December 17, 2010

Train Dreamscapes

Posted in Travel tagged , , , , at 7:52 am by Liliana

Train Dreamscapes

Train Dreamscapes

I love trains.

When I feel the need to escape the limitations and constrains of everyday life, I imagine going on one of the great train routes.

On a frozen morning in Michigan, while driving to work, I might board the Orient Express in Paris, and single out Istanbul as my destination.

I will sit in a luxurious mahogany train car with plush, comfortable seats, and look out the window for hours on end. I will wear a large, elegant hat. I might visit the dining car for a cup of cappuccino and an almond croissant. When we pass through the old Belgrade train station, so familiar to me, the train master will shout loudly, “Beograd!” I will resist the temptation to get off.

If I feel more adventurous, I will board the Trans-Siberian in Moscow and enjoy the great Russian expense for six days and six nights, until I arrive in Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean.

I will contemplate the never ending, snowy forests, and silent, treeless steppes. My traveling companions will tell stories. We will sing sad, Russian ballads and someone will play the balalaika. At night I will be lulled to sleep in my sleeper by the gentle chugging of the locomotive.

If my need for sun and warmth overtakes other considerations, I might decide on a whim to take the Indian Pacific and explore the Australian wilderness. For three days, on my ride between Sydney and Perth, I will sit in a sunny spot by the window and observe the arid, red sandstone desert landscape, the lush gorges of the Blue Mountains, the abandoned, petrified ghost towns.

And just before we reach Perth, one of the most isolated cities in the world, I would be arriving at work.

A new day has started. Train travel will have to wait until tomorrow.


December 9, 2010

William and the Lions

Posted in Family, Food, Friendships, Traditions, Travel tagged , , , , , , at 7:57 am by Liliana

William (in red) and his Family in Kenya

William (in red) and his Family in Kenya

Last summer, I wrote about William, an exchange student from Kenya  who is spending this year with my friends Ann and Ray and their children here in Michigan.

William belongs to the Masai tribe and lives near the Masai Mara National Park in south-western Kenya. His parents are farmers and he is the tenth of eleven children. William is seventeen years old and a high school senior. This is his first trip ever outside his country.

We recently had Ann, Ray and William join our family and a number of friends for dinner and conversation.

There were fifteen of us around the table. We had vegetable soup, roasted lamb, roasted potatoes, salads, bread. For dessert, we had coffee, tea and a selection of fruit pies.

William had mentioned that goat is his favorite meat but I had never cooked goat so I settled for lamb. William loved lamb. He said it reminded him of Africa.

William and his Mother

William and his Mother

After dinner, while the adults sat around the table and talked, William and Sam (my youngest son) went to the basement, played pool and listened to music.

Sam has the impression that William is having a wonderful time in the US. He is keeping up with his studies, enjoys playing soccer on his high school team, and has made new friends. And, according to Sam, he is a very good pool player.

Later in the evening, we all gathered in our family room, and William treated us to a power point presentation about his family, the Masai culture and about Kenya.

William showed us pictures of his mother, his brothers and sisters, nieces, nephews and the extended family. He told us everyone’s names. He showed us pictures of the huts his family lives in and told us about their daily lives.

And then, William told us what it takes to become a Masai warrior.

It takes years of training, discipline, learning from one’s elders, listening, facing one’s fears and learning to overcome those fears.

And it takes going on a lion hunt with the rest of the warriors. Every warrior has a role to play and a rank in the community of hunters. The hunters surround the lion in a circle. Those who are young and weak and afraid, attract the lion’s attention. Those who are strong and brave and experienced, attack the lion with their spears. Those who kill the lion protect the community. They are praised, admired and revered.

William has chosen different, less traditional kinds of challenges than his brothers. But to us, sitting in a circle and listening to him, he seemed just as brave and composed as the bravest of the lion hunters.

For who can say what courage it takes to leave one’s mother, one’s family and tribe, and go face the strange and unfamiliar world?

October 25, 2010

The High Line

Posted in Travel tagged , , , , , at 7:01 am by Liliana

The High Line

The High Line

Have you heard of the High Line?

Last week I attended the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) business design conference in New York City. There, I heard the story of the High Line’s transformation from one of the central characters involved in this inspiring tale.

The story is so affirmative, hopeful and uplifting that I absolutely had to see the place.

I convinced my son Mike to go with me to the Meatpacking District of Manhattan late on a golden Saturday afternoon. It was a cold fall day, Mike was tired, and walking along some windy rail line didn’t seem like the best option in this city of options. He was skeptical about this adventure. I persisted.

Originally constructed in the 1930s to lift dangerous freight trains off Manhattan’s streets, the High Line decayed for years as an abandoned elevated rail line running through the West Side neighborhoods of Manhattan.  It was a nasty eyesore in a rough, dangerous neighborhood.

Then two young men read an article in the NY Times stating that the High Line was about to be demolished. They got together and formed a group – Friends of the High Line. They raised money. They changed public attitude and perceptions. They got together a team of talented and creative people

It took five years, but eventually they created something beautiful. And something practical.

Mike and I climbed the metal stairs leading up to the elevation, and this is what we saw: trees, colorful wild grasses, wild flowers in purple, pink and burgundy blooms, green bamboo shoots, and people. Young couples pushing babies in strollers down the paved promenade, older couples sitting on benches in the setting sun, children playing with ornamental stones, tourists gazing at the Hudson River and the New York skyline. Through the grasses and the flowers, one detected traces of the old rails. The High Line didn’t try to forget its humble origins.

It reminded me of korzo walkways in old Italian towns.

Mike forgot that it was windy and cold. He was delighted. We went from one end of this promenade to another, read all the signs and lingered until we were hungry. It seemed a shame to leave such a pleasant oasis.

But we had plenty of options once we descended the stairs. Along with the elevated rail line, the neighborhood has metamorphosed as well. Restaurants, cafes, boutiques, art galleries, even a museum is about to be built.

And all of this started with only two people.

October 19, 2010

Streets of New York

Posted in Travel tagged , , , , , , , at 6:55 am by Liliana

Crowded Street in New York

Crowded Street in New York City

I spent four days in New York City last week.

One minute I was in Michigan, and then, a few hours later, I walked out onto the streets of Manhattan.

It is not easy to describe the living and breathing monster that is the energy of this city. One feels its pulse and hears its labored breathing with every step one takes.

On this overcast, steamy Thursday the animal opens the wide sphere of its bottomless jaw and swallows one more pedestrian as she joins the mass of humanity walking down Lexington Avenue.

Everyone and everything seems to be in motion. People and things are: walking, honking, talking, running, sliding, driving, bicycling, arguing, directing, begging, drinking, twirling, dancing, swinging, stirring, swaying, crawling, flowing, hovering, dodging, eating, bustling, signaling, shifting, rolling, fluctuating, buzzing.

The bubble of deafening noise envelops the city like a cacophonous cloud. Traces of exhaust, food, smoke, steam and who knows what else, cling to one’s hair and clothes like barnacles.

There is no sky, no air.

There is no sweet smelling, expanding, green and silent earth.

There is no outside world.

One has been swallowed into the stomach of this leviathan called New York City. But as this willing captive glides with the crowd, she wishes to be nowhere else.

At least for a few days.

October 12, 2010

Endless Prairie

Posted in Children, Travel tagged , , , , , at 7:01 am by Liliana


Endless Prairie

Endless Prairie


Now that my children, nieces and nephew are growing up and moving to interesting places, I travel to parts of the country I might not naturally venture to on my own.

My world is expanding.

Last Thursday, my sister Branka and I visited my niece Nicole for the parent weekend at her school. Her small, liberal arts college is located in the middle of the Illinois prairie, on the very edge of the Great Plains. This is Abraham Lincoln country.

On a sunny, Indian summer day Branka and I drove more than seven hours to our destination. As we hastened past Chicago, trying to avoid the rush hour traffic, we talked and laughed.  The colors of the leaves were vivid and intense but the landscape so familiar we hardly paid attention to the scenery.

We quieted down and looked in wonder the further west we drove.

All around us, as far as the eye could see, stretched acres and acres of shimmering wheat, dried corn husks, green grasses. The land stretched out flat, treeless; a rare farmhouse or barn roof became visible now and then. The sky – domineering, colossal, limitless, was the main character in this terrain. The eye constantly wondered up, to the intense blueness, to the gauzy whiteness of the clouds.

I didn’t want to drive. I wanted to look without thinking, to soak it all in without distraction.

We delighted in wordlessly pointing to each other points of interest.

An ancient, abandoned barn with bushes and trees growing from the inside out. Clouds. Rows of wheat frozen in windless atmosphere. A minuscule elevation with a compound of farm buildings and a silo. A white farmhouse on the side. Islands of green wild grasses on idling farmland. A stretch of rotting wooden fence. Horses grazing. Cows grazing. Clouds.

We floated in our car for hours, and saw no people.

We had seen this world before – in cowboy moves, in American landscape paintings, watching “Little House on the Prairie” on TV. But those visions were experienced on a small screen. To our European eyes, tamed by old cities and narrow cobblestone streets, it seemed impossible that this vastness exited in a landlocked domain.

This coming Thursday I am traveling to New York City. Can that urban, crowded realm really exist in the same universe as this vast, quiet, golden sea?

I will let you know.

October 5, 2010

In Enemy Territory

Posted in Children, Family, Food, Knitting, Traditions, Travel tagged , , , , , , , , , , at 6:49 am by Liliana

Ohio Michigan Rivalry

Ohio-Michigan Rivalry

My nephew Sasha works as a community organizer in Columbus, Ohio.

He graduated from college last summer and this is his first serious, full-time job. He knows few people in this city, so my sister, brother-in-law and I decided to visit last weekend. We planned to feed him some good food, catch up on news and cheer him up.

We also wanted to keep him company during a college football game between Michigan and Indiana. It is not easy cheering for your team in a sports bar all alone. Especially not when you are in Ohio State country and everyone is cheering against you.

Early Saturday morning, we had a huge breakfast at an old diner on Main Street. We shared an omelet, biscuits, blueberry pancakes, bacon and hash browns. We sipped coffee without hurry, laughed and talked. It was a warm, golden morning.

After breakfast, Sasha drove us around the city. I had never been to Columbus before and I expected a quietly dying urban landscape with monotonously endless strip malls. It was anything but. The downtown has a beautiful, modern, innovative skyline. The ethnic neighborhoods like German Village, Italian Village and the market area have a distinctive charm all their own. The city feels vital, young and stylish.

I wanted to walk through the Ohio State University campus. But when we drove up, we realized that Sasha was wearing a University of Michigan t-shirt. Everyone else, as far as the eye could see, was wearing red buckeye shirts. We decided to stay in the car.

We had lunch at the market area. The market is a renovated old warehouse that now houses fine artisan and ethnic food stores. Sasha and Joe had sushi, Branka had tender barbecued ribs and I decided to try a sampling of Indian vegetarian dishes. We took our food upstairs, made a colorful spread on a table, and shared.

By this time, the sky was getting cloudy and it was threatening rain so we walked to Sasha’s favorite sports bar. The music was deafening and a million TV’s were blaring different football games at the same time. Not one was of the Michigan/Indiana game. Sasha found a waitress willing to turn one of the TV’s to the right channel and we huddled around a cozy table to watch.

I am not much of a football fan, in fact, I hardly understand the game. So I got my knitting out, and worked on a delicately gauzy scarf for my niece. On occasion I glanced at the TV to see what Sasha and Joe were getting excited about. Most of the other patrons ignored us, although a couple of people noticed Sasha’s Michigan t-shirt and stopped to say hello. Fellow Michiganders.

The expectations were that Michigan would easily beat Indiana, but the game was not as close as expected. It was getting tense. Branka, Joe and I had to leave at halftime, but Sasha promised to keep us posted. It was really hard to leave him there to watch the rest of the game by himself, but we had to go.

While the three of us drove home in the gathering darkness and pouring rain, Sasha kept texting Joe reports on how the game was progressing. It was tied. Then Michigan pulled ahead. Michigan won. Go Blue!

We might have ventured into enemy territory, but the natives were friendly. It was a perfect trip.

September 30, 2010

The Pull of the Old

Posted in Children, Family, Home, Serbia, Traditions, Travel, Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 6:56 am by Liliana

Revelers at the wedding

Revelers at the wedding, 8/10

My sister and I spent the last few days visiting our father and stepmother in Florida.

They had just gotten back from a month long trip to Serbia. Neither has been there for over twenty years. They were full of stories and impressions.

They had lots of photographs; and an eighteen hour video of an old fashioned wedding of our cousin’s son. We watched all eighteen hours.

Our father grew up in a small village (about hundred and fifty households) in Northern Serbia. His family has lived there for many generations. We are related, by blood or marriage, to almost every member of the population. We know their stories, and the nicknames of their grandfathers.

My father left the village and went out “into the wide world” when he was a teenager. My sister and I grew up in Belgrade. But almost every summer of our childhood and young adulthood we returned to visit. Everyone there knows not only us, but everything about us.

My cousin Milan and I are the same age. As children we played together, roamed the orchards, picked mushrooms in the nearby forests. He stole a cigarette from my grandfather and we tried smoking it in a dark corner behind the house. We chocked on the bitter smoke and neither tried again.

As teenagers we went hunting together, and spent evenings at village dances. He confided in me when he fell in love and decided to get married. Our children are the same age. It was his son’s wedding that we watched for eighteen hours.

Milan’s father and my father are first cousins. The two of them are the same age, twenty days apart. They grew up during the difficult years of WWII, and their childhoods were a lot less idyllic. But they probably did most of the same things that Milan and I did.

My grandfather and Milan’s grandmother were brother and sister. When her husband got killed by a horse in a freak accident, leaving her a widow with four children, my grandfather took on the care of her family.

Their father, my and Milan’s great-grandfather, Milos, was an adventurous man. He traveled the world and came to America in the late part of the 19th century. But he couldn’t stay long away from the village. Just like my father, who traveled the world as well, but has always gone back.

Watching the video made Branka and me feel like the part of the tribe that we belong to. We couldn’t eat the delicious food, we couldn’t drink the home made wine and plum brandy, we couldn’t place our arms around our family and join in the dance.

But when the music started playing, we knew exactly how they felt. And we knew all the songs.

August 25, 2010


Posted in Children, Friendships, Good people, Home, Organization, Travel tagged , , , at 6:51 am by Liliana

William enjoying hamburgers

William enjoying hamburgers

My friend Ann invited us over for dinner the other night. Her family is hosting an exchange student from Kenya and she wanted us to meet him. William is seventeen years old and a high school senior. This is his first trip ever outside his country.

I went with my youngest son, Sam, niece Nicole, and Joe, my brother-in-law. Sam and Nicky are William’s age so we were eager to introduce them.

Ann made a delicious dinner – salmon, chicken, salad, good bread. Most of us ate fish, but not William. He has lived his whole life far away from water and fish is not something he is used to. But he seems open to trying things that he is unaccustomed to, and much of what he sees in his new environment – he has never seen before.

William belongs to the Masai tribe and lives near the Masai Mara National Park in south-western Kenya. His parents are farmers and he is the tenth of eleven children. An excellent student who speaks English beautifully, he has worked hard for everything he has achieved.

This is a trip of many firsts for William. This is the first time William has flown in an airplane. William is not used to western food, or living in a large house. His family lives in small communal huts. William is not used to technology, but has already started a facebook page, made a PowerPoint presentation about his homeland, and will be getting a cell phone soon.

What struck me most about this young man is his poise and sense of calm faith in himself. William showed us pictures of his family and schoolmates and spoke about his culture with great pride, but also unclouded honesty. Things are what they are, and he has the fortitude to see them as such. He told us that many Masai boys have to make a decision whether to become Masai warriors or receive a western style education. Becoming a warrior is a complicated ten year long indoctrination process, so many boys are opting for the less rigorous western schooling.

William hit it off with Sam and Nicky right away. The kids wanted to introduce him to their friends, take him to the movies, and have him join their teams.

Later in the evening, Sam and William went outside to play soccer. They talked and kicked the ball around for a long time. When they came back in tired and laughing, all we grownups could see was two boys – having fun. Same the world over.

August 23, 2010

Car Trouble in Toronto

Posted in Children, Travel tagged , , , , , , at 4:00 pm by Liliana



My youngest son, Sam, is interested in attending the University of Toronto. He, my husband Jeff, and I spent the weekend exploring the city and the campus.

Things didn’t go smoothly the entire trip. First, we were stopped at the border and had to  go to the immigration building and talk to serious looking officials. The traffic was congested. There was construction on the road and we had to take a number of detours. And when we were about an hour away from the city, our engine started to overheat and a warning light came on. Jeff drove very slowly and we worried the entire time but we made it to our hotel. The hotel was not as nice as we had expected. None of us slept well.

The next morning, we had an appointment with advisers at the university at 11 am. We decided to take the car to the mechanic (recommended by our hotel) first. We got stuck in traffic and made it to the Little Portugal part of the city late. The mechanic was not encouraging. The car radiator had developed a leak and needed to be replaced. They didn’t know if the engine was ruined. We didn’t know what to do. Should we fix the radiator, and then take the chance driving back to Michigan? What if the car breaks along the way? Should we spend several thousand dollars changing the entire motor? Is it worth it?

By this time, we had missed our college appointment, but made another for 2 pm. We told the mechanics that we needed to think things through and would call them after we made a decision. A niece of the owner gave us a ride to the campus.

The three of us met with the university counselors. We talked about admission requirements, the university, and our car. Everyone felt sorry for us.

Sam and I went on a campus tour, but Jeff stayed on a shady bench and tried to figure out what to do. He called his brother Joe, then his brother Randy. Randy called our mechanic in Michigan and Jeff had a long consultation with him. When we got back from the campus tour, Jeff had some facts to work with. Our Michigan mechanic thought that changing the radiator was a good place to start. If the motor made no noise, he believed it wasn’t damaged. We decided to do that and hope for the best. Jeff called the mechanics and they told us that the car would be done by 10 am the next morning.

There was a wonderful sense of release once our decision was made. We walked around the city center, and had a wonderful (and expensive) dinner in an Asian restaurant. We didn’t care. After the kind of day we had, we felt we deserved it.

We decided to see a movie. Sam wanted to see Salt, and Jeff and I wanted to make him happy. It was fun, but so unrealistic, that even in my desire for complete escape, I kept asking questions that just couldn’t be answered. We walked back to the hotel, got confused, got lost, then took a taxi. The taxi driver had trouble finding our hotel. When we finally made it, our dingy room looked very inviting. The three of us went to sleep immediately.

The next day, after breakfast in an outdoor café, Jeff took the trolley to Little Portugal to check up on the car. Sam and I decided to do some school clothes shopping. We were buying a sweater when Jeff called and said that the car looked good and the engine did not seem damaged. After everything that had happened, it seemed almost too good to be true.

We drove home to Michigan without further incident. The traffic was bad, and it rained most of the way, but our car seemed to be in good shape. We crossed the border without hassle.

Our home felt warm, cozy and very inviting when we arrived late that evening. Sam still wanted to apply to the university. We still loved the  city. But it felt good to be home.

August 13, 2010

Travels with Sam

Posted in Children, Family, Travel tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , at 7:47 am by Liliana

Sam - taking a break in Boston

Sam - taking a break in Boston

Sam and I spent a lot of time together this past week as we drove to Boston to help Mike and Karen move. I was taken aback by how much he has grown and changed this past summer.

I thought I knew everything about my youngest son. But in the tireless activity that has been our lifestyle the past year, I have missed the delicate signs of maturation that take time and close attention to recognize.

Sam drove most of the long way to Boston. Sometimes we listened to music that he loves. He told me stories about old rappers like Tupac and 50 Cent. Sometimes I told him family stories about people he never met. Sometimes we talked about history, war, the Russians, Napoleon, Stalin, Pat Tillman. Sometimes we drove in silence.

Sam worked hard helping with the move. Together with Mike he carried heavy furniture, boxes of books, kitchen paraphernalia, computers, suitcases. He spent hours helping Karen assemble IKEA furniture and I watched in wonder as he figured out how those complicated schematics fit together in three dimensional space. He worked with Karen to refinish a desk that has been her grandmothers, and that Mike will be using to work on.

I didn’t know Sam could do all that.

We didn’t just work. We spent hours walking, exploring the city, visiting colleges, eating.

Eating! These are some of the foods we ate: Southern Barbecue, Italian, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian. One night Sam ordered two lobsters, ate them both, and then finished Mike’s leftover cheeseburger. He is a growing boy all right.

But what impressed me most is Sam’s generosity. For his birthday last year, Sam got a present he dearly prized – a droid cell phone. He loved that thing, but when Mike asked if he’d be willing to trade with him for his (ordinary) phone, Sam did. He gave it some thought, he struggled to decide, but in the end, he not only gave the phone to Mike, he taught him how to use it.

On the way back to Michigan, Sam and I got stuck in terrible traffic, got lost in Buffalo, experienced rain and bad weather. We argued and got mad at each other because he wanted to drive straight through and I wanted to spend the night at a hotel.

But after we stopped, ate, rested and talked, we were on good terms again. We spent the evening at a tiny movie theater across the street from our hotel – watching Inception for the second time. We both loved it more (and understood it better) than the first time.

We slept through the night, woke up refreshed, had breakfast and got back on the road. Sam drove most of the way home.

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