Friday, April 25, 2008

The Best Quality of Life

Zurich has been voted the city with the "best quality of life." I would have to agree! I travelled with my friend Mary (neighbor who works at US Steel) to Zurich for my 2nd ever marathon. I had originally signed up with encouragement from my friend Jamie, but after she broke her arm, she didn't think she would be able to train and I was left without a running partner. Luckily, Mary was a sport and went along for moral support.

Upon arrival in Zurich, we both immediately noticed the increased air quality due to the mountains, lake and smaller population. We immediately took public transportation (which is fast, spotless and on time) to our hotel, and then lugged our luggage up the 15 minute stairstep hill to our hotel. In the morning, we woke up to a FANTASTIC view of Lake Zurich!

In exploring Zurich, we marvelled at the old buildings, tried out the different forms of transportation (tram, bus, train, cogwheel train, and finally boat). The old town was exactly what you would expect from Switzerland. Narrow streets, old buildings, and all sorts of watch shops and banks. We browsed the shops, walked through the "preferred" neighborhood of Zurich, and then hopped on a city tour. There were all sorts of interesting Swiss facts... perhaps the most shocking to me was that only 30 % of Swiss people own their own home. The rest rent. Imagine if you were one of those 30 %! They must own two or three.

After our day of exploring Zurich, we took the ferry back to our hotel (yep, the ferry). While on the ferry we saw all sorts of sailboats, and I was finally convinced that it was OK to have the rail in the water... they all put their side rails in the water! We had a fantastic (though not cheap... nothing there is cheap) Italian dinner in preparation for my Sunday morning race and I did my best not to think about the run.

The morning of the marathon was beautiful, and again I took the train to the race start (I was quite enthralled with the incredible public transportation). Immediately, I noticed that EVERY person at the race start looked like they might win the race. They were all in incredible shape and wore fancy sweat suits. I started to get nervous, as I wasn't sure I could finish 26.2 miles, let alone in a decent time. Luckily, there were tons of people along the race course and lots of bands to keep me moving. That along with the views of the ALPS kept me moving (barely) to the finish. It HURT!

After the race, Mary and I weren't ready to be done exploring Zurich. We hopped on the train again and headed to the largest volume waterfall in Europe. I was busy scouting it for runnable kayak lines as Mary was amazed at how fast the water was moving. It was beautiful and the perfect afternoon in the sun.

Zurich pretty much shuts down on Sundays so we grabbed some pizza (again, NOT CHEAP) and headed to bed. It was an great weekend and I now know why Switzerland gets such great press!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Brother Bonanza

Although I haven't updated in a while, it is not for lack of adventures, but for lack of time. Brother John made the trek to Belgrade for a bit of culture and fun on the beach. It was great to show someone around Belgrade and to hear comments from someone who doesn't live here. It is amazing the things that seem normal to me now. John was fantastic at translating the honking cars into angry honks, "hello" honks and honks just to let other drivers know that they are there. I had forgotten how much honking there is here. I was also shocked to realize that the lines (or lack there of) in Belgrade no longer bother me. Instead of politely waiting in line for check-out counters or to get on/off the bus, you push your way through. John was probably horrified to see my lack of social graces as I shove along with the best of them. Luckily, he was a good sport and braved the super crowded trains to visit the coast.

John and I headed to one of the best places around.... the Dalmation Coast. I had been to Montenegro before, but never to Dubrovnik in Croatia. Many of the small coastal towns have charming old towns from the pirate days. Dubrovnik's old town was nearly destroyed in the fall of Yugoslavia, but has been meticulously redone, and is now a fantastic place to visit. We walked the walls, explored the town and hiked to the top of the largest hill we could see (braving the possible land mines and snipers). We were rewarded with beautiful views into Bosnia and out to sea. Incredible.
Upon return to Belgrade, we did some of the sightseeing that I never get around to in everyday life. We discovered Tito's grave, and wandered the streets of Belgrade. It was fantastic to have family here, and my friends and I were all sad to see John go home!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Belgrade In Spring

In lack of any recent adventures, I thought I would share a little about life in Belgrade during spring.

It has been absolutely beautiful in Belgrade the past few weeks. The trees are blooming and grass is green. I am very impressed with the Magnolia trees in my neighborhood. The flowers are fantastic!

The other great thing is that after a winter of staying indoors, it seems as if most of Belgrade is coming out to enjoy the nice weather. The parks are packed with exercisers and families, and the bike paths become traffic jams. My neighbor and I went on a bike ride out of town and took advantage of a boat that will transport bikes across the Sava River for one US dollar. I like anywhere that lets you take a bike on a boat!

Additionally, my coworkers and Belgrade friends are all very excited to get outside to enjoy the weather. We have had barbeques in the local parks, and are now starting up Sunday Ultimate Frisbees beneath the town fortress. That's right, we play frisbee while looking at the Danube and the fortress that marked the northwest corner of the Turkish Empire. It is pretty surreal.

This week at school, we are celebrating Spirit Week. As Student Council advisor, I am in charge of trying to organize 70 unmotivated Middle School students into playing lunch games and dressing up. Every day students are a little more motivated. They especially enjoyed creating fun hairstyles with shaving cream. Today, I wore all of my kayaking gear for "sports day." Most of the Serbian students have never even heard of river kayaking, although they have seen sea kayakers in the local rivers.
The Roma in town have also been taking advantage of the spring cleaning. I was quite impressed that this man was able to transport a COUCH on his bicycle. I wonder if someone would make me a bike rack like his.

The exciting news here is that my brother is coming to visit next Wednesday. I can't wait to have a visitor!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Fred-Thoms are at it again!

Last weekend, I cruised up to Vienna to meet up with the Albuquerque Thomsons (and Libbiey's boyfriend, Duff). I convinced two of my coworkers (Tessa and Eric) to ride the train up with me as they had not seen Vienna. I have to reiterate how much I love the night trains. You fall asleep in Belgrade, and wake up in a whole new world. We took off Friday night and returned Monday morning in time for work, and only a little bit cranky from lack of sleep.

Vienna is an incredibly beautiful city, and I was constantly at a wonder over how well all of the public transportation works (Belgrade's is spotty at best). We all bought 24 hour metro tickets for our self guided tour. Perhaps the most impressive part of Vienna to me was the Summer Palace. It was an incredible estate and makes me wonder how Vienna could spend so much money and energy to house it's royals for a portion of the year.

I was also blown away by seeing a true Weiner Schnitzel (apparently Weiner just means "of Vienna"). I had always thought they are some sort of Bratwursts, but boy was I wrong. Apparently they take some pork, pound it until it is super thin, and then bread it. They serve it on not very big plates so the Schnitzel hangs over the edges. It was quite the experience to watch people it it (I refrained). I did, however, discover that nearly all vegetables in Vienna are pickled. Every time I ordered a meal, it came with pickeled vegetables of some sort, and quite often potato salad as well. Food in different countries always is an experience in itself.
I have now been back for a week of work. It really wears me out to go out of town for the weekend, so I will be sticking around this weekend!

Sunday, March 2, 2008


In wake of recent events, a coworker and I decided to get out of Belgrade and visit Sofia, Bulgaria. You may ask yourself, "Who goes to Sofia?" but we found it a friendly, town with plenty to see for two days.

We took a night train from Belgrade arriving early on Saturday morning in Sofia. Luckily, our hotel had agreed to let us check in early so that we wouldn't have to carry our bags around the city all day. Our hotel was a "boutique" hotel with nice rooms and a shower over the toilet (who knows how you are supposed to keep the toilet paper dry). As we read the Sofia City Guide that recommends restaurants, bars and sights, we discovered our hotel under the heading "Gay and Lesbian Night Life." What does that mean?

On Saturday, we did a city tour with our friend Adam. He showed us the churches, told stories about the old buildings, and gave us an American living in Sofia view on life there. We were impressed with the food, prices, and the fantastic climbing store!

Sunday, Tessa and I again met up with Adam for a trip up the mountain just outside of town. This is what Belgrade is missing. There is a gondola, accessible by public transportation, that goes from Sofia up to the local ski mountain. The gondola was old and rickety, but it definitely made Sofia seem to be a great little city.

While Bulgaria is a VERY poor country (much poorer than Serbia), it has had recent development due to it's acceptance into the EU. Many Brits have moved to Bulgaria, buying up ski condos and real estate that goes for less the $50,000 for a slopeside chalet. Additionally, Sofia is putting in a bid for a future Winter Olympics. Who knows, Sofia could be the next big deal!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Poor Serbia!

It seems as if Serbia will never get away from their "bad guy" image. First of all, I am totally safe in my little nook of Belgrade, and have yet to have a negative encounter due to being American. Living here during this politically unstable time has really given me a different perspective on all that is going on with Kosovo, so I thought I could share.

When talking with Serbians (and you better bet I ask questions about Kosovo all the time, both with my climbing friends and among coworkers), all are very against the Radical Nationalists that often appear on TV. However, they do find it sad that Serbia is losing Kosovo as it has historically always been a part of Serbia, even before the boundaries of Yugoslavia were drawn after World War II. While there is no escaping the wrongs done on both sides (Kosovo Albanian's and Serbians) during the ethnic cleansing of the nineties, they feel as if Serbia is getting the short end of the stick. Back in the 90's the Ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo were the first (with the Kosovo Liberation Army- KLA) to attack Serbs. Of course the very Nationalist Serbians struck back until NATO bombed Pristina and Belgrade to stop the madness.

Many of the people I have talked with admit the wrongs that Serbia did during this time. They do, however, wonder why the problem was not taken care of almost 10 years ago instead of NATO governing the stagnating Kosovo all of this time. From fellow American's, I have heard that Serbia lost the "moral right" to govern Kosovo. I don't necessarily feel it is that black and white. In the meantime, Kosovo is the real loser as it currently has over 50% unemployment and almost no economy to speak of (aside from the money it gets from the Albanian mafia). Hopefully it will get some help in the near future to get back on its feet.

All of the issues have come to a head as of last weekend when Kosovo declared independence with the backing of the US and parts of the EU. Other countries such as Spain, Russia and even Canada are not recognizing Kosovo as independent yet as they have areas of their countries that they hold on to by a thread (51/49 in Canada). Yesterday, 300,000 Serbs swarmed to Belgrade- on busses with Serbian flags hanging in the windows and on the free trains from the country- for a "peaceful" demonstration that included lots of talking in Serbian followed by a prayer ceremony at Sveti Sava, the largest Orthodox church in town. During the demonstration, fewer than 100 protesters stormed embassy row downtown and attacked the Croatian, US, Belgian and even Canadian embassies. Many of the protesters were young, drunk men who, after burning the US embassy, proceeded to ransack all of the street alcohol vendors and then steel some nike shoes from a local sporting goods store. I believe they were just young, drunk and caught up in the excitement.

The news is magnificent with its ability to twist the story. CNN began by calling it a "Peaceful Serbian Demonstration" to by the end claiming it was "Anti-American Protests" after showing the same five minutes of footage for three hours. We sat in awe in my apartment, flipping from the live, fairly calm Serbian footage to the CNN replays of the fire in the US Embassy. Moreover, a few days ago, BBC recorded Serbian President Boris Tadic as saying "Serbia will protect Kosovo's boundaries with any method necessary." When I looked up the speech, I realized that they cut it off before he could say ".... except war." That is some selective editing for you.

As far as my safety, I have not had any negative encounters on the streets (and it is very apparent that I am NOT Serbian). The US Embassy has yet to evacuate anyone, and I am headed with a coworker to Bulgaria to enjoy my extended weekend and get away from some of the craziness. Perhaps I should start a movement of all of my friends to some little-known piece of paradise, rise to the democratic majority, and then declare independence... it could be my own little way of becoming president.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Skiing in the Alps

It occurred to me while on my February break that I have now accomplished a life long dream.... skiing in the Alps. Jamie, Ethan and I headed to Italy and Switzerland to meet up with Bryan (a friend of mine from Seattle who is living in France right now). It was the trip of a lifetime!
We realized that for three people, it would actually be economical to rent a car and have a little freedom on a big road trip. As this was my first time renting a car, it made me feel OLD. It was a 12 hour drive to our condo, and the journey was half the fun. On the way to Cervinia, we stayed at an old prison that has been converted into a hotel. It is in a super funky/artsy neighborhood in Ljubljana. Our cell was complete with bars over the door.
After our jailbreak, it was Cervinia or bust! Driving into the Alps, we finally got a view of the Matterhorn (the biggest reason we decided to ski at Cervinia and Zermatt) which got bigger and bigger as we neared the mountain. As it turns out, our apartment for the week was set at the BASE of the Matterhorn, and the entire ski area had fantastic views of the mountain. I would hate to count the number of times I looked at the Matterhorn and was blown away by how impressive it is.

Our six days of skiing were fantastic. The weather was beautiful and we all had a great time... believe it or not, six days didn't seem like enough skiing. We even enjoyed "apres ski" a few days, complete with a live band and some great dancing.
Although we were sad to leave the mountains, we had more adventure awaiting us on the way home (not to mention my legs were shot from all of the skiing). To break up our drive home, we planned a night in Venice. While Venice has never been on my list of cities to visit, it was incredible. Driving into the city, Jamie and I were trying to navigate while Ethan drove to our hotel. Finally, Ethan made the comment, "maybe we can't drive to our hotel." Sure enough, we had to take a boat! The canals were fantastic, there really were gondolas, and we travelled everywhere around Venice by boat. What a strange, but interesting city.

We arrived back in Belgrade to find all sorts of excitement over the split off of Kosovo (more on that later). The trip was the trip of a lifetime, and I am ready to ski again before the end of the year!