It Really Is a Small World, and Other Insights
A (Seventh) Postcard Diary of Eastern Europe
by Richard Lynch
A Note of Explanation:

This is the seventh in a continuing series of my (very unofficial) trip reports about my travels in Eastern Europe. Those of you who have read the other six Postcard Diaries know that I work as an International Trade Specialist for an Agency of the U.S. Government. My area of specialty is Eastern Europe, and for the previous few Postcard Diaries my travels were related to an international trade promotion-related initiative (which I originated) in support of small business. That initiative is over now; it was not really successful enough in making things happen to continue, but it did get me involved in an equally interesting area, of market liberalizations in the energy-sector. Anyway, when I first started writing these Diaries back in 1997, it used to be hard to keep in touch with the outside world, but with the proliferation of public-access Internet cafés over there, that's not really true any more. Even a telephone calling car gives you, for about five dollars, about five minutes of telephone time to home. A Postcard Diary isn't necessary anymore to stay in contact with home, but it's still is a good way of preserving memories. The way it works is that whenever I'm on extended travel, I send one postcard back home every day, trying to pack as much information on it as possible I want each one to be not only a stand-alone essay, but also a chapter of an overall larger diary of that trip that would give any readers of the collection a vicarious experience of what it's like to work and travel in Eastern Europe. There was a challenge: be interesting, be entertaining, but above all, be brief! Often not easy, but most every day I was able to find one or two things interesting enough to build a short essay around, even if after a long day, composing that essay wasn't something that I always looked forward to.

Anyway, 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 expand on some things where just wasn't enough room in a postcard. As always, I hope you enjoy reading these essays.

RWL  (July 2001)
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Wednesday, June 6, 2001 (Prague, Czech Republic)
It's nice to be back in Prague again. But I wish there was a more pleasant way to get here than the sardine-can trans-Atlantic overnight flights you have to endure. The new Airbus 340 airplane has a lot of features that older airplanes don't (such as personal video screens for each passenger) but it's still seven uncomfortable hours being folded into a seat while small children let out ear-splitting shrieks for much of the flight. Just another example than you can stand just about anything for seven hours!

I think the biggest problem I had with the A340 was that it got unpleasantly warm and stuffy because there weren't any little air-blower vents like the older airplanes have. The personal video screen was nice (when it worked), but I mostly just listened to music -- the one movie I tried to watch, Traffic, cut out about two-thirds of the way through it. There were a few other annoyances to deal with even after I got to Prague -- I'd switched to a slightly larger suitcase just before I left home, and in the rush I'd missed transferring over my neckties and spare socks. This led to a rather hurried look around for a mens clothing store late in the afternoon. It was much easier to find places that sold, for instance, fine Bohemian crystal. But you can't wear that stuff on your feet!

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Thursday, June 7, 2001 (Prague)
It was a day filled with business meetings today, and by 5:00pm I was a lot more knowledgeable about the Czech Republic's energy situation. The highlight of the day was the kamikaze taxi driver who got me all the way across town in just ten minutes to keep me on time to a meeting. All in all, it was an interesting bit of performance art and it earned him a good tip, but I'm glad I was sitting in the back seat!

Most of the taxi drivers in Prague know some English, apparently. When I asked him, "Can you get me there in a hurry?" his face lit up like I'd said the magic words. "No Problem!" he said, and the chase was on. Anyway, it turned out that all my business meetings during my time in Prague were on that one day. There was supposed to be a meeting the next day, but it was canceled when I couldn't find an affordable the J.K. Novak Band (read: 'free') translator. But I wasn't all that disappointed -- my compressed work schedule (nine-hour work days) gives me every other Friday as a scheduled day off. And that's the way it worked out!

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Friday, June 8, 2001 (Prague)
Business had wrapped up yesterday, so it was kind of a quiet day today, mostly spent doing some shopping and sightseeing. I found that my favorite Czech jazz band, the J.K. Novak Bridge Band, was performing dixieland jazz on the Charles Bridge, so I guess that qualifies as my first musical event of the trip. I was planning to go to an orchestra concert tonight but the rains moved in; I'll go to one tomorrow instead. I'd also planned on looking up a University professor friend, but it turned out that he was on his own business trip -- he was in the United States!

me and my friend Xdot I thought it was kind of ironic that my university professor friend was in the U.S.A. while I was in Prague, but on the other hand, one of my friends from the U.S.A. was in Prague while I was there. (Talk about a small world!) Tim Perry, a.k.a. Xdot the poker-playing statistician, who was in town for a wedding. Events surrounding the wedding filled most of his available time, though, and there was only one evening where we were able to meet for a few beers. I asked him how he was enjoying his first trip to Prague, and he answered by saying it was his first visit, but wouldn't be his last. I think that, back in 1990 on my first visit there, I said the same thing. It's a great city.

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Saturday, June 9, 2001 (Prague)
Carmina Burana in concert It's my last day in Prague and the highlight of the day was the evening concert, my first classical music event of the trip. There are a lot of nightly music events here -- I counted more than 20 different flyers at one of the information kiosks (and that doesn't even include all the piano bars and jazz clubs). The concert I went to was the biggest one of the night -- a full orchestra and chorale rendition of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. It was stunning -- full of sound and fury, at times a delicate thing and at other times a beast. I've decided that I like chorale works. Will opera be next?

I should mention that the concert also included a fine performance of Felix Mendelssohn's 4th ("Italian") Symphony, which made the evening well worth the 850 Czech crowns (about US$22.50) it cost for admission. The event was very well attended; the concert hall (which seated maybe 2,000) looked to be about three-quarters filled. Almost all of these were foreigners like me, of course -- from more affluent places like Western Europe, Japan, and the United States. The Czech crown, like other Eastern European currencies, has a low value vs. the U.S. dollar and other western currencies, and this makes Prague a real Bratislava from across the Danube bargain for those of us from Western Europe, Japan, and the U.S.A. -- there are now thousands and thousands of tourists in Prague and I was hearing English on the streets more often than I was hearing Czech. So all of those concerts each night are not intended for the locals; by Czech standards they are prohibitively expensive, as are most of the hotels in the city. Prague, for all its splendor, is not the real Czech Republic -- it's become a cash cow that helps to drive the country's economy.

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Sunday, June 10, 2001 (Bratislava, Slovakia)
It was a travel day today, and the train ride from Prague to Bratislava was both restful and uneventful. Before boarding the train in Prague, I met an older couple all the way from Australia who were also headed to Bratislava; they were on their very first trip through Eastern Europe, enjoying the cities, countryside, and the people here as I've done since my first visit here more than a decade ago. The day was so low key that its highlight was a leisurely walk along the Danube River with my business contact friends. This is a very pleasant place to spend a few days; the mobs that crowd Prague haven't really Good Friends, Good Beer discovered Bratislava yet. But my stay here in Bratislava this time will be so short that the traditional pub crawl my friends here plan for the end of my business trips here will be tomorrow night!

The pub crawl was also a bit low key this year. I was able to limit myself to about a liter-and-a-half of beer, and managed to get back to the Pension where I was staying by about 10:30pm. Still, it was a lot of fun -- good food, good beer, good conversation with good friends. It's one of the things that I look forward to each time I come to Slovakia.

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at Valtice Castle Monday, June 11, 2001 (Bratislava)
Turns out I wasn't quite finished with the Czech Republic this trip. Due to some conflicts, my business contacts here rescheduled all my meetings for Tuesday, which left today a free day. So we went to the Czech Republic, about an hour-and-a-half drive from here, to see some nicely-preserved chateau-type of castles in the cities of Lednice and Valtice. Those, and another in the nearby city of Mikulov, have been included in the UNESCO World Heritage Listing, and for good reason. All the mobs of tourists that crowd Prague haven't yet discovered these places, but I'm guessing that won't last much longer!

The very photogenic castle at Lednice was home to a regional history/natural history museum that included everything from medieval weaponry to preserved specimens of practically every mammal, bird, reptile, fish, and insect that was native to the area. There was even an aquarium that had live specimens Lednice Castle of many tropical salt water fish -- hopefully not in anticipation that the Czech Republic would someday have a global warming-induced coastline! The Valtice castle was even more picturesque, but unfortunately, it was closed on Mondays. Valtice was also the location of a Wine Academy, though not at the castle. The curriculum there probably wasn't the most difficult of the Czech Republic's colleges and universities, but I'll bet it was probably the most fun!

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Tuesday, June 12, 2001 (Bratislava)
Hard to believe that my visit to Slovakia is already almost over. By late tomorrow afternoon I'll be in Budapest. Today was spent as a series of fairly intense meetings, learning about pending new energy legislation and upcoming privatizations of some of the energy companies here. Tonight, though, was spent in a very un-intense way -- at the ballet enjoying a performance of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. There was great music, high melodrama, and a very colorful staging -- come to think of it, a good thumbnail description of my too-short visit to Bratislava. I will miss this place.

I happened across a much more modern performance that evening in the Old Town Square a laser light show that painted colorful, intricate, and very short-lived designs on the wall of the city museum. Apparently this had been going on nightly for several weeks -- a brief performance each hour, sundown to midnight. It was fascinating, and also typical for Bratislava nowadays -- the modern superimposed over the old.

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the Crepe Restaurant in Budapest Wednesday, June 13, 2001 (Budapest, Hungary)
I've only been here in Budapest for a few hours and already I've seen several different music events. In one of the nearby plazas there was a dance troupe in traditional costumes doing traditional Hungarian dances, as part of some kind of festival. There are also many open-air bars with blues/country bands (I listened to one of them do a couple of Roy Orbison songs). And yes, there is classical music, too. I went out to the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, even though my city guide showed nothing on the schedule there tonight. Even so, it turned out there was a 'diploma performance' by a young lady violist who played works by Bach, Brahms, and Mozart (the last a very nice, very polished chamber orchestra piece where she was featured performer). The most interesting thing about the Academy of Music event, though, was that when I stopped for dinner at a nearby restaurant I'd last been to 2 years earlier, the owner still remembered me! I could see the look of recognition in his face the second I walked through the door. Gosh, I didn't think I was that memorable!

If you want to get technical about it, the Mozart composition was a Simfonia Concertante designated K364. The young violist's name was Anna Szász, who I was told was the daughter of one of Hungary's premiere violinists. Obviously, musical talent runs in the family! Even though the recital wasn't publicized very well, there were still a couple hundred people there in the concert hall. And it was free! As for the restaurant, dinner, beverage, and dessert (a chocolate ice cream-filled crepe with vanilla sauce and whipped cream, yum!) came to just under US$5 for the entire meal. Is it a great country, or what?

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Thursday, June 14, 2001 (Budapest)
I had some interesting meetings today, but they were not as interesting as some of the people who participated. I got to meet Hungary's former Ambassador to NATO, who is now interested in geothermal energy. His accent is so lacking and his English so good that I thought he was an ex-pat American for a moment. And then there's Greg, the American Embassy's Economics Officer, who recently had a bit part in a movie filmed here in Budapest that starred Brad Pitt and Robert Redford. He was in a scene with Brad Pitt, and even had a line of dialog. I told him that this means he's Baconizable!

When I explained to Greg what it meant to be Baconizable*, he just laughed. He described Brad Pitt as mostly a regular guy, and the one scene he had with him took about ten takes and a half day to shoot (he was even given a trailer on the set for that half day). But you don't become rich by being a bit player; his half day of movie acting made him about US$400, which he donated to a battered women's shelter in Budapest.

* OK, in case you're wondering, here's how the 'Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon Game' works: Greg is in Spy Game along with Brad Pitt; Brad Pitt was in Sleepers along with Kevin Bacon. So, unless his scene winds up on the cutting room floor, Greg's 'Bacon Number' will be '2'.

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the view from the Marine Garrison Friday, June 15, 2001 (Budapest)
My time in Hungary is rapidly drawing to a close. The final two business meetings were good ones -- I learned a lot and made a good impression both on my hosts from the American Embassy and also the people at the Hungarian Energy Office with whom I met. There was a party tonight up in the Buda hills, overlooking the Danube River, in celebration of promotions for two of the U.S. Marines assigned to the American Embassy; when I mentioned to Greg, the Embassy's Economics Officer, that I was originally from northern New York State, he asked if I'd ever heard of a small village up that way where he used to take his fishing vacations -- a place named 'Chaumont'. I was croggled; it really is a small world!

I should mention that Chaumont, N.Y., with a population of maybe 500, is where I lived from early childhood until I graduated from high school (it's about 15 miles west of Watertown, N.Y., on the shore of Lake Ontario in Jefferson County, N.Y., in case you want to look it up on a road map). It was absolutely mind boggling that I should meet somebody who was so familiar with that little village and its region -- even more so that it would be somebody I'd met in Budapest, Hungary. Anyway, the place where the party was held was the U.S. Marines garrison in Budapest (the Marines provide security at all U.S. Embassies around the world), a mini-compound with its own barracks and clubroom, as well as a nice view down to the Danube River, right across from the Hungarian parliament building. Part of the compound has some historical significance to Hungary it's the 'Powder House', an old jail where, back in the mid 19th century, Lajos Kossuth, the father of Hungarian Revolution against the Austro-Hungarian Heroes Plaza Empire, was imprisoned. There's an open house each Halloween where they use the Powder House as a haunted house. Supposedly it's pretty eerie down in there.

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me and Franz Saturday, June 16, 2001 (Budapest)
My last day in Budapest, and it was low key compared to my previous two frenetic days here. I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do, and in the end I decided to explore one of the main thoroughfares of Budapest, Andrassy Street, from its beginning near Saint Stephen's Basilica to its opposite end at the communist-era Heroes Plaza. Along the way there's the Opera House with its dazzling and ornate interior, Embassy Row with some wonderfully restored old mansions, and the Franz Liszt Academy of Music. No music event for me tonight to end my stay here, but I did make a point of having my photo taken next to the statue of Franz Liszt in the park near the Academy of Music. I figured it was the next best thing.

I'd been up and down Andrassy Street many times previously, but never above ground. One of Budapest's three subway lines goes right up Andrassy, and all the times I'd ridden it, I'd had no idea what things were like just a few meters above my head. Just beyond the Heroes Plaza is the City Park, probably the largest green area in Budapest. It has a very large thermal bath, housed in an impressively large and ornate building, and a castle that's been turned into the National Agricultural Museum. the Land Yacht Actually, there's more at the castle than just the museum -- there's also a small cathedral that's apparently very popular for weddings. There was one going on when I passed through there that day; the bride and groom had just emerged and were being surrounded by all their invited well-wishers, and right across the street awaited their hired transportation to take them off somewhere. Nope, not a horse-drawn carriage -- it was a cherry red 1959 Cadillac El Dorado convertible, big as a yacht and just as impressive. As in the U.S.A., size does matter, apparently!

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Sunday, June 17, 2001 (Warsaw, Poland)
I arrived here in Warsaw on the morning flight from Budapest, and mostly spent the day getting re-acquainted with the city. I was last here about a year ago, and from what I can see, there haven't been too many changes. There are new city buses in use now, the subway that's gradually being constructed has been extended one more stop to the north, and, oh yeah, everything is more expensive than it was last year. Poland will soon be joining the European Union, which will lower import barriers. But I guess the first thing that's arriving from Western Europe is the prices!

Well, it's not actually all that bad -- Poland is still a pretty good bargain, though the other three countries I visited, especially Slovakia, were less expensive yet. The things I most noticed higher prices for were watercolors and other art (I collect interesting buildings, or at least drawings, watercolors, and lithographs of them) and restaurant food; perhaps not coincidentally, both of these were in the Old Town Square, which was crawling with tourists. On a walk through the Square with a friend looking at the artwork, we had to run for cover when the biggest thunderstorm I've ever experienced in Poland blew through. It was almost a relief to find that the prices weren't the only thing that's become larger since my last trip to Poland!

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Monday, June 18, 2001 (Warsaw)
This was one of the busier days in the trip, with three business meetings and lots of time on the phone trying to arrange even more for tomorrow. But yet, I sense that the intensity level is dropping, probably because departure for home is now less than two days away. There was finally some time to do a little shopping for gifts and souvenirs, but I managed to embarrass myself in one of the shops by dropping a whole handful of coins on the floor. Maybe my intensity level has dropped a little too much??

I'm glad the coin-scattering didn't happen at my favorite amber jewelry shop. I usually spend a few hundred zloties there every time I'm in Warsaw. I hadn't been to that store since my last visit to Warsaw, a year earlier, but just as in Budapest I was recognized the second I walked in there. It was even more remarkable than Budapest, actually, because the store owners were in the middle of an Promenade Orchestra amber-buying feeding frenzy by a small mob of Italian tourists. It was a good half hour before the crowd thinned enough where I could even begin looking for pieces to buy.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2001 (Warsaw)
This last day of this business trip was also the busiest -- five meetings, the final two of which were last-minute schedule additions. I didn't finish until late afternoon. However, the highlight of the day was the final music event of this trip, though 'music' might not be a totally accurate description. An amateur jazz group -- a small promenade orchestra, complete with dancers -- gave a very energetic and entertaining cabaret-style performance on an open-air stage not far from the Old Town. What they lacked in musical ability they made up for in exuberance; they certainly attracted an appreciative audience, myself included. It was all a lot of fun. And so was this trip!

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