The content and opinions expressed in this blog are mine. They do not represent the US Government or US Peace Corps - Jud Dolphin

Wednesday, December 30

Vienna at Christmas

Vienna at Christmas. It’s a place of music and museums; architecture and history; churches and Christmas markets.  And Oh! I can't forget cafes.  

Viennese coffee house culture is world famous. As they say, people pay for the coffee, but it’s the friendship and conversations that are consumed.  I hunt for Café Landtmann. It’s the one that Freud frequented.  It still stands on a corner near the University.
I walk in. A formally attired waiter directs me to a table. I imagine Freud walking over to that cozy corner. The parent of psychoanalysis goes from couch to café and back again and here I am.   I scan the menu. It has pictures so there’s no problem in ordering. My treat is going to be hot coco with chocolate and pistachio swirls. Yum! Wish you were here.  

Learnmore about cafe culture. 

Three guys are so deep in conversation that
they don’t see me taking their picture.

Tonight I go to my first concert. I've planned for two more in smaller churches - Trumpet and Organ Duo and Mozart and Beethoven String Quartets.  Also if I can get a ticket, I want to go to a Strauss and Mozart extravaganza at the Palace.  

But for now,  it’s a Christmas Mass at the huge Gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral.  As I get off the Underground, a cacophony of sounds and sights smack my senses. Street musicians play. Men in seventeenth century dress hawk tickets for concerts. Families pause to gaze at lights as little one are filled with wonder. People scurry everywhere.

Outside of St. Stephen's Cathedral
I open the thick oak doors, pause at the holy water and then find a seat. A young woman next to me shares a program. I simile in appreciation, but, of course, it’s in German. I take a deep breath and listen to the organ prelude relaxing into the music. It’s Christmas in Vienna.
My days are filled with sight-seeing. So many buildings show off their baroque heritage. Others are more modern. Yet all seem to blend together harmoniously. It’s a pleasure to walk the streets.

I take time for a tour of the Parliament building. The style is Grecian with some Roman influence. Athena stands tall in front. I’m told that in a multi-religious country, it’s important not to publicly promote one faith over another. So you do not see Christian or Islamic or Jewish symbols here.

Front Of The Parliament
Interesting Details On Many Buildings
It was built during the long reign of Franz Joseph, Europe’s last great monarch. He allowed it to counter political instability, Limited democracy had a foothold. The modern era was beginning and a world war would soon unravel everything.
Inside the Parliament
Learn more about this interesting history of Austria. 
I’m off to Schonburnn Palace. It was the summer residence for successive monarchs of the Hapsburg dynasty. Imagine the accumulation of wealth that created this place. Such massive income inequality.  
No picture taking is allowed inside the Palace. But I did take plenty outside. Fortunately, today is bright, blue and breezy. I walk my feet off!
Summer Palace of the Hapsburg Dynasty

Summer Palace Gardens 
Warm Enough For A Beautiful Water Fountain
In Vienna Christmas markets are spread out across the city. I wander into one that’s in front of City Hall. A giant tree with lights sets the tone and gluehwein, a hot wine drink, warms the body and spirit. I’m on a mission to get a few gifts for my grand kids and my great nieces. What fun.
One Of Many Stalls At The Christmas Market

Giant Tree In Front Of Vienna's City Hall
One of the features of Vienna is a Tramway that encircles the center of the city. I hop on the “Yellow Tram” since it’s equipped with an audio travelogue in multiple languages. It’s a good way to get an overview and find places to explore more deeply.

Comfortable seating makes this museum even better
I return to Kunsthistorisches Museum. It was was built in 1891 near the Imperial Palace to house the extensive collections of the Hapsburg imperial family. It’s considered one of the most eminent museums in the world. I spend the afternoon wandering from salon to salon.
I take a break in a café that occupies the grand rotunda. The building itself is an impressive work of art.
Central Dome With Staircase On Either Side

I'm Introduced to Pieter Bruegel Work

Pieter Bruegel
It’s Christmas Eve. I return to the oldest church in Vienna. However, because of my lapse of judgment and knowledge of the Underground system, I arrive about 2 1/2 hours before mass. What to do? The streets are nearly deserted, cafes are closed and it’s cold.
Then I see an establishment and it’s open. I wonder why, but I’m grateful to walk inside. I order a coffee and I as I often do when traveling solo, I start a conversation with two young women at the table next to me.
St. Ruprecht Skirche (Church)
I tell them about the church I will be attending. It’s the oldest in Vienna dating back to about 775 CE. The first edifice was built in the 12th century. It’s small more like a chapel. Unlike so many other churches in Vienna, it’s plain, definitely not Baroque.
I discover that the church stood next to a large hotel that the Nazis commandeered for their HQs during WWII. Towards the end of the War, the Allies bombed the hell out of the HQs until only ruble remained. Amazingly, no bombs hit the Church. Only windows were shattered because of shock waves.
Now the church sits beside a park where a memorial has been constructed for those murdered by Nazi hate.
I say goodbye to my new friends and pay my bill. I ask my young waiter if the cafe is owned by Muslims. He doesn’t know for sure, but he says, “ like me, most (workers) are Muslim."
I smile and explain my gratitude for this place being opened and Muslims generally.  He smiles back and we shake hands.
I’m climbing a long flight of stairs. It feels like going on a pilgrimage. As I enter the Church, I see no Christmas tree up front. Instead, a soft  sculpture stands looking a bit like a make-shift tent -  the kind kids make in the backyard.   Except this one is not for fun times. 
A Tent Is No Home
It's entitled "A tent is no home."   I’m told the artist wants us to ponder the refugees fleeing wars in their homelands. I think about Mary and Joseph who were like refugees. After all a stable is not a home either.

The Christmas Eve service is a long one.  Starting with Genesis, a lot of sacred history is recounted.  Of course I understand nothing directly, but I try to feel the spirit of this place.  It's a good one.  

Afterward people are friendly. “Are you coming to the party,” I'm asked?  I think why not and go. 
I'm Introduced To An Older Menber
I'm curious about how the church managed through the Nazi period.
I'm introduced to some of the older members.  I think the subject would make a fascinating doctoral study

It's after 3:30 am before I unlock the door to my hotel room.  I'm tired, but elated. It's turned out to be an amazing Christmas Eve.

On my final day, I take a walk and discover the Einstein Cafe.  I have a lovely conversation with a Greek couple.  It's one of the joys of travel - meeting new and interesting people.  

They take my picture.  I'm very happy.  I'm thinking that because of the name of this place, I'm getting a bit smarter or maybe just more of a Smart Axx.  (Chuckle)
That's it from Vienna.  From me to you....Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Friday, December 18

Peace Corps Response and Chance Opportunities

If I tell you about my work week, you might ask, “Are you really in the Peace Corps?” 

Unlike popular images of trekking across barren lands to teach an English class or digging wells to provide safe drinking water for an entire village or saving the world in some other amazing way, my experience is more mundane.

You see, I spend much of my week in front of a computer. I'm searching for information, analyzing, thinking and writing. I might be working on a methodology for problem solving or a strategy for our Internet and Social Media presence or a presentation for a workshop.  Ordinary stuff. 

I'm always calling the staff together for strategy planning.  We use a lot of mind mapping and brain-storming.  Our white board gets used so much that it seems like we are always buying new markers. After meetings, I compile notes and try to keep us moving forward.  I guess I'm a nudge too.

Recently I've been learning about CRM or Customer Relations Management. It's a data base that can be used to build relationships with customers or in our case with our constituents. 

My organization is poised to use CRM.  We want to to deepen relationships with our contacts and engage them in our mission of positive social change. 

As a colleague often says, “We always had dreams, but we didn't know what we didn't know until we knew it."

But there's a problem. All the CRM software seems to be English based. It doesn't take or, more importantly, export Cyrillic letters. We're looking for a work around. If anyone has an idea, please let me know.

When I step away from my desk and computer, I'm likely to be meeting new people. Yesterday I repeated my workshops on Time Management and Mind Mapping for about 45 business, education and NGO leaders as well as some students and unemployed people.

It was part of Skopje's effort to equip citizens with new skills for personal development. It was well received and I'm even invited back in February.

That's about as pictorial as my work week gets. Mostly I'm at my desk.  I guess I could easily be mistaken for a bureaucrat whose office just happens to be in Skopje, Macedonia.

It's not that I'm complaining. I'm not. I believe Peace Corps work, like mine, has value even if it's not so flashy.

I'm part of the Peace Corps Response Program. It places returned Peace Corps Volunteers and other qualified professionals in assignments around the world. These opportunities are based on sharing professional experience and skills to help host country organizations grow in their reach and effectiveness. 

My organization in Macedonia, known as Public, has a mission of working for positive change in Society. They do it through social issue research, public education and calls to action. 

Sometimes my work week is interrupted by surprising opportunities.  As best as I can tell, it works like this... 

Someone who knows me tells another about me who passes it on to another and then to another. Finally, I'm asked, “Can you help us?”

Today, I'm making my way to the St. Kliment of Ohrid National and University Library. I know the way because a section of the Library houses the American Corner.

American Corner is a space where computers, English magazines and books are made available to the public compliments of the US Embassy. I few months ago Maja, one of the key staff, asked me to teach several of my Organizational Development workshops there. It was fun and a rewarding experience. I love teaching.

Now my trip to the Library is to meet with Maja's boss. It's about some grant they are submitting, but I'm fuzzy about details. I've been learning that I don't have to have it all figured out. All I need to do is show up and as they say, “Go with the flow.”

I lock my bike to a pole. I bike everywhere in Skopje unless it's raining. Maja greets me with a warm “good day” and takes me to her Director's office. 

Soon I'm confronted with a surprising opportunity.  I hear about an emergency of dire consequences.

“Our building is 45 years old. Inside, we have the irreplaceable cultural heritage of Macedonia - rare books and manuscripts, first editions of famed authors, icons, art works, and so much more.” She shows me list naming more than 30 different collections. I had no idea and now these collections are at risk.

“Our roof is leaking. It's getting so old. Every time we have a hard storm water leaks into the reading room and now into the stacks. We're trying to cope with buckets and plastic, but it's not working.”

Then she shows me a grant application. It's a US Embassy application for the “Protection of Cultural Heritage.” The director wants my help. She confides that she has little experience in writing grants and using English, especially for something so important. I gladly agree to help.

I'm thinking, “How fortunate to be here. Thank you Peace Corps Response. And how fortunate I am to have met Maja. And how fortunate I am to know about grant making.”  It's surprising how things can work out for the good.  

Together, the director, Maja and I settle in by a sunny window to work through the proposal. I make the director promise to let me know when she gets the grant and then to send lots picture of the new roof. She smiles broadly.

It's another one of those chance meetings that make a difference. With nearly 7,000 Peace Corps Volunteers serving in 63 countries world wide, I'm wondering...

  • How many chance encounters are saving cultural heritage,
  • Restoring human dignity
  • And yes, improving human lives with safe drinking water?
Maybe one day we'll do even more when we stop preparing for war and invest our national treasure in peace making.

Tuesday, December 1

Jance Macedonia: A Place For Inspiration

I watch the rear lights disappear into the distance. I am on a mountain road engulfed in silence and a blanket of darkness. About 50 meters away, I think I see an outline of a sign. Cautiously trying not to fall into muddy ruts, I edge towards it. With the help of my cell phone’s flashlight, I read – “Hotel Tutto - Jance, Macedonia”.  I’m here.

I learned about Jance and the Hotel about a week ago. Some Peace Corps’ friend had visited for a weekend trek. They told me I must go and added, “It’s certain to be an inspiration for a water colorist.” 

 They didn’t need to say more. I bought my mini-bus ticket and 3 ½ hours later I’m here. Ironically for an artist, I'm in the darkness, but not for too long.  Morning will come.  

Jance is a traditional Macedonian village. It’s located a mountain ridge, more or less, away from Albania in the heart of Mavrovo National Park.  Living in Skopje, the Capital, I've missed the sights, sounds and people of village life.  In these days, urban people are more cautious and suspicious while village people are curious and welcoming.    

Here homes have hung on the mountainside for hundreds of years.  I'm told that little has changed.  Over time, some houses needed repaired, but for the most part they have kept to the traditional design.  

As I look out my window by dawns light, a rooster scratches in a garden below me. A man begins to chop wood even though today will be warm by November standards. A few others are walking around a home that’s in disrepair or is it partially restored. They look like their making an inspection before the day begins.

I learn from Tutto, my hotel host, that he’s reviving traditional building practices. He’s already has restored several homes with more to follow.  Local workmen, like those I see across the way, are re-learning what used to be passed along from generation to generation. 

 This is an ecological practice combining modern design with traditional construction methods.

As Tutto says, “We believe that buildings should come back to their origins of a deeper relation with the environment around them, in order to achieve a better sustainability, decrease the use of pollutant materials and gain a winning combination of new solutions and ancient traditions.

He tells me that he would like to restore the whole village.  If you're interested, he conducts seminars to learn the techniques.  

After an ample breakfast with village fresh eggs and homemade jams and bread, I venture out on my own trek. I shorten the walk by taking a taxi to a neighboring village where I pick up a trail to a waterfalls.

This day is spot-on gorgeous. With camera in hand, I’m capturing all the color and images that I can. I’m alone in the woods. 

 But unlike my trek in Maine many years ago, this adventure has a well-marked trail.  Don't worry, brother Warren, I won't get lost this time!  

Ahhhh...There’s something quite special about golden yellow trees, a cool breeze, leaves fluttering to ground and a sky so very blue. 

It makes you grateful to be alive.


I walk between two mountains… testing flat rocks as I ford trickles of water, feeling out  footholds as I zigzag up and down ridges,.  A few bridges have been constructed where the trickle turns into a stream.   The sound of water grows louder and louder.  Am I getting closer to the waterfalls?


I make my way up and down yet another incline.  As I cross the bridge I see it.  Before me is a most beautiful water falls. 

It thunders down from a slit in the mountain.  I'm thinking it's about 35 feet high, maybe more.  I stand at it’s base mesmerized.   I feel the mist as it splashes into the pools.  It's a hidden treasure deep in the mountains of Mavrovo National Park.  I'm not in Washington, DC....that's for sure!

Later Tutto and I relax in the lobby of his 7 room hotel. He speaks little English and the same for me with Macedonian, but I've learned that when there's a desire to communicate, two people can find a way. 

We pull out our electronics and show each other pictures. I start with my grandchildren and he with his family. We move on to pictures of traditional restoration practices and I show pictures from my trek. We are having a great time together.  Can't you tell?

The lobby of the hotel runs the length of the building.  One end is set up as a restaurant and the other displays collections.  

He has many interesting collections.  Here's a sampling.

Organic foods are served daily.  Homemade jams are part of every meal.  Bunches of lavender and other  herbs scent the air.    

The next morning I stand up early.  I want to watch the sun slowly spread across these mountain ridges.  I think it's a gentle way to start a day.  I'm not disappointed.  

I hear a crowing.  Our rooster is awake and letting the village know it's time to get up.  Soon life will stir as it has been doing for centuries in this place.  I sit on the balcony attached to my room and soak in the experience.

After a time, I get the watercolor I started yesterday. It's a landscape where I'm trying to capture the colors and expanse of this place. My Peace Corps friends were right. Jance is a place for inspiration.

As I get ready to depart, Tutto comes with a bag of homemade jams and ajvar. His generosity is like the waterfalls I trekked to – large and ever flowing.  

Here's a recipe for ajvar.  It's a traditional Macedonian roasted pepper relish. It's made every September and is delicious. Give it a try and then come to Macedonia for the real thing, made in a village.

My trip to Jance started in darkness, but with dawn’s light I got to see the entire landscape. I trekked to a water falls and got to paint. I met kind and generous people. I learned about sustainable traditional building methods and the dream of a man to restore a village.  

Jance Macedonia...deep in the mountains and one of the beauties of creation.