Wide Awake in Wonderland

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

Stylist to the Gypsies October 10, 2008

So every country has its class system. Sometimes it’s overt (take for example, India), and sometimes you have to read between the lines. A few nights ago, I was talking to a man from Malmo, Sweden (I’ve actually met three people from Malmo in the last week…and they’ve all been delightful, but that really has nothing to do with my point). Anyway, Rob was telling me that a lot of the Swedes go to Norway to work because the pay is so much higher. And then he added, with a particular glance in my direction, “We’re the Mexicans.” Touche.

For better or worse, where America has its huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the Balkans have the gypsies. In the various warnings I received to minimize my time in Bucharest (if not avoid it altogether), I was told in hushed tones, “It’s a town of 2 million people…and 500,000 of them are gypsies!!!!!!”

They stand out a little without even trying as they have a darker complexion than many of the Romanians and Bulgarians. This probably poses a challenge to any tourists with a St. Tropez tan.

However, it”s not all brown skin and black hair. What makes the gypsies notable is their fashion sensibility. If you ever wondered what happened to the hideous clothing of the seventies…look no further than Romania. Essentially, think about the ugliest couch you ever saw. And then imagine the polyester afghan your threw in the dumpster after the aunt that made it finally died. Throw in some fluorescent colors, bad mattresses, and maybe six or seven competing floral patterns. Don’t forget to use a large plastic bag as a suitcase! Now your gypsy look is complete.

So I started wondering, WHY ARE THEY DRESSING THIS WAY!? If you knew your blond hair and all-denim outfit made you the target of racism and prejudice, wouldn’t you maybe consider some black slacks or perhaps a subtle pair of khakis with a turtleneck? Would you still slip into the acid wash jacket with the same cavalier swagger?

And that’s how it happens that I find myself walking down the street behind a couple women looking like a 1972 flea market. and it dawns on me: THEY NEED ME. And if things don’t work out with my would-be illustrious and award-winning writing career, I’m thinking there could be a niche market as a  Gypsy  personal stylist? I could be their Coco Chanel. My mission would be to teach the value of flourescent floral patterns as an ACCENT. Sure a hot pink paisley head scarf is kicky, but maybe it would be better tied around the neck of your dog? Just a suggestion. No need to pull a knife. Maybe sleep on it?


Let the bedbugs bite September 20, 2008

(So long as they don’t bite me.)

So file this under ‘extreme coincidence’:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


Six reasons Lithuanians are jerks September 15, 2008

Greetings from the bus to Klaipeda (the coastal region of Lithuania). i had actually planned to take the train (takes 6.5 hours instead of 4, but was cheaper by about $8 US, I can keep an immediate eye on my luggage, and it has toilets), but when my alarm went off at 6:00 a.m., I realized I needed more sleep. Everywhere I go lately, people are coughing and sneezing and hacking up a lung and not covering their mouths. If there’s one thing I know about getting sick, it’s that inadequate sleep is very hard on my immune system.

I wish I was one of those people that slept five or six hours a night and felt super, but I’m not. On six hours of sleep, I feel like there’s sand in my eyes, and I start a task, go into a room, stand there stupefied and wonder, “Why did I come in here?” With just five hours and at a really boring meeting (or watching a colleague do a sales presentation I’ve seen a hundred times before), I’ve been known to actually nod off – like when your head starts falling forward and the sudden motion causes you to jerk and wake up. Like it or not, I need a solid eight hours to function properly.

I remember reading that Donald Trump sleeps something like three hours a night, and regards sleeping as a waste of time (of course he does). I suppose that’s just one of many reasons why I’m on a public bus and am now on my way to a crappy hostel in the middle of nowhere, and he owns half of Manhattan. I have better hair though. And I bet he feels really damn tired sometimes.

I’ve noticed that my dreams all seem to have travel themes lately. Last night I dreamed that people were coming up to me and smelling me. At first I was really worried about it (Like, ‘OH no!? Do I stink!?”), but then I realized I smelled quite lovely., so they were just drawn to me and taking it in – kind of alike a smell-based siren’s song. In real life, as you’ve probably picked up, I’ve become relatively neurotic about icky human smells. I’m no hypocrite, this includes my own. I’m not a super clean freak, but I’m turning into one. Thus, when I’m in the retail part of a city or going by the duty free shop in the airport, I now go in and give myself a nice dose of Coco Chanel or another perfume that I have back at home. Usually, I rarely wear it and it takes me a decade to go through a bottle of perfume, but I’m also not typically carrying 40 pounds of clothes and gear while running through subways. Anyway, I’m somewhat hellbent on not becoming Europeanized in the stink department.

My obsession with cleanliness has also spread to my clothes. Whenever I can, i like to do my laundry, partly because I don’t have that much stuff, but also because I love to just sit there and smell it when it’s clean. I stick my face in a big pile and just breathe deep. Of the few things I’ve purchased and have added to the weight I’m lugging, one is a pack of moist dryer sheets (fabric softener, but the sheets are wet like a baby wipe). The one challenge to this new-found passion is that there’s not much I hate more in the world than laundromats.

In my early 20s I put in more than my fair share of time in laundromats, and with each passing visit, i grew to hate them more and more. The dryers that take your money, but don’t work. The dryers that burn everything to a crisp. The machines where someone has just finished doing some tie-dying or batik art and now everything you own is a muddy red. I remember Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons) had a cartoon series “Life is Hell”. One of the featured characters were a gay couple, Jeff and Akbar. They both wore little fezzes and in drawings were kind of reminiscent of a primitive Bart Simpson. Anyway, a regular feature was that Jeff and Akbar would open a business together, and the whole frame would feature the store and the little signs and notices they’d hung up – like Jeff and Akbar’s Falafel Hut. However, the one that sticks with me most was Jeff and Akbar’s Laundromat, where posted in the window was a sign that read, “Suicides no longer permitted on premises.” That pretty much sums up how I feel about laundromats.

Lately I’ve been in places where they do the laundry for you and return it piled up. Prices can be hilariously high (around $10 US for a load), but what are you gonna do? Despite my strong feelings about laundromats, I don’t really like other people doing my laundry. Not because I have anything special or delicate (it can all go in one load together without issue), but because I’m sensitive that it isn’t clean and…it stinks. (See? What did I tell you? I really am developing some neurotic tendencies here!) Moreover, the stuff I run in smells REALLY bad, and when it’s all in one bag together, then it all smells bad. Basically, i feel really awkward handing someone a big bag of my stinky clothes and asking them to deal with it.

However, $4 is a deal in the laundry world and all my pants were dirty, so I filled a bag and brought it to the girl. Last night I needed to get it back so I could pack up, but no one was around at the front desk. When I finally found an employee, she took me down to a basement room that I hadn’t realized existed. It was a common room with a small TV and a computer, and there were a number of people gathered down there. All over the room, drying on any object with a flat surface, was my laundry.

it was like some kind of demented Easter Egg hunt, going around and gathering up my stuff while these people watched TV and played on the internet and looked at me bemused. For example, my socks were drying on top of the TV. My panties were hanging on doorknobs and hooks on the walls. My pants were suspended a few feet from the ceiling all across the room (kind of like streamers) on a line that would have been a proper clothesline, if it weren’t in a family room. But my stuff was clean and it smelled nice and that’s all I care about anymore.

Meanwhile, I am 25% Lithuanian and our last name is (allegedly) Lithuanian. Actually, I’ve come to be convinced that it was significantly altered when my great-grandfather hit Ellis Island. Or we’re not Lithuanian. I don’t know what he was up to, but he apparently decided it was a good time to invent a new identity. All the last names are these super long things ending in “kas” or “ics” or “ski’ and not one surname is just six letters long. With six letters, they’re just getting warmed up. There’s still a “obieski” or “warsowkas” or something to be added on. I spent some time in the graveyard – just browsing – and didn’t come across a single name that even reminded me of ours.

Although my dad remembers quite clearly that his paternal grandparents were Lithuanian, I’m developing a secret hope that they were lying. The people here are JERKS. Serious, serious jerks. I need to talk to him and see if he remembers his grandmother (with the suspicious first name of Stephanie) as a brutal, angry, non-smiling shrew. if so, then we may be onto something. If not, maybe we’re from some friendly land like…??? Who’s friendly besides the Irish? (which I already know I’m half, from my mother’s side where she’s 100% Irish).

Anyway, here are some of the intriguing little tidbits that have caused me to draw this conclusion about the fatherland:

  1. Much like Poland, if you ask someone if they speak English, they ALWAYS say no. However, if you just keep talking to them anyway (in English), they understand. THEN, they make fun of you.

This morning I asked these two girls if the building behind me or the building across the street was the bus station. They stood there and repeated “Bus, bus, bus” to me (in my American accent – where we say “Buhs” and not “Boose”) over and over, laughing and laughing. “Yes, it’s very funny,” I said to them, “But is it this one or that one?” One of them pointed across the street, “That one.” and I could hear them behind me, “BUS STATION” in an over-exaggerated and super-slow version of my accent and chortling and guffawing as I walked away.

This brings to mind a different angle: If they’re this starved for entertainment in Lithuania, you could make a real killing with some half-assed stand up comedy here. Hell, just bring in someone with a Boston accent or a New York Jew to talk about nothing, and you’d have them rolling in the aisles. Sheesh!

2. If they want money from you (panhandling, begging) or to bother and hit on you, they speak great English. Until you say no, and they get pissed. For a split second, I thought this one guy (about my age, and kind of pudgy around the middle – who wanted money for ‘the hospital’) might spit on me.

3. The streets are very narrow and almost always made of cobblestone. The sidewalks are literally 7 inches wide, and no one will ever yield the right of way. In three days, I was always the one who had to step out into the street. In all fairness, the women here all wear 3 and 4 inch stilettos – even the old women and even in 40 degree weather and rain. They’re quite the fancy dressers, maybe they’re trying to compensate for the sixteen different patterns at once folk outfits of 100 years ago? Anyway, I love high heels and miss mine, but stilettos in a town of nothing but cobblestone? Even I would not be so bold.

    So back to the jerks: The first day I got there it rained like crazy and was no more than 45 or 50 degrees. As I was walking down the road back to the guest house, people were coming down said narrow cobblestone roads in their cars at like 50 or 60 mph. I swear I’m not exaggerating. You would hear the engine gun and it was like a drag race. The cars (always nice ones like BMW or Lexus or Audi) would cut extremely close to the sidewalk, hit the giant puddles gathered there, and unload a wave of filthy puddle water onto my pants. This happened THREE TIMES. It was like the scene in the opening credits of Sex and the City (the early years), except it wasn’t warm out, I wasn’t wearing a pink tutu (thankfully), and by the third time it didn’t seem to be accidental. Now you can also see why I had to go ahead and hire them to do my laundry.

    4. They act as though you’ve come to rob them blind. I saw these Lithuania baseball caps in a shop window and went in to see how much they were (I’m fairly convinced I won’t be back any time soon, so figured I might break my ‘no space or weight capacity for souvenirs’ rule and maybe get my dad, my brother, and I some gaudy hats. The Lithuanians share their color scheme with the Jamaicans – so you can imagine these are some pretty tacky numbers in red, yellow, and green). Anyway, I get in there and this young woman is right up on me within seconds. I mean she was within a foot of me, staring me down. First I smiled at her. No reaction. Then I said, “Yes?” Nothing. “Do you speak English?” Nothing. Then I started inching back toward the front of the store, darting looks over my shoulder, and she stayed on me. They had a whole section where they were selling all this amber jewelry in lit glass cases as if amber were really precious and not super cheap (HELLO) and everywhere I went, she stayed on me. I mean, the stupid stuff was behind glass!? However, when I went back outside she stayed put, presumably off to make someone else so uncomfortable that they decide not to buy anything. Hopefully she’s not working on commission…

      This trend continued at the National Museum. In every room, there’s a woman working on her knitting or standing in the corner looking harmless enough…until you pull out a camera. They had these cool Lithuanian folk outfits (some really fun and funky get ups), and i thought it would be neat to take a picture of them, and about four middle-aged women came at me and nearly tackled me to the ground. A simple picture of a camera with an “x” through it would have sufficed. They also had these cool dioramas of the log huts where people used to live until the turn of the century [so my great-grandparents would have likely lived in a place like this] and English captions, so that was really interesting and photo-worthy. But alas…

      Unfortunately, after that I was branded a criminal, and I had my own personal attendant with me through the entire museum. No matter where I went, she was within two feet of me. At first I felt self-conscious and would stare at the old books (under glass) and since the captions were in Lithuanian, muse to myself that I don’t really know if I could tell the difference between a book from 1902 and a book from 1616. ”If I found this in an attic, would I recognize it as museum-worthy?” Or I would study these millions of boring paintings of monks and priests by “artist unknown” and try to look intellectual. Then the pressure started to get to me, and I turned rebellious. There was this inlay table from the 1700s that some guy maybe signed some religious proclamation or something on, and I touched it. Not a little bit either. I ran my hand across the whole top, and turned to the woman and smiled, “Nice table.”. She looked at me, aghast. I had to fight back urges to tear some ugly painting by “artist unknown” off a wall and run for the exit as fast as I could just to show them who’s boss, and I put my hand through some KGB prison doors (I really wish pictures were allowed, because standing behind one clutching the bars would be a good one) and realized I could unlatch the thing. Now, if there’d been a padlock on it, that’d be another story, but my hands and forearms are small enough I could wriggle them through the bars and get to the latches. She didn’t like that either, and said something angry in Lithuanian. Seriously though, they had about ten of these doors hanging around and they were just welded re-bar painted gray. Give me a blowtorch and I could probably make one of them myself. Seriously.

      5. The toilets. I know they know about real toilets because my hotel has them. Normal human toilets where you can sit down and there’s a lid and running water and toilet paper mounted somewhere in the vicinity. So that’s why it baffles me that I had to pay about $.80 US today at the bus station to basically pee on a broiler pan. A really, really, REALLY bad smelling broiler pan. Oh, and I had my frigging bag on, so crouching down super low like that is INCREDIBLY hard. You will only find that move in the most advanced of strength-training classes. Since I’m a total freak about personal cleanliness now, I got all worried about splash back. I was freshly showered and laundered and feeling fine…I don’t want to spend the day with my own pee on my legs. I briefly eyeballed the trash can (paper would absorb. No splash!) but decided to crouch even lower. it’s not easy to relax when your thighs are trembling with strain, but I toughed it out and get my $.80 worth. But I had to work for it, and I think in that case it should be free.

      6. They stole my damn guidebook.

        However, I’m off to a new part of Lithuania, and maybe things will improve? It was raining in Vilnius, and now that we’re about halfway there, the sun is out. No one is bothering me on the bus, I don’t have to pee, and in the big picture, things are looking up…


        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?”


        “Does this bus go to the airport?”


        (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:



        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.


        Would you like fries with that? September 9, 2008

        This is what happens when strangers take pictures for you. The Charles Bridge in the background, the looming dark figure in the foreground is me!

        This is what happens when strangers take pictures for you. The Charles Bridge in the background, the looming dark figure in the foreground is me!

        So random little tidbit before I move onto other subjects: I looked up both the guys I mentioned in the last blog. Thanks to the wonders of the internet (and my solid memory), I found them both quickly. They’re both alive (darn it…in the case of Eric), both in their home countries (so no worries about running into Eric in a dark alley and suddenly finding myself compelled to bash his head in with some loose cobblestones – although look out once I get home), and by all measures living unremarkable lives (aren’t we all?)

        Eric popped up with a Facebook page. I recognized him immediately in the black and white photo even though it’s been half a lifetime (half my lifetime). Poseur. How sad is Facebook when you’re almost 60!?

        Anyway, Prague was surreal. My poor Charles Bridge. How they have ruined you. Now, like everything else in Europe, you are mobbed with tourists, covered in cheap trinkets, and thick with vendors. It’s really pretty screwed up.

        Actually, the whole place was a mind-bender. Not to go all anti-society and ‘let’s go back to 1850’ but everything kind of looks exactly the same. It’s all H&M and Vodaphone and KFC. They just plug the box stores into the gorgeous old buildings, until you could be in Nuremberg or Nepal or New Jersey and wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

        The Stara Nova (Old New Synagogue) in Prague

        The Stara Nova (Old New Synagogue) in Prague

        Case in Point: The Staronová Synagoga (Old New Synagogue). Completed in 1270, it is Europe’s oldest active synagogue. It survived WWII in part because Hitler decided to keep Josefov as a ‘museum to an extinct race.’ Although, thankfully, he failed, the area is still called the Jewish Museum. It also survived – allegedly – because of a story that a Golem lives in the attic. Purportedly, this kept the Gestapo out. To explain on the Golem (not Lord of the Rings, like I thought. Wasn’t that ‘precious, my precious’ guy named Golem?), here’s a quote from Wikipedia, “According to the legend, the Emperor made an edict proclaiming that the Jews in Prague were to be either expelled or killed (depending on the version of the story). A golem could be made of clay from the banks of the Vltava river in Prague. Following the prescribed rituals, the Rabbi built the Golem and made him come to life by reciting special incantations in Hebrew. The Rabbi’s intention was to have the Golem protect the Jewish community from harm. As Rabbi Loew’s Golem grew bigger, he also became more violent and started killing the Gentiles (non-Jews) and spreading fear. Some versions also add that the Golem turns on his creator and attacks either his creator alone or the creator and the Jews as well.”

        The WIkipedia page is also worth checking out for the pictures of the Golem. I’m 99% sure this is where the idea for a Wookie came from. Seriously, does this not look like your old Chewbaca action figure? He’s even got the shoulder strap for the extra bullets!

        Anyway, so you’ve got the Staronová Synagoga, and it’s this amazingly old piece of history and – for once – not a totally tragic memento of Hitler and Nazis and WWII and people repressing and treating one another like shit…and then across the street is a Faberge (like the zillion dollar eggs that only rich people want or need) store and on the corner of the next block is a Louis Vuitton (of the $5000 purses, and ditto). I mean…wha????

        It’s like this everywhere: amazing old thing and McDonalds on the ground floor.

        Incredible piece of history with a Hugo Boss clothing store across the street.

        Striking architecture with a Burger King in it.

        Is nothing sacred???

        I’m seriously going to have to head into the jungles or something to get away from the Subway sandwich shops and find something authentic and unspoiled. Or do they have Quiznos now on the Amazon?

        In other news, my train from Prague was three hours late. How does this happen? It’s not like they’ll be ‘making up the time in the air.’ Anyway, I about killed myself getting to the station early…and then sat on a bag on the ground for three hours hanging out. This, in turn, made me late to the hostel. Which meant they gave up the bed I reserved in the all-girls dorm (no explanation offered), and I am the only girl in a boy’s dorm. They’re all Australian and all friendly enough (too friendly. One of them had a falling out with his friends and is just sort of hovering about in the room. He and said to me, ‘I’ll go out if you go.’ I’d literally met him two minutes earlier. Hope he isn’t making his day plans based on my schedule…)

        Meanwhile, they’ve warned me that one of our roommates is the loudest snorer on earth.God help me now. If other men find this unbearable (they told me that none of them could sleep for about two hours, and were throwing shoes at him and stuff to silence him), I am doomed. You may next find me in a Berlin prison where I’m on trial for smothering a stranger in his sleep.

        I’m kind of full of the violent threats today, no? Blame it on the weird trance dance music playing in the hostel bar while I type this. It’s getting under my skin and making me edgy.

        Lastly, has anyone ever seen the movie (or play) Hedwig and the Angry Inch? I love that movie. I can’t stop thinking about it today as I walk around the parts that used to be East Berlin. I rushed over to the area with the largest remaining section of the wall. It’s not nearly so tall as the wall in Belfast (to separate the Catholics and Protestants), but it also had 24/7 guards with orders to shoot to kill. An estimated 150 were killed trying to get over.

        Anyway, keep thinking about poor Hedwig and what s/he does to get out of East Berlin and her palpable shock and even dismay when the wall comes down just a few years later and she’s made such a huge sacrifice for nothing. If you’re homophobic, you won’t like it. But otherwise, it’s a wonderful movie worth two hours of your life (I think. But who’s to say I don’t have weird or crappy taste?)

        Tomorrow I plan to go for a run in the Tiergarten and go see the Pergamon Museum (they have the blue Ishtar gates of Babylon there. Wild) and seek out some good falafel. I love falafel. I have a scar on my hand from a falafel-making incident gone wrong (for real). As part of the slow dementia settling in from all this time alone, I spend a lot of time pursuing good falafel. If you would ever like an in-depth review of the falafels I have known and loved (and not loved so much. What is that bright purple pickle stuff they were putting on them in Munich? Ich), then just say the word!!!


        Prague, Take Two September 7, 2008

        The Rathskeller on Marianplatz in Munich

        The Rathskeller on Marianplatz in Munich

        8:30 Sunday morning on the train to Prague. Although yesterday was hot and sunny, it’s pouring down rain right now. Actually, that’s just fine by me. So long as my body can tolerate the ‘sweating in a tank top’ one day, ‘wearing three sweaters and a scarf and still feeling cold’ weather the next day without getting sick, I kind of like traveling in the rain.

        The last couple nights have been loud – very, very loud – and I have my own room at Aparthotel Davids the next couple days. I should be able to catch up on my sleep (hopefully without anyone coming in the room at 4:00 a.m. yelling about how f-ing drunk they are), and presuming the free wifi is working, get some pictures posted to the blog and Flickr. However, I’m not going to get my hopes up too soon. I’ve had more places promise wifi in the rooms…and then it turns out there’s no wifi or internet anywhere. The most expensive and time-consuming element of the blog is actually finding the resources (web cafes, bars that offer free wifi for food + drink purchase, etc.) to post it!

        Meanwhile, in addition to keeping upon the blog, with any luck I’ll actually take a look around too! The last time I was in Prague, things didn’t turn out so well. I had been living in Switzerland for five or six weeks, and decided to do some more traveling. Prague had only been a democracy for a couple years, and it was still very exotic and cheap, although (as is still its claim to fame), it had some of the only architecture in Europe that hadn’t been destroyed in WWII, and was purported to be a spectacularly beautiful.

        If you’ve been following this blog all along (or are the thorough type that has gone backwards), then you probably recall some of what I’m about to tell you. If so, my apologies as I catch everyone else up: Before leaving on my trip in 1992, I had met a man who was staying at the Howard Johnsons (at a five star joint like that, you can tell he was the real high roller) while I was a lifeguard there. He was older than I am now, but full of stories about how he was going to move to Prague and make movies for HBO or start his own CNN and how everything was so cheap there and opportunity was down every alley and anything was possible. He was the one who suggested I should backpack Europe.

        So he went on his way and a couple weeks later, one of his colleagues shows up at the same motel, and by then I’d decided to make the trip. The colleague gave me his number to call him collect with anecdotes from the road. I remember so well that I had no idea what anecdotes meant. I thought it was like antidotes. On the one occasion I called, he asked me to tell him an anecdote, and I had to admit I had no idea what he was talking about!

        Anyway, I only called one time – and I’m not even sure why, probably just homesickness or wanting to speak English with someone – and he gave me the phone number of the first guy (Eric) who was now in Prague. So when I found myself there in late November and realized this was not a city easily navigated or where anyone spoke English, I decided to call him.

        I had a bed at a hostel and after getting settled in there, I went to meet Eric…I think at the train station. Right away he was creepy and strange, even though we hadn’t really known each other very well previously. If I were then who I am now, I would have walked right out. However, I imagine I felt intimidated and out of place in this town, so for reasons unknown, I went along.

        As I’ve mentioned before, I was vegan (so not just vegetarian – no meat, poultry, or fish – but no eggs or milk products either), so eating was a continual hassle. We went into some restaurant and the only thing they could come up with was a plate of peas, carrots, and turnips all cut to the same size (a typical side dish in Europe). Anyway, he knew a number of expatriates who had settled there, and wanted to go visit them. At this point, he needed to stop by his place, and I left my day pack safely in his apartment. It had some personal things – most importantly my passport – as well as my German books, as I’d been living in Switzerland and studying earnestly.

        We left and went to a dark apartment on the other side of town, and all sorts of people were running around. I was introduced to several American and British citizens now living in Prague, and most not much older than I was. There was some sort of fuss occurring in the kitchen, and it was then that I realized that (in the US, anyway) it was Thanksgiving. One of the American women was preparing a chicken or a turkey or the like. I remember being pretty impressed with the whole situation and how well they seemed to have settled in (especially when compared to my isolated life in Switzerland), which is why I think I was particularly unprepared for how the next few days played out.

        There was an English man named Paul, who kind of looked like a young Sting, but with longer hair. He was working on a screenplay or some such thing with Eric. He proceeded to entertain me with insane stories from his own travels – although his were more Hunter S. Thompson-esque than mine (not something I lament!!!). We had the unusual shared trait that we had both developed kidney stones on the road and become violently ill as a result.

        However, he had also dabbled in hard drugs, so he had some truly horrifying stories. I remember one was that he had gone to Eastern Germany and run out of money, and took a job at a fast food place there. Everyone working in the restaurant was an opium addict (I hadn’t known opium even existed any more. It seemed like something from history or movies like ‘Big Trouble in Little China’), so he would smoke it with them until one day he realized he was an addict too.

        At that point, he moved on to heroin, and went to Africa to get it cheaply. (If you’re squeamish about gross drug things or rodents, skip the rest of this paragraph). The heroin was cheap and he and another man stayed in a horrible little room and would do nothing but shoot up. One day he woke up, and rats had eaten portion of his legs down to the bone. The other guy was dead, and part of his face was gone. They had both overdosed, and he had been unconscious (or dead, in the case of his colleague) for so long that the rats had started in on them. At that point, he went to the British embassy and they got him home. From there, he got help and got clean. He showed me the scars on his legs, and I was both horrified and amazed that someone so young (I feel like he was only 25 or 26 – I know at one point he showed me his ID, although I can no longer remember the context) had inflicted so much agony on themselves.

        At this point, the girl who had been fixing the meal came in and was slamming dishes and pans around and was clearly upset. She took Paul out in the hall, and they had a big fight. According to Eric, the woman had a crush on Paul (or they had previously been involved, he wasn’t sure), and she was jealous because he liked me or she thought he did or something. I was involved with the guy in Switzerland, so that wasn’t of interest (not to mention I was completely spooked by what he’d told me about his past).

        Anyway, this fight progressed and the three of us left. We wound up in an old-style Eastern European bar with the big wooden tables that filled the whole room. I remember talking to some Australian opal miners who were fascinated with the ring I wore (a fire opal my grandmother gave me for my 16th birthday. Those guys were the reason I still don’t wear it much – they pressed upon me how fragile large opals are). We talked for a while, and when I looked over, Eric (the American) had a girl that couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen in his lap. And he wasn’t exactly being fatherly with her.

        Admittedly, I was one naive little girl myself. Although I had just turned 20, I didn’t realize how things ‘were’ (and to some extent ‘are’) in much of the undeveloped world, and I as far as I was concerned, he was molesting a child. I remember I went and talked to Paul and expressed my outrage, and he seemed to agree.

        Eric (and remember, this guy was pushing 40) noticed me looking and tried to call me over, but I kept ignoring him. Eventually he came over, and wanted to know what was going on. I wouldn’t talk to him, but convinced me to leave the main bar area in order to speak in private. I very tentatively shared that I thought that girl was way too young. It was wrong.

        Somehow Eric took this that I was jealous of this little girl, and interested in him. He became a total sleaze bag, and I rejected him. Events escalated, he drug me by the arm and hair into a closet, and when it became clear he was going to force himself on me, I pulled the little canister out of my pocket and maced him. Actually, I maced both of us (in a small enclosed space, the stuff gets everywhere, even when you point it away from you) and ran back out into the bar. I was both crying for real and crying from the pain of the mace, and Paul stopped me and wanted to know what was happening.

        I ran out of the bar, and he followed me. At this point, i realized I had no idea where I was, where my hostel was, where anything was. I told Paul what had happened, and as I was calculating plans to get out of Prague that very night, I realized Eric had my passport!!!!! I was completely stricken. Paul thought he could help me, and suggested we leave. We ended up going out to his apartment in the Prague suburbs. He was renting it and it had come pre-furnished and was full of crazy knicknacks. That was the first time I heard the word tchockes.

        Anyway, by now it was the middle of the night, so he suggested I just stay there. Plus, I was very worried about my passport and other belongings, and he was going to try to get them back for me the next day. He had a large bed, and I slept way over on one side and him on the other. I remember the last thing he said before we went to sleep was, “Don’t worry. I’m not going to bugger you.” Again, I had no idea what that meant…but I could make an educated guess. Thankfully, he was telling the truth.

        The next morning he took me to a supermarket and bought all kinds of things so I could make a tofu scramble (the vegan equivalent of scrambled eggs), and let me use the kitchen. It was possibly the best meal I had the entire time I was in Europe. I recall Eric kept calling, and they had a number of hushed phone calls. I felt nervous.

        We went back to my hostel and I got my backpack, and by the mid-afternoon, Paul had arranged to meet with Eric. I stayed back and walked along the Charles bridge (pretty much all I saw of Prague beyond what I’ve already described. Eric brought the passport, but he wouldn’t give my day bag up. I have no idea what he wanted with a bunch of German language books and the world’s largest copy of Ulysses. It was probably just to spite me. I never could afford to replace them, so I suppose he got the last laugh in the end.

        Or maybe not? I never got beyond page 25 of Ulysses despite dragging it around for five or six months, and in the end I was better off without the weight. I couldn’t afford to replace the German textbooks and never learned the language, but life goes on. Moreover, after the shock of all this wore off, it was a little bit funny to me that the only person I ever had to mace in Europe (or ever!) was an American I already knew.

        If you ask me, if you can’t laugh at life’s troubles, you’re just not trying hard enough…


        Fatigue is the best pillow September 6, 2008

        I believe Benjamin Franklin said that.

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

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

        “So what do you want to do now?”

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

        “Get totally wasted.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

        Until then…


        Shock Therapy September 5, 2008

        Thun (the town where I lived in Switzerland) was every bit as beautiful as I remembered

        Thun (the town where I lived in Switzerland) was every bit as beautiful as I remembered

        I’m pretty sure I mentioned this before, but part of the reason I’m on this journey – a big part of the reason, actually – is because I’m writing a book. The book, however, is nothing like this blog. It’s a fictionalized account of the last time I did this trip (or, more accurately, the period of the trip that I developed kidney stones, became incredibly ill in Switzerland, and fell in love with the man who took care of me. Actually, those tidbits are still just a small part of the story, but you get the drift).

        Anyway, I had the idea that it might help me remember what it was like fifteen years ago and tell the story with more emotion – and perhaps weave in the perspective of being definitely older and hopefully wiser – if I went back and retraced my steps. Not to drone on and bore you with the details of a book you can’t read (yet), but I will add that there is a second story line about the trip I am on now. That was something I didn’t anticipate writing, but which seems to be working.

        So a few nights ago (a week ago?) in that awful room in Madrid, I watched an episode of House on YouTube. It seemed to be a two-parter and I tuned in for part two, but the general gist was be that House had been in an accident of some kind, had a heart attack as a result, and couldn’t remember what had happened. Eventually, he realized that one of the other doctors was involved, but the details eluded him. At the end of the episode I watched, they decided to drill a hole in House’s head in order to send electricity directly into the cerebral cortex or some similar part of your brain that holds memories. With enough of a jolt, his memory came back.

        For a while I lived in the basement of the house on the far left

        For a while, I lived in the basement of the little house one from the right

        Although a slightly less dangerous approach, the last two days in Switzerland have been the equivalent. I have never felt so emotionally overwhelmed by a scent, remembered so many small details about the way someone walked or talked or smiled, been moved to such intense emotion over the mere sight of a place, or slept so poorly in my whole life. I think I’m in information and stimulus overload. I have had a virtual shock therapy performed on my brain.

        Add that to my general schedule. In contrast to the slow travel movement, wherein you might go to, say, Florence and stay there a week and then drive two hours south into Tuscany and stay there two more weeks, and slowly progress such that thirteen weeks pass in just Italy, I have developed a ‘two night rule.’ Generally speaking, I stay in any given town for two nights (planned exceptions for slightly longer include Rome, Vienna, and a couple Greek islands).

        There are three reasons for this:

        1. When I made this trip in 1992/1993, I had no money and a Eurail pass. As a result, I would show up at the train station around 22:00., figure out what were the overnight trains and get on one. The next day I would store my luggage, tour that town, and repeat the process. I don’t think I could survive that schedule again. I don’t even want to try. However, in the spirit of my original journey, I am a rolling stone.

        2. Spending days and days sampling the restaurants of London, strolling the bridges of Prague, and shopping the boutiques of Paris is wonderful if you have disposable income and a friend or lover by your side. When you have neither, it’s much easier to evade loneliness and homesicknesses – or just plain old moments of misplaced jealousy at the sight of happy couples or laughing friends – with new stimuli (i.e. a new place). I have nothing against that type of travel (in fact, there are quite a few days it sounds damn good), that’s just not what this trip is about for me.

        3. They call it ‘travel’ for a reason! The train time is good for writing and thinking – after a full day of taking in a city or (more recently) crawling through the ashes of my own past – I relish the time to process my thoughts and just breathe.

        However, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that moving every few days exacerbates the culture shock. I get attached to the soda bread of Ireland, but get cut off. I develop a real zeal for the sardine-stuffed olives of Spain…and then they’re gone. I trade them in for fresh baguettes and brie at bargain prices, when suddenly there’s nothing but dense grainy breads and Gruyère cheese.

        The Jungfrau (happily, not completely covered in clouds for once!)

        The Jungfrau (happily, not completely covered in clouds for once!)

        Similarly, just when I get used to saying, ‘Abrigado’, it becomes ‘Gracias.” I no longer have to remember whether it’s day or night, as now I’m back to saying “Grüezi” at all hours like I did 15 years ago. And as I adjust to ‘S’il vous plait’ it turns into ‘Bitte.’ For some unfathomable reason, I have resorted to saying, “Scusi” as my multi-cultural “excuse me.” Every time it pops out of my mouth, I briefly stop just to check that some miracle hasn’t occurred and maybe now I’m fluent in something besides English? No such luck. Apparently the “scusi” is just my poor, overwhelmed brains attempt to do some advanced prep work for Italy in a few weeks?

        There is a lady standing by the seat where I’m sitting on the train from Zürich to München, just staring at me. Very weird moment here, folks. I’ve smiled at her a couple times and said, “Hi” (when in doubt, I just speak obvious American English to make it clear I’m not going to understand much anything else) to no avail. If I had to guess, I’d say it was fascination with my mini-computer. That or my captivating smile. Who knows?

        Meanwhile, in a couple days (Sunday), I’m supposed to have free wifi in the room. If that works out, I’ll backtrack and add a bunch of pictures for your viewing pleasure. Meanwhile, wish me a couple dreamless nights to get myself back together. Gute nacht and viel glück!