Truly, 2009 has been an amazing year in many respects – professional, educational and social alike. Not only have I managed to find a perfect job at the peak of the financial crisis and move back to London – I have also fuelled my passion for photography by visiting several picturesque destinations, including my new big love, Western Balkans. A new language – Serbo-Croatian – can now safely be added to the list of languages I understand with varying degrees of poor proficiency. Not even to mention the new wonderful people I have met – and re-met after many years – in 2009.
During the year past, I have once again failed to keep up with my ceaselessly marrying and proliferating friends. Instead, just like in the previous years, I continued listening to other people's engagement news and wedding bells and buying baby clothes for other people's babies. I would like to wish all the newly engaged/married couples and fresh parents a wonderful continuation of their forever changed lives! I feel confident about joining your ranks one day, too.
2009 was an intense year travel-wise. I have managed to visit 19 different countries, of which there were nine first times. Unfortunately, I have narrowly undershot my original 20-country pursuit. My 2009 travels were densely focused on Europe, the only deviations being Israel and Morocco – arguably part of an extended European concept anyway. I hope that 2010 will include more long-haul destinations. New York and Cuba currently top my travel wish list.
In 2009, I also welcomed certain recognition for my photographic skills – or talent, as some of you like to call it. In particular, I won the first and second prizes in the Photo Competition organised by my current employer – European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Six of my photos made it to the final exhibition, and one was even printed on over a thousand Christmas cards mailed to EBRD’s clients and staff, signed by the President himself. Moreover, the Tourism Association of Bosnia and Herzegovina published some of my photos on their website. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to share my photos with a wide circle of people and to receive recognition for what remains my number one hobby and the biggest passion in life.
Silver treetops in Salzburg, Austria - EBRD 2009 Christmas card cover
Let me proceed in order, however. At the end of 2008, I found myselfunemployed in Greece, with that life-long holiday concept slightly worn off. I welcomed 2009 in Vienna, Austria, amid the exploding street poppers, fried sausages and gluhwein. My Austrian tour focused on the country’s three main gateways – the capital, Salzburg and Innsbruck. Every one was special in its own way; if I had to choose one, however, Innsbruck would have been my immediate choice. “The Sound of Music” seemed to permeate the whole atmosphere, the Alps were rising up majestically towards the brilliantly clear skies, the food was gloriously delicious – I will come again!
From Austria, I headed home to Latvia and Lithuania for a 10-day life-realignment session. I had for a while been brooding on hopes of returning into quality employment, which Greece, sadly, could not provide. After a long thinking process, it became clear that retuning to London was indeed my best option. It was not easy to decide and even harder to implement. My preliminary interviews were truly disastrous. The crisis-stricken financial sector of London was saturated with freshly unemployed, highly qualified professionals knocking on all doors they could reach. And I clearly could not compete with the majority of them. Devastated, I fled the UK for brief visits to Brussels and Paris. It was fantastic to see some of the people I had not seen for 6+ years. Many thanks to everyone who had time to meet me.
London double-decker bus, my January visit to London
Days after returning to Greece after almost a month of absence, I grewincreasingly estranged to what once was the country of my dreams. I fled again – this time to the neighbouring Republic of Macedonia. The trip involved a 12-hour train ride from Athens to Skopje via Thessaloniki, which was wonderfully worth it – many thanks to my Macedonian friends for the most amazing time. The city with unique character, Skopje has a very special place in my heart, and I can hardly wait to revisit.
The flag of the Republic of Macedonia on top of Kale Fortress in Skopje
Visiting Skopje must have brought me good luck, as, immediately afterwards, I received an invitation to the interview of my dreams – for a Power Analyst position with the EBRD in London. The job description looked like it had been written just for me. The interviews were nothing like the fiascos I experienced with the private sector in January. I loved EBRD – and the feeling seemed to be mutual, as I received a call back within hours, and a job offer shortly thereafter. The time has come for me to leave. My Greek dream was over.
During my final days in Greece, I managed to fulfil a long-term ambition of visiting the Western Macedonia region and the Prespa Lakes. The scenery was more than stunning. Perfectly undisturbed waters reflected the snowy mountain tops of the three countries sharing the lakes – the sight which will remain in my memory forever. This was my official farewell to Greece.
After briefly stopping in Malta – an unbelievable intersection of Italian, English and Arab cultures – I arrived in London in mid-March, with three boxes and two suitcases worth of life. Pretty much the first flat I saw fell into my mind and solved my homelessness problem. I loved my job at EBRD from the first day, and still thank God every morning for being able to go to work, enjoy plentiful responsibility and have interesting projects to work on. Hallelujah!
By Easter, I was ready for some renewed globe-trotting, hitting the Promised Land – Israel. It just happened to be Passover, and the ancient city of Jerusalem swarming with worshippers and visitors alike was a unique sight. The memorable highlights of the trip were eyeing the division wall between Israel and Palestine and treading barefoot in the salt waters of Tel Aviv's endless beach – the experiences as contradictory as Israel itself. Less of a highlight was nearly missing my inbound flight after underestimating the killer security measures at Tel Aviv airport. My advice to everyone would be to allow for least three hours there!
May was a busy month travel-wise. I started it by crossing the Strait of Gibraltar on a ferry route between Spain and Morocco. I will never forget watching that multicolour sunset over the Atlantic Ocean. The month went on, and I flew to Norway to pay a regular visit to my “Norwegian family” and celebrate Alexander Rybak’s Eurovision success – which just happened to coincide with Norway’s National Day. In mid-May, I was sent on my first work-related mission in Slovenia. The contrast with Macedonia could not have been more pronounced. I seriously could not believe the two nations co-existed as one at some point in the past. Finally, I have revisited Greece – Athens and the island of Andros – at the dusk of May for some final arrangements. I am not sure when I will be emotionally ready to visit Greece again.
Feasting on the Greek island of Andros
The summer rushed by rather quickly. From its onset, I made a vow to focus my exploratory efforts on my regained country of residence, England. It is often tempting – and cheaper – for us Londoners to fly abroad instead of get to know the rest of the country. During the summer and also the rest of the year, I finally visited the counties of Suffolk and Norfolk, as well as Bath, Birmingham, Brighton, Cambridge, Hastings and Windsor. England is wonderfully full of tradition and is a picturesque place to live. Too bad we capital buddies so often choose to neglect it.
After I had safely left my previous demographic group (18-25 years) and revisited Slovenia on a second business mission in July, the end of the summer began looming ahead. My main holiday of the year was yet to come. It kicked off in style with the U2 concert at London’s Wembley Stadium. I will not exaggerate if I say that that particular event was my full-year highlight. The experience was truly unforgettable. Every note hit a hidden chord in my mind. My longest-term dream to see live my favourite band, whose music I have found a great source of inspiration for years, was finally fulfilled.
Energised by U2, I set off on a 2-week holiday trip to the Western Balkans. After making my way down Croatia’s Adriatic coast with stops in Zadar, Split, Hvar, Korčula and Dubrovnik, I went on to see Montenegro’s Kotor Bay and Bosnia & Herzegovina’s amazing cities of Mostar and Sarajevo. It was the best holiday of my eventful life so far – and I have pretty high standards from holidaying in Greece for eight months! Many thanks to the people I have met and visited along the way. It would not have been the same without you.
Korčula Town on Croatia's Korčula island, minutes before sunset
Though September in London certainly surprised with its warm sunny evenings, I somehow developed an agonising post-holiday depression and spent most of the month longing for the Balkans. I flew to Serbia at the end of the month in the hope to numb the pain. The fun-spirited cities ofBelgrade and Novi Sad provided that essential anti-depressant. Many thanks to the people I saw there. While the controversial pocket of land known as Kosovo is yet to be covered, I have finally visited all core ex-Yugoslavian countries.
The amount of work steadily went up during the autumn. My sole moments of entertainment were sporadic trips to Latvia, Spain and Hungary, as well as – of course! – the unforgettable wedding of my good friend Wani. Dancing to funky Nigerian tunes was an experience my memory would struggle to erase. Dear Wani, I wish you and Ayo many happy years ahead! Wani and Ayo's wedding, 19 September 2009
My year’s final thirst for adventure was quenched in November, when I flew to Croatia to attend a conference organised by HAKFAS, a Croatian alumni chapter of The Fund for American Studies (TFAS). While the topic (NATO) left me somewhere between indifferent and defensive, I had fun alternatives in serving as the event’s photographer, catching up with old buddies and simply looking at the stars – a commodity unheard of in London. Many thanks to all the fellow participants! I hope to see many of you again at the consequent conferences.
As the year gradually approaches its end, I would like to wish all of you a wonderful Christmas and a most Happy New Year (in the order you prefer)! May it be the year to meet your most cherished goals and overcome the hardest of challenges. I hope to see many of you in 2010. Keep in touch, take care of yourselves and your families, and may this be another truly special year.
Have a great one!