Skopje, Macedonia

When I got off the bus it was 11am; after awhile the time switched to an hour earlier. A couple of clicks later and I realised Macedonia was in a different time zone from Bulgaria. Wow. And why? The bus took only 4 hours.Already, I miss the abundance of wifi in Sofia.



I was due to meet Katy in a couple of hours. I took the chance to walk along the streets in the meantime. 
I walked past a shop. Why were there 2 flags?

A shopkeeper briefly explained the shift in the country’s flag design. 
More at: http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2015/05/24/409210151/to-build-up-its-history-macedonia-going-baroque
3. Average wage of 250-300€ a month
4. Unlike Bulgaria there’s no paternity leave, only maternal
5. ‘Skopje 2014’(https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skopje_2014)
Statues can be seen throughout the city, in a project known as Skopje 2014 
This was very noticeable, and I couldn’t help feeling somewhat amused by the number of statues around the city, almost every 5m you’ll spot one. Also, it was clear they were new structures, that looked like the old ones.
What I felt was more interesting was this tourist map board – these attractions (only top half displayed, bottom half photo not taken so there’s really many more statues not shown)
Firstly, the Jokerman font. Wow, been some time. Secondly, the ‘under construction’ sign – they were building so many things.
‘Identity crisis’? To attract tourists?

Katy drew my attention to the fact that some of these establishments were ‘imitations’ of popular infrastructures in other cities. Do these look familiar to you?

– No proper earthquake resistant structures
– Citizens are complaining that this is a waste of money (according to Katy)



Things I took away with me from Skopje

1. Mother Teresa

Part of Macedonia’s draw for me, admittedly, was the Memorial House of Mother Teresa. She was born in Skopje, Macedonia, it seems. 


Later, after meeting with Katy, I learnt the complexities of geopolitical boundaries and ‘claiming’ of popular figures for each countries’ attempt to boost national identity.

“Albanian politicians say they are angry at a proposal to describe Mother Teresa as Macedonian on the statue’s inscription. They say she was Albanian. 


When Mother Teresa was born in Skopje in 1910, neither Macedonia or Albania existed. 
The streets of the modern capital, Skopje, were part of the Ottoman Empire.
But now that the world’s most famous nun is approaching sainthood an unseemly row has broken out over her identity.
Her ethnicity may have mattered little to her but it has tremendous importance in the Balkans.” 


Is Mother Teresa Albanian or Macedonian? 




2. Flag Dispute between Greece and Macedonia 



– Previously it was related to Alexander the Great, but seems like Greece has been trying to claim that Alexander the Great was Greek, not Macedonia, and so Macedonia changed its flag. There also seems to be some territoriality issue- Greece claims they have a state called Macedonia, and rejects the country’s name. Macedonia hence has the (FYROM) at its name; apparently it’s also Greece that has been hindering its entrance into the EU






Roma community uses horses as a means of transport (supposedly illegal)












A river runs through the city. Apparently a Ferris wheel is due to be constructed along the river, which may affect it. There are people lobbying against its construction, but who knows? I wonder how it’ll go.










Katy and I walked along this part of the park. It was calming and beautiful.




My hostel did not have an electronic radiator. The fire heated the whole place. The hostel owner eagerly showed me the fire, when I asked. I grinned. I was secretly nervous though, and as I lay in bed at night, I wondered if the place might catch fire, and if I would be able to escape. But nope, none of that happened, I’m pleased to say.









Would Skope 2014 work in attracting tourists? Frankly, the night view of Skopje is indeed pretty. I think Papa would like it.
It might, it might grow. 





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Rila Monastery, Bulgaria (Photos)

Took a day trip to Rila Monastery. It was beautiful! I had to choose between Plovdiv and this. No regrets (but Plovdiv someday, someday, summer.)

 

It was beautiful, and absolutely worth a visit. The colours, the exquisite design, I loved it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sofia, Bulgaria

 
 
 
 
Ah, the iconic Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia. 
Sofia, such a lovely name for a city, in my view. 
 

In Bulgaria, nodding means “no” and shaking your head means “yes”. Some know that if they’re speaking to a foreigner, they do it the opposite way.
‘Is this the way to the train station?’
‘-shakes head-‘
‘It isn’t?’
‘-shakes head-‘
Bulgaria.
1 euro = 2 lev
My first impression… It was cold, I could smell weed in the air for some reason, and I noticed the peeling walls and worn-out buildings. I was a little taken back at the start, because it seemed too obvious, the crumbling paints. It was rather different from Italy and Switzerland; though I had heard that Eastern europe is different, the rather stark contrast did catch my attention. I would soon grow used to it though.

This is apparently a pumpkin, a useless inedible one. Because mankind always tries to make useful things out of useless things, they decorate it, using it as an art piece. Or, if you cut it into half, you can get a spoon! Wow.


During the Christmas season, some restaurants switch into Christmassy tablecloth, and Christmassy napkins. I haven’t observed that in Singapore before, though I wouldn’t be surprised if there are restaurants or eateries like that, but I also wonder if it’s because of the greater emphasis they place on Christmas and its meaning.

Here I met an Irish girl who’s teaching in the UAE – Ireland recession a couple of years ago, and she said it wasn’t unusual for people to go to the UAE to teach. This idea was planted in my head
During the tour we tried many local dishes, such as banitza, the Bulgarian yogurt drink, the sour yogurt soup with cucumbers that I struggled to finish… Bulgarian yogurt – what’s so special about it? Well apparently, there’s a kind of bacteria that grows only in Bulgaria due to the optimal conditions here that allows it to grow. Other countries that want to imitate this can’t, because of this bacteria that’s the secret to it. Except for some countries such as Japan and Singapore, where there’s some trading agreements / treaties between the countries that allow for the export of such bacteria which grants them the condition to make Bulgarian yogurt.

She also showed us this
Wall to wall poetry project
Poems in EU
Apparently EU is doing this poetry project where different countries and their poets leave their poems on the walls of other countries. For the one above, it’s by a Hungarian poet and speaks of freedom and peace. Interesting project which I’m going to google more about


Initiatives around the city
I thought it was a good idea, then I talked to one of Mira’s friends who was an architect and he said such projects are ‘shallow’ in the sense that they don’t make actual changes, he wanted to do something greater like designing seats that allowed you to sit, and then had an under layer that could emerge to become rain covers. Something like that. Still, it’s interesting to hear about how important he feels his job is, his ability to change people’s life by setting a street this way, or that.
These are interesting ‘basement shops’ found at random parts of the streets. This was because during the Soviet times it was easy to just open your basement window and then you can set up a shop using your basement. Such ways of setting up a business continued through the times.

The night
30 lev for my bus to Macedonia (32 original, 30 because I’m a student; she says) = 15 euros




Russian Orthodox church


another angle, because i like
 

Kratuna

 
Went for the Sofia food tour!! Such a great idea, Singapore (‘food haven’ or so we claim) should do something like that, really.
 

 

 

Painting these boxes to increase vibrancy of the city

this zebra picture illustrates a common matchstick box design used during the Soviet times




 

These are interesting ‘basement shops’ found at random parts of the streets. This was because during the soviet times it was easy to just open your basement window and then you can set up a shop using your basement. Such ways of setting up a business continued through the times.
 
 
the night 

 

I went swing dancing with Mira and her friends – more like I watched; i am a klutz
it was nevertheless really interesting, especially since she picked it up only when she was 25
she carries with her an air of confidence, a never-stop-trying, an unshy, unbothered, air that i would like to emulate. 
reminders to self
 

 

A. Romania – Bucharest

 
Feels like so much happened within these days
 
1. Dropped my wallet (first time abroad! Forgiving myself) and frantically searched for it in the middle of the bus terminal. I looked up and saw the driver walking towards me, holding the familiar black rectangle in his hand. Seriously, luckiest girl ever! As usual, surrounded by amazingly helpful and kind people who guided me to train stations, people who talked to me, chatting about Romania and education (free till high school) and healthcare (‘free – but is it really?’) and quality of medical care (certain operations/diseases sought abroad eg cancer)
 
2. Hanging garlic like hanging dream catcher hmmmmm
 
3. Government – paternal leave 3 weeks (?!) and receiving a sum of money (50 euros for those who haven’t worked consecutively for a year) for 2 years
 
4. No elevators at all metro stations, no ramps, a cause for concern for mothers (services for encouraging motherhood)
 
5. Minimum wage 250 euros a month
 
6. 80-80% Orthodox Christians + abortion is legal + cohabitation / not marrying not as common (vs Netherlands)
 
7. Whole of EU does not have capital punishment
 
8. Landscape of Bran changes into a barren white – higher altitude lower temperatures = snow!
 
9. Dracula – Bram Stoker chose Transylvania, one of the three large regions of Romania. Irish writer Bran Stoker combined the mystery of Transylvania and the historical facts – Vlad the Impaler and his bloodsucking cruelty, folklore about vampires etc to convert Bran Castle into such a popular tourist site today. Shops selling Dracula cups and magnets, haunted houses; everyone’s tapping on this. If he hadn’t set it here, how would things be? This and Laos has got me thinking about how something seemingly small can make significant contributions to shape the economy and livelihoods of a place and for its people.
 
10. Roma people / gypsies
 
11. Romanian and Italian linguistic similarity
 
12. Fire broke out in a club and 400 people were stuck, 60+ people died – people were angry, prime minister was forced to step down. The buildings are old, not earthquake-protected, no proper fire evacuation routes, no proper checking. Because this has been a cause for concern for some time, when the fire happened people were really upset about it. Shops located in the old buildings shifted elsewhere, that’s why many of the shops have closed down.
 
13. Conflicting views over how to raise Santa issue
 
14. A girl from Moldova invites me to stay with her. She’s 24 and married, showed me this Mongolian friend she met before (Asians association?), said she’ll drive me around to show me the sights. Really warm, friendly and open. This is the first time I’ve received an open invite, hence noting it down 🙂
 
15. Piazza Romana is the hipster bookshops street
 
To be honest, Bucharest is not quite pretty. (Maybe because it was winter -it was cold, snowing, I wanted to stay indoors). I’m glad I went to Brasov and Bran.
 
I noticed this ‘volunteers’ signboard in the city centre




“The pretzel – in Romanian covrig, is probably one of the most common street foods in Romania. In many large intersections in Bucharest, there has to be at least a pretzel shop on one of the street corners. Pretzels are not just simply pretzels in Romania – recipes have been updated, and now you can have pretzels with fillings, and other products made of pretzel dough, and filled with different ingredients (sausages, cheers, apples, chocolate – well, not all of them mixed). Take the Covridog, for example, Covricheese, or Covriking, all brands and products invented by a company called Petru.
Most of the shops selling pretzels are local brands, no-names, although here are a few ‘chains’ as well, such as Luca and Petru. The name for pretzel shops in Romania is covrigarie, or a more fancy name, simigerie. Whatever you choose, the majority of Romanian covrigarii have very good ‘covrigi’
With RON 10 – or some EUR 2 – you can buy several covrigi which could last you for a few hours until searching for more.”


Ah, I miss these pretzel-like things. They were delicious and incredibly cheap. 1 euro (or less?) for the delicious, hot yummy bread sometimes filled with cheese, oftentimes (the ones i chose) filled with hot chocolate oozing out in this winter breeze. And so filling too, great for backpacker food. Yummmmmmmm












I learnt quite a bit from Alina. Motherhood / strong beliefs / issues in Romania / ‘raising a genderless child’ 
 
It wasn’t easy to find a suitable bus to Sofia, possibly because it’s winter… Or not. After some googling we found a website that had a suitably overnight-ish timing that allowed me to utilize my night more efficiently. Even though I was due to arrive at 2am, I took it. Only the website states the pickup point at ‘BUCHAREST’ – but no specific bus directions, none. 
 
 
I emailed the company and I was pleasantly surprised to actually receive a reply the next morning.
‘Good morning,
           The bus station in Bucharest is Filaret.
Have a nice day.  
Sincerely,
Etap-Adress AD / Grup Plus OOD’
 

 

Hmmm. 
 
At 7.30pm the bus starts driving from the Bucharest Filaret bus station.
At 9pm the lights turn on and a man collects our passports.
 
Reached at 2.13am!
 
 

The bus station in Sofia was really cosy, warm, you had to pay for the toilet, it had (unlimited) free wifi and the money changer was open. It was pretty good.

Here, I had my first encounter with Cyrillic alphabets. I was excited because I could pronounce some, having practised reading some cyrillic alphabet in the month before. I tried to read the signs, to speak them aloud. It was like a game.

 

 

Carturesti Carusel + Bookshop – Bucharest

 

 

 

 

I noticed many quirky interesting bookshops in both Bucharest and Sofia (Bulgaria); they sold English books and had beautiful tote bags imported from the UK / US, bookmarks, quirky things alike. Liked them very much. And of course Carturesti Carusel – ‘The Carousel of Light’ – seeing it in person was very exciting indeed.

Here I met Alina and we walked in the snow.

Romania – Bran’s Castle, Brasov

Can’t say I haven’t been waiting for this. 🙂 
Flying to Romania! Always feels so surreal, flying to these places I’ve always heard about (or not,) or read about. Romania! I have this strange impression of scams and/or prostitution / human trafficking for some reason. Is it because those chain emails used to say they’re from Romania or something? 
 
My makeshift bed at Rome Ciampino airport, to catch my 630am flight.
There was unlimited wifi, it wasn’t too cold, many people were creating space and sleeping as well. There was a charging port in the middle and people crowded around to charge their things. At about midnight a girl asked if she could use my phone. We chatted for a bit – about the States, about Donald Trump and her skepticism at his campaign, what she was going to do in Italy and Istanbul… I remember her name started with a D. She was really cute and bubbly.
As crazy as this sounds, she REALLY reminded me of
Baby bop, whom name I’ve just found out, but whose image stuck in my head
(this is me, a few months later, speaking)
ok random



These vampire-esque souvenirs are found particularly in Bran, though. Not so much in Bucharest.
Changed money at airport at the rate of 4.05 lei for each euro – mistake. From the airport I was heading straight to Bran (through Bucharest). The central town of Brasov gives the rate of 4.5. Lesson learnt – change just enough at the airport and leave the rest for the central square, you’ll definitely see one, 98% of the time. I don’t usually notice the difference in rates, but this one, this difference is significant enough for me to slap my head. 
 
I was trying to buy my bus ticket to the central station when a Romanian girl and I started talking. Things noted: Romania and Roman vampires, she’s allergic to garlic and onions and her colleagues in Czech laugh at her for it. We spoke a little longer and she said she suddenly remembers the Singapore English accent – she took an online course on forensic science where the lecturer was from Singapore! 
 
I don’t have an accent! I said. 
 
Oh yes you do! She said, attempt to mimic what sounded like a very strange way of speaking, and we laughed. Was this really the way I sounded to her?? We do come across jokes about the Chinese / hk way of speaking English, but to hear how one perceives the ‘Singapore English accent’ feels strange. I suppose it’s one of those cases where we happily make fun of stereotypes but being the stereotyped group – it’s funny and I laugh – but I do feel a little, little strange nudging though I know it’s all gentle and in the name of fun.
 
Revisiting this memory months later draws me to a realisation that I associated an ‘accent’ with perhaps a connotation of an ‘Other’, perhaps something negative, prejudiced I suppose. I mean, thinking about it, everyone has an accent. I will work on that. 
As we talked I realized she’s been on CS for years now, and it’s nice to feel this invisible thread that binded us within the community. 


At night I walked around Brasov freezing. Damn, it’s going to get worse, this Balkan winter. I noticed antique shops, bookstores, bread / pretzels everywhere. Romania prints. Interesting how a day here reveals things I never knew. See, part of the joy in travelling is finding out things you never thought about, digging questions you’d never ask. What’s all this pretzel doing in Romania? What Dracula? The flag of Romania. The patterns and outfits. Their bus system. Their buildings. The people and their features. 




Driving up to Bran
The landscape slowly changes to a barren white 
 
 
 





reminds me of some medieval paintings







oh, gloom, gloom.


I find it interesting that an Irish writer, Bram Stoker, has influenced the tourism landscape of Romania. There were many locals selling vampire-related souvenirs near Bran Castle, the castle that apparently inspired Dracula. If not for this story that was written and popularised, they would likely be doing something else. Brasov might just be a more quiet little town, but the tourism landscape here is definitely inclined towards the ‘vampire’ storyline.

Haunted houses established, keychains, cups..

Pisa, Italy




yay! just another tourist posing the same thing as everyone else! woohoo! ‘look at me lift that tower!’



 
It was pretty cool to see the leaning tower of Pisa in real life. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect – i expected a leaning tower for sure, but well… it was tall and pretty grand and actually leaning for real, that was pretty cool and i smiled, amused
 

just the 1038931736198th tourist to do this 

‘damn, i feel so uncool and unoriginal, i thought i was unique as a snowflake BUT I CANT THINK OF A BETTER POSE TO DO HERE’


 
golden hour
 
This is the last post for my family trip. Thank you World Wide Web and Blogger for your infinite memory space and thank you for letting me leech on it. 
Incredibly blessed to be able to visit Europe with my family again. I know, I know! I am seriously privileged. This also marks the 10th year Papa brings us abroad on a plane on a family trip. It means a lot to me (other than the perks and joys of travelling) to be able to witness these sights with them. 
I AM REALLY LUCKY
 
 Some things I took away from the family trip:
 
We saw many Bangladeshi workers in Italy, along the souvenir shops, the ones selling leather bags, some food, jewellery… I didn’t think much of this 2 years ago. Sister was buying shawls, however, when the shopkeeper asked where we’re from, and she asked him in return if he’s from Italy. Also, one shopkeeper said ‘terimah kasih’ after learning that we’re from Singapore, and another said it was a nice country and he had worked there for 14 years. 14 years! That’s a long time, we exclaimed. Yes, he said. And after 14 years all he got was a work permit.. But here in Italy he worked for 2 years and he got a citizenship. His family is here now, and the kids attend the school here. 
This anecdote is echoed by another salesperson of leather bags – now he’s opened his own shop. It makes me wonder if Singapore is a stepping stone to his goal here, or if this is the case for many others.
Citizenship makes such a big difference, I’ve come to realise. Now his family and himself gets free healthcare and free education, as an Italian. 

 

Venezia, Italy

Always, always, always wanted to go Venice

one of my dream dream dream dream destinations so i’m incredibly thrilled to have been here (!!) all that i’ve read about, heard about, I was SO close to Venice the last time

only an hour away, catching the flight from Venice Mestre airport back to East Midlands

i chose verona over venice because i had hoped that someday i’d be back, with my family, or people i care about

and i did, i did, seriously lucky

though admittedly i wondered what it’d be like to couchsurf here – having a host bring you around to her school, her favourite hangout place, to peek behind the beautiful windows in a city like Venice

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

boarded the water bus that reminded me of kampong luong except there were no kids rowing their boats in the waters