Dislike on Facebook (For Steven P.)

It seems that there rarely has been an invention that impacted young lives as much as did this “social medium” referred to as Facebook.

I’ve deleted  my account, for multiple reasons. Instead, I will create an account for work related purposes, just because I find it a useful means of communication, that is, if you want to quickly reach a young audience.My students ask me so often when and where there are interesting events or apps or websites or even movies which can help them practice their Dutch. I find that valuable, and I want to spend time on helping them in their endeavour.

Few things are as shallow as Facebook. When a dear friend of mine (= a friend who texts me once in a while to meet up) was hospitalised for a whole week, I wasn’t even informed about his illness. If I had known, I would have rushed to check upon him (and brought him flowers).

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A popularity contest, or so it seems, based on Filthstagram pictures, a planet in which everyone is happy-go-lucky and with an eternal pretty face, no rosacea or wrinkles to be spotted; it makes me sad to see to which we have come.Especially because my mirror doesn’t do Instagram effects, and also because natural beauty seems to have become inexistent or at least very, very rare. I’d like to quote Marc Jacobs here: “I always find beauty in things that are odd and imperfect – they are much more interesting.”
I just want to go back to the pre social media world, peopled with friends who have flaws, just as I have flaws, so we can laugh at them. Humour still is the best medicine.

And believe me, my life isn’t a bed of roses. I’ve had it with the way people never meet up anymore just because it’s fun and because they want to go and do stuff. No, after 6 years in the city it strikes me more and more how things are ever that shallow. People calling themselves friends, just because they happen to hang in the same bar (taking selfies, of course). I call that alcoholism. Drinking buddies. Would they still go these places if there was no alcohol available? I doubt it.

Social media, with Instagram, Foursquare,  Yelp (okay, useful from time to time, and I contribute, I admit), Facebook and the like, should multiply connections between people. Instead, I see a poorer world. I think I’d rather live with a lot less than with too many, preferring the few ones I can call when I’m feeling a bit under the weather. We live in a day and age dictated by images, yet they are not always what they seem.

Think of this what you may, I’m not collecting”likes” here.

Happy New Year!

Explosions of colour, reflected in the water
Explosions of colour, reflected in the water

This afternoon, I had my first Kulfi of the year. No, that is a lie. I had my first kulfi in my entire life. Thing is, I always skip desert, simply because I never have enough room for it.

A new Indian restaurant opened about a month ago in the center of Brussels (Jai Ho), and today I ate there for the second time. As I entered the restaurant, I greeted the only guest present, an elderly gentleman. We started chatting about travel. He had just flown back in from Hong Kong, where he celebrated New Year’s Eve. Apparently, the fireworks are quite impressive there.  Lucky him, in Brussels everything was cancelled due to an ongoing risk of terrorist attacks.

He appeared to be an avid traveller, and had been to India on several occasions. We chatted about Indian culture, world heritage, food, … and as the conversation continued, he brought up kulfi. The staff being so charming and fun to talk to (the gent was joking with them all the time), they allowed me to eat only bits of my different dishes. Result: I have enough Indian food in the fridge to last me at least 2 days, and I finally got to taste this rich, delicious desert.

This is exactly what I love about Brussels. You can enter a place, and start a conversation with a perfect stranger. Most of the time they are even happy to do so. A very open minded, multi cultural city, I can only hope this will never cease to exist. The kindness of strangers. Stranger than kindness. I can not imagine living anywhere else in this country.

Where else in this country can you have your eyebrows done by threading, for only a few euros? I first got to know this technique in my student years, must have been 1994, on a 6 week trip through Egypt. Waxing your eyebrows can lead to nasty accidents, and don’t even start about tweezers! The address? Oria is located in the centre of Brussels, not far from La Bourse. They do good haircuts too, for half the price you pay elsewhere. The place is divided into two different salons, one for men, and one for women. The atmosphere is warm and amicable; I recommend Saturday afternoon, if you like to see a bunch of beautiful young Arab women getting ready for an evening out. Coming to think of it, I never saw another “real Belgian” woman there. Inexplicable.

So why all this fuss about eyebrows and hairdos and Brussels? Well, tomorrow, I’m starting a new job, as a language trainer, right here in my city. Done with the daily 3 (or more) hour commute to some place in the Walloon Region. I’ll finally be a true “Bruxelesse”, and I’m looking forward to exploring my city, something I never had the time to do before. When you arrive home at 18:15 every day of the week, there is no time to volunteer in a school, or to engage in other activities that can help you truly understand our capital city.

I get a great start in this New Year. I wish you all a joyful, healthy and peaceful 2016. Some words of advice here:

  • be nice, everybody is fighting a fight you know nothing about
  • stay away from toxic people, toxic relationships, toxic places
  • there are a few tricks to slow down time, try them (safety first, of course)

I wish you all the best for 2016. Take good care.

 

 

 

 

The climb to The Eyes of the Mountains

I didn’t do the hike. And I have no regrets about not having seen the lakes. They’re going nowhere, so I can visit them whenever I want in the future, in a different season.

What happened? They’d sent me the same driver, a guy who doesn’t speak a word of English and who reminded me of Manuel, the clumsy and chaotic waiter from Fawlty Towers. Even if the man’s intentions were good, he did not drop me off where I wanted to start the hike.

  

On the road, He had aleady asked several villagers where the starting point was. Not really something one expects of a taxi driver. Because it looked nothing Elena’s description, I called her and put her on the phone with the driver and the neighbour. They insisted that they were right and Elena was wrong, there was no path that fit her description. This man had lived in de village for more than 20 years, if such a path existed, they would have known.

There are 3 ways to the top:

  • the rocky trail, which I hope to hike one day, it a big big challenge and it’s very scenic (but dangerous, also)
  • the ski lift trail, which is comforable and is Elena’s favourite
  • the goat’s trail, as I call it, which is really the oficial one – it is marked.

I did start to follow the red dots, but soon it became more of a pain than a pleasure. After walking for 30 minutes, a steep climb, in the sun (hardly any shade!), goat’s steps in the sand, goat’s and other animals’ dung on the track – not to mention the flies, I decided to all it quits. The beginning was pretty, though.

  
My water supply had diminished way too fast, I realised the view wouldn’t be worth the effert I’d have to put in. On my way back (fast, because happy to get out of there), I bumped into two young, enthusiastic well equipped hikers. Hikers always come in pairs. For safety. I’m patient. That mountain will still be there in 20 years. Take my time (and excercise more).

I followed the road for cars, much easier, walked a bit uphill, the prettiest of mountain landscapes rolling out in front of me.  To make it better, a nice red Mini Cooper convertable is all it takes. And big shade and a scarf for your hair.

That day, I walked the full 20 km back to Bitola. Well yes, I had booked a massage, so there was no excuse not to get some excercise. Gigantic mountain houses with lots of land, a restaurant with a view, some goats (on a walk up to the mountains, ladies? Your track starts right there. Watch your steps though.)

   
    
    
    
   

Pelister, really worth a detour. 

My last stop in Macedonia was Kruševo, a paragliders’ paradise with the best of sunrises. Skopje-Ohrid-Bitola-Kruševo. What a country. Warm, friendly people who will always offer you their help.

Today I am in Sofia, I arrived yesterday after a trip that took 9 hours,  from 5 AM to 14 AM. I’m bit tired, so I chill out in Rd. Vitosha, there are shops, boutiques, restaurants, loung bars. All wih air conditioning! Not that bad. 

Tomorrow hopefully get to the Rila Monastery, than continue to Plovdiv.

Kruševo is waking up

Away from the noise of the city, the city that I love so dearly. Sunrise in the mountains, there is nothing like it. To hear the bells toll down in the village, the birds, … no need for music in your ears here. And look as this. Can it get any better? 

  
I’ve been sitting here since six in the morning. An hour of beauty. And then they say the golden hour is in the evening, at sundown. Sunrise is quieter. 

I remember in Myanmar, a whole crowd had gathered near a stupa in the mountains for sundown. Nobody spoke a word. As if the sun was an actress on stage. She even got applause after dissapearing in the distance. 

Things not to be missed in Bitola

A friendly place to stay: Goldy Hostel

The day before yesterday I spent most of the day reading, writing and photo editing at Zlatko and Elena’s kitchen table in Goldy’s Hostel. Around five, Elena started cooking up a meal. We chatted a bit, Zlatko was off to the market for some grilled fish. If it was possible to bring me some too? Normally you have to order one day on beforehand, but she’d try to call him and see what he could do. Zlatko came back with three grilled fish. If I liked the head of the fish on my plate? Naah, not really. They neither. The salad Elena had made was absolutely delicious and its souery taste went very well with the smokey grilled flavour. Cold cooked potatoes, raw onion rings, oil and vinegar, salt and pepper. Simple and good. 

  

I planned on two, but finally stayed there for four nights. I had a gigantic double bed all for myself, for 15€/night (22€ when you’re two). Elena and Zlatko have great taste in music, never heard anything I disliked really. When I told Elena that my favourite musician is Prince, she replied: “It is impossible for any girl or woman NOT to be a Prince fan”. We got along fine. 

We talked Macedonian politics, future plans (Elena, a nutrician, is taking up German classes), women’s stuff (yes, your eyebrows do continue to grow when you are on a holiday), and food, of course. Zlatko is right when he says our vegetables in Europe taste like plastic. Impossible to imitate a shopska salad in Brussels. The greens are not as tasty, and the cheese that goes on top is simple unavailable outside Macedonia. Feta cheese is not a worthy replacement. The real thing is richer, creamier and is less sharp than feta. Delicious.

This is the country’s richness: the taste of sunlight in your veggies and fruits. Millions of peaches, peaches for me. Millions of peaches, peaches for free.

  

The secret tip Elene gave me, the Viola Beauty Center, was exactly what I needed after my hikes (long walks, really). A beauty parlour and a fitness studio in one, with jacuzzis, a sauna, massages, and every possible beauty treatment you can think of, even botox shots I think, if you ask ‘m nicely. The massage I got after my supposed hike to The Eyes of the Mountain (see next post) was as good as the ones you get in Asia. Firm hands, kneading away the last bits if pain you went through during your day. These women know what they’re doing. Sorry guys, it is ladies only 😎

Bitola has two good reasons for a stop: as said, it’s near Pelister National Park, and there is the beautifully preserved mosaic of Heraclea. As you walk up there from Goldy Hostel, you can’t miss the Širok Sokak “wide lane”, oficcially called Maršal Tito. It’s vibrant with life, lounge bars, shops and restaurants. My favourite one is Jagoda, you’ll recognise it by the gigantic strawberry (jagoda) on the terrace, and the colourful red and white chequered table cloths. 

  

Before getting to Heraclea, you should stop at the Bitola Museum, located in the former military academy where once Atatürk went to school. What I found much more interesting than the dozens of pictures, heroic stories and even the school grades of Atatürk , was this love letter from “The Girl from Bitola”.

  
A bit further, just follow the leafy park and then turn left (it’s well indicated), is the archeological site of Heraclea, 400 BC. Wikipedia is your friend. 

When you see this lady, you know you’re on the right track.

  
The mosaics are so beautifully preserved, with still vibrant colours. When you pay a little extra for photography (100 dinars entry fee and 100 extra is what I paid), the guy behinds the counters advises you to climb on the ancient stones for the best shots. So I did. Here’s my Indiana Jones 😎

   

According to my guidebook, Bitola is the city of embassies, beautifully restored or beautifully faded buildings. I had no time for a walk about town; the view from my hostel was enough for me. As if I were in France!

  

I regret not bringing some Côte d’Or back from Brussels. Should think of that for my next trip. Luckily and against all odds, I found a big pot of Nutella chocolate paste, a product made in Belgium, at the Ferrero factory in Arlon, in the very south. Elena’s reaction was: “This is exactly what the house needed.”

Everybody happy. Meanwhile I’m in Kruševo, the town is packed with paragliders. There is a competition going on in a few days. No Dutch of Belgian people spotted yet. No mountains in our countries.

Hiking for dummies

So you’d like to reconnect with nature? She’s a pretty lady, and playing hard to get is not her game. But she will put you through some challenges though, to see if you really mean it. If you put in the effort, good things will come to you. 

Oh, cut the crap. I just went for a walk in the mountains, on my own, and it was good fun. 

From Bitola, it was a 30 minutes taxi ride to National Park Pelister. The driver dropped me off at Hotel Molika, where they gave me all the necessary information on hiking trails, their difficulty, the time they’d take etc.

  

I decided to take it easy and not overdo it (though my secret ambition was to get to the peak), and maybe come back later for more. Given the fact that I didn’t bring my hiking shoes, I was recommended to follow the blue trail and turn right to the Vanguard, which boasts a great view, then follow the same trail back and go to the Yorgov Kamen. From the intersection to Vanguard I had to follow the target like hiking trails. The hike to and from would take about 4 hours, and if afterwards I wanted more, I could do the historical trail as well. Everything was well indicated, they assured me, all I had to do was follow the mountain trail signs, impossible to get lost. So the blue trail it would be.

  

The trail hit off like a rocket: Macedonian pine trees (the smell!), great views, flowers, butterflies, the road sprinkled with pineapples, the sound of a river somewhere, … Perfect picture opportunities. Here are a few shots:

  
  
  
   
After a while, I reached what I thought was the blue trail, so I followed the indicated path without giving it any further thought; I didn’t read the sign, let alone look at the map. 

 

The trail continued untill I reached a tiny river I had to cross. It looks like nothing on the picture, but it took me a good 5 minutes to get to the other side. I didn’t want to get my feet wet (literally): what if I’d slip and my shoes would get soaked? I started with putting my camera in my backpack (on a trip, it is permantently dangling on my right wrist), then considered taking off my shoes and walk through the water. But what if I’d cut my foot, or worse, both feet on a sharp stone? I regretted not having a helping hand or a walking stick at least, for balance. These rocks looked so slippery, and there seemed to be so much water in between. Did I say five? Make it ten.

  

After carefully checking the stability of the first few stones (one was very wobbly), I slowly crossed until the middle, then made it with a few quick steps to the other side. All went well, a sigh of relief.

  
The trail continued uphill, through the shady pine woods, untill I reached what I’d describe as a plain of rocks, magnificent. Can you see the order in the chaos?

  

Big, flat rocks forming a stairway to the top, apart from the heat very comfortable to walk. Although it was only 8.30 in the morning, the sun was already blazing hot. No hiking shoes needed here, but it is wise to bring a hat. 

  
  
After the climb, the hike continued all the way to the top through a variety of landscapes, one just as pretty as the other.  

   
    
   At the top, only my shadow still looked good, but the view was absolutely  worth the sweat. As a bonus, there was a meadow with colourful flowers and butterflies everywhere. Superbe!

   
    
    
   
A fantastic experience. 

I decided to put away my camera and make it quickly back downhill, but I messed up. Nothing horrible, but when I saw a rock with a drainpipe sticking out and water flowing, I realised I was on the wrong track. Something similar happened near the “blue arrow” on the way back to the starting point, the Hotel Molika. I followed the sign to the hotel (in cyrillic alphabet only, but I had tried to read it in both alphabets, so I remembered), and while actually being on the right track, at one point I had to step over a treetrunk, something I didn’t remember doing on the way to the top. Did it slide or did I just not notice it because I was too busy? No idea. 

No harm done, I put in some extra miles, enjoyed the beauty and that was it. But really, what I had in mind for mountain track signs was this, colour coded tracs, not signs written in Macedonian only.

 

This is probably the reason why I didn’t pay attention to landmarks. It won’t happen again.

 Anyways, here are some of the “accidental” pics:

   
   

Right before it went wrong for the second time, I sat down near the tiny river with the slippery rocks. Happy to know all was well, I had speeded downhill. After wiping the sweat of my face, I was just daydreaming a bit, when I suddenly noticed that I was being watched.

  

He had probably made a bet with his toad friends on how long it would take me this time to cross (I like to antropomorphize from time to time). I was fast 😎

An image sprung to mind, from one of my childhood books. A fairytale by Andersen about a girl so tiny (half a thumb, hence Thumbelina) that she could sleep in a nutshell, kidnapped by an old toad who thought Tumbelina or Little Tiny would make good marriage material for her son.

  
 Ah, what some healthy mountain air does to one… Here’s the full story (in English): Thumbelina or Little Tiny. It’s really a story about how people are most happy with their own kind, or about a runaway bride, or about female empowerment. Check Wikipedia for more.

After a salad and about two liters of water at Hotel Molika, I was back in shape, and I managed to arrange a free ride back to the hostel. The driver, who came to deliver fruit and veggies to the hotel,  was having a cold beer with his friend before returning back to Bitola.  

  
Notice the cheap shades we’re all wearing 😎

Knowing the region like their pocket, they told me that there is a relatively easy hike to the Big Lake starting in Nižepole. Hey hey!

It would take me 3 hours to go up and 3 hours to come back down, so it’s a bit more then what I did yesterday. Totally worth it, because there you can see two out of three of the lakes at the top, poetically called  “The Eyes of the Mountain”.

That’s for tomorrow. I’ve had my rest, you have your read.

 I’m going to fold my laundry, which should be dry as gunpowder by now.

Warning: do not try this when hungover, drunk, under the influence of illegal or legal drugs that include the notice “do not drive a motor vehicle oroperate machinery”, or all four combined.

On being on the road

Current position: Bitola. Booked three nights here, because I would like to go hiking in Macedonia’s second highest mountain; 2.600 metres altitude, located in natural park Pelister.

As foreseen, nothing went as foreseen to get here from Ohrid. The taxi that should have taken us to the bus stop before 10.10 never showed up. We were three waiting in vain for the car, I even asked the hostel to call for another one, still nothing, so we decided to go on foot. A forty five minutes brisk walk with a Londoner an a Frenchman from Valenciennes: money we did not spend on transport, a cool conversation on travel, and a nice workout. We arrived at 11.00, the next bus would be at 12.20.

My options were either going for a drink and blog, or ask around to share a taxi. Lucky as one sometimes can be, a woman named Vesna who works in the tourist industry offered us to join her on her trip back home, Bitola, my next destination. I didn’t really understand what kind of transport company it was, but the ride in a decent car with air-conditioning was a lot nicer than the overcrowded, slow bus I remembered from Skopje to Orhid. And all this for exactly the same price. I’m definitely going to meet up with Vesna in the next days, she lives 3 minutes away from my hostel.

There is a lot of charm in being a solo traveller. When you stay in hostels and not in hotels, you get to meet a whole different crowd, always resourceful and with lots of wanderlust. People from all over the planet, who hang out and exchange information on their country or places they’ve visited, it can be very refreshing. There is no age limit for staying in what we used to call a “Youth Hostel”. The oldest person I ever met in a backpackers place, was this spring at Cuba Hostel in St. Peterburg.  It was an 80 year old man traveling with his son.

I like the laid back vibe, and sometimes you get to see the kindness of strangers.

When I came back from my paragliding flight yesterday, I stopped by at a shop where I saw these tomatoes fresh from the countryside, and they looked so great that I just had to try making one of my favourite recipes with them.

Here’ a picture of the ingredients:

  
The garlic and onions were already frying. Usually one uses Boursin for this pasta sauce, but any cheese spread with herbes de Provence will do the trick. Add chili peppers as well, or use chili flakes. It’s a weight watchers recipe that I got from my youngest sister, who made it her own by adding cooking cream to it 😊

As usual, I made way too much food, so we ended up with five finishing it. A German guy did the dishes, and what was more, when I got back from a visit around the lake, I found a delicious oven dish on the table, still hot.

  
The same young man had grilled a few eggplants, with some spicy meat and tasty local cheese on top. Heaven! Much better and healthier than restaurant food, which, to be honest, gets boring after a while. Thank you once more, it was fantastic.

More travel luck I had: there was a free folklore festival on at the amphitheatre, a perfect closure of a good day.

Some pictures to give you a taste of my last day in Ohrid: