(The following is an e-mail that I sent my parents from Austria after returning from Romania.
Please forgive my grammar and punctuation!)
..."I am Dracula, and I bid you welcome, Mr. Harker, to my house. Come in, the night air is chill, and you must need to eat and rest."..."We are in Transylvania, and Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things.
---Bram Stoker 1897 (http://www.literature.org/authors/stoker-bram/dracula/).
nathan and i left for romania with horror stories concerning rabid packs of dogs, crooked train conductors, street kids, gypsies, and of course, dracula. our friends had traveled to romania last semester and were harassed by the conductors and robbed of their money and watches. they never even left the train station. yet, our other friend had done missionary work in romania, and spoke only of warm, loving and compassionate people. people willing to share with foreigners everything they had...even if it consisted of very little.
i saw a documentary about the "roma" people before i left. (roma, being the correct term for gypsies.) it was the story about a young frenchman that traveled to a remote corner of romania in search of a singer. (the frenchmans father was very much into music, and on his death bed, he listened to a scratchy recording of a romanian singer over and over and over.) in the meantime, the frenchman finds a people willing to share their culture with the foreigner. (which is quite ironic, being that the roma themselves are oppressed as if they too were "foreigners".) if you get a chance, watch "gadjo dilo", by tony gatlif (http://us.imdb.com/Title?0122082).
needless to say, nathan and i werent sure what to expect. i had met a girl who had worked in romania for the peace corps. after i told her that i wanted to travel to bucuresti, she insisted that i stay with a family that she knew. that being said, nathan and i rode 21 hours on a romanian train, in hopes that a woman named sanda with red hair and dark jeans would meet us in front of the mcdonalds in bucuresti.
the family turned out to be the best! gabriela, their daughter, showed us all around the city...a tour that only a local could give! she taught us a little romanian, which we later practiced on her father, constantin. unfortunately, the father was not too impressed with our "romanian slang", and told us to give him the addresses of our parents so that he could inform them as to how we were speaking. after nathan said, "mi se rupe" (which means something to the effect of ‘i dont give a damn’), i was sure the father would make us sleep with the rabid dogs! fortunately, he told us that he loves to joke with people. thank goodness! and sanda was the best cook ever! she cooked us typical romanian dishes that made our mouths water.
bucuresti was once refered to as the "paris of the east". amongst the massive communist blocks, the broken down cars along the streets, wild dogs, mounds of garbage and terribly run-down streets, i believe we were able to see this "paris". if you looked carefully, you could see churches here and there.
you could see beautiful parks with children playing with balloons. you could see wide boulevards lined with trees. nicolae ceausescu, the former dictator, tried his hardest for over 25 years to show the world that communism could work. it didnt. and a capital city, a country and millions of people suffered because of it.
i believe constantin, sanda and gabriela really want us to tell our family and our friends that a nicer romania does indeed exist. their country has such a bad reputation in europe, and if not throughout the world, that they once joked to us, "we have nothing to be proud of." even the taxi cab driver in brasov, who only spoke broken english, said, "i know where graz is because i like soccer and graz has a good team. but nodobdy knows where bucuresti is. nobody knows anything about romania."
enough philosophy. imagine riding in a taxi. no wait. imagine the gruezi, only smaller and about a million years older. and made in romania. called "dacia". then picture a city of 2.3 million people. it is raining and cold. you get in the taxi and off you go. the heater is working at full capacity, and when combined with the smell of cigarettes, a weird air freshner, a slight hint of body odor and gasoline, it makes for a fragrant combination of smells. the driver is using both feet to operate the manual car, and usually grinds the gears each time he shifts. in the dash is an old radio, and somewhere hidden in the car, are two very lousy speakers. roma music is blaring! you feel like at any moment a car behind you is going to open fire with an ak-47 and an ensuing car chase will begin as you dodge crater sized potholes, other taxis, and of course, dogs. you hang on to anything and everything possible. praying that you wont die! nathan and i experienced this sensation 4 times before leaving romania........and we cant wait to go back! (by the way, this descriptions does not do justice to just how cool the taxis were...)
after bucuresti, we stopped in brasov and bran. the latter being the supossed "home of dracula". poor bram stoker. guy never did make it to romania. nor did he even get near to telling the truth about vlad tepes.... anyways, it was cool and makes a good story.
so, before i put you all to sleep, i am going to end this story. i hope i get the chance to tell the story in real life. it was such an experience, that i feel like i am cheating myself for trying to put it down in an e-mail. does that make sense?
te pup, pa! (romanian for "goodbye".)
p.s. here is what the family wrote to us after we left. isnt it so nice?
Dear Kris and Nathan
You know very well Romanian. Broscuta = frog
I'm glad that everything was OK for you. For us was a
pleasure to stay with you and maybe you have time to
come back in our house.
Thanks for make advertising for me. Was marfa de marfa
and you was baieti de baieti.
I know our house is not a palace but we like so much
to meet other persons.
If I was richest I never ask you money but I hope that
the price was OK for you.
Sanda, Gabi and Costel
“The flying-rice-burning-death machine strikes again…”
If you haven’t already figured out, St. Moritz is sort of a nice place to ski. With this statement I mean not only is the skiing nice, but so are the restaurants, the hotels, the bars, the cafes, etc. Essentially, this is where the rich and famous of not only Europe but the world come to play.
So on one fine February morning, Chicago Joe and I woke up at the crack of dawn, packed our things together and headed south towards paradise. We had been staying with a friend in Zuerich for a few days, and after carrying our skis through Austria and Italy, we were going to finally be able to do some skiing. Of course, it was pouring buckets in Zuerich and we were sure that there would be snow showers in the mountains. Needless to say, the Super Micra did not have decent snow tires. In fact, I’m not sure you could even technically call the rubber appendages underneath the car safe.
Yea, our hunch was correct. It was snowing. We had one major pass to drive over, the Julier Pass, and it was soon approaching. Now many of you reading this have driven over Lookout Pass or Homestake Pass, or McDonald Pass. Well, those are bunny hills compared to the passes in Switzerland. If the Micra would have had gears lower than first gear, like -1, -2 and -3 gear, for example, I’m pretty sure that we would have used all of them!
I swear, we were just a quarter of a mile from the top of the pass when we first started to spin out. There were cars and trucks lined up along the road putting on chains and Joe and I were probably too busy trying to keep the windshield de-fogged to notice how bad the roads were. (It was bad. Nuff said.)
So, we rolled into St. Moritz with black exhaust spewing out of the Micra and white knuckles clamped to the steering wheel.
(Fast forward a few days.)
I really wanted to drive into the city of St. Moritz one afternoon and show Joe the town and treat him to the most wonderful piece of strawberry pie at Hanselmann’s. We couldn’t find a place to park along the narrow windy streets and so we headed into the parking garage. And that’s when the Super Micra struck again….hence the title of the story.
The car died upon entering the upper levels of the garage and wouldn’t start again. We pushed the car. We pulled the car. We kicked the car. We cursed. I was pretty sure that a jump start would get the hunk of s%@t running again, but I just couldn’t decide if we wanted to have a Ferrari give us a jump or a Rolls Royce. So we left the garage and sought out the help of a friendly policeman.
He took one look at our car and combined with my thick accent, I’m sure he must have thought that we had fallen from deep, outer, outer space. He said he would help us push the car down one of the ramps. So I drove and tried to translate what the man was saying to Joe at the back of the car. I’m still not sure if the policeman realized that Joe doesn’t speak German….Anyway, he helped us push the car down one level of the steep parking garage and the rice burner fired right up! We were off like….I’m not sure what. Just as we left the garage, the car died again. This time we had to boony off to the side of the busiest streets in St. Moritz. Oh yea, did I mention the fact that everyone and their dog just happened to be returning back to there houses, apartments and hotels at the exact moment that our car died. Once again, we were the laughing stock of the town. I’m sure the German license plates on the Micra didn’t help the situation…
Once again, we knew a good push start would get the car running again. The major problems were a) there was too much traffic on the road and b) we only had a few hundred feet of steep, steep road in front of us before there was a stop sign at a super busy intersection. Thank goodness for the nice policeman from Kanton Graubuenden. He shook his head once again, laughed and offered his expertise. His fellow policeman buddy was a quasi auto mechanic and just happened to be down the street from where we sat.
So, to end a super long day, we finally made it back home. Everything was hunky dory and then we listened to the weather forecast for the following day…..the day we were hoping to drive through a major section of the Alps on our way back to Graz.
Yea, that next day was the worst driving conditions that I have ever seen. Snow, snow, snow and a whole lot more snow. It sucked. In fact, it more than sucked. I’m not really even sure how we made it back to Austria…..
(an e-mail dated Tuesday, November 21, 2001.)
During the entire day it rained and was very cold. The drive home was pretty crappy because it was getting dark and raining like no other. At the Slovenian border we simply said “dober dan” and “hvala”: good day and thank you. Then we arrive at the Austrian border….
First the border patrol asks Jason if any of us take drugs. Then he asks if any of us have ever taken drugs. Of course we answer “no”. Then he tells Jason to pull his car off to the side and open up the trunk. Next thing I know, he is telling us to get out of the car and show him what we have on our “person”. One of the girls with us had a tampon in her pocket and naturally started giggling a little when she took it out of her pocket. The border guard then said “findest du etwas lustig”? In other words, “I sure as hell wouldn’t laugh if I were you bloody Americans! Then he pats us down and finds nothing.
Next he tells us to take out our backpacks and bring them over to a set of benches off to the side of the border. Of course, cars are continually driving past us wondering what the hell we have done. He then proceeds to look through absolutely everything in Jason’s backpack! I’m talking used bubble gum wrappers, used Kleenex, pieces of scratch paper that have been crumpled up, etc. This whole time he is mumbling/grunting commands and questions. I’m slightly scared. You know how even if you haven’t done anything wrong in such a situation you feel nevertheless guilty? Then he puts on some latex gloves…
He goes through Jason’s entire first aid kit and leaves it in shambles. When he is done you can obviously tell he doesn’t like Jason. Then he searches the two girls with us. Find nothing. Then he comes over to me.
And he was very interested in my Gerber multi tool. He had seen a leatherman that one of the girls had and so he began asking me which one was better and so on. You would be proud dad, I think I convinced him to buy a Gerber! Then he opens up a folder that I had and sees my information on the exchange student ski retreat. He then asks me about the retreat and tells me about how he was there last year and that the resort is a lot of fun!
In other words, this man with a loaded weapon, black cargo pants and a badge and has a personality of a fence post and who I am extremely scared of, becomes my new best friend! It was weird. Oh yea, he opens up my German/English dictionary to see if I have some sort of hidden compartment or something. I so wanted to tell him not to worry because he already knows German! (But I didn’t.)
He then searches the entire car and finds nothing, gives us back our passports and walks off. And that was it. Crazy, huh? We have to do some research, but maybe the problem is that we have been traveling to Slovenia every Thursday for the past 5 weeks or so and have always crossed the border at about the same time. Who knows? Jason said he has been to 30 countries in Europe so far and nothing like that has ever happened to him. Go figure.
(The following is an e-mail that I sent my parents from Austria after returning from Poland. Please forgive my grammar and punctuation!)
okay. polska. are you ready?
we arrived in krakow thursday morning at 5.30 a.m. we took a night train from graz on wednesday night, and we actually were able to get a few hours of sleep in between all the stops, customs checks and of course, passport controls. (after all, we went through austria, czech republic and poland.)
after a nauseating ride to the youth hostel where andrea had made a reservation, we find out that "a big tourist group"* had the entire placed booked. (*absolutely hilarious when spoken with nathans polish accent!) so, back to the train station. the tourist info place didnt open until 8 a.m., so we spent our time trying to exchange schillings into polish zloty, buying 20 cent bagels with 50 zloty bills and other random stuff.
next thing we know, maria comes into our lives. she is an older polish lady who reminds me of a friendlier, gentler madeline albright. she asked us if we needed a place to stay, and next thing you know, we are sipping tea with her at her house. the accomodations turned out to be like a hilton, but with a loving touch. and the bill was 10 greenbacks a night! funny how things just seem to fall in place in the east.... she asks us if we are going to auschwitz/birkenau and we tell her probably in the morning. (remember this fact, you will be quized later.)
so we spent thursday walking around the old city of krakow. whereas warsaw was completely leveled during WWII, krakow somehow survived the war. the market square is the center of town, and absolutely cool. the inside of the st. marys cathedral is probably the most beautiful church that i have seen. the ceiling is a deep blue color with gold stars filling in the vast space. it was really, really gorgeous!
after that, we grabbed ourselves an "in your pocket guide" (http://www.inyourpocket.com/), and went nuts! they are the best tour guides that i have ever laid my eyes on. and i mean it. the writers have a sick and twisted sense of humour, and sort of remind me of the man who writes the horoscopes (http://fwa.com) in the missoula independent (http://www.missoulanews.com/). (for whatever that is worth.) here is where we ate lunch: "Szuflada: this funky café is like climbing inside a dali painting, complete with chairs that look like people and box-like tables displaying all sorts of eclectic collectibles...those who like their surrealism with a dash of humour should sit at the table in the bar shaped like a zebra rump." we passed up the zebras ass, but had a great meal nonetheless!
that afternoon we attempted to retrace the footsteps of the polish jews and the scenes of schindlers list. i cant remember the movie that well, but i believe there is a scene in which you see the krakow jews being moved across a bridge into their "new living quarters". anyway, we walked across this bridge on which march 21, 1941 the nazi ss moved the entire jewish community of krakow into the cluster of 329 buildings that once stood at plac bohaterow getta (ghetto) in podgorze. all we could find standing was a very small portion of the old ghetto wall. it was honestly on a side street, right in between two normal houses. kind of eery that something so powerful as this is very hidden. a plaque was on the wall, but not much else.
did you know that kielbasa sausage is from poland? well, the best polish sausage that i have ever had was cooked in a microwave on the street by a wonderful lady who spoke neither german nor english. after we bought three of them from her, she gave us a bottle of water to wash down the cholesterol. it was great!
we then found schindlers factory at lipowa 4. (still in the podgorze area of krakow.) the guide says that the telpod electronics factory still uses the buildings. in my opinion, quite disturbing.
after this very real history lesson, we headed back into the old city.
our guide book led us to this great restuarant called "morskie oko" (Pl. Szczepanski 8) where we feasted on steaks, soups, breads and great beer. my steak was absolutely excellent, and set me back about 4 bucks.
we then watched the movie "the mexican". which sucked! after a döner kebab, it was back to our "pad".
the next morning, maria tells me that somebody is on the phone and "no english". completely confused, i pick up the phone and a man asks if we want to go to auschwitz/birkenau with him. needless to say, i am quite startled/still not completely awake. so, being the stupid americans that we are, we set the price with him, and off we go. he turned out to be a great tour guide! we drove nearly an hour through the countryside of poland in his taxi to before arriving in oswiecim/brzezinka.
we spent half of the day walking around the two separate camps. (we opted to purchase a tour guide and walk around ourselves. and besides, we could always evesdrop on the groups!) i didnt know this before, but auschwitz was the work camp, and birkenau was the actual extermination camp. the most disturbing part of the tour i found to be the remains of what is left in birkenau. from the watch tower, you can see row after row after row of the brick fireplaces that used to be surrounded by the barracks. i cant even begin to fathom how many there were, but the book says there were over 300 barracks!
saturday morning we caught the train to warsaw, the capital of poland. the train station in warsaw is one huge massive chunk of concrete! and i mean it! i swear, the communists must have had some sort of weird belief in the powers of that material.... we found another private room in a communist block. the lady, also maria, was very friendly, and the next day she said that we were the most quiet guests that she has ever had. can you believe that mom?
per usual, we found something to eat. pierogis are a ukranian/polish/russian interpretation of the asian food known to the italians as raviolis. (everyone with me?) they are sooo good! we found a restaurant (U Hopfera, ul. Krakowskie Przedmiescie 53) in which they serve over 36 types of them. nathan and i opted for the "all you can eatski". he beat me with 27.... (if you havent already figured out that we spent the majority of time eating, well, then......)
the next day we saw warsaw. we went into this huge massive brick building that had to have been the building on which the giant marshmallow man in ghostbusters is blown into pieces. honestly. we found another part of a ghetto wall, but this time if was totally hidden amongst this apartment complex. it really had us in awe. we found a street named after winnie the pooh. (guess the polish love him.)
and before we knew it, it was back to österreich.