The beautiful city of Split

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Split is a costal town, oddly reminiscent of Southern California. Palm trees, beautiful ocean, ancient architecture and cobblestone houses. No, wait, that last part isn’t at all like SoCal. Split has a lot of things to see, and most people spend the majority of their time in the old quarter. The old quarter has a market place, a small surrounding area of older streets and their apartments, and, in vast majority, Diocletian’s Palace.

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The palace is a beautiful, massive fortress, with multiple squares and dozens of tiny, squigly back alley style streets that are hard to navigate but full of interesting restaurants and shops.

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It was built around 300 AD as a retirement house for the Emperor Diocletian. Half retreat and half garrison, it was heavily fortified and at times housed over 9000 people. Today it stands as the world’s most complete Roman ruin. It really is magical to see – the majority of the palace is intact and its towers, plazas, and tunnels are endlessly interesting to explore.

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The majority of the palace is well preserved and is in active use today. Some portions – mostly along the seaside souther wall – have decayed into a state of not-quite-ruins. The structure amazingly holds itself together even there.

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The towers that watched over the sea and city are a focal point even today.

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Outside of the architectural beauty, there’s a lot of shopping in the old city. As with any good tourist location, businesses big and small have set up shop to sell clothes, souvenirs, and food.

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The plazas under the towers are a main gathering point – hundreds of people will sit at the cafes, smoke, sip, and talk. Here we got a taste of what Italy might be like – there are a lot of Italian visitors, and they and the locals love to sit for hours.

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The smaller segments of the palace, tucked away from the main square, have been turned into twisting mazes of restaurants and apartments. The food in these is very good, especially the hard-to-find ones. Locals mostly go there, hoping to enjoy the city without the crowds.

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The apartments are mostly for rent to tourists, but from the looks of it some of them are actually occupied by residents of the city.

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Seating at these alley cafes is pretty limited, but that’s ok! The atmosphere is quiet compared to the bustling plazas.

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Sometimes the path takes you through an architectural tunnel. The ‘ceiling’ is a connector between two buildings up above.

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There is always more to see in the palace. We walked through it every day, and every day we found yet another section we hadn’t explored.

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In some parts of the palace, you can’t even tell it’s a colossal Roman construction anymore. This looks like a tiny village, not part of a fortress.

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From some parts of the palace you can see the water. This is the view from a restaurant we ate at, and the food was just as fantastic. We’re not even sure how we got there!

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Next time : sights from outside the palace!

 

The dog on Hum Hill

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On our way down Hum Hill, we ran into a dog! He was super cute and very friendly. I pet him, of course.

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As we walked down, the dog came with us. Uh oh. At one point I walked him all the way back up to where we thought his car and owner would be, but no such luck. Doggo walked right back down with us.

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Now we were in a bit of a quandary. Doggo had clearly decided he would be following us, but he also clearly had a collar. We didn’t want to accidentally lead someone’s dog down the hill. It was getting cold so Natalie wrapped him in her jacket while we decided what to do. We checked for a dog rescue in Mostar – there was one! But we had no real way to contact them. We settled on the next best thing – flagging down cars to ask a local for help. Most passed right by us, but a few stopped.

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The general consensus seemed to be that sometimes – fairly often – people will leave their dog up on the hill when they don’t want it anymore. This seemed unbelievably cruel, so we asked about a shelter. This was admittedly naive but hey, the dog was quiet, apparently well behaved, and adorable. As we expected though, Bosnia is not at the stage of having animal shelters, and one of the people who helpfully stopped told us he calls the rescue people once in a while but they never seem to come. The thought on whether to bring him down into the city with us, or leave him on the mountain, was that in the city, he’d be competing with some very rough street dogs. Up here at least, even though it was cold, there would be less violence. Neither option seemed great to us, and it was pretty clear doggo would follow us right down the car-laden road.

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We finally met someone coming down who was taking pictures with a drone and seemed fairly well off. We chatted for a bit – a surprising number of people spoke great English. He promised he would at least stop the dog from following us into the road, and also ask anyone else he saw if they knew the owner. We left with a heavy heart. With any luck someone took pity and took doggo in – our only solace is that the guy we left him with seemed like a good person and maybe in need of a pet? Despite what we’re used to in first world countries – that shelters aren’t great and adoption is hit and miss – there are at least mechanisms in place to prevent total abandonment. In many countries around the world, there isn’t even that. We want to believe everything turned out ok for doggo as we made our way down into the city.

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Mostar

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A lone person traverses the Stari Most in the morning.

A couple hours’ bus ride west of Sarajevo, the city of Mostar is a point of pride for the country. When we asked people in Sarajevo where else we should visit, the answer was also “Mostar, because it’s beautiful.”

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One of the old buildings in the downtown, at dusk.

Situated on the aquamarine Neretva River, Mostar’s most famous landmark and namesake is the Stari Most (Old Bridge), a 16th century Ottoman Bridge made of silken white stone. Destroyed in the Bosnian War, Stari Most was reconstructed with the help of the U.N. Protections Force and funding from several countries, in part using stones from the original bridge that were fished out of the Neretva. Local tradition of jumping off the bridge as a right of passage for men has morphed into a tourism attraction, and on a lucky day you’ll see a tourist or two taking the plunge. The bridge is also now a stop on Red Bull’s Cliff Diving World Series.

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Staring down into the Neretva River.
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Stari Most at night.

The downtown area is a tourist hotspot, with market stalls packed full of souvenirs, artisan shops, and restaurants. Most of touristic good sold are likely made elsewhere, but if you find a craftsman at work then you’re likely getting the real deal. Hand-hammered copper reliefs and Turkish coffee sets* make ideal take-home gifts, so as you walk through the marketplace listen for the clink of chisels on metal.

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The touristic downtown market.
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A coppersmiths workshop. Jizve are being molded using lead (silver circle) at left.

Outside the downtown area, the city bustles on, a network of roads full of cars and lined with densely built shops and houses. There are fewer physical signs of the war here; fewer bullet holes or mortar shell scars. The neighborhoods get a bit rougher looking at the city’s edge on the west side, but we had no problems walking through at dusk. If you’re not behaving strangely or wearing anything ostentatious, you’ll probably be left alone.

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The remains of a building.
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Modern cars parked in front of a building, likely damaged in the war and now left to decay.

Oh, and when you’re there be sure to stop by Tima Irma to eat the best kebapci money can buy, served with fresh veggies, cheese, and pita bread. You can even wash it down with a local beer.

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A view at the edge of town.

*A slight word of warning: traditionally, the jizveta are formed by pouring lead into the mold, and then removing it afterward. It’s been done this way for centuries, but if you do get one you might want to test it for lead before using it to make coffee.

**A second slight word of warning: the countryside around here may look dreamy, but don’t wander off into the hills without a guide. Mostar sat at one of the fronts during the Bosnian War and much of the area is still mined.

Vox Populi’s “Peace Be Upon You” at MESS 2017

 

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Bullet holes around windows on a building in Sarajevo, likely from attempts by snipers to kill civilian occupants hiding inside.

October hosts Sarajevo’s annual theater festival, MESS. We learned this through another person on our bus, a Swiss diver here in Sarajevo to meet watch her boyfriend perform as part of the theater group, Vox Populi. He meets us at the bus station and introduces himself as Syrian, though he now lives in Bulgaria. The two of them invite us to come see their play the following night. “It’s about the experiences of refugees,” they tell us, “it’s titled Mir Vama (Peace Be Upon You).”

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Sunset on the way to the theater.

It’s already packed when we arrive at the Sarajevo War Theater on the evening of the play, and we get tickets only from the kindness of someone who had two extra. The theater stage is set with little more than a line of tape up front and three vertical silk screens in the middle. As the lights dim two people walk onto the stage: Mila Bancheva and Ricardo Ibrahim, the man we met the day before. In what is part play and part documentary, the pair use videos of interviews with refugees projected onto the silk screens, symbolic scenes acted out in their minimalist set, and their own monologues to bring the stories of refugees to life.

Their interviewees are Syrian, Egyptian, Kurdish, people’s children and parents and brothers and sisters. They speak about leaving their countries, what made them leave, what they left behind. They talk about a reluctance to go, and a story about people who left their homes thinking it was temporary and now decades later, they still wait to return. One man speaks of narrowly escaping death when a group of men fired several shots into his taxi. This wasn’t enough to force him to leave. Instead, it was the death of his infant daughter in an accidental raid on his house that prompted him to go. One of the actors speaks about the sensation of bombs being dropped on her city, first of fear, then of normalcy. Someone from the rafters drops a heavy box onto a stage, and it reverberates in the silence. The actors speak of hunger and starvation, as one of them desperately tears apart a pomegranate to eat, red-purple juice covering them. They speak of dodging mines, of the logistics of getting through porous borders, and then less porous borders. As refugees, they adjust to life as it is and as it must be.

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I didn’t take photos during the performance, but this post-performance shot gives an idea of the stage setup. The two actors, Diego and Mila, are front left in front of a silk screen.

Mir Vama reveals the refugees as painfully human, and our inability or unwillingness to help them palpable. Nowhere is that more evident than during a scene in the play where actress Mila cradles a mandolin she has been playing. She carries it to the front of the stage, and introduces it as her baby. And then she offers it to us, arms outstretched, but still lovingly cradling the object. “Will someone take my baby?” She pauses as seconds crawl by and we watch her. She offers it again, to the other side of the audience, “Please, will you take my baby?” Her face is solemn, imploring. I feel the urge to rise and take the mandolin from her, but I can’t tell if this is just part of the play. I can’t tell if this is what I’m supposed to do. I don’t know what is right to do. Mila asks us, again, “Will anyone take my baby?” The seconds crawl by as we all stare at her, actionless.

But no one stands up.

 

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The Sarajevo War Theater stage, post-performance.

 

Some short scenes are of Mir Vama are available on YouTube here, while the original playbill for Mir Vama is available here in Bosnian, and here in English.

Want to see what Vox Populi are up to currently? You can follow them on Facebook here (in Bulgarian, but Google Translate works alright)

Bosnian Coffee

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There is an interesting story whenever something forgets where it was from and becomes from somewhere else. This story is about a cup of coffee.

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The city of Sarajevo and the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina are each beautiful and complicated. Their histories are long, and storied, and often very bloody. Bosnian coffee comes from a time when the Ottoman Empire threatened and conquered the Balkan peninsula. Slavic through pre-history, converted to christianity in the middle ages, Bosnia faced yet another existential threat. The Ottoman Empire, when it finally conquered the region, wiped out the former ruling structure but allowed the country to keep its cultural identity and name. Because many Bosnians converted to Islam and the empire spread, enveloping Bosnia in even more outer provinces, it reached a point of great influence in culture, commerce, and architecture.  This period is when the cities of Sarajevo and Mostar were founded.

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Bosnians say that they in their province retained the true form of Turkish coffee. Because Bosnian coffee, regardless of what it is called today, was brought by the Ottomans. The turks favor a very thick, very strong brew – almost a sludge. Ordering a Turkish coffee anywhere in the world will get you a cup of thick sludge covered by the liquid coffee. Ordering a Turkish coffee in Bosnia will get you a quick correction – Bosnian coffee – and a tray complete with cups, a pot of coffee, a bowl of sugar, and a piece of lukum. The coffee is the same thick, sludgelike delight, but it comes in the pot that it was prepared in – a jezveh. Every Balkan country pronounces this differently, and the Bosnians spell it džezva.

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There is a ritual in serving coffee the Bosnian way. That’s really what differentiates it from the Turkish coffee, though locals might say otherwise. Bosnian coffee is served in its pot, on a tray. Turkish coffee comes in a cup. Both come with permission and opportunity for a long, luxurious, meandering chat. In Bosnia this holds even more strongly. Gaining its freedom from the Turks did not revert Bosnia’s newfound identity. It still stands out amongst its Balkan neighbors being a Muslim majority nation. It stands out even further for being the last major armed conflict (not counting Ukraine now) on the European continent.
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During the Bosnian war, the social ritual of Bosnian coffee became a touchstone, a point of grounding for the residents. With extremely limited supplies, the ritual remained as the coffee was washed away. Any boiled drink, preferably brownish, served in its place – a reason to get together, to talk, to try and experience normalcy in the face of siege and war. Now, the war past but not forgotten, coffee once again proliferates the country, though the full ritual of it is slowly dying out. Many places will serve espresso or nescafe, and the cafes where true Bosnian coffee are served a fewer than before. In busy tourist towns and central markets though, there will always be a place for the tray with its attendant pot, cups, and bowls. This is lucky, because it is some of the best coffee anywhere.

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Skopje

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We’ve continued our travels on to Skopje in FYROM, or Former Yugolsav Republic of Macedonia. Over the ire of the Greeks, though, everyone here just calls the country Macedonia. With wide boulevards, gleaming new buildings, and plethora of monuments in the city’s center, you get the feeling that this is a government looking to definite itself as modernized and powerful.

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Leave the city center to find yourself surrounded by densely-built neighborhoods, with neatly-constructed houses beside ramshackle dwellings and the occasionally-forgotten Soviet structure.

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Head to the “old town” to see the influence of Ottoman rule on this Balkan state. Narrow pedestrian paths weave between wooden stalls selling souvenirs and shops brimming with beaten copper, filigree jewelry, and ‘handmade’ goods that may or may not be made in Macedonia. Have a seat at a café and order a Turkish tea or coffee and desserts like baklava or sekerpare, then sit back and watch the people pass: tourists, locals, and the café workers who rush between, carrying tea and coffee on platters to shopkeepers so they need not leave and neglect their wares.

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For a good conversation in the old town find Vladimir, who runs one of the antique shops, and ask his opinions on global politics and the future of Macedonia. Sit with him as the tea drains from the glass and the cigarettes turn to ash. Ask him why he thinks the Greeks take such an issue with Macedonia and he traces it back to the Greek Civil War, a conflict that occurred 1946-1949. “We lived in Macedonia of Northern Greece before then, happily, but they drove us out during the war, taking our land and everything we owned. We are Macedonians, but Greece would never admit it because it opens the door to potential reparations.” If that is true, the Macedonians have a right to their name.

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The ancient village at Cape Atanas

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Near the white cliffs is a relatively unassuming stop. At the cape of St. Atanas sits a Late Antiquity fortress. It was a small village and fort at an optimal geographical area – close to the sea for access by boat, in a tight corner for defense. It was inhabited until about 600 AD, at which point its residents packed up their belongings, burned their houses, and left, apparently in an organized fashion. It’s a rich site, featuring artisanal structures, religious buildings, and many, many examples of clay artifacts that were made on site.

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The walk leading up to it is pretty nondescript. There’s some seating, a small museum, and a little toll booth. The entry fee is a few dollars per person. It gets you entrance to the museum as well, but that was closed for the season when we arrived.

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One of the main draws is that this is an active archeological site. During the summer season, work progresses year after year to uncover more and more of the settlement. Here is an open pit with a few clay pieces left in place as they were found. More than just viewing the artifacts in context, the actual work of archeology is on display.

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And how is the relative luxury of archeology funded? The EU! As with any EU involved project, there’s a huge sign near the entrance stating how much money was granted, and what its purpose is. This one, a bit generically, reads as : For the cultural and historical edification of the Byala Region, and to turn it into a major tourist attraction.

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Not only was the village equipped for clay-working, it was also well situated to take advantage of the amazing grape growing climate. This is an ancient grape press (wooden portions restored) and a massive clay vessel to hold the juice that poured out. The dioramas are a nice touch. They’re museum quality, and they really help bring the exhibits to life. This is one of the things that would certainly not have been present without outside funds.

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Along with pots and amphoras, the village made tons of clay tile and brick. The tiles are marked with wide, rough patterns, each corresponding to the person who made that tile. The marking was how they tallied who made how much at the end of the day and gave wages from that count. Some of the tiles are simple X’s or lines, but this one is a lovely wind or vine pattern.

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This is an early christian baptismal fountain. Bulgaria was, and is, Eastern Orthodox. Despite only becoming the state religion in the 9th century, it had roots in the Balkans since the time of Paul the Apostle. It was officially adopted as the state religion in the 9th century, due to cultural influence from Byzantium.

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At the end of the archeological walk is a piece of the fortress that once stood and guarded the town. It’s worth getting to the end of the loops because that’s where the actual in-progress excavation is. It’s not every day we get to see an active archeological site, so that was a real treat. It was, unfortunately, closed for the season, but with any luck excavation will continue here for many years to come. It’s a very nice change seeing the attention paid to historical sites in Bulgaria now. We have come a long way from the days of looting sites to sell the artifacts and repurpose the bricks.

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In Memoriam, a Bulgarian Tradition

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Wander around any city in Bulgaria and you’ll eventually come across printed papers with people’s pictures on them, some dates, and a little bit of text. People sometimes think they’re wanted posters or missing persons posters, but it’s not. This is how we show and share our grief when someone passes away. It’s traditional for family members to print these and put them up all around the area where the person lived, near apartment building entrances, along the street on electrical posts, and on the sides of buildings. They are ubiquitous around the country, effectively omnipresent in daily life.

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All necrologs follow the same basic pattern. This has changed over time to become a bit simpler and less verbose, but the main points have held. Normally there is the main title at the top of the page, in most cases it is “In memory”, but if the person recently passed away it might say something more specific. Then comes the date and number of years since their death, and then the name. Following that is usually some kind words about the person, and then a sign off from whoever posted the necrolog.

It used to be that the next of kin, or even entire family trees, were printed at the bottom of the page, but these days it’s almost always something simple like ‘the family’ or ‘the bereaved’ or ‘from the close relatives’. The words or epitaph are usually focused on extolling virtues of the person and describing lamentations of the relatives, how much they miss them. Other times it can be a poem, or something very simple like “They left too soon” or “They were loved and are missed”.

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You can see in this picture that the memoriam is for the same person, and the 8 and 9 in the two posters is for how many years have passed since the person’s death. It is tradition to put up a round of necrologs several times during the first year after death, and then once per year on the anniversary of their death. For this reason it’s fairly common to see multiple, slightly different necrologs for the same person in a given area.

The pervasiveness of necrologs makes for an interesting cultural relationship with death and grieving. When I was younger I found them to be a saddening sight, sort of a constant reminder of death. As an adult I am not affected in the same way – these necrologs as we call them are a tribute, a sharing of grief, a way to preserve someone’s memory. They are not joyous in the tradition of the Day of the Dead, but they are also not exceptionally sad. The words from relatives and families are often beautiful, a heartfelt expression of the value that the person brought to their lives. They remind us of the people we have lost, and they ensure that a person is remembered in their neighborhood for many years after their passing.

Ars Electronica Festival 2017

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A robot stops walking in response to a barrier (hand) placed in its path at ARS Electronica Festival 2017.

Growing up as a kid, the question was always whether you went into science or art. It was this weird dichotomy in learning, where there was the precision and quantitative of math, biology, chemistry, and physics, and then the interpretative and creative of art, music, language, and history. Two ways to understand the world standing in opposite sides and never mixing, like students at their first middle school dance.

I understand now that this separation is artificial and that the skills needed in each field intermingle – there is creativity in science, and precision in art – but the world seems to still cling to that science-art dichotomy, where ne’er the two spheres shall meet. After all, we don’t often talk of the exacting quantitative precision of the artist’s work, nor do we speak of the creative interpretations of the biologist’s findings. But why? Why don’t we more often unite these two disparate worlds, or acknowledge that the separation is artificial and never really existed at all?

For me and anyone who has ever had this thought, Ars Electronica is the dreamland you never knew existed, where the artificial barriers between art and science dissolve. It’s a year-round museum in Linz, Austria, but every fall Ars Electronica hosts a festival showcasing the creations that arise from the fusion of art and science. Here science and technology create art and history, and art and history build science and technology. From synchronized drone aerobatics to temporary electro-conductive arm tattoos that control your smartphone, the ARS Electronica Festival is four days of wonder, thought, and inspiration. Here’s what we captured in our visit*:

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Repurposing of industrial robot arms for shadowplay art.
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Doge overlooks a cryptocurrency gathering.
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The LightSail II in the Linz Cathedral, an interactive mesh-and-PVC pipe construction the size of a whale that responds to touch by varying sounds and projected images.
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The crowd in the basement of POST CITY for the Ars Electronica Festival Concert.
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A robot constructs a three-towered sculpture for nothing but concrete chips and string, while its creators look on from the right.
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RFID-reflective clothing, meant to protect your identity in the wireless future.
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A demonstration of DuoSkinDuoSkin, conductive temporary tattoos that enable you to control your smartphone or other electronic devices. Here, a man demonstrates skipping songs and changing the volume on a phone’s music playlist.
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A man reloads markers on an industrial robot arm repurposed for sketching.
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A woman interacts with a display that explores the ability of machines to read and respond to human needs.
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An artist explains his interactive darkroom-and-flashlight display.
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Visitors watch and film a synchronized drone show.
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Attendees at the festival’s seminars, which explore everything from the ethics and law of AI to art created from AI learning.

And a couple of videos:

It can be a little overwhelming to visit the ARS Electronica Festival for the first time, so here are some useful tips to help you get around:

  1. Trust but verify – we sometimes got mixed answers from volunteers as to where/when things were happening. Ask a few people to get a good idea of when/where the big events are.
  2. English speakers welcome – Many of the most fascinating events are in Austrian, but they offer free real-time translations! Grab a pair of headphones on the way into the room, or ask a volunteer on hand if they have any.
  3. Don’t buy a metro pass – Your ARS pass includes free travel on some of the city’s trams, at least from the Linz Train Station to the ARS Electronica Museum and back. (Applicable to full festival pass, not sure about 1-day passes)
  4. The ARS Electronica Concert is amazing – The concert runs late into the night and you might be tempted to skip it if you’re relying on the train to get home. Go for at least a few hours because it’s amazing and absolutely worth it. Tickets are free with the 4-day pass and can be picked up at the ticketing/info booth area in Post City.
  5. Leave time to explore – While most of the events are focused in Post City, there are events throughout Linz for ARS Electronica. Leave time to see those and to wander around Post City without any direction, because stumbling onto something unexpectedly can be thought-transforming.

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* I understand copyright law is a bit more strict in Europe, so if you’re an artist or copyright owner whose work is listed above and want it taken down, please email me.

This is why people are staring at you: the good, the bad, and the strange

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When you travel, especially off the beaten track, you’re going to get stares from the locals. Those stares can be uncomfortable, especially if you come from the U.S. or a closely-related culture where staring is considered rude. Why are they staring at you? Is it something I did? Why don’t they stop?

Staring etiquette varies from region to region and over time. For example, the Japanese rarely stare because it’s considered rude, preferring to steal glances of you through a long side-eye when you’re not looking. In contrast there’s neighboring China, where sometimes people will not only stare but also point at you, and it’s not considered rude. Because the world is increasingly cosmopolitan, staring seems to be considered rude in more places and I think it now happens less. Back in 2004, my mom got lots of stares from locals in Shanghai because she is white. Fast forward to present day, where she gets hardly a glance.

But in many places off the standard travel itineraries, be prepared for some stares or uncomfortably long glances. For those of you who aren’t used to this, here’s a primer for you on why the locals are staring at you and what to expect.

First, are they smiling? Then it’s probably…

The Good

Overwhelmingly if you’re getting stares and smiles, it’s a good thing. People are probably fascinated by you because you look and dress differently, you’re new, you’re interesting!

Especially in highly-isolated and rural places, you may be the only foreigner passing through they’ve ever seen. This was the case for us in Indonesia, where people frequently stopped to greet us and ask for a selfie, even if they spoke only broken English or no English at all. Because Stoytcho is tall (6’4”) and white, he was a magnet for every middle-school tour group at every temple, so we’re in about a dozen class pictures.

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Yep, here’s one of those class photos. I do not know whether it is more or less appropriate that I wore a “Damn! I love Indonesia” shirt.

In some cases, people are staring and smiling because they’re happy to see you, a tourist/visitor/traveler because you’re a herald of positive economic outcomes. We found this to be the case in Medellin Colombia, where we’d catch people staring at us, strike up a conversation with them, and find them thanking us for coming to their country. Things were really bad in Medellin (linkout) only a couple decades ago, so for people of Medellin, tourists are a big deal. That will probably change as more visitors come to the city, but for now, they stare and smile because you’re a sign of how much better life is now.

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A local jugo vendor we made acquaintance with makes faces for photos.

Lastly, sometimes people stare and smile because you’ve done something silly but harmless, like mispronounce a word. This will happen a lot if you’re trying to learn some of the local language. You’ll often hear this accompanied by a stifled giggle and someone may try to correct you. But that’s life and in no situation has a language mistake this ever been held against us.

Now, if people are staring at you and frowning, it may be…

The Bad

Every culture has its own maze of written and unwritten rules and social norms and superstitions that are impossible to understand and difficult to remember for foreigners. So if someone is staring at you and frowning, you’ve probably done something wrong.

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For example, you didn’t listen to this sign.

The good news is that while breaking cultural rules and norms is usually bad with varying degrees of seriousness, as a foreigner you’ll generally get a free pass. The only two exceptions to that free pass are: modesty-related and religion-related customs. Modesty-related customs are often dress codes or interpersonal interactions, like how much skin you can bare in public or how much romantic public affection is acceptable. Religion-related customs can vary, but usually relate to the aforementioned modesty, cleanliness, or separation of the sexes. Breaking these often makes a lot of people uncomfortable, or makes a lot of work for someone (i.e. they have to re-purify some sacred area thanks to your transgression). Hence, the frowns you’re getting.

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Women cover themselves after leaving a temple in Vietnam.

Some great examples include those stares that young woman in the tank top is getting while she wanders around in Indonesia, or that guy who didn’t wash his hands and feet when coming into the temple. In my case, I committed a terrible fashion faux pas: wearing boots in the summer. I got an average of three scowls a day for that, apparently because it’s weird and just not done. It was so bad that Stoytcho’s aunt (linkout) concocted a white lie to get me to wear a pair of her shoes when we went out for ice cream because she didn’t want to be seen with me in boots. The solution? I switched to flip flops.

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A Russian woman gives me the usual down-up-scowl: first she looks down at my boots (actually moves her head down), then she looks up at me, and frowns. This happened so often I started trying to get photos of people doing it.

It can be hard to avoid breaking the customs of another culture while traveling, but this is where a bit of research in advance can help a lot. Before traveling, type in “taboo” and where you’re going to see if there are things you should avoid doing or wearing. These can vary in validity, so it also helps to consult a friend, acquaintance, or a travel forum.

There’s another reason people could be staring at you without a smile, though. That’s…

The Strange

Because you’re strange, you’re weird, or you’re confusing. They’re staring at you because they’re trying to place you in some kind of context and having trouble. It’s not you, it’s them.

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Like this, although they’re also probably staring because we’re in the middle of rural Java hitching a ride in the open bed of a pickup truck with giant backpacks. This clearly doesn’t happen every day.

For better or worse, a lot of our judgements do stem from a person’s appearance. A white-person dressed in cargo zip-offs, a hat, and sunblock? Probably a tourist, has some money. Black woman, dressed nicely? A rich tourist or a model. A latino-looking guy in grungy clothes, carrying wares? Likely a local street vendor. That Asian-looking granny sitting on a park bench in rumpled clothes? Reasonable to assume she’s a resident octogenarian. We feel comfortable when we can place people into some kind of context and make assumptions about how we can interact with them. And when we can’t do that, we get confused and sometimes we stare.

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Me, ethnically ambiguous because I’m half-Chinese and half white.

As someone who’s ethnically ambiguous, this happens to me a lot. I look just enough like the local people almost everywhere we get stares, especially when I’m not with Stoytcho (who obviously looks like a foreigner). In South America, people would stare at me because I didn’t look totally white but I was an English-speaking tourist. In Japan, the ambiguity almost got me into trouble (linkout). And in Russia, the locals stared because I looked like a local Buryat girl dressed in weird tourist clothes. I got stuck in between the boxes of local and tourist, and it messed with people enough that they’d inadvertently stare at me for that extra second or two.

If you’re prone to receiving this kind of stare, the best way to deal with it is to smile and not take offense. It’s hard because when people stare at you, trying to figure out who or what you are, they don’t usually look friendly. They may even be frowning, although it’s an unconscious frown caused by their confusion. But if you make eye contact with them and smile, they usually realize they’ve been staring and avert their eyes or they’ll smile back. You may not fit neatly into their mental world, but that matters less once they realize you’re friendly.

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When you greet a stare with a smile, you make friends. They may even strike poses into the camera for you.