Tag Archives: travel

Travel! Adventure! Montenegro & Croatia

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Communist Hotel welcomes you with charming interior decorations.

Now that I’m in the last few months of my Fulbright grant the fact that I am going home soon (July 31st!) is starting to hit me. Ever since I moved to Macedonia I’ve been pretty relaxed about travel; I thought about going to a lot of places around Eastern Europe, but never did because it seemed more important to me to sit around with my host sister, drawing and baking cookies. (I think this was a good choice, still.) But now that I can say I will be home month after next, I feel a new panic about travel. I need to see ALL the places!

I dealt one small blow to my list of Eastern European Countries I Will Probably Not Manage to Visit by going, last week, to Montenegro and Croatia with Albania’s two other Fulbrights. We started the trip in classic Albania style, with a furgon ride up to Shkoder where we spent the night in a former Communist hotel. The next day we took a bus to Ulcinj, in Montenegro, where we were able to indulge in my #1 Favorite Travel Activity (eating food in a bus station) before catching another bus to Bar and then on to the resort town of Sveti Stefan.

Sveti Stefan. So much pretty!

Sveti Stefan is actually a small island connected to the mainland by an isthmus. I think the island is closed – someone mentioned this to us, and wikitravel confirms – but the day sitting on the beach, then looking out over the island while we had dinner, was perfect. I am becoming a big fan of traveling in the off-season, because we had the place mostly to ourselves, with just a few other tourists and locals on the beach in the afternoon.

Kotor – from halfway up the old fortifications.

The next day we caught a couple more buses up to Kotor. Our hostel was located in the Old Town, hundreds of buildings smushed within the city walls – walking around Kotor almost felt like being back in Italy. After a coffee and a few hours spent sitting waterside reading The Help, we laid out a few euros to climb the old city walls. Such a cool thing to do, and since the last time I climbed up a mountainside to look at a town was when I lived in Diber, the hour-long climb was weirdly reminiscent of those Peace Corps days. The waters in the Bay of Kotor are so deep that full-size cruise ships can be brought in, which was unsettling – I am pretty sure the Old City was only a few times larger than those ships.

In Kotor. Ridiculous!

From Kotor, Dubrovnik. More beaches, good food, and lots of gelato – including some from a shop owned by Albanians from Gostivar. This was my first glimpse of the benefits I’ll reap from knowing Albanian, at least if I hit some pizzerias on Staten Island (or, let’s face it, anywhere on the East Coast) – free gelato! free pizza (I hope!)! Plus the pure joy of meeting someone who lived so close to my Peace Corps home.

Dubrovnik! Full of pizza, gelato, and tourists.

Especially when we were in Croatia, I was struck by what a good job people have done building up the tourism industry and making these places accessible to visitors. I couldn’t help comparing Sveti Stefan, Kotor, and Dubrovnik to Macedonia’s main tourist destination, Ohrid, and feeling kind of glum about Macedonia’s development. My parents loved Ohrid when they visited in 2010, but it still doesn’t compare to these other sites in the Balkans – what shot does Macedonia really have at tourism dollars, when its claim to fame is an overcrowded lakeside town?

I’m at risk now of overthinking these things, so back to other subjects…like how my host mother one-rang my phone yesterday, and then did a great job guilt-tripping me into a visit (soon!) when I called her on skype. A trip back to Diber can’t really compare to these other travels, in a touristic sense, but it will still be one of the best.

Collecting thinker stones.

Abs of Steel, Albania Style

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When I lived in Macedonia I devoted a fair amount of time to grumbling about volunteers who complained about the gym in their city. “Your site has a gym?! And you’re complaining?!

Of course, after four months living in Albania’s capital I’ve developed an impressive ability to complain about even these luxuries. You know: the Italian grocery store doesn’t have my favorite flavor of Italian yogurt, I had to go to the second-closest grocery store to buy my peanut butter, there were too many Americans at the bar last night, the English-language novels at the bookstore ten minutes from my apartment are too expensive…

And, the gym. Hoping to reverse the effects of two weeks spent eating a half pint of Ben & Jerry’s a day, plus huevos rancheros for breakfast, followed by a few days of pizza and gelato, followed by more pizza and gelato, I signed up at the local “Ladies Gym” with my fellow Fulbrighters when I returned from Christmas vacation. Apart from the fact that I’ve packed on five pounds* (not muscle) since joining, things there have been going well… though the gym has more in common with an apartment building manager’s grudging concession to a difficult rental market than to an American-style gym, with its three ellipticals, three treadmills (one that threatens to send you hurtling into a weight station as it inexplicably changes speed every few minutes), five bicycles, and a few weight machines.

I have some poor memories of gyms in America. There was the day I realized I had to do my sit-ups at home, if I didn’t want a nineteen-year-old boy at the college gym ogling me while I tried to hide the effects of my burrito and beer habits. There was the way I always timed my apartment complex workouts for the same hour cleaning staff were passing through the gym/library. There were all my old high school classmates I had hoped never to see again, but did after joining my hometown’s gym to kill time in the two months before my Peace Corps departure.

Still, nothing quite prepared me for the Albanian gym. The equipment may be the same, but the mentality is different and centered on not sweating. Our first night at the gym the two trainers took us through our paces: ten minutes on the bicycle, ten minutes on the elliptical, ten minutes walking on the treadmill, ten minutes of sit-ups. Done! The next day we were to return to learn how to get abs of steel; but being Americans, we figured we’d get our fifty dollars’ worth and spend some more time on the treadmill. As we jogged, the trainers stood by our sides, repeatedly urging us to lay off, or to run for just two minutes and then walk for ten before heading home. They did a poor job of hiding their fear that we were about to have massive heart attacks after running a kilometer.

Don’t get me wrong. This gym does some things that American gyms don’t do and should, like encouraging everyone to use the weight equipment, and demonstrating how to use the equipment and how to do a variety of horrible ab exercises. But it took us about a week to press in that we were going to come in and do what we wanted, regardless of the widely held belief that more than two minutes of cardio will drop us. My greatest tactical error was revealing, one day when I went in alone, that I knew Albanian. An hour later I found myself struggling not to weep as I neared the end of my thirty-minute ab routine, then nodded meekly as my trainer pointed to one of the bikini-clad women whose photos plaster the walls and told me that I could look like her if I tried hard enough.**

Still, the Albanian gym does offer its pleasures, and a number of unique exercises you won’t find at any American gym. There’s struggling to change into your shorts before the cleaning lady comes into the locker room to keep you company. There’s trying to pick your way through the seemingly non-stop step classes that have cruelly been positioned between the treadmills and the bathroom. There’s running through the cloud of smoke billowing just outside the gym doors – smoking apparently being a widely recognized form of “lung training.” When I return to America, and am once again feeling inadequate for being the least healthy person in the gym (surrounded by women running six-minute miles for, like, an hour straight), I bet I’m going to miss these things.

* To be fair, this was probably the fault of my Ritter Sport Diet (see: dark chocolate Ritter Sports went on sale at the grocery store for a buck a piece) more than my joining the gym. It turns out that while a block of dark chocolate a day may be good for you, an entire bar a day mostly just gives you a muffin top.

** It was at this point that I thought I should explain photoshop, and being politically correct. But, no.

Getting Lost in Rome

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Oh, man. I am really bad at writing blogs now. About a month ago I promised my mother that I would write something here, and there are things to write about (mostly about rain, and what Albanian gyms are like, and spending two weeks hunting Tirana for basmati rice [I am spoiled, but also the rice suddenly vanished off the shelves of my favorite grocery stores (it’s back now)]), but I’m actually supposed to be posting pictures from my trip to Rome.

So! After firmly declaring that I was going to spend my third Christmas/New Year’s in the Balkans, my parents said I could come home, I booked a ticket, and a week later was sitting in South Jersey eating tater tots and fake chicken nuggets. Life was good: for Christmas we went to see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (for the first hour every gray-haired sixty-ish man looked the same to me, making it hard to follow the plot) and eat Indian food; I went to the library and read new books I thought I’d have to wait six more months for (Zone One, The Marriage Plot, and also an old book – The Blind Assassin); I went to New York and nearly cried because the city was too big, and also got on subways going in the wrong direction a couple times; I bought a bunch of shoes, since neither Albanian nor Macedonian shoe stores cater to the giant-footed; and I ate a lot of baby Reese’s cups.

After all this exciting stuff I got on another plane, headed for Rome. I stopped in Rome mostly as a matter of convenience, because last time I was flying out of the States I kept getting interrogated about whether I was allowed to enter Macedonia. (When you are going to a country no one has ever heard of, they won’t believe you when you present your Macedonian identity card and say that, no, you don’t need a visa because you have THIS CARD SAYING I DON’T NEED A VISA.) I was still waiting on my Albanian residency permit (which now that I’ve picked it up, wouldn’t have helped matters – it’s just a sheet of paper, and while an Albanian would understand that it says I can live here through December 24, 2012 [yeah! only, I am not staying that long], a USAir employee couldn’t) and it seemed easiest to play this little trick and spend a few days wandering around Rome.

Rome is, if you’re wondering, a great city for those of us with no sense of direction. Each evening I carefully plotted my course for the next day, drawing my walking routes from one attraction to the next, and each morning I would set off only to be utterly and completely lost within the hour. Even these tiny roads are scenic and worth walking along, though, and when I stopped panicking about finding the Trevi Fountain or some highly praised pizzeria or gelatario, I was able to enjoy my six hours a day of aimlessly wandering the streets of Rome. After two and a half years of living in places that are beautiful and welcoming but that don’t have many “touristic places,” it was strange/wonderful to walk down streets that hadn’t even been mentioned in my guidebook but offered sights like ornate fountains set into the corners of buildings, and little piazzas with more fountains and statues, and beautiful churches. I never found the pizzeria I was searching for, but while on the hunt I stumbled into a different pizzeria filled with a crush of people, and picked up a slice with tomato and mozzarella that I am still dreaming about. And yeah, after I did that (the second time) I may have gotten completely lost and wound up standing next to the river across from the Vatican, when I had intended on walking in the other direction (I had just come from the Vatican), but everything seemed to work itself out once I had a piece of pizza or a gelato in hand.

I’m not a great travel writer – apologies – but it seems worth noting that I found a little Skanderbeg Square in Rome, just by the Trevi Fountain. If you have ever read my blog before, you’ll remember that Skanderbeg is the Albanian hero, and that Debar had a statue of Fat Skanderbeg in the town center. Other things:

  • the Vatican Museum. When the guidebook says to buy your tickets in advance it means, really, buy your tickets in advance. To avoid the two-hour line to enter I joined an overpriced group tour, and after that ended spent the day wandering the museum. The Vatican has really figured out this museum racket, so I would like to now offer this guide to museum curators/fundraisers who aren’t too concerned in the quality of their visitors’ experience: instead of labeling exhibits, set up little bookshops throughout the museum, where visitors can spend 13 euros to buy a book describing the artwork. This totally works. It got me, though I clearly still harbor some resentment.
  • The Trevi Fountain, beautiful but would be more beautiful if it were not constantly surrounded by two thousand sweaty tourists straining to take photos without dropping their gelato.
  • There are many, many restaurants in Rome serving bad Italian food. I guess this is what happens when you don’t have to worry about creating repeat customers?
  • The gelato!
  • Best thing I saw: The Capuchin Crypt, by far. At one euro this was one of the cheapest places I went, a crypt decorated with monks’ bones. Very, very cool.
  • Rome, like Philadelphia, has a subway system with exactly two lines.
  • St. Peter’s Basilica, beautiful. I first tried to go after visiting the Vatican Museum, in mid-afternoon, but the line looked a few hours long. Went back around 8 or 9 am the next morning and walked right in. This is a nice place to have to yourself, if you can manage it. Also, how much money went into the Basilica? (That this was my overarching concern as I walked around is further proof, as if we needed any, of my non-religious mindset.)
  • After walking around this very cool museum near my hostel (about one block from Termini Station – both the hostel and the museum, I mean), admiring all the old-timey statues, I realized that I needed to join a gym.

So, that was my visit to Rome! Toss in a couple of unsatisfying bouts with overcooked penne, my subsequent visits to The Schwarma Stand for falafel sandwiches (I am that person who went to Rome and ate non-Italian food…sorry), trying not to think about what was clogging the hostel’s shower drains, and my fury that Italians, unlike Albanians and Macedonians, won’t allow you to get a macchiato in a big cup (if you ask they will give you an Americano…at least they will if you’re American), and you’ve got the complete picture. It was a nice four days, but it was maybe slightly nicer to return to Tirana, where I immediately* went out for a lunch that cost, like, three dollars.

* Explanation: I accidentally turned off my refrigerator before leaving for the trip.