Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Backdated Entry: Zagreb, 30 March 2010

Found this on my laptop today (10 June 2010).

This blog often serves as reportage, which I think is cheating, since I can hide my emotions behind a veil of facts and figures. I feel this is a betrayal of good blogging. Somehow, in the early history of the medium, the topical blog began to eclipse the confessional one, but it was the confessional blog that was the real ground-breaker (the topical blog is usually nothing more than punditry). The confessional, autobiographical blog was the true "revolution of consciousness," an acid trip that most of us took, as confessors and/or voyeurs.

I am back at my favorite base of operations, Zagreb. My girlfriend, Cristina, is in the United States, which is funny considering she was born in Romania and we now find ourselves on opposite sides of the pond on each other's respective birth-continents. Obviously that has proven to be a relationship challenge, but we seem to be doing well under the circumstances. Of course, she would prefer that I be with her as she wrestles with the myriad complexities and the enormous stress of applying for work in a foreign country. I remain because I was granted a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be in the Balkans and would hate myself if I returned earlier. We both make good points because we are both strong arguers, which is both exasperating and exhilarating. Cristina wins because she can argue beautifully in two languages.

Being in a relationship alternates between running a three-legged race, where we must run slower together; and a 24-hour car race, where the two of us can take turns sleeping and taking the wheel. Sometimes it's an inefficient way to move because you have to abandon selfishness in order to accomodate another person's needs, which much more than sex is the ultimate act of love. But other times it is a far more efficient way to accelerate towards life goals. The trick in assessing any relationship, I suppose, is to decide whether you are spending most of your time running three-legged races or driving (or more complicatedly, if you are ultimately covering more ground together during the driving portions despite those necessary three-legged race moments). The impossibility of knowing one's exact goal complicates things also. What are we running/racing to, anyway, and how quickly are we getting to that unknown destination?

I am greatly disappointed to be returning to the United States. If you read my earliest blog entries, you know that I was hoping a trip to Eastern and Balkan Europe would turn into a permanent stay. I love the culture here, particularly the music culture. My blog entries testify to my synchronization with things over here, from the political to the ornithological to the Eurotrashmusical. For the record, I never felt homesick in my three months of travel. Sometimes I was a bit lonely, or a little disoriented ("Am I in Belgrade or Zagreb?" I asked myself upon waking up this morning—and I was not hung-over), but moments of uncertainty were always quickly cured by a walk on a beautiful spring day, or a good night out.

What I like about returning to the United States, though, is the opportunity to earn some money again sans guilt (I've been on a generous paid vacation so far); to have a chance to reflect, from a distance, on the experience of these last three months; and, hahaha, to record a definitive sequel to my last DJ set showcasing all the music knowledge I have acquired these last three months. And I really look forward to reliable internet, and laundry, and knowing that when my train pulls into the station I will have a roof over my head that night—actually, not taking any trains at all, but rather my SmartCar to any destination I choose.

And Cristina, of course. But Cristina and I can get up and go anywhere together, and right now she has more momentum than I do, being especially smart and clever. Cristina and I are our own country. Wherever we wind up, we'll make it ours. I love you, my Mata Hari. See you in a couple weeks. :-X

Split, Croatia

From Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia
I travel in the off-season because it's cheaper and I love cold weather. Fortunately, the majority of the rest of the world travels only in summer, which is why I get to enjoy the lower rates of the off-season in the first place, thank you majority of the rest of the world. But unfortunately, due to the heightened popularity of some cities as summer destinations, some places should only be visited in the summer months. Split is one of those. Nonetheless, I had a pleasant stay there, even if my March visit felt like a 50% Split experience.

Split has a big music festival. Several Croatian musicians and pop groups hail from Split, as do a high percentage of Croatian Miss Universe contestants. But in the off-season, Split is a country of old men, a sort of Florida in Croatia. It's during the summer that, Daytona Beach-style, Split becomes a youth paradise.

People in Split sound exactly like Italians, only they are speaking Croatian, another demonstration of the blurred reality of humanity vs. political borders. That Italian-esque Split accent is distinctive. It made one self-conscious Splitter in a Zagreb hostel particularly nervous the night before a big Zagreb/Split football match. "The moment I speak they know exactly where I'm from," he told me.

As the train snaked up to the Split train station, my initial impression of the city was that it looked pleasant but not especially marvelous. That view changed when I walked down the palm tree-lined promenade facing the bay. The promenade is a lovely bit of city design work that I was told caused some controversy initially for its being considered too modern ("modern" in the Mediterranean sense of looking fewer than 500 years old). But as the voices of 1880s protestors over the then-new Eiffel Tower were quickly drowned out by the many more people who dug it, people in Split seem to like their promenade now.

The handsome facade facing the bay contains a variety of cafes and bars, most of which offer nice first floor (second floor American-style) views of the promenade and the water beyond. Typical bars here have a very narrow porch—not wide enough to accomodate even a small table—so one sits on a stool facing out towards the sea, beer glass set on a wooden slat counter. These porches are like garden boxes for beer drinkers.

That's really nice, but the real magic of Split lies behind that facade, for there you find the sprawling network of ancient Roman alleys and narrow streets that has earned the city its distinction as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is the Diocletian's Palace.

If you've lost your sense of childlike wonder, you'll find it again wandering amongst these Roman ruins. The Diocletian's Palace is a maze of stone streets, and every time you turn a corner you discover something new to delight your eye. Best of all, it's not some dead museum. Life goes on here. There are cafes, bars, and stores of all sorts, nestled tastefully into the ancient ruins. It's fantastic.

Birds have begun building nests in Croatia, and the denizens of Solta Island, a one hour ferry ride from Split, were tending to their own nests, preparing their beds & breakfasts, hostels, cafes, bars, and discos for the coming summer season. I was the only tourist wandering aimlessly around the island. I had a nice meal at an otherwise empty restaurant while adult-contemporary Croatian music played in the background. It served as a painful reminder that my European adventure was coming to an end, for I could see how much fun Solta was going to be in a few months, and I knew I would not be here to enjoy that.

From Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia

Monday, March 29, 2010

Philosophy of Hosteling and Split, Croatia

From Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia
In Zagreb there is no public wireless internet, and there seem to be only two internet cafes. One of these cafes requires that you—I cannot believe this—feed coins into the computer in order to surf. I'm at the other one. Most of this material was written at the Oliver Twist Pub.

After that wild last night at Saloon, I returned to the hostel, then walked to the train station. I was a bleary-eyed wreck. I rode in a semi-conscious state about 7 hours down to Split, a celebrated coastal city in Croatia.

Most surreal after experiencing the spring temperatures of Zagreb was the sight of snow-capped mountains overlooking fields covered in snow. Much of the interior of Croatia is national parkland. It's gorgeous. Nice though the snow was, I was pleased that warmer weather awaited me in Split.

I stepped off the train to a chorus of people shouting, "Do you need accomodation?" "Do you need a room?" and so on. I hate that.

Then I couldn't find the hostel. I wandered up and down the street seeking the Hostel Split Mediterranean. It was at No. 21 along the street, but the numbers jumped from 19 to 23. Since I had never received a confirmation from the hostel, I was unsure as to whether or not the hostel even existed anymore.

I wheeled my baggage to a second hostel, called Croatian Dream, which I had seen on the way up the same street, but while some too-trusting guest buzzed me in, the staff was not there, and after five awkward minutes of waiting (the sign on the door said "Back in 30 minutes"—30 minutes from when?) I decided to split (forgive me).

I went on to a third Split hostel, one for which I had collected a flyer in Budapest. It's called "Al's Place," and it's run by a British fellow whose name you can guess. But when I finally found it it was closed for renovation.

I was at wit's end.

Fortunately, while Al's Place was closed, a dusty and disheveled Al was there. He was renovating the hostel. Remarkably, he took time out to talk to me. It turned out he was in a spat with the very same Hostel Split Mediterranean I sought, because they had taken a very similar internet domain name (his is www.hostelsplit.com, and theirs is www.hostel-split.com). The spat was serious enough that he was reluctant to call the number I had for them, but he encouraged me to go back and find it. He even let me keep my luggage at his place while I made my second search, a great burden literally lifted from my shoulders. Al is obviously a terrific guy, so if you find yourself in Split during the summer season be sure to make Al's Place your first choice.

When I returned to the original street and found myself facing the same 19 to 23 quandry, I heard a guy shout, "Hello! You're Andrew? You made reservation for hostel on internet?" It was a grinning old man in a cap standing in front of a gate in a little alley off of the street proper. Clearly he was a true blue Croatian.

So I found the place, or rather the propreitor found me. I was deposited in a cozy, three bedroom apartment all to myself for 100 kruna a night, which is less than $20.

The proprietor was very friendly, if a bit perfunctory, in explaining the details. Then he left, and I never saw him again—even when I had decided to spend some more time in Split and wanted to pay the necessary money in order to do that. After fruitlessly knocking on the man's door, I wound up stuffing money into it with notes explaining my intentions. I guess this was acceptable.

Al had told me that Croatians are suspicious of strangers, and that this colors their style of running hostels. Why would anybody want to fraternize with strangers who might try stealing your stuff? they reckon. So, often a solo traveler can be placed in a room of his own for no additional cost. But although having a space to yourself is nice, for the solo traveler it's also alienating. Al spoke passionately of the importance of bringing people together at a hostel in order to facilitate the creating of new friendships. Despite my general introversion, I had to admit he had a point. The times I spent at the hostel in Kiev, with the gentle/hard-partying Gautier, the talented writer Keith, the wise beyond her years Lauren, and the affable mega-snorer Piet were among the best of my trip.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Friday Night Clubbing in Zagreb

From Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia
The top day of the week to catch a 7:50 AM train to Split is Saturday, because on Friday night you can party in Zagreb's clubs until 5 AM the morning of departure. Sunday is good, too.

On Friday night I had hoped to meet up with Tena Vodopija and Domino Effect Band. They had performed at Saloon on Thursday night. We had talked tentatively about a rendez-vous at Maraschino, but had not set a time. So I got to Maraschino a little early (10 PM) thinking it was a bar and that we'd all go from there to Saloon at midnight. As it turns out, Maraschino is more of a club, and it was pretty dead at 10 PM.

My fruitless hunt for my Friday night clubbing guides allowed me to discover that Maraschino has a small bar at street level, where green and red laser lights drift across all the surfaces in the room like phosphorescent plankton in the deep sea; a lounge area above that; and a dance club in the basement.

I moved to the basement dancefloor level about the time the music switched from house (the classic Salif Kieta track "Madan" [Martin Solveig mix] being one choon played) to retro Motown and 70's funk (e.g., "You Can't Hurry Love"), with perhaps some newer songs offered that fit into the sonic architecture. The place filled up quickly. The funky music was well-complimented by the movie Hell Up in Harlem showing on the TV hanging over the bar. How do Croatians know about obscure American blaxploitation flicks?

I embarrassed myself in a case of mistaken identity. It turns out that, to a clueless American, many Croatian women look alike, and one I thought was Tena was in fact a totally different person who made it absolutely clear how unamused she was by my error.

Random observation: Croations are quite tall, and size does matter. For example, if you are a tall Croatian bartender, it is much easier to lean across the bar to kiss your girlfriend than it is if you are short.

Some American cry-baby boys showed up at the bar cry-babying about the cost of beer. One had an Indiana driver's license. That's all I know about them.

As talented as the DJ was, his retro sound was not for me; I wanted to hear new tunes. So I decided to return to last night's spot, Saloon, which I had been promised would feature plenty of dancefloor action.

As I strolled to Saloon, it was impossible to ignore the three drunk kids staggering down the street while the tallest one hoarsely sang the same four syllables over and over again. It was irritating. I hoped they weren't headed for Saloon, but as it turned out they were.

Saloon's DJs began the night by focusing on the greatest hits of Eurotrash. It was pretty terrific, because hey, fun tunes; but also mildly disappointing, since I knew all the songs already. If anybody reading this remembers the Eurotrash parties I used to throw, many of the songs I spun then were exhumed here, including Mad'House's "Like a Prayer," Paul Johnson's "Get Down," Elvis's remixed "A Little Less Conversation," and Rednexx's "Cotton Eye Joe." There was some inspired mixing, including a good transition from Madonna's "Four Minutes" into Michael Jackon's "Billie Jean."

I finally saw Tena, so I gave her a hello and clinked beer glasses in acknowledgement of her good suggestion to return here. Then I went circulating about.

Lots of people were wearing stickers featuring a cartoon, little-boy version of "the Riddler" from the Batman comics. I asked one guy what that was about. He didn't seem to know. Then he threw an arm around me and in a booming voice said, "What is your name?"


"Andrew! And where are you from?"


"Andrew from America, what the FUCK are you doing in Croatia?"

"I'm rockin', man."

"Do you know anything about Croatian football?"


"This is a shame!"

"Is Croatia in the World Cup this year?"

The change of expression told me I had asked the wrong question.

"No," he said. "Because we were FUCKED by England!"

Then the DJs veered into pure, pounding Croatian-languge Eurodance. I could have cried with joy. This was what I had really wanted to experience: a full-on Croatian discotheque at its peak. The patrons went crazy, singing along in big booming choruses to songs like this fantastic remix of Bijelo Dugme's "Hajdemo u planine," and to tracks from artists like Rozga Jelena, Alika Vuica, Severina, and Magazin. I know this much because I ran up to people with notebook in hand requesting artists and song titles. "WHAT IS THIS SONG?" I wrote on the top of a page in my notebook to help them out, since the music was loud and written English might have been easier for the Croatians to process than shouted. Sometimes the people singing along to the tunes had no idea about the song's identity; they just knew the words by heart. It reminded me of folk music in that sense, an oral tradition of popular music passed down while the original songwriters remain anonymous.

Many tune IDs were lost, probably forever. But you cherish what information you are able to gather and the lost songs are forgotten.

Scenes from the club: A patron's tired push of a drained tumbler of ice and lemon rind back to the bartender to collect. A bottle of Jack in a bucket of ice shared by three guys who fished out the ice cubes to cool their drinks. A girl with her arm around a guy hitting the side of my head over and over again as she twirled her hand to the music—not a problem, until the hand held a lit cigarette, at which point I had to move.

On my way out I discovered another dancefloor showcasing typical house tracks, so I stopped in there and had another beer. At first, the DJ'ing seemed technically good but joyless, but later some colorful tunes, including the requisite David Guetta, entered the mix. A group of young women were dancing there as if in an aerobics class, with one leader facing four girls who mimed her moves. When the leader quit leading, I jumped in and took over, taking the girls through as many silly dance moves as possible, including the "Ketchup Dance," which my friend Michael will be pleased I still remember. Then I fell backwards onto the couch behind me, whereas there were no couches to catch them, so some pretended to fall and others just stood there laughing. Dumb nights are made of this.

Feeling refreshed by the more "normal" house sounds, I returned to the main, Croatian-heavy dancefloor, and hung out until 5 AM. I marveled over how early Atlanta's club scene shuts down and almost thought that was a shame, until I remembered that Atlanta's clubs are terrible and undeserving of being open until 5 AM.

I spoke to the bartenders, who were middle aged men, perhaps even a bit past middle age. Some of them had been students in Saloon themselves years ago. I asked them what the club was like back then, but I didn't get much out of them due to the language barrier. The club has been around since 1970 and they heard a lot of live rock music in it back in the days when they went there to party instead of work.

Lonely Planet, by the way, does not mention Saloon. One of my emerging theories about Lonely Planet is that it writes for a UK/US audience, which it assumes will want to experience night life more on terms with which they are already familiar. For example, clubs with great live alternative music, or jazz, or house music—music scenes with which young backpacker types are familiar—get promoted. Croatian pop-friendly venues, on the other hand, seem to have been excised. Turbo folk music in particular gets the usual condescending treatment in a special box titled "Brotherhood & Unity or Dumb & Dumber?"* And so Saloon, which flirts with some of that stuff, might have thus been cut from the final edit of the volume. That's just my theory.

I stumbled back to Nocturno Hostel. Some dummy had locked the door (he was not supposed to), so I buzzed to be let in, thus bringing out the bleary-eyed proprietor who then complained about the dummy's incompetence. She asked if I still needed a wake-up call for my 7:50 AM train to Split. I told her I'd be fine without one. She went back to sleep, I Skyped with Cristina for maybe an hour, and then I took a shower and headed to the train station in the bright light of day.

Maybe the best night of clubbing in my life.

* This rhetorical technique always angers me, the one where the author seemingly offers a positive perspective balanced with a negative one, but in fact the positive is really just a different kind of negative ("brotherhood" and "unity" are familiar jingostic terms--the sorts of words used today by nationalistic skinheads and associated with statues of Lenin [the term is plucked from a Tito slogan]--and thus they ring sinisterly in the ears of the British and American hippie backpackers who reference Lonely Planet). A fairer title for the piece would have been, "Techno-fied Celebration of Traditional Balkan Culture or Dangerous Vehicle for Nationalism?" It's clunkier, but it's also truly balanced and more accurately captures the essence of the music.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Backdated Entry: Zagreb, 19 March 2010

From Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia
I wrote most of this on the 19 March, but posted it on 25 April.

Due to last night's revelry, I slept until 11:30 AM today. I awoke to temps near 20 degrees Celsius, which is around 70 degrees Fahrenheit ("30's hot. 20's nice. 10's cold. Zero's ice"). Without a doubt this is the most beautiful day I've seen in many months, and the natives probably feel similarly. Every other park bench in the city was occupied by kissing couples. A dog took obvious pleasure rolling around on the grass while its owner looked on. And insects are out, now. I had forgotten about insects.

Buskers played on the streets. Simon and Garfunkel music seems to be the most popular. I passed a male/female duo, one with a guitar and the other with a flute, performing "The Sound of Silence." Then I passed a guy in a corridor singing "Mrs. Robinson." Near the train station the strains of "El Condor Pasa (Yes I Would)" filled the air.

Zagreb remains a complete pleasure. The people here smile and laugh constantly; it's their natural disposition. In some countries the people don't laugh, or when they laugh it's a cruel or bitter laughter. Here, everyone seems to be a good-natured comedian. While telling funny stories, people frequently lapse into comic voices to enhance things. It's wonderful.

I have enjoyed every city I have visited, but I can't recall a place where I felt more charmed than Zagreb. I love this city. So after Split I'm going back to it again for a couple days before I head to Belgrade to interview another band.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Zagreb, Thursday Night Music Scene

I began the night strolling down my favorite street of cafes. I heard live Croatian music floating out of one bar and a chorus of people singing along. I had to check that out. It was a private party, so I was told to stay at the bar. Stayed I did, for a good half an hour, as I listened to this wonderful band belting out old Croatian standards (with accordion) while the patrons sang along. Here is a recording of some of it.

Spacemen 3 had a terrific album title: "Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To." I suspect many years ago that a lot of Croatians got plenty drunk before writing these wonderful songs to get drunk to. They are perfect drinking songs because they are bittersweet. You feel the love, but you also feel the tears just below the surface.

After that I sat at the bar of a cafe that was playing good house music, including Dennis Ferrer's groovy "Hey Hey." Then it was on to another bar where the sounds of classic disco were offered, including "The Hustle."

The club proper that I visited was Saloon, a legendary Zagreb venue. Live music was on tap; the video above is of that, and shows Tena Vodopija (on right) performing with Domino Effect Band. It was the first time they had performed together like this, but they sounded like they had been working together for years. The song is "One Way or Another," one of the great Blondie tracks. My dad had the album this came off of, Parallel Lines. Parallel Lines also contained the legendary "Heart of Glass."

For the curious, other songs in their set list included "Bitch," "I've Got My Mind Set On You," and "Proud Mary," which served as the finale. Some Croatian songs were tossed in as well. Here is a longer bonus clip of them tackling "Umbrella" and a song I did not recognize.

Everything shut down at 2 AM, so at 2:30 I wandered through a nearly-deserted Zagreb. A few minutes after I got back to my hostel, three dorm mates, guys from Italy, entered the room. They had been to the Rammstein show and must have been drinking after that because I saw lots of fresh Rammstein T-shirts when I had arrived at Saloon hours earlier.

For many visitors to Zagreb, Rammstein was the music event of the night, but I was very satisfied with my own music experience.

My Long-Suffering Mother

From Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia
My mother is very concerned about the photos I post of myself drinking beer after beer during my travels. Unfortunately for her, I have been especially busy these days exploring various night spots, a task which inevitably invites the associated consumption of alcoholic beverages. My last several pictures, taken on St. Patrick's Day and St. Patrick's Night are sure to upset her further. I torture my mother with every good night out.

The trip to Zagreb was spoiled by my boarding the right train but the wrong car in Gyékényes, Hungary; the cars split at one point and I was on my way to Budapest with a ticket saying "Zagreb." I spent an hour sitting at a train station in Balatonszentgyörgy, a town which, despite its sexy name, was dead. Three and a half hours after my expected arrival I made it to Zagreb.

Hostel Junis, first choice in the new Lonely Planet guide, exudes a hippie sort of cool, much as did the excellent Hostel Nap I had stayed at in Pécs. Unfortunately, it smelled like a locker room in my six bed dorm, which is not the fault of the staff so much as the luck of the draw. Due to a lack of room there tonight, I have now moved to the Nocturno Hostel which, based on my first impression, may be superior to the celebrated Hostel Junis, though it also costs $7 more a night.

I met a terrific young Californian named Darren at the hostel. He is a 23 year-old international studies student, table busser, and death metal DJ who is exploring many of the same countries I am. We started with drinks alongside the people-watching paradise that is Tkalčićeva utica. Then we headed to Sax! pub, which was hosting a St. Patrick's Day celebration with live music. Dismayed by the cover charge (about $6 US) and lack of activity in the early part of the evening, Darren and I decided to make that a miss. We passed time at a hip little cinema-themed cafe. Then, Darren proposed that we pick up beer at the supermarket and drink it on the street. I asked him, "What are the rules here with regards to open containers?" to which he replied, "It's ZAGREB!" and to which I replied, "One might say, 'It's SINGAPORE!' "

Still not clear about Zagreb's open-container laws, I opened our beers with the hostel's key anyway, and we strolled and sipped until Darren spotted a McDonald's. He wanted to drink the beers inside because it was too cold outside. I was reluctant, but agreed out of curiosity. As we entered I noticed people seated at their tables staring at us bemusedly—perhaps worriedly. We sat in front of a TV showing men's handball, followed later by a Barcelona/Stuttgart football match. Darren ordered and ate a cheeseburger in order to buy good-will from the McDonald's staff for our transgression.

When he disappeared for a bit, an older McDonald's manager came up to me and scolded me for the beer bottles. She marched them out of the restaurant in a huff. I rose from my chair and found Darren engaged in conversation with a Bible student at an internet station in the restaurant. At one point Darren seemed to get a bit effusive and, to my ear, nonsensical; the Croatian Bible student looked terribly confused. I made a snarky comment, which offended Darren greatly. In retrospect I realize there was no need for my remark, and I wish I had contained it. The remark, for the record, was, "Dude, I'm an American and an English major, and even I cannot follow what you are saying."

He was sore about that for a while, so after we hit the streets I proposed that we go back to the Sax! club and that I pay his cover. This cheered him up, and it cheered me up too, since I felt bad that I had hurt his feelings.

It was a terrific decision. Two excellent live bands played, the first serving up a pint of traditional Irish music, the second offering two pints of raucous Flogging Molly-type rock.

Two Finns from the hostel that Darren had invited showed up, and the four of us, who share a great fascination with foreign affairs, got into a fabulous discussion about the World. What more perfect thing to discuss over several beers, a pint of Guinness, and two Johnnie Walkers while seated with two Finns and an American in a Croatian bar on St. Patrick's Day?
From Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia

Zagreb, Croatia: First Impressions

From Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia
Spring is in the air. Hooded crows and rooks are constructing nests, flowers are blossoming, and chaffinches are in full song. This may explain the good mood of the natives here in Zagreb.

Zagreb might be the nicest city I have ever visited. Jane Austen had a good riff on the word "nice" in Northanger Abbey, which has resulted in my suffering a permanent aversion to that word, so let me expatiate.

Zagreb is not nicest in the sense of "the most beautiful" (although much of it is beautiful), nor is it nicest in terms of efficiency and modernity (although its tram system is superb), nor because of the climate (although the weather today is gorgeous).

Zagreb is the nicest city I have ever visited because everybody here is just really, really nice.

In Budapest, a woman at a cash register usually grunts as she hands you your receipt, but in Zagreb my efforts to speak a few lines of polite Croatian were always met with happy grins and commendation for my effort. In Budapest, a tourist is perceived by myriad con artists as a walking ATM machine, but in Zagreb people leave you alone (although they are happy to chat with you if you wish to start a conversation with them).

I discussed the Zagreb niceness thing with a Finn from the hostel last night. He had noticed the same.

We both feel that Hungarians are somewhat Ukrainian in habit. They seem instinctively suspicious of other people and are a bit guarded (though, like Ukrainians, they warm up after a few beers). The volume of cruel scams perpetrated on tourists in Budapest is an echo of the exploitation of visitors to Kiev. Violent, racist youth gangs are present in both countries.

But in Zagreb cheeriness is omnipresent. The only police officer I have seen strolled down Tkalčićeva ulica bantering blithely with a pedestrian. You hear laughter everywhere. Old men chatter away with one another on the tram. There is a pinch of Italian extroversion in the Croatian mindset which flavors the Balkan temperament.

The Finn and I agreed that Croatia should certainly be a member of the European Union. It isn't, because EU member Slovenia has repeatedly blocked Croatia's accession over a long-running border dispute between the two countries (the collapse of Yugoslavia led to a variety of catastrophes regarding borders and displaced people which has shaken the region for decades, now).

It's a pity. But for now, Croatia retains a certain hipness for travelers who wish to brag of adventures in Europe outside of the EU.

(My Finnish friend also said that, with regard to attitude and values, Croatia deserves EU membership more than Hungary ever did, and that Italy ought to be kicked out of the EU due to extensive corruption and organized crime. Proud Hungarians and Italians, feel free to fight in the comments area here.)

Zagreb is a small city; you can explore most of it in a day. The crown jewel is Tkalčićeva ulica, a pedestrian-only street lined with coffee shops and bars with tons of comfortable chairs to lounge on outside. It's fabulous for people-watching any time of day or night. To stroll down that street is to feel like a star. I suspect that is where I will park myself most of today and much of tomorrow as well.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Outwit, Outplay, Outlast

From Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia
Last to bed and first one up, that's me.

Pécs, Hungary is a 2010 European Capital of Culture. By consequence, the city is undergoing massive renovation. Every pretty church faces a torn-up plaza and tall, chain-link fences. The city is still charming. It's so small that cab drivers must hate it here (this might explain why, when I arrived at the train station yesterday, I found no taxis waiting outside). It boasts an impressively high number of cafes and bars.

Pécs sees a lot of tourism from Hungarians themselves. Many of the folks in my hostel are Hungarians. Some Hungarian backpackers can be identified by their red, white, and green cockades, which they are wearing today for Revolution Day (I had seen people wearing these for several days in Budapest as well; Hungarians seem to be very patriotic).

I finally fell victim to a scam at the Budapest train station. It had to happen eventually; in no other city have I been so aggressively targeted. Here's how it went down. A guy pretending (in 20/20 hindsight) to be a train employee, and who addressed me immediately in English (always a tip-off), hoisted my luggage up onto the overhead racks of a train compartment. Then he asked for money. Well fuck me, I didn't ask for help. I fished out a 200 forint coin, worth about $1, although I thought his service was worth less. "No silver," he said. "Only paper." I was stupid. I figured I would give him a 500 forint note, which is the smallest paper note. However, 1000 was the smallest note I had (worth $5). I asked for 500 in change. He told me 1000 was just fine. So instead of doing the right thing and finding a real train employee, I handed him the money. Off he went.

Then I realized he had put me on the wrong car. He never checked my ticket for my seat assignment. Obviously, to run a scam like that, you just have to move the person onto a train as fast as humanly possible, hit him or her for the money, and run like hell. So, after paying him $5 I had to move my luggage to the correct car. Talk about adding insult to injury.

I wondered if Pécs was going to be another city of cons. It is not. Pécs is a city of drunks and homeless guys. Old men sit on benches in front of the theater shouting slurred things at the many tourists passing by. Homeless guys rifle through trash bins. I think there is a higher percentage of drunks and homeless guys to "regular" people in Pécs than in any other city I have visited.

I arrived at the Nap Hostel yesterday and was placed in a room with, in the words of the proprietor, "four boys who drink a lot." The boys were out, presumably drinking. I dropped stuff off, headed out, found a wi-fi cafe, and did a little work.

Then I decided to do a little drinking of my own. I had heard great things about the Hungarian wine. I found a nice bar and ordered a glass of Villany Cabernet Sauvignon, (a brand specifically recommended in the Lonely Planet guide) for 550 forints; the con man on the train could purchase almost two glasses on my 1000 forints. It was excellent, evaporating in my mouth with each sip. The words "ESTONIA WORLDCHART EXPRESS" scrolled repeatedly on the corner of MTV on a high-def TV screen. A football match followed. Moment of travel bliss: sipping that wine, watching Barcelona score a goal against Valencia on the telly, and Yes's "Leave It" playing in the background.

When I returned to the hostel I found the "boys" there, college-aged Hungarian guys, two playing chess, one observing chess, one passed out on the bed. Berlioz's "Symphony Fantastique," played on a radio they had brought. At the conclusion of the chess game the three conscious ones left; they took their tallboys with them. The unconscious one awoke later to the sound of his cell phone. He left the hostel some time afterward to catch up with his friends.

The proprietor of the hostel, a guy with a long pony tail and carefully-tended facial hair, kindly informed me of a party at the Kino Cafe. So I went, since I presumed the four Hungarian lads were going to be out late themselves anyway. When I arrived I took a seat by myself and enjoyed some very good turntablism. Early part of the night featured perfectly blended trip-hop beats, a bit Fatboy Slimmish.

I was approached by an eccentric, skinny old man with a beard. Of course, after the headaches of Budapest, I wondered if his talking to me was going to be a prelude to another scam. But somehow he convinced me to follow him to a corner of the club where a trio of guys were seated. Warily, I joined them.

A few minutes later, as one of the guys approached with a tray of beers, I thought back to scams involving drugging the drinks of tourists. But then the guy started dancing with the tray, and then he stumbled, and then a full cup of beer spilled all over the table and floor. That's when I knew these guys were all right.

We ditched Kino Club when it was actually getting good, as people were now actually on the dancefloor. But Ingwie, with whom I chatted the most that night, recommended a heavy metal club called Toxic, and I have a fondness for metal clubs.

Metal kids are, generally-speaking, the best kids on earth. I had at least a dozen wonderful conversations there, including one with a former nationally-ranked table football player. I wrote a few entries ago about the best table football player I'd seen, a young woman in Budapest. This guy would demolish her.

At 4 AM I headed back to the hostel. I had had the foresight to bring a flashlight with me; thanks to that I was able to weave through two dark rooms of sleeping people with minimal disruption. I found the four Hungarian lads in my room fast asleep. I had outlasted them. I had outplayed them. OK, I was outwitted by the Budapest "train employee," but all in all not a bad night's work.

From Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Conversation With a Bartender in Pécs, Hungary

Me: "Any good live music in any of the bars here tonight?"

Bartender: "Ah, no."

Me: "Tomorrow is Hungary's big national holiday. Anything going on in town tomorrow to celebrate that?"

Bartender: "Not really."

Friday Night in Budapest

From Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia
Friday night proper began at a hole-in-the-wall, rock 'n' roll brick cellar pub called Kőkorsó, the sort of place where I feel most comfortable. It was quite small. Three forms of entertainment intersected there: 1) table football, 2) singing along to Red Hot Chili Peppers songs strummed on a guitar somebody had brought in, and 3) drinking. The bar was frequented mostly by students, though there were a couple of old guys wandering around (a glimpse into my own future—that is, if I live to be that old), one of whom took over guitar-strumming duties at the end of the night accompanied by a chorus of rosy-faced drunk kids.

The table football action was furious. One young woman there was the best table football player I've ever seen (though I haven't exactly studied the sport). She always played offense. Before taking a shot she toyed with the ball a little in order to line it up perfectly. Sometimes she rapped the side of the table gently with her palm in order to shake the ball into precisely the right position. This was usually followed by a quick tap of the ball to one side (no doubt to get around the defender) followed by a thunderous WACK! The ball moved so fast that the shot was invisible to the human eye; only the sound of the ball rolling around inside the table indicated its successful transit to the back of the net.

Nonetheless, I managed to beat her and her teammate twice. Perhaps she let me win.

I got into a great conversation with two students there; only got the name of one of them, Gergo, a typically tall Hungarian fellow. At last I got to ask questions about Hungary and being Hungarian. Gergo and his friend, a blond college girl, made music recommendations. They even produced a list of folk artists I should check out. They raved about a great summer music festival on Lake Balaton; I would love to check this out, especially as it has a heavy emphasis on electronic music.

They acknowledged that the Hungarian pop music scene is not that developed, something I had thought might be the case after studying their music charts for a year or two (though I am fond of Zséda's "És megindul a föld").

Gergo's friend recommended a sort of cider-like drink that had a wine-like quality to it; the result was served in a pint glass and looked and tasted like a berry cider. They could not explain to me what this was in English (maybe half cider, half white wine?), so I must leave things this vague. In any case it was tasty, but all sweet drinks invite disaster later, so I am glad the bar ran out of the stuff, forcing me to switch to four or five beers instead.

The three of us headed to a disco bar across from the Nyugati Train Station. The DJ stuck to a party theme. Songs played included:

ABBA - Dancing Queen
Bryan Adams - Summer of 69
The Doors - Break on Through (to the Other Side)
Joan Jett and the Blackhearts - I Love Rock and Roll
John Paul Young - Love is in the Air (I love this little-known [in America] song and was surprised to hear it there)
Katrina and the Waves - Walking on Sunshine

Gergo's friend, who earlier had warned us of the dangers of switching from wine to beer (before she indulged in wine followed by beer), ran off to get some McDonald's food to absorb some of the alcohol. After a while it was clear she had vanished. A concerned Gergo checked up on her via his cell phone and found out she was safe with her friends, who were keeping a watchful eye over her while she threw up on the streets of Budapest.

With Gergo's help I found my way back to the hostel. And that was my Friday night in Budapest.

Saturday I spent half the day recovering, though I did manage to check out the charming Ethnographic Museum.

From Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Romanian Basketball

I wanted to write an article about American basketball players in Romania, but my potential interview subjects apparently became shy and failed to return my SMSs and emails when I returned to Cluj Napoca specifically to interview them. That's OK; I enjoyed myself in Cluj anyway. The weather was sunnier and "springier" than it had been during my last visit with Cristina, and my past experience there allowed me to waste no time locating the best places for a coffee or a beer. But it was also a bit of a drag being on my own, and no reporter enjoys being jilted.

In lieu of what would have been a wonderful article, I will state more vaguely in this blog that many Americans are playing basketball in Romania. A woman basketball player from Iasi estimated that there are about five American men on each city team in Romania (there are 16 Division A teams in the country). The pay is quite good. Basketball is held in high regard in Romania, and teams that make money tend to spend it luring Americans to play for them.

Romanian basketball could be viewed as a sort of minor league baseball experience. Some players hone their skills before returning to America to play in the NBA; others not of that caliber enjoy a comfortable living playing the sport in Europe.

A former Romanian-born Cluj Napoca player, Gheorghe Mureşan, enjoyed success as a basketball player in the NBA in the United States. He is tied with one other player as being the tallest man to play in the NBA, but that gift of height also contributed to some serious medical issues which required surgery to address.

Today, Mureşan is retired from the NBA. Now he appears in a frequently-run Romanian television ad for Vodafone in which he performs a karaoke version of a Crazy Loop song before Dan Bălan, the Crazy Looper himself, arrives on the scene to help him out (video below).

Since I was unable to write this article, I toss out the idea of writing about American basketball players in Eastern Europe to any other would-be reporters who wish to tackle it. Odds are that if you are from a major city, there is somebody from that city playing basketball in an unlikely European country (like Romania). It could make for a good local newspaper feature--if you can get the player to return your messages after you arrive to interview them. :-P

Dating Budapest

From Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia
Sometimes you don't click on the first date. When that happens there is usually not a second date. After my first full day in Budapest I felt ready to give up and move on to a smaller city. I felt lonely and lost. I had been targeted by scam artists. And to compound my unhappiness, yesterday morning I realized that I had shampooed with conditioner, which is the sort of thing that happens when you go shopping for supplies in a country where you don't speak the language. But I kept telling myself that I must not have given the city a fair chance. Everyone talks glowingly about Budapest, so what's wrong with me?

I have found the magic. Last night I stopped by a cool movie-themed bar full of hipster, artist types, and so finally I enjoyed a couple half liters of Budapest beer. The women con artists I wrote about are still working their poison in the shopping district (two different pairs tried ensnaring me as I walked through last night; or maybe I am just irresistible to female duos in that particular part of town), but get just a few blocks away from that tourist trap and you find the awesome Budapest your friends told you about, the one you read about in the travel section of the New York Times, the one Lonely Planet claimed was, "More cosmopolitan than Prague, more romantic than Warsaw and more beautiful than both."

To literally top it off, the city is being blanketed with beautiful snow. The flakes fall outside the window of Caffe Break Kft., a cozy wi-fi enabled joint with 1960s newspaper pages pasted on its walls. A CD of acoustic versions of current pop hits plays in the background.

I sometimes gaze at a city's celebrated architecture and say, "So what?" It's the people that make a place great, not the pretty bridges. A small town like Timisoara, Romania may not be gorgeous, but it is very friendly; a more glamorous city can be beautiful but emotionally cold. Where would you rather be?

But now I see the appeal of a gorgeous city. As I gazed at the Parliament building from halfway across the Chain Bridge today I felt as if I were walking past an earth-sized version of a Whistler landscape. A beautiful city inspires you. It puts an extra spring in your step as you explore it. This translates to a more positive frame of mind. Soon you're ready to write a novel, or at least tidy up a freelance article and scribble a travel blog entry.

Three dates with a person in order to decide whether you are compatible with that individual is probably two too many, but on my third full day in Budapest I feel like the city and I are finally clicking. I even found shampoo.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Budapest: Almost a Great Story

From Ukraine and Romania
I'm at the Red Bus Hostel in Budapest. There is hardly a soul here. The room of four beds is mine alone for the moment. My former roomie, a quiet Chinese girl who has been winding her way through Central Europe, left this morning. She gave me all sorts of pills to help me with my coughing, presumably because she didn't want to be kept awake by it. So I have Chinese cold medication and cough drops. She also gave me something that I think is for acid reflux, but I am not sure. Since I haven't been drinking lately, I tried it hoping for a buzz.

I said to her, "I know what you're up to with all your travels! You're a drug dealer!"

I was half-right. After she departed I found, on my bed, a shrink-wrapped copy of the Bhagavad-Gita. In fact, I am quite interested in reading it. Perhaps I will be more enlightened after the next few train trips I take. Often times the things I say are mistaken for sarcasm. Really, I am interested.

In fact, I envy people of faith. They wear an extra layer of armor that atheists must do without. I wrote recently about the stress of dealing with ne'er do wells at a Cluj Napoca autogara. I always assume religious people are better able to face that sort of stuff. Most religion seems to say, "Don't worry; everything will work out in the end." And usually, things do. Oh ye of little faith, indeed.

Last night I was targeted for a different sort of scam than any I've described before; something much more sophisticated than a mere selling of a pick-pocketed cell phone, and with far greater potential for terror. This scam is so excellent because it involves an entire cast of cons, each of whom must be excellent playing their role. Mine is "almost" a great story because unfortunately for you, dear reader, I was suspicious enough to walk away from what was unfolding. Had I fallen for it I would have had a much more interesting story to tell, something along the lines of this one.

My story is as follows. While wandering about on my own last night, two blond women, probably in their mid-30s, saw me, shouted something to me in Hungarian, and then switched to English when I told them I spoke English. They asked me for directions to "an Irish Pub" (you know you've been pigeon-holed in a foreign country if women ask you about Irish pubs, but I am admittedly fond of such places). I told them I thought I had seen one in the vicinity called the Guinness Pub or some such thing, but I was not sure being new in town myself. They were friendly and told me they were visiting from the Lake Balaton region of Hungary for a few days.

They asked where I was headed that evening. I told them I was looking for dinner. They invited me to join them. Thinking this a bit odd ("instant friends" usually set off alarm bells in my head) I declined. They expressed disappointment, then pointed in a particular direction they were headed saying they had found a good pub on the Lonely Planet map I had shown them. So they headed off that way, and I went in the opposite direction thinking, "Strange, strange," but not sure why I thought it was so strange.

Being lost and confused, I circled the block. Sure enough, like an idiot, I wound up at exactly the same place I had met the two women before. And who should come strolling down the same street from the same direction I first saw them coming from but the same two women. They had not gone to that Irish pub after all; they were walking a loop.

At first I was embarrassed, so I waved at them and laughed. "How funny! We run into each other in exactly the same way we did just minutes before! Haha!" They laughed back (actually they impersonated my laugh, because unfortunately I have a horrible laugh).

I went back to the hostel, then Googled for Budapest scams, and lo and behold all became clear. As the link I provided above demonstrates (here it is again), this is how the trick is done (the guy in the link tells it beautifully, but if you want the short version, what happens after you say yes to the women is you wind up in a restaurant, bar, or strip club where the final bill winds up being phenomenally and inexplicably high; you hand over a lot of cash; in some cases you get marched to an ATM by somebody with a gun and hand over more cash; and you realize at some point later on that the women were in on it from the get-go and had deliberately brought you to that place with that outcome in mind). The U.S. Embassy in Budapest has a list of establishments implicated in this scam.

It is fortunate also that I love my girlfriend, because that added an additional cautionary voice in the back of my head which said, "I wouldn't 'do anything' with these two, but my girlfriend would be—to use her perfect words—'quite PISSED, actually' if she knew I went off drinking with a couple of Hungarian women anyway, and that would make me feel guilty, so why bother?"

Since my story was merely "almost great," I have included a great photo of some men moving a statue of a guy on a horse taken later that night.

Monday, March 8, 2010

International Women's Day/Lost in Transition

It's International Women's Day, so women all over Timisoara are carrying flowers offered to them by the city's most chivalrous men. At the train ticket office today one older gentleman came down expressly to hand a flower to one of the young ticket salespeople. A college student bearing two roses for some lucky recipients at the Tequila Club just ran past the window of the cafe from which I am writing this. Ah, here come two more guys, one with five roses and the other with one rose.

Weather is sunny, with temperatures somewhere between cool and cold as spring jousts with winter for supremacy.

There are two types of travel stress. One is the "rush to the airport while worrying that you left your passport at the hotel" type. The other is the "I have been vegetating in the same smallish city for the past five days and I need to get outta here" variety.

Timisoara, and the country of Romania as a whole, have been wonderful, but after five days in this city--and over a month in this country--it's time to bid "La revedere" and head for new pastures. Tonight I go to Budapest. The trip by train will be a mere 5 hours; cost of a ticket was about $30. There's a time zone change, so I will be an hour closer to Cristina. :-)

Last activities here are to enjoy a small lunch, drink a final beer (or two) at my favorite little wi-fi enabled cafe, head to the Gara de Nord, mail a package (hopefully) from the post office there (said to be the only one in the city that handles international mailings), and then await my train.

Travel days are always strange; counting down the minutes I have left in the city I am about to leave while contemplating a city I have never seen before leaves me feeling lost between places. It will be a pleasure to wake up in a Budapest hostel tomorrow morning with my attention undivided.

I'm feeling sentimental, but I look forward to visiting some new (to me) countries in the coming weeks. These will likely include Croatia and certainly Serbia, where I am meeting up with a talented band I will be writing an article about, along the same vein as the Gorchitza piece that ran in the Kyiv Post.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Saturday Night Fever in Timişoara

From Ukraine and Romania
When I travel alone, I find it hard to motivate myself to visit clubs despite my long-running obsession with European pop and dance music. Well, on Saturday night I ditched the introverted me and had myself a proper night out.

Things did not begin promisingly. I walked to the center of town in order to check out a club called Vanilla, but the fancy clothes of the patrons outside discouraged me from attempting entry. I have a general aversion to clubs where the patrons appear to be more concerned about fashion than about the music.

I wasn't really feeling it right then, and very nearly returned to my pensiune. But since the student campus area was on the way back "home" anyway, I decided to swing by the many bars and clubs there to see if anything looked promising.

At about 11:30 PM I climbed the stairs to Q Club. Q Club, located on the top floor of a two-floor (three floors by American measurements) building, was a modest-sized venue with a medium-sized dancefloor. I suspect that in a former life it was used as office space. During this early part of the night the DJs primarily focused on Romanian house songs. Although there was a decent-sized crowd there, most patrons at that point were apparently not drunk enough to brave the dancefloor, so they chilled out on the lounge furniture instead. This allowed one to enjoy the psychedelic laser lights crawling all over the floor.

When the DJ dropped Jay Ko's catchy hit "One," many clubbers stood up and danced by their chairs. Then, a swing-dancing couple took the dancefloor proper. The floodgates were opened. Half an hour later I counted about 40 people on the dancefloor, which is a good-sized crowd for an intimate venue like this one. The DJs shook things up with a multitude of Romanian house hits, including Nick Kamarera's "Reason for Love" (incidentally, Kamarera got his start in Timişoara) and Tom Boxer's "Morena (My Love)" (which got the patrons singing along). Non-Romanian tracks followed, including a mashup of Lady Gaga's "LoveGame" (uh, there was lots of "love" that night) with Madonna's "Celebration." Sander Van Doorn's "Close My Eyes," which features the vocals of Robbie Williams, tore the place to shreds.

Dress was casual, though some girls trashed it up a bit, and there were quite a few young women in stiletto boots. I never considered myself a fetishist, but I like the stiletto boots. I think I'll buy a pair for my girlfriend.

I enjoyed myself immensely, but I decided to move on to the Happy Beer and Steak House. An exclamation of "WTF?" is acceptable. One walks through the small restaurant area, descends some stairs, opens a door, and strolls into an enormous room packed wall-to-wall with people and smoke. The lights are all on; there's no darkness to hide in. It's an unlikely place to find a good dance party, but there it was. The DJs there (photo above) played a ton of good tracks, focusing it seemed on Romanian pop, including Puya's "Change," and Guess Who's "Locul Potrivit."* Coat check consisted of an enormous mountain of jackets piled in front of the DJ equipment.

A guy walked up to me saying he had made a bet with a friend; the friend bet I was from the UK. I'm from America, so the friend lost. I joined that group's table and became engrossed in good, drunken conversation. I took many photos there and emailed the best to my new friends today.

I don't remember when I got back to the pensiune, or even how, which is one measure of a successful night out (the other measure being sleeping in until 2 PM, to the annoyance of the pensiune manager who had made breakfast for me at 9). Oh, regarding blacking out while wandering around a foreign country—this is an incredibly stupid thing to do. If you are as recklessly idiotic as I was in this regard, remember to carry only cash with you when you go out—leave the credit cards and passport back at the pensiune!

Anyway, good times!

* "Locul Potrivit" is a real work of genius, and the video is worth viewing on YouTube even if you don't know any Romanian. The song quirkily addresses the history of Romania since the 1989 revolution, and was released in time for the 20th anniversary of that revolution.

From Ukraine and Romania

Saturday, March 6, 2010

"Dangers and Annoyances"

Travelers to foreign countries must learn to distinguish between potential friends and con artists. I sincerely believe that in Romania for every one person with ill-intent towards outsiders there are at least a hundred people who would be delighted to be a real friend to you (and another hundred who would never want to be your friend, but only for the same reasons you don't have a lot of friends in your own country).

Friendships with people who live in the places you visit are the most precious currency any traveler can have. Friends allow you to see the world you are visiting with greater clarity. An hour of conversation with a Romanian will reveal more truths about their country than 20 hours of reading about it. Unfortunately, the potential friends and well-wishers are often as shy as I am, and so in the coffee houses and bars you visit their potential camaraderie often goes undetected. But those who wish ill are often out in the open, loudly working their poison. They are an unpleasantly high-profile minority who can greatly and unfairly spoil an impression of a place.

The time I spent at the autogara (intercity bus depot) in Cluj Napoca a few days ago was the most nerve-racking of my trip. I was driven there by a taxi driver who spent the entire time talking on his cell phone. As he pulled away from me I felt more abandoned than "dropped off." I surveyed a dozen or so buses parked on dusty asphalt, then wheeled my suitcase in the direction I presumed the ticket office was located.

When I arrived at the dilapidated station I saw that the number of gypsies there outnumbered the number of people awaiting the bus. Unfortunately, in this setting and context, the presence of gypsies is interchangeable with the presence of crime. That's how it is. I wish it were not so, but it is.

Train and bus stations throughout Europe are traditionally high-crime areas, but in recent years the Romanian ones, most impressively the Gara de Nord in Bucharest, have been cleaned up of most of their seedier elements. The Cluj autogare was therefore an unpleasant step backwards in time.

The first person to identify me as a potential source of income was a small girl who rushed up to me and began her rambling speech. The rambling speech is the traditional tactic of the beggar child. It sounds more like a chant or magical incantation than it does normal speech, no doubt on account of it being so thoroughly rehearsed. It is delivered in a monotone without an ounce of feeling. Usually it goes on until you interrupt it. If you pretend to ignore the child for five minutes the child will drone on for five minutes. It's creepy.

I told her "Nu" and walked away from her, but sensing I was a hot commodity she followed me around. In Romania, particularly in "captive audience" environments like bus or train stations, the pan-handlers do not usually take "Nu" for an answer, nor "Stop," nor the Romanian for "Go away."

I sought a place to buy tickets. Seeing that I was on the hunt for something, the girl pointed to various rooms and opened doors for me in order to (ostensibly) assist. She likely expected a hand-out for her efforts, but I did not pay her anything because I did not request her help, and her presence was making me more nervous, not less.

One might laugh here, since I am describing an adorable gypsy girl. But the reality was she was working for the adult gypsies also in the area, and her goal was to extract money from me. One way to extract money is to pick a pocket, something children are at an ideal height to do, and when you are traveling from one city to the next you must carry everything pick-pocketable along, including passport and credit cards. So, the presence of several small gypsy children running around, following you, reciting their rambling speeches, and so on forces you to occupy your brain with the question: "Is my wallet still there?" You ask yourself this repeatedly. You'd rather not have your attention divided like that. In fact, in my confusion I asked a woman at the information window when the bus to Sighisoara was leaving, and was alarmed to hear that it did not leave until the evening (online I had seen it was leaving at 12:30 PM), only to realize after I had walked over to the adjoining Autogara B (which promised an earlier departure) that I had meant to ask about Timisoara, not Sighisoara. That's the sort of mistake you make when you are nervous.

Why be nervous? Because I discovered while in Kiev and later Romania that losing your debit card can be a disaster. Without it I had no easy means of accessing cash in cities where cash is still the primary method of payment. Most banks refused to give me cash on my other credit card because there is an expectation that one have a pin number whenever one uses a credit card, and I either do not have one for my credit card (since pins on credit cards are not requested in the United States, and using a "regular" credit card at an ATM invites steep fees); or I do have one, but Bank of America won't tell it to me for security reasons.* Thanks to Bank of America's many failures, I had to limp along for a month before I received a replacement card.

That was how life was without a debit card, but at least I had another card to fall back on, plus one (and only one) bank in Romania that was willing, after a complicated 15 minute process, to give me cash from it. But imagine losing all your cards. I promise you this: if you lose your wallet in a foreign country, do not believe the television ads that show the stranded traveling couple being rescued by their bank. The fact is, you will be well and truly fucked.

Eventually the girl gave up. A boy took her place. He began his incantation. I told him "Nu" as well, and eventually he left me in order to drone to the woman beside me instead.

The main tactic of the bus station panhandlers is to parade every type of pathetic person in front of you in order to earn sympathy money. Once the children give up, women approach you, some carrying babies in their arms. Watery-eyed old men then totter up, emphasizing their frailness with each wobbly step. Somebody on crutches inevitably comes along after that, taking two hops before extending a hand for cash, followed by two more hops to the next person and another arm extension.

If you aren't moved by pity, perhaps capitalism will convince you to part with your cash. In this vein you are offered flowers and cheap plastic knick-knacks (the red/yellow/blue Romanian flag color-scheme ballpoint pens have been a staple for several years now). If you want something a bit more exciting than a key chain, perhaps you will be tempted by a stolen cell phone. Who was the cell phone stolen from? Someone like yourself, no doubt.

If you don't worship material things, perhaps you are a person of God and will be moved by religion. Panhandlers come by selling icons of saints printed like baseball cards, and little crosses. They carry fake identification claiming they are official representatives of such and such a monastery, but as one man explained on a train trip I took from Iasi to Baia Mare, if I am moved to buy religious artifacts, wouldn't I just get thee to one of Romania's many monasteries in person in order to ensure that my cash winds up in the right hands?

The overall effect of all this is to wear down the traveler who awaits his or her bus or train. I suspect at some point many people break down and hand out money out of sheer exhaustion. Perhaps they hope they might buy some peace and quiet this way. That would be a mistake; from my observations people who hand out cash are generally identified as open ATM machines, and so they get hit again.

But worse than all of these circus-like distractions is the omnipresent worst-case scenario: that somebody will simply pick your pocket. It is emotionally exhausting--even physically exhausting as your heart pounds in double-time--keeping track of each and every person around you and their proximity to your pocketbook. The Cluj autogara has no visible police presence, so it is up to you to be your own officer. As if you don't already have enough on your mind while you travel.

After everything I described above had occurred, a gypsy guy in a track outfit and carrying a sports bag walked up to me and immediately addressed me in English.

"Hey, there! Where are you going?" he asked me.

The fact is, nobody who walks right up to you in a bus or train station speaking English is going to be your friend in any country. I am reminded of the exquisitely menacing scene in the Hurt Locker where an Iraqi guy with dubious intentions strolls up to an American soldier and says, "Hey, you American? You surf?" (Or maybe it was, "You play basketball?" I don't have the movie at my fingertips to reference right now, but the point is the same.)

"Where are you going?" I asked him. I wanted to be sure his design was not to follow me to my destination.

"Why do you ask me that?" he said, illogically, since he felt it was perfectly OK to ask me that.

I stared at him blankly.

"Are you afraid here?" he asked me.

I did not tell him I was, because that would be a stupid thing to admit. So I grunted a "Nu" and wheeled my luggage away from him.

He looked very unhappy after that, in the same way that two gypsies who physically grappled with a friend of mine in Constanta many years ago in order, they said, to--I am not making this up--test the durability of American fabrics fired dark parting glances at me after I yelled at them to get the hell away.

It turned out the track suit guy was a paying bus rider. For all I know he was a completely sincere, nice person. For a while I even felt a little bit guilty. But then the following things occurred to me:

1) Bus and train stations everywhere are often populated with criminals and pickpockets.

2) If I lose my credit cards I am fucked. And losing my computer would be like losing everything in my apartment and my cell phone at once; no more easy Skype conversations with my girlfriend in the U.S. In short, if you are a traveler in a foreign country, you have much more to lose than a native does.

3) People who walk up to you speaking English right away and fishing for information about you are, 99% of the time, up to no good. The other 1% are stupid idiots.

4) Gypsies in train stations who begin speaking English to you have racially profiled you just as much as--you might fear in your too-sensitive heart--you have racially profiled them, only their objective is to extract money from you, either by guilting you, exhausting you, or even physically stealing it from you, whereas your objective is merely to be left alone.

But before you become a completely withdrawn asshole (which would defeat the purpose of travel), remember what I said in opening: most people out there want to be your friend, and friends are the best things life can offer you. Go out and make some. But if your spidey-sense tells you "Danger," there's probably a good, deep-seated evolutionary reason for that to be the case. You owe it to your ancestors who survived to procreate before you to listen to that gift.

*This is a very long story that would require a multi-page digression. The short version is, Bank of America shot down about ten different methods of solving my problem, each time for security reasons they said were in place to protect me. And VISA-911 was useless; for example, they refused to send me emergency cash because I had changed my address in the previous three months.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Hotel Studis, Iasi, Romania:

From Kiev, Ukraine; Bucharest, Romania

The Hotel Studis is very cheap, and clean, and I slept well in it. But there are a few things worth noting...

My room faced a street inhabited by feral dogs. At night, feral dogs bark loudly to express alarm, anger, interest, a desire to communicate with other dogs, joy, curiosity, fear, anything, etc. The dogs were quiet in the morning, which probably emboldened the roosters outside to begin crowing at that time. I slept well anyway thanks to my Anti-Snoring Machine, but the average traveler does not have this luxury, so consider yourself warned.

After dark, a journey to one's room begins with a few hesitant steps into a long, pitch-black hallway. One feels along the wall up to the first hotel room door for the switch to turn on the hall light. Activation of that switch is followed by a sinister crackling sound accompanied by stroboscopic bursts of medicinal fluorescent light which illuminate the long hallway like angry lighting before freezing into solid hyper-white. One must walk quickly down that hall, for the lights shut off automatically after a minute, leaving one stranded in absolute darkness.

Upon reaching the room, one hurriedly tries each of the two keys (one key for the alcove, which includes a toilet, shower, and kitchen shared with one other room; and another key for the room itself) in order to get inside before the hall lights go out. One gets in, finds that the alcove light does not work, and rushes to turn on the bathroom light for alternative illumination. One then tries the keys for the bedroom, steps inside, and hits the light switch. The room lights flash on, revealing in crackling bursts a plain room with two beds boasting white sheets, white comforters, and white pillows.

At Hotel Studis, internet is offered, but it is delivered not via wireless but rather by a long, gray cable, which they hand you when you check in.

I was unable to get this cable to work with my laptop, so I requested assistance from the front desk. The guy who showed up to help spoke no English. In fact, he seemed proud of this. He kept shaking his head while emphatically stating, "NU englez!" He said in the Romanian language that he was very sorry (he wasn't), but that there was nothing he could (would) do. I even had to talk him into plugging in the alternative cable he had brought over himself in order to see if the fault lay with the cable I had been given earlier. He was an ass. This was the only truly bad impression the hotel left with me.

The lack of internet was why I left Studis in the morning, because I needed internet to stay in contact with my girlfriend who was in Italy at the time. I moved on to Hotel Continental (view from Hotel Continental in photo above), which had its own internet problems, but which ultimately solved those problems and was overall very awesome.

Hotel Studis is close to the shopping mall and a ton of great student bars and clubs (the richness of clubs here is due to their being alongside student dormatories; Iasi is a big college town). If occasional internet connectivity is all you need, it's worth noting that from Studis you can visit the nearby Motor Club (ask for directions; it's en route to the mall and everyone seems to know where it is). Motor Club is a billiards and ping-pong (!) place, there's free wi-fi there, and you can even plug your power cord into the wall at the table closest to the entrance.

I paid only 101 lei per night for Hotel Studis (this odd price might be based on a calculation of the exact exchange rate between dollar and lei, which at the time was around $3 per lei, so $34 a night; not bad). Indeed, Studis was very affordable, but it also served as a reminder of the gulf that exists between budget hotels in the U.S. and those in Romania.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Backward Romania/Forward Romania

A guy I interviewed for a piece I'm writing told me a joke about Romania: "Worried about 2012? Then come to Romania, because we're a hundred years behind." But in some ways Romania is ahead of the United States. Odd as it sounds, sometimes Romania is even enabled by its backwardness.

For example, the United States has twice as much land line saturation as "backward" Romania. But in part encouraged by this very lack of land lines, "forward" Romania's cell phone market has, like the United States', reached saturation. On average, everyone in Romania has at least one cell phone (the country's telecom companies are very generous about handing out phones to people who sign up for their plans). And in Romania old people really are using those phones. In fact, they're yakking on them during long bus rides all the time. And their ringers are cranked up to deafening levels because they are nearly deaf themselves. I digress.

Romania introduced a "cash for clunkers"-type program (wherein one exchanges one's old and fuel-inefficient car for a down payment on a new car) in 2005, several years before the U.S. tried its own. This program is what contributed to the near-extinction of Romania's classic (and extremely ugly) early Dacia models. Since 2007 I have not seen a single Dacia 500 anywhere (the photo above is of me in 2004 in front of a Dacia 500).

Most Romanians used their "clunkers" money to buy used cars, because new cars are as expensive in Romania as they are in the United States despite Romania being a much poorer country. Used German cars were particularly popular. Germany's used cars entered the Romanian market in part because of Germany's own "clunkers" program. In Germany the "clunkers" were not required to be destroyed as they are in most other countries, so many German cars went from the junkyard to Eastern Europe, where they are being driven by Romanians today.

Unlike the short-lived U.S. program, the Romanian program continues to this day.