Friday, December 14, 2007

Krakow pt. II. and Attendant Adventures.

I've returned to Krakow to find the same cast of familiar faces and places, and it's been nice to see the same people more than once, especially with the longing for home that accompanies the holiday season setting in. My Krakow adventures have been pretty extensive, so this may take a while.
The tournament was three games and very informal, but we did well, and it was amazing to see the team again. It just so happened that my return to Krakow coincided with my French-Canadian friend, Melanie's return. Melanie, Krakow Pawel, Pawel's flatmate, Mateusz, and I had lots of adventures in my prior stint, but none could match our mountain adventure. Soon after landing in Hostel Yellow again, Pawel suggested he, Melanie, Mateusz and I take a little Polish-style weekend vacation to the mountains. I was excited about going back to Zakopane, so I said "yeah, Zakopane would be great!" Pawel responded "Polish people don't go to Zakopane. We go to cooler, cheaper places." I'd been spending notable amounts of time in Pawel's flat. Pawel has a cat, and we all know how well cats get along with my lungs. I was out of allergy medication, so before we left for the mountains, we went to three different pharmacies to find something chemically similar. At last we found a place staffed by these two sweet, stern Polish ladies who did more than say "we don't have it." They looked in pharmacology books and found me something just as good, and whereas the medication would cost upwards of $30 in the states, it cost a whopping five dollars in Poland. As though Americans needed any more proof that U.S. health insurance is a racket. So with my lungs sorted out, we set off.
The place we went had no real name to speak of, but I'll try my best to describe how we got there. We rode on trains for four hours (we had to change twice) until we got to Rajcza, which is officially the middle of nowhere. From the middle of nowhere, we took a bus for another half hour to the edge of nowhere. And then we walked straight off the edge of nowhere and trudged through snow for 2.5 kilometers in pitch dark. At long last, there was our little chata for the weekend. The snow was waist-deep by that point, but when we got to the place, the owner of a few years, Darek, greeted us warmly and showed us around. Since it was pitch dark, I couldn't infer much about the place except for the interior. He showed us the shower, the kitchen, the laundry...he even showed us the 4'6" eightysomething grandmother who came as part of the sale of the house. My only real question was "where is the toilet?" The toilet was in a separate building--the one with the goats. And it wasn't so much a toilet as an outhouse. He also reminded the gentlemen not to pee on the seat, or else the next sitting user might end up frozen to the seat. I mean, this place was RUSTIC.
We proceeded to drink the beers we'd brought, and Melanie wanted something else to drink, and, audacious girl that she is, she asked Darek if he had any vodka or anything we could buy from him. Perhaps not surprisingly, he did. He brought us a rather suspect-looking bottle of bimber, or honest-to-god Polish moonshine. It wouldn't surprise me at all if the Soviet space program hired men like Darek to mass-produce fuel for Baikonur launches, because the stuff tasted like Slivovice on steroids. It was only ten o'clock, and the logical inebriate thing was to explore the snowy woods on the hill above the chata. And so we did. We ran into a group of folks from another chata in the forest and talked to them for a while, and then the bimber ran out, so it was time to go home. I resurrected my quarterback skills and pegged people mercilessly with snowballs on the way down the hill, which made our cozy, heated room a delightful reprieve from the soaking cold. My boots, pants, jackets, and gloves were waterproof; my companions weren't so lucky. The next day their things were still soaked and cold, so we stayed in and got to talking. We were essentially confined to a single room, since it was the warmest in the house, and from there we talked about how unfeasibly stupid climbing the mountain in the dark was. It sure seemed like a GREAT idea at the time, and we all had fun, so I suppose all's well that ends well. When three people are in a room together for hours at a time, strange topics of conversation come up. We talked about the possibility of wild snow hamsters awaiting us in the woods, and how we could have been tied to the ground and eaten, Gulliver-Lilliput style. Lots and lots of redneck jokes were made, and not just in my direction. Quebec is just as much a cultural backwater as Arkansas, it seems. The redneck jokes culminated in the obvious implication that, since I am an Arkansan, I seek livestock for sexual satisfaction. Instead of getting offended, I ran with it. I told them about my new lover, Daisy, who was out in the barn and white as the driven snow. A few hours later I told them we were engaged, and I'd given her a lovely ring, but I was pretty sure she'd eaten it. *sniff* Daisy, I pine for thee. My finest moment of cross-cultural vulgarity, however, was turning on my camera's sound record feature and belching "JE SUIS...RED NEEECKKKK!" I still have the file, in case any of you are curious. The price of the room included dinner, which was enormous and delicious. We had homemade mushroom soup, chicken thigh, fresh plum compote, apple, carrot, and cabbage salad, and brownies for dessert. And get this: dinner and lodging put together came to eight dollars a night.
After a fabulous weekend we returned to Krakow and I started back on my training/hockey regime. which has gotten substantially easier since they set up an outdoor ice rink five minutes' walk from my hostel. I skate between one and two hours a day, and it's been really good for me. The only day it was otherwise was last Friday, when I skated from six to eight and came home only to discover in my email box that I had a game two hours later. And it wasn't one of those tournament games, either; it was a "it's on the small rink and we don't have a goalie, so play until everyone gets tired" game. So I skated about five hours that day. Lord was I sore on Saturday, too, but in a good way. I had just enough time to rest up before my game on Sunday night, with the big boys on the big rink. One of the goals in my inital checklist was, as mentioned, "score a hat trick in any game." I checked that off and replaced it with "score a hat trick in any game against a goalie." Well, I broke my goalless streak on the big rink in a big way: I had four goals (incluiding the game-winner) and three assists in our 9-7 win. It was the best game I've played this season, easily. And dammit, I may need new shoulder pads soon. I creamed this guy on open ice, and when I was hanging my equipment up to dry after the game, I discovered I'd cracked the shoulder cap I'd used to hit him. The pads have lasted me since my second season, so they've led a long, full life. One of my presents this year is decidedly the game sandwich that comes immediately before and after my birthday: I get the last game of my twenty-first year and the first game of my twenty-second within a day of each other. I'm stoked, especially with the way I've been playing recently.
But since hockey can't fill up all my time, I've been going to museums and taking in Christmastime Krakow. They do a thorough and beautiful job of decorating the city, from the gorgeous tree on Rynek Glowny to the outdoor rink to the lit christmas bells lining the main boulevards. There's even a seasonal outdoor market on Rynek, so I went and ended up buying what will someday be volume three of the Journal Cycle; it's a leatherbound book with blank, unlined paper, and it has the cloth hall (Sukiennice) painted on the cover by a local Krakow artist. I paid less for it than I did for either of my current journals, and it's really one-of-a-kind. I've also been watching pretentious movies with Pawel. We generally trade selections--for instance, he'd never seen "Dr. Strangelove," but now we say "MEIN FUHRER! I CAN VALK!" to each other at least four times a day for no real reason. But of all the new movies I've seen here, the one I'd especially recommend is a documentary called "When the Road Bends," and it's about four gypsy bands from very different parts of the world who come together to travel across the U.S. on a "Gypsy Caravan" tour. It's a fabulous film with great music. The best way I can summarize it is this: it's what would happen if you spliced "Buena Vista Social Club" with "Borat."
So here I sit listening to Polish hip-hop and fighting off the cold with a cup of Grzanie Galyciskie, hot Polish mulled wine. To an extent I'm starting to feel like "one of the guys" in Poland, which may be a sure sign it's time to leave this place. Between discussing the intricate usage of Polish swear words and knowing Krakow more or less like the back of my hand, it really is time to move on. One obstacle keeps me from leaving and has done so for over a week: the chaotic and nonsensical entity that is the Russian visa regime. I had initially heard and read that new regulations prohibited the would-be traveller to Russia from applying for a visa if outside his own country. I've since talked to several people who say that it's a simple matter of knowing whom to bribe and which travel agency to use. How very, very Russian. When I returned from the mountains, one of my first stops was the Russian visa agency I'd noticed in my previous Krakow stint. They had me fill out some forms and turn in my passport, and they said that I could come back in five days with payment and everything would be fine. As you've probably inferred, Krakow isn't an awful place to be stuck; I have reliable hockey here and a place to skate every day, as well as numerous friends in different walks of life. Furthermore, since Moscow and Petersburg were removed from my itenerary, I have a little extra time in case something like this popped up (which I knew it would, in some way, shape, or form). So I waited with a naive and blissful conception that I'd be in Kaliningrad soon enough. On Tuesday, however, I went by to pick up my visa, only to discover that "we can't issue visas to non-Polish tourists unless they have Student identification." Would they had told me that the preceding week. I seriously considered lying, telling them I was studying at Jagiellonian, and showing them my ISIC card, but thought against it since I'd be caught with a couple of quick phone calls. So here I am, back at square one, trying another approach. Lodging places can send you invitations, but not individuals. The hangup here is that all the hotels listed online in Kaliningrad are ungodly expensive ($90 a night minimum? Are you kidding me?) Hence I'm digging around trying to contact student housing places in Kaliningrad to see if they'll sponsor me. My deadline for something resembling luck is Monday. If nothing happens by then, Kaliningrad will off the menu, to my dismay. And if I have this much trouble with my Russian visa, I'm really dreading getting one for Belarus. It's actually geographically necessary to get a visa if I'm to transit from the Baltics to Ukraine without a significant detour. Wish me luck, for I am but a lone man surrounded by imposing bureaucracies, piles of papers, and rubber stamps.

Give me COMMENTS for my birthday!

Love and miss you all, and have a blessed holiday season.


Sunday, November 25, 2007

Thanksgiving Week in Warsaw

The days leading up to Thanksgiving were uneventful but culturally fulfilling; I spent even more time at the Russian film festival, which included seeing a couple of my old favorites, "Bumer," Tarkovsky's "Mirror," and, most exciting, the Polish premiere of Andrei Zviagintsev's new film "The Banishment." I recommend all of the preceding, by the way. Among those in tow to the Zvyagintsev premiere were Pawel's entourage (though Pawel himself was in Berlin) and a couple of Aussies I'd met in the hostel. I was delighted and surprised when they wanted to go to the Russian film festival with me even after I told them there were no English subtitles--rare creatures indeed. I was anticipating having to live-translate a movie in a crowded theatre with a fair degree of dread; merciful fate spared me (and my would-be annoyed fellow audience members) when the theatre didn't have anything but double and triple seats left; Liz and Ellie, the Australians, sat with Natalya, since she had the last block of seats. For all of us, the half hour following the movie was an examination of semiotics, chronology, and philosophical overtones, all with the general unifying factor of "so what the hell just happened, anyway?" You know, the standard discussion of any decent art film. The Aussies and I also visited the Warsaw Uprising museum and learned in graphic detail what a raw deal Poland in general and Warsaw in particular got in WWII, and followed this depressing endeavor up with a fantastic jazz concert and a martini that was a little heavy on the vermouth for my liking. But as often happens on this long and circuitous odyssey, time arrived for my compatriots to part, and I found myself looking down the barrel of a loaded Thanksgiving.
Since Facebook is the arbiter and daily picayune of my generation's social realm, I couldn't help but notice all my friends' status messages changing to "I'm going home! It's Thanksgiving!" I looked outside, however, and saw a conspicuous absence of cartoon pilgrims, Indian corn, or even stylized Hallmark turkeys. I saw these status messages a'changin and thought to myself "...not here..." This thought saddened me a shade, so I sent an email to my Warsaw friends saying "come celebrate American Thanksgiving with me. Free food. See you at six," and sallied forth in quest of what Arlo Guthrie would call "a Thanksgivin' dinner that couldn't-be-beat." By God, I found it. I made gruyere scalloped potatoes and chicken breasts with a butter-based white wine lemon sauce with bell pepper slices and capers. It was easily the best meal I've had in a couple months, and my guests (all two of them) agreed. They wanted to take me on a tour of Warsaw by night afterwards; this was a substantially more drawn-out endeavor than any of us had anticipated, and Pawel and I got back to the hostel around five am. Pawel came back with me because he wanted more potatoes, which made me happy. As he ate his potatoes, however, I found myself shivering and aching all over. I'm uncertain whether my considerable malaise was a result of Thanksgiving dinner, flu, or the rather questionable kebab from the Warsaw outskirts. What is certain, however, is that I stayed in bed with a fever and all manner of sundry unpleasantry until 18:00. I awoke at 11:00, and after rolling into the fetal position, I started mumbling "H5N1...H5N1" and considered going downstairs for my Tamiflu regimen, but that seemed like far too much work, so I stayed bedridden and decided that it wasn't that bad, like a true Fagan. But no, mother, I drank plenty of water and took acetominophen for fever reduction, so all was well.
But the largest obstacle of the day lay yet before me. I told Pawel I'd meet him and the gang at a billiard club at 19:00, and I thought it would be rude to stand him up, so off I went to "Golden Wheat American Billiard Hall." By my reasoning, Golden Wheat sounds more Soviet than American, but no one asked me. I digress, however. I greeted everyone, and when I got to Natalya, Pawel's girlfriend, before touching me or saying hello, her voice diverged from its usual sweet Belorussian girl tonality to stern babushka, and the dialog went something like this:

"You have fever. You must drink hot beer with honey and cinnamon with shot of hot pepper vodka."

"but you haven't even touched me yet; how do you know I have a fever?"

"I am a woman, I know these things."

And I suppose that just about settled it. Furthermore, I couldn't think of anything more fall-back classic Russian/Belorussian than looking to distilled grain products as the cure of all mental and bodily ills (as backwards as that seems to my prim Western ways.) Since I wasn't paying and I didn't think I could feel a great deal worse, I had a mug of hot honey cinnamon clove beer to chase my shot of honey pepper vodka. Between the two drinks, there wasn't enough alcohol to accomplish much in the way of altered brainstate, but I did indeed feel better. I think if ANYONE tells you to do some bizarre folky health thing in an authentic stern babushka voice, it's bound to work, simply by the power of suggestion that naturally accompanies being old and Slavic.
Yesterday I went to the symphony, and I felt better still, though the state of my gastrointestinal tract left something to be desired. Have you ever pinched your butt cheeks together for forty-five minutes and still tried to enjoy classical music? It's damnably difficult, but I did it. The concert consisted of Bartok, Lizst, and Kodaly choir-based psalmic pieces, and it was beautiful.
Today, not only am I back in something resembling good health, but I'm in a hostel with friendlier staff and decent computers for my final two days in Warsaw. I may have a slight detour soon, though, since I received an email from one of my old Krakow contacts about an upcoming tournament. They want me to play, so I may go back to Krakow for a week or so before heading to Gdansk; train tickets are very reasonable in Poland, as long as they're intranational. There were two feet of snow on the ground in Krakow last I checked, however, so my need for boots deepens...perhaps literally.

More updates are always forthcoming. The speed with which they come forth, however, may vary. Bear with me.

colder than the nipple on a witch's tit (don't blame me, Thomas Pynchon wrote it first),

Josh Harris

Monday, November 19, 2007

L'viv and Warszawa Ephemera

Sorry it's taken me so long to post this one. I suppose I've felt a little on the dissolute side since there's not much in the hockey way here, and when I write this thing, I want to make sure you actually have something in front of you that's worth reading.
I've traded the narrow streets, barn-rinks, and smoky cafes of Krakow for something far different in Warszawa. Warsaw is huge, scattered, and only the barest remnants of its pre-war old world glory endure. It's traded this old world glory for a different sort: a position as one of Europe's preeminent financial capitals. Between the intimidating skyscrapers and eight-lane boulevards, Warsaw seems every bit the intimidating concrete jungle. To an outsider, it is. But if you have some connections and speak the language a little bit, there's quite a bit beyond Warsaw's grey exterior.
The initial days in my first Warsaw hostel left a shade to be desired.
When I mentioned the globalization discussion in the previous blog entry, it seems that was only scratching the surface. Martin, the receptionist, and Richard, one of the guests, described themselves as "truth-seekers," which is a fancy euphemism for conspiracy theorists. Apparently we live pointless lives because the Illuminati don't want us unlocking the true power of the human mind, ("because they're afraid of our potential") so they make us slaves to financial systems. All this will culminate in one world government and the total enslavement of the human race, and then the greys will come and free us from tyranny.
With all due respect, it seemed to me to be a titanic load of bullshit. I backed them into a couple of corners, though. "So if these events are beyond your control even in the barest capacity, why bother? Doesn't this just give you something other than living and working and dying to worry about?" Something about the way these guys tried to make every world event fit into a handy though sinister system seemed frankly...Ptolemaic. I told them that their ideas were certainly interesting, but if the simplest solution is often the best (thank you William of Ockham), then it would make much more sense for events to connect, sure, but not with a whole bunch of hidden little retrograde movements necessary to explain the interstices. Ptolemy had to invent a beautiful system of obscenely complicated mathematics to make the Earth the center of his universe; it seems these gentlemen were inventing a subsystem of things unseen and unobserved to make the Illuminati the center of theirs. The whole thing irritated my logical sensibilities, but at the same time seemed an interesting manifestation of faith--namely a faith in a system of hidden, mortal connections that cannot exist without skepticism. But I digress.
At any rate, initial impressions of Warsaw were essentially poor. It seemed like a cultural and architectural wasteland, and I was really looking for a change of pace. I've been contemplating a change of strategy for this project for a while now, and with stagnation setting on, I thought it wise to try a different method of attack. My goal was to leave most of my luggage at a home base city (Warsaw, in this case,) and try to make connections in a series of shorter trips to different cities, thus paving the road to hockey in a given place before I went to the arduous physical expense of tacking another leg on to the full iditarod regime. So I set out for L'viv, Ukraine, to find some hockey contacts and re-meet some old acquaintances from Krakow. It's proven infinitely excellent to see the same faces more than once, so beyond the search for contacts, the side excursion was something of a fall break for me. The train ride itself was uneventful, and the entire side trip frankly just made me hate my material possessions more. I traveled with a large shopping bag full of clothing, toiletries, my cd player, and a book--less than ten pounds, all told--and damn it was nice. Even though the train ride was uneventful, other things were not. I tried conversing with this middle-aged Polish man and his daughter, but the gentleman used my eagerness to practice my Polish as an opportunity to practice his English and lambaste me for the color of my passport. He ranted for a solid half-hour about the woes of the Bush administration and the terminal laziness, stupidity, and obesity of the American population. My arguments that "we're not all like that" seemed to fall on deaf ears. I tried talking about Polish culture, but it only seemed to prove his point when the only Polish playwright I knew was Slawomir Mrozek. Ultimately neither his English nor my Polish were good enough for us to reach any kind of mutual understanding, so I sighed and looked out the window until he got off the train, which he mercifully did soon thereafter. So, under the misguided impression that the trainride to L'viv was nonstop, I proceeded to sprawl and sleep. To my alarm, however, a small, friendly Polish man woke me up at the border and ushered me off the train. I was travelling on All Saints' day, and for whatever reason, it didn't occur to me that there would be holiday-related delays. When I finally find another computer and internet connection that isn't wretched, I'll post the pictures from Przemysl, the first of which is me with a "here we go again" face. As I sat outside the customs office, which was closed until an undisclosed and mysterious time, I couldn't help but think of that wretched night in the tiny Slovakian mountain town, Krasnahorske Podhrady. All I knew was that my train left for L'viv at 19:24, and if the customs office didn't open before then, I was many different kinds of screwed. Przemysl is the only Polish town I've yet encountered without a McDonald's, and it had more spires than I knew what to do with. I went up on White Castle Hill, knowing I had a few hours to spend, and listened to the All Saints' Day prayer calls coming up through the mist from the valley below. It was remarkably peaceful, and the peace was only slightly tainted with the occasional twinge of "oh God please I don't want to get stuck here" in the back of my mind.
Mercifully I didn't. The customs office re-opened at 18:00, and I had plenty of time to freeze my ass off on the platform before boarding the train.
Due to the holiday-related travel delays, I didn't arrive in L'viv until 00:45. L'viv is poorly lit and a little scary looking by night. I had no directions to my hostel, only an address and a tiny, rudimentary map in my "Let's Go! Eastern Europe." So on blind instinct I start walking in a direction that would seem to take me to the center of town. It was a combination of dumb luck and a triumph for my sense of direction, because I found the place with relatively little incident. I was expecting the place to be dead, but after putting my bags down, I walked into the kitchen to find a lively party of seven or so people hosted by the owner, Eddie. We all had a good time and slept precious little. The next few days in L'viv were interesting, to say the least. After picking my friends Allyssa and Marissa up from the train station, we explored the city, and I bought my most unusual souvenir yet, an old Komsomolsky Bilet from Soviet days, in other words, a Komsomol (young communist league) membership card. The guy whose defunct identity I purchased had flawless attendance until 1985, when he stopped abruptly. I can't help but think that Gorbachev's reforms were somehow involved in his sudden lack of interest.
All told, L'viv was a pleasant experience, since everyone over thirty speaks Russian in the streets and Ukrainian isn't difficult to understand. I went to the bania while I was there, for the first time since Moscow. For those of you unfamilar with the custom, the bania, or Russian bath house, is essentially the most Slavic thing ever. It's a sauna with three rooms: first, the warm room, where you can bathe and such. Then there's the tiny room that's so impossibly hot that it hurts to breathe. In this room, you flagellate yourself with birch twigs to remove dead skin, improve circulation, and generally just increase your own discomfort. When you're either about to die or pass out...whichever comes run into the third room, which is an icy cold pool. Basically it's just like Russian history and literature: for every ten minutes of abominable suffering, you get thirty seconds of pleasure and release. You leave exhausted and feeling impossibly clean and rejuvenated. For other good experiences in Ukraine, I went with Eddie and another hostelite, Chris, to this bar in town which was Ukrainian-resistance-themed. The atmosphere was excellent, and it had a lot of historical dedications to this band of militants who fought both the Nazis and the Soviets at the same time. We were having a grand old time when, boom, out go the lights. From the sounds of things, they fired up a generator that put out just enough power to keep the keg pumps going. It's good that the bar knows where it's clientele's priorities really are. The bania and the blackout bar were highlights for sure, but so were Ukrainian prices. A three-course meal complete with beverage costs approximately $5.
Between the cultural comfort, prices, company, and a certain quantity of my own laziness, it took me considerably longer to get out of L'viv than anticipated. I had an open ticket, which meant as long as I returned to Warsaw before the first of January, I was sorted. Here enters the laziness factor: the only train to Warsaw leaves at 07:18 daily. We all know how much of a morning person I am. I tried leaving on my planned departure date, the morning of the fourth day, but my strategy for so doing was perhaps ill-concieved. I thought the best way to make my train in a timely fashion was to stay up all night. It seemed like such a good idea that I tried and failed not once, but twice. The third attempted-escape day seemed much more promising. I found a train that ran at 13:25, and that seemed extremely reasonable. So I slept in and headed to the train station with a few minutes to spare. I went to the counter to buy my reservation and discovered, to my dismay, that the train was an express. Paying the additional $75 to board this thing seemed less than palatable, so I finally bit the bullet and, on the fourth morning after my original planned departure date, I got on that morning train with bloodshot eyes and suitcase in hand. And here you'll find my most humiliating (and in my opinion, hilarious) anecdote from the trip so far.
For those of you who have already read the following, I apologize for repeating it. I wasn't originally going to post it in the blog, but my obligation to journalistic integrity (such as it is :-P) dictates that I must.
When changing from Polish to Ukrainian train tracks, you have to stop for a couple hours and change the undercarriages, since the tracks are of different widths. It's pretty cool, frankly, but it's a really irritating delay. At any rate, the Lebanese food I had last night was urging to escape my body, and so I go to the bathroom. I assumed that Ukrainian trains have a certain level of civilized amenity...the ones in Slovakia and Czech did. Now, using this bathroom was an act of bravery in and of itself. I wiped the seat and the paper came away black, and if I end up with an ass disease, I'll know that it came from the toilet seat of the living dead. So I evacuate my bowels in an insufferably foul and loose blast, and proceed to flush. To my dismay, when it flushes, I find myself looking through the floor and onto the ground beside the train. Uh-oh. I decide to leave the bathroom with due haste, but apparently bad news travels fast, because no more than a minute and a half later, this awful old Russian woman with dyed cranberry red hair and a uniform is throwing the longest stream of Russian profanity at me that I've ever endured--it would have made a convict blush. She hands me a broom and dustpan, and, that's right, I have to sweep up my own excrement, corn and all, from the railroad tracks with a straw broom and deposit it in the nearby grass. Her vituperations continued upon my return to the train, and I'm apologizing my ass off, but she just keeps yelling. One of the track attendants, however, a good old Ukrainian gentleman with a moustache, intercedes on my behalf after laughing heartily for about two minutes. I told him I was very sorry, it was an honest mistake, and I thought there would be some kind of tank to recieve my...offering. He tells the old lady to sit on something and chill the hell out (more or less literally), and tells me that it was okay, that I gave him something to laugh about for the rest of the week. I have not been so embarrassed in YEARS. It only took about ten minutes for me to start laughing hysterically about it, though. It was one of those situations where if you can't laugh, you'll break. Good thing it was funny. In conclusion to the L'viv excursion, I made some contacts in, the entire process of contact-hunting and transit was too expensive and complicated. I think I'll stick with my initial strategy.

My return to Warsaw was marked with some difficulty. I got back to the hostel and they had lost my reservation. It was only by sheer dumb luck that they had a single bed left for that night only. So I stayed, but morning brought the realization that I was ostensibly homeless. I recalled an email from a chance acquaintance from Krakow, offering me lodging while I was in Warsaw. I figured it couldn't hurt, given my situation. I called Pawel up and met him and my French friend from Krakow, Mallorie, at the Georgian culture festival. which Pawel had orchestrated more or less by himself. The movies were interesting, the food was great, and the company couldn't have been better. Pawel had other guests in town for the weekend, though: Natasha, his Belorussian girlfriend, and Kate, his Estonian friend. So there we were, chatting in English, Russian, and Polish, and I felt like part of some big, strange multilingual circle of friends. At that very moment I realized how awesome being a polyglot is. When everything was cleaned up, we headed home and the nine of us crashed in Pawel's two-room apartment. Allow me to rephrase, actually. The girls went to bed and Pawel, his friend Kuba, and I stayed up until the wee hours nursing our vodkas in the kitchen and talking about music, art, literature, cars and girls. It was a very Slavic moment.
Since Pawel had to go out of town for a concert and further, since I didn't want to wear out my welcome, I've since changed back to the hostel life, though Pawel's buddies are still more than happy to show me around. Last week I spent most evenings at the first Warsaw festival of Russian film, which proved not only culturally great, but therapeutic as well. I've learned on this trip that sometimes it's invaluable to know everything that's going on, even if only in a crowded cinema for an hour and a half.
So between the films and the festivals and the myriad museums I've visited, I've been culturally engaged and stimulated. My language studies are coming a little more slowly since shifting back to the hostel, but I suppose what's most irritating about Warsaw is the following: there is only a single ice rink in this city of one and a half million people, and its schedule is primarily for, you guessed it, figure skating. I still have two or three emails floating in cyberspace awaiting response, but Warsaw thusfar seems to be a wash. I just have to keep compensating for the lack of ice with linguistic and cultural explorations.

In other news, next week I'm headed to Gdansk, on the shores of the Baltic. You should all fly over here so we can all become members of the polar bear club, because, good readers, the water, like everything else here, will surely be colder than a bucket of penguin shit.

Best regards from the increasingly frigid north,


P.S. Those of you in the American South, be grateful; you have more than five hours of daylight.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Quarter in Summary.

The following is the document I submitted to the foundation. Peruse as you will.

Dear Foundation Members, Fellows, Colleagues, and Parties Yet Unknown:

I knew quite well going into this endeavor that mine was a fairly ambitious project. It began as thirteen countries, twenty-four cities. On a very brief sidenote, when the members of the foundation informed me that I could not enter Russian soil, save Kaliningrad, I was initially irritated. Russian hockey is some of the best hockey on the planet, and I frankly hadn't the faintest what to do with the month I'd allocated for Moscow and Petersburg. I've since decided this was serendipitous; I'm replacing Russia with Moldova, Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia, which brings my country total from thirteen to seventeen, with the city total approaching forty. Hockey presence is minimal in the southernmost of these countries, but the places where there's the least hockey have yielded the most results and the most welcoming teammates. For example, I decided to start in Prague, the capital of a country that holds hockey high as its national game. Though I spent three weeks in Prague, I didn't get anything in but practice skates. I talked to coaches and players alike, and they weren't even willing to see how I skated. The ones who spoke English well enough to tell me "why" told me that the rosters were already set, and they didn't want to disrupt team chemistry. With important games on the line, I suppose that's understandable; I just wanted a chance. Brno was too small to have much of a pronounced hockey scene, though I public skated there with fair frequency. I found my first luck in Bratislava, where I met a group of guys who played once or twice a week. They played full contact, and there I saw an advantage. One of the first things I noticed about Czech and Slovakian hockey was that they trained their players much more in the departments of skating and passing than in hitting. This was to my advantage. I'll be the first to confess that I'm about average as hockey players go, but I'm good at skating, passing, and hitting. Even though these gentlemen could stickhandle through autobahn traffic, I could keep up with them in the passing and skating departments. I had a decided edge in the hitting skill subset, however. The first time I racked someone from the other team over my hip and saw him flip on his back in front of me, I thought to myself "okay, I can do this." My stint in Bratislava wasn't entirely injury-free, though good things came from both of my major injuries. Both of the times I got hit in the face were a result of the simple fact that my helmet repair kit...didn't, so my unguarded face was plenty exposed to the puck that hit it in game one and the stick that hit it in game two. Badges of honor, I tell you. Incidentally, when I got a puck to the face, I passed it off for a goal, and when I got a stick to the nose, even though I'd quelled the initial fountain of blood, my teammates were saying "are you okay? you should go change clothes." Being the stubborn hokejist I am, as soon as my alternate center came off the ice, to my teammates' surprise, I hopped on, and wouldn't you know it, I scored a gorgeous goal. Kosice was rather more of a wash for hockey, in a way similar to Brno. It was just too small to accommodate much hockey enthusiasm. Professionals, very small children, and figure skaters dominated the ice time, so opportunities for pick-up games were minimal. When I was in Slovakia's largest gothic cathedral, however, I saw a poster for a floor hockey league. I was excited until I found, upon further research, that it was a devout Catholic ball hockey league. Though I was already excluded on both counts, the tournament didn't start until a solid two weeks after I left Kosice. Before departure from Kosice, however, I made sure to pick up a pair of inline skates to improve my chances of playing. It paid off.

In the month since, my heart, soul and skates have been stitched to Krakow, Poland. Krakow has been by far my most productive location in all possible respects. I played over ten times in my four weeks in Krakow, and the range of talent and surface was amazing. I played with an intriguing mix of extreme amateurs and former professionals on a small rink which was less a rink and more a barn with an air conditioning system. Conversely, in the same complex of ice rinks, I played on the super-nice regulation-sized surface with a fairly solid bunch of showboats who knew how to score, but couldn't and wouldn't pass to save their own lives. It's so rare to meet players who are extremely talented and know how to fit on a team--it frankly amazed me to find this dearth of team-oriented talent to be a fact which retains consistency across the Atlantic Ocean. I made lots of friends in the locker room, from Mace, the economics student with a passion for American politics, to Marcin, a fortysomething pack-a-day smoking physical therapist who made a tidy living; in addition to his private practice, he is the lead violinist in one of Poland's most famous and innovative folk bands. He wanted to know if Chicago was close to Arkansas, since he might be going to Chicago in a couple of years to play for the Polish community there. In addition, I relived a lot of my original hockey days. I played on broken asphalt with people younger than me (high schoolers) until it was simply too dark to see the ball anymore. As though my ego weren't inflated enough, they were calling me "Gretzky" by the end of my first game with them, and they weren't even being sarcastic. Roller hockey is dangerous, since it tricks me into thinking that I rock really really hard at hockey in general. The roller hockey experiences brought back memories, as my blog will mention in more detail. Furthermore, I learned the majority of the Polish swear words I know on those nights. But one uniting factor gives me solace even after the most brutal of hockey games: the ceremonial post-game beer in the shower.

From a practical standpoint, what's been interesting for me is the almost inverse correlation between how popular hockey is in a given place and how often I get to play there. Prague is unquestionably one of the world capitals of ice hockey. The game there is smooth, clean, and lightning fast. Kosice, though smaller than Bratislava, boasts the new U.S. Steel Kosice arena, one of the largest in the country, and as such hosts a lot of elite-level tournaments. The teams in Prague and Kosice were amazing, but, as mentioned, my negotiations with anyone and everyone were fruitless. For counterexample, other than HK Slovan, the Slovakian elite league champions, Bratislava has little hockey to its credit. Its youth teams are mediocre and its recreational teams are nigh-nonexistent. I found the only one in Bratislava, to the best of my knowledge. The team was reasonably welcoming, though they had a limited number of spots on any given week and I generally only got to play in the event of a cancellation. In furtherance, Krakow had the smallest scene I've encountered yet, but I found the warmest reception and the best, most frequent games there. Now I'm in Warszawa, which hasn't yielded much yet. I have some emails floating out in cyberspace, this time written in broken but understandable Polish, which I find an improvement over the hope that I bore the recipients of my emails in Krakow: namely that they would understand more English than I did Polish.

Speaking of Slavic languages, they're improving, by and large. My Czech was never good to begin with, my Slovak is functional, though not conversational, and my Polish is approaching decent, to my delight. I spent quality time with my phrasebook to memorize the art and literature vocabulary, and I use that to talk culture with Poles, some of whom have turned me on to some very good artists/bands. I turn you to Tadeusz Kantor in the art realm and Zion Train in the music realm, in particular. Recently I've started insisting that my hostel staffs speak to me in Polish, and only switch to English if I just don't "get it." I try my best to respond in kind, and it provides a self-crafted immersive atmosphere that enables me to pick up the language much more quickly. Moreover, I suppose the trip so far has been more pan-European that I might have initially imagined. Staying in hostels puts me in regular contact with Slavic natives, but also with people from all over Western Europe. We discuss literature and music, swap anecdotes. At the end of the day, we trade lists of authors, bands and artists (along with contact information). In other words, I'm getting a broader cultural education than I could have hoped for, and while it's perhaps unfortunate that English is something of a modern Esperanto, it's certainly been to my benefit when talking with Western Europeans. I haven't the faintest idea what I've going to do in the Baltics, honestly. Phrasebooks are well and good, but I hate spouting a language without knowing what does what, grammatically speaking. I see myself gesticulating wildly and then feeling very proud of myself when I finally manage to buy grapes in Estonia.

When I'm not playing hockey, I'm exploring the city, either with or without objectives. It frankly doesn't matter. In every case so far, my first full day in a given place has involved an abortive quest for any and all hockey rinks. I often pass quite close to my quarry, but this "no backtracking" policy I've acquired has proven both bane and boon. The bane is that I haven't gone for an excursion on my first day in a city and walked fewer than ten kilometers. But the boon also resides in these deathmarches into the dirt. I see lots of things I wouldn't otherwise. If there's one thing I've learned (and I promise you, I've learned more than one thing), it's this: though my project is hockey-centric, if I focus too much, I miss the entire point. Hockey happens, as does linguistic and cultural interaction. The challenge is filling the interstices. I realized this in Bratislava, where I'll admit that I spent a couple of days trying to figure out what in the hell to do with myself. Bratislava is not the most happening town in the western world, so between going from the largest to the very tiniest art galleries and buying Ulysses to fill out the hours, I just felt like I was marking time between games. It turned out that I was. I've learned since then that the best and most productive way to fill time involves meeting locals, even if only in a service capacity. As a non sequitur, though, Ulysses is the perfect book for my Watson year; a curious little man sets out on a long, strange journey and returns home by an extremely circuitous route. Here endeth the lesson.

I've also learned that I HATE travel days. I'm tempted to join PETA on a new angle and tell them that the iditarod is cruel, because if hauling things through cold weather sucks this much for me, then it must be much worse for dogs. Between being stuck in tiny castle towns, walking miles to find the Hidden Hostel, and walking miles more to find the rink in question, there simply must be a better way. The easiest way is ascetic Buddhism, where I renounce material possessions and just move on. It's a damn shame that you can't play hockey without material possessions. This is all exaggeration, though. Changing cities is simply the least pleasant of the routines I've carved for myself on this odyssey, and only forays to and from the train station are especially awful. Being able to graft structure onto this quasi-nomadic life has often proved my saving grace. From the checklists in my journal (and yes, I grade myself at the end of the day) to filling in my day's journey on my map with a pen, small rituals of organization help me get things done on the chaotic days, and give me the perseverance to fill in the gaps between chaotic days with more than just scrabble, drink, and idle distraction. As it currently stands, my life's structure is extant and reliable, but extremely adaptable, and I love it.

My experiences so far have touched the extremes of sublime and scary, and every point between, though with a reliably Slavic penchant for the bizarre. I've learned substantial amounts about the power of both language and sport, including the consoling power of language. When inundated for hours with the language of the day, sometimes nothing feels better than a relaxed conversation with an Anglophone or a few pages of Joyce. It's a beer in the shower for my brain. On the whole, it's been an amazing three months, and I never cease to be adequately...whelmed. I anticipate more more adventures and look forward to keeping you all in the loop. In the meantime, I'd once again like to express my gratitude to the foundation for its generosity, and leave all involved parties with my best assurance that their investment in me is a sound one.

With fondest wishes and body checks from the frozen north,

Joshua Brandon Harris


P.S. More detailed anecdones can be found on, while photos can be found at the following locations:

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Defenestrated Luggage Chronicles.

My final hours in Krakow were relatively uneventful, but I've learned a couple of valuable trial-and-error style lessons in my city shift. It all started with a misbegotten plan. In a hairbrained scheme to save some money, I decided to, instead of doing the wise thing and either taking a night train or staying another night at Hostel Yellow, I decided it would be more fiscally advisable to stay up all night and then catch my 6:10 train. In retrospect, that was unadvisable at best.
I went out with the hostel crew and largely avoided the evils of strong drink, since I would have just passed out on the hostel couch. Little did I know that would be what happened anyway. Pubs and clubs were fine, and I said a lot of almost-tearful farewells to my buddies before heading back to the hostel to get my final load of luggage. (as a bit of an aside, one positive lesson I learned was that my life is much easier if I take my hockey bag and clothes to left luggage well before my train leaves--then I just have to take my carryon and sticks when I make the final sojourn to the station.) I returned to the hostel at 3:30 am, with just enough time for a nap, by my reckoning. Karolina was a sweetheart and let me sleep on the couch. The "waking up in time for my train" thing was simply not happening, though. I noted a lack of fixed times on the train ticket, with only validity dates. It seemed the ticket was valid for all of today. So I figured I'd roll the dice and go with my intuition on the subject. I left in a hurry nonetheless, without taking the time to check my email or anything. This proved nigh-unfortunate later. I grabbed the 10:19 train and I was sweating like a dog from nerves (and hauling what is now about 130 lbs of luggage) when the attendant came to check my ticket. Fortunately I was correct, and got to Warszawa without incident. Upon arrival, however, a teeming throng of people boarded the train with what seemed to be very little intent of letting me and my hockey bag (which was as wide as the damn train corridor) pass. Think fast, Josh.

Learning corner! says:
to cause injury or death by forcible ejection from a window.

My luggage ain't dead, but one of the zippers popped upon impact on the platform. Yahoo. It was safe, don't worry. I made sure to shout "uwaga!" first. I was chased by a horde of small old men who were all very eager to help me...for a price. When I arrived in the street, taxis would slow down and keep pace with me until I waved them along. I was a source of potential business for half the western world. I got to the corner and realized I hadn't the faintest idea of where I was going. In my hurry to evacuate Hostel Yellow, I'd forgotten to photograph the directions, the tram numbers &c. Huhboy. In a series of deftly made small purchases, I got enough change for a map from a vending machine. I remembered the street, mercifully, and getting to the hostel was a simple enough endeavor, though Warszawa is a city of broad avenues...we're talking six to eight lanes. Hence the only way to cross the road is via what are known in Moscow as perechodi, or undercrossings. The idea of an escalator in Warszawa is more or less foreign, so I guess I know what it feels like for a 320-pound man to go up and down lots and lots of stairs. Just...yuck.

It was already getting dark when I arrived at 3:30. It occurs to me how much I'm going to relish the three to five hours of daylight (I'm optimistic, you see) I'll have in the Baltics, where the women are beautiful and the suicide rates are astronomical. It's apparently connected with the lack of light. At least it's not Finland, I guess...maybe THAT'S why the Finnish gentleman was so odd...perhaps the combination of darkness and alcohol had pickled his brain into mild psychosis.

First impressions of Warszawa are mixed, though I'm not in much position to judge yet; the only part I saw was in the 2km span from the train station to the hostel, where I saw eight-lane roads lined on both sides with imposing governmental and financial buildings. If Krakow is about culture, Warszawa is about money. It's a much harder city than Krakow, and it reminds me of Moscow in this respect. Would I spoke the language here as well as I do in Moscow. To my credit, however, I conversed in Polish for a solid hour on Saturday night, though I was corrected massively. All things in due time. The hostel is great, and the receptionist immediately struck up a conversation with me about America's role in globalization. I suspect I may do well here. Tomorrow I begin the hockey search.

You know the drill. It starts with a C and ends with an OMMENT.

Thanks for reading.



Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Krakow Cast; Malopolska Curtain Call

Once again I find myself shamefully tardy at updating this damn thing. You have my sincere apologies.

The hostel has been populated with an even stranger cast of characters than usual. Apparently an entire Orthodox Belorussian geriatric ward broke free of their cages to go on a tour of Krakow. A sundry collection of some forty babushki and dedushki between the ages of 65-80 arrived and stayed two nights. Deprived of Russian speakers as I am, I was delighted to have a captive forty of them. We talked poetry. Talking poetry with Slavic people, especially in their own language, invariably leads to a bottle of vodka being opened. A bottle of vodka being opened leads in turn to Josh singing "Vecherni Zvon," "Katyusha," and Cheburashka's birthday song in a Slavophilic Mitch Miller singalong (sans bouncing ball, sadly). Yes, that's right. I got decently (as in I maintained decency) hammered with Belorussian ancients. When they sang the Soviet National Anthem, however, I sat out. Something about it just didn't sit right with me. They went to bed and I spent the rest of the evening celebrating my youth by introducing the receptionist to the wide and wonderful world of dead baby jokes. What a tasteful creature I am.

Two days later there was a similar jailbreak, only it was a daycare kennel this time. Forty-odd children between the ages of 8-11 stormed the hostel and left a dirty wake of candy wrappers, gummy carpets, and discolored sheets, though I suppose it's equiprobable that the drunk Belorussians were involved in the latter respect. I kept being grateful for my capacities of social restraint, for the temptation to lean over the very littlest child and go "HEY KID, YA WANNA BEER???" was great indeed. I compromised with the devil on my shoulder by listening to a lot of Guns n' Roses at high volume; that seemed sufficiently deviant.

If I were to make a western about the characters I've met in this hostel, it would be called The Young, the Ancient, and the Bizarre. We've reviewed two of the three, but old and young are simple, because they're factual descriptions of people. Bizarre, however, comes in every flavor of skittle man has ever conceived.

Let's begin with the Finnish steelworker who never stopped being obliterate drunk as long as I saw him. He asked me and a couple of my acquaintances " are from?" at least five times each, and he had considerable difficulty finding his own country on a map. These things fall far short of a b-double-e-double-r-u-n, beer run to the corner store with this gentleman and my Polish friend Radek. We found our beer and lined up at the register with due speed, but in the time it took me and Radek to check out, the Finnish fellow had changed his already impaired mind three times on what kind of intoxicant to purchase. We waited a bit on the other side of the register until he had change-of-heart number five, which prompted a rather stern-looking security guard to tell him he didn't need anything else to drink. I saw only the beginnings of the sloppy and heavily language-barriered argument that ensued. After about thirty seconds of his ridiculousness, Radek and I disavowed all knowledge of his existence. The night was not over, however. He stumbled in an hour and a half later, looking quite the worse for wear. I was on the internet playing my scrabble moves (as is my heathen custom). He waited about two minutes before sitting next to me and making rather unsubtle displays of impatience, which culminated in the best English he could muster "is...not just...for you." I told him politely in English and Russian to be patient, which met with a series of mumbled Finnish oaths, probably inciting me to do things that are not just lewd, but physically impossible. I'm uncertain whether or not he understood Russian, but I told him that I appreciated his suggestions, and then followed with my own catalog of Russian unrepeatables.

Then there was the Polish man in the bunk above me who awoke every morning promptly at five, turned on the light and paced loudly around the room for exactly fifteen minutes before putting on pants and going back to sleep.

There's also the strangeness that borders on something more sinister. Lastnight I was walking with an acquaintance to get a midnight snack. We walked past a bus stop where a youngish street drunk was sleeping on the bench...or so it seemed. We walked past and I noticed he was following us and gaining on us, though the straight line eluded him. He oscillated about three feet left to right for every six feet of forward motion. He approached me on my left side, but picked an extremely unfortunate location: there was about four and a half feet between him and the wall of a closed vegetable kiosk. He grabbed the sleeve of my coat with his right hand and balled his fist with his left. Without hesitating, I tucked my shoulder under his chin and used both hands to knock him headfirst into the steel grating on the kiosk front with a hit that would've made any NHLer proud. Who says sports don't have applicable skills off the field of play? At any rate, he dropped to his knees groaning and clutching his head. My acquaintance and I, though shaken up, went to the store as planned and, needless to say, we took the long way home. On my return trip, I noticed with relief and from a distance my assailant was back at his bus stop bench, so he can't've been hurt too badly. Maybe he'll think twice next time, but regardless, it was easily the scariest moment of the trip. Hopefully it stays that way. *knock wood* I'm just happy all parties escaped reasonably unhurt.

In more cheerful news, hockey is great here. There's a nice variety of skill levels, and only the really offense-minded talented showboat players don't know how to pass. Some things never change in that respect, kinda like the way I'm an above average skater and about average at everything else. We'll hopefully improve that in time. I've played seven games now, and it really irritates me that I'm running out of time here. Each change of city means another Iditarod leg, and another roll of the dice as to whether or not I can find a team. From where I sit now, it almost seems unlikely that I'll find a cast of characters as kind, interesting, or, at the very least, as entertaining as the cast I've found here, both in and out of the locker room. Krakow, I shall miss thee.

My year is 25% over, as of today, and as I thumb through my journal, it already astounds me how much I've learned and grown. The profusion of options before me continually boggles my mind, though my time is short and I must sally forth to buy this weekend's train ticket.

do widzenia!


Saturday, October 13, 2007

Maybe it Is All Small Stuff, But Sometimes, Small Stuff is Big Stuff.

Leaving Krakow is going to be difficult. There's hockey, culture, and oodles of interesting and friendly people here. Examples of each of the preceding three are documented in this post.

The glories of the internet are many and storied. I have discovered them in my time here, and, between ice and roller, I've since been waist-deep in hockey. I can only hope to find similar internet forums in subsequent cities and countries. I even have a login name on one forum, I'm amerikanin1215...go figure. I heard about a game on Wednesday, and went in plenty of time to what I thought was the right place. When no one was there at the given time, I started to get worried. Then some highschool kids showed up and started playing. I leaned on two things to give me confidence. First, I was relying on the transcultural bond that sport frequently affords. Second, I was a lot bigger than these guys. Turned out I was a good deal quicker too. They wanted me to show them stickhandling tricks, and they were beyond thrilled (and so was I, needless to say) when I actually did. After a game of 2 on 1 (two of them against me), they got excited and said they'd be back in fifteen minutes. They skated off toward a series of tall, dingy communist flats, and I sat down and assumed that we might just be done for the day. But no. They returned with all their friends from the neighborhood, and we played four-on-four until it was too dark to see anything at all.

Now I'll put in something of an interjection. Those of you who have known me for more than seven years probably remember the Batesville Roller Hockey Association, loose though it was. For those of you who don't, here you go. My hockey background ("career," if you will) began on a cracked and ruined tennis court on a college campus. It lay in the shadow of the modernist deathtrap Smith Science Building. Said building had notoriously moldy airducts and an unusually large collection of sundry its basement. On water breaks, I was often unsure if the water tasted of the ducts or the parts. But I digress. I'd play in all weather, whether 35 degrees or 105 degrees...sometimes much to my mother's chagrin. But after a while, there was more interest in Batesville than just me. At the peak of the...okay, I'll be self-important and abbreviate it...BRHA, we had sixteen participants. Because of Batesville's consistent bumper crop of news, we even made the front page of the paper one time. The start of my tenure at Sewanee killed the BRHA, unfortunately, but since the second most-common question I've recieved on this trip is "so how did you end up playing hockey in ARKANSAS?", then this should at least give you some shade of an answer. Here endeth the interjection.

Suffice to say that playing on an unfenced piece of asphalt in rural Krakow with a bunch of people who were younger than me brought back a lot of really fond memories, and a pretty substantial portion of me kept thinking "you know, this is really what athletics should be about...everyone getting together and having a good, competitive time." To put things in perspective, we played to ten goals. The other team wasn't happy, so we played to twenty. We weren't happy, so we played to thirty, and by the time we reached thirty, we couldn't see the ball anymore, so we called it a day.

Remarkably enough, though, the sportsmanship wasn't even the most amazing thing. The thing that touched me the most was the audience we drew. Families with dogs, old men drinking vodka from flasks--about twenty in total, all just enjoying watching us. The most remarkable and enduring audience member, though, was a wheelchair-bound double amputee. He had a great big smile on his face for the whole game, and if the ball went out of bounds, he'd insist on wheeling after it and grabbing it. After the game he said that he used to be quite the hokkejist himself, and that he loved watching such a good game.

On the way back to the hostel, some old ladies who had been watching us play were getting on my bus. One said it was good that we were playing sports; young people get in much less trouble that way. The other said that hockey was becoming very popular these days, and I played well. Unfortunately I couldn't answer very effectively (my Polish is still marginal, and I know better than to try Russian with the older generation), but I thanked them for watching and told them I was glad they enjoyed the game as they got off the bus.

Since then I've played two more games, each one about the same. The faces change a bit, but the atmosphere is just as friendly, and I honestly play better since I have an audience of total strangers watching. The stakes aren't exactly high, but it puts a bit of good-natured pressure on. Between learning street Polish from my teammates (when I say "street Polish," I mean only five percent of it is repeatable. That five percent is composed of pronouns and prepositions) and just playing without barriers, linguistic or otherwise, my roller hockey experiences of the past week have taught me a lot. In my Watson proposal, I talked a great deal about the universality of sport and the power of a game to reach across borders and language barriers. To be perfectly frank, I had no idea. I was making the emotional equivalent of an educated guess. I knew for a fact that if anyone cared about the game like I did, language and nationality simply wouldn't matter, and the field of play would be not just a field of competition, but a field for cultural interchange and learning as well. I can't really express how much it thrills me to find that my guess was correct.

A friend of mine was having a rough time of things recently, and I mentioned in an email that little things make a difference, even if we don't know it at the time. I was trying to find something of substance to back up my point, and I think I have it. I can say with reasonable certainty that we were just playing, oblivious to our audience. But, as a 21-year-old, when you hear an elderly man without legs telling you that he remembers what it's like to play, and that he enjoyed the game, it just hits you. It kicks you in the chest in a way that counterbalances things like unfriendly people in the service industry and a day at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It makes you want to be good at being good.

And that's where I stand.

Doing his best,

J. Brandon Harris

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Hockeython and Other News.

I love Krakow all the more now that I've found a place to play. It amazes me what a little web research and a few emails in drastically simplified English will accomplish. I was rooting around on a couple of Polish amateur hockey forums, and my knowledge of Slavic word roots enabled me to piece together a contact in Krakow. I sent him an email, and to my great surprise, he wrote me back to tell me about a hockey game every Friday night at a small ice rink. When I say small ice rink, I'm not kidding. Some of my Batesville readers will recall the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that was the winter outdoor rink by the White River. I certainly do, because I volunteered and helped out (read: skated for free) for the duration of the rink's existence. For my non-Batesville readers, the Batesville rink was roughly 1/3 regulation size, the ice was in deplorable condition all the time, and on rough days, the place was absolutely choked with a teeming throng of people joyfully falling on their asses with the novelty of it all. This place is an improvement: it's 1/2 regulation size, and they do run the Zamboni. The rink is basically in a barn, and most of the windows are cracked if not broken to pieces. It is, in other words, totally broke-ass. But I had more fun there than I have anywhere else on the trip so far. I showed up an hour early and had to gesticulate wildly at the security guard before he let me in. Said gesticulations included hockey stick movements, complete with swishing noises, the number ten, for ten o'clock, and pointing at my bag and saying "heavy, heavy" in every Slavic language I knew. I had a nice long chance to warm up, and then people started coming in. My teammates came from a variety of backgrounds and skill levels; some were retired pros, some had only been playing a couple of years. It was a great mix. When I started this year, I made a master checklist. On that checklist was "score three goals in any game." Well, I can check that off, but perhaps I should revise that to "score three goals in any game with a goalie." I got six last night, but it was open net, so big whoop. Granted, the net was only 3' wide by 1'6" tall, so I suppose that provides something of meritorious circumstance. Everyone was really friendly and eager to get to know me, how long I'd been playing hockey, what I was doing in Poland, what my family was like. The questions were neverending, and everyone seemed just as happy to practice their English as I was to work on my fledgling Polish. Then it was gametime. The rink staff was really laid-back; we paid for an hour, they let us play for 2 1/2. It was a war of attrition, and I was one of the last eight standing. I returned, spent, to the hostel to indulge in one of the greatest pleasures after any struggle: a beer in the shower. And today I feel like a million dollars (approximately 2.6 million zloty.) I have a roller hockey game this Wednesday, and another ice game next Saturday.

The other story is not quite so overwhelmingly positive. I met a girl from California this week. She has been in Europe for a year, and we had one of the most unfortunate conversations I've yet had with one of my fellow countrypersons. Countrypersons. Somebody slap me.

"I just don't understand why nobody speaks English here. I mean, in Budapest everybody speaks English. You'd think these people would understand that nobody speaks their language outside their little country, and they'd learn something everybody could understand"

After pointing out that there were over sixty English schools in Krakow alone, and that 80% of any foreign-language learning section in any Polish bookstore was devoted to English textbooks for Polish speakers, I also mentioned how the Slavic language family worked, and since fifteen-odd countries speak Slavic languages, the Slavic people can mostly understand each other, though perhaps not perfectly. Hungarian is related to...Finnish. Talk about linguistic isolation. She just didn't get it, so I put it another way. I thought I'd press the Californian button and play the migrant worker angle:

"So you think these things about Europe, but don't you think that Hispanic migrant workers should make at least a token effort to learn English?"

"Well, yeah, of course."

"Don't you think that's kind of...contradictory? Hypocritical, even?"

"But America is different."

"How, exactly? We're no better than anybody else, and I actually think if yours is the prevalent view, we're pretty much just culturally benighted and selfish."

After I explained what "benighted" meant, she rolled her eyes and said "whatever." It just blows my mind that someone can go to so many places and seen so many things and still have come away without learning anything about how the world works or how America really fits in. From my journal:

"God, the fact that this girl EXISTS makes me livid. The idea that someone can be exposed to other cultures so long and still have the cultural sensitivity, sophistication, and awareness of a sessile fucking bay scallop infuriates me to no end. ARGH."

Now I suppose you have a small idea of why I don't just publish my journal verbatim. Blog has more polish, less vitriol.

As promised, more, shorter updates from the Eastern front are forthcoming. Hang tough, keep reading, and COMMENT!

Give me enlightenment or give me death,

J. Brandon Harris

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Good Lord, What a Week.

Since it's been a substantial while since I've updated you, I'll do this by chapters. I apologize for the delay, but I've been swamped in Krakow and loving every minute of it.

Strangers on a Train

In my last entry, I was on the way out of Kosice; I had just bought my train ticket and waited, sleep-deprived, in the internet cafes and phone booths for the seven-odd hours before my train. The sojourn to the train station was...lovely. My hockey bag has developed a (now duct-taped) hole, one of the wheels is torqued out of alignment, and, in summary, seventy pounds is no fun to shoulder all the way to the train station. But shoulder it I did, and found my train with little issue. I had no idea how spoiled I was. My previous train travel experiences on this trip have either involved new trains or refurbished old ones. I can say with reasonable certainty that this one hadn't been touched since...Brezhnev. For instance, I went to the bathroom. The light didn't work, the water didn't run, and after peeing in the cold dark, I stepped out of the rest room and looked to my right to see the train door gaping open into the deep and quickly passing Slovakian night. The train was close to empty, and I had a compartment to myself, which initially excited me, until a small unwashed and ill-kempt man in a uniform came to my compartment. He checked my ticket and was amicable enough, but explained that there was a problem with my baggage. I was pleased with how much I understood, and he said I had too much luggage. One ticket buys you one baggage space. It made partial sense, but A) it had never been a problem before, and B) there was no dearth of seating or storage space on this particular train. When he waffled on how much the "penalty" was going to be, I became suspicious. It ranged from 900 SK (about $36...more than the price of the ticket itself) to 300 SK (about $12). I told him I was just a poor student, and I only had a hundred crowns ($4). He put on a pensive face and gave it a moment's thought. Then he put on a comically exaggerated expression of "Well, I'm not supposed to do this, but..." and said that would be enough. I asked him if everything was in order. He replied "good for you, good for me." I asked him for a reciept; he shook my hand. Protest would have been futile, and he probably just wanted a little vodka or a pack of cigarettes. In the end, I just approached it as a small fee for a language lesson. Congrats, Josh! You just gave your first bribe!

Despite my 48-hour deprivation thereof, sleep was a nonentity on the train. I didn't want to incur further fines for laying down on the seats and exceeding my space allowance. At the border my Russian actually did me some good. The border guard spoke no English, and he had a few questions for me. Instead of being irritated, he just seemed relieved that I could understand him. The train trundled on into morning, and I...well...I stayed unfortunately awake.

Getting Settled

I arrived in Krakow in pitch dark, but I found my hostel with ease, and discovered immediately how much I would like it here. I saw the sign that said "check in at 14:00" and my heart sank at the prospect of going another eight hours without sleep. Kasha (receptionist extraordinaire), however, said "you look very tired, though, so if you'll put your luggage in the luggage room, you can go ahead and take your bed now." The hostel didn't accept cards, though, so my more immediate need lay in finding an ATM. I walked down to the bridge and saw the castle, Vavel, in the half-light. Though I was tired and beteeshirted in the 45-degree weather, I braved the cold and watched the sun rise over the castle. It was magnificent; the barest fingers of dawn pried my slouching lids open and cleaned the cobwebs from my cortical corners with ample dexterity. (God, I'm imagining what a whole entry written in that style would sound'd need hip waders to read a paragraph.)

I returned at 6:15 and slept the sleep of the dead. I went out to get dinner and beer, and that was plenty of activities, by my estimation. As a sidenote, this place (Hostel Yellow) is heaven. Free breakfast, comfy beds, great atmosphere, free laundry, wonderful staff...for $11/night. If you're in Krakow, stay here. I got fantastic homemade pierogies and fried them up myself with a dill, cucumber, and tomato salad. Pavel, another receptionist, tells me that I should be a pierogi chef.

Poland 101

The next day consisted of a walking tour, over the course of which I learned some interesting things about Krakow, like the legend of the dragon Smog, who reputedly devoured virgins and livestock in medieval times (but then again, don't we all). This deflowerment and devourment displeased prince Krak greatly, so he put forth a decree that the hand of his daughter would go to whomsoever could slay Smog. Needless to say that,following said proclamation, the dragon had no shortage of crunchy knight snacks to supplement his regular diet of virgins and sheep. This all came to a screeching halt when the archetypal "little guy from circumstances" concocted a plan, which, of course, was to stuff a sheep with sulphur. I know that would have been the first thing to come to MY mind. The dragon ate the brimstone in sheep's clothing, and it made him so thirsty that he drank half the water in the Vistula and popped. All I could think of was the prospect of seething masses of dragon flesh all over Krakow. Here endeth the lesson.

Maybe sometime I'll tell you why saint fingers taste like sulphur.

The tour was full of colorful stories. We went to the window from wence then-cardinal J.P. II would preach to Polish youth about maintaining faith under the iron hand of Communism. We also went to and town square, the Schindler factory, and the Jewish Ghetto. The last two were good (though insufficient) introductions to the next day's activity.

The Worst Place on Earth

I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau with a Californian and an Australian the following day. Auschwitz was depressing and thoroughly awful, but bearable. The experimental gas chamber and Dr. Mengele's first office were the worst places, though. The room with a glassed-in 30-meter by four-meter by two-meter enclosure containing two tons of victims' hair (the raw material for cheap fabric) really gave me an idea of the scale and the absolutely indescribable horror that tainted this remarkably beautiful Polish countryside.

What surprised me most, however, was that Auschwitz I was the comprehensible part. We walked the two kilometers to the much larger sister camp, Birkenau. When I saw it from a quarter-mile away, a chill ran through me and I just stopped walking, as did my companions. It took a minute to process Birkenau's size: two square kilometers of bunkers and death facilities that at any given time housed 90,000 inmates. I walked in and couldn't think of anything. I was reaching for some kind of consolation, or explanation, or solace, or anything at all, really, but all of those things were conspicuously absent. I sat down at the corner of the first gas chamber that was built specifically for the purpose of murder, as opposed to being a converted air raid shelter, and cried for what felt like twenty minutes, although I'm not very sure. The thing that kicked me in the chest was no longer the size, but the ruthless, inhuman efficiency of the todmacht. I considered the horrifying fact that the camp did not birth itself. Someone was paid to design it and implement the plans. The structure was fearfully symmetrical, designed to assuage panic and crush even the merest vestiges of hope. I won't say anymore, just know that any description I have attached to Birkenau carries not even an angstrom of adequacy in comparison to actually being there. If you're ever in Krakow, it is my opinion that you have an obligation as a human being to go, pay respects, and learn whatever you can from the senselessness of it all.

A Day of Rest.

I woke up the next day feeling emotionally disemboweled. Though the events of the day preceding broke something inside me, I felt something else growing in its place: a dawning understanding of the human capacities not only for evil but for good as well. To keep myself from having a mood the color of gunmetal for the rest of the week, I took the day out and went skating all over Krakow in search of hockey rinks, and discovered that hockey is far from plentiful here. I'm going to improvise in the coming week and do whatever I can to find some inline options. I've even sent some emails out on roller hockey forums in hopes that A) someone will speak English better than I speak Polish, and B) that someone will be interested in my interest. More on that as it develops. I also learned that skating on cobblestone bears absoutely no resemblance to fun.

When I was up until 6:30 AM for reasons that defy rational explanation (I was playing scrabble on the internet and talking to my parents online...decidedly not rational behavior at that hour.), I heard American voices, discussing a visit to the Wieliczka salt mines. Since I was dazed and loopy, I decided it would be a stellar idea to go and talk to them in my compromised state. And so I did, and found my weekend travel companions. It was really refreshing to meet Americans who are in Eastern Europe to do more than drop off the face of the planet to order the whore sampler with a side of absinthe.

We went to Wieliczka two days later, and it was remarkable. Hundreds of kilometers of rock salt tunnels and caverns underlay the town of Wieliczka--in fact, if the mine collapsed, so would the town; hence they stopped salt extraction in 1996. Only two kilometers are open to the public, and those two, in addition to having details on the history of salt extraction, also had lots of statues carved out of solid salt. Many were also illuminated from within. It was amazing, especially the chapel, where reliefs of the annunciation and last supper dominated the walls, while the most recent addition, the larger-than-life statue of Pope John Paul II presided over the underground analogue to the narthex. For positive reasons this time, it really defied description.

The UNH kids and I became as close as people can be after only having known each other two days, so the next day we all forayed to Zakopane, a mountain town near the Slovakian border. I'll post the link to the pictures as soon as I download them to facebook, which won't happen until I find internet that is more satisfactory, but suffice to say that the only place I've ever been that rivals Zakopane for mountain beauty is Switzerland. And Poland is a hell of a lot cheaper. We rode the gondola up the mountain for an astounding view of the Tatras, and saw a cow with what appeared to be five-gallon udders. The poor girl was in dire need of milking. Then we played on a ropes course before it was time to go home, which we did. It was perhaps the best weekend of the trip so far, and I have Allyssa [;-)] Randy, Kirsten, and Marissa to thank for it. So thanks guys.

In conclusion, Poland is stellar, and in the past week I've seen everything from the awful to the amazing, and I honestly like it that way, as long as I learn from everything I encounter. So far, so good, on that front.

And today I'm doing my penance for being so woefully out of touch with the rest of the world. Since it's taken me the better part of the day to write this epic saga of a week in the life, I'm going to try to have a format shift: more, shorter entries. Tell me which you would prefer, and do remember to comment!

Happiest he's been in a while,

J. Brandon Harris

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Top of the World/A Cold Day in Hell

Kosice has been relaxing and culturally fascinating, but I'm writing you as I spend my final few hours here. My train leaves at 11:30 pm. I'll tell you why that sucks in a bit. Icetime at the public rink seems limited to very small children and figure skaters. In order to double my chances of finding something in Poland, though, I bought a pair of decent inline hockey skates. Inline is usually less organized and will hence be easier to wedge into. My Polish is improving, so that should also help.
I went to a museum of underground fortifications in Kosice, which produced some really interesting pictures, but not much else.
Since hockey seemed to be a wash here, I decided to take a daytrip to one of the regional castles, Krasna Horka. The buses run at 6:50 am, 12:50 pm, and 6:50 pm. It's a two-hour bus ride, and the castle closes at 2:00. Guess which bus I had to take! But I made it, and the ride down took me through some lovely countryside (the pictures are uploading this very moment). The tour was interesting enough. Old expensive things rich people once owned can only hold so much appeal, though. The highlights of the castle were the counterfeiting workshop, the torture room, the armaments room full of captured Turkish weapons, the mummified 300-year-old of those things is decidedly not like the others. I swear to God I've seen more creepy dead bodies on this trip. It occurred to me that there was probably enough skin on her to make a lovely leather hat and glove set, though. Since the old lady's skin wasn't for sale, I bought a pile of postcards instead.
From the castle I could walk to see some low-level nobility man's mausoleum and, no doubt, more expensive things he once owned. I started down the road toward said mausoleum, thinking "why the hell not?" when I saw a path. Then my "why the hell not" shifted gears, and I started down this labyrinthine system of trails. There were little olive-skinned kids playing in the forest, and old women were gathering mushrooms. There were also piles of clothing and garbage, seemingly sorted, in the rows of hedges and trees. I arrived at a clearing and saw a village with dirt roads--many of the houses had no rooves and there was no direct paved road access. Across the valley shepherds were driving flocks across fields. It was like I stepped back in time 150 years. Aside from a highway and a water treatment plant in the distance, were no readily apparent signs of a lifestyle that includes directv, supermarkets, or cars. There was a single, beaten-up Fiat in the village. It was fascinating. From there I changed course and found a rocky peak where I got a spectacular view of the castle and outlying area. Go see the pictures on Facebook.

Because of my admittedly occasionally silly no backtracking policy, I didn't go back the way I came. I wanted to make an adventure out of it. An adventure I made indeed. I stumbled through overgrown trails, whistling and coughing as I did so in order to avoid any possible hunting accidents. I did this for an hour before I came back to one of the better-marked trails. I followed it and exited the woods by a path that was only 50 meters away from my entry path. Not too shabby, methinks.

Here's where it starts to get bad.

I checked the bus schedule. The bus schedule was scratched to the point of illegibility, and were it legible, it would still be remarkably unclear which buses ran which days. After waiting for the time when I thought my bus would whisk me back to Kosice, I asked one of the locals when the next bus to Kosice would be. The answer he gave me was certainly not the one I wanted to hear: zajtra. Tomorrow. I winced and thanked him for his help. My mind flashed over several things at once. Checkout at the Kosice hostel is 10:00. I need to buy a ticket to Krakow. I need to buy a Krakow map. I need to clean my room before 10:00. I'm travelling tomorrow; I need to sleep. None of these things were especially pleasant. I learned the unfortunate fact of my confinement at 15:30, and the earliest listed bus was 5:58 the next morning. I ate pizza (quite tasty pizza, at that), and mulled over my options.

A) Get a room at a cheap accommodation place in Krasnahorske Podhradie.
But Josh, that costs money.

B) Hitchhike.
But Josh, that might not be safe and you might end up sold into white slavery in Dubai...or at least just stuck in some totally bizarre part of Slovakia.
Point conceded.

C) Drink beer til the bar that's open the latest closes, then go to the bus stop and sleep.
But Josh, people will think you're homeless, and besides, it's cold outside!
Counterpoint 1: I don't care. Counterpoint 2: I don't care.

The bar was fine. I chatted with the barman to the best of my abilities, and he showed me his collection of spiders preserved in shots of gin. He found all of them at the bar, and caught them himself. 17 varieties of spider, all huge. Made me a little wary of my beer, but I soldiered on. Closing time came, and option C seemed to be the most serviceable. I would be awake for my bus, I wouldn't be spending any unnecessary money, and I might be able to get some sleep. (guffaw)

My good friend Frank said something that really stuck with me, especially last night: "if you're gonna be dumb, you gotta be tough." I got an hour and a half of the worst sleep in my life behind the bus stop, and woke up covered in frigid dew. My layers of t-shirt, hoodie, and wool sweater weren't really helping much in the 36-degree weather. I did jumping jacks, which helped a little, but the ultimate temporary solution was starting a fire with my postcards. I'd grabbed some matches from the bar in case something like this happened, and it got me to the point where I could at least feel my fingers again. I tried sleeping again, on the bench instead of in the grass, and when that failed, I ran in place for half an hour. That worked. A merciful bus driver stopped at 4:50 and picked me up. As consolation, I don't think the sky's even that dark at Sewanee. I looked at stars for easily two hours. From there I packed, and the desk attendant asked me "so where have you been for so long?" I told him as best I could about my ordeal, and he said I could check out an hour late, that I looked like I needed some sleep. And I did. And I do. A seven-hour train ride has to be good for something, right?

Why do I have such blighted luck with bus transit?

Comment, and since the hostel in Krakow has internet, I'll be contactable regularly. Two comments on the last post, guys. That's a poor showing :-P (kidding, I know you read it)

Finally warm again,


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Hockeyless, Cultural, Transit, and Hostel Hijinx

When you last left me, I was a terminal optimist. "At best I'll have three games this weekend, at worst, one." Some mathematicians argue that zero isn't really a number; it's a placeholder, an absence of quantity, a void. I agree in part. The zero turns out to be the outcome of my hope to play in Bratislava again In retrospect, I guess three weeks, two games is better than three weeks, no games, but still. I extended my stay twice in hopes of hitting the ice again. In my frustration, I alternated between going out to do cultural things (which are all dirt cheap, especially if you're a student), and staying in and spending no money so I would have more to throw around when I needed it later. On the bright side, though, I did a fair number of rewarding cultural things.
The Slovak National Gallery housed an interesting but small collection of Northern and Italian Renaissance and Baroque pieces, but its real highlight was its collection of Slovak baroque and gothic art. The gothic altarpieces were largely dismantled in country churches and put into archives under communism, and many are only coming to the fore now. The exhibition was huge and beautiful, although it still bothers me to no end that some gothic artists couldn't figure out how to make the Virgin Mary's eyes look in the same direction. Something about a googly-eyed Holy Mother of God that's just...hard to take seriously. But the layout of the galleries (all of them) was the real kicker. The gallery didn't make sense sometimes, but it certainly kept its viewer on his/her toes. At the far end of the Gothic room, right next to the most intricate altarpiece of all, was...a climbing wall? It was contemporary art, of course, but the juxtaposition just made its viewer turn the corner, blink twice, turn around, and make sure it wasn't all just a mirage or an elaborate ruse. In all cases, the gallery interspersed contemporary art and sculpture with its older pieces. Sometimes the contemporary art choices made sense; sometimes they didn't. On the whole, though, I give the gallery a thumbs up for not allowing its patrons to sink into historical complacency, e.g. "oh, yes, darling...I know this period. He follows Caravaggio. Look at the elegant contrast between the sourceless light on the Corpus Christi and the dark background...Wait...what the hell is that big black square doing there? Darling, help! Malevich has broken in and wants to rape my art! Call the police!"
The Central European Photo Gallery provided very little about which to write home. One of their side exhibits, however, was a fascinating collection of pictures from the Czech Republic taken in 1967 and early 1968. Soviet hippies, just months before the tanks came in. The exhibition was all the more powerful since I remember all the horrible photos from the Museum of Communism in Prague--the tanks running through buildings, the soldiers on the streets, the removal of the statue from Vaclavske Namesti. It put the pieces in place. I saw the despair in Prague, but the despair only deepens when you consider the immense hope which preceded it. The photographer lives and works in Bratislava now; I got my poster autographed and had a conversation alternately in broken Slovak and broken English with him, and told him how much I enjoyed his work. He was touched, I think.
In conclusion, it took a little effort on my part to keep my last few days in Bratislava from being a total wash. My final nights were spent hauling foreigners to overpriced bars and not drinking. Some Canadians, Brits, Swedes, and Frenchmen wanted a guide, and I told them I didn't know any really cheap places. They didn't seem to care--they just wanted to go somewhere in the middle of town. I took them to the Irish bar, where they proceeded to harp on all the American stereotypes.
Americans are arrogant.

When the Canadian mentioned this, I told him someone had to feel perhaps a little too good about himself and his country to be putting down his own continental neighbor.

Americans are uncultured.

I asked the Frenchman what his favorite classical music period was; did he prefer melodic harmony or did he go for the more atonal stuff? He had no answer. A Swedish guy at the table tried the "Americans are uncultured" angle again, and I reminded him that Sweden exported more terrible pop music than anywhere else on the planet. I cited ABBA, Gunther, and Ace of Base.

Americans don't know what money is worth.

When the British guy mentioned this, I reminded him that I wasn't the one who had already shelled out the equivalent of twenty-five pounds sterling on shitty beer. I would normally just shrug this off, but the table was a Pan-European Anti-America Festival. I delivered all of the above with a nice big grin on my face. *Sigh.*

Combined with my hockey frustrations, this put me over the edge. I was fed up to the gills with Bratislava. The time has come, the walrus get the hell out of Dodge.
Just as with my passage from Brno to Bratislava, my escape from Bratislava was suspiciously easy. As I boarded the train, however, I could already hear the three-ring nightmare circus calliope music from some distant corner of Kosice...the corner with Hostel Kosmalt in it.
The trainride was breathtaking, enough to make me wish I'd brought hiking gear. The Tatras are majestic, and I got to see a good deal of the Slovakian landscape. It's a really varied country, with lots of lakes, mountains, vineyards. And factories. Big, hulking factories belching out tons and tons of chemicals into the pure Slovakian sky. I looked into the distance and through the haze thought I saw a magnificent castle. On closer inspection, however, it turned out to be a long row of 13-story Brezhnev blocks with roof accesses that made the whole contiguous row of buildings look rather like a mammoth parapet. I wrote it in my journal this way: "This country is like a pastoral painting inbred with an industrial nightmare and the decaying vestiges of a failed social experiment." To its credit, though, the pastoral element dominates.
I found my hostel easily enough, and hauling was remarkably minimal. Send in the lion tamers, the midgets and the three-nippled psychics, though, because someone played a MAGICK TRICK on me! I reserved seven nights at 300SK (about $12.00) per night. I arrived, and the reception decided to play the room shell game on me. They put me in the (sic) "delux turis acomodations," which came in at a whopping 950SK/night. Since Kosmalt is on the edge of town, I was too tired to put up much of a fight. I wasn't keen on hauling my luggage through the rain at 11:30 pm 5KM toward the center of town. Though I stayed, needless to say I cancelled the other six nights of my stay. They wouldn't let me at first, but my Slovak is mercifully good enough that I could be firm.
I got what I paid for, I guess. I got a king-size bedroll which was free of bugs, a private shower and my own balcony. In the future, however, I'd really like to have some control over the nights I spend in relative luxury. I was so angry that I dropped my luggage off and walked to town center. I was too pissed off to be tired anymore. I found another couple of places to check out, and the good Lord shone down upon me to pointeth the way to Mackers, as the Aussies call the ubiquitous franchise. Those chicken nuggets were nothing short of consecrated.
I walked 10.5 KM that night, and I arrived back at Kosmalt at 3am. I slept right through my alarm. On purpose. They hadn't told me of a checkout time, so I was going to play ignorant. Besides, there wasn't exactly a line of people clamoring for rooms--I was the only occupied room on a hall of sixteen. So when the maid shouted things at me in Slovak at noon, I hauled my things downtown to K2 Hostel, which has an ideal location and a much more manageable 350SK/night pricetag. In the process, though, a hole developed in the outside pocket of my hockey bag, and my jock fell out in the street and got covered in mud. As though there weren't enough people staring at me already. I scouted out the two town hockey rinks; unfortunately, figure skating *cringe and grimace* is much more popular than hockey here. out of 15 hours/day that the rink is open, nine are devoted to figure skating, the rest to practices. Gross. Kosice could be a wash for hockey, but I'm going to watch a couple of hours today and see what happens.
Today I explored the center, including the musical fountain, the Soviet memorial (which is remarkably unvandalized), and St. Elizabeth's, a titanic cathedral originally from 1207. It's had many incarnations and additions, so it's a real mish-mash of styles at this point, with its baroque Great North Tower and its traditional Gothic facade and apse. I climbed the Great North Tower--it only boasted a modest 172 steps, in comparison with St. Vita's 287, but yielded a gorgeous view of Kosice and its surrounding hilly countryside. If my hockey explorations aren't fruitful, I may take a daytrip to a cave complex or a castle tomorrow. Now I ought to go to the Museum of Eastern Slovakia.

All the news that's fit to print (and some that isn't),

J. Brandon Harris