While many people here are used to hopping on a bus for 24 hours to get places, we decided that we would get more done on our week long break from school if we rented a car. We had a complicated schedule of visiting family in remote towns in Slovakia, going to a film festival in a Belgrade and we also wanted to make sure to build in some time for wandering. And to be honest, Mark was also itching to drive again.
For those of you who already read Mark’s blog post, he was clearly smitten with the driving and the challenges that come with that around these parts. It all started with actually getting a car, which is an adventure in its own right.
First, you have to find a place that actually rents cars (we ended up at an Opel car dealership on the edge of town). You can’t just go online to make a reservation. You have to go to the place, give your passports and driver’s licenses and come back “in a few days.” Eventually you get a call that says “your papers and car are ready to be picked up” and with a $100 cash deposit and a book full of special stamps, insurance cards, stickers (and who knows what else), we were finally on our way.
We started with a stop in Sofia for the Sofia Independent Film Festival http://soindependentfilmfest.com/2011/en/festival_info.php where we saw Robert Redford’s new movie “The Conspirator.” http://www.conspiratorthemovie.com/ The screenwriter was there for the Q and A and he explained how it took him almost 20 years to get the film made about the Lincoln assassination, which was billed as “a thriller.” It wasn’t, but it was interesting to learn about the real story behind assassin John Wilkes Booth who did not act alone. After the screening, screenwriter James Solomon gave an interview to one of my students (I had arranged for passes for a handful who wanted to attend as “press.”). That night we stayed in a hipster hostel http://www.hostelmostel.com which was good for the wallet and just one of many different kinds of lodging we stayed in while traveling during our fall break.
After that, we headed up to Slovakia to meet Mark’s relatives he had never met before. This was a marvel to witness what we are now calling the “Wollemann mind-meld.” When you can’t speak the same language, you have to gesture, drink laugh and eat. Mark bonded with his cousin Rudolph in Trnava http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trnava after dinner and a few rounds of “Slibovitz” (a drink that is oh, 60 proof or so and they call “medicine”). Rudolf showed us his old police uniforms and a certificate of service he got from the communist government that collapsed a few months later. The next day, the Trnava clan, including Anna and Martina, took us for a walk around their lovely town, which is known as “Little Rome” or “Slovak Rome” due to the many churches they have there within a few blocks. Mark and Rudolph even dressed alike for the occasion.
We had lunch at a local brewery/restaurant called Sessler http://www.sessler.sk/where we met another relative (son of Rudolf and Anna, who looks a lot like Mark’s brother Gary) and then a short drive to visit the Cerveny Kamen (Red Stone) Castle, which was actually a 13th century mansion owned by one family that was really into hunting, beautiful furniture, art and wine. They even had their own pharmacy! I am constantly amazed at the amount of history and beauty that is in this part of the world, largely undiscovered or found in unlikely places, such as ancient ruins we found just sitting in a park next to a playground in Sofia (there was a small sign telling us such but no “hands off” signs as there would be in the U.S.). This Slovakian castle was a treat for me comparable to going to Versailles and way more enjoyable since there were only a handful of people there and very few (if any) tourists. It was mostly Slovaks who are proud of their heritage and the beauty they built.
Next stop: Sekule, a small village not far from the Austrian border with more relatives. We got there late in the afternoon and spent the evening being shuttled around to different houses with different sets of relatives. It’s a marvel to me how many people can squeeze into one room for “visiting.” Mark bonded the most with Ludwig, who spent many hours talking in Slovak while gesturing with his hands and, which you can see in the pictures and the video. Over time, it seemed like Mark and Ludwig actually understood each other. Mark said, “I was convincing Ludwig that Wollemanns didn’t need a common language. We connect on brain waves.” We had lots of laughs and enjoyed the visits with his relatives. Feels good to know we have family on this side of the ocean.
Next stop: Budapest. What can I say about this majestic city of incredible beauty? It reminded me of the same feelings I had when I first arrived in Paris for my junior year in college. Stunning old beauty and a feeling that I have been here before and belong here. Both Mark and I felt this way as we wandered around this city full of history and surprises, including a trip to the public bath house where we sat outside in steamy thermal spring water with local men playing chess in the pool. We were hosted by ex-pats David and Sue Spencer (from Duluth) in their lovely home on the outskirts of the city, so we were required to take public transportation everywhere, which was delightful because it was efficient and worked. Love a big city with good public transpo and good food and good coffee! We were very happy there.
The next day brought us to Belgrade (Serbia) for a film festival. While Budapest reminded us of old-time Paris, Belgrade was more like a frenetic and funky New York- energetic and artsy. The city is a hodge-podge of old and new and what seems like uncontrollable growth. There are many shiny new things next to buildings still broken from bombings from not too long ago. Large pedestrian-only streets bustling with artsy new cafes filled with beautiful fashionable people next to cement block apartments. You get the idea.
That night we went to the opening night of the Freezone Film Festival (http://www.freezonebelgrade.org/en) where a packed house of film lovers watched the “This is Not a Film” made by Jafar Panahi, an Iranian filmmaker who is under house arrest in Tehran and is not allowed to make films. But he made one anyway, about a day in his life basically going crazy not making films. Read more about it here: http://tiff.net/filmsandschedules/tiff/2011/thisisnotafilm. Very powerful stuff. I really enjoyed being in a room full of people who share an appreciation and love of documentaries in any language, as long as there are subtitles.
After the screening, we got together with Serbian filmmaker Darko Lungulov who is enjoying success with his film, a Serbian/NY love story “Here and There” (see Hollywood Reporter review here: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/here-and-there-film-review-29592) I met Darko a few weeks earlier at film festival in Bitola, Macedonia (more on that later) and it was great to reconnect with him in his home town. Here is a trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTt28J_h19k and the website for the movie: http://hereandtherethemovie.com. It was fun to visit with him and find out how he got Cyndi Lauper (remember her?) involved in his film as well as hearing about the trials and tribulations of making films in Serbia and in NYC.
We had a late dinner at an incredibly funky restaurant in an old supermarket (part store, part restaurant) http://www.supermarket.rs/index.php ) and then back to our lovely room at the Hotel Balkan (a traditional hotel since 1936) http://www.balkanhotel.net/sr/home.aspx. The next morning we left for our drive home. I have to admit that re-entry to Bulgaria was a little hard after being places where so many people spoke English, where they take debit cards and the food (and coffee!) was so delicious.
One of my favorite parts of the trip is when we were looking at the map on the GPS and Mark noticed that we were driving through three different countries in one day. That’s three border crossings in to three countries with different languages and different currency and remarkably different histories. This in the same time frame it would take to drive from Minnesota to Wisconsin to Chicago. How different our lives have become.
We have now settled back in Blagoevgrad and started classes again yesterday. Students are asking about their final projects and it feels like the end of the semester Is going to creep up on us rather quickly. We are both anxiously awaiting the arrival of our daughter Jenna who will be visiting us in two weeks. So excited!
One thing I realized after we got back is that we were so busy in all the places we visited that I forgot to buy new jeans! Next trip, perhaps? Or maybe Jenna can bring some with her 🙂