I am taking a month long backpacking trip through the Balkans.
When I decided to study abroad, I basically just wanted to experience something different than the relative monotony and institutional elitism of Princeton. It was time for a change.
These have been the most exciting months of my life. While this is not the retrospective post that will come in due time, this is the end of a chapter of my time overseas.
As I’ve just turned in the last assignment of my study abroad, I’m free to do whatever. A blank slate – a situation and opportunity that I am extremely thankful for.
Studying abroad was something new and different when many of my friends back home were too busy, too ambivalent, or too disdainful of other schools to leave for a semester – and I sympathize with those whose schedules did not allow them to do so.
Out of the places I’ve visited so far – my favorites have been the places that were a bit off the beaten track for tourists – Lisbon, Mallorca, off-peak central Switzerland – and the trip with my sister. I keep seeing pictures of fellow study abroaders in front of the Eiffel Tower, la Sagrada Familia, and on the London Eye – and I’ve visited similar popular places to be sure.
But using the same “new and different” reasoning, I wanted to be the only person I knew to have ventured into some new place. The Balkans are on the other side of the spectrum – the area in between the triangle of Croatia, Greece, and Turkey is a bit of an enigma for me and the only way for me to fill in those gaps is to visit.
These countries are less stable and established (the breakup of the Soviet Union and the wars of the 90s) than those that I visited earlier – but that only increases the allure for me. I want to go and see things that were previously inaccessible (and still are logistically challenging). For instance, up until 1991, Albania banned private vehicle ownership, and the number of cars in the entire country was in the few thousands. Corruption is more rampant and the currencies are less stable (though everything is cheaper). I’ve dealt with more arcane regulations and new currencies in the past 72 hours than I have in the rest of study abroad combined.
In one of my first posts, I:
…just decided to meander through the city. I just walked whichever direction seemed the most interesting to me. So far, this was the most liberating experience of my first two weeks here in London…No one knew where I was. No one cared (at least in the immediate sense) what I was doing. No one could contact me… There was no one else to pull me away from my intended path. My experience was exactly what I wanted it to be.
This is like that – but on a whole different level. Instead of being alone on Tower Bridge, now I’m alone in rural Serbia. Still no phone service or internet during the day. I have an offline maps app (which is 100% the best and most important thing of my entire time abroad, thanks Yicheng – it is google maps without internet, it works in tunnels, airplane mode, and abroad).
Petrovaradin Fortress overlooking Novi Sad, Serbia
One of my favorite parts of Serbia is that dandelions are EVERYWHERE – both yellow and white. In tourist places, parks, or just anywhere there’s grass.
Lepenski Vir – a Mesolithic archeological site in Serbia
Djerdap National Park, Serbia
It’s so out of the conventional tourist path that there’s nobody to take my picture.
The road from Zagreb to Belgrade felt exactly like the I-5 from LA to the Bay Area. Exactly like it. Farms and desert and trucks and super super fast speeders and passing and bugs on the windshield and air conditioning and length.
However, the cars are a little different. First of all, cars are smaller in Europe, especially the existence of mini and economy cars, which are dinky little things that are probably dangerous to drive at high speeds. Because of this, they go below the speed limit on freeways – something unfathomable on a deserted rural stretch. The speed limit was 75 mph. Most people were coasting at 78-87 mph. The economy cars would go 62 mph. And the crazy drivers would go almost double that, nearing 110-120 mph. That is really fast – you can’t even hear them until they have already passed.
Also, for some reason, everyone in Belgrade just parks in the middle of the street. All surface roads (no matter how many lanes) effectively become one lane because people just park in the middle of all other lanes. In addition, they just drive onto the curbs and park there too. Since there is congestion due to these practices, they just drive on the train/tram tracks and treat that as a separate lane.
Хрватска и Србија су прилично добар у говори енглески у близини центра града – али било је питања изван града. Ушао сам у ресторан само у малом граду на око 1п изван Загреба. Било је прашњава напоље и осећао се као Џон Вејн кафани или Нев Мекицо кафеу или тако нешто. Била су два велика џентлмен пушење и пијење и буље у мене као што сам ушао. Их прошао сам јер није било никог другог. Као што сам направио га у другој соби, видела сам конобарицу (око 40 година стара жена која је вероватно помогла води место) и одржао сам свој прст указује “само један.” Почела је говорио на хрватском. Хтео сам да одговори на шпанском, који из неког разлога деси кад год чујем било који други језик. Ја питам “енглески?” Она је изненађен, пита њеног колегу у кухињи, онда пита господо пушење, онда се врати и одмахује главом. Ја гледам у њу. Она зури назад. Ја слегнути раменима и осмех. Ми смо у пат позицији. Она се осмехује. Ја стоп насмејани. Ја указују на врата и уста “Идем да идем.” Она се смеши и таласи. Толико за јело тамо. За другачији вечеру, конобар није разумео реч “воде”, али је он баш разумео реч “пиво”, тако да је оно што сам добио.
Croatia and Serbia have been pretty good at speaking English near the city center – but there have been issues outside of town.
I walked into the only restaurant in a tiny town at about 1p outside of Zagreb. It was dusty outside and felt like a John Wayne tavern or New Mexico café or something. There were two large gentleman smoking and drinking and staring at me as I entered. I passed them as there was no one else there. As I made it into the second room, I saw the waitress (about 40 year old woman who probably helped run the place) and I held up my finger indicating “just one.” She started speaking in Croatian. I wanted to reply in Spanish, which for some reason happens whenever I hear any other language. I ask “English?” She is taken aback, asks her colleague in the kitchen, then asks the gentlemen smoking, then comes back and shakes her head. I stare at her. She stares back. I shrug my shoulders and grin. We are at an impasse. She smiles. I stop smiling. I point to the door and mouth “I’m going to go now.” She smiles and waves. So much for eating there.
For a different dinner, the waiter didn’t understand the word “water” but he did understand the word “beer” so that’s what I got.
In celebration of my 25th post, I added more stuff to the counter.
- 15,294 – Words written on this blog so far
- 16 – UNESCO World Heritage Sites (Westminster, Tower of London, Kew Gardens, Sintra, Tower of Belem, Stonehenge, Bath, Serra de Tramuntana, Sevilla Cathedral and Alcazar, Toledo, Brú na Bóinne, Swiss Alps Jungfrau, Florence, Pisa, Venice, Skocjan Caves)
- 9 – Personal phone numbers that I’ve used as my primary number on study abroad (+44 7598736659 [UK], +44 7404245455 [UK old], +1 310-809-2668 [USA], a +1 (661) number on Skype, +351 915-406-195 [Portugal], +34 602-695-139 [Spain old], +34 611-291-985 [Spain new], + 41 76-735-8909 [Switzerland], +39 3273549533 [Italy])
- 8 – Football matches (Crystal Palace x2, West Ham, Tottenham, Sporting Lisbon, Arsenal, FC Luzern, England National Team)
- 6 – Airlines flown (United, British Airways x5, Ryan Air x3, Air New Zealand x2, airberlin, Easy Jet)
- 6 – Currencies used (British Pound, Euro, US Dollar, Swiss Franc, Croatian Kuna, Serbian dinar)
- 11 – Countries (UK, Portugal, USA [it counts], Spain, Ireland, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia)
- 20 – Times crossing a national border
- 11 of 20 – Passport pages used
- 36 of 98 – Days of study abroad spent outside the UK (through Apr 14)