Wide Awake in Wonderland

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

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.

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Slipping into the Twilight Zone August 26, 2008

Cascais, Portugal

Cascais, Portugal

It’s been a long couple days, but in a good way. I went to the beach (Cascais), and got back later than anticipated. Then I took a shower and got roped into a lengthy conversation while drying my hair (it is such a weird experience to be doing things like that – blow drying your hair – in public). As it was my last night in Lisbon, I was begged, pleaded with, and cajoled until I gave in and went out with some of the fellow hostelers. Going out seems to entail not even leaving until about 11pm.

The cutest guy on the beach in Cascais

The cutest guy on the beach in Cascais

Regardless, two particularly friendly North African guys (just finishing up architecture master’s degrees in France) were staying in the same room, and after hearing ‘last night in Lisbon’ forty-five times, I finally gave in. In my opinion, every other night is my last night somewhere, but there’s something to be said for going with the flow.

That stated, I can accurately report to you that bars in Lisbon Portugal are every bit as boring as the ones in the United States – particularly if you have a headache from all the cigarette smoke and no desire to get drunk in a complicated city full of unfriendly and steep cobblestone streets. Despite being a wildly international group (1 Australian, 1 Algerian, 1 Moroccan, 2 Swedes, 1 Korean, 1 Tunisian, 1 Romanian, and me, the American), conversations seem to center around tales of previous episodes of extreme drinking, including a harrowing story from a Swedish guy about some kind of 99% alcohol intended for medical use. He seemed to find it a funny memory, but it struck me as more of a brush with death warning that should be used in a ‘Scared Straight’ film. Not that I’m any abolitionist, but It is a little alarming to me how much alcohol seems to be a focus of everyone’s life, and this seems to extend across all borders. Almost every person I’ve met in a hostel has mentioned that their travel budget is roughly 50% for alcohol. Good thing I didn’t have to factor that in, or I’d be headed home in the next couple weeks.

Me with all of Lisbon at my feet

Me with all of Lisbon at my feet

Meanwhile, to any of you out there with young children, in addition to keeping an eye out for any growing fascination with booze, please consider raising them bi-lingual, even if it’s a Neanderthal language of grunts and groans that you make up yourself. In fact, all the better. If you and your family are fluent in Cavemanch, then you, too, can go out in public and talk about people who are standing right there because they won’t understand you. That’s right all you fluent Chinese, Arabic, Polish, Russian, etc. etc. speakers. The Aussies and I are onto you. When you look at us and talk at a feverish low tone and then erupt into laughter, we know something is going on and we may be the punchline.

Moreover, it truly is kind of embarrassing to only speak English fluently. Last night someone said something to the effect of English being ‘the international language’ and so ‘everyone has to learn it.’ All I could think was, “THANK GOD,” because it’s hard enough having to start every single solitary conversation with “English?” or “Do you speak English?” Particularly being in a country where the only word you know is ‘thank you’. By the way, it’s obrogado/a, and I say it with flourish every chance I get!

In the same vein, last night I got roped into conjuring up my high school French. Needless to say, I provided quite a few guffaws at my own expense. Especially because all I could remember were weird textbook sentences like “the pencil is on the table” and “they are friends.” Also, because high school was a really long time ago. Really long. But no one believes me on that one.

I suspect it’s due to the hard partying life most of the youth of the world seem to be living and that I somehow never partook in along the way. If all you do from the time you’re 15 or 16 is smoke, drink and stay up all night, I’m thinking the key to my eternal youth lies in my general abstinence (minus the alcohol under different circumstances. Here – partially because of budget, but mostly because I’m on my own – I’m crazy conservative) from all three.

Other people may have their multilingual flag to wave. They may be able to carry on conversations in four or five languages on as many continents…but I look damn young. I can infiltrate your youthful scene and you are none the wiser. In fact, you start looking out for me in my apparent youth. This is my super power. Forget out running locomotives and leaping tall buildings in a single bound? Who needs all that, when you could re-enroll in high school?

Seriously though, it’s absolutely bizarre to me. Last night someone suggested that I was 25 and another man said, “No! I would have thought…”

I readied myself, “Here it comes…busted!”

Until he followed it up with, “I would have thought younger than that. More like 21.” Wha…????

On the other hand, the few times I have stated my true age, no one believes me. I honestly think I’d have an easier time telling people I’m a vampire, I never age, and I’m 412 years old. It would not surprise me if that were accepted as fact more readily than the truth of my advancing years. Don’t get me wrong, I’m flattered for sure – just a little baffled.

The red tile roofs of Lisbon

The red tile roofs of Lisbon

Meanwhile, Lisbon is a really interesting city of contrasts. It’s got a lot of old architecture and charm, and then two blocks away looks like a bomb just went off. The weather has been superb, and it’s a mere 25 minute train ride from the beach…and the world’s coldest ocean. Seriously, it was FREEZING. It wasn’t the coldest ever, I think the ocean off Washington state in the spring is about the same, but considering how warm it is, and it’s August, I was totally shocked. Anyway, minus having very little (no) grasp on the language, I like it here just fine. In fact, in a mere two days I’ve become an expert at getting around on the subways and throughout the Alfama (as long as you’re not in a rush, it’s easy to get out of there, just head downhill). The Alfama is the old “Moorish district” which has these insane and super-steep switchback streets. Apparently they were built that way in case anyone attacked the city: The soldiers would get lost in the street and were easy to fight back from the castle at the top.

In the Alfama district

In the Alfama district

At the moment, I’m sitting here in the hostel kitchen, and someone just handed me a shrimp with the head and arms and legs and wings and horns and beak still attached. Ick. I love shrimp, but if I had to look at them like this all the time, I’m pretty sure I’d eat them a lot less frequently! I ended up munching down a pretty good portion of shell, but I’m pretty sure it added to the flavor (it really was damn flavorful) and I probably got some extra calcium out of it or something.

Lastly, I’m going to make a real effort to get a bunch of pictures up on Flickr in the next few days. Space is allotted by month, so i intend to use everything I’ve got before August ends. Meanwhile, I can’t seem to figure out how to get the link to work from WordPress. They say to paste in the RSS feed from Flickr…but (obviously, if you look to the lower left) it isn’t working. My Flickr account shares the same name as this blog, and if anyone can figure out the exact url I should plug in to get the link going please send me an e-mail or post a comment. Otherwise, boa noite, and tomorrow it will be be buenos dias from Madrid!

 

Teenage rebellion is not what it used to be August 23, 2008

Ok, so what the hell is this all about? I’m on the 8:05 a.m. bus from Schull to Cork. We’ve been on it about five minutes, and across the aisle from me is an Irish couple in their late teens who are BLARING the music player on their cell phone as loud as they can while making out. It’s obnoxious and I can hear people around me complaining. When they came up for air, I asked if they could turn it down a little, and he acted like he might pull a knife on me. He want on some incomprehensible rant that I’m pretty sure contained some bad words.

But here’s the kicker: The music is complete and total CRAP. How can you call yourself an Irish bad ass when you’re willing to kill someone to defend your right to annoy the whole bus with Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” I might not mind if they were playing some Snoop Dogg or Wu Tang Clan or something more conducive to disturbing the peace., but the Farm Aid song!? (I haven’t heard it in so long, I’m not sure that’s the song. The thing about ‘make the world a better place, for you and for me and the entire human race”and you can clearly hear Michael Jackson in the mix???) WTF!?

Later on this bus ride (it took a little over two hours total), several other people tried to silence those two. I thought one guy might come to blows over it. The male of the couple was an absolute punk and would literally threaten people with their lives when they asked him to turn it down. What was so bizarre, and yet strangely funny, was how AWFUL the music was. I put on my headphones and tried to drown it out (I think every one of us so equipped did), but I still managed to hear (and I am not making this up):

  1. Whitney Houston – I will always love you (but of course)
  2. Air Supply – Making Love out of nothing at all (or whatever it’s called. Pretty much the shittiest song EVER)
  3. That song about “Turn around bright eyes”

It was like somebody’s prom, circa 1987, only these two were probably late teens, 20 years old at most!?!?

On the other hand, considering the news a few weeks back about someone beheading another person on a Greyhound bus in Canada, I guess we should be glad that only our eardrums were terrorized. No one was killed, only tortured.

Meanwhile, I’m back in Dublin in a cell block of a room at Dublin City University. Actually, cell block isn’t fair. Prison cells are nicer. The DSL internet connection doesn’t work (and it’s clear there were once instructions that the girls at the front desk either lost or gave away), and I think prisoners get a TV. But it has the same cinder block walls and horrible bed, so that’s comforting.

On the upside, it’s back to pouring down rain and 55 degrees…and I am outta here and Lisbon-bound at 5:15 a.m. (7:15 a.m. flight). So one short night in the jail house is no big deal.

Adeus!

 

Bill Murray as Irish colloquialism August 21, 2008

That’s right. I’ve busted out an SAT word on your there. I strive to educate as well as to entertain. If you’re wondering, it basically means ‘slang.’ Anyway, the Irish show jumping horse was disqualified from the Olympics today as he tested positive for capsaicin (sp? derivative of cayenne pepper). The “teaser” line on the Irish CNN channel was, “Groundhogs day for Ireland at the Olympics!” as apparently the same thing happened in Athens four years ago.

Hilarious. I’ve never heard anyone reference that movie (Groundhogs Day) with respect to the same thing happening twice, but it’s genius.

Meanwhile they were really beating up on the hapless coach (I assume coach, they kept calling him ‘Chef de Keep’ and then ‘boss.’). The poor guy needs a PR rep tout de suite. He got positively hostile with the news reporter. He just needed a little guidance about how to gracefully answer the awkward, but predictable, questions about, “Are you surprised?” or “How do you think the people of Ireland will feel?”

In response to these, he said, “I’m not going to answer your questions! I came here to make a statement, and I made it: The horse will not be running tonight. That should be enough. I’m in Hong Kong. Beijing is four hours away.” His phone started ringing (a little Irish ditty) and he barked at the reporter, “My phone is ringing for the thousandth time today. I’ve gots to answer me phone!”

You couldn’t help but feel for the poor dude. Where are the Irish PR firms when you need one!? This flustered guy just needed a little speech writing about “disappointment” and “confusion” and “misunderstanding” and “getting to the bottom of this.” Something to smooth rumpled feathers and ill feelings. Apparently they are flowing. The news anchors were inconsolably angry that ‘the integrity of the Irish has been besmirched.” I’m going to start saying besmirched a whole lot more. Or at all.

Tonight I am in top notch digs: a B&B in Schull (but don’t say ‘Shool’ like I’ve been doing for three days. Everyone will stare at you like you’re not speaking the same language as them, which happens way more than you would think. Anyway, it’s pronounced “Skull.” Oh, and by the way, we’re saying Celtic all wrong too. It’s not Seltic. It’s Keltic. Boston Celtics, we need to think about some rebranding…). Anyway, the place is like heaven and Christmas rolled into one. And it’s so CLEAN. I want to roll around on the floors it’s so clean. And I haven’t even partaken in either of the ‘B’s yet. I have so much to look forward to…

Meanwhile, there is a TV show on wherein a (British it sounds like?) guy is tracking his genealogy. They hook him up with experts in the varying German towns his ancestors called home, and at the moment he’s stuck as his great-great-great-grandmother was (apparently) a bastard who lied about her name. He’s in the town where she came from following some flimsy clues.

I like it! if someone decides to make this show in the US, I’ll volunteer. On my dad’s side, we’re Romanovs for all we know. A Greek cab driver on the Vegas strip did once declare that I had a look of aristocracy. Obviously it’s true. Or maybe he was just hoping for a big tip?

Anyway, My great-grandmother (Stephanie – no clue if that was her given name. Kind of doubt it.) was apparently ‘from money” over in Russia. Her husband, my Lithuanian great-grandfather, can be tracked to Ellis Island, but prior to that, the trail turns cold. I’ll be in Lithuania in about three weeks, but I won’t be conducting much of a genealogy study as I don’t really know where to start and the BBC probably won’t be around to hook me up with an expert.

As for the guy on the show, it turns out his great-great-great grandmother was the illegitimate daughter of a prince, and ultimately he’s eight generations down from Henry II. Maybe that’s why they’re even airing this? If it turned out her dad was an impoverished wheat farmer with three other wives and twenty-seven other children, it may not have been that interesting to the masses. We all like a happy ending.

Speaking of which, I had a moment of peaceful hostel camaraderie last night which reminded me why in some respects I like to stay in them. Seven of us gathered around the TV in the common room to watch the movie The Descent: an Italian guy, an Irish woman, two American brothers, a Spanish father and his teen daughter, and me. The movie was total crap, but it was strangely fun to sit in the dark with people you just met and make wisecracks as we watched it. The other day I watched Old School with a bunch of young French guys and was totally amazed that they got every joke. One point in favor of hostel living: meeting and hanging out with cool people.

On the other hand, come this morning, I woke and noticed that our room (there were only three of us) had a distinct funk. I will decline to identify his nationality on the grounds of prejudice or stereotype, but sufficed to say upon physical inspection it was clear that our male roommate needed a shower and a shampoo REAL BAD. DESPERATELY. So much so that, if I’d had to stay there another night and share the same room, I might have done it for him myself. And I am NOT into shampooing strangers. Only in an emergency super stench situation would the idea even come up…

Which brings me to my final thought for the day: You get enough unclean people (or even one unwashed dude) in a small room, and it’s like a freaky people barn. It ain’t right.

If you haven’t smelled this and for some sick and twisted reason you would like to, buy a ticket to Cork, Ireland, go to the Aaron House hostel, and ask to be put in the three-bed room with the (nationality omitted) guy who’s living there. That, or stick your head in a gym bag with clothes and shoes that have been left to ferment for a few weeks. That’s what I’m talking about. One big strike AGAINST hostel living…

 

Now I know why the ancestors left the old country August 17, 2008

By the Peace Wall (three stories high, and built to keep the Protestants and Catholics separate) in Belfast, Ireland

By the Peace Wall (three stories high, and built to keep the Protestants and Catholics separate) in Belfast, Ireland

Riding through river-deep floodwaters, trying to get to Belfast
Riding through river-deep floodwaters, trying to get to BelfastBy the Peace Wall (three stories high, and built to keep the Protestants and the Catholics away from one another) in Belfast, Ireland.
Where to start? My flight into Belfast was delayed a couple hours, and I kept hearing whispers with the words “torrential” and “flood.” As we’re landing it’s more of the same – rain, clouds, gray, blech.
I get my bag and head out to wait for the city bus. And wait. And wait. And wait. It’s Saturday, so the sign says it comes every half an hour. An hour and fifteen minutes passes…Nada. We hear that the roads are flooded, and perhaps the bus can’t make it? Thus – abandoning all logic that if a fairly tall bus can’t make it, what can? – a few of us band together and hire a taxi. It’s a really nice one, at that, a new black Mercedes. Maybe it has special waterproof powers installed by crafty German engineers?
It didn’t, although we did avert any true tragedy. There are something like five routes into Belfast, and after crossing veritable rivers, but ultimately being turned back each time, we went to attempt the last possible (way out of the way) route. The passengers consisted of me, an Australian, a couple from Belfast, and the driver, also from Belfast. The locals made comments upon seeing lakes (that apparently weren’t lakes the day before) and rushing rivers (ditto) like, “That’s scary.” Although I originally expected to be at the hostel around 5pm, I got there – tired, hungry, cold, and emotionally drained – at 10pm.
Everything was closed, so I had to fix dinner from my emergency rations – powdered lentil soup – and it was every bit as bad as it sounds. I got about 1/4 cup through and could bear no more. Budget travel through Europe could be the hot new diet you’ve been looking for!!!
Speaking of which, I am DYING for a salad. I haven’t seen a healthy looking or desirable vegetable in two weeks. What I wouldn’t do for one of those giant Olive Garden salad bowls (the size intended for the whole table). My kingdom for some iceberg lettuce and Italian dressing…
Anyway, since they owed me one, the Celtic gods smiled and delivered up some glorious sun amidst the rain. I took the Black Taxi political tour, which goes to the Catholic and Protestant sides of town, where you can see the (edited) murals painted by each during The Troubles. Or not. That’s why the ‘edited.’ Apparently what was once a listing of every catholic who died, when, and how old they were, is now an oddball mishmash of pro-Palestinian, pro-Cuba, Picasso’s Guernica, and a whole lot of anti-Bush rhetoric (which is pretty funny.) Regardless, it was a fascinating look into a terrible and somewhat senseless period in Irish history.
Perhaps if you catch me in a different mood, I’ll share my theories on the potential influence of the famous Irish temper. Being the daughter of a full-blooded Irish woman (and  thus, obviously, half-Irish myself), I know of whence I speak! Let’s just say, in the words of Bruce Banner, “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry…”
Tomorrow