Thursday, June 26, 2008

Greece, leaving for Amorgos in 2 hours

I'm in Greece, a post I will make on the 30th when I return from island hopping, but I'm catching a ferry in 2 hours. We're going to the small island of Amorgos off of Naxos, just a beautiful place and one of the last that are "real greece" supposedly. Unfortunately, there are a lot of other tourists that have been there already, not a good sign.

All is well in Athens, see you in a few days!


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A year from now . . . L'viv and teaching english abroad

I had no idea what to expect when I entered Ukraine. Brett had spoke highly of the country, despite some culture shock and difficulties when he first arrived, but that was to be expected. Right?
Well, let's just say that shock wasn't strong enough a word to describe my utter amazement when I entered L'viv. Even Istanbul, Morocco and Thailand were not quite as frightening as L'viv, my first real taste of the Soviet Union as it once was. I was petrified.
Everything in Cyrillic, seatbeltless taxis and toothless drivers, filthy streets, wandering drunks, gray soviet boxes they pass off as architecture. And then there was the people. Dull, dreary, unfriendly, many of them speaking Russian, many of them resenting the Poles, this is a country strongly tied to its history and even more confused about its identity. My first impression of L'viv was to turn tail and run.
Yet, after teaching some Ukrainian friends how to play spoons, singing "we are the champions" to the victors, meeting the polite and grateful seminarians Brett teaches, and seeing the greatness as L'viv once was . . . I warmed to it. Brett's neighborhood looks like a gang of dilapidated concrete towers gathered in the outskirts of the city, the echoes of children playing in dirty streets, old women bringing home dinner and crickets playing fiddle in soviet fountains now overgrown. Most people don't talk to each other, but there is some warmth there.
The soviet way was to keep to yourself, to stay in your box and never come out. Just being on the bus rubs that in. Everyone keeps to themselves for the most part, and there is a distance between people wherever you go, whether it's husband and wife or shop attendant and customer.
I find this place to be both depressing and challenging; there is a spark of hope within the university, the first religious institution to be founded under the old Soviet Union, and within the Seminary. The Ukrainian Catholic Church, reduced to a few hundred priests after going underground, has ordained thousands in less than 20 years. It's one of the few institutions actually interested in preserving Ukrainian culture, religion and identity. I shall be teaching their students this fall.
More on that later, I leave for Athens in 10 hours, buona notte,

what to expect from Greece

Ahh, greece. What can one expect from this center of culture, philosophy and thought for more than 4000 years? What can one expect from the very foundation of Western Civilization claiming Aristotle, Plato and Socrates? What can we say of the host of the 2004 Olympic Games, the same country that began the games we know and celebrate worldwide every four years? What can I expect when I travel there tomorrow?

The review of Hotel and Hostel Lozanni in Athens on gives a hint:

"This is the worst hostel I have stayed in yet. Upon arriving we soon discovered that our room key didn't work and the hotel manager was not impressed that he had to come up and have a look. He eventually worked out that it was the wrong key and proceeded to go through and entire bag of keys for our room number until he found one that fit. There are steep winding staircases so watch out anyone that has heavy luggage because the staff won't offer to help you lift it. Our room was apalling. There were cockroaches, dirty sheets and the towels that we were given to use were in fact bath matt sized towels. Our shower head did not work, all the water came out of the body of the hose, not the nozel at the end. The cherry of top of the cake was when we were using the internet and a staff member decided to use the toilet next to us and we could hear all his bowel movements through the cubicle because he didn't shut the main bathroom door. I will not be staying here again and I would not be recommending this hostel to anyone."


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Romania today, Athens tomorrow

Perhaps this place should be grateful to Dracula for scaring away tourists from Transylvania; it is by far the most beautiful part of Romania. Quaint, sleepy mountain towns whose populations range from the young, Mercedes-driving Nouveau Rich Romanians in Brasov to less than toothy grins, horse-drawn carriages and fields of hay on the way to Bucharest. Although Bucharest itself is nothing to write home about, the country is just starting to be discovered by the world.
Just last year, Romania entered the E.U., but it won't be till 2014 that it finally goes on the Euro. The Lei, a currency I might use in Monopoly when I get home, runs 2.75 to the dollar, 3.50 to the Euro. Just about everything here is cheap, sometimes cheaper than Ukraine.
Brett and I took the night train from L'viv on Saturday and met a nice Ukrainian couple in our sleeper car who were on their way to pick up their kids from summer camp. Just days earlier we had met a wonderful American, Michelle, who works for the Pentagon and was in Kyiv for a conference. She took a day train out to L'viv and bumped into us, people who travel are so wonderful!
We arrived in Chernivtsi, a Ukrainian border town, at 5:30 am in the morning. We had the Bad Sleeper Car hangover, and made the mistake of trying to use a Ukrainian train station bathroom. I knew something was wrong when the attendant handed me 3 squares of toilet paper and grunted. I can hold it.
We missed our bus to Suceava, and while trying to figure out what to do next, we were haranged by a russian man with a red, round face whose name was something like Mariek. We shall call him Man with Van. Although I don't speak Bad Russian, his official language, he something like:
"hey, you missed your bus. Not to worry, you can ride in my seatbeltless, radar-toting, sketchy VW van across the border at 100 km an hour. Only 10 euro."
It was surprisingly legit. We made our trip just fine, and he wasn't carrying a kilo of cocaine as I had suspected.
Later that day we arrive in Brasov and took a taxi to our hostel. Brasov is the most developed, most popular, most beautiful town in Romania. It's also the most touristy. I highly recommend it for its central location in Transylvania, a great place to make jump off trips to Bran Castle, or Sinaia for an even better Dracula experience.

Right now, we're sitting in a hostel in Bucharest before our flight to Athens tomorrow. When we arrive, we'll eat gyros and let glorious feta cheese drip down our chins. Oooooo, Greece. Wash that all down with some Ouzo and oh baby, i'm a happy man.
We hope to visit the island of Amorgos, courtesy of our friend Richard, an english teacher in LA who we bumped into in Chernivtsi. Here's to you, Rich. It's supposed to be beatiful and undiscovered. More on that later.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, that is, if there is any grass at all. In L'viv, green spaces are oft uncontrolled, spilling out of cracks and swelling out of city streets in random places. The 'lawns,' or random green spaces, are never cut and the grass grows to my thigh.
The streets are riddled with potholes, traveled by dinky public buses called "mashrutkas." Imagine a large minivan gutted out and fitted with school bus seating, then add 30 Ukrainians in a space meant for 15 and cheap brakes for the heartstopping effect. The only good thing about them, in my opinion, is the 1.50 Hrivna fair, about 30 cents US.
Ukrainians, a superstitious people, also believe cold air to be equivalent to airborne Anthrax, prompting them to close all doors, windows and crevices regardless of temperature. Add 30 Ukrainians to a Mashrutka, mix in a lack of deordorant and dash of claustrophobia and voila! a moving furnace from hell.
Somewhere between Istanbul, Poland, Russia and all-white chicago suburbs, Ukraine is one of the more colorful places I've been. L'viv is roughly 10-15 years behind Krakow, now a bustling metropolis and hot tourist destination. More prevalent is the Soviet feeling of impending doom here: service sucks at every shop, everyone seems unhappy, the divorce rate is through the roof despite a 95% churchgoing population, and if you try to help an old lady across the street she will kindly tell you to stick your head in the sand in Ukrainian, Polish or Russian.
Oddly enough, crime is very low here other than petty pickpocketing(I've been warned by L'vivians, but seriously, I lived in Rome for 5 months), and the biggest problems have to do with alcoholism. I'm not too worried about safety or about my new job; the people at Ukrainian Catholic university are lovely and very friendly. The french woman in the information department kindly reminds me that she came from Paris for just one year of work, and has stayed five.
Since everyone is multilingual, picking up Ukrainian and a little Polish shouldn't be a problem. I'm going to be studying intensely this summer.
L'viv's true charm lies in its undiscovered potential. This is Nowa Europa, New Europe. This is what Italy was to Rick Steves 30 years ago when he was a snot-nosed college student hiking across the Alps(no offense, Rick). Few have really ventured to this part of the world that doesn't speak any english, is undeveloped and new.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

In L'viv

From top to bottom, the city hall in L'viv; the view from the tower in city hall overlooking the city; First Communion Mass at Ukrainian Catholic University; and Brett shows us his weightlifting materials, water bottles filled with undrinkable tap water, in his apartment in L'viv.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Ukraine:"you have no idea what I've gotten you into"

Brett waits in the train car as we wait for the Ukrainian customs agents to check our passports and immigration cards.

Leaving the last city in Eastern Poland, we sat on cots in an open compartment waiting for the train to be inspected by customs. Two ukrainians frantically yelled in Russian as they tore the bedding above the lofts apart, pulling out plastic bags and stuffing them into black garbage baggies.
"Drugs?" said Spencer.
As we sipped Zubrowka vodka and ate nutella on bread, we determined it must have been the mail, drugs only go west. Forty-five minutes later, a pleasant looking Ukrainian border guard with a green beret and a scarlet red ponytail marked our passports and immigration cards. Brett, who has been living here a year, said she was the nicest border guard he'd ever met. The Russified inspectors are usually part-time alcoholics waiting for bribes.
The eight hour trip to L'viv(they say Luh-voo here), reached hysteria when we were 5 miles out of the L'viv train station in our seatbeltless taxi and I realized I didn't have my passport. There are approximately 25 million Russian-speaking unfriendly Ukrainians between me and the nearest American Consulate, 300 miles east in Kiev. A few Hail Marys later, I found it in my luggage.
L'viv is cultural and societal mishmash between Poland, Russia and what I imagine Serbia to be like: it's dirty, commy-fied with drab, concrete buildings and sullen people, and 98% of the population is devoutly religious.
Wandering up the dark, stale-smelling stairwell of Brett's apartment building, he tells us the lights are a weekend thing. His apartment is at the top of 7 floors, furthest from the smells and with the best view of the concrete courtyard. Besides the mudroom for coats and the two closets for the toilet and shower, there are three rooms: a kitchen, a 20'x10' family room and a shoebox-sized bedroom with wood panel floors, a plush chair and a mattress.
The first thing Brett does in the apartment is go into the kitchen and press some buttons on a white box above the sink. A few clicks later, the pilot light catches to heat the water. But wait, the water doesn't come on until 6 am and runs till 11 am. Don't leave the faucet on when the water is off, brett already did that and flooded the apartment below him.
After tea and an informative video on L'viv's history, we whisper on the floor of brett's room till we fall asleep.
"you have no idea what I've gotten you into," brett cackles as he turns out the light.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

On forgetting communism

Our receptionist at the hostel left us with an interesting though this morning: culture is new here.
While under communism, culture was practically nonexistent. People didn't discuss much on phones, wrote brief letters and were careful who they talked to. The KGB was always watching and you never knew who would talk. Books were new for her, so were coloring books and many toys. But since then, Krakow has exploded with culture and people have all but forgotten communism, even grossly so. According to her, many poles go shopping to buy things just to buy, gossip freely like they never could, and are helping immigrants come to Poland since poles suffered their same fate. Thought that was interesting.

Sidenote: no pictures are posted yet because none of the computers will take my photos from the camera. I will find a way!

Krakowian experience

To really experience this place, you will need to:
1. eat a kielbasa in a roll. The less adventurous can stick to Kebabs.
2. Drink local beer with juice. Start with Tyskie or Zywiece and ask for "sok" in it. For straight up beer, try Dog in the Fog, my favorite.
3. Sip some Vodka. Meant to be sipped, not slammed. It is more expensive(22 zl or $11 for a medium bottle), but very smooth and flavorful, totally worth it. This vodka has been well made and shouldn't be mixed with anything.
4. Walk Krakow's Rynek Glowny at night.
5. Visit St. Mary's church(Kosciol Swieta Mariacki).
6. Go to the youth or Student mass at the Dominican church in town. If only for the culture, but the most powerful religious ceremony I have ever been through, especially if you're catholic.
7. The stained glass at the Franciscan church is a must, very beautiful.
8. Stroll down the Planty, the garden that forms a ring around the city. John Paul II used to walk this at night.
9. Take a tour at the Collegium Maium.
10. Must go to Auschwitz. It's 1 hour away and 18 zl for a roundtrip ticket if I remember, not including the 3 hour tour over there. You must go.
11. Visit the jewish synagogues in Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter.
12. have a beer at Alchemia in Kazimierz. Partiers should go to Prozac.

the more adventurous should head to Zakopane for hiking and a beautiful mountain town. Visit Wadowice where John Paul II was born. See the Black Madonna at Czestochowa. Go rafting on the Dunajec.
Generally I saw skip Wielieczka salt mines, a huge cavernous system of salt mines 30 minutes from Krakow. It gets old after the first 10 rooms of giant statues made of salt.

Who called it? Krakow is the best! Listen to the reviews!

At right, our hostel roommate Wei, from Canada, deals a hand of spoons(very popular with the Eastern Europeans.
Below, a festival in the Rynek Glowny(main square) of Krakow on June 13, 2008.

Damn brits. They've invaded my city!

Arriving in krakow, I found my best friend in John Paul II airport's tiny terminal amidst dozens of Poles anxiously awaiting loved ones. It's so refreshing to be back here. Poland has become much more toursity since I studied in Krakow 3 years ago at Jagiellonian University. Even my old tour guide of the Collegium Maium, Jagiellonian's old central campus, seems to be worn out by the new waves of british, irish, scottish and asian tourists.
I was surprised to see a large influx of Brazilians into Hawaii a few weeks ago, sometimes making up 20% of the islands, but even more shocked to see they've come to Poland as well! Poland's economy is booming, the fastest growing in the E.U., and although it is still very cheap(2 polish zloty to 1 American dollar) Poland is starting to cater to Tourism. This scares me.
This place used to be my secret! I don't even speak polish, at least not fluently, and I feel like I have a second home here. The people are lovely and so is the food and culture. As one friend put it, Krakow has everything a big city has, but still keeps its small town feel.
Few town squares can truly compare to Krakow's Rynek Glowny(main square) in the Stare Miasto(Old Town). Americans still associate this part of the world with communism and the iron curtain, expecting to find bombed out buildings, dreary people worn out from a regime and ugly concrete neigborhoods. That's more like Warsaw 15 years ago.
The europeans have already figured out where the best place to be in Europe is, and it must be, without question, Krakow. Another claim I have made that was just affirmed by a Canadian friend, a group of Irish Blokes, and my best friend: Polish women are gorgeous.
The next Euro hot spots that are relatively undiscovered are L'viv, Split and smaller getaways like Lublin. These places haven't been exploited and ruined by tourism, like Prague(which, if I am frank, is a complete waste of time. You can get the same beauty, better culture, better prices and more charm from Krakow). Prague, although a pretty town, has become a 2nd Amsterdam, catering prostitution, drugs and parties towards the hordes of budget travelers and backpackers in Europe. Don't get me wrong, you can go to Prague and have a lovely time, it's very romantic and it's still safe, just not my cup of tea.
Still, Krakow is the best and my favorite.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Dublin in 8 hours

After my last blog post, I wandered out of the internet cafe and met a bloke named Mike, maybe mid-40s with graying hair, who was holding a video camera on the sidewalk. He works for the BBC now in Belfast, after deciding to quit his job as an engineer and travel the world in 2003. The BBC called him.
Now he loves what he does, travels around doing video spots for BBC. Great guy, gave him my card.
10:30 Am:Saw the spire, 200 feet or something of metal that comes to a point somewhere in the clouds, *yawn*. Love Trinity college, but couldn't convince the librarian to let me in the school library for free internet. The line to the Book of Gay-lic Stuff was too long and I moved on.
11:30 am: Budget Travel tip #1: the cheap lunch. You won't save big bucks on airfare and magically have a cheap trip. If you are traveling for any extended period of time, you have to make daily savings a priority if you're going to save. Buy cheap lunches. Consider it a penance. Hummus and a baguette put me back 2.08 euro. It adds up over time.
Saw various sites including St. patricks' and Christchurch, neither was catholic and i felt cheated. Damn Anglicans!
1 pm: wander into Porterhouse Pub for a brew. Bartender Mike tells me this is a micro brew, what's Guinness?
A beer later, Mike turns out to be an American Grad student studying politics and hoping to be diplomat. Although he's not so sure about that path anymore, his thesis on terrorism as a disseminated idea and its effects in the modern world sounded fascinating. Really bright guy. From Roswell, NM, and undergrad at Albuquerqe. He spent 5 years teaching english in Japan and never looked back. I had a chuckle how quickly one can pick up an accent, I swore he was Irish when I first ordered my beer, but 10 minutes later his american accent returned.
1:30 pm: Jared pulls up a chair and we have a riveting political debate. China is not a threat to world economics. Europe can't wait for your elections. Another beer?
I catch my bus back to the airport at 2:30 and realize it's best to eat before you drink irish beer. I'm feeling good.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Guinness at 11 am anyone? no?

At right, me in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin.

For the uncontrollably worrisome, I am safe and sound in Dublin, Ireland right now, typing away on an overpriced internet cafe machine. Dublin is a bit chilly right now, high 50s and mostly cloudy. I expected there to be a Guinness Rainbow stretched across the sky as I stepped off the plane, skittles raining on us.
No such luck. I made friends with a newlywed couple from New York, both of them were very nice. They look to be in at least their 60s and are vacationing(I suspect honeymoon, but they didn't say). Anyway, they gave me a banana when they saw me stealing the blanket and silverware from the airplane, figuring it was better to appease The Polish Liberator before I took their uneaten food. Wise choice. I narrowly missed stealing her half-eaten bun off her plate last night, but the game of solitaire I was playing got in the way.
By some fluke, we flew on an AirFrance jet, and it was delightful. TONS of movies(There will be blood, lots of current things, my sister the film major would be jealous) and an addictive game that involved shooting colored balls from a frog. I would have been amused if they gave me something with bright lights or a whistle.

besides boarding an hour late in JFK, everything went smoothly. Plus, being a little Irish and looking it helps in Ireland. More on that later after I meet some people. Hope I can upload photos in Krakow.

Love you all,

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Dublin ETA: 24 hours

I leave for my trip in 14 hours, taking off from O'hare in Chicago, then JFK in New York and Dublin, Ireland for an 8 hour layover. Almost 3700 miles. More to come when I get to Dublin, but if I miss the internet cafe, then I'll pick up things again in Krakow when I have a chance.