Countdown: The Regrets

Posted August 14, 2015 by egracon
Categories: Things I Miss, Travel

skadalija signsIt’s done.  The house is empty, aside from government-issued Drexel furniture and nails in the wall.  My replacement is here.  It’s time to move on, and thanks to the empty house and the replacement guy sitting at my his desk, I’m finally about ready to go.  (And yes, if anyone has read this post multiple times, which I doubt, you’ll notice that I keep adding to it as I think of more and more things I should have done in the last three years.)

If I had more time here, though, here’s what I would have done:

  • Traveled more – to Italy, to Poland, to Ireland.  To Serbia’s beautiful but carsick-inducing mountains – Tara, Kopaonik, Stara Planina, Zlatibor.  To Bosnia and to Transylvania.  To Turkey and  Montenegro again.
  • Gone skiing.
  • Done a few things differently at work, especially at the beginning of my assignment here.
  • Gone to Guca Trumpet festival and Exit music festival.
  • Eaten more karadjordje’s schnitzel.
  • Drank more rakija.
  • Drank less beer that comes in a 2-liter bottle.  I’m looking at you, Jelen.
  • Visited more of Serbia’s wineries.
  • Gotten a personal trainer.
  • Gone to Skadarlija, Serbia’s bohemian quarter.  (Admittedly, this wasn’t for lack of time but a disproportionate fear of aggressive musicians who expect tips.)
  • Gone to more splavs, Belgrade’s floating restaurant/nightclubs.
  • Gone to one of Belgrade’s famous nightclubs at least once.  I really want to experience it, but can’t handle the recovery after staying up all night.
  • Watched more Serbian films.
  • Gone to Serbian Orthodox Mass.
  • Learned more Serbian.  For real this time.

It’s not all puppies and rainbows

Posted August 12, 2015 by egracon
Categories: Uncategorized

While I’m having a hard time leaving Belgrade, there are some aspects of life here that I won’t miss, in no particular order:

— Sunset at 3:30 PM on winter days

— Indoor smoking; i.e. Having to hang my kids’ coats outside to get rid of the cigarette smoke after going to a restaurant in the winter, and keeping a bottle of Febreeze in my desk drawer to spray myself after going for a coffee

— Restaurants that hold “reserved” tables all night, despite assurances that their American customers will eat and be gone long before the Serbian people who reserved the table show up

— Winter produce – cabbages, beets, and increasingly dry oranges as the winter goes on.

— The language.  (See: What I’ll Miss #7.)

So life in Belgrade is not all puppies and rainbows.  Although it sure would have been easier to leave this place in the middle of winter.

Countdown: What I’ll Miss

Posted August 10, 2015 by egracon
Categories: Around the house, Reviews, School

An annotated list of the 10 things I’m going to miss most about life in Belgrade:

1) Belgrade, the city. It’s the right size – big enough to have opera, and a philharmonic, museums and music festivals. Small enough that the traffic isn’t bad and you can pretty much always park downtown without too much hassle.

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2) The food – Serbian food isn’t the best or most diverse in the world, but what it does well, it does well. Grilled meat, fresh bread, meat stuffed inside bread, meat stuffed inside meat. This is not a town for vegetarians.  And thanks to a babysitter that we love, we can go out almost every weekend.


3) The prices – Serbia was affordable before (caveat: on an American salary. With high unemployment and low wages, Belgrade is not particularly affordable for the average Belgradian.), but with a 30% rise in the dollar the last six months have been even more affordable. That opera? Eight dollars for the best seat. Five for the Philharmonic. Two-three $ for museum entrance. Our excellent daycare costs less for a month than two weeks in U.S. daycare would cost, and we can afford to have someone help in the house.

4) The travel. Four hours to Budapest. Six to the Istrian coast of Croatia. Six to the Julian Alps of Slovenia. Six to Vienna, eight to Prague. And that’s driving. By air, all of Europe is accessible for a long weekend.

5) Our house. I agonized over city-vs-suburbs. I consider myself a city person. I want my children to be city people. Yet, I love our house in the suburbs. It’s got so much space – four bedrooms, a playroom, a storage room. It’s got a fenced yard where we can let the kids run pretty much unsupervised. The commute to work is the same as from the city apartments, although obviously it’s a much longer commute to the city itself (but still 20 minutes driving to downtown, including parking, or 50 minutes on the bus). We have lots of embassy colleagues in the area, so it’s great for impromptu playdates, barbecues, and carpools. I love that the kids can run and stomp and scream without me worrying about the people below us in an apartment. We made the right call.

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6) The work-life balance. I leave the office at 5:00 PM nine days out of ten, and while I do check my Blackberry more than I should, I rarely have to work weekends. I’ve been able to take vacation when I want.

7) The language. I have a love-hate relationship with Serbian. I love that it’s so complex, and that I learn weird new grammatical rules every day. I hate that after four years of studying it, I still speak so badly. I’m glad I’m done with it, but at the same time, I’m sorry that I’ll start losing it in 19 days and counting, especially when I start putting Spanish into the space in my brain reserved for languages. I’m ever sadder that Clara and Van, who speak Serbian really well, will lose it completely in a matter of months.

8) Ada – Ada is an island in the Sava river, along with an artificial lake, surrounded by pebbly beaches, restaurants, playgrounds, sports facilities, and biking trails.  We went there nearly every weekend to swim or bike or just let the kids play while we ate good food and drank cold beer.  Even when it’s crowded and the parking is maddening, it’s still a respite from the city.

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9) Schools – We were lucky to find a preschool in our neighborhood that was a perfect fit.  No, the communication isn’t quite what you’d get from a U.S. preschool, and yes, they did once lose Van on a field trip, but the teachers and staff truly love the kids and take great care of them (bus incident being an aberration).  They are open every weekday including holidays, feed the kids breakfast, lunch, and multiple snacks that we didn’t need to pack, and even have sleepover Fridays.  Both of our kids speak excellent Serbian thanks to their preschool experience.  We loved Clara’s elementary school, too, and wish we could stay in that school longer.  Twelve kids with a teacher and teacher’s aide, door-to-door bus service, and after school activities included.  It’s going to be hard to beat these two schools.

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10) Our friends.  (Last by not least by any account.)  We started Serbian classes four years ago with a good group of people, and have worked together since.  Some moved on last year thanks to shorter assignments, but new friends have come in their place.  The kids have made great friendships, too, making it hard to leave for all of us.

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Countdown: The Pantry

Posted August 5, 2015 by egracon
Categories: Uncategorized

Here’s what’s left:

Two frozen corned beefs inherited from someone who left last summer
One pork tenderloin
One pack of chicken breasts
Two packs of Italian sausage
Six cans kidney beans
Frozen shrimp
Some old fish sticks
Frozen peas
One box lemon cake mix
One jar molasses
One giant container of Israeli couscous

Twelve more dinners at home, max. All in all, we’re not doing so bad. We’ll throw away $100 worth, at least, of open oils and sauces and condiments, but we’ve managed to pare down fairly well. Anyone want to join us for shrimp, peas and beans?

Countdown: Final Roadtrip

Posted August 3, 2015 by egracon
Categories: Uncategorized

We made one last roadtrip this weekend to meet up with good friends who live in Germany now, and who we hadn’t seen in three years. We picked Bohinj, Slovenia because it’s halfway between us and them, and it had the added bonus of beautiful scenery and a cool respite after weeks of 90+ degree temperatures in Belgrade.  All in all, it was a great trip – amazing scenery, enough to do but no so much that we felt guilty about doing very little of it thanks to four under-6 kids, good food, great company. The kids had fun together, and we got to meet our friends’ adorable littlest one.

The trip home, though, was a bit of a disaster, but had the added bonus of making me ready to go back to the States for a little while. It started off well enough, rainy, but we were making good enough time that we thought we would make the 6 1/2 hour trip in, well 6 1/2 hours, which is impressive enough with kids and bathroom stops. But then, right about hour three, we hit the big toll booth leaving Croatia. Yes, I know it’s the first Sunday in August. And yes, I know that every single European, including one million Turks living in Germany, go on vacation in the month of August. But somehow, I assumed that the highway service and immigration services knew that and planned for that…and I was wrong.

So we hit the big toll booth. And we did some line-switching and guessing and eventually settled into a line….and got through 30 minutes later just in time to get into the back of the immigration line. We weren’t sure how far we were from the border, but we couldn’t see it. We spent an hour in that line and then asked one of the police officers who was scolding the shoulder-passers whether another crossing would better. He gave us directions to that crossing, but didn’t answer the question of whether it was better or not. So we decided to take our chances, and headed for the next crossing 20 miles away on small country roads. At least we were moving….until we weren’t. We ended up again at the back of an immigration line, and we still couldn’t see the booths, but because this was a much smaller crossing there was only one booth to handle the line instead of four or five at the highway crossing. Right about then I texted a colleague who knows everything (and everyone) to ask his advice…and he called someone who works at Customs…and five minutes later a Croatian police officer showed up to escort us past the mile-long line to the border, where we zipped out of Croatia and were handed over to Serbian police escort who apologized profusely for making a diplomat wait while I apologized profusely for taking advantage of the escort because really, all I wanted to do was find out if there was a better border crossing. (To be perfectly honest, there are a lot of people I could have asked, and I asked the person who knows everyone, but I still wasn’t expecting a police escort…I think at best, I was expecting that he knew someone who knew of a secret border crossing that no one else knew about.) So two hours later, we were on the road and moving again until we stopped at the first bathroom…where there was a 30-minute line for the bathroom. I opted for Port-a-Potty outside and sent Clara back in with Ian to a much shorter line for the men’s room.

Even with the police escort, this was one of our top three worst road trips — the other two being the Budapest snowstorm drive and a Sunday in July driving back from the Outer Banks a few weeks before Clara was born. To top it off, we got home to find out that our Internet was out and remembered that we’d left all of the cold food in the fridge back at the hotel. And we had left the 70-degree temperatures behind in Slovenia and were back in 90-degree temperatures. So while I’m still really dreading our departure from Serbia in 19 days, thanks to the Croatian immigration service, I’m looking just a little bit forward to not driving that road again anytime soon.

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In Memorium: Mr. Craig

Posted July 10, 2015 by egracon
Categories: Uncategorized

Our dear friend Craig died in March after a long fight with cancer, and Ian is back in the U.S. to attend his memorial service today on what would have been his 42nd (?) birthday.  Craig was one of those people that Clara loved instantly.  Craig was between jobs the year that we lived in the DC area while I was studying Serbian, and Van was being born, so he came by frequently to hang out with Clara and Ian.  As Van’s due date approached, and we still didn’t have a clear plan for who would take care of Clara when I went into labor, Craig became our go-to guy.  In the end, we didn’t need to call on him, but I had no doubt that Craig would have jumped in his car in the middle of the night and taken excellent care of Clara for as long as we needed.

And over the last year or two, when the cancer really started to beat him up, it was sometimes shocking to see how skinny he had gotten, or how little hair he had, or how easily he tired.  Clara never seem surprised at his appearance during our regular Skype calls, even though I was shocked every time.  When he died, we struggled with telling Clara because she had loved him so.  And we chickened out for several weeks, until one evening when Clara asked how he was doing and Ian told her the truth.  We’d been watching “Totoro” that week, and Clara had the theme song stuck in her head, and after she cried for a while, she said to Ian, “Now I have Totoro and Mr. Craig stuck in my head.”

And then Ian texted that to me and I burst into tears in the Serbian equivalent of Chipotle.

We miss you, Mr. Craig.

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Waterfalls and bears, oh my!

Posted June 22, 2015 by egracon
Categories: Travel

We spent the weekend in Plitvice Lakes, an amazing national park in Croatia with dozens of lakes and possibly hundreds of waterfalls.  (I’m sure the website says, but I’m feeling too lazy to even Google for a number.)  Ian and I had been there before 10 years ago, but it’s pretty enough for a repeat visit.  We spent a full day hiking, in between international calls to our bank to get them to unblock our debit cards so that we could get enough money from the ATM to pay the hotel bill (cash only), and then another full day driving across 1/2 of Croatia to get to an abandoned-bear sanctuary only to find out that the bears were sleeping in the middle of the day.  And ate the freshest trout we’ve ever eaten, and pork right off the spit, and spent the in-between moments pretending to be either the puppies from Paw Patrol or Elsa & Anna, which is pretty much what we do every day. of. our. lives.

So to sum up, it was an amazing weekend getaway!

IMG_0028 (1280x853) IMG_0038 (853x1280) IMG_0045 (1280x853) IMG_0046 (1280x853) IMG_0052 (1280x853) IMG_0081 (1280x853) IMG_0086 (1280x853) IMG_0096 (1280x853)And my favorite quote from the trip, when I was telling them that I did not want to hear another peep from their shared room, Van said, “But sometimes I hiccup in bed.”  And Clara said, without missing a beat, ” Sometimes I barf in the car.”


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