Wide Awake in Wonderland

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

Your dreams may toss and turn you now November 11, 2008

So I woke up this morning with Cat Stevens playing in my head (just in my head, not on the radio or anything), which is kind of weird really. Nonetheless, seeing as it was out of nowhere and strangely apropos, I took it as a sign and decided to update the tag line on this blog. And the ‘about me’ was adjusted too. And even my outgoing voicemail message on my cell phone. Reality has settled in. Although I still haven’t fully unpacked my backpack, I also haven’t strapped The Beast on in over a week. It had to happen sometime. Elvis is back in the building.

 

Meanwhile, I’m still grappling with a serious case of jet lag. Thus, 7:00 this morning wasn’t the first time I woke up. I also woke up at 4:00 in the middle of a dream that I was hooking up with George Clooney. If you’d asked me yesterday, I’d have described that as pretty much the perfect dream, and one I’d be sorry to see interrupted.

 

However, it turns out having it cut short wasn’t as bad as it sounds. First off, in the dream I was dismayed to find that I was only wearing a sheet, and I was concerned that might send George the wrong message about what kind of girl I am. But that wasn’t all. You see, George had some rough breath. Dumpster meets outhouse meets rotten egg rough. And after I got over the shock and dismay, I was desperately trying to figure out how I might get him some Altoids or even just a TicTac (and maybe a pair of panties for myself). A dab of toothpaste. Some floss. Anything.

 

And I think my duress at the ultimate opportunity turned gross situation caused me to tune into the fact that my sleep hypnosis CD had gone nuts and in the real world, a male voice had been saying, “Anything is possible” for almost five hours.

 

You see, I somehow got my hands on a couple sleep hypnosis CDs earlier this summer. They open with this guy with a strange accent talking you through how your feet are relaxing and your shoulders are relaxing and then once you fall asleep, he rattles on about how “Anything is possible” and “It is. You know it. You accept it.” This I know because I had it on my iPod during my trip in Europe, and it was one of the only tracks that didn’t get wiped out. It was my hope that it would help me fall asleep or fall back asleep when the general ruckus that is a hostel dorm room competed with my beauty sleep. However, sometimes it had the opposite effect. The droning voice itself would keep me awake and I would lay there and listen to the parts you’re supposed to sleep through. Anyway, the point is that the positive affirmations are only to go on for an hour, but somehow my CD got stuck on the phrase “anything is possible” and repeated that until it wormed its way into my conscious mind.

 

But maybe in a way that was the endless repetition I needed? Because I woke up again a couple hours later ready to work and ready to write and feeling energized and excited and enthusiastic and like, well, anything is possible.

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Diary of the blogger as a not-so-young woman October 13, 2008

I won’t beleaguer the whole ‘how the f–k did I get so old!?” thing. You don’t want to hear about it, and neither do I.

Instead, indulge me on a little trip through my psyche and the random thoughts that occupy it on this, the occasion of my birth:

  • Last night I dreamed that I got married, and the ceremony was traditional to the (never identified) groom’s culture. It was also complex.
  • I was wearing an ornate dress that took hours to put on, but the real focus of the ceremony was a little girl. She was made up to look like a doll (kind of like Raggedy Ann), and after the vows were complete, someone brought this wooden box (a little like a coffin) to the front. The box was presented to the onlookers and opened, and this little girl – about five or six years old – emerged in her doll costume. She was quite the ham, and the wedding guests were ENTHRALLED. I remember thinking that she had on way more makeup than I (the bride) did. I vaguely wondered if maybe I should have made myself up more.
  • I can still picture the expression of utter joy on this one guest’s (who I thought was maybe the doll-girl’s mother) face. However, to be fair, the guests were all about this doll-girl, who I thought perhaps was meant to symbolize the future children of the marriage.
  • Then the dream cut to the reception, and I didn’t really know anyone. It was strange because I was meant to be the focus of the celebration (at least in weddings as I know them), but I felt kind of auxiliary. I wasn’t upset about it. I somehow chalked it up to cultural differences. The last thing I remember was reading the box for the bustle and realizing I was wearing not just one, but two of them, necessary to make my huge dress as large as it needed to be.
  • I’m totally crappy at interpreting dreams, but I’ve come up with something about a culture that worships youth and giving up one’s expectations of attention to those younger than you. Otherwise, I’m baffled.

So otherwise, the dream was probably the most exciting thing that happened today. As birthdays go, mine was super mellow.

Ran. Checked pulse – still going. Sat on beach (windy/freezing). Ate lunch – spanikopita from bakery. Sat by pool (less windy/boring). Read some of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” – Did you know it takes one pound of petroleum to make one pound of food!?!?!? Worried about future of the earth and wished I’d paid more attention during “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Skyped with friends
E-mailed with friends
Ate some crappy greasy calamari for dinner. MUST AVENGE THIS BIRTHDAY DINNER INJUSTICE.
Felt grateful for those of you that realized that it wasn’t ‘just another day’ (at least to me). We all want to be be consequential and matter to someone else…and you’re that for me. The favor will be returned. And until then…THANK YOU.

 

No need to worry. The chaos is going exactly as planned. October 6, 2008

Greetings from 1759. Also known as Sighisoara (with a funny little symbol under the second “s” that causes it to be pronounced ‘sh’), Romania. This is a part of the world that time forgot: where people ride to town on homemade-looking wooden platforms drawn by horses and the locals marvel when they learn you’re from America. After getting over the initial shock, this is, if you ask me, what it’s all about. A man looked at me and said today, “You must have big courage to come to Romania alone,” but I think they’re selling themselves short. Things have gone wrong, and then some, but all in all it was just a series of mistakes and accidents, and I’m still happy to have made it.

As for the sordid details, if there is one lesson I can share from this journey, it is to expect the unexpected, and be ready to roll with it. And laugh at it. Water off a duck, baby.

Last night, after posting the blog and sending a quick note off to my hostel in Brasov (who hasn’t written back), I headed to the train station. It was a nice night, I had time to kill, and Budapest is lively and safe, so I had no worries about walking late at night. It was probably about 2 kilometers to the train station, and I got there half an hour early. I noted that my train was on Track 11. and I wandered over and waited with about 20 other people. I was sizing up the crowd for would-be robbers, and had my eye on a threesome of 50-something men with one empty-looking backpack between them. There was an empty train adjacent to the track, and an employee came by searching underneath it (for what, I don’t know) with a flashlight.

Around 23:15 the train pulled up, and I began my search for car #417. There was a 415, a 414, and a 413….and I could only assume if I kept wandering to the left, the car numbers would continue to get lower. I found an employee and showed him my ticket.

He studied it for a moment calmly, and then exclaimed what I quickly interpreted as “Sighosora is the train to Bucharest. This is the train to Beograd! You need to go over there!!” He pointed three tracks over.

I glanced at my watch – 23:20. My train would leave the station at 23:25. So I did what I have to do all too often – run like a wounded hippo with a giant weight encumbering my ungainly eforts. I ran all the way back to the main station, looked at the board and saw that they had either switched tracks (which they often do, although I can only understand the announcements if they’re in English) or I’d read it wrong originally. Either way, I needed to get to Track 8. NOW.

I ran down the the platform and jumped into the first car on Track 8. There was a young guy with dread locks standing there. After confirming he spoke English (he sounded British, actually), I asked him, “Is this train going to Bucharest?”

“I have no idea where this train is going,” he told me while I noticed that all of the compartments were seating, and not sleeping berths..

“Good luck with that!” I said to him, and jumped back off.

I found a conductor, and he motioned that I needed to go up several cars. On this particular train, they place the engineer between the passenger cars and the sleeping berths so that people who haven’t purchased berths cannot get to them (they would have to get off the train completely and re-board further up the train)

Anyway, I could see that I needed to cover about 500 meters “Is there time?”, I asked him. “Not much.” He said, so I ran as fast as I could. Literally, and no exaggeration, I opened the door and my hand grabbed the railing as the whistle blew. It was one of those trains with the super-high step up, so I tossed in my day pack, braced myself, and lifted off the ground as the train started moving. Talk about skin of my teeth.

But I made it! And if you ask me, that’s all that matters. However, I’m starting to learn that I’m in the minority in my point of view. Not to side track too much from this story, but since I’m alive and well and (obviously) through the part of my trip that was causing me some concern, I’ll share the following harrowing little tale.

A few nights ago at a hostel, a bunch of us were watching a movie starring Liam Neeson where his teen daughter is kidnapped from her swanky Paris apartment into a sex slavery ring and he has the cahones and the skill set to go and save her all by himself. Due to my well-vocalized concerns, there was some teasing that usually they grab their victims on Romanian night trains, but all in all it was kind of a dumb film. No harm done.

Regardless, one of the guys was reminded of the following story: He’d met an English woman who spent a week in Amsterdam on vacation with her friends. One night, she got together with a guy in a club, and he tried to get her to go home with him. She didn’t want to do that to her girlfriends, so she declined. She got his cell phone number and they hung out together the next day, and went to the club that night. Again, they hooked up, and he tried to get her to go home with him, but she declined. The next day she flew home to England.

She’d been home a few days when she started to develop this white rash above her lip. She went to the doctor, and as the doctor examined it, he became very serious: “Who have you slept with recently?”
“No one,” she told him, “I met a guy in Amsterdam, but I didn’t sleep with him.”

“Do you know who he is and how to find him?”

She had the name and cell phone number, and told the doctor as much.

“What you have is called black mites, and you only get it from contact with dead people.”

When the Amsterdam police got to the home of the young man from the club, they found the decomposed bodies of two young women he had killed. The guy who told us this story now said, “SHE WOULD HAVE BEEN NEXT. SHE WAS ALMOST KILLED. THAT GUY WOULD HAVE KILLED HER NEXT.”

And I thought about it for a split-second and said, “If that happened to me, all I would be able to think is, “I’m ALIVE! I DIDN’T get killed! I got through this unscathed, AND the guy was caught! I think I’d be elated.”

One of the other guys said, “That’s very ‘glass is half-full’ of you,” and the original storyteller said, “No. Don’t you get it?!? She would have been killed!” And I do see that point of view, and I certainly undesrtand that, but what I think is more significant is what actually happened – she lived. Somehow she was spared, and her interaction with him prevented anyone else from being murdered.

Now I have no idea if this story is actually true. although I can vouch that the Australian guy who told it to me believed that it was. My point is rather that the way we choose to interpret things becomes our world. That girl could spend her whole life stuck on the horror that she was almost murdered by a serial killer, or she could tell the story of how she was spared, and he was captured. They’re the same facts, but very different stories.

I’m really starting to think that this is one of those ‘key to life’ insights. There are people that might argue that it’s rationalizing to focus on what went right (instead of what went wrong), but if only you can live your life, then does it matter? I mean, if you choose the interpretation that leads you to feel blessed and grateful instead of vulnerable and afraid, it’s kind of the same difference, and nobody gets hurt. And I’d be willing to bet that a person would be far more capable of helping other people and doing something positive with their life – not to mention feeling a hell of a lot happier – if they just changed how they interpret the facts.

Okay, so thanks for bearing with me through that!

As I was saying, I made it into Sighisoara-bound car #417 in the nick of time. I found my cabin, but it was chained shut. At first I thought someone else was inside sleeping, but then I noticed a small post it note with #62 (my bed) and an arrow to the left. I walked down several rooms, until I found another post it note with #62. I opened the door, and met my roommate, Tom of Bavaria. He has been teaching German in Brasov, Romania, and had taken this train (which originated in Vienna where he was visiting friends) many times. Normally, the couchettes are same-sex (in fact, it said on my ticket it was), but obviously the staff didn’t want to deal with having to open a second room for me.

Speaking of which, when the engineer came by to check my ticket, he immediately said, “Lock the doors. Don’t let anyone in. We have police on the train. Everything will be fine.” I said to Tom, “They must know they have a bad reputation on this route!” He told me that he’s never had a problem, but the hype was typical: The Austrians warn everyone about the Hungarians, the Hungarians talk trash about the Romanians, the Romanians look down on the Moldovians. And so it goes.

The engineer clarified that I was getting off at Sighisoara and said he would come by to wake me in the morning. I changed the time on my cell phone to one hour ahead (I am GMT +2 through the end of the trip), and set my own alarm, but I wasn’t sure it would have enough battery power to make it through the night. However, Tom set his phone for me as well. T

Minus the fact that the stink of his shoes made our little room smell something like a pig farm and after I laid awake for several hours waiting to see if someone would try to get into our room or Tom would emerge from his sleep to root through my stuff, he was a nice enough guy. And he didn’t snore. Customs came by at 2:30 (Hungarian) and 3:30 (Romanian), but despite Tom’s predictions that they would search my luggage (I strongly visualized the OPPOSITE of that), they didn’t. After that was over, I fell asleep as best I could.

At some point in what still seemed like the night, my alarm went off. I set it for ten minutes later. This time, seeing as the conductor hadn’t been by and Tom’s phone hadn’t gone off, I asked him what time it was.

“8:10,” he told me.

My phone said 9:10. But I had changed it right after leaving Hungary. It had probably dialed into a local network and added an additional hour. This had happened before. I changed the time on my phone, re-set the alarm, and went back to sleep.

At 9:00, Tom’s phone went off and I got up, packed my bags, and waited for the Sighisoara stop. I was happy that I’d made it through the night with no problems whatsoever. Tom crawled down from his bunk, and we were chatting about this and that. And waited. And waited. And waited.

Around 9:45, the conductor from the night before (the one who never came to wake me), walked by. “Is this train running late?” I asked him.

“What do you mean?”

“Is the train on time?” I said

“To Brasov?”

“No. To Sighisoara.”

At this poitn, he started laughing. “it’s 10:50,” he said, “Sighisoara was well over an hour ago.” I could hear him retelling his encounter with me to someone else in Romanian, and laughing hysterically.

I looked at my watch. 9:452 Budapest time. I had not switched my watch forward. My original alarm had been right. and I missed my stop. Consulting my train schedule, I could take the 12:45 back to Sighisoara and get in at 3:15. Not exactly my favorite way to spend a day, but so be it. Without even trying to convince myself, a small voice said, “Everything happens for a reason,” and I was resigned to it.

Tom, for his part, went into fervent, unabashed denial. He had changed his phone. He knew he had. it was only 9:50. We would be in Sighisoara soon. And as the train rolled on and on and never came close to stopping, this started to seem ridiculous. I finally had to tell him, “It is what it is. It’s fine. And nothing can change it. STOP TALKING ABOUT THIS.” He agreed, and started railing against the conductor. He said he would wake me. He FAILED. The conductor did not live up to his responsibilities. It was all the conductors fault. If only for the conductor…

This was a really weird situation for me because

a) I was the only person suffering here

b) I had come to terms with it pretty much immediately

c) In the past, I was the one who would’ve obsessed on blame and responsibility and shortcomings, but today it was clear to me that none of that mattered. It wouldn’t change a darn thing. I’d missed my stop.

Nevertheless, Tom still brought up his rage with his phone and the railway employees – even once we got to Brasov. I told him for the tenth time to just let it go. Things go wrong, and such is life. And he stopped suddenly, looked at me, and commented that I was really laid back about this. I explained that you had to choose your battles, and in this case, there was nothing for me to fight about. What’s done is done. Figure out a new strategy and move on.

Again, I can’t stress enough that this is NOT the person i was six months ago. But it’s apparently the person I am now. And hallelujah.

Nonetheless, this attitude would be put to the test one more time. I got on the 12:45 train back toward Sighisoara. And not to pick on the Romanians, but it kind of looked like something you’d get sent to a Nazi work camp in. It was HARSH. And hot as hell. And filled with cigarette smoke.

It also stopped in the middle of nowhere. Seriously. The train would come to a screeching halt in the middle of a field with a rooster standing nearby or maybe a couple sheep in the distance. It was the strangest thing ever.

And I suppose this is why I developed a misguided faith that Sighisoara was the end of the line, and the train was just running late, and we’d get there when we get there. I’m realizing this story is running WAY TOO long, so let me just jump to the punchline: I missed Sighisoara in the other direction, too!

After much painful inquiry, I found a semi-English/semi-German speaker, who was very kind (everyone has been super nice here) and instructed me to get off at a ‘big station’ that was safe, and wait for a train in the other direction. The big station meant it was an actual outhouse-sized station with a human employee, rather than a mud puddle with a guardian rooster.

It was there I encountered a woman with about six original teeth waiting by the station. I said ‘hi’ to her and smiled. She had seen me get off the other train, and when she asked me something, I decided to go with the only thing I could think of, “Sighisoara,’ I said. And pointed to myself.

She nodded and held up four fingers. I took that to mean the train in the opposite direction would be here in four minutes or at 4:00 p.m. Good news either way. I’ll take it.

Then she asked if I was German (and I trust me when I say, when you’ve been traveling this long, you learn to pick up syllables that make sense and otherwise read between the lines. I couldn’t tell you what she asked me per se, but I know that was the question). I said, “No. American. America.”

At this point, she lit up like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. She pounded on the chair next to her, “Sit next to me, American!” and began flagging everyone else over. Once it was clear that I had come to Five Sheep Railway Outhouse, Romania from America and a suitable crowd was gathered, she began to pet me like a collie. It started with my hair.

She kept saying “America” and something that – I swear – sounded like “freak”. I figured this could be interpreted both ways:

  1. “Freak’ means something nice in Romanian, like “pretty” or “your hair is soft like a well-nourished dog”

  2. Americans do not show up at this train station very often, and for that I was a verified freak.

Then the petting moved to my cheek, and under her gaze I become uncomfortably aware of my straight teeth. What was extra uncanny is that several nights ago I had a dream that I was somewhere and I felt conspicuous for having full set of straight, white teeth. So it was a weird deja vu. Nonetheless, and despite treating me a little like a show dog, she couldn’t have been sweeter. She explained to me through pantomime that she had two children, a boy and a girl, and when my train showed up, she gave me a hard slap on the arm and indicated that I needed to run across the tracks (in FRONT OF IT) to board it.

Then the real fun kicked in. THE FREAKING TRAIN DOORS WOULD NOT OPEN. And as kind as she had been, the thought of sitting with my new friend for an additional hour was not appealing. I ran from one carriage to the next. And after a couple failed attempts, I started pounding furiously on the doors, like an inmate trying to escape from prison.

At this point, one more car up, a door opened and the conductor emerged. He motioned to me. “I’m sorry!” I yelled, as I ran toward him. When I got there, I was appalled to see that the step up (to the bottom step) was a solid two feet. It was RIDICULOUS. I threw my day pack in, and braced myself. My first attempt failed. Then I grabbed onto the bar with all my strength, screamed “Oh my God!” and hauled myself in. I could have sworn I heard the conductor giggle. And I joined in. Actually, I collapsed into a seat and had a good, long laugh at the insanity of it all.

But like I said, in the end I made it. And on my third pass, I actually managed to get off the train in Sighisoara, a mere seven hours behind schedule.

 

Pssst… Pass it on October 3, 2008

Dear Readers, I need your help! But the best kind of help…the kind that´s easy!

So you know that ridiculous e-mail you get every four months? It’s about seven years old, and claims that if you forward it to everyone you know, Microsoft will pay you $300 OR the Dalai Lama will bless you, your wife will come back, and every scratch card will be a winner for three to 60 days (depending upon how many people you send the nonsense onto)?

Well, I’ve considered starting one of those, but have decided instead to just flat out ask for your help.

Partly this is because any effort I make to start a viral e-mail will probably fail. Sure, I’ve got a handful of acquaintances who forward every damn thing they get and some good ideas involving promises of blessings and good fortune (and a little threat of irreparable harm seems to help those along), but mostly my friends are flaky. I know this because of a recipe exchange last spring. The rules were: ‘Send a recipe to the person at the top of this list, and then send 20 of your friends the e-mail of the person that sent this to you. In a week, you’ll get 150 recipes!” I did this, and just to be thorough, I sent the name to 25 of my flaky friends. (You know who you are). And in six months, I’ve gotten two recipes.

I blame my (probably now deleting my number from their cell phones) friends. Clearly they are the weak link. Or they’re friends with even weaker links. Or maybe I am my friends’ only friend. Whatever. They blew it.

Anyway, it’s like this: I did a little math on the train today, and I have 28 days left. Wasn’t 28 Days the name of a horror movie about flesh eating zombies? BAD SIGN.

Whenever I get a ominous harbinger, I like to spring into action, and this action requires your help: I need to reach people in publishing, editing, television, soft porn (I require the same lighting and ‘fuzzy focus’ as Heather Locklear and a body double), or WHATEVER, to let them know I exist, and I am here to write for them or travel for them or author their blog or do whatever it takes to change careers into something creative. I’m not super picky about how that manifests, so long as it pays really, really well.

And in order to to get the attention of the important people with the fat wallets and the publishing contracts or travel writing jobs (I’m digging the idea, Maxxy!) or whatever, I’d like to ask for a wee, tiny favor. Over the weekend, would you take five minutes to tell five of your friends about this blog? Or ten of your friends if you’d like to be regularly mistaken for George Clooney and/orHeidi Klum. Or twenty friends if you’re interested in winning a Rolls Royce…

(Send me a stamped, self-addressed envelope and $10 if you’d like to hear the complete list of great imaginary prizes!)

Moreover, if you have friends or relatives or ‘frienemies’ in the industries listed above (a.k.a. people who might pay me to write or travel or eat strange things or give Pygmies haircuts or look at disturbing Austrian penis art or author their blog), all the better!! And if you have anything to do with Oprah (the holy grail) or David Sedaris (my hero), then may the road rise to meet you and the wind always be at your back. Also, I only speak English, but I’m sure the Italians can figure out how to dub me, so I’m willing to work there as well.

To help make this request a little simpler, I’ve taken the liberty of writing the e-mail for you. So all you have to do is cut and paste. I also give you full permission to edit (if you insist, Picky Pants).

Subject: MESSAGE FROM GOD

If you consider me your god. Which would be pretty cool.

I know we haven’t spoken since I accidentally killed your geriatric parakeet, Stella, but I have discovered a blog that is not about politics or celebrities or celebrabies or wanton sex acts, but which is still so compelling that I HAD TO tell you about it. Plus, the author asked (really nicely) that I pass it on to all my friends in the hopes that I know someone who might help her ‘get discovered’ in a writerly kind of way. (As if)

The blog is called Wide Awake in Wonderland, and you can find it at https://wideawakeinwonderland.wordpress.com

It’s about life and travel and how people are idiots and once in a while it’s kind of funny.

Also, if you know anyone looking to pay big money for minimal talent, she asked that you send them her way (or mine).

I hope you enjoy it, and have a great weekend!

Thanks/Cheers/Ciao/Dude!

***YOUR NAME HERE***

p.s.

And if you pass this on to 50 of your closest friends and everyone else you’ve ever managed to wheedle an e-mail address out of, your house will NOT burn down and Apple will send you $500 as reparations for all those songs you stupidly downloaded on iTunes while you were drunk.

 

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.

 

Sleepless in Berlin September 10, 2008

Brandenburger Tor - the gates marking the opening to the east side of the Berlin Tiergarten where it's quite easy to get very, very lost.

Brandenburger Tor - the gates marking the opening to the east side of the Berlin Tiergarten where it is possible to get very, very lost very easily!

As foreshadowed last night, the snoring was bad. Baaaaaad. Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad.

We all woke up (the other six people in the room) around 2am, realized we were all awake, and tried to figure out what to do about the guy. I suggested someone go downstairs and get one of the cue sticks, and the guy in the bunk above me (FINALLY IN A LOW BUNK!!!!!) could poke him. Although the method was popular, the trip downstairs was not.

Thus, they resorted to verbal abuse. Threats were made, ‘Shut the f–k up!’, was screamed, and general slightly unintelligible yelling could be heard. This did NOTHING. He didn’t even stir. Despite that, I realized that I was happy to have other people to share the pain. See, I’ve dealt with a snoring man before…but it’s just me. I poke, an prod, and whine and sigh, but it doesn’t stop. I’m left to suffer the injustice alone.

This time, however, there were six other guys equally impacted. One of them was ready to kill, saying things like, “I’ve never hated an Aussie so much in my life.” (He’s Australian too, so I suppose this made it an extra extreme insult.) Then they threw water on the guy and woke him up and (get this), he tried to BLAME SOMEONE ELSE IN THE ROOM!?!?

And then he fell right back asleep and started right back up with the hog-like snoring within seconds. The other guys went nuts with rage, and at this point, the situation was so stupid that I started to get the giggles something awful. Somehow everyone else being so mad struck me as the funniest thing ever, so in addition to having this awful racket from the snoring Australian, they had to deal with my laughing fit.

The Berlin Tiergarten. Very 'Hansel and Gretel'.

The Berlin Tiergarten. Very Hansel and Gretel.

Needless to say, it was a long night and an early morning, and I’m a bit tired. On the up side, because I was up so early, I pulled out my running stuff and went for a run in the Tiergarten (Berlin’s Central Park). It was a beautiful morning, and I headed from my hostel in the Mitte district down to through Bradenburger Tor (the famous Berlin archway from the 1800s that was trapped in the “death zone” when the wall was up from the 60s to the late 80s). It marks the entrance to the park. I ran to the other end, and then decided to get cute and wind back through the paths. Bad move.

About 20 minutes later, I came up to the exact place I was headed back from! (The Siegessaule – a giant column celebrating Prussia’s victory over France in 1870). This is a typical move for me (getting wildly turned around on runs in strange places), so I have a four-point strategy for coping:

1. Create a mental picture of the map of the city I’m in. Note location of park versus place of origin (i.e. where personal belongings and drink of water are located).

2. Provided it’s not high noon, find the sun and determine east and west.

3. Figure out which direction to start running

4. Run until things look familiar and then breathe sigh of relief

Thus, I ended up going a lot further than I planned (maybe 7 miles?), but I’d rather do too much than none. My legs, however, may not agree. On the full days in cities I tend to walk between five and ten miles just getting lost on purpose and seeing what I run into, and today was no exception. Let’s just say, I’m whipped and the five-hour train ride to Poland tomorrow afternoon sounds good!

One of the few remnants of the Berlin Wall still left

One of the few remnants of the Berlin Wall still left A large portion of the original wall and death strip up on Bernauerstrasse

 

Three impossible things before bedtime August 30, 2008

On the beach in Sitges, Spain with 800 of my closest friends

On the beach in Sitges, Spain with 800 of my closest friends

Okay, so I owe a better update than this, but it’s super late, and I’ve decided to take the early train route to Lourdes, and I’ll have about a kajillion hours tomorrow to compose some lengthy thoughts for you.

That stated, let me share three key points:

1. Looking at the Sagrada Familia today, I cannot believe no one has built a casino based on this – yet – in Vegas. Better yet, Barcelona, The Casino. It would SO TOTALLY work. Gaudi’s works alone would springboard the Strip to the next level. Screw all these homages to Italy, where’s the phantasmagoria???

2. In researching Lourdes, I happened to discover that the Catholic Church is in the process of declaring the same Gaudi a saint. From this very interesting (and timely) article that popped up in the sidebar of a priest’s or nun’s or pilgrim’s Lourdes journal, “

A statue of Antonio Gaudi y Cornet in front of his Sagrada Familia Cathedral.When in 1926 God’s architect was run over by a No. 30 tram on his way to evening prayer, he was mistaken for a beggar and taken to Barcelona’s pauper hospital. His friends found him there the next day. But Antoni Gaudí refused to leave. “Here is where I belong”, he told them. He had always wanted to leave this world poor and did, two days later, aged 74, honoured by a city which universally acknowledged him to be both an artistic genius and a saint.

If it went through, he’d be the first professional anything to be made a saint. Also, note to self: Be very careful around the Barcelona trams.

3. I had this totally crazy dream last night that I was hanging out with Barack Obama and George Bush. I was egging them on to arm wrestle, and I guess Bush liked the abuse, because he came up to me afterward and was hitting on me something fierce. It was so out of line and in your face, but it was also so ridiculous and so ludicrous that I was trying to memorize every word, as I could not WAIT to tell my friends.