Radio Free Europe

The other day, our professor arranged a visit to Radio Free Europe for us. We arrived there and after a long process going through security, we were warmly welcomed by a woman named Larisa who is originally from Kyrgyzstan. She started to give us a short over view of what they do at Radio Free Europe and the various countries they broadcasted to (some strictly through the web because media laws are so harshly controlled). Walking through the halls I could recognize many people of Central Asian origin and I heard Russian from one end to another. The entire building was filled other beautiful photography of people and life from places like Israel, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Afghanistan and many more places.

Our day started with a discussion with a communications specialist named Joanna who described to us how they are making efforts to use communication as soft power for change. Later a journalist came in who is a native Pakistani. He started to tell us about the progress being made in Pakistan, even though they are very small and gradual. Particularly, he told us of a situation that their reporters covered that had to do with a dispute between two Pakistani tribes, this family dispute was supposed to be settled by marrying the 6 year old daughter of one family to a member of the opposing family. Parents of the girl contacted officials in Pakistan and even reached out to the media saying they do not want to settle the dispute at the price of losing their daughter, that she was too young and too innocent to be married. Due to the reach of the story, the marriage was dissolved and the girl was returned to her family.

I heard this story and I started getting angry. So many injustices in the world and there are only so many people shining light on them. I sat there and I thought that this is where i want to be and this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to help people. After our discussion, the journalist showed us their recording studio and we were taken for a lunch period break.

Upon our return, we met Larisa again. With her, this time, was another journalist. He was originally from Kazakhstan and he was a family man. Besides his, the majority of the people we met weren’t wearing wedding rings and did not hint at having families. He told us of his daughters and started to tell us more about Central Asian politics, disputes, economics, progress since communism and much more. He was an expert, and he spent much of his time studying the area and learning about the regions strengths and weaknesses.

Then it came time for questions. After a few questions were asked, I decided to ask him for his opinion. He was a journalist and worked in media so he had to have more resources than everyday people. So I told him that my family is from Samarkand, Uzbekistan. And for the past few years my grandfather has been in search for his dad who served in World War II for the Soviet Army. My grandpa had been searching for his dad for the last few years and now that he is getting older he talks about his life in Uzbekistan so much more. But his dad was killed, they never found out where he was deployed to or even where he died. So I asked him how likely he thought it was we could find this information to bring some closure to my grandfather.

He looked at me and he said, “Wow, young lady, you have touched my heart.” He was trying not to tear up as he explained to me that he was over forty years old before he even saw a photograph of his grandfather, and for the past several years he has been trying to find his uncle’s and brother’s remains. He looked at me and he said, “it’s not likely but it’s not impossible, you should always try.” He asked what our last name is and he looked at me and said “almost every family in the former USSR has a story like this and it is an incredible tragedy.”

As our questions continued, he ended our conversation by looking at me and saying “please send my kindest regards to your family, I wish them nothing but the best and I hope to meet them someday because I am sure we lived the same life.” And for those brief moments that we had the pleasure of speaking, I felt like I had found a little piece of home.

Wow Budapest, Just Wow.

Budapest was the city I had no expectations for when I found out I was going. I didn’t know much about Hungary as a country or even what to expect from the city. It was our last trip and I was more looking forward to the fact that it was scheduled during the middle of the week (meaning we would miss an entire week of classes) rather than that I was going to Budapest.

My lack of expectations made Budapest the easiest city of all to fall in love with. This is it, I thought to myself, this is the city I would live in. In fact this was the conclusion that a majority of my classmates came to as well. Out of all of the cities we’ve been to, this was the city where I saw the biggest diversity of people, cultures, fun, new experiences, and the most interesting foods.

Almost all of the people we interacted with spoke English, and they were nice to English speakers. It was incredibly pleasant. We even ran into 2 different people from Washington…both from WSU. For the first time in Europe, we experienced incredible service. The city was polite no matter where we went, whether we were paying customers at a restaurant or hanging out at the local bar, we met nice people everywhere.

During our first two nights, we visited two Turkish baths. On the first night we went to a co-ed bath with our entire class. What we quickly realized was that the baths were grounds for young men to meet women, and for the elder people to relax. After leaving the locker rooms, you are lead outside where there are 3 large pools decorated with fountains and waterfalls. One for swimming laps, another warm pool, and the last pool is the hottest. If you go inside, there are smaller pools with various minerals. Further inside there are steam rooms and saunas that get progressively hotter as you move towards the end of the rooms. During the second day we attended male and female separate baths, they were much smaller and more intimate. Swim suits were optional for these baths.

We visited countless memorials and monuments. We visited the Hungarian Parliament, the House of Terror museum about Communism and Nazism, a beautiful cathedral, and the largest synagogue in all of Europe (second largest in the world), as well as two caves.

I’ve never been so mesmerized by the luxury of a synagogue before. To be honest, luxury isn’t what I think about when I think synagogue. Usually what comes to mind is simplicity, history, time, and culture. This synagogue, unlike most I’ve seen, didn’t look like it had been around for long even though it had or that it was simple. This synagogue was large, beautiful, luxurious, and very elite with a Rabbi who was well known all over the world.

Food and night life in Budapest is incredible. I’ve eaten some of the most interesting foods there like roasted duck breast topped with goose liver. I ate the traditional goulash, tried Shark with my friend Nate, and ate at an Israeli Hummus Bar. No matter where you ate it was all delicious, you couldn’t go wrong. While researching places to go have dinner during our last night, I was missing home cooked food so I looked up Russian restaurants. What I found was incredible. The one Russian Restaurant was probably the most elite and expensive place in the city. Their specialty was caviar and they served it with crepes, of course. 250 grams of the finest black caviar at this restaurant would cost roughly 160,000 Forint (not including tax and tip this is about a 730 dollar meal). As much as I wished I could dine there, I decided it was definitely out of my price range: http://www.aranykaviar.hu/Restaurant+Budapest/The+Restaurant/Awards/.

We finally found a bar in Europe that served tequila and we smoked the most light and delicate sheesha. It was a relaxing bar atmosphere and incredibly unique and original.

In addition to all of this, Budapest had the most beautiful views of the city compared to every where else we’ve traveled.

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Berlin, Baby!

Berlin amazed me. This city is incredible for so many reasons. Berlin is full of life, love, culture, history, and kind people. In our last few trips we were blessed with beautiful weather, however I knew this wouldn’t be the case for Berlin. So I started the trip without caring about the weather. I knew that if I love this city in rain and wind, then I’d love it in the sunshine.

Berlin museums were impressive, and consistently impressive at that. From the DDR museum to the Jewish museum to the Stasi museum there was a consistent level of quality and status present. Beyond museums, it is challenging to remember how many memorials we visited in our 4 days. One for Jews that died in the holocaust, one for gays and lesbians who died in the holocaust, one for the gypsies that died in the holocaust, one for the soviet soldiers who fought in World War II (about the size of an American football field), another for those who died trying to climb over the Berlin Wall, one to remember where the burning of so many books were burned that didn’t conform with Nazism, and one for the people who were buried in a cemetery that was paved over. There is so much history with in each one of these memorials, each one tells a story and evokes emotion in their own way.

An interesting part of Berlin’s culture is its food. If you think American portions are absurd, it’s time to visit Berlin. They are on a whole different level of portion sizes, and beyond that each meal is served with an entire liter of beer. Who can complain? Beer in Berlin is amazing, I’ve never been a beer lover but in Europe I’ve learned how to appreciate beer for when I get back to the states…in Europe, however, I don’t just appreciate beer–I love beer.

Berlin is an incredibly artistic city. Years ago, Seattle was covered in pig statues that were decorated by different groups…a similar phenomenon has occurred in Berlin with the Berlin Bear. There are bear statues all over Berlin, and all painted with their own message or purpose. Besides this, Berlin is host to the famous Eastside Gallery where various artists from all over the world were asked to paint murals on the Berlin Wall, most of which have strong political, moral, religious, or even artistic messages.

The most amazing part of our trip was probably the two day bike tour. We easily biked 50 miles in 2 days across Berlin. The sights were incredible and the weather, though sometimes unpleasant, didn’t phase our excitement or amazement.

During one of the coldest nights in Berlin, as we put an end to our bike tour for the day, our professor kept trying to get us out for ice cream. We were all cold, wet, and ready for a hot shower. Still, we decided to go an experience what we thought would be the best ice cream cone of our lives…right? Definitely not, this was no ice cream cone. This was what Willie Wonks would serve you if his chocolate factory specialized in ice cream. Delicious, amazing, heaven, sugar overload, and yes…definitely the best ice cream of my life are just a, few ways to describe this experience.

I can’t wait to return someday. Scroll further down for a few photographs from the trip. Until next time.

Xoxo,

Eliza

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Auschwitz

I feel lost still as I write this. It’s hard to know where to start, I’ve been putting off this post for so long that I’ve come to the point where it needs to be written, put out there, and then accepted. I’ve been struggling with the acceptance of it all. Too many emotions have come and gone leading up to the visit, during the visit, and after. I’ve tried to understand everything and spent countless hours rethinking the experience and still I can’t come to understand what I felt.

In the days leading up to the trip I was nervous, worried and expecting the worst. I had come to accept that my afternoon that day would be spent in tears and a state of reflection. As we arrived, and I looked around, I realized that my emotions were not something I could predict and definitely not something I should try to predict. I didn’t cry, I was in disgust. I felt sick to my stomach for the duration of the visit. All I thought about during the visit was how uncomfortable I am and that I can not wait to remove myself from this place containing such a horrible past.

When we arrived at the camp we stepped off the bus to find this sign:

The most significant part of this sign was the ending: “Please behave appropriately, respecting the memory of those who suffered and died here.” If only this sign dictated the reality of our surroundings. We came to find that Auschwitz was now a tourist attraction. There were easily one thousand other visitors. Each one following a guide, and herded through the same rooms as quickly as possible. It was a means to make money. All I could think about was how much my grandpa would have hated this, how disappointed he would have been…and it broke my heart.

Needless to say, I was disappointed with the overall experience. I stepped off the bus to find people laughing, enjoying a nice lunch, young children playing, taking pictures of each other and a complete lack of respect to the lives lost. I was surprised to see a large group of Israeli students between the ages of 14 and 21 behaving in the same way: laughing, playing, goofing around.

Beyond the environment created by the visitors, we had the unfortunate experience of a tour guide who seemed as though she didn’t care about what she was telling us. She was more interested in the Poles of the camp even though they made up less than 10% of the total population of the people who came through the camp. She spoke of the living conditions, and only really mentioned that Jews brought to Auschwitz were gassed a couple of hours after arrival. She didn’t speak of the people, the survivors, the families separated, the amount of people who died of starvation, those who were tortured. The people were irrelevant to this tour guide, she was more concerned with doing her job for 2 hours than to give an accurate representation.

Even though our environment was not ideal or impressive, we saw so much that had been preserved as evidence that we were amazed, shocked, and speechless. A few of my classmates were too uncomfortable to even take pictures, and I felt as though I had to take them. I had a family waiting for me to report back what I saw, and immediately, I knew that I would not be able to tell them…I would need to show them.

Before the trip, I emailed my dad telling him I was nervous and not at all ready for an experience like this. I told him I wished I had family support next to me when going through the camps. He responded with kind and supportive words. “You may not see it now, but think of how lucky you are. You get to see with your eyes a place that ruined so many Jews like us. This will make you stronger. There is a reason why your path is leading you there, I know it. You need to do this, not only for yourself, but for your mom and I and for our entire family.”

I took his words with me throughout the entire camp. They helped me keep myself together even in the hardest moments. We walked through rooms of shoes (both of adults and children), clothes, baggage (all marked with Jewish last names), hair cut off of Jewish women before gassing that was sold to make cloth, photographs of starved people, photographs of hangings, photographs of shootings, photographs of Jews getting off the trains and being separated. We saw a room full of pots and pans, shaving brushes, hair brushes, crutches, false legs and other objects of aid belonging to the disabled, and we saw the gas chambers (among many other things).

I stood in a concrete building thinking this is it, this is where they killed so many Jews just like me. I looked at the ovens and burners and all I wanted to do was destroy them. I was angry, but I couldn’t show it. Just being present in this place I felt demoralized, dehumanized, and degraded…and I didn’t even experience the Holocaust.

Our journey throughout the camp brought very important quotes to our attention such as this one:

After the Auschwitz I tour was over we were taken to Auschwitz II Berkenau. This was the main location of the gassing. This was also the place that was firstly destroyed to hide evidence. This area is a large field with train tracks going through the center of the camps. Jews would be brought in and gassed soon after.

The most inspiring part of this trip was seeing the group of Israeli students who came with a survivor of the Holocaust. As we walked into one building we saw the majority of these students standing around this man as he told him what his life was like. On our way out of the building, these Israeli students were singing to the survivor as he stood in tears. Follow this link to view the video (the sound is difficult to hear if it isn’t turned up enough): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EY0GLjrbNEE&feature=youtu.be

For those brave enough to view the entire album of photographs, please follow this link: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151042726471511.414269.727761510&type=1&l=52e7df1ac4.

Until next time.

xoxo,

Eliza

Take me back to Krakow

I don’t think I have ever been more in love with a city before my trip to Krakow…except maybe New York but Krakow is on a whole different level of love. I learned so much about Poland as a whole, somethings I was never aware of, and I found it very puzzling that I’m so interested in cultures around the world but I never realized that culture of a place could be so dictated by politics until this visit. Four miraculous days full of fun, laughter, learning, and amazing people:

Krakow is the most visited city in Poland, even more so than Warsaw. We arrived at our hostel only to find that we were just a few feet away from the main square in Krakow which is also the largest square in all of Europe. We were amazed. The square was full of street musicians, people painted as sculptures and even an entire building (that was once used to sell fabrics) full of small souvenir booths. We found authentic hand made chess sets and amber jewelry among other things.

During our visit with Eva, a representative for a Krakow NGO, she told us more about the country’s politics than we ever knew. We were interested to find that the Catholic church holds a large amount of power in Poland–financially, politically, religiously and more. In fact, the country tries to convince citizens through media that 95% of the population is Catholic. In today’s period of time there is even an application process and waiting period to remove yourself from the Catholic church and community. The process is so long that it is quite similar to the process of gaining American citizenship, and for everyone who tries to remove themselves from the system there must be two willing Catholic Church participants to vouch for their removal. This ensures that even if everyone removes themselves from the church, then there will still be 2 people left to reproduce more Catholic Poles. Because of the Catholic control in Poland, things like contraceptives, abortion, women’s rights and much more are extremely controversial issues.

Still, beyond the Catholic Church corruption issues, there is much more to the city. Roughly 25% of the population are college students from all over the world. They leave in the summer and return in the fall (right in time for our visit). We met countless people, all of which were friendly and excited to get to know you. This went beyond students and the night life atmosphere, people in the streets smiled, waved, willingly started conversations, and enjoyed the challenge of having that conversation in English.

The night life in Krakow is amazing, very laid back but still very fun. Polish specialty drink is sour cherry vodka (vishnovka), I was a big fan of this dark red colored drink. After a few drinks and good company we started our journey home. On our 20 minute walk back we ran into more people. There is nothing more wonderful to hear after a few drinks than a gorgeous Italian young man call you “Amore Mio.” Our twenty minute walk turned into a roughly 2 hour walk because of how often we stopped to talk to new people, the city is full of life and friendly people who are genuinely interested in meeting others from new places.

Another extraordinary part of our trip was a 5 hour bike tour around Krakow. We biked through the city and our American tour guide from Florida was incredibly interesting. He was knowledgeable, a storyteller, and personable. He told us about the competitiveness and brutal rivalry in Krakow between two local soccer teams. In fact, normal citizens don’t attend these soccer matches. People have been caught in gang fights, there have been murders, harsh graffiti, all because the opposing fans can’t stand each other. So many people have been jailed for soccer related crimes, that very often fans in the stands hold signs that say things like “Hello to our friends in prison!”

Our tour that day ended with a visit to the Oskar Schindler Factory in Poland. This museum was amazing, it documented the lives of the Jews saved by work in Schindler’s Factory. For the full album of the Museum of Oskar Schindler and his workers click this link: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151042558686511.414251.727761510&type=1&l=bba3737ac0.

This trip showed me more about Europe than I ever imagined, I found what I had been looking for this entire month abroad: friendly people and warm personalities. These were things I had given up hope on in Prague, but Krakow reminded me that first impressions are not always what they seem and that generalizations are often wrong.

That’s it for now!

xoxo,

Eliza

Culture Shock and Identity

As much as I have been exposed to culture thanks to my unusual upbringing, and studies in school…I was still very much susceptible to culture shock in Prague. I was even surprised that little things here and there caught my attention and reminded me that I didn’t exactly fit in completely.

One of the first things I noticed when I arrived and started to explore the city were these permanent angry faces all across Czech people, whether it was an elderly man or woman or a small child. People didn’t smile here. It wasn’t until our first day of culture class that our professor, Blanka, told us that in the Czech Republic smiling is equivalent to flirting and that no one does that here unless you’re in the social setting for that. No wonder any time I’d smile at people I’d either have a response of the “I don’t know you” look away or the “WOAH” smile back for way to long.

After this I started to pay closer attention to dogs in Prague. There was something really amazing about them in Prague. Dogs in Prague are obedient and they are obedient with out dog schools. I’ve seen a female dog follow her owners off leash for an entire walk around the park…what is even more amazing is that her 5 puppies who were just about 8 weeks old followed behind their mom step for step. It was incredible! Taking dogs off leash all over the city and on public transportation is normal here. About one out of every 25 dogs you see outside are on leash. It’s like Marymoore dog park everywhere you go…cars, people, other dogs, it doesn’t matter; these dogs only care about their owners.

Furthermore, I never realized just how much artistic culture there would be in Prague. Seattle has a very rich music culture but it is in so many ways very different that Prague. Prague goes back to the traditional, and the classic. I’ve seen countless advertised ballets, plays, operas, and live performance shows that it is hard to figure out which ones to go see. Prague exposed me to the opera world, we saw Carmen during our second week here. The show was amazing and the costumes were incredibly done. Operas have so much more emotion and excitement than I could have ever imagined on stage. I was impressed.

Jewish culture was the next thing to really shock me. In Washington, there is a large population of Jewish people. However, I never found anything that distinguishes the group as a whole in our state. In New York, the Jewish population is alive in Queens…there are kosher butcheries, stores, and restaurants. There is a specific lifestyle that goes along with being a Jew in New York, and there is a specific identity. This is something that I definitely think Washington is lacking. Jewish culture in Prague is rich, it is full of stories, history, oppression, success, and much more. Part of our class last Thursday was a visit to the Jewish Museum in Josefov, Prague. Josefov is known as the Jewish Quarter. The Museum is comprised of 6 synagogues, a memorial, and the old Jewish cemetery. In the Pinkas Synagogue is where the memorial stands. The interesting part is that the synagogue walls are the memorial. It is called the 77,297 memorial. As you walk into this synagogue, you see empty rooms with white walls. You walk through room after room reading countless names of Jewish people who died in the Holocaust. It was hard to walk through this synagogue without getting emotional, room after room of names written from left to right (not listed, otherwise there wouldn’t be room).

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The last stop of the tour was by far the most challenging part. We walked into the old Jewish cemetery, a place with an astounding history. It was established in the 1400s and by the late 1700s was closed off. This cemetery was closed off because of over population, there was no longer room to bury more people. Over a month ago when I stood at the funeral of my grandfather in the Jewish Cemetery in Seattle, I thought about how cold the cemetery was. That same feeling came over me at the Old Jewish Cemetery but it was different. I wasn’t looking at a flat surfaced cemetery with green grass and nice tombstones, I was looking an uneven surface and more tombstones than I ever imagined could represent the people buried there. Then I thought about it further, Jews in the cemetery would literally have to be buried one on top of another to fit the amount of stones per people.

As you look closely at the stones, it becomes easy to tell that this in fact is historical. Engravings are so ruined and worn down that they look like a flat piece of stone. All engravings are in Hebrew which amazed me. We kept walking further to see stone next to stone with no order. Not even enough room to place a pebble on the stone. Then we saw two big memorials engraved in Hebrew, with countless small pebbles and coins on them. They had been visited often. I left a 20 Krown coin on the memorial and continued through the cemetery. On my way out I rinsed my hands, said a prayer for my grandfather and we continued our tour through the Jewish Quarter.

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It was amazing how being around those who share something with you can make you feel at home. I wish there was a larger sense of community and identity in the Seattle group of Jews. I was shocked that I didn’t realize until that moment that this sense of collective Jewish identity was something I was missing in my life. Thank you for opening my eyes to this, Prague; and thank you for helping me heal just a little bit more after my Grandfather passed away. He always had such a strong connection to Judaism and now I understand why, which helps me continue to get to know him even after he’s gone. ImageImageImage

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I left my Heart in Vienna

Vienna is an amazing city. There’s no other way to describe it. Incredibly rich with history, culture, and a less than angelic past. It is the amazing culture and history of Vienna that makes me feel like royalty. Part of our experience during our weekend was a tour of the Summer Castle of the Hapsburg Royalty. In this castle, we walked through rooms and rooms of history. The room where Marie Antionette grew up, where her mother kept her study, and the room where Mozart preformed a private concert for the Hapsburg royalty at the age of 6. After his violin performance he jumped on the empress and gave her a big hug, reminding them that although he was incredibly talented, he was still a child. The castle so far, only has 40 rooms fully restored…the rest are a work in progress.

This castle had a large amount of land, an enormous garden and two ponds. There was a separate tour that was filled with dishes, pots, pans, centerpieces, an utensils used in the castle. Dish sets after dish sets, gold plated silver pots, centerpieces, and silverware. We went through 30 rooms of serving pieces. In total, this palace had enough pieces to serve a guest list of 220, this later grew to 500, and eventually the collection was completed to serve 1400 guests up to 8 courses in a meal. This separate museum was incredible.

Beyond castles, museums, and dishes; our professors Mike and Vera took us to Cafe Central in the heart of Vienna on our first night. It wasn’t until we approached the beautiful historic building that they told us that Hitler, Lenin, Trotsky and many other political/historical figures dined at this restaurant when traveling to Vienna. Then we walked in, and immediately a rush came over me…like I was finally a part of something greater than anything I knew before. The same feeling I had when I stepped into the room where Mozart performed for the Hapsburg Royalty…no longer did history feel distant or something you can’t relate to. I felt like I was a part of history, and that this was an amazing connection. The restaurant was rich, walls were incredibly decorated, and the ceilings were painted, royal red filled the room, and everything around was of the highest quality.

Vienna outside of tourism is incredible, yet there is still quite a standing issue with antisemitism. In Prague, you can find a synagogue for every ten blocks, if not more. In Vienna, I didn’t see a single one. Mike told us that one of the previous political power figures of Vienna (prior to Hitler’s reign) was actually noted as Hitler’s inspiration for his antisemitic views. All of a sudden, after learning more about it’s history, Vienna seemed like a cold city. Aside from this, Vienna does understand that much of their history is tainted with issues of antisemitism and because of this, they are taking small but important steps in the direction of acceptance of their mistakes and closed-mindedness. In the gallery, you will see photographs of a memorial created to remember the 65,000 Austrian Jews killed during WWII. It is made as a small home, one the size of a home where Jews in the ghettos would live. However, instead of walls, the home is made of big thick books. These books symbolize the burning, and destruction of Jewish records, journals, photos, old testaments, and much more.

As we started spending more time in Vienna we noticed a few differences in communication. Firstly, people in Vienna who are locals but not necessarily natives are much more likely to talk to someone who approaches them for help in the street. Similarly, this also means that guys aren’t shy…whatsoever. It is not uncommon for them to grab you or try to touch your face without even knowing your name or if you understand what they’re saying. I’ve never appreciated the timing or subtle shyness of American guys more.

That about sums up Vienna, of course I have plenty of other small stories about the city. But I don’t want to overwhelm you in this blog, so if you’re curious just ask.

XOXO,

Eliza