Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Trip to Bihac

This past weekend, we got out of Sarajevo for the first time since we arrived. Landy was invited to give a presentation in Bihac, and I went along.

Bihac (pronounced bee-hash) is a very old city in the northwestern corner of Bosnia. According to my guidebook, the city was first mentioned in a document from 1260 in a document by King Bela IV. But it is well known that the area was populated from at least Roman times. The city square is dominated by a medieval watch tower. Located at the gateway of the various invasions by the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, it was at the center of many shifts in power.

The biggest draw in Bihac today is the Una River. The name comes from the Latin word for “the  only one” and legend has it that it was named by a Roman legionnaire who was awestricken at first sight of the beautiful river. It is very popular for whitewater rafting and it is a unique, jade green color.

We stayed at a beautiful hotel a short way out of town on the Una River, overlooking a series of waterfalls. As special guests, we had a room overlooking the falls and could listen to the rushing water all night. (view from our room)

Landy was invited to speak to the association of disability arbitrators of BiH. In the BiH disability system, applicants are first examined by a physician. After the exam, applicants are referred to the Disability Institute where government employees then make determinations on disability awards. In a country where some reports estimate an unemployment rate of 40%, there is a lot of pressure on the disability system to provide government payments.

Before we arrived, the woman who has acted as our translator (at times) and our host at the Department of Psychiatry at the medical school and clinic, had never visited the Disability Institute even though it is barely 1.5 miles from her office. Both groups are mistrustful of each other: the doctors suspect the Institute employees of “selling” disability awards and the Institute employees suspect the doctors of “selling” valuable diagnoses. Whatever the truth is, both groups acknowledge they need help with providing a fair system and that they are currently overwhelmed and without much guidance.

The trip to Bihac was long and arduous. We had a driver assigned to us by the Disability Institute. We ‘caravanned’ with another car and the trip took over 7 ½   hours! The first stop was so Landy could get some Dramamine from our translator – the entire trip was through mountains, with very twisty-turny roads. Once he got some Dramamine and changed his seat to the front, he felt much better. Then we stopped for lunch (and cigarettes), then another stop later for coffee (and cigarettes).

The lunch stop was at a “country” restaurant. Although it appeared to have been recently built, it was in the Bosnian country style with open rafters and booths with seats covered in kilim rugs. The local specialty was what they call ‘sour milk’ with cornbread. The ‘sour milk’ is much like tart yoghurt, but with more liquid. It was served in a soup sized wooden bowl and we were advised to eat it with the cornbread crumbled into the sour milk. Delicious – and especially good for Landy’s still slightly upset stomach.

After a 7 ½ hour car trip, the last thing I wanted to do was socialize with a roomful of strangers whose language I didn’t know. But when we walked into the hotel our translator told us all her colleagues were already at dinner – and when could they expect us to join them? We begged for 20 minutes, washed up and changed, and joined the group. There were about 24 people or so; some spoke no English and most spoke very limited English. People over 35 here generally know very little English; people under 25 often have good English. If we’re lost, we always look for a young person to help us. Although we are trying to learn some Bosnian, I have to admit that our Bosnian is still pretty much limited to reading menus and navigating in a grocery store. Not surprisingly, being able to say fish, chicken or veal doesn’t get one very far in conversation. But we were good sports and smiled a lot and we got through it.

By dinner the second night a few of the Bosnians had unwound to the point of trying out their English phrases. This was a good thing because our translator had disappeared! I think the others felt sorry for us for being abandoned and they made an effort to make us feel a part of the group. Luckily there was live music in the dining room that night so that helped break the ice too. A few of the women grabbed my hands and even got me up to dance. It was a sort of Greek-style line dance. If I could have asked I would have been curious to know if they were imitating the Greek dance or if there is also a traditional Bosnian folk dance that is similar. Dancing in Bihac can be a lot of fun. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Pedestrians Beware

Spring has finally arrived in Sarajevo. The last scraps of snow have just recently melted and tiny yellow primroses have popped out – seemingly overnight -  in the yards and fields around here. 

It’s much easier to walk now that the sidewalks are free of snow and slush, but pedestrians are well advised to watch their step. The pavements here are uneven and full of hazards, from potholes to debris. Some of the sidewalks are brick-paved and it’s not unusual to come across missing bricks here and there. Sometimes the holes and potholes are filled in with loose gravel or asphalt. Where the holes are filled in, the fill is never level with the surface. There are places where the sidewalk has simply crumbled away in spots. Another hazard to pedestrians is that cars park on the sidewalks. You are frequently forced to walk in the street, and well advised to step back between the parked cars to allow drivers to get past; they don’t show much inclination to slow down just because the street is narrow, pedestrians are in the street and barely a foot or two from moving traffic. I’m careful to watch my step; I don’t want to learn about the Bosnian emergency medicine system.

Bosnian women – especially the younger women – are somehow able to navigate all these hazards on high heels. I don’t know how they do it. I’ve stumbled more than once in my sensible, flat shoes.

Pedestrians also have to watch out for cars when crossing the street. Even when you wait for the green pedestrian signal, you are foolish to think that the pedestrian has the right of way. Cars with the green light and making a turn in front of you will try to beat the pedestrians to the intersection. If you are in the intersection before the car, they will stop just a few feet away, then keep rolling slowly toward you, apparently their version of “playing chicken”. 

(additional photos of Sidewalk Hazards) at www.flickr.com/photos/msparr

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Long Distance Fight

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently writing emails. Many, many emails. Just as I left the Portland area for Sarajevo, Bosnia – 5,800 miles away – the planning process is beginning on a road project I have been watching for 21 years.

When we first moved to Oak Hills in 1989, we lived in a house that backed up to a narrow two-lane road. The road was about 1 mile long; it ended at a T at both it’s north and south ends. What we hadn’t known was that the county had already decided that this little road would one day become a major arterial for north/south traffic and was slated to be 5 lanes wide.

As soon as I found this out I got on the phone. I talked to engineers, county planners and elected officials. They were polite but firm. The decision had been made. They advised me not to worry – there was currently no money allocated for this project and it could be 20 years before it was likely to come up. Well, it’s 21 years later, and now the Bethany Boulevard project is funded and the county is ready to build five lanes of roadway in addition to bike lanes and sidewalks.  

When I first started talking to transportation officials, they seemed to be well aware that the Oak Hills neighborhood had been built before the county transportation plan was adopted and that there was insufficient set-back of those properties to allow enough space for the proposed 5 lanes. Over the years, however, that information was lost and I have insisted to unbelieving officials that the county did not own sufficient right of way for the project. I expect they dismissed me as just another crank who didn’t know what she was talking about.

The first Open House on the project is scheduled for March 30. You might say I’m frustrated.

Bethany Boulevard needs improvement. The existing lanes are too narrow, longer turn lanes are needed, there is no shoulder at the sides, no bike lanes, and sidewalks are on the one side and not continuous at that. It is unsafe for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. An improved three lane road along with the addition of bike lanes and sidewalks would benefit all users and would not require that some homeowners (16 in Oak Hills alone) would lose a significant part of their property  - or possibly their homes - to make room for a five lane road.

Earlier this month at the County Board of Commissioners meeting, the board was presented with an agenda item for the purchase of a home bordering Bethany Boulevard in a neighborhood adjoining Oak Hills. The stated purpose of the purchase was for demolition in preparation for the widening of Bethany Boulevard.

The loss of property and family homes is not the only reason I oppose a five lane project. I think that a five lane highway does not belong in the middle of a residential area. There are no businesses, schools or even apartment complexes along this stretch of road; it is entirely single family homes. A five lane project will physically divide a tight knit elementary school community making it difficult for children, parents and school busses to cross from one side of the neighborhood to the other, dividing friends. What will the effects of five lanes of traffic be on the air quality and noise and light pollution for nearby families?

But here’s the punchline: the proposed five lane road will do absolutely nothing to improve congestion and improve traffic flow! At it’s north end, the two new northbound lanes will merge into a single lane north of West Union. At it’s south end, two new southbound lanes will merge into a single lane on the hwy 26 overpass. The county has no firm plans to widen the stretch of Bethany Boulevard north of West Union. The state would be responsible for funding any improvements to the overpass. As we all know the State of Oregon is broke and cannot afford to replace bridges that are nearly falling down. 

Realistically, I doubt they will replace the hwy 26 overpass for 50 years or more – possibly much more. A five lane road will needlessly cause many homeowners to lose their property and  others to see their property values plummet.

A three lane road will be less expensive to build and won’t involve the costly purchase of right of way and the likely legal challenges that will be the result. The money saved can be spent on one of the many other pressing transportation projects the county has on its list. Taxpayers’ money should not be squandered on an unnecessarily expensive project when a less expensive project will serve just as well.
I have been making my case by email to the Washington County Commissioners, the Senior Planner assigned to the Bethany Boulevard project, candidates for county commissioner, and CPO 7, a citizens volunteer group that monitors development and county issues. I’ve been emailing everyone I can think of. My goal is to shake people out of their complacency before it’s too late. I’m afraid that many people won’t pay attention until the bulldozers show up. The time to act is now – right now -  just as the planning process is starting.

For local readers of my blog, here is contact information you might want to have. Matthew Costigan, Senior Planner, Wash. Co DLUT, matthew_costigan@co.washington.or.us; Tom Brian, Wash. Co Board chairman, and Desari Strader, District 2 Co. Commissioner must be contacted from the county website http://www.co.washington.or.us; candidates for county commissioner (primary election, May 18 ) Greg Malinowski, Gregory.malinowski57@gmail.com; Mike Niehuser, mike@beaconrockresearch.com; Mike Matousek, mikematousek@sunsetpres.org; Jason Yurgel, jasonpi@comcast.net; Doak Schulte, doakschulte@gmail.com; Andy Duyck, andy@duyckmachine.com; Dick Schouten, supportschouten@gmail.com.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dining Out

When we asked some of the previous Fulbrighters about food in Sarajevo, they couldn’t seem to think of anything to say. This worried me. What would we find? Would we be bored silly by a bland and barely palatable diet? We shouldn’t have worried.

I have been pleasantly surprised by the restaurants here. There are no chain restaurants, and you will never be served something that has been pre-packaged, frozen or dehydrated. All the food is prepared in their own kitchen so that is a plus right from the start.

The smaller, neighborhood restaurants rely on staples that would be familiar in any American restaurant – pizza, pasta, and chicken. The servings are generally ample and while simply prepared, the food is appealing in a basic way.

The better restaurants will offer fish and calamari in addition to chicken and veal. The fish is always very fresh and served grilled. In one restaurant, there was a tank of live fish and you could pick one from the tank. In another, the waiter brought a large platter with a selection of fish that were fresh that day for our inspection. This same restaurant is on a steep hill and the tables at the windows offer a wonderful of the lights of Sarajevo. The chicken and veal is most often pounded very thin and sautéed quickly. Meals are usually accompanied by sautéed vegetables. They do a wonderful job with spinach and it is used often in the better restaurants. This is not adventurous food; you can recognize everything on your plate. But in the hands of a good cook, it can be very good and quite satisfying. You will rarely see a vegetarian dish, but there is usually a pasta dish that is meatless.

The other day we met another couple for dinner at the Sarajevo Brewery. We chose it because of its history and beautiful interior. The menu turned out – not too surprisingly in retrospect – to be what might be called a higher level of ‘bar food’. It wasn’t burgers and pizza, but every entrée was accompanied by French fries (in Sarajevo, they use the French term, pomme frites). I decided to try the veal shank. Four jaws dropped when our plates arrived. I was served the entire thigh bone – a good ten inches long, the 2” diameter bone was scraped bare at the lower six inches or so and covered with  meat at the other. It was enormous; it looked like a meal for Fred Flintstone! And accompanied by pomme frites. It turned out to be delicious. The meat was very tender and tasty. I just wish I had brought my camera – I’ve never seen a plate of food like this.

I wonder that the previous Fulbrighters had nothing to offer on the topic of food or restaurants.  Could it be that some people just don’t notice what they put in their mouth?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Sarajevo Brewery

Yesterday Landy and I went in search of the Sarajevo Brewery. We had already sampled some of this great local beer (pivo) and had heard that it was worth a visit.

Today the Sarajevo Brewery is a showpiece of restoration and reconstruction. It is one of the more beautiful buildings in the city with a painted façade and colorful banners adorning the front. Inside, a portion of the building contains a large beer hall and restaurant. Not as large as some of the famous beer halls of Munich, it’s still a huge, two storied room with a brick, barrel vaulted ceiling and beautiful, wrought iron chandeliers and light fixtures. On the entry level the tables sport red-checked table cloths; upstairs the tables have white linen. They brew two beers – dark and light; light meaning the color of the beer, not that it was (horrors!) low-cal. Fresh from the source, both were wonderful!

The brewery also figured prominently during the siege of Sarajevo. The city’s water system was destroyed early in the war. With no running water, the citizens did what they could by collecting rain water and melting snow. But the brewery sits over an underground lake and had its own well, so it became the primary source of clean water for most of the citizens in Sarajevo. This also made it a target for snipers and shelling.

One of Sarajevo’s famous “roses” is alongside the Brewery wall here. The roses have “bloomed” in places where a large shell killed a large number of civilians  - often waiting in lines for water, bread or food. The shell craters were filled in with a special red waxy-like substance, creating a red “rose” to commemorate their deaths. Wreaths have also been left at the Brewery, perhaps by family members  in honor of a loved one who perished there.