An optimist’s take on Berlin

My backpack felt unusually light – so light that I kept checking and rechecking my pockets to make sure that I didn’t forget anything.  Riding over to the airport last week was weirdly liberating – no suitcase, no laptop, and only the essentials.  It was just me, my backpack, a discount plane ticket to Berlin, and directions to a “couch surfer” host I met online who offered me a place to sleep.

I was pretty nervous.  But I’ve learned that the more nervous you start, the better things usually end up.  After spending the past few months going on organized trips and traveling with swarms of people, I really wanted to do something outside of my comfort zone, and I don’t think it could have turned out any better.

Denis, me, and Alberto

Denis proved to be an amazing host; he cooked for us (Alberto from Mexico also stayed at Denis’ while I was there) some traditional German meals every night (liver meatballs, sauerkraut, potatoes…just like Ukraine, think carbs+meat and you’ll get the general idea).  After going to class in the mornings, he would meet me downtown for lunch and sightseeing.  We watched Bayern Munich destroy Real Madrid on Wednesday night with his flat-mates, and sat on the beach drinking delicious Dju-Dju beer at a Jamaican island bar.  We tried fried grasshoppers from Mexico and drank Berlin’s famous green beer.  I asked him tons of questions about Angela Merkel and World War II and currywurst, but he never seemed to mind.

Outside of the “couchsurfing,” Berlin was a wonderful city to explore.  In terms of politics, it is probably one of the most interesting cities to study.  The past century has brought dramatic changes and challenges, including the devastation of WWI, the rise of Hitler, the Jewish tragedy, the East-West partition during the Cold War, and the formation of the European Union.  All of these events have left their mark on the city, with many statues, museums, and memorials commemorating its tumultuous history.  You can’t help but feel a little confused and overwhelmed as you walk through the busy streets.

But as great as the city was, what I’ll really remember is the people I met.  Perhaps I just got lucky with my couchsurfing experience; but being the optimistic type, I feel that Denis is more like the norm than the exception.  Often, we are too wary of strangers, especially in a foreign country.  I think our first instinct is to be deeply mistrustful, to look over our shoulder and prepare for our next uncertain encounter.  Sure, a certain amount of caution is needed.  But caution should never prevent us from trusting strangers – perhaps not with our lives, but maybe enough to give us a couch to sleep on for a few nights in a new city.

Above all, Berlin showed me that people can be incredibly generous – not necessarily in terms of money, but with their time and space and minds. I think that more often than not, you’ll meet good and honest people in the world.  Hospitality is an unmistakable virtue.

at the East Gallery of the Berlin Wall

…and here’s a home-made video that documents my trip!

Family and Country: at last, my trek to the motherland

It’s a wonderful feeling to be welcomed with open arms by people whom you’ve never met nor spoken to.  That’s the amazing thing about family – a few drops of shared blood are enough to make them treat you like their first-born son.  After spending an entire week in Ukraine going to family parties, eating home-cooked food, strolling down winding cobblestone streets, and practicing my first language, I’m already beginning to dearly miss everything about Ukraine.

By no means is Ukraine a perfect country.  There’s a lot of things wrong with it.  There’s plenty of political apathy – those who are fed up with all of the corruption and “selective justice” in Kiev are so frustrated that they have stopped trying to do anything about it.  Infrastructure is suffering, and the awful condition of the roads is a running joke.  There’s a marked East-West divide, and I could barely understand all of those who spoke Russian in Ukraine’s capital.

But the very fact that I am Ukrainian means that none of these problems really matter.  I love Ukraine not because it is powerful and respected in the international community (it’s not, as recent GDP, democracy, and corruption indexes indicate).  I love it because of its colorful identity – which I have happily embraced as my own.  It’s about the beautiful language and the unique sounds of the Cyrillic alphabet.  It’s about the painted Easter eggs and ornate woven shirts.  It’s about all of those pierogies, kobasa, and kapusta that wallow in my stomach as I fall to sleep.  It’s about the Ukrainian folk dancing and brightly decorated costumes.  It’s about the sung Ukrainian Catholic liturgy, and the golden icons that adorn the walls of our churches and homes.  And yes, people here actually go to church!

It’s about the fact that I’m not just an American, but a Ukrainian American.  As the third generation living in America, it is quite a miracle how my family has been able to hold all of it together.  Being Ukrainian defines how we celebrate our holidays, when we come together as a family, how we speak to each other, and how we practice our faith.  It’s always been a part of my identity, but being abroad has helped me value it so much more.

As one of my cousins told me (after tearfully playing his accordion), there’s two things that you cannot choose in life: Family and Country.  On one side of the Atlantic I’ve got America, and on the other I’ve got Ukraine – with an amazing family awaiting me at both ends.  Indeed, I am truly blessed.

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Sun, “happiness”, and hygge

I’ve got a love-hate relationship with this place.  I’m sitting inside my favorite hyggelige café spot (you really can’t find a better deal than $2 coffee and croissant; my wallet actually shrieks every time I pass by a sign advertising $8 lattes), staring outside the window at students still bundled up in their snowsuits, and memorizing my Russian history as I spend countless hours registering for next year’s courses (am I actually going to be a senior??).  As always, thousands of thoughts flowing through my head – what exactly I am going to do in Ukraine next week, how Razkilnikov is planning to escape in Crime and Punishment, possible topics for several upcoming research papers, what’s going to happen next in Game of Thrones (still catching up in Season 2).

I am all over the place, kind of like the weather here.  Over the course of a single week, we’ve been showered with wet snow, pulled out the umbrellas for the rain, and sat in parks enjoying the warm sun.  It’s hectic, but hardly surprising.  As my law professor quipped, we may never actually see the Copenhagen Spring before we leave in May.  I don’t think he’s joking.

sunny afternoonBut there is hope.  This semester, I’ve learned to take it all in stride.  When it’s cold and dreary, you’ve got to grab a coffee, sit somewhere comfortable and take in the hygge.  Sometimes I feel like just sitting on the morning bus and never getting off, circling the city a few times until I finish the chapter I’m reading (I’ve yet to do this).  And when the sun decides to come out, I can’t help but go outside.  Put away the laptop, buy an amazing sandwich from St. Peter’s and soak up that Vitamin D that I’ve been missing.

almost too beautiful to eat

St. Peter’s finest

That’s the thing I love most about Danes – they really appreciate the sun.  Even though temperatures are still hovering around 40, it looks like it’s summer already.  They’re lining up at the ice cream shops, opening the Tivoli amusement park down the street, and lounging on the grass at Rosenburg Park.

Sometimes I actually see why Denmark is rated the “happiest country in the world.”  Danes tend to make the best of not-so-good seasons and situations, and they hardly complain.

Perhaps they’re not overflowing with happiness.  Rather, they seem content – happy not because they are super enthusiastic about everything, but because they are satisfied with what they have and seek nothing more.  Though it’s difficult to generalize, Copenhagen strikes me as incredibly passive – sometimes frustratingly so.  The city lacks the “edge” that I have been accustomed to.  Do I want it back?  When I return home in May, I think I’ll find out.

Politics or religion?

No discussion about Bosnia would be complete without reference to my favorite subjects: religion and politics.  As I mentioned in my pre-departure post, the Bosnian War involved three major parties: Bosniak Muslims (majority of Sarajevo and about 43% in Bosnia pre-war), Bosnian Serbs (backed by Serbia, roughly 30%), and Bosnian Croats (backed by Croatia, roughly 15%).  The ethnic mix seems like a powder keg, destined to explode.

It sure exploded.  But why?  The convenient explanation is that different religions cannot get along, especially when they are bound in an uneasy political union.  My initial impression was that Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats harbored an inherent antagonism, rooted in the different beliefs, histories, and cultures that make up their identity.

The religious element is so visceral that it’s hard to ignore.  At Srebrenica, Serb commander Ratkum Mladic proclaimed the following: (warning: contains graphic images)

Indeed, it seems like religion was a huge factor in much of this bloodshed.

Yet, my experiences show that this may not have been the case.  In fact, all of the religious and political leaders that we met argued that the Bosnian War was not a religious conflict.  Serbian Orthodox priest Mitar Tarasic said confidently: “It was not a religious war.  It was just war.  We had conferences and calls for peace, but the politicians would not listen.”  It was a war of all against all.  Bosniaks were fighting Serbs, Serbs were fighting Croats, Bosniaks were fighting Bosniaks, and so on.  You get the picture.

Bosniak students told me they had Croat and Serbian friends, and that the three communities had cooperated for many generations.  The Jewish community leader described how he opened a soup kitchen for all people in Sarajevo, serving 350 meals per day with just 2 pots and 50 liters of water.  When Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1990, it never intended nor foresaw a military conflict.  And their cultures are not all that different.

The conflict was largely political.  Politics is a dirty business – and when mixed with religion, it becomes a lethal combination.  It is a game of manipulating ethnic/religious differences to achieve political goals – in this case, to crush Bosnian independence and reunite it with Yugoslavia (which Serbia claimed to represent).

One student was rather blunt, saying: “We need the older politicians to die.  They are teaching us to hate each other.”  There is definitely optimism for the future; most of the young adults identified not as Bosniaks or Croats or Serbs, but simply as “Bosnians.”  They have put the war behind them, and look forward to building a nation no longer characterized solely by their family backgrounds.

Perhaps the student is being a bit rash.  But the current political system certainly needs to change, for it is defined far too much in narrow ethnic terms.  If you thought the U.S. political system was a mess, think again.  In Bosnia, there are three presidents who rule at once: one Bosniak, one Croat, and one Serb.  The country is divided into two regions based on ethnicity: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (mostly Bosniak/Croat) and the Republic of Srpska (mostly Serb).  Cantons and cities further divide the country.  The Dayton Accords have essentially institutionalized ethnic divisions.  It is amazing that the country has not blown up once again.

So yes – politics suck, and they have created quite a mess in the Balkans.  Be wary of those who immediately blame religion as the cause of wars and conflicts.  Look beyond it – see who’s controlling the strings, who stands to profit, and what are the ultimate goals.

Going numb in Bosnia

Sarajevo

A single blog post does not do Bosnia justice.  I cannot fully convey my experience in Sarajevo, Tuzla, and Srebrenica unless I took you there myself – I learned too much, spoke with too many people, opened my eyes too wide.  I Skyped with my parents for an hour and a half when I returned to Copenhagen on Tuesday, and even that was grossly insufficient.

To kick things off, here’s a rundown of my itinerary and some of the places we visited (part of my Justice & Human Rights Program):

  • Parliamentary Assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Court of War Crimes
  • European Union Delegation
  • Meeting with mayor of Tuzla
  • International Commission of Missing Persons
  • Srebrenica (site of genocide)
  • Meeting with Croat, Jewish, and Serb representatives
  • Dinners, cafes, and parties with local students

Quite a lot was packed into our 5-day trip, and once again I have realized why exactly I chose to study abroad at DIS.  We weren’t there to just sightsee or party at local clubs.  We were there to experience first-hand the issues we had read about in class and seen on TV.  I’ll try to sum up some of the amazing things I learned:

People have some amazing stories to tell.  It hit me like a brick wall; talking with local students – many of them the same age as me – was undoubtedly the most striking part of my experience.  During the Bosnian War (1990-1994), Sarajevo was under siege for four years, surrounded by the Serbian army.  Those who stayed in the city went through hell.  Food was rationed, cigarettes became money (they love to smoke!), and the civilians endured constant shelling and sniper fire.  Just imagine being a young child, maybe five or six years old, and seeing things like…

  • Your father shot in the leg while picking blackberries with him
  • Grandma killed by a sniper while buying bread
  • Having to crawl on your knees whenever you used the bathroom because you could get shot through the window
  • Going to school in your basement
  • Cemeteries, maternity wards, and churches getting bombed
  • Driving through the mountains in a crowded van in the middle of the night, with a older lady in the back crying and screaming as they tried to cross the border (personal account of our tour guide)
  • Not knowing if your Serb or Croat neighbor was going to shoot or save you

I stared in disbelief.  Seriously, are we living in the same world?  Am I actually talking to you right now?   It is amazing what some people have lived through, and how big of a cakewalk my life has been in comparison.  In what was called “Sniper Alley,” marksmen would camp out in abandoned buildings and deliberately target any civilians who were out in the open.  The so-called “Bosnian Romeo and Juliet” – a couple trying to flee across the river in “Sniper Alley” – were gunned down during the night.  Their bodies lay there for seven days.

The river was the main front of the siege, with Serbs holding the left side of the river. Snipers would camp in these buildings

The river was the main front of the siege, with Serbs holding the left side of the river. Snipers would camp in these buildings

There are plenty of reminders.  Next to the Holiday Inn and some new “skyscrapers” are buildings still pierced with bullet holes and broken walls.  Cemeteries roll up and down the mountains.  Amidst incredible beauty, scars remain.

Of course, there were happy stories, too.  The students smiled as they described how they collected artillery shrapnel, rode around in wheelbarrows (mistakenly called “wheelchairs”) and went to the soup kitchen – which was operated by Jews, Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks!  One guy even told me how his grandfather was rescued; dragged out of his home to a firing squad, his Serb neighbor threw him into the long grass of a nearby field when no one was looking, saving his friend from certain death.

Later we took a trip to Srebrenica, the site of a brutal massacre.  8000 Bosniak men were herded like animals and killed, their bodies thrown in mass graves.  Our guide, who was seventeen at the time, was lucky to escape by surviving the “Death March” – as several thousand men fled through the mountains into free territory.  At the International Commission of Missing Persons, we saw the bones of those that did not survive, neatly shelved in white plastic bags in the giant storage room.  I covered my nose and stood in delirium.

gravestones at Srebrenica

gravestones at Srebrenica

The experience was numbing.  It all felt so direct, so shocking, so real.  I’ve been to killing fields before – in Auschwitz, Gettysburg, Normandy.  But this was somehow different.  I’m not just looking at pictures and videos.  There is no historical or generational gap here.  I’m talking to the actual people that lived through this hell, and many of them are my age.  I can relate to them a little bit more.  These are my peers.

And I just keep thinking how damn lucky I am.  I was never afraid of running around or playing baseball outside.  I didn’t go to school in a dark basement.  I was never suspicious that my neighbors would stab me in the back.  I wasn’t going to get snipered in the middle of the street.

It’s amazing what some people had to live through.  I asked a billion questions on this trip, and I want to ask a billion more.

Easter in Vienna

Who knew traveling could be such hard work?  I quickly found that out yesterday, as I arrived back in Copenhagen after 9 days in Sarajevo and Vienna.  When there is so much to do, you want to do it all!

It would be remiss not to start where my trip ended: Easter.  It was unlike any I’ve ever experienced.  I went to two services on Sunday – first, in my Ukrainian Catholic style (this is filmed at the end of the liturgy, when the priest sings Христос Воскрес!…meaning “Christ is Risen”):

After this was over, we walked over to the University Church (Jesuit!) a few minutes away. It was probably the most beautiful church I have ever seen, filled with the most beautiful music I have ever heard.  The pews were so packed that I had to stand in the aisle.   It felt like I was no longer on earth, caught in a sort of other-worldy limbo.  It was so spectacular that I had to fight back tears.  

Here is the closing song; maybe you’ll get a sense of what I mean:

Special thanks to Daniel (who woke up early to come with me to Mass) and Fr. Fields at Georgetown (who recommended the Jesuit church)!

Christmas in March!

Forget about an “early spring.”  The ground hog is a big, fat liar.

In Copenhagen, it feels like spring is never going to come at all!  I’m still sloshing through the snow, and it’s almost April.  Sure, it’s getting brighter every day.  But when the sky is overcast with snow clouds most of the time, it looks more like Christmas than Easter.  Bundled up in my winter jacket, leather boots and furry hat, I look like a giant Eskimo on the Iditarod.  I’m speed-walking in between classes, cranking up the heater, and soaking up the “hygge” in warm cafes.

"feels like 14" :/

“feels like 14” :/

I was actually singing “Let it Snow” in the shower yesterday, and friends are planning snow ball fights at our kollegium (quote from Facebook page: “ATTENTION HOFFMANS! JAKE WANTS TO HAVE A SNOWBALL FIGHT STARTING AT 11:30PM. AKA 23:30. MEET IN THE LOBBY AND GET READY TO GET ROCKED)

I need to thaw.  I desperately want to go south – and luckily, I’m headed there next week.  For the first half, I’ll be in Sarajevo with my Humanitarian Law class.  Seriously, Sarajevo!  As the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, we’ll be studying the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, the messiest European conflict since the Second World War.  Whereas other students are going to the more “mainstream” cities like London, Paris, or Berlin, our core class is really going off-the-beaten path.  When else will I really get a chance to see Sarajevo?  To relive the terrible massacre at Srebrenica?  To interview journalists and diplomats that handled the Dayton Accords?  To talk to the victims of one of the defining conflicts of the modern era?  And I’m experiencing all of this with two professors who, as lawyers and soldiers in the Danish military, directly participated in the Balkan conflict.

My expectations are high.  But after my fantastic DIS trip to Russia, I think this will be yet another surreal opportunity.

And as a politics/religion nut, Bosnia is right up my alley.  It is a country defined by political and religious tension.  Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosniaks, and Orthodox Serbs live together in an uneasy peace, held together by intense international pressure. (Sidenote: the flag looks awesome, with the three corners of the triangle representing these three groups).

There’s been a lot of criticism of the international response; some say the Dayton Accords have simply institutionalized the ethnic problems that caused the conflict in the first place. The country is divided into regions based on ethnicity, and there is a three-man presidency that includes one member from each ethnic group.

On the way home, I’ll be stopping in Vienna for three days over Easter weekend.  April will be packed, with a week-long trip to Ukraine and possibly even Florence.  Summer plans are starting to materialize, and it looks like I’ll be back in D.C. once again.  Those 100-degree July days are going to feel really, really nice.  In the meantime, Denmark better step up its game.

The life of a Catholic in Denmark: my personal midterm reflection

Marble Church - interiorThey say you should never bring up politics or religion.  Well, I do both.  I’ve talked to many Danes – fellow students, professors, bus passengers, my visiting family – about their religiosity, and I get a similar response almost every time.  Either they are more “spiritual” than “religious” (we could debate for hours about what those terms actually mean), or they aren’t anything at all.  I consider them atheist, agnostic, doubting, confused, indifferent.  There are lots of different words to describe their beliefs, or lack thereof.

In fact, I have not met a single Dane who is religious.  Not a single one.  Given my expectations and research, I cannot say that my experience so far has been surprising.  But given my background, it has been somewhat shocking.  My greatest revelation is not about Denmark, but America.  In particular, I realize I have been very isolated over the past 20 years.  I have attended Catholic schools my entire life, and while studying abroad I have become surrounded, for the very first time, by people with views completely foreign to my own.

My shock may come across as a bit silly.  Indeed, I am living in a foreign country, so I will obviously encounter foreign opinions.  I did not gasp when my host brother could not remember the last time he went to church, or after meeting Dane after Dane who admitted they were not raised in any religious context.

But cut me some slack; for the first time, I am not in the majority.  I’m part of a minority that is not just Catholic or Christian, but religious.  Compared to the touted “diversity” or Georgetown, Denmark feels worlds away.  Despite the diversity of the Hilltop – manifested in not only race and ethnicity, but in beliefs and ways of thinking – I still feel a strong religious presence there.  I can spend hours in a classroom discussing Nietzsche’s political theory or debating the ethics of abortion, yet when I step out of class, I am greeted by the statue of John Carroll and the stone crosses on Healy Hall.  I can attend Mass on Sunday in a chapel packed with eager students, where there is often standing room only.  I can talk with my chaplain, sing in the church choir, and volunteer with the Knights of Columbus.  It is all so accessible and familiar.

You can certainly do these things in Copenhagen – there are just harder to find and not well-attended.  I have been to several different churches, although most of the parishioners are immigrants, not ethnic Danes. (Which begs a tangential question: at what point do immigrants become “Danes?”  The concept of cultural integration is much more opaque here than in the States, especially concerning the growing Muslim population.)

It has been a struggle, because as a practicing Catholic, my faith has undoubtedly shaped my social network.  Many of my classes, clubs, and organizations at Georgetown are filled with people who are already inclined towards religion.  Prior to this semester abroad, I was very optimistic about the religiosity among young adults – and maybe foolishly so.

Copenhagen has thrown me a curveball.  I did not choose who would be in my social network in Denmark.  I could not choose who would be living in my kollegium in the same way that I chose to be part of the Knights of Columbus or Catholic chaplaincy at Georgetown.  We are thrown together like awkward freshmen – students from public schools and private ones, religious schools and non-religious ones, different family backgrounds and cultures, various majors and interests.  There is a lot of diversity, but not much religion.

My perception of the world has completely changed.  Things that I have taken for granted for the past 20 years are being challenged like never before.  Perhaps God does not really exist.  Perhaps personal relationships are our ultimate calling.  Perhaps morality can be independent of religion.  And most shockingly, perhaps most people do not actually believe in God.

It is time to find some answers, if there are any.  It all seems a bit overwhelming – but I think that’s the point.

A closer look at Russia

When you travel, you’re supposed to learn.  Taking photos and following tour guides can be so shallow.  Sometimes you’ve got to take a step back and study the country. If you really get to know the place, meet the locals, learn the language, study the history, and grasp the culture, then the experience will be so much more rewarding.

And like in Russia, hopefully you can make some critical judgments along the way.  Here are some that I made about Saint Petersburg and Moscow.

Religion is a roller coaster.  Surprise surprise, Nick is talking about religion again!  Russia’s Orthodox Church is amazing.  Behind all of the shimmering mosaics and icons is a strong, active religious community.  The history is astounding  – Russia went from being one of the most religious nations in the world to one of the least in just a few generations, sparked by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.  After the Cold War, churches opened up again, and the Church-State relations are now as tight as ever.

While in St. Petersburg, we talked to Father Vladimir at the Transfiguration Church.  We discussed the Pussy Riot scandal (his take: don’t disrespect the Church – it exists on a level far above punk rock), his personal beliefs (“If you are a slave to God, you can never be a slave to man”), and the totality of the Orthodox faith (permeates both personal and political life).  A truly inspiring man, and one of my highlights of the trip.

The facade is beautiful.  I already raved about this, but Russia is unbelievable to look at.  The food, sun, landscape, churches, statues, canals, palaces, and colorful streets really gives these cities their charm.

Just be careful if you dig a little beneath the skin.  There’s a memorial to the victims of the “Communist Terror,” but on the other side of Petersburg is a communist rally for Stalin sympathizers.  There was a Pussy Riot protest underneath peaceful church domes.  There’s Bentley’s and homeless beggars.  There’s two sides to the story, and a whole lot of irony.

Communism sucks.  There are parts of Russia that look like a blast from the past.  We visited an old communitarian apartment (the Soviets threw out the rich family that used to live there and redistributed all of the rooms to poorer, working-class families).  The utopian intentions are fluffy, but in reality, all of the common areas looked disgusting.  Broken windows, cracked walls, dirty floors, and a tiny bathroom that was supposed to fit 7 families.  As Russian author Joseph Brodsky says, “If there is an infinite aspect of space, it is not its expansion but its reduction.”  Indeed, about 10 square meters per person.  And whatever you do, don’t complain.

The personal rooms, on the other hand, were clean, finely decorated, and much better kept.  The bottom line: whatever is communal tends to get forgotten.  So much for being comrades, huh?

People are people.  If there is one thing I’ve discovered on this trip, it’s how incredibly small the world is.  This really hit me when I spent a day with Russian students, cooking holobtsi and chatting around the kitchen table.  Speaking in half English, half broken-Ukrainian, we talked about base-jumping, politics, why they were proud of Russia, and hitchhiking across Siberia.   We got really deep on the way back to the metro station at night.  No matter who you are – regardless of your education, your job, your family background, where you live, what you do – you can always talk about life.  Its meaning, its purpose, God.  It seems so general, so gushy.  But everyone is happy to talk about it.

with Olga, Alena, and my other Russian student-hosts

with Olga, Alena, and my other Russian student-hosts

I also tried to overcome the stereotypes about how you think other people look or act or think.  Not all Russian drink vodka (though we learned how to), support Putin, or go to those beautiful Orthodox churches.  People are different, and yet so much alike.  Even the beat-up communist apartment could resemble my dorm room on a Saturday morning.  There’s Bentley’s and beggars in New York City too, you know?  We’re not communists or republicans, students or drop-outs, Russians or Americans.  We’re just people, and we live in a very small, small world.

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