This post is the second of two in my travelogue about my November trip to Prague, Sarajevo and Istanbul. If you would like to read the first post, you can find it here.
Sunday, November 8 was the first night that I was in Prague, and I slept deeply in my white, fluffy hotel bed underneath the vaulted wood ceiling. On Friday night, I’d been awake for most of the night, coughing and congested, and on Saturday night I’d never gone to bed at all, instead attending the Marine Corps Ball and then catching a 02:00 motor pool ride on Sunday morning to the international departures terminal in Tashkent. It was going to be my first trip outside of Uzbekistan since my arrival six months earlier, and I was thrilled.
When I awoke in Prague on Monday morning, I was greeted with an overcast sky. I took a nice hot shower and enjoyed a delicious breakfast. As I walked out of the hotel, the sky opened and it began to sprinkle. I walked down the steep cobbled street amidst shops, churches, cars and wonderful smells. Grinning, I put up my hood and pulled an umbrella from my purse. The light rain lasted less than twenty minutes, and never came back during my visit.
Over the five days I was in Prague, I somehow unbelievably walked nearly 60 miles (according to my fitness bracelet, which perhaps relatedly broke in half the first night I was back home in Tashkent). The soles of my new brown leather boots that I wore on the trip are also in need of repair!
What did I do during my time alone in Prague? There is no way to whittle down or summarize the hundreds of photos that I shared on Facebook, or even do justice to capturing the essence of such a special place, so I’ll just pick some.
I went to MAC. And Sephora. And a giant grocery store, the latter just for grins. I wandered around grinning like an idiot and looking at so many wonderful things I hadn’t seen in a while. When I found some special cosmetic item that I was running out of at home, I picked up another and tucked it into my tote bag. Because our post is pouch-only (no DPO and no regular mail), we can’t ship liquids in glass, or any liquids more than 16 oz, so you have to really plan ahead if you’re particular about toiletries, as I am.
And I got blond highlights at one of the best salons in Prague, arranged well in advance via Facebook.
And I walked across the Charles Bridge – and every other bridge in Prague – with my Nikon, just strolling.
And I searched everywhere for organ music performances, and museums, and for Soviet-era influenced architecture (i.e. concrete spaceships), which I sincerely adore, and remind me of my time in ex-Yugoslavia. With that said, the below was the only example I found in the entirety of beautiful Prague.
May the force be with you, always!
And I sat and ate a Czech-Mex burrito in Staroměstské náměstí (Old Town Square) and felt the happy local vibes.
And I drank some good and cheap Czech beer, Staropramen. And then I ate a trdelnik (fried donut with cinnamon) from a street vendor. It was burned and overbaked, so I found another, and that one was so good I stopped in the middle of the street and closed my eyes.
And I rested my battered feet for part of one afternoon in my room, enjoying free fast wifi and streamed episodes of NBC’s Dateline.
I went to the Hunger Wall and paid my respects. I drank coffees from Starbucks, and smiled at how the “i” in my name was dotted with a heart, or a smiley-face was added underneath.
I went on an hours-long march I thought would never end to find the Pražský hrad (Prague Castle), or Saint Vitus Cathedral, always seeing it up on the hill, but never quite arriving until suddenly I emerged from a tunnel and looked up with a gasp:
I also spent a fair amount of time admiring the absolutely breathtaking Chrám Svatého Mikuláše, also located in the Old Town Square:
Putting on my consular officer hat for a moment, I admit that I gazed around sometimes at the other foreign visitors, snapping pictures and enjoying themselves in the autumn sun. I couldn’t help but think, these are the lucky ones, the ones who got a visa to come here on holiday and who can afford it. Or, these are the people from countries not subject to the visa regime so much a part of the lives of the people I spend my days with.
Another humbling reminder of not only my privilege, but the fact that it has little to do with me as a human being.
Thanks Prague, for the love!
When I left Prague, I headed to Sarajevo via Belgrade. After a short layover, in which I used a rusty mix of Serbian and Macedonian to order a sandwich and a cappuccino in the airport, I boarded an Air Serbia flight to Sarajevo, one of the last major Balkan cities that I hadn’t visited.
I was headed to see my friend J, who I met while we were studying for our masters’ degrees in Australia a decade ago. The last time I had seen her was sitting in Sydney for a coffee in 2006; although we’d been in touch frequently since then, we hadn’t actually met face to face.
J was in Bosnia and Herzegovina on diplomatic status for the German government, along with her German husband C and their daughter S, who, thanks to her parents, has citizenship in Serbia, Germany and Australia, plus a German diplomatic passport. That’s right, this two year old sweetie has four valid passports. I inspected them myself. She also speaks three languages. #balleralert
Ironically, J’s previous diplomatic post was Tashkent, for almost five years. When she’d invited me to visit, I remember thinking it seemed hard to get there. Little did I know that someday I’d come to know it well myself.
As I buckled my seatbelt for the Air Serbia flight, the pilot made an announcement in Serbian. Sighing, I looked at the guy next to me and we rolled our eyes. I unbuckled my seatbelt and rummaged under my seat for my purse. Americans and other English-speaking foreigners seated nearby questioned what was happening. But I already knew – we were deplaning due to technical problems.
Walking back into the terminal, Air Serbia staff were making announcements in Serbian and English that another plane was on the way to get us. In less than 90 minutes we did depart, and were courteously and thoughtfully reseated by flight staff according to our original preferences. I had to say that I was impressed. In the meantime, I got reacquainted with my favorite-ever carbonated water, Knjaz Milosh.
Eventually, I arrived in Sarajevo and for the first time met C in the airport. Recognizing him instantly from years of photos, we were off through the downtown in rush hour.
When we entered their apartment and I saw J, it was like we were right back in Sydney again.
Sarajevo is a lovely little city, despite the increasing air pollution. It is geographically situated in a basin surrounded by mountains, and has a long and complicated history of diverse inhabitants going back many hundreds of years.
I was a little surprised at the amount of graffiti, and the amount of building facades still marked by shelling from the siege in the early 1990s.
Memories linger from the war twenty years ago, and the weight of the losses suffered by the city’s citizens still seems heavy. Almost every single grave below is from 1995.
Below, the Latin bridge where heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Archduke Franz Ferninand was assassinated by Gavrilo Princip in 1914, touching off World War I.
The following four pictures hail from the site of the 1984 Winter Olympics, hosted by the city of Sarajevo when it was part of Yugoslavia. The abandoned, damaged areas are both sad, and eerie. Some are thought to have been strewn with landmines during the conflict in the 1990s, so we were cautious about where we went.
J and I also went to see an exhibition in Sarajevo’s downtown about the July 1995 massacre of more than 7,000 people at Srebrenica. The videos, interviews and photographs were gut-wrenching, and afterwards J and I sat outside in the old town for cake, unable to adequately process the depth of needless human cruelty.
In Sarajevo I caught up with J, got to know C, listened to Alice in Chains with the inimitable E, and met R, a political officer who served his previous tour in Tashkent (as well as his lovely wife!). I also wandered the hills and streets alone or with J’s family, feeling somehow at home in the Balkans again.
One evening as I strolled alone along the river, two older women approached me and started immediately in Bosnian, “Excuse me, but do you remember, down here, you know, there used to be a …” Putting my hand over my heart like an Uzbek, I responded in a mangled mess of Russian and Macedonian, “Sorry, I don’t, I’m not, not from here.” Bemused, with surprised recognition dawning on their faces, they left me. In that moment, I remembered, even in the Balkans, I’ll probably just always be a stranger in a strange land.
After I left J, C and S, I flew back to Tashkent via Istanbul. I’d spent a few days there in 2005, but hadn’t been back since.
I had an eleven hour layover, so I paid $30 for a tourist visa and hopped a bus to Taksim Square. I was meeting an A-100 colleague posted there with her husband for dinner on the waterfront, so for several hours I did more wandering up and down hilly streets, window shopping and snacking.
After one more trip to Starbucks and a hail-Mary run through the incredible Istanbul airport duty-free, I flew overnight back to Tashkent. When we stopped on the tarmac, everyone took their seatbelts off while the plane was still rolling, then deplaned as usual, boarding a packed shuttle for the short trip to the terminal.
I tried to position myself near the shuttle door so I could zoom into the passport control area. However, I grossly underestimated the coming melee and was almost crushed. I also forgot to stay on the left-most side for foreigners when entering and ended up in the Uzbek line, elbowed and fully pressed against by Uzbek shuttle traders with lethally heavy duffel bags.
After nearly twenty minutes of pushing and shoving in a non-existent queue, I had not moved and was fuming. People that had been behind me were now in front of me. Foreigners on the left glanced to their right and looked away with a mixture of annoyance and contempt. I daydreamed about Prague.
Fortunately I was rescued from my reverie by a bored diplomatic expeditor annoyed by waiting for me. Yelling my name, he barged past the secured area and motioned for me to come up ahead of everyone. The same people who moments before had been the bane of my existence melted away as I proceeded through.
It was an unpleasant return from a most pleasant trip that will stay in my memory for a long time, a reminder that eventually, I too will hit the road. And it’s a long, glorious road, filled with sights to see and savor.