Wide Awake in Wonderland

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

Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet September 13, 2008

I swear, on a daily basis this trip seems more to me a test of my own mental attitude. It’s like the world throws me a daily curve ball, while snickering, ‘How ya like me NOW?’. Anyone that tells you that traveling – particularly traveling by yourself to countries where you do not know a single syllable of the language – isn’t tough is lying. But tough is okay. Tough is what helps you realize what you’re made of, and what you’re not willing to get upset about, and what won’t break you, and in a stupid way, defines what really matters.

In the same spirit, I found this quote from Helen Keller the other day, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” There are probably good arguments against this – suffering probably isn’t necessary – but I will say that trial and suffering can be deeply soul strengthening, and there aren’t a lot of deeply nuanced, empathetic trust fund babies out there.

As for suffering, so much of eastern Europe is haunted by WWII and the millions (millions. Can you imagine!? MILLIONS) of Jews that were killed during the Holocaust. There were entire neighborhoods, even cities, emptied out. Of those that survived, I have always been profoundly impacted by the writing of Viktor Frankl (Auschwitz survivor) and his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Not to get all over the top on you here, but if you have never read this book – and particularly if you are in the midst of any circumstances that seem unfairly harsh or are just plain overwhelming – I urge you to get a copy (I’m sure your local library has several) and check it out.

My enthusiasm has to do with the cornerstone of his beliefs (he was a psychiatrist and doctor before being imprisoned). To quote, “There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life. Meaning can be discovered by three ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” In short, just about anything can happen to us, but ultimately we are in control of our reaction to it and our attitude about it. Even in a concentration camp, they cannot control your attitude. Thus, to try to bring this convoluted point home, travel puts you face to face with some tough situations (I wouldn’t call them unavoidable suffering, but…) and provides an opportunity to experience and, if necessary, get your own reactions in line. And really, if you ask me, that’s an amazing gift.

So that stated, I got to Warsaw just in time for the cold snap. Personally, having been in mid 80-degree weather in Berlin the day before, I was unprepared for the brutal shift down to the low 50’s. It seemed, from the looks of things, the locals were caught unexpectedly as well. People were hurrying down the street cringing and rubbing their arms, and as the day wore on, poring out of the shops with newly purchased coats. I even had to break down and make a purchase – a pair of mittens. I had some when the trip started, but somewhere along the way they disappeared.

Meanwhile, I walked as much as I could bear with the Siberian winds whipping across my face, and took in the sights. As you may or may not know, Warsaw was bombed within an inch of its life during WWII, and just about everything was reduced to piles of rubble. If you think about the mess to clean up the World Trade Centers in 2001, you can imagine the same kind of debris covering an entire city.

In the case of Warsaw, the residents themselves pitched in to clear away the mess, and ultimately they rebuilt their old town in the fashion of the original, complete with lopsided buildings (if you study the picture I will upload of the old town square, you can kind of see what I’m talking about. In actuality, I have no idea if this was intentional or just sub-par craftsmanship). So, in all actuality, old town is actually pretty new. In the U.S., the only time you’d see such a thing is in Las Vegas or maybe Disney’s Epcot Center, but considering that they lost their entire cultural identity in just a few weeks of bombing, you have to admire their spirit.

The other thing I’ve learned is that the Polish really love ketchup. In their grocery stores, you can find no less than twenty different kinds. At one point I was given a little meal of bread, cheese, ham, green bell pepper, and pickled sweet potato (or at least that would be my best guess as to what it was)…and three packets of ketchup. (?) Heinz, no less.

On the other hand, a great many of them don’t or won’t admit to speaking English. This was never more prevalent than during my search for the airport-bound bus this morning. The girl at the hostel showed me the bus stop on a map. However, as seems to happen all too often, she put a big “X’ on the right side of the street, and said something about the left.

“So, right or left side of the street?” I asked her. She looked at me quizzically.

“Should I catch the BUS on the RIGHT or the LEFT of the STREET?” I restated, while pointing at the map.

“Go here.. Go here. Right. Left. Right.”

Ummmmm…. Not sure what that meant, I figured I’d go down there and work it out. However, when I got to the proper corner, I realized this was going to be a little messier than I planned. First off, no one would admit to speaking English. I found bus stop featuring the #175 bus, but it wasn’t clear whether it was headed to the airport or in the other direction. No picture of an airplane for the stupid among us (me), and that’s always worrisome.

I started approaching the people at the bus stop itself…to no avail. Then I started bugging people just trying to walk down the street. Then the bus itself pulled up. I tried to ask the driver, but he just shook his head at me. I can never tell if thats an answer or a “I don’t speak English,” so I turned to the crowd and yelled, “IF ANYONE SPEAKS ENGLISH, CAN YOU TELL ME IF THIS BUS GOES TO THE AIRPORT!?” and then smiled brightly, hoping to diminish the effect of being a totally obnoxious.

Thankfully, a voice from the back said, “No. Other side.” So I got of the bus, and tried to figure out how to get to the other side of the street. This was one of the those intersections where the light rail/trolley comes through, so they don’t allow pedestrians to cross on the street level. As a result, there are some underground tunnels where you go down and pop up at varying sections of the street (on one side, in the middle, on the opposite corner) like a human “Whack a Mole.”

I finally figured out how to get to the other side of the street…but couldn’t find a bus stop. Again, i started stopping people – mostly young people – trying to find someone that both spoke English and understood the bus system. Suddenly I noticed a bus coming down the street…MY BUS. #175. I ran toward it, and the bus driver gave me a look like, “Better luck next time, sucker.”

However, he underestimated my pluck. I started chasing him down the street, waving my arms in what I hoped was the universal symbol of, “Where do I go to get on this bus?” He looked at me again and shook his head, “No.”

At that moment, he hit a red light, so I did what any experienced Whack-a-Mole player and semi-desperate to get to the airport individual does…I dashed down the stairs, ran through the underground hallway (this with my 40-odd pounds of backpack and other dead weight on) and came up on the other side. I started running again down the sidewalk – backwards – trying to make eye contact with him and waving my arms, as he began again down the street.

Gesticulating like a madwoman – and prepared to run all the way to the bus stop, wherever the hell it was, if that’s what it took – I ran as fast as my overloaded frame could take me, slowly losing ground, until finally he stopped and opened the doors. He was laughing a little bit as I staggered in, “Do you speak English?”

“No.”

“Does this bus go to the airport?”

“Yes.”

(You gotta love the non-English speaker who understands that question.) Anyway, I paid him and collapsed into the seat, and noticed his rear view mirror gave me a perfect view of my disheveled shelf. At this point, in addition to sweating like I’d just finished a marathon, I noticed that my hair looked like it had been braided by chimps. It’s kind of a new look I have going – “Monkey Chic” – which features some key elements such as totally unkempt hair, wearing the same pair of jeans three days in a row, absolutely no makeup of any kind, and a nasty hangnail issue getting the better of both middle fingers. Is this a vitamin deficiency? If anyone knows how to address this (a weird affliction that only seems to strike my father and me. It’s hangnails that hurt and bleed and continue to get deeper and deeper on your finger. Sorry if that’s gross. I wouldn’t even explain it, except that they’re really obnoxious – especially if they bonk into anything or when you put gloves on, and I’m not sure how to stop it), please let me know!!!

To my relief, I made it to the airport a solid two hours before my flight. European check-in lines are always outrageously long. You can count on burning up a good hour just waiting to check your bags, and security is a wild card too.

So I got off at the wrong terminal (of course), but eventually got in line for my LOT flight to Vilnius and within a few minutes a man who managed to smell EXACTLY like an overstuffed, abandoned ashtray came up behind me. The smell was remarkably indelible. Normally the “I just had my fix” smell dies down after a little while, but not on this guy. A few minutes later, his wife appeared, and quickly it became clear that they didn’t have the same sense of personal space that I do. Although they made up the end of the line an had meters and meters of empty space behind them, they kept crowding me. If I’d creep forward an inch or two to maintain a slight gap between us…they’d close it.

Then I started putting my backpack behind me to create a personal space barrier, and the woman would lean on it. After a couple occurrences of this, I put it next to me…and the same thing happened. I started experimenting, and no matter where I put it, she’d get right up on it and lean on it. More than once, she came up right alongside me and even in front of me to get some leaning in. Neither of them ever looked at me (that I noticed), so I figured this wasn’t personal, just cultural or individual weirdness or ???

Regardless, after a while (remember, I mentioned this standing in line business goes on for a good hour) it started to get on my nerves. I started working on a look where I would shift my gaze between my bag and her body with a facial expression that would hopefully convey “Leaning bad! Stop it! Back off!” I considered grunting or even a low growl, but didn’t know how that would go over. Unfortunately, since I don’t know how to say, “Can you please take your crotch off my backpack?” in Polish, I just had to live with it.

After a while, they were joined by a third ‘zero sense of personal space’ accomplice, who I guessed was their son. He was in his late 30’s or early 40’s (or the way they all reeked of smoke, maybe he was a mature-looking 14. Who knows?), and at that point I noticed they were all wearing the exact same shade of seafoam green from stem to stern. I mean everything – pants, shirts, jackets – was seafoam green. I vaguely recall reading this travel advice from a woman with four or five kids. She was saying when they all traveled together, she would dress all of them (and herself) the same, so that it was clear they belonged together. That way, if someone got separated, it would be easy to explain how to find the straggler. Also, it may cause onlookers to speculate that perhaps you are a family band, on the road to a big gig. And who doesn’t love being mistaken for a celebrity? So maybe I got Ashtray, Leaner, and Adult Son all wrong? Maybe they weren’t just inconsiderate space encroachers leaning on my gear, but the Von Trapskis, anxious to share their groove with the world?

By the way, when we got to the final finish line, the mother pushed ahead of me to get to the available check-in clerk (technically, my available check-in clerk). Probably the old me would’ve been upset, but I’m so used to being befuddled and bewildered by the events going on around me, that I really don’t care about such petty matters anymore. If you’re in that much of a hurry, have at it. In fact, if you’d like me to come with you and set my backpack up so you have something to lean on…just let me know.

As I reflect on all this, it strikes me that in less than two months I have gone from being a fairly polished American businesswoman, always in a mad rush and checking my Blackberry every 2.2 seconds, yet who could effortlessly assist you through the nuances of the American TSA policies and procedures, to a frazzled, frayed, and sweaty loonytoon standing in front of a busload of Polish strangers screaming, “Does this bus go to the airport!?!?!?” Alas, and as always, from my seat here on the flight to Lithuania, none of the specifics as to how that was made possible matter. What is important is that somehow I once again pulled it of, and I can’t help but feeling a wee bit proud…if not downright triumphant.

 

Fun facts about Poland! September 11, 2008

Boning up on my Polish on the train

Boning up on my Polish on the train

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

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

Poland

WARNING: THE ENGLISH WORD NO MEANS YES!!!

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

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

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

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

The Bodemuseum on the River Spree in Berlin

The Bodemuseum on the River Spree in Berlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early autumn along the banks of the Landwehrkanal in Berlin

Early autumn along the banks of the Landwehrkanal in Berlin

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

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

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

 

Digging up the bones June 12, 2008

Filed under: Travel — wideawakeinwonderland @ 12:00 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

On my mother’s side, I have a very dedicated grandmother and first cousin once removed (a.k.a. cousin of my mother) who have traced our family lineage back to Lucy. Essentially, we’re Irish, Irish, Irish and some of us ate enough potatoes to get through the famines, find a mate, and pass on the genes. There are even some photos that have survived all this time. One in particular features my great-grandfather and great-great-uncle flanking a very large and – let’s just be frank here – rather unattractive woman. As it so happens, she is my great-great grandmother, and I’m relieved to report that I don’t really see the family resemblance. Nonetheless, it’s kind of cool to have a piece of the past – to know where you come from and who came before you.

I see a hypnotherapist, and she’s told me she’s encountered “memories” with some of her clients that indicate we have past lives. Now I’m not about to assert any factual knowledge about that, all I can say is that I, personally, have no memory of a life prior to this one. At any rate, I’ve heard it theorized that there is no reincarnation, but that we possess the memories of those that came before us in our DNA. In that sense, perhaps there’s small comfort in knowing your ancestors were farmers and millers and fishermen and not Jack the Ripper, Hitler, or the Marquis de Sade (and my apologies – and no harm intended – to anyone who may have descended from that lineage!)?

However, when it comes to my father’s side, for all I know, we may descend from Attila the Hun. My father remembers his grandparents (and their names, of course)…but the buck stops there. I recently began an effort to trace our genealogy, and it seems I come from a people that knew how to fly under the radar. I found only one Ellis Island record – that of my father’s paternal grandfather – but he lists himself as coming from a place I can’t find on any map: “Panowir”. When I do Google searches on it, only one otherEllis Island record lists someone coming from “Panowir”…EVER. Needless to say, this creates something of a roadblock.

This reminds me, during the romantic teenage years, I always held a small hope that maybe we were somehow heirs to the Austro-Hungarian fortunes of the Romanovs. Remember the story of Anastasia and her family (who could forget Rasputin – again, for all I know, he’s a great-great grandfather?) and how they never found the missing relatives? Unless I missed the update, to this date, the fortune sits in wait. If the true heirs are part of my family tree, it’s probably safe to assume we’ll never dig deep enough to figure it out!

Despite the odds, I have a couple plans up my sleeve, to dig up the bones. I would truly like to visit our “motherland” on my trip (Lithuania? This is what I’ve believed all my life, so I kind of hope it’s accurate. It’s burned on the brain, at any rate).  Both in the hopes that it would touch him, and to drum up a comrade in arms,  I sent everything I’ve found thus far to my dad with his father’s day gifts. I asked that he review all the Ellis Island imports with our family name (a dozen or less – yet considering if anyone in this country has our name, I know them personally…it makes one wonder where all the others went???) to see if anyone rings a bell. If so, I’ll research their place of origin looking for my great-grandfather.

If not, long live the Romanav fantasy!!! As I mentioned, we descend from a crafty and apparently undocumented people. Jerks! Regardless, for better or worse, I must cut this off as my Malamute is gorging upon a colander of steamed cabbage I absentmindedly left on the counter. I can only imagine the bazaar or bad smells he’ll put me through later tonight….