European Adventures — a photo collection of places I went this year including Munich, Istanbul, Trieste, Amsterdam, Leverkusan, Solingen, and Cologne
A Year of Croatia — a collection of my favorite photos from fall 2012 to summer 2013
A Year in Rovinj — a collection of my favorite photos
Today is my last full day in Croatia. Tomorrow I leave on an 8:30 am flight which I’ll have to wake up for at 4:30 in the morning to make it all the way to the Zagreb airport on time.
General Thoughts & Feelings
It doesn’t feel like the end and I’m not quite sure how it has already come to this point. It feels premature and I have a constant yearning to keep holding on to it like a pre-teen child still clinging to her baby blanket. Everything feels all wrong now, as if I’m being cheated somehow. Perhaps that’s in part because I usually spend an entire summer in Zagorje while now I’ll be leaving just after a week and half here, which is far too soon. Many plans with friends and family never materialized and so now have to be put on hold until my next visit which will hopefully last much longer.
Just like when I arrived in Croatia last year, I again am a mess of emotions, which I know is due to being on the cusp of another move, another change. Seems like all I’ve encountered this year is change after change and all I desire is some time to myself to just stand still, but I’m not even afforded that because that’s life, isn’t it? It doesn’t stop for anyone.
I feel anxious, frustrated, a tad excited, and mostly sad. It typically depends on the day as sometimes I’m more optimistic than others. On these particular days, I see the opportunities in my return to the States, new adventures to be had. Then on the other days, which have prevailed most recently, I just feel numb and tired.
I always hate leaving Croatia. It’s never been just a place of vacation, especially now that I’ve lived and worked here for a year. It’s one of my four great loves (yes, I have four). It feels natural to be here and I feel better, am better, for being here. It’s a home I can never manage to say goodbye to. I do, of course, but without a sense of closure. Leaving is a wound that only heals when I return again. So I guess that means I’ll just have to come back again, eh? : )
It’s tough for me to write any of this right now. I stop every few sentences cold and get lost in hazy thoughts. So instead of trying to articulate how I feel, which doesn’t seem to be going so well, I’ll just work from past to present and see what surfaces.
A Look Back
Oh the beginning. Oh how it was tough. Sometimes unbearably so. Anyone who goes abroad to teach tells you it was hard at first, but that’s all they say, hard. It’s like everything they went through boils down to that one word, but it’s not a strong word, it’s a filler, meaningless. I remember conversations with other previous overseas teachers and looking back on them now I just want to shake them and say, “STOP TELLING PEOPLE IT WAS HARD THIS, HARD THAT.” Yes, it was hard, great, wonderful, but what else? Why was it hard?
So now I’ll tell you. But bear in mind that everyone’s experiences are different and the difficulties they encounter vary in context and duration. For me, it was hard because:
So that’s generally why it was such a hard beginning for me. Of course there’s more to this list, stories that if you ask me I’ll tell you about, but I feel like I’ve given a fairly decent overview of the difficulties I encountered. And it wasn’t just hard, it was hellish.
But I got through it all, somehow. The trick? There isn’t any trick; it’s just a matter of continuing despite all the difficulties, all the crap. It’s much harder said than done but if you just keep pushing, the end will come and you’ll be so much stronger for getting through it.
And it helped too, that once most of the difficulties were overcome after a few months, once the half-way point past, the real fun began. So now here’s why I’m glad I stayed and powered through all the ridiculous work and stress:
While the bullet points on this list don’t outnumber the ones from my previous list, what they contain is far more valuable. All the tough times now remain as distant memories while what I gained as a result of them has stayed close to my heart and ultimately will be what I’ll remember fondly for years to come.
A Look Forward
Now here I am, still in my PJs and already sticky from the crazy heat and humidity wave that has hit Croatia this week. By forcing myself to reflect back on the past year and write about it, I think to myself, “Look at what you’ve done! How far you’ve come! Bravo!” It’s like I’m having a pep talk going on inside my head, and its pretty great.
So how do I feel now? A bit better than when I started the post. A bit more open to greeting the end and a new beginning. But what does this new beginning entail? Seeing my lovely Michigan family and friends again, but beyond that I have no idea, really. I mean when I return to Michigan I’ll begin an internship for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, start back up working for Like Croatia, and write more freelance articles for One Green Planet. Yet I’m completely lost as to what will happen after my internship ends in August. My hope? A real full-time job that’ll allow me to work towards my personal mission of building a more sustainable and humane world. The reality? A long job search process that’ll end with a silent inbox and phone line and me screaming at the world, “JUST HIRE ME ALREADY. I’M AWESOME & I’LL SURPRISE YOU & YOU’LL BE GLAD YOU HIRED ME.” And then I’ll bang my fists on the table. Bah. It’s back to the drawing board, I guess. Fingers crossed.
I’ll try to stay optimistic. And I’ll try to immerse myself in the work and life I really want to lead. Like all new beginnings, it’ll be tough. But I can do tough now. I can do more than tough. So give me your best shot, world, and I’ll make something beautiful out of it in return.
And well, if all else fails then as I’ve said before, I’ll be back, Croatia, I’ll be back. : )
I am lucky enough to have an awesome friend in Germany who was willing to host me earlier this June. I stayed with Maria for a week and a day and she showed me parts of Germany many visitors might never see, for which I am grateful. Don’t get me wrong, I like to go to my share of touristy sites, but I much prefer to have a relaxed stay and get a real feel for a country by seeing more of its lesser visited, everyday features.
Most of the time I spent in Germany was in Maria’s hometown, Leverkusen, where the large pharmaceutical company, Bayer has its headquarters. It’s a cute town that nudges up against the Rhine River. The houses which line its streets looked like they popped right out of Harry Potter, or at least to me they did. Everything in Leverkusen is easily accessible by bike or bus or even a long walk, which made getting around a real pleasure.
One of the first activities we did when I arrived was go on a bike tour. I hadn’t been on a bike in years at that point and didn’t think I would have the stamina to finish the tour. To my surprise, it was probably the best bike trip I’d ever been on and inspired me to go on more bike trips in the future. It was relaxed and leisurely so I was able to really see her town and what it had to offer.
Our first stop was Neulandpark. It was a little slice of nature right in the middle of the suburbs. In its forested grounds, you can bike or walk along different dirt paths or check out the wild and farm animals that are housed there. They have adorable porcupines and storks as well as goats, which you can feed, and sheep among other wild and farm animals. It was refreshing to see that a semi-industrial town had a quiet space to get away from it all.
After Neulandpark, we biked to another park, Tierpark Reuschenberg, which once was a Bayer landfill but is now a lush green rolling landscape with artsy structures like a Chinese-style gazebo and a Dutch windmill. Then we made our way to the Rhine River walk where you can see the Bayer factory in the distance. Part of the walkway was under water due to the remnants of heavy flooding in more northern areas. The area seemed like a nice place for a picnic or lying out in the grass with a good book, soaking up some sun.
In addition to Leverkusen’s parks, Maria showed me around Kleingartenverein Feierabend, where we had a BBQ at her family’s garden house. Kleingartenverein Feierabend is a collection of gardens which are owned by families in the area. Since many people live in apartments there often isn’t any room for a garden and so this area serves to fulfill that need. I’ve seen plenty of community gardens, but this place is not quite the same as each garden is separated from the others and is accompanied by a cute little house, which is used mainly for entertainment purposes, not for sleeping. It’s a cool concept and it was a delight to see all the amazing gardens.
In Leverkusen, I of course also went shopping and even stopped in TKMaxx, the European TJMaxx, and found two amazing pairs of shoes. TJMaxx always delivers, even in Europe. Woohoo. Maria also took me to one of her Zumba classes, which is the first time I tried it. At first I couldn’t figure out the steps until half-way through each song but it got easier as the hour went on. It was a lot of fun and the music was great. I’d definitely like to try it again.
Nearby Leverkusen is Soligen, which is a small town in the county which is home to a medieval castle called Scholß Burg. Here, we walked through the castle’s grounds and its rooms, which now are museum exhibits. The first room we entered was the jail, which was quite dark and didn’t have much in it. Then we noticed a few other rooms were closed off and so we thought there might not be much to see. To our surprise, the museum was actually a good size. In order to see every room, you had to climb through the whole castle so it really felt like we were covering a lot of ground. The museum featured exhibits about the how people once lived there as well as the history of the castle and the general area. My favorite part was the view of the surrounding area you see when you make it to the top of the castle. To me there’s just something astounding about seeing a landscape view; I can’t quite put my finger on it.
As we walked away from the castle, we decided to go on the little ski-lift ride that took you from the top to bottom of the town. Neither of us had been on one before, so it was a fun experience. We opted for the one-way ticket since we don’t mind walking. But what we didn’t realize was that the walk was like a mile or so away from where we started. It always sucks when you think a walk’s gonna end and then it doesn’t.
Once we finally got back to the top of the town, we naturally went for waffles on a cute little hillside café. I ordered a cinnamon-sugar waffle, which came piled with a whipped cream, and hot chocolate, which arrived in its own little teapot. Adorable! A perfect waffle meal.
One of the last places Maria took me to during my stay was Cologne, or Köln in German. It’s a lovely, lively city that is just the right size, not too big, not too small. The bridge to the main part of Cologne features a long fence which is covered with love locks set in place by couples over the last few years. I thought it made an otherwise ordinary bridge something special.
Once we made it to the other side, we stopped at Cologne’s famous cathedral which was architecturally stunning and had beautiful stained glass. After, we made our way through the city to discover all Roman ruins lying around from towers to wall fragments. It’s cool how the ruins are incorporated into the surrounding architecture so it’s easy to happen upon it them.
We also went shopping here, where I bought perhaps more than I should have but what’s new. We also had a traditional German meal at one of Cologne’s most well known beer houses. It was delicious and super filling and the beer was a nice way to wash it all down.
After lunch we reached what became my very favorite stop, the chocolate museum. It was glorious. The museum itself was laid out nicely and wasn’t too large. It started with the history of chocolate and where it’s currently produced, which I was happy to see included quite a bit of information about the social issues behind it. Then came exhibits about chocolate production itself and led into the production room, which was the best. We got to see how the chocolate was turned from its liquid stage into bars, molds, and truffles. We even got to taste the rich, silky Lindt chocolate sauce and the server even give us extra chocolate dipped wafers. It was so so good. Mmm. I don’t think I’ve tasted chocolate so creamy.
At the factory you can make your own custom Lindt chocolate bar so we naturally jumped at the opportunity. I got a milk chocolate one made with chopped hazelnuts, coco nibs, marshmallows, and rice crisps. Yum! And it wasn’t too expensive, just 4.50 Euros.
After we pulled ourselves away from the production room and out of the museum we headed for the gift shop which of course was pretty much only filled chocolate. There was seriously every kind of chocolate imaginable from all the best German brands. There was chocolate pizza, chocolate beer, chocolate liquor, various hot chocolate flavors, molded chocolate, chocolate sticks, and tons of chocolate bars. It was heaven. I spent more than I ever have on chocolate, almost 30 Euros. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that but then again, who knows if I’ll ever come back to the chocolate museum. Plus, chocolate is always worth it.
Overall, I had a wonderful time in Germany, discovering Leverkusen, Soligen, and Cologne and can’t wait to come back sometime in the future! : )
Matea Dušić is 27 years old and lives in Rovinj on the west coast of Istria, a penninsula in Croatia. She currently works as a teacher of Italian language in an elementary school and teaches children from 8 to 14 years of age. She graduated in Zadar as teacher of English and Italian language and literature, and therefore also teaches English in a private language school. In her free time, she likes to go on walks, go swimming in the summer, listen to music, and read good books. Her favorite place to go on a walk or a swim is the forest park, Punta Corrente in Rovinj, where she has been enjoying its clean sea and beaches since she was a kid.
Matea in Mali Losinj
1. What is your favorite place to visit in Croatia, and why?
My favorite place to visit in Croatia is Plitvice Lakes National Park. There are still a lot of places I haven’t visited yet, so this is my favorite for now. It has 16 beautiful lakes and rich vegetation. I love going in the spring because it is gorgeous to walk along the lakes, admire the falls and enjoy the wilderness. In the summer time there are a lot of tourists so to me it’s not as nice, but still worth the trip.
2. What places or sites would you recommend to a tourist visiting Croatia, and why?
I would definitely recommend Plitvice Lakes since they are my favorite. Also, the region of Gorski Kotar offers a lot of activities for those who like hiking or like to be in touch with nature. The whole region of Istria is very specific because it offers so many different things in different areas. On the coast you can enjoy the sun and the sea, eat excellent fish and drink high quality white wine. In the inlands, you can taste some famous Istrian specialties, like pršut, sausages, cabbage, maneštra (a type of soup), local pasta and meat specialties. Everything is home-made, and accompanied by excellent red wine. Croatia has a lot of things to offer, it all depends on what you’re in to.
3. Do you have any favorite Croatian writers, poets, artists, actors, or musicians? If so, who are they and what are some of their notable works (or works of theirs you admire)?
I haven’t read many Croatian literary works so I cannot recommend any authors or any good books, since I like to read books in English to practice it a bit more. From musicians, I like Oliver Dragojević, Toni Cetinski, and Hari Rončević. In the last couple of years, a type of singing called klape has become very popular and I enjoy listening to them too.
4. Which Croatian people have you come to admire in your life (political, artistic, familial or otherwise)?
I don’t like politicians very much, especially not the ones leading our country. The people in Croatia that I admire are all the hard-working people, especially those who in the last years have struggled to keep their jobs and feed their families in spite of the fact that the government doesn’t care much for them. What I admire the most is that we are always ready to help people in need, especially when a child needs an operation accessible only in America. While the government is dealing with paperwork about whether the child has the right for treatment in a different country, treatment that will possibly save his/her life, the people in Croatia raise the money so that the parents can privately go and help their child. That is what I admire the most – giving even when they don’t have enough.
5. What changes do you hope to see made in Croatia?
I hope that there will be more work for young people in Croatia because it doesn’t look very positive now. There are a lot of people with higher education that cannot find a job or have to work as a waiter because that is all they can find, and only for the summer time. I hope that the government won’t lie to people anymore, steal from them and will try to make their life better. I hope that finally our paychecks will increase and the costs of living will lower. I hope that there will be more middle class people, and not only those extremely rich and extremely poor.
6. Where do you see the country in 10 years?
I can be very pessimistic or optimistic about this. But let me try be realistic. We are entering the EU in about 2 weeks. I am hoping the prices won’t go sky-high and that it will be really better for us all. But it really depends on the EU itself because they are not in a good place right now, which makes our destiny even more uncertain. So I don’t know – an honest answer.
7. If you could tell someone just one thing about Croatia, what would you want to tell them?
You have to come and discover by yourself all that the people in this country have to offer. You will be amazed!
8. What is your favorite country dish or food?
I love pršut, Istrain pasta and fish. These are my favorites and especially if they are home-made, you just cannot stop eating them!
9. What do you love about Croatia?
Since I live on the sea, I have to say that I adore the sea and the nature around it. What I also like are the people who are very friendly and ready to help. Sometimes you will find people who are not like that and can be quite different, but in general the people in Croatia are open and friendly. Unfortunately, there are still some areas where people are quite conservative and narrow-minded when it comes to some modern topics, like gay rights.
10. What is your favorite Croatian saying or expression?
I don’t have a favorite saying, but what I like about Croatia is it’s different dialects. It amazes me how we can have such different words in different areas of Croatia, so much so that a person from Istria and one from Zagorje cannot understand each other when speaking in their dialects or local language.
11. How did you begin working as a tour guide?/What influenced you to begin working as a tour guide?
I wanted to try something new, and I wanted to make use of my knowledge of languages and practice them a bit more. I went to a course and then started working for a tourist agency from Rabac. The following year I worked for an agency from Poreč and I traveled a bit more, which was exciting. I love meeting new people and talking to them, although it can get difficult to satisfy everybody.
12. What is the most unusual thing a tourist has asked you during a tour?
The most unusual thing was when a tourist from England woke me up at 6 am to find the number of his doctor and hospital in England to call her because he was sure that his wife will put him in a hospital as soon as they come back home since he was schizophrenic and she wanted to put him on medication. I couldn’t believe that situation and even today it amazes me.
13. Can you share any fun facts with us about Croatia that you have learned being a tour guide?
I learned that the stones in the old town of Rovinj had a purpose when it was a fisherman town. All the stones are horizontal and there are only two lines that go vertically up the street called Grisia. These stone lines were used by the men when they came back home after all day at sea. Since the only thing that they were drinking was white wine and water (called bevanda) they were a little drunk when they came back, so these lines were used to find there home – something to follow.
14. What would be your ideal tour to give in Croatia?
My ideal tour would be with a group of 8 to 10 visitors. This number is the best because you can explain everything to the visitors and dedicate yourself to them and discover their interests, and therefore adjust your guiding to what they want to know. There are many places to visit in Croatia, so I would probably concentrate on the northern part of the Adriatic since it fascinates me the most.
We would start with the visit around Rovinj and Pula, then continue to a small village in the central part of Istria so the visitors can see different areas of this region, as well as to taste some of the specialties. We would spend the night in Opatija, and the next morning do some sightseeing of this town. Afterwards we would go to the island of Krk, visit its most known places and of course taste the wine. The second night would also be spent on the island.
The third day would be reserved for two more island – Cres and Lošinj, not just visiting the centers but also some local places of interest like the Beli reservation of birds, especially griffons on the island of Cres, and the reservations of dolphins on the island of Lošinj. If we take this tour during the summer months, I would also organize a day on the sea so that the visitors can enjoy our beautiful clear water. After that we would visit Zadar and spend probably two days there, and finish the tour with Croatia’s most famous national park, Plitvice Lakes, because I believe they must be seen.
On the way back, I would also want the visitors to see the Museum of Nikola Tesla, so they can get to know some famous Croatian people. The whole trip would last for approximately 8 days and we would use a small van, of course with air conditioning. If possible, I would find local restaurants for lunch or dinner so that the tourists could really taste and experience Croatia.
15. What is the best memory you’ve had working as a tour guide?
My best memories are all the places I have been able to see, and even though that hasn’t been many, I have still enjoyed all my travels thus far. What I also liked was meeting and talking to a lot of different people, hearing their stories, thoughts of Croatia and even encouragements about my future work. I got to practice my English, experience new things, worry about whether everybody was ok and feeling happy when they got back to the hotel safe and sound, and most importantly hearing that everyone was so pleased. That was the best reward.