The reality of refugees

After the saturation of news on the refugee crisis, I decided to spend my last afternoon in Europe visiting the hundreds of refugees that have taken over the park behind the central station in Belgrade, Serbia.

Keen to do something altruistic, but unsure what, we took a supply of yogurt pottles, bananas, bread and snacks with us.

Even from a far you could see the many tents filling the park, but everyone looked surprisingly placid lounging in small groups in the afternoon sun.

I caught a young Muslim mums beautiful green eyes and gave her a beaming smile. I hoped the smile said something I couldn’t communicate.

As we entered the park all eyes were instantly on us. We ventured through somewhat awkwardly, until two young boys ran up to us eagerly eyeing up the snacks. We gave them a yoghurt each.

Suddenly we were surrounded by swarms of children snatching frantically. Everything we’d brought disappeared within seconds, and we left sombrely well aware of the insignificance of the gesture.

But it was a relief to see in Serbia they’d been given a restful respite, compared to some of the brutality of neighbouring countries.

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Bulgaria

Roses, a UFO, Spartacus and Communists. What do all these things have in common?

A rather sizeable country in South Eastern Europe.

I never planned to go to Bulgaria, but I met a Canadian and a French guy in Lithuania and they just kept going on & on & on & on about it.

I guess it sparked a flame of interest.

I did a teeny bit of research, but pretty much just stole the Canadian’s itinerary.

I was pleasantly surprised it was my kinda place. And that’s not just because it’s old Thrace – the homeland of mega babe Spartacus.

The subdued romantic in me loves roses, and Bulgaria is the land of the rose. It’s one of the world’s biggest producers of rose oil, and they sell an abundance of rose trinkets, perfumes, jam, soap, liquor, water and skin products. Just seeing it all made my inner romantic bloom.

I’d never call myself a die hard sci-fi fan, but even I can appreciate an abandoned UFO. If I didn’t know it was a communist relic from the 80s, I would’ve been convinced the eerily derelict Buzludza was left by aliens. Trespassing through a tiny hole in the wall and climbing 31 narrow rungs of stairs in the pitch black was straight out of a movie.

And I hate to go on about food, again. But, it was pretty fantastic. Bulgaria shows neighbourly love from the Greek and Turkish – with Mediterranean veggies, cheese, cheese, fresh juices, grilled meats, cheese, yogurt and tasty stews. Cheese comes with most things.

They also have this great salty yoghurt drink which tastes about as good as it sounds. It’s like Kefir and said to be good for the heat, digestion and hangovers. I got to put it to the test of several occasions. It’s a really hot place after all. Scientists discovered Bulgarian yoghurt has its own unique bacteria that elongates life. I drunk it in bulk.

Along with wine. And since they’ve been making it since Thracian times it’s pretty great. Except the one homemade batch we had that tasted like detergent, unfortunately we’d ordered it by the litre.

And then there were the only in Bulgaria moments.

Getting to see the restoration of a 12th century monastery in process.

Exploring the same monastery, and stumbling upon a creepy room full of skulls, and bones in boxes.

The homeless looking local collecting signatures in his book, trying for the Guinness book of records.

The bus that was full but the driver let me on anyway because he felt sorry for me.

The many fun moments trying to understand the Cyrillic alphabet. Which for the record it turns out the Russians took from the Bulgarians.

All in all it ticked the main boxes for me. Cheap. Friendly locals. Not too many tourists. Sweet travellers on the journey. I unfortunately didn’t run into any Spartacus dopplegangas, but hey, you can’t have everything.

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Cupid’s humour

Cupid’s depicted in a lot of art across Europe, and he seems to be a funny guy. I think that’s why as soon as I was more content in singledom, and not looking for a holiday fling that unlikely suitors appeared.

Just like in all the fairy tales, 3 suitors came, each from further away, and each more intense than the previous.

Suitor 1 was Italian. Incredibly deep, heart felt and a very good listener. He was eager to hear all about my relationship history; the ups and the downs, and yet I wasn’t fooled by the friend card.

When an offer for a midnight moonlight scooter ride arose, I refrained from raising my eyebrow and politely declined ignoring various attempts of persuasion.

Suitor 2, the Spaniard, you may remember from a previous blog “Memoirs of a Keisha”

What originally was a light chat banter suddenly became more intense. 20 successive photos of himself in a row I put down to cultural differences, but then poetry and several messages a day kept coming even if I didn’t reply.

“Roses are red, violets are blue. All of my thoughts involve you!
¡Buenos días princesa!”

Not saying anything clearly wasn’t working so I decided it was time to rectify the situation.

I wrote something along the lines of… recently single, enjoying travelling, not really thinking about guys, hope you can understand.

He replied: “Ok I stop messaging you in a sweet way, and just message you as friends. Kisses”

I sighed.

Suitor 3 I’d met in a group context, so I was relaxed and friendly. When I started to pick up an interested vibe, and he wasn’t picking up on my blatantly just want to be friends vibe I tried the cold shoulder with little success.

He messaged “I’m going past your hostel, do you want to come see my place and have a fresh lemonade”

“No thanks, I’m just relaxing and doing my taxes”

“Do it after, come now just for 1/2 hour”

“Sorry I’m busy, maybe later”

“I’m at your hostel in the courtyard. Come out”

I buried myself further into my bed.
“I want to read for awhile”

“Come read at my place”

“Sorry I just need some Kesha time”

“Okay, come over later, take your time”

I don’t reply. 10 minutes later I receive a photo of his courtyard and a jug of lemonade which I also ignore.

Several hours later the group is dining together again, but I keep my distance especially enthralled in everything the new girl from Melbourne has to say.

I dodge him for most of the night, but wake up to a drunk declaration of feelings. Unfortunately his message didn’t evoke any swoonery, it just made me feel a little ill.

I don’t reply. Next thing there’s a photo of his breakfast.

I reply. Something along the lines of what suitor 2 got.

I come back to my hostel and he’s waiting there. Seriously?! He insists on walking me to my taxi (to the next town – thank god!) and I escape with a slightly too enthused kiss on the cheek as a mutual friend walked past at the opportune time.

It seems to me the age old condition of wanting what we can’t have.

Why else would all these strangely persistent suitors appear (and not disappear) when I had virtually no romantic interest in them?

If hypothetically there was such a princess, I think in the fairy tale version they’d all fuck off and she would get to choose someone herself if and when she felt like it.

But then maybe this alleged hypothetical princess needs to worry less about hurting people’s feelings and be more assertive. Damn Disney, teaching niceties and
sweetness!

It would appear that Disney princesses would be very ill equipt for Cupid’s cheeky ways.

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e.a.t.

No wonder Italians have a reputation for being so passionate (and are rumoured as perhaps the world’s best lovers) they eat A LOT of aphrodisiacs. A lot.

That was one key piece of information that stood out to me on the Roman food tour.

When tomatoes were first introduced in to Italy in the 15th century they were initially banned by the Pope who believed their red colour indicated aphrodisiac properties.

Luckily he didn’t know the potent ways of truffles, spicy salami, aged balsamic, artichokes, basil or figs (to list just a few)

The food tour was quite possibly the most fantastic gourmand experience of my life.

Homemade pistachio coated cannoli at a Sicily bakery. Pizza by the New York Times acclaimed Italian Michelangelo of Pizza. Never ending offerings of wines, prosciuttos, salamis, cheeses, pastas, Caprese and gelato – all from various reputable stops along the way. Like a pub crawl, but I can relive all the key moments intimately.

My initial attempt at healthy eating was swiftly banished a few days after arriving in Italy. I was going all Eat, Pray, Love on it. In this case specifically EAT.

Time was limited, and so indulgences needed to be increased. Drastically. Gelato everyday. Pasta at least once a day. Sampling of little treaties at all the bakeries along the way. What budget?

Luckily the Italians seemed willing to help out.

People dined alone, but seemed less autonomous. I often chatted with the elderly man at the table next to me.

“Oh you haven’t tried this? But you must! Here have some of mine”

Or “Come no?” The waitor asked when I declined dessert after a huge plate of cannelloni. “How no?” (I love this phrase!) He brought me a free scoop of Limone gelato anyway.

Squares filled in the evenings with locals gathering for their aperitivo – a drink with free tapas to entice everyone to come together and unwind at the end of the day.

Us shoe string travellers took the aperitivo a little too seriously. Free food? That was surely an invitation for a dinner feast of epic bite sized proportions.

And so maybe not surprisingly the highlight of Italy was most definitely the food. I think what makes it so so so good is the fresh, tasty, rich ingredients they use. As well as the flavour pairing. No matter how much I savoured each morsel I still crave it.

But then there was Belgium with chocolate, beer, waffle and French fries heaven.

And then I arrived in Bulgaria and a free food tour literally fell into my lap. I was in my very happy place sampling the Greek and Turkish influenced Balkan cuisine.

My passionate ramblings led some Danish girls to quickly dub me the Foodie and Vino. I was quite happy with this title I thought as I sipped on my Bulgarian rose liquor.

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Ciao Bella

Italy is a curious place, let me paint a few images.

Two immaculately dressed Italian ladies on the ferry to the beautiful island Pocida casually toss their finished cigarettes into the ocean.

On the overflowing beaches old women with deeply tanned crocodile skin, show no signs of giving up sun basking.

A couple fight in Italian, flaying arms and gestural hands saying it all.

Another couple make out passionately on the same beach, he’s taken off her top and they writhe about. Standard behaviour for a public place?

Italian men stalk about in white speedos, populating Tinder with photos so posed it’s enough to put anyone off the app indefinitely.

Italian police officers pontificate about in uniforms designed by a clothes stylist. It’s all about the look.

There are midnight queues around the block for what was the best gelato of my life.

Everywhere you turn is something new to bedazzle. Grit amongst the glam, and passion in even the mundane.

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Homeward frown

And just like that, my journey home was before me. The only peculiar thing was I wasn’t going home. For those who knew me, this was actually nothing unusual. I was just as good at extending trips as I was at going on them in the first place. The art of life procrastination and travel maximisation.

Ironically, the days before I was originally flying home I no longer felt the pull to travel. 8 weeks on the road had left me tired. My senses were over stimulated. I was over making new friends each day. Over moving. Why was my backpack so full? And my toiletry bag, don’t get me started on that. I was going to throw it all out I kept telling myself, yet my shopping seemed to have the opposite effect.

I’d spent 4 days on the spectacularly beautiful Amalfi Coast. Sleeping in. Lazing about. Lying on the couch at the hostel. Lying on the beach. Willing myself to be more motivated to explore, yet mostly just motivated to try my next pasta dish.

I’d been away for two months, yet no epic travel romance has taken place. I now rolled my eyes at couples passionately making out on the beach. Didn’t they know I was trying to enjoy my lone wandering time and they were cramping my view? Did he actually just take off her bikini top?!!!

And since when was everyone in hostels like so young? And irksome? Had I gotten old without realising it? And did this mean I should perhaps throw in the travel towel? I’d had a good run. 50 countries. Perhaps it was time for the next phase. How did one go about getting a Swedish husband?

Moving to Sweden, now there was an original idea! Or Berlin. Or just go h o m e… For some reason going home never quite excited me as much as I wish it did.

I’d have to decide what exactly it was I was doing with my life. Whether to keep pursuing the film industry. Or something more creative? Writing? A business? And where to base myself for the near future? Auckland? Australia? Or further abroad?

And faced with the prospect of so many big questions was precisely when the next leg of my trip got exciting. I needed more time.

I began to research fervently and with extra care. Looking for hostels not just reviewed by the 18-24 age bracket. Two 25-31 year old Swedish men had stayed there in the last week? Very interesting.

My new itinerary was relatively slow and comparatively unambitious. Three counties, one month. 3-4 days most stops. 3-4 hours travel between places only. Plenty of time to take in the new sights and the sounds. Laze in cafes, meander about and contemplate life.

My budget was €1000 for one month. Easy for those parts I was told. Shopping was officially banned. Deluxe ensuite small dorms a thing of the past. Private rooms out of the question. The much loved Balkans were back in the game.

My last trip before I snapped out of Peter Pan syndrome and grew up! (Although that’s what I told myself before every travel adventure) but yolo’n my way through my 20s had served me well thus far.

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Augustine

I cannot fathom why even the third time around I love Italy so much. Partially I think it’s because it reminds me of my Grandfather, Augustine Koprda.

I’ve travelled extensively over Western and Eastern Europe, including the teeny tiny Slovakian village he grew up in – but strangely the people that remind me of him most are the Italians.

He was the European cliché – tall, dark, charming and too handsome for his own good. Passionate, loud, fiery but with a huge heart. Always a twinkle in his eye, and a spark of mischievousness that three wives perhaps attested to.

His heavy European accent was poetry to my ears. I was always darrrling. Everyone was always darling to him.

Maybe his Europeaness was exaggerated over time, in a fear of losing his culture.

Maybe it was the more than 50 years spent in the Italian communities of Australia, that he seemed to merge so effortlessly into.

Whenever I visited we’d be at the Italian or the Greek club, eating Mediterranean cuisine and I’d be getting lessons on life a la Europe.

“What are these shoes your Mother sends you in? No we must get you proper shoes, Italian leather.”

I know there was never anyone I looked up to or admired more. Maybe I saw a little of myself in him.

I remember as a kid being obsessed with this one book my mum had brought home from Slovakia, searching through the photographs for people that looked like me.

I never felt like I looked like the other kids at my virtually all Caucasian primary school. I was too olive, my hair too unruly, my eye brows too straight and too thick. My face too square, my features not quite dainty enough.

The first time I went to Europe I remember searching for faces like my own. And I found them. In Sleptany. A tiny village. My grandfather’s brothers, and their sons. They had identical eyebrows and eyes. It was uncanny. They cried when they saw me as the resemblance was so strong. I looked like a Slovakian man!

I remember going to Australia to visit my Grandpa a year later. The last time I saw him before he died. I played him a video I’d edited for his birthday. Little clips of his brothers, sisters and family in Slovakia.

I have no idea what they said, but he wept and wept like a broken man. Remorse for the family he’d left behind. The sacrifice he’d made for a new life. The old one he seemed so keen to leave behind.

Maybe that’s why he embraced the Italian way of life. La dolce vita. It was all the best of Europe, the sweetness without the darkness, deaths and horrors that were permanently etched in his mind from Communism and the Soviet rule.

As the story goes, he was almost shot when he escaped the border, swimming down the Danube river into Austria. His father was tortured by officials trying to get his whereabouts. It’s all hearsay now, as the very person I could’ve asked found it too painful to talk about.

But sitting in a square in Italy I think about him for the first time in years. He comes back so vividly, playing through my mind. Ironically he hated my love of travel, always telling me to stop wasting my money.

But the lure was too strong, the pull to explore this side of my heritage. There’s a darkness and sadness to his past that contrasts so starkly to Italy’s flamboyant lightness that would best be described as bitter sweet. My favourite type of gelato.20150802-093011-34211362.jpg