Greetings all. I currently find myself with plenty of time on my hands to devote to writing a travel update, and so that is what I have decided to do.
My last post ended with me leaving for Berlin to pick up my passport. Well, I went to Berlin and was successful. I was granted a new passport. Two days later we left for Croatia. For those of you unaware of the history of the former Yugoslavia, I will try to explain it briefly. The conflict that occurred there in the 90’s formed the backdrop to our visit. As far as I understand things, the state of Yugoslavia was established after World War II and a communist government quickly came to power. The government remained in power until the late 80’s when the party chairman and dictator died. This left a power vacuum. The nations that were part of Yugoslavia began to initiate claims of national sovereignty and movements for independence began. The member nations of Yugoslavia were Croatia, identified primarily as Catholic, Serbia, primarily Orthodox, and Bosnia, primarily Muslim. The claims by the Croatians and the Bosniaks were that the Serbs dominated the combined nation (the capital was Belgrade, which is in Serbia). In the early nineties Croatia declared independence and Bosnia followed suit. The war that followed was not a war between the nations themselves, but was mostly a civil war in Bosnia. After Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia, the large Serbian minority living in Bosnia declared independence from Bosnia. The war that followed was between pro-independence Bosnian (and Croatian) troops and pro-Yugoslavian Serbian troops (who were supplemented by a good part of the Serbian army and other para-military groups). The American point of view is, generally, that the Serbians were the aggressors and the Bosnians the defenders, although this is not even close to a perfect delineation since war crimes were committed by both sides. The war ended when Clinton ordered air strikes against Serbian forces and other military targets which forced the Serbs to back off. Clinton then negotiated the Dayton accords, signed in Dayton Ohio, which was supposed to end conflict in the region. Probably the most famous conflict in the war was the siege of Sarajevo. Sarajevo is the capital of Bosnia, and when war broke out many of the ethnic Serbs living there joined the Serbian army. This army surrounded the city, which is situated in a valley, and kept it under siege for several years. It was unsafe to walk the streets because snipers were shooting to kill civilians. Many foreign journalists stayed in Sarajevo in order to cover the war, and NATO’s response is largely due to the reporting that was done from the city.
Anyhow, we left Leipzig at 5:45 a.m. Thursday March 25th and headed to the airport. The “we,” in this case, was all the students plus Ron, Janine, and Kevin Kehl. We flew from a regional airport near Leipzig to an international airport in Stuttgart. We flew from Stuttgart to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. We were picked up by a local church planter associated, in some way, with ACU, named James. James drove us to the center of the city where our hostel was located and we got lunch and then went on a tour of the city. Zagreb, I thought at first, was a fairly ugly town. It is dominated on one side of the River by giant communist era apartment buildings that were built to house as many people as possible. The other side of the river, however, is a little more unique. The first place we went was the cathedral. Everything in Zagreb was basically rebuilt in the late nineteenth century after an earthquake destroyed almost everything, so the cathedral is fairly new. It is, however, built in the Gothic style. It was absolutely beautiful. I think it is probably my favorite cathedral so far in terms of interior decorating. It just had beautiful paintings and artwork. There was also a wall with an inscription in the ancient Croatian language, which hasn’t been used in over a thousand years. We then headed to the center of town to the main city square where assorted important things happen from time to time. In the square is a statue of a horse being ridden by Ban Josip Jelačić. He was a nobleman of some sort who rose fairly high in the ranks of the Hapsburg Empire in the mid nineteenth century when this area was ruled by the Hapsburgs. The story goes that he was doing his thing when, for some reason, he got the shaft from the Austro-Hungarian elites. This pushed him a bit into nationalism where he rallied the people of Croatia to (a brief) independence. They thought he was so awesome they made a statue of him, put it in the main square, and faced it the direction of Vienna as sort of a provocation to the Austrians. When the communists came to power after WWII they made the Croatians take down the statue. So they did and they dismantled him into his sundry pieces and he was stored in the cellar of this old couple’s home. When Croatia declared independence in the early nineties they got him back out and this time faced him in the direction of Belgrade. We walked around the town and saw the remnant of the wall that, in the medieval times, had separated the religious city from the secular city. We saw a statue of St. George killing a dragon. According to James they have some sort of fascination with England’s saint even though there is close to no connection to England. It was actually a very cool city with all sorts of secret staircases and tunnels. At some point we emerged into a section of the city that looked the same as the rest of the town, but this one had a large Croatian flag. It turns out that the unremarkable building we were standing in front of was the parliament building and next to it was the president’s office. I keep trying to get my head around the size of these little countries. I looked this up later, but apparently Croatia’s population is slightly higher than four million. I just don’t understand how that few people get have their own country and their own military. Maybe that’s part of the problem. After that we made our way to the national theater house. It was a very beautiful yellow building. I got some good pictures of it and they are up on Facebook. The next day we slept in pretty late (having left early in the morning the previous day) and made our way to the market. Most of the group dispersed at some point earlier in the morning, but Trey and I hung out in the market looking for good stuff. They had all manner of fruits and vegetables and other assorted delights sitting around waiting to be sold and eaten. The most fascinating part of the whole affair was when I purchased a half wheel of goat cheese. The stuff was super delicious and that, along with some bread and apples, served as the majority of my meals while I was in Zagreb. It is an interesting cultural shift from America (though there are farmer’s markets) or Germany, where you wouldn’t find a market very often in the center of a big city, to find a market in the center of the capital of the country. I guess, to me, it seems a little below the dignity of such a place. But, nevertheless, it was tremendous fun to sit out in the sun in the main square eating my apples, fresh bread, and goat cheese. Other than wandering around, eating pizza and gelato, and people watching, I didn’t do much in Zagreb. It was very good to relax and, believe me, what came next was far from relaxing.
On Monday the 29th we arrived in Sarajevo (capital of Bosnia) and had a bible study with some Bosnian students about love and reconciliation. I am not very sure I agree with what we did. I know that Sarajevo was a place of enormous conflict and destruction, and reconciliation and love needs to be talked about and lived out, but I hate even the perception of coming among a people that I have no rapport with and trying to tell them how to live, which is one reason I am glad that there weren’t many students at the bible study. Part of this stems from my reluctance to do that sort of thing, even when the trip is clearly a mission trip. But, ACU isn’t even a church and our study abroad experience is not a mission trip; it’s about academics and learning. In the context of what we are, a group of students and professors studying international culture and relations among people, I feel uncomfortable with this sort of overt Christianization of our efforts. It’s like we are baptizing our academic experiences. I’m ok with learning from the ministry workers there in Sarajevo, like when we visited Fra Ivo, a Franciscan, but I don’t like coming in and appearing like I have all the answers, and I sort of resent being put in that situation. Our contact person in Sarajevo was a woman named Anisa who is an ethnic Muslim (Bosniak) and who became a Christian at some point. She runs a student ministry in Sarajevo trying to build bridges between the differing ethnic groups. She gave us a tour of the city on Tuesday. Something about Sarajevo is that it is extremely easy to navigate. The river runs through the center of the city in the lowest past of the valley. The river runs east to west and there are two major roads, one on either side of the river, that also run east to west and west to east. So, if you just make your way down to the river, by going downhill, you will never be lost. She showed all of us the city center. It is mostly dominated by the newer Austrian architecture of the Hapsburgs, but in the very center of town in the Turkish quarter. It is the oldest part of the town and was built when the Ottoman Empire had control over Sarajevo. This was probably the best part of the trip and very likely my favorite place in all of the travels I have done this semester. This place, in part due to law, still looks like an old medieval city with narrow cobblestone streets, open air shops and markets, street vendors, and much more. It was absolutely astounding. I took lots of pictures. I also purchased my first souvenir of the semester: a hand carved metal coffee grinder. Turkish coffee is probably the greatest thing ever. The grind their coffee until it has the consistency of powdered sugar, so when you brew it a lot of the silt gets into the cup. It is so strong and so delicious. I can’t wait to make it. We also visited the Franciscan Monastery and the brewery that was built by the Franciscans. Both the monastery and the brewery were very pretty. Walking through the city, though, showed us ravaged buildings, bullet holes, graffiti, and the harms of war. It is hard to believe that something that horrible happened only fifteen years ago, and it is even harder to believe that the passage of fifteen years hasn’t done much to fix the place. The town just made me uneasy. I was walking around next to people who had killed each other not long ago. My unease continued to grow on me until I just wanted to get out of there and go somewhere that made sense. I just want to live somewhere that there is order and security, where the police and politicians are not corrupt, and where bullet holes and dilapidated buildings don’t fill my view. Returning to Germany was good. Going back to the US will be better. And, if that makes me sound ethnocentric or arrogant, then so be it. Being in Sarajevo made me lose faith in the ability of humans to control themselves. This was evident by the amount of foreign military personnel present in the city. They had the EU insignia on their uniforms, but they might be there as part of a UN mandate. I feel like violence could erupt again at any moment, Fra Ivo the Franciscan told us all about the nationalistic politics that are still predominant, and is only restrained by the military presence of the West. A better example is the standing army of UN peacekeepers that, right now, protect Kosovo from Serbian aggression. What would happen if they left? I don’t really want to think about it.
We left Sarajevo on Thursday morning, April first, and took a train to Split, which is in Croatia and is on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, right across from Italy. It was absolutely gorgeous and was clearly the nicest of the cities we had visited in the Balkans yet. We stayed in a hostel that was built into the wall of Emperor Diocletian’s palace. He was the last emperor to persecute Christians. But, clearly, he lost because just down the street is a cathedral. We were there on Good Friday, so we were able to go stand just outside the cathedral and listen to beautiful chanting. It may be the most beautiful music I have ever heard. We really did nothing in Split except eat and sleep and walk around. It was very nice to relax after the darkness of Sarajevo. We left Saturday morning and returned to Germany. We landed in Berlin and got through customs just fine, except they told us we only had two weeks left to be in the country. We knew that the rule was that you had ninety days to be in Germany before you had to leave and not come back for another ninety days, but we were told that if we left the EU (Bosnia and Croatia) and then came back, the clock would restart. This is, apparently, not the case. And so, now, we are pursuing getting an extension for our time in Germany. It doesn’t seem like that will be difficult, just rather inconvenient as it will involve waiting in a government office all of Monday morning next week. The next big thing will be the Rome trip starting next Wednesday and lasting for a week. I will do my final update after that trip, although I may attempt to do a “final day” update much like I did a “first day” update as my first post. I will be back in the States on May 5th, which is twenty-five days from today. I am very much looking forward to it.
See y’all in less than a month,