Closer to the Ecliptic

October 28, 2013

Unfortunately I, as a lowly American, am limited to only 90 days within any 180 day period in the Schengen Zone [ˈʃɛŋɡɨn zoʊn]. The Schengen Zone is an area comprised of 26 countries in Europe within which travel is unrestricted. This is the reason you can pass through so many countries in Europe without ever showing your passport. As soon as you enter the Schengen Zone as a non-EU citizen, your 180 day timer starts. You are not allowed to spend more than 90 of those 180 days within the Schengen Zone. Finland is part of the Schengen Zone, Serbia is not. While ideally I wouldn’t be forced to leave Finland at all, I fortunately have the familiar haven of Serbia to retire to. I’ve spent about two months in Finland so far, and I would like to spend December there as well, so I’m putting my Schengen visa on hiatus until then.

Getting to Serbia quickly from elsewhere in Europe is surprisingly difficult. Most of the flights involve multiple stops with a total travel time of more than 20 hours. I remembered that Finnair had service directly to Dubrovnik [ˈdubrɔvnik]; my decision was made. Dubrovnik, the beautiful port city on the Adriatic Coast in Croatia, is a mere 2.5 hour flight from the northerly likes of Helsinki. I packed my bags and left my apartment at 05:30 to head to the airport. I ended up being one of eight total people on the flight to Dubrovnik. It’s amazing how nice flying can be when you’ve got the whole plane to yourself. At solar noon on the day before my departure from Finland, the sun was at 16° of declination. After flying more-or-less due south for 2.5 hours, the sun is now at about 34° of declination. Upon landing in Croatia the first thing I took notice to was how rusty my Serbian was. The dialect they speak in Dubrovnik is different enough from what I learned in Belgrade that even when I’m on top of my game I need to focus a bit to understand, but it proved to be even more difficult after having not used any Serbian at all for a matter of years. My plan was to head straight for Petrovac [ˈpɛtrɔʋat͡s] in Montenegro, but I missed the first of two daily buses by about 10 minutes. The next bus wasn’t for four hours, so I had some time to kill in the old town of Dubrovnik. I went straight to my favorite cafe, Buža [ˈbuʒa], perched on the south wall of the old town and had a few beers to kill time. The thing I love most about that cafe is that even when the rest of the city is crawling with tourists, there are always places to sit at Buža; oh yeah, and the view’s not bad either.


Buža life

The bus from Dubrovnik down the coast of Montenegro is slow-going, but the scenery is stunning. I’ve taken that same bus many times, and I never get bored with the views. I was the only one going south of Budva [ˈbudʋa], so the conductor asked me if I wouldn’t mind being dropped off in Herceg Novi [ˈxɛrt͡sɛg ˈnɔʋi] to catch another bus so they could take the more direct mountain route to Podgorica [ˈpɔdgɔrit͡sa]. I said that was fine and got off in Herceg Novi to wait for the transfer. After 30 or so minutes my bus came and I continued my way down the coast. Unfortunately by this time it was entirely dark so the scenery could not be appreciated much.


Bay of Kotor from the bus

I arrived in Petrovac at about 20:00 and proceeded with the short walk from the bus station to my tetka’s [ˈtɛtka] house. My mother’s maiden name, Medin [ˈmɛdin], is a pretty prolific name in the town of Petrovac. There are three main historic families in the town, one of which is the Medin family. There are many areas of the town named after the Medins, we have our own historical house on the promenade that overlooks the water, we have a church farther up the hill where most of the Medins are buried, and we have several other plots of land around town. A great uncle of mine from many generations back, Stijepo Medin [ˈstijɛpɔ ˈmɛdin], was a popular sea merchant from the area who commanded two large ships in his halcyon days. A reminder of the power that the Medin name beholds in Petrovac was given to me on my way from the bus station. The police stopped me, it was undoubtedly my unorthodox haircut and backpack that triggered the suspicion. They questioned me for a few minutes about who I was, where I lived, where I was going, what I was doing in Petrovac outside the tourist season, etc. Eventually they asked me the name of the person whom I was going to visit. As soon as the name Medin was mentioned it was all smiles and handshakes and wishing me well on my journey. As usual, there was delicious food and drink prepared upon my arrival, and even Šamsa [ˈʃamsa], my tetka’s live-in friend from Bosnia was back. It was great seeing them again, and my Serbian was coming back quickly once it had been dusted off a bit with more use. I went out on the town after dinner to see what it was like in October. There were a few bars and restaurants still open on the promenade, mostly catering to locals. I stopped by Cafe Cuba, one of my favorite bars in the town which has been there since my first time visiting in 2005. I was one of five or so people in the bar. Overall it was a very laid back night, but the lack of tourists was quite nice.


Typical street in Petrovac

Early the next morning I headed down the coast to the town of Sutomore [ˈsutɔmɔrɛ] (or in the local pronunciation [ˈçjutɔmɔrɛ]). The Bar-Belgrade railway line reaches its northernmost point on the coast at Sutomore, so I planned on catching the 09:13 departure towards Belgrade. I have driven on the section of road nearest the railroad right-of-way, so I’ve seen the beauty (the likes of which you can read about here) in that area of Montenegro, but this was something entirely different. The Bar-Belgrade line is known for its striking appearance, and I would certainly say that it’s the most beautiful train trip I’ve ever taken. The train starts in Bar along the Adriatic coast and heads inland a little north of Sutomore. From there, it skirts along Lake Skadar and heads towards Podgorica.


View from the train towards Albania over Lake Skadar

After Podgorica, the line follows a steep incline (one of the steepest standard rail inclines in the world) up into the mountains. From there it crosses the Mala Rijeka [ˈmala ˈrijɛka] viaduct, one of the world’s tallest railway bridges. The line punches its way through hundreds of tunnels in the mountains and continues over hundreds more bridges on the way to Belgrade. The trip gets considerably more boring once it reaches central Serbia where flat plains are dominant. I’m glad I spent the 10 hours on that train as the portion through Montenegro and Southern Serbia is unforgettable.


Typical sight in Montenegro from the Bar-Belgrade line


The scenery gets a bit more modest in Serbia

My friend Vanja was waiting for me at the train station in Belgrade. We went to a favorite kafana of ours for some beers and then headed out to Stara Pazova [ˈstara ˈpazɔʋa] which is to be my home for the next few months. Her brother (another friend from my previous time in Serbia) is living here as well. The town itself is pretty small, but it’s nice and relaxed and not too far from Belgrade.


The neighbors making Rakija in Stara Pazova



October 9, 2013

Of note: ˈhɛnsfoɹθ aɪ wɨl bi ɪnˈklʉdɨŋ aɪ pi eɪ tɹænˈskɹɪpʃɨnz ʌv ˈfoɹɨn wʌɹdz. ðɪs ɪz soʊ ðət maɪ ˈridɚz kɨn hæv ə gʊd aɪˈdiə ʌv haʊ ðə wɚdz ɑɹ pɹəˈnaʊnst baɪ ə ˈneɪɾɨv spikɚ. ðə pɹəˈnʌnsiˌeɪʃɨnz ɪn ðɪs poʊst wɚ pɹəˈvaɪdɨd baɪ ə ˈfɹɛndli ˈbɑɹtɛndɚ ɪn ðə ˈkæpiɾəl ən tɹænˈskɹaɪbd baɪ jɚz ˈtɹʉli.

If that doesn’t motivate you to learn the IPA I don’t know what will!

I just got back to Helsinki from a week-long trip to the Faroe Islands. This marks my having visited all three territories in the Danish Realm (Ríkisfelagsskapur, in Faroese). Not sure how I should feel about that accomplishment, but there you have it. For those unfamiliar with this particular collection of islands, it’s a territory in the Danish Realm lying in the North Atlantic roughly between Iceland and the UK. It’s home to about 50,000 people, most of whom are ethnically Faroese and speak the Faroese language. Their language is a West Scandinavian language (of Germanic stock) most closely-related to Icelandic. Icelandic and Faroese are somewhat mutually-intelligible, but the written forms of both languages are more-or-less the same. Interestingly, the rhotic in Faroese is realized as an alveolar approximant /ɹ/, quite similar to the rhotic in most dialects of English. This somewhat rare sound makes the language sound eerily similar to English.


The harbor in Tórshavn

The spirit of human perseverance is really quite miraculous sometimes. Humans randomly found this tiny archipelago while faring the ancient and entirely unforgiving seas in wooden, human-powered boats. Since then, they’ve been clinging like moss to the barren landscape and indeed thriving, in a way. I was reminded of this while traveling from the capital, Tórshavn [ˈtʰɔuʂhaun], to the southernmost island of Suðuroy [ˈsuːwɹɔɪ]. I was riding the 12,000 ton steel behemoth MS Smyril which was battling five meter swells and extremely high winds on the open sea between the two islands. It was dark, cold, raining, and windy, with massive waves threatening to overturn anything but the sturdiest of ships. Without the metal sea warren of the Smyril I would have been one tiny, fragile lifeform in the vast, inhospitable depths; kilometers from the nearest solid land. This is how it was for the first settlers, setting off from various points in northwestern Europe; ahead of them a staggeringly large void, without the luxuries of a heated cabin or hundred-thousand horsepower diesel engines. Yet still, they overcame the odds and eventually made it, scraped from apparent nothingness an existence for themselves, and thrived for many hundreds of years. Similar things have happened all over the earth as a living testament to the stubbornness, ingenuity, and grit of human beings.

Suðuroy, unfortunately, was a bit of a disappointment, and they probably would have been better off avoiding that island altogether. The impenetrable fog and oppressive rain I’m sure had something to do with it. This rain was like nothing I have ever experienced (and that’s saying a lot from a native Seattleite), it was an absolutely soul-drenching rain but it had a surprisingly innocent appearance. There was a massive amount of water coming from the sky in very tiny drops. This, coupled with extreme wind made for a rain that you surely want nothing to do with; a rain that will strategically and methodically make its way through any chinks in your otherwise waterproof armor. So much so, in fact, that I forewent leaving my rental car and setting up my tent as I had intended and instead folded down the back seats and slept in the car. The fog never lifted for my 24 hours on the south island, but I’m told that I didn’t miss much, a local from Tórshavn described the island as “a terrible place, even when the weather is nice.” I think his statement had more to do with the people than the landscape though.


The best view I got from Suðuroy

Fortunately, the weather was a bit more clear back in the northern islands. I disembarked from the Smyril the following day back in Tórshavn and headed straight for Eysturoy [‘estɹɔɪ]. After navigating many countless kilometers of bridges, tunnels, and fjords, I came to a campground in Æðuvík [ˈaʋuʋwik]. Although the campground is no more than seven or so kilometers from Tórshavn as the crow flies, one has to drive all the way up and around a series of inlets and fjords to get there. The drive is quite beautiful, but they’re talking about building another undersea tunnel that bridges the gap. Much of the infrastructure in the Faroe Islands was constructed in the middle of the 20th century. As late as the early 1900s people still got from village to village either on foot or by rowboat. Roads, bridges, tunnels, and car ferries started to emerge in the 1950s and 1960s and thrust the archipelago into a sort of a localized globalization. It was only then that remote parts of the islands became accessible from elsewhere.

During my stay I was hoping to see a bit of the Northern Lights, the latitude of the Faroe Islands at around 62°N typically makes even subtle activity visible. There was reportedly much activity in the thermosphere for several days of my being there, but unfortunately the cloud cover was so thick most nights that any Auroral activity was invisible to the land dweller. The one clear night that I had was in Æðuvík, but unfortunately the skies were quiet that night; I was at least afforded a nice view of the stars though.


Near Æðuvík

The following day I did some exploring on the northern part of Eysturoy including the seemingly unpronounceable village of Gjógv (actually pronounced [‘dʒekf]). Gjógv was one of the nicest looking villages I visited, and it’s conveniently located near the highest mountain in the Faroe Islands, Slættaratindur [‘slataɹaˌtɪntʌɹ]. I ended up coming at it the wrong way, and forged my own path over some pretty exposed rock faces, but I made it to the summit and descended the actual path back down to the road. The views from the summit were unbeatable, you can see pretty much every island in the archipelago from there, and fortunately that day was largely rain-free with a high enough cloud cover to give some visibility.


One of the views from Slættaratindur

I spent that night in Klaksvík [ˈklaksvik] (predictably), which is the second-largest town in the islands. Again, I was planning on camping, but the rain (and the drunkenness) prevailed and I slept in my car. It didn’t help that the campground was little more than a patch of gravel in front of a kindergarten (seriously). There’s enough open space in the Faroe Islands that the authorities should really adopt an “Everyman’s Right” like they have in Finland, allowing people to hike and camp anywhere provided it’s not disturbing anyone else. There’s a pub in town that’s a hangout for the local fishermen, so I decided to hang out there that night. It was not long before people realized I was foreign and started asking me all sorts of questions about why I was there and how I liked the Faroe Islands. They bought me drink after drink until I really insisted on leaving. I woke up the following morning with a bit of a hangover (let it be known that sleeping in a car doesn’t help). I explored the northeast group of islands that day with the highlight being a town called Viðareiði [ˈvijaɹaɪjɪ].


View from the east side of Viðareiði

Later in the day I headed back into Tórshavn for the night. Tórshavn is really quite adorable, it’s the capital city, but little more than 13,000 people live there. They’ve got a few bars and restaurants, but most of the old town is still comprised of traditional grass-roofed wooden houses perched along the the harbor.


Some typical buildings in Tórshavn

It’s very sleepy, but it’s an excellent place to relax and have a beer. Right as I was walking by the Tórshavn Cathedral the clock struck 3. Shortly after they played this haunting little jingle on the chimes, I was fortunate enough to capture about half of it on video. I had heard nothing like it before, nor did I again; it was like they were counting on me walking by.

I spent the next day on Vágar [ˈvagaɹ]. Even up until the 21st century there were a few villages in the Faroe Islands only accessible by foot. One of these was Gásadalur [ˈkasadalʌɹ]. A village of around 15 people, it was entirely cut off from the road network that connects the rest of the islands. The mail was delivered every three days by foot over the mountain pass from the nearest village until 2005 when the new tunnel was constructed. There’s some charm to the thought of a village untouched by modernities, but with a real fear of the village simply becoming abandoned, the authorities had to make a choice. Now the village is seeing a bit more development, but it’s still quite secluded. The village is also a starting point for the trail to Fjallavatn [ˈfjatlaˌvatn], a huge lake with supposed mystical powers. I made it most of the way there, but the fog rolled in again and I was no longer able to effectively navigate, so I was forced to turn back. The islands of Tindhólmur [ˈtɪntholmʌɹ] and Gáshólmur [ˈkasholmʌɹ] came into magnificent view on the way back. I stayed at a hostel-esque establishment on Vágar that night since it’s closest to the airport. There are only very small towns on the island, but fortunately I was within (long) walking distance of the one place which served beer. I hung out there for a large portion of the night watching the locals come and go, the place serves primarily as a to-go pizza restaurant apparently.


Tindhólmur on the left and Gáshólmur on the right on the trip back from Fjallavatn

All in all I had a great time. The rain was miserable, and the clouds sometimes upsetting, but the weather did provide for a sort of communion-with-the-gods vibe suitable for such a place. The culture and landscape are very similar to those of Iceland, and I encourage anybody who enjoys Iceland to check out the Faroe Islands as well. The amount of tourists in the Faroe Islands is orders of magnitude smaller than Iceland, and most of them are limited to a walk around Tórshavn while their boat from Iceland to Denmark is docked. With a trip to the Faroe Islands you’ll be guaranteed a more, dare I say, traditional experience that you won’t soon forget.