Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Ham and cheese, please.

On the recommendation of nearly everyone I have spoken to about Croatia, I was planning to take a day trip to Hvar, one of the islands around here.

But I got discouraged. The girl who worked at the hostel said it would be dead. The guy at the tourist information place negged the idea as a day trip. The trip was long for one day, the ferry schedule random, the weather supposed to be beat, so I decided not to go.

The guy in the tourist information place recommended two day trips for me: a city of natural beauty or a city of culture. I told myself that if it was nice out, I would do the natural beauty, if it rained, culture. I was praying for sun. I woke up to rain.

The two girls in my room got up early to head to Hvar (they weren't plagued by all the concerns I had). I decided to go on a trip to Trogir, city of culture. Prior to heading out, I stopped in Split's farmer's market, which was a farmer's market like I have never seen. Rows and rows of tables were set up, filled with every kind of fruit and vegetable imaginable. The people who worked behind the tables were the ultimate sellers, talking up their product as customers walked by and yelling at other sellers, seemingly at the same time. I walked up and down the aisles, slowly and in awe, watching everyone scramble to pick out their food, and then having the sellers weigh them in these big old-fashioned scales and haggle a price. As I walked deeper into the market, I saw there were stores lined up selling all kinds of meat. Whole pigs and headless cows were hung on silver hooks from the ceiling, blood dripping on the floor. The butchers had large knives and chopped red meat when they weren't helping customers. Old women wearing babushkas sat near barrels filled with cabbage, which they filled into plastic bags. Old men with few teeth sat at tables covered with old bottles of Fanta filled with olive oil. There was honey and nuts and figs and sausages. Ladies walked around with their hands in their pockets, saying "cigarettes" below their breaths. I tried to take pictures of this colorful scene, but the people were giving me looks for lingering and not buying anything and I was afraid they might hurt me. It was a pretty rough crowd. I bought a banana.


Split's food market.



Old-fashioned scale.



Barrels of cabbage.


Meat, anyone?

I took the local bus to Trogir, which stopped every two seconds. It took forever to get there. According to my Lonely Planet guide, "there's a lot to see." I went to the famous cathedral and climbed up yet another clock tower. This one was particularly scary because the last few flights of stairs were like ladders that if you looked through, you saw all the way down to the bottom. Before entering, there was a sign that said "You're climbing on the bell tower on your own responsibility" which I took to mean "If you plummet to your death, it is your own responsibility." My legs were shaking when I got to the top.

Afterwards, I walked around town and after a short while, I felt like I had seen everything. Was this possible? I looked at my book again. "Many sights can be seen on a 15-minute walk around the island." How is this considered a lot to see? I swear, sometimes Lonely Planet is my best friend, sometimes I hate it.

I was hungry and looked for a place to eat. I have been having this problem in Croatia with restaurants. They are always empty and uninviting. At lunch time, the people are sitting in the cafes, places that serve coffee and nothing else. When do these people eat? I finally found a stand that looked to be selling some normal ham and cheese sandwiches. I picked out one and the woman put it on the grill.

"Would you like mayonnaise?" she asked me.

"Yes."

"Onions?"

"No."

"Cabbage?"

"No."

"Pickles?"

"No."

"Lettuce?"

"No."

"Tomatoes?"

"Well, alright."

"Eggs?" she said lifting up a half of a boiled egg.

"No."

"Ketchup?"

"No."

"Hot sauce?"

"No."

She shrugged her shoulders at me, looking at me like I was crazy, and handed me the ham, cheese, tomato and mayo sandwich. I ate it while waiting for the bus back, two stray dogs watched me the entire time. I gave them both some ham. It was grey and drizzly and cold.

I should have went to Hvar.


Me and the bell tower of Cathedral of St Lovro in Trogir.



It's a long way down.



View from the top.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Groundhog Day.


Ancient walls of Diocletian's Palace.


Yesterday was a beautiful day. Today was even better.

The moment I walked outside, I took off my puffer. Two minutes later, I took off my sweater. Walking around in just jeans and a t-shirt, I felt hot. The sun shined so brightly I squinted, but I could see that the sky was blue, the town was littered with tourists and everything was okay.

I walked around at random first, seeking out breakfast and the beach which wasn't as pretty as I thought it would. Finally, I got my hands on a guidebook, which gave me some direction and so I did a little walking tour of Diocletian Palace, which is like a mini-city within the city of Split. It is so neat because this palace was built by the Roman emperor Diocletian as his place of retirement. The remains of the palace still exist today, however, it is not a museum--rather, the town is built within it. So there are all these stores and apartments and cafes built into this ancient architecture. For example, there is this big formal entry way into the palace with columns and arches and there is a café right there where you can sit on the actual ancient steps around the square and have a cup of coffee while admiring the view. How cool is that?

After I did the tour, I wandered around looking for something to eat and found my way back to Fife's--the place I ate yesterday. I decided to order a very traditional dish, called pasticada, which I wasn't really sure what it was. I ordered it with white wine. The waiter sniffed.

"Pasticada with white wine?" he growled. "If you wish."

"Is red better?" I asked. He nodded vehemently.

"Okay, the red."

This meal was veal with so much brown broth, it might as well been soup. It came with little dumplings that you dipped in the sauce. The waiters came to check on me often to see if I liked it and to show me this snake-like fish in a bottle that they were giving this fisherman. When I didn't finish the meal, they were disappointed. It was good, but too much.

I was sleepy after that big meal, so I lied down on a park bench staring up at the palm tree against the blue sky and thought my life felt pretty great right now. I walked around the city and shopped, but it wasn't so much fun because everything was so nice and I don't have the money to spend. I did buy myself a bracelet. And some ice cream. I noticed the same guys as yesterday sitting on crates fishing by the shoreline. I saw the same group of old men sitting on the bench, drinking beer and heckling people who walked by. And I could understand their repetition. I merely wanted today to be a repeat of yesterday.

And so I decided to go and see the sunset again. I walked up the same path and sat in the same spot, and watched the sun go down. Since the sky was perfectly clear, it was a sunset that was more golden than pink. I stayed until the very end. No rushing anywhere this time.

I clapped when it was over, so happy to have experienced this beauty. Can I do this day again? Encore! Encore! Again! Again!


Statue of Gregorius of Nin.


Watching the sunset again.


Today's sunset.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Split's It.


Me in Zagreb.


Yesterday, I arrived in Zagreb at 3:30. All the stores closed at 3:00. As soon as I got there, the city was already shutting down. GUYS! It is Saturday, this is ridiculous! This meant that I couldn't go and purchase a guide book, and so I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around places that appeared to be important--the big church, the main square, the street with the row of restaurants. I found a cake shop I really liked, ate a slice of pizza (while thinking to myself, Am I really in Croatia right now eating pizza?) and then I spent my evening in the hostel family room watching Bourne Identity with a group of English guys and two American lawyers. Today, I moved on to Split.

Zagreb, eh. Split, wow.

As my bus chugged along the mountainside, and I could see glimmer of the ocean, the off-white and orange buildings from the distance, I nearly burst into tears with happiness. I stepped off the bus and Split just smelled warm and salty and wonderful. I took off my puffer; it was about 70 degrees.

Looking for my hostel without a map, I saw palm trees and water and I was just madly in love with it all. Somehow the hostel appeared, it was so easy breezy along with everything else about this place, and so I shoved my things inside and went out to explore.

Having not eaten anything except potato chips, candy, cake and pizza for the last two days, I needed a proper meal and so I went to this placed called Fife's Café that the girl from the hostel recommended.

"They have really good fish, but terrible service," she warned. So I wasn't surprised when no one approached me for 20 minutes after I made numerous nods to the waiter. The bottom of the menu states, "The complaint book is at the front desk."

Finally, when it came time to order, everything I wanted--the mixed grilled fish and grilled vegetables--were no longer available. I ordered the fish the waiter recommended, which turned out to be one of those monster whole fishes--bones and eyes included--on a plate. Not something I would normally order, but you can't complain about fresh fish--or fresh bread, or potatoes, or a small carafe of white wine. I found myself getting a little antsy at times with the slow service and I would tell myself, almost in a yoga chant, "Relax, you have nowhere to go."

Afterwards, I climbed up a bunch of stairs to check out the view of the city, which then turned into this beautiful walking path, lined with fragrant trees, cactus shaped like octopuses and an array of wild flowers. Beyond that, cornflower blue ocean meets mountains meets cornflower blue sky. It was the first time I had seen the sun or blue skies in about two weeks, and I was just beaming, basking my face in the glow. The walk was quiet and I thought about how happy I was that I made the decision to come here. It reminded me that you are never stuck in life, you should never feel trapped, there are always other options awaiting you. I almost burst into tears again.

Today was the first day of daylight savings time. It was past 4 and the sun was already setting, so I found the perfect spot and sat down and watched. It was not a spectacular sunset. There were some clouds in the sky, so after a while, the sun merely hid behind the clouds lighting them from behind. I admired this quiet beauty for a while and then figured that it would not get better than this, so I started walking on the path. But then in a few minutes, I could see that the sun was starting to peek out, bright and pink and stunning, the clouds reflecting the pink tone, and I cursed myself for the second time today for not being patient. So I walked back to the original spot and watched the sunset until completion. "Relax, you have nowhere to go."

I walked back into town, found myself some gelato to top of this extraordinary day. Then I went back to the hostel where I talked to my Australian roommate Sarah and we agreed to go out for a drink. It was a quiet Sunday night, not too many people at the bar, but it was nice to sit and chat about our travels. After all, I have no other place to be.


Look, ma, no jacket!



City of Split.


I am going to eat you, scary fish.



Calm waters.



Clouds during sunset.

The virtue of a small town.


The platform with the ancient train.

I am definitely a city person, but there is something I really like about a small town.

I am not talking about the suburbs--which can be pretty homogeneous in the United States. I remember once being in the suburbs of Virginia and thinking I could be in New Jersey. That's because every suburban town is starting to look the same, with the same stores, the same restaurants, the same malls. Community is no longer important because everyone would rather stay inside their big houses and big cars than actually talk to someone.

A small town is not like that. It's a place that is completely original, unaffected with corporate retailers and restaurants. It's place where everyone knows each other, where the main street is littered with mom-and-pop shops and restaurants. It's somewhere that seems almost trapped in its own bubble, where outside distractions from advertising and the media are not apparent. I am not sure if these small towns really exist anymore, but I like the idea of them.

I wasn't really thinking about Pecs being a small town, but when I arrived at the train station to head out, I reconsidered. I couldn't find the board where the trains and track numbers were listed. And that is when I saw it: The schedule was posted outside on a small black sign. The train destinations and track numbers were manually tacked on, and the time was noted by a little clock that someone needed to change by moving the hands with their finger. This sign to me was so quaint to me, I felt like I was swept into the small town bubble of Pecs.


The small town train schedule.


I stood on the platform, and in the dark, foggy morning, the air trembled with excitement and mystery. I felt like I was Anna Karenina, only I wasn't in Russia and it wasn't snowing and I wasn't going to throw myself on the tracks. Okay, it was nothing like Anna Karenina, but there was something about that platform that evoked anticipation for the journey that lay ahead.

I stepped on the train which was like walking in a time warp. The train was old and rickety. The seats were benches reminiscent of a 1950's diner, which are stiff and uncomfortable and there was no place to rest your head. There were old pictures of Budapest on the wall, and when the train moved, the lights flickered, the walls rattled. While I was on the train for entire 2-hour duration, the people on the train seemed to be going about their business, hopping on the train for just a few stops and then getting off. While this was a journey for me, this was ordinary life for them.

I got off the train at the border of Hungary and Croatia in a town called Gyekenyes. I had three hours to kill here before catching the international train into Zagreb. That's when I came to my senses. Pecs was not a small town. This was a small town.

The train station--the one little building--confused me. There were all these doors and windows with white lacy curtains on them, I couldn't tell which one was the main entrance. I walked up and down peering into windows and trying to open doors. I finally found what looked like the waiting room, a drafty place with a few benches and a sink in the corner.

I waited for a while and finally a ticket woman came to the counter. I usually pay for my tickets by credit card. Thank goodness I had some cash on me. The woman didn't even have a computer. She took about five minutes to hand-write my ticket and handed it to me. I think maybe three people, including myself, bought tickets the whole time I sat there.

I was starving and hoping to find something to eat. I went to the place that said "buffet" but inside I only found a shop with potato chips and candy. I bought some of both and ate them for lunch. I was still hungry, so I walked outside and found a small convenience store, which seemed to be a hub in town. People convened there, leaning their bicycles against the store, carrying their wooden baskets inside. Some ladies stood in a circle and chatted outside. I bought a banana and an orange. I walked up and down the road and looked at some houses, but I didn't go far because my bags were heavy and it looked like there was no place to go. The woman stared at me. So instead I sat in the station, just me and the ticket counter woman. I watched her shuffle papers. I asked her where the rest room was. It was in one of the random, unmarked doors. There was no toilet paper.

What is it about a small town that appeals to me? It is not that I want to live here, but I like the thought about people living their lives in a genuine way.

When I was in the Czech Republic, I read a magazine article about a guy who gets paid a lot of money to select what kind of music hotels should play in their lobbies. He spends a few days in the hotel and then decides what kind of mood the hotel should have and selects a play list based on this.

It just goes to show that in cities like where I live--nothing is genuine anymore. Not the play list in the hotel, not in the restaurants we eat or the clothes we wear. Everything has been thought-out in advance, everything now having an advertising, media or public relations strategy on the best way to market people and get them to spend money on their products. Sometimes, when I am thinking about buying something that is really hip at the moment, I pause and think, "Do I really like this or am I buying this because everyone else thinks it's cool?" If this thought crosses my mind, I usually don't get it.

It goes beyond just material things. All my life I have heard that "you can be anyone you want to be" and "success equals happiness" and "your career will give you great satisfaction." Are these things really true or just part of the marketing scam known as "the American Dream?"

I picture people in small towns not focused on those kinds of things. It's not about the success, the money, owning the latest thing. If you peel back the layers, It is about family, the company of great friends, enjoying life's simple pleasures.

Maybe my idea of the small town is merely a fantasy, and perhaps the people there are not as unaffected as I imagine them to be. Maybe they spend their lives wishing that they could have more things, money, success.

But what appeals to me is this notion of peeling back the layers and deciding what is really important in your life. Ignore the messages from everyone else, consider what is really important to you and live your life focused on these things. And this goes whether you’re a country bumpkin in a small town or a big city girl like me.



The waiting room with a sink.


My handwritten ticket.



Bikes (big and little) lean against the convenience store.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Food for thought.


Pec's Szechenyi Ter


My biggest mistake today was not bringing my camera to breakfast.

I was thrilled to find out that there were eggs on the menu and so I ordered scrambled eggs with sausage. What came out looked like an egg pizza pie with thinly sliced hot dogs on top. Strange and unappetizing as it looked, it was pretty tasty.
Then I reached inside the bread basket and found cinnamon bread in a Neapolitan swirl of colors: brown, white and pink! Pink bread! It was good, too! If breakfast was this exciting, who knew what the day would hold?

Pecs is a busy, albeit small city. There are tons of people milling around: students with backpacks riding bikes, school children walking in lines, mothers pushing strollers, men and women going to work, couples lounging in coffee shops. The sidewalks are narrow at times and sometimes I felt like I was back in New York City, weaving through the people traffic. My culture shock to Hungary was not as dramatic as it had been between Poland and the Czech Republic, but I can't help but notice that everyone is much friendlier here. People smile at me, offer help, genuinely try to communicate. I feel welcomed.

I mostly ambled about the city, taking in the sights. My favorite spot was the Csontvary Museum, which exhibits the major works of Slovakian-Hungarian artist Tivadar Kosztka Csontvary. I like a small museum like this, focused on one artist, so you can learn his history and visually see the progression of work through the years. While museums like the Met are brilliant, I often walk out over-stimulated. Here, I felt like I learned something and it will stick.

Csontvary, who happened to suffer from schizophrenia, became an artist late in life. He only has about 120 works total. When he didn't get the fame he expected, he delved into a depression and never painted again. Now they have a museum dedicated to him.

His paintings are large and bold landscapes and people painted with the most vivid of colors. I stopped and stared for a long time at "At the Entrance of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem." It was a picture of a crowd, there were so many people I couldn't count them, and yet all of them had such different expressions and colors to their faces. It was amazing.

I ventured across the street to the Dom Ter which is this beautifully ornate cathedral where parts of it date back to the 11th century. What impressed me most was not the church, but inside the crypt, there were all these art projects created by children of the nativity scene. They were so creative--some were dioramas made of wood and tree cones, others were made out of clay, some were painted. I tried to take pictures of them, but they all looked stupid in pictures. In real life, they were awesome. I used to love doing that kind of stuff when I was a kid.



Dom Ter.



This nativity scene is awesome, I swear!

I must have been in a childish mood because I went into a hip-hop clothing store and bought some round pins that I would have adored when I was 14. I especially like the one with the monkey face and Darth Vader helmet that says "Dark Side." They're even made in Hungary. I have this feeling I might have to give one of them to my sister. But not the "Dark Side" one.



I love these!


My Lonely Plant guide book says that the town can't decide between two bakeries which one sells the better cake. I like solving these types of problems, so I thought I would try both. The first place, Mecsek, smelled absolutely heavenly when I walked though the door. There were so many different cakes to choose from, plus some luscious-looking ice cream, but I finally settled down on a block of crème sandwiched in pastry. It was good, but much too much. I could barely finish the whole thing.

I went to the other place Virag--which was more of a coffee shop than a bakery--at the end of the day. I wasn't really in the mood for a sweet, so I went for the smallest item, a linzer cookie covered in chocolate. I took a bite and it was cold. Cold cookies are bad things. And the rest of the desserts didn't even look that good. The first place wins hands down.

Aren't you glad that I go to these places and test these things out so you all don't have to?



The winner!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Turning lemons into lemonade.


Day-tripper.


Do you ever have one of those days where you get one curve ball after another, and you just spend all your time trying to deflect them? That used to happen to me a lot at work. I would come in, expecting a normal quiet day, and then all of a sudden the phone would start ringing, the emails coming in, everyone by my desk. I didn't have time to stress out, I just reacted and then wondered at the end of the day how it all worked out. Same sort of thing happened today. Today's curve balls included:

Waking up at 4am and not being able to fall back asleep.

Heading to the train station at 5:45am only to find that my train to Budapest was 90 minutes delayed. How do trains get delayed at 5:45 am?

Buying a ticket for the 7:09 am train only to realize that this one is going to Budapest but to the Nyugati train station. My connecting train is at the Keleti station.

Sitting in a hot train car with a woman who will not stop speaking I can't understand what you are saying! And it is 7 in the morning, for Pete's sake!

Arriving in Budapest and trying to figure out how to take the Metro to the other train station. Buy the wrong ticket and have to buy another.

Getting off-balanced with my heavy bag by the crazy, fast-moving escalators.

Dealing with shoulder aches due to my heavy bag. Why is it so much heavier today? Adjusted straps. Felt better.

Trying to explain the Eurail pass to the ticket counter woman. I purchased a pass back in the States to travel by train through Hungary, Austria and Germany. I have to validate it before I use it. They had no idea what I am talking about. Had to find someone who did.

Finding something to eat at the train station that doesn't scare me. Go into a shop with sketchy characters who are going shots of alcohol at 11:30 am. No, thanks. My other choices are gyros or massive football sized sandwiches packed with meat. I go with the gyro.

Getting into Pecs, a small artists town in southern Hungary and rather than walking around, spending my first hour doing all my laundry in the sink because I have no clean clothes.

Going out to dinner where these two men won't stop staring at me. Have you never seen a woman eating alone at a restaurant before? After I paid the waiter, I looked in my book about what to do about tip, and they said that I should give the tip as I am paying, and that Hungarians think leaving tips at the table are stupid and rude. There are no waiters around, the men won't stop staring at me, I am getting nervous, so I left the money on the table and ran out of there. Whatever.

Walking around town around 7 to find everything closed. I came back to my narrow hotel room that smells of cigarettes (not mine) and laundry detergent (all me) and watched bad Euro videos on VH1 because I don't understand anything else.



Say what? And I thought Polish was hard.



Budapest's Keleti train station: filled with a strange assortment of characters and food choices.


My insanely narrow hotel room/laundry room.


Pretty! First impressions of Pecs.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A perfect day for a nap.

I had good intentions, I really did. Thanks to my new roommates who rummaged around my room bright and early, I was awake and out the door by 9:30 ready to tackle the day. I decided that I was going to take a day trip to Devin Castle, which is outside of Bratislava, and then come back and walk around Bratislava Castle which is in town but supposedly not as nice.

Then I stopped at Tesco for some breakfast. Then I got lost getting to the bus station. Then I walked up a really big hill and it was not the right hill. When I finally got to the bus station, the morning was wasted and the next bus to the castle was an hour and a half away. I suddenly didn't feel like it anymore.

I didn't want to do anything. I didn't want to go to the castles. I didn't want to be in Bratislava anymore. I didn't want to look for a restaurant so I popped into McDonald's because it was there and I didn't have to think. I ate and people-watched and contemplated a day of napping.


People watching at its best.

These are the times I wish I had a traveling partner because when you are alone, it is hard to get out of a funk. I sat there for a while, going back and forth on what to do. Finally, I imagined myself telling people at home about my travels in Bratislava and saying, yeah, I didn't see any of the castles because I didn't feel like it. It seemed lame. That thought made me go climb the hill to Bratislava Castle. It wasn't the good one, but at least it was something.

I walked around the castle grounds. I went around town. I checked out a few stores. I sat in a coffee shop for a while and wrote some fiction, my eyes drooping at first, but then I got into a nice flow. I walked back to the hostel, my mind bubbling with ideas for my story. There was no one in my room when I arrived and so I took a nap which I could only describe as delicious.

When I woke up, I was full of energy. I walked around the city one last time--it was beautiful outside for once, the rain stopped, the night air comfortably cool. People had come outside, milling about the streets. I felt incredibly happy. Funny how a little bit of sleep can make all the difference.


Bratislava Castle.



Bratislava is a city of many statues...the watcher is the most famous.



I like this this one, too. Reminds me of Mr. Monopoly.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

This place ain't bad.


Bratislava at night.

When I told people about my trip and that I was planning to visit Bratislava, I always got two reactions. The first reaction, usually by experienced travelers, would be them wrinkling their noses and saying, "Don't go there. There is nothing there." The other answer, usually by Americans, would be "Where's Bratislava?"

In case you don't know, Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia, which is a country in Europe, which is one of the seven continents, planet Earth.

I had zero expectations for this place, therefore, it is absolutely amazing. Then again, things can only go up after Brno. Yeah, it's small. Yeah, there is not much to see. Yeah, it was freezing cold my first day, pouring miserable rain my second, but I like it here.

After I arrived, I walked around the charming and winding streets of Old Town in an hour, where I felt like I saw almost everything I needed to see, and then I hibernated in a restaurant and a café for most of the day because it was too cold and windy to stay outside any longer.

I also spent some time in this mega-store called Tesco, which is the Euro version of Wal-Mart but insane. It is multi-floored and inside is everything you would want to buy among many things you wouldn't. I drifted throughout the store for about an hour in complete daze, trying to take it all in. There was the grocery store where they had giant barrels of fresh bread, where old ladies wearing handkerchiefs duked it with macho blue-jeans-wearing men for the best loaves. Pushing and shoving and reaching, I never seen such a frenzy.

I walked by rows of Christmas trees (already?) and household appliances, cosmetics and nail polish, plant shops and restaurants, an internet café and toys, and rack after rack of clothes. The mass quantity of goods, the juxtaposition of some of the items (should those pills be by these baking products?) perplexed and entertained me.

I went to my hostel to find other travelers escaping from the cold, and after talking a little bit, I agreed after some coaxing to go on a walk with Rose from Austraila and this guy from Brazil.

"Come on," said the guy from Brazil. "We're in Bratislava. We can't just sit inside the whole time. You could do that in New York."

He was right, so we walked in the cold, and we wondered why we thought it would be a good idea to come here in the fall. We walked around the same streets of the old town, which confirmed that I did see everything already.

"I didn't see the castle yet," I said.

The kid from Brazil smirked. "Well, don't look at it now or you will have nothing to see tomorrow!" He was not a Bratislava fan.

The three of us couldn't stop laughing. Even though I was completely sober, I can't really remember what was so funny, but I laughed so hard, my stomach hurt. Maybe it had to do with the fact that the Brazilian kid was carrying a bottle of beer the size of a two-liter bottle of Coke.

This morning, I met a Canadian girl from Vancouver named Shannon. She is an artist who is currently working as an au pair in England and taking some time off to travel. I liked her right away (how could I not, after she gave me a pair of badly-needed gloves!) and so we decided to brave the pouring rain and see the Bratislava Castle together. Only we never made it. The rain was unbearable, we were so cold and wet that we couldn't hack it all the way there, so we hid in a restaurant and a cafe (sound familiar?) and we had nice conversation as our pants and socks (kind of) dried. We went to this Slovakian vegetarian restaurant that was kind of cafeteria style and items were crossed off the menu when they were out of them. We both had a bowl of this tomato soup with vegetable dumplings and potatoes. It was warm, so it was good.

I said good-bye to Shannon (she's off to Budapest) and holed up inside in my hostel planning my warm Croatia trip, the rain steady and hard outside. I checked Weather.com and it looks like the rain will stop for a few hours tomorrow. I hope to see the castle then.



Questionable fashion at Tesco.


Rose and the guy from Brazil with the giant beer.



Under cover with Shannon.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Itinerary.


Me and a statue friend in Bratislava.

I am a Libra, which is the sign of the scales, which means that I often see both sides of a situation. It also means that I cannot make a decision.

On the phone last night with my mom, while I was in my dorm room in blistery middle-of-nowhere Brno, and she in unseasonably warm 80-degree New Jersey, she said that I might be spending too much time in each country. Two weeks is too long.

She might be right.

My intention for this trip was to concentrate on a few countries. I didn't want to spread myself too thin, visiting 20 countries and coming back home barely remembering any one of them. Instead, I really wanted to sink in and see what each place was really like--by visiting the big places and also finding the little gems along the way.

But after two weeks in CR, I was over the country. Aside from Brno, I enjoyed all the places I visited, some better than others. I really have a good sense for the country, which is a nice feeling to have. But maybe I am too focused. By spending so much time on the small places, maybe I am missing the bigger picture.

"You should go see more countries," my mom suggested.

After a few days in Slovakia, I was planning to conquer Hungary in the same way as Czech Republic. I am meeting Dan in Budapest in two weeks, so that means I can't venture out too far. I planned to explore the countryside until he gets here. But what if these small towns were just other versions of Brno? Will I have to spend yet another few weeks not speaking to anyone?

I flipped through my Hungary book and some of these little places sounded really cool. When will I have the chance to explore Hungary again? Plus, I already purchased a Hungary-Austria-Germany train pass, and I don't have all kinds of money floating around.

Ah, the life of a Libra.

I went to my hostel in Bratislava and met my roommate, Rose, from Australia. I swear, just talking to someone for ten minutes in English felt remarkable. She told me that she traveled the some of the small cities in Hungary herself, but she didn't recommend it because even though the places were nice, you basically saw everything in one day and you had no one to talk to because no one spoke English. I knew exactly what she meant.

A small, mischievous smile swept across my face. I was going to screw the itinerary.

I will spend a few days in Bratislava, maybe hit up a small town in Hungary and then I am heading to Croatia. I have no guide book, no maps, no background knowledge. I heard it is warm there, and I have to be back in Budapest by November 3. That is all I know. I will have to figure it all out tomorrow.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Czech Republic, you've taught me that…


Me in Prague.

I'm a city girl at heart.


French patisseries aside, Czechs make bad desserts. But I'll eat them anyway.

You might make good beer, but I still prefer wine.

It can be really cold in October.

There is nothing to fear but fear itself.

I can handle being alone for a long period of time.

You shouldn't get attached to your bed.

Old Czech grandmas like to speak with me--in Czech. Nodding and smiling gets you by.

Plain yogurt and granola with a ham sandwich is a really good breakfast.

Good signage and Lonely Planet guide maps are a tourist's best friend.

There's something really nice about a tea bowl.

There are places on earth where there are miles and miles of short green grass.

Czech men seem kind of shy, but when they are drunk, they like to yell in the streets.

Sometimes you have to get off the train and get on a bus.

I really dig art nouveau.

Your language sounds like Polish, but when I speak Polish you don't understand a word I say.

I am the same person in the Czech Republic as I am anywhere else.

Two weeks can feel like two years.

I enjoyed our time together, but I think it is time to move on. It's not you, it's me. You're really great, I really mean it, but if I stay in your country any longer, I might die because none of you Czech people will talk to me unless you work at a restaurant, a hotel or a train station. And death is not an option because there is just so much more I need to see right now and things I need to be talking about. I think we can still be friends. Peace out, CR!


Hey, Czech man! What are you looking at? I said good-bye already!

Hey, Brno! You're boring!


The view from here? Not so good.

It might be naïve of me to have thought that I would like every place I visit during this trip. But even the places I found a little ordinary (Ceske Budejovice) or strange (Karlovy Vary), I could find something that amused and delighted me.

I don't like anything about Brno.

I came in yesterday evening, my train cabin next to some ugly Americans, who were drinking beer, talking on top of their lungs and just being the type of nuisance that made me embarrassed for my country. I found my way to my hotel, which was recommended to me by Steffi, one of the girls I spent my birthday with. She went to university here for a semester and suggested that I stay on the hotel on the college campus because it was cheap. My room is a little dorm, with two single beds, a desk, some chairs, a bathroom and a mini-kitchen. The only strange thing is that there appears to be no one who goes to school here. I have seen only a handful of students.

I found a sheet of paper in my room with Guest Rules and it includes the statement, "Do not hesitate to ask the receptionist about any necessary information." It does not mention that the receptionist does not like to answer questions about any necessary information. I tried to find out about the computer lab (the response was pointing outside in annoyance) to using the laundry room (With a deep sigh: "I guess you can use it, but you can't use it now.")

I took the tram into town for some dinner, and there was no open store or restaurant in sight. It was only 7 o' clock. There were a few people milling about, mostly young people, so they had to be going somewhere. This place, I could not find. I finally went into a coffee shop for some dessert just because it was the only place I saw open, and then I went to McDonald's for dinner.

Sunday was no different. Everything was closed. I wandered about the touristy sights, which had me yawning, the architecture ugly, the air cold on my skin. I found a restaurant that was open, a pasta place, where I ate spaghetti and flipped through a Czech woman's magazine. Inside was one article that I think was supposed to help readers practice reading English. It was an essay written by a British woman defending Americans. She wrote about how Czechs think all Americans are stupid and fat, that no Czech wants to learn American English because they think British English is superior, that Czechs disagree with our government and hate the American commercialism infiltrating their country. In the essay, the writer urged Czechs to have an open mind about Americans, that the stereotypes were not always true, the decisions of the government not necessary any individual's fault. I had heard rumblings of anti-American sentiments in my travels so far. It's one thing to hear it in conversation, but this article, written in a national magazine, took me a little by surprise.

As I am reading, low and behold, the same ugly Americans from the train come and sit at the table right next to me, where they proceeded to have a very loud conversation about midgets.

I needed to get away from them, so I headed to Coffee Heaven, an extremely overpriced European Starbucks-like chain, where I grabbed some coffee and cake, and contemplated my life. Along with this town being a complete drag, all this alone time has made me sentimental and introspective. I found myself getting teary-eyed by the quotes written on the café walls.

"Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart." - Confucis.

This made me think about the day I left New York for this trip, and the knowledge I had then that I was doing something that I really wanted to do, that this trip meant the world to me, that I was going somewhere with all my heart. Would I be able to continue living this way back in New York? Would I really be able to pursue my writing there, with all my heart, or will I drag my feet on the ground because I will be too scared?

Saturated in my thoughts, I went to the Capuchin monastery crypt which was probably the worst place for me to go. Inside the crypt are about a whole bunch of dead bodies from the 18th century that have become mummified. Walking through the rooms, I saw charcoal grey bodies, mostly bones, through many still had loose skin attached, others still were wearing clothes and their shoes. It was their faces that got me: all of them wore different expressions, but they all looked terrified. Little kids ran by me with wide eyes and donut-hole mouths.

Note to self: When contemplating the meaning of life, don't go to a crypt. It doesn't make you feel any better.

So I did something that does make me feel better. I went to the movies, and went to see an American movie, Becoming Jane, which is a fictious account about writer Jane Austen's life. And there were plenty of Czechs there enjoying the American movie as well.

It is possible that Brno is more lively (at the very least, open) on the weekdays, that the place is truly exceptional in the warm, lazy days summer. I am willing to believe that. But I don't think I ever need to come back to find out for sure.


Back to school: My hotel/dorm.


The bustling main square.



Brno's Cathedral of St Peter and Paul.

Friday, October 19, 2007

How to make Czech beer.


Choose a location like Ceske Budejovice that has great water: it's the most important ingredient for a good beer.



Build giant wells to get the water from underground. Store water in giant silver cylinders.



Create beer in the brew house by mixing the water with ground malt: The process takes about 10 hours and includes three processes: mashing, filtering and boiling.



Add yeast to the liquid and let it ferment for about 10 days.



Let beer age for 90 days.



At this point, the beer is freshest and tastes the best. But it must be pasteurized after this stage or it will go bad in a week.



Bottle the beer.



Package it up and it's ready to drink!

By the way, Budweiser Budvar is in no way related to Budweiser in the United States. They explained on the tour that a man who used to work at their company moved to the United States and started his own beer company and took the same name. Budweiser Budvar created beer first, Anheuser copyrighted the name first. Therefore, there are two different opinions on who has the original Budweiser. Does anyone have a preference?