Soroca

soroca_county

Yesterday I went to Soroca! Soroca is located in the North of Moldova, and is right on the Dniester river. This city is famous for its fortress, however unfortunately it is under construction (and has been for a while), so we were unable to go in.

Instead, we hiked up a small hill to see “The Candle of Gratitude” monument, which was very impressive. In addition, we had lunch near the Dniester River, as well as saw some Romani architecture. Interesting Fact: This city is popularly known as the “Romani capital of Moldova.” 

Romani Architecture
Romani Architecture
Romani Architecture
Romani Architecture
Soroca Fortress
Soroca Fortress
Soroca Fortress
Soroca Fortress

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Dniester River
Dniester River
The Dniester (and Ukraine across the river!)
The Dniester (and Ukraine across the river!)
Candle of Gratitude
Candle of Gratitude

Eurovision Song Contest

On May 10th I watched the Eurovision Song Contest for the first time! It was very entertaining, especially since there were so many countries represented in the room. Hurray for international communities!

The songs themselves were alright, however that’s not why people watch the contest. Instead, we cheered for interesting costumes, the backup dancers/performances, and just all around ridiculous-ness. Special shout-out to Iceland’s costumes and Belarus’s line “I don’t want to be your cheesecake.” It’s no wonder that this show is often referred to as Europe’s “festival of kitsch.”

(For more interesting and amusing lyrics click here).

The  most interesting aspect of the show was definitely the voting process.

Each country ranks all the entries, with twelve points given to the first choice, ten points to second, and from eight down to one point for third to tenth place, with the point values decreasing respectively. Countries are not allowed to vote for themselves. The current method for ranking entries is a 50/50 combination of both telephone vote and the votes of juries made up of music professionals.

Like most other singing competitions in the world, the best singers aren’t always given the most points. Instead, it is essentially a popularity contest judged on talent, personality, costumes, and other (sometimes random) variables. But what differs this singing competition from the others is the fact that “the artists and their songs become symbols of the countries they represent.” Because of this, the voting becomes very political, with most countries giving the highest number of points to their neighbors and political allies. For example, Moldova gave 8 points to Russia, 10 to Ukraine, and 12 to Romania.

Because politics and national identity are both so tied to the performers, the Ukraine conflict made its way into this year’s competition, with the Russian act boo-ed several times. This group probably also lost some points due to some of the country’s domestic policies (such as the anti-gay propaganda laws).

Another huge statement was made with millions voting for Conchita Wurst (from Austria), who went on to win with the strong and catchy song “Rise Like a Phoenix.” Conchita is Thomas Neuwirth’s drag persona. While there has been backlash, I think the fact that she was able to challenge our perceptions of gender and STILL WIN is something to be celebrated. In a world full of prejudice and intolerance for everything “different”, there is always a need for more messages of equality and respect. And, as John Oliver put it, “Is it just me or, between Conchita and Michael Sam, did the whole world feel like it became a better place to live in the last 24 hours?”’

Victory Day/Europe Day

May 9th is a national holiday in Moldova, but it comes with a twist. While May 9th (or “Victory Day”) in CEE has traditionally marked the defeat of Nazi Germany to the USSR in the Second World War, in other European countries May 9th is celebrated as “Europe Day“. As part of its campaign to (eventually) join the EU, and as a push-back against Russia, this year a larger proportion of Moldovan citizens than usual forewent traditional Victory Day events in favor of celebrating Europe Day. However, because many in Moldova are still pro-Russia, this meant that there were pro-Russian and pro-EU events celebrated alongside each other.

 Pro-Russian Victory Day Celebration

Pro-EU Europe Day Celebration (circa 2012)

What with the current state of unrest Ukraine (and to a degree in Transnistria), some were concerned that this could lead to clashes. However, while Victory Day was marked with more conflict in Ukraine, fortunately, there was no violence or confrontation between the two groups in Moldova.

I am grateful that Moldova has remained peaceful throughout this Ukraine crisis, and I hope it continues to do so.

Sweden (And Copenhagen)

There are so many reasons why my trip to Sweden was amazing. For one, I got to see a friend from YIS, which is pretty unusual in itself. Also though, I really lucked out with the weather (blue skies and sun every day), and because of this I got to do and see a LOT!

Christina lives in the south of Sweden in a region called Skåne. This is a beautiful place, jam-packed with farms, forest, lakes, and rolling fields of Canola flowers.

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I also got to see some of the southern coastline, which reminded me a lot of Oregon! IMG_3775 IMG_3767

In addition, I was able to see Christina’s university campus (Kristianstad), the third biggest city in Sweden (Malmö), and a large university town (Lund). In Lund I got to meet some university students and celebrate Valborg (which was an experience in itself!), and in Malmö I went to a Chocolate Factory.

Chocolate Factory

When I looked up Malmö on tripadvisor, one of the first attractions that popped up was the Malmö Chocolate Factory. Because of our joint love of chocolate, we decided it was necessary to visit and take a factory tour. Our guide was very informative, and I got to learn about the history of this factory and how chocolate is made. We even got to try lots of different samples! My favorite was being able to taste the chocolate at each stage of the production process, as I felt that was both informative and delicious.

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 Cooking/Food

After cooking for myself for four months in Moldova, I had begun to run out of new foods to cook. Because of this, one of the things I asked to do in Sweden was cook and eat some interesting food. And boy did we! Some of the recipes we cooked ourselves were blanched vegetables, salmon, and lemon meringue pie. I also had a delicious Swedish marzipan cake for my (belated) birthday. Yumm! In addition, we went to some great seafood restaurants, and a nice ice cream restaurant on a boat! The following are three fish dishes we ate at various restaurants. They were all delicious, and it seemed like adding saffron was the popular thing to do!

            IMG_3769       IMG_3847    IMG_3846 Gothenburg Southern Archipelagos

Besides eating, I managed to see a lot of nature in Sweden. One of our extended day trips was to go to the Gothenburg area, and there we visited the Southern Archipelagos. I had heard about the beauty of the these archipelagos before going to Sweden, and was anxious to see them for myself. They definitely did not disappoint!

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We got a ferry pass for the day, and so spent most of our time island hopping. The islands each have an interesting history, and while most are still used for fishing, there are nature reserves and summer houses on many. One interesting fact about these islands is that cars are not allowed. Instead people use bicycles and modified golf carts to get around.

Copenhagen

Our second day trip was to Copenhagen, which is an absolutely gorgeous city. It is a one-hour drive from Christina’s house, and so we went there on my last day in Sweden. Because we only had a limited amount of time (we wanted to get back early enough to make a lemon meringue pie!) but wanted to see a lot of the city, we signed up for another free walking tour. We definitely managed to see a lot, and the tour guide was an awesome story-teller.* Here are a few of the places we visited.

*Something that wasn’t included on the tour, but is a definite must-see, is Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid.

Christiansborg Palace
Christiansborg Palace
Eurovision Countdown!
Eurovision Countdown!
#HappyWall
#HappyWall
Old Telephone Box
Old Telephone Box
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Gefion Fountain
The Little Mermaid
The Little Mermaid
Amalienborg: Royal Residence
Amalienborg: Royal Residence
Changing of the Guard
Changing of the Guard
Nyhavn
Nyhavn
Nyhavn
Nyhavn
One of the Oldest Amusement Parks
One of the Oldest Amusement Parks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Overall Impressions

Apart from sightseeing, we spent a lot of time watching Disney movies (I have definitely jumped on the Frozen bandwagon), listening to songs from high school karaoke nights, and just generally catching up. It was great, and I’m so glad we get to see each other this often!

Birthday in Budapest

Thank you for all the wonderful birthday well wishes!! I had a fantastic time visiting old friends, and exploring Budapest, Southern Sweden and Copenhagen. Because I’ve been gone for a while, and really managed to do a lot with my time, I want to split this update into two parts. The first will discuss what I saw, did, and ate (!) in Budapest. 

The program that I am volunteering with allows for two weeks of vacation time. Because my host organization is pretty flexible with my schedule, I thought it made the most sense (and would be the most fun!) to use this break to a) visit my friends who were studying in other European countries, and b) celebrate my 21st birthday.

My roommate from my freshman year of college is currently studying in Budapest, so that was my first stop. I managed to pack a ton of sightseeing into five days, and the following are some of the highlights of my trip.

Jewish Quarter

The free walking tour we took when visiting Edinburgh last was one of the most interesting (and cheap!) ways I had ever explored a new city. So the first thing I did before coming to Budapest was check if there were any similar tours. There were three different tours available (a general city tour, a communist tour, and a tour of the Jewish quarter), and they all came highly recommended. While Hungary has the largest Jewish population in Eastern/Central Europe (as well as the second largest synagogue in the world), I didn’t know much about history of the Jewish people in Budapest. Therefore, I decided to take the Jewish quarter walking tour.

Fun fact: I ended up meeting two people there who knew some of my oxy classmates! It’s a small world.

The Jewish quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is full of interesting historical elements. Specifically, we visited a number of synagogues, as well as the cemetery and memorial garden for those killed in World War Two. This tour was very informative, and some of the things we learned about were the history, religious traditions, culture and current sociopolitical position of the Jewish people in Budapest.

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Our guide also shared some of his family’s personal stories. For example, he said that the reason his Jewish grandmother survived Hungary’s implementation of the Final Solution was because a far-right politician fell madly in love with her (and this thus provided her with protection).

Something that our tour guide recommended for further exploration was the memorial “Shoes on the Danube Bank.”  This honors the Jews who had to take off their shoes before being shot at the edge of the water during World War Two. People bring flowers, candles and rocks to this memorial to pay honor to the victims.

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This memorial is very moving. It is also poignant to realize that there is still much anti-Semitic sentiment in this region (Moldova included), especially with the growing popularity of the far-right political party.

The City

Budapest is by far one of the most striking cities I have ever been to. It has an extensive number of World Heritage Sites, and is made up of an interesting blend of architecture (in particular I noticed Roman, Gothic and Modern influences). One of my favorite buildings was St. Stephen’s Basilica. St. Stephen’s is one of the tallest buildings in Hungary, and one of its most visited tourist sites. This is because of its tremendous size, its striking architecture, and the fact that you can climb to the top of its dome and get a spectacular view of both Buda and Pest. However, despite it being so popular with tourists, it still is a functional church. When we were there we saw a wedding being officiated, as well as signs for a choral concert the next day.

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For a city of its size, Budapest offers travellers ample opportunity to explore nature. The Danube (another World Heritage Site) is particularly prominent. On the river you can find boats of all shapes and sizes, and on the banks there are a range of restaurants, parks, historical monuments, and people just walking (rain or shine).

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During my stay I walked along both sides of the Danube. I was also lucky to have sun on my last full day in Budapest, and so I climbed Gellert Hill. The climb up was fairly easy, and there were lots of parks and viewpoints to stop at on the way. Apart from the nature and “green” appeal of Gellert Hill, I would recommend the Cave Church at its base, and the Citadel at its top.

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One of the most picturesque places I visited was Margaret Island.  This island has a number of landscape parks, as well as recreation centers. For instance, there are tennis courts, playgrounds, and even a water park. It is also the site of a few medieval ruins of religious centers from the middle ages. It was a great place to walk around, even on a rainy day.

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Széchenyi Baths

Budapest offers a rich supply of natural thermal baths, the most famous being the Széchenyi Baths, which offers a range of indoor and outdoor baths (and even a swimming pool). Before leaving I had heard from a number of people that these baths were definitely worth a visit. And since a) the weather wasn’t great the first few days, and b) I am such a fan of Onsen, I went. The building itself was incredible, and even though I thought that the water could have been a little warmer (I guess I’m used to steaming hot Japanese baths), the experience was very relaxing.

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FoodIMG_3500

Hungarian food is delicious! Two particularly Hungarian dishes I had were Langos (similar in popularity/function to Placinta in Moldova), and Gulash. So good! In addition there were many places to buy gelato all over the city, and I definitely took advantage of this.

IMG_3626 I also went to a very picturesque café in Budapest called Lotz Terem. It is a café remodeled from an old library, and is a very charming place to visit. The ceilings were embellished with gold, and it made for a great place for a special birthday brunch. I ate a fig and rucola quiche and for dessert Emily and I shared a traditional Hungarian cake.

 Night Life

As this trip was partly an extended celebration of my 21st birthday, it seemed fitting to check out some nightlife. And, as we were in Budapest, the obvious choice for me was a ruin pub. Therefore, the first place we visited was what is arguably the most famous ruin pub in the world: Szimpla. This was the most different/unique venue I have ever been to, with a number of bars under the same roof and different items such as old bicycles just hanging from the ceilings and walls.

Because Emily and I are such chocolate lovers, after an extensive internet search we also found a chocolate bar called “VinoWonka.” I love fun names and chocolate, and so together with Emily’s roommate we visited this bar. It was a chocolate experience! We each chose three different types of chocolate pralines, and then shared them all. My favorites were a jasmine truffle, as well as a praline with a slight infusion of cinnamon and nutmeg, making it taste like Christmas. This bar was also great because they gave you suggestions of which wines to try with the different types of chocolate.

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Circus

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On my way back from Copenhagen I had a 20-hour layover in Budapest. I decided to go to the Nagy Circus largely because of its proximity to Emily’s apartment (but also because it had great reviews on tripadvisor). I wasn’t sure what to expect when going in, but overall it turned out to be a very pleasant experience. I’m still not sure how I feel about the animal acts (elephant, tigers and horses), but I really enjoyed the trapeze performers and the acrobatics. Also, this show included a hair hanging performance, which was particularly terrifying after what happened in Rhode Island. However, despite some of my misgivings, sitting ring side at the circus turned out to be a pretty great lazy day activity.

Overall I had an amazing time in Budapest. I loved the city, and it was great to see Emily again and hear about everything she has been up to. I will definitely return if I ever have the chance!

 Next Up: My time in Sweden and Denmark.