Wide Awake in Wonderland

We’re only dancing on this earth for a short while

Let the bedbugs bite September 20, 2008

(So long as they don’t bite me.)

So file this under ‘extreme coincidence':

If you ever go to the main page, WordPress has about eight blogs they’re promoting under different topics. I occasionally check out the one for “Travel”, just to see what they’ve got that I don’t.

So today, the featured ‘travel’ bit was some kind of entomology report about bed bugs. It had a 12-step program for examining your hotel room (and I was literally lying in a hostel bed as I read it – many, many steps down from a hotel room and very intimidating as my mind started to process the odds). Seriously, as I glanced through, I felt my skin literally come alive and start creeping and crawling. The power of suggestion.

Then I got up and went through the copious and extensive and gross exam (looking for blood stains, checking my own self for 3-pronged bites, etc.) It all looked okay. I felt creeped out and vulnerable and someone had left a comment about waking up in a room alive with cockroaches and I HATE cockroaches, but as for bedbugs, it looked okay.

So anyway, I’m kind of under the weather. I have the full-bore stuffed up nose, headache,and general malaise of the slightly ill. I put in a full day at the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica. After a bit of a struggle with the subway system (i.e. went the wrong direction for three stops), I got to the museums around 9:15 and got in line. By 10:05, I had my ticket in hand and made a bee line for the Sistina Capella. I even snapped off a couple photos before they started screaming at me that photos weren’t allowed (oops. Who knew!?).

It’s a weird thing, but the place is so incredibly amazing and grandiose and ornate, that after about three hours, you really can’t take it any more. The sight of more marble mastery and ancientness and genius and attention to detail makes your head hurt (or maybe that’s my cold or flu bug talking?) Seriously though, I took about 2.2 million pictures, and then I literally couldn’t stand the sight of it for one second longer.

By the time I got to St. Peter’s, I was so overwhelmed that I was like, ‘Yeah. There’s Michaelangelo’s Pieta. Nice.” I’m a bad tourist like this. I tend to get somewhere, get overwhelmed or bored or underwhelmed, and a small voice in my head announces “Eiiffel Tower. Check.” and I’m kind of done.

Okay, so I interrupted myself on the extreme coincidence part of the story: I read this horrific bedbug thing on WordPress (always trying to figure out what makes certain blogs do so well. Blackcelebritykids, for example. That has been the top blog since I joined in May. Gives me little hope that I have anything to say that the masses want to hear. Seeing as I’m not currently stalking Will Smith and his family, nor do I have any kind of dirt on 50 Cent’s numerous bastard offspring [I don’t actually know that there are any. Just assuming]…I may as well throw in the towel!) Anyway, read it around 6pm, checked the bed, felt itchy and generally unnerved, slept for an hour, and went out in the common area.

Around 9pm one of my roommates – a very grouchy Mexican girl living in Spain – came home. If I needed to do a brief synopsis for a yearbook or something I would say: Adamantly unfriendly, and a snorer. She completes my unbroken streak of Central and South American girls snoring like men. You pay extra for the all-female room, and they carry on like that. It ain’t fair…

Anyway, she came home and went in the room for a while. About twenty minutes later she came out and showed one of the hostel owners some kind of damage to her person. I was too far away to see, but she presented him her arm and leg and said, “I’m like this all over.”

He looked at me. I assumed we were talking bugs (and the weirdness of the timing started to hit me).  “I’m cool.” I confessed. “Maybe they don’t like me?” Anyway, he tore the bed apart, and was really clearly concerned (and I was, for about the tenth time today, spooked), but he didn’t find anything. And the snorer left (for the mixed gender room), leaving me by my lonesome.

The way I see it, if the bedbugs liked her last night, they’ll just track her down next door. And if they didn’t like me, they’ll keep leaving me alone. The power of attraction (or repulsion, in this case) and positive thinking. No worries. Plus, for tonight anyway, I have a single room.

Well, sort of single, Just me and a few hundred of my closest blood-sucking friends…  Buon Appetito!

 

You say bulviu, I say potato September 16, 2008

A Chinese restaurant in Klaipeda, Lithuania might seem an odd choice for lunch, but I was kind of feeling like having something besides dumplings, potato pancakes, and fried cutlets. Plus, there were some actual Asians sitting by the kitchen door and the ambiance looked nice (and it looked like it would get me out of the outrageously bitter cold immediately, which was the primary goal), so I figured what the hell.

After five minutes of being ignored and a minute or two of confusion about the seating, I settled into a seat with my Lithuanian/English menu in hand. It’s kind of amazing, but apparently there is not a single restaurateur in all of Europe with a native English-speaking friend. Every last one of them produce menus with this awkward, fumbling English which sometimes serves to charm, but more often leaves one baffled.

So as I’m working my way through, the descriptions either sounded gross (“Fried chicken, persimmon, and corn”) or plain old baffling (“two dragons meet in the forest”). I was seriously tempted to order that one just to see what would ensue…

Meanwhile, other menu descriptions were suspiciously vague. What was it they didn’t want me to know? In Lithuanian, the description is three sentences long, and in English it says “Fried Shrimps.” Fried shrimps WHAT? Fried shrimps dredged from a swamp and slathered in a toxic level of Chinese Five Spice Powder and fried up last month and left out to ferment by the light of the full moon, and then carefully placed on a bed of noodles that taste both familiarly and alarmingly of spit?

Or just fried shrimp?

If you’ve ever read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, you’re already suspicious of everything coming out of a restaurant kitchen. Even if you haven’t, you just never know in these circumstances. Thus, I decided to go with something that sounded suitably reminiscent of American Chinese food I have eaten and contained a similar level of detail to the Lithuanian version – fried eggplant in oyster sauce. How could you screw that up?

Happily, it wasn’t screwed up, but it did contain some extra ingredients not mentioned on the menu. First off, thank god I’m no longer vegan or vegetarian, because there were quite a few little scraps of meat in it (I’d guess pork) even though it was in the “vegetable” section. Second, there was a heaping helping of red and green bell peppers. Lovely to look at, but I don’t eat them. They dislike me immensely and wreak unimaginable havoc on my digestive system. In fact, there were just enough in the sauce to throw me into a state of intense distress about an hour later, but we don’t need to talk about that. Let’s just say I was glad I was near a bathroom that had more than a broiler pan nailed to the floor…

Anyway, and not to mix bathroom talk and food, but, strange translations on a menu are a veritable godsend when compared with facing a foreign grocery store. This is particularly compounded when in a country with a language based in the Roman or Cyrillic alphabets. You may as well just let a toddler do some scratching on the packages for all I know.

At the same time, it’s something of a gamble and yet an exciting one, and for this reason, I love – love, love, love, love, love – going to the grocery store. It’s a guaranteed adventure. The marvel, the wonderment, the baffling mysteries wrapped in dough or hidden in a can. I could quite possibly purchase, bring home, and eat a tin of cat food and never know the difference. For all I know, I’ve done this, and – come to think of it – my hair has never been shinier.

Obviously, certain sections are easy – produce and raw meats, in particular. That’s a good opportunity to jot down the mix of symbols that mean “chicken” or “potato” or “apple”, which could come in handy in a future situation…the kebap and schwarma stands, for instance. Other sections – particularly anything concealed in a can, frozen in a package, or prepped and shrink wrapped by the store itself (my favorite for wild experimentation) – are a total grab bag.

I still recall my total horror in a Hungarian supermarket in 1992. It was something of a trifecta of confusion:

  1. I was vegan, so I was SUPER picky about what I ate.
  2. There was pretty much nothing in the store. It was like a supermarket in Florida right after they announce a hurricane warning – bare aisles and some boxes of Tide.
  3. I bought and consumed a pastry that was a complete and utter mystery to me to this day. All I know is that the contents were black and gooey and had no flavor. Not sure what that fruit (?) is, but I’m glad we haven’t embraced it in the U.S.

Anyway, the good news is that I am now a lot less picky, because in the last month and a half I have started chewing something up, and upon examining the flavor thought, Thank god I’m not:

  • Vegetarian
  • Muslim
  • Lactose intolerant
  • A Recovering alcoholic (this in response to a pastry I bought yesterday. It was a super cheap .99 LT – like $.35 – and looked like a chocolate donut hole, only three times the size of a normal donut hole. So I figured it was a big, round brownie or chocolate thingie. It turns out it was a rum ball – heavy on the rum. It was good, but a small child would’ve been three sheets to the wind having eaten the thing. It should’ve had a “Mister Yuck” sticker on it or something to warn parents!)
  • Jewish
  • Squeamish (this after some pirogies ordered from a non-English speaker in Poland. Gee, I didn’t know they made pirogi in ‘ground up bones and lint’ flavor.)
  • Allergic to fish, nuts, animal parts no one in their right mind would eat, etc.

In other words, if you are any of the above and have plans to come to Eastern Europe and buy your own food or venture into places without an English menu…hire a translator.

Meanwhile, I had a nice day in Klaipeda. It’s cold as hell, but I won’t focus on that and whine to you. It’s the Baltics, what did I expect? Tomorrow I have a long bus ride to Riga (five hours – need to take it easy on the morning beverages!) where there is a hotel with a sauna on the premises and wifi in the room awaiting me. I’ll write you a nice, long post about what I’ve seen here in the fatherland (besides grouchy people) and post some photos of me freezing my @ss off by Baltic Ocean.

In other news, and not to always have a cloud in the silver lining, but after getting back from my day out on the coast, two guys in their late sixties (at least) have checked into the “youth” hostel. Go ahead and call me elitist, call me a snob, even bitchy, I can take it. I still think I have the right to say that 70 is too old to be youth hosteling.

They have the look of the homeless to them (everything but the shopping cart full of cans) or maybe just Hells Angels kicked to the curb (or dropped off at the nursing home), and I am wee bit spooked, especially since discovering they’re in the bunk that touches mine (although I plan to move. Screw it.) The hostel is practically in the parking lot of the train and bus stations, so I guess it has an “anything goes” policy with respect to guests. One of them looks like Dennis Hopper if Dennis Hopper had lived the same wild life of drugs and booze, but without any money or proper nutrition, and lost some key teeth along the way. Right now he’s eating a piece of bread like it’s corn on the cob, while reading a magazine called “Fighters”. “Fighters” features a woman in nothing but a camo print thong straddling a vicious motorcycle-like thing that may have been swiped from the Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome set. It’s in German, and the top banner says, “100% EDELBIKES, 100% ACTION, 100% TUNING, 100% SZENE.”

Creeeeeeee-py.

Presuming I get through the night in one piece (ah, who are we kidding? I’d fight like a demon if it came to it. For many years I had a vivid dream [nightmare] life in which I killed thousands of undead, zombies, and vampires every night. I’m ready.), I’ll catch you up tomorrow from Riga!

 

Fun facts about Poland! September 11, 2008

Boning up on my Polish on the train

Boning up on my Polish on the train

So here’s a little nugget for you: I’m leafing through the Poland section of my guidebook, and I learn about their political history and the different vodka they drink (Zubrowka has a strand of grass from the Bialowieza forest and is often mixed with apple juice), and some common dishes, and how they’re a very Catholic country and Pope John Paul II only strengthened that…and tucked in among the interesting, but non-life altering facts is the fairly critical tidbit that THE ENGLISH WORD NO MEANS YES IN POLISH.

Um, hello!? If I was writing a guidebook in English for Americans, I would not tuck a urgent FYI in amongst some information about how the older generations speak Russian and to bring your female host an odd number of flowers. My version would look like this:

Poland

WARNING: THE ENGLISH WORD NO MEANS YES!!!

While I’m in the mood to share random facts you may never get the chance to use or which may in fact allow you to win an episode of Jeopardy, check out this little oddity: Poland is currently run by identical twin brothers who were once child stars and appeared in the 1962 movie (that probably no one who isn’t Polish ever saw), “The Two Who Stole the Moon.” They’re president and prime minister, although I suppose they like to mix it up a la The Parent Trap. Switch roles, sit in each other’s offices, and maybe add a little excitement to the cabinet meetings?

Speaking of which, we should keep an eye on the Olsen twins. If this disturbing trend catches on outside Poland, we could be in for an even weirder political future. I guess I’d better study up on which one won’t eat and which one killed Heath Ledger so I’m a better informed voter when the time comes.

Otherwise, I had a ‘discussion’ (why it’s in quotes explained shortly) with an Australian girl last night that left me wishing I’d booked a private room in Warsaw. Admittedly, and as you know, I don’t stay in hostels (which I do about 50-60% of the time) for the social aspect and opportunity to meet cool new drinking buddies. I stay there because it’s cheap. And because they tend to be located near the train stations (a big plus), and have working internet connections, a rarity in most other places.

Anyway, the wifi only worked in the bar area of the hostel, and i was sitting in a corner table. This woman – probably late 20s, with dyed black hair and lots of eyebrow piercings – came and sat with me, and started watching South Park on her computer. I wear headphones if I watch anything over the computer in public, but whatever.

The Bodemuseum on the River Spree in Berlin

The Bodemuseum on the River Spree in Berlin

After a few misfires of that awkward stripe where someone is doing something on their computer and wants to get you involved (laughing out loud, snickering and muttering to themselves and then looking at you, starting half sentences about what they just watched and looking at you) and realizing it wasn’t going to work – I wouldn’t bite – she just got up from her chair, came up behind me, and said “What are you doing?” I told her I had a blog that I was trying to get posted (and the truth was that her TV and her talking were distracting me, but I didn’t say that part out loud.)

From there, she started grilling me on my computer, and the Linux system, and had I been doing bios updates, and where have I gone in Berlin, and what are the categories of the Dewey Decimal system. I tried to answer the questions as politely and succinctly as possible. I was hoping to achieve a certain balance of terse, but not totally rude. Busy, but still semi-friendly.

From there she started grilling me about where I’d been in my travels, and when I mentioned that I was,to a great degree, retracing a journey I’d already done, she was very critical. “You shouldn’t go where you’ve already been, that’s a so stupid blah blah blah blah”. A lot of what she said I stopped listening to about halfway through, and trid to go back to the blog.

That didn’t work, and she proceeded to tell me I had to go to Albania. And Serbia. As you guys know, I’m really not up for a risking my life. If anything, I’d like to return from this trip with a minimum of emotional and physical damage, and few – if not zero – stories about ‘the time I almost died.’ Thus, I nodded absentmindedly and said, ‘OK.’ That wasn’t good enough. She wanted a commitment out of me. HOW would I get there? WHEN was I going? She had met some Dutch girls who were going to set up a whitewater rafting business in Albania, and she wanted to alert them of my arrival. Whitewater rafting in October with novices. Well, howdy doody that sounds swell! Sign me up!

Trying to lighten the mood, I asked her, “So do you get a commission for everyone you send there?” BAD IDEA. Now she was mad at me, and proceeded to attack me about how ‘travel is about having an open mind, and clearly you don’t…” The worst of it was, I had been judged and found lacking, and she still wouldn’t leave me alone!

I started shutting down my computer as she started talking about how she’d met some Serbians on the road, and although she hadn’t been to Serbia, the Serbians she met were great and thus all Serbians are great, and naturally I should go there. I don’t know why, but to this I said, ‘I’m sure they were great, but all countries have their progressive people and their less progressive people, and it’s the latter I’m concerned about. Case in point, in America we have some citizens you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. However, the good news is, they’re not out traveling in Europe. They’re at home in their dark alley!” I guess in a nice way I was trying to say, there’s a reason my Lets Go Eastern Europe has Serbia and Albania totally grayed out, as if they don’t exist, and I have no need to tempt fate or find out how land mine cleanups and the white slave trade is going these days.

To this, she went on a long-winded spiel about how much Americans suck. I foolishly said, ‘What happened?” (thinking maybe some American in a prior hostel had acted like a know-it-all antagonistic jerk to her when all she was trying to do was post her blog), and I got an earful about the Jerry Springer show. That one I did not see coming. Apparently that stupid piece of junk has been broadcast all over the planet, and this rocket scientist has decided it’s the equivalent of a National Geographic documentary: All Americans are irate, chair-throwing, white trash boneheads.

Early autumn along the banks of the Landwehrkanal in Berlin

Early autumn along the banks of the Landwehrkanal in Berlin

She went into something that was apparently a quote from jerry Springer about how the show isn’t fake because most Americans are like that and they have to turn people away, and at this point, I started to actively dislike her. Allusions to Crocodile Dundee were in my head, but I figured no good would come of trying to explain the concept of stereotypes. As I was getting up to walk away, she shared a final tidbit about the process to get into Albania: Allegedly it costs anywhere from 2 euro to 200 euro, ‘depending upon the mood of the border guard.” Oh goody. That sounds like a nice way to get trapped in a foreign country, blackmailed for either extreme sums of money or sexual favors. Needless to say, you will not be getting any near-term posts from Belgrade or Tirana outta me. However, if you find yourself in Warsaw over the next few days, I’ll be the white girl from Zimbabwe who doesn’t speak a lick of English and hangs out alone in the hostel bar, just trying to get her blog done…

Meanwhile, first impressions of Warsaw: I like it. It has a good vibe. I was chased down a busy street by a man in a wheelchair screaming, “Pretty woman! Pretty woman!” (and he could cruise, let me tell you), but we won’t hold that against the whole country. Meanwhile, there’s a serious clash of old and new. The train station is an underground labyrinth that kind of reminds me of this weird flea market I would go to with my dad as a kid. There were tons of little stores crammed in next to one another – a pair of seamstresses hard at work, and in the next shoebox someone making pirogi, and then a lottery store, and then clothes that were fashionable in 1987, The whole scene had an intense yellow patina to it, and it seemed really different than any of the other (very western) train stations thus far, with their Starbucks and other modern offerings.

However, I climbed the stairs to the outside world, and the first thing I see is a Hard Rock Cafe – the bright lights and blinking signs and then dozens of the big box stores and the usual stuff that bums me out. But as I mentioned, another face of Poland still lingers. As I was walking to the hostel, I saw an extremely old woman selling tiny wildflower bouquets she’d no doubt made herself– one in each hand. Her face was incredibly wrinkled and she had a scarf tied on her head and a long dress on. She was the living, breathing image of the old Poland, awash in the light of a whole lot of neon.

 

Fatigue is the best pillow September 6, 2008

I believe Benjamin Franklin said that.

Anyway, I made it to Munich without much trouble. Since I was getting in late Friday and leaving early Sunday morning, I wanted to stay near the train station. or the sake of convenience (and cost savings a little, as I have a private room in Prague), I went with a hostel…and very likely the noisiest one on earth. It’s got its own bar which apparently stays open 24/7, and the windows of this room open to the ‘beer garden’ below, so the lousy music selection (‘Tainted Love’ is playing right now. Cheryl, please don’t tell me Dolly Parton wrote Tainted Love…) comes in loud and clear as well.

The party atmosphere seems to exacerbate the drinking habits of an already drunken demographic. Again, the place is full of people in their mid-twenties who can be heard having the following discussion in the mid-afternoon:

“So what do you want to do now?”

“I don’t know. What do you want to do now?”

“Get totally wasted.”

“Yeah!”

Speaking of which, I have found one self-evident upside to the top bunk: Last night one of the two guys having the conversation above came into the room so drunk, that he simply crawled into one of the lower bunks and passed out. Unfortunately, that was not his bed, and a woman was already sleeping there! Lucky for him, her boyfriend was in the bunk above and she just crawled up there. The most they did was tease him about, “Be careful about who you crawl into bed with.” And lucky for me, you need to have the climbing skills of a monkey and reflexes of a cat to get into these high bunks. Not exactly a first choice or an easy feat when you’re totally wasted.

By the way, I am 10 for 10 on the top bunk (including one overnight train). I grow weary of the climbing, but I am glad to have it all to myself come morning.

On the bunk across from me is an adorable Scottish girl named Jean, and she’s been a lot of fun to talk to. She started out traveling with her friend, but they had a falling out, so now she’s on her own. Anyway, she told me that earlier in the month she met some American girls who were in Europe as part of a tour. Among other insanity, they asked her when she learned English. When she explained that English is her native tongue, she just has a Scottish accent, they didn’t believe her. I keep hearing these stories of incredibly stupid or arrogant (or both) Americans. I haven’t run into many Americans of any stripe yet myself, but when I come across the ones that think that Canada is part of the US, or Norway is in the UK, or have never heard of Australia, I’ll start keeping track of their origins so we can lobby for their state to get some better funding or something. We’re already unpopular (the Canadians more or less tear into me like I’m George Bush himself), so gross displays of ignorance don’t help our cause!

As for Munich, I went on the Dachau tour today. As can be expected, it was depressing. At the sight of tourists smiling brightly for photos in front of the gas chambers, I decided not to take any pictures at all. It just seemed wrong.

Otherwise, I did the usual: Walk around and check it all out. Munich has some great castles and churches and a lot of beer. However, after reading the pamphlet for women about how to avoid being assaulted during Oktoberfest, I decided I’d lay low on the beer. It’s a lot easier to fight off would-be assailants while sober. Meanwhile, (and perhaps related?) on the desk here next to my computer is someone’s receipt showing they paid euro 9.90 for SCHMUCK. I’m guessing schmuck doesn’t mean the same thing in German as it does in English…

Otherwise, I’m feeling a little sleepy and am now three days without some decent sleep. Despite the sounds of ‘I Kissed a Girl, and I liked it’ (I swear this song is on constant rotation in Europe) blaring into the room, I’m hopeful of some solid shut eye before heading to Prague on the train in the morning.

Until then…

 

 
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