Building Baby Stuff. . .

Slightly more complicated than the space shuttle...

No leftover parts!

Tonight I spent the evening putting together baby stuff. . . LIKE A BOSS!  The layette shipment came today. This is a challenge for me, because this is not the kind of stuff where you put it together and just relax if you have leftover parts, creaky hinges, etc.  Tonight, the stroller and crib. Tomorrow, the changing table, if I can find the instructions.

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A Long Weekend in Kosovo

Kosovo

Given the roaring success of our last Balkan trip, my two intrepid Foreign Service companions and I decided it was high time for another adventure. What better place than Kosovo– another Balkan republic carved out of the former Yugoslavia, and one of the newest countries in the world. Kosovo is about as far off the  beaten path as European nations get. Touring this ancient land but brand new nation proved quite moving, and though travel in the region presents its own challenges, I highly recommend a visit for those of you itching to do something different.

Newborn-- Downtown Pristina's Monument to Independence

First things first, a (very) quick modern history of Kosovo. Unlike most of the other independent successor nations to the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo was not one of the constituent republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Although the majority of the population has long been ethnically Albanian and religiously Muslim, the region was in fact a part of the Socialist Republic of Serbia during the Yugoslav era. For a variety of complex historical, cultural, and religious reasons which I cannot hope to cover in a blog post, Serbia and Serbia have long viewed Kosovo as an integral part of Serbia, and tensions between the Albanian majority and Serbian minority have simmered for centuries.

Following the 1995 Dayton Accords which saw the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the simmering tensions boiled over. The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) took up arms against the Serbian security forces in the region in 1996. Ever worsening violence and war led to multitudes of displaced people and due to gross violations of human rights and the threat of instability,  NATO and the United States intervened in 1999 by bombing Belgrade and bringing the Serbian government to the table to negotiate a ceasefire.

According to the terms of the ceasefire, from 1999 the Kosovo region was administered under the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) with security provided by NATO led Kosovo Force (KFOR). On February 17, 2008, with no final resolution of Kosovo’s ultimate status in sight, the Republic of Kosovo formally declared independence. The United States and 88 other UN member states recognize Kosovo as an independent nation, although Serbia has not yet done so and neither have a number of other countries who have varying reasons for not doing so.

I apologize for the whirlwind tour of recent Balkan history, and I am sure historians of all stripes will find room to quibble. In any event, my point here is to offer some context and understanding of Kosovo’s recent history and not to offer up a complete volume of Kosovo’s history. Maybe one day, though, after I write my book on the Hapsburgs.

Adem Jashari Airport. Adem Jashari was one of the KLA's most important leaders.

We landed in Kosovo on February 18th– the Republic of Kosovo’s fourth birthday. The entire region had just been hammered by a blizzard and so the countryside was buried under several feet of snow. This made driving Kosovo’s already challenging roads an adventure, to say the least. A good Polish friend of ours, in Kosovo working with an international organization, met us at the airport and helped us find our way to our hotel in downtown Sarajevo. We spent the rest of the night ringing in Kosovo’s independence to achingly loud Albanian music at a local hot spot.

One thing that will strike any visitor to Kosovo: this is probably the most pro-American nation in the world, maybe even more so that the United States itself. The Kosovars fly three flags all over the country– Kosovo’s, Albania’s and the Stars and Stripes. Exceedingly grateful to the aid rendered by the U.S. and NATO during the war, most towns features streets named after Bill Clinton, Wesley Clark, Madeline Albright, and George W. Bush. The locals, upon finding out you are American, often thank you in person on behalf of the whole nation.

The Kosovo Flag Trinity

Bill Clinton stands sentinel over his street in Pristina

We got up early the next morning to start our road trip, which would cover most of the country. Day one: Pristina to Peje (Serbian Pec), to Decani and its famous monastery, to Prizren, Kosovo’s most tourist friendly city. Day two: Prizren to Gracanica, a Serbian enclave with another famed monastery, then back into Pristina for the night.

An Albanian Fortified Stone House in Peje

An Albanian Fortified Stone House in Peje

Peje is a city in Western Kosovo that saw heavy fighting during the war. It’s also home to one of the most revered sites of the Serbian Orthodox– the Patriarchal monastery of the Serbian Orthodox Church.  The town has spectacular mountains as a backdrop, and the monastery itself is set inside of a pristine valley with an icy stream running right by. We spent most of Saturday afternoon in Peje, and one of the highlights was lunch with a local doctor and business leader, who took the time to offer his perspective on Kosovo’s history, present, and future. He was a truly generous and warm man, and though I won’t delve into all the things we talked about here, I can say that it was a highlight of the trip.  We drove out to the monastery and talked the Slovenian KFOR troops guarding the site into letting us in the gate and up to the monastery walls. Unfortunately, the nuns were not accepting visitors at the time. The presence of the Patriarchate and other Serbian Orthodox monasteries and churches serves as one of the main reasons Kosovo’s status remains so painful for many Serbs.

Peje Street Scene

The Patriarchal Monastery Walls

Luckily for us, the brother monks at the famed Visoki Decani monastery about 20 miles to the south did let us inside the walls. We were waved on in by two cold-looking Italian KFOR soldiers. Visoki Decani is a spectacular example of late Byzantine style architecture dating from the early 14th century. It was established by Serbian King Stefan Uros III Decanski, as the Serbs were consolidating their power in the region and building the medieval Serbian Empire. The frescoes inside the church are some of the finest and best preserved in the world. They are both splendid examples of Orthodox iconography and contain early hints at the realism of the renaissance. A kindly monk not only unlocked the Church of the Ascension of our Lord for us, but lit all the lamps and candles and explained to us, in a mixture of Serbian, Russian, and Polish about the frescoes, icons, relics, and treasures therein. Just another example of the warmth we found throughout the country, regardless of who we talked with. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to get good fresco pictures inside of the candle lit church.

Visoki Decani Monastery's Church

No one gets into most monastery sites without a KFOR visitor's pass

From Decani we drove to the southeast into Prizren, for centuries Kosovo’s most important city and a gem of Ottoman architecture. Prizren was the headquarters of the late 19th century League of Prizren,  a defensive pact of mostly Muslim (but some Catholic) Albanian clan leaders who sought to keep Kosovo in the Ottoman Empire, swore allegiance to the Sultan, and fought for the right to be ruled by traditional Albanian and Islamic law. The town features a lovely cobblestone square, 16th century mosques, several 14th century churches, an important dervish house, and a medieval castle standing sentinel on a hill. As everywhere in Kosovo, the mountains are a spectacular backdrop.

League of Prizren Complex

One of Prizren's Ottoman Era mosques

A centuries old stone bridge spanning the river flowing through town

We spent Sunday morning exploring Prizren and environs, then turned back northwards towards the capital of Pristina to complete our circuit of the country. Along the way we stopped at Gracanica. Gracanica is a Serbian majority town not far from the capital of Pristina, and home to another architectural jewel of a monastery. Inside the city limits, signs are all in Cyrillic and you hear Serbian on the streets. The sister nuns here were also warm and welcoming, and invited us in to see the church. The frescoes here are equally as spectacular, and equally as important, though unfortunately some have been defaced.

Gracanica's Church

Finally, we turned towards the homestretch and Pristina. We had coffee with a young mathematics professor from the University of Pristina who had spent some time in the U.S. As with the doctor in Peje, the conversation was enlightening and entertaining, and we left with a deeper understanding of present day Kosovo and the young generation’s hope for the future. Later that evening we had a traditional Albanian dinner in an old Ottoman house.

Our trip to Kosovo wouldn’t have been complete without a trek to the nation’s most famous site, and perhaps the main reason why Kosovo retains such a special place in the Serbian national imagination. Kosovo Polje, or the Field of Blackbirds, is a few miles outside of downtown Pristina. In 1389, two medieval armies met in battle there, one led by the Serbian Prince Lazar and the other by the Ottoman Sultan Murad I. The historical sources are not entirely clear about the actual outcome– was it a hard-fought, close won Serb victory, or an equally hard fought, hard won victory for the Ottoman side. Both leaders died during the battle, of that there is no doubt, and there is also no doubt that the battle spelled the end of the Serbian Empire and the beginning of centuries of Ottoman dominance in the Balkans.

The story of Kosovo Polje is integral to Serbian identity, and central to Kosovo’s tragic 20th century history. Not far from here, Slobodan Milosevic announced in 1987 to a crowd of Serbs who were complaining of poor treatment by local Albanian police that “no one will beat you ever.” He would return in 1989 to the monument itself, and deliver another famous speech, with tensions in Yugoslavia already reaching a boiling point. These speeches and remarks,with clear allusions to 1389, jump-started his career, a career which would end with him on trial at The Hague for crimes against humanity. I’m not here to debate Balkan history, medieval or present, but anyone who wants to even try to understand it should turn off the highway to the monument at Kosovo Polje and read the inscription, a quote from Prince Lazar, at the base.

“Whoever is a Serb and of Serb birth
And of Serb blood and heritage
And comes not to the Battle of Kosovo,
May he never have the progeny his heart desires!
Neither son nor daughter
May nothing grow that his hand sows!
Neither dark wine nor white wheat
And let him be cursed from all ages to all ages!”

This post likely marks my final Balkan journey during this European posting, at least. I have a bundle of joy on the way and can’t keep running off on adventures. The region remains to me a fascinating and beautiful place, a place I could spend a lifetime trying to understand. We left Kosovo on Monday afternoon, richer for our travels, and especially for the kindness and openness we found wherever we roamed.

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My future home…check it out.

National Geographic did a short feature and typically excellent photo spread of Astana, Kazakhstan…a place frequent blog readers might remember as my next posting. We’ll be there in late 2013. It’s hard to even think that far ahead, but nevertheless the big move to Central Asia looms large in our conciousnesses. If you are interested, check out the article here.

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Not so winter wonderland.

OK, so we’ve had enough winter now. This week, the high in Warsaw is going to be around 16 degrees Fahrenheit. When it’s dark (most of the time), it will be hovering in the single digits. On the other hand, when I check the temperature in Astana (my next post), I see that the high is -20 Fahrenheit! So really, nothing to complain about in Warsaw at all.

Texas, we miss you!

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Winter Wonderland

Warsaw finally got real snow! Last weekend we woke up to a wintry landscape and finally felt like we were actually in Eastern Europe. All winter long has been damp and chilly. Combined with the long darkness, it really started to get me down. For a few glorious days this week, temperatures dropped below the freezing mark, snow stuck on the ground, and real frost nipped your cheeks. It warmed Mrs. Texan’s Russian soul. Unfortunately, by midweek the mercury began swinging back and forth between just above and just under freezing. We’ve had a lot of wet snow, which almost instantly melts and turns to slush. Nevertheless, we had a few brief days where we got to enjoy Lazienki Park in the wintertime.

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Vienna: Ain’t No Party Like a Hapsburg Party

Melange and apfelstrudel. Nothing else needed.

My travels this year have been decidedly Hapsburg themed: Prague, briefly the seat of the Hapsburg Empire; to Krakow, the largest city of Austrian Poland; to Bosnia, where the successor to the Hapsburg throne Franz Ferdinand met his untimely demise in 1914, kicking off the First World War. I am an unabashed fan of Hapsburg history and the Hapsburgs themselves, so when Mrs. Texan and I found ourselves confronted with a three day weekend last week (it was Three Kings’ Day in Poland), we decided to head to the home of the grand family itself: Vienna.  Catholic, reactionary, autocratic, stately, convoluted, unwieldy, ceremonious, paternalistic, refined, self-assured: the Hapsburgs and their empire put the “Old” in Old World. Not to mention that Vienna itself is truly a world cultural and historical capital. Vienna served as Europe’s backstop against Ottoman armies. Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, and Schubert wrote their music there under the Hapsburg’s patronage. Freud and Jung invented psychoanalysis in Vienna. And of course, diplomat and statesman par excellence Prince Klemens von Metternich orchestrated the Concert of Europe at the Congress of Vienna, thereby giving international relations majors something to talk about in perpetuity. When the whole multi-ethnic structure came crashing to the ground during World War I (it, along with similarly rickety Russian Empire of the Romanovs, was the last bastion of divine right authoritarianism), the age of Empires came to an end, setting the stage for the 20th century battle of ideologies between liberalism, authoritarian nationalism, and Marxism-Leninism.

Needless to say, we couldn’t wait to go.  Our last trip before Little Miss Texan arrives needed to be a good one, and Vienna was it.

Day one included two “can’t miss” Vienna landmarks. The imperial treasury museum (Schatzkammer) in the Hofburg Palace houses the treasures of the House of Hapsburg and the Austrian Empire.My personal favorites included the regalia for the Order of the Knights of the Golden Fleece, the worlds most prestigious chivalric order; and the imperial regalia for Maximillian I of Mexico, surely one of the most improbable and unfortunate emperors in history. Close examination of the regalia showed Mexico’s snake-eating Golden Eagle in place of the traditional double headed Austrian eagle.

Hofburg Palace at dusk

Chain of the Order of the Golden Fleece

The Austrian Imperial Crown, a masterpiece of early Modern goldsmithery

Following the treasury, we spent the afternoon at the art history museum, mostly in the excellent Picture gallery, which features masterpieces by Europe’s Old Masters, from Italy to the Netherlands. No photography allowed, unfortunately….

Museum building on Maria-Theresien Platz

For dinner that evening, what else but schnitzel and gulash at a traditional Viennese biesln? We especially appreciated the high quality veal, as pork is Poland’s go-to protein.

Most of Vienna is gloriously baroque, thanks to Hapsburg mania for the style and various imperial building sprees.  The city’s signature building, and one of the few remaining medieval structures, is Stephansdom, or St. Stephen’s Cathedral– a masterpiece of German Gothic architecture. It’s hard to get a good view from the small square surrounding it, but its tiled roof and tower are emblems of the city.

Exterior detail from St. Stephen's

Vienna is important to the Texan family personally as well. Mrs. Texan’s grandfather, a Red Army soldier, was imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camp complex of Mauthausen-Gusen, at Wiener Neustadt, for most of the Second World War after his capture in Ukraine. He was used as forced labor in one of the factories and escaped in 1945, finding his way back to the front lines and taking part later in the Vienna Offensive. I have had the privilege of listening to him narrate his war experience as part of an oral history project for the University of Berlin. We were unable to take the long trip to the Mauthausen Memorial this time, but we did visit the Red Army War Memorial in Vienna.

We also visited the tomb of the Kaiser’s in central Vienna’s humble Capuchin Church. Almost all of the Hapsburg emperors and empresses are buried here, including the aforementioned Maximillian I of Mexico. His tomb was one of the few adorned with fresh flowers (and a Mexican flag). The others were Franz Josef (who died during World War I as the empire collapsed around him) and his beloved, beautiful wife Elisabeth, “Sisi”, whose ankle-length hair, obsession with diet and beauty, and emotional complexity made her the 19th century’s “it” girl.  Charitably, she can be described as more sympathetic in legend than in fact. I didn’t think it seemly to photograph the ornate caskets, but did take a photograph of the Capuchin Church, whose monks are responsible for the tomb.

The Capuchin Church. The Imperial Crypt is underneath.

That evening, some good foreign service friends treated us to the best Italian meal this side of Italy. If y’all are reading, thanks again! We’re still talking about it.

Our last day, Sunday, we devoted to Schonbrunn, the imperial summer residence that used to sit on the outskirts of town. Although the rainy and cold weather meant that we could not fully enjoy the legendary gardens, the palace itself was more than worth the visit. It’s been restored to virtually the same state it was in when Kaiser Franz Josef lived there. I have to admit that I have some qualms about tours like these. It might sound odd, but I can’t help but think that these places were built for royalty like Maria Theresa and Franz Josef, and they wouldn’t like to see me stomping about in boots and jeans. Another thought– Franz Josef’s personal quarters and workspace were not exceptionally ostentatious. In comparison with the palaces of the Imperial Tsars in St. Petersburg, the entire complex was quite modest. The staff did not allow pictures indoors, but here are a few from outside:

Schonbrunn Palace with Vienna in the background

The Gloriette, built on Maria Theresa's orders on a hill overlooking the palace

Mrs. Texan and I had to pack our bags too soon and head back to Warsaw in the late afternoon last Sunday. They almost had to roll me onto the airplane– Vienna’s coffeehouses are legendary, and given the rainy and chilly weather, it took little convincing for me to stop every few hours and order a coffee and apple strudel or slice of cake. I’ll leave a few more pictures of the city here. Enjoy!

Also, I should mention here two fantastic books by the under appreciated Joseph Roth, both of which served as partial inspiration for our trip to Vienna. He is perhaps best though of as the eulogist for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  A few of his works rise to the level of genius– by turns melancholy, funny, and heartrending. He compresses epic stories into readable volumes, and with a few brilliant turns of phrase and stage direction, manages to create character portraits of such depth that they rival the great Russians.

The Tale of the 1002nd Night follows the tragic chain of events arising from a single act of deceit, when a minor nobleman solves a difficult ethical dilemma by tricking the visiting Shah of Persia into sleeping with a common Viennese prostitute in place of the comely young aristocrat’s wife who caught the Shah’s eye.

Radetzky March traces the rise and fall of a minor aristocratic family, from a common lieutenant’s heroic effort to save the emperors’ life, to the grandson’s mundane yet tragic death in the service of the empire at the outbreak of World War One.  Emperor Franz Josef looms constantly in the background, like a benevolent yet mysterious god– who eventually dies.

The House of Hapsburg also provided Holy Roman emperors. The details on this statue surrounding the Gloriette are Roman legionary standars, reinforcing the "unbroken" line from "Ceaser" to "Kaiser"

The famed Vienna Opera House

Did I mention we loved the coffee shops in Vienna? This 1950's style joint was one of our favorites.

U R WATCH!

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Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku! С Новым Годом! Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to everyone out there, whether in Poland or Texas or points beyond.

Mrs. Texan and I awoke yesterday to see big, wet, fat feathers of snow falling all around our warm apartment. As Mrs. Texan put it, “the snow queen was shaking out her pillows.” We were thrilled about the prospect of the first proper frost of the year, but alas, it was not to be. The weather is simply too warm and they melted as soon as they touched the ground, and the snow gave way to drizzle later in the day. Instead, we cheered our spirits with piping hot bowls of pelmeni and other Russian delicacies at a Russian cafe in downtown Warsaw.

Warsaw really is much cheerier at night, and we rang in the New Year on our neighbors’ balcony, surrounded by friends, and the Warsaw skies lit up all around us with fireworks. They really put on a great show, from multiple locations all over town. After the clock struck midnight, we strolled around Old Town and took in the revelry. There was even an impromptu accordion concert and folk dancing session underway in the middle of Old Town square. I wish I had brought my camera, but it was kind of nice just to soak in the atmosphere.

Today, the 1st of 2012, we took advantage of a brief window of sunny weather to walk through Lazienki Park to a favorite bakery/wine bar/coffee house that is situated catty corner to the beautiful Savior Cathedral on Plac Zbawiciela.

Our View from the boulangerie, only in summertime

It’s a tremendously popular hangout, and it’s hard not to feel terminally unhip as a stuffy, blue jeans wearing vice-consul when you are surrounded by Warsaw’s youngest, hippest arsty set, seemingly all still dressed in their club wear from the night before. Mrs. Texan and I had a croque monsieur and espresso and congratulated ourselves on being so cosmopolitan. By the time we finished, it was 3:00 PM, the northern sun started to sink behind the high-rises, frost started to set in, and it was time to return to our apartment cocoon. We’ll cook dinner tonight and curl up on the couch with an iTunes movie. All in all, the ideal start to 2012.

We hope all of you have at least as pleasant a start to your New Year. All the best in the months to come, and please keep dropping by our corner of the web!

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