A(nother) Postcard Diary of Eastern Europe
by Richard Lynch

A Note of Explanation:

Readers are referred to a previous trip report from October-November 1997, titled "A Postcard Diary of Eastern Europe." That previous four-week trip to Eastern Europe was the longest business trip I've ever had. (I do trade promotion work in support of small business.) What predicated that trip report was a change in travel rules by some government bean counter that made 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 that 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, but most every day I was able to find one or two things interesting enough to build a mini-essay around.

In March-April of 1998, I returned to Eastern Europe, and once again the cost barrier against telephoning home encouraged me to put together another Postcard Diary. After reading through the assembled collection of cards, I've once again 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. And once again, I hope you enjoy reading about it as much as I enjoyed being there.
RWL  (April 1998)

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Bratislava Castle Monday, March 30, 1998 [1st of 2 cards]
I arrived Bratislava today in good shape, but not without some misadventures. Not five minutes after the taxi dropped me off at Washington Dulles airport, I found that my transatlantic flight had been delayed by nine hours! Luckily, there was an Air France flight available, so I made it to Vienna (where my Slovakian hosts were waiting for me) only one hour late, via Paris instead of Zurich. Bratislava looks much the much the same as it did five months ago, except that there's even more reconstruction in the old town sector. One consequence of that was the re-routing of some of the tram lines, which caused me to do something I've never done here before -- get myself lost. But that's a story for another time....

I should mention here a little-known attribute about me -- I seem to be a magnet for people seeking directions. It happens once every day or so, no matter where I am -- somebody will come up to me wanting me to help him (or her) get un-lost. Usually I can help (I must have a good sense of Where Things Are), so it's annoying when I'm the one requiring some assistance. So when the (unbeknownst-to-me) rerouted Tram #12 took me to an unfamiliar part of the city, there was no recourse but to seek some help. The problem was, however, that I don't speak or understand Slovak! It took a bit of determined walking and a good guess or two to finally get back to terra cognita.

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Monday, March 30, 1998 [2nd of 2 cards]
It's nice to be staying at a more upscale hotel this visit to Slovakia. Usually I'm at a small, quiet but somewhat spartan place that offers clean accommodations, but no English-language television channels. This time I'm in one of the more swankier hotels in Bratislava -- the Holiday Inn. Apparently others seem to think so too -- last night the hotel was taken over by dozens of Japanese school girls (all dressed alike in their school uniforms) and their chaperones. As you might expect, they were all very quiet and unassuming -- except when you had to compete against them at the breakfast buffet in the hotel restaurant!

There were four, count 'em, four English-language TV channels to choose from -- the CNN and SkyNews news channels, Eurosport, and a time share of Turner's Cartoon Network and TNT channels. My first night in Slovakia, while I was lagged and couldn't sleep, I watched the movie Gettysburg, all four hours of it, straight through. I was hoping to find the NCAA basketball tournament finals on Eurosport, but no such luck. Instead, there's stuff like martial arts tournaments, Grand prix auto racing, and European football highlights. The only North American sporting activity they covered was a Canadian dog sled race. Maybe that says soemthing about their perception of what we North Americans are really interested in.

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Zvolen Castle Tuesday, March 31, 1998
This was the first day of a two-day field trip from Bratislava. Tonight I'm in Zvolen, a small city in the central part of Slovakia. It was actually a relatively light day today, and this afternoon there was some free time to explore the marvelous castle here. It's very picturesque, and inside there is a history museum and a branch of the Slovak National Art Gallery. The entire castle is very well preserved -- it's hard to believe it was constructed in the 14th century.

The Slovak national Gallery turned out to be an eclectic mix of eras and styles, from Northern Renaissance painters of the 16th century to Slovak artists from the 1960s. All of it was interesting, though after about 45 minutes I confess I started to get sensory overload. The last gallery was the most different. In it were some 3-D works in a very utilitarian style by a Slovak designer: dinnerware, plates, flatware, cooking utensils -- things you might expect to see in a moderately upscale department store. As I left the Gallery, I had to wonder -- was it a case of art imitating life? Or life imitating art?

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Low Tatra Mountains of Slovakia Wednesday, April 1, 1998
It's April Fools Day, and I found out it's as popular here in Europe as it is in North America. There was a radio newscast, I was told, that mentioned Slovakia's pending acceptance into NATO and the European Union. Both false, of course, but it apparently got many people excited before they remembered what day it was. Tonight I'm at the Hotel Partizan in the Low Tatra mountains. Behind the hotel is a one-lane mountain road that climbs up and up and up, past the snow line to where there are supposedly some scenic views. We spent over two hours walking that road in search of those views, but all we found was a small herd of deer and one intrepid frog. Maybe the April Fools joke was on us!

The last snowball of the season happened about 5:30pm on April Fools Day, when I found a small patch on the ground near the road where there was some shade. I had brought a heavy overcoat along with me, expecting some cold weather, but it was so springlike everywhere I went I hardly ever needed it -- a big contrast to my first visit to Slovakia, in March 1995, when I saw snow in one form or another every single day of the trip. Back at Washington Dulles airport the day I left, people had given me strange looks when they saw me wearing that heavy overcoat in almost summer-like weather, as if I were mad. Perhaps they were right!

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St. Martin's Church Thursday, April 2, 1998
I'm back in Bratislava after a fairly productive two-day field trip. However, the car ride back to town was a bit exciting. The rules of the road here in Eastern Europe are a bit loose. If you want to pass a car on a two-lane road, you just go ahead and do it, no matter if another car is coming the other way. Both the oncoming car and the one being passed are supposed to move away from the center line, giving you enough room if you need it. It does actually work that way, but near misses were close enough to make my hair stand on end. I can't wait to get back home to some predictable and safe highways -- the Washington Beltway, for instance...

The other harrowing part of the day was trying to buy a passenger train ticket for my trip to Budapest on Saturday. (I think I made the sales agent's hair stand on end, the way I butchered the Slovak language trying to make clear what I wanted.) The price was cheap -- only $12 for a round-trip ticket (which I mistakenly bought; I'm taking that as a sign that I should come back here again soon).

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Friday, April 3, 1998
It's my last night in Slovakia, so some of the guys at the Power Research Institute (where I'm visiting) decided to send me off in style by taking me out drinking. We called it quits a little early, but not before we went through eight different pubs, seven different brands of beer (all of them pretty good), four pizzas, three bags of peanuts, two taxi rides, and part of a Slovakia League hockey playoff game (don't ask!). As we were heading out for our Big Night, someone asked which pubs we were going to. Our answer: "All of them!" I think we nearly succeeded...

Even though I didn't quite make it to all of the pubs in Bratislava, I did learn that pizza is fast becoming one of the most popular pub foods there. Almost everyplace we went had pizza on the menu, and it seems to be fast replacing more "traditional" Slovak food. In case you're wondering, "traditional" Slovak food is typically not unlike what you'd find in a German restaurant, with a few exceptions (I still haven't worked up the nerve to order a glass of sour milk to go with my sheep cheese-filled perogies). Even the pizza is a bit unusual -- available toppings include corn and egg (but a bacon, egg, and corn topped pizza is actually pretty good). My general aversion to hot & spicy food made me reluctant to try one of the pizzas we bought, which supposedly had some kind of hot sauce in the topping. But after first taking a nibble, then a taste, then devouring a whole slice, I found there wasn't anything on it that would make me reach for the cold beer. I'm guessing that the country may not be quite ready for Szechuan or Tex-Mex yet...

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Saturday, April 4, 1998 [1st of 2 cards]
The train to Budapest was routine, if not a little disappointing. I'd deliberately bought a second-class ticket, hoping to talk with some other passengers on the way (the last time I took the train to Budapest I was the only person in the first-class car), but nobody wanted to try out their English on me. There may have been a reason, however -- the U.S.-Hungary flag pin I had put on my suit coat lapel to attract attention was actually a U.S.-Bulgaria pin. The Hungarians on the train probably didn't feel they had anything in common with a Bulgarian... or a dunce!

Hungarian Parliament buildingApart from the solitude, the train ride from Bratislava to Budapest was very serene, and there was much to look at -- some scenic Danube River vistas including an impressive castle on a high bluff overlooking the river at Nagymaros. Getting from the train station to the hotel is always part of the trip prone to misadventures for me, but I surprised myself by accomplishing it in just 15 minutes at a cost of only 35 cents. And so here was Budapest once again -- unlike Bratislava, it didn't show any visible changes from last year. But it didn't need to -- why make changes in a city of spectacular buildings, fine food, and great music?

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Royal Palace & Chain Bridge Saturday, April 4, 1998 [2nd of 2 cards]
Earlier today, I'd realized that in the week since I'd left home, I still hadn't been to a concert -- the closest thing was the string quartet in the lobby of the Budapest Marriott that was playing music from some of the MGM movie musicals. The hotel infochannel didn't list anything for today, but I went out to the Liszt Academy of Music anyway just for the heck of it. Turns out there was a concert of sorts there, which included some familiar and popular pieces such as Rossini's overture from "The Thieving Magpie," Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Flight of the Bumblebee," and portions of the final movement of Dvorák's "New World" symphony. The music, what there was of it, was well-performed. But the "conductor," if you could call him that, was actually a popular Hungarian actor/singer/comedian named János Koós, who relentlessly upstaged the musical performance with his stand-up routine. What I'd hoped to be a fine evening of music turned into a Victor Borge act -- disappointing, because I'd have had to be fluent in Hungarian to appreciate any of it. It was as powerful a demonstration as I've ever seen that while comedy is regional, music is universal.

Koós actually was a fine singer, and did an operatic tenor piece that perhaps wasn't of the caliber of a Pavarotti, but was still pretty damn good. And while the lady at the ticket sales area later told me he had never conducted an orchestra before, he sure looked competent to me. He was, at times, very entertaining, but too often stooped to lowbrow comedy, like conducting "The Flight of the Bumblebee" with a flyswatter, which wore thin rather quickly. The whole event was being recorded for later television broadcast -- there were TV cameras everywhere, and also plenty of bright, hot lights. It all became too much, and after about an hour of it, I found myself doing something unthinkable -- I walked out of an orchestral performance.

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Sunday, April 5, 1998
This was my last free day of the trip, but the only significant thing I did was to take in another concert at the Academy of Music this evening. This one was much better, a program featuring French composers, including a pleasant cello concerto by Saint-Saëns. Seated next to me were a couple from Norway, in Budapest on a mixed business/pleasure trip. It was interesting to contemplate the internationality of the situation -- an American and two Norwegians enjoying a concert of French music in Hungary. It wasn't unlike a typical worldcon.

People have started asking me why I suddenly have such an avid interest in classical music. Actually, the truth is I have an interest in good music of almost all types. My father was a professional musician for a time (though he never quit his day job). When I was very young I remember he often was away evenings, playing drums in a dance band. Perhaps because of this, I took up music in grade school through high school; I was told at one point I was a talented horn player, good enough that I could possibly have gone on to a career as a professional musician. It was not for me, though -- my interests lay in other areas, like the sciences. It started to become an effort to practice, and eventually the instrument became my enemy. I had to stop. Looking back from three decades later, it's easy to play the "what if" game. But there's no telling on how things might have turned out if I'd chosen music over science. Certainly, I wouldn't be at a concert hall in Budapest in April 1998. But on the other hand... who knows? Maybe I would!

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Monday, April 6, 1998
I always seem to be writing about music when I'm in Budapest. Today is my last full day here, and it was indeed a full one. After business was finally out of the way, I paid one last visit to the Academy of Music, this time for a solo recital by an extremely talented young pianist, Dénes Várjon. He played a selection of Beethoven, Kodály, and Bartók, including Beethoven's wonderful "Appassionata" and "Les Adieux" sonatas. The music looked hideously difficult and it was interesting to watch his intensity as he played -- at times it seemed he became one with the music. It was truly an extraordinary performance, even more so when you consider there was not a page of sheet music anywhere in the concert hall -- he played the entire recital from memory.

I see that I haven't mentioned anything yet about the Academy of Music itself. Just as the name implies, it is a higher education center -- Dénes Várjon's bio, for instance, indicates he's an assistant professor there. The concert hall is not a large one, seating probably just under a thousand, but it's a splendid place for an evening of music. The stage is dominated by a huge pipe organ, functional no doubt, though it doesn't seem to be used very often. The high ceiling is intricately painted, and provides wonderful acoustics -- sitting in the first row of the balcony I could even at times hear the impact of the hammers on the strings, sounding like a heavy rain on the roof during a storm. My business trip to Budapest wasn't exactly an unqualified success, and so as I left the concert hall at the end of the performance, I had to wonder if I would ever be back there again. I'd like to think that I will...

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Prague Castle Tuesday, April 7, 1998
"You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike..." And all of them have restaurants! Zork references not withstanding, it was good to be back in Prague's old town again. No musical event for me tonight -- by the time I had changed some money into Czech Korunas, I had to make a quick decision on what I wanted to do, so I chose dinner instead. The place I went to was in one of those twisty little streets near the Charles Bridge. Great food at a very reasonable cost, but no sign of any relics of the Great Underground Empire.

Our Lady of Tyn churchIt was pretty much a case of trying to cram too much into a single day -- three meetings in various places in Budapest, an early afternoon flight to the Czech Republic, then two late afternoon meetings after I'd arrived in Prague. By the time I had a chance to look around a bit, I'd run out of daylight. But the city seems to be at its best in early evening, just before the sky turns completely dark. The view from the old town square of the dual spires of the Church of Our Lady of Tyn, one of Prague's most recognizable sights, is almost magical then -- more ethereal than a matte painting for a science fiction movie. So has the city changed any lately? Damn if I know -- I certainly didn't notice any changes, save for some new hotels being constructed at Republic Square. But Prague isn't a city where you'd want to see much change. It's nearly perfect just the way it is.

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Wednesday, April 8, 1998
It was a good day today, with some very productive meetings, so I decided to treat myself to two concerts tonight. The first, in the late afternoon, featured performances of string quartets of the Czech composers Smetana and Dvorák, by (as you might expect) a string quartet. It was a nice warmup to the evening chamber orchestra event, which featured some more recognizable works: Dvorák's Serenade for Strings, Mozart's 5th Violin Concerto & 40th Symphony, and a Strauss polka as an encore. In between, I had just about enough time for dinner, and I wound up at a place that had the combined motif of the Wild West, a brass band, and Ancient Rome. It was kind of weird how it all fit together, but at least the food was good.

Astronomical ClockThere are quite a lot of restaurants in Prague, almost all of them small and looking for the tourist dollar (or mark, pound, franc, shilling...). The number of tourists have increased tremendously since my first visit to Prague in 1990. It's gotten so congested that at certain times of day the most popular places in the city, like in the old town square in front of the famous Astronomical Clock, are now shoulder-to-shoulder. One of the reasons the city has become very tourist friendly is that Prague is an easy city to get around in, and perhaps the best way to do that is with the city's subway system (which seems to be the only "gift" of the communist era anyone is thankful for). It goes almost everywhere, and it's easy to use... once you get past buying a ticket from the self-service machines. I thought it would be simple -- just push the button for the type of pass you wanted, feed in the coins and wait for the ticket to pop out. But when I tried it, I couldn't get the machine accept the coins; they wouldn't go in the slot. So I had to wait, loitering near the machine and trying to act nonchalant, hoping someone would come and buy a ticket so I could see how it was done. Finally, a young lady on the way home from school showed me how it worked -- you had to also push a second button to finalize the selection before the machine would accept any money. I'm glad nobody asked me what I did for a living -- I would have been embarrassed to admit I was a trained engineer!

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Thursday, April 9, 1998
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 located a friend here in Prague today, someone I hadn't seen since my 1990 visit to Prague, which was also my first-ever trip outside North America. He's a professor at the Czech Technical University; I had first met him in 1986 (when I was still working for the Tennessee Valley Authority), on his first trip outside Europe (we were both working in the same area of technology then). Back in 1990, Prague was a different city -- still filled with exuberance from the "Velvet Revolution" nine months earlier that had ended the long night of communism, but not yet settled down to where any real work was underway to improve the country's economy and infrastructure. Over dinner, my friend Stan and I compared our first transatlantic trips -- mine certainly changed the way I perceive the international community, and showed me that traveling in non-English speaking lands would not present any insurmountable barriers. Stan went even further than that -- he said his trip to North America had actually changed his life. When I asked him how, he replied that all the contacts with fellow scientists and engineers he made allowed him, in effect, to join the international academic community, something that had never really been possible before then due to travel and communications restrictions. But there was more -- the trip opened his eyes to the outside world, and he discovered that almost all the preconceptions about the western world drummed into his head by the communists were wrong. It was truly a different world for him after that. But as I walked back to my hotel I realized that in the past decade a lot has happened to me as well as Stan. It took me 40 years to make that first transatlantic trip, but since then I've been back to Eastern Europe every year. This trip in particular has been a good one -- much of interest has happened from the cultural and personal as well as professional viewpoints. I think I ought to come back here again.

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Check out Richard's other travel adventures:
Russia (summer 1994)
Eastern Europe (autumn 1998)
Eastern Europe (autumn 1999)
Eastern Europe (spring 2001)
Eastern Europe (autumn 1997)
Eastern Europe (spring 1999)
Eastern Europe (spring 2000)
Eastern Europe (spring 2002)