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On November 6th of '95, a Monday, my boss called me in and told me I was laid off, they couldn't make payroll (they went bankrupt a week later). That night I went to a Jaycees meeting and over some beers afterwards, some friends said, "Take a vacation!" I made arrangements that night. I called my dad the next day and said, "I'm coming to visit you." He said, "When?" I said, "Friday." I really had just one day to pack. Oh, yeah: My father was working in Romania.
I arrived planning on staying in Europe 4 or 5 weeks. I missed that target. I was there 3 months. I traveled point-to-point (no rail-pass action here -that's for wussies!), not knowing or caring which city I was going to past the next destination, just walking around seeing the sights. It was great! I'd stay in a city 2 to 4 days, getting all the culture, then get a hankerin' for somewhere new, and just get on a train and go.
The transportation costs were minimal: I had a frequent flyer ticket that got me there free in First Class! Then, since eastern Europe train fares are ridiculously cheap (10 hours across Romania = $4), I spent most of my money on food. Housing never cost more than $14 a night in the youth hostels. I highly encourage everyone to go to Eastern Europe! The only real cost is in the lost time you're not working here.
I'm going to list the cities I went to, then I'll mention what happened there. Bucharest, Constansa, and Brasov (Romania); Istanbul (Turkey); Chisniev (Moldova); Budapest and Eger (Hungary); Levoca and Bratislava (Slovakia); Vienna (Austria); Zagreb and Opatia (Croatia); Venice, Florence, Rome (Vatican City), Naples, Milan, and Brindisi (Italy); Athens (Greece); Rhythmno and Myrthios (Crete); Sofia, Pleven, and Ruse (Bulgaria); Warsaw, Krakow, Auschwitz, Gdansk, and Hel (Poland).
Bucharest was the starting point, and I was quick to note that life is much more complex in Romania. There's no Walmart; every thing you want has an individual store to go to, and a lot of the time they're out of what you want. The people are gentle, caring (very touchy-feely), and generally as hospitable as you could possibly ask. There's Gypsies everywhere, begging, and you stand a 50% chance of being pickpocketed in any month's time there, methinks (all very gently - there's no violent street crime whatsoever - a true mystery), though I personally never was robbed, my father was pickpocketed twice in the first 6 months. Not violently, just make sure you keep your real money elsewhere. The country is beautiful, though, and given 4 or 5 years, might be a great 'normal' vacation spot.
My first outward venture from Romania was Istanbul, Turkey, where I went to a party in a posh retreat "on the Asia side". Yes, I went to a different continent for the evening! It's a 1/4 mile toll bridge! We had do-it-yourself Karoke via a gorgeous, bright-eyed girl (a law student) who played guitar and sang Beatles tunes by heart. Somehow they expected me (the American) to know all the words. Right. Otherwise, the sultan's palace tour, including the Harem, was cool, as had a sapphire the size of a football. Really, the impressive bits were touring the two HUGE, beautiful, truly ancient, awe-inspiring mosques there. GO.
Moldova is a former USSR republic. I went because 99% of Americans don't know it exists and 99% of those that do have no idea where it is! (Look on the Black sea near Odessa). After touring my first day, I went out in the evening, only to find a deserted downtown. 800,000 people and no Saturday night fun! I saw 3 college-age girls walking and figured they had to be going somewhere fun, so I "stalked" them back to a college "disco" and met some great university students!
One of the students invited me (to my great surprise) to his Mother's birthday party, with 3 uncles and lots of cousins! After family photos, champagne, some salty marmalade (Caviar!), and great food, we toasted 4 or 5 times with Moldovan Cognac (120+ proof but Fantastic tasting): Hangover!!! (I had NO choice - to not drink all of a toast is an insult!) The next day, after guest lecturing at that college's English class, I visited a winery with some other students and pretended to be a rich American businessman. We wanted bluff our way in for a tour, but Communism has a system that we couldn't budge. This country and it's great people were a true highlight of my whole time in Europe and I'll remember them for the rest of my life.
Next, it was Brasov, Romania, and the Castle Bran. Of 3 paths thru the Carpathians to Istanbul, this impressive and beautiful italian-villa type castle guards one. That night, in a movie house with assigned seating, I saw the movie "Dumb and Dumber" subtitled in Romanian. I laughed before the audience did (they had to read) and I got some stares.
Budapest is almost modern and getting better. On a whim, I went to the Opera. It was $3, and I was 2nd row center, 2 meters from the conductor. "Carmen" is an Italian-style opera, done in French, set in Spain, sung by Hungarians, with Hungarian supertitles, and I only speak English! (quite the multicultural subtlety here). FANTASTIC! Toreador! Ole! Verdi's "La Travaitta" the next night wasn't as good, but still great for another $3. FYI: Hungarian, as a language, is gibberish to everyone but them, with no words in common with English! French and Russian did me NO good!) Eger (a quiant town) had a Kmart! At their museum, I was the only person there, and the museum director herself gave me a guided tour, switching the lights on as I looked through the rooms and off as I left. Its world famous dark-ages gold coin collection came from some guy who dug it up in his garden - beautiful and fascinating.
Levoca, Slovakia, was 7,000 people, famous, and important in the 1500's. It's still 7,000 people, but the cathedral was never bombed and has a beautiful hand-carved wood alter as tall as the inside of the church. With the best meal I had the whole trip I had a beer, called "-something- Mnch". It would never import - people would pronounce it as a rhyme for 'yuck'. The meal and beer cost $1.80. GREAT food. Later, I played pool and drank with some local students. One was about to be shipped off for the truly hated compulsory military service for 2 years. They called it "prison". He cried that evening, his last with his friends. Bratislava, Slovakia, is a pit, but Mozart once lived there (so that makes it all right, I suppose). Currently lots of Austrians do, living cheaply an hour's commute to Vienna. Don't bother, it's ucky.
Vienna was glitzy but expensive - I had an $8 bowl of soup my first meal. The museums were pretty good, lots of paintings and stuff that's better than most of the Eastern block, but less "real" than the gold coins somehow. Vienna had an opera, which had some standing room only nosebleed seats for $2 with some famous guy singing in Verdi's "Jerusalem". I found out why the guy was famous the next day: It was one of the Three Tenors, Jose Careras. Big wup. I didn't care. The acoustics were bad! The next night's ballet was lots more fun. Oh - about Vienna - the Austrians are far more uptight even than the Germans. I didn't think it possible. The trains run On Time, are super quiet, clean, efficient, and like everything else there, expensive.
I got inspired then. Where to go next? I thought, "What the hell!" Caution to the wind! Zagreb, Croatia! (right next to Bosnia and Serbia). Small-town, beautiful never-bombed old architecture, and a capitol of Europe. No war, just lots of soldiers on leave, shopping, pushing their 2 year olds in strollers. I got lost there one evening because (I discovered) all electric trams are always going South (on my compass). Opatia was next, an empty Mediterranean resort town known worldwide in past years for Nudism (apparently - I saw none except on postcards. Alas.). A short stopover in Slovenia (different from slovakia!) means I can count that country, but I didn't see much past the rail station, the engineer's office (for fun), and a local tavern for good, warm soup. Nice people there, though.
Venice Italy is truly twisted. It's like you put Georgetown VA (near D.C.) into the middle of Lake Michigan with a causeway to it. Wierd. It's beautiful, though; yes, it has gondolas, and small sidewalks and no wheelchair access (stepped bridges over small canals everywhere). Roman, Greek, Mediterranean, Egyptian architecture all clash and yet agree. It's cool. Watch out for the attack pidgins in the big square (Piattza del San Marco). They land on you if you hold out your arms. Quickly. En Masse. Mostly, Venice is romantic, though, for no good reason. It just is.
Florence Italy had Dave. Mike's Dave (That's Micaelangelo's 'David'). I hung out with Dave for about 20 minutes. The marble is translucent, the detail exquisite, and the admission $12. It's worth it. His face's expression is 3 or 4 things at once. The Uffizi gallery had Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus". I don't know a thing about art except whether it looks cool or not, and the art here is very cool. I was impressed. GO.
Rome is the eternal city. The drivers are maniacs! Citizens just cope: You just step out confidently into a constant stream of 40 mph traffic, walking steadily across the street as they swerve around you. A little old lady did it and showed she had more cahones than me. I followed. 4 days later I was quite adept at it, but it freaks you out to start. The highlight of the Rome trip was Christmas. I had a choice, to go anywhere for Christmas - it came down to Bethlehem, Israel (riots proved not going a wise choice), Sweden (frightfully cold!), and St. Peters in Rome.
So, it was to be Christmas Eve's midnight mass at the Vatican. In line beforehand, we saw a streaker, unfortunately a guy, so I lent my binoculars to the girls from the youth hostel I attended with so they could see better. Later, when we were in the Church/Cathedral/Basilica of St. Peter's, during the service, there were empty chairs close in, and everyone was going over a waist-high portable wall to get to them. Unfortunately, after helping the girls over, I missed the chair and went loudly clanking to the floor in a pile of folding chairs. During the service. In front of everyone. His holiness was sick with the flu, though, and he didn't notice. I stood up, thanked people for their concern, said, "I'm all right, it's okay", waved, laughed, and sat down. Oops. (It wasn't a big deal, really. I don't think over 300 people saw me).
I took communion, blessed by J.P. himself (Pope John Paul II, we're good friends now)(really!)(chuckle). It was a great experience. I'm not Catholic, but this part of the trip was a highlight of my life. And, all the lights were on inside the church for the T.V. cameras, so the paintings, the gold, the carvings, all shone with a brilliance that misses what I can get on paper. GO!!!
The Vatican museum is not to be missed. It really is worth a whole day. In the Sistine Chapel, the restoration is brilliant. I had remembered an article in Scientific American, and found a part of the last judgement that was painted over in the 1700's. Since cleaning, though, they found that it wasn't a vine twisted up around one demon's leg, but a snake that had that demon's full attention (chomp!). Wowzers! picture here
After Rome was Naples (a scumpot from what I saw), and Milan, a really nice industrial city with a grandiose spired church and Da Vinci's Last Supper, which was disappointing. It's in very bad condition. Otherwise, not a very interesting town. I did have dinner with some relatives there, and ate more than I had in a week or two. I was walking by that time between 5 and 8 hours a day, oft-times carrying my 55 pound pack. Legs like rocks were nice but you pay by being hungry all the time. I learned to carry a big hunk o' cheese in my pocket and eat whenever. It lasts forever (it was winter) and is very energy-compact. That and I always had several chocolate bars handy in the other pocket next to the compass.
Brindisi was the stepping off point to go to Greece by ferry. Athens for New Year's included partying with a group of 4 Brazilian women (very proper Catholics but fun to hang with). Their Brazilian tradition is to eat 12 grapes, at Midnight New Years, making a monthly wish on each grape. I did. Some have come true, some remain. Athens itself put Rome to shame age-wise. A NY tour guide said that the Acropolis was origninally painted gaudy pastel colors and you could see it for miles. UG. I thought it was supposed to be marble-colored!
On Crete, the biggest Mediterranean island, the natives love Greek tradition, including that funky music. I went to a naming party and watched high schoolers dance erotically with each other in traditional, centuries-old but way-cool moves. I mountain climbed all over, staying halfway up a mountain slope and loved every minute of it. Vistas not to be believed, and 360 degrees so impossible to photograph. GO. Best time is April, before the rush, in good weather.
Bulgaria is horrid. Ug. On the train trip in, 2 women were beated up, pummeled and punched repeatedly very hard, with the whole traincar watching. They came, crying and pleading, to us (there were 2 other Americans on the train near me) asking in Russian, "help me!" (I have a little russian from college). But, the big guys were right there, and would have easily just capriciously shot us to get rid of a problem, should we have said or done anything. It was a very difficult moral choice to do nothing. The rest of the country didn't get better. I have a pit-of-stomach sense of safety. My alarms were going off continuously for the 4 days I was in that country. Don't Go. I mean it.
I decided to try to walk across the bridge / border to Romania. On the way, I noticed a station-wagon chock full of Mafia driving back and forth in the no-mans land between the borders, on the bridge. How easily I could have been killed and dumped off the bridge, with no laws governing their actions between countries. Ug. But I made it through. The border guards searched my bags and found a tittie magazine I'd bought and had a big laugh at the 'corrupt american' (communism still lingers). I just found out Bulgarian women look the same naked as Americans do. Quite funny, actually.
A plane flight to Warsaw from Bucharest was my one 'stop-over'. I thought about a stop over in Moscow, but it was WAY too cold to do that. Warsaw was plenty cold enough. I visited Gdansk and saw the shipyards and port, which would be quaint in summer. Not in winter. It's cold in Poland, too. Many women wore big fur coats, big fur hats, scarves, gloves, and boots, but had bare legs between the knee and boot. Slaves to fashion. Temps of minus 28 and horrid wind chills mean nothing if you've got on a coat of Fox, methinks.
The hostel in Gdansk had a travel-agent-trainee group (all girls! Alas, the sacrifice!)(chuckle)(but they were all proper Catholics - oh well) that I went out dancing and touring with. Very nice people. Also in Poland was Auchwitz/Berkinow, not nearly in as good condition as Dachau, a place I'd visited in Germany 2 years before. Still, it was sobering. The ghosts, the showers, the ovens, ug. Man's inhumanity shatters our pleasant American security sense that it'll all just be okay. It won't, unless. Unless. Intolerance of intolerance is vigilance against iniquity (yes, I just made that up, but it seems true).
Before leaving Poland, I went to Hel. Yes, Hel. Poland. it's a small fishing village. Since it's at the end of a peninsula, I bought a one-way ticket to Hel. (BTW, it doesn't mean the same thing in Polish). I sent back postcards, saying, "I've been to Hel and Back." It's a long road to hel, paved with asphalt not good intentions." It was a cold day in Hel, and a snowball did stand a chance. They had a church downtown that they made into a (maritime) museum. I did stop and have a beer in Hel. The beer was warm. (it was good beer though - you know European beers).
I didn't have any troubles anywhere in Europe speaking English. The key was the right attitude - I was in their country, and didn't expect them to know what I was saying. Mostly I did find people that knew English, and wanted to practice, anywhere I actually needed it. Of course, there were times when I wanted to talk when I couldn't, but that's part of the adventure of travel.
Money changing went pretty easily, too. Exchange rates usually work out to formulas you can follow easily - divide by 2, lop off 2 zeroes, that kind of thing. The weirdest was Turkey, with an exchange rate of 55,000 Turkish Lire to the dollar. It was 67,000 when I left Europe 3 months later. I accidentally got 8 million lire from an ATM and was aghast (it's $160). It was just the middle button on the ATM! How did I know?! I couldn't spend but $25 the whole 3 days I was there - everything was too cheap!
I have pictures, but have packed them because of my recent move, so I can't scan them in. Sorry. Otherwise, I hope you enjoyed my recounting.
Please feel free to sign my guestbook and tell me of your travels, too.