Saturday, December 29, 2007

holiday cheese! and some herring, too.

It was December 24th, and I wanted to get to Tallinn early, so I caught the early bus from Rīga. I had to wake up the hostel night shift girl to get my ID deposit back. The reception of the Rīga hostel is a bar, and whoever is on the night shift sleeps curled up in the windowseat, like a cat. I noticed they were all sort of petite. The Eurolines bus was the plush model. If it weren't for the layer of dirt blanketing the entire bus, it might have just rolled off the assembly line. And the kicker – one of those instant coffee machines where you press a button get a cappuccino. I was asleep most of the way, but woke up in time to get a scalding hot bevvy.

Not really knowing how Christmas is celebrated in the Baltics, I was minorly worried about all the food shops being closed. So before leaving Rīga I bought some potatoes, onions, and garlic. Not the most tantilizing meal, but all easy to transport in the backpack. Turns out there was no reason to worry. Some businesses were closed, but the majority of shops, restaurants, and cafés of all sorts were open thoughout town, even though I was told by a couple of people that Estonians celebrate Christmas on the 24th. Had I not been told, I wouldn't have known, since the atmosphere was neither overtly religious nor commerical. There was a winter market in the main square selling knitted goods, and lights were strung up throughout town, but overall the mood was modest. From what I could tell, most of the business was being generated by tourists. Food was omnipresent, but I still picked up a few supplies from the supermarket before conducting my requisite tour of the Old Town. Tallinn's Old Town gets it as right as can be done in the modern day. It's full of souvenir shops, as usual, but eschews the razzle-dazzle of neon and flashy lights in favor of more tasteful and appropriate signage. Most of the souvenirs here are of the crafty variety, textiles above all. There are stretches of street that are devoid of anything modern within eyesight. At night you can almost imagine walking down a medieval street a few centuries ago, except for the lack of filth in the gutters and horrible smells beseiging the olfactory senses. Today it's too clean to be truly authentic, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

December 26 was the day that things seem to shut down, although there was still plenty open. Having been through most of old town numerous times, I started wandering around the surrounding neighborhoods. There's a market by the train station where you can buy cheap and second hand clothing, old cameras, light switches, and any size box-end wrench your heart desires. I think most of the vendors and shoppers are Russians, but could be wrong. I bought a tin toy train, and got a smile when I thanked the seller in Russian instead of Estonian. Or maybe she was smiling because she got a bunch of kroon out of me. On my way back to old town I found a city wall entrance I had missed before, and right next to it was a boarded up shack. Two of the most wretched looking cats I've ever seen popped out of a hole in the door. One had ruined eyes, and the other had sad eyes, and they were both looking at me with a quiet look that said, "if you have food, we'll eat it." They didn't look desperate; they looked resigned that their efforts would come to nothing, but they were going to try anyway. I felt so bad for them; they were filthy, messed up, miserable, and it was a cold, cold day, cold enough to cause a heavy snow flurry later that night. I wanted to give them baths and take them to the vet. Instead I went to the corner shop and bought packet of herring and a packet of KitEKat cat food, went back to the gate, and dumped the herring in front of the door. Before I even had it open they had reappeared and were rubbing against my ankles. They weren't gobbling down the fish, so I took it as a good sign that they weren't totally starving. I saved the cat food to give them the next day.

I spend another afternoon walking along Tallinn Bay, stopping to watch a mother and toddler feed the seafaring swans. It was kind of cute, and they were having fun; mom would give the kid a piece of bread, and they would hold it out together for the swans to take. There were a whole lot of swans milling around, but they were feeding a smaller flock, maybe six or so, who were behaving themselves. Another mother and toddler arrived with a bag of bread, which piqued the interest of a larger flock of swans, who waddled up from the beach, en feathery white masse, and converged on the newcomers. There were at least thirteen of them (I counted), and while not aggressive, they were making a slow but persistent advance towards the free food, those big, black, webbed, slightly turned-in feet flapping against the pavement. Mom and toddler #2 were steadily backing up and mom was tossing out bread chunks in an attempt to slow the tide, with only limited success. In the face of a flock of hungry fowl, kid #2 at first wasn't perturbed, but eventually started getting a little agitated. And who wouldn't in that situation. I don't know how old he (or she) was, but feet on the ground, he was shorter than the birds. One swift strike is all it would take to pluck out an eyeball. Stategically retreating to the parked stroller, mom tossed out the remainder of the bread and made a hasty escape. The episode was simultaneously slightly ominous and very goofy. I was laughing, and the moms were laughing. The swans even came up to me, even though I had no offerings, and gave me The Eye. I guess it's because of the way their eyes are situated on the sides of their heads, but if they want to really inspect something, they turn their heads a bit and train one bright eye on their target.

I wen to the St. Nicholas Church and Museum to see the approximately ten meter long fragment of Berndt Notke's Danse Macabre. There was also an exhibition of church bells that I initially only took a minor interest in, since it was included in the price of the ticket, but ended up learning some interesting facts about them. For instance, they are said to be able to repel lightning, and some have been inscribed with the words, "I break up the lightning." Manifesting these properties required that the bell be rung at the approach of lighting, and bell-ringers were offered hazard pay to do this. I like that some inscriptions were first person proclamations, because it lends credence to the belief that the bells had souls. Another good one is "I ring properly," referring to chiming the time correctly, although probably also to good voice. Bells were frequently taken as the spoils of war in accordance with the "right of bells," to be recast as artillery. People saved them by burying them underground, sinking them into water or bogs, and keeping their mouths shut while their fingers were chopped off in an attempt to get them to reveal the hiding place. Yick. Unfortunately, the guy who managed to do this also had his throat cut, keeping his secret to the last. Final cool fact – the bell in the belfry of St. Olaf's is so heavy at seven tons that when they rang it, the spire began to sway. It said that it took twelve men to set the clapper in motion, but didn't say how many were needed to stop it once the spire got going.

I ended up being in Tallinn two days longer than I originally planned. I think it's the furthest north I've ever been. I don't mind it when the sun sets early, and I actually really like it when I'm at home. Someday I want to go up north into 24 hour night and stay there for a couple of weeks, just to experience a complete absence of sunlight. I keep writing about the short days because it's a big determining factor in how I spend my time. On the bus ride up, I woke up from a doze, looked out the window, and looked at my watch. If my foggy brain is remembering it correctly, it was between 0800 and 0900 and still pitch black. There was a little bit of blue heaven one day, but for the most part, the sky has been shades of opaque white and grey for the last two weeks. I think the last time I saw the sun was in Poland. Tallinn is pretty small, and even after non-old town perambulations, and dawdling visits to museums, used bookshops, and craft galleries, I had a lot of time left over. I kind of wanted to see The Golden Compass, but evening shows were even more expensive than in the States. I could have gone to a matinée for half-price, but decided sitting in cafés sounded better. Tallinn is full of places to eat, and since I couldn't be bothered to cook for myself, I decided to take a crack at restaurant reviewing.

Kehrwieder Café. Voted Tallinn's top café. Top for cracking your head on the extremely low vaulted ceiling and the tentacly lights sprouting out of it. Also top for waiting 20 minutes in line, watching the counter staff try to find a wine glass to match the one he's already poured, while feeling slightly paranoid about your laptop that you left sitting on a table in the other room, but not wanting to give up your place to go check on it because then you'd be back at the beginning, or rather the end. But other than that, a good selection of pastries, and a chocolate truffle served with each cup of coffee (they have a chocolate shop across the alley). The dark, candlelit interior with heavy wood tables and an assortment of wooden and upholstered chairs is easier to enjoy once you're sitting down, and no longer in danger of concussion. Despite the minor complaints I had about this place, I went back multiple times.

Café Chocolaterie. I stopped in here on Christmas morning because I was hungry. I ordered a hot chocolate, which wasn't what I expected from a chocolate café, but scored high anyway for preparation and presentation. Melted chocolate was run over the inside of a glass, and steamed milk was mixed in with a cinnamon stick. And they have an assortment of pastries. I couldn't decide between sweet or savory, so just got one of each, and enjoyed everything squished into an armchair with a window view into the courtyard. I think every inch of the interior is covered in one kind of fabric or another. Hope none of the candles tip over.

Kuldse Notsu Kõrts (The Golden Piglet). Dishing up Estonian country cuisine. I don't know if the word "piglet" in the name refers to what's available on the menu or a jab at the patrons. If you don't look like one going in, you'll feel like one waddling out. I ended up going here for Christmas dinner. Christmas in my family is all about excessive eating, so I had ancestral duty to accomplish. The interior is a little too bright, and probably 95% of the clientele are tourists, but the menu caught my eye the day before, especially the starter of Võro cheese (I think Võro is a region in southeastern Estonia). The cheese was quite mild, served with herbed toast and a ramekin of berry jam. The main was lemon-crusted chicken with mushroom sauce, potatoes, salad, a bread roll, and an enormous pat of butter. I willed my stomach to expand, and managed to get it all down, except for about a quarter of the bread roll. It was really just empty calories. I felt slightly uncomfortable afterwards, so mission accomplished. Then I had to take a walk.

St. Michael Cheese Restaurant. I would have never forgiven myself had I passed up the opportunity. What the interior designer had in mind for the theme leaves me befuddled. The medieval monastery concept is clear, with the cassocked waiters gliding past the suit of armor, boar's head, and battle axe wall decoration, but I don't know where the jazz fusion covers of pop hits and Crate & Barrel table settings fit in. Utensils come in linen bags tied at the mouth. The leather-bound menu had a little loop and peg closure that took me a few seconds to figure out. It's all accomplished as convincingly as props for the school play in a performing arts school. Even though the wonky furnishings didn't blend well, the food was delicious. I had a vegetable cream soup with a cheese cappuccino, kind of a frothy cheese sitting on the surface. Unexpectedly, it arrived with a bonus mini spinach pasty. Following that was were spinach-cottage cheese raviolis wallowing in a puddle of sitranelle cheese sauce. My stomach flooded with cheese, I was unable to order dessert (cheesecake, of course).

Tristan ja Isolde Café. Only slightly larger than a medieval prison cell, but I got a seat anyway, next to an electrical outlet, so I stayed there for 2.5 hours writing. Counter staff have a solid grasp on the concept of service, much better than the ones across the square at Kehrwieder. Am I sounding like a snotty American? I think so. I don't mean to, it was just painful watching the staff at Kehrwieder prepare each item of each order from scratch. On the one hand, it's excellent individual service. On the other hand, it's done at the expense of everyone else in line. Maybe they can find a happy medium, or at least pre-fold the paper napkins and have more than one pitcher to steam milk. There was at least one girl who was able to crank through orders, so it wasn't all bad. I usually try to not apply the American standard of service to anything else than American service, but comparisons are hard to avoid. At T & I, I got a cheese pastry because I was a little peckish, and it wasn't anything special, but the cappuccino was gooooood. The best I had in town.

Elevant. Mango lassi + veggie pakora + potato/spinach curry with rice, salad, and bread = too much food! I couldn't finish the curry. I should have gotten something with chickpeas, since I had been encoutering potato in numerous other incarnations as of late, but by the time I realized that, it was already in front of me. The very white waitresses wear slinky Indian dresses.

Café Mathilde. There were three old ladies in fur hats at the next table nursing glasses of mulled wine. I don't get mulled wine. If whoever created it wanted to take something gross and make it even more disgusting, they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. I had a refreshing slice of fruit tart, but the setting was a bit too garden club for me. The old ladies fit in perfectly. Worth a stop if you're absolutely sure you can't make it up the hill to upper old town without a snack.

EAT. Sparse and bright, cheap and scrumptious. A variety of fried dumplings, savory and sweet, and also donuts are in big tureens. You help yourself to as much as you want of whatever flavor, cover them with whatever dressing you like, available in plastic squeezy bottles, and pay by how much your bowl weighs. Try to time your visit to avoid the pre-teen girl gang dance dance revolutioning it at the playstation in the corner. They were entertaining for a while, and then suddenly they weren't.
This blog entry is a little unusual because I'm managing to post it before leaving town. It's slightly weird being here. Ever since the beginning it's always been the last continental European destination that I definitely wanted to get to, and then as my itinerary changed, became the last destination. Four months ago the little city by the Baltic Sea seemed so far away, and now it's almost time to leave. Time and perspective are funny things. Sometimes it feels like I've been traveling for a long time, and other times it feels like I just left home.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

donuts all day

The bus from Vilnius to Rīga revved up, started backing out of the bay, went two meters, and crunch...bumped into another bus. We had to wait over an hour while they picked up paint flecks from the pavement. No one knew when we would be leaving for good, so most of us just stayed on the bus. I steadily worked my way through most of the snacks I had packed for the 4.5 hour trip, but managed to reserve one cheese sandwich for later. At the border I was the only one who needed a passport stamp, so delayed us again, but just for five minutes. The border guard seemed to be in a really good mood.

Rīga fairly sparkles with le beau Art Nouveau architecture. Something is always watching as you stroll the streets and it isn't the KGB, not anymore. Just a gargoyle or a wood nymph cast in plaster. It's not just in the old town, either, it's all over the place. Walking around and gawking at it all is tiring, so I got a hot chocolate at Emihla Gustava chocolateria. I don't think that's a proper word, but whatever.

I also got an assortment of truffles to munch on while walking around. None of them were dazzling, but gave me enough energy to take on the Paul Stradin Museum of the History of Medicine. A good number of the instruments and apparatuses there wouldn't have looked out of place in the KGB Museum, although the two-headed dog would have been enough to pause any interrogation session. There were a couple of confusing lines in the case caption, but if I read correctly, what was on display was the taxidermied result of experiments in the 50s to join the front end of a small dog to the back of a larger one, combining their circulatory systems. I don't know what they hoped to gain from this, but they did it, and I suppose they can be considered mildly successful. Hmm. There was also an unexpected exhibit of Biology in Space, with a number of items from the Russian space program, including food packets, track suits, and...the capsules for the animals (dogs and monkeys) that blasted off. Sadly, the only documentation was in Latvian and Russian, and while one of the docents was freely dishing out information, it was also in Latvian (or Russian). Judging by reactions, whatever she was saying was pretty interesting. Dang. She did open the dog capsule for me. Weird. And sort of disturbing. There were a number of unexpectedly edgy objects on display there, quietly sitting amongst the customary forceps and prosthetic limbs – jars of fetuses and a photo of smallpox. And trepanned skulls in a special exhibit.

I also went to the Museum of Occupation in Latvia to educate myself on the occupation in Latvia. It was another extremely extensive exhibit with loads of documentation, but after two hours my brain was glazed over and I wasn't reading anything thoroughly. If I ever go back, I'll start at the end. I made an attempt later that day to catch the bus to the Rīga Motor Museum, but was misled by information in Lonely Planet. I've been using a selection of guidebooks, whatever has been available, and have steadily lost my faith in LP, which has proved unreliable more than once. Yeah, I know that that prices change, and businesses go out of business, so I expect a certain amount of inaccuracy, but too many times their information has been too wrong, and it's persisted through multiple guidebooks. Almost as if it wasn't acquired first-hand, or minimal effort was invested in updates. I should have done better homework on how to get there before heading out for the day, but why else did I spend $20? In Your Pocket are far superior guides; they're limited to eastern Europe, are updated frequently, can be downloaded for free, and are full of snarky comments that make for entertaining reading, even if you don't plan on visiting any strip clubs. No, I'm not getting paid to advertise, just credit where credit is due. Anyway, back at the bus stop wondering why the bus wasn't showing up, I first figured out I was at the wrong bus stop, and looking at the Lonely Planet map, realized where the museum was shown didn't match up to the address. The afternoon was over, and I decided I didn't have enough time to head out to the burbs when I didn't even know where I was going, so I scrapped the mission and spent the rest of the evening in one café and one pancake cafeteria. None of the pancake signs were in English, so I just chose a couple at random, and went back for seconds from the same tray. I ate twice as much as everyone else, but it was my last night in town and I was trying to get rid of all my Latvian coins. I saved only a two Lat coin because it has a cow on it, udder, teats, and all.

Rīga has the prominent Freedom Monument, which should under no circumstances be used as a pissoir. Incomprehensible as it is, there have been tales of folly, where young men with evidently only a thimbleful of brains and a bladder size to match, chose to relieve themselves on the monument instead of heading into the bushes (it's in the middle of a park). There are two formal guards, with rifles, stationed in front during the day. At night it looks deserted, but I'm pretty sure there's at least one military guy or gal lurking nearby to snare ne'er-do-wells and chuck them into a Latvian prison. The Baltic capitals have unfortunately become one of the prime destinations for British bachelor parties, bands of boys who spend their money on a cheap weekend flight simply to drink expensive beer in a different country, and tied to this business is the unsavory side of prostitution and sex trafficking. In Kiev I had a conversation with two guys about traveling as a solo female versus as a solo male. In most places, being a single woman will draw more attention, but they were quick to point out two places where the tables were turned on them – southeast Asia and the Baltics, both prime places for sex tourism. Even so, being a single woman traveler on the streets in these areas can be enough to be mistaken for a prostitute. I was wearing way too many layers of clothing for anyone to make that error. Anyway, I didn't see any crowds of boozy Brits, so it was either not the season for bachelor flings, or else they were all being taken advantage of by the local mafia in a strip club, hopefully the latter. And besides, Rīga isn't cheap for beer, food, or accommodation. British bachelorettes have an equally bad rep, but they go to the Mediterranean instead of the Baltics.

Behind the bus station are five zeppelin hangars that house Rīga's Central Market. I was hoping for a massive flea market, but it's mostly just food and clothing. I bought a Russian navy shirt, all white and black stripes, and it's debatable whether it makes me look like a sailor or a convict. Everything edible is for sale, and there was always a long line of elderly people holding jars at the milk stand where it was being ladled out of a steel urn. I wasn't in the market for cow's tongues or jars of pickled vegetables, but I discovered the donut dive – a little stall off to the side of one hangar where two ladies lorded over an automatic donut machine and dished them out, piping hot. It was really fun to watch – a bowl of batter dropped batter rounds into a little canal of oil, the donuts traveled down the canal getting cooked on one side, were automatically flipped over, traveled down the opposite lane of oil, and were fished out. They cost .08 Lats for a plain donut, and .10 Lats for one that had been subjected to the six-pronged jelly injector. I went back three days in a row for jelly donuts, and the place always had customers noshing away. They really were just oil being held together in a lattice of batter, but so yummy. I was tempted to get a bag of them to take away, but they were the kind of treat that you had to eat fresh. They wouldn't have been nearly as tasty a few hours later.

I did prowl around all the hangars, and took a few surreptitious photos in the fish section. The entire market was doing booming business, but something about the air in the meat hangars was really unappetizing. It wasn't exactly stomach-churning, more just knocked it off its axis. I didn't really want to eat anything at all after being in there. Good thing I went to the donut dive first. I did buy some fruit and vegetables over a couple of days. As noted, Rīga isn't necessarily cheap, but since the Lat is valued at around .49 Lat to one US dollar, it's a very small change economy when it comes to buying a kilo of potatoes or three onions. No matter how many times I got rid of one and two santīmi coins, they always seemed to respawn in my pocket.

On my second night in Rīga I heard the distinctive pop pop of fireworks from my attic room in the hostel, but was too lazy to go out and find them. Later that night I realized it was December 21st, and the Baltics joined the Schengen zone, so the display must have been a doozy over the river. I kicked myself for not having gone. And no wonder the border guard was in a good mood when we passed, his job was probably about to get a lot easier. Slightly miffed that I missed the celebrations, I proceeded to miss two more fireworks displays on the following nights. After the first one I had no reason to expect there would be more, and I actually don't know why they happened. Each night it was at a different time, and a judging by my ability to either partially see or not see them from the window, they must have happened in different locations. I don't know why I was annoyed at missing them, since I never go out for fireworks at home. But that's usually because I associate them with big crowds of obnoxious drunkards, so I just hide out at home.

Having to be at no particular place at no particular time is a relaxing way to travel. When I'm ready to move on, I catch whichever mode of transport is the most convenient, and if I miss it, I just catch the next. Having a deadline injects some amount of urgency into the schedule. No matter how much my itinerary changed over the last few months, the goal has always been to reach Tallinn. There was never any doubt that I'd make it there, but during the last couple of weeks, I've had to be more mindful of how long I was spending in each place, and to research the most efficient way to get to the next. It's difficult to decide how long to stay in one place before even arriving; reading guidebooks is all well and good, but it won't tell you how you'll respond to the vibe of the town. That word makes me cringe, but I suppose it's the best one to illustrate the point. All the people I've been meeting travel in different ways. Some plan on doing a traditional tour, then fall for one town and are still there months later. The other extreme are those who spend only a few hours or one night in a place, repeatedly, before moving on again, which I really don't understand. Unless they are purposely conducting a tour of European public transportation hubs, I fail to see the point of getting to a town just to take a nap and then catch the next bus out. It's as if they are traveling without knowing how or why, or that their understanding of travel is that it's merely a list of placenames visited. Whether or not they can speak of anything in town is irrelevant. A whole bunch of tourists visit locations armed with a checklist of famous sights, dutifully check them off, and catch the next air-conditioned luxury coach out. If that's what floats their boat, I can't argue. My take on traveling around is that I don't know when I'll be back, if ever, so better to stay a little longer to soak up as much as I can. I hate leaving a place with a sense of unfinished business, like there's something I missed. I too have my list of sights that I want to see, but I also like time to get a general feel for the place, which means wandering around residential or industrial neighborhoods, and doing plenty of café time. If I decide I don't care for something and am getting bored, it's easy to move on sooner than expected, even more so because I'm solo. For the most part, I've think I've planned my time in towns well, although there are a couple I could stand to have been in longer, and a couple that I probably should have left sooner. I started thinking about all of this in Rīga, since it's the penultimate stop of this trip (I'm not counting London). Suddenly I started thinking in terms of hours, not days, of how long I would have to visit towns, which is ultimately a futile way of looking at it. A few hours here or there may make a difference, but not if you spend hours worrying about it. Sometimes it's just a matter of taking whatever time you have, and making the best of it.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

i spy

I had to be careful arranging my transportation to Vilnius from Gdańsk, because one route to Lithuania from Poland is through the Kaliningrad Region, and I don't have a Russian visa. If I got on the wrong bus, I would be kicked off at the border. I tried to get info on bus routes in both Warsaw and Gdańsk, and while ladies behind the various information desks ran the gamut from foul-tempered wench to genuinely helpful gentlewoman, none of them spoke English. Well, the wench sorta did, but stopped understanding me when I asked, "Does it go through Russia?" I didn't think it was that weird a question, but judging from the facial expression I received, she did. And then I made the mistake of going to buy a ticket on a Sunday, when the bus station office was closed, and I should have known better. Turning to the sorry excuse that passes for the tourist office for help, hoping to find another outlet in town that sold bus tickets, I was offered a solution that involved two train transfers in the middle of the night, including one in Minsk. I don't have a visa for Belarus, either. But all went right in the end; after some web research I was fairly certain the bus wouldn't go through Russia, and I was able to buy a ticket directly from the driver. When in doubt, just show up and ask. I could have just gone back to the Gdańsk hostel for another night had I been unsuccessful. There were a bunch of ladies on the bus who are obviously experts at overnights. They all had blankets, and picked rows where there were seats available on both sides of the aisle, so they could stretch their legs across. It made getting down the aisle to the toilet a bit problematic. Fortunately the border crossing made everyone sit up, and I had my chance.

Assuming that learning things is one of the main reasons that people travel, traveling around usually involves lots of museum visits. So many museums in the world, and so many of them don't live up to their potential, or are full of lackluster displays that diminish the objects on display. Although I suppose it's debatable whether or not great art and artefacts transcend whatever milieu in which they happen to be shown...anyway, visiting a really excellent museum makes you appreciate the art of the museum. Vilnius has the Museum of the Victims of Genocide, also known as the KGB Museum. All that wacky stuff you've heard about the KGB spying on people dressed up as fruit vendors and employing cameras hidden in brooches? It's all true. They clearly also had a rubber stamp fetish.

The museum is in a building that has the nefarious history of being not only the KGB headquarters, but was also used by the Gestapo, so lots of no good happened there. The majority of the exhibits are devoted to documenting Soviet occupation and the Lithuanian resistance, and then about a quarter of it is about the KGB, its personnel, methods, documents, and equipment. A nice touch in the eavesdropping section are three television monitors showing the adjacent rooms and hallways, so you can spy on your fellow visitors...and realize that someone may have been spying on you.

In the basement is the prison, reconstructed to as closely resemble conditions as they were back in the (fairly recent) day. I was thinking that the icky milky mint green must have been chosen for some psychologically draining properties, but there's one cell that shows 18 layers of paint, revealed square by square. Instead of trying to erase or eradicate words scrawled or scraped onto the wall by prisoners, they just painted over everything. Special rooms include one for guards to watch the grounds (more opportunity to spy on passers-by), the water torture room, and the padded room, complete with a straitjacket.

There's an execution chamber, and displayed in it is a reproduction of the building plans, which includes the chamber labeled as "kitchen", in case any non-authorized personnel managed to take a look at it. The museum was unexpectedly free admission on the day I showed up, but two and a half hours wasn't enough to get through it all. I had only about twenty minutes to see half the KGB section and the prison, so returned the next day for another hour. Morbidly fascinating subject matter aside, it's one of the best museums based on presentation and explanation of material. It would take days to go over all the objects on display, especially in the sections devoted to Partisan resistance.

On a more jocular note, Vilnius is one of the few, if not only city, that can boast about its bust of Frank Zappa, which gazes out over the street from a soaring pedestal. I'm not a fan, I sought it out anyways, because why not. I love finding all the little bizarre things that towns have squirreled away, or in this case sitting right out in the open surrounded by trippy graffiti. Frank is such a draw that he even has a landmark pointer, the easier for tourists to find their way.

Remembering how to thank someone in Lithuanian is easy to remember because it sounds like a sneeze, ačiū. And a true language oddity – Lithuanian has no vulgarity. If you want to swear, you need to do it in Russian. Which reminds me about my mom. I don't think I've ever heard her swear in English, but if she's hot under the collar, she'll let loose with some Chinese. When I was growing up, no one in the condo was spared. Me, my sister, my dad, the dogs, the cat, the cages of lab mice we kept as pets, and sometimes everyone at once. It sounds really peppery if you don't know what she's saying, but as soon as you find out that it means something like "stinky thousand year old egg," it just made us all giggle.

I took a half-day trip to Trakai, which is about an hour away on the slow bus. It's a small town surrounded by lakes, and with a castle showcasing taxidermied heads (animals. what were you thinking?) and opium pipes. I mailed one final postcard, and had the misfortune of getting in line behind an old lady who wanted to mail a package, but hadn't sealed it at all. In full view of the growing line of impatience, the woman working the window actually went through all the trouble of cutting a sheet of white paper down to fit the face of the box, and then slowly, painfully, and kludgily taped it all up, and handed it back to the old lady to address. That's some service. The post office was the most crowded place in town, because back out on the streets it was mostly just leaves blowing in the wind. I pondered the wisdom and worth of traveling in winter. Daylight is short. The air is cold. Lots of places are shut down. The streets are deserted. I'll sometimes wander around the cities after dark, but mostly I end up drinking endless cups of tea in the hostel, or nursing cappuccinos and hot chocolates in cafés. I can do that at home, so is it worth traveling in winter if I'm only out and about for a few hours a day? Ultimately I think it is. Places shouldn't be seen only when they have their bright sunny faces out, but certainly some are better when they do. I've found that visiting bigger cities in the winter is more rewarding than the small towns, just because there's more to do and see. And traveling in the off-season has its own set of perks. Long-haul public transportation isn't crowded. Accommodation is easy to find, and sometimes cheaper. Fewer tourists clog the streets, sights, and restaurants, making me feel less like the a member of the English-speaking herd of wide-eyed sheep bumbling through Europe.

Back in Italy, the land of gourmet cuisine, I didn't have much of an appetite. Going to restaurants for the famous Italian gastronomic goodies just didn't sound interesting. I think a lot of it had to do with the heat; after spending all day in the sun and guzzling gallons of water, I was usually more in the light snacking mood than heavy meal mood. Now that the weather is cold, and I still walk around for hours, I usually want to eat like a hog in the evenings. Plus, the cuisine in this area of the world is suited for winter weather, full of heavy starch and carbs. I don't know if they scientifically keep me warm, but psychologically they do. And since I'm going home soon, I stopped caring about staying on budget. What am I saying, I've never even had a budget. I stopped caring about my bank account is a better way of putting it, and have been liberally eating out trying the local specialties. Lithuania has a few, including stuffed potato pouches called zeppelins, but since I couldn't find a vegetarian version, I settled instead for fried bread covered in cheese sauce. It's really just a toasted cheese sandwich in pieces, using rye bread. Menus seem to list it consistently under the Beer Snacks heading. Also, more dumplings, but decent ones this time, filled with cheese curd and covered in a sweet sour cream. The potato pancakes covered in conventional sour cream were filling, but didn't rock my world. Sour cream is one of the top five flavors of eastern Europe. People who travel for an extended period of time frequently have one thing in mind that they want to eat first when they get home. Sushi. Burritos. Something from a favorite restaurant. I keep casually thinking about it, and can't decide what I want. I haven't really missed anything so much that I need to run out and gorge myself as soon as my feet hit Bay Area soil. I'm landing in the middle of the night anyway, so any immediate food fix is out the question, unless I'm craving something from 7-11. I don't think I've been away long enough to miss anything, even home. I think about home a lot, and all the people and things that define it as home, but I never miss it.

Monday, December 24, 2007

the dumplings could be better

Gdańsk has got some persevering pigeons. Check out where this crafty couple has chosen to roost. I'm assuming there's a nest behind that enormous mound of guano.

The tenacity of these two illustrates the spirit of Gdańsk, which is the birthplace of the Solidarity movement that slowly but surely crumbled communism throughout eastern Europe. For people like me, who could stand to be educated a lot more about the history, there's an excellent multimedia Roads to Freedom exhibition that chronicles the events leading up to the August Accords, and continuing up to current situations. Some of the exhibits depicting life from the communist days, while humorous today, were the furthest thing from it at the time – a public phone booth that stifled communication by not actually working most of the time, and a recreation of a grocery store with barely any food at all. And, at last – they have great postcards. Of course I would find them after I've posted my last. I settled for buying a couple for myself. Also on display is the pen used by Lech Wałęsa to sign the August Accords, which at first glance looks kind of like a joke; it's a great big novelty ball point pen with a picture of the pope on it. More sobering is the room devoted to the rule of martial law, which has police riot gear on one wall, and videos of protest mayhem playing on the other, including a shocking clip of someone getting deliberately run over. It's really grainy, and I'm wondering if it's being shown as recorded, or if it was modified for display.

The opening salvos of WWII were fired at Westerplatte just off of Nowy Port. It's fair to say the Poles and Germans have a bit of a strained history, but you'd never know by the number of dachshunds putting on an appearance around town. You can tell that a wiener dog is approaching without actually seeing it, because they have really rapid footsteps. Gotta move fast to keep up when your legs are that short. I didn't make it all the way to Westerplatte, but I did catch the tram to Nowy Port, which was kind of dull. There's a lighthouse there for lighthouse spotters. Highlights of my visit included seeing the top half of the lighthouse from afar, petting a dachshund, and consuming an entire packet of chocolate-coated butter cookies.

I tried another plate of pierogi for dinner one night, and have either had a string of bad dumpling luck, or really have to give the Polish pierogi the thumbs down. I ordered the ones with poultry and raisins, which was a daring choice in itself since I'm not a big raisin fan, especially in savory foods. I really couldn't tell you what I ate. It wasn't like any poultry I've had before. Mystery meat aside, they were kind of dry. And bland. I dumped a bunch of salt on them, but the improvement was minimal. Since the pierogi are served pretty much just by themselves, accompanied only by a miniscule garnish of vegetables and a sprinkling of what I think were deep-fried onion bits, there's wasn't a whole lot to be done except steadily chew my way through the plate. I was doomed to dumpling disappointment. I had gone to a milk bar for lunch, and what I had gotten there was cheaper and tastier. I paid less than $5.00 for a bowl of soup with pasta, three pancakes with sweet cheese and jam, and an artistically-presented blob of potato salad. Too bad they closed early or else I would have gone back. I really wanted to like the pierogi, I did, but in the end they were about as gastronomically inspiring as a bowl of grits that has been sitting on the counter all day. And to think, I had chosen them over the ślimaki on the same menu. Are ślimaki actually slugs, as the menu translated? Some other intrepid traveler will have to discover this.

Gdańsk has a number of brick churches, including the imposing St. Mary's, reputed to be the largest brick church in the world, and the airy St. Catherine's, which had its roof recently flambéed by a cigarette butt. You can be sure the workman who tossed it will be stewing in one of the more vile circles of hell. My favorite was St. John's, which was abandoned and fell into dereliction after WWII, and is now apparently slowly sinking into the swampland upon which it was built. It's been somewhat restored and is open for concerts, but still looks forsaken. I read that it's also overrun with cats, but I only saw one, appropriately black. He would have been spookier if he hadn't stopped to relieve himself in the yard.

Huh. I keep thinking there's something else I need to report from Gdańsk, but nothing is coming to mind. Writing up each of these cities is challenging. They manage to be quite similar, yet completely different at the same time, and committing the distinction to words involves teasing out the details of each. Cobblestones that twist your ankles slightly differently. Old buildings from different eras centuries apart. Long and varied histories. Museums for practically all worldly objects and subjects, not all of which are worth going to (Museum of Accounting, anyone? Well, I shouldn't judge, since I didn't go). I guess I didn't process too many details from Gdańsk. Strolling the streets and sitting in cafés, as pleasurable as it is in a new European city, can also be kind of mundane (in a nice way). And I was only there for two days. Deciding how long to stay in one place is a complex art. More on that in a couple of blogs.

Friday, December 21, 2007

not pronounced like it looks

The symbol of Warsaw is Syrena, the mermaid, which I think is kind of odd for an city that isn't anywhere near the ocean. But I suppose there's no reasons a mermaid can't travel inland, especially if she's the sword-wielding kind. No one in their right mind would say no to her.

People tend to dismiss visiting Warsaw, even Poles. The general consensus seems to be, eh, don't bother. Bombed to bits during WWII, it lacks the classic charm of Krakow, and I think it's often written as just a big modern city. But it was on my way north, so I decided to check it out for a day. The weather was freezing. There's a street named after Winnie the Pooh. I sniffed out, literally, a delicious donut; I turned down a street, took a whiff, and decided I had to find and eat whatever it was I was smelling, which I found at a little bakery serving stuff onto the street from a window. I like how Europe has designed pastries to be as easy-access as possible; you don't even need to bother opening a door. I also got the first and only to-go cup of coffee I've had this entire trip. I've grown so accustomed to sitting in a café, it felt wrong, sipping a cappuccino through the plastic lid. Plus there's that pesky business with wasted paper cups. I haven't really noticed all that many places offering coffee to go, or maybe I just tend to stay away from the cafés that do. It felt very American, and suddenly I noticed lots of people walking around with paper cups.

Fueled by coffee and donut, I spent my day in Warsaw just wandering around, starting with the reconstructed Old Town.

In the afternoon I went to the Muzeum Techniki to warm up and check out the collections of old stuff, including cars and motorcycles, telephones throughout the ages, eyebrow-raising medical equipment, and incredibly complex printing presses with more moveable parts than really seems necessary. Whoever had to repair these must have wanted to kill themselves repeatedly.

Traveling by train in Poland can be problematic for two reasons. The first is that train platforms aren't sign-posted very well. There's most likely one sign in the middle of a very long platform, and if you're at the end of the train, good luck seeing it. Arriving at Warszawa Centralna, I had to ask someone to make sure it was the correct stop. The second is that conflicting timetables were posted all over the station. I took a day trip to Łódź, and got to the station at 6:56 in the morning, well in time to catch the 7:20 train. Except, I found out that it didn't leave until 7:55. The upside is that during the wait I found the butteriest, melt-in-your-mouth flaky pastry from one of the many train station snack shops, and the downside was I had a really short day in Łódź, because the train took over two hours to get there, instead of the one hour I was expecting. Łódź, pronounced woodge, was a premier industrial center in the nineteenth century, churning out textiles. It all fell apart in the twentieth century, although it became the temporary capital after WWII, since Warsaw was so gutted. My kind of pretty, it's streets are lined with buildings that were beautiful a century ago, but are now run down, crumbling, and dirty. Unfortunately, I planned my short visit rather poorly; Łódź's points of interest are quite spread out, and I ran out of time to see all that I wanted. The History of Łódź Museum, other than the gorgeous neo-Baroque building it lives in, was a waste of time and nine złoty, since most of the rooms had been devoted to possibly the most hideous exhibition of paintings I've ever seen. It was some sort of claptrap about painting with light, and my brain has obviously been at work to repress the memory. Imagine amateur blending in Photoshop of moody photographs, incongruously placed next to recreations of famous paintings, and you'll get the idea. Even browsing through Arthur Rubinstein memorabilia wasn't enough to salvage the visit. At least the museum is right next to another of Łódź's main sights, which just happens to be a shopping mall.

The actual shopping isn't anything special, being the same or equivalent stores that are found in any American mall, but the complex is housed in what was a series of nineteenth century textile factories. Production continued, in one manner or another, until the end of the 20th century. The complex was refurbished at the beginning of this century, including restoring some of the buildings with the original red brick, and it is now a sleek miniature city with convenient free toilets. You know, this European tradition of paying for toilets used to really bug me, but I'm cool with it now, because I've realized that it means clean toilets, especially in train stations. In America you run the risk of catching a disease just by walking through the door. Still, nothing like finding one for free. Anyway, that was slightly off-topic. Despite its facelift and new debonair appearance, Manufaktura still looks cool, starting with the front gate, which I think is the original.

I did spend some time wandering around the indoor mall, mostly because it was warm and toasty. Afterwards I decided to see the Radogoszcz Prison, another factory complex that became a Nazi-run prison in WWII, and is today a museum. A bit of a haul from Manufaktura, I arrived to find it closed, a message that was conveyed to me by a guard with a mouthful of teeth that looked like they had been run over by a tractor pointing to a sign in Polish on the door. Nuts. It was getting late enough that the sun was starting to set. I was interested in exploring the historic Litzmannstadt Ghetto, but it's really huge and probably takes at least a day in itself to tour. I looked through the pamphlets I picked up at the tourist office, and decided to try and find some more old factories, but by the time I got back to city center, it was dark, and my feet and legs were tired. I'm wearing out faster these days. I realized the other day that I've worn the soles off part of the heels of my shoes, and all that remains is the squishy rubber insides. I managed to trek out to one more factory, which was sort of a wasted trip, since it sort of blended into the night sky. The day was over and it was time to trod back to the train station. I regret having not made it to the Central Museum of Textiles and the White Factory that it's housed in. Shoulda gone there first. I will next time.

I haven't been sleeping too well recently. It's not necessarily a bad thing, because it doesn't usually affect me too much during the day, more just an observation. Busy brain syndrome. My mind keeps chugging after my eyes close, but eventually something flickers that maybe requires more conscious thought and I wake up. I thought for sure after Łódź I'd sack out, but nooo, got a drunk guy in the dorm who fell asleep semi-propped up and started snoring. It woke up another guy in the dorm before me, and he wasn't taking it to well. We made a half-hearted attempt to get the drunkard situated in such a way to stop the snoring, which is a good indication of how unconscious he was. I had his feet (thankfully, still booted) and the sensitive guy grabbed his shoulders and he still didn't wake up. Moving him was about as easy as single-handedly carrying a queen-sized mattress up a spiral staircase. If anything, we put him in a more uncomfortable position, and I hope he woke up aching the next day. I dug out my earplugs, which managed to muffle the snores enough to fall asleep again, but I heard the sensitive guy make at least two more valiant attempts to get him to turn over. He was a real charmer, he was. Not only drunk and snoring, but also sleep-cursing and sleep-farting. I should have bought a beer at the hostel bar and poured it into his rucksack. I saw him leaving the next day, but I was on my way out as well, catching the train to Gdańsk.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

momentous bones

Krakow has the distinction of having been spared any destruction in WWII, and is thus one of Europe's unspoiled cities. Sort of. Europe's old towns, being big tourist draws, also draw the commercialism that seeks to take advantage of tourists, and the beautiful buildings are best admired from the first floor up. The ground floors have invariably been taken over by eating establishments and boutiques of one nature or another. I was looking forward to Krakow, but was a a little sad to see the old town streets bathed in neon. Guess I'm just old-fashioned. But don't get me wrong, it's still stunning, and the hot chocolate at Nowy Prowincia café is almost as good as Ukraine's. I could definitely live there for a while. I certainly need to go back, especially because I just found out that Da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine lives there, and I missed it. Dang! The same sluggishness that infused my legs and feet in Lviv also applies to doing research. These cities have rich histories, and it can take days just to properly read up on them. I spend my time bubbling in a cocktail of travel research, writing, walking, eating, sleeping, socializing, and taking care of annoying yet necessary tasks. Priorities change daily, even hourly. And to think that before I left home I was worried about being bored. I have nothing to do but travel, and I still don't have enough time in the day. I packed a small set of watercolors pencils and some card stock to dabble about with during the slow times, and the only time I've taken them out is when I tossed my pack looking for a lost adapter.

I may have missed Krakow's fine art offerings, but I made sure to track down the weird. The Wawel Castle and cathedral are full of treasures, but the most intriguing objects are outside in plain sight for free. Hanging to the left of the cathedral doors are three mighty prehistoric bones that were unearthed on the hill. I think dinosaur bones hanging in front of a church are kind of funny. Where exactly do the dinos fit into the whole creationism scheme? And, dare I speculate that it's a giant rib bone? Even if it isn't, I like to think that it is.

Having scuppered my plans to visit New Zealand on this jaunt, and thereby missing a chance to visit an old college chum, I told her to pick an eastern European destination that I had to visit, and so found myself down underground again, in the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Centuries of mining has depleted all the salt, so it's no longer active. Displays include recreations of mining operations (horses were brought underground, and once there, stayed put), and lots of salt sculptures carved by miners who really had quite some artistic flair. The are mostly religious in nature, including several chapels, since mining is an inherently dangerous profession, and they needed all the protection they could get. The Chapel of St. Kinga includes a few noteworthies – a Baby Jesus carved from pink salt, a rather graphic relief of the Slaughter of the Innocents (not sure why this particular episode was chosen for depiction), another relief of The Last Supper which takes on bizarre three dimensional qualities when viewed from across the room, and Pope John Paul II. JPII is big in Poland. It's like he was Polish or something. Statues everywhere, and I'll take a wild guess that at least one street in each major town is named after him. Overall, the mine's presentation was a bit cheesy, but it has been the only museum that invites visitors to lick the walls. I took at least two tongue swipes. Salty. The air is reputed to be very healthy, and our guide kept reminding us to breathe deeply to attain long, preserved life.

Mostly I just spent my time in Krakow guzzling hot beverages in cafés and walking around absorbing the ambience. I ate some pierogi filled with "groad." Trying to establish what "groad" was before placing my order, the waitress with a 85% grasp on English hunted around for a word. "It's like rice, but brown." "Brown" sounded like it could be "vegetarian" so I took a gamble. It was, mostly, except for a few nuggets of something meaty that managed to sneak in, and it was also devoid of any taste. They could have done with a good rub along the walls of the salt mine, or at least some sort of sauce. The menu had promised cheese in there as well, but I couldn't discern any. My companions had plates filled with lovely looking fried things, and I had a bad case of dinner envy. Krakow proved to be a bit of a dumpling washout in general. Getting dinner at a recommended vegetarian restaurant, I ordered a plate of Tibetan dumplings, which were really quite tasty, except there should have be at least three times as many to qualify for a meal. Iain gave my plate a hard look. "I'm pretty sure you ordered an entrée." I'm pretty sure I had, too, and ate a bag of potato chips back at the hostel. The only decent plate of pierogi I got was at a milk bar establishment, which are the cheapo worker cafeterias that were subsidized by the government back in the communist days. The food can be a little hit or miss, but when you're only spending few złoty for a full meal, who cares. On Sunday I prowled through the flea market, which sold everything from puppies out a box to porn out of a suitcase. I was tempted by the old stainless steel surgical tools, but not knowing where they had been, settled instead for a paperback translation of Hound of the Baskervilles, simply because the standout word on the cover is "Pies." I'm planning on putting it in my kitchen for baking inspiration.

There's a town called Katowice about an hour away, and it's worth at least day trip to wander the streets and parks, admiring the mishmosh of different styles. Be careful if you park anywhere, because I've never seen so many meter maids in my life, and all of them were taking their jobs very seriously.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is a short bus ride away from Krakow, and winter is an appropriately bleak time to visit. With the intention of exposing what happened, and hoping that humanity will learn from history and not allow it to happen again, almost everything is open. Many of the barracks at Auschwitz house exhibitions, and several displays are designed to impart a sense of scale of how many people were murdered. One room has close to 2000 kilograms of human hair that was intended for use in the textile industry, literally to be fashioned into haircloth for tailoring. Birkenau is bigger than I expected it to be, and is more an open air museum – visitors are free to wander throughout most of the grounds, and several of the barracks are open. The gas chambers and crematoria at Birkenau were blown up by the retreating SS, and are left in their ruined state, but the one at Auschwitz is still intact. The orderly appearance of each camp, barracks all in a tidy row, belies the tragic horrible mess it was during its operation.

This blog is a bit short, but I'm way behind. Writing is hard.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

passing on the left

Marta at the Kosmonaut reception desk was looking at us with a skeptical look in her eye and the hint of a curl in her lip. "Why do you want to do that?" What we wanted to do was walk across the border from Ukraine to Poland. There's only two reasons to do it – (a) for the hell of it, and (b) to smuggle cigarettes. Since we weren't strapped for cash (yet), we wanted to do (a).

The easy way to get from Ukraine to Poland is to catch a train. The only inconvenience there is that they'll need to change the wheels on the train because track widths between the countries are different. I've not done this, but I'm told it involves lifting the entire train, passengers still inside, and can possibly take several hours to complete. Walking across isn't necessarily more convenient, and neither were we really doing it just for the hell of it. It's an opportunity to witness and be part of a process that defies logic and common sense, that to the naked eye appears to be mayhem, yet continues to happens all day, every day. It requires a re-interpretation of everything you thought you knew about how to behave at a border crossing, and people who are impatient, easily frazzled, or claustrophobic shouldn't do it at the risk of disintegrating into a meltdown. But for those who are patient and can have a sense of humor about ridiculous situations, it's totally worth doing, at least once.

The first thing we did is catch a bus from Lviv to Shehyni, a close to two hour bus ride that inconceivably costs only $2.00. Once on our feet, we walked past the line of parked cars waiting at the gate. Parked. Motors off. People sitting inside staying warm. No indication of when they'll be able to proceed. Finding the pedestrian path, we encountered the first confusion – which line to get in? There were two, monitored by guards with humorless faces, each leading to a bungalow that looked like it wasn't going to stand up to the first good storm to come along. One line was longer and had inexplicable breaks in it, also monitored by a guard. And then there was an open door over to the left, which we presumed was for people entering from the Poland side, but that assumption wasn't stopping the occasional person from walking through, and not coming out again. Poking our heads in, we decided it definitely wasn't the way to proceed, and returned to the lines. Showing our passports to a guard, he indicated the end of the first section of line leading to the bungalow. I avoided looking at the people standing in the line behind us. Who knows how long they had been standing there, and we just slid in in front of them, easy as pie. At least the guy shod in shiny army issue boots was on our side.

With nothing much to do besides stand, we began speculating on how long it would take us to exit Ukraine, pinning it at about an hour. After about twenty minutes, the same guard who had told us where to stand came up again – from where he had been standing ten feet away the entire time – and motioned us to go to the very front of the line. Not convinced I was doing the right thing, I turned back to him, but he continued motioning with his hand, keep going, keep going. I gave the people at the head of the line a sheepish smile, expecting angry faces at our blatant queue barging, but they were smiling at us, laughing, making room, and telling us something in Ukrainian that we obviously didn't understand. I think they were telling us to go into the second line, which we couldn't do at that point because it was on the other side of an iron fence, but it was also the line that was next admitted into the customs shack.

The door into the bungalow had a plexiglass window, and for about forty minutes we watched the mass inside slowly dwindle as they were herded through the exit turnstile. We also figured out that the people who were sneaking through the exit door were taking the extreme short-cut to the head of the line, since more than one reappeared before us, on the other side of the door. If only we had investigated three feet further before turning back. Finally a guard opened the door and as fast as we could we squished into the room. The turnstile and customs windows were a supreme example of non-design. Two manned windows, side by side. One in front of the turnstile, one past it. Anyone standing at the first window blocked the turnstile; anyone needing to get to the second window either had to squeeze past, or crawl under. Anyone with a rucksack either blocked the turnstile or was unable to pass. At this point I should mention that out of everyone there, Iain and I were the only ones carrying more luggage than just a day or tote bag. In a moment of serendipity, we ended up at the windows in such a manner that we didn't have to resort to tossing our bags over heads or holding up the line. Thanks goodness for small favors. Iain landed with the agent who was steadily munching potato chips, pulling them one by one from a bag he had squirreled away under the desk. He also noticed the passport of the woman in front of him, where page after page was a series of exit and entry stamps, neatly side by side. I got the agent who didn't know that Americans don't need a visa to enter Poland, which is a good indication of how many westerners pass through this checkpoint. I didn't get what he was asking me because I couldn't hear through the window, but Potato Chips leaned over and presumably told him to look it up on his computer, and shortly after I was out the door and in that limbo land where you've exited one country but haven't entered another.

At this point we were in a fenced corridor leading to the entry to Poland. There were strange and puzzling sights to behold. An old guy with crutches trying to peel back the fencing and crawl under. A guard running up and yelling at him. Discarded, empty cigarette cartons littering the side of the walkway. People walking back from the Polish entry, on the other side of the fence, and passing packs and cartons of smokes to people heading towards the entry. It was cold day, but bright, sunny, and surreal. It had taken us just about one hour to exit Ukraine, and approaching Poland, EU Poland, we figured the process would be a little more streamlined. We were wrong. The crowd at the Poland entry was like a herd of dairy cows waiting to be milked. Anyone who has been through a European airport will be familiar with the standard passport lines, one for All Passports, and another for EU/EEA/CH. Under normal circumstances I always have to go through the All Passports line, but this wasn't normal, and required a liberal interpretation of posted signage. Several hundred people were in the All Passports line, and if I joined them, I would be there for hours. Getting into what we thought was the EU line, a young guy took one look at us with our rucksacks, shook his head, and indicated that we should be in the next line, over to the left, across the metal barricades. Turns out we were in the All Passports line. Backtracking out, we found the way to the EU line barred by a locked gate about one and a half meters tall. I've held all along that travelers should only take as much luggage packed in such a manner that would allow them to jog a couple of blocks, or run the length of a train station platform. I've now amended this to include scaling gates at border crossings. Once over, we walked forward to find a guard who had to have known we hopped the fence, yet calmly just looked at our passports, asked us a few questions in perfect English, and waved us through.

The next room was the continuation of the lines from outside, and again we lost which was the end of which in the squish of humans. Yet another guy, who seemed slightly crazed with breadcrumbs holding court in his moustache and beard, grabbed us and very insistently pushed us again to the left, into the EU line. I think he was either deaf, dumb, or both, since he didn't seem to be able to communicate with anyone in line, let alone us. Even though there were a number of people in the line, he insisted on shoving us up to the front, physically planting his hands on our packs and pushing us through the crowd. I tried offering some apologies to one obviously annoyed girl, but strangely, everyone was letting us through. I finally figured out that probably most of them were Ukrainians who were themselves skipping the All Passports line, and were just stepping out of the way to let through the people who should be in line legitimately. Despite vocal protestations and vigorous hand gestures from our friend, I didn't crash my way all the way to the head of the line, and we had about 25 minutes standing within eyesight of the single agent that was checking passports. Not that I wanted to be there all day, but it was another opportunity to observe the nuttiness of the place. A number of angry shouting matches broke out, but each time the tension was broken by rowdy laughter and happy voices. A few people from our line approached the customs agent with cash in hand, but it never changed hands. They just held it in plain view. One girl was holding a $100 bill, which I'm guessing is way to much for an average Ukrainian to be shelling out as bribe money. No idea what that was about. Another woman approached our line from the Polish side, had a conversation with a woman standing next to me, and then tried to nonchalantly enter the line, only to be snapped at by a guard sitting out of sight. She backed off and exited through another doorway that she had been heading to in the first place. The kibosh was firmly placed on whatever little conspiracy they had going. By that point some people had managed to sneak ahead of me in line, and we were getting tired of standing there, so made a determined attempt to get to the front. Once we stood our ground it was easy, since others just stood out of the way and let us pass.

There was one more hurdle to face after the passport check – the agent who was searching everyone coming though. Everyone else was having their bags tossed and being patted down (hint – if you crush the corners of cigarette boxes before taping them to your body, it's less likely that they'll be discovered). The agent looked at my passport, looked at my rucksack, looked at me. "Do you have any cigarettes?" "No." And I was through. No bag search, no patdown. Had I known, perhaps I would have smuggled a few cartons across myself for cappuccino money.

The preferential treatment we got from the guards and locals was completely unexpected. For them, the crossing the was just what they did for a living, and as grueling as it appeared to be, it was just another day at work. Given the amount of people there who must have been bored to the point of catatonia, it was all well-behaved, everyone patiently waiting without trying to muscle their way around or through. And they collectively agreed that there was no reason for travelers to endure the same rigmarole, and actively made sure we were on the path of least resistance.

Before I started writing this I was thinking that the process runs about as smoothly as an abandoned vintage automobile that has raccoons nesting in the engine block, but after a moment's reflection realized that's not true. It runs about as well as a outdoor drainpipe in winter that's had a vat of molasses poured into it. It runs not well, but eventually, with an air of controlled mayhem according to enigmatic rules. Iain and I tried to figure out the economics of all of it. Cigarettes are cheap in Ukraine. The brand we saw everyone smuggling (L&M) costs perhaps $1.00 a pack in Ukraine. Figuring that they would sell for $2.50+ a pack in Poland, the most anyone could profit off one carton of ten packs is $20.00. Generously assuming that everyone manages to smuggle in a second carton, that's $40.00 for one day's worth of work, which seems totally not worth it for the hours spent in line, day after day. We made it through in only two hours, but that was getting preferential treatment and steered into the fast track. Everyone else faced an wait of at least six hours, maybe even double that. But if that's all you got, I suppose it's better than nothing. On December 21st, Poland will join the Schengen area of Europe, and I'm wondering if this is going to drastically impact this business. Ukrainians who have so far been able to pass freely back and forth may now need a visa to do so, the cost of which may be prohibitive, if one can even be secured in the first place.

Monday, December 17, 2007

singular taste sensations

There's a cobbler in the same building as the Kosmonaut hostel, and even though he's a complete curmudgeon, his services include reheeling ladies boots with a variety of stilettos.

Eddie once arranged a rubbish pick up at the hostel, and the truck knocked down the heel display. Eddie received a phone call from the receptionist, during which he could hear the cobbler in the background yelling, "Big problem!" No kidding. Based on the number of Ukrainian girls teetering around the cobblestones of Lviv in shocking boots, the guy must have hrynvia spilling from his coffers. How would the ladies find him when his sign is down?

Lviv was all about enjoying daily minutiae. The Kosmonaut lets you do your laundry for free, although due to restricted water supply to central Lviv, it has to be done between 6:00 and 9:00, either in the morning or the evening. I took full advantage. When you're living out of a backpack, having machine washed clothes can become more important than having a square meal. But enjoy the laundry basket high while you can, because it never lasts long; for some reason my trousers manage to get dirty again mere days later. I look down at my cuffs and idly wonder what I walked through to make them look that way.

Sloth is creeping in. Maybe it's because I know the end of these travels is near, and it's making me lose momentum, or maybe it's because the days are short and cold. It's the kind of laziness where I don't even bother buying fruit, because buying a liter of fruit juice and drinking it straight from the carton is way easier. The Kosmonaut is a fairly big hostel, and since staff outnumbered guests, I was motivated mainly to sit around the common room, a slight burning sensation permeating my thighs from my laptop. As sparse as the population was, it was mostly enjoyable company. There were two oddball Americans. One wanted to get rid of some Polish złoty but turned his nose up at my offer of dollars. Another was an student of Russian with a slight air of a serial killer, who had a strange habit of answering questions that were clearly directed at other people and launching into conversation topics that had us all feigning extreme interest at whatever what was directly in front of us, be it or crumbs on the kitchen table or weather report web pages. Thankfully neither of them stuck around very long, leaving me, Iain (my chicken kiev comrade from Kiev), a Dutch guy named Marek who had an obsession with smoked fish, Eddie the hostel owner, and his staff, who were disproportionately young, disproportionately female, disproportionately good looking, and disproportionately helpful, not necessarily in that order.

I caught another sleeper train from Kiev to get to Lviv. There was a Ukrainian guy in my compartment who spoke very little English, which was more than I encountered anywhere outside of the Kiev hostel. He asked me what I was doing in Ukraine, appearing pleasantly perplexed that anyone would be there by choice. I tried to explain in simple phrases. I'm not sure I got the point across, but eventually he declared that he was very happy that I was there. Since there were no dark of the night border crossings and passport checks and sniffy dogs, I had the whole night to snuggle up in my upper berth, being thankful that the violent train lurches always seemed to hurl me into the wall instead of catapulting me out into the compartment. I was so sound asleep in the morning that the porter had to wake me up, gently shaking my knee. I got lost on the way to the hostel, either getting on the wrong tram or getting off the right tram at the wrong stop, and spent a couple of hours first walking around, then hopping a tram to backtrack to the station, realizing I was going away from the train station, hopping on another tram to successfully go back to the train station to start over, and finally got on the right tram and got off at the right stop. By the time I got to the hostel I was feeling like it was time for another nap. However, my circular route gave me not only an impromptu tour of the town, I got a first hand look at the peculiarity that all the tram drivers and ticket sellers were women. Discussing this observation with Eddie later that day, he not only concurred, but made mention of the fact that, no matter how rollicking the ride may be, their hair never moves. Sadly, I was never situated in the tram to be able to observe this. These women aren't to be trifled with, either. Riding a tram with a wonky accordion door that refused to close on its own, the driver began by making demanding announcements over the loudspeaker, which was an oddity in itself, since the trams seem to be at least sixty years old. When did they get loudspeakers? Anyway, some well-intentioned male soul standing by the door made a plucky, yet unsuccessful, effort to get it closed; he was sort of at the wrong angle to strongarm the door into behaving itself. After too much time and at least a couple more loudspeaker announcements had passed, the ticket seller stomped over and in one deft movement, wrenched the door shut with one arm. As Iain observed, she accomplished this with such skill as to suggest that the door had in fact been broken for about six years. I'm not really sure what the point was, though — the door opened and got stuck at each stop, forcing a repeat performance and more annoyed, yet simultaneously ennui-laden announcements from the driver. Ticket Seller was clearly in a league of her own when it came to woman-handling disobedient doors. After her effortless performance, another chap gave it a go and only proved himself a rank amateur in an embarrassing display of lack of arm strength. Not wanting to be volunteered for door duty, at which we would most certainly have failed, Iain and I shuffled away from the door. And if that tram duo weren't enough to leave us with cuddly memories of Lviv public transportation, we were accosted during our final tram ride to the train station by the ticket inspector, who, aside from the Ukrainian, could have stepped into the role of Miss Marple in any Agatha Christie production. Hair flawlessly coiffed, dressed very well indeed, she flashed her badge in her artfully gloved hand and demanded to see our tickets. I love the Lviv tram tickets, because I'm pretty sure they're still using the same batch that was printed in the 50s, but they're close to the consistency of tissue paper and sort of easy to lose. Thankfully both of us had managed to hang onto ours, and she turned her attention to some joy-riding boys, and with little effort, got them to cough up tram fare.

Here's a picture I snapped on the way home from the bania. Other than trams, Lviv has a swarm of minibuses, and this one seems to be powered by something coming from the rooftop tanks.

There's no way to buy groceries in Lviv without crashing into the language barrier, because all the shops in town are of the ilk where everything is in cases or behind the counter, and securing any of them involved interacting with the women (invariably women) behind the counter. I wonder if shops like this are from the good old communist days, when there wasn't several brands of butter to choose from. You just went to the store and bought butter, whatever butter they had, and most likely in a rationed amount. I didn't want butter, but I wanted some snacks and fruit juice, so I squared my shoulders and walked into a shop, expecting the same blank stares, rolled eyeballs, and sighs that I had received at the Kiev train station. But, no such behavior. As small as the shop was, there were at least three women behind the counter, and each had her particular domain that covered about seven feet of space. Getting bread, cheese, and blueberry yogurt from one of them, I shuffled down the display case where another helped with my juice selection, and then the first one rang me up, so to speak, which means she typed the total into a calculator and showed it to me so I knew how much to pay. I quite like the small shop phenomenon of Europe, even if it's just fruit and vegetable stands on the street or spilling out of a small storefront. I think it inspires to better eating; rather than pick up a week's worth of random groceries on the weekend, you just grab exactly what you need for a day on the way home, except without having to navigate huge stores and stand in long lines. This is a particularly good way to buy cookies. Since the temptation of an open pack of cookies is to just keep eating until they're all gone, it can be an unfortunate case if it happens to be a large pack of cookies. All through eastern Europe I've noticed bulk cookie stands, all sorts of cookies in generic cardboard boxes. Kiev had bulk candy kiosks, usually located in the mini malls that line that the underground walkways. Picking up dinner items in a marketplace, Iain discovered the primo cookie lady of Ukraine. Not only were her confectionary delights of premium tastiness, she was scrupulous in measuring them out. The easy way to buy in bulk when you don't speak the language is simply to hand over some amount of money and then point at what you want – I'd like four hryvnia worth of that cookie. We visited Cookie Lady two days in a row, and both times she measured out our order to the cookie, and then topped it off. In fact, all the vendors in the marketplace were meticulous when it came to measures and payment, down to the kopeck on what were already bargain prices. They could easily have rounded up numbers to the nearest hryvnia, but that just didn't seem to be their way. There are plenty of other places who would have looked at us foreigners with money signs in their eyes, but I never got that sense in Ukraine.

Always on the lookout for a good cup of coffee, Eddie directed us to a couple of local cafés. The first, Blue Bottle, we only went to once because they served us unremarkable coffee, but they do have a noteworthy location. Tucked into the very back of a courtyard, no doubt half the people who enter the yard's archway are immediately convinced they are in the wrong spot and back out. You need to walk through yet another small archway all the way to the back, and if you go after dark, you may miss the completely unlit wooden sign. A much better café was Zolotyi Dukat, distinguished by what must have been a twenty page menu of coffee, tea, and bizarre chocolate brews, complete with ingredient lists and creative descriptions. Croatia got kicked off the top hot chocolate spot by a shot-sized cut of dark hot chocolate under a cloud of cream. This wasn't just a creamy cocoa, this was a high percentage of pure melted chocolate. I'm forever spoiled to what dares to call itself hot chocolate in standard American establishments. Not quite as good, but still memorable was the Orange Revolution hot chocolate (the bitterness of reality and the sweetness of liberation, or something like that). Orange and chocolate is one of my favorite flavor combinations, but this wasn't as orangy as it could have been, although it did have bits of candied orange sprinkled on top. That they weren't sinking is a testament to how thick the chocolate was. The coffee drizzled with cream, chocolate, and lemon didn't blend well on the palate, but won points for presentation.

Unexpectedly, the coffee concoction with egg powder and a flotilla of prunes nestled into the cream was a winner, although the cinnamon sprinkled on top slightly overwhelmed the other flavors. Who'd have thunk those flavors married well? Sadly, we only discovered this café two days before leaving, and so didn't have the opportunity to continue drinking our way systematically through the menu. Clearly, I have unfinished business in this town.

Lviv offered more opportunities to sample the finer points of Ukrainian museum management. The Pharmacy Museum is behind the counter of a working pharmacy, and winds through the building, including one display in a room that has no working lights. Getting slightly turned around in the last hallway, we were startled by the sudden appearance of an extremely vexed woman who shoved open the exit door and, in no uncertain terms, ushered us out. The Art Gallery controls the humidity in a delightfully low-tech manner, attaching ceramic vases filled with water to the radiators. The vases even seem to be specially fabricated for this function, being formed to snuggle into the radiator sections. And the Museum of Ethnography and Crafts makes sure no one tampers with the historic clocks by sealing the cases with a piece of string between two wax signet seals. But you'll only discover this if you manage to figure out which of the closed, unmarked doors is concealing said exhibit.

I wish I had more time to stay in Ukraine. I enjoy the language difficulties and communication challenges, and how being a foreigner there can be demanding and the furthest thing from easy. I like how I heard barely any English, or any other recognizable language, spoken on the streets. And although it's probably not really the case, I kind of felt as if I was part of a first wave of travelers to visit, since the visa requirements, at least for Americans, were only recently lifted. There's part of it that still feels like old Eastern Europe, but even so it's rapidly disappearing. I discussed this with Eddie, and we both shared the sad sentiment that we may really not be able to see unspoiled Eastern Europe anymore. But at the same time we felt selfish, because we shouldn't resent the fact that these countries benefit economically from blooming tourism now that Communism is a thing of the past. And speaking of, I'm on my way to the place where it all started to unravel.