Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Thanksgiving Letter to My Family

 Thanksgiving may be the holiday whose intent is most easily (and deliciously) drowned in gravy and sweet tea. However, it's important to remember the 'thanks' portion of the Holiday, not only as you sit down to your meal and say grace, but also throughout the day. It's so easy to take for granted the affluent, comfortable, secure lives we live at home, that it sometimes becomes difficult to remember what we have to give thanks for, particularly in challenging times.

So keep in mind while you cook your Turkey with an electric pressure cooker, in your house which is heated by gas, driving your car on smooth roads, passing police who don't care where your license plate came from, to stores with more varieties and brands of cheese than guests you are expecting for dinner—there are few places in the world that a feast such as this is possible. We are blessed enough, even in the hardest times, to live in the country that stands above all others. Every bet was and is against it; but yet it stands. 

So for Thanksgiving I will be sharing some stories of Thanksgivings past with my students; both Serbian and Albanian. At the same time I'll be dreaming of a little turkey with a lot of gravy, some potatoes (with a lot of gravy), some oyster casserole (I'd find a way for gravy to make an encore here, too). But most of all I'll be missing the company of the family I share the meal with. 

And one other thing is absolutely certain: the fact that I'm spending this Thanksgiving away from my family means that I'll savor next year's with a special relish. 

I hope you all eat until it hurts, and don't forget the pumpkin pie! 

I love all of you and I can't wait to see you all around Christmas.


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Back to the blog

Although I know with absolute certainty that nobody, not even Chinese spambots, persists in checking this site for updates, I am going to update it again anyway.

Starting with an attempt to upload a lot of photos for which I will give no context or explanation until some future date, I am going to give some basic update and over view of the last 6 weeks or so.

In my constant attempts to become a hipster, I brought a 38 year old 35mm film camera so I could pretend to be a tourist from 1973 instead of a tourist from 2011.  I remember using a film camera when I was a kid, although it was a much more highly automated machine than this old Nikon.  The experience of taking photos whose results will remain a mystery for quite some time is a huge adjustment from digital.  If I screw up a digital shot, I erase it and retake on the spot.  If I screw up a film shot, I've lost the opportunity completely.  The lag between exposure and development for some of my photos was almost exactly 2 months.  Needless to say, getting the film back was quite a rush.  The entire time it was at the lab I was covertly worrying about the quality of the staff at the store-- "What if they screw up all 5 rolls?"

Perhaps it's this emotional and chronological knot that makes me feel more strongly for my film work than my digital stuff - but I have found, of the 180-odd photos,  a much higher probability of what I'd consider a "very good" shot (at least for my skill level).  With the film results, I am proud enough of perhaps 25-30 of the 180 to share them.  Of course about 40 are abysmal or worse.  But with digital, I can (and in the past have been to known to) snap 600-1000 photos in a single day.  Out of that mind boggling number, I'll end up with 25-30 I am proud enough of to share.  On a great day, with the right subject, maybe I'll get 100.  But that still leaves my "hit" percentage at between 2.5-10% with digital, and at around 20-30% for film.

Of course there are a dozen reasons for that.  Digital cameras do everything for you, making it easy to run through a place with the shutter button held down, snapping a photo of everything that moves and a lot of things that don't.  With a fully manual camera and lens combo, combined with film's time lag, each shot is a commitment.  I have to stop, focus the lens, read the meter, decide what range of apertures I have available given the light, and then decide if I think the meter is giving me information for the kind of shot I want to take. 

The end result is this: the idiot-proof modern digital camera actually creates idiot-shots.  The completely cumbersome and anachronistic film camera forces me to pay enough attention to my photos to get good results.  It's really quite amazing.

This is a complaint I have read in a few places, mainly those writing about the transition from film to digital.  Anyone who started out with film cameras instinctively thinks that the best thing about digital is the ability to take as many photos as you want for FREE! It's an incredible breakthrough (especially when I just paid more than $10 per roll just to develop film, in Croatia).  And the symptoms of mid-life transition between film and digital are easy to see in someone like me.  Of course I was young when that happened, but I was certainly old enough to have wasted a lot of money on film and developing (rather, lots of mom and dad's money).  One of the first things I thought of, even when I was 8 years old, was "holy cow, it's free to see the pictures and it's instant!"  The first digital camera I saw in person used 3.5" floppy disks as memory.  I remember thinking about how cheap they were compared to film...

Anyway, the photos I'll be posting are all scans from film.  The black and white I'll post are conversions from color film scans.

I hope you enjoy the photos as much as I have enjoyed taking them.  Perhaps they'll do a better job of describing the places I am passing through than any words I can hammer into a keyboard.

Above: Zagreb Kaptol Cathedral exterior wall, Croatia.
Zagreb Cemetary on All Saint's Day, Croatia
Zagreb Kaptol Cathedral, Croatia
Random Austro-Hungarian style door in Belgrade, Serbia
Belgrade (Beograd) Central Train Station, Serbia
Archangel Gabriel church near the Partizan Football Stadium, Belgrade, Serbia
Belgrade Central Railway Station Platform, Serbia
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, Bulgaria
Wall beside a road in Štrpce.
Men playing chess in Kalmegdan Park, Belgrade, Serbia. 
Zagreb Cemetary, Croatia
Zagreb Cemetary, Croatia

Zagreb Cemetary main gate, Croatia
Zagreb Cemetary wall, exterior, Croatia
Zagreb Kaptol Cathedral outer wall, Croatia
Zagreb Kaptol Cathedral outer wall, Croatia
Fountain, Kalmegdan Park, Belgrade, Serbia
Men playing chess in Kalmegdan Park, Belgrade, Serbia
Gavrilo Princip graffiti, near Belgrade Central Train Station, Serbia
Fire Salamander, near Štrpce, Kosovo.
Belgrade Central Railway Station platform, Serbia
Serbian Train (Zheleznitse Srbije) at Belgrade Central Railway Station, Serbia
Sofia Synagogue, Sofia, Bulgaria
Red Star Football Club graffiti, Belgrade, Serbia
Saint Sava Temple, Belgrade, Serbia
Austro-Hungarian style doorway, Belgrade, Serbia
Belgrade Central Railway Station, Serbia
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, Bulgaria
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, Bulgaria.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, Bulgaria
View from my apartment window, Štrpce, Kosovo.
 Another view from my apartment window, Štrpce, Kosovo.
Orthodox church (left) next to Mosque (right), Ferizaj/ Uroševac, Kosovo
View from my coffee cup, Štrpce, Kosovo.
Mountains between Prizren, Kosovo and Štrpce, Kosovo.
Mosque and river in Prizren, Kosovo.
Another view from my apartment window, Štrpce, Kosovo.
Zagreb Kaptol Cathedral façade, Croatia
Zagreb Kaptol Cathedral façade and candle sellers, All Saints' Day, Croatia
Zagreb Kaptol Cathedral façade, Croatia
All Saint's Day Procession, Zagreb, Croatia
Danube and Sava river confluence, Belgrade, Serbia.
Archangel Gabriel church, Belgrade, Serbia
Inside Archangel Gabriel church, Belgrade, Serbia
Unfinished/ Abandoned Orthodox Cathedral, Prishtina/ Priština, Kosovo
Trail and wall near Štrpce, Kosovo
Abandoned structure in a pasture, Mount Sharr/ Šar, Štrpce, Kosovo

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Pictures from the Field of Blackbirds (Field of Kosovo, Battle of Kosovo, or Kosovo Polje)

Today's adventures centered around a visit to a landmark whose existence has weighed in the conscience of both Kosovars and Serbs for six centuries-- the Field of Blackbirds, Kosovo Polje, the site of the defeat of Balkan forces against Ottoman invaders in 1389.  

On this field between 40,000 and 70,000 men perished in only 8 hours' time, and along with them the two Sovereigns who led them to battle - Tsar Lazar of Serbia and Sultan Murat I of the Ottoman Empire.  When the dust settled the battle was effectively a draw, but the Balkan forces had been completely decimated. The demolished Ottoman army laying on the field represented only a fraction of Ottoman military might, and thus (what was at the time) Serbia fell to the Turk.  

It seems that any chance of an objective account of the battle also perished on the field, for depending on who tells the story, the man who killed the Sultan (Milosh Obilich, Miloš Obilić) was either Serbian or Albanian.  He may have stabbed the Sultan when he came to survey the casualties; alternately he may have asked for an audience with the Sultan and stabbed him when Murat offered his ring to be kissed.  A third version has Obilic charging through a line of the Sultan's stunned bodyguards to stab him in the heart.  No matter whose account attracts you, the result was the death of the only Sultan ever killed in battle.  

The field itself offers few clues as to the horror that unfolded here.  The land is almost conspicuously lacking in geographic features.  It's as though the land is making penance for its historical notoriety by becoming geographically bland.  The last of my photos here show Sultan Murat's tomb here-- although only his viscera were ever buried here (the rest of his body was buried in the Ottoman capital of the day, Bursa, and it remains there to this day).  The 'tomb' itself is now maintained by the Turkish government, and has been well restored.  

On a site nearer the actual battlefield stands a monument called the Gazimestan (Gazi- heroes, mesto- place = place of heroes) Monument, intended to memorialize the Serbian soldiers who fought and fell there.  In more recent history, the monument served as the backdrop to one of Slobodan Milosevic's most infamous speeches, called the Gazimestan Speech, which is seen by many as one of the many warning signs leading up to the Yugoslav conflicts of the 1990s.  

The monument is now guarded by about a dozen Kosovar police, who ask for passports before permitting entry to the facility.  Once allowed inside, their interest in Andrew and I seems to have subsided entirely.  We made our way up the stairs within the monument, lined with Serbian inscriptions of mysterious character and origin, to the observation deck atop the monument.  From here we got a bird's eye view of the field itself (the otherwise nondescript photo of a plain).  Additionally, it was easy to see the immense amount of noxious smoke pouring from the Kosovo A Power plant (the plant with 6 thin smoke stacks)-- notoriously the single largest point source of pollution in all of Europe, its effluence chokes Prishtina in the winter and blankets everything with a fine layer of dust that only the untreated exhaust of lignite coal can produce.  From the monument it almost seems possible to taste the dust.  Kosovo B stands to its right, a more modern looking plant, ostensibly somewhat less destructive.  Our cab driver explained Kosovo A best when he described it as a "catastrophe."  In a sense it seems to be a manmade disaster operating in slow motion. 

The tomb of Murat (last half of the photos) and associated museum provided some interesting insights into a side of the story that has gained little sympathy with people in this region-- the Turkish perspective.  The small tomb housing Murat's remains belie very little of his importance (he was only the third Ottoman Sultan-- grandson to Osman himself).  We were greeted within the tomb by an elderly woman who spoke no English (and of whose native tongue we were equally ignorant).  This barrier seemed to present no impediment to her, and she proceeded to explain a great deal to her effectively deaf guests.  A few minutes into our guided tour, a younger man joined her, and began translating some of what she was telling us into English.  Outside he pointed to a massive black mulberry tree, said to be over 400 years old, and rendered barren of fruit during the last two seasons due to the power plant's pollution.  He also pointed to a small graveyard near the tomb, each marked with the surname Turbedar - tomb-keeper in Turkish.  The woman who had been speaking with us was also a Turbedar, of the same family that had been maintaining this tomb for nearly six centuries.  

Kosovo A doing what it does best (which I must say does not appear to be 'production of power')

 The field of Kosovo, or field of blackbirds (who were said to have dealt with the bodies of the thousands of solider who fell here in their characteristic way)
 Kosovo A visible again-- Kosovo B vaguely visible off to the right

 Another of Kosovo A and part of the Field of Blackbirds from atop of the Gazimestan monument
 Stairs inside Gazimestan Monument - they look sturdy enough. . .
 Entrance to Gazimestan Monument -  notice the striking broken sword motif!
Gazimestan from the bottom of the walkway leading upward.  Strange tubular growths appear to be examples of the Socialist aesthetic.
"Whoever is a Serb and of Serb birth,
And of Serb blood and heritage,
And comes not to the Battle of Kosovo,
May he never have the progeny his heart desires,
Neither son nor daughter!
May nothing grow that his hand sows,
Neither dark wine nor white wheat!
And let him be cursed from all ages to all ages!"
Inscription on Gazimestan Monument, Tzar Lazar

 Signature of Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan in a visitors' book within the guest house/ museum.
 Sultan Murat (center, with turban) and various 'historically enhanced' soldiers in uniform (Turkish soldiers did not dress this way for battle, our guide assured us- but these costumes made for a better museum display)
 Monogram of Sultan Murat I (All Sultans had a special imperial seal/ monogram in highly stylized Arabic script.  This one is one of my favorites for its simplicity.)
 The black mulberry tree.  Split down the middle, the Turkish government sent a tree specialist to attempt a repair.  The results are admirable-- the concrete looking addition to the center of the trunk is actually a tar-sealed cloth painted to blend in with the tree, and the red concrete supports seem to be working to prevent any further collapse of the trunk.  Interesting symbol-- a tree that rots and collapses from the inside out-- reminiscent of the Ottoman empire five centuries after Murat's death.
 Tomb and casket of Murat (note the huge turban on the opposite end).
 Explanation of funding and restoration of the monument.
 Another of Murat's casket.
The outside of Murat's tomb