Wide Awake in Wonderland

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

Leaving on the midnight train to Sighisoara October 5, 2008

Well, the 23:25 train, but same difference. I’ve checked around, and the route has a bad reputation in general. Now by ‘bad reputation’, I don’t mean to say I’ll be abducted and sold into white slavery, just an above-average chance of petty theft, day or night.

On the other hand, the advice I keep getting is to never take my eyes off my bag. Thus, in a strange way, I may be better off on a night train in that I can sleep with my bag (the hostel owner pantomimed what I would call spooning my bag through the night). I’m not thrilled about this, but I figure I’ll do what I can do to minimize the risk, and not worry about it further.

Actually, I would say that philosophy encapsulates a small epiphany I had recently: So much time is spent worrying about and fretting over and developing complex strategies to control things that never come to pass or cannot be controlled. Yesterday, after spending so much time “planning my actions” (a.k.a. worrying) about this night train, I decided to throw in the towel. I’ll still hide ‘the good stuff’ in the bottom of my day pack and lock it and – depending upon the vibe I get – bike lock it to me, and I’ll still planning to try to befriend the train conductor (by telling him/her straight up that I’ve heard bad things and am concerned and can they help me), and that’s all I can do. Onward and upward.

In other news, I had my first true bought of homesickness today. I had some moments early in the trip that I thought were homesickness, but I now realize were just garden variety fear. However, today I saw the first Malamute of the trip in a park in Budapest. From a 100 yards away, I could see it peeing on everything in its path and taking five minutes to sniff every three feet. A Mal if ever there were. But at that pace, I was able to catch up to the owner. I asked if he spoke English, and he said no. So I persisted. I identified the dog as a Malamute, and he agreed, and I tried to explain that I had one too. He scowled at me. I tried charades. He looked away.

I walked ahead of them and sat on a bench, considering turning on my computer to pull up a picture of my dog so that he would understand what I was trying to say, and maybe let me pet his Mal. At that moment, they started to approach, and the dog stopped to sniff a tree three feet to my left and a bush one foot from my knee, and never acknowledged me in the slightest. And in a stupid way, the realization that the dog WASN’T my dog – or anything like him (If Dozer loves anything, it’s a human being he’s never met before), was quite sad.

It was the sense that something that looked so incredibly familiar could be so foreign. Like seeing the mirror image of a loved one, and having them walk right by like you don’t exist.

So to stave off some ‘lost at sea’ feelings and kill some time before the late train, I decided to go to the movies. I’ve been wanting to go to the movies for weeks now, and having done everything I set out to do in Budapest, the time was right. Hungary just got the ‘new release’ of the Dark Knight (Batman) movie, and it was still in the original English (with subtitles). I got my ticket, but the concessions looked off, so I didn’t indulge in one of my passions – movie theater popcorn. Call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure that a country that only sells Cheetos in ‘hotdog’ and ‘ketchup’ flavors is going to find a creative way to screw up popcorn. Like maybe covering it in prune juice or something.

Anyway, it was a good movie, and good escapism, and it was almost laughable how the sight and sound of Morgan Freeman could feel so comforting. And I guess that’s why, walking out in the Budapest night, I suddenly felt crushingly sad and lonely and…homesick.

But it was a pretty long walk back to the hostel in Pest, and on the way I had a chance to work through my feelings. And what I realized is that in its own way, homesicknesses is a blessing. It’s the other side of the coin of adventure and independence and solitude. And it’s a reminder that you belong somewhere and have a place to go back to…and that you want to go back to.

So the key really, in those ‘weak’ moments is to draw from them, and realize what’s good about feeling bad. Because feeling like a stranger in a strange land means you’ve undertaken a big adventure and pushed yourself far beyond what you thought you were capable of. And longing for your home? That means you’re fortunate enough to have a home and people that love you and a whole country where people talk and you can understand what they’re saying without getting a headache. And feeling sad, well, that just means your heart still works.

So here’s to the fear and the sadness and loneliness. Without it, it’s much harder to define who we are, and who aren’t, and who’s important, and what really matters. And with that information as a compass, we’re able to get on a night train to Romania feeling calm and knowing it will all work out in its own strange way.

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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!