Sunday, July 1, 2012

In Which I Explore A (Second) Castle

Posted in Ryan Keifer |

.      We left Varaždin this morning, leaving this beautiful city for Zagreb where we will remain throughout this week. I have certainly enjoyed my stay in this city, but I was also looking forward to experiencing the capital. I grew up in a small town — half the size of Varaždin — but have lived in Chicago for the past 6 years and in other relatively large cities since 2001. I was curious to see in what ways Zagreb might be similar to or different from my experiences of American cities.

On the way, however, we stopped at a castle near the border with the Slovenia. Originally built in the thirteenth century, Trakošćan Castle was reconstructed in the nineteenth century. Today, the castle is a museum open to the public. We had visited the Old Town of Varaždin last week, and, though I really enjoyed that particular outing, I think that I preferred our visit to Trakošćan Castle. Though both castles exhibit the rooms with period furniture, allowing the visitor to experience the space, the visitor to Trakošćan Castle is given a lot more information about the family who held the castle from the sixteenth century until 1945. The visitor, then, gets a much clearer picture of who these people were and how they saw themselves in relation to the world around them. For example, the visitor sees portraits not only of the various family members, but also of the members of the Hapsburg family. It’s much more apparent, then, that this family did not live in a vacuum. Instead, the visitor sees the family — and the region — as a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

In Which I Do Note Step into the Adriatic

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.     When I was very young, I had a recurring fear that I was little more than a character in a book and that, should the story become too boring, the reader might put the book away. I had no idea what that would mean for me and my existence. I also didn’t exactly think this through very well: what book would contain all of the banal details of its main character’s life? I suppose some post-modern novel might deal precisely with those details, but I was in kindergarten and first grade at the time, and post-modernism was far beyond my knowledge.

I bring this up as a (not entirely smooth) segue into my tendency to ascribe significance to symbolic actions. I suppose I could try to argue that this early fear still affects how I view my life, that is within the narrative context of a novel with symbols and foreshadowing and what have you. My boyfriend would, I believe, disagree with this attempt. He would almost certainly assert that this is nothing more than a lazy attempt to find a connection where none necessarily exists, and I have to admit I agree with this hypothetical argument. At the same time, I do have this tendency and am not sure whence it came. I will, for example, ponder very carefully the first recipe I will make using a new pot or pan. On second thought, that’s not such a great example either.

At any rate, I considered very strongly simply stepping into the Adriatic while we experienced the coast over the weekend. Having focused on the Mediterranean in late antiquity, the Adriatic has, for me, a certain significance of its own; and I, in some measure, wished to connect to that significance. For whatever reason, I thought that stepping into the Adriatic would be the best way to make this connection. At the same time, my more practical side kicked in. How, I asked myself, would stepping into this water connect me in any way to the history I’ve studied? Unable to express adequately to myself an argument answering this position, I decided that it would be silly simply to step into the water. Perhaps if I had an intention of swimming, that might have been a sufficient excuse. But that wasn’t the case.

I was a little surprised, then, to find myself, upon leaving Zadar to head back to Varaždin and, subsequently, Zagreb, feeling some disappointment. This action made no sense in a larger context. Would it have changed me? I’m not sure how this one action could have had more of an impact than the many other things we have done and seen and experienced here. Still, this disappointment remains. Perhaps it’s simply foreshadowing that I will not have the chance again. Or, at least, so says a small part of me, that part that still wants to believe that I’m a character in a book. Being the main character — which is, of course, what I would be — would justify every action I’ve taken by giving it meaning and significance. Or perhaps I simply feel that my life hasn’t any meaning or significance outside of itself and am fighting against that.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

In Which I Try to Learn the Language

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.     I have, in the past several years, studied several languages. I have even learned languages from both the Indo-European and Semitic families. So it has been interesting for me to try to make sense out of the Croatian we’ve come across. It is an Indo-European language in the Slavic branch, but it uses the Latin rather than the Cyrillic alphabet. I believe this is because of its historical connection to the Austro-Hungarian Empire rather than Russia. Croatian is a declined language, meaning that it, like Latin and Greek, changes the form of nouns depending on their use in the sentence. We find a simple example from English in the first-person pronouns: ‘I’ is used as a subject, ‘me’ is used as an object, and ‘my’ and ‘mine’ are used as possessives or to modify another noun.

I have learned a few words: bok means ‘hello’, ‘dobar dan’ means good afternoon, kako si? means ‘how are you?’, hvala means ‘thank you’, kava means ‘coffee’, voda means ‘water’, dobar tek means ‘bon appetit’, and živjeli! means ‘cheers’ or ‘salut’. At the same time, listening to the students and faculty members who have been hosting us, I cannot begin to distinguish one word from another. Of course, this is to be expected since I haven’t actually studied Croatian. With my intentions to learn German and reacquaint myself with French in the next year, I’m not sure that I will have time for Croatian. At the same time, I have really enjoyed exploring the city and have thought several times about coming back. Knowing the language would be very useful then. And I’ve never let anything as silly as practicality get in the way of learning something — I did decide to study Greek before I settled on ancient history and have thought seriously about picking up Sanskrit.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

In Which I Enjoy a Kava

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.     I’m somewhat particular about my coffee. I discovered the French press years ago while working at Barnes and Noble, and have never gone back to drip coffee. Making coffee with the French press requires its own little ritual; well, perhaps requires is too strong a word. It may be better to say: when I make coffee with the French press, I follow my own little ritual. I grind the coffee beans (2.35 ounces for a 32-ounce French press) and then heat the water to 200°. Meanwhile, I put three sugar cubes in a 15-ounce glass, add enough milk to cover by 1/4 inch, pour the grounds into the French press, and add a pinch of salt (it helps to reduce the bitterness without adding a salty taste). Once the water has heated, I pour it over the grounds and let the coffee brew for four minutes. So, as I said, I’m fairly particular.

I was really looking forward to trying a coffee — kava in Croatian — here because I knew that Croatia was particular about its coffee. This morning, then, I headed to the city square a little early to have a coffee before we met at the Faculty of Organization and Informatics. I was not disappointed. The waiter brought sugar with the coffee, but I tasted it without sugar first to ensure that I didn’t add anything that was unnecessary. The coffee had a subtle sweetness of its own, something I would have missed if I had added the sugar. In addition, it had a nice body: smooth and velvety. I can say with certainty that I have never had a better coffee in a coffee house. Sipping my coffee, looking around the square as I sat in the shade, I felt at home in a way I hadn’t before. It sounds, of course, ether insufferably pretentious or unbelievably superficial to say that drinking coffee connected me to this beautiful city, but in that cup of kava, I tasted something of home. For those of you following along at home, I won’t refer to something. I won’t even to refer to it obliquely to ensure that everyone knows just how — well, that might give it away, so I’ll stop. But I really enjoyed that kava, and I will go back again tomorrow.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

In Which I Relax (After Some Other Things)

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.      Since Monday, we have all been presenting throughout the week, a few of us each day. The American students have generally presented on our current research while the students at the Faculty of Organization and Informatics here in Varaždin have generally presented on different aspects of Croatia such as the educational system or the national parks or various cities of interest including our beautiful host city. Today I presented my research project — an examination of the fifth-century Athenian audience’s reception of female characters in tragedy and comedy. This was not so much a presentation of a finalized or largely finalized project as it was the plan of a project fairly recently started. Because I was presenting a historical research project to non-historians, I really had no idea what to expect in terms of my audience’s reaction. I tried to present the context for my research question — some information on women’s status in fifth-century Athens and portrayals of female characters in Athenian tragedy and comedy — to make my project more accessible to a general audience. So I was surprised and impressed at the questions asked and the level of knowledge the students in the Faculty of Organization and Informatics demonstrated. Certainly, I would not have seen such questions from an American audience of non-historians.

This evening, after dinner, we strolled through the town and attended a pantomime performance in front of the gate house to the Old Town. It was a fun, relaxed way to end the day.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

In Which I Confirm My Suspicions

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.   I’ve always known that I am a boring person. What is more, I’ve always been comfortable with this fact. I’ve never been one for going out, whether to clubs, concerts, or sporting events. This is not to say that I have never done any of these. At the same time, however, I am happier talking over coffee or simply reading a book. This is certainly not to say that I can’t enjoy myself in those other settings. I can and have. But, if left to my own devices, my introverted tendencies will always win out.

In many ways, then, this trip has been an interesting exercise. I have enjoyed meeting new people and beginning to get to know them. In addition, our hosts have planned a variety of activities for us — activities that I would not necessarily have chosen for myself. These activities, however, have shown me a side of Croatia and Varaždin that I would not have seen otherwise.

Tonight, for example, we had an exhibition of traditional Croatian dance and a workshop on salsa dancing. I may have opted for the exhibition, but I don’t believe I would have picked “Salsa workshop” off a list of possible activities. But I went and I enjoyed myself. The people, of course, make a difference. It’s extremely difficult not to enjoy yourself when everyone else is having fun.

In some contrast to this activity, we also visited the Old Town — the fourteenth-century castle. The interior now serves as a museum of Varaždin’s history, displaying documents such as the original charter and the first recorded notice of the town and objects owned by the residents of the castle. I could have spent much more time here than I think anyone else had patience for. Looking closely at a document, testing myself to see how much of the Latin I could translate — I looked up to see that my group had left me, and I hurried on to catch up.

I am an introvert, and I’m happy and comfortable with that label. At the same time, the dancing tonight reminded me that I shouldn’t limit myself to my safe options. I think it’s good for me to be drawn out of my comfort zone a little more often than I generally am.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

In Which I First Experience Culture Shock

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Which is probably a bit of an overstatement, but I’ll argue the point. Our hosts have been wonderful. To be honest, I’m a little surprised at how much they’ve done for us and how much time they’ve spent with us showing us around. Though they’re sitting for exams this week, they’ve taken us around the city, to a gallery featuring the works of famous son Miljenko Stančić, joined us for meals, and generally hung out with us. After overhearing one of us comment on a passerby’s ice cream, they took us for ice cream. Tonight, they reserved tables for us in the main square to watch Croatia play Spain in the European Tournament after having taken us to the river for a little relaxation. So, in many ways, we’ve been rather insulated from the extent of our displacement.

The shock to which I referred in my title is something a little subtler but no less demonstrative of the differences between the ways we go about our lives in the United States and the ways the people here live. Coming from Chicago where air conditioning in the summer is a way of life, I had not fully appreciated how thoroughly it has shaped the way I live. Today, for example, we were asked to dress in business casual. I had packed a suit and three shirts with appropriate ties and socks to attend an academic conference in Zagreb next week, so I didn’t really think today would pose any problem other than requiring me to have the shirt cleaned and pressed for next week.

This may seem like a silly issue. But I would argue that it’s indicative of the different ways in which climate affects our lives. In places like Varaždin, where air conditioning is not generally necessary, the people use other means such as dress to manage comfort, such as fewer layers and lighter fabrics. In the U.S. where air conditioning is expected, whether it’s really necessary or not, people dress in a way that is simply not possible elsewhere.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Day one in Varaždin

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After a rather grueling day of travel, comprising some 17 hours, we are in Varaždin. It is a beautiful city — much of the architecture dates from the eighteenth century, and some buildings, like the castle, survive from the fourteenth century. Elaborate edifices rise on either side, leading this traveler, at least, to gaze in wonder. I found myself, as I walked around the winding narrow streets, marveling at the age of the city. I have been to sites in the U.S. dating to the colonial period, but those places never held my wonder as this city has. The slightly sloping discolored red tile roofs, the weathered facades of the buildings, the streets paved with cobblestones — looking back, I’m not sure I’ve taken it all in.

This may the result of some latent Euro-centrism. I am, after all, particularly interested in the study of the Byzantine Empire and its relations and exchanges with the cultures and societies around it. And, in some ways, it’s still somewhat difficult to believe that I am actually in Europe. Being in Europe has been, for me, something worth desiring and something that I desired very much. At the same time, travel to Europe has always seemed to be some impossible ideal, some dream in which I had no real belief. Is it possible that this attitude indicates something deeper? Have I placed Europe — and, by extension, European society — on something of a pedestal?

It’s possible, then, that my reactions to this city have been colored. I see in the streets of Varaždin the story-book streets of fantasy. The tree in front of the castle is immensely old because I want it to be — I am, after all, in Europe. This vision neglects the age of the places I have frequented in the United States, privileging the ‘achievements’ of permanent construction. Those societies that did not value the use of land that European society has are neglected. To be sure, these musings may be nothing more than the effect of largely going without sleep for 32 hours. At the same time, I don’t feel that I can discount them quite yet.

Friday, June 15, 2012

2 days and counting….

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.      I haven’t written a blog post in over three years. I also cannot say that I was ever particularly faithful in posting regularly. Over the course of three years, I averaged one post per six months. Blogging is not something that comes easily to me. Journaling does not either. Not that these are exactly interchangeable. Journaling explores one’s thoughts in something of a vacuum; blogging explores those thoughts with various interlocutors. Still, I am not used to writing anything of the sort. My apologies, then, for at least these first few entries as I reacquaint myself with the form and its conventions.

Having never previously traveled outside the country, I am a little anxious about our trip to Croatia. Though I don’t know that it’s fair to ascribe my anxiety to the distance traveled or the destination. I am generally anxious before traveling, or at least flying. Getting to the airport on time, checking in, navigating security, finding one’s way to the gate, waiting to board, sitting in small, cramped seats — I can’t say that I really enjoy any of these aspects. I’m much better once these are behind me. Though those statements are probably as banal as any clichéd platitude could be. So let’s just move on, shall we?

We’re traveling to the city of Varaždin in northern Croatia. The city is known for its architecture, and the pictures I’ve found are beautiful. I am, however, more curious about Croatian cuisine or, to be more specific, the cuisine of the region. Unlike the cuisine of the coastal areas, that of the inland regions is more closely characterized by the slavic roots and exchanges with neighboring cultures. My own cooking relies heavily on French cuisine; and, though I’ve had some experience with German and Middle-East cuisine, this trip will provide an exciting opportunity to experience this new cuisine. And yes, I do mean exciting. I am greatly looking forward to experiencing in some small way this culture through its food.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

DePaul McNair Scholar: Ryan Keifer

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Ryan Keifer is a junior at DePaul University, majoring in History. His research interests focus on Byzantine and Islamic intellectual history. He will be conducting a summer research project this summer at DePaul University with Dr. Edith Livermore, analyzing audience reactions to women in Greek drama.