Pozdrav iz Srbije! (Greetings from Serbia!)

When I first got involved with the rock camp movement in 2013, I never imagined that I would eventually join the Girls Rock Camp Alliance board and have the opportunity to meet so many radical and amazing program organizers and volunteers from around the world. Fast forward to 2019 where I would receive an invitation from Rok kamp za devojcice to participate in their third annual camp in the town of Knjaževac, Serbia. Never in my wildest dreams had I thought about visiting Serbia, let alone working with a rock camp there. One of the most beautiful aspects of the rock camp movement is that we are all part of this larger, international community.

To quote the GRCA’s Points of Unity: ‘We are not alone and our work transcends borders. Our collective power is grounded in our membership and the communities our members come from and work with. We can hear each other across oceans and the landscapes we call home, and we work in solidarity with each other and other liberation movements.’

I must name that I had a significant concern prior to participating in the camp. As a non-Serbian speaker, would my presence be harmful or take away from the program experience for the campers and/or adults? This is something I grappled with until I arrived at the camp.

After a stressful morning of travel (and almost missing my flight), I landed in Belgrade and was greeted by Tatjana, the program organizer who I had met months earlier at our annual Girls Rock Camp Alliance conference. It was, of course, nice to see a familiar face after landing in a country where I essentially knew no one. We took the 4-hour journey from Belgrade to Knjaževac by car, where we would meet up with the campers, mentors, and band coaches who were already at the camp site.

I didn’t know much about Serbia before planning this trip so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The drive was lovely - filled with green pastures, fields of sunflowers, farms, and mountains. The countryside in Serbia is quite beautiful.

Upon arrival, I was introduced to so many people I had a difficult time remembering everyone’s name. I really felt welcomed to the space. Here I was, the random American visiting the camp. I just hope people didn’t feel too nervous having me around.

The camp itself took place at a high school facility in the town of Knjaževac - with a dining hall, dormitories on site, and plenty of rooms to serve as workshop spaces, instrument instruction rooms, and band practice spaces. This was my first experience participating in a sleep-away/overnight camp, so I was excited to see how everything was structured.

Having not slept at all the night before, I ate dinner that evening and went to sleep around 8:00 PM local time. I could blame the jet lag or lack of sleep. But in all honesty, I’m a bit of a grandpa and get tired easily.

Each day was structured about the same - morning exercise / stretching led by rock camp extraordinaire Tamara followed by breakfast and instrument instruction workshops. Lunch was followed by a workshop and band practice. Dinner was followed by an evening workshop or activity facilitated by the organizing team.

A kitchen staff prepared breakfast, lunch, and dinner for us every day. They cooked a variety of traditional Serbian dishes so I was able to get what I consider the full Serbian experience in Knjaževac!

In between the instrument-based sessions, the mentors and band coaches usually hung out together outside at a picnic style table that rested underneath a large tree, often shaded from the elements. They would chat and drink coffee. Stray cats often visited the campus looking for scraps of food from us or the kitchen staff. One cat in particular, who was given the name Pijon (it’s French, look it up), took a special liking to Selena, one of the organizers. We joked that Pijon was Selena’s child.

I could sit here all day and type up these little details about camp week. There were so many special moments for me so I will limit myself to the top 3.

First, I had the honor of being interviewed by 3 former campers turned volunteers. They prepared excellent questions and interviewed me in English in order to work on their English language skills. The interview was recorded by 3 campers who were part of the sound engineering track at camp. I had so much fun with this interview and was happy to share more about the GRCA and myself.

Second, I had the privilege of co-facilitating karaoke night for the campers. Tamara and I kicked off the evening with our rendition of Backstreet Boys’ I Want it That Way - a crowd favorite. The campers had so much fun singing along to each other’s songs. Sadly, we had to cut karaoke night short because it got late and we were making too much noise.

Third, I really feel like I was able to bond and form relationships with the adults and campers. There were moments when I felt guilty about conversations needing to be held in English in order for me to understand what was being said. But usually someone (mostly Selena) would make a joke out of it and yell ‘in English, please’ to the group. I got to learn more about the culture in Serbia, the camp itself, the lives of the folks running the program. There was one night in particular we all went on a walk to take group photographs. Following group photos, the campers got to take their band photos at a nearby playground. I noticed two campers who were trying to flip a water bottle and make it land upright. I asked if I could try it and the next thing you know, there were about 12 of us in a circle taking turns trying to flip the bottle. At that moment, I knew the campers were entertained by me and I had officially gotten their approval.

Unfortunately, I was not able to stay for the final concert. But from visiting the band practices, I knew everyone would do an amazing job. Unlike previous years where the campers learned to play covers, this was the first year they wrote original songs. I hope they know how proud I am of them! I have no doubt they are proud of themselves (if you’re at all interested, you can watch the final performance on YouTube here).

My time at camp came to an end when I caught a 5:00 AM bus back to Belgrade the day I was scheduled to leave Serbia. I was fortunate enough to ride back with Radmila, this incredible human who owns a gallery/cafe/events space called Papergirl Galerija that Rok kamp za devojcice uses for office and meeting space. We got to chat during our 5-hour bus ride together about life, photography, and the culture in Serbia. After arriving in Belgrade, Radmila let me store my luggage at Papergirl and showed me around the city for a few hours. We grabbed breakfast at a nearby cafe and did some sightseeing on our way to the Kalemegdan fortress. I saw the Danube river and snapped a few photos (and some selfies, of course). On our way back to Papergirl, we stopped at another cafe for an afternoon refreshment. I had a delicious Serbian beer called Salto. We returned to Papergirl, I grabbed my belongings, and took a cab to the airport. I felt sad leaving Belgrade. It marked the end of such an amazing trip.

Overall, my time in Serbia was an unforgettable experience. I left feeling like my impact was a positive one. I hope I’ll have the opportunity to visit again - either the camp or the country itself. As we say at the GRCA, joy is a revolutionary force. Thank you for all of the joyful moments and memories, Rok kamp za devojcice team! I will forever be grateful for the time I was able to spend with you.

Here are some photographs of my time in Knjaževac and Belgrade:

I Dream of Full English Breakfast

As someone who has been an admirer of witty British television series and movies for most of my life, I have always romanticized the city of London. Charming streets. Lovely accents. Those red double deckers busses? Yes, please. Not to mention Love Actually is one of my all-time favorite films. London has occupied my short list for international travel for several years now. And, earlier this month, I finally had the opportunity to visit the city with two of my best friends - Casey and Sav.

I had roughly 72 hours to cram as much into my first London experience as possible. Casey flew in from Stockholm, Sweden, Sav flew in from Toronto, Canada, and I flew in from Charleston, SC. Of course, we all landed around the same time at 3 different airports in London. After we convened at our hotel, we set out on a mission to do the major sightseeing attractions by foot. We walked A LOT that day. To be exact, 28,595 steps and 12.26 miles according to my FitBit watch.

Day 1 was dedicated to bridges. We walked across all of the major bridges - London Bridge, Tower Bridge, Millennium Bridge. We saw Shakespeare’s Global Theater, Big Ben (covered by scaffolding as it’s still being renovated), Buckingham Palace AKA Lizzie’s House. We walked through Carnaby Street, saw Westminster Abbey, ate fish and chips, drank a pint of Camden Town Brewery lager in a charming little pub, and briefly saw Hyde Park. I say briefly because we only ventured into the park in search of a toilet for my use. The day ended at Ye Olde Chesire Cheese - the oldest operating pub in London where we enjoyed traditional pies, potato mash, and an assortment of delicious pickled and steamed vegetables.

The next morning, we checked out of the hotel and took the journey to Plumstead where two of our friends from Girls Rock London would host us for the remainder of our stay in London (special shoutout to Sarah and Gez - thank you so much for your hospitality!).

Day 2 was dedicated to Harry Potter. We started our sightseeing at Leadenhall Market - scenes from the first Harry Potter movie were filmed here. It was pretty magical. After Leadenhall, we went to King’s Cross Station to visit Platform 9 and ¾. We most definitely waited in line to have our photographs taken as if we were students going to Hogwarts. Can you guess my house? After King’s Cross station, we decided to walk through Hyde Park to visit the Kensington and Notting Hill neighborhoods. We visited Churchill Arms Pub (iconic pub covered in flowers) and ate delicious Thai food there. After Churchill Arms, we walked to Notting Hill where we found streets lined with charming, brightly colored homes.

Day 3 was all about Camden Town. Our day in Camden Town started at The Diner where we all enjoyed a full English Breakfast - vegetarian style. It was one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had in a long time. And I do consider myself to be a breakfast enthusiast! After breakfast, we wandered the streets of Camden Town, looking at the various touristy knick knacks and artisan goods. We stopped to have a pint and ended up overlooking the Camden locks. The weather was mild. The views were lovely. And the company was enjoyable. The day ended with a pizza dinner along the river. I dare you to name something better than enjoying a delicious pizza while watching the sunset near a body of water. We got back to Plumstead late that night and I didn’t sleep at all. I had to catch a 6 AM flight to Belgrade, Serbia the next morning. Casey and Sav, bless them, stayed up with me until I had to catch my bus to the airport.

Overall, I had an amazing trip hanging out with two of my favorite people. Next time, I hope to spend more than 72 hours in London!

Please enjoy some photographs from the trip below (Note: I will never apologize for the number of selfies taken):



New Year, Same Me

As 2018 has come to an end and I move full-speed into 2019, I wanted to write a little reflection post about the last year.

Did anyone else feel like 2018 was a difficult one? I sure did. There were many times where the world just felt like one massive dumpster fire. My year was personally filled with significant transitions and challenges, some more painful than others. Despite the hardships, I carried on as best I could.

When things felt especially difficult, I reflected on an inspirational phrase created by some pretty inspiring friends and co-conspirators at the Girls Rock Camp Alliance:

“Even when the world is scary, joy is revolutionary.”

Joy can be defined as a feeling of great pleasure and happiness. For me, the most joyous moments of 2018 came in the form of relationships. Over the years, I’ve cultivated some remarkable friendships. I am continuously in awe of the people in my life who inspire me each and every day. Y’all are some brilliant, kind, funny, and resilient folks.

Throughout this especially difficult year, my friends were always there for me. They were willing to listen, to give advice, to distract me, to challenge me, to just be present. They supported me in ways I often feel I can never fully match. I am truly blessed to have such a solid community and network of people around me. Thank you, all of you, for bringing such joy to my life. You help me feel braver and more capable.

So cheers to 2019! Another year of strengthening new and old friendships and loving each of you [and myself] more fully and honestly.

Sweden...again (feat. Norway)

Earlier this month, I spent a couple of weeks bopping around Sweden and Norway. Specifically, I spent time in Stockholm and Oslo.

But why Sweden?

It's no lie that I have an affinity toward Sweden - its culture, food, and girls. But beyond all that, I also have good friends who live there. Over the years, I've been able to meet so many Scandinavians through my work with the Girls Rock Camp Alliance. Popkollo was one of the first organizations in the world to run rock camps, similar to the rock camp that the Carolina Youth Action Project runs (a program I've been volunteering with for several years now). 

Before this trip, I had been to Sweden once before. You can read all about it on an old blog post of mine from 3 years ago. At that time, it was winter, it was dark, it was cold, and it was snowy. Despite all of these things, it sure was beautiful.

Still, I was excited to experience Sweden in a different light - perhaps daylight, since there's usually only about 5 hours of it during the winter months. In all seriousness though, I was pretty stoked to be in Sweden during the summertime.

When I arrived in Stockholm, it was a warmer than usual summer day. Here I was thinking I had escaped the intense Charleston heat. The familiar warmth (sweat inducing heat) greeted me after 24 hours of straight traveling. After getting through customs, I took a 45 minute bus ride from the airport to the Central Station where a friend met me and guided me to my accommodations for the duration of my stay in Stockholm. I was fortunate enough to stay with Casey, a dear friend of mine and fellow board member with the Girls Rock Camp Alliance. The apartment tenants also included Jens, her partner, their roommate Mark, and their two adorable cats - Orlando and Katniss (pictures will be included later in this post).

Stockholm was just as charming as I remembered. Many of the buildings look the same. I joked with Casey my entire stay that everything in Stockholm looks the same. It does but not exactly. But so many buildings do share the same warm color palette. Think mustard yellow, burnt orange, and grapefruit. One of my favorite parts about Stockholm is that you can basically walk to most places and you are almost always near the water. How dreamy, right? For being the largest city in Sweden, it doesn't feel overwhelming at all.

Some of the highlights from Sweden included spending all the time with my friends, visiting a Popkollo camp running in Botkyrka and unexpectedly being part of a workshop, visiting Popkollo headquarters twice, marching in the pride parade, visiting museums, eating all of the amazing foods (like cloudberry jam and Swedish pancakes, meatballs, toast with butter and cheese almost every morning, Jens' taco lasagna, and all of the gummy candies my stomach could handle), going to a crayfish party, meeting new people, and so much more!

But that's not all! Not only did I spend time in Sweden, but I also went to Oslo, Norway to visit a few of my rock camp friends who live there. 

Sofie and her partner Ragnhild were gracious enough to host me in Oslo for a few days. The journey between Stockholm and Oslo takes about 6 hours by train. Most of you don't know this, but traveling by train is my favorite. I'm terrified of flying, so train travel is definitely a less scary alternative. Having that much time on the train meant I could catch up on letter and postcard writing, reading, and journaling.

As soon as I arrived in Oslo, Sofie and Ragnhild met me at central station and immediately took me to a ferry where we met up with two other friends and caught a boat ride to an island. They surprised me with a sailing trip around the harbor is Oslo! We all acted as the crew of the ship and with our collective knowledge we successful raised a sail. Sure, the wind wasn't being very cooperative and we mostly spun around in circles out on the water, but we tried! And it was still a lovely day. Thank goodness for boat motors right?

Oslo reminds me a lot of Seattle, Washington or Portland, Maine. It's a seaside town with a lot of boats. The city itself feels extremely small (especially compared to Stockholm) and is very walkable.

The boat ride was definitely a highlight of the trip. But so was making dumplings with Sofie and Ragnhild. Actually, I ate dumplings twice while I was in Oslo so I'd consider that a win for sure. Anyway, enough about the dumplings. I also got to play pool and experience one of Oslo's finest dive bars.

But my trip didn't end with Oslo.

I returned to Stockholm for what I thought would be 3 last days in Sweden before returning to the US. But my 3 extra days turned into 6 extra days when my flight was cancelled due to technical issues. I'm still not sure what that means, but I'm not mad that my vacation had a little extension.

This trip definitely deepened my love and appreciation not only for my friends, but also for Scandinavia as a whole. Thank you to everyone who helped make this trip what it was. I will dream about cloudberry jam and Swedish breakfast until I return.

Below, enjoy some photographs from my trip.

 

Chicago

Earlier this month, I spent some time in Chicago visiting my dear friend Kate. It was my first trip to the Windy City.

I know Kate through my involvement with the Girls Rock Camp Alliance, a member organization comprised of music camps and various arts based programs from all over the world. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to meet so many radical and inspiring folks through the GRCA. As cheesy as it sounds, many of these people are my lifelong friends.

Before my trip, I was pretty excited to hang out with Kate and spend time in a city new to me. But I also planned my trip around Girls Rock! Chicago’s second summer camp session of the year so I could spend half days volunteering at their program. It felt like a win win situation - hanging out with friends and supporting the youth.

My first couple of days in Chicago were spent sightseeing and trying to avoid crowded areas (the city’s crowdedness was made worse by Lollapalooza coinciding with my first weekend in town). I walked so many miles! This data was verified by my Fitbit. In my first two days alone, I visited Millennium Park to see the Bean and Lurie Garden, saw the Chicago Theatre, visited the Museum of Contemporary Art to see an amazing exhibit by Takashi Murakami, walked along the Riverwalk, strolled down the Navy Pier, saw many a Pilsen mural, walked around Maxwell Street Market, and saw Alvvays play at The Empty Bottle. It was an action packed 48 hours.

Camp week started on Monday. My role as a band coach meant I had to be at the school by 1 PM, but I arrived earlier than necessary to A. find the school where camp was taking place and B. get acclimated to the space and introduce myself to volunteers and campers. Despite my experience volunteering and organizing a similar program in Charleston, I felt extremely nervous being totally new to Girls Rock! Chicago. But, luckily for me, everyone I met was so warm and welcoming. Over the course of the week, I got to bond with the campers in my bands, the organizers of GR!C, and countless volunteers.

Throughout the week, I would spend my mornings sightseeing, my afternoons at camp, and my evenings hanging out with the volunteers or doing other activities around Chicago. Getting to spend time with the GR!C folks at and away from camp was a definite highlight of the trip.

Some other highlights included trying deep dish pizza at Pequod’s, eating a Chicago style hot dog, enjoying a delicious ice cream cone from Rainbow Cone, trying Malort, and visiting so many wonderful parks! I don’t want to feel like a stranger to Chicago so I plan on visiting again sometime in the not too distant future.

Thanks to everyone who helped make the experience as good as it was!

Here are a few photographs from the trip: