Archive for October, 2008

October 25th 2008

Posted under Germany

After an exhausting 10-hour journey on the slow train from Krakow – where we shared a compartment with a single mother, her five wild children, and fifty boisterous teenagers returning from a high school field trip – we arrived at our budget hotel excited but lethargic. There were several tempting restaurants highlighted in our guidebook, but we were unable to summon the energy for a Saturday night out. Instead we wandered down a street around the corner from our hotel and stumbled upon a little Italian restaurant with candlelit tables. Steaming plates of pasta and the carafe of Chianti were exactly what we needed.

We only had two days in the German capital and we were determined to make them count. Our first day began at the Gemäldegalerie, a spectacular fine art museum showcasing an enormous collection of 13th to 18th century European paintings by many of our favorite artists. The museum was spacious and softly illuminated by natural sunlight, a signature of its purpose-built design. It was opened in the mid-1990s after German reunification when the two states merged collections. The collection of paintings was one of the best that we’ve seen.

We departed after a tasty lunch at the museum café and continued on with a self-guided walking tour of central Berlin. Almost immediately we discovered that I had forgotten to replace the memory card in our camera after my last picture download session. The metro tickets in Germany are quite expensive by European standards and I knew that a trip back to the hotel would cost as much as buying a new memory card. With a self-deprecating determination, I led my wife on a wild goose chase try to buy a new card only to be reminded that, in much of Europe, retail outlets are closed on Sundays. Eventually, Tina put an end to my madness by insisting that we return to the hotel, grab the card, and get on with our day.

Reloaded, we began at Potsdamer Platz, an area once divided by the Wall and abandoned after WWII; it’s now a model of urban renewal. We strolled along the sidewalks in the shadows of glass-covered skyscrapers and flashy new buildings. The Sunday crowds were out in force, visiting the museums, cinemas, restaurants and bars that now populate the area. Slowly we made our way to Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, an urban area covered with 2,711 gray concrete stelae, which bore a striking similarity to a cemetery. It was fascinating and poignant memorial for the victims of one of history’s most heinous crimes.

Our next stop was the Brandenburg Gate, a symbolic dividing line during the Cold War (the Berlin Wall famously curved around the square) and now one of the most popular spots for a photo op. We maneuvered through the crowd to snap our photos and then moved on to the hulking, yet beautiful Reichstag, now home to the German parliament. Thoroughly enjoying the crisp fall air we continued along the Spree River, down Unter den Linden and Friedrichstrasse – two of Berlin’s main shopping thoroughfares.

We finally arrived at Checkpoint Charlie, the main gateway through the Berlin Wall for Allies and diplomats between East and West Germany during their tumultuous thirty year separation. Today the “checkpoint” is nothing more than a reconstructed guardhouse, a couple of replica signs, and the requisite tourist shops, but from 1961 to 1989, Checkpoint Charlie was the symbolic centerpiece of the Cold War. A nearby row of billboards provided us with a synopsis of the major events in the global struggle between Communism and Capitalism and the important role played by the two Berlins separated by the Wall. It was an enlightening exhibit and the perfect precursor to our Russian visit.

As the day turned to night we leisurely walked to the Gendarmenmarkt, a former marketplace which now attracts hundreds of tourists each night to see the colorfully illuminated buildings that embrace the square. Bordered on either side by domed churches and showcasing the Konzerthaus – home to Berlin’s Symphony Orchestra – the plaza was alive with street musicians, tourists and amateur photographers angling for the perfect shot.

Our next day began with a visit to the longest, best-preserved stretch of the Wall. In fact, the word wall is not quite correct. The Berlin Wall was actually a wide corridor between two walls, which cut Berlin into two halves. One wall marked the actual border on the west side of the corridor, while a second wall closed off the corridor to the east. The death strip, which included a narrow sentry path for the border guards, lay in between. The remaining one-kilometer west side section is now a unique open-air gallery – once a decaying, gray pitted eyesore, most surfaces are now covered with colorful murals, political slogans, and illegible graffiti. We followed the entire length of the wall, frequently stopping to read the emotionally-charged commentary and photographing the most interesting sections.

We spent the next several hours frequenting Berlin’s more modern monuments – the shopping malls. Having followed the warm weather around the world, we were afraid of arriving in Russia at the beginning of winter completely unprepared. After stocking up on hats, mittens, and sweaters, we treated ourselves to big scoops of gelato and a short visit to the neo-Renaissance Berliner Dom – a grand church where most of the German royals are interred.

Our time in Berlin was short and sweet. We saw enough of the city to know that our two-day tour only scratched the surface of this dynamic, cosmopolitan city. But I think we’ll be back. Right now we’ve got other things to think about. Bring on the Russkie!

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October 22nd 2008

Posted under Poland

As I pondered the thought of seeing Auschwitz, scenes from Schindler’s List and flashes of Holocaust photographs flashed through my mind, sending chills down my spine. Even after our seemingly comprehensive study of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem in Israel and other museums in Europe, I was haunted by the idea of walking among so many ghosts.

On our second day in Krakow, we stepped outside our warm hostel to a gray, bitter cold morning. The weather seemed strangely appropriate. During the hour-and-a-half drive to Auschwitz, I kept my nose buried in a book, mostly to distract from the sense of dread that loomed over me.

Our organized tour turned out to be quite disorganized and we ended up waiting in the lobby of the admission hall for about thirty minutes among flocks of other tour groups. It was very crowded, overcrowded in my opinion, and the groups became confusingly co-mingled. We each received a headset through which everyone in our 40+ person tour group could hear the guide’s commentary without his having to shout – a clever concept, though we would have preferred a much smaller group to begin with.

The most noticeable demographic among the tour groups that day were Hebrew-speaking young adults who were draped in and waving Israeli flags. When asked where the majority of visitors come from, our guide answered “America, Britain, and Poland.” It struck me as odd that certain other European countries didn’t top that list.

Auschwitz was established by the Nazis in a vacant Polish army barracks in 1940. By the end of the war, two subsequent camps – Birkenau (Auschwitz II) and Monowitz (Auschwitz III) were fully operational as extermination and labor camps within a few kilometers of the original camp. When the Nazis fled, they destroyed much of Auschwitz though, in their haste, much of the area was left intact.

As we entered the grounds, I was immediately struck by the electrified barbed wire fences that seemed to be everywhere. If you removed the barbed wire and the guard towers, the prison barracks might have been compared to student housing at a small university. We passed by the wrought-iron entry gate bearing the words Arbeit Macht Frei, Work Will Set You Free. In fact, Auschwitz was originally established as a labor camp for Polish prisoners. Later, when it doubled as an extermination facility, only the strongest of the prisoners were selected to enter into forced labor; the others, mainly women, children, the sick, and the elderly, were immediately transferred to the gas chambers for extermination. Those who made the initial cut usually died within months from starvation, disease, exposure, or execution. One of the most chilling exhibits was a long hallway inside one of the buildings, its walls covered with rows of mug shots from Nazi files of people who perished at Auschwitz. The photos, only a small sample of the 1.5 million people killed at Auschwitz, had captions noting the inmate’s date of registration at the camp and date of death. Most died within three months of arrival. The faces looked sallow with the sad, bulging eyes of malnutrition. Most of the women’s heads had already been shaven.

Inside one of the buildings were vast collections of clothes, shoes, spectacles, suitcases, crutches, canes, prosthetic limbs and literally TONS of human hair. The Nazis took everything. They transported the valuables to Germany by the train load. The human hair was used in the textile industry to fashion cloth, nets, and other fabrics. We know this because in their haste to depart, the Nazis left evidence behind. We saw the huge piles of hair and also some samples of cloth and netting that had been made from it.

We walked through one building that had served as the punishment block. It was there that the method of mass murder by poisoned gas was first tested on a group of Polish prisoners. There was a starvation cell where prisoners were locked with no food or water until they starved to death. Another cell, which was about the size of a phone booth, was used to punish prisoners by forcing four people to stay in it during all hours outside their mandatory 11-hour work requirements. After toiling at forced labor, they would have to sleep standing up. This punishment usually led to a quick death from exhaustion.

Between two rows of residential blocks was a short gravel lane with an execution wall at the end of it. Before the gas chambers were implemented, prisoners were shot in front of the execution wall while terrified residents heard everything from their beds. The wall was adorned with flowers and memorial candles. Along the sides of the same lane, wooden posts stuck out of the ground. As punishment, prisoners had their hands tied behind their backs and were suspended from the ground, often causing dislocated shoulders and loss of consciousness from the pain.

As we approached the gas chamber, I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. The building was a low, dreary cement block with a single brick chimney. As our group gathered in the stone courtyard in front of the gas chamber, our guide explained that the prisoners were made to undress in the courtyard since there was no other place to do this. As he spoke, my mind filled with images of women, children, the elderly, and the sick having survived days long train rides in cramped rail cars, the women having “donated” their hair to the cause, now having to strip naked in a cold stone yard, exposed to the harsh Polish elements and the guards’ loathing stares. What further dignity could be robbed from them? What depravity still lay before them!

We filed into the gas chamber, its cold gray walls enveloping us completely. We looked to the ceiling and saw the small openings through which the Nazi doctors poured pellets of Zyklon B (a hydrogen-cyanide insecticide) onto the panicked prisoners. When the pellets reached 27 degrees Celsius, they began to dissolve into poisonous gas. It was a slow, painful death, the ones closest to the pellets dying first and those further from the poison being the last to perish. The Nazis were experts in efficiency. They knew the exact amount of the deadly chemical that was required to kill everyone inside the chamber. To cover the sounds of the screams, they parked trucks on the gravel road between the gas chamber and the main part of the camp and left the engines running. To facilitate the disposal of the corpses, the Nazis built an incinerator onto the gas chamber. Before that, bodies were burned in piles in the open air as evidenced by a clandestine photograph that survived the war. When the Allied forces arrived at Auschwitz, they found human ashes in the incinerator. The ashes were displayed with memorial candles constantly burning.

As Hitler’s plan to exterminate Jews from the human race materialized, the need arose for expansion of Auschwitz. Three kilometers away from the original camp, a Polish village was cleared out and the materials from the villagers’ homes and businesses were used to build Birkenau (a.k.a. Auschwitz II). “This vast (175 hectares), purpose-built and grimly efficient camp had more than 300 prison barracks and four huge gas chambers complete with crematoria. Each gas chamber held 2,000 people and electric lifts raised the bodies to the ovens. The camp could hold 200,000 inmates at one time.” (Lonely Planet: Eastern Europe, Feb 2007, p. 570)

It was at Birkenau that the extermination of the greatest numbers of people took place. Though much of the camp was destroyed by the Nazis and other buildings were dismantled so that the displaced villagers could rebuild their homes, the remnants provide a shocking view of the scale of this horrific operation. Walking through one of the residential barracks at Birkenau, we saw rooms of three-level wooden bunk beds. Each platform, about the size of a queen-size bed, slept as many as five adults. The buildings themselves were simply constructed and lacked any insulation against the harsh Polish winters.

The latrine building was an eye-opener that came with yet another sad story. Inside the rectangular structure, a long trench had been dug down the center. A single long piece of white construction material, with holes cut into it, was laid across low cement blocks on either side of the trench. These were the toilets. According to our guide, every aspect of the prisoners’ existence was strictly controlled by the guards, including their use of the toilet. Prisoners were allowed to use the toilet only twice per day: once in the morning and then once in the evening, after their eleven-hour work shift. There was only a short window of time allowed for the toilet use and the long rows of holes were insufficient for the number of prisoners who needed to use them. Often prisoners would miss one of the two toilet opportunities. Use of toilet without permission was cause for punishment. Sadly, this regimen was actually an improvement over the conditions in the early years of the camp’s existence where prisoners were prohibited from using water to wash themselves.

Our final moments in Auschwitz-Birkenau were spent at the top of the main guard tower, overlooking the entire expanse of the most infamous genocide factory in history. The buildings that remained intact provided a glimpse of daily life for many of the 1.5 million human beings who met a tragic end at the hands of the Nazis. Behind the barracks stood a graveyard of chimneys, the only remains of hundreds of barracks that were dismantled or destroyed, standing like monuments to victims of the Holocaust.

Seeing Auschwitz was a very different experience from visiting a Holocaust Museum. Absent were the gruesome photos of naked, skeletal bodies and victims of the infamous Dr. Mengele’s anatomical experiments. Absent were the articles of propaganda that attempt to explain how a nation came to revere a madman. Absent were bios on Hitler’s henchmen. Absent were personal accounts from the survivors.

Auschwitz stands on its own merit as a manifestation of sickening, rigid efficiency. The extermination of what Hitler perceived as a physically and intellectually inferior race, was conducted in a businesslike fashion whereby the Nazis took every imaginable value from the prisoners – property, clothing, hair, labor – before executing en masse in a frighteningly methodical manner.

Reflecting on all that I have learned about the Holocaust, I find myself clinging to my faith in a merciful God. I pray that the souls of the millions of victims have found a place of peace. I want my world to become a better place; a place where God’s will is done “on Earth as it is in Heaven”. Reading world news today does not help to restore my faith in man. Some days I can’t help but to think that the bearded man in the clouds is sitting up there with one hand on the faucet, ready to send down the next flood.

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October 20th 2008

Posted under Poland

We had booked three nights in Krakow at what turned out to be the best hostel of our entire trip. It was loaded with happy backpacker amenities – complementary breakfast, guest kitchen, free Wi-Fi, towels, stylish modern furnishings, ultra-friendly staff, washer/dryer, wonderful shower, spotlessly clean, reasonably quiet, not to mention the “freaky-deaky” sex mirror above the bed which we probably spent more time giggling about than…).

On the first of our two full days in Krakow, we decided to explore the city. As the former royal capital of Poland, Krakow has some architectural treasures. Wawel Castle and Cathedral, set along a bend in the Vistula River, is Krakow’s most popular tourist attraction. During the one-hour guided tour of the royal private apartments inside the castle, we were disappointed to learn that almost none of the interior furnishings were original. War time plundering had stripped the castle of most of its adornments. The castle’s current furnishings, most of which were transferred from the city’s museums, comprised a lovely collection of European and Oriental treasures. Of particular interest were the antique floor-to-ceiling porcelain heaters.

The most remarkable feature of the cathedral was its bell tower which contained the country’s largest bell, made from the melted metal weapons of defeated foreign armies, and weighing in at 11 tons. We climbed the steep wooden staircase to the top of the tower and were rewarded with superb views of the city.

Krakow’s Old Town is dominated by Rynek Glowny – Europe’s largest medieval market square. The three focal points in the square are the 14th-century St. Mary’s Church; the yellow, 16th-century Renaissance Cloth Hall, and the 15th-century Town Hall Tower. While the other buildings surrounding the square utilize the same juxtaposed style as those in other market squares in Europe, the facades are less grand and more worn. The perimeter is lined with restaurants serving an array of local and international cuisines; the quintessential European horse-drawn carriages abound, but it is the size of the two-hundred-by-two-hundred-meter square that impresses. At the same time, the large size sacrifices the intimate atmosphere that is characteristic of other European squares.

On display in the market square was an interesting photography exhibit of faces from around the world. As we moved from frame to frame, we smiled at the faces from places we’ve been and exchanged mischievous grins as we gazed upon faces from places that we have yet to explore. Another time perhaps. This gruesome twosome is headed HOME on November 4!

We happened upon a grand celebration during our visit to Krakow – the 30th anniversary of the inauguration of Pope John Paul II. The late pope was Krakow’s most beloved son and his memory is honored throughout the city with banners, statues, and various other monuments. The celebration took place just outside the Franciscan Church – known for its Art Nouveau stained-glass windows. We had heard symphony music from down the block and followed our ears to the church, where a symphony orchestra, complete with vocalists, was entertaining a gathering crowd. Outside the church hung banners of the pope; a big-screen TV played a video medley of his public appearances; and a ledge along the sidewalk was covered with colorful memorial candles. It was a lovely tribute – the reverence of the people shone in their faces. And the stained-glass windows inside the Franciscan Church were magnificent!

Krakow is a beautiful old city with modern amenities. The city emerged from WWII relatively unscathed despite its close proximity to the Nazi death camps and despite Poland’s role as a game board for Russian and German armies. With the following day devoted to Auschwitz, our time to explore the city was short. We spent our day pounding the pavement, taking in as much as we could of the cobbled streets, lovely public parks, and beautiful old churches. Between the noticeably chillier fall weather and the enticing comforts of the best hostel ever, it is a wonder that we made it out at all. Still, we were somehow reinvigorated by the nine-hour train ride from Budapest and, with just over two weeks left of this epic journey, we are determined to make each day count!

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October 18th 2008

Posted under Hungary

Our first hours in Budapest bore an unexpected twist. From the train station, we followed the directions that had been emailed from the owner of the flat that we would be renting for four nights. We reached the building – an old, dilapidated multi-story building with an open courtyard in the center. George likened it to an L.A. apartment building. I thought it looked like something out of Scarface.

Just as we were organizing ourselves in the entryway, two young men called down from a top floor interior balcony and beckoned us upstairs. We pondered this as we glanced over our collective albatross of necessities and, before we could nominate a representative to go up, the men offered to come down. After the cursory introductions, they explained in heavily-accented English that there was a problem with the flat that we’d reserved but they had called a taxi to take us to another flat on the other side of town. After a barrage of questions, we agreed to take the taxi while the owner, Adam, would ride his bicycle to meet us at the other flat.

Adam managed to arrive before us and his associate, Aggie, a chic, raven-haired beauty, was waiting at the door to greet us. The flat was on the third floor of another old building with no lift, making for a killer climb with our heavy load. Our efforts were rewarded at the top. The spacious flat, comprising one-quarter of the third floor, was funky, eclectic and thoughtfully decorated. The place oozed character. As we completed the check-in process in the Bohemian common room, appointed with interesting antiques and old black-and-white family photographs in dusty frames, we learned that Adam was a painter, a painter of churches to be exact, and all of the other people we’d met so far were painters of varying media as well. They had all attended art school together. We found this all fascinating and felt tickled to have already penetrated a vibrant layer of Budapest culture.

Today’s Budapest is the product of an official merger of three smaller cities that had naturally grown together: Buda, a hilly expanse with affluent neighborhoods and a magnificent skyline composed of the old royal palace, the tree-covered Gellert Hill, neo-Gothic churches, and most of Budapest’s remaining medieval buildings; Pest, the flat, modern commercial and cultural center; and Obuda, an old Roman settlement dating back to the first centuries.

The Danube River, as sparkling green as a glacial lake, separates Buda and Obuda on its west bank from Pest on its east bank. The two sides are connected by nine bridges that span the Danube, the prettiest of which is the Chain Bridge with sculptured guardian lions and a chain of lights that reflects on the water at night.

Hungary’s history is colored by foreign influences from a succession of foreign governance, an alliance with Nazi Germany (430,000 Hungarians were transferred to Auschwitz, more than any other nationality), and the dark curtain of Soviet-style Communism. The current Republic of Hungary was proclaimed in 1989 and the last Soviet troops left in 1991. Democratic elections were held and a free market economy emerged. While the signs of modernization and growth abound in Budapest, remnants of the past are ever-present in the form of decadent Turkish baths, Viennese coffee houses, Hapsburg elegance in architecture, and a graveyard for Socialist statues called Szobor Park. The statues, which formerly stood in various places around the city, were deemed inappropriate in the early ‘90s and moved to the statue park on the outskirts of town.

On our first morning, we all purchased three-day unlimited public transport passes and began to explore the city. We began our foray into Budapest culture at Varosliget, the city park in the north of Pest. The vast greenspace enclosed a peaceful lake, a zoo, a children’s circus, an exhibition hall, a fine arts museum and a public bath. We walked under a canopy of autumn trees to a daily flea market that Jennifer had read about. The old saying “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” was manifest in Varosliget that day as we wandered along row upon row of rummage tables. George and Aaron lost interest almost immediately and disappeared into the park to smoke cigars. The treasures laid out for my perusing pleasure, in addition to the usual used clothes, shoes, books and household items, included jewelry, antiques, kitschy Hungarian handicrafts and knickknacks. Surely there lurked some shiny treasures amid the embroidered linens and ceramic figurines but I didn’t have the patience to dig for them and soon joined the men who had made it as far as the first tree outside the flea market before copping a squat and lighting up.

It was a glorious sunny day and, when Jennifer had rejoined us, we walked through the park toward Andrassy Avenue – a lovely, tree-lined avenue stretching from Heroes Square in the city park to the commercial center of Pest. The avenue was lined with fine old buildings including the gilt-laden Hungarian State Opera House, Kodaly Korond (a statue-clad square with beautifully painted old buildings), and a quartet of identical buildings, the facades of which created a grand octagonal intersection. Beneath Andrassy Avenue runs Continental Europe’s oldest underground railway – Budapest’s M1 yellow line metro. The line’s seven stops under Andrassy have their original interior from the 1970’s with red-and-white tiled walls and floor-to-ceiling wood cabinets.

We had taken lunch outdoors at an Italian place on Andrassy and were jonesing for a sweet, so much so that we began singing songs about cake. When we realized that we were very near Budapest’s historical cake-and-coffee venue, our walk became a skip, and when we spotted the lovely patio tables and exquisite façade of Gerbeaud, Jennifer and I were tickled while Aaron and George’s mental cash registers were already ringing. We sat for a round of pretty but mediocre cakes, listening as a shabbily-dressed man played a violin in the square.

We concluded the afternoon with a walk to the eastern bank of the Danube, near the Chain Bridge. When we first laid eyes on the Buda skyline, we were awed by its beauty. The Buda royal palace stood majestically atop Castle Hill while the colorful tiled roofs of the Buda Reformation Church and Matthias Church shone among the medieval stone facades. The Danube, in contrast to Prague’s sleepy River Vltava, is a commercial artery. Cargo barges, piled high with shiny black coal, glided through the center while cruise ships and riverboat restaurants lined the banks. We soaked up the stunning views and then ambled back to our little painter’s flat to cozy up for the evening.

Intrigued by the sleepy hills of Buda, Aaron and I set out the next morning for a closer look. We walked across the Chain Bridge and rode the funicular up to Castle Hill. Too antsy to join the royal palace tour, we joined the crowd to watch the daily changing of the guard, took in the views of Pest from the hill, and then wandered through the old streets. I popped into Matthias Church, known as much for its magnificent interior murals as its kaleidoscopic tiled roof. Our final stop in Buda was the riverbank across from Budapest’s most photographed architectural masterpiece – the Parliament. After Budapest was united in 1873, the design of the House of Parliament was conceived as a symbol of the sovereignty of the nation. With its central dome and Gothic turrets, it stands as boldly on the western embankment of the Danube, its reflection almost pristinely cast on the river’s calm surface.

We made a brief stop in the old Jewish Quarter on our way back to the flat to glimpse the beautiful Nagy Synagogue with its weeping willow-shaped memorial to those who perished in the Nazi death camps. The Holocaust museums and memorials always stir up intense emotions and require subsequent moments of quiet reflection. Back at the flat, we all agreed that a siesta was in order before dinner. I will never take for granted the pleasure of having a comfortable place to hang your hat. In the hostel world, we have not always had that. I must take this opportunity to shower our dear Jennifer with kudos for booking our excellent accommodation in Eastern Europe. I cherished lovely hours of down time in all of them, especially the accidental painter’s flat.

Dinner that night was Hungarian. We had passed by the place a half-dozen times and its red-and-white tablecloths finally lured us in. We were greeted at the door by the humble, white-haired proprietor, who ushered us to a table by the window. There were ten or twelve tables in the place, about of half of which were occupied, and our black suit-clad host waited on every one personally. We gobbled down some delicious rolls while we waited for our entrees – meaty goulash and hearty, slow-cooked meats. Dinner was authentic and spectacular!

For our last day in Budapest, I had the grandest plans: a late morning visit to the Szechenyi public bath in the city park, dinner at the recommended restaurant Menza, and an evening performance of La Tosca at the opera house. George and Jennifer showed little interest, with the possible exception of dinner, but Aaron was a willing participant. That morning, however, an unwelcome wave of lethargy swept over us. It was midday by the time we packed our day pack and headed for the bath.

As we waited in the line of senior citizens at the admissions window – a line that failed to progress more than three steps in fifteen minutes – our lethargic brand of enthusiasm began to wane. Aaron prodded me to peek through the window to steal a glimpse of the main pool. It was surrounded by yellow walls and white columns – the layout was decadent and aesthetically pleasing. The entire perimeter of the pool was crowded with old men, though I could see several younger patrons, including some women, in the center. I returned to the line, which had not budged in my absence. When Aaron confessed a few minutes later that his interest was half-hearted, I turned and walked out, knowing that I would regret the impulsive fold but powerless to stop myself.

I attributed part of my emotional demise that day to a gradual assessment that I had been making of my physical state. Aaron and I were unintentionally setting a trip record for longest time without washing our clothes and we were both getting irritated about our dingy duds. For posterity, I feel compelled to add here that I did wash undergarments in the sink twice during this period. I hadn’t had a haircut since China and, while I have liked my long locks, they were becoming rather unruly. My razorblade had been dull for quite some time and I was out of replacements. As icing on the cake of my aesthetic fall from grace, I had somehow lost my last contact lens (yes, I only wear one; Aaron’s “little cyclops”) that morning. I was falling apart. Sensing that I was on the brink of a nasty mood swing, my darling husband led the charge in putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.

We decided to bag the bath and the opera. We took the metro back to town, sat down for a quick lunch, paid an extortionist’s price of $10 for two razorblades, and then stopped into an optometry shop for new contact lenses. While the optometrist spoke about as much English as I speak Hungarian (i.e. I asked questions in English; she answered in Hungarian), we managed to get the deal done with surprising efficiency. While our last day in Budapest fell drastically short of my cultural aspirations, the grapes of my wrath were slowly fermenting.

Our foursome did go to Menza that night for a magnificent Hungarian farewell dinner. Hungarian beers, rich soups and the quintessential meaty mains were the finishing touch on an unforgettable foray through Eastern Europe.

As for my final thoughts on Budapest, I cannot provide them because to do so would imply that I will not return. I hope to return someday for a bath and an opera. Instead, my parting thoughts are as follows: Budapest is a city that begs to be explored. The intrigue of its history, baths, spas, restaurants, and Bohemian pulse is too deep to uncover in a mere four nights (minus one for emotional wavering). Budapest manifests both the scars of war and the audacity of hope. Relaxed and livable, artsy and inspiring, surprisingly beautiful…that is Budapest.

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October 15th 2008
A Bear in Bratislava

Posted under Slovakia

I was the only one of our group who had any desire to see Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia, and a mere one-hour train ride from Vienna. Part of my motivation was to see a new country (I admit, I’m a closet box-checker), but the other part was my desire to see a city, and country, truly in transition – from Cold War communism to EU membership capitalism. Slovakia is one of the newest European Union member states and is eagerly shedding the remnants of its 45-year communist occupation. Growing up, I was too young to comprehend Reaganomics, the Cold War, or how the world changed when the Berlin Wall fell, but now that I’m older, I’m fascinated by this time in world history. I’m fascinated by Russia. As an ardent capitalist I’m surprised that communism lasted as long as it did. In my lifetime, the balance of power in the world has shifted and I’m eager to learn more.

I have traveled alone often for business and occasionally for pleasure, but after more than a year traveling with the perfect partner I had forgotten how different it is to fly solo. After the initial disorientation of arriving in a new city (and at the wrong train station), I found my way onto a local bus that soon deposited me near the historic city center. Bratislava isn’t a top tourist destination and there isn’t a list of “must sees”, so I decided to roam the mazelike alleys and cobblestone roads of the city center to feel Slovakia’s beating heart. The brisk mid-morning air quickened my step and the liberation of being alone was invigorating. I thought, I can do whatever I want. I’m free to explore to my heart’s content. I am the master of my own domain. So I spent the next hour wandering the vibrant historic streets lined with ornate, colorful, old buildings. Street carts peddled souvenirs to crowds of tour groups in the main square and outdoor patio seating crowded even the most generous spaces.

Ready for a change of scenery, I headed up to Bratislava Castle, a 15th century hilltop fortress overlooking the Danube River. The original castle was mostly destroyed by a 19th century fire and reconstructed in the 1950’s; it was inexplicably closed for renovations when I arrived. However the views were impressive and they provided a different perspective on the city. From the 1970’s era “UFO” Bridge spanning the Danube (the bridge literally has a spaceship-like structure at its apex) to the monolithic housing complexes and other communist-era buildings appearing in the distance, the cityscape retained a Cold War feel. But Bratislava’s race toward modernity was also evident; enormous billboards with consumer-enticing advertisements were omnipresent, cloud-piercing cranes stoically erected new modern buildings, and a disproportionate number of German luxury sedans paced the streets. Beneath the autumnal haze, a city was being transformed.

Returning to the city center I now noticed real estate sales offices (with signs in English), internet cafés, art exhibits and a glut of Starbucks-like coffee shops. Notices posted opportunities for foreign investors. I was surrounded by capitalism in a city that not long before was a bastion of communism. As I continued exploring, I noticed two enormous signs, both covering the entire side of their respective buildings, which proclaimed Slovakia’s currency conversion to the Euro in 2009 – a proud achievement for this developing nation.

My last stop in Bratislava was at a recommended local restaurant called Prasna Basta. After nearly four hours of walking my feet ached for a rest, and as I opened the heavy wooden door and entered a dimly lit, cavernous room full of locals, I knew I was in for a treat. I came here for one reason – to try Slovakia’s national dish, bryndzove halusky. The gnocchi-like dumplings were topped with a generous serving of creamy sheep’s cheese and sprinkled with bacon bits. Paired with a local Slovak beer, the meal was divinely gluttonous.

With just enough koruna left in my pocket to buy a bus ticket to the main train station, I left the restaurant fat, happy, rejuvenated and ready for the train ride “home”.

My daytrip to Bratislava was a great mini adventure; an empowering confirmation that I can still travel alone, self-sufficient and capable in a foreign country. But I missed sharing the experience with the other half of Team Young – my wife, my wonderful travel partner, and the love of my life. Over the last 14 months, Tina and I have shared so many different experiences. Some have been traumatic and stressful, others have been exhilarating and wonderful, but these experiences are a common bond, a special private pact that will always be uniquely ours. I often take for granted how lucky we are to have each other – two crazy adventurers who quit their jobs, sold everything, and traveled the world. I couldn’t imagine doing this with anyone else. Daydreaming, I often flash forward to a time when we’re old with gray hair and wrinkles, sitting together reminiscing about our trip around the world. And I smile.

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