Wide Awake in Wonderland

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

Bear with me. This rant has a point. I think. October 18, 2008

So when I get home it will be November, and I’ve decided – in addition to the blog and the book I’ve been working on (slowly) during this trip – to do NaNoWriMo (http://www.nanowrimo.org) – National Novel Writing Month (and just a few letters more than the overly rich BC coconut dessert bar thingies). This is something of a community support site to write a novel in one month. It may not be realistic to try to do all these things at the same time, but if you want to change to a career as a writer, I figure it’s best to write. A lot. And maybe the ‘God helps those who help themselves’ effect will kick in? Or I’ll eventually write something someone wants to pay for!?

Meanwhile, I have a Kindle (Amazon’s electronic book device) with me (I love it. I keep meeting people who say they heard they don’t work, but mine has been flawless and a life-saver. It’s so small. Like the size of a DVD case. And the battery holds a charge – allegedly, I’ve never tried – for 14 hours. I can attest to at least ten hours of battery life. The Kindle was worthy every penny if you read a lot and travel a lot), and as a rule I’m aways reading three or four books at once.

Along with The Book Thief, ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, and The Art of Racing in the Rain (all sad books, really), I’ve been reading this book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Actually, I’ve been reading it in small doses. It is arguably the saddest book of them all, and I find it incredibly upsetting. I really enjoyed Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, about the intertwined evolution of four plants (potatoes, tulips, and apples, and marijuana) in conjunction with humanity. All told, it was very interesting and thoughtful, but in no way distressing.

I guess that’s why I was unprepared for the Ominivore’s Dilemma. If you read Fast Food Nation, that was for children. Seriously. The situation Pollan paints is so dire that in some ways it seems unfathomable. And sitting on the Blue Star Ferry from Naxos to Pireaus (Athens) right by the “Goody’s”, I watched as dozens of overweight people bought themelves and their chunky kids what are no doubt corn-syrup and corn-derivative based “chicken nuggets” and “Goody Burgers” and “Star chickens.” and you start to wonder where it all ends? What happens when we literally deplete every fossil fuel on the planet and cannot develop antibiotics smarter than the bugs, but we’ve mutated our cows and our salmon and god knows what else to eat corn, and eat other cows (which is where mad cow comes from. Apparently a similar disorder occurs in human cannibals as eating the flesh of one’s own species carries a special risk for infection.) What happens when all we’ve eaten for several generations is garbage that has more or less been made in a lab and super fueled with antibiotics?

And admitting I have not very well explained the book, but drilled down to the worst of it. And even if Michael Pollan’s research is inaccurate or one-sided or prone to hyperbole (and I don’t know that it is, I’m just playing devil’s advocate), it occurred to me that the end game of this dilemma would make a damn good story. And although science fiction is not something I know anything about, I figure as long as my science is solid, the rest is fiction. So there you go.

And as what I’m taking as a ‘thumbs up’ sign from universe (BTW, is there anywhere that’s rude? I read not to slap a fist into an open palm or make the ‘victory’ sign in Turkey – but I don’t do these things anyway. I DO, however, throw around thumbs like I’m The Fonz. Ehhhhhhhhhh! Essentially, now that the head nodding and shaking is out, it’s how I try to convey to non-English speakers that I’m okay, or my backpack is on now and you can let go and stop whimpering, or I understand that the large white boat is the ferry or whatever. No one has ever looked offended, but I’m not always the best judge of subtleties. Let me know if thumbs up = something bad and where).

So I totally interrupted myself there. Let me try that again: As what I’m taking as a ‘thumbs up’ sign from universe, within ten minutes of coming up with this idea, I stumbled across a quote that strikes me as a compass for the storyline. It comes, quite auspiciously, from the brilliant science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke, “Any sufficiently developed technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

So now I guess we know (to some extent) what we’ll be talking about come November…

Meanwhile, the Italians have NOTHING on the Greeks in terms of aggressive male behavior. The Greeks are in a league of their own (which is not necessarily a good thing). On the upside, I have had three men tell me they love me today. On the downside, I don’t know any of their names. More on that tomorrow…

p.s.

As I’ve worked on this tonight, I can hear an Australian guy on the phone in the hall lamenting to person after person how someone picked his pocket on the subway today. I would like to take a moment and offer up some heartfelt gratitude.

TO THE POWERS THAT BE: THANK YOU SO MUCH that NOTHING of any kind (minus a cold, which was truly no big deal) has befallen me the last three months! Just let me know what form of alms you would prefer. Having been to the Archeaological Museum today, I’m up on Egyptian, Classical Greek, Estrucian, etc. etc. etc. Or if just reminding myself and anyone else who cares to notice how infrequently we stop to be grateful is good enough, then so be it. I’ve noticed…and muchas gracias!!!

 

I’m in it for the t-shirt October 14, 2008

I woke up at 4am to a strange sound, only to find that I’d fallen asleep with the TV on. This time it wasn’t the wind. Or the crying dog. Instead, what had been the Jack Black movie “Shallow Hal” was now hard core porn. Like so hard core it was sort of fascinating from an anthropological perspective. There wasn’t much talking, and what there was wasn’t in English, but I will say the Greeks don’t waste a lot of time on plot and character development and watch your back should you ever come across a woman in a a nurse’s outfit wearing a back strap-on. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

It’s another sunny day here in Santorini, and I went for a long run this morning. The winds are less ferocious, and I wasn’t lacerated by a half ton of sand, which was a happy change from Sunday. Also, you should know that as of yesterday I am in training.

Against all logic and reason, I have signed up for a half-marathon in Istanbul on the 26th. My only goal is to finish before they close down the course. I’m in it for the t-shirt. How did this madness come about, you wonder?

Well, let me tell you: A few days ago, on the train from Bucharest to Sofia – the train I probably would have missed in a more efficient country where things move a little faster and tend to be on time – I met a lovely woman from Slovenia. She’s one of those people that you hit it off with immediately and then still like ten and a half hours and 246 miles (which means the Bulgarian train traveled less than 25MPH. Sad!) later.

Thus, it was a happy coincidence to discover that we were staying in the same hostel, especially since we got in late at 11pm. The next day we ended up going for a run together, and somewhere along the way she told me about the half-marathon she was doing in Istanbul on the 26th. My original plan had been to get there on the 27th, but I couldn’t shake the idea of the run. And the novelty. And having someone to do it with. And the fact that if I just tweaked my schedule a little bit, I could join her. I looked it up on the internet, and the last day to register was today. I know a sign when I see one.

To be frank, I have no business running that kind of distance. I usually run five or six miles, maybe seven if I get lost. However, at this point in my trip, the time I have remaining is about novelty and natural wonders and doing the things I really want to do, even if that just means spending two hours seeking out a thermal pool or going for a run on an empty beach.

For me, that has been one of the best parts about visiting Santorini this time of year. It’s the off-season and the beginning of ‘winter’ (albeit 25C/78F and sunny). The grocery stores are wiped out (and what’s there looks like it came out of a compost bin), windows are being boarded up, and all but a handful of restaurants are closed. If you came looking for nightlife or a swinging party scene, you’re SOL. However, if you’ve ever wanted to stroll down two miles of black sand beach under the full moon and not even see another living soul, this is perfect timing.

 

Excuse me while I do a little dry heaving… October 12, 2008

Admittedly, I’ve never been to Egypt or India, but if there’s ever a ‘world’s worst tap water’ contest, I’d like to nominate Santorini, Greece. It is AWFUL. Actually, that’s not a strong enough word: HEINOUS. HARROWING. HORRIFIC. BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAD.

I thought maybe if I boiled it…??? I succeeded in ruining a perfectly good tea bag. Earl Gray, no less.

I don’t really know what is occurring, but I’d say the closest description is the ‘water cure’ at the Turkish baths in Budapest. I took a single mouthful of the salty sulfur water at the baths (out of the spigot intended for drinking), and it was warm and creepy, but bearable. The Santorini tap water is in the same genre, but not as curative. Just plain old gross.

As a coincidence (or is it???), I caught a small bit of ‘Erin Brokovich’ on the TV while using the wifi in the reception area earlier today. Just enough to remind me that the lawsuit was about poisonous water caused by PG&E. Just enough to feel a little tiny bit uncomfortable about all that I have consumed while on this trip.

In the same vein, I had my first glass of Greek wine today. A white wine apparently made in the traditional style. I had a sip, and I didn’t like it. The flavor was strange. Like herbs maybe. I couldn’t quit put my finger on it, but it was familiar.

I took another sip.

Oregano?

No.

Basil?

No.

Thyme?
No.

Mold?

Without a doubt.

Probably it came from a bottle that was corked, but I’m not sure. I know there’s a whole world of wine flavors. Is mildew a legitimate flavor profile?

Meanwhile, the hotel I’m staying at sells a glass of local white wine out of a box (less chance of corkage!) for 3 euro. However, if moldy is just the way it tastes, I really don’t want to waste the money. Thus, for now, I’ll just stick with my bottled water. On the other hand, tomorrow is my birthday (how weird is that???), so maybe I’ll live large and order up a glass of the box wine then? And I’m definitely getting some calamari.

Meanwhile, I had a strange night. After a solid week or more in hostels (and listening to people snore in all forms and fashion), I was so looking forward to peace and quiet. However, the universe had other plans. First, there was the wind. It got up to 45mph, and the sound of that is something else. At the very least, it’s not something I’m accustomed to, and some primitive instinct inside me finds it a little bit alarming. Especially when I’m on an island.

Next, there was my room. Not to pick on it, but the construction quality is little bit shoddy. The window has two panels – one glass and another wood – and they fit together and are held in place by a metal hinge that reminds me of a bobby pin. One strong breeze and they both come flying open.

Furthermore, the door to the room is jimmied into place, and a solid inch of daylight peers through when it’s shut. However, they have thoughtfully provided a sheet on a curtain rod, which I suppose is to try to block out the light or the breeze or ??? With respect to the door, the only thing that keeps it from flying open is a deadbolt which fits loosely in its slot. It’s a very casual arrangement from a security perspective, and if I knew I wouldn’t have to pay for the damage, I’d kind of be curious to see if I could body slam the door open using just my weight. I suspect I could.

Thus, due to the questionable craftsmanship and the intense winds, the door and windows spent the night slamming open and closed and creaking and straining and rattling against the deadbolt. It was incredibly noisy, and I probably woke up six or seven times. Then I would just lay in the darkness and listen to the wind and marvel at the fact that I’m lying in a bed in Santorni, Greece and my stomach is turning a little too much and does that water just taste bad or does the bad taste serve as a warning, like the stink applied to natural gas?

(Now you know why that little snippet of Erin Brokovich was particularly alarming…)

If the wind and the slamming and the creaking weren’t enough, there was the crying. At first, while still asleep, I thought it was a child. Then I realized it was a dog. In my sleepy confusion, I thought maybe it was in the courtyard of the hotel. I got up to look for it and maybe give it something to eat (I don’t have much in the room, but I do have some milk, some eggs, and an unlimited supply of hideous water). There was no one there but the wind.

I went back to bed, fell asleep, and heard it again. At this point, I realized it was coming from above my head, on the other side of the hotel. It cried and cried and cried, and I could occasionally hear it shake and the sound of a chain around its neck. I figured it must be afraid of all the wind or cold (or both), and it made me incredibly sad.

Today, I went looking and discovered a dog tied up behind a house near the hotel. I talked to the people here and they agreed that it was probably the same one I heard crying, that it’s always tied up, and that it “isn’t very nice.” I hate these kinds of situations. As much as I’m reminded of the magic in the world, it’s also hard to deny that people can be thoughtless idiots, if not worse.

If I were at home, I would go and talk to the owners and maybe even see if they would give me the dog or let me buy it from them. Anything to give it a better life. Here, and in these circumstances (with three weeks of backpacking left to do), I feel so helpless. I had to give myself firm talk about the insanity of trying to rescue a Greek dog. Or take it with me. Although if I can figure out where, I may go and buy it some meat or at least a bone. A birthday present to us both.

Speaking of birthdays, I was looking for a quote for tomorrow’s blog, and I ran across one so simple and yet profound, that it kind of made me tear up. As an added point of significance, it was said by Jonathan Swift, the writer that ‘invented’ my name (Vanessa) as a nickname for a student of his.

Moreover, it is a sentiment that has come to exemplify how I intend to live my life: by following my instincts, my heart, my emotions, and my gut. By noticing coincidences and doing what feels right. By being flexible and open and real. And by not being afraid and trusting the universe to throw out a safety net when I need it. And those ideals – as simple, as elusive, as liberating and as complicated as they are – can be summarized a little bit like this:

May you live all the days of your life.

 

Incognito no more October 7, 2008

I’m going to venture a guess that there is no such thing as the Romanians with Disabilities Act. Or if there is, its enforcers need to host a fund raiser tout de suite. I draw this conclusion based on the fact that getting onto a Romanian train is about as easy as climbing a tree. With no branches. And with one hand tied behind your back. While being attacked by bees. And climbing onto a Romanian train with 40 pounds of luggage strapped on your ailing shoulders borders on impossible. And I say this as someone relatively youthful and in pretty good shape.

In the same vein, I don’t know why, but I’ve been found out. Throughout my travels I have blended in remarkably well. I am often mistaken for German or Italian or French, and more than one American has said that I “don’t look American,” whatever that means. Regardless, it seems I have something of a “generic European” face that somehow always looks local…except in Romania. The Romanians are quite dark, and blond hair is a relative rarity. Thus, for the first time, I am attracting scads of attention, which manifests in young men sitting all around me on the trains, engaging in a wide variety of antics in order to gain my interest.

The antics involve staring, shrieking, singing, clapping, hissing, raucous talking and laughter, more staring (standing up to stare over the seats even), drumming on the windows, and – during one unforgettably surreal hour – blaring Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” from a cell phone over and over and over. Yesterday, I tried changing seats (in an empty car, they will always sit next to and behind me), but they move too. It’s not a problem per se. I don’t feel threatened, just annoyed.

To be frank, I don’t understand the motivation. I suppose my obvious foreignness is fascinating somehow. They don’t speak English, so it’s a pointless effort, but what can you do?

I am going through some of this right now on the train from Sighisoara back to Brasov. Today it’s seven guys in their early twenties, and they are playing what I can only imagine is some local “rock’ music. It sounds an awful lot like a mix of polka and the background music at Indian restaurants…which I suppose, geographically speaking, it about right. One of the guys is wearing a red nylon jacket with a dozen Vodaphone, Bridgestone, and Shell gas patches sewn on it. I don’t know if this is an attempt to look like a heavily endorsed Nascar driver or what. I would hope if Shell and Bridgestone were paying his way, they’d at least put him on the bus. Meanwhile, they’re clapping and foot-stomping and staring at me, but that seems to be par for the course.

Otherwise, I’m hopeful of getting off at the right stop the first time around, and getting a day off from the trains. Riding the Romanian rails is rough. The heat is cranked up incredibly high, cigarette smoking is allowed, and there is no ventilation whatsoever. Plus, the seats are hard as a rock. After a few hours of it, you feel like a piece of beef jerky. I got to my guest house yesterday with a seriously sore butt and stinking like a pub.

I am staying the next couple nights in Brasov, Romania in the heart of Transylvania. The whole area is a strange mix of an over the top “Dracula” tourist trap and the Kazakhstan of Borat. The ‘real’ Dracula (or as close as it gets) was born in Sighisoara, where I stayed last night. Actually, he was born in what is now the “Casa Vlad Dracu” restaurant, where I ate my not-very-good but quite overpriced dinner. I was given a 50% off ‘coupon’ (something written on a scrap of paper) by my guest house and options were extremely scarce, so I figured why not. If you ever have the opportunity, may I suggest not.

Meanwhile, let me catch you up on little Transylvanian history: Vlad Tepes, a local governer in the area in the mid-1400s is the man known has Dracula. His father was called Vlad Dracul (dragon) for his membership in the “Order of the Dragon” (or devil. Apparently the word is interchangeable). As a young man, Vlad Tepes was sent by his father to the Ottoman Empire as a hostage. There he learned the art of impalement (inserting a large wooden stake into someone, intentionally avoiding the vital organs, so that they suffered a slow agonizing death), which he brought home with him. During his rule, Dracula (known as Vlad the Impaler) killed murderers, thieves, political rivals, the destitute, and the crippled this way. In short, he wasn’t immortal, he never sucked anyone’s blood, and he probably couldn’t turn into a bat, but he was still a bad dude.

Why Bram Stoker decided to write about a real guy, but change it up such is a mystery. Similarly, Bran Castle (apparently denoted as Dracula’s home in the novel) is outside Brasov, but the only thing Vlad the Impaler had to do with it, is that his grandfather had lived there and ‘Dracula’ himself was once imprisoned in the basement by the Hungarian king. Nonetheless, I may take the bus out to castle and the Rasnov fortress tomorrow, in large part because there really isn’t that much to do. The day after is the dreaded, all-day train ride to Sofia. If only they provided plugs or my computer battery lasted more than 2.5 hours. I might not be considering buying coloring books or Sudoku puzzles or whatever sad entertainment is available to me.

On the other hand, no need to focus on that just yet. I still have a full day in Transylvania ahead of me, and who knows what kind of wonders await!?

 

Brought to my knees by the Bank of America September 28, 2008

So yesterday was a toughie.

I could kind of see it coming by the time I posted my blog, but when something is REALLY bothering me, I tend to keep it to myself. I think maybe I prefer to resolve it, and THEN tell you about it. However, I may be in the midst of a pretty big problem I can’t fix. Or at least that I have yet to see a clear solution to. So maybe you can help?

Here’s the deal: Five days ago, my ATM card quit working. I wrote you a long, highly detailed account of how I figured that out and what I’ve been through thus far to fix it, but it was boring so I deleted it. You’re smart people. You can fill in the blanks.

The card won’t work, and I can’t get any cash. NOT GOOD.

Some of you know that due to an incident in May, I already hate Bank of America and was closing all my accounts. To them I will say, Yes, it’s true, and I am so dumping them when I get home (unless they’re the only bank that hasn’t gone under, and then I guess not), but all my direct deposits payments were set up to go there, and I couldn’t get that changed.

Anyway, yesterday morning, I explained this little problem to Fabri, the strange guy who ran the B&B I stayed at in Trieste. Actually, I wouldn’t call it a B&B so much as a B&b. The little room I had was fine enough. Pretty basic, but whatever. Fabri had some bizarre decorating taste and a serious incense habit. I like incense as much as the next guy, but not when there’s so much smoke that you wonder if maybe a really fragrant forest is burning down next door. But it was for one night, so whatever.

The evening before, Fabri made a big deal about “what time would I like breakfast,” and was very specific about setting a date. Thus, when I pulled into the kitchen at the appointed hour, you can imagine that i was a little bit surprised to find a cappuccino cup, a very small juice box (30% real juice!) with a cartoon hippo on it, and a what looked like a single “Little Debbie” snack treat, still in the original cellophane wrapping (but on a plate). Hmmmm… Where’s the full Irish breakfast? Where’s the muesli and yogurt and cheese? Where’s the beef, Fabri?

Fabri in his eclectic and incense-thick glory padded out and poured me the requisite 1.5 ounces of super strong strangely thick cappuccino, and sat back to savor his hospitality as I struggled to open my Little Debbie wrapper.

Thus, all hyped up on sugar and caffeine, I decided to endeavor a conversation to determine if Bank of America was screwing with me, or if I was somehow dialing wrong. Bank of America kept sending me 888 and 877 numbers, but they wouldn’t work in the pay phones (even when I put money in.) Then they (the phone receiver) always rattled something off in Italian. Fabri thought about this, left for a while, and then came back and offered to try dialing from the phone in his room. He returned, and told me that the recording was saying that 888 and 877 aren’t proper extensions in Italy. And here some kid (via e-mail) SWORE that number would work. Idiots. No wonder the banks are all going under.

Anyway, Fabri had the idea to look on the web site (and laughed rather extensively when he learned that my problems were stemming from an institution called Bank of America), and found a number for the credit card department that would receive collect calls from Europe. Incredibly relieved, I called them that afternoon, but they’re only open 8am to 5pm (of course). When I got to Croatia yesterday evening, I called again. Actually, I called ELEVEN TIMES – all collect, and anywhere from ten to thirty minutes per call. I spent two hours and thirty seven minutes calling. And each and every time I was transferred to the wrong department or the wrong area, and eventually ended up in one of two of Dante’s layers of call center hell:

  1. A queue in which there is some very chipper music that reminds me of The Sims, but which starts to make you feel homicidal after about thirty minutes. I could totally sing you the tune if you were here. Anyway, it is regularly interrupted by a male voice that says, “Your expected wait time is at least five minutes.” Then it starts saying, “Your expected wait time is approximately two minutes” and you start to feel hopeful…for ten minutes. And then back to the five minutes, no wait two minutes, five minutes, two minutes…until finally there is a silence and a sound of fumbling, and you’re hung up on. That exact scenario happened three times.

  1. You have to interact with this CRM system where you must speak to it. Again, it’s a male voice and he sounds pleasant enough. This is to mask the fact that he is actually the devil.

Please tell me a little about why you’re calling today.”

“My debit card is not working.”

Okay, did you say you’d like to hear about a loan?”

“NO.”

Okay. Please tell me a little about why you’re calling today.”

“ My DEBIT CARD will not WORK in the ATM.”

Okay, did you say you’re looking for an ATM location?”

“NO.”

Okay. Please tell me a little about why you’re calling today.”

“I CAN’T GET ANY MONEY OUT OF THE F**KING ATM.”

I didn’t quite get that, could you repeat it?”

“CUSTOMER SERVICE. CUSTOMER SERVICE!!!

I didn’t quite get that, could you repeat it?”

“IF YOU DON’T CONNECT ME TO A HUMAN BEING IN THE NEXT THIRTY SECONDS, I AM GOING TO FLY TO THE UNITED STATES AND BURN DOWN ONE OF YOUR BRANCHES.”

“Okay, let me connect you…”

Silence. Sound of Croatian dial tone.

After the seventh such interaction with that guy, I cried a little. Not a lot. But maybe four or five hot, fat tears. And I felt kind of defeated. And I’m a pretty optimistic person overall, but I really am not sure how to get beyond the 300 departments at Bank of America and talk to someone that can help me. And I didn’t have it in me to call back for a twelfth time, and I’m staying so far out in the boonies that there are no pay phones, and I couldn’t call back last night.

The only thing that brings me even a little comfort is the hope that all those collect call charges amount to at least $500, if not more.

However, rest assured that today has three exciting things on the agenda:

  1. Figure out the train schedule for tomorrow

  2. Find an internet cafe to post this

  3. Call the f-ing Bank of America back and hopefully restore access to my money

Meanwhile, I took the bus from Trieste to Pula yesterday. All was looking good for a quiet journey until an Australian family pulled in at the last second. The man looked almost exactly like my chiropractor (and was equally enthusiastic), and he and his wife had a sulky teenage boy and very bizarre 13-ish girl in tow. I used to have a boss who always referred to her oldest daughter as “special needs.” I never knew what was ‘wrong’ with her, per se, she was a pretty girl and looked normal enough, but she was a bit strange – standing too close, asking weird questions, telling you really off the wall stuff, etc. I’m pretty sure that whatever was ailing my boss’ daughter also had its teeth in this girl.

They came to the rear of the bus where I was, and all took their own row. The girl then proceeded to slam the tray on the back of the seat up and down for about fifteen minutes. The whole bus turned around to look at this at one point or another, but the parents didn’t seem to notice. If anything, they were really hard on the 15 or 16 year old boy, that he was “starting trouble.” No wonder he was so moody. He’s growing up in backwards universe, where the kid with obvious issues is the good one.

Back to the girl, after she tired of the tray, she very suddenly flailed all around violently, as though she were being attacked by bees. This caused me to jump and suddenly go on the alert. If there’s a bee attack about to go down, I like to be prepared, but apparently she was just frustrated because she couldn’t get her foot rest ‘just right.’ This caused her to change seats about 1,693 times.

The enthusiastic dad would call her attention to every last thing out the window on my side. And since she eventually settled in the empty row next to me (it probably was a lot easier to stare bug eyed at me from that spot), she would do things like rush up until she bumped me or throw out an arm out across the aisle until she nearly poked me in my bad eye.

Oh, that’s right. I also failed to mention my bad eye. That’s mostly because I didn’t want to worry you, and also because I didn’t want to further worry me.

So on Friday I put my contacts in, and during the train ride from Venice to Trieste, they started bugging me. It was incredibly hot in the car, and I swear it smelled like cigarette smoke from time to time. I also have these eye drops that I am now very suspicious of. At home I use these “Tears” drops that my ophthalmologist recommended. My eyes are really sensitive, and I react to all kinds of preservatives used in regular products. A refill was in my box that is now on my desk at home.

Anyway, I think there was some accidental leakage, because by the time I hit Spain, I was completely out. I went into the pharmacy and brought the empty bottle. Not one, but three people in white coats consulted about this, and I tried to explain the specifics as I understood them and referenced the ingredients to a degree that was probably insulting. Eventually, one of the guys reached under the counter and came out with a bottle that looked almost exactly like mine.

There are a lot of variations in eye drop bottle shapes, and the Spanish doppleganger gave me hope that this was the right stuff.

Now I’m not so sure. In fact, now I wonder if those people were promoted up from the “Everything for a euro” shop next door and matched my bottle to a lookalike, contents unknown. Sufficed to say, I put a bunch of that stuff into my eyes during the hot,, smoky train trip. At the time, I would have described the effects as “net zero” – didn’t really seem to help, didn’t hurt.

When I got to the B&B, I took out my contacts. My left eye was still pretty pissed off, but I figured it was from the High Holy Mass going on in Fabri’s room. That’s why I was pretty surprised to wake up yesterday morning to find that my eye hurt. Like really, really HURT. Closing it BURNED and made me wince and felt like there was glass in it.

I don’t know about you, but that’s scary. I could be bleeding out from a big gash on my arm and would figure, “That’ll clot. I’ll be fine.” But when it hurts like fire to close your own eyes…!?!? Well, it’s hard not to acknowledge a little low-grade panic setting in.

It’s probably fair to say that if you’re worried about some aspect of your health, the LAST thing you should do is get on WebMD. So that’s exactly what I did. Actually, minus the overuse of some words like “scarring” and “blindness” it was fairly innocuous and just said to flush with water and if the pain continued, go to a doctor. That’s easier said than done, buddy. I’m on my way to frigging Croatia. Know any good ophthalmologists there?

I was spooked enough that I got out my travelers health insurance information, wrote down the policy number, and used the online service to lookup some English-speaking doctors here in Pula. They don’t list eye doctors, but there’s a hospital, so I figured if worse came to worst, I’d start there.

However, as of this morning, it looks and feels fine. I’ll probably forgo my contacts for several days just to be sure (and I looked up doctors all the way to Vienna, just in case) but with any luck I am now just penniless, not blind and penniless (although the latter is a better combination for street-side begging).

Lastly, happy birthday to my dog, Dozer, who I miss very much, and who is three years old today. I’m sure he reads the blog daily, and is probably peeved that I don’t ever mention him, but it’s my general policy to keep this about me and not drag other innocent parties (or at least those I plan to see again) into it. Plus, I know it would be hard for him to reject any statements or make comments in his own defense, as his paws are too large to type effectively. Anyway, attached is a picture of him from last month (sent to me, obviously). He looks beautiful, as always, but he also looks a little down in the dumps. I’m sure he’ll cheer up when I get home in about a month and throw him a big, belated party.

(Also, buddy, if you do figure out how to use those big paws online, maybe consider wiring your beloved master some cash to the Vienna Western Union. Okay? Good boy. Go get yourself bone.)

He ain't no Lassie, but maybe he can figure out how to navigate the BofA automated phone system for me?

He is no Lassie, but maybe he can trot down to my local BofA branch and tear someone's pant leg off as a sign of protest?

 

No, I’m not a suicide bomber. I’m just trying to make sure no one steals my camera. September 27, 2008

I keep having these little snafus that make me wonder what the universe is trying to tell me.

Case in point, back in late July, I paid big bucks to ship a box of critical items to myself for pickup in Vienna next week. The shipping alone was three nights in an above-average hostel in a big city. However, it seemed worth it, as I reasoned that by two months on the road, I would be elated to find myself with the creature comforts of a polar fleece vest, my pill prescription, some new contacts and the magic cleaning fluid (which you cannot find here. I know. I’ve tried). Also, I’m overdue for a refill on my Aveda shampoo and conditioner, and who doesn’t love a big old pack of beef jerky? If there is one thing I miss – more for convenience and a quick and non-grease laden way to feel sated – it’s beef jerky. Why is there no European country that understands the genius of Jack Links!?!?

Anyway,I swallowed hard at the shipping costs and bit the bullet. When I opened that box of goodies, it was going to be worth it.

This is what makes it kind of upsetting to learn that the box has arrived…BACK AT MY HOME IN THE UNITED STATES.

I suppose the good news (the only good news) is that I learned this before I sought out the Viennese post office and went through any kind of upset that my box had been hijacked or lost forever, but it still kind of sucks. Mostly because I find myself running out of some key items that I really needed replenished or replaced. Case in point: my razor.

So in America you hear about a business philosophy of ‘give away the razor, and charge for the blades.” Apparently, here in Italy, it’s more of a “give me your wallet, and don’t scream or I’ll kill you” model. I spent about $15.00 for a new Venus razor today. It did come with one replacement blade, but I really do hope the Gillette people hang their heads in shame. Ironically, however, it’s worth it. The other day I bought a 2 euro ($3) “Lady Alfetta“in cheery pink. I’m not sure on the translation, but I’m pretty sure that’s Italian for “Lady Bloodletting.”

One would not think there is much difference between a basic razor and a “Venus” razor, but that is like suggesting that there is not much difference between heaven and hell. Seriously, the cheap razor is so bad it’s not even funny. It’s medieval. It’s like an unplanned suicide attempt. I

What’s most amazing to me is that it requires some serious thought and skill to use. It has just one blade set incredibly low in the cheap plastic frame, so you have to angle it and handle it just so. It’s a breath away from going after your legs with just a blade.

This brings to mind something I’ve always wondered: How has the barbershop industry managed to make the straight edge shave a luxury up-charge? Is it that it’s “old fashioned”? Is it misguided jealousy – women have pedicures, and manicures, and facials and makeovers, but guys have so few ‘manly’ options of the same stripe? Is it the adrenaline rush experienced when you realize that it’s just a shave, and yet your life is in danger? To me, it just looks scary. And screams out “bad idea!” Sweeney Todd knew a sucker when he saw one too.

Speaking of scary things, I met some Irish girls who have put the fear of god into me regarding my only other night train (the first being Lisbon to Madrid, which minus some minor molestation was no big deal). They were saying that on the train from Budapest (Hungary) to Krakow (Poland) they were robbed (only their cameras were taken, but still…),. As they were using their bags as pillows, they are fairly certain they were gassed for this to have occurred. Rumors abound about people filling train compartments with some kind of gas, knocking everyone out cold, and robbing them. It was the story from a girl who claimed she’d woken up naked on the night train to Rome and Naples that kept me from ever going south of Florence in 1992.

I was originally going to do two night trains: Budapest (Hungary) to Sighisoara (Romania), and Bucharest (Romania) to Sofia (Bulgaria). However, I have heard and read such bad things about Bucharest (the worst city in Europe, packs of mongrel dogs that are known to attack people, the ONLY thing to see is the second largest building in the world – whoop di do, and – if the wild dogs leave anything behind – muggings galore. I’ll give them a few years to pull themselves together before coming back.) Sorry, got off on a little tangent there: I read such bad things about Bucharest that I’m blowing straight through. I’m going from Brasov (Transylvania) to Sofia in one, long, train-heavy day. It will suck, but I will live through it…and that’s all that matters.

However, I do have a bed on the train from Budapest to Sighisoara, and I’m torn about how to proceed. I don’t want to invent worry or make my life complicated for no reason, but I also don’t want to wake up from an inexplicably sound night of sleep and find that I have no money, no credit cards, no computer, and no camera. I do know my passport will be safe, because when you book a bed on an international train they hold onto it and present it during the border crossing for you.

Thus, I’ve decided to proceed as follows (and this would be so much better if I could present it as a flow chart, but alas. You’ll just have to use your imagination):

  1. Grill the hostel staff on historical safety of this night train. If concerned, abort and take a day train.

  2. If given the green light, case out the situation once I get there. If it seems sketchy, stay up all night pounding coffee in the cafe car.

  3. If it looks good and the other people in the room are fellow travelers (i.e. not locals of suspect nature) and the door to the cabin locks (as it should), then hide money and credit cards deeply in messenger bag. Use zip ties to seal bag shut. Place messenger bag in bottom of day pack (small backpack), put a ton of stuff on top of it, and lock day pack with TSA lock. Then (this is the part where it gets stupid, but whatever, if someone is going to gas me, I’m going to make sure they have to be Houdini to get to the good stuff and give myself every chance to wake up and scream bloody murder) take bike lock and large padlock and chain day pack to self.

    And don’t think I won’t do it.

    If they show up to rob me, and think I’m a suicide bomber with a bag chained to me…all the better! I’m not making it this far only to let some Romanian or Bulgarian @sshole rip me off.

So, with that resolved, I’m not going to think about it again until Hungary…or if I do think about it, think only good thoughts. For now, it’s off to walk around Trieste (former haunt of James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway) for few hours. Trieste was not part of any tourist trail, and really relied on the Illy coffee company (based here) for many years, but now it has become a big port for cruise ships on their way to Croatia. Yesterday there were no less than three giant cruise ships in the harbor, and there was a strange Oktoberfest-like bazaar going on in their honor. I’m at a point where any swell of tourists is enough to send me scurrying in the other direction, so I when I saw the big crowds and the inflatable pretzel, I knew it was time to bolt.

So onward and upward. There is no internet at the place where I’m staying the next couple nights in Pula, Croatia, but if I can find an internet cafe, I will check in with you tomorrow and maybe finally get some photos uploaded. Until then, enjoy your weekend!

 

Where the streets have no name September 25, 2008

Sorry for the silencio yesterday, kids. No internet access to be had in Venice…at least without an act of God.

I tried. The super nice guy who owns the hostel gave me a hot tip on a cafe with free wifi (so long as you buy a drink). However, he was a little cloudy on the exact whereabouts of said cafe. As with any oasis, you’ve gotta in search with nothing but hope, instincts, and desperation.

Thus, with only the name of a Campo (like a square) in the general vicinity, I went in search of the Cafe Blue. This is a tough game-show worthy challenge in any European country. In Venice, you need a cartographer and a psychic. I’m neither, but I actually found the Campo de Frari pretty easily. Actually, if you’ve ever been here, you’ll find this as weird as I do: It must be the wacko way my mind works, but I’m really good at zipping around Venice. I look at a map, make some vague plan like “go right, cross a bridge, go left for a while, cross a bridge, go left” and this things keep working out. Part of it is my reliance on ‘un-maps’. Since losing my guidebook, I keep ending up with these maps where only about a third of the streets are identified. I have a so-so sense of direction innately, but this lack of information – although initially wildly frustrating – seems to be helping me somehow.

Basically, I only have major landmarks at my disposal, so I just identify the primary direction and start my wandering. I’ve learned the hard way that getting home (sans map) can be a trick, so powers of observation and recall are also relatively crucial. Thankfully, I’m pretty good (and getting better every day) at noticing little details, so although I couldn’t tell you the name of a single calle, via, or campo name in all of Venice (except Calle Zen where my hostel is), I could explain to you how to navigate to the main sights or the one grocery store or the Guggenheim museum. Granted, these ‘directions’ would require navigation based on the position of the sun (and I’m useless at high noon), but that kind of advice is are arguably more useful here than actual street names.

Anyway, I get myself to Campo de Frari, and no Cafe Blue. So then I thought I’d see if anyone left their wireless access unplugged and wandered around with my computer open, hitting ‘refresh’. Nothing. I finally gave up and started to head back, when I came upon a “Blues Bar.” Could this be it!? Unfortunately, I’ll never know, because it was shut down due to a ‘problemi idreci’. By then it was pretty late by my ‘wandering around at night alone’ standards (21:30), so I headed back.

Today, I was hell bent on getting a blog up. I went in the heavy duty tourist area o the train station, and I’m now at “Ae Oche” waiting on my artichoke pizza, prosecco (I’m digging the prosecco. Champagne for no reason feels like a party!) and paying 8 euro (food and drink excluded) to post this. Oh well! Such is breathtakingly expensive Venice! It’s kind of a magical place, provided you can not worry about how much you’re paying for the basics and get away from the two zillion tourists. On the other hand, if it weren’t for the tourists, there would be no Venice.

You see, virtually no one lives here (on the island. All the residents are on Mestre – the mainland). This is because (according to the Italians I’ve talked to) it’s crowded and hard to get around and super expensive. And sinking. Lots of the homes are abandoned. So those who do live here, do so more or less do so because they are involved somehow in tourism (‘or very, very old’ one guy added). So in that sense, the whole place is a venture in make-believe. Welcome to the REAL magic kingdom!

As you walk around in the evenings and people are out on the gondola rides, there are two men that accompanies three or four of them in their own boat, singing Italian love songs (quite well, in fact). However, in all actuality no one really lives this way. There aren’t any native Venetians out on the boats for an evening sojourn or anything! You realize that the whole island is sort of an idea of the ancient Venice mixed with some tourist-based moneymaking ideas that stuck.

That doesn’t bother me. We could all use a little magic – real or fabricated, and there is no denying it’s a gorgeous, gorgeous city. I kind of like the confusing labyrinth of streets. It reminds me of a big hedge maze – and people pay good money to wander through those! Moreover, if you have any need for a photo of a stunning or quaint or spellbinding Venetian canal, drop me a line, because I’ve taken at least 50 of them!

As for today, I’m off to the islands of Lido, Murano, and Burano. Talk to you tomorrow from Trieste (hopefully!)

(p.s. HOT TIP: If you want to attract skads of attention in a Venetian cafe [from people speaking Italian, predominately] bust out a mini computer and work on your blog. I just had a small crowd gathered here. Who’d a thunk? You’d think I was demonstrating a time machine or something!)

 

Never trust a bedbug to read the fine print September 21, 2008

I said they could bite so long as they didn’t bite me. I suppose it wasn’t the most clever approach to hope they would all vacate the room and head out with the grouchy Mexican girl. They didn’t. A few stayed behind and had their way with me. They feasted on my tender flesh, and I hope they all get food poisoning. Regardless, one more night, and I’m on to new things.

Otherwise, I’ve got no complaints with Rome…except maybe that it’s too damn good looking. I’m talking really, really, ridiculously good looking. And all of this breathtaking architecture and endless grandeur and utter magnificence and plain old splendor leaves me EXHAUSTED. I came around a corner on my way home today on a street called “Grecca” I believe, and there were a couple ruins and a magnificent fountain, and I found I couldn’t do it. I had lost the ability to pull my camera (now giving me the flashing empty red battery warning sign) out and take yet another shot of something remarkable. Rome has officially supersaturated my senses.

I’ve had all I can stands, and I can stands no more. I’m just going to hang out with the bed bugs in this dingy hostel until I can look at something carved or marble or Roman again without flinching.

In other news, I started my day with a long run. I’m a firm believer in sweating out what ails you, and I spotted a park-looking area to the south of where I’m staying (by the Coliseum). I found a nice long stretch of grass and dirt and like-minded folks. Plus, along the way, I was able to observe some authentic Roman exercise, and all I can say is yikes. I saw more strange things today than I know how to articulate: Not one but TWO men running with a body posture somewhat like that used to go under a limbo bar. A very heavyset man running with hand weights and flailing them about like you might if you were practicing really telling someone off for once and for all. Head to toe shiny spandex outfits straight outta ‘Xanadu.’

Then there was this jungle gym/obstacle course area, and all these super macho guys were there doing all sorts of goof ball stuff, but looking super-serious about it: Pull ups, flips, hanging from the knees, some primitive form of Jazzercise, etc. My favorite was the shirtless guy throwing punches in the air with intense ferocity. And me without my camera…

Afterward, I went to the Coliseum, and got a good jump start on my visual overload. I am so completely and utterly taken with the Coliseum. I could sit there and stare at it for hours. If I were a billionaire, particularly a super-eccentric one, I would build a Coliseum replica somewhere. I think the world could handle two of them. Put it somewhere like Flint, Michigan, where they could really use the tourism revenue.

So anyway, as I was wandering away from the ruins in pursuit of some pizza in the Travestere, I spotted a Peruvian band (of course)…and then another across the street. Dueling wind flutes. You ALWAYS see Peruvian bands. There must be a Peruvian band on the moon. You don’t always see them set up shop across the street from one another – it’s like Jets and the Sharks.

Anyway, the second band was blocking some particularly nice ruins, so I paused to walk behind them and take a picture when I heard an American ask one of the band members how much their CDs were. “10 Euro,” he replied. The questioner wandered away, and an unmistakable Long Island accent asked, “What’s the matter? You couldn’t Jew them down?”

Hey lady, you kiss your mother with that mouth? I’ve just spent the last three weeks knee-deep in the history of the six MILLION Jews killed during the Holocaust, and I think you can come up with a better verb (negotiate, bargain, haggle, compromise) than that. Yikes. Embarrassing. The next confused Italian who asks if I’m from England is going to get a proud, “Yes!”

I wandered for a solid eight hours today, and it was at around hour six – at the Pantheon – that the overload started to kick in. There were simply too many people, and they were pushing and elbowing their way into this ancient building like an angry mob. Someone gave my back what felt like a serious two-handed shove, and I had some uncomfortable memories of the Gimme Shelter movie. I don’t have any need to be part of an Italian reenactment of the Stones concert at Altamont. Especially not at a building that’s been around for 2000 years, and will most likely be here on some future visit. Thus, at this point some some temporary agoraphobia set in, and I bolted off to the Trevi Fountain.

God help me, the Trevi Fountain. It’s unreal. Have you SEEN this thing!?!?! The closest comparison we have in America is Caear’s Palace in Vegas (I know, that’s sad…) but Caesar’s doesn’t even come close. It’s glorious, and if it weren’t in a city with two hundred other amazing things, I might have even heard of it before yesterday.

All this gushing aside, I promise to get some pictures of these marvels up in the next few days, provided I can get through the night without requiring a blood transfusion or a gallon of DDT.

 

Arreverdici, Riga September 19, 2008

I’m blowing this frozen pop stand. Thanks for the memories of torture, apathy, hostels only sightly less worse than the one in the movie ‘Hostel’, and sub-par customer service! If I ever decide to write horror films of my own, you’ve provided plenty of mental imagery for the cause.

Speaking of which, it’s a sure sign you’ve been to too many torture museums when you look out the window of the plane, see the propellers start up, and imagine what a mess it would make if a Soviet soldier or Nazi policeman forced someone into it. It could happen. Hell, it probably did happen. That was likely detailed in the parts of all the museums where I finally and inevitably decide I’ve seen enough photographs of bloated dead bodies and head for the nearest exit.

Anywho, I flew from Latvia to Lithuania and Lithuania to Italy this morning in the pre-dawn hours. I am really not a morning person, so this was harder on me than I’m making it sound. Plus, the Baltics and their hostel-dwelling homeless got their head cold/flu claws into me, and I’m fighting something that’s making my throat sore and my ears hurt and my shoulders ache and my skin sensitive. And my ears hurt. Did I mention that? Ah, yes I did. (something tells me this blog is not going to be as sharp as some of the others…)

However, despite the seemingly mundane circumstances of getting the hell out of Dodge, there were still many puzzles presented as I bid my adieu. For instance, the announcements by the airline staff in “English.” I first got an earful of this on the flight from Warsaw to Vilnius. It was as if I were to construct a sentence of the ten words I know in Italian and string them together with a babble of sound that I think kind of sounds like the language.

“Signore e signori blahblahBLAHblahBLAHBLAHblah BIGLIETTO blah blah AUTOBUS PREGO SCUZI blah blah blah blah GRAZI!” In Poland, that means you’re fluent.

Anyway, I don’t understand a word of any of them, but I imagine that Polish, Lithuanian, and Latvian are spoken very, very rapidly . I base this hypothesis upon their slander of my mother tongue: Fast, slurred, and incomprehensible. It’s as if Bullwinkle’s Boris and Natasha got jobs as auctioneers.

Meanwhile, I’ve had two weird (one was more alarming than weird, actually) run-ins with old ladies in the last few days. I’d be open to your input here (particularly advice on how to avoid future-such incidents):

  1. Lost in Riga with backpack in tow and searching for my boondocks hotel. I had been wandering suburban streets for about fifteen minutes. I turned the corner and came upon three goats tied to one another (and struggling in a three-way goat tug-of-war) on the sidewalk. One was eating some grass in the area between the street and sidewalk, and on the other side of the sidewalk was a school playground where children were playing. All was normal but for the bondage goat menage a trois.

    It was so gosh darn weird, that I put down my messenger bag and began rifling through in search of my camera. Then I noticed a shadow fall on me, and looked up to see a 110-year old woman – straight out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. But the kicker was, she was looking at me as though I’d just stepped off a spaceship. Seriously, I could not have been a bigger oddity had I been dressed as a member of Kiss and levitating three feet off the ground with fire coming out of my eyeballs. Here I thought these goats (and their ancient caretaker) were a sight to behold, but it seems – as always – the joke was on me. Stranger in a strange land, for sure.

  2. Then, late this morning in Rome, I was marching down the street in search of my hostel (notice a common theme? Alas, it’s true, a lot of time is spent looking for stuff – mentally, physically, metaphysically – and great weight is carried while these searches occur. Hmmmm…). Anyway, I’m tramping down the street minding my own business, and I jump about a foot as my mind tries to process the sight of this older woman coming at me with her mouth open like she’s going to bite my messenger bag (that I carry in front). Seriously, this scared the living SH*T out of me. I cannot accurately convey how truly alarming a sight this was. It was a massive adrenaline punch, and I felt immediately poised to start running. It was so random and bizarre, and it totally brought to mind imagery from that movie “The Grudge”. Her mouth seemed so BLACK. This photo is not quite as scary: http://www.allmoviephoto.com/photo/2004_the_grudge_011_big.html Then she screamed at me in Italian until I got far enough away that I couldn’t hear it anymore. Probably a good thing I don’t really speak Italian, or this might give me bad dreams or something???

Seriously though, when has THAT ever happened to you????

Do you think when we die all the answers to these WTF moments are cleared up?

Speaking of WTF, on the back of my seat on the first flight was this cartoon picture of two pilots saluting. They were both overweight, one notably so. The fat one (it amused me that they took the care to give them both love handles) had a Hitler-esque (Hitler in need of a trim shall we say) mustache and was holding an ice cream cone with three scoops in the hand that wasn’t saluting. The thinner, younger-looking one was holding an apple, but staring at the ice cream. Wha…..?????

To the left, it said a bunch of stuff I don’t understand in Latvian or Lithuanian or the like. I will say, my favorite words (I jotted them down) were nesunegaluotu (do you think that means ‘glutton’?) and papasakok (I just like saying that).

Now you, too, can share in the confusion and speculation...

Now you, too, can share in the confusion and speculation...

This raises many possible interpretations. I posit to you a few of my own, but seeing before you the picture, feel free to share your own:

  • Ice cream makes you fat

  • Lithuanians have apples, but gelato (like the Italians have) is better

  • Hitler liked ice cream. A lot.

  • You, passenger, are in back hungry, while we – the pilots – are in front gorging

  • We salute you, but we also salute the four food groups – minus meat (unless you count my pudgy coworker here)

  • I would kill this guy with just an apple to get my hands on his ice cream

  • Ain’t dadaism grand?

Oh, and I finally figured out how to get soap out of the Lithuanian soap dispensers – they’re like MILKING A COW (funny that this should NOT occur to me, as I have exactly zero cow milking experience). Actually, everywhere you go, there are little mysteries to figure out like turning on the lights, flushing the toilets, and getting to the soap. In America, so much is automated. In Europe, it’s like an IQ test. You do things like pulverize a bar of soap in the spirit of an organ grinder’s monkey – Germany, utilize a “soap on a pole” (like soap on a rope, but on a big metal nail thing) – France, and, as previously mentioned, work an udder.

I remember when I was working as a banking consultant I went to this one credit union where they had all this hand washing propaganda in the bathroom about how there are more germs on your hands than there are people in London. And about how some horrifyingly low amount of people wash their hands after using the bathroom (and it’s DEFINITELY lower in these parts – people crap on a cookie sheet and go out and get themselves a Big Mac without pause), and – most importantly – that’s how you get sick.

Basically, that credit union gave me Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that afternoon. The whole bathroom was one big scare tactic – and it worked. On me, anyway. I still do all of it:

  1. Soap up and scrub for at least 30 seconds

  2. If you have any rings, take them off or slide them around and get under them with the soap.

  3. Rinse with hot water

  4. Don’t touch anything once you’re clean! Hang onto your paper towel when you’re done drying and use it to open the door to get out.

#4 poses a particular challenge in a land of heated hand dryers and the “infinity towel”. That’s when (I suspect) there’s like three feet of towel turning over and over everyone uses it. I thought these things went extinct in the 1980s along with the Dorothy Hamil haircut and Nehru jackets, but apparently they were just shipped to Italy and Minneapolis.

In those circumstances, I dry my hands on my pants and use my elbows to open the doors. I’m like a veritable Christy Brown.

However, perhaps the most unusual thing I saw on my way out of the Baltics was a beautiful, happy, laughing little girl on plane. In stark contrast to her parents, she was friendly and sweet and full of smiles. Their younger child was an angry little man, so they plopped her out in the aisle while they attended to him, and as I was in the row behind them, she promptly gravitated my way. I mixed up some Emergen-C in front of her eyes like it was a magic trick. She looked at me with as much wonderment as the goat lady, Only a lot friendlier.

I have all these different colored pens in my bag, and I got them out and she was coloring with me (I was in the aisle seat). At one point, her mother got up, looked at us, made a face, and then just sat back down. I’ll throw down that any American (British? Australian? Irish? Swiss? Scottish? German? Canadian? etc. etc.) mother would chat and be slightly friendly to a woman entertaining the child she’d tossed in the aisle. Maybe at least smile?

Anyway, whatever with her. I was just hoping to leave a positive impression on the next generation so maybe they can learn to be a little less cold.

Thus, I hope my re-education efforts don’t cause any trouble. Hopefully that little girl isn’t thrown in the gulag wherever she’s going.. At two and-a-half or three years old, she’s too young to have been fully programmed with the official sneer, or maybe just doesn’t understand yet that smiling is illegal in the Balkans? ;)

What a strange world, my friends…

But nothing I will figure out tonight or while feeling so whipped. Ciao bellas and bellos! Sleep tight and wish me luck fighting off this cold!!!

 

The horror… The horror… September 17, 2008

Just me and the Baltic Sea

Just me and the Baltic Sea

Small Lithuanian market's vast ketchup offering

Small Lithuanian market's vast ketchup offering

Having never been the kind of girl that ‘gets around’, I can recall very few (if any) experiences in which I awoke in a strange and repugnant place early, quietly packed up my things, and burst through the door into the cold morning air feeling as though I’d just pulled off a prison break. This was such a morning, and I don’t think I would’ve felt more relieved had I just swam to shore from Alcatraz.

I’ve never slept in a homeless shelter, but now I kind of feel like I can say I have – only I paid good money for the experience. Old men continued to pile in throughout the night (one arrived at 2am, two more at 3am), each adding their own brand of phlegmy cough, chainsaw snore, urine-soaked smell, and moaning – moaning like you might imagine in a medieval dungeon – to the terrible symphony. To my own utter amazement, I managed to think myself asleep by practicing some relaxation techniques I know from hypnosis. Admittedly, I was still awoken every couple hours and it would always take another 45 minutes to work through the range of emotions (horror, disgust, fear, misery, despair, etc.) and fall back asleep again.

It was also incredibly cold, which didn’t help. The hostel had no heat (of course not. It wouldn’t qualify as the single worst lodging on earth if it provided any kind of human comfort), and I don’t remember being so cold in the night except for a couple times I went camping without proper equipment. I used to have this 1971 Volkswagen Westfalia and one time my boyfriend at the time and I went to a Native American ceremony up on Orcas Island in the San Juans. After a really long, strange, nauseating 18-hour ‘ceremony’ in a smoky teepee (the fire wasn’t set up right, apparently), we stumbled back to the van to sleep. I woke up many hours later and my hair had frozen. Condensation had built up in the van from our breathing and gotten in my hair and it was like a solid block of ice in some places. This hostel was not quite, but almost that cold. And louder.

Anyway, when I woke up I saw that one of the guys had opened the windows. It was 6 Celsius out last night (about 40 degrees for those of us, such as myself, that know all but nothing of the metric and Celsius systems. I know that 40 celcius is over 100 and the Europeans consider that the same as melting in hell and 0 is freezing. Does anyone know: Why do we still use all those antiquated systems in the U.S. – ounces, miles, degrees?? Because we’re stubborn?). Anyway, it was damn cold out there, but someone opened a window anyway. It sounded to me like some of those guys had emphysema or at least tuberculosis, but it’s their funeral, I guess.

The worst of it – and I hesitate to mention this because the emotional scarring is still quite raw – was something I saw. For those of you easily nauseated, you may want to skip ahead. Okay, last night I left the room and went into one of the bathrooms to wash up, brush my teeth, and change into pajamas. At the time, the two men I originally mentioned (down and out Dennis Hopper and his friend) were not on the premises, It was my goal to get to bed before they returned. I had heard Dennis Hopper wheezing on the couch earlier (while he was awake), and figured we were in for a loud night.

Anyway, the door to the room (a room for ten people, despite the fact that my reservation was for the four-person room, and I’d paid extra for that) was ajar, and I walked in to find the two men standing there in black briefs (the cousin of tighty whiteys – tacky blackies?). and with obvious boners. As if just seeing them naked but for their underwear wasn’t bad enough.

The calm before the storm...chilling by some Lithuanian dunes

The calm before the storm...chilling by some Lithuanian dunes

After I got over the relief that witnessing such a horror hadn’t immediately turned me to stone, I realized they were talking to me in German and giggling like schoolgirls. I averted my eyes in what was intended to be a VERY obvious “I am so disgusted it is all I can do not to throw up” kind of way, put my toiletries in my bag, and climbed up to my bed (in a first, I moved myself to an upper bunk. I figured it would be harder to mess with me – the only woman in the whole joint besides the very heavyset and unfriendly Lithuanian girl in charge, now locked safely in her private heated room).

Okay, so do you ever have nightmares where something bad is happening and you cannot scream? Someone has come up on you in the stairwell of the hotel (this was a common one for me when I used to travel a lot for business, I would always take the stairs, and I guess on some level I was always a little afraid that something bad could come of that?) and you know you have one chance to alert someone else before this goes bad, but you can’t make a sound? This is, of course, because your body paralyzes you while you’re asleep so that you don’t act out your dreams and hurt yourself.

Anyway, last night I dreamed that those two horrible old black underwear boner men were trying to molest me. One of them was reaching under my blanket and the other was climbing up the stairs to the bunk, and I tried and tried to scream and nothing would come out, and I was so disgusted and horrified and violently opposed to this that I put out one final effort and let out a blood curdling scream IN REAL LIFE. I swear to God. I screamed like I was being murdered at around 4am in a hostel bedroom because I’d seen two sleazy old men in their underwear five hours earlier.

I was asked in about six different languages if I was okay. Thankfully, I was. Moments later, the snoring and hacking and nose blowing and moaning recommenced.

So I’m out of there now, and slowly calming down and feeling better. There are some fun British people on the bus singing, “Riga, Latvia” to the ‘Viva Las Vegas’ tune. It’s a rare and pleasant treat to be in an English-speaking majority (and a bunch with such sly senses of humor), and I’m relishing it.

When we got on, the local newspaper (Bakaru ekspresas) was in all of our seats, and the woman across the aisle from me was leafing through it. One of her friends asked what she was doing, and she replied, “I’m catching up on a bit of the local news. I’m looking at the pictures, if you must know.” Then she flipped to the back page, “Look, the stars! Diane, I’ll read them to you!” Apparently my sign, Libra, is called “Svarstykles” in Lithuanian. I recognize one word in the last sentence: “Taclau vakaras zada romantikos.” I’m assuming that means, “You are not feeling the least bit romantic” or maybe, “You have just suffered unspeakable torment and may never experience romantic feelings again.” Either way.

As for Lithuania itself:

  • They have a real thing for miniature Yorkshire Terriers. It’s like the national dog or something. Every third person has one – in a basket on their arm, trailing them in the grocery store, under the seat on the plane, perched on their arm like a parrot. If only I could’ve borrowed one for a few days, I could’ve really “gone native.”
  • The ketchup obsession continues. Latvians have it too. I’ve started collecting photographic proof.
  • I went to the “Curonian spit” (the peninsula of land between Klaipeda and the Baltic Sea, where they bandy about the word ‘spit’ as if it’s a common term we use for land). The area is famous for the amber that washes up on the shores and the extensive sand dunes along the coast. Apparently it’s a big vacation spot in the summer. However, as you can see, it’s vacant come winter…uhhhhh, September.
  • I stand by my earlier post – friendly these folks are not. However, I’ve given it some thought and I offer them an out: For the last 225 years, the Baltic countries (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) have suffered greatly at the hands of Russia and Prussia (Germany). As near as I can tell, those who weren’t rounded up and killed, rounded up and put into concentration camps (and then killed?), rounded up and sent to Siberia, or rounded up and put in Russian prisons (and then killed?) still didn’t have it very good. I have kind of a mental image of some guy toiling on his farm and a truck comes by and someone screams out “You are Russian now!” and then fifteen years later they come back, “You are Lithuanian again!” and then ten years later, “You are German now!” and then again, “Lithuanian!” “Russian!” “Lithuanian!”

All this with a lot of bloodshed and suffering and loss and they’re kind of a people that have hardened their hearts. They see any obvious signs of outsiderness, and they don’t like it. Sometimes they’re a little extreme in their reaction – I met a couple guys from Hong Kong who were chased down the street with people screaming at them in Riga. (They could only figure it was because they were Asian.), but we’ll give these battered souls a couple generations to (hopefully) soften and come around.

Eastern Europe is a constant reminder of the worst of humanity (Hitler, concentration camps, the KGB, Siberia, communism, the Holocaust, etc.), and I can only hope that what I take away from all this horror could somehow contribute something good back to the world.

Case in point: I walked around the Pokrov Cemetery in Riga today, and there was a group grave for about a dozen orphans who died because the Nazis drained all their blood. I feel sad because the really nice guys from Hong Kong (who looked out for me last night in the weird hostel turned homeless shelter situation) were made to feel so terrible by people who probably didn’t realize how racist and thoughtless they were being. I don’t even know how to process people torturing children.

This I suppose, is both a good and bad of travel : Getting up close and personal with horrible things you kind of didn’t want to know and the related desire to make a true positive difference in the world.

 

 
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