Eurovision Round Up Part II: Good Wind Machine Hair is Half the Battle

While 2016 finds me as physically distant from the Eurovision action as I’ve been since 2012 (when a Swedish woman of Moroccan-Berber descent won!), I am attempting to live the dream. Previously I reviewed entries from countries I’ve visited, in the order I visited. Here are the countries I have not visited, in rough order of how much I would like to visit them.

Malta

This song is getting a lot of buzz and I just don’t get it. NO ONE cares about Malta except as a vacation destination. Point getting requires a popular song + a coalition of other countries that are:

a) your friendly neighbors (the powerful Nordic voting block led to five of the last 10 winners hailing from Nordic countries)
b) terrified of you (hello Russia! Please don’t invade us!)

Maltese Dog

Is anyone concerned about an impending Maltese invasion?

 

Finland

Oh sweet Nordic country of my reindeer-infused dreams. You give us jungle gym, hot pants, fringe, and faclogoe-chained lady on horseback. I am not going to pretend to understand the narrative arc of the video. But I’ll dance with you!

 

 

Poland

Logo is airing Eurovision in the U.S. this year! But sadly for the lesbians, Poland will leave their 2014 butter-churners at home and instead gives us this dude who escaped from a 1980s hair band, joined the circus and stole the ringmaster’s outfit. Blech.

 

Montenegro

“Hey guys, guys…guys listen! What if we go for the sound of a low-rent Alice in Chains backed up by one of the dancers from Beyoncé’s ‘Single Ladies’ video?”

“That sounds awesome, but we’re the 8th poorest country in Europe so we’ll need to take it down a notch. Let’s go with low-rent Stone Temple Pilots backed up by some white lady who practices the ‘Single Ladies’ dance in her living room and almost has it.

 

Albania

Sometimes converting your lyrics to English doesn’t actually do you any favors. The all-Albanian version was way better.

 

Sweet baby Jesus I hope that giant swing makes an appearance on the Eurovision stage.

 

Bulgaria

Poli first came to Eurovision back in 2011 with Bulgarian lyrics, not-made-for-wind-machines hair, and very curious epaulets. She did not make the finals. Now she’s back with grown out hair (at least one half of it), singing (mostly) English lyrics.

 

I don’t think it’s more spectacular than the other pop-friendly songs but there’s just something about Poli. She’s so sassy with her half head of wind-machine ready hair. I want her to do well.

 

F.Y.R. Macedonia 

Kaliopi represented Macedonia (sorry Greece, I mean F.Y.RMacedonia) brilliantly back in 2012 but only came in 13th. I blame the fact that they made her perform in a pantsuit.

While I feel her earlier entry is perhaps a purer example, this is some awesome Balkan bombast. She is singing us a lullaby. Wait, now she is angry. Why is she angry? Is it injustice? Probably. The world is unjust, especially in the Balkans. But I don’t know. Why don’t I know? Because she is singing in Macedonian! I don’t speak Macedonian! No one speaks it! Some people don’t even think it is a language!

 

 

The south Slavs are no Nordic voting block but the countries that spent the ’90s shelling, genociding and sniping the shit out of each other tend to stick together come Eurovision time. If there’s an F.Y.R to rally behind in 2016, it’s definitely F.Y.R. Macedonia.

Estonia

Estonia has time-traveled to a 1950s New England country club and plucked the WASPyest boy they could find to represent them. With all that technology, you’d think they could also give him some kind of singing voice.

 

Latvia

I try not to giggle at mispronounced English, but when it comes to V/W issues, all my battles are in wain. Not that King’s English pronunciation would do a thing for this crap song.

 

Lithuania

 

 

Unquestionably our strongest Baltic entry. Hardly high praise but young Donny at least puts in some effort, although I think he just let one of his buddies handle his choreography. He looks about 17 and yet he performed at Eurovision in 2012, blindfolded! And he did well. I say this is our only Baltic State in the finals.

Sweden

Could Sweden win back-to-back? Maybe. Sweden’s fresh-faced youths always poll well with me (3rd place Eric Saade, you were robbed!).

Although on first listen I was very confused about if the singer was, indeed, sorry or extremely not sorry. Fortunately for those of us who don’t do well with ambiguity, he clarifies at the end that is definitely not sorry. Dick.

 

Belgium

Belgium, like France, has had a rough year. I thoroughly enjoyed last year’s militaristic Little Drummer Boy entry. I thought that might have been the actual Belgian army performing with him as I imagine it as pretty small and with little to do. Things may well be different this year as to the busy-ness of the Belgian security forces.

2016 gives us a bouncy little dance number and the singer looks very fetching in her sparkly outfits. Still, a lot of the votes it gets will be less about the song itself or the powerful (note: sarcasm) Low Country voting block, and more about sympathy for recent terrorist attacks.

 

The Netherlands

I’ve whiled away a lot of hours eating stroopwafels in the Amsterdam airport but since I’ve never been outside that airport, The Netherlands remains a country I haven’t visited.

The Dutch hit such a low point with their 2012 cultural appropriation sing-along that everything since then looks good in comparison. In 2014 they even finished second with a song that could’ve taken first place in any other year but 2014 was the year Conchita Wurst cleaned everyone’s clock.

Enough about the past. Let’s talk about the future. The future winner of Eurovision winner is not this song.

 

 

 

Ukraine

 

Oh, sorry. Wrong video. The actual entry lacks the subtlety of the “Bye Felicia Vladmir” live streaming event shown above, which showed world Ukraine toppling their largest Lenin monument.

Jamala’s “1944” features English language lyrics about people coming to your house, killing you all, humanity crying, and everyone dying. Immediately following is a chorus sung in the Crimean Tatar language. So you tell me, is Ukraine hinting anything to anyone about any recent events in the Crimea or am I just reading too much into things?

 

Australia

The country that gave us Strictly Ballroom and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert seems such a natural fit for the Eurovision extravaganza that they were given special dispensation to perform last year despite not being part of the European Broadcasting Union.

What did they do with their special dispensation? Send us a bad song + singer in terrible chapeau. Haven’t we come to a place where all civilized societies agree that the fedora is officially the mark of the douche?  I guess the memo did not make it to the land down under.

Fortunately the EBU believes in second chances (no, not for you Romania!) And this year is a whole different story. I say top five for sure. OMG, if she wins, will Eurovision be held in Australia next year? I don’t know if some of the smaller eastern European countries can afford the plane ticket.

 

Belarus

Not a place I gave much thought to until, into the daily glory that is my Eurovision Google News Alert, came the best news story I have ever read in my entire life. Here in its entirety: Ivan

What cosmic lottery did I win that allows me to live in this time and place?

Bummer for Ivan, live animals simply aren’t allowed on the Eurovision stage. And if Laka had to leave his chicken home in Bosnia in 2008, Ivan cannot bring an entire wolf pack.

Bummer for my dignity, I really like this song.

 

Ireland

As we head towards the bottom of my list of countries I am interested in visiting. we find a cluster of spots known for experiencing internal unrest. Minnesotan at heart, I am uncomfortable with conflict.

I think people think of Minnesota the way I think of this song. It’s not terrible. I just don’t think anything about it is interesting

 

Cyprus

Wolves again. On an island in the Mediterranean no less. Sorry boys–we’ve already this ground with Belarus. We’ve also covered Alice in Chains wannabes with our friends in Montenegro. Finally, who are you fooling with your road-trip themed video? I google-mapped Cyprus and in the time it would take me to drive from Seattle to Portland you’d have driven yourself off the edge of your island and, if you had one of those amphibious buses, be well on your way to Turkey.

 

But did you know Cyprus drove on the left side of the road? I’ve learned something today!

Israel

Jay Leno’s jawline+Prince’s Purple Rain hairdo=Hovi Star. Not a big fan.

 

I am going to close my eyes and go back in time to a day when Prince was still alive and Israel was represented by Dana International. Those were better days.

Hovi Star’s major contribution to the contest is to remind us about the other reason we don’t like Russia. 

 

Russia

Russia’s 2015 entry was pure Eurovision gold. On its own merits I believe, I believe in the dream that is “A Million Voices.” But the homophobia. And the Crimea. Despite anti-booing technology, Eurovision audiences have been vocal in their distaste.

This year’s Russian entry has merits. I don’t love the song as much as last year’s but it’s definitely good. I’d almost be willing to bet the European community was willing to forgive and forget, especially if the fire breathers from the video make a live appearance on stage. Except…see above re: Russian airports and gay Eurovision performers. Fire dancers aren’t always enough.

But wait…has Sergey outsmarted the fickle Eurovision audience with a massive sympathy ploy? The plot thickens.

 

San Marino

Barely bigger than the Vatican, San Marino has a limited talent pool from which to fish. This may explain why they’ve sent Sammarinese (yes! that is a word!) singer Valentina Monetta three out of the six times they have participated. Maybe she’s busy this year? Instead they’ve  recruited a creepy man in a fedora to “sing-talk” their entry, I Didn’t Know [San Marino Was A Thing But I Wanted To Be In Eurovision And They Are Letting Me So Who Cares?]

 

Armenia 

The live version I saw was aggressively mediocre, with halfhearted “love waving” subbing for any actual choreography. On the plus side the singer is pretty. She looks not unlike a distant Kardashian cousin, which she may be as the Kardashians are ethnically Armenian as well the sole reason 99% of Americans who know that Armenia exists, know Armenia exists. She also knows her way around a wind machine and, if the video clip from dress rehearsals is to be believed, she will perform be-caped!

 

Georgia

Well then, the dream of the ’90s alt-rock scene is still alive in Tiblisi. And Montenegro and Cyprus. We’ll just see how that strategy plays out for you Georgia.

 

Azerbaijan

Last on my list because this is the totality of my Azerbaijani knowledge: debuted in 2008 with an awesome entry, won in 2011 with a shitty entry. How shitty? They set the record for the lowest average score for a winning song. Winning Eurovision was just step one in what seems to be a multi-year strategy to remind the world that Azerbaijan exists. Mixed results.

 

A strong entry–nice lady pop ballad, good wind machine hair. Hope she takes a cue from Armenia and wears a cape. Still have no interest in a visit.

 

Summary: Australia and Russia are the strongest contenders here, although I hold fast to my love for F.Y.R. Macedonia. I’m still calling France my overall favorite. I think I need to sit with that for awhile and think about who I’ve become.

Eurovison Round Up Part I: Fascinators, Village Elders and Magnificent Cheekbones

Life isn’t interesting enough for regular blogging but with Eurovision approaching I feel inspired to take a break from all of my not blogging. Here’s is a partial round-up of the entries. These are countries I have visited, in the order in which I first visited them. Sadly, two regular participants/Eurovision counties I have visited, Portugal and Turkey, have opted out this year. Boo!

United Kingdom

This song is…not terrible! With just the two blokes, the opportunities for a tear-away costume change are probably limited but compared to what the U.K. generally sends, I’m impressed. Inoffensive rhymes about how how you’re not alone, we’re in this together…is this a politically charged love ballad to the European Union? The latest weapon against Brexit?!

 

France

France has had a rough year and I don’t want to make too much fun of them. This year they are represented by the one-named “Amir,” a veritable United Nations of a performer who is, according to Wikipedia, an Israeli-French singer of Tunisian and Moroccan-Spanish Jewish parents. He sings a catchy pop song, part of it in English, as if 1066 didn’t even count for anything.

 

Italy

I don’t spend time trying to understand how different countries select their entrants. I am just happy that they do appear. But when I heard Italy’s selection, a group of bespectacled village eldersdeclined the honor of participating in Eurovision, I had to rev up the old AltaVista to figure out what was going on.

Apparently Italy’s selection process is through the longstanding Sanremo Music Festival, itself the original inspiration for Eurovision. (The Renaissance, Pizza, Eurovision—that’s some winning streak.) In Italy, winning Sanremo is honor enough; Eurovision is just gravy and some people prefer dry turkey.

With the grandpas staying home, runner up and official whipper snapper Francesca Michielin will go in their stead, apparently clad in an elastic-waited denim jumpsuit.

 

Greece

Speaking of village elders, Greece recruited some to play backup bouzouki in this song. This seems a little downbeat for Greece, who usually gives us peppy balkan pop with complex rhymes like “you are the one/you’re my number one.” Let’s take a somber moment to acknowledge that these were the lyrics of the winning song.

I can only infer that in this entry, the Greek economic and refugee crisis is being addressed. My inability to speak Greek prevents a full textual analysis.

 

Iceland

When we last saw Greta Salóme it was 2012. The Icelandic violinist/singer and her second cousin (that’s a guess, based on the realities of Icelandic genealogy) Jónsi sang an emotionally wrought duet that I adored when I saw the official video. I found the live performance somewhat undermined by the giant grin on Greta’s face, directly in contrast with the sturm und drang of the song. While Jónsi valiantly tried to keep up the appropriate level of Nordic gloom, Greta played her fiddle and whipped her extensions from side to side. They returned home with no trophy. I would be sad for Iceland but when you possess that kind of bone structure I imagine music contest trophies pale in comparison to simply encountering your own magnificent cheekbones in the mirror every morning. And it’s not just Jónsi and Greta. Seriously Iceland. Who are we to judge your millennium of isolation and incest if this chiseled masterpiece is the result? 

This year Greta has ditched Jónsi, the fiddle and the extensions but the song is rotten.

 

Norway

I do not understand what is happening here. Lady wearing dress crafted by Paper Source employees imprisons dancer in a cylinder? Do not like.

 

Switzerland

Do I include Switzerland in the list of countries I visited when I was only there for an afternoon? Well, I may have spent more time in there than its own performer. Rent-a-Diva is a proven Swiss strategy. Remember when French-Canadian Celine Dion, clad in a Jessica McClintock prom dress paired with a very smart blazer, brought home a 1988 win for the Swiss?

For the 2016 contest, Switzerland has turned to the other coast of Canada, tapping B.C.-born Rykka. Lo and behold, she also seems to be dressed in a Jessica McClintock prom dress, albeit without the blazer. I kind of like this one! (The song not the dress. The dress is hideous. Please don’t wear it in Stockholm)

 

Hungary

My life is full of regrets, not the least of which was losing my virginity to someone wearing a shirt not entirely dissimilar to that worn by Freddie, the 2016 Hungarian entrant.

 

Austria

“We know we’re never going to win again so we may as well sing in French.” Conchita Wurst wouldn’t be caught dead in that outfit. Also, have they put her on a treadmill?

 

Croatia

The song is just the kind of mediocre pop sung in heavily accented English that I expect from my beloved Balkan entrants. But the video, comprised of shot after shot of gorgeous Dalmatian coastline with nary a glimpse of our singer, gives me no sense for the singer’s stagecraft. How does she perform when wearing a bejewled costume and/or cape?  Or flanked by menacing backup dancers, puppets or cartoons? The Eurovision stage makes room for many wonders but is unlikely to accommodate even a handful Croatia’s Adriatic islands.

 

Germany

Once I got past the Lolita-wear, I decided I didn’t hate this song. I don’t think it’s going to win but it’s inoffensive and the singer’s penchant for interesting headgear (would one call that a facinator?) at least makes her interesting to watch. I hope they attach those things well–there’s a wind machine around every corner at Eurovision.

 

Czech Republic

I’m  interested to see the live version. I like the song and the singer has a nice husky quality to her voice. Contrary to the title, Gabriela does less standing and more rolling around on astroturf in the video. Also some Nordic-style sulking about the water’s edge. I don’t know the country well but something about that opening shot makes me think the landlocked Czech Republic borrowed someone else’s coastline.

 

Spain

This year we welcome the first ever Spanish language Eurovision entry that features NO Spanish lyrics. For all the sense the English lyrics make I don’t see why they bothered.

 

Slovenia

A twangy American country start followed by some nonsensical lyrics sung by a woman wearing a dress that looks like a waitress’s uniform for a military-themed family dining establishment called Marshall Tito’s Drive-Up/Dine-in. The good news is that there is a tear away costume change before she can get around to asking if you want to add onion rings to your order for just a dollar extra.

 

Bosnia and Herzegovina

I had a very sincere and non-mocking summary all drafted about how I find this video kind of poignant because of the lady playing the (electric!) cello in this setting—the recently restored Vijećnica, destroyed by the Serbs in the 1990s siege—is reminiscent of the cellist of Sarajevo, who played in ruined buildings, including Vijećnica, throughout the siege. I visited it last year on my COS trip.

 

And then most of the band members got involved in a bar fight where they fought each other and there was talk of withdrawing from Eurovision completely. Those Dayton Accords can only do so much, eh Bosnia?

Serbia

Other than the aforementioned Conchinta Wurst, I don’t know if there has ever been a performer who so clearly employs someone with the title “wigmaster” in her entourage. The look is very Amy Winehouse meets Baby Jane and she dances just as you would imagine an aging child star with a tenuous grasp on reality would.

 

Romania

Goddammit Romania, why can’t you pay your bills?! Romania kind of owes €10 million to the European Broadcasting Union and have been unceremoniously booted from participation this year. Which is a bummer because I love myself some the Eurovision demonic entries à la Finland in 2006 or Azerbaijan’s inaugural entry. Granted, this is at least the second time they’ve gone with a vampire look and it does seem a trifle obvious for the home of Vlad the Impaler but play to your strengths, right? Let us mourn what could have been with, dare I say it, a moment of silence.

 

 

Moldova

This gown is all Betty Grable bathing costume underneath, Crystal Barbie on top. The whole thing left me anticipating a tear-away that never happened. I feel unsatisfied.

How’s the song? Not bad actually. But something needs to happen in Sweden if this is going to make an impression. Never underestimate how confetti, pyrotechnics, or simply an Olympic medalist ice skater can elevate a song from mediocre to winner.

 

Denmark

Confession: Have not actually been to Denmark. But WILL go in June. So I am ending here.

This grew on me. My inner dialogue on first listen went something like this: If you swapped out ‘love’ for ‘Christ’ this is like a Christian rock song and these guys are no DC Talk.

But then that really smiley Nordic dude in the middle made me turn my frown upside down. Happiest country in the world y’all and these guys are ready to represent!

 

Summary: OMG you guys, is this possible? I am going to say I like France’s song best!

“I might be about to cough something up” guttural French + an overall unwashedness of the hair and face that evokes a not particularly pleasant eau d’ Frenchman scent +backup dancers pairing chambray with tulle. This equation should = I hate it. But I do not! I kind of love it? Vive la France!

Next up: energy allowing, the Eurovision countries I have not visited.

Epilogue

I thought I’d add my post-service reflections. Of course I thought that 9 months ago, 6 months ago, 3 months ago…Finally I gave myself till April 10th (one year from Close of Service) to write this post. I’m just under the wire and I needed all that time. It’s a lot to process.

Coming home was glorious. Coming home was hard.

The glorious was all you’d expect. The welcome home party with so much alcohol and bacon and friends and family. The everyday luxuries of America like a plenitude of electrical outlets and how hot water comes out of every tap like magic. The glorious glorious food from phad thai to pork tacos to bi bim bap. The beautiful but hot Minnesota summer where I could stay cool by wearing short sleeves, drinking cold beer, and swimming (with no adolescent boys agog at my western bathing costume). The comparative lack of street harassment which, even when it does happen now, is hardly enough to dent the armor I forged in the alleys of Marrakech.

It was glorious to be at my mom’s 70th birthday party and my cabin’s 100th anniversary
party and to spend time with my niece and nephew who grew up so much while I was gone. I can’t stress enough that there was a lot of glorious.

But…

 

I tried to ease myself into the busy-ness, the consumerism, the hundreds of television channels, the stark contrast between all that we have in the U.S. and how little is available in rural Morocco. “I’m not ready for the big Target!” I wailed to my mom a week after returning.

Even months later I feel these moments of actual rage at life in America: How does it make sense that Chase Bank won’t sell me a roll of quarters because I don’t have an account with them?  (answer: because Chase Bank is a legitimately terrible company.) How many NPR programs does Naturebox “snack subscription service” sponsor, how privileged do you need to be to avail yourself of such a service and why do I honestly wanted to punch something every time I hear an NPR host tout the “Peanut Butter Nom-Noms”?

I didn’t expect to have so much trouble readjusting. Sure, “America is busy, Americans buy things we don’t need.” But for 27 months I’d heard warnings from Peace Corps about the ups and downs of service and most of those ups and downs had bypassed me. Maybe because going into the Peace Corps when you are older means you have a better sense of perspective that 27 months is really just a blip of time. Or because I really lucked out with amazing and supportive host families and placement in a site with almost no harassment. Or because the holy trinity of my belief system (feminism, love of alcohol, atheism) were so unquestionable that I felt free to learn about others’ culture without being consumed by it. Whatever the case, I was used to ducking the emotional onslaught that hit a lot of other volunteers. Why should coming home be different?

It was different. It was hard.

I saw fellow volunteers return to grad school or entry level jobs with government agencies, willing to move anywhere in the country to pursue those opportunities. Meanwhile, I felt like my world contracted to “pick one, Seattle or Minneapolis.” I struggled to find a good job, not just any job. I struggled with people’s judgments about how long I had been out of work, which ranged from “take all the time you need” to “you don’t have a job yet? Tell me all the things you are doing and I will tell you what you are doing wrong.” Mostly I struggled because I could neither slide right back into my old life nor proceed as if I was still 23.

I found myself obsessing over all things I used to be, but was no longer. I was not a Peace Corps Volunteer, obviously. I was also not most of the things I had been before I left for Peace Corps. I wasn’t a Seattleite or a working professional or a person with interesting hair and a busy social life. I wasn’t a traveler anymore, but I also didn’t have a real home. Friendships that seemed strong enough while I was away didn’t survive my move back.

In the middle of all that, I suddenly wasn’t anyone’s daughter anymore.

If I go into my mom’s death and all that it meant for me and for my family, I would need another year to finish this post. So I will just say that it added a very heavy layer of complexity to an already complex situation.

But most of my difficulties were tedious. Unlike the fun stories I had about moving to Morocco, my coming home trials and tribulations were just a slightly different take on the same (boring) struggles that everyone already deals with. I am hardly the only person complaining that Seattle has changed so much and is barely affordable. Or the only person to be demoralized upon realizing that 20 years of work experience means nothing when you don’t have the right degree.

Today I am back in Seattle. It’s definitely too expensive and not quite the same city I left. But good friends are still here and it still feels like home. Sort of. I still contemplate grad school but am not convinced that $50,000+  will get me anything more than the kind of job I have now. Which is a good job. Although I did not make the career change I once hoped for, I work with good people for a good organization in Seattle’s lovely Chinatown neighborhood where I am repaid daily for my 27 months of Asian food privation.

Homesickness for Morocco began about a month ago, and I’ve been dealing with that by searching out books set in Morocco, eating tajine in a local Moroccan restaurant (disappointing) and generally dreaming of a return trip. I’ll just put this out in the universe: if you or someone you know wants to visit Morocco but feels a little nervous to go on their own, I’ll be your personal tour guide for the price of a plane ticket. Spread the word!

Even though coming home was hard, I assure you I feel my luck from these past few years. How lucky was I to see so much of that beautiful country? How lucky was I to see so many other beautiful countries and to have more uninterrupted leisure travel time than most Americans get in their entire working life?

I know I was lucky to spend those months with my mom before she died. Lucky that I had places to land in London and then in Minnesota and Seattle where I could take time to find a good job instead of the first one offered. Lucky I still have so many friends who are willing to spend time with me. I feel my luck. I do.

It’s been hard coming back but not so much so that I regret my decision to go into Peace Corps. I’m glad I challenged myself that way and made a home for myself in a new country. I’m grateful for an experience that allowed me to embrace my American-ness in a way that I haven’t before. My time in Morocco allowed me to think about and focus on the things that make me proud to be an American–our culture and [some parts of] our history, our diversity and our creativity.

 

Lord knows coming home to the launch of election season made remember all the embarrassing things about being an American.

 

IMG_0053 (1)

A year later I’ve drunk a lot of good beer and spent time with a lot of good people and I finally have a hair appointment to get back to my natural state of unnatural locks. I am settling in. But for all of that, and for all of my luck and all of those things that I don’t regret and all that I am so grateful for, coming home was hard. And coming home was glorious.

 

 

End Credits

Yesterday I landed back in Central Time Zone USA after 876 days away.

The final 10 days of my COS trip flew by–back to London to dive into laundry and “the great repackening” of my bags, going to see my first show at the Globe (Merchant of Venice–problematic play, outstanding production), saying very difficult goodbyes to my family on that side of the Atlantic, and then stopping mid-Atlantic for a final few days in Iceland to hike and soak in hot pools with my friend Gina.

Where do I go from here? Minneapolis? Seattle? Somewhere else? Because I don’t know, my Peace Corps journey still feels incomplete. I suppose the idea is it’s never “finished” as I will always carry this experience with me.

In the coming months I am likely to have some deep and important thoughts on reintegration that I want to share, in which case I will almost certainly add an epilogue or two on the blog. But in the meantime, this is a nice place to add some much needed end credits.

Thank you to everyone who made my 876 days away better!

  • My mom: devastating health news came something like ten days after I accepted my invitation to Morocco but she still encouraged me to come and never made me feel guilty that I couldn’t stay in contact as well as I used to.
  • My sister Kerry, who kept things going on the home front and was so good about keeping me up to date but was always calm and collected even if she must have sometimes wanted to say “get your ass back to the U.S. and deal with this yourself!”
  • Andrew, Bruce and Chris: I knew that having family on a slightly closer continent was going to be a bonus and I already knew you were amazing, but the extent to which you opened your home (and your washing machine) to me, and the incredible generosity you showed to me and to my other family members over the past 2+ years leaves me truly humbled.
  • Everyone who let me store stuff at their house: My remaining worldly possessions are scattered throughout the homes of my aforementioned mother, sister Kerry, and friends Hilary, Derek and Gina, Anju and Rahul, and Sara and Todd. I think that’s everyone. Oh wait–Vinnie has my stand mixer. But I’m not sure who did whom the favor in that scenario.
  • Everyone who visited Morocco and inevitably picked up the tab for a meal or two or a dozen: Sara and Todd, Shanna, Lia, Sara’s parents Ann and Marc, Derek and Gina, my mom, Savitha, Colleen. Did I forget anyone? I hope not! Special love to those who came all the way down south to visit my site. I know you could have spent those days in a beautiful beach town but instead you came to N’Kob to stay in my mud house. Thank you.
  • Everyone who send me care packages: Sean, Vinita and Bruce, Laurie and Vance, Lia, Kerry, Shanna, Gina and Derek, Gretchen, Dave and Cindy, Julie, Natalie, Michelle. Oh my–I really hope I am not forgetting anyone but it’s possible that I am because people were really generous. Please know that your boxes of Mac n’ Cheese or bottles of hot sauce=pure love.
  • Everyone who tried to send me care packages: I know that Gina’s mom Bev as well as Sara and Todd tried to send me some love but either it went missing or was returned, bruised and battered. If anyone else tried and failed, I’m so sorry. But I still feel the love!
  • Everyone who made my vacations awesome: Taking some kick-ass vacations was one of the best things about being in Morocco. Bruce, Chris and Andrew get another HUGE shout-outs for hosting me in the U.K. multiple times, each visit even better than the last. Fellow PCVs Anna and Courtney not only made traveling around Morocco a fun adventure–there’s no one I’d rather be crammed in to the back of a grand taxi with–but also followed my suggestion of New Year’s in Budapest. Kerry, Erik, Zeke and Keara hauled themselves across the Atlantic for the first time and put themselves in my hands in Paris. Heidi joined me in Italy and took charge of getting us tickets to an opera at La Scala. Gina and Derek and I spent an idyllic week in Portugal and I think we need to revisit the idea of purchasing an apartment in Lisbon and going to that wine bar every night.
  • All the people who stayed in touch. Too many to name but everyone who read my blog, commented on my Facebook posts with encouraging words, emailed me, and generally made an effort to communicate even though I was cut off from some kinds of communication. Knowing that you haven’t been forgotten on the homefront is very comforting to a PCV.
  • Peace Corps Morocco staff and fellow volunteers for a bazillion reasons.
  • Finally…all the Moroccans who showed me some of the most amazing hospitality I have ever encountered and gave so much of what they had to make me feel welcome. In America I know it’s probably just going to creep out strangers on the bus, train or airplane when I offer to share my food with them, but I hope I never lose the habit.

Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature

Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union
–Josef Stalin, 1935

Moldova–my final stop in continental Europe. My first ever visit to an honest to goodness SSR of the former USSR. A place where women are very, very committed to high heels.
Moldova High Heels

If it is known, which mostly it is not, Moldova is primarily known for:

  1. sex trafficking
  2. unhappiness
  3. wine

The reality of sex trafficking is sadly all too irrefutable. But as for the unhappiness, I had read the stories but thought maybe Moldova was getting a bum rap. While I probably wouldn’t have visited if I hadn’t already been in the neighborhood and had a friend living there, I was interested to go and see for myself. Plus there’s item #3 on that list.

My impressions?

Well, tourism is a potential growth area for the rather stagnant economy and I want to be helpful so let’s start with some shiny and happy. Doubts, concerns and context to follow but you can always skip it.

Soroca, where my friend Heidi has lived this past year, is across the pretty Nistru River from Ukraine and famous for its medieval fortress, the only Moldavian fort left in what is now Moldova (see below for more about Moldavia/Moldova), and for its unofficial status as the country’s Roma (Gypsy) capital.

 

Wine probably inspires the strongest sense of national pride you’ll find in Moldova. The two largest wine cellars in the world are located here, although most citizens make their own “house wine.” I tried some pretty good ones!

For visitors, a winery tour with tasting is a fun way to while away some time. Moldova has several options. We went to Cricova, not far outside Chișinău.

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Chișinău, the capital city, has a combination of grand old buildings and communist grunge. The problem is that the communist grunge very much overpowers the few remaining older buildings. Still, there are a couple of pleasant parks and a lot of bars and restaurants to choose from. Plus, some of that Soviet architecture is fun in a weird way

 

 

Orheiul Vechi is probably the single biggest “attraction” in Moldova. It’s basically a series of small sites located in a really lovely natural setting. We checked out the church and the small cave monastery; those with more time/energy can explore other caves and an ethnographic museum. There’s even a few agro-tourism lodging options springing up in the village.

Should you visit? Well, this is the poorest country in Europe and they could use your money. But be prepared for a little roughing it.

Moldova Rutiera

Nothing like taking a long “currentless” ride in a packed rutiera on a hot day to make me miss a Moroccan grand taxi.

Tourist infrastructure isn’t great and those in the service industry seem to have perfected both dead eye stares and defensive/accusatory attitudes. Plus if you take the public transportation known as the “rutiera” (basically large vans), you will encounter the most pronounced Moldovan superstition: fear of “the current.”

Air circulation inside a moving vehicle is apparently, as health risks go, akin to shooting up heroin cut with rat poison using a dirty needle while tightrope walking across the Grand Canyon.

Still, within Europe you can’t get much more “off the beaten path” than Moldova so maybe you can impress your friends!

End of my pretty feeble tourism pitch. Onto other thoughts…

Background: the Centuries-Long March to ‘Most Unhappy Country’

Today’s Moldova is mostly made up of the least wanted bits of the former Moldavia, a region of Eastern Europe between Transylvania and the Black Sea. “The best of times” was apparently during the rule of Ștefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great), who fended off many outside invaders including Ottomans and Hungarians in the late 1400s. So end the glory days.

Ștefan cel Mare

Ștefan cel Mare, Moldova’s greatest (only) national hero

In the mid-1800s, after a few centuries mostly under the Ottomans, Moldavia joined with Romania in a bid to protect itself from Russia. After WWII Romania managed to keep some of the region but the Soviets fully incorporated the rest. The Black Sea coast became part of SSR Ukraine while the rest became the new SRR “Moldova.”

Soviet rule included attempts to weaken the historic connections with Romania, like forcing a switch from the Roman to the Cyrillic alphabet and deporting several thousand people to Siberia.

Following the Romanian Revolution and the break-up of the USSR, many advocated a reunion between Romania and Moldova. This continues to be an idea that is much discussed, little acted upon. Instead, Moldova became its own state: tiny, landlocked and mostly made up from territory not particularly valued by Moldova’s Ukrainian and Romanian neighbors.

But wait! There’s more!

One small section of the already small Moldova, bordering the River Nistru/Dniester (Romanian/Russian) and not so keen on the fall of communism, declared themselves independent. A brief but bloody civil war followed with the result that today Transnistria maintains their own currency and border controls but is mostly unrecognized by the international community except for some love they get from Russia. It is verboten for Peace Corps Volunteers to visit Transnistra.

Moldovans still feel very torn between Russia and the larger European Community. Some refuse to speak Russian, others speak nothing but. The Europeans are wary of welcoming Moldova for many reasons, not the least of which is their apparent inability to get corruption under control. The national government is currently pro-EU but regional elections are happening soon and everywhere I visited was plastered with posters for pro-Russia candidates.

 

Today, many Moldovans see a future for themselves only if they leave and make a life elsewhere. Sadly, this contributes to nationwide “brain drain” and also leaves some women easy marks for sex traffickers.

Soviet era high rise apartment buildings.

Many Soviet era high rise apartment buildings have high vacancy rates and PCVs in the know can use them an an alternative to hostels. Here is the bathroom of the one we stayed in.

View from a Soviet-era apartment complex

View from a Soviet-era apartment complex

 

 

 

 

Peace Corps Moldova

This was my first RPCV visit to a Peace Corps country and boy is Moldova a different experience than Morocco. Both countries have a reputation as “Posh Corps” because of the access to things like internet, electricity, and indoor plumbing. While it is true that Moldova has better internet and fewer squat toilets, I still find Moroccan mud houses more cheerful and comfortable than those courtesy of Mother Russia.

Kitchen in PCV apartment

Kitchen in PCV apartment

I felt very welcomed, obviously, from the Peace Corps Volunteer community but even before arrival I met some friendly and helpful Moldovan girls on my bus who, spying my American passport, were keen to ply me with potato chips and practice their already excellent English.

Heidi’s host family in Soroca was also very welcoming and I was invited to stay with them and enjoy a “masa” (dinner party) involving home cooking accompanied by homemade wine and whisky. Many PCVs told me stories that demonstrated real affection for their Moldovan families. Good thing as they generally stay with families for their entire service.

But I also heard about families who wouldn’t welcome a PCV’s visitor without receiving additional payment from the volunteer. ?!?! My Moroccan host families would never!

Also in contrast to Morocco, and notwithstanding two RPCVs who are opening a restaurant in Chișinău, I heard from few Molodva PCVs who seem completely enamored of their country of service and plan to visit again.

My time there sparked thoughts about criticisms that Peace Corps is a tool of U.S. Imperialism. One PCV from my Morocco group left early, claiming he didn’t really think that Morocco needed Peace Corps but that the U.S. wanted us there because Morocco was an Arab-Muslim country and we needed a happy presence, not an occupying one, in some Arab countries. I don’t say there’s no truth to that but wondered if this particular volunteer might have felt differently about how much we are needed in Morocco if he had been placed in a smaller and poorer community in rural Morocco, as I was.

Why do I bring this up? Moldova has just as many volunteers as Morocco. That seems like an awful lot for such a small country. Might there be political reasons for the U.S to have Peace Corps in a country that is currently trying to decide if its future lies by aligning itself with western Europe or with Russia?

In any case, I am glad I visited Moldova for a number of reasons (seeing part of the former USSR, seeing another Peace Corps country, seeing where Heidi is living) but I also confess to being content on departure, knowing that just a little bit more gaiety awaited me elsewhere.

 

 

Ceaușescu and Nosferatu

Moving on…from the arguably benevolent Tito to unarguably malevolent Ceaușescu. My first stop in Romania was Timişoara, birthplace of the 1989 revolution that toppled the Ceaușescu regime. It was glorious.

Orthodox Cathedral Timisoara
Not that it lacked the depressing recent history I’ve been traveling through these past weeks. I learned a lot in the Museum of the Revolution, housed in a (deliberately?) run-down building outside the city core.

Apparently this was not Ceaușescu’s favorite city and the feeling was mutual. Timişoara citizens, located geographically westward and psychologically identifying with an Austro-Hungarian past, never bought much of what Ceaușescu was selling. It got more pronounced as other countries came out from behind the iron curtain. State controlled radio and television kept most Romanians in the dark about changes in Eastern Europe but people on the western edge could get signals from the west and knew that there was a new sick man of Europe and that his name this time around was Comrade, not Sultan.

A Hungarian priest, threatened with exile from the city for speaking against the regime, was defended by the citizens in greater and greater numbers. Protests spread from one city to another and eventually became too big for the army to put down.

Not that they didn’t try.

But as much as I learned about the depressing years of communism (Ceaușescu was particularly, and unusually for a communist, brutal when it came to preventing women from accessing abortion) and the difficult years since the revolution, my spirit could not be too dampened because everywhere I visited in Romania was just so goddamned beautiful.

Timişoara Is sometimes called Little Vienna because of its it baroque and Secessionist (Viennese art nouveau) buildings. But that tinge of post-communist grunge I felt wasn’t quite there in Ljubljana? Timişoara has it in spades, along with plenty of street art (I later learned they host a street art festival) which only enhances its atmosphere.

I didn’t even see the city at its best. Or I saw it half at its best–Piața Victoriei was all decked out for a flower festival; half at its worst–Piața Unirii was at the tail end of a sewer replacement project and hardly ready for its close up.

Timisoara breweryI didn’t care. Wandering the small core between the two squares was like a mental massage after Belgrade.

I know that there’s a lot more to Timişoara that’s not all architectural wonderland because in the movie playing at the Museum of the Revolution they explained that workers from the shoe factory joined with workers from the beer factory joined with…and I was like ‘where are all these factories? The center is adorable, compact and factory free!’

Although surprise, I did identify and visit the beer factory.

After two days I moved on and made Braşov my home base for exploring Transylvania.

It was easy to day trip from there to Sighişoara, birthplace of history’s greatest pornstache and most imaginative executioner.

Then I had to make a tough choice about either keeping with the Vlad the Impaler theme and heading to the place they promote as Dracula’s Castle or going to the town of Sinaia to check out Romania’s answer to Neuschwanstein, the residence of the former king. It sounds like calling Bran castle “Dracula’s” is straight up chicanery practiced on gullible tourists so I went for the latter. Good call I think.

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Romania was pricier than Bosnia or Serbia, but nonetheless quite a bargain by Western Europe standards. It struck me as one of those places more people would visit if they knew how much adorableness was to be found and weren’t scared of vampires and/or communists. And bears!

Romania has more bears than any country in Europe save Russia

Romania has more bears than any country in Europe save Russia

Much of the preserved beauty of old town Prague or art nouveau Budapest can be found in Romania for a fraction of the price. Not, alas, the thermal baths or stunning opera houses, but plenty to keep you busy. If you are into hiking, the woods and mountains are incredible. Of course it’s also a little rougher around the edges in terms of transportation and tourist services and flawless English speakers, but it’s come a long way since communist times so don’t be scared to visit. My six day visit was a very welcome respite after Belgrade but not nearly enough time to explore all Romania has to offer.

Note for travelers looking to go to Timişoara:  given that Timişoara is such a logical entry point for anyone arriving in Romania by land from Serbia, information on how to get from Belgrade to Timişoara is unreasonably difficult to come by.

There is no bus from Belgrade to Timişoara, at least according to the Serbian woman I talked to who made the same journey.If you look up train options on the popular websites you might come up empty. Fortunately this person wrote a blog post to explain the process. Since I found that so helpful, I figured the least I could do was link to it.

My experience was pretty much as described, although I will add that the Belgrade Danube (Beograd-Dunav) station is so unassuming and tiny that you might miss it so here’s a picture.

Belgrade Danube (Beograd-Dunav) Train Station

Belgrade Danube (Beograd-Dunav) Train Station

I bought my ticket a day in advance and at this station, but I don’t know that either of those things are required. Happy traveling!

Goodbye Yugoslavia

image

St. Sava church. One of the largest Orthodox cathedrals in the world and one of the few “must see” sights in Belgrade.

A day and a half into Belgrade and I was weary. What did Belgrade have to offer other than pedestrian unfriendly streets and ugly communist buildings? What was I missing?

For inspiration I turned, as any traveler through the former Yugoslavia must, to Rebecca West. What words did she have to inspire me?

“[In Belgrade] I felt a sudden abatement of my infatuation for Yugoslavia.”

Not helpful.

So at the end of nearly a month of travels in the former union of south Slavs, in the place where the dream of Yugoslavia began and ended, I was in a city full of, again in the words of Rebecca West, “streets that had already been built elsewhere much better.”

Agreed. Belgrade was easily the ugliest of the four Yugoslav capitals I have seen and the least ready for prime time as a tourist destination. Even the guy at my hostel seemed at a loss. He showed me a map of the city and shrugged, “most tourists like to go to the park.” The alpha and the omega of his advice.

There were pockets of beauty: Skadarlija, the cobblestoned area I stayed in that is considered the “Montmartre” of Belgrade; Knez Mihailova, a lovely pedestrian-only boulevard leading to the main square; Kalemegdan, the aforementioned park overlooking the confluence of the Sava and the Danube that reminded me what real rivers look like.

image

The “is this a toy?” river in Ljubljana and the super shallow/mostly paved “are Danny and Kenickie drag racing here later?” trickle that runs through Sarajevo.

The Danube. Now this is a real river.

The Danube: a real river

Connecting these disparate parts of the city require wading through long stretches of ugly. Godspeed the tourist who tries to navigate the public transportation system. I tried four or five times to purchase some kind of bus ticket and was never successfully able to do so.

I also found it hard to go from Bosnia to Serbia without some distaste. I am no Rebecca West for a myriad of reasons, perhaps the least of which is that I sympathize with Serbia almost not at all. Granted, I have the perspective of 1990s where we got to see what the dream of Greater Serbia wrought when pursued by one of Europe’s largest armies.

Even stopping in front of the crumbling buildings struck by NATO, left in ruins for reasons both financial and symbolic (although rumor is a Trump property may go in at some point in the near future), I couldn’t muster much sympathy.

I know that the Serbs and their chosen leader, Slobodan Milošević, weren’t necessarily more rabidly nationalistic than the Croats and Franjo Tuđman. But one country had the resources of the Yugoslav People’s Army under their control and another didn’t.

So I was in a relatively unattractive, tourist unfriendly city that is the capital of a country with an ugly recent past. Then the one sight I really really wanted to see–Tito’s grave–turns out to be closed to the public as they prepare some kind of new exhibit.

I can’t even say I didn’t have fair warning that I might not love this town. As I researched “what to do in Belgrade” I kept hearing that it was unmatched as a party city. Indeed, for bars, clubs and cheap hostels, Belgrade is every yob’s dream. Sadly, my interest in raging Rakija-fueled nightlife has waned over the years.

A coffee only seems like it costs a lot. Then you realize this is $1.66.

A coffee only seems like it costs a lot. Then you realize this is $1.66.

But I was there and I’d already paid for my hostel so I needed to just take Belgrade on its own terms. That meant checking out two or three historical/cultural attractions and then just giving myself up to eating and drinking like the “gluttony” victim in that Brad Pitt/Morgan Freeman/decapitated Gwyneth Paltrow movie. Since Serbia’s affordability factor is so high, I didn’t even worry about funds.

I took pictures of some pretty things, walked along the Danube quay, saw an electricity display straight out of a Frankenstein movie at the Tesla museum and then tucked into another half litre of beer, giant stew or plate of plum dumplings. Or baked apples with whipped cream. I could have stayed another week and not exhausted the supply of new and interesting places to eat and drink.

Will I be back in Belgrade? Not a top priority. Maybe to fly in or out on my way to Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo or a more interesting part of Serbia, in which case I’d stay an extra day in order to see that elusive Tito gravesite. Otherwise I am ok with saying goodbye to Belgrade. I am even ok with saying goodbye to the former Yugoslavia (for now). There are more communisms than Tito’s to explore!