I've been on the road recently. My four-week trip to Eastern Europe in October & November 1997 is the longest business trip I've ever had. Unfortunately, travel rules were recently changed by some Machiavellian bean counter to make it difficult to call home with the hope of getting reimbursed. I just couldn't afford the cost of all those daily phone calls, so instead, I promised to send out a postcard every day. But I also decided that I wanted to do more than just that; I wanted to make each postcard a stand-alone essay, a chapter of an overall larger diary of my trip that would give the reader a flavor of just what Eastern Europe is all about.
So there was the challenge: be interesting, be entertaining, and above all, be brief! It wasn't easy. There were lots of evenings that I was so tired I just wanted to go to bed instead of finding where I could buy a postcard (not to mention the airmail postage), and then trying to compose something pithy about the day's activities that would fit into however many words I could cram onto the card. I didn't always succeed (especially in the first few days of the trip), but most every day I was able to find one or two things interesting enough to build a mini-essay around.
Anyway, here it is. After reading through the assembled collection of
cards, I've added some commentary between the postcards for continuity and
transition, and to describe some other things there just wasn't enough room
to do on the confines of a postcard. Even though I've been to Eastern
Europe many times before, each trip there is always a voyage of discovery as
the region undergoes change from year to year. There still is a sense of
wonder for me. I hope you enjoy reading about it as much as I enjoyed being
Sunday, October 12, 1997
Arrived in Prague today with no problems. I slept until early afternoon, then went walking around the city. What a magnificent place! It's as wonderful as I remember it from 1990 -- even better now that all the decay has been repaired. Wenceslaus Square has gone fairly commercial -- there's even a McDonald's there now. The best places to visit are still Prague Castle, Charles Bridge, and the old town square. Tuesday it's on to Bratislava. Wish I could stay here longer.
Wenceslaus Square isn't really a plaza at all; it's a very broad avenue
with a wide median. Near the end of 1989 it was the focal point for the
Velvet Revolution that got rid of communism, and even nine months later,
during my first visit to Prague, large crowds of young people were still
taking over the place every evening with all-night street fests. Nothing
like that happens anymore; there's still some street life at night, but it's
moved from Wenceslaus to the old town square. And instead of a never-ending
street fest, there are now music events...
Monday, October 13, 1997
This is my last night in Prague. I finished business about 2:00pm today and had much of the afternoon to walk around and make a few more purchases. Tonight I went to a classical music concert in a small recital hall on the second floor of a converted church. (There seems to be four or five different concerts each night here.) This one was a small string quintet; they played Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" and Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons". Tomorrow it's on to Bratislava, Slovakia.
A "few purchases" is an understatement! Prague is a great place to buy
gifts, especially with the holiday season fast approaching. I confined
myself to small things that wouldn't break, but for the adventurous,
it's possible to buy Bohemian crystal for about one-eighth of what it would
cost in the United States. A friend from work did just that last year; she
bought three large Bohemian crystal chandeliers for her new home. Not quite
sure how she was able to fit it all under her airplane seat for the trip home,
Tuesday, October 14, 1997
Arrived in Slovakia's capital, Bratislava, today; the flight was uneventful, except for a half-hour delay before taking off while they fixed the left engine. It was a fairly easy day, just two short meetings. Tomorrow looks to be a lot busier. Weather here is cool. Autumn is definitely here.
The plane trip to Bratislava may have taken longer than the ride to the
airport. I had gotten involved in a dispute with a taxi driver about the fare
to the bus depot -- I hadn't asked him the cost in advance, and when we got
there (a one-kilometer ride), his meter read 1530 Koruna, or $51. Apparently,
taxis aren't regulated, and as long as you have a published rate schedule with
you, you can charge pretty well what you want. The taxis that hang around the
train stations are notorious for this, I found out later. I was lucky I had all
my bags in the back seat with me instead of the taxi's trunk; I pretended to
misunderstand when he said $51, and threw him a 100 Koruna note (worth about
three dollars), telling him to "Keep the change." I was out on the sidewalk
before he could do anything about it; he looked at me for a minute, then he
decided just to go away mad. Things might have gotten interesting if he had
decided to take exception. After all that, a faulty aircraft engine was really
just an anticlimax.
Wednesday, October 15, 1997
More meetings in Bratislava today, but tomorrow we are taking a day trip to Holíc, a small city on the Czech border about an hour's drive from here. I went into Bratislava's old town tonight, down near the Danube River; the place is undergoing a mass renovation. Lots of the older buildings are getting rehab treatments -- clean up and repair outside, and a complete gutting and re-do on the inside. This seems to be a city in transition.
"Transition" is probably not the right word for what's happened in old town
Bratislava, the section of the city that dates back to the middle ages. A year
ago, most of the buildings were in sad shape -- just about all of them were
unoccupied, many of them with no windows and open to the weather. Two things
seem to have made the difference: a rapidly-improving economy and the decision
of the city to practically give these historic buildings away to corporate
tenants in return for their agreement to renovate them. The resulting change,
in just one year, has been enormous, and it's had a ripple down effect. I
remember that in 1995 the old town was pretty well deserted after dark; now it's
becoming a host to after dinner events like classical music concerts and gallery
show openings. "Transition" therefore seems to be an understatement -- it's
been more of a renaissance.
Thursday, October 16, 1997
I spent much of the day in the city of Holíc (pronounced HO-Leech), about an hour and a half drive north from Bratislava. It's only about a mile from the Czech border, and we drove right up to the border crossing at one point. The purpose of this day trip was to hold some business discussions with the general director of the coal mine there, and talks went so well that we ran short of time and had to cancel a meeting with the city's mayor. Guess you can tell where the real power in the city is located!
In a way I was disappointed that I didn't get to meet the Mayor of Holíc;
I've been to Eastern Europe eight different times, and I still have yet to meet
a politician of any sort! Plenty of bureaucrats and government employees like
myself, but nary a politician. I've no doubt that the general director of the
mining company was really the power guy in Holíc, though, and he acted
the part, right down to the big Mercedes he ferried us around in. Who says
that capitalism will never catch on here??
Friday, October 17, 1997
Just got back to Bratislava from another day trip, this time to Partizánske, about an hour and a half drive to the east from here. It doesn't seem like a weekend is here, no real sense of Friday night. I tried watching television last night, but there's no English-speaking channels, and only four channels total. There's a version of Wheel of Fortune in Slovak, which I could sort of follow, and another game show, loosely based on Bingo, that seemed totally incomprehensible; it included a quiz round or three and even some audience participation. I should have guessed it was complex when it took the host a full ten minutes to explain it all before the game even began.
I think the thing I missed most about not having an English-language television
channel was watching the news. Since my Slovak hosts were paying for my hotel
room this trip, I stayed mostly in smaller hotels for which CNN was a luxury that
wasn't affordable. There were times during the trip I went three days without
learning what was going on in the outside world. And when I did get into a hotel
that had an English-language channel, it was usually either Eurosport with its
endless progression of tennis tournaments and truck rallies, or else the British
Skynews channel which was spending its time covering the British Au Pair trial
in Massachusetts at the expense of every other bit of news. I remember one night
I was so desperate to learn what was going on in the world that I forced myself
to stay up and watch the ABC Evening News, which Skynews was telecasting
at two o'clock in the morning. But just as it was finally coming on, I closed
my eyes just for an instant...and the next thing I heard was my alarm clock early
the next morning.
Saturday night, October 18, 1997
A welcome day off today; I needed the down time. I spent the afternoon in old town Bratislava, where I found a type of food I'd never expected to see here -- dim sum! There's a new upscale Chinese restaurant near the castle, and dim sum was on the menu. It didn't come on carts (there was a 20-minute wait after you selected what you wanted) but you can't have everything. Tonight (in the old town) was some classical music, a recital of baroque music with flutes and harpsichord. When I got back to the hotel, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency agent was checking in. I did not ask him about his line of work!
But maybe I should have. There is now a Mafia in Slovakia, and not long before
I arrived in Bratislava there had been mob-related violence; two Mafioso got
blown away while they were discussing "business matters" in the cafe of the
plush Hotel Danube, the nicest hotel in the city if not the entire country. So I
got to thinking... supposing this DEA guy had made enough of a nuisance of himself
that the mob wanted to make him go away, permanently. It was easy to imagine a
couple of hit men coming to this little hotel and bullying the receptionist into
telling them which room the Amerykanka was staying in. My obituary would have
read that I was a victim of a mistaken identity. I didn't sleep all that soundly...
Sunday evening, October 19, 1997
It was a long day of travel today, by car across the entire length of Slovakia from Bratislava to Humenné. It was actually a good day for travel, nice and clear, and along the way I saw maybe a dozen or more castles. We stopped for an hour to tour one of the nicest ones, Krásna Hôrka, in south central Slovakia. We got there just in time to join up with a tour, but as luck would have it, the tour was in Hungarian. I usually don't learn much on foreign language tours, but this time my Slovak hosts were as clueless as I was!
Krásna Hôrka was the type of castle referred to as a hrad, or
fortress. That seemed to be the most common kind, surrounded by tall thick walls
and easily defendable against the hordes of Tatars that invaded Central Europe in
the 1200s. There are many hrads in Slovakia, including the one in Bratislava
that until recently served as Slovakia's equivalent of the White House. There
are two other types of castles besides the hrad, though. One of them is the
zamok, and can best be described as the type of castle you'd find in
Disneyland: walls like a hrad, but more picturesque with circular turrets and a
less military appearance. Both the zamok and the third type of castle, the
kastiel, served as manor homes for nobility instead of troop garrisons.
The kastiels were the smallest of the three types, often looking more like
museums than homes. And in fact, many of the kastiels are now museums.
Monday night, October 20, 1997
Interesting day today. Some good business meetings, but the best time was the dinner expedition. The Slovaks had all retired for the day but I and the two other Americans on this business trip decided to stroll through Humenné‚ in search of the perfect restaurant. We did find a pretty good one, and much to our surprise, one of the diners was a U.S. Government retiree who was in Slovakia working under some kind of grant teaching English to the locals. It was a toss-up who was more surprised to find an English-speaker way out here.
Humenné‚ maybe wasn't the last place in the world where I would have
expected to find another American citizen, but it wasn't far from it. It's a
small city, maybe 50,000 people, about fifteen miles south of the Poland border
and another fifteen miles west of the Ukraine border. Like most Eastern European
cities, its focal point is the town square. The one in Humenné‚ was
really pleasant to walk around, even after dark, but it seemed, well, too
new to me. Turns out that there had been buildings dating back to the
middle ages here once, but a different approach to modernization had been taken
than was occurring in Bratislava. Sometime in the 1950s or 1960s during the
communist era, all the historic old buildings had been razed, just for
convenience, and the newer buildings went up in their place. All in the name of
Wednesday, October 22, 1997
This is the first of two cards today because I wasn't in any position to be able to mail you one yesterday. A couple of good business meetings yesterday; the second of the two was a dinner meeting at the host company's resort hotel near the High Tatras in north central Slovakia. It was similar to my Russia trip of 1994: a toast with a glass of brandy; appetizer; a toast with a glass of slivovitz; salad; a toast with a glass of wine; main course; a toast with more slivovitz; dessert; a toast with yet more slivovitz... (Remind me to describe the "Vicar" toast.) Finally it was over. That slivovitz is deadly, but they opened the sauna for us afterwards. Actually, I felt pretty good this morning, considering...
Okay, okay, you asked for it... I kind of doubt this is an old Slovak folk
tale, but at any rate the Vicar Toast goes something like this:
Once upon a time, a traveling Vicar, after a long hot day on the trail, came
upon a shallow stream in the middle of a meadow, so he decided to take a
refreshing bath. He removed his clothes, all except his hat, and jumped into
the stream only to find that it was ice cold. Just as he was ready to scramble
back up the bank, two young and very shapely women entered the clearing; the
water was too cold to sit back down in, so he retained his modesty by covering
himself with his hat. The women were amused to see this: "Vicar," one of them
called, "raise your right hand." And the vicar raised his right hand, continuing
to hold the hat over himself with his left. And the other woman called to him,
"Vicar, raise your *left* hand!" And the Vicar did so, holding the hat over
himself with his right hand. So the two women approached him, running their
hands down his face and arms. "Vicar," they said, "raise *both* your hands."
And the Vicar did raise both his hands. But the hat remained suspended where it
was, retaining his modesty. And so I raise my glass, as a toast, to the power
that kept the hat suspended. Ahem. PC (as well as good taste) hasn't
made much inroads into Slovakia, obviously. We were introduced to the "Vicar
Toast" at the very end of that long dinner meeting by the head of the Slovak
business delegation that was hosting us; he had been imbibing more than his share
of slivovitz during the evening, and was by then, as they say, as drunk as a
skunk. By the way, our translator, a young Slovak woman, handled the whole thing
with no problem; she didn't even turn red. I decided she's made of stronger
stuff than I'd thought.
Wednesday, October 22, 1997 (2nd card)
My first snowball of the year was today, at about 5:00pm, near the lake at Strbské Pleso in the High Tatras of Slovakia. After the business meeting and plant tour were finally finished today, we had time for a drive up to the town (elevation 1343 meters) and a brisk walk around the lake. It was cold! There was ice on the lake (in spots), ice on the walk (in spots), and snow here and there on the ground. The ducks on the lake weren't bothered at all by the looks of them; they're built for cold weather. I don't think I've ever thrown a snowball earlier in autumn, but the snow was pretty granular and only marginally packy.
I wish we'd had more time in the High Tatras. They're the tallest segment of
the Carpathian range, with the highest peaks at about 2650 meters, though they
extend for only about 50 kilometers. About an hour's hike up the trail, another
300 meters in altitude up from Strbské Pleso, there's a mountain lodge
next to a small lake, surrounded on three sides by towering mountains. Of course,
to get there we'd have had to make the trek in our business suits, not exactly
the recommended dress for mountaineering. Or was it?...
Thursday, October 23, 1997
I'm staying in Zilina in northwest Slovakia tonight. Earlier today I gave a short presentation at a small energy-related trade show. Actually it was too short -- I'd been told I had twenty minutes but I got the two-minute warning after only ten minutes. Afterwards, we went to nearby Sulov, where we climbed up the trail (steep in spots) to the top of one of the large rock formations there, a 1000-foot rise in elevation from where we started. At the top there were some spectacular views, including a natural bridge. On the way to the top we passed a group of about 25 schoolchildren on an outing with their teacher. I'm guessing that the sight of us, all in business suits, must have been at least as unexpected and unusual as the natural bridge!
It turned out that this wasn't the first time my Slovak host had done this
stunt. Years earlier, he'd gained a bit of a reputation as a crazy man after he
had hiked to the top of the highest mountain in the Low Tatra range, once again
while wearing his business suit. That peak is over 2000 meters. Really.
Saturday, October 25, 1997
Winter has come early to Slovakia! Yesterday and today it has been cold enough that the heavy clouds brought snow instead of rain. In the mountains along the Demanovska Valley in central Slovakia, where I went today, there was enough snow to make the ground white and the roads a bit hazardous. We didn't come to Demánovskej Dolina to visit the mountains, however, even though some of them are quite tall (2000 meters) and majestic. Instead of going up, we went down, into a large cave here. It was really spectacular, with tall chambers, pools of clear water, and even an underground river. There were also millions of stalagmites and stalactites, which have a more interesting name here: "dripstones".
The hand-out material I picked up mentions that the cave, which was formed
about a million years ago, was discovered in 1921 and opened to the public in
1933. Most of the place is still in a relatively undisturbed state, with some
passages looking like only a determined spelunker would want to try them. It's
pretty large; the total descent is 80 meters (but the climb back seemed about
twice that). There's one passageway that was originally too low for people to
easily pass through, so it was enlarged by hand, without any explosives which
would have damaged the chamber. That passageway was referred to, in respect to
the hours of labor expended on it, as the "passageway of misery". There's also
an ice cave in the Dolina Valley, not far from this cave. I think I'll save
that one for another time.
Sunday, October 26, 1997
I'm back in Bratislava after a week on the road. The trip was long and intense -- about 750 miles and 11 different business meetings. I started today in the Low Tatra mountains, at a hotel on the shore of one of Slovakia's largest lake, the Liptovska Mara, or "Liptovsky Sea". Last night it started to snow, and by morning there was an accumulation of about an inch. Just down the hill from the reservoir, though, the ground was bare. What a difference twenty meters of altitude made!
The trip really was long, even for Slovakia -- I traveled the length of the
country twice. Along the way I saw maybe three dozen different castles, ranging
from wonderfully preserved to utter ruins. And every one of them had been
originally built before the New World was even discovered...
Monday, October 27, 1997
It's my last night in Slovakia; tomorrow I catch the train to Budapest. Not much of interest happened during the day, but tonight some of the people who work for my host here, the Power Research Institute, decided to take me out for a beer. Five hours later, after about seven or eight beers, I decided I was just too old for an all-night pub crawl. The last place we visited was the so-called "Klub for Gourmands of Bratislava" (Krcma Gurmánov Bratislavy). It's better known by its initials, "KGB". Lots of good beer and loud music there, but as far as I could see, no large menacing Russians.
I actually felt fairly good the next morning, to my welcome surprise. The
translator wasn't with us (she had the good sense to go home from work), so we
spent the entire evening trying to talk to each other -- they using what little
English they knew and I using what even less of the Slovak language that I knew.
The surreal part about it was, we all seemed to be succeeding!
Tuesday, October 28, 1997
I arrived here in Budapest this afternoon on the train from Bratislava. What a beautiful city this is! Right across the Danube from the hotel I'm staying in is the Royal Palace, with the Hungarian National Gallery. Just upriver from that is Castle Hill with its neo-Gothic cathedral that resembles St. Stephen's in Vienna. On this side of the Danube not far from here is the House of Parliament with its ornate architecture, and those are just the most obvious and visible landmarks. I've got business meetings tomorrow, but I hope to have a free day to go exploring before I fly to Poland on Friday.
On the other hand, there were some sights in the city that I wasn't so thrilled
to see. In Budapest, unaccompanied men are targets of opportunity. On
well-traveled tourist streets and plazas, women will sidle up to you while you're
walking along and say to you, "Ha-loow, vat ees yewer neeme? Vhere aire you
go-wing?" I lost count of the number of times it happened to me; it became
annoyingly frequent, especially after dark. At first, I thought these "ladies"
were prostitutes, but it turns out they are actually shills for several notorious
rip-off bars that exist in Budapest. There was a story in the local paper where
a French tourist let himself be taken in by the scam, had gone into one of these
bars and three drinks later was presented a bill for 59,000 Florints (about $310).
Now those were some pretty expensive drinks! Anyway, when he refused to pay, the
tough guys in there beat him up pretty severely. The best response to these
"ladies" is no response, and they'll eventually give up and try someone else.
One time, however, I was especially annoyed after it happened for about the third
time in five minutes, so I puzzled her by responding, "Nie rozumiem vam." (Slovak
for "I don't understand what you're saying.") Given her marginally intelligible
English, it was close enough to the truth!
Wednesday afternoon, October 29, 1997
It's been a trying day. Business meetings did not go all that well today, and this afternoon I almost had my briefcase stolen. It happened while I was looking over some artwork at an outdoor kiosk. The print I wanted seemed a bit overpriced at 3000 Florints (about $16) so I offered 2400 instead. When the dealer seemed a bit stubborn, I set my briefcase on the pavement while I checked my wallet to see if I had enough money in case he wouldn't budge. It wasn't five seconds later that someone tried to snatch the briefcase; if I hadn't deliberately leaned it against my leg I would have lost it. When I felt it go, my reaction was automatic -- pure adrenaline. I turned and grabbed a handful of the jacket of the culprit (it was a woman), spun her around facing me, carefully removed the briefcase from her grasp, and gave her a hard shove that almost knocked her down. She staggered away. One deep breath later, I turned back to see the art dealer staring at me, open-jawed. After about five seconds he found his voice: "OK, I think I can do 2400." Silver linings appear in unusual ways, I guess.
The "culprit" would have found what was in my briefcase pretty boring -- mostly
meeting notes, some receipts, and my appointment calendar. The meeting notes
were irreplaceable and valuable to me beyond cost, but I could have also lost
something even more valuable -- my airplane ticket home. That was
probably replaceable, but not without a lot of bother and some extra cost. I
was lucky this time; I've got to start taking less for granted when I'm out in
Wednesday evening, October 29, 1997 (2nd card)
The afternoon may have been trying but this evening was splendid. I went to a concert by the Hungarian State Symphony at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music. It was an evening of some wonderful music -- Schubert's 5th Symphony, Mozart's Violin Concerto in A, and Beethoven's grand Symphony No.5. There were so many people there that I was afraid the performance was sold out, but luckily a man standing near the box office sold me his ticket (a good one, seven rows back, center aisle!). I asked him why he was giving it up, and it turned out he had an even more important performance to attend -- Hungary vs. Yugoslavia in a World Cup qualifying game. I hope Hungary won!
Alas, Hungary was routed, 7 to 1. As for me, I had hoped for an evening of
memorable music and the concert greatly exceeded my expectations. The concert
hall at the Academy of Music had wonderful acoustics, and the Symphony Orchestra
gave an extremely polished performance. It was almost like listening to a CD.
I found myself studying the musicians as they performed -- each instrument
section displayed their intensities in different ways, while the conductor (a
hyperactive Japanese named Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi) seemed at times a charged
lightning rod and at other times a perpetual motion machine, bouncing all over
the conductor's podium. It was really a performance to remember, and I wish I
could have seen their next one, which featured the best of the best, Dvorák's
glorious Symphony No.9, "From the New World." My flight from Budapest was just
landing in Warsaw when that concert began. Argh!
Thursday night, October 30, 1997
Tonight is my last night in Hungary; tomorrow evening I fly to Poland. I went to another symphony this evening, this one the Danube Youth Symphony Orchestra. It was a nice, pleasant performance, but it just didn't seem to have the electricity and energy of last night's concert. Tonight's concert featured an eclectic mix, ranging from Dvorák's 8th Symphony to a suite from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story. That last one seemed to baffle some of the audience who obviously weren't used to symphonic jazz. I don't think they would have believed it if someone had informed them it was actually Romeo and Juliet.
On the other hand, for most of my three days in Hungary I was the one being
informed. The Hungarian language isn't like any of the other Eastern European
ones. To my dismay, even Slovak is closer to English than Hungarian is. I kept
wanting to use Slovak words, but when I did I just got blank stares. Another
unusual thing about Hungary is that people's names are last name first, with the
last name usually all capital letters as in "LYNCH Richard" or "KISS Andreas"
(he was the featured violinist at the Wednesday night concert). As you can see,
woe to you if your last name is a verb!
Friday night, October 31, 1997 (Halloween)
It's All Hallow's Eve here in Eastern Europe, but there's nary a witch nor goblin to be seen. I arrived in Warsaw, Poland, tonight after an uneventful flight, but there's no sign that Halloween is celebrated here. About the scariest thing I've seen are all the closed money changer kiosks, as I was desperate to change some dollars into zloties so I could buy a train ticket to Gdansk for early tomorrow morning. I eventually did manage to get my ticket (turns out I could have charged it on my VISA card if I'd known), and I'm ready for an all-morning ride to the Baltic Coast that I hope isn't too horrific, but will be scientifictional. For there are science fiction fans in Gdansk, and I'll be meeting them tomorrow!
Actually, I thought I'd have a horrific time purchasing my train ticket, late
as it was on a Friday night, but it really wasn't a problem. I'd already written
down the departure time I wanted, and when I got to the ticket window at the
train station, I told the sales lady in my best Polish enunciation, "Jeden
bileta Gdansk, drugi klassa, prosze." ("One second-class ticket to Gdansk,
please.") It worked! In fact, it worked so well that the guy behind me said
something to me (in English) that I would never have expected to hear: "Your
Polish is pretty good!" Now hearing that was scary!
Saturday, November 1, 1997
Today was supposed to be Amber Day for me, but it didn't work out that way. The train got me to Gdansk, the City of Amber, before 11:00am, but to my dismay, all the specialty amber shops were closed because of a major holiday here -- All Saint's Day. I'll have to try again here in Warsaw maybe tomorrow. At any rate, the other part of my trip to Gdansk worked out very well, and I spent several hours with members of the Gdanskiego Klubu Fantastyki at the apartment of its president, Krzysztof Papierkowski. Krzysztof wasn't an English-speaker, but his wife (also a fan) was; I learned that the GKF had won the right to host the year 2000 Eurocon, which should bring about, well, 2000 fans to their convention. How much longer before they're ready for a Worldcon bid?
I should also mention that Mrs. Papierkowski prepared a wonderful meal of
traditional Polish food for me and the other few club members who were there. I
am truly grateful for all the hospitality I received. The Papierkowskis have
two teenage children, but interestingly enough, neither appears to be a fan.
Their son appears to be more interested in athletics (even with the frigid
weather he was dressed to play football/soccer); at first, I wasn't sure of
their daughter's interests but just as I was preparing to leave for the train
station, that unmistakable new-age music of a Win95 start-up came from her
bedroom. Young people seem to be the same everywhere...
Sunday evening, November 2nd
My last free day of this trip was today, so I used it just to walk around Warsaw for a while. The city hasn't really changed too much except for some facelift renovations to some of the buildings (including the hotel I'm staying in). It wasn't really a very good day to be outside, though, due to cold weather and rain that moved in about noontime. I confess that I really spent most of the day in my hotel room watching CNN and Eurosport. However, before I retreated indoors, I also investigated the local economy. Many of the shopkeepers seem to be doing fairly well. And for some of them, especially the amber dealers, by the time I left their stores, they were doing even better!
Even though there have been a multitude of renovations in Warsaw (which has
improved its appearance considerably), there's been no attempt to get rid of any
of the buildings erected during the 50+ years of communism the country suffered
through. On the contrary, they've been co-opted for different purposes entirely,
often with delicious irony. The stately communist party headquarters, for
instance, has become the home of the country's stock market. The Gotham
City-esque Palace of Culture and Science, a gargantuan, foreboding-looking
skyscraper that was a "gift" to the city from Josef Stalin, had an even more
amusing transformation. Outside one wing of the building is a statue of the
stern-faced communist-era worker, marching out into the world while carrying a
slate inscribed with the leaders of the communist movement: Marx, Engels, and
Lenin. The statue has been left alone, but the building itself has had a change
in function. There's a neon-light marquee just over the statue now that
advertises the new use of that wing of the Palace -- it's now a gambling casino.
Monday, November 3, 1997
The last road trip of this long business trip started today, and tonight I'm in extreme southeast Poland, in the city of Sanok, at its one travelers' rest, the Hotel Jagiellonski. It's actually quite a nice place; the rooms are large, the beds comfortable, and the room rates inexpensive -- it costs only about $30 a night to stay here. There's even an English-language news channel (Skynews) on the Telly. We got to the hotel just before the restaurant closed, and when we settled in for dinner, two tables away we overheard another group of people talking -- in English! I'm not sure what the topic was, but they'd evidently been there for a while; when they finally got up to leave, one of them was so drunk he had to be physically assisted to get him out of there, legs dragging behind him. Gotta watch out for that slivovitz!
Not only was the Jagiellonski a decent place to stay, so were most of the
other hotels of this trip. In fact, the hotel situation in Eastern Europe seems
to have improved considerably in the past year or so. There wasn't really even
a single hotel I stayed in this trip that I'd object to returning to on a future
trip. On the other hand, I didn't have to stay at a couple of the low rollers I
endured last year. The lowest of the low was probably the Hotel Warsaw, which
had nothing wrong with it that a complete gutting wouldn't cure. My most
lasting memory of that place, however, was the calling cards I found under my
door listing phone numbers I should dial if I was wanting a little female
companionship. When I showed one of them to my Polish host, he laughed and said,
"Ah, you are staying at a full service hotel!"
Tuesday, November 4, 1997
It's my last night here in Sanok, and once again I was surprised when someone complimented me on my Polish (it was the hotel receptionist, after I'd asked for my room key by giving the room number in Polish instead of English). Actually, I've been using Polish words and phrases as much as I can here (it makes me seem less clueless), and earlier in this trip I'd done the same using my even more limited knowledge of the Slovak language while I was in Slovakia. Luckily, the two languages are similar enough that when I couldn't think of the Slovak word for something, the Polish equivalent was usually close enough. But the people I'm talking to can tell the difference, and sometimes I'll forget and start mixing the two languages in the same phrase. While in Bratislava earlier in the trip, I had responded to a question in what I thought was Slovak. The translator laughed and told me I was speaking Slovak with a Polish accent!
I may be giving the impression that language was a continuing problem during
the trip, but actually it was fairly easy enough to get along when I was alone,
surviving on English. In fact, English-language words are rapidly invading the
Eastern European cultures -- any signs and storefronts often use English-language
words, such as "stop", "hot-dog", "computer", "druggist", and, inevitably, "sale".
It's just another indication of the large number of English-speakers in the
region. There are also some English-language phrases in use here we don't
use in North America, a prime example being "non-stop", which seems to be the
preferred way of saying "open 24 hours". Examples of its use include "Non-Stop
Snack Bar", "Non-Stop Gasoline" (I'd like to operate a car using that stuff!) and,
most amusing of all, "Non-Stop Parking".
It's too bad I didn't have time to visit Kraków, because it's a beautiful
city -- in some ways similar to Prague, but on a smaller scale. Centuries ago,
it was the capital of Poland; parts of the city date back to the twelfth century,
if not further. The major feature of the city is the wonderful castle on the
hill, but there are also no less than three large cathedrals situated on the
largest old town square in Europe. At the beginning of every hour, night and
day, a lone trumpeter plays a "call-to-arms" theme from the top tower of St.
Mary's, the largest of these churches. When I first listened to this theme, I
was surprised that it ended in mid-note; the reason is that the theme dates back
to the invasion of the Tatars in the 1200s -- the theme is actually a
call-to-arms for the Polish defenders, and the trumpeter was silenced, in
mid-note, by a Tatar arrow through his throat. I've been to Kraków twice
before. The first time, in 1992, was before economic resurgence had taken hold;
after dark, the city itself seemed to go to sleep, and you could hear the
trumpeter from blocks away. The very next year, however, there were enough new
restaurants with music and nightlife that it was difficult to hear the theme
from right in front of the cathedral. One other thing I remember about 1992
Kraków was the "crazy boys". These were young men who had just completed
their required Army service; they celebrated by parading around in groups,
wearing brightly colored capes, and singing loudly until well into the night.
In 1993 there was no sign of them. Poland had changed.
Thursday night, November 6, 1997
This will be the last "entry" in my diary. It'll be a bit longer than a postcard but I'll be hand-delivering it tomorrow. I'm on the overnight train from Warsaw to Prague, and tomorrow morning I catch the ground shuttle out to the airport for the flight home. It has been an epic adventure, one that seemed like it might never come to an end. I've come away with many lasting images -- the magnificent view from the mountaintop in Slovakia we had just conquered in our business suits; the dixieland jazz band on the Charles Bridge in Prague (I bought their CD); the struggling young restauranteur in Budapest whose cafe was a great place for dinner but who was discouraged by the loss of business to two new places that had opened up not far away: McDonald's and Burger King. Perhaps the single most unforgettable moment of the entire trip happened earlier today. I was walking back toward my hotel from the very last business meeting of the trip when I was accosted by an older Polish man who was looking for some directions. After about 30 seconds of him pointing this way and that, and talking to me rapidly in Polish, it dawned on him that I was silently standing there with a blank look on my face. He looked at me expectantly, and I seized the opportunity to point to myself and say, "Amerykanka." A great look of amusement came across his face: "Amerykanka?" I nodded and replied, "Amerykanka!" then slowly, "Wash-shing-ton-dee-see." And with a great look of delight he yanked out his wallet, slipped a photograph of a young woman from it and pointed to it, saying "Air-ling-town-vair-gene-ee-yah." Apparently his daughter had come to America and was living right across the Potomac from where I worked. You know, looking at the map, I see that there are about 5000 miles that separate Eastern Europe from Washington, D.C. But in reality, they're a lot closer than that.
|Russia (summer 1994)
Eastern Europe (autumn 1998)
Eastern Europe (autumn 1999)
Eastern Europe (spring 2001)
|Eastern Europe (spring 1998)
Eastern Europe (spring 1999)
Eastern Europe (spring 2000)
Eastern Europe (spring 2002)