Sunday, July 27, 2008

Please don't fart!


We met a donkey on Amorgos in Greece while walking to dinner. We named her Maria and sang to her.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Has the City of Light every failed to entertain? Sitting on the second floor of a cramped french restaurant, sipping Bordeaux and eating veal, it's hard to find any fault at all with Paris. Our dinner companions, a Norwegian/Spanish couple who live down the street, echo the same interest in American politics as many Europeans have: Is Obama going to win? What do you think? Do people hate Bush? Did you know that we hate Bush? Here, let me lecture you again on what Europeans think of America.
Our dinner discussion was entirely by coincidence since the restaurant was too small for seperate tables. The 2nd floor was more of a loft, about 10 feet wide and 20 feet long, with 20 people and waitresses crammed into the space. It was one of the best meals I ever had.
We wandered the streets afterwards, slowly making our way to the Eiffel Tower. The public paris toilet, a crude, box-like structure you can use for free, is a poor substitute for bushes. I realised the toilet closes so it can soak the entire bathroom space with water for cleaning, leaving a wonderful film of scum on the floor and lots of curious things on the wall.
We walked the stretch to the Eiffel tower, coated in blue light and wreathed by the golden stars of the E.U. in celebration of France's six month presidency of the Union. I find it slightly frustrating to only have a point-and-shoot camera, I know too much for my own good and just what I can't do, but my lack of pro equipment on this trip is surprisingly liberating. I spend more time looking than I do shooting, and more time enjoying than working.
After a short metro ride back to our hotel, we drank scotch and smoked cigars in our room, our last night in Paris.

Leaving Switzerland

I didn't think leaving Switzerland would be this hard. After getting our butts handed to us by the swiss alps and climbing down the mountain, me with tendinitis in one knee and each of us with a little less ego, we retreated to sanctuary. My Aunt Kate is my mom's younger sister, and lives with her husband Bob in a two story white house with long bay windows. She cooks a mean leg of lamb and the house, rented from an ex-pat family currently living in Abu Dhabi, is just 5 minutes walk from the shore of Lake Geneva.
Recuperating from the hike and licking our wounds, Brett and I spent our last few days at the house reading books and watching movies. After winning 4 straight rounds of Mexican Train Dominoes, my ration of scotch was restricted and I became public enemy number one.
We bought our tickets to Paris and finished our last days in Switzerland in peace.

6 seconds

So here we are at 6000 feet, trapped in our tent on the south side of a Swiss Alp in a thunderstorm, yelling hail marys over the rain. We spent all morning climbing up from the valley to Verbier, a small mountain town near the french border, and all afternoon hiking to the foot of Mount Fort. Two days into our Alpinian excursion, both of us are cold and wet, exhausted from an 1800 meter ascent and the thought of thousands to come.
But the only thing that matters in a thunderstorm at 6000 feet is those terrifyingly clear, silent few seconds between the flash of lightning and the crack of murderous thunder. I remember being told on Boy Scout campouts how each 3 seconds of eerie silence was roughly a mile, and clinging to this rule, we painstaikingly calculated the distance between us and the strikes.
Peeking my head out of the vestibule, the sky seemed clear and calm in the distance. A wide frame of dark gray clouds surrounded soaring white alps of snow and black rock long vistas of dark green forest thousands of feet below. Fleeing the advancing storm in the late afternoon, we pitched tent next to the rocky foundation of an old cottage filled with knee-high weeds. The spot was the best we could do at the time, but with each advancing strike of lightning, we became more anxious.
"We should make for the cabin," Brett said.
Swiss trails had cabins staffed round the clock and furnished with restaurants, beds and hot showers. We preferred the free tent over the expensive accomodations, but with 40 pound packs, too much wet gear and trapped in the storm, the little cabin was looking like the Hilton. So we counted strikes and waited for the rain to let up. Six. Nine. Five. Eight.
A bright flash behind our tent and a simultaneous slap of thunder that shook the tent settled the matter for us: we were going.
When we strapped our packs on our backs, threw on wet socks and booked it for the cabin, raingear and all, we were inside of a cloud with 20 feet of visibility. We abandoned the tent at nine thirty at night when there was just enough daylight to see the trail. We yelled to each over the fall of the rain as we jogged down the trail, hoping to see a light. The cabin was a lot further than we thought. It was at least a kilometer walking, and we didn't know it then, but the last half of the trail was all rock and narrow, flooded trails.
Desperate and scrambling, Brett spotted a small house a few hundred meters down the hillside. We scrambled down and knocked on the door of a worn, white barn-like house.
Four startled farmers stared at us from inside. One of them must have been no older than 20, and cocked his eyebrows at me and shook his head. The other frogs(french-speakers) at the table, were older and stared at us with their mouths full of food.
The man at the door was Julian, a 35ish, brown haired man with hands like worn brown leather and broken english. Brett had hoped these cattlefarmers might drive us up the road, or at least let us sleep with the cows, but after two minutes of bartering with Julian it became clear he was not the viturous mountain man we had hoped.
"Just 30 minutes," he said, pointing to the road and into the black sheet of falling rain.
We thanked him and walked off. We were soaking wet by now and it was dark enough to see the lights of the towns below. Lost and out of options, Brett and I trudged back in the rain to find our abandoned tent. A flash and a distant rumbled echoed in the canyon.
"12 seconds," Brett said. "Storm's moving out."
We climbed back into our tent and into what dry clothes were left, and let the rain sing us to sleep.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

brett finds a handy bib for eating a juicy Athenian peach

Look at that, son

Call me creepy, but I like taking video of life. This is of a father and son in our train car, talking as we go through the Romanian Carpathian mountains. I can't understand Romanian, but I know what he's saying.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Travel Buddies


Singing Ukrainian hymns in L'viv's central square

Playing spoons in L'viv

Bavaria, Beer, bosoms

from top to bottom: Marienplatz in the center of Munich(means 'mary's place' or 'place of mary' in German for the Virgin Mary); I believe St. Peter's church in downtown munich, which has spires shaped like bosoms; Brett after a litre of beer in a german/hungarian restaurant near our hostel.

Greece, part 2

From top to bottom: We name a donkey Maria and sing West Side Story tunes to her; we watched sunset at the chapel in the hillside; sunset on Amorgos; Brett's excited about riding our ATVs; on the Acropolis

Greece, part 1

Top to bottom: On the ferry to Amorgos; a cat on a chair in the middle of Katapola harbor at 7 am after a sleepless night; Brett samples the local fare; getting greek sweets from the locals is always fun when they look exactly like the family from My Big Fat Greek Wedding; a pathway to paradise outside the restaurant we ate lunch at in Amorgos.


From top to bottom:

Brett drinks away the last of our breakfast yogurt in Chernivtsi, Ukraine; our layover in the train station in Ploesti, Romania was uneventful; the city of Brasov, Romania, near to where Drac sucked his first blood; the hill with the Hollywood-ish sign where you can overlook the city; and me, ready to go, in Bucharest before we leave for Athens


From top to bottom: the grave of Archbishop Shiptiski, hero of L'viv and Ukraine who prevailed against the soviet and nazi occupation, hid jews and baptised my grandmother, he used to come out and bless her and her friends as they played in the courtyard of St. George's; St. George's Cathedral in L'viv where my grandmother used to play in the courtyard; Ukrainian soldiers at the Bankomat; a L'vivian woman holds up a glass to her eye as I take her picture; friends playing spoons for the first time.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Escape from Munich

Mr. Pimpl rolled his eyes and sighed again at our request.
"Yah, und I have zee times fur Lausanne," he said, "and Basel, and Zurich, and Bern."
We nodded solemnly and looked blankly at each other: let's get the hell out of Munich. As far as cities go, Munich was one of the most expensive we'd been to, not good for two twenty-three year olds who were still wearing clothes they owned in the 9th grade. I liked Bavaria, Brett thinks Bavaria is the greatest thing since Bach's Branderburg Concerto, and we both like beer, but c'mon: 5 bucks for a pretzel? I don't even get mustard!
We thanked Pimpl, a balding man in his 60s with round glasses and a long face. He grunted behind the DeutscheBahn ticket window and we disappeared into the train station. After 4 hours of looking for a train, bus or plane to Lausanne to be with Aunt Kate, we were stuck in Munich for another night.
Being stuck in the world capital of great beer isn't a bad thing, just expensive. We made the mistake of eating on the square near Marienplatz in the downtown area: 45 euros for dinner, please.
we ended up staying the night in an A&O hostel, a chain of hostels that provides cheap lodging for obnoxious schoolchildren all over europe. Our neighbor was a college student from Arkansas, Katie, who had been studying in Salzburg for a month.
We booked a train to Lausanne for the next morning at 7 and called my Aunt Kate, who lives on Lake Geneva in Switzerland to let her know, and then we wandered into a local Hungarian restaurant. We drank litres of beer while eating sausages and cheesy spaetzel. We talked philosophy until the sun went down and walked along the Marienplatz. A small band of a violin, cello, flute and trumpet played 'Ave Maria' near the subway for passersby. We walked back to the dorm exhausted, and collapsed into our bunks before our train the next morning.

Greece in reverse

Tuesday, July 2nd, 12:00 pm

I'm in McDonald's in the Athens airport, and all I can think of is punching this Swede. I'm just trying to sleep on the couch with a belly full of bad McChicken salad, and this guy just keeps yelling.

"When does our flight leave?" I mumble.

"2:30" Brett says.

This is my first flight cancellation ever. Our 9:30 to Munich just got rescheduled on Air Berlin on the same day. We're anxious for german food but I can still taste the honey covered fried Feta cheese of Amorgos.

Monday, July 1st, 8 pm

Mike welcomes us back to the Marble House Hotel, pleasantly surprised at our return. Unlike other Meditteranean peoples, Greeks have these brilliant blue and green eyes that pierce the soul. Mike's pleased we followed his directions to Amorgos, yes, the ferry rides went smoothly. Mike shakes his greying head, Naxos is too touristy for him.

We find blackcurrant sorbet in a supermarket and finish the rest of our Ouzo on the porch, perched on cheap white lawn chairs. Our bellies full of gyros from Savvas, a small restaurant with juicy lamb-packed pitas and greek beer, we talk about our time in Greece and culture in America under our wet underwear drying on the clothesline.

A door slams and Mike walks out towards the street. He's the kindest man I've met in Greece.

"Thank you!" we yell. He turns and waves as he walks home, his eyes glowing in the dark. It's the last time I'll see him.

Sunday, June 30th, 7:30 pm

"What time is it?"
Brett looks at his watch and points: 7:32 pm.

We have finally made it to Aparanthos on our 4x4 ATVs, the objective of a 5 hour lacsidasical trek across the island. Now I'm racing to get back to Naxos town on the other side of the island in an hour and a half before the rental shop closes down and we lose our passports and our deposit of a 100 euros. The price is steep for staying out longer, but I'm seriously considering skipping our flight to Munich, forgetting about the due date and sleeping on the beach.

Neither of us have eaten anything since lunch and we have to hoof it back. But seriously, we're in Greece, riding ATVs. I'm torn between returning to the real world and wandering back to that town I saw a way back, 'Filoti' I think, maybe asking that Greek girl to dance to the guitar music at the restaurant and finding some wine and a little feta. Maybe I'll pick olives and be a farmer.

Brett smacks on the back of the head and we're off. Just around the corner, Brett and I ride our ATVs at 50 kph down a winding mountain highway overlooking the center of the island of Naxos. The mountain behind us and to the left is called Zas, or Zeus, because the father of all greek gods was once believed to inhabit the huge rain-carved monolith of granite bursting from the sea. We had mistakened the hill just down the road for Zas, a mountain that rose to a pointed cliff, almost like a hooked witche's nose, and at the very top stood a white church flying a greek flag.

Just a few hours ago we were across the island on the coast, and I was jumping into endless blue green waters on hot sandy beaches. We'd cool off, jump back on our 4x4s and keep riding.

I've lost myself in paradise. The Elysian Fields I was promised are here, on Naxos.

Saturday, June 29th, 9 pm

"See Cygnus?" I point north towards the Milky Way, "that's the Northern Cross."

Brett and I are marveling at the brilliant specks of white scattered across the dark blue canvas of the Greek night sky. Constellations are clearer and more forceful than ever before, Greek names and constellations suddenly poignant on a crystal blue night.

Wandering on a near pitch black night, the trail back to the village of Aegali and our hotel is little more than stones in dirt, surrounded by olive trees and beying donkeys. I know there's donkey dung on this trail somewhere, and I'm in sandals. I could really ruin this perfect night with one wrong step.

We walked up to a small chapel built up high on a hillside overlooking the northern valley of Amorgos, a small greek island just two hours from Naxos. We watched a beautiful sun smear a blood red sky before slipping behind the mountains in the distance, then wandered down to the village below for dinner. We ate mountain goat, an eggplant dish that was to die for, and drank the house wine while eating baklava. The owner hunts sharks and runs the only restaurant in town.

Donkeys rustle near the trail as we walk back, leaning closer for our conversation.

Thursday, June 28th, 11:58 pm

I roll over in bed, exhausted from a long day of travel. Even with the fan on high, I'm sweating profusely in the 90 degree heat, waiting for morning. Our arrival in Athens was completely ad hoc; no plans, just winging it with a few guesses. I really had no idea how we were getting to Amorgos the next day.

''What the hell are we going to do in this Godforsaken place?'' says Brett.

''I have no idea''

Transylvania will suck your blood, and your enthusiasm

After being kicked out of the same restaurant twice for wearing sandals, sneered at for putting Tabasco on my kebab and getting hopelessly lost in the labyrinth of streets in Bucharest, I came to an inevitable conclusion: Romania takes the fun out of life.
Expectations were high as our train lurched into Brasov, Romania's most popular and beautiful city in the heart of Dracula country. I didn't lose a quart of blood to any fanged menaces in black capes, but I certainly lost my desire to return to the European Union's newest member. Romania, once a province of the old Roman Empire and home to the real dracula, has beautiful farmland, gorgeous mountains worthy of talented climbers and deep, dark forests that give chills even to the garlic-eating, cross doting doubter. 
Besides the castles, hiking and the scenery, there isn't much to see. We met some splendid Romanians on our train ride from Suceava to Brasov, who spoke in hushed tones of the incredible beauty of transylvania and how Brasov was the pride of their country. I really did enjoy the jam-filled pancake they gave me and our discussion, but felt far less nostalgic about Romania's capital city, Bucharest.
Our train-riding friends spoke better english than anyone else in Europe, and after a riveting discussion of American politics they disclosed their admiration for our political system. In Romania, the people expect to be robbed. Our friends did vote, but were highly cynical of politicians and thought the elections to be a farce. They were very impressed that the ex-Governor of Illinois, George Ryan, had been rightly indicted for corruption and fraud and put behind bars. Such a thing would never happen in Romania.
Although our friends were delightful to talk to, that same cynicism for government seemed to be the general outlook of all Romanians on life. Brett and I had heard from friends that Romanians were like this, but I have never experienced a people so cold, rude and unwelcoming as the folks in Bucharest. It is an incredibly dirty city, its streets even more confusing in layout than Rome(I got lost in Rome after living their for 5 months, Bucharest is worse) and without any green space to speak of within its walls. 
The owner of our hostel, Luigi, was from Bologna, Italy, and was thrilled to speak Italian with me. The girl who worked the front desk, Alex, was the only Romanian I got along with in the whole country. She was open enough to share some of her own problems in life; school, boyfriends, money and jobs with me, and I with her; travel, money, future and career. She and Luigi made the trip to Bucharest worth it.
The day we left, we bought a bus ticket for both of us to the airport,  but weren't told to validate it twice. Of course, that was the one time the ticket cop was on the bus and singled us out. I talked my way out of a 50 lei fine(about $20) and never looked back.