Eastern Europe Summary

November 21, 2008

My trip in Eastern Europe was probably the best three and a half months of my life. It was fun and I think I learned things. Here’s a summary.

Best Places:

1. Budapest: It was raining the first day, and it was one of my deepest lows. I was ready to go back home. Then that night I had my first real CouchSurfing experience. I met lots of great people here. Katja gave me the keys to her old apartment and said I could stay there until the end of the month. The city had energy, and the people were welcoming and generous. Thermal baths. On my return trip to Budapest, I met my high school friend Attila after 7 years. I got to experience daily life, he took me to his hometown, his mom fattened my up, and I saw the wine country. I got a suit from friends and interviewed for a real job. I got the offer but low pay. I probably overstayed my welcome staying two weeks with Attila and Kata, but they didn’t seem to mind.

2. Belgrade: I cut my time in Macedonia short to make it to the Belgrade beer festival. It turned out to be kind of boring. But I met Nikola, a CouchSurfer. We hit if off, and I stayed with him at his grandma’s for a few nights. Then he brought me to his village, south of Belgrade, for another few nights. The hospitality was amazing. I was treated like the guest of honor at a few meals. The mothers would sit outside the table, waiting as you ate, making sure you had enough and that you enjoyed the food. The girls in Belgrade were beautiful. The most beautiful. And despite bad US-Serbia political relations, everyone I met was happy to see me. It seems Serbia’s still isolated. Not much tourism. Beautiful place, beautiful girls, and generous people.

3. Ukraine: In Lviv, I was welcomed into a residential block home. It was after midnight when I arrived yet I was given lots of food and drink, even a few slices of pig fat. A really poor place, but amazing generosity. Then I met Oksana who helped me get a train ticket to Kiev, and we went for a drink. In Kiev, the cheapest and busiest metro I’ve experienced. Death-metal friends helped me with a vodka purchase and then we got in trouble with the police before a $20 bribe took care of it. Ukraine is very cheap, undiscovered, and has beautiful girls and hospitable people.

Worst Places:

1. Prague: This was the low point of my trip. It’s also where I decided to buy a ticket back home. Everyone raves about this place, but I felt an emptiness here. Loaded, really loaded with tourists. It’s got nice buildings but everything caters to tourists. It doesn’t seem to exist on its own. No charm, only currency exchanges and souvenirs.

2. Venice: Maybe this is the best example of a museum city. It’s great to see once on a day trip, but I don’t feel you can get a cultural experience. Tourism runs this place. Boring.

3. Athens: Dirty city with the Acropolis. I came here because I was in the area, but it wasn’t a memorable experience. Just a big museum. And a lot of the Greek ruins rely too much on your imagination. Some scattered rocks in the lawn … gymnasium.

Best Food:

1. Hungary: I loved the goulash with sour cream (tie-fuh). Lots of paprika. Stuffed peppers. All heavy and fatty, but delicious.

2. Pakistan in Vienna: Eat as you like, Pay as you wish. Pakistani buffet restaurant in Vienna broke all the rules and made me very happy. I ate there three or four times.

3. Romania: Sarmale was delicious. Pork wrapped in cabbage. Mamaliga was good, basically polenta. Fresh trout meal in Turda! But I missed the tripe soup.

The tomatoes in Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia were delicious. Sweet and fresh. I could eat them straight with pleasure.

Worst Food:

1. Czech Republic: I hated Prague and the food didn’t help. Boring and heavy. Slices of meat with slices of dumplings in a heavy goop of gravy.

2. Italy: 5 euro slice of anemic pizza and 4 euro coke. The food I could afford to buy was total shit. Supermarket self-catering was the answer.

3. Macedonia: Meals were really meat heavy. Too much meat. And the most disappointing part was getting this cheap peas and carrot combination as the side.

Most Generous People:

Turkey: I met a Turkish guy on the sleeper train coming into Istanbul and he invited me to stay with him. Only one night though since he was having one of his four “fuck buddies” over the next night. Good guy. Then Barak, who’s friends with my college roommate, convinced me to change my train ticket to stay with him one night. He insisted on paying for everything as we went out with his friends to watch a football match and hung out at the Bosphorus. His mom made an awesome Turkish breakfast, and traditional dinner. Barak and his mom seemed really happy to have me. She even gave me a wrapped gift for my mom as I was departing! I was made welcome many other times in Turkey too. Lots of tea. And I stayed with a Turk in Sarajevo, and Vienna. Hospitality is in their blood.

I was also impressed by Serbians, Romanians, and Ukrainians. My experiences in these countries were great because of their generosity.

Least Generous People:

Rich-car drivers: All those bastards in their BMWs and Mercedes (and even RVs) who passed me by when I was trying to hitch a ride. When I saw them coming around with their designer sunglasses and well-maintained wives, I knew they wouldn’t stop.

Most Beautiful Girls:

1. Serbia: This was a surprise for me. I was blown away. The highest density of beautiful girls I’ve ever seen. And I got a feeling they didn’t know they were hot. No sense of being really special. A big plus. No attitude.

2. Ukraine: Really beautiful girls. High boots and mini-skirts. No attitude either.

3. Paris: many.


Best: Couchsurfing. Generous people from the place you’re visiting.

Worst: Hostel. Morons who want to get drunk in a different city.


  • Most people are good and generous. Trust people.
  • US passport holders are lucky.
  • Native English speakers are lucky.
  • Traveling alone is the best for cultural exposure and meeting people.
  • People love to help.
  • Alcohol is great for sharing and bonding.
  • People you meet make the journey interesting. People make the journey.
  • Nature and beach get boring quickly when you’re alone.
  • The top destinations to visit are the worst.
  • Buildings and bridges are boring.


November 1, 2008

It’s been a good time in Philadelphia hanging with Eleanor and sorting myself out.


I’m kind of at a loose end at the moment with no job. But I’ve been making myself useful doing some home improvements.


It’s good that Eleanor already has a network of people. I like her friends, but I’m feeling I need my own friends. A sense of independence.

The Phillies won the World Series. That was cool and I enjoyed the celebration on Broad. I’m a poser fan.

I missed the parade because I drove to Boston for Halloween. I posted my ride on craigslist rideshare and brought four passengers, full car. And two bikes. They paid for all the gas and the tolls. Cool.

It was good to see Jeremy, Jessica, Ezra, Courtney, and Kenny in Boston. But I had no interest in meeting anyone at the parties and bars we went to. What am I going to do with a friend in Boston? Two Bens became friends with the group and came over the last night. The small Ben was in a slump. He stumbled giving an example of a homeless person sign as “I will eat for food.” He was called out on it but instead of laughing it off, he tried to cover it. “Yeah, I’ve seen that.” The room fell silent. Then on the departure, he hugged Jessica and said “It was nice meeting you.” “What? We met a few nights ago.” “I mean, it’s nice meeting you again.” Again, covering it, not laughing it off. Bad move. Shitty.

I posted for a rideshare back to Philly, but I had a stop in Connecticut to record an interview for my dad. One person emailed me to say they didn’t need a ride, just something delivered to Philly. So I called up. This guy wanted me to buy two cases of Trader Joe’s two-buck-chuck wine and deliver it to Philly. I asked how much he’d give me. It would cost $48 and he’d give me $60. $12 service for fronting all the money. Not thanks dude.

Dublin Layover

October 17, 2008

I got a 35 euro flight from Berlin to Dublin and then a 215 euro flight from Dublin to New York. But I had to stay in Dublin for a night. Good thing I have family there.

I took a city bus to my Uncle John’s office. He took me out to lunch, and I was able to leave my bag with him.

I wandered around Dublin. It seemed pretty different without my mom or sister.

Then I stayed the night at John and Fiona’s. I met back up with their kids, my cousins, Mercy and Lola. They’re about 14 and 10 and we haven’t seen each other for a while, so it was weird to start off with, but then we got more comfortable with each other. I like them a lot.

I was happy to get on the plane. I had a sense of accomplishment, and I was excited to see my sister in New York, and be back in the US.


October 14, 2008

I had heard so much about Berlin. Cool. What a cool place. Great place. Cool. It was pretty cool. But I was pretty ready to get back home at this point.

I got in by train, found an internet cafe in the station, and discovered a great deal on a hostel. Pegasus Hostel. If you book and arrive today, you get the first night half off. 7 euro! This place was good, and offered free internet, so I stayed two nights.

I walked around the first night. The river Spree.

Unter den Linden.

Me in front of that place where Obama spoke. Tiergarten.

Brandenburg gate, and bombed-out church from WWII made into a memorial.

Nazi mural. I loved this.

Look at that blonde’s face.

Me standing in the weird Holocaust memorial concrete slabs. Berlin Wall.

Part of the Berlin Wall with a mural painting.

I went on a “free” guided tour of Berlin with some others from the hostel. It was a pretty good tour and I got the story behind all the sites. In the end, the tour guide asked for donations. She made some good money since most of the 30 people handed her 5 euro or more.

The unfortunate part of the tour was that I met some hostel friends. That’s bad news. Lonely ones. I didn’t have much to do myself so I ended up going along with them for a while. “Hey let’s get a beer!” “Yeah, beer. Cool. I love beer.” Here’s an email I sent my sister about it.

by the way, i just had a weird, kind of shitty day. i went on a free walking tour and made ‘hostel friends‘ who turned out to be really annoying and sad. i’ll need to document this one. it’s got some good stories that i don’t want to forget. christine, 33, single from vancouver. talks way too much. has a cat. her baby. works in a ‘dull’ office job. insurance company. does ‘adventures for singles’ which organizes events for singles like chocolate making, or wine tasting. cool. left her cat with her friend and just today, he sat in her friend’s lap. can you believe it! he’s never done that with anyone before besides me! she’s a ‘tv junkie’ and listed out all the shows she watches. kept telling us about this ‘local’ bar in belgium that she went to the other night. and it was soo crazy! we went to a shop today, and she asked if a ‘local’ artist made this. then after we left the shop she told us she was happy that she purchased something made by a ‘local’ artist. local is cool. really local.
there’s this other guy cameron. 24 from seattle. follower. boring guy. likes to say ‘there you go’ and ‘nice’ and ‘sweet.’ boring.
anyway, things just kept leading to another and i wasn’t able to leave easily. it was painful. i finally had to ‘pass’ on doing something although i really have nothing else to do. i just would rather be alone.
making hostel friends is a dangerous thing. i’m pretty ready to stop talking about travels and other stupid repetitive stuff.

Christine was really proud of any plans she had. “I’m meeting Carolina at 7.” “What will you be doing?” “I’m meeting Carolina at 7.” And of course you would be welcome to join, but she was proud to be the owner of this plan. “I’m meeting Cameron at the zoo tomorrow at 11.”

Later, after I had escaped them, I sat down to check my email. I get a tap on the shoulder. Christine! She sits next to me and talks and laughs as she reads her email, explaining everything to me. “Oh! My cousin emailed me. That makes me happy. I haven’t heard from her for a while. We got our navels pierced when I was 19, and she was 17. I had to sign for her! hahah!!” I listen half-heartedly. Out of basic human politeness. “Oh cool.” “That’s good.” I’m still staring at my screen, trying to concentrate. I don’t give a shit about her emails. “OH!! My friend is going to pick me up from the airport. Oh good! I was worried. He wasn’t answering email for a few days.”

Here’s currywurst, a Berlin favorite. And the tour group with sad girl hostel friend sitting on the grass.


My last day in Berlin I just walked around trying to kill time. I read a little. Too much time. Ready to go.

I even took some self-portraits to pass the time. Beautiful!


Then that night I met up with two CouchSurfers, Stani and Herrmann, who are friends with Katja in Budapest, the girl who gave me her keys to her old apartment. They were cool. Walked me around to some highlights. We got a doner kebab in the area of Berlin where they were invented. Little Turkey. We had some Augustinus beer, their favorite, at a hangout spot on a bridge. It was a good last night, but now I forget the details.

Stani offered his place for me to stay. It was kind of far away, plus I had decided to stay at the airport. So we parted, I got my bag from the hostel, and I headed to the airport. There was a cafe with couches, so I set up camp.


I had an okay sleep. For breakfast I walked to the nearby metro station. I found a wurst place and wanted some currywurst. The guy told me it would be 10 minutes. But he grabbed a sausage from the water and held it up. “Bockwurst?” I’d take it. It was cheaper too. He gave me a breadroll and some mustard. I dipped and bit into the bock. Horrible. A dry outer covering and I pierced the skin into a tasteless meat. Terrible texture. It made me want to vomit. But I soldiered through it, dipping valiantly into the mustard, and mixing bites between the bock and the bread to keep a variety of flavor.

In the plane, I sniffed a few times. A dry nose. The lady next to me offered me a tissue. “Do you have a cold?” What the hell. I think she was trying to be nice, but it seems she probably wanted me to stop. I hate that. You sneeze one time, and someone says “Are you okay?” It’s a sneeze. It’s not a sickness. Asshole.


October 12, 2008

I got into Warsaw early. I put my bag into a left luggage locker and walked around the city. It’s a large place with large buildings. Seemed like a pretty typical capital. I got to Old Town and it was quiet, no tourists yet, so it was pretty nice.

I also visited the Warsaw Uprising Museum which was free on Sundays. Perfect. Everything was in Polish and English. It was probably the best audio-visual museum I’ve ever seen. And the stories of Polish heroism were great.

I met up with a group of CouchSurfers for a bonfire in some nearby woods. They were all friendly. It was nice meeting a few Polish people because I hadn’t had any meaningful interactions in Krakow or Zakopane.

We smoked sausages, drank, and joked. I was asked some tough political questions from a couple of Belgian girls. Everyone’s interested in the US presidential election.

I was also told the other side of the Warsaw Uprising.  Tens of thousands of people died for nothing.  The Warsaw Uprising didn’t actually do anything and didn’t help Poland gain independence.  Many of those who fought didn’t have weapons, only shovels and sticks.

A couple of people at the bonfire were really great.  Oksana, a Siberian Russian who went to school in Kiev and just recently moved to Warsaw, bought a bunch of sausages and drinks, and I forgot to pay her back.  I’ll get her next time.  And I hope there is a next time.  Oksana was beautiful.

I didn’t get to talk to Chris until late in the night, but I’m very happy I did.  We both have deep concerns about “wage slavery” and using our lives for something meaningful.  Chris is an ex-photo journalist and he’s rejected that life for it’s stress and meaninglessness.  He’s currently working as a freelancer and taking time to think and figure out what he wants.  He’s 31 and he offered me some great advice since he could relate to how I’m feeling.  Chris told me that I should keep traveling so that I can give myself time to figure things out.  He also gave me some book recommendations.  My discussion with Chris was one of the highlights of my trip.  We really connected, and I want to keep in contact with him.

I didn’t have any accommodation for the night, but I figured I could use my charm to find a bed.  I asked Martin, and he said he’d be happy to put me up for the night.  Great!  Later, a few people asked me if I had a bed for the night.  It seemed they were ready to put me up.  Really great.  Chris told me I should stay with him since he was just a short walk from the train station.  There was a little bit of an awkwardness as Chris stole me from Martin as we were riding back on the metro.  It was great though.  I was happier to stay with Chris and it was more convenient.

I slept on the floor, and got up at 6am to catch my 7am train to Berlin.

Ukraine-Poland Border Crossing

October 11, 2008

I wish I had this one on video.  Or even photos.  Missed opportunity.

I took a marshrutka (minibus) from Lviv to the border, about 2 hours away.  It cost 15 hry, ~$3.

I had read that this border was difficult to cross because smuggling alcohol and cigarettes is a big business.  Poland is in the EU and Ukraine isn’t.  Ukrainian prices are much lower than in Poland.  The lines would be long.

I walked up to the border on the Ukraine side.  There were two lines on either side of a fence.  One with a big herd of people, the other with about five people.  I went with the small line.  As I got there, a border guard opened up the door.  We were let into a small room with a few people waiting  to see one of the two border guards at the window.  Then the door was opened for the herd.  People kept coming and coming.  It was flooded and me and my pack got squeezed between people.  My arms were jammed at my sides.  I was riding up against someone’s back.  Body pressed against body.  As soon as someone left the window after being processed, this sea of people would undulate forward.  I got twisted.  At one point, I got lifted up a little and jammed against the wall where the line came to a head and bottlenecked.  As the next person left, I gave a push to gain some ground, and I did.  I looked around and laughed.  I couldn’t help it.  All these older people.  Many of them women.  All of us pushing.  Absolutely no order.  It was good-spirited.  No one was angry and pushing.  This was queuing in Ukraine.  Standard.  I loved the contrast between this and US standards.  Orderly queues with an “expeditor” telling you to make sure you have your passport ready to show the border official.  It was so primitive here.

I got up to the window and gave the woman my passport.  She looked at it suspiciously and held up the photo page to the light, inspecting the holograms.  She asked for my exit papers.  Shit.  I looked for them, but couldn’t find them.  I had lost them, and I expected big problems.  Some sort of fine.  Then she looked at the photo and then at me.  She didn’t believe it.  I took off my glasses.  Look, here I am.  It’s really me.  Then she stamped my passport and I left.  That was lucky.

In the area between Ukraine and Poland’s borders, there was a fenced in walkway.  I passed lots of people just hanging out, waiting for something.  Then I passed a family that was sneaking through a gap in the fence.  I kept walking.  This didn’t seem to bother anyone else.

The Polish side was much easier.  I got stamped, and then the guy who was going to check my bag found out I spoke English and just let me go.  I had a bunch of vodka hidden in there, and I’m glad I didn’t have to unpack.

I took at 20 minute minibus to Przemysl for 2 zloty, ~$1, bought my train ticket to Warsaw, and then killed time until it left.  I walked around the town with my huge pack on, and ate a poor man’s dinner: cheese in bread with water and a yogurt drink.  And maybe some bananas.  And a Lion bar.

Then I caught the train.  My second consecutive night on a train.  I sat in the cabin with a really nice Polish guy from Krakow.  He had really positive energy and was impressed that I was American.  I liked him.

I had to make a connection in Lancut and kill an hour there.  It was a misty night, and the lamps gave it a mysterious look.  I took some photos.

I slept well on the train to Warsaw although the heat was on full blast.  I arrived sweaty with some moisture in the pits of the clothes I was wearing for about two-weeks straight.


October 10, 2008

I got into Kiev early.  I took the metro at 8am.  I joined the rush of people into the station, got my 50 kopek plastic metro coin ($0.10!), and was pushed and shoved in the direction of the herd.  I have never experienced such a crowd.  I had to shove my body and backpack onto the loaded train.  And then navigate through all the cyrillic.

When I got off the train, it took me about an hour of asking people if they spoke English to find the hostel.  I was pointed the wrong direction a couple of times.  Ukrainians!

I met an American at the hostel.  At first, Eric seemed like a typical cocky traveler.  He was disinterested but proud to tell me about his 2 months of traveling.  He finally got around to asking about my trip, and it was great trumping him with 3 months.  Asshole.

But he warmed up, and we hung out.  He was going to be going on the Trans-Mongolian to Beijing.  Pretty cool.  Here we are.  “Can you take a picture of me?”


That night we went to the supermarket after eating at a great cafeteria-style place.  As I was looking at the huge assortment of inexpensive vodka (0.5 L ~$4), some death-metal guys stopped to help me.  One of them spoke English and was friendly.  They pointed out their recommendations.  Eric was weary and wanted to move on.  I stayed to talk.  Then “Johnny,” the English speaker, invited me to drink with them outside.  I agreed.  Eric froze up and told me that he was going to “pass” because he was tired.  I bought the vodka and a couple of beers and joined my friends in black.

When we got outside, they revealed their true names.  Johnny was “Warlock.”  I also met “Dark,” “Cherry” (a girl), “Maggot,” and Serge.  I joined them as “Terminator.”  They liked it.  But I made a joke that didn’t go over well.  I said that I didn’t fit in because I wasn’t dressed in all black.  They didn’t react well.

We went into a nearby dark alley and drank for a while and joked.  It was fun but it was getting boring.  They asked me what music I liked, hoping I liked some death metal.  They let me hear some on one of their cell phones as they headbanged. Then three police officers walked up.  Apparently, drinking in public is illegal.  Most places in Europe it’s fine, and I assumed the same in Ukraine.  They found out I was American and I didn’t have my passport, only my driver’s license that I showed them.  I stood there not knowing what was going on.  Warlock translated a little for me, and told me that we would be arrested.  Then one of the cops took two of my guys to talk privately.  They came back a few minutes later and said we were clear.  Maggot had given the cop 100 hry which is a little less than $20.

I decided it would be best to hide the rest of the vodka.  My friends disagreed.  I might be caught with the bottle under my jacket, and if they weren’t there to talk for me, I’d be in trouble.  They said it would be better to finish it.  So we drank the rest, and quickly.  There were lots of strong grabs and pats on my arm and shoulder to show that they liked me.  We had been through it together.  A strong bond from drink and being busted by cops.  A brotherhood.

I paid Maggot back with my share of the bribe, 40 hry, ~$8.  A very cheap bribe.  He said he owed me a beer, but I told him to keep the little extra since he saved my ass (I had owed a third of the 100, so 33).  We parted, and I fell asleep quickly when I got back to the hostel.


The next day, I went to the train station to buy a ticket back to Lviv.  I wrote down my request in cyrillic on a piece of paper since I knew communicating would be impossible.  The woman in the ticket office tried to tell me something, but I didn’t understand.  There was an African guy waiting near the ticket window.  I asked him if he knew Ukrainian.  He did.  Suleman was from Guinea and spoke French primarily, and a little English, and had learned Ukrainian since he was living there now.  He told me that all the night trains were booked.  So, I took the next available train.  It would leave at 4am.

I thanked Suleman for translating for me.  I tried to speak my shitty French, and he understood.  We flip-flopped between simple French and simple English.  It was fun.  Nice guy.


I walked through a line of tourist stalls selling Matroyshka dolls, old Soviet pins, hats, and coins, and other crafts.  It was sad.  I made the mistake at stopping at a few.  They would tell me the price and I wouldn’t be interested, and they would go lower, and I still wouldn’t be interested.  Then I’d be told how much work went into it.  “These are handpainted.  Each set takes one week.”  And then I’d just feel bad.  It’s tough to get away too.  “Please.  It’s a very good set.  Don’t you like it?”  Lots of apologizing just to get out of there.

I passed a guy who looked at me with desperate eyes and a desperate voice.  “Please.  I’m an artist.  These are handpainted.  Please take a look.”  And here he was, an older guy basically begging this much younger tourist who’s over here to spend money and have a good time.  And he was doing this every day.  It’s so sad.  It made me feel really lonely.

The saddest thing was seeing these sellers pack up their tables.  A man in his fifties wrapping up his porcelain birds in newspaper and packing them away in a box.  Done for the day.  Maybe sold three or four.  He’ll be coming back tomorrow hoping to sell a few more.  Packing his small birds with such care.

Street-selling like this is sadder than begging.


Later I met Victoria and Oksana.  My former co-worker, Dan from Home Depot, has family in Kiev, and he put me in contact with his niece.  She was out of town at the time, but she set me up with two of her friends to show me around.  They were extremely nice and happy to walk me around to the different sites.

Here I am in front of St. Andrew’s with Victoria.

Loads of these ornate churches in Kiev.  St. Michael’s and St. Sophia’s.

Oksana and Victoria in front of St. Michael’s.  Me in front of the large plaza downtown.

They left and I had to kill time until my train at 4am.  I got to the station at 11pm.  I hung out there for a while, and then went to the McDonald’s across the street and hung out there until they closed at 1am.  Then I returned to the station.  All the seats were taken with people sleeping.  A lot of old babushkas.  Hardy and weather-beaten.  Scarves around their heads and thick ankles

At one point, a bunch of cops came through and were waking people up.  They were violent with some of them.  One guy was really drunk and stumbling after being woken.  The cops pushed him around, no mercy.  I was afraid to go to sleep.

I saw a young, intelligent-looking guy, and I went over to speak with him.  He spoke English.  I asked why those cops were waking people up.  He told me that they were homeless people, and since they didn’t have a train ticket, they were asked to leave.

I got into a long conversation with this guy, Pavlo.  Really nice guy.  He told me that he was going to be doing a work-study program in the US next summer.  He might even be coming to Philadelphia.  I gave him my contact information, and told him that he’s got a friend there.  I told him that Ukraine has been very generous to me, and that I’d like to repay that by helping him out.

The train finally came.  It was a Russian train coming from Moscow.  This was 2nd class, kupe.  A 4-person cabin with bunks that were long enough for my legs.  Pretty comfortable although tight accommodation for 4.

I made it to Lviv, went into town to eat, use the internet, and walk around a little.  Then I went to cross the border by foot back into Poland.

Final Trip: Poland-Ukraine

October 10, 2008

I was pretty relieved after buying the flight home.  It was a great deal, and I was at a low-point in Prague.  Walking around,  I felt like I had reached my saturation point.  I didn’t want to see any new cities.  No more buildings and sites.  No more different languages.  No more internet cafes.

I figured I would have enough time to see some of Poland and Ukraine and then head back West to see Berlin before flying out.  I got to Krakow and it was a lot like Prague.  The Old Town was a big tourist draw, but there were only some buildings.  I didn’t have any good interactions with people either.  Boring.  Auschwitz-Birkenau was a big highlight though, and made it worth visiting Krakow.

Then I went to Zakopane, Poland to see the Tatras.  Big time tourist town also.  Disappointing and boring.

I got a bus from Zakopane to Pryzemysl, which is on the border of Ukraine.  I thought it would take about 3 hours.  It took 10!!  9:15am-6:30pm.  I was the only one besides the bus driver to go the whole way.  I don’t think it was even that far away.  It’s just that the bus took the really long slow route and stopped everywhere.  And $25.  Shitty.  I was really frustrated and had waves of panic.  Then I’d cool down and think of it as a sightseeing tour.  I rationalized it too as it was a misty, grey day.

I ran into some luck in Pryzemysl.  I went to the train station to check on train times and prices to Lviv, Ukraine.  A Ukrainian guy helped me out and offered to accomodate me in Lviv for a night.  Awesome.  I had a great night with him and his family in a Lviv Soviet-style residential block.  Lots of food and vodka.

Then I got dropped at the train ticket office in Lviv.  Lost and with stupid English, a girl helped me out and got my ticket to Kiev that night.  We also went for a drink.  Really great.  Lots of friends in Lviv.  Too easy


October 8, 2008

I was on a bus from 9:15am to 6:30pm. Almost 10 hours. I thought it would be about a 3 hour ride. I felt sick. I was the only one other than the bus driver who was on the bus the whole time. The worst travel I’ve experienced

I got to Przemysl, the border town. I was going to stay the night there and just try to forget the shitty time I had on the bus. But first I wanted to got to the train station to check on the cost and times to get to Lviv, Ukraine. As I was trying to communicate with the ticket cashier, a guy came up and translated for me. He was probably in his late-40s and he told me he’s a Ukrainian who grew up in Poland and now lives in Canada. His name was Eugene. He was taking the train to Lviv and said he could help me if I took the same train. He also invited me to stay with his brother and sister-in-law in Lviv. Great! I agreed and bought my train ticket.

We got into Lviv just before midnight. Oksana and Igor met us at the station. It was a surprise for them to have me tagging along, but they didn’t seem to mind. In the car, I was asked if I drink vodka. I said yes. That was the right answer.

We got to their place. It was in a Soviet-style block residence. Oksana spoke some English and she apologized to me for where they lived. I, of course, didn’t mind. I was happy to be taken in by them, but the building was in terrible shape. Just a really depressing grey place with paint chipping off the walls.

Here’s Igor, Oksana, and Eugene.

It was after midnight and I figured we would just go to bed. Oksana started cooking and Igor brought out drinks. They laid out a feast. My worst travel day turned into one of the best nights of my trip.

Sausages, fake caviar, fish, kvass (fermented bread drink), beer, and lots of vodka. I offered the slivovice (plum brandy) that I had gotten in Serbia. It’s amazing how good alcohol is for creating good feeling between people.

While we were on the train, I had asked Eugene what he did in Canada. Ashamed, he told me he was a custodian in an elementary school. We changed the subject. Then later, they asked me what I did. I told them I had studied engineering and had worked in Home Depot. They laughed like I was a failure. Then I had to add it was in the corporate office. That shut them up. Weird though. They were very ready to make fun of what I did. Oksana bakes cakes for a living, and Igor installs window blinds.

I slept on one of the pull-out couches. Eugene was on the other. Very comfortable. Great accomodation.

Me with Oksana and Igor.

Here are the views out their window the next morning. I can imagine this would stunt a lot of teenagers dreams of “making it” in the world. Probably not much looking out the window and dreaming of greater things. Not much to work with.

And this is what you see when you go for a walk to clear your head. More depressing views.

Igor and Eugene drove me into the city. We stopped off at the highest point in Lviv for the views. It was cool. We could see block housing for miles!

While we were in the park, Eugene went into the woods for a pee. As Igor and I waited, a badly maintained middle-aged woman came up the side of a hill with a bunch of old bottles in her hands. Only a few teeth in her mouth. Dirty face and clothes with a scarf wrapped around her head. She spoke to Igor and looked at me. I thought, “Oh, this poor woman. She’s so cute. Collecting bottles and being simple.” Then when Eugene came back and we walked off, I asked what she had said. Apparently, she was asking about sex. For a little change she would bring us to the nearby brothel.

Then they dropped me off at the train ticket office in the city. Totally packed. People were lined up everywhere. I didn’t even know where to stand. I was wearing my huge pack and I was in the way. I asked someone if they spoke English. Before they could even answer, I heard a confident, eager voice behind me, “I speak English.” A twenty-something girl wanted to help me and practice her English. Her name was Oksana. Lots of Oksanas. She was very sweet and helpful. She was intrigued that I was American. I also felt there was a spark between us. Then her friend came and she said she had to leave. I told her I was disappointed because I thought she was going to help me. She left.

A few minutes later, she came back and told me that I should follow her. She would help me. Oksana brought me to a special ticket window with no line! She ordered the ticket for me, and then as we waited, she gave me her “business card,” a piece of paper cut to business card size with her name, title, and hotmail email address. She blushed. There was that tension between us. As we left the ticket office, I asked her if she’d like to get a drink. She told me that she had a meeting to go to, but she could skip it. Cool!

Oksana showed me a few places in the city, and then we had a drink. She told me she was in Canada just a few months ago. Her first flight ever. She had been rejected for a Canadian visa twice before, and she got it on the third attempt. Ukrainians can only go freely to Russia and Belarus. Everywhere else they need a visa, and it’s difficult. I suppose everyone thinks that they’ll stay to work since you can probably earn more *anywhere* outside Ukraine.

We spent a while talking. It was great going from Eugene, Oksana, and Igor to meeting Oksana in the ticket office. Friendly people everywhere in Ukraine. Oksana and I wished each other well, and I gave her a kiss on each cheek.

I dropped off my bag at a hostel, but I would be leaving for Kiev that night. I walked around the city hoping that I’d run into some more great people.

These minibuses were packed.

I found a craft market as a lot of tents were packing up. I went on a shopping spree buying a load of gifts in only a few minutes. Everything was so modestly priced it was easy to act quickly and splurge.

I took the tram to the train station. The rickety tram crawled. Only 75 kopeks which is about $0.15.

I wasn’t sure what stop to get off since it was dark and I couldn’t see where the train station was. I needed to ask someone. I looked around and I didn’t see any young people. Young people are the best bet because they usually know some English. Most of the time I like asking for directions because it gives me the opportunity to speak to people. But sometimes, like this time, I get nervous. I didn’t want to show people I was foreign, and I didn’t want to stumble through gesturing and bad pronunciation of the few words I know. I asked the guy next to me for “tramvoj” meaning “train station.” He told me something but I didn’t understand. I responded in English since I didn’t knonw what to say. Then a guy turned around and said he spoke English. I told him I was looking for the train station. He told me he was going there too, it was the last stop, and that I should follow him; he would help me and show me where to go. Really nice guy. It ended up that we were taking the same night train to Kiev.

I got on the train and prepared my bed. It was a platzkart (third class) cabin. Fold-out bunks in an open arrangement. Top and bottom bunk on either side of the room, and then another top and bottom bunk at the end, so six people in one open space.

The bunk was a little short, so I had to bend my legs, or have people brushing up next to my feet as they poked out into the hallway. It was only ~$12 for the 10-hour sleeper train to Kiev. Incredible. Transport AND accomodation. And I had been considering a 3-hour train from Vienna to Munich for 75 euro, over $100.

I was happy that I made the effort to get to Ukraine. Lviv was a highlight. The people I met were friendly and extremely generous.


October 6, 2008

When I got to Zakopane, I dropped my stuff at a hostel, a really quiet hostel, and I headed into town.

I took the funicular up the mountain.  At the top was a huge mess of souvenir stands, restaurants, and fair ground games.  At the top of a mountain.  It was really disappointing.  But what did I expect?  I took a funicular up!

I walked along a path to see if it led anywhere special.  It didn’t really, but it got me a little away from the stands.  Seeing the Tatras was pretty cool, but nothing really special, not in Zakopane anyway.  Shit town.

I had committed to the hostel and I was really disappointed in what I found in Zakopane.  I was feeling down and lonely.  I sat down to read my book and then a cat came purring.  She was all over me.  Lonely as I was.  And she looked just like my sister’s cat, Kit.  I gave her lots of attention and people smiled at us as they walked by.  Then I decided to keep walking.  Polish Kit came with me.  She trotted along behind me, pausing every once in a while.  I’d pause too and wait for her.  Friends!

I walked around the town a little and discovered it sucked.  Not surprising.  Then I went back to the hostel where only one other guy had checked in.  An old British guy.  I didn’t really want to talk, but we ended up having the same conversation I’d had many times before.  Where are you from?  How long have you been traveling?  Where have you been?  How long will you stay here?  Where are you going next?

The next morning, I got out of the hostel early and went to the bus station.  I wanted to catch the only bus going to the Ukraine border at Przemysl.  I had no idea I was about to begin the worst travel experience of the trip.