. But at the same time, I am incredibly thankful to be home, with our daughters and my husband, sheltering in place. Although I still haven’t caught up with most of my friends and family in person, I look forward to the day when we can embrace and move around freely in the world once again.

Croatia will always be on my mind and in my heart. I have been e-mailing and using WhatsApp frequently to stay in touch with my amazing Croatian colleagues and friends in Zadar and Zagreb. They have truly become my second family. I have written a review for the textbook, Introduction to Academic Writing, for one of my fellow faculty members at University of Zadar, Leonarda Lovrović. We taught Contemporary English Language courses together during the fall term. I also composed a “dream draft,” utilizing an ICISP template as a model to start recording ideas for a faculty exchange program with University of Zadar. And I’ve proposed a Fulbright Wall at College of DuPage, featuring a plaque and series of pictures of COD Fulbright recipients, to be revealed during Global Education Week. I will also present at the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC) Midwest region GoingGlobal, Growing Global Community College Symposium this fall, sharing my Fulbright experience and facilitating a Croatian book club reading list with our COD Library.

In the meantime, I continue to teach at College of DuPage and recently was contacted by the U.S. Department of State to publish highlights of my blog. Please see the link below for inspiration!

https://www.cies.org/article/%E2%80%9Chello-my-name-dah-knee-zah%E2%80%9D%E2%80%AF

Time to Say Goodbye – Week 21

Featured

“That’s it,” is a common Croatian phrase, usually inserted abruptly when something comes to an end or someone want to move things along.

This College of DuPage sabbatical and US Fulbright Scholar award has been enlightening, frustrating, exhilarating and lonely – a combination of emotions that has ebbed and flowed over the past five months. I have learned a tremendous amount regarding the history of the region. When I think of international diplomacy, I imagined heads of state at official meetings in old buildings with armed guards and flags on their lapels, engaging in government-sponsored efforts. But what I have learned is that public diplomacy is about building bridges of understanding between people of other countries, not only government-to-government relations.

The phrase I heard about former Fulbrighters being “Pale, Yale and male” no longer applies, as gender, color, religions and various ideologies within our educational exchange programs is open and diverse, representing all scholars and students. I have learned the definition of public diplomacy covers a variety of efforts, both formal and informal, to cultivate meaningful connections between people of different countries and deconstruct stereotypes. Fulbright helps to facilitate the ongoing dialogue of cultural learning, friendship and understanding.

The Struggle is Real

Long distance is a difficult balance between feeling lonely and separated, but at the same time, empowered and curious. Admittedly, being away from my family and friends caused me to take a long hard look at why I like traveling so much. And as Nora Ephron, one of my favorite writers, said, “Everything is copy.” So I wrote a lot during these past several months, recording and trying to capture my observations through my own interpretive lens.

Not to get too granule, but here’s a list of my likes and dislikes during my time in Croatia:

Likes

  • Dalmatinka Pekarna (bakery on my way to school where they called me by name)
  • Spinach and cheese burek (fast food style sandwich)
  • Riva Running (jogging on the promenade next to the sea)
  • Piazza Market (open-air fresh food stalls with local vegetables)
  • Slovenia Hiking
  • Rovinj Biking
  • Yoga (Sonia is an angelic local yoga instructor)
  • SuperNova
  • Black ink cuttlefish pasta with truffle sauce
  • Writing time
  • iPhone Podcasts (Steve Dahl, NPR, Holderness Family, Armchair Expert, Skimm’d from The Couch, Story Corps, Fresh Air, The Moth, TED Radio Hour and The School of Greatness, Propuh Podcast, Pop Culture Happy Hour)
  • Portable speaker for playing Spotify playlists
  • Vitalis cereal
  • Paski Sir (Pag cheese)
  • Teranino
  • Sunsets by the sea organ
  • Boats in the harbor
  • Jana forest fruit cranberry iced tea
  • Kras chocolate with hazelnuts (locally made)
  • Sour cherry strudel
  • Students not distracted by cellphones
  • Long conversations at cafes
  • Unsolicited help in any form – Croatians are friendly!
  • Lavender in small fragrant pouches sold everywhere
  • WhatsApp (a must for texting and video chats)
  • Throw blanket and portable heater (it gets chilly)

Dislikes

  • Not being with my family and friends for a long time
  • Silence in classrooms
  • Skill and drill worksheets in college
  • Darkness at 4:30 p.m.
  • Military time
  • Bus station walks
  • Unreliable Google maps
  • Electric stove top
  • Absence of Mexican food (I miss guacamole!)
  • Torrential rain for days
  • Hearing shouting from the Old Town bar crowd walking home at 2:00 a.m. on most weekends
  • Lack of fast food (it’s embarrassing, but true)

Run Forrest, Run!

There’s a line in one of my favorite movies, “Forrest Gump,” staring Tom Hanks, where his friend is urging him to run away and proclaims, “Run Forrest, run!” One way I regulate my emotions is to run. Maybe it is because I grew up moving every few years and internalized this idea, but during big, life-altering events, I tend to run. When my mother lay dying in a hospice bed in our home and she was gasping for breath, I asked my Dad if I could go upstairs – I could not bring myself to hear her struggle to breathe any longer. Later that evening she died and I returned to her bedside in the morning, feeling guilty. When my father in-law died, I visited him in the hospital and went to his wake at our church, St. Thomas the Apostle, but was so heartbroken (I was very close to my father in-law and confided in him – he was one of my life heroes), I asked my husband if he would be okay if I took our daughters to their Irish dance competition previously scheduled during his funeral mass. I felt so weak from crying about his loss, I wanted to run. And I did. More guilt. When my Dad died of acute myeloid leukemia, the first thing I did was get into my car and run to Saugatuck, Michigan, our safe place, our cottage. I physically ran along the shores of Oval Beach and cried, screamed and mourned my Dad’s death. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to run. And when our daughters both went to college this year and we had an empty nest, I knew they would be leaving and did not want to face an empty house, empty rooms and my empty heart. Not to be dramatic, but part of this time in Croatia was me running away – far, far away for awhile.

Admittedly, there’s a certain rush that comes from running – it’s the realization that not all problems necessitate solutions, not all queries require clarification. When I don’t have the patience or perspective needed to arrive at logical solutions, I run. It is empowering in a way because I can take my life back by ignoring parts that are painful. When I am in a new physical place, the pain can be out of sight, out of mind because I have new things to focus on.

But the mental gymnastics of running can be exhausting. I felt this at times being in Croatia and trying to belong. Am I a transient? Am I an interloper? I consider myself independent and am not generally comfortable asking for help. I like to rely upon myself. But in Croatia it became clear that my emotional ties run deep to being home, being with family, being with friends. I craved interaction with those who knew me well. And although updating my current city on Facebook was exciting, it also reminded me that I had left behind people I love most. I was trying to grab at something new with open arms, yet couldn’t figure out why it felt like I kept dropping it. I was fully invested in this venture and at the same time missed all of the sweet memories of home. Was I fully present or running again?

In Croatia I could no longer run from myself, but had to stay in place to work through getting to know myself, a person who can face challenges with passion and strength. I also needed to realize that my family and friends back home were not frozen in time and life was humming along while I spent a few months teaching in Croatia. My husband was juggling being a temporary single dad, packing up our house after we sold it and moving into a new house, working and paying the bills. He was our anchor, literally staying grounded while I was away.

Brian had been on double duty since we decided to make multiple moves all at once: our downsizing move from Naperville to Wheaton, our move to build a new primary home in Michigan, moving our daughter Morgan to college in New York to begin her senior year, moving our daughter Madison to college in California to begin her freshman year, moving me to Croatia for a semester while Brian moved in with his generous brother Mike and our sister in-law Janet before moving into our new tiny house in Wheaton. Brian really has been the glue holding us together this year. He steps forward to paint, unpack boxes, pick up extra shifts at work, take his mom to church and send care packages to Croatia. If you are lucky to find a partner who nurtures your wanderlust and supports a delicate balancing act between family, work and home, you are very lucky. I can’t wait to be reunited with my husband, our rock star who will cross the ocean and back with a smile.

Some days in Croatia were literally about persevering because of so many unfamiliar nuances, sensory images and longing for a consistent and comfortable routine. It was a mixture of hardship and blessings, which sometimes appeared confusing. I was so thankful, yet I complained. On low days I felt like the soundtrack from the movie Chicago was on repeat, playing John C. Reilly’s haunting song, “Mr. Cellophane:”

Cellophane
Mister Cellophane
Shoulda Been My Name
Mister Cellophane
‘Cause You Can Look Right Through Me
Walk Right By Me
And Never Know I’m There…

I felt anonymous and invisible in a city bustling with people – not speaking my home language, not eating my home food, but only seeing me as an “other.” From the thin walls of my apartment I could hear people walking by on the street, laughing, talking and singing. They surrounded each other in pairs and groups and I was three stories above them, sitting alone at the kitchen table. We were together, yet separated. I like to believe that any struggle we’re up against can be met by facing it or sometimes running from it. But when we change our environment and shift our mindset, we can re-set. We can be bold enough to step outside our comfort zones. There are times in life when we need to detach, to step outside of our regular environments and allow ourselves the chance to change.

To the people who run like me, leaving can be more comfortable than staying. Running can be easier than remaining. Packing up your life and flinging it into a state of perpetual chaos is your unique way of staying comfortable, because as long as we’re leaving, we have some sense of control. We choose the chaos. I am most comfortable with self-inflicted change, not externally imposed change.

Ironically, when you know yourself, the answers are often in stepping outside of your comfort zone. It is an impulse telling me to go. Living involves a careful balance between staying and going — understanding when to run and when to stand your ground.

And it was within these few months teaching in Zadar on the coast of Dalmatia, surrounded by the Adriatic Sea, that I thankfully found my way back home.

Last Hurrah in Hungary — Week 20

Featured

To say I have wanderlust, a strong desire to travel, is putting it mildly. As my Dad used to tell me, “No grass grows underneath your feet.” I gravitate toward change, adventure and freedom to experience new things. There is a glimmer of excitement in every trip I take.

Travel Tracker

Within the United States, I’ve traveled to:

Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Washington D.C.

The 4 remaining states on my travel wish list are: Alaska, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont. Of the 44 countries in Europe, I have traveled to Croatia, Hungary, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Germany, England, Italy, France, Switzerland, Scotland, Austria, Ireland and Spain. My international travels have also included Canada, Costa Rica, South Africa, New Zealand, Mexico, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Grand Cayman and China.

My travel wish list is organic and keeps growing. Among the next places I’ve added to my dream destinations include Scandinavia to explore my husband’s family heritage: Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark. I’d also like to make it to Portugal in Southern Europe.

And some of my top rated future travel destinations include a lot of islands and warm weather locations like Australia, Greece, Thailand (Phi Phi Island), Indonesia (Bali), Brazil, Peru (Machu Picchu), Bora Bora, Maldives, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Seychelles.

You Go Girl!

My husband always asks me, “Are you done yet?” but I have a passion to pack my bags. Researching destinations, itineraries and accommodations is an itch I continually need to scratch. I consider my mother in-law Joan as the OGG – “original go girl.” She fell in love with globe trotting and became a partner in her own travel agency. I vividly remember her talking about “fam trips” or familiarization trips exclusively designed for travel agents, supplied by travel operators. Her world class professional training made such a positive impact. In fact, she elevated the industry by breaking out of the norm in the 1980s and impacting the travel sphere for women. She inspired me to go around the world with a sense of curiosity that moves me out of my comfort zone and into environments to form global connections.

My mother in-law often collected dolls from each country and continent she traveled to. She strongly believed that sharing people’s stories, nationalities and culture promoted fewer conflicts and inequity in our world. She was a woman with a fierce sense of independence, challenging herself to discover her inner strengths by the tapping into the transformative nature of travel.

She raised 8 children and owning her own business allowed her to step outside of home life and embrace extensive knowledge of safaris, cultural exchanges, meals – all so her clients’ needs would be met. Joan’s travel made me realize that anything is possible. By meeting people in new places, our eyes are open to new ideas and ways of living. Travel is a choice we make to carve out an existence that empowers us to see the world from new perspectives.

Hungry for Hungary

The last weekend quickly approached and my sabbatical was coming to an end. Of course I wanted to squeeze in one last trip. Budapest, the capital of Hungary, was on my wish list. Traveling from Zadar to Budapest by bus is about 9 hours (with layovers in Zagreb, the capital city). I figured that multiple hours on a bus would give me plenty of time to read all 200 of my students’ final exam essays. Plus the idea of ending the semester with a thermal bath in Budapest sounded delightful.

Before I left I went to one of the local currency exchange shops in town. Hungary’s currency is the forint and the abbreviation is HUF. One euro is around 310 forints and one US dollar is around 255 forints, but it can change daily. I’ll have to rely upon my phone app calculator again.

I booked 3 nights at the T62 Hotel, a smaller boutique hotel that recently opened across from the Western Railway Station. My drop off point was at the Kelenfold Bus Station, not anywhere close to the hotel or center of town. I would either have to rely upon public transportation, which to be honest is quite a challenge to navigate during the dark the moment you arrive, or hire a taxi service. I read that Budapest taxis are corrupt and to avoid them at all costs. Uber has been outlawed in Hungary because it threatened the monopoly of taxi companies. Although Budapest taxis should now in principle be regulated, and their fares have doubled a couple of years ago as a result of lobbying by owners of taxi companies close to the government, illegal activities have continued. A significant proportion of taxis have no license or insurance, manipulate their meters, and attempt to overcharge tourists.

Great, let’s hop in. I look for a taxi with a light on top and ask the driver how many fornit to my hotel. I hand him the address. He exhales, pauses and says, “3,000.” Ok, 3,000 fornit sounds reasonable (under $10 USD). I get in and 20 minutes later (the ride is supposed to be 8 kilometers – I mapped it out before getting into the taxi), he says he is going to take me to some of the sights in the city. “No, please drive straight to the hotel,” I respond. By the time we get there, the cost has escalated to 6,000 fornit – twice as much as his original quote.

But I have safely arrived and the hotel is bright and eclectic with colorful murals of Frida on the walls. I check in and decide to get oriented by walking around. It’s now about 8:00 p.m. and when I walk onto the street I see many homeless people in sleeping bags, some shaking cups for coins, some drinking and one man straddled on the street in shorts (it was about 30 degrees outside) with no shoes, moaning. I turn around and go back into the hotel and decide to explore more in the daylight.

Buda versus Pest

The next morning I am walking around by 7:00 a.m. It’s Sunday and nothing is open. The city is quiet and immediately I am enveloped by impressive architecture. Built on a series of hills, Buda is the site of the Hapsburg palace and is known as the “settled wealth” side or as a hotel staff member stated, “It’s where the snobs live.” In contrast, populous Pest, the side where I am staying, appears as flat as a prairie. It’s busy, buzzing with an assortment of bars, cafés and gourmet restaurants. Buda and Pest offer very different atmospheres, but which do locals really prefer? Is being on one side of the river versus the other the same as being on the “other side of the tracks?”

Budapest is divided into several districts, or neighborhoods. It’s not especially well lit at night, and very easy to get lost (Google Maps will not work reliably here). My hotel was in located in District V. I was told that the seedy district not to venture into was District IX. It sounds like one of the “Hunger Games” movies.

Sunday Prayers

As I am walking, I run into Stephen’s Basillica, one of the many gorgeous churches in this area. Construction began in 1851 and the roof, towers and external walls were badly damaged in World War II, with most of the church’s mosaics destroyed. The church’s most holy relic is the mummified right hand of the church’s patron saint, St. Stephen, and is displayed under glass in the chapel to the left of the high alter. Religion in Hungary is predominantly Christian. Historically, the formation of Hungary was based on Christianity as it was declared the state religion by King St. Stephen. Many Christians have converted from Roman Catholics to the Reformed Church of Hungary. The Reformation dates back to the 16th century when Lutheranism and later Calvinism swept the population.

Over time, the percentage of Christians has declined from almost all of the population to about forty percent of whom are Roman Catholic. I was told that most millennials started identifying themselves as either atheists, agnostics or unaffiliated altogether.

Biking in Budapest

By 10:30 a.m. I had walked a while and stopped in a local McDonald’s (yes, fast food is here!) for a drink and to use the washroom (toilet, WC). By the way, I have learned there are no public washrooms in Budapest. If you do find one, you’ll have to pay approximately 1 Euro to use it.

At 11:00 a.m. I had scheduled a 3-hour bike tour of the city. We met at the Opera House (it first opened in 1884), which will be under construction for the next 7 years, so it was covered in scaffolding. It was about 32 degrees outside, but the sun was shining, so we bundled up and hopped on the rental bikes. We were in a group of about 8 and rode all over the city. Our first stop was Heroes Square, featuring the historical equestrian statue complex called the Hungarian Millennium Monument, dedicated during the World’s Fair. The square is flanked by two fine art museums, the classical Museum of Fine Arts featuring mummies to Raffaello and art collections from all over Europe. Opposite of the Museum of Fine Arts is the contemporary Hall of Arts (Mucsarnok) which features temporary exhibitions from a variety of international arts.

We rode on to see the City Park where the famous large outdoor Szechenyi Baths is located. More on the thermal baths later in this blog! And nearby is the Vajahunyad Castle with an artificial lake full of ice skaters.

We didn’t stop, but rode by the House of Terror, a unique museum showing the dark pits of communism and the Nazi regime in the ex-headquarters of the secret police.

One of our last stops was on the Pest side along the edge of the Danube River, the Hungarian Parliament Building.

The guide took us for a snack and drink. Unicum is a the Hungarian national beverage and can best be described as an herbal liqueur. And Pálinka is Hungary’s fruit brandy. It varies in alcohol content and is made from a variety of fruits, including plums, apples, and apricots. That evening I go out to dinner at a restaurant called the Meat Boutique and have the best Hungarian goulash (one of my husband’s favorite meals).

A Country Under Siege

As I cross the Chain Bridge and look at all of the buildings on the river, I think about what the tour guide told us. She aid Budapest is considered the “Paris of the East” and one of the most culturally important metropolises in Eastern Europe. She told us about the sieges throughout history and how the Hungarians have suffered as the underdog for far too long. She talked about the Turks in the 16th century, loved the city so much that they lingered on for another 150 years. She said they did introduce Hungary to the most popular spice paprika (it is sold everywhere) and of course the healing powers of the thermal baths.

Most of the city dwellings were in ruins after the long siege and by this time, Turkish tax registries show that most of the settlers were Hungarians of Christian religion and the two major minorities were Germans and Jewish. 1686 was the next turning point that said goodbye to the Turks under the leadership of the Habsburg emperor Leopold I. The city started to rebuild. The city gets back its privileges as a free royal city, which hastens its dynamic growth into a modern commercial and cultural center. During the19th century the water of the river Danube is sold for drinking, which today is hardly suitable for even bathing.

In 1838, a flood washes away many things, animals and people and ten years later the Hungarian revolution upsets the peace yet again. After the Austro-Hungarian Compromise in 1867, when Hungary is given some freedom, both the Pest and the Buda side gain even more impetus for development, and the two sides join in 1873, giving birth to Budapest.

The two world wars bring long and sad devastation, followed by another ruinous communist era. And in 1989, the fall of the iron curtain occurs and democracy is introduced. The guide comments that it is still “quite new” and Hungarians are not sure how to embrace it fully.

Hot bath and a donut? Yes!

The next morning I visit the Box Donut Shop next to the hotel. You guessed it, all of the donuts are shaped like squares. It is a display of art as I look through the window at pistachio raspberry, salted caramel, coconut cream and more. They also make a variety of coffee. Yum!

Again, I was told when in Budapest, go to a bath. Budapest baths are really like palaces, historical Turkish baths. You can soak, have a lazy morning, and get a massage. Sounds good recipe to me. I chose a bath about a 20 minute drive from my hotel on the Buda side called the Gellert Thermal Spa. I had seen pictures of the turquoise porcelain tiles in a GQ magazine photo shoot with none other than Ryan Gosling. Gosling was filming the movie “Bladerunner” in Budapest for 5 months in 2015. In his interviews he mentions liking the grocery chain Aldi (yes, the same one in the states), the strong Hungarian “bread game” (their fresh breads are delicious) and chocolates. And I figure if it’s good enough for Gosling . . . well, you know.

Hungarians take great stock in the thermal baths. Some have a prescription from their physicians to go to the baths early and often. Having a healing bath is not only good for your joints, it is also a great way to get back your strength after stress and grading a towering stack of final exam essays was stressful. So in the bath I go!

The Gellart baths are like a labyrinth of hallways before it opens up into a giant blue warm water paradise. You can rent a “private cabin,” which is a lot fancier than it sounds. Picture an older, worn well, gym locker room with a lock and that is the cabin. Bring your own towel and flip flops, otherwise you will have to rent those items as well. In Gellart, one side of the baths was exclusively for men (what I like to call “the good side”), but now it is open to women as well (glory days), although the “men only” signs are still visible. I bypassed the signs and was relieved to find the baths mixed and everyone had bathing suits on (read previous post about Slovenia).

To Market, to Market

After a hot bath it’s time to go the store, right? But this isn’t any store, it’s a mega warehouse with soaring ceilings and football field sized rows of vendors. You can buy gifts, buy fresh vegetables and fruits, paprika (of course), salamis, cheeses and gaze at displays full of meats in the Central Market Hall of Budapest by the Liberty Bridge.  

Today was even colder than the day before (about 26 degrees), so it was a perfect day to go to the thermal baths and explore the market (although it is really chilly in the market – not very well insulated, so be prepared with winter gear). This was a great place to mix and mingle with locals buying groceries on the lower, quieter level. Food is served cantina style upstairs along with an array of t-shirts, refrigerator magnets, dolls, headbands, lace tablecloths and all of the souvenirs imaginable. A few of the booths even sold old Soviet military headgear, but he sellers would loudly object if you wanted to try on a hat or take a picture (just saying).

Shopping on Váci Street

I am still wary of taking public transportation (it’s accessible, but I would have to take time getting to know the routes in order to feel comfortable and I’m only here for 2 days), so I have walked everywhere in Budapest (except for the overpriced taxi I took from the far away bus station). It takes another 30 minutes to walk to Váci Street and I’m glad I did. This famous street is flanked by many 19th century residential and commercial buildings, banks, trendy and classic boutiques, souvenir and antique shops.

The story of Váci utca (street) goes back to the Romans. In the middle ages, Váci street was called Big or Main street in the 15th century trading city, which had 3 gates to let people in and out through the thick protective walls.

It’s worth a look, but the souvenirs are cheaper in the Central Market Hall.

The Danube Shoe Memorial

In October of 1944, Hitler overthrew the leader of the Hungarian government, Miklos Horthy, and replaced him with Ferenc Szalasi, who immediately established the Arrow Cross Party – a fascist organization that brutally terrorized the Jews in Budapest by beating and killing them. Nearly 80,000 Jews were expelled from Hungary in a death march to the Austrian border and approximately 20,000 Jews were shot along the banks of the Danube River.

The victims were forced to remove their shoes at gunpoint (shoes being a valuable commodity during World War II) and face their executioner before they were shot without mercy, falling over the edge to be washed away by the freezing waters. This is a memorial to the many, many victims.

The shoes on the Danube Promenade is a haunting tribute to this horrific time in history. The monument consists of 60 pairs of 1940s-style shoes, true to life in size and detail, sculpted out of iron. All styles of footwear from men’s work boots to loafers, women’s heels to the tiny shoes of children illustrate how no one was spared. The shoes appear in a haphazard fashion, as if the people just stepped out of them, a grim reminder of the souls who once occupied them.

Breathe In, Breathe Out — Week 19

Featured

Croatian Yoga

One of the best ways I relieve stress is through exercise. I love to run and get lost in a podcast or great playlist (our daughters send me great musical selections), but group exercise really appeals to me. The practice yields so many benefits. I like the commradarie, the sense of encouragement and routine in taking a spot. In fact, my friends at LifeTime Fitness used to save me a matt every week for our Warrior Sculpt class, a frenetic hour of loud music, jumping and stretching. When I walked into the studio, I liked seeing my “gym buddies” and taking my usual place toward the left corner in the back. After a few months in Croatia, I started asking about local exercise classes. I live in the Old Town and thankfully most things are within walking distance. My colleague told me about an evening class offered at the Maritime High School for $40 kuna per session (about $7 US). I recognized the name, as it’s on the corner in a building not far from my apartment.

Maritime High School was the first vocational school in Croatia to adopt English as the only language of instruction starting in the spring of 2018. It was appropriate to the curriculum, as English is the official language used in international maritime affairs and aviation. While English is a required course in most high schools throughout Croatia, it is rarely used as the sole language of instruction. According to my colleague, “Naturally, teachers wouldn’t grade students on their English speaking abilities, but just interact and achieve the best possible means of communication that’s reasonable to expect.”

Croatia has a long maritime tradition and seafaring is one of the most prominent professions in coastal areas. The number of active seafarers in Croatia is estimated at 20,000.

I walked into the high school gym and was immediately greeted by the teacher who threw up her hands and proclaimed, “Dah-knee-zah! Welcome!” She told me she was a retired French teacher who also taught at University of Zadar. Her mother was one of the founding members at the university in the 1950s. Her husband also taught at the university and her son is currently attending the university – it runs in the family. She had transformed the gym into a cocoon of meditation, plugging in her own soft lighting against the stone walls, placing a candle in the center of the room and positioning each rubber yoga matt in a circle. She went out of her way to introduce me to all 7 yogis and told everyone that tonight she was going to instruct the class in English, “For our morning star” (that is the meaning of my name in Slavic, “the morning star”). I got choked up because she made me feel so welcome in the class. I usually wear shorts in exercise classes and in Zadar during this time of year the “bad wind” (Hugo) was blowing strong. After class, the women were all pointing to my bare legs and speaking quickly in Croatian. The yoga teacher explained that they were worried I would catch cold walking home and next time I really should wear pants. It was endearing and made me feel like I had a spot – an international yoga matt for health, fellowship and overall wellbeing here in the Adriatic. Namaste!

That’s Not Right!

In contrast to my yoga evenings full of soft music, meditation and listening to my yoga teacher talk about the full moon and putting someone you love into the circle to dance in the light, I can describe my weekly teaching schedule as a rewarding grind. I start my days early and end late, but I am fully immersed in learning as much as I can about Croatian higher education. The best part of the process is interacting with students.

My students have become more conversational as the weeks progressed and one of my colleagues commented, “Well, they’re used to you now, so they are more free.”

In practicing elements of the writing process, I have assigned homework to all 200 of my students and collect their homework each time we meet. I provide feedback and often share patterns of excellence and areas of improvement. On one particular assignment, I transcribed 20 of the students’ introductions (randomly and anonymously) to share as a group activity in a peer critique session. Each group had 4 student introductions to read and provide constructive criticism based on a rubric we reviewed during class.

When the class started to talk about how they rated each introduction based on the rubric on a scale of 1-4, one of my students unexpectedly protested. She complained that the assignment was a summary assignment and rating introductions was not possible, as it was “only a summary.” I was confused, so I attempted to clarify the meaning behind summary. I explained a summary begins with an introductory sentence that states the text’s title, author and main point of the text as you see it. A summary is written in your own words and contains only  ideas from the original text, not your opinion. I went on to share that summarizing includes disseminating what is important and can be a tool for college success.

The student did not agree with my explanation and continued, “But you didn’t tell us we would be sharing it.” And I responded, “Your names are not on the introductions, but writing is meant to be shared with an audience.” I continued to discuss ideas related to audience in reading and awareness of language, allowing the reader to focus, understand and assess meaning. I returned to the importance of an introduction as a template for writing in presenting the thesis statement, defining a purpose and including major supporting details. In a short summary, a full introduction is not necessary, but nonetheless, an introduction should be a condensed version of the entire document you were assigned to summarize, presenting the salient aspects of the document and why it is relevant.  

The student persisted, “But that’s not a real introduction. Only in our academic essays do we include real introductions.” I welcomed the dialogue, but was concerned as to why the student was so visibly upset. I did not have access to students’ grades at University of Zadar and was told not to evaluate their homework (my colleagues told me just check homework if you have time), but there were higher stakes unfolding here. It was a tangle of peer review, past instruction and a sense of vulnerability.

Unfortunately we ran out of time to continue this important discussion during that class, but I thought a lot about this student’s reaction and response. Until now, much of her writing had focused on constructing an essay that followed a strict format in which she developed an introduction, three body paragraphs and a conclusion – a formulaic approach she was comfortable with. Although this may have helped her recognize sections of an essay and awareness of a thesis statement, it didn’t prepare her for writing an introduction in an executive report, full-length research article or a cover letter. This was a new task I assigned and she was now facing what she had been taught and trained for during the past 12 years in the Croatian school system.

Again, I am the faculty visitor – a foreigner who is telling her not that she is wrong, but exposing her to a different way of writing. I am asking her to transfer the idea of an introduction into a variety of genres to trace connections between each part and see a sequence or pattern in which information can be presented to a reader. This bridge of understanding is what the Fulbright Program is all about. Introducing different teaching methods and alternative ways of knowing can be rewarding and terrifying for students. It rocks our collective boats of knowledge before we can try to accept learning different ways in context. I will always remember this student and her passion for what she has learned, what she is learning and what she will learn in the future.

Should I Stay or Should I Go? – Week 18

Featured

The song title and lyrics by the Clash, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” was right in tune with a series of events happening on campus in Croatia, but it took me awhile to process and piece it together. I am going to preface this blog post with an overwhelming thumbs up for teaching in Croatia. It has truly been a positive experience overall. But sometimes, if one negative interaction occurs, a dark cloud can temporarily hang over an experience before perspective takes hold and you can look back and say, “Ok, I see things clearly now.” In this case it caused me to reflect on my teaching techniques and focus on a framework that includes differences and similarities in our approaches in working with students.

I mentioned this particular colleague (not by name of course) earlier and my instincts were spot on, but I ignored the warning signs. Instead, I often try to go along in order to get along. I subscribe to Sally Field’s Oscar winning speech for her role in the movie, “Places of the Heart,” when she proclaimed on stage to an audience of her fellow actors in 1985, “You like me, you really like me!” However, I should have known from the first day that this relationship would be strained. The first time I met her she handed me a printed copy of an e-mail she had written in response to a handful of e-mails I had previously sent her, asking questions about the curriculum, requesting a copy of the course syllabus, and confirming times and locations of her classes she wanted me to teach (I use the term “wanted” loosely).

She abruptly told me she had tried to send me an e-mail, but it didn’t work. “Here. Read it,” she commanded:

Dear Danica,

Unfortunately, the syllabus containing the topics for the course Contemporary English Language has already been set and posted to the website of our university. Since the lectures have already begun, the syllabus should not be changed at this point. I have organized my entire semester and suggest we stick to the original syllabus.

Also, my plan did not include you since I was not informed you would be visiting our department. I am not sure if there was a misunderstanding, but you can alternate between my class and others. My plan was not for you to grade essays or teach academic writing throughout the semester, mainly due to format. My idea is for you to teach a little bit of everything like newspaper articles and formal register. As for your suggestions, we can iron out the details, but it appears it won’t work well. Students will be quite confused with you and everything is new to them, so I will be observing you and it is best we discuss the finer details of the course in person after my lecture.

Wow, what a surprising greeting to extend to a faculty visitor. At the time, I was trying to absorb her e-mail while also being whisked to class to observe her (she would not allow me to teach her classes during the first week). But now, several weeks later, I have a better understanding of some of the reasons why this type of negative interaction may have happened. Part of it stems from our differences in how we view education (and one of the many reasons US Fulbright Scholars engage in a variety of activities related to their work as visiting faculty members). 

Do as I Say and Don’t Ask Questions

I quickly became aware that the predominant teaching methods in Croatian schools are the teacher is an expert who conveys knowledge to the students who are rewarded for obedience to authority, and the focus is on facts and getting the right answer. This faculty member was no exception, as she ran her classroom like a drill sergeant, complete with worksheets and texts associated with rote learning, fill in the blanks and a reliance on passivity.

The first assignment she gave in the 90-minute lecture was a series of idiom worksheets. Idiom categorization can be tricky, even for native speakers of English.  She called on each student to read a series of fill in the blank expressions: kick the bucket, blow off steam, ace the test, sick as a dog, carry a torch and beat around the bush.

The role of context in idiom comprehension can rely upon a myriad of factors. Students’ understanding of idiomatic word strings will make use of contextual information in different ways. Context within a paragraph, chapter or article can help determine meaning via connections and cues within the text. In the absence of context, it can be difficult to associate conventional meaning.

Idioms are, fair to say, not at the beginning of my to-do list in language immersion. At the same time, teaching students to read and speak figuratively can help to strengthen language use. I consider it an advanced way of expression, but not in the “formal register” which is what this teacher insisted I teach. My background is in rhetoric and composition, not exclusively in teaching English Language Learners, so perhaps I was missing something? Does ELL follow a different general process of learning words and phrases in a foreign language? Are idioms a sort of “starter pack” in recognizing the nature of conceptual metaphors that can be universal and shared across different languages? Am I missing a kind of communicative competence in language instruction?  Are there different strategies employed to know how idioms are acquired in writing to help students discern the most effective way to use them?

As I thought about exploring answers to these questions, I was surprised by the skill and drill method of developing mastery through repetitive learning of fixed responses, or patterns of responses, to specific situations and conditions.

My teaching philosophy is the direct opposite of skill and drill, especially with the platform of my US Fulbright Scholar application which focused on Service Learning projects, community service and discussion boards. How would my teaching style fit into her classroom? And she made it very clear it was her classroom. She owned it and I was an interloper.

Individual versus Group Classroom Activities

I started teaching her classes, with her keen eyes of observation upon me. I clung to the idea that I am here to assist students in acquiring new ways to approach the department’s course objectives by hopefully enriching already acquired skills and introducing different ways to approach the writing process.

During the next class I developed a group activity on idioms related to Katy Perry’s song lyrics. I played some of her songs, asked students to extract the idioms and we began the discussion. At some points they were even laughing and singing along while learning the material. Needless to say, the teacher of record did not like this approach. She briskly came up to me after my 90-minute class and said, “Enough fun and games. You will be using the idiom worksheets. Do not treat the worksheets like an extra task. Have students fill in the blanks like I do and create some sort of discussion out of that.” Uh oh. The key phrase here was “like I do.”

Another few weeks fly by. I do use her worksheets, but also construct my own group activities to supplement the materials and introduce students to my classroom methodology incorporating group activities. I believe group work can an effective method to motivate students, encourage active learning, and develop key critical-thinking, communication, and decision-making skills. But, without careful planning and facilitation, group work can frustrate students and instructors and feel like a waste of time.

Good news — I plan interactive activities to determine what I want to achieve through the small group activity, both academically and socially. The activity is related closely to the course objectives and class content and is designed to help students learn, not simply to occupy their time. Particularly at University of Zadar, I ask myself if there is a reason why the assignment should be collaborative – I am cognizant and respectful that I am a visiting faculty member and strive for a smooth transition for students. In order to engage students’ interest in group work and encourage their progress, I attempt to make activities as challenging as possible, while also seeking students’ responses, opinions and personal responsibility for the material, thinking about success of their fellow classmates. Knowing that peers are relying on you is a powerful motivator for group work.

I distribute materials to students ahead of time and during class randomly select one person to record responses for the group and assign different roles to group members so they were all involved in the process (i.e. summarizer, timekeeper, recorder, liason to other groups).

Despite my best efforts, the instructor could not appreciate the pedagogical purpose of group activity. She did not mince words in her criticism of my teaching style, “We need to get through material for the final exam.” After a few weeks she “forbade” me to break students into groups and after every class would pick apart items I mentioned, as she referred to a list she made in her notebook, “You need to focus more on formal register. They need to write in academic voice. That is why they are here. You are wrong to talk about efficient use of word choice. Stop talking about synonyms. I am covering compound-complex sentences to direct students that their sentence construction should include at least two independent clauses and at least one dependent clause. You need to do this too. This will help them with complicated thoughts with more parts for their 5-paragraph essay. This is the most sophisticated type of sentence you can use.”

She was so preoccupied with teaching to the test that my classroom instruction became a fictional barrier to her students’ progress. I was snared in a teacher trap. At the same time, students were participating in my lectures in a non-threatening way. Were they more attracted to the material in the way I presented it?

Sorry, Not Sorry

This weekly form of criticism persisted until now. After this week’s lectures she approached me and stated, “You seem overwhelmed. I am going to give you a break. You no longer need to teach my classes.” There was a long pause and I asked myself, “Is she ‘firing’ me?” And she continued, “No, wait, I have a short story for students to read about Native Americans. And you’re a Native American. I mean, well, you’re an American. So you can do your last lecture related to that since you’re from America.”

I quickly responded that I would of course like to engage in that topic since our family volunteered recently with the Re-Member Organization, a non-profit outreach in South Dakota. It was a unique and meaningful trip addressing social, labor and cultural projects, seeking to improve the lives of tribal members who live on the reservation and I could share our experience with students at University of Zadar through anecdotal evidence, literature, pictures and song. Before I could continue, she cut me off and responded, “Yes, that’s fine. That will be your last lecture with my class as a Native American. . . I mean American. I will try to bring speakers for the computer you want to use, but I think it won’t be necessary.”

The Bigger Picture

Assessing the quality of Croatia’s education system is difficult because Croatia has not participated in international learning assessments. In other words, it’s difficult to know how Croatia’s students perform in relation to students in other countries. Because there is a limited picture of Croatia’s education system, it is difficult to make any conclusions to determine whether the Croatian education system is producing graduates with skills necessary for the current economy.

With tens of thousands of young graduates leaving Croatia to seek employment in other countries, in the future I think Croatia will need to focus on becoming a knowledge economy, with skills and competencies needed for knowledge workers like the development of STEM programs (science, technology, engineering and math), internship opportunities and Service Learning curriculum.

In the Croatian education system management is centralized and government involvement is often heavy handed. Although the official policy is decentralization and deregulation, the path is not clearly marked and attitudes are sometimes ambivalent. The system remains centralized and as long as each school has to interact directly with the Ministry of Education on all financial and management issues, real decentralization is difficult.

The Route from High School to College

Elementary education is compulsory in Croatia. The entry into higher education is based on one result: the final comprehensive exam called Matura – literally translated as “mature diploma,” implemented in 2010. It must be passed after high school in order to apply to a university or other institutions of higher education. My students at University of Zadar refer to Matura as the “Croatian ACT.” They describe it as an “awful” 2-week process where essays are timed and handwritten. They told me teachers prepared them to compose an essay relying on a “for or against” (with a recognizable pattern of organization in argumentation) model. Students told me that some of their classmates’ parents also hired private tutors in math and would meet with the tutors for hours in order to increase their scores.

High Schools in Croatia have four available educational tracks:

  • Prirodoslovno-matematička (specializing in math, informatics and science)
  • Jezična (focus on foreign languages)
  • Klasična (curriculum centered around Latin and Ancient Greek)
  • Opća gimnazija (covers a general education)

The process of getting into a high school in Croatia is rather difficult. A student chooses five schools which they want to go to, in order of choice. The first school on the list is the school that the student wants to go to the most. The maximum number of points while signing up is 80 (points are gathered from primary school grades and any extra criteria). The point threshold is a certain number of points below which a student can’t sign up for the school. For an example, if a certain school has the point threshold of 65, nobody with 64 or less points can sign up. Schools usually have quotas of how many students can enroll in that particular year.

Students can enroll into two basic kinds of higher education:

  • Polytechnic schools (veleučilište), higher level education
  • Universities (sveučilište), highest level education

The distinction between the programs taught at universities and polytechnics used to be the length of studies and the final classification of the students – but this line is being blurred by the implementation of the Bologna process.

The Bologna Process is a series of meetings and agreements between European countries to ensure comparability in the standards and quality of higher-education qualifications. The implementation has resulted in a number of positive and negative consequences. On the positive side are equal opportunities for all participants in Bologna reform, openness to the outside, and a larger percentage of higher education. Some negative consequences of the Bologna process include an increase in administrative obligations and incompatibility of curricula.

In addition to 4 universities and 16 polytechnics, higher professional schools and non-university higher education studies were introduced in 1998. This has increased the flexibility of the system to meet demand. Again, the universities are not sufficiently in tune with the needs of employers although the universities are more influenced by the needs of the market than other parts of the education system. And as in primary and secondary education, there are no effective university standards relating to educational processes and learning outcomes.

School for Life

Professor Ivan Kikic’s opinion about the Croatian school system is, “When we start going to school, our talents are huge, but when we finish, they are small.” Croatia’s education system is slowly making the transition from the socialist system that favored memorization of facts, discipline, and lecturing to a system that fits the needs of a democracy with a globally integrated free-market that needs problem-solving skills, creativity, communication skills, and flexibility.

By contrast, Slovenia, Czech Republic, and Hungary have implemented wide-ranging reforms. I have read about the need for reform in Croatian schools, with more flexibility including choice of electives and a greater connection to the needs of a modern economy. In connection with curriculum reform, a pilot designed and led by the Ministry of Education is called “School for Life.” This initiative for elementary schools includes the following global skills:

  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Creativity and Critical Thinking
  • Intercultural Competence and Citizenship
  • Emotional Self-regulation and Well-being
  • Digital Literacies

The goal is to operate and thrive in an international context. One way is to introduce and equip schools with tablets and smart books. Currently there is little digital literacy that exists in schools. In fact, all of my university students compose their assignments by hand, usually with pencil and paper. There are no computer labs and they do not bring laptops to class. In contrast, I teach every one of my classes with technology at College of DuPage. I believe it is essential in modern education to link technology to instruction while motivating learning.

I talked with one of my colleagues about School For Life. Her son is in elementary school and was provided a smartbook last year, but the “gadget” was taken away after the school year to give to the next class. This resulted in a disruption to a potential trajectory of integrating technology. Plus, she told me, the teachers did not have complete or systematic training regarding the technology, so she would often have to use YouTube or Google to help her son and his friends in troubleshooting and using the tablet to be most effective in class.

Conducting the School for Life pilot to create a basis for a comprehensive long-term education reform has been discussed in Croatia for decades. The shift from teacher-focused teaching to teaching methods that give students responsibility for learning, reward initiative, and focus on problem solving appears on the horizon.

Ringing in the New Year visiting Split and Dubrovnik – Week 17

Featured

Sensational Split

My husband Brian and our daughters landed in Split two days after Christmas. Split is the second largest city in Croatia, spread over a central peninsula. Roman Emperor Diocletian’s fourth-century palace is built here, an ancient “retirement” palace. The Old Town built into the nooks and crannies and has some of the best Roman ruins. It is a beautiful maze of narrow alleys, dramatic coastal mountains and sparkling turquoise waters of the Adriatic.

We walked through the cellars of Diocletian’s Palace, known as the basement halls, now filled with vendors selling souvenirs. History notes that Diocletian caused tragic suffering as he tortured Christians to death. Ironically, his tomb was later turned into a Christian church, the Cathedral of St. Domnius.

We stayed at Palace Judita Heritage Hotel for two nights in the center of town. The hotel manager, Andrea, met us on a golf cart with an exuberant smile and scolded me when I tried to carry my bags up the stairs to the “lighthouse” room where we were staying, “You shouldn’t be holding anything heavier than a wine glass,” he said. The girls had their own loft room upstairs with a gorgeous standing chandelier, tiny windows in every corner and a beautiful wooden beamed ceiling. I told our friends the Biebers about the hotel (they have been to Split several times) and they immediately remembered Andrea, the manager, who helped them plan many special memories in Split.

The hotel was steps away from the promenade and many restaurants on the sea. Christmas vendors were still out and selling seasonal treats. The cafes were lit with twinkling lights that reflected on the water. Each café had outdoor heaters and blankets on the backs of chairs. And there was a live band playing on the main street. Our daughter Madison and I went out and sipped on hot chocolate both nights we were in Split. It was lovely sitting outside in January with a chill in the air, near the sea. Many locals stay out very late and the energy was infectious. In the mornings we went running along the promenade, alongside the boats and up toward the hill was stunning.

I booked a family electric scooter tour one day and our guide took us all over the area with sleek, black Xiaomi M365 scooters. We all practiced in a nearby parking lot and found the ride very smooth – it was like hopping on a skinny Segway. I did some research on this electric scooter company and it was owned by a former Uber executive. We whizzed through the ancient streets with ease, gliding through a forested park up to Marjan Hill, or what our guide called the “lungs of the city” which provided a gorgeous panoramic view. We also stopped at a tiny monastery built into the limestone. It was a three hour tour we highly recommend in seeing the city.

Day tripping to Dubrovnik on Brian’s Birthday

Celebrating my husband Brian’s birthday in Croatia today. Happy 54 sweetheart! From Split we drove to our next destination on the southern coast. Dubrovnik is often referred to as “the pearl of the Adriatic” and was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979.  The vibe in Dubrovnik was completely different, as it is encircled with massive stone walls from the 16th century.

Similar to Zadar and Split, Dubrovnik is paved with limestone and the pedestrianized Stradun (or Placa) is lined with shops and restaurants. We stayed for two nights at the Pucic Palace, a 17th century Baroque building located on the Gunduilic Square in Old Town Dubrovnik, surrounded by monuments, museums and art galleries.

We ate at the Taj Mahal, a hidden gem. It’s a small quaint Serbian food restaurant with about 5 tables. In fact, we had to wait outside for a while to be seated, but it was well worth it. I ordered Cevapi – mini sausages served on flat pita bread (called Lepinja in Serbia, or Somun in Bosnia) with sliced red onions. The flavor was outstanding! We told the waiter that it was Brian’s birthday and he brought out a delicious apple strudel cake with vanilla ice cream. Two thumbs up!

We explored the town and found the east entrance, Ploče Gate, built in Romanesque style at the end of 14th century. Above the Gate there is a statue of Sveti Vlaho, the patron saint of Dubrovnik. This town is one of those places that you never want to leave. The best sight is the still-stout medieval wall that surrounds this city of about 40,000, offering an unforgettable scenic mile-long stroll above town. While constructed over many centuries, today’s impressive fortifications date from the 1400s, when they were beefed up to defend against the Ottoman Turks. We really enjoyed walking the walls – taking a circular, hour-and-a-half walk around the fortified perimeter of one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval towns, There are ever-changing views and plenty of favorite picture spots. On one side is a sea of red rooftops and on the other side is the blue sea waters.

We continued to celebrate Brian’s birthday that night and went to the restaurant Dalmatino, recommended to us by the hotel staff. Unfortunately this was the worst meal we have experienced in Croatia. I ordered an Irish coffee and after one sip got a mouthful of coffee grinds. Brian’s pasta was overcooked and bland. We were underwhelmed by the service, cleanliness and flavorless food. Plus Morgan found black bugs crawling in the olive oil container on the table. Ewwww! But they did bring out a slice of cake and candles to celebrate Brian’s birthday and the entire restaurant broke into the universal song “Happy Birthday.”

Brian is a big “Game of Thrones” fan and the next day I scheduled a Winter in “King’s Landing” tour where we visited filming locations Blackwater Bay, Red Keep and the Walk of Shame. Our hotel was right around the corner from this scene in season five, the Walk of Shame, in which Cersei Lannister is forced to walk naked through the streets, starting at the top of the near the iconic Jesuit Staircase. The elegant Baroque stairs are located on the south side of Gundulic Square and lead up to the Uz Jezuite Street to the Jesuit Church of St. Ignatius and two of Dubrovnik’s colleges, Collegium Ragusinum and Jesuit College. The guide told us if you look closely at the television frames, the editor forgot to block out the college’s names, so it looks like Cersei may be coming out of class while walking down the staircase. He even pulled up clip of the bell ringing and woman chanting, “Shame, shame, shame.” It was extremely windy and cold that day, but we walked around Fort Lovrijenac and looked out onto Lokrum Island where several additional scenes were filmed.

2020 in Zadar

Ringing in the New Year with family in Croatia was the icing on the cake to my semester as a US Fulbright Scholar. Walking hand in hand across the footbridge, showing them the town, my favorite bakery, the university, my running route along the sea – it was magical. Since we drove from Dubrovnik on New Year’s Eve, I didn’t make dinner reservations because I wasn’t sure when we would arrive in Zadar.

We arrived in the afternoon, enough time to introduce the girls to the SuperNova shopping center, where they bought a few things to take home. Having the rental car with us was so much easier than walking to the bus station and timing the bus routes. After some shopping we went to the sea organ and watched the sunset. This was one of the most spectacular sunsets, with the sky illuminated in an array of purples, pinks and reds. We took so many pictures!

After the sunset, I surprised the girls by giving them the keys to the apartment next to us. My landlord gave us the use of the extra apartment so the girls would have their own space during their two night stay. They loved it! We all got ready and headed out to eat in Old Town. As we approached the first restaurant, La Bodega, it turns out it isn’t a restaurant at all, only drinks. They directed us to The Hedonist restaurant a few block away. But as we approached, one of the waiters was collecting the chairs and bringing them inside. “We close in 5 minutes,” he said. Wait, what? It was only 6:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. Isn’t this the night where many people go out to dinner to celebrate? We asked him if he had another recommendation and he told us to try 4 Kantuna, or 4 Corners Restaurant closer to my apartment. Again, after a brisk walk, we were told that they closed as well.

All of the restaurants in Zadar close at 6:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve and are closed New Year’s Day. Oops. Thankfully one of the smaller grocery stores was still open and we grabbed some pasta, sauce and frozen vegetables before heading back to the apartment. It was a spontaneous dinner that turned out to be a lot of fun. We played music, danced, and tooted our New Year’s horns.

At 11:00 p.m. we put our coats on to head out on the town again. The streets were full and we had our “2020” festive paper glasses on and were blowing our party horns (people stopped to stare and take pictures of us). Perhaps horn blowing is not a “thing” during NYE? I was hoping to take the girls out to show them the nightlife (admittedly, I have never been out past 9:00 p.m. the entire time I’ve been in Zadar), and Ellie recommended a club called Hype, on the other side of the footbridge. We walked into the club and noticed champagne bottles on each table and a “reserved” card. Uh oh. And the club was completely dark and empty, except for the waiters and a few flashing disco lights. One of the waiters approached us and asked if we had a reservation, which of course we didn’t (who knew?) and politely asked us to leave.

Did our NYE party end before it had a chance to begin? On the way out we laughed and said, “Well, I guess we were ‘kicked out’ of the club . . .  with your parents!” We ended up going to the Advent Market and there was a live Croatian rock band playing. We danced in our chairs to a few songs and by midnight we were back in the apartment once again. Later I told my colleagues our NYE story and they said that most folks in Croatia go out to clubs around 1:00 a.m. and come home around 4:00 a.m. They are night owls and ready to celebrate while we were sleeping. Oh well, Happy New Year!

Happy New Year at Plitvitce Lakes

This is a national park I have been told is a “must see” and everyone was right. Plitvice Lakes National Park covers over 73,000 acres. There are four hiking trails that are organized into 7 different routes to tour the park. Not only are the crowds significantly less during the winter months (in the summer the park officials have put a cap on daily attendance at 10,000 people per day, requiring purchase of online tickets in advance and car lines hours long before making it to the entrance), but the landscape of snow and ice makes the waterfalls look like a winter wonderland.

Since the park was basically deserted on New Year’s Day (we must have seen 1 other car on the highway during our drive there), we had a guide and he told us the upper waterfalls were closed, so we toured the lower portion. There is a chain of 16 terraced lakes, joined by waterfalls, that extend into a limestone canyon. Walkways and hiking trails wind around and across the water, and an electric boat links the 12 upper and 4 lower lakes.

It is very slippery from the mist and we had to hold on to the wooden rails (it was like ice skating on the boardwalk) in many sections as to not slip and fall into the lake below. The guide told us that many visitors fall into the lakes each year and many have drown. He said that 11 of the rivers have been named after people who have drown in them!

The waters flowing over the limestone deposited travertine barriers over thousands of years, creating natural dams which created a series of beautiful lakes, caves and waterfalls. The guide tells us the forests in the park are home to bears, wolves and many rare birds.

We began hiking in Entrance 2 and first saw Veliki Slap, the tallest waterfall in Croatia (78m). Hiking the lower section takes about three hours. The guide tells us about the natural history of the park and how he grew up here, swimming in most of the lakes (which is no longer allowed). He also shared that the Homeland War began here when he was about 10 years old. He heard the first strikes and his father told him to hide with his brother in the bathroom. They abandoned their home for 4 years during the war before returning. What a stark juxtaposition between the beauty of nature and grief of destruction. It was definitely a day of reflecting on the past and welcoming a new year.

Christmas in Croatia – Week 16

Featured

Oh Christmas Tree

In the United States Christmas starts early. Some retail chains even begin putting out holiday decorations in September. That is not the case in Croatia. Most families will put up their Christmas tree on Christmas Eve and leave it up well into January. I bought a tiny “Charlie Brown” fake Christmas tree during a weekend trip to Zagreb and could not wait to decorate it. I found a string of lights and purchased local, handmade nautical ornaments at a souvenir shop. My theme was “Croatian Christmas” and I hung a tiny Zadar flag at the top. I turned on Spotify and found a Christmas music playlist full of the classics I love, including Perry Como, Bing Crosby, the Carpenters, Frank Sinatra, and the Vince Guardaldi Trio’s, “Christmas Time is Here.” My favorite Christmas song is Bing Crosby’s “The Little Drummer Boy.”

At home we will spend at least three days decorating the house with multiple Christmas trees (we have an American themed Christmas tree with flags and military ornaments honoring our veterans), the girls each have Christmas trees in their room (Morgan has a peace theme and Madison has a horse theme), we have a tree in the basement with a Cubs theme and another tree in the master bedroom with an Irish shamrock theme. Trees are everywhere! Most of the trees were given to us when our house was featured on a Naperville Christmas walk a few years ago for the Naperville Women’s Garden Club. We also pull out our manager scene from the attic and illuminate the baby Jesus in his creche. Our family has gone to midnight mass, but in recent years we usually go to mass on Christmas Eve in the late afternoon and come home to unwrap some presents before Christmas morning.

We exchange “stocking stuffer” presents and usually rip through a pile of presents carefully wrapped in “Santa’s workshop” where we have been busily wrapping for days. We make several dozen cookies and bake tiny tomato soup cakes (a recipe from Brian’s grandmother) we deliver to Brian’s officemates. And I compose an annual Christmas letter, sending out 150 cards to family and friends every season. Another favorite tradition is to drive into Chicago and see the Marshall Field’s (now Macys) Christmas windows with the girls, eat lunch in the Walnut Room (with Santa Claus ice cream and a glass souvenir mug) and go to a play and dinner in the city.

And when the girls were in high school they started a tradition called “elfing,” inspired by the Will Farrell movie, “Elf,” where up to 14 girls would dress in elf costumes and sing at one of our local nursing homes, pack bags of socks, handwarmers and granola bars for the homeless and distribute the bags in Chicago. Riding the train into the city with 14 girls dressed like elves was one of the most magical times. People would stop them and ask for pictures, ask if they could sing a Christmas carol and most often put a smile on their faces. We also host Brian’s family for Christmas and usually have about 30 or 40 people in our house (he is the last of 8 children from a big Irish Catholic family). We cook at least 2 turkeys, a ham and have an abundance of food available for hours as we talk, sing and sometimes dance. We have played “White Elephant” games and laughed for hours. Christmas is a busy whirlwind time full of memories at home.

This Christmas would be dramatically different celebrating Christmas in Croatia, making and witnessing new traditions.

Advent in Zadar

The celebration of Advent in Zadar is a big deal. They have brought a “piece’ of the Zagreb Christmas market to Zadar’s Old Town and it is spectacular. I wasn’t sure what to expect and was pleasantly surprised. Ellie and I met during the evening and browsed all of the food stands full of traditional sausages, mulled wine and westernized hamburgers and hotdogs. We recognized some of the local restaurants, like the Hedonist and other stands were in the full holiday spirit with locals dressed in matching reindeer Christmas sweaters. A few days ago Zadar kicked off the Advent season with a bang, complete with a live band and fireworks. It turns out there’s a live band almost every night and the event will last into January.

Zagreb Christmas Market

I boarded the bus once again to Zagreb and stayed for a few nights in the capital city, this time to take in one of the largest Christmas Markets in Europe.

Zagreb has been awarded one of the best Christmas markets in Europe and I have to wholeheartedly agree. I like that it is not only contained in the city center, but spread out — each location has a different feel and experience. This year’s theme was “The Nutcracker,” which immediately reminded me of our daughters whom both danced ballet and have enjoyed “The Nutcracker” performance several times. My hotel was conveniently located near the bus station. I have stayed in three different hotels in Zagreb and this one was tops. It is a Hilton Canopy Hotel and the design was inspired by inventors Eduard Penkala (1871-1922), the man who invented the mechanical pencil, hot water bottle, rotating toothbrush and his most famous invention, the first ballpoint pen and inventor Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), the electrical engineer who invented the air conditioner. The stylings of the hotel were a homage to blueprints and books with a nineteenth century flair. Some areas of the hotel resembled a library lined with books and I even spotted one of my graduate school staples, Lev Vygotsky’s Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychology Processes on the shelf. Plus breakfast was included in the room price! I visited the Advent Christmas Market during the first weekend of December and the crowds weren’t too heavy, but it was cold – about 33 degrees! I was thankful I bundled up because I walked approximately five hours per day.

It was a fifteen minute walk from my hotel to the first spot, one of Zagreb’s three parks, Ledeni Park at King Tomislav’s Square. The city was designed with three main parks, creating a “green horseshoe.” The outdoor skating rink is charming, with a square rink in addition to a skating circuit which circles around the park and water fountains.

Just north of Ledeni Park is Fuliranje at Strossmayer Square. It is a cozy outdoor drinking and eating area with free music, open fireplaces, blankets on every chair and tiny bottles of gin frozen in ice blocks. Mulled wine is also a popular drink served throughout the Christmas Market. The food stalls sell sausages, fritule and Germknödel, a fluffy yeast dumpling filled with spice plum jam and vanilla custard.

Continuing north toward the city center, I come upon a magical glittering park, Zrinjevac. This park is filled with small stalls selling handmade Christmas ornaments, lavender satchels, candles and other gifts. Music is also offered in the rotunda at night. The white lights against the white trees are breathtaking.

The next spot the European Square, also sold sugared figs, almonds and orange slices. The fritule stands were everywhere, offering the sweet treats covered in powdered sugar, Nutella or cherry sauce. Ban Jelačić Square is probably the most crowded yet. It’s the heart of Zagreb’s city center and the 1848 statue is a meeting area for locals to either “meet under the tail” (the tail of Ban Jelačić’s horse). The tour guide told me the meaning behind statues of military men on horses – if a horse is holding up one leg, the man died during the war from wounds, if a horse is on two legs the man died during the war in combat and if the horse is on all four legs, the man died from natural causes in peace time. Ban Jelačić was an important figure in Croatian history and is featured on the $20 Kuna. He made significant positive changes for the country, but unfortunately died of syphilis.

I order a Croatian Kulen sausage served on a bun slathered with mustard and admired all of the Christmas lights and decorations. The Advent Market started in 2014 and it is very impressive! The decorations are unique and plentiful. Outdoor scenes included gold painted snow skis, musical instruments hanging from trees, cozy Christmas kitchen scenes and more.

I make it a point to schedule a tour guide in almost every city I visit in Croatia. It is incredibly helpful to get to know the history and location so much better with an expert. I meet my “Advent Tour Guide” and she immediately tells me she lived in Zadar for fifteen years and graduated from University of Zadar, studying Russian and French language. She admits to missing the sea, but especially the “dolce vita” attitude on the Dalmatian coast, “The siesta was every day and our motto was, ‘If you don’t want to do it today, put if off tomorrow and if tomorrow comes, wait some more.’” Again, the rub between “city and coast” continues in Croatia. We stop at Zagreb Cathedral where we look up to see one spire covered with scaffolding. She told me the cathedral was “always under construction” because of the porous limestone used by the original Austrian-Hungarian architect. The stone erodes and turns black and has needed replacement stone for years. The design of the church was not looked upon favorably, not only because the architect was a Protestant, but the church on a hill and the locals thought it was too big for the area plus they were being taxed heavily by the church to pay for construction. I go inside the church and say a prayer, noticing the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet above some of the crucifixes. She takes me to the Tunnel (Tunel Grić), used as a passage during the war, it is now transformed with trees, lights and nutcrackers. 

We take a short funicular ride to the Stross and Vranyszany Plateau, or upper town. From the promenade you get a spectacular view over Zagreb. The tour guide tells me some bits and pieces about Christmas: the first Christmas tree was in Vienna about 200 years ago and Catholics adapted it later, turkey and pork are traditionally served during a Croatian Christmas because a turkey symbolizes “running away from the past” with it’s legs and pork symbolizes “sniffing into the future” with it’s snout.

We head to St. Mark’s Church in upper town and admire the rooftop with two coats of arms. The tour guide points to the black animal featured on one of the coats of arms and says it is a minx, which is also displayed on every coin in Croatia. The minx was once used in heavy circulation to trade fur.

Returning to the main square, we say our goodbyes after a three hour walking tour. I am really in the Christmas spirit now!

Fangirl Meets Author Cody McClain Brown

Ellie first told me about famous author Cody McClain Brown, who wrote multiple best sellers Chasing a Croatian Girl and Croatia Strikes Back. He was also a US Fulbright Scholar and wrote candidly about marrying a Croat whom he met in his hometown of Oklahoma, settling down in Zagreb, raising their daughter with American and Croatian ideals and teaching political science at The University of Zagreb. McClain’s books are a must read if you are going to spend any time in Croatia. His quick wit and conversational writing became such a comfort for me while living in Zadar. I laughed out loud and nodded while reading chapter after chapter – we were experiencing so many of the same things while trying to adjust to being an expat in Croatia. It’s one thing to visit Croatia on vacation, but it’s entirely different living in Croatia. I raced through his books because they are so well written. I liked his writing so much that I reached out to him, asking to meet. After exchanging a few e-mails, he agreed to meet me and Tianna, a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, at a local café. We were both so excited!

The three of us ended up talking for over two hours (a traditional Croatian coffee time) and it was such a positive, complex and many times hilarious conversation. It really goes back to spending time with each other and sharing our stories. Of course I brought both copies of my book and asked him for his autograph. And he told us that his book is being adapted to a screenplay for a future sitcom in Croatia. Both Tianna and I volunteered to be cast as extras on the show. We’re sure the television show will be as successful as his books and are so grateful he spent time with us that Friday morning.

Bound for Bosnia – Week 15

Featured

It’s the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday. Since the weekend was going to be quiet, I planned a day trip across the border to Bosnia, a welcome distraction to try and soothe my melancholy in being away from my family during the holidays. I knew it would be difficult to be absent from our traditions in preparing the Thanksgiving food, arranging our Christmas card photo shoot (usually met with eye rolls or groans in matching outfits) and running in the Turkey Trot, but it was more challenging than I anticipated. The loneliness really seeped into my little Croatian apartment as I was cooking a box of Hamburger Helper (a sweet treat from my husband in a care package that arrived a few days earlier) and turned on Netflix (only to have an error message flash across the screen that the Internet was not working). It was too quiet and I did not like it. I longed for being with my family, hugging, laughing and being in the same house together. But I reminded myself that growing up as an only child, I’m used to being independent and going solo. I learned from a very young age how to entertain myself, as I was unaccompanied most of the time. I think one of the reasons a sorority in college was so appealing to me was the thought of having over 100 “sisters” to turn to, ask for help and hang out. So balancing time between being alone and being with a group of family and friends is the best.

Where in the World?

“Why not go to Italy or Greece?” my friend asked as we were talking on WhatsApp (this is one of the must haves for communicating abroad – it’s free and offers video and text to stay connected). “Well, I’m right there – it’s only 3 hours away from Croatia and when I am going to get another chance to go to Bosnia?” I responded. “Sounds like you, getting outside of the box. It wouldn’t be my first choice, but have fun anyway and be safe!” she said.

I met the driver at Restorn Bruschetta, a popular meeting place because it is an easy pick up on Zadar’s main one-way street. He introduced himself and in the next breath asked if I had “papers.” Yes, I did bring my passport and now carry a bonus card — yesterday I finally got my Biometric Residency Permit at the Police Administration Office (a Croatian ID that I applied for when I landed here in September). He opened the door and we started driving out of town. He was a native from Zadar and told me we would have to be extra careful crossing the border at night because “The Syrians are constantly scrambling across the mountains into Bosnia, headed toward Croatia, Greece and their main destination – Germany.” He said he has seen a heavier police presence at night, but “all they do is turn them around and tell them to go back; they don’t really make a difference.” And he said their company fields multiple e-mails per day from European IP addresses and fake European phone numbers, asking us to pick them up and drive them across the border, sometimes offering us up to 10 times the normal price of transportation.

We have not even gotten to Bosnia yet, and I have more butterflies in my stomach than before. Maybe I should have gone to Italy instead? I remained calm and appreciated the car ride, as buses were my only means of transportation besides walking. It was quiet and I watched the mountain range as we sped along the highway. It reminded me of taking long car rides with our daughter Madison who always asks to “go for a ride,” listening to music, reflecting and enjoying the journey to a new destination.

Is this Part of the Tour?

Online pictures of the Old Bridge, Stari Most, was one of the reasons I wanted visit Mostar, but my guide, Emir, opened a dialogue that was completely unexpected. Emir introduced himself as Communist Muslim, “But not the kind where my girlfriend has to dress like a Ninja. I am a communist Muslim. I believe differently. I am more open minded with the Quran.” Hmm, this was going to be an interesting private tour.

He launched into the history of Stalin and Tito, grappling for power. “Stalin was jealous of Tito and tried to assassinate him multiple times. You should go to the House of Flowers in Belgrade (the resting place of Josip Tito, the President of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia for over 30 years) and see Tito’s letter to Stalin because he tells him to stop sending his assassins, as he will only send one to Russia to do the job. Stalin later died of natural causes, but Tito would have killed him and probably should have.” Emir is referring to the Tito-Stalin Split, or Yugolav-Soviet Split, the conflict between two leaders.

The conversation turns toward his opposition toward Croatians. His disdain is palpable and uncomfortable at times. We pass a shop in the bazaar that is selling Nazi swastikas and I am shocked. I turn to look at him and he pulls me aside and says, “You see, those symbols, patches and pins are for the Croatian tourists who come here and want it to buy it. The Croatian Nazis are everywhere. And let me tell you how to find them – ask them if they liked Tito. If they said they didn’t like Tito, then they are Croatian Nazis.” I am growing increasingly uneasy. I have told Emir I am teaching in Croatia and my positive experience in Zadar. My sentiment seems to irritate him.

He goes on to tell me “The truth is everywhere, but the Croatians won’t tell it. They will tell you their version of the truth. They walk around with walnuts in their pockets (he is referring to corruption). If you want to know the truth, listen to me and watch the BBC documentary, The Death of Yugoslavia, complete with six episodes. Do not watch the forged versions.”

We stop again on the side of the street and he puts his hand on my shoulder pointing to street graffiti showing a heart with Tito’s name scrawled inside, “We all loved Tito. We still think about our ‘Tito Time.’ I remember in 1980 when my father called me, crying and said, ‘When Tito died, Yugoslavia died.’ We still have a picture of him in our kitchen. Everyone does. Tito was a mass murder, I mean, he killed like 500,000 people, but none of them were in Yugoslavia. They were all outsiders. He took care of us. He invited us to practice any religion we wanted and if you did, you were in a specific category. If you didn’t practice any religion, you were communist, and you were in a different category, a better category because you were paid 30% more, and you a chance to be promoted. Tito believed in the power of the people. For example, no outside business was allowed, no exports. So Tito decided that if you grew your business to more than 5 staff members, then you would automatically give your business away to the government. But you know, that was fair because we thrived on the local, small business model. It worked well. There was never a teacher’s strike when Tito was our leader because everyone was paid the same and paid fairly. He even gave us presents for holidays – everyone got a gift. And he wanted us to relax too after we worked – he set up apartments by the sea for us to go out and enjoy with our families. What do we have now? Democracy (he grimaces). And no one wins here. People are leaving our country because they can’t find jobs. They can’t compete here because they don’t want to.” It’s a struggle between collective memory and the motivation to move forward, visible everywhere in town, a living narrative of resistance during war.

He takes me to the bright yellow Austrian-Hungarian High School building and points to two multiple wings, segregated with all of the “bad religions” on one side, the Orthodox and Muslims, and the Catholics on the other side. “They hated us. They hated what we believed in. They still do.” Again, he refers to clashes between Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats, the ethnically rooted war from 1992-1995.

Juxtaposed to the heavy weight in conversation and symbolic reminders of war throughout our tour, Mostar is a small and beautiful city. The original bridge was built by the Ottomans in 1566, but destroyed during the war. Now there is a replica of the bridge, constructed in 2004. Emir offered several viewpoints of the bridge as we walked back into the Old Town and crossed the Neretva River. He explained that during the summer months you can watch the famous bridge jump — a scary tradition among locals, men who regularly make the daring leap from Stari Most into the waters below as a rite of passage. Some tourists will be approached to pay to watch a “jumper”fly off of the bridge and resurface below. But today was too chilly for the bridge jumpers and crowds were thin. Emir has jumped off the bridge, but he reiterated how dangerous it is because of the strong current and hidden caves below the water that can suck you in and under. “My uncle’s son was an Olympic swimmer here in Yugoslavia. He was an amazing athlete and one year he jumped off the bridge and didn’t come up. His body was never found.”

The Old Town on the eastern bank of Mostar has a large bazaar selling traditional Bosnian items. Most of the items were copper plates, cups and coffee pots, but they also had some cushions and handmade clothes. It is situated along a quaint cobbled pedestrian street, the Kujundžiluk, and has managed to retain its Ottoman look over centuries. Lined with traditional stone and Ottoman houses, there are local craft stores, inns and restaurants. If you’re looking for souvenirs from Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, this is the area to get it.

Mostar is a picturesque town from above and well worth making your way down to the water’s edge. From the west end of Stari Most there’s a long staircase which ends on the rocky banks of the Neretva River. The water is clear and offers a different perspective of the Old Town of Mostar.

One of the most prominent buildings is the towering bank just off the Spanish Square (named after the brigade of Spanish who fought for peace) is the Sniper Tower. This former glass windowed bank was once a snipers’ nest for Croatian soldiers during the conflict. It’s an eerie spot, now a skeleton of a building with the inside full of broken glass and debris; both inside and out have become a canvas for street art.

Walking through Mostar there is still so much evidence of the recent wars and battles that were fought here only twenty or so years ago. To think that these battles were fought in our lifetime is sobering. Emir tells me he was about five years old when the war raged on. He still has nightmares about it, but not about the bombings, he has a fear of not having food. “I was always hungry. My stomach was out to here – bloated with air. Even now, I can’t go to sleep at night without eating most of what is in my refrigerator. I don’t want to ever be that hungry again.” He paused. “But you know, the Americans helped us. Bill Clinton helped us. Hillary Clinton helped us. She held up a picture of one of our Bosnian woman who was raped and threw it in front of your congress. After that, your American soldiers started sending food in big boxes. Chicken that was made of dust, but it tasted so good because it had been so long.”

He pauses and says, “Don’t get me wrong. I like Americans. But make no mistake, George Bush Senior started our war in Yugoslavia. He wanted to break apart our strength and was in on it with Khrushchev. I think it was their idea. We didn’t want any war. But we got one.”

The Siege of Mostar was fought during the Bosnian War between 1992 and 1995, after Bosnia & Herzegovnia declared its independence from Yugoslavia. Air strikes destroyed many of the important buildings and structures around Mostar, including Stari Most, the Old Bridge. Emir mentions the bridge multiple times, “They took out our jewel, our bridge. And it was then that we rose up to fight them as hard as we could. They could not take our bridge and our pride away from us.” He pointed to both mountain tops and the valley in between. “They were over there and we were over here. We are walking on ground zero now. It was chaos. It was blood.” He told me about Gabela and Heliodrom concentration camps run by the Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosnia and Croatian Defense Council.  “My uncle was a survivor of those concentration camps. He was beaten and tortured. And now lives in Brooklyn.”

We continued walking for a few hours, stopping at a Catholic Cathedral and Ottoman-style mosques along the way. The main religion in Bosnia is Islam, followed by Christian Orthodox, and Catholic. Islam came from the Ottoman occupation, which lasted around 400 years.

At the end of the tour, I made a comment about the garbage overflowing in dumpsters throughout the city. Emir said the people of Mostar decided to stop having their garbage picked up over three months ago. “The politicians want to build a garbage dump right next to the river, because it is cheap land. But we can’t have a dump in that location. I mean, I swim in that river, my dog drinks from that river. The river flows through our town. So we are all protesting by not having our garbage picked up and it is causing quite a problem. For example, see this? (he points to debris that has fallen off the side of a building) These clay tiles fell off the roof the other day because of the earthquake (Albania had a 6.4 magnitude earthquake last week, quickly followed by Bosnia with an earthquake registering 4.1 magnitude). The people are not cleaning that mess up. And the best part is that a politician’s parking spot is there, so he can no longer park, but he has to look at the rubble that fell off the roof, the garbage sitting directly on his place. And that is hopefully what will move action forward.”

When I got back into the car, I reluctantly told my driver about some of what the guide had shared. He wholeheartedly agreed with the sentiments regarding Tito, “our hero,” but quickly disagreed with being hungry during the war and particularly the thought of complaining about it. “That’s all in his head. He needs to forget that shit. We didn’t have time to be hungry. We were just trying to keep our heads on and not blown off.” And he went on to tell me his father died in the war in 1993. He was quiet for awhile and said, “My mother held everything together like mothers do. And I have an 18 month old daughter and I will be her father, protecting me like my father never could.”

As we crossed the border, we were stopped and the border patrol officer pointed to me in the backseat and started speaking quickly. I held my breath. The driver spoke just as quickly and was waving my passport in front of the steering wheel, laughing and pointing to me. I wondered what was happening, but kept quiet. After ten long minutes of this, we moved forward and the driver handed me my passport. “What was that all about?” I asked. “Oh, she saw your food in the plastic bag sitting next to you in the back.” I had purchased a to-go bag of cevapčiči and baklava based on Emir’s local restaurant recommendation. He continued, “The border patrol office was telling me told me that bringing food from Bosnia to Croatia is forbidden. But don’t worry, I told her there was no food in the bag, but it was in your stomach!”

Blessed Virgin Mary

Before we crossed the border to return to Zadar, the driver suggests stopping at Saint James Church in Medjugorje (meaning “between mountains”). The church was built in 1892 and located in a village in Herzegovina, close to the Croatian border. Saint James Church has been the site of apparitions of the Virgin Mary since 1981 and become a popular pilgrimage site. We pulled up when mass was taking place and it was a very simple, unassuming service, not a next-generation televangelist type of church with glitzy proselytizing. Although the driver points to the souvenir shops crowded with statues of Mary, and tells me how people spend their religious vacation here with “consumeristic Christianity,” waiting to see Mary. He said, “They have seen her on the mountaintop. People have spoken to her recently.” Despite the T-shirts and keychains that surround the church, the church itself is quiet and simple in design. Visiting this church, like many others in the area, provides liturgy and tradition in a sacred space with respite and reorientation. I am thankful I can carry some of our church traditions across the globe and this makes me feel more at home, less like an outsider and more like I belong.

My mother’s maiden name was Mary Therese Bulfin and in this particular church I feel serenity and light as I kneel in front of a statue of the Blessed Mother, Our Lady of Medjugorje. I thank God and my guardian angel, my mother Mary, for protecting and guiding me on this journey to Bosnia today. Amen!

Hiking in Paklenica National Park

It’s no secret that I like to hike. I love being outdoors in the elements and breathing deeply. Paklenica is one of eight national parks in Croatia. I asked Ellie and Leonarda if they wanted to take a hike on Saturday during Thanksgiving weekend and they said yes! We were planning to take two cars with our small Fulbright group including Tiana and Josh, Lindsay, Ellie, Leonarda, her son and myself. Paklenica is in Starigrad, about an hour away from Zadar, on the southern slopes of the Velebit Mountain.

Two main activities are hiking and climbing, but there is also an option to ride a bike on specific trails in the park.

More than 30% of visitors at the national park are climbers, as there are over 400 marked climbing trails with the shortest climbing routes situated in Klanci, the narrowest part of the Velika Paklenica canyon.

It was a beautiful weather day with the sun shining and bright blue skies. Unfortunately Ellie and our Fulbright friends could not make the trip due to transportation snafus, but Leonarda and her 11-year old son Marko picked me up at 9:00 a.m. and we headed toward the mountains.

We started on a 3 hour trail leading up to Anića Kuk, one of the most famous climbing sites in the world, its north-west face a 400-metre wall of limestone and Europe’s answer to Yosemite’s El Capitan. There is a variety of botany as well. The park has 79 endemic species and is regarded as a world-class location for wild flowers. In fact there were signs posted not to pick the flowers out of respect for the area. We also stopped to read several signs about park animals including deer, boar, wolves, bats, bears, snakes and lynx.

The map also showed some ominous pink blotches nearby: minefields. During the Balkan wars of independence in 1991-95, Serbian forces pushed up to this ridge, hoping to establish a permanent grip on Croatian territory. By the time they were defeated, some 20,000 people had died, the park was closed for years and the Croatian economy was in ruins. For the Mountain Association the challenge has been to rebuild footpaths away from those danger areas.

The rocks jetted out beneath us, making walking a little slippery and tricky at times, but it was a gorgeous hike. We saw donkeys coming down the mountain on their way to carry supplies from the town below. The bells around their necks gently rang as they cautiously found footing on the rocky paths.

When we reached a small bridge, we saw a mountain house and stopped to eat budola and cheese sandwiches Leonarda prepared. I brought pink lady apples and granola bars for us to munch on. And the mountain house host (or forest ranger?) brought us a bowl of warm fritule, a special Croatian dessert, small deep fried donuts with powdered sugar – perfect to warm us up and continue hiking.

We finished a total of 18 miles hiking and Leonarda invited me for dinner. It was very late and she insisted I eat soup she had prepared that morning. It was a lovely invitation and her son Marko was very excited to show me his collection of currency from countries all over the world. His arrangement of bills and coins was really impressive, an authentic study in numismatics. I gave him a $5 US bill to add to his collection and he gave me a $5,000 former Yugoslavian bill along with an elaborate “Croatian cheat sheet” he designed, translating Croatian numbers into English language. I really enjoyed spending time with Marko and Leonarda. Marko is a very intellectual and mature young man, knowing a mass amount about history, politics and religion well beyond his years in sixth grade.

Chicago to Croatia and Back Again – Week 16 1/2

Here’s to Your Health

Being away from my family over the past few months has gotten incredibly lonely. One of the worst weekends for me was Thanksgiving weekend. Even though I traveled to Bosnia as a distraction over Thanksgiving weekend, I still felt a palpable emptiness sitting alone in my apartment. This emotion combined with a physical pain of injuring my knee almost a month ago was a combination that prompted me to order a plane ticket home to see my family for Christmas. I just couldn’t stand to be without them during another holiday!

I hurt my knee walking home from school. Zadar’s streets can be like an obstacle course. There are divots, cracks and all sorts of obstructions as part of the masonry that makes up the Roman limestone slabs. I have been extra cautious while jogging each day and was pleased in not twisting an ankle or losing my balance, but the day I hurt my knee was the exception. I was briskly walking, talking with one of my colleagues, not paying attention in looking down, when I tripped over a stone that blended in with the bumpy sidewalk. My body propelled forward as my foot caught and yanked on my left knee. I am a runner. My knees have endured pounding, stretching and strains for a few decades, but this was a type of shooting pain I had not yet experienced. Unfortunately the only form of transportation I have in Zadar is walking. My apartment is 4 flights of stairs, without an elevator and I carry a heavy bag of supplies to school each day. Getting injured was not an option. Yet, here I was, icing my knee, taking Advil and hoping the pain would quickly subside. It didn’t.

After 3 weeks of icing, elevating and wrapping my knee in an Ace bandage, I asked my colleague if there was a nearby clinic she could take me to in order to get a physician’s diagnosis. This started an interesting dialogue regarding healthcare in Croatia.

According to the “Expat in Croatia” website, Croatia has a universal healthcare system providing a form of mandatory insurance of all people. The population is covered by a basic health insurance plan as required by law and optional insurance administered by the Croatian Health Insurance Fund. The social health insurance system is based on the principles of solidarity and reciprocity, by which citizens are expected to contribute according to their ability to pay and receive basic health care services according to their needs.

Healthcare contributions in Croatia are mandatory for all employed citizens and are paid for by their employers. There are hundreds of healthcare institutions in Croatia, including 79 hospitals and clinics caring for more than 760,000 patients per year. Ownership of hospitals is shared between the state and the counties of Croatia.

To gain “free” access to hospitals and diagnostic services, a referral from a public general practitioner with a contract with the national healthcare service. This referral is called an “uputnica.” An “uputnica” is an order of sorts, used for diagnostics such as blood and urine tests, prescriptions, and procedures.

Uputnicas are critical when using the Croatian healthcare system. They are used at every level of healthcare, from simple blood tests to the anesthesia required for surgery. Croatia is paper-heavy and orders such as these are not transmitted digitally. What happens if you lose your uptinca?

The medical professionals are probably not better or worse than anywhere else, but the management level in the Croatian public health system is criminally low. This is an inheritance from the communist past when almost all levels of managers everywhere – medical services included – were nominated based on their political rather than professional suitability. This has not changed.

My colleague told me how she had injured her back a few years ago. In order to schedule a MRI test, she would have to get on a waiting list for up to 2 years. She said many Croatians will go to neighboring countries for medicines and tests. The waiting time is unbearable. And once a patient is fortunate enough to see a doctor, the equipment and conditions are far from modern. For example, one of the only magnetic resonance (MRI) scanners in Zadar is more than 10 years old. When the unit breaks down, hundreds of patients wait for months for a scan, or have to go to the private clinics.

There are close to 6,000 private practice offices in Croatia. But I couldn’t possibly ask my colleague to take me to a private clinic knowing that she did not have access herself. How could I jump the line and not wait? So, I decided to wait until I returned home in order to see our primary care doctor.

As far as the health of the nation is concerned, Croatia’s main problems are smoking, alcohol and obesity, which are risk factors for a number of diseases, while at the same time the prevention within the healthcare system is not developed enough. Therefore, Croatia is among the countries with the highest number of deaths which could be prevented by medical interventions, and the average life expectancy is three years shorter than the EU average. Heart diseases, stroke, lung cancer and colon cancer are major causes of death in Croatia.

What are You Doing Here?

I took a flight from Zadar to Zagreb to Vienna to Zurich (this last leg of the trip was added due to poor visibility and flight delays) to Chicago. It was about 22 hours total and my husband Brian was there waiting for me at the airport with a bouquet of flowers, ice water and an enormous hug. I had intended to surprise him first because he was off work the day my flight arrived. I talked with him via phone the day prior and at one point he started texting while we were talking. I asked him who he was texting and he said he was picking up another shift for one of his colleagues who suddenly needed the day off. “Oh no, you’re working tomorrow?” I asked. He told me he just picked up the shift and it didn’t matter really because I was in Croatia and our daughters’ Christmas break had not yet started. “But you have to be home!” I exclaimed. He started to get irritated with my pleas and asked if I was delivering something. “Yes, there will be a delivery and you need to be home.” He asked me to change the delivery time and I said I couldn’t change it. Then he asked if I was delivering an animal and why would I deliver a living creature during the holidays. I paused and said, “Yes, it is a delivery. I am delivering me!” And then he realized I was trying to surprise him, but it all worked out because he picked me up at the airport and we both decided I would surprise our daughters one at a time as they arrived home.

The first to come home from the University of California was Madison. She thought Brian was picking her up at the airport (in fact he was working that day) and I was in a “disguise” with a USC baseball hat pulled down over my face while Brian texted her as if he was the one picking her up from the airport. When I got out of the car to hug her she was completely surprised and started crying! It was such a special moment to hug her and be with her during Christmas week.

The next surprise was Morgan, coming home from Cornell University in New York. Again, she thought Brian was picking her up from the airport. This time we drove together and Madison and I hopped out of the car in the arrivals of O’Hare International Airport. Madison captured the moment with her phone as I wore a Cornell baseball cap and literally followed Morgan to the baggage claim area without her knowing I was walking directly past her. I stood in front of her for a moment and took off the hat, walked toward her and tried to hug her. Morgan jumped back. She had no idea who I was! I actually scared her! She was shocked and asked, “What is going on? You are supposed to be in Croatia!” It was magical.

Christmas Eve Crime?!

We spent the next few days at home and then went to Chicago to celebrate our annual Christmas tradition at the Walnut Room in Macy’s, looking at the lights and going to the Christkindle Market to eat warm nuts and grab a cup of hot cider. This year we went to Chicago on Christmas Eve because of our crazy schedules. Surprisingly it wasn’t too crowded, especially since the weather was around 52 degrees and partly sunny – unusually warm for this time of year in Chicago.

We stopped for lunch on State Street at Potbelly Restaurant for a few sandwiches before walking toward Michigan Avenue. I removed my long coat and hung my small backpack on the back of my chair.

When I looked into my backpack to put on my hat and scarf I immediately noticed that my wallet was missing. I approached the front counter and asked if I had possibly left if on the counter because we had recently paid for our food. The staff said they had not seen it and then I quickly realized I was a victim of a crime.

We spoke with the store manager on duty, Tyrone and he introduced us to Christian, the security guard. Christian told us there were 2 men sitting behind us and when they watched the security surveillance footage, these men had taken my backpack, taken out my wallet and stolen it.

I immediately began to call credit card companies and our bank, but the thieves had already made it down the street to Macy’s department store and charged approximately $1,000 in the very short time that they pickpocketed me. While I was on the phone with my credit card companies, they tried to charge another $1,000, but they were declined. I felt so violated, sitting with our daughters, eating lunch on Christmas Eve! Pickpocketing is a form of larceny that involves from a person without them noticing the theft at the time. I had no idea that they had taken my wallet from my backpack until it was gone. This is the first time I have been a victim of this crime. It was an awful jolt to our safety and my fault for not being more diligent and not letting my backpack leave my side.

How ironic that I had to fly all the way home to have my wallet stolen?

Get on the Bus, Gus – Week 13

One of my first records was “The Birds, The Bees & the Monkees.” The Monkees were the 1960s version of today’s modern boy band. Many of the members resembled The Beatles with their mop top hair styles and buoyant lyrics. In 1968 I fell in love with the lead singer of The Monkees, Davy Jones, who sang my favorite song, “Daydream Believer.”

Oh, I could hide ‘neath the wings
Of the bluebird as she sings
The six-o’clock alarm would never ring
But six rings and I rise
Wipe the sleep out of my eyes
The shaving razor’s cold and it stings

Cheer up sleepy Jean
Oh, what can it mean to a
Daydream believer and a
Homecoming queen?

I listened to this song over and over again on my grandmother’s record player in her basement in Chicago. I will never get tired of hearing or singing it. When I was eleven years old I wrote a love letter to Davy Jones and had pictures of him hanging on my bedroom door – a fangirl at heart.

My interpretation of the song’s message is that life is hard, but realizing your dreams and discovering your identity is part of growth. The song talks about high school, a time when I was searching to belong to a group, make friends and discover confidence. For me, high school was a nest of insecurities and exclusivities – a hard line drawn between who was on the inside and who was on the outside. But the song invites inspiration and reminds us that keeping a good attitude can change everything and bring you back to a state where you feel hopeful again – to be able to believe. There’s something about this song that exudes positive energy and feels so magical.

And this song, “Daydream Believer” was the soundtrack for my weekend trip to Slovenia. Boarding the bus from Zadar with a transfer in Zagreb, it takes about 7 hours to get to the capital city, Ljubljana, wedged between Austria and Italy. With two border checks along the way, it offers a change in landscape and weather. November is the wettest month to visit Slovenia and my time in the country was no exception. One of the hotel staff told me he had not seen the sun in 15 days due to heavy rains. Rain was so heavy in the area that international news broke regarding flooding in Venice and a state of emergency was declared. The ocean had risen 1 ½ meters and the rain continued to fall.

Feminist War Literature Tour

Despite the weather, I put on my rain jacket and grabbed my umbrella to venture outdoors. The first tour I scheduled was a Women’s History Walk. The tour guide, Maja, a thirty-year old member of a rock band, was outstanding in her knowledge of history. She told me her mother was also named Danica and we became fast friends on our three-hour walk around town.

During the feminist war tour we discussed women’s critical writings that represented a challenge to the national discourse of patriotism and sacrifice. As we walked, Maja pointed out statues or figures representing female intellectuals, authors philosophers, journalists and social activists that helped record another side of war, the way it changes us slowly from within.

One of the first statues (or in this case a bust) we witnessed in town was Lili Novy, considered one of the most important Slovene female poets. Maja told me how Novy would bind her chest and dress as a man in order to go out to cafes, smoke, sip on coffee and compose her poetry. She liked writing poetry in public coffee shops, but a woman during that time was not allowed to go out unaccompanied. Consequently, Lily Novy concealed her identity in order to move about in the world and buck the system of patriarchy along with other female intellectuals of the time.

The success of some female literature is even larger if we are aware of the fear, injury and pain from traumas accompanying their experience during the time. The wars leading up to the disintegration of Yugoslavia provoked ideological controversy and disagreement among Slovenian women’s peace organizations and feminists regarding the direction of female engagement in everyday life. An identity crisis dominated female narratives of displaced persons in Slovenia, grounded in past experiences.

The guide talks about female writers looking back on pre-war times for something solid to lean on, but the image of our homeland and past can be marked as “yugo-nostalgic.” She goes on, “Our generation talks about the purposelessness of war atrocities and testifies that although we can’t eliminate grief or pain that our mothers and grandmothers still experience, we have to move forward and learn from past shattered narratives.”

The Slovene Writers’ Association was originally founded in 1872 in Ljubljana with the aim of supporting female writers and their families. In the early 1980s the Slovene Writers’ Association became more involved in social questions, particularly issues concerning nationality and creative freedom. During this period a commission for the protection of writing and thinking functioned within the Association and they participated in measures to change the Constitution.

Girl Power

We walk to see another bust of Angela Vode, one of the most vocal supporters of women’s rights in what was first the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia from 1929. Vode was elected president of the Women’s Movement of Yugoslavia, as well as president of the Female Teachers’ Society of Slovenia, with the slogan “for equal work, equal pay.”

In 1922 Vode joined the then illegal Communist Party of Yugoslavia, in what she described as a sincere belief in the fight against injustice. She stuck with the party until 1939, when she was expelled for openly criticizing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that saw Hitler and Stalin agree to carve up Eastern Europe.

Vode continued to help the resistance, organizing collections of food and clothing for Slovene refugees and those in labor camps. In 1942 the Italian authorities decided the best way to deal with the enormous amount of refugees was to start executing whomever it deemed “unnecessary.” Vode decided to appeal to Italian leader Benito Mussolini to stop the executions, but her protest was destroyed by the Slovene communists who wanted to be the sole source of protest and resistance in order to enhance their claim to power when the war was over.

In 1947 Vode was arrested, imprisoned, tortured and abused. She was put on trial and charged with treason, accused of being an enemy of the working class, a western spy and any other stereotypically 1940’s communist thing one could be arrested for.

Vode was sentenced to 20 years, but thanks to international fury, she was eventually released, but never truly free. Vode was declared a “non-person,” or human being without any rights whatsoever. She wasn’t allowed to find employment or get medical insurance. She was denied a passport and her name was prohibited from public life. Her works concerning women’s rights in the country, could not be quoted in any way. It was as if Angela Vode never existed. Vode died at 93 years old, but now, over a century later, her book, Women in Contemporary Society, is still relevant today. She captured the differences in genders and supported equality at the same time. For example, she wrote about the roles of husbands and wives in parenting, stating she did not understand, “. . . why a wife by nature would be more destined for motherhood than a husband for fatherhood.” She wrote extensively about gender roles as well as the influence of nature and nurture in those roles, urging women to learn about the past, believing that only by understanding society could one improve one’s position, writing, “…a woman is as integral a part of human society, nation, state and family as a man, and her life and position are equally dependent on all political, economic, and cultural developments, and a demand for her participation in public life is absolutely natural and necessary.”

Witches on Trial

Another stop on our tour was the former jail for witches in Slovenia. In the Middle Ages, a frightening hysteria swept Europe, as thousands of people, mostly women, were condemned as witches and burned at the stake. The Slovenian lands had their share of witch trials and executions, which lasted until the 18th century.

Most of the victims of trials were women, but about 15% were male, and even children and priests were sometimes accused of being witches. Following instructions from a special inquisition manual, the courts forced their victims to admit that they had made pacts with the devil. The witches were blamed for everything from diseases and natural disasters to poor harvests, and the number of witch burnings increased at the time of major social upheavals. Many of the accused were tortured for hours – or even days – before they confessed.

Unlucky in Love

We move toward the center of old town square and see another prominent statue of poet, France Preseren, who composed Slovenia’s national anthem. His gaze looks across the square to the love of his life, Julia Primic, immortalized in a small bust statue on one of the building walls. Preseren was unlucky in love with Julia and they could never wed, despite many years of his yearning for her, even on his deathbed he declared he would never forget Julia. He wrote in “A Wreath Of Sonnets:”


For all Slovenes will then dawn brighter days
And kindlier stars upon their land will gaze,
More brilliant songs will come with better times.

The statue stands not far from the Franciscan Church, on one of the triple bridges. It is one of the key meetup areas near many souvenir shops, tourist information center, restaurants and cafes.


Next, Maja takes me to the university building, founded in 1919, with a naked (and offensive) statue of a woman from Greek mythology. She was considered a muse, but is positioned in an overtly sexual manner. The guide chided, “This was long before the ‘Me Too’ movement,” but certainly it is no joke. To have a statue like this displayed in front of a higher education institution is not only uncomfortable, but inappropriate. “We have talked to several officials, urging them to take it down.” And she adds that the first female university faculty member to ever be granted full-time status in a department was just recently in 2014. “We’ve still got a long way to go,” Maja adds.


We end the tour at the Parliament building, adjacent to the Square of the Revolution. It is a striking landmark with a group of naked statues on display. Architect Vinzo Glanz created the outdoor building display in the 1950s. There are sculptures of men, women and children, workers in different professions, scientists, and parents holding hands in solidarity. Maja explains to me that their garments are shed because of prejudices and putting people into groups. Thank you again Maja for an enlightening view and discussion of influential women in Slovenia.

Slay the Dragon

I walk back to my hotel in the rain and cross Dragon Bridge, one of the oldest bridges in Europe. Ljubljana is connected to dragons, the symbol of the city. Dragons are featured on almost every corner – on bridges, graffiti, at the castle, decorating railings and hanging from buildings.

Lake Bled

There is a small break in the rain and I decide to head out of the city about an hour away to Lake Bled. A guide picks me up and within the first ten minutes in describing Slovenia, the word corruption seeps into the conversation again. In the village we call them (politicians) “fat buts.” It is a euphemism for taking bribes. According to the tour guide, all of the officials, members of parliament and businessmen create complex and highly lucrative schemes to plunder the state budget. Ordinary Slovenes have seen living standards stagnate, while a handful of oligarchs have become billionaires.

He talks about his hometown, a village called Idrija. “I got my first phone line in 1983.” Idrija had the second largest mercury mine in the world. For centuries it was considered to the center of scientific and technological progress in the region. The Mercury Mine was the main source of financial stability, dating back to 1490. Over 500 years Idrija exported over 100,000 tons of this liquid metal. But in 1986 the mine closed for commercial, geological, and ecological reasons. The guide said, “All life was based around the mine. My grandfather and father worked in the mine. And now what can we do?”

He quickly switched topics to another change in industry and culture in Slovenia. He commented, “The Chinese have taken over Velenie (another local village) and completely changed the culture because of the appliance Hisense. It’s one of the largest manufacturers in Europe, but it changes everything. We are work differently. We don’t want to be treated like slaves in Slovenia because we’ve been through enough.”

Onto the next serious topic of car conversation about his family being forced to speak German during World War II because his country was a German occupied zone. “We were marginalized and almost lost our language.” Although Slovene was the official language, people were no longer free to express affiliation with their nation or national community, to foster and give expression to their culture, or to use their language. During World War II, all the three occupational forces, German, Italian and Hungarian, condemned Slovenians to ethnocide. The most drastic deportations were carried out by German occupants. The German leadership assigned responsibility for the “Slovenian question” to various offices under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler, the state secretary for reinforcement of Germanness. The Germans planned to deport between 220,000 and 260,000 Slovenians. First they brought them to collecting camps and they were shipped to Germany, Croatia and Serbia. The deportation was carried out in waves: the first were nationally feeling Slovenes, followed by those who moved to Slovenian territory after 1914, and finally peope whose estates and property were needed for German colonization. The three ideologies, fascism, nazism and communism, resulted in huge migrations from the Slovenian territory.

Kings and Queens

As we walk around beautiful Lake Bled, the guide points to a few extravagant multi-million dollar homes he says are owned by war profiteers. And the corruption goes on. Despite this display of wealth and corruption, the guide has fond memories of sovereignty, safety and power during Yugoslavia. He says, “The breakup of the former Yugoslav federation ruined the central system in place, which contributed to stable economy – we had our own houses and vacation houses. We knew where our food was coming from.” He rejects the changes after the war of independence in the 1990s (he describes Slovenia’s 10-day war and quips that “ex-communist were purposely put on the front line”) and argues that economic depression now exists because Yugoslavia has fallen. He continues, “It wasn’t a socialist straight-jacket. We should not have abandoned it. The unification of Yugoslavia as a single state had strong economies, modernization and level of productivity. We could trade well, live well. If you get along with your masters, you will get everything you want. No, you will get everything you need.”

We hike up toward the castle at Lake Bled, perched on top of a 125 meter high cliff. It is gothic style and built in 1011. King Henry II donated the area of Bled to the church of Brixen. The king granted the bishop full possession of the area including churches, forts, buildings, forests, hunting grounds, meadows, pastures, mills and fishing grounds. The king issued the deed as part of his broader political activities that mainly consisted of seeking support from the church lords of Brixen, a strategically important area between Italy and Germany, but also in the spirit of the time, to redeem the souls of King Otto III. This deed had permanent cultural and spiritual consequences for the local Slavic population.

Looking out from the castle, you can see a beautiful view of Bled island, an important representative of Slovenian cultural and natural heritage. The Slavic goddess Živa dates back to 7th century. Before the arrival of Christianity in Bled area, the island represented a sanctuary for all Slavic pagans. In the battles between members of pagan and Christian religion, the people ruined and destroyed the pagan sanctuary and built the Church for all Christians. In 17th century they built the church and chapel, St. Mary’s on Bled Island.

We were going to take a boat to the island, but it started raining again. The only boats allowed in the lake are called plentas. Pletna boats are traditionally manufactured by the locals and are operated by a single oarsman. They are family owned. The mute swan population is also popular on the lake.

Toward the end of our walk we stop for a famous treat, a slice of Kreme Rezina, a cream and custard whipped cream and puff pastry – delicious!

Be Well

Slovenes are extreme in sports. The guide brags, “We like chasing an adrenaline high in skiing, sky diving, hang gliding, rock climbing and bungee jumping. The more dangerous, the better.” Lake Bled is home for Olympic rowing and training. The area also boasts the first man to ski down Mount Everest. And most noted is Arnold Rikli, the Schweizer or Swissman. Rikli encouraged people to come to Lake Bled as a place of pilgrimage because of its healing springs. He was the first to promote spa tourism in the mid 19th century and founded a Natural Health Institute focusing on vegetarianism, nudism (in the woods!) and massage.

Ljubljana Castle

The next day I went solo and walked to explore Ljubljana Castle. You can take a short ride on the funicular or walk along the footpaths. The viewing tower offers a 360-degree panorama of the city. Within the grounds of the castle are numerous presentations and exhibitions, including the Permanent Exhibition of Slovenian History.

Stories of St. George involved in the fights between pagans and Christians, defeating the terrifying dragon are found on plaques throughout the castle walls. The castle has a chronology of rulers starting from the Middle Ages with the arrival of Emperor Frederick III of Habsburg.

With a 900 year history the castle is one of Ljubljana’s main attractions. The castle prison first opened in 1815, intended for both men and women who could be jailed for up to 10 years. At the outbreak of World War I, the castle prison was used for political prisoners of war — the most numerous were Serbians, along with Russians, Englishmen and Frenchmen.

Hiking at Lake Bohinj

Slovenia is a hiker’s paradise. In fact, Ljubljana was voted the best green city in 2016. They are very eco-friendly and pursue recycling with gusto. This was my last day in country and I was told not to leave without hiking at Lake Bohinj. Since I don’t have a car, I contacted another tour guide company, Alpine Adventures, to take me to the area. They picked me up at 8:00 a.m. and by 9:30 a.m. – two avid hikers in their twenties and one who was a national ice climbing champion. I became intimidated when they pulled out their Ipad and showed me some of the routes they had planned for a 7-hour day of hiking. They were extra pumped because this was the first break in the torrential rains and they brought very sophisticated camera equipment to capture the many, many waterfalls at their peak of water power.

Before we started, they suggested stopping at a charming alpine restaurant called Strudl’l Gostilinca. They ordered a round of delicious Štruklji, a traditional cooked pie with fillings of buckwheat, cottage cheese and tarragon.

Our first hike was about an hour to Savica Waterfall. France Pešeren wrote about it in his poem, “Baptism at the Savica.” The beech trees were prominent in the forest with spruce trees toward the top of the peaks. We hiked up the path and were treated to a powerful cascade of water. Both guides were taking more pictures than I was because the waterfall was overflowing. “It’s really skinny in the summer,” they commented, snapping pictures and capturing video. The views were stunning and the air was fresh and clean.

The next hike was about 2 ½ hours up and even longer on the way down (my knees!), but incredibly majestic the entire way. I have never seen so many waterfalls coming out of crevices with the rains causing rapids to powerfully flow through the forests. It reminded me of a fairytale and in fact we came upon a sign that noted the “legend of the white fairies.” The fairies move through these woods with their long hair, flowing over the rocks like mist. And watch out for Zlatorog, in Slovene folklore, a Goldhorn white chamois buck. Zlatorog’s golden horns were the key to a treasure hidden in the mountains around Triglav, but he can be very protective of the treasure if you are looking for it, watch out, he may push you over the precipice, stroking his horns along the stones so that gold dusk smokes from them. There are many stories of the woods. The guides told me that dwarfs also live among the rocks in Triglav National Park.

I strongly suggest going with guides in the forest because about half way through our hike, one of the guides told me to follow his footsteps closely. When I asked why I should watch my steps, he told me about the thousands of tunnels underneath the forest that are yet to be discovered. “Many people fall into the tunnels because they are covered with leaves.” In the middle of World War II, Germans made a system of tunnels under Kranj for protection under bomb attacks. We stayed above the tunnels, but just knowing they were underneath us was fascinating.

Our next hike was to the top of a mountain glacier above Lake Bohinj. One of the guides opened a metal box and in it were a few pens and a journal. He asked me to sign the journal. “Everyone who climbs these mountains signs a different journal so if something happens, we know who was here.” From up top we saw beams of sun shining on the village below and the lake in the distance. This breathtaking panoramic summit was named after the priest Valentin Vodnik. It had magnificent views of the Bohinj basin and surrounding Julian Alps mountain range. The Julian Alps were named after Julius Caesar. The second highest peak is 2,775 meters high, which lies in Italy. Lake Bohinj is the biggest lake in Triglav National Park, the only Slovenian National Park. Looking out onto the high altitude mountains with deeply cut glacial valleys, lakes, rivers and gorges was a hiking extravaganza. Lake Bohinj is rich in forestry and picturesque villages, coupled with nature protection and conservation.

International Education Week Zagreb Presentations – Week 14

During late November, International Education Week, also called Global Education Week, is celebrated worldwide. College of DuPage holds many activities including presentations, workshops and films to highlight a variety of topics. For example, one of our COD English faculty held a discussion on the history of East Berlin and the “Fall of the Wall” in 1989 when Germany reunited, citing East German writer Christa Wolf, “was bleibt,” or what remains as a starting point for students’ discussion. It also an opportunity to highlight the benefits of joint initiatives between the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education to promote programs that prepare Americans for a global environment and attract future leaders to study, learn, and exchange experiences.

Participation is welcome for all individuals and institutions interested in international education and exchange activities, including schools, colleges and universities, embassies, international organizations, businesses, associations, and community organizations.

You’re Live On Camera

I was invited to present in a series of IEW events at Education USA in Zagreb; Ana Uglešić asked if I was interested in delivering a Facebook Live presentation on the US Embassy Zagreb website. I quickly responded I would love to! Before getting on another bus (it’s about 3 ½ hours from Zadar to Zagreb), I prepared a series of PowerPoint slides on the American Community College system, covering topics in placement testing, course schedules, transfer information and academic advising. I showed up to the Education USA office in the evening and met a videographer and staff before the bright lights turned on and I was on camera.

The time went quickly as I passionately discussed the definition of a community college and ways for international students to study at community colleges in the United States. I encouraged international students to apply to community colleges they may be interested in: https://www.facebook.com/zagreb.usembassy/

I began the FaceBook Live presentation with a video clip: “What’s it like at College of DuPage,” a Youtube video I helped script with our COD Multimedia Services department this past summer: https://youtu.be/bAXrt20-CVQ

Next, I explained a brief history of community colleges in the early 1900s. Croatia is not familiar with the community college system, and I reviewed how two-year community colleges signaled a dramatic change that expanded educational opportunities for all.

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) is the primary advocacy organization for the nation’s community colleges. The association represents nearly 1,200 2-year, degree-granting institutions and enrolls approximately 13 million students — nearly half of all undergraduates in the United States.

Community colleges are often called junior colleges, technical colleges, two-year colleges or city colleges. From the beginning, these institutions were often called “the people’s colleges,” because they helped to level the field for students wishing to pursue higher education. They provide a tertiary education, or continuing education, granting certificates, diplomas, and associate degrees. States with the largest number of public community colleges are California, Texas, North Carolina, Illinois, and New York.

State universities typically offer bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs. Community colleges are student centered and offer courses students can use for general education requirements. (example GE’s: Psychology, Biology, Sociology) You can then transfer to a four-year university to finish your bachelor’s degree.

Community colleges serve multiple missions—from workforce training, to remediating students in preparation for higher education, to community enrichment.

Community colleges offer students the opportunity to save money, prepare for transfer to a four-year college, get ready for a career, and take advantage of a flexible schedule.

How do I apply?

I encouraged students to apply at least one year in advance to ensure they have enough time to complete the steps to enrollment before the start of the semester.

Each type of student requires a slightly different application process. It is important to spend time researching a variety of community college websites. Read the descriptions carefully and click the one that fits you best to give you a brief outline of your admission process.

New students seeking admission to a specific program often have to provide appropriate transcripts and participate in placement assessment to meet prerequisites or corequisites, unless an exemption is met. When new students are able to meet the specific admission requirements for a given curriculum, they may then be enrolled in that curriculum and remain in the program as long as they make satisfactory progress and remain enrolled on a continuous basis as required by their curriculum.

Testing, Testing

Even programs that are open enrollment do not automatically register students for college-level classes. While community colleges provide higher education for all, they have standards that students must meet to advance academically.In order to determine if developmental course work is necessary, most community colleges require placement tests, such as:

  • College Board’s ACCUPLACER
  • ACT’s COMPASS
  • State-specific tests like Florida’s College-Level Academic Skills Test (CLAST)
  • The college’s own tests

The SAT or ACTmay also be used for placement purposes. At some community colleges, students who achieve certain SAT or ACT scores may be exempt from taking placement tests in reading, writing or math.

Some programs are selective and have limited enrollment. They usually have a separate application and specific admission requirements. Selective programs are primarily found in these fields:

  • Nursing
  • Allied health
  • Law enforcement
  • Engineering technology
  • Computer technology

Qualified high school students may dual enroll in structured pathways that lead to a certificate, diploma, or degree.

Registration

Registration can be done online or in person. You may schedule registration through an established online account. Students are given login information upon registration. There are several staff members and faculty here to help in the process.

Cost

Community colleges provide a quality education without spending as much money as university students. For example, at College of DuPage, the cost of tuition is $137 per credit hour; most students register for a 12-15 credit hour load. The costs can be itemized as approximately $3,000 for tuition and $1,500 for books, supplies and fees. Students would also need to provide their own off-campus housing. It is still a fraction of the price compared to university costs. Scholarships and financial aid packages are also available to pursue. I told students to look into multiple ways to gather financial aid.

Transfer

Nearly two-thirds of all students entering a community college plan to transfer to a four-year institution, according to the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE). Most community colleges offer a transfer program designed to steer students toward an associate degree that will allow them to transfer to a college with junior status. But successful transfer ultimately depends on whether the courses taken meet the requirements of the particular major at the four-year college the student selects.

Most community colleges have articulation agreements that will accept credit hours. It is an advantage because you can have multiple degrees from the United States – this can ultimately increase language skills and cultural capital when you return to your home.

International Students

I wasn’t sure of all the particulars regarding a F1 Student Visa, but know this type of visa is issued to international students attending an academic program or English Language Program at a US college or university. Students with a F1 Visa maintain a minimum course load for full-time student status. Again, I encouraged students to check specific community college websites for requirements.

I also prompted students to investigate if a community college may offer an upcoming webinar, workshop or college fair to gain more information. What is the location of the community college? Are you interested in this region? Does it have industry that you may be likely to work nearby?

Class Size

One of the reasons I love teaching at College of DuPage is the relationships I build with students. This is due, in large part, to our smaller class sizes. Faculty at community colleges are not required to teach enormous sections of 200 0r 500 students with TA’s like in universities. Instead, at community colleges we are student centered and the main focus is on teaching. We can pursue publication opportunities and conference participation, but it is not required. Class sizes are typically 20-35 students depending on course of study, labs, workshops, seminars and online courses.

Why Choose a Community College?

The best advice I can provide for students who plan on attending a community college is to take as many college-preparation courses in high school they can. Students who do their best to prepare, will most likely score well on whatever assessment tests they may be required to take, and be in a much better position to move forward and achieve success in their college careers.

Community colleges offer accessibility, academics and access to all students wishing to pursue a higher education. Overall, we’re here to help students follow their dreams and make the most of their college experience.

Coffee Break

The next day I completed another presentation on Service Learning at Education USA. This presentation was given in-house, to a number of staff members interested in pursuing a SL curriculum. We discussed scaffolding, support and services when forming partnerships within the community as it is tied to the curriculum. After a few  hours, Ana asked if I would like to go out for coffee. Of course, this is an important part of Croatian culture! Ana commented that Croats are hedonistic when it comes to consuming coffee, which is one of the reasons why there are more cafes than restaurants. “We’ll sit for hours drinking coffee and talking with friends. It is part of our daily routine. It is part of our culture. Even when we ask someone to go out for coffee, it is really synonymous with any type of drink, not just caffeine.”

She was a delightful host and I could talk with her easily. We both commented that it felt like we’d known each other for years. Ana took me to a gorgeous café called Kavkaz Kazalisna Kavana. She asked me if I thought it was “swanky,” an adjective my grandfather loved to use. And I had to say, “Yes!” As we strolled down the street, it’s hard to believe the surrounding area used to be all swampland. We came upon The National Theater, a bright yellow ochre colored building built in 1895, that really stands out across the street from the café. The theatre is located in the Lower Town on Trg Republike Hrvatske, or Republic of Croatia Square. This square is the last in the arc of eight green squares that formed Lenuci’s Horseshoe. Well-known Viennese architects Ferdinand Feliner and Herman Helmar were responsible for the plans for this building and they did an exceptional job.

Kavkaz has a terrace overlooking the theater, but because of the cold weather, we enjoyed the interior, a modern twist on an old word cafe decorated with fantastic costumes from the national theatre.

Bread Basket

Another great benefit of walking and talking with a local Croat like Ana is sharing bakery tips. Like coffee, bakeries dominate the Croatian landscape. You can’t walk 10 feet without smelling freshly baked bread. It really is sensory heaven. Franchises like Starbucks and Subway have not even approached Croatia, knowing that the local food and drink are the best!

Ana recommended her favorite, Pekara Dubravica in Zagreb. It was located right outside Hotel Dubrovnik and you can buy all sorts of delicacies, from burek and pizza to cakes. And this bakery was unique because it sold pre-packaged salads. I couldn’t resist and bought a brown grain salad with fresh carrots and cheese, but added a small crescent roll to my order as well (can’t resist the bread!).

Fulbright Friends

Another benefit in traveling in Zagreb is visiting my fellow Fulbright friends Carmen and Tiana. They are both stationed in Zagreb and we met this past summer at the Fulbright orientation in Kansas City. Reunions are welcome when living in a foreign country for several months. Carmen suggested a local restaurant outside of the market. It was small and most tables were full – a good sign. The menu was primarily fish, with a few side dishes. Carmen ordered fish soup and blivete, a potato and spinach style side dish. Tiana and I opted to order the fried fish.

However, before we could decide on our food order, our waitress approached us with a vengeance. “What do you want?” she quipped. Well, um, plese give me a second to decide. I just sat down. “So three soups?” She clearly wanted to rush this along and not chit chat.

I responded, “What is in the soup?” She clacked back, “Fish soup. So three soups it is.” No, I was not interested in fish soup, so I asked if they had another type of soup. She looked at me like I had asked her for $1 million, and turned to walk away. We looked at one another, not knowing what to do next, but since Carmen had been to this restaurant previously, she said she had interacted with the crabby waitress before. When she came back to our table 10 minutes later, Carmen tried to diffuse her anger by asking, “How are you?” The waitress echoed, “How am I? I do the same thing day after day, after day. How do you think I am?” Silence. We placed our order and Carmen asked for water, quickly clarifying tap water. The waitress fired back, “You pay for water in a restaurant. The only water I will give you is in coffee. You want water? You pay.” So Carmen and Tiana ordered bottles of sparkling water and I ordered a Coke (naturally).

The shrimp came minutes later, with tails, legs, heads and beady eyes, overflowing on the platter. The waitress banged the plates down on the table and some of the shrimp jumped off the plate onto the checkered tablecloth.

We exchanged stories about teaching and Carmen shared some devastating anecdotes about her research in Osijek, a village hit very hard by the war. She had taken students to visit a home for the elderly and heard some horrible stories of women who witness graphic violence within their families. Carmen told us about the struggle of belonging, particularly when the Serbs took over the Croatian housing, marking the outside of the doors with a Serbian symbol and when the Croats came back to “reclaim” some of what they had lost, it opened even more wounds in the village. Even today, the cafes and bars are designated by locals for Serbs only and Croats only. If you are interacting with “the wrong side,” there could be trouble.

And Tiana told us about her teaching observations and presentations at Zagreb’s American Corner. Due to the lengthy school strike, her Fulbright assignments have been moved around, cancelled and disrupted. She continued to make the most of her time in Zagreb, but was looking forward to a set schedule. She also talked about navigating discrimination within Zagreb and shared some disturbing stories about how she has been approached over the past several months. It brings to light a lot of cultural awareness, tolerance and issues to think about as the world continues to change. Tiana is a brave and strong young woman. I admire her tenacity throughout this experience. Sharing our collective narratives reminds me how important it is to pause for a brief lunch and reconnect with friends who appreciate and support one another.