Monday, January 31, 2011

What A Difference A Border Makes

I’m afraid someone is going to have to drag me out of Poland kicking and screaming.  It’s been three days since I arrived in Krakow and since then I’ve been in a constant state of euphoria that doesn’t seem to be subsiding.  But before I dive into my new home-away-from-home, let me first say a couple of things about the places I’ve left behind.

First, after not-much thought, I have placed Russia and Ukraine firmly at the top of my list of difficult foreign-solo slogs, edging China from its perch.  And so it’s no wonder that the relative ease of Poland has me spinning.  At the same time, Russia and Ukraine have decidedly claimed special little places in my heart and you certainly haven’t heard the last of them.

And second, if anyone within a position of authority in Ukraine’s Ministry of Transportation is reading this blog, I beg of you to do something about the stretch of highway between L’viv and the Polish border.  That road is nothing but an hour and forty minutes of white-knuckle, pothole-swerving hell and it’s a damn good thing I remembered to pack my motion-sick preventive wristbands, or else someone would have been cleaning up a big Linda-Blair-Exorcist mess on that bus. 

Now—Poland!   As the blog title suggests, I feel like I stepped across an arbitrary line and entered a different universe.  Three things jumped out right away.  First, people here actually smile.  (More on this later.)  Second, I’m able to throw my toilet paper into the actual toilet rather than into the bin next to it.  (If you think it's gross just hearing about it, think about how I felt doing it.)  And third, Poland recycles, so the environmentally-conscious Californian in me no longer has to throw glass and plastic in the trash alongside the used toilet paper.

But perhaps most important, suddenly I am literate once more.  I mean, it’s not like I know a lick of Polish beyond just the one word—that being kielbasa—but since our respective Latin-based alphabets are very similar, half the battle’s already won.  Take the word “restaurant,” for example.  In Russian-Cyrillic, that word looks like “ресторан.”  I saw it everywhere and kept thinking, what the hell does pectopah mean?  Finally, about 19 days in, I spotted an establishment in Moscow with a sign that said “Thai pectopah.”  And that’s when I finally realized that the “p” is really an “r,” the “c” is an “s,” and the “н” is an “n.”   So, “ресторан” transliterates to “restoran.” 

Perhaps I’m just slow.  But in Poland, even the slow Americans can make their way around when a word like restaurant looks like “restauracja.”  It requires no extra mental gymnastics to figure out that that’s a place where I can get some chow.

Of course the return to a Latin-based alphabet also makes it exponentially easier to find places on a map.  I found my hostel straight away, even in 6:00 a.m. darkness, and after a long nap and a strong cappuccino, I followed the map to a place called Plaza Nowy where they sell a delicious pizza-like concoction called zapiekanka.  Basically they take a foot-long slice of fresh, french bread, smother it with cheese and any combination of fresh vegetable and meat toppings your heart desires, and bake it in the oven while you wait to take it on the run.   And the whole thing costs on average about 6 Polish zloty, or $2 US dollars.  A pure delight.

I guess the best way to describe how I've been feeling is to say this:  it is as if Russia and Ukraine worked me like a dog for 49 days straight and Poland finally gave me the day off.  And when I have a day off, I like to go to the movies.

I had attempted to go to the movies in both Russia and Ukraine. I wanted to see The Little Fockers, but the movie theaters in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Kiev overdub the films in their languages, and don’t provide English subtitles.  This differed from my experiences in Bolivia, Nepal, and Latvia, for example, where movies are played in original English with subtitles, or, as in the case of Argentina, the film is dubbed in Spanish with English subtitles added back in.

As soon as I confirmed that movies here in Krakow are shown in original English with Polish subtitles, I high-tailed it to a nearby, indie-type cinema in the city center and plunked down 17 Polish zloty (or $5.86 US) for a 15:45 showing of The King’s Speech.   Excellent.  Even all that frustrating stammering was music to my English-deprived ears.

In fact, many locals here can speak and understand English.  This is the best news ever, because it means I can once again blather to strangers, as in the following post-King’s Speech conversation I had with the teenage girl behind concessions:

Me:  You guys don’t sell popcorn at the movies, huh?
Girl:  Well, not at this theater, but the other theaters in Krakow do.
Me:  I really like this theater.  I’m thinking of coming back tomorrow to see The Black Swan.  Have you seen it?
Girl:  Not yet, but I want to.
Me:  I just saw The King’s Speech.  Have you seen that?  
Girl:  Yes, I saw it this morning.  (Smiling.)  I love Colin Firth.
Me:  Oh my God—you don’t even know how much I love Colin Firth!  Do you know the movie What A Girl Wants with Amanda Bynes?  I love him in that.
Girl:  Yes, I’ve seen it.  (Smiling bigger.)
Me:  I also love him in Love Actually.  Do you know that movie?
Girl:  Yes, of course.  (Suddenly beside herself.)  I love that movie!
Me:  Me too!  I think I’ve seen it 20 times.
Girl: I think I’ve seen it more than that!
Me:  You know he’s nominated for an Oscar for The King’s Speech?
Girl:  Yes, I know.
Me:  Yeah, I think he’s going to win.  Well, he should win.  He is just the best.   
  (Man comes up to buy drink.)
Me: Well, it was nice talking to you.
Girl:  Nice talking to you too.
Me:  Bye.
Girl:  Bye.

I left the theater exhilarated and decided to make the day an even more splendid one by splurging on sushi.  I’ll be writing a specific report on the sushi in these parts, but suffice it to say here that I would have given the sushi at Edo in Krakow at least a B-plus (as compared to the sushi in Los Angeles) had that jalapeno-laden spicy tuna roll not set my mouth on fire.  It really should come with a warning.  On balance, though, I left the sushi restaurajca with a palate thoroughly pleased. 

I finished the evening with a visit to the Galicia Jewish Museum in Kazimierz, the former Jewish quarter of Krakow, where several old synagogues and other buildings of Jewish origin are uncharacteristically left standing.  Because it was Friday evening, admission was free, and the exhibits—primarily commemorating Holocaust victims—were in both Polish and English, so I was actually able to follow along. 

The new place where I rest my head.
I finally walked back to the hostel alternately people-watching and window-shopping as I cut through the town square.  And to top off my already-glorious day, I had my $7-per-night dorm room all to myself.  

And that’s just the first day.  I did go back to the theater the next day to see The Black Swan (interesting and freaky), but I’ve promised myself that I’m not going to see The Social Network at the theater across town (the one with popcorn) until I make some serious writing progress.  Of course, the beauty is, I get to define what serious writing progress means.  I think finishing this post should qualify, don't you?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Chasing Wild Geese Through Multicultural Ternopil

Recently I read an emotionally-gripping memoir about a Polish Catholic student nurse who risked her life to save countless Jews during the Holocaust.  The real nail-biter parts of the story take place in Ternopil, Ukraine, where this young nurse was forced by the Germans to work in a munitions factory, and later as a housekeeper in the private villa of a German army major.  At one point, the student nurse transfers a number of Jewish workers from the factory’s laundry room and hides them in the basement of the army major’s nearby villa, where they remained safe from imminent deportation to a Nazi death camp. 

Since Ternopil is only a two-hour train ride east from L’viv, I decided to go and poke around to see what I could see.  I knew the old factory was situated in a place called Harres-Krafa Park, which, according to the book, took up about three city blocks.  The villa was located down “three long streets” from the park.  The book contained pictures of both places, taken in the early 1940s.  I jotted down some general notes before passing the book along to an American peace corps volunteer working in Crimea.  But beyond that, I had little else to go on.

I didn’t think I could accomplish what I wanted to accomplish unhurriedly in a day, so I planned to spend the night in Ternopil.  I couldn’t locate a hostel online, so I asked Olana, my hostel administrator in L’viv, whether she knew of one.  She didn’t, but told me she would talk to a friend and get back to me.  Two days later, Olana handed me a printed map of Ternopil with two addresses listed at the bottom; no specific names or contact information were included.  

Olana also mentioned that she had an “Afro-American friend” willing to meet me and show me around Ternopil.  I wanted more details and this is basically how our conversation went:

So your friend is American?
He is black.
Uh-huh, but is he American?
He is from Nigeria.
So, he is a Nigerian-American?
I don’t know.
But he is your friend?
Well, he is not my friend.  I don’t really know him.

After more questioning, I finally teased out what facts I could.  The man in question is a Nigerian studying in Ukraine (as a good number of African students do), and my administrator stumbled upon him over the internet, apparently while putting out feelers for Ternopil hostels.  They had never met.  Of course Olana was just trying to be helpful, but we both agreed that maybe it wasn’t the best idea for a woman traveling alone to arrange to meet a complete stranger in an unfamiliar place.

I arrived in Ternopil on Tuesday with my piece of paper and began the search for the two hostels.  I couldn’t find English speakers to help me get oriented, so I did my best by pointing to the map and saying words like “center” and “Ruskya” (the main street) in my best Ukrainian accent.  Eventually I found my way to the first address.

It did not look like a hostel.  It was a several-story building with what looked to be an official, government-issued plaque posted on the outside.  I entered and found two guards sitting behind a wooden table next to a security monitor.  One of them spoke a few words of English, and soon we established that this was not a hostel, but a student dormitory connected to an academy of learning.  As I spoke with the guards, a small group of young, black men wearing book bags, stone-washed jeans, and pointed-toe shoes came down the stairs and exited the building.  There goes my Nigerian, I thought. 

I was getting ready to leave in search of the second address when a man of about fifty entered the foyer and asked if I spoke Spanish.  “Un poco,” I replied.  That was a bit of an overstatement, but we nevertheless were able to conclude that neither this nor the other address written on my paper was a hostel.  At this point I knew I had to make myself vulnerable in order to find a bed for the night, so I explained that I had just arrived in Ternopil and was looking for a place to dormir for un poco dinero, like in a hostel-dormitorio

The Spanish-speaking man told me to wait un momento and disappeared up the stairs.  He came back now wearing his coat and motioned for me to walk with him.  “Donde?” I questioned before agreeing to follow him, and he told me he knew of a hotel dos calles away for not much dinero.   At this point it was still light out and I didn’t see a downside to checking it out.  On the way I learned that the man’s name is Nikolai.  He is from Barcelona and has worked as an electrician in Ukraine for ocho años.

The hotel was two streets away, just like Nikolai said.   We entered the lobby and approached a woman sitting behind a window at the front desk.  Nikolai kept reconfirming that I needed a room for only one person.  “Si, solamente una persona,” I said, for the third time.   I was told that a room for one cost 180 Ukrainian hyrvnias, or about $22 US.  This was almost three times the amount I was paying for my hostel bed in L’viv, and more than I wanted to spend.  But one thing that has gotten me this far is knowing when to stop looking for something cheaper and lay the money down.  This was one of those times.

The room had a desk, a bed, and a TV whose channels were all in Ukrainian, but still it was a small slice of heaven to have my own room with a key and unlimited privacy.  I wanted to lie down after the exhausting events of the morning, but I had a munitions factory and villa to find, so I quickly freshened up and headed out again.

On the search down a Ternopil street.

I spent the next few hours poking into businesses where I thought English might be spoken and asking if anyone had heard of Harres-Krafa Park.  No one had.  I ducked into an internet café for more research.  I didn’t learn much else concerning the park, like whether it was still standing, but I did read that Ternopil oblast (or province) has an official state archive that was first established in 1941, and it was nearby.  I figured if anyone would know about Harres-Krafa Park, the people at the archive would, so I made plans to go the next day, and hoped someone there would speak English.

Back at the hotel room—with no wi-fi or English-language television—I pulled out a book from my hostel’s exchange in L’viv.  It’s called A Long Way Gone, and is a memoir written by a child soldier of Sierra Leone’s 1990s civil war.  On the front cover a reviewer had written something like “everyone in the world should read this book.” I finished it that night, checking myself off the list.  It was a horrific account of this child soldier’s plight, but also profound and illuminating.  I wanted to give the book to the next person in order to keep the story going, but it had to be someone who could read English.  I figured I knew just where to find such a person in Ternopil.

The next morning I checked out of the hotel and headed back to the student dormitory where I had seen the African students the day before.  I wanted to thank Nikolai again if possible, and intended to find a new reader for the book.  A good prospect emerged from the dorm upstairs and I seized my chance.

“Excuse me,” I said, holding out the book out to a young, black man on his way out the door with a book bag slung over his shoulder.  “I just finished this and would like to pass it along to someone who might be interested to read it.”  My English stopped him in his tracks.  He glanced at the book’s cover on which an African child soldier appears, looked back at me, and then began stammering excitedly with questions:  What are you doing in Ternopil?  Where are you from?  Where are you going?  Where have you been?  Did you come here alone?  Finally he asked whether I was going toward the city center.  I said I was, and so was he, so we walked together, asking and answering more questions in turn.

The young man's name is Gaton, and I learned that he isn't my Nigerian.  Gaton is from Cameroon and has been studying computer science in Ternopil for one year.  He speaks French, English, some Ukrainian as of late, and the language of his tribe, which is the same one to which Cameroon’s president belongs, he told me proudly.  We talked about how Gaton is treated in Ternopil.  He told me that he gets beaten up a lot because he likes white women and wants to date one, but when he tries to talk to them in the nightclub, things get ugly.  Apparently there is much racism in Ukraine insofar as interracial relationships are concerned.  Gaton wants to go to America one day to study Cisco, and perhaps date whomever he chooses.

Could this be my Nigerian?
I listened to Gaton with a sympathetic ear.  I now know that both Russia and Ukraine contain virtual seas of light-skinned people in which the occasional dark-skinned person shockingly stands out.  Each time I would spot a black man in Russia (I think I saw about a half-dozen during 26 days of travel in two of Russia’s largest cities), I wanted to ask him what he was doing there, because I’m just curious that way.  But for some reason in my mind I would hear Eddie Murphy in Delirious scream “Why motherf@#&!r?  A black man can't have a suitcase?” and I chickened out.

My new Cameroonian friend and I arrived in the city center and I could tell he wanted to spend more time with me, being an English-speaking white woman from America.  But writing is something that must be done alone, so I held my hand out to him to signal that it was time for me to go on my way.  He shook it, and we said goodbye.  

No eggs, but the restaurant did serve these
nutritious cherry cheese pancakes.
I went to a café in the city center, where an English-speaking German teaching in Ukraine helped me order breakfast.  I wrote for a couple hours and spent the next few walking through neighborhoods and down city streets.  Earlier I had trouble finding the state archive building, and wanted to give it one last try before leaving town.

I approached two guys having a smoke outside a building that said “Medical University.”  They didn’t look like typical Ukrainians, but I couldn’t place their ethnicity.  I began by asking whether they spoke English.  They answered yes, and I asked directions to the street for which I had been searching that supposedly held the archive building.  Both guys were extremely friendly and we stood chatting for a few minutes.  I learned that they are studying to be doctors. 

The nearby town square.
I asked whether they had come to Ternopil from other countries.  One replied, “yes, I am from Iran and he is from Iraq.”  I was taken aback for a moment, thinking about the infamous Axis-of-Evil declaration and the Iraq War, and wondering what my new friends thought of the American in this cozy little triumvirate on this Ukrainian street corner.  They must have detected something from my quick change of demeanor.  The Iraqi guy spoke up and said, in an almost-reassuring tone, “actually, I live in Dubai now, and my two brothers live in America; one in California, and the other in Texas.”  I snapped out of my inner thoughts and replied, “I live in California too.”  Our countries of origin fell away once more as we engaged in further chit-chat.   Finally I wished them luck in school and departed.

My wild goose chase in Ternopil ended without my finding the archive building, the Harres-Krafa Park, or the major’s villa.  But I met some interesting people from across the globe and in the process learned some things.  

The Ternopil voksal, or train station.
Upon my return to L’viv last night, I had a long chat with my Italian roommate, Giovanni, who is also a writer and a traveler, and apparently sometimes works as an itinerant clown, but I’m not too clear on that particular detail.  I did teach him the English word "juggling."

Right now I am finishing this post as I share the breakfast table with a man from Hong Kong who is looking to open a Chinese restaurant in Ukraine, and an elderly British man who was born in Scotland and later moved to France.  He told me he is now traveling in Ukraine to meet a girlfriend.  I don't know, but I think that’s a euphemistic way of saying that he’s looking for a Ukrainian bride, an extremely popular pastime in these parts. 

Today I will take one last look around L’viv and then I must say goodbye to Ukraine.  Tonight I'll begin the journey to my next stop:  Krakow, Poland.  I hear the border between the countries is an absolute nightmare to get through, so I'm bracing myself for a long, arduous bus ride.  Wish me luck.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Toothpick-Thin Line Between Travel Madness and Travel Genius

I was thinking of you all—and especially my friend, Danny—when this morning I was doing something that made me wonder, what would my friends think if they saw me doing this?   I specifically reference Danny here because it was he who once encouraged me to keep a daily journal of my everyday activities for others to read as a source of entertainment.  I suppose it is true that, generally speaking, my routine thoughts and actions tend toward the ridiculous, and that’s why I had a feeling that what I was engaged in doing this morning was precisely the type of thing that Danny would expect to read about in Just Another Day In The Travels Of LC.  But before I tell you what it was that I was doing, a little context is needed. 

As any seasoned backpacker will tell you, when you are halfway around the world hoofing it like a mule with a pack on your back, every last ounce inside that pack must be worth its weight in gold, and no gram or stitch should ever make it among your belongings without a strong, justifiable purpose. 

Of course, traveling light is never an exact science.  Yes, there are certain, tried-and-true rules—my number one being, “Usage Is Key.”  But there will be items for which even “Usage Is Key” must yield to “Just In Case,” as with a back-up pair of eyeglasses for the time when your primary pair gets swept away with the tide into the Atlantic Ocean, leaving you functionally blind and unable to drive your car.   (Yes, it happened once to me.)

It is also important to recognize that one cannot travel for months on end completely bereft of creature comforts.  Especially for the ladies, there will be times when your femininity could use a little boost to counteract the tolls that dirty hostel bathrooms and cold-water showers will inevitably take on your general level of hygiene; thus, nail polish and even perfume can have the strong, justifiable purpose of making that next filthy, squat toilet a bit more tolerable.

With regard to my specific situation, it seems that, as much as I have tried to dispense with the borderline superfluous or unnecessary, my backpack remains too heavy.  Each time I pack up and move cities, I can feel my spine cracking and shifting in painful and alarming ways under the backpack’s weight.  

Kiev, a city chock full of steep hills, inspired me to cut down further.  So I mailed a small package of sentimental and other valuable bits-and-pieces home, and also roamed through Kiev’s metro stations casting off still-good items onto seemingly down-on-their-luck residents.  Yet, even after that effort, my spine still screamed for mercy as I huffed up the hostel stairwell in L’viv.  So yesterday I went through my bags once more and collected a new pile of items for the chopping block.  Among these were:

(1) a silk sleep-sheet carried for when hostels charge for bed linens (it seldom happens, and I’ll just have to pay when it does); or to wrap myself in a clean cocoon on particularly dirty overnight trains (it happens frequently, and I’ll just have to sleep in grime);
(2) a rubber doorstopper for extra security (except for once in Vietnam, which was actually kind of a false alarm, I’ve never really needed it, knock on wood);
(3) a 1-ounce squeeze tube of 30 SPF Banana Boat Sport sunscreen (duh; even if the sun were to peek out, my body has been otherwise hidden beneath several layers of clothing from head to toe);
(4) a too-heavy pen picked up from the Intercontinental Hotel in Kiev following the consumption of an outrageously-priced latte (the biggest heartbreaker, because I love the way it writes); and
(5) the removable padding from inside my Columbia sports bra.

During this latest whittling process, I once again stumbled upon the spool-of-thread problem, which, in itself, has a brief backstory. 

When one wears the same clothing repeatedly the way I do when I live out of a backpack, a small sewing kit decidedly rises to the top of the essential-items list.  Before I left home, I had all my travel supplies spread before me on my brother’s living room floor, including a small pile of travel sewing kits, from which I had intended to select the one that weighed the least.  But, when the time came for sewing in Russia, I discovered that somehow I neglected to pack even one.

I searched around St. Petersburg for a replacement kit and could not find one.  By the time I reached Moscow—19 days in—I had an item of clothing that really needed some mending.  So, on a visit to the local American Express office (on unrelated business), I asked the manager, Galina, if she could please tell me where I could buy a needle and some thread.  She said she knew a place, but it was far and the directions were complicated.  Instead, she reached into her desk drawer and offered me a small wooden spool of dark-colored thread and a needle.  I thanked her profusely and have since made good use of it.

But then, each time I attempted to cut weight from the backpack, that little wooden spool of thread gnawed at me.  Yes, the thread is essential, I would think, but the spool itself is deadweight.  I considered the issue for a long while, and last night, as I was getting to sleep, an idea popped into my head.

I awoke the next morning ready to execute my plan.  First, I turned on my computer and began streaming recent video clips of The Today Show.  I then searched my day bag for a toothpick that I remembered picking up at a restaurant recently.  I sat on my bed with the wooden spool of thread and the toothpick, and carefully began unwinding the thread from the wooden spool and onto the toothpick.

The project was taking a surprisingly long time.  I sat, patiently winding away, passively listening to Andrea Mitchell’s report on Wednesday’s state dinner for China’s president, while my mind wandered between my old life and the new.  I recalled those long-gone days when I would dress to The Today Show and head off to downtown Los Angeles to work on appellate briefs for large, corporate clients.  Now here I was, sitting on a hostel bed in Ukraine, streaming Today Show clips while wrapping thread around a toothpick in order to save a couple of grams’ weight in my backpack.  I’d then spend the balance of my day writing what some would undoubtedly consider gibberish, and wouldn’t earn a dime in the process. 

I spent a few moments calculating how much money those big clients used to pay for the same amount of time it was taking me to wrap this thread around this toothpick, and an audible laugh escaped from within.   I then wondered what Danny—also a lawyer—had on his agenda for today.  Maybe he had a motion to write, or a deposition to take, or a hearing to attend.  Whatever it was, I was certain it would not involve wrapping a long piece of thread around a toothpick. 

By the time I was ready to go out for the day, it was well past 10:00 a.m., and the current Today Show clip had Meredith Vieira interviewing Glenn Beck, who was in turn promoting his new book—something about the seven wonders that will change your life.  I looked down at the thread-wrapped toothpick sitting next to me on the bed and thought; this is why I’m not getting my own book written.  I then got up and placed the toothpick in a small, flowered zippered pouch used just for corralling such things, and left for my morning writing session feeling like I had just wasted precious minutes of a life that seems to be speeding by more quickly each day.

Later, with a second cup of coffee in me, I started to think better of the morning’s events.  In my mind I conducted a sort of mock-examination in my defense, and it went something like this: 

Now, Ms. C., when it comes down to it, the steady multiplication of ounces will eventually add up to pounds, correct?  Yes, that’s correct.

And it’s true, is it not, that the continual lugging of pound-upon-heavy-pound on your back during long searches for hard-to-find hostels in unfamiliar towns could eventually cause your vertebrae to break down and crumble?   Well, I’m not a doctor, but it sure feels like it could happen.

And you would find it difficult to enjoy the fruits of your forthcoming book deal while confined to a bed with a broken back, would you not?  Yes, I would find that very difficult.

So it really wasn’t a colossal waste of time to transfer that thread from the spool to the toothpick this morning, was it, Ms. C?  Actually, no, it wasn't.

So, you see, it really is all a matter of perspective.  Perhaps that little thread-wrapped toothpick represents the fine line between travel genius and travel madness.   I’m sure some would consider the time and effort it took to transfer the thread from spool to toothpick and think:  insane.   But, in the world in which I live, I confess that I look at that toothpick and think:  brilliant. 

And in the end, it really only matters what I think, isn't that right?  (That's right.

And then of course, there’s Danny.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Missing Moldova, and Leaving for L'viv

Today I packed my backpack with mixed feelings about leaving Kiev.  It’s been the only home I’ve known for the past two weeks, and I’ll be especially sad to leave my friends at the Coffee House on Ivana Franca street, where I’ve been coming nearly every day to struggle with the next great American travel memoir.  But I’m excited to be moving west, and feel confident that my decision to skip Moldova is the right one.

Here’s what happened with Moldova.  Part of my travel plan – picked up from Rick Steves’ Surprising Bulgaria DVD -- includes going to the Rila Monastery near Sofia, Bulgaria, where I can have my own digs for $15 a night.  I don’t know why; I just feel that that’s the place where I’m going to make more-than-serious writing progress.  I’ve been imagining myself hunkered down, laboring under a rigorous, monk-like writing schedule, and really getting some good chapters laid down.  According to my map, the only logical way to get from here to Bulgaria overland is by way of Moldova, so I had planned to take a train to Moldova’s capital, Chisinau, stay for a week, and then move on to Sofia.  

But then things are never that easy.  I learned—on a tip from Scottish Janine—that there’s a strip of land on Moldova’s northeastern border with Ukraine where foreign travelers should take extra care.  The region is called Trans-Dniestr, or Transnistria and, according to Wikipedia, it’s a “breakaway territory” that declared independence in 1990, and which neither the Republic of Moldova nor any United Nations member-state recognizes.  By all accounts I’ve come across, travel there is “at your own risk;” meaning, if you get yourself into a fix, there’s  not much Hillary Clinton or anyone else from the State Department can do for you.

Of course I did some homework and learned from reports on the ground that the main cause for concern surrounds purported money-shakedowns by alleged lawless, Transnistria border guards.  It seems some foreigners were pulled off trains bound for Moldova in the middle of night, taken into a “little white hut,” and told they must pay for a “visa” in order to travel onward.  Other travelers, on the other hand, reported sailing through the border checkpoint without so much as a sideways glance.  The tie-breaker, though, was a recent report from a man of good, Lonely-Planet authority, who says the shakedowns now seem to be a thing of the past. 

So I was leaning toward taking my chances when I turned up at the Kiev train station to investigate the train schedule to Chisinau.  I showed a woman behind a ticket window a note from my hostel administrator containing relevant inquiries written in Russian.  The woman read the note, wrote “Kaca No. 9” at the bottom, and handed it back to me.  I took that to mean I should go find Kaca No. 9.

I searched the train station high and low and became convinced that Kaca No. 9 was nowhere to be found.  I went to the main train information board and figured out for myself that each of the three Kiev-Chisinau trains were either departing or arriving at dangerous hours in the early, early morning or in the late, late evening.   I stood before the board, sighing with a helpless and exhausted frustration, when I heard a big commotion behind me.  It sounded like someone was falling down stairs. 

I turned around to see a man in his mid-20s indeed tumbling to the bottom of a flight of marble-granite stairs, and then I heard a loud cracking, thump that I can only imagine was his skull hitting the hard floor at the bottom of the landing.  The fifty or so people shuffling through the train station lobby turned their attention to him, but no one said a word or made a move toward him.  I was about 50 feet away, and could see the man’s head was bleeding.  Twice he tried to get off the floor and walk, but each time he took a few fluttering steps forward like a bird trying to fly with a broken wing, and each time he flopped back to the ground.

People continued to stand and stare as he finally came to a resting position in the center of the lobby.  The blood was forming a larger and larger pool around his head when three train-station officers surrounded him.  They stood over him, just looking at him for what seemed like a long minute, and then one bent over him, grabbed him by his elbow, walked him over to an adjacent set of stairs, and sat him down kind of hard, it looked like.   There appeared to be zero sympathy or tenderness involved in the entire scenario.  No one yelled “someone call an ambulance!” or “is there a doctor in the house?” like you would expect to hear in America, regardless of whether someone is just another drunk who lost his footing on some stairs.

I crossed the train station lobby to continue my search for Kaca No. 9 and got a good look at all the blood and what looked like a piece of flesh lying in the center.  (Sorry if you’re eating your lunch.)  The train station officers were still standing by the man over in the corner, but it looked like no medical help was being offered, and I stood for a moment dumbstruck by the collective apathy and the almost complete absence of assistance offered or given.

I was still mulling over my plans when I remembered someone telling me that “Moldova is even worse than Ukraine” in terms of the language barrier and general harshness.  And while I don’t mean to indict an entire country over one passing and probably-careless comment, I suddenly had a strong need not to go further into an abyss of non-communication and possible non-caring.  Between this bloody bird-man and the potential for trouble in Transnistria, I decided I had had enough.  So I rejiggered my itinerary, and decided to head west to Poland, which I understand resembles my neck of the woods a good measure more than does Moldova.

The truth is, I have no idea if Poland is a place in which someone might show concern were I to tumble down a flight of stairs and crack my head open.  But I have heard that most people speak English there, so I figure someone might at least understand a plea for help, should I need to make one.  

Tonight I leave for L’viv, Ukraine (which I understand actually used to be part of Poland), and, after a week or so there, it’s a straight shot into Warsaw.   And I also have a lead on a cheap flight from Berlin to Bulgaria, so the monastery plans are still in play.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Burned By Borscht

What is with me?  A few hours ago I spilled a boiling-hot bowl of borscht right onto my lap.  My left thigh is still a pinkish-red, and it still kind of hurts.  Making matters worse, a visit to my first-aid kit revealed that I have a serious—perhaps irrational—fear of diarrhea and its after-effects, but no burn cream.

The funny thing is, over the past few days I’d been scoping out a place to get a good bowl of traditional Ukrainian borscht, especially since I missed the borscht in Russia.  So imagine my surprise when this evening I found Natasha, one of the hostel’s administrators, chopping onions, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, and other ingredients (including beetroot, I think) in preparation for making a big, steaming pot of Ukrainian borscht right here in the hostel kitchen. 

I didn’t want to be presumptuous, but from the looks of things, I figured there would be enough for me to get in on a taste.  I passed the evening mending clothing, organizing papers, chatting with my new roommate (a peace corps volunteer staying the night before catching a morning flight for the States), and watching Fargo for the first time beginning to end.   

The movie ended, and I was busy checking Wikipedia to see if Fargo really is based on a true story, when Natasha announced that the borscht was ready.  She ladled a portion for me and for some reason I returned with the bowl to my spot on the couch, rather than sit at the table like a prudent person would do with a hot bowl of soup.  I took one bite—which slightly burned the tip of my tongue—and decided to let it cool down before continuing. 

I don’t know what happened, but the next thing I knew, the bowl was completely upturned on my lap and my thighs were on fire.  Natasha’s mother, Larissa, quickly came over and took the bowl from me.  I dashed to the dormitory and removed the burning-borscht-soaked pants.  I then went into the bathroom and placed a cold compress on my thighs, with emphasis on the left one, which got the worst of it.

My legs felt okay for the moment, so I returned to the common area where my bowl—now sitting on the kitchen table—had been refilled with more borscht.  I sat enjoying it immensely, but also wondering in the back of my mind just how hot that McDonald’s-lawsuit cup of coffee had been, and to what extent the plaintiff in that case had been injured.   No, I’m not thinking of suing Natasha; I'm just hoping that I won't wake up in the morning with a permanent reminder of my first, delicious bowl of traditional, Ukrainian borscht.

On the bright side, it is another thing checked off my to-do list.  And, if I do need to see a doctor, I took a photo of the offending soup, in case I run up against a language issue.  I figure I’ll just point to the soup-picture, then to my lap, and everyone will get it. 

Mmm. Mmm. Aaaaaaaaahhhh!

Come to think of it, that is a clever, little tip.  Maybe that should go in my forthcoming guidebook, right next to, “Always sit at a table when your host offers you a steaming hot bowl of traditional, Ukrainian borscht;” and “Don't forget the burn cream.” 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Schwarzenegger, Anna Chapman, and City Hall

Am I ignorant, or what?  After 26 days in Russia, I still could only get three of the 16 answers on the “The Moscow News crossword:”


And really, 11-across was just a guess anyone could easily make.   (See clues below.)  I have since Googled “Schwarzenneger visit to Moscow” and learned that the now-former Governator visited Russia in October 2010 and braved the Moscow Metro too.  I also learned that I spelled his name wrong -- it's actually one "n" and two "g"s, but I already wrote on the puzzle and snapped the picture, so oh well.  

I had some knowledge of 13-across because, in the days when I could get my hands on The Economist, I had read that the president of Russia had relieved Moscow’s mayor of his position, and I remember thinking it odd that the country's president could just outright fire a city mayor.  But then, what do I know about Russian government and politics?  (Answer:  apparently very little.)

And just like our darling redhead Lindsay Lohan there, Anna Chapman (8-down) is all over the place in Russia.  She's the young, pretty spy who got booted from the U.S. and sent back to Russia in a reported “spy swap,” only to go on to major fame.  And that’s all I will say because I am still in a part of the world where the mere mention of the word “spy” makes me a little afraid.  In fact, I felt like people were watching me after I took the following photo in St. Petersburg:

I didn't dare go in.  And are those numbers on the windows some sort of secret code?

On the rest of the crossword’s answers, I remain in the dark.  I’ve reprinted the clues so you can try your hand, just for fun.


New name for Russia’s militsia (8)
Russian rocker who “knocked on heaven’s door” with Bono at Luzhinki (8)
Square where 5,000 football fans and nationalists rioted (6)  
Driven by Putin 2,000 kilometers across Siberia (4, 6)
Governor invited by Medvedev to come and terminate Moscow’s transport problems (13) [SCHWARZENNEGER]
Luzhkov left this building (4,4)  [CITY HALL]
Scientist whose seeds were threatened by a real estate project (7)
Dictator elected for a fourth time (10)

Director who got sunburned (again) and caught up in a hotel scandal (9)
Putin’s stand-in at the World Cup ceremony in Zurich (8)
Activity that led to the disappearance of a deputy head of Russian foreign intelligence (8)
Beaten Kommersant journalist who emerged from a coma (4, 6)
Who received a medal from Dmitry, sang with Vlamidir and stripped for Maxim? (4, 7)  [ANNA CHAPMAN]
Artistic protestors who made a Neva bridge rise to the occasion (5)
Revolutionary whose death 70 years ago was cited as an example to emulate in the case of a defecting colonel (7)
Russia’s position in the medals table at the Vancouver Olympics (5)

[Note:  I have tried for the past ten minutes to delete that extra space between "ACROSS" and the table of clues, and realized this is why I can't get my books written faster.]

Monday, January 10, 2011

Your Body Just Hurts, And Other Cold-Weather Hazards, Part I

It seems that the first question I get from people back home—particularly those in California and Florida—relates to the weather.  “So, how cold is it?” they want to know.  My usual, short answer is that “it’s really, really cold.”   But that’s probably too elementary of a description from an aspiring writer devoting two blog posts to the weather and other related conditions, so let me try to do better. 

To begin, I just typed “cold” into and found some more colorful synonyms that quite fittingly express the kind of cold with which I’ve been dealing at one time or another during my travels through Russia and eastern Europe.  These include:  arctic, biting, bitter, blasting, cutting, freezing, frigid, glacial, numbing, penetrating, piercing, polar, raw, severe, sharp, shivery, and stinging.

But beyond mere words, perhaps the best way to convey the frigidity-factor is anecdotally.  Like by telling you that there were a couple of times in St. Petersburg when, after exiting a building, I actually looked down in a panic to make sure I was wearing pants.  I was, in each of these instances, wearing Thermosilk long underwear beneath a pair of jeans.  But because the freezing air apparently cut directly through my clothing, I spent a couple of confused moments thinking that somehow I had managed to walk outside naked from the waist down.

There had been much pre-departure talk and speculation concerning just how cold it would be in Russia.  In describing his brush with freezing temperatures, a friend said something like:  “It gets so cold, your body just hurts.”  I tried to imagine it, but sitting in the warmth of southern California at the time, I really couldn’t.  Recently, however, I believe I experienced a biting sliver of what he meant.

One day on a walk to the main post office in St. Petersburg, I paused outside St. Isaac’s Cathedral to take a photo of a car ostensibly decorated for a wedding.  I decided to remove my gloves in order to better handle the camera and hadn’t even snapped the shot when my hands began to pulsate with pain.  I immediately put the gloves back on, but it was too late.  It felt like a bee had stung each of my fingers, and no amount of warming or rubbing would alleviate the stinging sensation.  For the next ten minutes, I worried that the beginnings of frostbite had already set in.  The pain eventually subsided, but the memory stuck.  Needless to say that was the last time I foolishly exposed an extremity in the bitter cold.   Here’s the bee-sting shot, by the way:

In terms of specific numbers, in the last 30 days or so I believe the coldest temperature I experienced was -18 ° Celsius.  Of course I use Celsius here because they use Celsius here, which frankly has stymied my ability to gauge the weather conditions with any accuracy before proceeding outdoors.   Before leaving home, I ripped out a “Temperature Conversions” chart from an old day planner, and tried to make the appropriate calculations during my plane ride over.  The conversion instructions state, in relevant part:  “To convert Celsius into Fahrenheit, multiply by 9, divide by 5, and add 32.”  The problem was, the temperature at the time was -5 ° Celsius, and for the life of me I couldn’t remember how to multiply or divide negative numbers.   I suspect this is how I ended up in law school and using phrases like “in relevant part” in a blog post about the weather.

Fortunately, and other handy internet-based converters were able to do the math for me.  Soon I came up with my own working temperature chart, wherein 5 below in my mind meant that it would be a bearable day; 10 below meant that I would have to wear most of the clothing in my backpack simultaneously; and 15 below would require me to come up with a very compelling reason to leave the hostel.  For me, going in search of a decent cup of coffee often qualified as compelling, and I only hoped that the troublesome and confusing “wind chill factor” wouldn’t somehow screw up my calculation and send me running for the indoors.

From a psychological rather than physical perspective, the constant need to bundle up has caused me to develop a condition that I have dubbed Winter Traveler OCD, or WTOCD, for short.  During a visit to the mall on my second day in Russia, I heard a man from behind yelling something in Russian as I was approaching the mall’s exit.  I turned to see in his outreached hand one of my new cashmere gloves, which must have dropped from my pocket without my noticing.  From that day forward I have spent countless minutes, if not hours, feeling for and touching my gloves and hat and scarf—each a cherished pre-trip gift—to ensure they are still in my possession.  I’ve since had several close calls with dropping or leaving my gloves behind in various establishments.  Thankfully each time the WTOCD returned me to the scene in time to recover them, so it hasn't necessarily been a bad thing.  And just in case one of my winter essentials goes missing, I’ve taken the following “Have You Seen Me?” photo:

Well, that's a wrap on Part I.  Now I must turn to some other personal and business matters, being it’s a Monday, and sometimes I like to pretend that I have a regular life.  Please stay tuned for Part II of “Your Body Just Hurts And Other Cold-Weather Hazards” wherein I will post my current slip-and-fall count and discuss generally other unsafe conditions that abound on account of the weather.