From the Balkans to the Baltics,
A (Fourth) Postcard Diary of Eastern Europe
by Richard Lynch

A Note of Explanation:

This is the fourth in a continuing series of my (highly unofficial) trip reports. For those who came in late, I work for an Agency of the U.S. Government; part of my job is international trade promotion-related activities in support of small business. My job takes me to Eastern Europe once in a while, but arcane Government rules and regulations about travel expenses only allow me reimbursement for about two minutes international long distance time per week. It costs way too much to call North America from Europe, especially from hotels, and I just couldn't afford the cost of all those daily phone calls. Instead, I decided to send out a postcard every day, one that was 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 once again there was the challenge: be interesting, be entertaining, and above all, be brief! Talk about pressure! Most every day I was able to find one or two things interesting enough to build a mini-essay around, even if on many evenings, after a long day, composing an essay wasn't something that I much looked forward to.

After reading through this new assembled collection of cards, I've once again added some comments 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 my adventures and misadventures as much as I enjoyed being there.

RWL  (July 1999)
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Monday, May 17, 1999 (Sofia, Bulgaria)
There's an old saying that goes, "Be careful what you wish for, you might get it." I generally like my business trips to start out reasonably memorable, and this one did, for sure -- Lufthansa did a very thorough job of losing my luggage. It's as if it had never existed at all. I arrived here in Sofia yesterday afternoon with my briefcase and the clothes on my back, that's all. This morning I was able to find a money changer so I could buy some essentials, and with any luck, my bags will reappear this evening. If they don't show up at all, it will be a long and smelly trip without them!

It turned out that I was way too hopeful -- the luggage didn't reappear until Tuesday night. There were three bags that were missing -- a suitcase filled with giveaway books for the business meetings, a backpack carefully packed with bottles of maple syrup (more giveaways, needed one week later for my Slovak hosts), and my canvas suitcase with all my clothes. Way too much for one person (me) to handle, but there you are. I swear at the end of each long business trip that I'll never, never, NEVER pack so much again and that I'll never, ever be on the road again for as long as I was. But to no avail. This trip took me to four other countries besides Bulgaria and lasted a full month -- almost a week longer than my previous marathon record holder, just six months earlier.

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Tuesday, May 18, 1999 (Sofia)
A day trip today took me outside Sofia, across the picturesque Balkan Mountains to two small towns about an hour's drive away where there turned out to be some business opportunities I can promote when I get back to Washington. On the way back to the hotel at the end of the day, I passed by the U.S. Embassy where there was a small, peaceful demonstration in progress against the NATO bombing of Serbia -- about a dozen people standing around chanting, "NO BOMB! NO BOMB!" (I thought about taking a photo of them, but decided it was probably a bad idea.) The whole thing reminded me of the anti-war rallies of the late `60s and early `70s -- it kind of made me feel young again, actually!

The Balkan Mountains are not at all unlike the Blue Ridge of Tennessee and North Carolina in appearance. They're also the geological feature that gives that part of Europe its name. Sofia is just 50 kilometers from Bulgaria's border with Serbia, and maybe another 100 kilometers from all the nastiness that was going on in Kosovo. It was as close to a war zone as I'd ever been, but there was really no threat. I'd told people I was more worried about the ubiquitous Eastern Europe mafia than being caught up in the overflow from a shooting war. Anyway, there was no sign of any ill feelings toward me, personally, that I noticed -- just the opposite, wherever I went, the people I met were genuinely happy that I'd come to visit. Shows that the simple economics of business has it over political posturing every time.

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authors names test Wednesday, May 19, 1999 (Sofia)
I got to see quite a bit of Sofia today, mostly on foot. There were a lot of meetings today, including one at the local district heating plant. By the end of the day, I'd gotten to know my way around the city well enough that I don't think I can get lost anymore. I am still getting 'lost' with the language here, though, especially the Cyrillic alphabet, which makes learning any new words all that much more difficult, but the people here are friendly and understanding of us ignorant westerners.

It takes some time to figure out the Cyrillic alphabet; some of the characters are taken from the Greek alphabet, which helps. Even though the written language looks a bit intimidating, many of the words, when spoken, sound very similar to their Polish and Slovak counterparts. Ergo, I know how to count to 1,000 in Bulgarian. When I got back to the hotel, I decided to ask for my room key in Bulgarian, which produced the first surreal moment of the trip (other than losing my luggage, that is) -- the hotel receptionist told me, brightly, "You speak Bulgarian well!"

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Thursday, May 20, 1999 (Sofia)
It's been one of those days when I can't think of a single thing to write about. Nothing amusing or surreal or even very far out of the ordinary happened (at least, by Bulgarian standards). That's one of the problems with a tightly-programmed business trip there's no real time to check out or even admire the scenic wonders when you happen across them. (However, no one seems ready to accuse me of working too hard!) Maybe I need to start having my business meetings in castles and old cathedrals!

Nevsky CathedralWell, I didn't find any castles, but there are some amazing cathedrals in Sofia, the most impressive being the Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevski, which was just a short walk from the hotel where I stayed. The plaza and small parkland surrounding the cathedral has been taken over during the daytime by a legion of arts & crafts and souvenir sellers. I'd seen that sort of thing in many other places, but this one was different -- it was the most organized sidewalk bazaar I'd ever seen! All the textile sellers were grouped together along one side street, while people selling paintings of religious icons were a short distance away, around the corner. A bit farther along were the sellers of drawings and watercolors of some of Sofia's landmarks such as the Nevski Cathedral (I bought one of those), and last but not least, there were the bric-a-brac and tchotcka sellers where you could find small souvenirs and other miscellaneous stuff. It was much more than just a souvenir and crafts flea market -- it was almost the equivalent of a department store!

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Friday night, May 21, 1999 (Sofia)
I decided to "eat in" tonight. It gets kind of lonely when you're out on the road for an extended time, and it seems all that much worse when you go to a restaurant all by yourself. Instead, almost on the spur of the moment, I walked into a small corner grocery store and a few moments later I came away with a large bottle of Coca-Cola, a box of sandwich creme cookies, and a freshly-baked loaf of bread (do I eat well, or what?). Total expense was about 3,000 Bulgarian lev -- not quite two dollars American. (The loaf of bread cost only 300 lev, or about 17 cents.) I think I could get used to this!

In case you're wondering, the rather elevated exchange rate of over 1,800 lev to the dollar was the result of several years of out-of-control inflation. The worst year was only about two years ago, when the annual rate of inflation was just under 1,000 percent. It was so bad, one of my Bulgarian hosts told me, that if you ordered a cup of coffee at a sidewalk café, the cost rose slightly between the time you ordered it and the time the bill was presented. So everybody got in the habit of paying for their restaurant meals at the time they ordered! I cannot fathom how hard it must have been to make a living then, when your pay check threatened to become, in effect, waste paper before you could cash it. But the answer was fairly straightforward -- everybody bought dollars and deutschmarks just as fast as they could get to the money changers. (Some of them just spent it as fast as they could.) Things are much better now. About two years ago, control of the money supply was put in the hands of a currency board and the value of the lev was pegged to the deutschmark. Inflation plummeted, to less than five percent in just one year -- a remarkable turnaround. Now, instead of being a place to avoid like the plague, Bulgaria has become a fertile ground for people looking to find investment opportunities. Someone like me, for instance...

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Saturday night, May 22, 1999 (Sofia)
Today was a day of "almost-too-lates." With just one day to go before I leave Bulgaria, I finally got to sample some of the beers here. As I expected, they're similar to the Czech Pilsner type of beer, and they're all pretty good. Almost too late, I also found a public access internet provider in the city -- an amazingly fast connection, too, much better than the hotel business center that costs a lot more. And finally, almost too late, I discovered where the concert hall was, and so was able to attend my first music event of the trip, a free piano recital by one of the statue of Saints Cyril and Methodius students at a local music and arts college. The ironic part is, I had been looking in various parts of the city I thought likely places for a concert hall only to discover it was right around the corner from my hotel!

Actually, I'm guessing there must be other concert halls in Sofia besides that one -- it was pretty small (only seating about 200) and there's no way an ensemble larger than a chamber music group could fit on the stage. When I go back to Bulgaria again, and I will, I'll bring with me a greater understanding of both the layout of the city and the Bulgarian language. So what did I take away with me when I left Bulgaria? Mostly a sense that I'd found a place in the midst of rapid change for the better, a place where the kind of work I do is needed. But there was more than just that. The people are very friendly, the food and beer is delicious, the architecture is amazing, and the language is a bit intimidating, at least at first. But once you get used to the Cyrillic alphabet, even that starts to make sense. I surprised myself at the recital by being able to read and completely understand the one-page program sheet for the evening, which was printed in Bulgarian. Maybe there's hope for me yet!

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Sunday night, May 23, 1999 (Bratislava, Slovakia)
It was a travel day today, with an early afternoon flight from Sofia to Vienna, where I was met by my Slovak hosts and taken to Bratislava, which isn't very far from the Vienna airport at all. When I boarded the airplane, though, I realized this flight was going to be unlike any other of the dozens and dozens of airplane trips I'd ever taken -- someone at our in-house travel agency had made an error and had booked me into first class! I'd never, ever flown first class before, and boy, is there a world of difference! The seats are more comfortable, the food is better, and the flight attendants practically drape themselves over you making sure you have enough wine to drink. I've been on flights I thought would never end, but this was one flight I never wanted to end! It's going to be hard going back to sardine class after this...

building in Old Town Square And my first even in Bratislava wasn't too shabby either. After changing some money into Slovak koruna, I found a nice sidewalk restaurant in the old part of the city, and fortified with dinner and beer, sat back and watched the world go by for about an hour or so. It turned out there were plenty of restaurants open in Bratislava's old town, many of them in places where, a few years ago, there weren't even places. Even in the past six months since my previous trip, Bratislava has shown some noticeable change, as more and more of the old town comes back to life and places of business such as restaurants move in. And it will get better yet. Some of the buildings in the old town square will be breathtakingly wonderful once their re-habs are complete. Bratislava is a great city to visit, and I don't think I will ever get tired of going there.

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Monday night, May 24, 1999 (Bratislava)
My first working day in Slovakia for this trip was a busy one, scheduling meetings on the fly, and only then realizing there was just enough time to get to them. It was on the way back from the last of them that I happened across a poster advertising a piano recital this evening. It turned out to be another free event, again featuring a student at the local music and arts college. He gave a very competent program, which featured some relatively obscure works by Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin, but the real star of the evening was the concert hall itself. It was a tiny place, seating only about 200, but it was a dazzling chamber of white and gold, with real gold leaf used liberally throughout. For me, it was definitely a case of the venue upstaging the performance!

I guess I should mention who the pianist was -- a young Slovak named Dusan Sujan, who played the whole event (except the last piece) completely from memory. He was very good, and I'll be looking for him a few years from now to show up as a featured soloist on tour. Anyway, I can understand why he decided not to commit the last piece to memory; it was an intimidating modernist piano sonata (can't remember the composer) that was not at all melodic and contained passages where all ten fingers seemed to work at warp speed. At any rate, it all seemed to mesmerize the audience, because we didn't realize he'd reached the end until he stood up to take his bows!

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Dolny Kubin town square Tuesday night, May 25, 1999 (Dolný Kubín)
And so begins a three-day road trip. Tonight I'm in Dolný Kubín, a photogenic little town about three hours drive from Bratislava. It's part of the Orava region, in the north central part of the ountry. Not far from here, in fact, is Orava Castle, an imposing medieval fortress on a hill, guarding the river access to the region. Dolný Kubín also dates back to the middle ages, though it's a relative youngster as medieval towns go. It was founded a mere 620 years ago -- a little more than 100 years before the first voyage of Columbus.

The day's only business meeting was at a glassworks factory, near the city of Puchov (their offices were in a kastiel, a manor house type of castle), and resulted in a relatively small business headquarters of Rona Glassworks opportunity (about $5 million) for sale and turnkey installation of an industrial-scale gas turbine to produce both steam and electricity that the company needs. The highlight of the day, though, was the tour of the facility -- it was fascinating to see how stemmed glasses, vases, and the like were produced both by automated production line and also the original way, by hand (I'd never seen so many glassblowers in one place before). I wish all my business meetings could be as entertaining as this one was!

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main town square in Zilina Wednesday night, May 26, 1999 (Zilina)
Day two of a three-day road trip, and tonight I'm in Zilina, a moderate-size city in northwestern Slovakia. What a difference a year makes! When I was here six months ago, I had trouble finding a decent restaurant for dinner. But now! There are sidewalk restaurants everywhere, including several in the old town square, which used to be mostly deserted after business hours. There's even an internet caf‚ here now, though I was told to "come back tomorrow" when I asked if I could use a computer to check my office email. Now that's a really slow online connection!

Unfortunately, one place Zilina's economic resurgence hasn't reached yet is the place where I stayed the night, the Hotel Slovakia. It's the largest hotel in the city, but to be honest, it's not very good. There was only two working lamps in the room, the television and telephone each must have been at least 25 years old, and there wasn't any air conditioning, which pretty much put you at the mercy of the local weather (and it was an unseasonably warm night that night). But worst of all was the price structure -- because I was a foreigner, they charged me double the rate that my Slovak hosts were paying. I understand that the European Union (which Slovakia wants membership into) is rather upset by this price discrimination (apparently it also applies to other foreigners besides us "rich" Americans) and wants to put a stop to it. Still, the room rate, for me, was only $40 a night, so maybe I got what I paid for?

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Diana and Vlado at Sulov Skaly Thursday night, May 27, 1999 (Bratislava)
I'm back in Bratislava tonight after three long, hot days on a road trip to the north central part of the country. The first business meeting of the day (in Zilina) ended early, so we had time to do some sightseeing. Diana, our translator, said she'd really like to see the nearby Sul'ov Skaly again (the Sul'ov rock formation; we'd been there a year and a half ago), and so our four-hour interlude between business meetings quickly turned into a mountain climbing expedition. Now, hiking up a steep 300 meter rise in elevation while dressed in your business suit may seem like a dumb stunt (and it is), but the view from the top (there's a natural bridge up there) and the freshness of the surrounding pine and beech forest made it worth all the sweat equity. I only hope our hosts in the later business meeting thought so too!

the natural bridge at Sulov Skaly One of the biggest difficulties I have on these long, extended business trips is to stay in touch with the outside world. I get virtually no budget for telephone calls back to the United States, but luckily I've found internet connections in almost every population center I've visited. Keeping up with the latest news of the world can also be a chore. In Bratislava it wasn't too bad, because English-language newspapers were available and the television system in the place where I stayed had CNN and SkyNews, once I figured out that you used the satellite receiver controls rather than change channels directly on the TV. Out on the road trip, though, it was a different story -- no English-language television at all. Instead, there was an eclectic mix of language and content that made you scratch your head and wonder what the reasoning was of the people who set it up. For instance, out in the wilds of north central Slovakia, perhaps a thousand kilometers from the Black Sea, here was a Bulgarian-language channel on the hotel TV cable system. There was also a French-language version of Eurosport (instead of the expected German-language one and the hoped-for English-language version), and several Slovak-language channels, one of them showing crudely-dubbed versions of old American shows like Miami Vice. And then there was what can only be described as the 'Full Frontal Nudity Channel', which was mostly a series of big-breasted babes lounging around on the beach or in a rural setting while a scroll at the bottom of the screen urged you to call telephone numbers in various countries ("International rates apply!") to talk to them "live." That's all it seemed to be though I admit it took me a couple of hours of intent viewing to be sure!

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Friday night, May 28, 1999 (Bratislava)
I think I'm starting to get a distorted sense of the passage of time. My days in Slovakia are rapidly drawing to a close, though it seems like just a few hours have passed since I was met at the airport by my Slovak hosts. There was one last business meeting earlier today, over in the city of Levice (an hour and a half drive from Bratislava). By the end of the day I had netted gifts of two more souvenir picture books as well as a bottle of Slovak wine. All this made me realize the awful truth -- no matter how many gifts of maple syrup and books I hand out to my hosts and at business meetings, my luggage is getting heavier, not lighter. At any rate, it's just about time for the traditional end-of-the-visit pub crawl my Slovak hosts plan for me every time I come to Bratislava. I'm pretty sure I'll be receiving some gifts during that as well, but at least they will be the kind I can immediately drink!

It turned out there were only four of us who went out on the night's adventure. One of the 'usuals' had a conflict, and Diana, our translator, begged off, based mostly on past experience I think (she's not all that much of a beer drinker). Still, it was a pretty entertaining evening. One of the group, Peter, said it usually took about three beers for him to become fluent in English. It did seem that we were all able to communicate better and better as the night went on, though our random mixture of Slovak and English must have been pretty funny to anyone who could hear us. After about six or seven pubs and about three liters of beer it was over. A respectable showing, but well short of a record performance I'm getting just too old for this sort of thing, I think...

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Saturday night, May 29, 1999 (Bratislava)
National Theater, Bratislava It's my last day in Slovakia, and I used most of it to walk around Bratislava one last time. It's election day here, but you'd never know it without being told -- during the day I could see no signs of any polling places or even campaigning, though I did happen across two weddings and an anti-NATO demonstration. The old town square was busy today -- there was a one-day festival to benefit Slovakia's handicapped children. Nearby, there was also a "Salvador Dali in Bratislava" exhibit that I almost got myself thrown out of. And this evening I decided to do something really different (at least for me) -- I went to the Ballet. It was a modernistic interpretation of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana and Verdi's Requiem (it all reminded me a bit of Fritz Lang's film, Metropolis). The poster outside the National Theater had mentioned that the music was being performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, but if my Slovak had been better I would have understood that they were using a CD recording, not the actual orchestra. I guess I wasn't really surprised, especially considering the ticket price I paid -- 150 Slovak koruna, or a little less than US$4. Importing a major symphony orchestra at those prices might have been just a little hard to do!

Salvador Dali in Bratislava I guess I should mention how I almost got tossed from the Dali exhibit. Most of the display consisted of small bronze sculptures exhibited in free-standing pedistal glass cases and a collection (around the walls of the room) of signed and numbered artist prints of various subjects (many of them more than a bit bizarre -- Dali was a greatly-talented artist, but also one strange character). There were exactly 100 of these prints, and I noticed that every single one of them was numbered "1/111." At first I couldn't believe it, so I removed my eyeglasses so I could check some of them at closer range to be sure. I was leaning over, inspecting one of them, my nose maybe ten centimeters from the frame, when I noticed I was blocking access from an older lady. I'm generally quite apologetic in such situations, so I quickly straightened up and took one step backward, turned away to move on... and my shoulder smacked hard into one of those free-standing glass cases. It came very close to toppling over -- it rocked once and wobbled quite a bit, but it remained standing. Two of the museum attendants, who had been passively seated nearby, nearly jumped out of their skins -- they leaped to their feet with looks of sheer horror on their faces. After everything had settled down, the had a brief, hushed conversation, then sat down again, but I noticed that my actions were being very closely observed the rest of the time I was there. After that, I don't think I'll be visiting any china shops any time soon!

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Sunday, May 30, 1999 (Katowice, Poland)
I'm back in Katowice, Poland, again, for a two-day stay. The train ride from Bratislava was a hot and sticky one -- this part of Europe is in the middle of a heat wave and the trains do not have air conditioning. When I travel by rail here in Eastern Europe, I make no secret where I'm from in hope that people will try out their English on me. It didn't work this time -- except for the last hour of the ride, I was the only one in the compartment, and when someone finally did appear, I ended up mostly trying out my limited Polish on him instead. At any rate, Katowice looks a lot livelier now than it did the last time I was here, back in early December. But the temperature difference of more than 40 centigrade degrees between then and now may have something to do with that!

my friend Piotr There was actually quite a bit of activity going on in Katowice that evening, especially over at the flying saucer-shaped sports arena, where the 1970s rock music group Jethro Tull was in town for a concert on their reunion tour. There were huge lines for that event, which tells you that the economy has improved to the point where there are sufficient disposable incomes available to support such concerts -- quite a change from the time of my first trip to Poland, seven years ago. I was met at the train station by my friend Piotr, who had a long ride of his own the next day -- a 14-hour auto trip to Frankfurt, Germany, for the annual PowerGen Europe conference and trade show. I'd have been interested in going to that one myself, but it would have further extended an already too-long trip. Not only that, it cost real money to attend PowerGen, and my trade promotion program just didn't have sufficient disposable income.

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Monday, May 31, 1999 (Katowice)
It's the end of a two-night stay in Katowice. Two business meetings here tomorrow, and then it's on to Warsaw tomorrow evening. I wandered around the city for a while late this afternoon, and couldn't really find much to do with myself. There's a symphony hall, but no concerts on Mondays. I'm a bit surprised that I couldn't find an internet café, but I suppose it's only a matter of time until one appears somewhere. Bratislava used to be this way, too, about four years ago, so I'm hoping the same kind of resurgence is also headed this way. It's kind of embarrassing to say that the most lively evening spot in the city appeared to be the central train station!

The day's two business meetings were actually the most interesting part of the day. One of them was hosted by a friend, Andrzej, whom I hadn't seen for about five years. He's now the President and Managing Director of one of Poland's leading engineering design companies. I first met him in the autumn of 1990 when he came to the United States with four other energy experts as part of a two-week "technology tour" sponsored by some U.S.-Poland science and technology fund; I had been asked to set up their itinerary and accompany them to all the places they'd be visiting. It was about a week into that trip, and we were all having breakfast at a small restaurant in Owensboro, Kentucky, when I idly mentioned, in the course of conversation, that I enjoyed reading and that one of my favorite authors was the science fiction writer, Robert A. Heinlein. It was all a ploy, of course, to see if any of them recognized the name or were also science fiction readers. Andrzej picked up on it immediately, and I was stunned to learn he was the president of the group of science fiction fans in the Katowice area. I'd had no clue up to then! That actually was a pretty memorable two weeks -- it was one of my first international- oriented activities at work (I decided I liked that kind of work a lot), and it got me interested in Eastern Europe as a place for doing business. They had brought with them many bottles of Polish vodka, which they handed out at business meetings ("...for medicinal purposes only!"), and in the evenings, they produced some shot glasses, and we stayed up late drinking our 'medicine'. I'm not sure I was any 'healthier' at the end of the trip, but I think if my immune system could handle that, it could handle just about anything!

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Tuesday night, June 1, 1999 (Warsaw)
I've reached the halfway point in this long trip. Bulgaria, Slovakia, and southern Poland have been filled with their share of sights and adventures; I can hardly imagine what lies ahead the rest of the way. Hopefully nothing quite as exciting as the automobile ride from Katowice to Warsaw this evening, in a Mercedes at speeds of up to 180 kilometers per hour. My Polish host is a really good driver. The speed was exhilarating and nothing really dangerous happened on the drive, though there were a few encounters with other traffic that seemed uncomfortably close to me. At times like those, I usually just start mentally reciting one of my travel mantra -- "Don't worry, the car has an air bag... Don't worry, the car has an air bag..."

One of the day's business meetings was in the town of Libiaz, about 25 kilometers east of Katowice and only about 12 kilometers north of the city of Oswiecim, more infamously known as Auschwitz. I didn't go there that day though I had previously, the second time I'd been to Poland, back in 1993. There was a lot of people there that day. The World War Two concentration camp at Auschwitz and the neighboring one at Birkenau have been carefully preserved, and many people are drawn there for whatever the reasons. It was not a pleasant experience for me. At the visitors center, there's a rather graphic film that provides background and overview. Inside, most of the site is still pretty much intact. The gas chambers are still there; when you enter them there's a description of how the mass killings occurred. The inmate living spaces more resembled a warren -- very confined to the point of claustrophobic; the catacombs of each building were even more horrific. When you enter the Auschwitz compound, you pass a gateway beneath the words, "Work will set you free." Being there, I remember, was a bone-chilling experience, and it's not a place I'd look forward to visiting again.

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Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw Wednesday, June 2, 1999 (Warsaw)
I was told by my Polish hosts to expect quite a few people at the one business meeting of the day today. When I got to the site of the meeting, I saw workmen busily assembling bleachers and crowd control barriers in the plaza outside the building. Just as I was starting to wonder, "Gosh, is all of this for me?!?" I remembered that Pope John Paul II is coming to Warsaw next week. I know my trade promotion initiative is starting to gather momentum, but I guess I'm not quite ready for motorcades and national television coverage!

my friend Malgorzata If I'd only known what would happen before the end of the trip, I wouldn't have been quite so whimsical in that last sentence. At any rate, the one meeting ended by early afternoon, which left plenty of time for the main sightseeing activity of the day, the Trip to the Top of the Tower. The ominous-looking Palace of Culture and Science, a 'gift' to the people of Poland by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, is the tallest building in Poland. The view from its 30th floor observation deck was pretty spectacular -- the entire city was laid out before my eyes and I could see how all the construction was giving it a new face. My friend Malgorzata, who lives in Warsaw, told me that the tower is not exactly well-loved -- from time to time there are proposals to tear the thing down, regardless of expense. And yet, because it's been there for decades, if it were gone, people would miss it. I know I would -- it's impossible to get lost in Warsaw with that thing on the skyline!

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Corpus Christi celebration, Warsaw Thursday, June 3, 1999 (Warsaw)
Today was a mostly welcome day off in the middle of this business trip -- it felt good not to have an intensive business meeting to prepare for. It's a major religious holiday (Corpus Christi), complete with a huge street procession into the old town. It was an eclectic event as religious processions go, including people dressed in traditional clothes/costumes, and even a military brass band and marching soldiers. Unfortunately, the holiday also meant that my hotel's business center was closed, so I had to scramble (without much success) to find Internet access so I could read my office E-mail. I guess I should have expected there'd be some problems to deal with today when I saw that all the money changers were closed!

As it turned out, some of the souvenir and jewelry shops reopened in the afternoon, so I was able to buy some of the amber jewelry I'd promised for people back in the United States who knew I was coming to Poland. The evening's event was a piano recital of music by the Polish composer Fredryk Chopin, though the performance seemed a bit ordinary. Actually, the most memorable event of the day was also a bit ordinary, at least its setting was. It happened in the hallway of the hotel outside my room. A group of Japanese tourists were trying to get into their rooms, and didn't realize the doors were double-locked -- you had to keep turning the key until the door opened. I showed them how to do it, and from the looks on their faces, you'd think I was a miracle worker. I'll take success stories any way I can get them!

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Friday, June 4, 1999 (Warsaw)
All the news channels today are doing retrospectives of the Tienamen Square crackdown by the Chinese government, which happened ten years ago today. But here in Poland there's another ten year anniversary being celebrated that seems to have gone mostly unnoticed outside the country. Today was the 10th anniversary of free elections here in Poland, the event that led to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. There was a huge street festival in the plaza in front of the Royal Castle in the old town this afternoon with the theme "10 Lat Wolnosc" ("10 Years of Freedom"). While I was there I watched a pretty decent hard rock band playing for a crowd of several thousand people. I normally have trouble deciphering the lyrics of loud rock music, but as it was all in Polish, at least this time I have a good excuse!

the amazing Polish Fiat Warsaw traffic seems to have gotten much worse in the past year. The streets have become nearly clogged with cars and, at times, pedestrians seem to be fair game. On the way to the Festival in old town, I was nearly run down by some maniac behind the wheel of one of those little Polish Fiats. You hardly ever see these cars outside the country (they're not street legal in the United States), but inside Poland they're the scourge of the streets. The Polish Fiat is probably the smallest car I've ever seen (it's about the length of a hotel bed, and it's powered by a two-cylinder engine -- you'd swear it was a toy car if you didn't know better) and they all seem to be piloted by the most aggressive drivers. I've never tried to get into one, but more than once I've seen them puttering along one of the highways, four grown men crammed inside. Every time I see one of these cars, it brings to mind an off-color limerick about the "Young Man from Boston" but I'll leave it to the reader to fill in the last four lines.

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Saturday, June 5, 1999 (Warsaw)
It's my last day in Poland for this trip. I mostly used it to see the city by foot, and one of the places I found was the Maria Sklodowska-Curie Museum just beyond the Barbekan Gate leading into the old town. The museum was a bit disappointing -- it was small, and featured just some period furniture and some displays about radioactivity and nuclear physics. There was hardly anything at all about Marie Curie herself. I never did find another musical event to go to, me, Magda and her dog Trekkie and this trip has been kind of a bust in that area so far only four events in the first three weeks. No real cultural events like city tours, either. Gosh, I wonder if people will believe me when I tell them there's not been that much time for such things -- I've been too busy working!

I always feel a bit unsettled the day before a travel day; it's almost as if part of me has already moved on to my next destination. It was pretty much like that on my last day in Poland, which kept me from thinking about much of anything except preparing for the next day's travel. One of Malgorzata's friends, Magda, had invited me to a party outside of Warsaw with a group of her friends, but I had to decline because I still had packing and a lot of other last-minute things to do that evening, and I was afraid I'd get back to the hotel too late to get them all finished. Instead, we had a pleasant walk around one of Warsaw's larger parklands, which had apparently been transformed from an old landfill. There are little restaurants here and there where you can stop on a hot day for a beer, and there's even a small lake that's very popular for sunbathing and swimming. This was something I could easily have missed; on the city map it's just a nondescript area. It's just another example that even though I've been to Warsaw many times, there's always new things to see and do. It's as if the city reinvents itself every time I go there.

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church in Vilnius Sunday, June 6, 1999 (Vilnius, Lithuania)
Based on one day's experience here in Lithuania, I can say that Vilnius is a city of marvelous churches -- many, many of them! I'm not sure if it's possible to get sensory overload from continuous exposure to beautiful architecture, but I think I came close! Vilnius has other things besides churches, of course. It's also a city of music. There are several music schools here, and during my walk through the city, at various places I heard the sounds of pianos, or violins, or combinations of other musical instruments, as students were diligently practicing on a Sunday afternoon. And besides all of this, there are the usual museums and monuments. The most interesting (to me) of the monuments had been erected to honor who some people in Lithuania apparently consider to be one of the millennium's most innovative composers. It wasn't Beethoven, nor Mozart, nor even Tchaikovsky -- instead, it immortalized that well-known musical genius...Frank Zappa! I can't wait to see what other wonders here I'll uncover...

Zappa monument in Vilnius Heaven only knows why and how Vilnius fell in love with Frank Zappa. The statue (actually a bust of Zappa atop a column) was erected at the end of 1995; it apparently had been intended to grace the courtyard of an art school, but some of the teachers objected and it was erected instead on the grounds of a clinic. Somehow I think Zappa would have approved. Of all the museums in the city, the two I visited were about as different as can possibly be. There's an amber museum in Vilnius that's filled with the golden stuff as well as some interesting exhibits on how it was formed millions of years ago and how it's presently 'harvested' and processed into jewelry. And there's also a building that's not really so much a museum as a place for remembrance -- it's the former KGB headquarters. The basement of the building is where the political prisoners were interrogated before being murdered or deported to Siberia. There were small holding cells where as many as twenty people at a time were packed in. The cells, bathroom/shower facilities (prisoners were allotted one shower per month), 'recreational' area (about the size of a small hotel room -- 15 minutes walking time per day) and the like reminded me of the World War Two concentration camp at Auschwitz -- the only thing missing was the gas chambers, but the KGB apparently thought a bullet in the back of the head was quicker and more efficient. More than 20,000 political prisoners went into that building (though many if not most had been brought in on just suspicion). Few came out free, and many didn't emerge at all (remains from some mass graves are still being identified). It all ended in 1991, when it became evident Lithuania would regain its independence. The building itself is not in all that good shape, but there's a dilemma on just how much refurbishing would be appropriate. Supposedly, there are rooms filled with KGB records that may provide information on many of the missing. It wasn't a pleasant experience to visit that place, but it was probably a necessary one it will allow me to better understand the country and its people, and their history. I was told that the real intention of the museum is to educate future generations about what really happened, so that those who grow up in a free Lithuania will know what it took to make it that way -- let no one forget. I know I won't.

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the wonderful castle at Trakai Monday night, June 7, 1999 (Vilnius)
It was a busy day today, and most of it was spent in the stunningly beautiful lake district of Lithuania, about an hour's drive to the southwest of Vilnius. There are dozens of lakes, all carved out by ice-age glaciers, ranging in size from small ponds to spacious bodies of water that are over 30 meters deep. On an island in the middle of one of the largest, at the city of Trakai, there is an impressive castle that dates back to the time of the Teutonic Knights. My host for the day was the General Director of a company where an energy investment deal involving a U.S. company is pending -- I'd previously discovered the opportunity when he had visited the United States last autumn. My previous meeting of the day had been over lunch, and so when I met up with my host, the first thing he wanted to do was...have lunch! When doing trade promotion, sometimes good business sense is not as important as a good appetite!

I should mention a little about the city of Alytus, which was where my host's company was located. Lithuania is a relatively small country, with a population of only about three million. Alytus, with about 70,000 people, is the sixth largest city. The roads on the way there take you through forests and around lakes, past such curiosities as "Napoleon's Hat" (a small hill that Napoleon supposedly had built during his foray through the region, in honor of his megalomaniac self -- or at least his megalomaniac self's hat). The city is bisected by the largest river in the country, the Nemunas (badly polluted, mostly from sources in Belarus, where the river originates), the oldest part of the city on one side and the centrum on the other. The centrum has a pleasant pedestrian mall that serves as the town square, and in the middle of a small park nearby, there's the statue of the 'Angel of Peace'. That statue is relatively new, erected in 1992 after Lithuania became independent. The previous occupant of the site was a statue of a Soviet soldier, in dedication to the Soviet military that "liberated" Lithuania from German control at the end of World War Two. There are a few other statues like that in Lithuania that may be a bit harder to get rid of -- they would require too much dynamite!

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Tuesday, June 8, 1999 (Vilnius)
I can see the end of this trip coming into sight. One more week, one more country, and then home. I had another long, hot day today, north to the city of Panevezys, and I didn't get back to Vilnius until very late in the afternoon. The most interesting moment of the day came when I arrived at the Mayor's office in Panevezys for the day's first meeting -- there was a photographer and reporter there from the local newspaper, and the reporter threw few softball questions for me to answer. I guess I'm happy that my trade promotion initiative is starting to get some visibility, but I'm not sure I'm ready to become a media star!

some Essential Lithuanian Oh, how little did I suspect what would happen in just a few days! At any rate, there were a lot of hot days during the trip. It was unseasonably hot for most of the month I was in Europe, which took a toll on my clean clothes -- shirts I had expected to get two days wear from had to go into the laundry after a single use. Previous to this, I don't think I'd ever had to have my clothes washed by a hotel I've stayed at, so I set a personal record by needing it done three times during the trip. The heat also apparently affects the wardrobe of young women in Lithuania -- the 'new look' seems to be a mostly-translucent blouse that allows you to see any undergarments (or in a couple of head-turning instances, the lack thereof). One other personal record for the trip involved the hotel where I stayed in Vilnius. It was a nice enough place, and even had free(!) internet access. But it was the most expensive hotel I'd ever stayed that didn't have air conditioning.

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the view from the West Tower, Vilnius Wednesday night, June 9, 1999 (Vilnius)
It was my last day in Lithuania today, so I tried to pack as much into it as I could. Besides the castle at Trakai, there's also one in Vilnius itself that's only slightly less impressive. It's high on a hill at the edge of the old town, and the view of the city from the top of the western tower is breathtaking, especially on a breezy day like today. This evening there was another in a continuing series of free piano recitals, this time by a young Lithuanian named Kasparas Uinskas, who played a program of Haydn, Chopin, and Beethoven (including my favorite piano sonata, the "Appassionata"). But that wasn't even my first free piano recital of the day. As I was walking through the city in the late afternoon, I heard music coming from an open second story window of a building near the Vilnius Town Hall -- somebody was practicing the first movement of another of Beethoven's piano sonatas, the "Moonlight." When it ended, I applauded from down below and was rewarded when a young woman leaned out and gave me a wave with a smile that brightened my day. Lithuania is an inexpensive country to visit, with lots of bargains to be found, but for me, this was perhaps the best bargain of all!

Old Town Vilnius There was a classical music festival ongoing in Vilnius during the time I was there, though my last night in town was really the only opportunity I had to take advantage of it. I learned about the piano recital almost too late; I'd earlier decided to pass on the event at the Philharmonic Hall (a night of Tango music), and I was almost back to my hotel before I saw a poster advertising the recital. As it was, I got there halfway through the first piece (the Haydn sonata), but I didn't miss any of the Beethoven. It was a hectic evening, but it was also a hectic three days in Lithuania, and I left a lot of shoe leather on the sidewalks getting from place to place. I think I surprised the U.S. Embassy's commercial specialist, Audrone, by my willingness to expend all that energy to see the city on foot, to walk up a flight of stairs instead of waiting for an elevator, etc. That's apparently the Lithuanian way, too, and Audrone told me I was different from every other American she'd ever met. I'm taking that as a compliment!

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Thursday night, June 10, 1999 (Tallinn, Estonia)
My first day in Estonia was spent mostly in fast forward. The flight from Vilnius arrived Tallinn mid-morning, and after that it was five meetings in five hours. The result was that after nearly a full day here, I still have no real feel or idea of what the city is like! I'm staying in a rather upscale hotel (for a change!), and from my room on the 20th floor I can see all the way to the Gulf of Finland. It's almost midnight, and the sky isn't fully dark yet. And it won't be -- Tallinn is so far north (it's the same latitude as Juneau, Alaska), that it never gets completely dark here this time of year...

There's a name for this event, of course; it's called a 'White Night'. I've actually experienced this before, back in 1991 on a mid-May business to Helsinki, Finland (which is even farther north than Tallinn). Then, as now, the northern horizon took on the appearance of half an hour after sunset and kept it throughout the night, until the sun rose again about four o'clock in the morning. From my hotel window, the northern horizon was actually Tallinn harbor, and you could see passenger ferries and cargo ships as they sailed out beyond where the ocean meets the sky. Many of them were probably headed for Helsinki, in fact, which is just a few hours by ferry from Tallinn. The cost to get there is 150 Estonian kroons -- about US$10. Helsinki is so close and so inexpensive to get there that you could almost consider Tallinn to be a suburb. Or maybe it's the other way around!

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my host David at the entrance to Tallinn Old Town Friday night, June 11, 1999 (Tallinn)
My stay in Estonia is pretty tightly programmed, thanks to my host David, who took me up on my request that "I wanted to stay busy." He even managed to obtain complimentary tickets to two musical events -- last night's symphony performance (which included the Rach3 piano concerto) and tonight's trip to the Opera to see Mozart's Don Giovanni. I'm embarrassed to admit that we didn't make it all the way through the performance. For me, at least, a little opera goes a long way, even if it's by Mozart. Not only that, the opera house became oppressively hot, up in the balcony, as the event progressed. We'll try again Sunday night at an outdoor theater, where we'll see Shakespeare's MacBeth -- performed in Estonian!

I was a bit overwhelmed by the opera, but I was overjoyed that I finally got to see a live symphony performance of Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. I'd been wanting to see this one for a long, long time, having missed it by one day in Prague my previous trip to Eastern Europe. That piece is kind of the holy grail for concert pianists -- some regard it as the most technically difficult piano composition in current repertoire (it was featured in the movie Shine, where David Helfgott was told that anyone who wanted to learn it must be insane). And yet, it's a thing of beauty, with a very powerful ending. The pianist was an extremely talented Estonian named Ralf Taal, who performed the piece from memory, as is custom for soloists. And he did it so effortlessly! I've seen videos of other performances of the Rach3, and it's very intense, as if it's almost a contest of wills between the pianist and the music. But not this time; you almost felt that he wasn't even being extended by the piece. It certainly extended my appreciation of the pianist, though!

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the Wish Pile at the Baltic Sea coast Saturday night, June 12, 1999 (Sagadi Möis)
Today was the start of the last road trip of this long business trip, a three day visit to northeastern Estonia, not too far from the Russian border. Tonight I'm staying in Sagadi Möis, at a manor house estate that's been converted into a state-owned hotel and forestry museum. Earlier, my host David had taken me to a national park along the coast of the Gulf of Finland, where there were houses with thatched roofs, a huge wooden swing that's better than any amusement park ride, and a pyramid of stones that's a 'wish pile' -- you tossed a stone onto the pile while making a wish, and it would come true if your stone landed near the top of the pile. Mine did, so I'm delighted to know that I'll be back here again someday.

two intrepid daredevils I'd seen one of those wooden swings before -- at last year's Festival of American Folklife in Washington, DC. Estonia had been one of the featured countries and they'd built one of them on the National Mall. You can get as many as twelve people on that kind of swing, and when it gets going its pendulum swing can be as much as 180 degrees. It's pretty exciting when you get it going that high -- at the peak of its swing, you're in zero gee for about a quarter of a second. I had to be very careful not to lose my grip on the support poles, because there were no handholds! I've been told, if you're daring enough, it's possible to do a '360' on this kind of swing. Nobody told us what the mortality rate for such a stunt was, though...

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Sunday night, June 13, 1999 (Rakvere)
Rakvere Castle It was the last free day of the business trip, and I spent much of it at a cookout party. The Estonian company I'm visiting tomorrow has gone far out of its way to make me feel welcome, and this included a picnic at the home of one of their Board of Directors members. Afterwards, it was the final cultural event of the trip -- Shakespeare's Macbeth, performed by a local theatrical group, with the stage located inside the ruins of a medieval castle. It was an amazing event, but unfortunately, I didn't understand a word of it, as it was all in Estonian. Nevertheless, since the play is actually set in a castle, this might still have been one of the most authentic stagings of it ever!

The part of the performance that most impressed me was its three-dimensionality. That is, scenes took place on the stone stairway leading up to the inner ramparts of the castle, and occasionally some of the actors delivered their lines from up there, five meters above our heads. It wasn't a case of 'theater in the round' so much as a 'theater in the sphere'. Rakvere Castle itself is pretty large; there's a lot more to it than just the area set up as the stage. Elsewhere on the castle grounds there's an area where concerts can be held, with a backdrop of the castle outer wall. It's too small an area for major acts like Springsteen, but I'm guessing that classical music concerts would work just fine. And it would be appropriate -- classical music in a classical setting!

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Monday night, June 14, 1999 (Rakvere)
Well, it happened. I'm a media news darling. I'd been asked earlier by the company hosting my visit in Estonia to appear at a press conference where they were announcing they were going to build a new, modern power plant in the economically-depressed northeastern part of the country (I had suggested the concept for that project about four months earlier). I read a press statement I'd prepared over the weekend and had expected to sit back and watch the rest of the event -- but I was the rest of the event! They threw about half an hour's worth of questions at me, with cameras rolling, then we reconvened for a photo-op at the top of one of the company's ash mountains for another 15-minute session. All this was condensed down into a one minute news story that was telecast on Estonia's national news this evening. I can say that I sounded coherent on TV, though I didn't think so when they were taping. Thank heavens for competent video editors!

up on the ash pile The previous week, during my visit to Panevezys, I'd thought being interviewed by news reporters was the equivalent of a one-day wonder. Now I'm not sure what to think. Even one of my Friday's meetings, at Estonia's Ministry of Economic Affairs, had been reported to the news media and I was startled to hear my name being mentioned later that day in the middle of an otherwise unintelligible (to me, though not to my host David) radio news program. At any rate, the trip to the top of the ash heap was pretty exciting, going up some steep, rough inclines that were impassable without a four wheel drive vehicle. Even though the view from up there was superb (you could see all the way to the Gulf of Finland), it was so desolate, so totally grey and lifeless, that when I stepped out of the car, I was tempted to call out, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind!" Probably a good thing I didn't, though. You never know about a video editor's sense of humor.

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Tuesday night, June 15, 1999 (Tallinn)
Tallinn Old Town My "media news darling" time in Estonia isn't over yet! Today there were two interviews with newspaper reporters, one at the beginning of the day in Kohtla-Järve, and one at day's end back here in Tallinn. In between was a fairly full day of business meetings, including another four-wheeler trip (the second in two days) to the top of a small mountain of ash left over from combustion of oil shale in their power plants. I also found out that a sound clip from my interview yesterday had been played on Estonian national radio several times, in the hourly news update. This is all too surreal! Maybe this says something about how starved for news they are here?
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And then, suddenly, it was all over. It was time to go home. There weren't any problems this time -- Lufthansa didn't lose my luggage, even though one of them had been scuffed-up by the time I got it back. From a business viewpoint, this was my most effective trip ever -- over $500 million in new project opportunity discoveries that I could promote. From a personal viewpoint, I think the most interesting memories I'll keep from this trip are of the people I met along the way. And if I had to sum up this trip into one single moment, it would be about one of those people. On my last morning in Bulgaria, about an hour before I needed to leave for the airport, I took one more walk over to the sidewalk bazaar, this time to where all the books were being sold. I was looking for a specific book, Bulgarian for Foreigners, and by the time I found a copy, one of the book dealers had a chance to try out his English on me. Bulgarian, he said, probably wasn't that hard a language to learn, once you got past the Cyrillic alphabet. I think I could have learned a lot about the country by just talking with him for a while, but time was short and I had to go. As I left, he wished me well and said he hoped I'd learn from the book, then come back there again some day to try out my Bulgarian on him. You know, that sounds like a good idea to me!

at the news conference

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

The more familiar spellings of the writers' names are: 1) Clifford Simak; 2) Larry Niven; 3) Terry Pratchett; 4) Robert Heinlein; 5) Jack Vance; 6) David Brin; 7) William Gibson; 8) Kurt Vonnegut; 9) Poul Anderson; 10) C.J. Cherryh