Monthly Archives: May 2009

Dubrovnik Surrounds

The old town in Dubrovnik is incredible, but it’s pretty small and only ~7,000 inhabitants live within it. So if you spend time in Dubrovnik you will eventually take a look at some of the other sights as well.

Another reason to stay at Dubrovnik Backpackers Club- they do a really cute little tour of the surrounding region for a cheap price, run by one of the sons of the hostel owners (who will tell you stories about how he played hookey during the siege of Dubrovnik to help the defending soldiers during the war- at age 13). First stop is the hillside above Dubrovnik where there’s an old fort-

See those mountains reaching up behind me? That’s Montenegro, which I never properly visited on this trip but got to leave some of the rest of the world for the future I guess. To the left of me but not visible in this picture are a range of mountains in Bosnia- Dubrovnik occupies a bit of Croatia not connected to the rest of the country because Bosnia gets a few miles of coast so it can have a port thanks to a centuries-old agreement with the Ottomans. You’d never tell coming over except for a brief border stop where they don’t even stamp your passport.

There are two forts in Dubrovnik- one the Croatians held throughout the war and is now being restored to be a museum, and the one where the Serbs were. Which is now a no-kill shelter for stray dogs, on the grounds that the locals would rather have dogs in the fort than Serbs (clearly the tensions between sides in this part of the world won’t be smoothed over for years to come). So when you visit the fort-turned-pound you are greeted by a deafening racket of barking and the realization that these dogs have a gorgeous view most people would die for.

Another interesting sight up the coast from Dubrovnik is the old botanical garden, a lot of which has been allowed to grow wild but is still lovely.  This house is actually an ancient Ionian trader’s home (read: ancient Greek) and is the oldest set of ruins in this region.  Nowadays it’s often frequented by teenagers smoking pot, but we didn’t run into any of them.

Turns out those Ionians sure knew how to find a great view!  Interestingly just to the left of here is a nice old abandoned castle that is for sale- catch is it’s so expensive that John Malkovich wanted to buy it, but couldn’t due to the price.  Thus the ruins stay ruined except for the locals looking for a bit of quiet coastline to stretch out on.

During the day, one of the popular things to do to get away from the crowds is head to  Lopud Island, just outside the old town-

Dubrovnik from the ferry out to Lopud, which was packed to the brim with tourists and Croatian daytrippers.  There was a sign mentioning the maximum capacity was 200 people, a number definitely surpassed as there was barely standing room by the time we left port.

When you get to the island, the first thing you hear is this odd mewing sound that sounds like a bunch of cats.  The culprit?  Peacocks, who have lived on the island awhile now thanks to it being the former summer home of Archduke Ferdinand.

Lots of the peacocks were trying hard to attract the peahens- they slowly walk around in a circle showing how awesome their feathers are, then when the female approaches further they do a little dance and bring the feathers forward in an attempt to trap the female.  Didn’t work in any of the cases I saw but I take it as further proof that humans are not as far off from animals as we like to think.

Oh, and because I was curious about this later I looked it up and it turns out the proper name for the birds is “peafowl” as peacock is actually just the male, and they’re originally from India.  The more you know…

A brackish lake on the island that was quite lovely- lots of bathers in summertime but this time of year it was still chilly.  But it turns out the water isn’t particularly brackish- a simple taste test revealed it seemed just like seawater, so my bet is it just seeps in from the nearby ocean somehow.

And here is a view from Lopud Island towards the mainland while I was waiting for the return ferry- thought it was an interesting superposition of old versus new sailboats, and for any interested parties the dog pound fort is on the top of the mountain on the left.  Really, you’d miss a lot in Dubrovnik if you didn’t look beyond the old town!

Dubrovnik

Here is a rule right now about Dubrovnik- if you ever come here you have to stay at Dubrovnik Backpackers Club whether you particularly want to or not.  The reason for this is while most hostels in the Bulkans are family run the family at DBC puts these to shame- the dad offered me a welcome shot of homemade honey liquor the second I was in the door, the mom kept offering me cake and nagging me to find my shoes, and the four-year-old daughter decided she was fascinated with me and asking me to watch her play with a hula-hoop.  Trust me, this is the place to stay!

When you can finally pry yourself away from this kind Croatian family, a ten minute bus ride takes you straight to Dubrovnik-

For hundreds of years this was the heart of the Republic of Dubrovnik, which is one of the nicest Renaissance towns you can find outside Florence.  It is also reminiscent of Florence in the fact that it ties for the “most crowded tourist attraction” award due to all the daytripping cruise boats, probably because the old city is so compact.

This is the most popular tourist thing to do in Dubrovnik- climb the city walls!  Back in the day when the city was one of the most popular trading ports along the Adriatic the tax to enter the city was one stone and ten eggs, the stone for obvious reasons and the eggs to help hold the stones together.  The resulting walls are the most complete and thickest ones you will find in Europe, wrapping 2km around the Old Town and so sturdy the Serbs shelled them for eight months in the Yugoslav Wars and hardly damaged the walls.  Frankly one of the lessons you learn while visiting this town is you don’t mess with Dubrovnik!

View of the heavily-touristed street from the top of the city walls.  Yes, I was not making the hordes of tourists thing up…

The city walls make up a 2km circuit.  The problem with walking this is every single view you see is so beautiful and so perfect that you will take ten million pictures.

By the way, when you look at Dubrovnik all the buildings with bright orange tiles are ones that were destroyed by the Serbian forces in the war; the faded orange tiles are the original.  Bright orange definitely dominates, and what is even more disturbing is realizing how the old town was relatively untouched compared to the razed surroundings.

The fluttering Croatian flag, which I include here for one interesting reason- I’ve seen a lot of flags on this trip but most are done in the same exact proportions, but the Croatian flag is the first exception I’ve seen to this rule of thumb.  The flag is longer than the height would otherwise imply, which makes it flutter extra-pleasantly in the breeze.

When the city wall walk was done, time for lunch!  This pan is filled with- drum roll- fried and salted sardines, which are to be eaten with the bread and olive oil.  Turns out fried sardines are really delicious, even if you don’t want to think hard about what bits are included when you pop a whole sardine in your mouth.

Entertainingly, the fish restaurant is the first one I’ve been to patrolled by several cats.  They enterprisingly know you’re not going to finish all your fish, and wouldn’t it be a great to cut a deal with someone so the fish doesn’t go to waste?

Hilariously there was a sign saying “do not feed the pigeons” but regarding cats there was no mention, so this fella got a nice number of sardines to feast on.

Last, Dubrovnik by night which is completely different compared to daytime because all the cruise boats are gone.  My favorite place was hidden- you need to walk on the road between the wall and the ocean to a literal hole in the wall with a sign that says “cold drinks,” walk through it and you’ll find a terrace overlooking the ocean filled with locals a bit miffed that you found their secret. (No, I can’t give you a better description just because the old town is a warren of roads with no names, and the best things are discovered by chance.) Sitting on a terrace with the walls of Dubrovnik behind you, moonlit ocean before you… I promise, there is no better way to end the day.

Hvar

For those keeping track, I’ve had a fair bit of luck when it comes to weather on this trip.  Sure it got ridiculously hot in Asia and snowed in Italy, but by and large the seasons have cooperated to the point where I lost my umbrella a few weeks back and had no reason to replace it.  This was only going to last so long, obviously, and my luck ran out whilst heading to Hvar, an island two hours by ferry from Split.  It’s supposed to be the sunniest place in Croatia, but what was light drizzle on the mainland turned into buckets falling from the sky by the time I arrived and took the bus to the village of Hvar proper.

At the bus station, the Croatian ladies accosted me.  They do this at every bus station in Croatia, brandishing signs that say “soba rooms zimmer” because a lot of the locals make money on the side by renting places to tourists (there are older men who do this too, but none are stupid enough to proposition a young woman traveling alone).  There was one woman at the station in Hvar who was particularly keen on getting me to go look at her spare apartment, so I asked her how much out of curiousity.

“150 kuna,” she said, about US$27, on the grounds that she wasn’t keen to stand in the rain all day not getting her money.  So I happily spent the next two nights cooking for myself for the first time in months and playing Pandemic 2 while watching CNN International tell me we are all going to die of swine flu.  What a great place!

The view from my apartment on Hvar-

I know, I hate me too.  This picture was obviously taken once the weather had cleared up, so I went out exploring!  Time to set sights on the fortress on the top of the picture-

Back in the day the fortress was used to protect the island’s population against the invading Ottomans and the like, but now its primary purpose is to give the tourists a great view of the city-

A better view without a tourist in the way-

Yeah, at some point I should mention that everyone on Hvar is happy to tell you that it is ranked as one of the top 10 most beautiful islands in the world.  I have no idea where this statistic is from (though I am jealous of whoever got that job) though I must say I arrived in a torrent of rain and still found myself believing it.

What has got to be the prettiest church in the world when location is factored in, in the main village.

Lots of beautiful wildflowers this time of year too!

One of the things I idly keep track of while traveling is what I will purchase when I get home and have money again to buy stuff.  I have never been good about buying things because I’ve spent most of my college years saving for some trip or another (I’m such a terrible American I put my stimulus check in the bank and am spending it abroad!), but once I have dollars to spare the list goes something like this-

1) a guitar

2) a piece of amber with a bug in it

3) a Vespa

And thanks to recalling my affinity on Hvar, we now have

4) a sailboat

Really now, I remember reading once about how Mike Brown, the planetary scientist at Caltech who discovered the tenth planet, spent his grad student years living on a sailboat and being intensely jealous of this.  Granted his going to school in Berkeley was a bit better as far as climate went but dammit, I want a sailboat!

Back to the location at hand however, I found myself intensely liking Hvar- the island is gorgeous, the village is adorable, and the Croatian lady has really nice apartments (oh, and a website her daughter runs for said nice apartments).  Somewhere along the way it struck me as the perfect sort of honeymoon place should anyone want a suggestion- alas I won’t take it, as the only “what I’d want for my wedding” point is I’d want to go on honeymoon somewhere neither of us has been before, which conveniently ties into my opinions on elopement. (If you ever want some fun at the dinner table by the way tell your parents you plan to elope- entertainingly my dad is the one who was more horrified about the prospect.)  I suppose I’m not making things easy for any potential suitor though.

Split

Way back when when my mother was about my age and lived  in Hungary, some of her first trips without parents were to Croatia because your options were a bit limited in Eastern Europe at the time.  And my mom loved it so much that she speaks nothing but the fondest things about Croatia- the coastline, the mountains, the Mediterranean feel to the place that was unlike anything else she’d seen before.  With such an endorsement it seemed a shame to not check out the place after being so close, and I am happy to inform my mother that Croatia is still as magical a place as she remembers it.

My first stop in the country was Split on the Dalmatian coast, which as you could guess from the name is filled with postcards and t-shirts of our favorite spotted canine friends.  And because you still need to take a break sometimes even while traveling, my first day was devoted to the beach-

The Adriatic at this time of year is still a bit too cold for swimming, but it didn’t stop some enterprising Croatian guys from hanging out in the water.  It was even warm enough for a swimsuit a few hours of the day!  I basically spent most of my time happily reading and eating some stuffed olives I bought at the supermarket, when not admiring the scenery in the distance-

Here’s the funny thing about the Dalmatian Coast- most of it doesn’t feel like true ocean at all because there are so many islands off in the distance.  In fact it almost felt more like being on a lake, New Hampshire coming to my mind.

Oh yeah, and there are palm trees in Croatia! Yay! Though I found it entertaining that snapdragons were doing growing at the top of this one.

When you’ve had enough of the beach, wandering around Split itself is pretty cool as it is the best example I can think of of actions having consequences far beyond what  you initially think.  This is because Split is built around  the Diocletian Palace built by a Roman emperor of that name in the 4th century A.D., and 200 years later a bunch of refugees took residence in the then-abandoned palace.  They then turned the place into a town, which is how an old emperor’s retirement place became the second largest city in Croatia today.  The whole thing is remarkably well-preserved still, except you keep noticing that there are now apartments around the old entry vestibule and things like that.

Typical street view in the old part of Split.  It’s one of those places that is pretty easy to navigate (keep going until you hit a wall and such) but is hopeless when it comes to finding a specific location again because of all the alleyways and tunnels you continually traverse.  I spent many happy hours going around in various states of being lost.

One of the most touristy places in town is this statue, of the tenth century bishop Gregory of Nin.  If you look carefully at the bottom of this photo you will notice his toe is shiny, as rubbing it is supposed to bring good luck.  Why?  Because there was a milkmaid awhile back who discovered she sold all her milk at the market when she rubbed the toe, so this is obviously true.  I mean why would it possibly not be true?

And last but not least because we’d known each other for about two weeks by this point and everyone knows two weeks is forever in traveler-time, meet Andrea from Brazil.  We first met at the hostel in Pecs and have been traveling along a similar route ever since- sometimes one of us would reach a place earlier, sometimes the other person,  but somehow we always ran into each other even if we hadn’t compared details beforehand.  And when that someone happens to be an electrical engineer from Brazil who you know you can carry a never-ending conversation with, life on the traveler trail is good.

That is a cheese and olive plate in front of Andrea by the way to go with our wine, the cheese andwine costing us about 100 Croatian kuna (5.5 kuna to 1 USD at this point).  Croatia is definitely more expensive than Bosnia was but still not close to Western Europe expensive- if anything, you keep discovering that prices are similar to what you’d expect to pay in the United States.  I am sure this will change in a few more years to take a larger toll on the wallet, but for now it is a great place to go to.

Summary of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Listen backpackers- forget Western Europe, Bosnia is where it’s at.  Where else do you get this culture, this scenery, these prices anywhere else?  Trust me, you will thank me for adding it to your itinerary.

Highlights:

– Sarajevo is definitely one of the loveliest cities in Europe.  To top it off there is more history and culture in it than you find on some continents, and everyone sits around all day drinking Bosnian coffee.  What’s not to like?

– The scenery in Bosnia is just amazing and some of the best I’ve seen on this journey.  Mostar is a great little town too, though if you have the choice of an extra night there or Sarajevo it definitely goes to the latter city. (I’m cheating in this picture above- it looks like the Stari Grad of Mostar but is actually the goat bridge north of Sarajevo, built in the same style and also on the old road to Constantinople.)

– The prices, my goodness, the prices!  It’s not quite the land of dollar beers that I found in Asia, but it is the land of $2 beers so I am totally ok with this.  I got a room to myself in Sarajevo for under $20, for example, and a bunk in Mostar for $13.  After Western Europe, my wallet is happy I came here!

– Bosnian food is surprisingly good and tasty.  If someone wants to open a Bosnian restaurant back home I will help in putting up capital because I know you will get it back a few times over!  Provided I get food for free, of course.

Lowlights:

– It was good to see, of course, but this country’s recent history is never far off.  You will inevitably make good friends who will tell you stories of what it was like to have their friends and relatives die and have each day be a fight for survival and, well, it’s incredibly heartbreaking.  But no one said you travel to only see the good, I guess…

– The museum in Sarajevo devoted to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand leaves a little to be desired so far as content goes- this picture of the weapons used to kill the Archduke are by far the most interesting thing as the rest is devoted to random paraphernalia it seems someone found in an old attic.  But they charge you next to nothing to see it on the bright side.

Mostar

As long as I’m confessing random things about my personality I’ve learned while traveling, it turns out one of my favorite things is simply the act of travel itself.  I sit on trains and buses and who knows what else an awful lot, but stick me on one of these and I will spend several hours in happy reverie doing nothing but watching passing scenery and thinking about something or another.  It has gotten to the point where I am always a little sad when I reach my final stop, wishing instead that I could stay in transit forever, which I realize is an odd thing but anyone who hates the travel part of travel probably wouldn’t last six months in this business.

When it comes to the travel attitude, though, I think everyone would feel the same upon finding themselves on the road in Bosnia-

It’s supremely beautiful.  Another picture to drive the point home-

Wow!  These mountains are spectacular.  Very New Zealand actually, which is the highest compliment I am capable of giving any range of mountains.

When I finally (sigh) got to Mostar and settled into the hostel, I set out for the Old Town.  Mostar is the capital of Herzegovina and not at all big, but it does have a particularly famous bridge-

Stari Most, which translates into “Old Bridge,” was  built in the sixteenth century on the route to Constantinople.  At the time it was the biggest arch in the world, and it was such an architectural feat that people still aren’t quite certain how it was constructed.

A side view of the bridge.  The top of the arch is about 20 meters from the cold, fast-moving water but that doesn’t stop some knuckle-headed divers from jumping off the bridge every  summer.  Obviously it’s not recommended without a bit of training first with such a height, but it’s sort of a macho thing for the local guys to do I suppose.

Walking up Stari Most- man, this thing is steep…

And at the top!

By the way, it should be noted that this is not the original Old Bridge, but rather paradoxically called the New Old Bridge.  This is because Mostar was the scene of the heaviest fighting in the Yugoslav Wars, between Bosniaks and Croats, so tragically the Old Bridge was destroyed by Croat forces in an attempt to destroy all Ottoman architecture in Mostar. (It is worth noting however that the general who ordered the bridge’s destruction is now facing trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for this among other war crimes.) Once the war was over they started rebuilding efforts, and the bridge was finally opened again in 2004.  There’s still an incredible amount of ravaged buildings in the area however, more than anywhere I’ve seen in the Balkans-

I realize this picture isn’t the best of destruction but frankly I didn’t have the heart to take more pictures of people’s destroyed lives.  However, I find a sign telling drivers not to park next to ruins with a car underneath quite entertaining- though most people in this part of the world don’t speak English at all (if over 30 they’ll try German on you if you don’t speak Serbo-Croatian), implying the sign is really there for tourists rather than locals.

Speaking of random signs, why is Tony the Tiger telling us what the ice cream flavors are in Mostar?  Did he decide he needed to branch out from cereal promotion?

Another interesting thing about Mostar is how being just a few hours south of Sarajevo definitely gives it a lot more Middle Eastern feel, as shown by the belly dancer costumes and Turkish slippers for sale.  There are a surprising number of Middle Eastern in general and Turkish in particular tourists around here, actually, which is odd because I didn’t notice them in Sarajevo.

After a few hours of wandering, however, I was done with Mostar.  It’s pretty and worth a stop but frankly not that big- I suspect things are different in the summer when you can go out and explore the countryside and go swimming and such, but in this season not much is going on to keep a traveler’s attention.  I figured the season was just starting to pick up further south though, and left early the next morning for Split, Croatia.  I haven’t been to the beach in awhile anyway.

Taking in Recent History

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I can barely remember the siege Sarajevo. I mean yes, I remember hearing about something going on in Bosnia in the 1992-1995 timeframe, but there’s only so much you hear and care about when you’re starting elementary school so my knowledge extended about as far as reading Zlata’s Diary. So if you’re reading this and fall into that category, here is a brief summary of the Yugoslav War (keep in mind I pieced this together through talking to Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbians)- following the death of the dictator Tito in the 1980s the country of Yugoslavia he held together began to fall apart. Slovenians decided they wanted to live in Slovenia, Croats wanted to live in Croatia, Bosniaks wanted to live in Bosnia… you get the idea. What was the former Yugoslavia is actually seven countries now- Slovenia, Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovinia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Serbia, listed here should you ever come across that card in Trivial Persuit.

The problem with this (and this is the part where I wish I’d meet a Serbian whose opinion I could ask) were the largest ethnic group in Yugoslavia, the Serbs. They’re a bit famous for being nationalistic, and while there’s nothing wrong with that they insisted that every Serbian had a right to live in “greater Serbia” and they were outraged by a recent (Serbian) report saying that the minority ethnicities in the country were getting a better slice of the pie than Serbians (pop quiz- when did you hear rhetoric like that in Europe before?), so they went to war in all these new countries on behalf of the minority Serbs living in each country. In Slovenia it didn’t last long, and I’ll be covering Croatia later, and Kosovo I figure everyone remembers better. But none of them really compare to the war in Bosnia, where the Serbian forces committed war crimes against Bosniaks in an effort to make the Serbian areas of the country exclusively Serbian (pop quiz answer- yep, last time there was a genocide). The U.S. brokered peace in Bosnia in 1995 with the Dayton Accords, meaning Bill Clinton is extremely popular around here.

Anyway, Sarajevo. For nearly four years, that is to say the extent of the conflict in Bosnia, the city was under siege by Serbian forces, making it the longest-sieged city in modern history. Each day several hundred shells were dropped on the city pretty much everywhere, and by the end over 10,000 people were dead and over 50,000 wounded. (The Serbs never got in though. Bosnians explain this by saying Serbs weren’t good fighters, or at least no match for people fighting for their lives.)

Look up onto the hills in Sarajevo and you soon come across graveyards like the one pictured above, most belonging to twentysomething soldiers but hundreds of civilians were killed too. Walk through the streets today and it’s hard to believe such a bright, new, youthful city could have such a recent past until you remember the reason things look new is because so much was completely destroyed and there are so many young people because so many older ones left or were killed.

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If you look around Sarajevo today, though, you begin to notice things- how the walls of apartment buildings often have bullet holes in the walls, and while streetfronts are built up the backs are often still destroyed. Take this house, which was right next to the hostel I was staying at. I’m told it was hit by several grenades during the war and no one is quite sure who owns the house as the former owner fled, so there it sits.

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This is me in the famous Sarajevo Tunnel, completed in 1993 and considered by many to be what saved the city as it allowed supplies to come in and people to go out. The tunnel runs 800 meters under the then-UN controlled airport that stood between Sarajevo and the Bosniak-controlled territory- before it was completed you needed to run across the airport for supplies, exposed to fire from Serbian forces and being pursued by UN soldiers who would send you back if caught. (The UN also enforced a weapons embargo that every defender hates with venom, as attacking armies tend to have lots more weaponry than defending civilian populations.) Most of the tunnel has since collapsed, but the house where it started is now a museum.

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My guide out to the Sarajevo Tunnel was S., the 25 year old son of the hostel owner (who is such a charming and attractive fellow that every girl in the hostel had a crush on him). He showed me around the museum with a running commentary of what it was like to grow up in Sarajevo during the war- how he spent most of his life in his grandfather’s basement, how his father had gone through the tunnel to buy the family food, and where his uncle’s name was on the list of dead who had been hit by a piece of shrapnel on his temple. (“Bad luck,” he shrugged.)

The moment that hit closest to home though for me was when we came across an old M.R.E. in the museum, and his face lit up. “These were so good, you had some meat and vegetable and a little bit of sugar!” he smiled, thus being the first person I have met happy to eat an MRE. “And this plastic they wrapped it with- look how slippery it is- we loved this, it was perfect for sliding in the snow…”

And that was the point when I decided that I am never complaining about my life again, ever.

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After the Tunnel Museum we went up the hill to the old Jewish cemetary- before World War II Sarajevo was over 10% Jewish, though only a small handful live there now. The cemetary is important because this was the closest the Serbs got to the city and it shows on the gravestones- the above is the remains of the pummeled Holocaust memorial- with only a street marking the distance between Serb and Bosnian forces.

The other interesting thing is there is a small stadium at the bottom of the road leading to the Jewish cemetery owned by one of the Bosnian football clubs. Obviously the thing was wrecked and covered in minefields during the war, but cleaning things up came out of the scant money of the football club. As a result, the night before I went on this tour marked the first night they had stadium lighting for a game there since 1992.image475

Back to the Jewish cemetery, here is the view the Serbian troops had down to Sarajevo (the city is nestled in a ring of hills, thus making it perfect for siege). The yellow building on the left is the famous Holiday Inn where all the Western journalists stayed while covering the war, the white skyscraper to its right is the parliament building that burned in an iconic photo of the war, and on the far right is Sniper Alley. Obviously it’s a pretty clear view that way, so civilians who needed to get supplies would either run like hell and pray for the best or wait for an armored UN truck to come by that they could walk behind.

Needless to say, it’s difficult to come to Sarajevo and not be moved by the tragedies that happened here. As humans it’s within our nature to assume bad things like war happen in this mythical “somewhere else” that doesn’t reach us, that maybe other people don’t suffer as badly in conditions we would consider intolerable. But if I were in charge of things, I think I would round up all the young people who are planning to go into politics and send them to Sarajevo. I would have them walk the streets where people died in a conflict that they can actually remember, make friends with people their age who speak matter-of-factly about things you never wish upon a living soul, and see a mother crying as she lays flowers on her child’s grave. I don’t pretend that this would solve our problems, but it would make suffering a little bit less and lives a little bit better.